Sunday, April 10, 2011

Talking to Tea Partiers?

I would describe myself as a moderate liberal. As part of my education, which included a thorough grounding in economic theory, I received an MBA from a top 10 school. My capitalist bona fides include not just my education -- I have owned a business, worked for companies large and small, and have been very successful financially. Nevertheless, I believe in big government and nothing drives me battier than Tea Partiers railing against health care reform by screaming that the government should keep their hands off Medicare, against the deficit while supporting tax cuts for the wealthy that we can ill afford, and against the very spending (whether on Social Security, highways, or medical research) that has allowed them to achieve a lifestyle that their grandparents would never have dreamed possible.

For a long time I did not think that it was possible to talk to Tea Partiers in a rational way, let alone to find common ground with them. Lately, however, I think I have begun to better understand the thinking of a subset of Tea Partiers and believed that there may be room for some points of agreement.

What Motivates Me to Love Big Government?

I was born in the most prosperous country in the history of the world at a time when it was at the height of its prosperity. That prosperity was built on many planks. One was a shared culture and a sense of patriotism that allowed the country to move forward together. Certainly there was friction between races, between labor and capital, and between government and the private sector, and between the sexes, but all players would somehow inch forward together on the swinging pendulum of compromise.

Government served as a referee, balancing (albeit imperfectly) the need for a clean environment and decent labor standards against the needs of industry, and so on. While government may have been corrupt sometimes, it still did things that it thought advanced the cause of creating a better society and a stronger country. Sometimes those things worked (for example giving away 40 acre homesteads or mandating high school education) and sometimes they failed (think of public housing projects).

I grew up in a the most prosperous economy in the world in large part because the government mandated high school education earlier than other countries did, subsidized college education on a massive scale with the GI bill, and funded research. This created the intellectual infrastructure for our economy, a highly educated workforce. The government also created the physical infrastructure, interstate highways, universal telephone and electrical service, roads and bridges.

I have been immensely successful and I owe much of that success to big government. I was educated in universities that were created and nurtured by government. My company wrote software which was deployed on the Internet (which evolved from DARPAnet Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Government gave my business a well educated workforce, a (more or less) stable economy, and a robust infrastructure, which allowed me to contribute to society by employing dozens of people and creating new products.

What Motivates Tea Partiers to Hate Big Government?

Given the immense success that our country has had, despite being made up largely of the descendants of various waves of immigrants and the indisputable conclusion that government played a role in that success, it is hard to understand the animosity that tea-partiers feel toward the government. I'm going to ignore the more outrageous Big Government wants to take away our liberties (usually meaning not allow us all to carry our second amendment guaranteed RPG and missile launcher into our kids' school) and concentrate on the economic arguments.

Tea-partiers are afraid that government wants to tax hard workers (meaning people like them) to allow free loaders (meaning those that work for the government and the urban poor) to make irresponsible decisions and be lazy. One tea-partier I know, though she would deny the label, lived in a communist country where in the name of progress and fairness they took from those who were successful and gave to those who were in political favor. When Obama says we need to "share the wealth" she goes ballistic because she's seen what the extreme of "sharing the wealth" does - steals from anyone who is successful to allow free loaders to enjoy the fruits of someone else's labor. Of course, this almost completely eliminates the incentives to work hard and society and the economy stagnate.

Tea partiers also believe that government is inherently less efficient than business because business has an incentive to make a profit. However, employees of big businesses, especially those that are publicly traded, have plenty of incentive to enrich themselves at the expense of the company. Furthermore, what is good for the company's bottom line may not be good for the world (dumping toxic waste or creating toxic assets, for example). Whenever, someone repeats to me the dogmatic idea that government is less efficient than the private sector I say that given examples like Worldcom, Enron, AIG, and General Motors that is an outrageous claim to make in the absence of any data to back it up. Of course, nobody has any such data. I've been in business for decades and the waste, fraud, and abuse I've seen in the private sector makes my head spin.

Spreading the Wealth

When I point out to my conservative friends the fact that over the last several decades all of the gains in our nation's wealth and productivity have gone to the richest, that does not sway them. From their perspective, you get what you work for. Wealth redistribution for the sake of equity just saps the motivation for the poor to try.

However, a society in which being born poor means an almost certain life sentence of poverty also saps motivation for the poor to better themselves. Unfortunately, our society has moved very far in that direction over the last several decades. To me spreading the wealth doesn't mean wholesale confiscation of my wealth, but it does mean that I should be expected to contribute enough so that my children and grandchildren can have opportunities similar to my own.

Even in my own relatively affluent community I see the effects of the anti-government, anti-tax policies that have overtaken the debate. Every year the state of Michigan cuts per-pupil funding for our public schools. When my oldest was in kindergarten I thought that it was bad because the school had to cut the reading specialist that pulled the talented readers out of class for advanced reading. In the 7 years between my oldest and youngest, not only have we not gotten back a reading specialist, class size for kindergarten has grown from 18 to 27.

Our roads are pot-holed. Our library can not construct it's own building. Students need to pay to participate in athletics or the school play. Higher education budgets get cut, making even a public college more expensive. Meanwhile, Michigan cut income tax rates for both individuals and businesses again and again.

Where Tea Partiers Should Be Able to Agree with Me

With my new understanding of the tea-party I think that I should be able to find areas where I, a liberal, agree with them. Although I am not sure that I have a good solution, none of us want to encourage generations of unwed teenage mothers. So, I think that we should all be able to support decent schools that would give the children of teenage mothers a chance at a decent education and a decent career. However, there is a real cost to education, public safety, childhood nutrition, and pre-natal care. In other words, there is a real cost to giving the poor a chance.

Inevitably, some of the money we spend will be wasted, but I can support wasting money to build the well-educated, productive work force of tomorrow. We all agree that while you may sometimes find a bargain, usually you get what you pay for. That is ostensibly why businesses pay so much for CEOs. Sure, sometimes you waste money on an Anthony Mozzilo, but if you want results you attract the best with high wages and great benefits.

A Challenge to Conservatives

So, here is my challenge to the tea party. Can you show me a country whose citizens prosper without a robust government? If not, since I don't want my kids to have to live in a society where they live in gated communities, with private roads, private security, and private schools, surrounded by growing slums how do you propose moving society forward? Decades of tax cuts for the wealthiest and deregulation have given us a collapsed economy with stagnant wages for all but the richest. Where is your path forward that keeps us from becoming a third world country with crumbling infrastructure and a tiny middle class?