So I'm glad that Tom Batiuk brought up the land mine debate, because talking about how land mines fit into the rules of war, and how the rules of war work in general, were two longish points that I needed to make before I could talk about an important point that I wanted to make about economics and politics.
In the wake of the 2004 (ongoing) Democratic Party fiasco, the continued unraveling of the Democratic Party as the national consensus party, I made two points, one tactical and one strategic. The tactical point was, "No more fast-talking city-slicker senators," that the party needs to nominate non-East-Coast governors, not senators or East Coast governors, because of all the politicians in America with the necessary political experience to run for President, only they speak a dialect of English that sounds trustworthy to the overwhelming majority of Americans. But my strategic point was even more important. Even if we nominate candidates that don't scare the voters, we will still lose as long as the Republican Party is seen as the only party that stands for ideas.
The Republicans clawed their way back out of the political wilderness, ended an almost 100 year streak of single-party Democratic rule in America, by waging a war of ideas. From Ayn Rand to Arthur Laffer, from the Heritage Foundation to the Chicago School of Law, the Republicans came up with a simple, easy to understand, easy to explain short set of principles to explain why they were right and the Democrats were wrong. Nearly all of it can be summed up in one of the favorite slogans of their most successful leader, the politician that finally shattered the Democratic coalition, Ronald Reagan, who was especially fond of saying, "Government is the problem, not the solution." And for a lot of people who'd seen single-party Democratic rule turn cities into organized crime driven kleptocracies that weren't even delivering basic services, like New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, to a nation where the grim "Sin City" background to the hard-boiled men's adventure stories and films noir was daily reality, this wasn't the hardest idea in the world to sell. People could see that it was true, or at least partially true, or at least true enough.
So here's one of my ideas that I think the Democrats should be pushing if we want to be a national party again. It has the benefit of being simple to explain, and visibly, obviously true. The Republican Party can no longer be trusted to defend capitalism from self destruction.
This is so obviously true that when I point out to you that it was Republicans, not Democrats, who brought the US work week down to 40 hours, my younger readers and friends just can't imagine it. And yet it was Republicans, not Democrats, who brought us the Earned Income Tax Credit, an effective anti-poverty program, one of the only ones that actually easily transfers cash directly from taxpayers to poor people, and it was that most Republican of Republicans, Herbert Hoover, who created the Securities and Exchange Commission that regulates the stock market. Since when were the Republicans the party that championed such "socialist" ideas? Since the various Depressions and Recessions. All along, Republicans have been the party of big business, the party that nominates officials who say things like, "What's good for America is good for General Motors, and vice versa." But there have been times where unregulated capitalism so thoroughly discredited itself, by resulting in widespread suffering, that socialism started looking good. So to save capitalism from itself, even the Republicans have been willing to sift through various socialist proposals to try to find the ones that were at least minimally compatible with freedom and democracy, and barely sufficient to stave off socialist revolution. (That this keeps working is the real reason why "reformer" is such a dirty word to a socialist or a communist.)
The analogy that Democrats should be pushing, when it comes to explaining their economic policies, is to the rules of war. As I explained yesterday, war is a cut-throat business, as in literally one that cuts throats. In war time, a lot more is on the line than a 25¢ an hour raise or an extra four tenths of a percent gross margin; war often is about actual ethnic or national survival. And yet, even with those higher stakes, the nations of the world have been able to agree upon many rules of war, and many of those rules are effectively enforced, so much so that hardly anybody even tries to cheat on them. This came to be true because the war-waging nations of the world came to see that there were certain obvious, inescapable tactics and weapons. Any nation that waged war would be inclined to use them. But those tactics have horrific consequences, both during and after the war. However, that's not enough to get a weapon or a tactic banned effectively. The ones that are banned and then not cheated on are the ones that fail to convey an advantage on either side, as long as both sides are using them.
What Republicans used to understand, before extensive brainwashing by Ayn Rand and her disciples, was that left to itself, unregulated capitalism gets really ugly, really fast. The "invisible hand of the markets" does not correct for abuses that convey a short-term economic advantage. On the contrary, in an unregulated capitalist society, there is an inevitable "race to the bottom" as each company seeks to be the first and the fastest to try to gain any available short-term advantage, no matter how destructive it would be to capitalism itself if every company sought that advantage. This understanding long pre-dates the discovery and exploration of the mathematics of game theory; it's an obvious historical fact. In the absence of regulation, capitalism not only rapidly devolves into feudalism, but into a particularly ineffective kind of feudalism, one that doesn't even succeed at keeping the serfs alive.
Democrats need to frame their economic proposals in language that is about saving capitalism. We need to explain that if companies are allowed to dump their environmental cleanup costs onto the public, are allowed to pollute, then they all have to pollute or the ones that invest in cleanup technologies will get crushed by the ones who instead invest in buying them out. We need to explain that if companies are allowed to pay sub-poverty wages and dump their pension and health care costs off onto the taxpayers, then all companies have to shaft their workers, or be bought out by the companies that charge the same prices but don't pay the same costs. We need to explain that in a world where companies compete without regulation, the inevitable race to the bottom creates a world in which nobody can afford to buy the companies' products. Even if that world doesn't lead to Islamist revolution (as it did in Iran), or Communist revolution (as it did in Russia), it still ends up being a world where fewer and fewer people, not more and more, get rich.
Democrats need to hit the Republicans hardest on the Land of Opportunity theme, one of the most powerful slogans in American history. We need to show the people that under Republican leadership, that ancient promise of Americanism, the American Dream, that promise that says that if you stay out of trouble, improve yourself, and work hard all your life you can make a better life for yourself and your kids, is being betrayed. It is not being betrayed because the Republicans are evil people. It is being betrayed because they have fallen for an evil idea, and we have a better idea, one that is equally good for the wealthy and for the middle class and for the working class. And that's why our most successful leader in the last several decades, for all of his personal flaws, has been the man who constantly reminded people that he still believes in a place called Hope.