Liberalism vs. Conservatism Explained

I recently posted a blog discussing my great disappointment with President Obama’s full-on class warfare. A long series of comments ensued with my uber-liberal cousin Dan. The comments strayed very far from the original premise of my blog and I know that neither of my 2 readers ever read the comment section so I decided to turn this conversation into a separate post.

The comments covered a lot of ground, but quite circuitously rediscovered the difference between a liberal and a conservative (as always I avoid using the nearly interchangeable terms democrat and republican). Given the policy failures of the current administration, I think it’s worth highlighting this central difference.

Dan wrote:

I lived in New York for 24 years. In that time, I saw lots of people who were in desperate straits. I lived among them for the early part of my time in NYC. As I made more money through my career, I was willing to pay taxes that would go to improve those people’s lives, for two reasons: first, and this is the selfish one, when their lives are better, they don’t menace my own life. And second, I believe in helping those who need help. This is what I don’t understand about the Republican desire to make government perform way fewer services. When the society is filled with people who are not miserable, we all have better lives. There will always be people who need food stamps. Do you want to say fuck ‘em, or do you want to give them food stamps so they don’t mug you? Personally, I go for the food stamps. Will some people abuse the system? Yes. That’s life – you can’t make a frictionless system. It’s still worth it to me, both morally and selfishly (I don’t like being mugged).

I found this to be one of the most enlightening views of liberalism I’ve seen in a long time. A liberal sees a beggar (I think “homeless person” is the more politically correct term) on the street corner and thinks, “The wealthy should pay more taxes so the government can give that poor guy some of their money so he can be just a tiny bit wealthier. He’ll never be rich, but maybe he can buy some new shoes or a decent meal.” As he’s thinking this, the liberal further thinks, “Thank God I’m a liberal because if a conservative saw that poor fellow, he would just want to cling to his money and watch that guy suffer.” Dan tries to make the point that the conservative’s attitude may even be self-defeating because the homeless person is a drag on society and maybe even a danger to his wealthy family.

Conversely, the conservative sees the homeless person on the street corner and thinks, “We need a strong economy with low unemployment so that poor guy can get a job, work, feel good about himself, support himself and his family, eat not just the one meal the government might provide, but a lifetime of meals paid for with his paycheck, wear not just one pair of shoes the government buys him today, but have a lifetime of comfortable footwear, purchased with his own paycheck.” The conservative further thinks, “Thank God I’m not a liberal because the liberal would just want to take $1000, give it to the federal government, who would piss away $800 of it on waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiencies, and give $200 of it to the poor homeless guy, for whom it would last a week.”

These are two very different and largely irreconcilable views of the role of government in our lives. The primary difference is that the conservative has data on his side. When President Obama spent $1 Trillion (with a “T”) on “stimulus,” allegedly to help the economy and provide jobs for the unemployed, he promised us that unemployment would never rise above 6%. It now stands at 8.3% and rising.  But, 8.3% unemployment doesn’t begin to tell the story of the failures of liberalism to provide for those in need over the last 3.5 years. The way the unemployment rate is calculated, it doesn’t count those who have been looking for work and given up. It only counts in the numerator those actively looking for a job. The Obama economy has been so bad for so long now that many have given up trying. The actual rate, if you include those who have given up looking in the numerator, is closer to 15%.

And, worse, the unemployment rate for African Americans is 14.4% right now, almost double the rate for the country as a whole. The unemployment rate for all teens is 20% and for African American teens is a staggering 40%. This is, at least in part, a result of the liberal insistence on raising the minimum wage. When you raise the minimum wage, guess how employers respond in a tough economy? They hire fewer people. Duh.

So, with our first African American president in office, we have almost 15% of African Americans who are looking for a job unable to find work and there’s basically no hope for young African Americans just trying to enter the workforce. I’m not trying to make this about race, but I concede that I’m puzzled as to why any African American would vote for a president who has driven the African American teen unemployment rate up to 40%! Ditto Hispanics as the Hispanic teen unemployment rate is 30.5%.

I feel like I’m rehashing old ground here, but then again this president is rehashing old and failed policies. In 1996, a democrat president, Bill Clinton, enacted substantial welfare reform. He understood that ending the cycle of government dependence was the only hope for welfare recipients. As Arthur Brooks discusses in a recent WSJ Op-Ed piece, when the government dole was taken away and welfare recipients were forced to look for work, their lives improved. As Brooks concludes in his piece,

The central insight from welfare reform is that people flourish when they earn their success, and this requires real market work. They escape poverty – and they live dignified, better-ordered lives. They don’t just move out of welfare; they move up from dependence on the government.

Yet, my cousin Dan says “As I made more money through my career, I was willing to pay taxes that would go to improve those people’s lives.” There’s just one little problem with that. While it might make Dan feel better, it simply doesn’t work and never has. Bill Clinton recognized that. Yet, Dan would prefer to take more money in taxes, further slow the economy, keep unemployment high, and make it more difficult for the homeless person to find a job and climb out of this never ending cycle of poverty and dependence. This is not and has never been a successful policy. If you don’t believe me, ask Bill Clinton. There’s a reason he grits his teeth when he talks about President Obama.

So, when Dan says he doesn’t understand the Republican desire (I assume he’s using that word as a surrogate for conservative, which I don’t agree with, but I digress….) for government to perform fewer services, the answer is simple. It is because we care deeply about those in society who are being left behind, who don’t have a job, who can’t currently support themselves and their families, or afford healthcare. We envision a vibrant and growing economy with a low unemployment rate, one where teens of all races entering the workforce for the first time have a fighting chance to find employment and launch their own self-supporting careers. That’s very different than the liberal vision of never-ending government dependency and it’s one I’m proud to hold.

About Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson is an amateur writer and professional provocateur
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8 Responses to Liberalism vs. Conservatism Explained

  1. As always, interesting and elucidating. I do have a few comments:

    1. From what I am told (admittedly, I have not polled CEOs on the topic), companies right now are sitting on large amounts of money, but not hiring. The reason they are not hiring, from what I am told, is that demand is low. Why put out new products when nobody is buying? The reason people are not buying stuff is that many people have tremendous debt because of their housing situation. Now, I do have some real life examples here. I have friends who are unable to buy a house in their new city, which happens to be my city, because they are unable to sell their old house in their old city, which is called San Francisco. I do not believe that their situation is wildly bizarre – in fact, I here from the news that it is quite common. So, if you are a homeless guy on the street, and your bathroom is the front of your trousers, and you have no education and no skills, and companies aren’t hiring because people are hard up (not Obama’s fault, unless the housing bubble had something to do with suspicions that a guy like Barack Obama might become president in a few years), then your plan to lower the minimum wage is not going to be much help. So, I ask: do we tell this guy to starve, or do we help him?

    2. Why is our gent in the example above so ill educated and without skill? He probably came from an impoverished family, went to a horrible and dangerous school, had no parental supervision for whatever reason – in short, the deck was stacked against him to begin. So you need to figure out what you’re going to do with people like this, and there are a lot of them. The answer is you need to pour money into schools and other educational projects. If you simply cut taxes on the wealthy (or even on everybody) and hope that miraculously schools will get better, I don’t think even you, Bruce, can come up with a chart that will show the desired result. Usually, to build something like this, you need money, especially at first. It’s an investment in the future. I recognize that schools are locally funded – that’s another huge problem.

    3. Bruce, you frequently allude to there being not a shred of evidence supporting the liberal view of things. Now, I’m not going to cite particular texts for you, since I don’t know them, but I can assure you that there are economists on the left just as there are economists on the right. Perhaps you will reply that someone like Paul Krugman, for example, is just a total idiot, but one could say the same of anyone one disagreed with. Just because one’s liberal cousin can’t produce a chart doesn’t mean there’s no possible argument to be made contrary to one’s own views.

    More later.

    • 1. CEO’s have been polled as to why they are sitting on cash and most of them reply that they are hesitant to invest new capital with such a high degree of regulatory uncertainty in all areas and, specifically, the new costs associated with Obamacare. Several CEOs have specifically stated that Obamacare is causing them to initiate large layoffs.

      2. We agree that our school systems are in trouble, especially the inner cities where many of the most at-risk kids are being educated. However, once again, your answer is “raise taxes and throw more money at it.” Dan, if it would improve inner city education to raise taxes and throw money at it, I would send extra money to IRS tomorrow. It doesn’t. That’s simply not the problem. DC Public Schools, which are so horrible that President Obama didn’t dare send his girls there (nor did Bill Clinton), are spending $18,667 per student. In my public school district (Montgomery County Maryland), one of tops in the country, we spend $15,582 per kid. On the other side of the Potomac River, another very good school district (Fairfax County, VA) spends $12, 554 per kid. So the failing DC public schools are already spending 20-50% more per kid than 2 very good school districts. How can you possibly make the argument that more money would help. The problem is that the teachers unions have the liberal politicians in their hip pocket and, thus, no real reform is possible. In DC there was a small charter program that was working very well and parents loved it. Obama killed it.

      3. So, you’re saying, in essence, “Bruce, you’re supporting your arguments with data. I may not be, but I’m sure there’s someone out there with data that might support what I’m saying.” Perhaps it’s my engineering background, but I need more than that. Oh, and, yes, to call Paul Krugman an idiot is perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said about him. He’s a dope with an agenda.

      • 1. Obamacare and CEOs: When Social Security was introduced, CEOs said it would kill business in America. When Medicare and Medicaid were introduced, those were going to kill business in America. I personally hope Obamacare is here to stay, because it will help so many of my friends and generally will help many many people. Business will adapt. They want to make money, and they will not sit on their money forever in protest of health insurance obligations.

        2. Schools, money, and teachers’ unions: We have discussed this before. Many inner city schools are strapped for money. My wife used to teach at some of them. Perhaps you will not accept such data, as it is not published in peer reviewed journals and is merely anecdotal. But there was no money for pencils, paper, textbooks. There was no support available for new teachers. I think I hear you saying that we can’t throw money at schools because they already have too much. Do I understand from that that we actually should be cutting school budgets? Or should they stay the same? Or should we decide that the state simply cannot or should not run the schools, and do away with public education? I’m not sure what you are advocating to do NOW. I myself have a very specific idea of what to do now, and I will repeat it here. Start by doubling – or better yet, tripling – teacher salaries. Make the position of schoolteacher pay good money so that smart college grads are fighting for the jobs. You’ll be able to hire only the best, which is good for our children, which is good for our society in the long run. It may be bad for business – I don’t know the economics of it and I don’t care, frankly. Good schools come first, and let businesses figure their role out later. When teachers are making good money, teachers’ unions will cease to be an issue. When your salary is barely enough to survive on, you fight for every last extra scrap, especially job security packages. The unions have been forced into this position because nobody wants to pay teachers what they are worth. My 9th grade English teacher introduced our Julius Caesar unit by saying, “We are now going to read Julius Caesar, a play by William Shakespeare. Now, Shakespeare is a chore, but we have to do it, so here goes.” Her ass should have been fired immediately, but couldn’t be because the union protects every job. Why? Job security is all they’ve got left to fight for. And conservatives have so tainted the notion of paying taxes that nobody wants to pay anything, even for things that deserve to be paid for like education, which benefits everybody, not just children and their parents. And by the way, education should not be paid through property taxation – that is totally unfair to impoverished neighborhoods or towns. When people decide their property taxes are too high, the children pay the price.

        3. On the subject of data, you are not capturing my meaning at all. I am not saying, as you impute, “Bruce, you’re supporting your arguments with data. I may not be, but I’m sure there’s someone out there with data that might support what I’m saying.” I have certainly said many times that I am not an economist and yet I have the chutzpah to express opinions on economic matters. But you can’t possibly imagine that ALL economists out there agree with you, and only a few loony tunes Nobel Prize winner idiots agree with me. There are arguments to be made on both sides (which is why your original post makes an excellent point, that different philosophies of how our society should look lead to different interpretations of data). In the present case, my point is that I simply can’t find a chart to back up my viewpoints because I don’t even know where the charts are and I don’t have time to study the matter. I know that there are liberal economists who disagree with you, but I can’t cite their names or reprint their charts. My lack of knowledge does not imply that NOBODY has the knowledge, and to take potshots at me in that way makes it hard to continue this conversation. If I were to cite a musicologist who said that the Rolling Stones have no ability to convey emotion in their music, and you said, “Everybody knows their tunes are powerfully emotional,” I’m not going to ask you to find a musicologist to cite who makes that point. And for you to say that liberals have no data to support their arguments seems a little extreme, frankly. Everybody has data to support their arguments. I’m sure the Nazis cited data to support their position that the Jews were evil. It was all twisted up, misinterpreted, and ridiculous, obviously. You and I are talking about something deeper than a chart (or I thought we were), and that is what kind of country we want to live in. If I need a chart to back up my positions, I’ll have to bow out, with sadness.

        4. I am very glad to hear you say that you take your positions out of concern for society’s strugglers. Many of the conversations I have had with the few conservatives I know take the form of “My grandparents didn’t have any help from the government, and they did fine, so why should these immigrants?” On the radio (I love conservative talk radio), I hear things like, “Ladies and gentlemen, liberals are mentally ill.” So it is good that you are, in fact, looking to improve the lives of Americans whose lives are now really, really shitty. And by the way, I’m not sure those lives got better in the eight years of the GWB presidency. I still can’t fathom that lowering the minimum wage would fix their problems, but if Romney wins the presidency and the Republicans take the Congress, we may have a good way to test the theory.

  2. I like the numbering scheme. It fits with my very linear engineering brain.

    1. I am not sure it is accurate to say that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security haven’t bankrupted the American economy. All three are currently a tremendous drag on the economy and the SS Trust Fund is, indeed, functionally bankrupt. Anyone our age (despite having paid hundreds of thousands of dollars into it) who is counting on a penny from social security when they retire is living a fantasy. It was a bad idea that has had a seriously negative impact on our economy. Medicare is obviously a ginormous problem, which Obamacare is about to magnify 10x.

    2. At least we agree on a starting point and maybe more than that. We clearly agree that our public schools are in shambles and I would bet we agree that the problem is most acute in the inner cities. Sounds like we agree that this is the root cause of things like 40% African American teen unemployment. Unfortunately, we seem to disagree on the solutions. Your answer is “tax more, spend more, and spend it on teacher’s salaries.” Sorry, but again I look at the data. In Montgomery County, Maryland (where I live), the public school constantly win national recognition. In 2012, U.S. News ranked 5 MoCo schools in the top 100 and all 25 of our high schools in the top 8% in the nation. In Montgomery County, a teacher with 10 years experience and a Masters Degree makes $73,000. The DC public schools are a mess. Yet, a teacher with 10 years experience and a Bachelors Degree (MA not required) makes $78,000 a year, or about 7% more than the MoCo teacher. If it were all about paying teachers more, the DC schools would be at least as good as the MoCo schools and arguably they’d be 7% better. They’re not. They’re horrid and the MoCo schools are great. I actually agree with your general notion that society probably underpays and undervalues teachers, but teachers, like many people, don’t necessarily do what they do for the money and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that paying them double or triple what they make now would solve our educational problems. I’m going to save my thoughts on what we need to do about public education for a separate post. I will acknowledge that it is not only the fault of bloated bureaucracies and self-interested unions, but until those two issues are addressed, I am confident that no real reform will ever work. But, clearly, it’s not all about money and sending more money to a failed system is like trying to make a car go faster by putting more gas in it. Just won’t work.

    3. On data. Yes, of course I acknowledge that there are economists who disagree with me. I’ve read many of their writings. I find them totally non-compelling on the merits or their ability to explain what’s going on today. I remember that old saw our high school math teachers use to use: KISS – keep it simple, stupid. You mention in your point #4 that if Romney wins and we get a Republican Congress, we’ll get to do an experiment with some conservative ideas. True that. In 2008, the democrats did exactly that; they won both houses and the presidency. They had 2 years to do absolutely anything they want. It’s been an abject failure. We’ve never had this much difficulty pulling out of a recession. As I wrote, Obama himself stated that his trillion dollar stimulus would keep unemployment to 6% or less. Nearly 4 years later, it stands at 8.3% and rising with not much hope of getting better. More than any arcane peer-reviewed article in some economics journal, the proof is in the pudding. What this guy has tried hasn’t worked. To do more of it makes little sense to me.

    4. I agree that domestically we made little progress under GWB. Then again, his economic policy and Obama’s are nearly indistinguishable. We’re in this mess because we’ve had close to 8 (if not 12) years of this. I fully acknowledge that this stimulus crap started under Bush. It failed. But, that doesn’t make it right that Obama tripled down on Bush’s failed policy.

    • 1. I get nervous when you worry that things like Medicaid are a drag on our economy. It may be that the biggest boost to the economy would happen if we could take half the people and make them slaves, but that doesn’t mean we should do it (I’m not suggesting that you want to do that, but rather that something good for the economy as a whole might be really bad for part of the population). If you are Exxon, Medicare is a terrible hindrance. If you’re an impoverished undereducated inner-city dweller with no job prospects, it’s not so bad. There is simply not room in our economy for everybody to be rich. There will always be poor people. Even if we reduced taxes on the wealthy to 0, there would still – amazingly – be poor people. And we want there to be unemployment (not 8.3%, obviously), because if everybody is employed we’ll have terrible inflation. So let’s say we hit the sweet spot of unemployment; what is it, around 3-4%? What do we do with those people? Tell ’em to get a job? What about when we have 8.3%? Tell ’em tough luck, better luck next time? I’m told that there are, indeed, business cycles, unavoidably. There have always been periodic downturns. If it is best for the economy to have people starve during them, is that the course we should take?

      2. Schools. I have no idea what the solution is. Your example is hard to use as a model. What I mean is, I don’t think you are proposing that we should cut DC teacher salaries by 7% and then the schools will be as good as MoCo schools. There are so many things holding down our impoverished classes. When I was a young kid, it was just assumed I would do well in school. Same with almost all my friends. It’s part of the culture of my family. But when it’s not part of the culture of a neighborhood and the families therein, it’s very difficult to effect any change on people by providing good schools. So, you have to figure out ways to help people dig out of a situation that they might not even want to dig out of. I think your solution is to create conditions that make it possible at least for those people to have a decent job. It would be nice if everyone could have a decent job. Unfortunately, there are lots of really lousy jobs that need to be filled, and they are never going to pay much of a salary (if burger flipping paid $25/hour, MacDonald’s would go out of business, which would be bad for the economy!). So, the first thing to realize (sorry, no chart to back this up) is that you are always going to have poor people, slums, and all that goes with them – in a sense, that is good for the economy. Liberals have had ideas like Head Start, which (I am told, but I don’t have actual data) apparently really do a lot to improve inner city kids’ performance in school. Unfortunately, Republicans (I am appropriately chastised over the difference between R’s and C’s, and I do mean Republicans in this case) think this program is bad for the economy, and have as good as killed it. They certainly opposed it from the git-go. In order to create long-term solutions, liberals choose to spend money now as an investment in the future. Last I looked, capitalism uses the same principle. Aside from that, I am very much looking forward to your education post.

      3. Some, like you, argue that what Obama has done doesn’t work, never did, never will. Others, whose op-eds I have read and whose radio interviews (not by Sean Hannity) I have heard, argue that the stimulus, while probably saving our asses, didn’t go nearly far enough. Ultimately, I’m not sure we can know for sure. The economy is huge and undoubtedly responsive to so many variables that nobody, not even you, can know for sure what would have been different had the past been different. We can’t, unfortunately, go back and try a different tack.

      4. You say: “I agree that domestically we made little progress under GWB. Then again, his economic policy and Obama’s are nearly indistinguishable.” WOW!!! You sound like my radical friend John – radical on the left, of course. Could it be that the two sides are meeting in the nth dimension? I’d just like to mention one thing about the Democratic control of the governing apparatus, and that is that it is illusory. The Senate is set up with rules that make it extremely hard to pass any legislation at all – this was done on purpose by our Founding Fathers as a way to prevent shoot-from-the-hip crazy reactions to current events. Without 60 votes, neither side will ever have control of the Senate. In the present case, the Republicans made it their business to derail as many of Obama’s programs as possible. We can disagree why they did this, and I’m sure you are mighty glad they did. The point is, it is not fair to say that we tried all of Obama’s ideas and they failed. We tried very few of them. More’s the pity.

  3. OK, I think it’s time for the two fighters to tap gloves in the middle of the ring and wait for the next bout. Since it’s my blog, I get the last word, but will try to make it non-combative and just clarify/reiterate a few things, without opening any new fault lines.

    In your point #1, you use Medicaid and Medicare incorrectly. Medicare is a government run healthcare program for older folks (regardless of economic situation) and Medicaid is a healthcare program for the poor. So, the undereducated city dweller would not benefit from Medicare unless he/she was an AARP member. It’s an important distinction b/c I said it was Medicare, not Medicaid, that is a major economic problem and both parties agree with me on that (i.e., healthcare costs are a big problem). The parties, of course, disagree on the solution.

    I am not at all down on burger flipping jobs. To the contrary, “starter jobs” are an incredibly important part of a young person’s progress in life, especially kids who may not have Yale or Penn in their future. In fact, this is my point on the minimum wage issue. When you raise min wage, these are exactly the jobs that disappear first, making it that much harder for these young folks to get out of the starting blocks.

    On the question of did the stimulus go far enough, I posted a separate analysis that showed a strong inverse correlation between stimulus dollars spent and economic growth for all 34 OECD countries. I don’t believe anyone of any party on talk radio (their business model is simple – they sell radio ads), but I do believe data so I’m going to hold my ground here, but respect your disagreement.

    Amy says that the whackos on the right meet the whackos on the left in some other dimension of space and time. I’m honored to enter that alternative dimension.

    Gloves raised. Tap tap.

  4. Pingback: Election Reflection | Bruce's Blog (til I come up with a catchier name)

  5. Pingback: Liberalism vs. Conservatism, Revisited | Bruce's Blog (til I come up with a catchier name)

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