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February 03, 2016

Choose Your Heresy


A couple of years ago, I read a piece by Ramesh Ponuru, or Reihan Salam, I think. Or both. Yuval Levin may have been in the mix.

Don't quote me on that. Google fails me.

The thrust of the piece was that the GOP was not offering anything to the working class any longer. This was due, partly, to previous GOP tax-cutting successes; the working class had been largely excluded from having to pay federal income tax.

They do pay FICA/payroll taxes, of course -- but those go toward one's own Social Security, theoretically at least, and not to the current operational costs of government. Again -- theoretically. I understand the reality is a bit more complicated.

Point is, what do you offer this group, which has been long suffering and not just during the Great Recession, but maybe since the mid-eighties? You can't offer them income tax cuts; you've cut their income taxes down to very low levels, or to nothing at all.

What you can do is double down on cultural issues, but cultural issues aren't as powerful an attractor as they once were -- and furthermore, many cultural items sought by the working class (like resistance to gay marriage) are actually opposed by the upper-income, college-educated cohort of the GOP, making such gambits of dubious effectiveness.

What you could do, the "reformicons" proposed, is to begin subisidizing the working poor with federal tax credits that would boost their incomes. Or, this:

Let employers pay some workers less than the minimum wage as an inducement to hire them and use the federal tax code to bump up salaries.


Mr. Rubio credited reformicons in his new book, "American Dreams," for helping shape his redo of the earned-income tax credit, a payment to the working poor, so it would give more to single workers, not just those with children. "Marginal tax rates do matter," Mr. Rubio said in an interview. “But doing them alone won’t be enough to reinvigorate the economy."

So, some variation of just directly paying people some money out of government funds.

I'm not necessarily against this -- and not necessarily against it just because Marco Rubio has pushed some reformicon ideas -- but I do have to point out it constitutes a heresy, to some extent, a rejection of conservative principle that we should not just pay people off as an inducement to get their votes, that we should not intrude into the free market with government interventions.

Maybe we have to do this, because you don't want the entirety of the working class to vote Democratic. That would simply be the end of the GOP as any kind of equal to the Democrat Party.

So maybe simple electoral reality demands a heresy to be committed -- we have to yield on this one principle, in order to save the others.

Now, as I'm agreeing that this is possibly something we must do, if reluctantly, let me propose a different heresy which could attract working class voters to the GOP, and would not require government payoffs to them.

I'm talking about, as Mickey Kaus has been talking about, as even David Frum has been talking about, restricting immigration so that the labor markets tighten and employers just wind up paying the working class more because there is no longer the downward pressure on wages caused by forever importing more low-skill workers to compete with them in the (shrinking) jobs pool.

My party line, in clip and save form, was:

1) The immigrants we get, including illegal Mexicans, are mainly hard-working potential citizens, like waves of immigrants before them;

2) The problem, as Mark Krikorian argues, is that we've changed, and the world has changed. We don't need unskilled labor like we used to. Our native unskilled workers are having trouble earning a living.

3) The main reason to limit immigration flow, then, is to protect wages of Americans who do basic work. We desperately need a tight labor market. We won't get it as long as millions of people from abroad respond to any tightening by flooding our work force.

4) The most important thing, then, is getting control of that number by securing the border -- stopping illegal immigration. Once that's done we can argue about what the legal number should be (and what should be done about current illegals).

Kaus has other caveats in there; for example, if wages are climbing, he supports opening up immigration rates. I don't want to claim he's simply against immigration.

Another possibility, possibly in tandem with that last one, is engaging in a low level of protectionism, maybe just putting a small but meaningful tax on foreign-made goods, to encourage in-country manufacturing.

Now, I realize, for many, both, or either, of those ideas constitute a heresy.

However, as the Reformicon agenda demonstrates, the GOP is now open to heretical ideas, given the grim reality of the electoral situation -- a working class that the GOP can offer less and less to, the declining power of cultural political initiatives.

If we are willing to consider one heresy, why not the other?

And, let me ask this: Which heresy is actually more heretical? One has to be pretty committed to the free immigration/free trade absolutist positions to claim that direct government subsidization of workers is a lesser heresy than controlling the rate of immigration and maybe slapping an additional 8% tariff on imports.

Which heresy shall we choose-- this heresy over here, or this other heresy over there?

David Frum had a great piece the other day. He wrote:

Donald Trump's response to this dilemma is protectionism, immigration restriction, and a big helping of his own often-claimed superhuman toughness and competence. It's maybe not a very adequate answer, but it's an answer. What's Marco Rubio's answer? What’s Jeb Bush's? What’s Chris Christie's?

He also had a fantastic analogy, recalling an Aesop's fable to describe the Establishment's We Shall Have It All position.

But read that later. For now, just consider: With the working class, and in fact the middle class, taking a world-class beating for this decade, and frankly for several decades, what actual tangible, gee-that-might-actually-work proposals is the GOP offering people?

As Frum says, Trump's answer might not be a very good answer, but it is in fact an answer. What it shows, and I think this is very, very important, is that Trump, in his ill-considered way, "understands your pain."

Cruz made this same point, cleverly, in his famous lawyers-and-journalists crossing the Rio Grande ad.

And that's a big thing. When people express bafflement at how these dullards could possibly support Trump or Cruz, all I can say is: "Hey, he's the guy who's saying 'I'll do something to help you.'" Even if that something is, arguably, counterproductive or simply stupid, he seems to be the one talking about the problem.

Ted Cruz talked about that. So he won Iowa, and he's in second place nationally.

And people continue expressing bafflement that some might favor a candidate who is urging policies that might materially help them.

Who knows? Maybe middle class voters would be more willing to vote GOP if the GOP wasn't promising the business community that they'd bring more foreign replacements in on H1-B visas every five minutes.

Maybe working people would start to think the GOP "cares about people like me" if the GOP actually did care about them.

Now, Rubio has embraced parts of the Reformicon agenda. How much, I don't know. I didn't look into it all that much. But he's not talking about it much -- that much, I know. And he probably can't talk about it much, because many people would cry "heresy" if he were to talk about subsidizing worker's paychecks with government tax revenues.

Heck, I might be one of those crying heresy myself.

But I do think this is a critical part of Trump's apparently unfathomable-to-many appeal, and I think it's a do-or-die part of any conservative (or otherwise) challenge to liberalism: You have to give people some reason to vote for you.

I thought Romney and Ryan were good candidates -- I don't think I've liked a ticket as much as I liked those two, at the end -- but I did notice, when critics pointed out, after the loss, that Romney and Ryan seemed to be promising voters a very good deal indeed if they were entrepreneurs and business owners.

If they were not, they were offering relatively little, except a sort of vague rising-tide-lifts-all-boats thing.

Which has worked -- Reagan made that work, and when Reagan said it, it turned out to be true -- but it hasn't been working for a while.

Most people are not entrepreneurs and business owners. Most people work for wages.

So we are confronted with a difficult situation. We have proposals from two different groups for two different heresies we might choose to get ourselves out of this situation.

But I think we have to pick one. If we're going to simply start boosting people's paychecks with government funds, we need to say so, so at least we'll get their votes.

If we're going to commit this heresy, we damn sure better get the votes out of it.

Or, maybe we should consider the long-forbidden, mustn't-ever-talk about it Heresy X of slowing down immigration to help workers get bigger paychecks from their employees.

But we have to be realistic -- it's going to be one or the other, most likely, or else we'll just lose.

And so we should talk about these things, and stop pretending all this away.

Whether prices for labor go up, or tax dollars are used to subsidize laborer's paychecks, it seems like people are going to have to pay for this one way or the other.

What way would lead to the least government pick-pocketing and intervention, and the least bad political habits like thinking "If I don't like my paycheck I'll just vote myself a federally-subsidized pay raise?"

Leading question I know. Because I think the answer is obvious.*

* As an afterthought, I'll suggest people ponder a regime which features simultaneously more and more low-skilled worker immigration and a regime of supplementing too-low paychecks with taxpayer funding.

That will go well.

Incidentally, liberals love Reformicon ideas. There are lots of articles saying "reformicons show the triumph of liberalism" and urging the various proponents of reformicon thinking to just become Democrats.

I don't really take a position on that -- desperate times require desperate measures.

But let's just note that it's not just conservatives who see this as a heresy. Liberals see it as a conservative heresy, as well.

So those are our choices.

For some reason, others are deciding for us that we can betray basic conservative principles so long as we keep the immigration train going, and we, for some reason, are just going along with this.

Because it would be rude to object, I guess.

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posted by Ace at 12:31 PM

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