Saturday, March 26, 2016

Right-wing Policies Produce Worse Outcomes

"I won't change my mind because I don't have to because I'm an American. I won't change my mind on anything regardless of the facts that are set out before me. I'm dug in and I'll never change."

--Mac, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: The Gang Gets Racist.

I had a thought about President Obama's visit to Cuba from a different angle. His visit prompted the usual howls of outrage from Republicans/right-wingers. "Going to Cuba is unacceptable," he's "humiliating" the U.S., and so forth (right-wingers on my Facebook were apoplectic as I would expect). It's a continuation of the Republican strategy never to deal with, talk to, or otherwise acknowledge "the enemy," whoever they are--Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, the Democrats, etc.--no dialogue, no relations, and certainly no treaties (even when you get what you want).

But the thing is, if you're very opposed to Cuban socialism and believe that the way of life in the U.S. is so superior, as right-wingers do, wouldn't you want as much engagement as possible? That way, Cubans can see how much better-off Americans are (in their opinion), and prompt them to pressure their government to unleash the invisible hand of the free market which produces all of that prosperity. They will not tolerate the ineffective state-run socialism one you show them how much more prosperous Americans are, would be the line of thought here. That seems far more likely to achieve your goal if you're a right-wing free-marketeer instead of treating them like your enemy and having no contact whatsoever.

Now, it happens that I'm not as vehemently opposed to Cuban socialism as Republicans typically are. But if you were, by totally freezing out Cuba and treating it as your enemy, you actually strengthen the current regime, who can then rally the people around the cause of fighting Yankee oppression (ditto Venezuela). In contrast, by engaging the enemy, you diffuse the situation and actually help weaken the regime you are ideologically opposed to. It's essentially a sort of Aikido maneuver.

Republicans may be upset about Obama, but how effective has their strategy been, anyway? Policies of engagement, such as with the Soviet Union and China (including under Republican presidents before their current authoritarian phase), have shown more success for their point-of-view than dig-in-your-heels obstinacy.

And it seems like this is a reflection of nearly all right-wing ideas. They trade off effectiveness in order to enforce a belief system which fails over and over again. Yet alternatives are derided as "leftist" and "liberal," or, more commonly, as "weak."

Republican/right-wing positions seem to me to be more about emotional stroking of feelings than effective outcomes. It's the "hard man," "stern disciplinarian," "never give in," "never change your mind," etc. mentality that seems to drive the U.S. approach to, well, just about everything these days. But, the thing is, it just doesn't work. No matter how badly it doesn't work, we never seem to change course, as with the example above.

Doesn't it seem like no matter how badly right-wing ideas fail, they are never abandoned? And that alternatives are considered unthinkable?

It's almost as if right-wing thinking was not concerned with results or outcomes at all! Because from a purely objective, data-driven standpoint, they fail over and over again.

This is what struck me about the talk with Stephen Schwartz I posted a few days back. I think this is the essential takeaway from what he was saying. What we're doing isn't working. And we know of alternatives, but we won't try them because of our ideology!

Let's take some concrete examples to illustrate what I'm talking about.

The first, and most obvious example, is "austerity." It's repeatedly been shown to be a failure: the private and public sectors are intimately entwined. Shrinking government effectively shrinks the economy, which is even worse when you have a downturn. This makes the debt worse, not better, since you shrink your tax base. Yet we must consistently demonize  government spending and use the debt as a boogeyman to shrink government (especially formerly effective public institutions that can be sold off to the private sector at low prices). Pay down the debt, lower taxes on the rich, and the economy will magically come roaring to life, claim the Republicans.

I've lost track of how many articles I've read, even from right-wingers, bemoaning the lack of growth over the last few years (which they can conveniently pin on Obama and [nonexistent] high taxes on the rich/regulations). Yet alternatives are never considered! The idea that the all-out war on wages waged over the past several decades had destroyed effective demand just never occurs to them. Alternative ideas, from MMT, to even the mild Keynesianism promoted by Paul Krugman (And used during the Great Depression), are effectively off the table. They cannot even be considered. "We must fight the debt, and money-printing is evil!" It's the economics of Puritan morality, rather than actual data or theory.

Austerity has been an unmitigated disaster, and this proves it (Washington Post)

To take another, let's look at the drug war. Recently, yet another article has come out about health care professionals declaring it a total disaster. If your goal is to reduce drug abuse (and I don't think that it is - it's actually about justifying locking up the poor and minorities, but let's set that aside), then the drug war has simply been a massive clusterfuck at every level. Every impartial expert, from health care to law enforcement, now acknowledges this. Yet we persist!

Like a lot of these failed ideas, we have examples of alternatives. These would be considered leftist/liberal in the U.S., and so they will not be tried. But they have proven more effective in ameliorating the problem. Here's an example from Portugal, for example--they have decriminalized drugs and shifted their focus to treating users instead of jailing them.

14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here's What Portugal Looks Like (Policy Mic)

A related concept is prison. Here, prison is about punishment, not rehabilitation, and the more harsh the punishment, the better. Our system is designed to abuse criminals as much as possible in the name of "harsh punishment" which has the end result of making even harder criminals. We also cut off opportunities to rejoin society by stigmatizing criminals so that they can't get jobs, virtually assuring that they will re-offend simply because there are no alternatives, thus ending up as permanent wards of the state (underwritten by the taxpayers).

European countries, by contrast, view prisons as primarily about rehabilitation, and punishment as secondary. The horrible treatment and physical and sexual abuse doled out in American prisons does not exist (in the U.S. more men are raped than women thanks to our prisons). It's also been clinically proven that daily doses of fish oil cut violent behaviors dramatically. We know this. Why isn't this done?

Cost of prisons in the US (BoingBoing)

We should instead be doing more things like this:

Restaurant gives ex-offenders a recipe for success (CNN)

We cannot do things like that here because it would be "coddling" criminals. "They must be made to suffer," say the "stern father" Republicans, no matter how ineffective or how much money it ends up costing us. Thus we have one out of every four of the world's prisoners rotting away in our jails. And no matter how bad the outcomes of the policy, people on the right-wing end of the spectrum will never change. It's all about emotion to them; ironically something they accuse their data-driven opponents of (i.e. projection). On and on it goes.

Or how about health care? Every other industrialized country has managed to provide health care for all of their citizens at a much lower cost than ours. There are any number of ways to do this, which rely on markets to a greater or lesser extent, yet they all achieve better outcomes. But they cannot be tried here, because of our opposition to "socialism," however defined. Or because entrenched interests can throttle any attempts at reform. The result is a population with much worse health outcomes than our national wealth would expect; in some cases as bad as poor third-world countries, as Schwartz points out.

I am David Belk. I'm a doctor who has spent years trying to untangle the mysteries of health care costs in the US and wrote a website exposing much of what I've discovered AMA! (Reddit)

Having a huge population working for minimum wage and with spotty or nonexistent access to health services is not effective. A poor and sick working population does not make for a dynamic or effective economy. It's a tremendous waste of human capital. Yet proposals to expand health care access (Medicare) or raise the minimum wage are viciously opposed by Republicans and libertarians (who instead promote eliminating both). And yet they wonder why economic growth is nonexistent!

When it comes to economics, most Republican voters I have known consider themselves to be "realistic," level-headed," dollars-and-cents," type of people, as opposed to "idealist" Democrats who just want to spend money willy-nilly in their opinion. They claim to be economic "conservatives." A disproportionate number of these people occupy the executive/managerial class, and are likely to engage in groupthink (since occupying this class is all about social affiliation with other members of the executive/managerial class).

But, despite their claims to be all about fomenting economic growth and being "good for business," every study ever done shows better economic outcomes under Democratic presidents, including gains for economic growth, job creation, and even stock market returns! This ranges from the New Deal policies of FDR which rescued us from the Great Depression (opposed by right-wingers even then), to the more "Eisenhower Republican" policies promoted by contemporary Democrats (contrasted with the aggressively anti-labor, "trickle-down" economic policies of contemporary Republicans)

No Record to Run On (David Brin)

In other words, they are willing to sacrifice their own potential money to vote for Republicans. Why? So that Republicans can "discipline" workers and crush unions, and so that they can engage in the rhetorical fellatio of John Galt-like "job creators." When you look at the actual outcomes, it turns out that the bottom-lines of these "dollars and cents," supposedly rational businessmen would be better off of they voted for "Liberals" and Democrats. It has nothing to do with outcomes, Republicans just want to feel dominant.

It has nothing to do with effectiveness. It's all about emotion. It's about authortiarianism and control. If you get rid of the bullshit, and look at the data, that is clearly what the data show.

I've pointed out may times here that working people into the ground, as we do, does not produce better outcomes. It's been shown to actually reduce productivity. We stubbornly deny humane vacation policies, even though it's been clinically shown that more vacation time leads to greater productivity overall. It turns out that burned-out workers produce less, and work less effectively. Who could have known?

America's 55-hour work weeks ruin workers' lives and don't produce extra value for employers (BoingBoing)

Britons working longer hours with no gain in productivity, study finds (Guardian)

When I pointed that out, several commenters wisely replied that is has nothing to with effectiveness; it's all about control. They don't care about productivity/effectiveness at all, otherwise they wouldn't oppose more vacation/shorter working hours. Rather, the executive/managerial class are willing to sacrifice increased productivity and better outcomes to get a hard-on by engaging in the masturbatory machismo of crushing overwork and revel in their absolute control over other peoples' lives. 

Again, there's that Republican/right-wing mentality rearing its ugly head. It's pervasive, and it's one reason we're failing as a country at every level.

We know, as I pointed out last time, that mixed economies with a strong safety net produce better outcomes in terms of happiness and well-being. The data here is overwhelming and incontrovertible. "Getting to Denmark" is the title of a chapter Francis Fukuyama's book about effective governing institutions. "Horatio Alger has moved to Finland," conclude economists not in the employ of right-wing think-tanks.

The fossil-fuel economy is clearly something we need to move beyond, and would even provide new growth opportunities, yet right-wingers consistently oppose research into alternative energy, want to maintain fossil-fuel subsidies and deny the science behind climate change. They even ban the very mention or study of climate change by government fiat in some localities.

Better universities are correlated with more social mobility and more competitive economies. Yet right-wingers are busily defunding universities to hand tax cuts to the one-percent. We know that miring students in a lifetime of debt is a clear drag on the economy, as well as a moral outrage, and yet we consider state-subsidized education a "giveaway," and let out-of-control universities hike tuition at will  to pay for bloated administrations, gold-plated amenities and sports programs that dominate the campus.

We know that bigger freeways don't relieve traffic congestion, because they just cause more people to drive, cancelling out any gains. Yet right-wingers oppose any and all public transportation initiatives, from high-speed rail (present for decades in Europe/Asia) to local trolleys and buses, to bike trails.

It turns out that states that have, you know, actually provided housing for the homeless, have had much better outcomes, with less suffering and for less money, than places which criminalize homelessness and harass them as a matter of policy.

Leaving Homeless Person On The Streets: $31,065. Giving Them Housing: $10,051. (Think Progress)

Blaming, demonizing,  and scapegoating the poor has been a less effective strategy than things like, you know, promoting the creation of well-paying jobs!

Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Is A Popular New Policy That Cost States Millions. Here Are The Results. (Think Progress)

Abstinence-only sex education programs consistently show higher rates of teen pregnancy, and yes, abortion (in places where bearing children is not enforced by state power).

We know that making children and teenagers attend school very early in the morning is detrimental to their learning ability. Yet we make them do it anyway. Change is unthinkable. And we blame individuals for the bad outcomes, as we do with everything else.

The military interventions championed by right-wingers, such as Iraq, have made the world far more, not less dangerous. Entire countries now lie in ruins, filled with terrorists that hate us, thanks to these Republican-driven demonstrations of American "strength" and "resolve."

It just goes on and on...

Right-wing policies are making us broke! As Schwartz pointed out, so-called "Blue state" policies, when you look at the statistics, produce better outcomes, and are even more cost-effective in the long run, if the outcome you are going for is wellness, as he puts it.

We can only conclude that Republican/right-wing policies are not designed to produce wellness at all. That is not their intent.

Why then, do so many people support them?

It seems that Americans are especially mired in tribalism, hatred, pettiness, spite, and the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. "If I can't have it, neither can you!" We prefer to build ourselves up by knocking our fellow citizens down, rather than finding ways to lift us all up. It's structuring society as a zero-sum, rather than a positive-sum game. We consistently cut off our noses to spite our face.

Part of is how we view all of our national problems as cases of individual failure rather than as the cumulative effects of bad public policy. "There is no such thing as society, only individual people striving in impersonal markets," is what we are taught to believe from birth. It's all part-and parcel of our "rugged individualist" mentality. "Divide and rule" has also always been a common method of control by a greedy and rapacious corporate elite ruling over a diverse population like the United States, but it ends up tearing society and apart and leads to worse outcomes such as lack of cooperation and social distrust (attitudes which are not beneficial from an economic standpoint).

Look at almost every indicator of health and well-being in America since these conservative idea viruses have achieved cultural hegemony, and they have gone into freefall. From economic austerity, to tepid economic growth, to free-market fundamentalism, to privatization, to the drug war, to stressed-out workers, to rampant poverty and homelessness, to inequality, to slashing the safety net and gutting publicly-funded education, to "throwing the book" at criminals, to "abstinence-only"education, to privatized school "teaching to the test," to coddling the fossil fuel industry; it's all led to worse outcomes and economic decay wherever it has been tried. Maybe we should try something else. Yet they have convinced us that there are no alternatives, or that the alternatives would be worse than the status quo. And we buy it.

When it comes to policy, sometimes I feel like I am too "left-wing" But the above shows why that's false. I care about outcomes. I want more wellness. And they way to get more wellness is to pursue policies that have been shown to produce those outcomes in the laboratory known as the world. Look, we have hundreds of countries with different policies. We know the outcomes. We know what works, and what doesn't. We have scientific data to inform our decisions. And yet, more often than not, we simply refuse to listen. It's sheer insanity!

The sad thing is that no amount of data will convince hide-bound conservatives of the error of their ways. They just dig in their heels, because they make their decisions based on a misapplication of morality and an individualist worldview, coupled with negative emotions of tribalism, dominance, hierarchy, and control. And that assures that things will continue to get worse for a long time to come.


  1. Well said sir.

    Riane Eisler has identified a "domination-partnership continuum" which, for me, provides a helpful lens through which to view the world. Whether left or right, capitalist or socialist etc, all governments, institutions, corporations and organisations may be viewed as located somewhere on the continuum.

    Both left and right wing states can operate from a dominator mindset in which exploitation and degradation flourish. Somehow we have to shift our institutions along the continuum towards a partnership mindset, including partnership with the rest of nature.

    Eisler wrote and talked about this recently as part of a new series at the Next System Project:

  2. Just as democracy won't work in Afghanistan or Iraq, the policies that work in small homogenous states like Sweden or Denmark aren't necessarily suited for the USA, a vast land empire containing a multitude of peoples and cultures.
    A land with many tribes can't have lots of public resources or a tragedy of the commons occurs as each group competes for the largest share they can grab. Low trust is the product of a multi-ethnic empire, not specifically of its policies. That's why those policies exist, because each tribe is afraid of its competitors abusing the system.
    Not to excuse anything but this why things are as they are.

    1. Not going to agree or disagree, but see Stephen Schwartz's response to Chris Ryan in the linked post about Norway versus the U.S. Also, why then are Canada and Australia, which are also multi-ethic, so much more successful than the U.S.? And why are many homogeneous countries so much poorer (in Asia for example?). In answer to the first question, my guess is largely the legacy of slavery.

    2. These "Red" people and philosophy that seem to bewilder Schwartz represent ethnic splits among American whites, hence why he notices some similar tensions dating to the Civil War and before.
      One group Middle America has lots of blood from are Scots-Irish many of whom were tribal herders. They tend to be individualistic, hot-blooded, and fractious relative to more settled Europeans. They were sent over as a buffer people against the Native Irish and then the Native Americans for a reason. The qualities that made them ideal frontiersmen can cause problems in a settled, bureaucratic state.
      Again policy results from the nature of a people. Even if Kansas was set up tomorrow with blue policies, Schwartz might find it just doesn't stick.
      Being homogenous isn't enough. There has to be a population that is geared towards highly organized levels of cooperation and capable of creating and preserving wealth. When a population uniformly has all these capabilities you get a Denmark, Sweden, or a Switzerland.

    3. But that's not the whole story. Nationwide, we have had much more "blue state" policies outside of Dixie, historically. Ideas which were possible 50-100 years ago are beyond even considering now, from public parks to land grant universities. Even trash collection and water provision are under threat.

      Thomas Frank, in "What's The Matter With Kansas," points out that the Plains states were once a hotbed of populism and opposition to the Robber Barons. The Progressive Movement was founded in my home state. My city elected Socialist Party mayors for most of the twentieth century. Frank writes:

      The Midwest has changed. There was once vital activity there promoting Socialism, farm and labor parties and unions...The change in the Midwest is one of the great reversals of American history.

      So something else is at work here. I have a hunch as to what it is, but that's a topic for a future post.

  3. To pursue the ethnic American angle (pun intended). I am of Scots-Irish stock, meaning my deep ancestry was Pictish-Goidelic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon. Does that make me more selfish/greedy/individualistic than a person of Viking stock?
    Occams Razor thought experiment. Who's getting rich off the culture of greed? 99 to one it ain't Giovanni Dannato and it sure ain't me.

  4. I'm beginning to see it as the distortion of a religious impulse: the worship of the Market.

  5. adam:
    i always thought it quite ironic that those who consider themselves most religious(ie the religious right) are quick to embrace the modern free market system when it is predicated on a greed is good philosophy. I thought that Greed was one of the worst(deadliest) sins???

    1. I think Calvin has a lot to answer for - his teaching has been stretched a long way in recent years. And I need to read more about the origins of fundamentalism. But money itself has all the characteristics of an old testament 'false god': have a look at a coin, then check out Psalm 115... :)

    2. Interesting... I was thinking further back. Protestantism initially placed a burden on the people by removing the priest as the only route to God. I don't think that was in itself harmful. But then the Enlightenment came and required some kind of mechanism for faith - and I don't think we've fully recovered from that. Apply mechanism to Calvin and you've got a dangerous mixture. (Methodism itself seems to have fared much better.)

  6. Would you be interested in being a guest on Nature Bats last on the Progressive Radio Network. If so drop me a message at

  7. Wow. Wonderful description of a phenomenon I am continually baffled by. How can such obviously ineffective policies win over those that actually work? Emotion (and religion?) are powerful forces, evidently even more than evidence, logic, and reason. Thank you for this essay; I will pass it on, but as you note in its introduction, it is unlikely to have an elucidating impact on those that need it most.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.