Remember how things were in high school? If a truth was unpopular, you’d be ridiculed for saying it, no matter how obvious it was. Even people who knew you were right wouldn’t defend you, because then they’d be ridiculed too. They might even think they had to speak against you, just to be safe.
Politics is like that, but mostly just on one side. The rich and powerful can emphasize the effect when it works for them (by hiring professional ridiculers) or minimize it when it works against them (via spokesmen and front groups who absorb ridicule until things are safe for conservative politicians). If the PR professionals do their jobs well, the pro-wealth politicians don’t have to offer evidence or answer opposing arguments, they can just laugh and scoff — like the cool kids used to.
But a popular lie that damages the poor or even the middle class can go unchallenged for a long, long time. If we want to hear the corresponding truths, we’ll have to start saying them ourselves.
1. Most government money is well spent. The opposite idea — that government pours money down a rat hole — is broadcast every day. But strangely, anybody who sets out to find this wasteful spending and eliminate it ends up firing teachers, getting rid of food inspectors, letting bridges fall down, or cutting off somebody’s medical care.
I’m sure the people in the path of Texas’ wildfires appreciate the “waste” Gov. Perry managed to cut from the budgets of volunteer fire departments and the Texas Forest Service. When the antibiotic-resistant plague gets rolling, I’m sure we’ll be similarly grateful to House Republicans for the “waste” they’re finding at the CDC.
Speaking this truth in public takes courage, because the ridiculers can point to famous anecdotes of government waste — bridges to nowhere, $600 toilet seats — and nearly everyone knows some story of a mismanaged local project, an acquaintance who scammed disability, or a lazy civil servant who can’t be fired.
But the private sector has its own examples of spectacular waste. How many welfare cheats would it take to equal the $300-500 million CEO Dick Fuld “earned” by managing Lehman Brothers into extinction and touching off the 2008 financial collapse? I can find waste in my own apartment — things I didn’t need, never used, or paid too much for. A certain amount of waste is the natural friction you’ll find in any human activity.
Government is a human project, so it has waste in it and always will. Except for unnecessary wars, is it more wasteful than the private sector? Does its inevitable waste cancel out the vital services it performs? Could we get those services without waste? No.
2. Regulations save money and lives. Corporations can often make a short-term profit doing something that eventually costs the public far more than the corporation makes. (The guy at Hooker Chemical who suggested burying toxic waste at Love Canal saved the company a bundle. He probably got a raise.) Stopping those bad deals is what government regulation is all about.
We hear every day how much companies spend complying with regulations, as if that were the whole story. What we gain from that spending is far more valuable. In the 60s and 70s, the auto companies fought tooth and nail against making cars safer. A car with seat belts used to cost extra. Air bags weren’t even an option, much less standard equipment. Hard, unpadded, and sometimes even sharp steering wheels killed thousands.
Traffic deaths in the U.S. peaked in the late 70s, even though the number of people, cars, and miles driven keeps going up. That’s government regulation for you.
Or consider this: Taking the lead out of gasoline has made American children measurably smarter. What’s that worth to our future economy? What’s that worth personally, to them and to us?
3. The rich are job destroyers, not job creators. You can’t have a mass-production economy if the masses can’t afford the products they make. So when the rich get too rich, growth suffers.
The last time the rich captured this much of our nation’s income was 1929 — the last time the economy crashed this badly. It’s not a coincidence.
4. Rich heirs are parasites. In political rhetoric, rich people are all hard-working, risk-taking entrepreneurs. Because politicians need contributions from the rich, they can’t point out just how useless most second-and-third-generation millionaires and billionaires are.
We are encouraged to resent the unemployed worker who doesn’t try hard enough to find a new job, but not the heir who never works. We’re encouraged to resent the black or Hispanic who gets into Harvard through affirmative action, but not the “legacy” Ivy Leaguer whose test scores are even worse.
Our plunging inheritance tax has increased inequality in the worst possible way, and makes us more like the hereditary aristocracies of 18th-century Europe. In spite of the pop-culture vampire revival, we’re still missing the underlying social metaphor of the original Dracula: Those exotically beguiling aristocrats are sucking our blood.
5. The U.S. government can’t go bankrupt (unless it decides to). Even President Obama has been invoking the spectre of government bankruptcy, but it can’t happen in any literal sense.
Why? The overwhelming majority of federal government’s expenses are in dollars. Its debt is in dollars. So what are dollars? Whatever the Federal Reserve says they are.
The Fed creates dollars the way that Delta creates frequent flier miles: It enters them on a spreadsheet. The U.S. Treasury has an account at the Fed, which the Fed can replenish by creating dollars to buy government bonds. Or it could just let the Treasury’s balance go negative. No sparks would fly out of the Fed’s computers. Negative numbers work just fine.
The only way the U. S. government can go bankrupt is if it creates a crisis for itself, like the recent debt-ceiling debacle. As long as Congress is willing to authorize the government to pay its debts, the government can pay its debts.
Though it can’t go bankrupt, the government could pay a penalty for running a big deficit in two ways: The markets could drive up interest rates (which isn’t happening), or the Fed creating dollars could increase inflation (which isn’t happening, but should).
6. Some inflation right now would be a good thing. The official mandate of the Federal Reserve is to balance inflation against unemployment. It doesn’t. The Fed goes on red-alert at every hint of inflation, but the current unemployment is not inspiring similar alarm.
An easier money policy would lower unemployment at the “cost” of inflation — which would actually be a benefit. Anybody who lived through the 70s remembers the mindset inflation brings: You don’t sit on piles of cash. You buy or invest now, because stuff is only going to cost more later.
Corporations are sitting on a trillion dollars of cash. Rich people are probably sitting on even more. A little fear of inflation would get that money moving again.
7. Fill in your own unspoken truth. …