Monday, June 28, 2010

qotd: Winner-Take-All Politics

Invisible Hands
By Kim Phillips-Fein

This book is about those determined few, those ordinary businessmen from companies of different sizes and from various industries, who worked for more than forty years to undo the system of labor unions, federal social welfare programs, and government regulation of the economy that came into existence during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s.


Politics and Society
June 2010
Winner-Take-All Politics:
Public Policy, Political Organization, and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States
By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson

Too many economists and political scientists have treated the American political economy as an atomized space, and focused their analysis on individual actors, from voters and politicians to workers and consumers. But the American political economy is an organized space, with extensive government policies shaping markets, and increasingly powerful groups who favor winner-take-all outcomes playing a critical role in politics. Finding allies in both political parties, organized groups with a long view have successfully pushed new initiatives onto the American political agenda and exploited the opportunities created by American political institutions to transform U.S. public policy — through new enactments and pervasive policy drift. In the process, they have fundamentally reshaped the relative economic standing and absolute well-being of millions of ordinary Americans. Politics and governance have been central to the rise of winner-take-all inequality.

(The entire special June issue of Politics and Society is devoted to the Winner-Take-All article by Hacker and Pierson, and to six responses. It can be downloaded for free at: )


One response to Hacker and Pierson:
The Public's Role in Winner-Take-All Politics
By Andrea Louise Campbell

Through its political dominance and cagey understanding of esoteric and complicated economic and regulatory policies, the top 1 percent has enjoyed stunning success in shaping public policy to its advantage. But it's not enough to examine the strategies of the economic elite; to understand fully how they have achieved such a remarkable degree of inequality it is necessary to examine why ordinary citizens have failed to act as an effective counterweight. One chief problem is that citizens simply don't pay attention to such complex policies; another is that even if they did, they can't figure out what their stances should be, and no one is helping them. Low salience and great ignorance make for a disastrous democratic brew. The brilliant organizing strategies of the rich tell half the story; the lack of organization and hence information among ordinary Americans tells the other crucial half.


Pew Research Center
Project for Excellence in Journalism
June 21, 2010
Six Things to Know About Health Care Coverage
A Study of the Media and the Health Care Debate


Last summer, as tempers flared in town halls throughout the country, CBS correspondent Wyatt Andrews described the environment as a "show of August heat." And in many ways, it was the heat of the health care battle that most interested and influenced the media.

Coverage peaked when the public got the most passionate and when the politics got the most partisan. The press focused far more on the horserace aspects of the legislative struggle than on examining the system it was designed to reform. No one lavished more attention on the subject than the talk show hosts, who spend much of their time engaging in ideological warfare. And the terms that resonated in the media narrative, perhaps most notably "death panels," were those that packed a polarizing punch.

All of which raises the question of the extent to which the media shed light versus heat when it came to health care reform. Certainly, many outlets did good work covering the numerous layers of the complex issue. But it's also true that the public seemed consistently confused by the health care debate and had a difficult time sorting out fact from fiction.

Comment:  People who understand health policy have difficulty understanding why there has not been massive public demand for reform that will make health care affordable and accessible for all of us. Why did we settle for the most expensive model of reform when it falls so short of our goals - leaving tens of millions with impaired access and potentially exposed to financial hardship should they require health care? Today's quotes are particularly important because they provide some insight as to what hit us.

Anyone who has been paying any attention at all is certainly aware of the proliferation of very well funded conservative and libertarian organizations. What is not commonly realized is the ability of these organizations and the individuals behind them to permeate the political process. They have been highly effective in transforming U.S. public policy. 

The conservative/libertarian faction has certainly been very influential in assisting the creation of inequality-inducing policies and laws, but what has caught most of us off guard is the phenomenon of "drift," as explained by Hacker and Pierson:

"A second mechanism, which we call 'drift,' is equally, if not more, important. Drift describes the politically driven failure of public policies to adapt to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy and society. Drift is not the same as simple inaction. Rather, it occurs when the effects of public policies change substantially due to shifts in the surrounding economic or social context and then, despite the recognition of alternatives, policy makers fail to update policies due to pressure from intense minority interests or political actors exploiting veto points in the political process. Thus, drift requires (1) policies whose effects change due to shifting circumstances, (2) recognition of this change, (3) availability and awareness of viable alternatives, and (4) nonmajoritarian reasons why those alternatives are not adopted."

Ouch! We have drifted into a health care morass, and the rigid conservative/libertarian public policy agenda - gradually formulated over the past half century - has resulted in both Democrats and Republicans adopting policies that merely expand the the mess in the morass. (Keep in mind that the financing system in the Accountable Care Act was originally promoted by conservative economists and think tanks.)

Hacker and Pierson emphasize the precipitous rise of income confined at the very top, and they demonstrate it with impressive graphs and tables. For our purposes, it serves as a proxy for the public policy flaws that have perpetuated profound dysfunction in our tremendously expensive health care system.

We would like to think that the solution would be found in our democratic process. But we have an uninformed electorate that doesn't even realize that they are victims of the failed public policies of the drift. The Pew report confirms that even the media focused on the heat rather than the light during the health care debate. How is the average citizen going to be able to understand health policy when the primary source for most is cable and network news and talk radio?

If you think that the average voter is smarter than that, look at the results this weekend of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation-sponsored AmericaSpeaks national town hall meetings. The majority believe that the answer to our high health care costs is simply to reduce spending by 5 percent. They also believe that we should increase retirement age for Social Security to 69. The prevailing public policy of government budget neutrality - with adjustments made primarily on the spending side and not on the revenue side - has trumped the public policies of social solidarity.

Drift works to the advantage of anti-government forces. Effective public policies - such as single payer - are merely left out of the conversation. And the rich get richer - much, much richer.

How do you counter drift? Educate and organize at the grassroots level. New public policies require action.

No comments:

Post a Comment