About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Carrot and the Stick


There is a reason why Republicans have to insist that the country, and especially the Social Safety Net Programs are “bankrupt.”  (And I refuse to use the Right’s framing of these programs as “Entitelements.”  That pejorative term automatically frames these programs in an extremely negative way.)  I would love to say that this is just an aspect of their slavish devotion to “personal responsibility” but unfortunately, I cannot.  I would even like to say that it is because they want to prove to people that government is always the cause, not the solution, of life’s problems.  The truth, I fear, is much darker.  After reading “The Dictator’s Handbook” a much more devious reason for this attack presented itself.

They need to convince Democrats that their support for their party will not net them anything, because the Democrats will not be able to deliver.

To explain this, I need to give some background.  All rulers, be they monarchs, tyrants or presidents, need to basically bribe their supporters with payouts.  I recognize that this sounds deeply cynical, mainly because it is.  However, this is the fact of how all governments function.  In a Monarchy or Dictatorship, the number of people who need to receive payment for their support is relatively small.  A group of people including the leaders of the military, wealthy patrons, and other strategically placed individuals are sufficient to keep the ruler in power.  And because the number is small, the payments can be quite lavish. 

For examples of this, reflect on the personal wealth of the men who supported Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or King Salman of Saudi Arabia.  Or for that matter, although Russia is not strictly a Dictatorship, Vladimir Putin.  The people who surround these leaders are immensely wealthy, and much of their riches stem from their support of the leader.  In Saudi Arabia, as most of the powerful men in the country are also related to the King, there is also an aspect of Dynastic Wealth.  For the others though, there are no blood ties to the leaders, only financial ties.  But these financial ties bind the support of the inner circle.  If the payments are cut off, as with Mubarak, the key supporters will quickly turn on the person in charge.

However, in a democracy, there is not the ability to enrich a select group to guarantee remaining in power.  Also, in a democracy like the United States, there are term limits that keep a person from staying in the Presidency for more than 8 years.  This means that if there was a small group running a democracy, they would run the risk of losing their gravy train with each election, and the democracy would quickly turn dictatorial simply so the money would keep flowing into their pockets.

This means, both structurally (a large number of voters must elect the leader) and effectively (no single person can enrich themselves) that democracies must function differently.  Democracies must deliver a flow of benefits to a very specific group of voters in the country, and that requires large scale programs.

In the United States, this means the Democrats create social safety net programs that benefit large groups of people, and Republicans advocate tax cuts that similarly benefit a wide group in the population.  I will deal with the Republican strategy in my next blog, as there are some worrying signs in tax policy that need to be discussed.

But basically, the Democratic strategy has always been to deliver things to a wide segment of the population in the forms of things like Social Security, Unemployment, Medicare, low cost education, etc, etc.  This is an excellent strategy, because most people will need one or more of these programs in their lives, and people will often vote their own self interest.  In fact, the creation of these programs created Democratic dominance on the national level for close to 50 years.  In fact, there were only 16 years of Republicans holding the Presidency between 1932 and 1980, and the two Republicans elected in that time had no interest in eliminating any of the social programs that had been instituted by the other party.

However, that all changed with Ronald Reagan. 

Reagan delivered two simultaneous killing blows to the Democrats, tax cuts and the deficit.  Until Reagan, deficits were not something that were particularly concerning, both because they were small compared to GDP and government bonds were a strong and positive method of saving money.  But Reagan changed this; he slashed taxes and because of this raised the deficit to astronomical, for the time, levels.  This allowed him to spin the story that the government was going “bankrupt” because of the social safety net.

And that statement deeply damaged the Democratic Party, because of the need to reward the base.  Suddenly, the programs that people voted Democratic to support seemed to be on the verge of evaporating.  It became a real fear, for example, that you might pay into Social Security your whole life only to find the trust fund empty when you were ready to draw benefits.  And then he raided the Social Security Trust Fund to make that possibility seem even more likely.  This dramatically eroded support for the Democrats among White Americans, support that, by and large has never returned, because Social Security is one of only two programs that almost all Americans know that they will be able to participate in.  The other is Medicare.

All of the other Social Safety net programs have the appearance of supporting the “unworthy” which is code for minorities and poor people.  It is no surprise that minority support for the Democrats has remained solid, because they know that they may need some of these other programs.  White people need them as well, but there is such a stigma about the benefits at this point that taking them is a point of shame, so there is little support for them, even as whites use them far more than minorities, both in terms of percentage and raw numbers.

So suddenly, Reagan took away the “Reagan Democrats” and won a second term by one of the largest victories since Washington.  He didn’t just win on his message, he won because he convinced a nation that these programs were going bankrupt and the Democrats would never be able to pay off their supporters.

At the same time, he offered another benefit that seemed perfectly targeted to the people, tax cuts.  This meant that voters would have more money in their pockets, and thereby offset the loss of Social Security.  And this was a winning strategy, and violating it, as Bush Sr. did, cost him the election.  Bill Clinton offered at least the possibility of having social programs maintained, while voters knew that Bush had violated HIS promise of “no new taxes.”  One offered the possibility of a payout, while the other had a reality of eliminating one.  Consequently Bush lost the election.

And this has been the pattern to this day.  Obama offered a great benefit, universal health care, and won by large margins.  Those margins would probably been even higher if he’d actually gotten something like Medicare for All, a low cost, high benefit plan.  However, what he created wound up not seeming like a really great benefit to a wide swath of Middle America and because of this, many “Blue” states voted for Trump.  But, as Obamacare was a huge benefit to Millennials, women and minorities, they maintained strong support for the Democrats, because they got the most benefit from the administration.  Groups that got less resumed the pattern of voting for tax cuts that they felt would be an immediate benefit.

So basically, in order to win on National, State, or even Local levels, each party much present a package of goodies that can win voters.  This election, the Democrats didn’t do a great job of selling their package, while Trump, with simplistic language, grabbed the package and promoted it.

I know this seems very base, and crass, but this ultimately is how government in a Democracy works.  You have to promise to reward a large group of people with something you can deliver on.  And then you have to do it.  If Trump succeeds in delivering his promises, he will easily win a second term.  If he does not, either through Democratic opposition, or simply the workings of reality, he will be booted from the White House.  And given his baggage, he might even be booted before 4 years are up.  He made huge promises, and, if he wants to keep his position, he’d better deliver.

The American People are very unforgiving of failure to perform.


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