Monday, March 26, 2012

Paul Ryan mounts a moral argument against government social programs

 [Rep. Paul] Ryan offered up the sequel to last year's failed country club conservative budget and explained that he purged programs for the hapless because a social safety net: ". . . lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It's demeaning."
Read it at The Huffington Post
GOP: Killing Vulnerable Americans With Kindness - Literally
Leo W. Gerard | International President, United Steelworkers

Well, MMT seems to have dispatched the "affordability" issue. Now here's a new twist (with a familiar ring) that seeks to frame the issue in moral terms rather than economic. Does it hold water psychologically, behaviorally, and sociologically? Or is it the assertion of an ideological norm based on a non-empirical presumption?

Not to worry though, "experts" will dutifully produce a study purporting to show that it is factually true. That is not going to simple, however, since some countries with high productivity also have strong social programs.

But I think that we are finally getting down the nub of the argument. The conservative position is basically that government assistance weakens the moral fiber of a nation, while the liberal position is that government assistance mends the holes in the social fabric.

MMT proponents would argue that there are compelling arguments based on macroeconomics, dealing with effectiveness with respect to public purpose and efficiency with respect to employment of resources.

It is difficult to argue efficiency regarding any government program with those who are convinced that the private sector is inherently more efficient than the public sector in all cases, however, since this is an ideological norm in that world view. Is it based on empirical evidence though?

There is reason to hold that a more competitive system is more efficient, but the question is whether are all private solutions to social issues more competitive than a government solution or a public-private partnership with government providing the funding. For example, the US has a private system for providing healthcare to the working population through occupational benefits. It has been resoundingly unsatisfactory based on the level of complaints and calls for change. Those relying on the inefficiency argument have more work to do to be convincing.

Effectiveness of economic policy is a matter of achieving policy goals determined by public purpose, different conceptions of public purpose will generate different policy goals. The argument here does beyond what is desirable for a society, however. It hangs on the conception of the purpose of life, human nature, human action, and motivation, which are all basically philosophical questions.

Most people do not think through their fundamental views reflectively, however, or engage in debate about them. They receive them through enculturation, and they never question them later. These become the norms of that particular viewpoint that define the boundary conditions of an ideology.

Here is where ideology, norms, values, moral issues arguments become essential constituents of the economic debate over effectiveness with respect to public purpose and policy goals. It is the direction that the framing of the debate is now heading toward the election as politicians rally their constituencies based on ideological presumptions.

What is emerging is a picture of a deeply divided America and a battle for the center with respect to electoral college votes between strategists of both parties, who shape the framing of issues and arguments. As George Lakoff observes, there is no actual centrist position. Centrists are "bi-conceptual," holding some view of the right and some from the left, such as social liberal-economic conservative, or social conservative-economic liberal, whereas the left is socially and economically liberal and the right socially and economically conservative.

Economic arguments are generally not a viscerally powerful as moral ones. Paul Ryan understands this as is appealing to the conservative mindset that values personal initiative and individual freedom highly, seeing these as necessary conditions for individual freedom and continued freedom as a nation. So expect more of this kind of argument as the campaign heats up and values come the issue more than economic reasoning.

George Lakoff observes that conservatives have been much more successful at moralizing than liberals, even though American morality tends to favor liberal positions with respect to social issues.
Actually, it is quite amazing how ultra-conservative Christians don't seem to see any contradiction in holding positions advocated by Ayn Rand — who Rep. Ryan and other prominent conservatives publicly embrace even though she is on record as a vocal opponent of traditional Christian values based on love of others and altruism. But moralizing doesn't need to pay too much attention to reasoning, since its appeal is visceral rather than logical.


Septeus7 said...

Saying "beatings should continue until morale improves" is not a moral argument. It is sadism and flagellation. I thought we left the dark ages but apparently I was wrong.

James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

Now I may be accused of being an extreme left winger by the likes of Mr Roche if his latest tweets are anything to go by, but I've always thought Oscar Wilde hit the nail on the head in his 1891 essay, "The Soul Of Man Under Socialism".

Here's an extract of what I mean.

"The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best among them are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalists to tyrannize over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table? They should be seated at the board and are beginning to know it. As for being discontented, a man who would not be discontented with such surroundings, and such a low mode of life, would be a perfect brute. Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town and country laborer to practice thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing. As for begging, it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg. No: a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented and rebellious, is probably a real personality, and has much to him. He is at any rate a healthy protest. As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them. They have made private terms with the enemy, and sold their birthright for very bad pottage. They must be extraordinarily stupid. I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under those conditions to realize some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance.

However, the explanation is not really difficult to find. It is simply this. Misery and poverty are so absolutely degrading, and exercise such a paralyzing effect over the nature of men, that no class is ever really conscious of its own suffering. They have to be told of it by other people, and they often entirely disbelieve them. What is said by great employers of labor against agitators is unquestionably true. Agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community, and sow the seeds of discontent amongst them. That is the reason why agitators are so abundantly necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilization".

Poverty is caused by a lack of money, it really is that simple, not a lack of desire,will or incentive or any other nonsense that these people can dream up in their jobs that don't need doing. The problem our society has is this, we have a group of people who were born on the finish line, who believe they have a right to lecture those who weren't about where they have gone wrong in the race. It's insanity, and just to repeat my favourite line from that Wilde essay. "to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting".

Unforgiven said...

". . . lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It's demeaning."

I'm not sure whether he's talking about politicians here, or those living on interest from bonds, or both?

I asked Rong Paul and his son Ayn, but they were of no help at all.

Dan Kervick said...

Paul Ryan is a twerp, and a silly boy who has landed a man's job.

First, he ought to know very well that people who are really destitute or hopeless and don't receive "demeaning" government assistance will receive no less "demeaning" assistance from churches and other charitable organizations.

Of course he won't be helping the needy himself, since he's a disciple of the psychopathic atheist narcissist egotist Ayn Rand. But, you know ... other people will help.

MMT distinguishes itself from other approaches in defending the Job Guarantee, and holds that the number one public action plan for addressing the problems of joblessness and need should be to provide people with the opportunity to offer their fellow-citizens some dignified, honest, hard, productive work in exchange for a paycheck.

But I guess Paul Ryan thinks all such people would be demeaned by that work. You know, just like soldiers in Afghanistan; professors at state-run universities; school teachers; the clerical worker who cuts and sends Paul Ryan his ill-deserved government paycheck; police officers; FBI agents; Coast Guard rescue teams, national park rangers, port inspectors, Congressional research staffers; and all of the rest of the army of the demenaned.

These radical Republican cretins despise the United States government and everything it stands for. It's in one way a disgrace that they are even allowed to participate in the management of the democratically enacted governing institutions they hate so much. On the other hand, it's a testament to the integrity and hard work of the people who keep our democratic government going every day - people whom Paul Ryan disrespects and demeans every time he opens his mouth to emit more hot air - that we are able preserve a complex system of democratic governance that even passing fancies like Paul Ryan can't screw up too badly.

Letsgetitdone said...

"Radical Republican Cretins" . . . I like that! It has a certain ring to it. Unfortunately, most of the Ds are cretinous too, both the Blue Dogs and the so-called "progressives" who think we need long-term deficit reduction.

Unforgiven said...

I'm all for long term deficit reduction. Bit by bit, we'll just have the Fed pay Interest On Reserves. That will automatically reduce the Interest On Retards. The (cognitive)deficit savings there alone will transform the country!

Unforgiven said...

BTW Tom, good write-up.

There is an emotional component we're dealing with that defies logic (or even questions), yet it has served to get us to this point, at least. A powerful force, to say the least. Agreement. A common point of view.

In my mind, there was such an emotional anchor to the dollar being worth this or that, it only recently hit home that it is more like points on a scoreboard. Working through the emotional underpinnings, that can be a tough bit of business.

JJ said...

"If there are eleven dogs and only ten bones, the dog without a bone to take home would necessarily be enfeebled by the provision of an extra bone by some external supplier... Thus the bone-less dog must fight with the others for his bone or else go home with his tail between his legs and preferably kill himself..."

Teachings from the Book Of Ryan, chapter eleven, book ten.

Matt Franko said...


"These radical Republican cretins despise the United States government"

Good stuff. This is where their radical form of Libertarianism/Objectivism/Randism gets them.

It can lead nowhere else.

We have come to the point where these people, in government actually despise that same government... at core, they seek not to be subject to any authority; yet they have obtained positions in said authority.

"24 And if ever a kingdom should be parted against itself, that kingdom is not able to stand.
25 And if ever a house should be parted against itself, that house will not be able to stand." Mk 3

We have a good percentage of these Ryan types in govt today (Ron Paul, etc..), hence, as the scripture implies, we can be left with a dysfunctional govt.

"1 Let every soul be subject to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except under God. Now those which are, have been set under God,
2 so that he who is resisting an authority has withstood God's mandate." Rom 13

These Randian/Objectivist morons, who radically seek not to be subject, are into some VERY dark stuff whether they know it or not.


Leverage said...

Will not read original article as I know the tune already, but will try (futilely) to explain why government intervention is more desirable than not (Keynes understood this, others don't, or don't want to) from a political & sociological point of view:

Imagine you are a 'free marketer'/'market fundamentalist', so you prefer a liquidationist and hands off approach (not any sort of safety net) to economics.

In such situation, when you reach peak credit and the debt bubble collapses there is an extreme deleverage and deflation. Ok, let's imagine (without any empirical backup, but still, let's imagine) that debt-deflation spiral is 'the cure to any evil, but such conditions can wreck havoc for years, pushing extreme poverty around and decreasing living standards and population wealth.

So even if you 'will get' there eventually (off course, eventually that will happen) , you will have a lot of people starving to death and getting more angry each day. Eventually they, also, will put in charge some authoritarian figure, which will do whatever is necessary and pretty much distort any market process and if he doesn't, then the regime will eventually collapse too. In any case the result will be less market and more command economy.

Off course, a lot of time plutocrats and national oligarchies will be the backbone of the tyrant or will be the tyrants theirshelves, but even if the strongest capitalists have the upper hand, what they are doing is reducing market to monopoly 8enforced by the state). The most desirable situation by a capitalist btw (being a capitalism and being a free market is most guaranteed contradictory). Empirical historical data suggests this is the usual outcome, the destruction of free markets and the rise of authoritarian regimes of one sort of an other.

A true, not mad, free marketer would prefer the lesser evil. But then you have the likes of Mises who at some point in the thirties justified fascists governments because of the rise of communism as a threat to capitalists (yes, there are quotes and I can search).

So lesser evil now, or bigger evil later, and in any case capitalists (a lot of times being selfdestructive) will try to win the situation, but in the end all we lose (less market forces, less freedom, more poverty, more wealth destroyed).

And for an economic argument, with a so productive society there is no single reasonable argument to have idle capacity and wasted capital. Capital producing something that there is demand for is better than capital producing nothing no matter how you spin it. If inflation is the problem, then tackle inflation, invest on what can reduce it or whatever, but anchoring inflation using unemployment is unreasonable policy that will explode in your face in the future.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ryan is a practicing Catholic as described in this article, The Catholicity of Paul Ryan’s Budget ( This paragraph from the article stands out:

"In Centesimus Annus, PJPII wrote that an uncontrolled Welfare State “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”

So, whose agenda is Mr. Ryan serving? Not the American people, obviously.

Tom Hickey said...

BTW, papal encyclicals like the one cited above are not binding as articles of faith, although, of course, the faithful are encouraged to conform to them as the Church's teaching.

My own view of the papal encyclicals on social and economic matters is that overall they have been in accordance with what I have come to conclude is Jesus' basic teaching, i.e., the law of love which mandates altruistic behavior and self-sacrifice. Even Ayn Rand got that loud and clear, and she formulated her philosophy in opposition to it. Some popes seem to have missed it though, at least at times.

But the papal teaching overall is for a mixed economy, rather than pure capitalism or socialism. Certainly, the teaching is not in favor of a right-wing US system over a Scandinavian system, and to interpret it that way is self-serving politically.

The problem with extremisms is that they take a basic truth as exaggerate it to an extreme version that is a parody of itself.

Mike Norman said...

Dan Kervick:

Classic. Awesome. Outta sight! You are my hero, man!

Oliver said...

Tom, you once posted a link to a great article titled 'Is The World Just?' that turns this:

Paul Ryan understands this as is appealing to the conservative mindset that values personal initiative and individual freedom highly, seeing these as necessary conditions for individual freedom and continued freedom as a nation.

on its head. It isn't the liberated personal initiative that leads to those who are talented to realise their potential. It is those who are rich (by whichever means) who are automatically considered to be more worthy of being so than others because they are. It's a self fulfilling conservative prophecy that culminates in personality cults, godlike figures such as the pharaohs or religion itself. The antithesis to this is permanent rebellion, as the lovely Wilde quote from above demonstrates.

Another paper very worth reading one called 'Freedom & Money', found recently at crooked timber. Excerpt:

The issue that I raise here asserts itself within the frame of a standard political debate, which runs as follows. Right-wing people celebrate the freedom enjoyed by all in liberal capitalist society. Left-wing people respond that the freedom which the right celebrate is merely formal, that, while the poor are formally free to do all kinds of things that the state does not forbid anyone to do, their parlous situation means that they are not really free to do very many of them, since they cannot afford to do them, and they are, therefore, in the end, prevented from doing them. But the right now rejoin that, in saying all that, the left confuse freedom with resources. You are free to do anything that no one will interfere with, say the right. If you cannot afford to do something, that does not mean that you lack the freedom to do it, but just that you lack the means, and, therefore, the ability to do it. The problem the poor face is not that they lack freedom, but that they are not always able to exercise the freedom that they undoubtedly have. When the left say that the poor, by virtue of being poor, lack freedom itself, the left, so the right claim, indulge in a tendentious use of language.