Friday, November 10, 2006

Winning America

...or How the Democrats Could Win America but Probably Won't

So the Democrats have both houses of Congress now. I have mixed feelings about that. The Democratic Party has a lot of potential, and is sadly the lesser of two evils, but just like the Republicans they often so easily screw things up that this could turn into another disaster, only with the car crashing into a different wall. I dread the possibility that the only positive thing we will be able to say in two years is, "Well, at least it was a different wall."

So I'd like to offer the Democrats a suggestion. Party leaders won't ever read this, and even if they did, they would never do what I suggest, so this is 'technically' a waste of my time. But it bugs me so much that they never do this that I simply have to get it off my chest. At least then I said it, instead of keeping it to myself. And maybe someone will read this who will actually change the course of history some day. I doubt that, but a shot in the dark is better than none at all. And this lone bullet really doesn't cost much.

I've discussed my political views and my political philosophy as a confirmed moderate in my book Sense and Goodness without God. I have a whole section in there devoted to the subject, since politics is a fundamental component of any complete worldview, including humanistic naturalism. Like I said, I'm a political moderate, which means I sometimes agree with conservatives, sometimes with liberals, and often with neither. I think both sides have some good ideas, and a lot of bad ones. But mainly I think they are engaged in entirely the wrong way of realizing their platforms, or even articulating them to the public.

So keep that in mind, since what follows will seem like a conservative idea. But it really isn't. The highest and most worthy ideals of the liberals would actually be achievable if they embraced certain conservative principles in the process. Ideally I'd like to see a hybrid party break away from both the Democrats and Republicans and give them a real run for their money, adapting the basic principles set out in my book into
a basic six-part platform for a Moderate Party:

Moderate Party Platform
  1. The purpose of government is to create and maintain a free and civil society.

  2. The purpose of the constitution is to limit government.

  3. Evidence, not ideology, shall guide our every vote.

  4. We shall not support extreme policies or positions.

  5. We shall take compromise seriously.

  6. We will expel from our party anyone who violates this platform.

Where Am I Going with This?

Okay. Enough of that. Now to the point. Pork Barrel Spending. This has become so ridiculous, so alarming in scale, that it is a real cancer rotting away at our country, harming our welfare, even our national security. And I am pretty sure a very large majority of Americans agree and want it stopped. If you don't know how bad, or how absurd, pork barrel spending has become, just spend a few days (yes, it will take you that long) browsing around the hall of infamy at the Citizens Against Government Waste website. Nearly thirty billion dollars a year of this is flushed down the toilet, and that's under the tenure of a party that's supposed to be fiscally conservative.

Granted, that doesn't sound like a lot, when you consider that the government took in nearly 2.3 trillion dollars last year and then spent over 2.7 trillion dollars, thus borrowing yet another 400 billion dollars just to cover their annual spending spree, increasing the people's debt to a monstrous 8.3 trillion dollars. That means we owe nearly four times our annual income, and instead of paying it off, we're borrowing more. This again from a party that's supposed to be fiscally conservative. In the Clinton era, Democrats actually started saving money and paying down the debt. So much for that plan. But next to the kind of debt and reckless deficit spending we're seeing now, a mere $30 billion is chump change.

This year's spending broke down roughly as follows: $532 billion went to national security and defense and $490 billion went to cover all the other administrative costs of running the Federal government. Pork is often buried somewhere in those two expenditures. Then an additional $50 billion was added to help cover the costs of "The Global War on Terror" (yes, our published budget actually says that), while less than $5 billion was added to disaster relief for that hurricane you might remember a while back, and just under $4 billion was spent on Flu Pandemic Preparedness. After that, $550 billion paid out as Social Security checks, $536 billion covered Medicare and Medicaid, and another $370 billion was spent on "other" mandatory budget items, whatever the hell those were. We also had to make a $220 billion mandatory minimum payment on our monstrous debts, and that only covered the interest we accumulated for the year, not the principal.

But we can get an idea of the scale of pork by breaking some of those big figures down. For example, did you know the Legislature spends almost 4 billion dollars on itself? Or that we spend less than 6 billion dollars to fund the entire FBI? In fact, the entire Department of Justice budget for 2006 totalled a mere $20.3 billion. That's right. We spend less on enforcing federal laws in this country than all the money we spend on pork. The Bush summary report lists the major items covered by the DoJ outlay as "combating terrorism," which I hear is kind of important these days, "drug enforcement, firearms and explosives enforcement," in case you forgot that War on Drugs we used to be fighting, "federal detention programs," i.e. prisons, which cost us over $4 billion, by the way, more than we spend pampering our Congress, and "prosecuting corporate fraud, and other criminal and civil legal activities," you know, like the FBI going after gangs, kidnappers, corporate megathieves, the mafia, all the shit people really care about.

Now we have perspective. Thirty billion on pork. Only twenty billion on enforcing the law. Imagine that. In fact, only six billion on the FBI. See what we could do if we eliminated pork? We could double the FBI's budget, double the number of agents chasing down criminals, double the number of attorneys prosecuting corrupt businessmen, double homeland counter-terrorist surveillance operations. You name it.

That's just a comparative example. But maybe you're like me and think we ought to stop borrowing money first. Yeah. Cut pork and we could reduce the deficit from 400 billion to 370 billion. End the war in Iraq and we could bring that down to 300 billion or so. Trim the fat in superfluous government administration by 10% and you might get that down to 200 billion. Next, about 40% of our trillion dollar take in annual income taxes comes from people earning over $200,000 a year, normally bringing 400 billion dollars into the till, which means if we doubled taxes on the rich (and I'm sure Jesus would approve), not only would we close the deficit but we could start paying down debt at almost the same rate we're now only paying off interest.

Why Pick on Pork?

Okay. So pork is bad. But that's not the main reason I'm picking on it. Ending the Age of Pork could actually win America, not because it's so much money, but simply because it's so sleazy and discouraging. Pork symbolizes to every American what's gone wrong with politics, and most of all what the Republicans, those once-upon-a-time fiscal conservatives, most embarrassingly failed to get rid of. If the Democrats did it, the Republican party would be through. We would then have two administrations when Democrats, not Republicans, ended deficit spending and reigned in the largesse, and no administrations (at least in my lifetime) when Republicans ever did. This would all but kill the Republican party. Their claims to be the party of limited government and sane spending would no longer be credible to anyone, whereas everyone who believes in those things would now know they will get them if they vote for the Democrats.

This is the new black vote. Before the days of Jim Crowe and Strom Thurmond, the Republican party had the black vote. They were the party that stood by them. Then the GOP started courting racists and lost the black vote. The Democrats then stepped up to become the party of civil rights, and thus stole a large part of the Republican base, giving us the era of Kennedy and Johnson. That's what I think will happen now if the Democrats do what I am about to suggest, and have been hinting at already. A huge number of Americans are disgusted with government spending and disillusioned by any possibility of stopping it. The Republicans rely heavily on their hard-line Christian base, but that's not enough, about 30% of the vote perhaps, 40% at most. To tip the balance they need to appeal to the fiscal conservatives. Hence all that the Democrats need in order to win America is to grab that base away from the Republicans. Those Christians won't be enough to ever get them back in power.

I think the effect will be even stronger than that, since if the Democratic party actually succeeded in ending pork, a large number of Americans who stay away from the polls out of disgust will actually start voting. Because they will finally see a party actually doing something for a change, something that matters, eliminating the reasons they've not bothered voting before. In other words, the Democrats will finally have given these people something to vote for. This isn't the case for issues voters, who always hit the poles--anyone who stays away obviously doesn't care about the issues. Thus I think a significant chunk of the nonvoting public are really fiscal conservatives who think they can't reign in government no matter how they vote. Give them a reason to think they can, and you'll have them voting for you at the poles. In my opinion there is nothing the Democrats could do that would be more effective in winning America over and securing their power for a good long while.

Okay, How?

So how could they do it? It's actually surprisingly easy. It just requires cooperation, something politicians aren't very good at, especially Democrats. But if they could convince their members in Congress of the wisdom of this policy, as a means to every other end they might want to have the chance to accomplish, such cooperation might be achievable. This is what I suggest they do: simply declare an end to the era of pork barrel spending, and vote down every pork barrel project, no matter what it is. Controlling both houses of Congress, they will be able to do that. After all, a Presidential veto can't get pork back into a bill. And just watch the national outrage when a Republican president vetoes a porkless budget. Talk about killing the GOP for good. I doubt he'd even dare.

This must not become an effort to write up some new bill that would try to end pork. Pork is too slippery and diverse, and too easily confused with valid expenditures, to be captured by any legislative language. Such a bill would cause more problems than it would solve, and wouldn't solve half the problem anyway. But everyone knows pork when they see it. Human judgment is all that is needed to spot it and flush it. And by using human judgment to that end, instead of giving us more bad laws, the Democrats would be demonstrating year in and year out their commitment and discipline. Voters will get behind that. Trust me. That's what will win America.

The usual retort is that pork is a deal, a bribery racket, the tit that every politician must suckle from or starve. Democrats and Republicans get money and other assistance to fund their campaigns by promissing pork as a quid pro quo. Cut the pork, and your financiers will walk away, and you'll lose elections for lack of cash. Well, that might be true in other situations, but not now, not when one party controls both houses of Congress.

Just think it through. Where will the pork-hunting special interests take their money if the Democrats start reneging on their backroom deals? What, to Republican candidates? Just picture that campaign. "I turned my back on the pork barrel special interests, and they ran over and gave their money to my opponent--so who are you going to vote for? The guy they just bought, or the guy they couldn't?" What can the Republican do? Deny it? Then he'll not only be corrupt, but a liar as well. The fact is, no amount of money will fool enough American voters into missing the point. They'll back the fiscal conservative and thumb their noses at the guy who was just obviously and publicly bribed to steal the people's money to fund more pork.

In other words, the public buzz and political cache that would result from ending pork in an organized campaign would always outweigh all the money that special interests could ever spend. That's why the whole system of pork barrel lobbying would collapse. Their bribery would be exposed for what it is, because only one party would be taking their money--or none will. Either way, the age of pork would be done for. Republicans won't have the old excuse anymore, "Well, I had to, because my opponent was!" The pork racket will no longer look like a necessary evil, but like what it really is: a sleazy tit-for-tat that is costing us money and destroying the political culture of our country.

All this far outweighs even the benefit of freeing up thirty billion dollars in the public budget. That would be nothing to sneeze at, either. But far more powerful will be the political fallout of such a coordinated move. The Democratic Party would forever be associated with ending an era of sleaze, they would seize the swing voting block of fiscal conservatives that Republicans have been standing on, and they would be assured of sweeping every branch of government for years to come. Then they could realize their more important ideals in shaping America. Anything else they do won't secure them in power. Anything else can become a disaster. But not this. A strategy like this is a surefire winner.

That's how the Democrats could win America. I doubt they'll ever do it. The opportunity is now, and they'll let it slip by. But I can dream. And bitch about it later.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

All good, though you've overlooked one point: pork is often used not as a way of bribing financial supporters, but as a way of bribing voters. I've seen a number of campain ads that use the pitch "Vote for me because I supported such-and-such government project that brought jobs into the area." A politician who cuts pork runs the risk of being attacked for destroying jobs. This does not mean your proposal is a bad idea, but it means that cutting pork would require a well-coordinated campaign that makes cuts a selling point able to outweight "this was creating jobs."

Loren Petrich said...

Yes, many politicians advertise that they have been bringing home the bacon.

But all bacon is pork, including this metaphorical sense.

More seriously, this seems like a case of the Tragedy of the Commons. If I am in public office and I try to get some pork for my district, that district and I will have all the benefit, but the cost will be more diffuse, just the condition needed to create that resource-management calamity.

Lippard said...

Increasing transparency of what Congressmen are doing would be one way to help this--publish a searchable database of every Congressional appropriation on the Internet, so that Google and the blogosphere can shine a light on who's doing what for and to whom, would help. So would instituting spending limits, forcing government to internalize the costs of regulation (e.g., along the lines of Arizona's Proposition 207 that just passed), and something like the Colorado Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (where the budget has to be balanced, and increases are tied to inflation and population growth; any "natural growth" in revenues has to be put aside in a reserve fund or returned to the taxpayers) would also all help. The TaBOR concept is probably the best way to reverse the "bribing voters" effect that Chris (hallq) referred to--if the taxpayers are getting refunds from excess revenues, increasing spending reduces that return in a way that's visible to all taxpayers.

Bill Snedden said...

Nitpick: the word is "renege", not "renig" and the inflected form is "reneging" (4th paragraph from the bottom).

Otherwise, good thoughts. However, I remain pessimistic. The term "culture of pork" is often used and for good reason: the practice has become so ingrained it represents a political "subculture", so to speak. Turning that tide is going to take a tremendous commitment of time and will, neither of which seem in ample supply either in DC or in the U.S. at large. Jim's suggestion of transparency via online databases is excellent, but it seems to me that the majority of voters can't be bothered to actually educate themselves on the issues. Nor do they really seem to care. Voters decisions seem to be based on emotion and soundbite with the loudest, most strident voices winning the day.

I think the bottom line is that by and large, Americans don't seem to take politics seriously. Not that they don't care at all, but rather that they seem to be satisfied with believing just about whatever they're told, as long as it means they don't have to expend any energy to validate it. Somehow, somewhere, we've lost sight of the fact that there is a moral component of belief, just as Clifford said. I think it's no coincidence that people who would endorse your "moderate" party and who would both agree with your analysis and see its connection to our current situation are likely to be skeptics or at least non-fundamentalist/non-traditional believers. Unfortunately, until we succeed in reducing/eliminating the warrantless respect for authority, moral relativism, and "comfort in numbers" thinking that seems to characterize the majority of American voters, I don't see us capable of making much ground on this issue.

freethoughtguy said...

Richard, you're right, the Democrats will never do this, and the Republicans won't either. I realized this back in 1988 when I discovered the Libertarian Party and stopped wasting my votes on the Demopublicans/Republicrats.

Let's look back at 2004: Both Bush and Kerry supported the Iraq War, "faith-based" funding (pork?), and opposed gay marriage. Both were also on the wrong side of many other issues important to me. If I had to choose between the two, I'd hold my nose and vote for Kerry; fortunately, there was an alternative with Michael Badnarik.

Libertarians have always opposed Pork Barrel Spending, and they meet most of your Moderate Party Platform planks. Could the Libertarian Party be your new political home?

Victor Reppert said...

The likely promotion of John Murtha to the #2 position in the House Democratic party is not a good sign for what you are hoping for.

Richard Carrier said...

Bill Snedden, thanks for the spellcheck! Unlike some people, I actually appreciate it. I made the correction.

Victor, I heard they dumped the Murtha proposal, which is now a good sign. However, just the fact that Pelosi wanted him is still, as you say, not a good sign. Of course, in principle, they are all guilty of porking, so it wouldn't be impossible for even the likes of Murtha to join a mass plan to abstain. Of course I still don't think that will ever happen.

Everyone else has made good points, although I disagree with Freethinker. As I argue in my book Sense and Goodness without God (pp. 384-88), to vote for a candidate who has no real chance of winning is a vote for the worst candidate who actually wins. Swing Nader votes to Gore in 2000 and the entire history of the world would have been changed for the better. The fact is, no matter how badly Gore ran the Presidency, it couldn't have been this bad.

And in the pork issue it's basic math: Candidate A will spend, say, 2% less on pork than candidate B, while there is no chance of candidate C gaining office. So if you abstain from voting for A (whether by voting for C or not voting at all), you are helping B win. That's acting in direct contradiction to what you want to accomplish, which is a reduction in pork barrel spending. Better to vote for reduction, than to help ensure it's increase.

As I also explain in my book, we need to accept political solutions that are gradual, instead of holding out for sweeping and radical change, since the latter will rarely happen. We can ratchet down pork by 2% every decade by consistently voting for the lesser of two evils, but we can't eliminate all pork in one vote, unless a power party pulls the stunt I describe, which I doubt any will. Thus, as much as I might prefer, say, a Libertarian President, it makes no sense in our political system to vote for one. Unless, of course, the Democrat and Republican candidates are literally equally bad, but that's very unlikely--no matter how awful they both are, there is almost always going to be some balance of a difference between them, even if it's as small as 1% in any cost-benefit analysis.

Cameron said...

We are just days away from the Democrat Takeover, and I am highly doubtful they will take any of your sound fiscal advice. I have two small bones to pick, though:

1) The budget-balancing act during the Clinton years was not done by Democrats. The Congress was thoroughly GOP, and maybe that combination--a Dem prez and Rep Congress--is why it worked. I say that because the unchecked power of the current all-GOP government has obviously not been fiscally responsible. Careful! Now you have the Anti-90s scenario: A Dem Congress w/GOP prez. What happens? Your guess is as good as mine.

2) Doubling taxes on the 'wealthy' is a progressive-sounding but unproductive idea. The best thing Bush has done for poor people has been to CUT taxes on the rich--tax revenue from top income earners is actually UP with the lower rates! It seems weird, but it works--and everyone benefits.

Richard Carrier said...

C. Clarl: Please cite for me your sources confirming that tax revenues from the rich are higher. Not that I doubt it--I wouldn't be surprised to find that Bush policies have made more rich people, and more poor people--but I want to know just how an "increase in revenue from the rich" is being measured.

Otherwise, I agree: a mono-party government tends historically to be bad news, which is why I expressed worry from the start that the Democrats would screw this up.