The Partisan Explanation

Matt Yglesias has discovered that inflation increases poverty and that jobs reduce it. He attributes it (at the very least obliquely) to partisan reasons:

There was some discussion on Twitter earlier today about one of my favorite themes—the large reduction in poverty associated with the Great Society and the uptick in poverty circa 1980.

That “circa” is important. The increase starts in the late 1970s and declines beginning in 1982. His conclusion is apparently that the tax reforms of the early Reagan Administration increased poverty (before they were enacted!). Mine is, as noted above, that inflation is hard on poor people and those with low marginal productivity of labor. He continues:

We then had a giant reduction in poverty among this group in the 1990s which was a combination of strong economic performance, “welfare reform,” and also the fact that the Clinton administration really wanted to make welfare reform work so threw lots of stuff—EITC expansion, SCHIP, etc.—at making it work.

Progressives fought the repeal of AFDC to the bitter end. Certainly “strong economic performance” was a factor in the reduction of poverty—check the unemployment and total employed figures for the period. I’d certainly be interested in disaggregating the effects of the “lots of stuff” he mentions from increased employment.

I simply don’t see the world in that way, with all good things coming from Democratic policies and administrations and all bad things from Republican policies and administrartions. Right now in the comments section of this post of mine there’s a debate along those lines going on. Here’s the argument:

I actually think the problem stems in large part from a corrosive cynicism about government. This derision, this contempt, this “government is the problem” attitude results unsurprisingly in a government that doesn’t work because whether it works well or poorly it gets the same beating.


Why? Why can Germany and France and even the UK have competent government and we can’t?

I have an answer for you: Republicans. Republicans since the 80’s have told us that government is always, always, always the problem. And now we expect competent government? From whom? From the people who deny the possibility of competent government? Isn’t that like expecting miracles from atheists?

I’m skeptical of that explanation but I’m willing to entertain it. How would one go about proving it? Disproving it?

I would think that, if that were true, states that lean Democratic would have solid, competent functioning state governments while states that lean Republican would be the reverse. Is that the case?

In Illinois the governor’s mansion and both houses of the state legislature have been in Democratic control for quite a while. In Indiana it’s almost the complete reverse (the Indiana House of Representatives has a narrow Democratic majority). Illinois’s state government is a train wreck. Four of the last six governors (3 Democrats; 1 Republican) have been convicted of corruption of one form or another. By most accounts Indiana’s state government is pretty solid.

I’m a registered Democrat. I don’t feel comfortable defending Republicans. I think there’s a lot to complain about in today’s Republican Party but, then, I think there’s a lot to complain about in today’s Democratic Party, too. I’m not an ideologue and both parties have been moving in that direction for decades.

I think that being wary or outright hostile to the federal government has been a feature of American politics since there has been an American politics. Can it be attributed solely to the Republican Party?

At any rate, how would you go about testing the hypothesis? Simply noting that France doesn’t have the same problems that we do doesn’t cut it. France has also been creating a national identity by suppressing minorities cf. Basques, Bretons for centuries. The differences between the United States and France go far beyond the Republican Party.

10 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    The problem is more with us, the voters. People are not very well informed. Not enough even bother to vote. But, if we want to look at political parties, while I do put more of the blame on Republicans, it is not as though Dems are faultless. If pressed, I would probably put it at a 55/45 percentage responsibility for current issues. In the late 70s I would have reversed that with Dems being more at fault. When Republicans reverse course and are actually willing to cut the size of government, we will begin to rebalance.


  • PD Shaw Link

    My personal political bias is towards the Henry Clay Whigs, which compels me to point out that it was Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party that did so much to engender distrust in government, or frankly any institution not useful to the Democratic Party. Starve the beast strategies were instituted in this country long before the Republican Party existed, and also using fear and suspicion of large private institutions, like banks, for political gain.

  • Michael Reynolds Link

    Thanks to Dave for “promoting” me to the front page, as they say over at DKos.

    What I find interesting is the weakness of the counterarguments to my position. For example no one has squared the circle and explained how a party that denies even the theoretical possibility of competent government can be a contributor to competent government.

    Or how such a party finds the chutzpah to demand same, when a sudden virgin birth of miraculously competent government would obliterate the ideological underpinnings of the GOP and invalidate all of Reaganism.

    That’s why blogs — particularly this one — are useful sounding boards. Run it up the flagpole, see how many take shots and how accurate the shots are. In this case the flag seems to have taken a couple of hits to the hem, but nothing near to a bull’s eye.

  • steve Link

    OT- Interesting paper by Goolsbee. Dont let Reynolds see it as it will reinforce some of his beliefs.


  • Andy Link


    I’m no fan of the GoP, but to this:

    For example no one has squared the circle and explained how a party that denies even the theoretical possibility of competent government can be a contributor to competent government.

    I would say that your characterization of the party is wrong. A more nuanced position is that government is usually less competent than the private sector.

  • Michael Reynolds Link


    I was just sitting here trying to think of a single national Republican who ever ran on making government more competent. There may have been some (and definitely at the state house level) but none come to mind. Whereas I can think of a lot of overheated “government is the problem,” “get government off our backs,” “it’s your money not their money,” candidates, as I’m sure you can.

    Contrasting government and the private sector is just part of the GOP hustle. It’s apples and oranges. The private sector doesn’t build bridges or provide health care for poor kids or fight wars or negotiate treaties. Government and private industry are in fundamentally different lines of work, so contrasting them as GOP pols do is not much different than arguing that Hollywood is better at making movies than General Motors. Yes, if I want a hamburger I definitely talk to private industry. If I want someone to help the schizophrenic on the street outside my burger joint, that’s a government gig.

    The Democrats may be idiots but they’re more honest idiots. They get that we need a functioning government and they even think someone ought to pay for it.

    Republicans don’t think we need a functioning government and they want to borrow the money to pay for it.

    There’s a fundamental disconnect from reality in GOP thinking. Their rhetoric is libertarian, their actual spending habits are profligate, their hypocrisy is staggering, and they actually manage in the end to be less responsible than Democrats which is no mean feat.

  • I’m not so sure, Michael. I quickly went to Carly Fiorina’s, Mark Kirk’s, and Roy Blunt’s campaign web sites. A quick glance didn’t show any of the “government is the problem” message you’re claiming and there was plenty about making government more competent.

    However, I think there’s a sincere difference of opinion in the country. Is a more comprehensive government a more competent one? Is a smaller government necessarily more competent?

    I don’t think that the answer to either of those questions is “Yes” which is the reason I wrote the post a couple of weeks ago on doing things differently.

    I don’t think the only choices are between having a truculently interventionist security policy and a detachedly internationalist interventionist one but those are the alternatives being offered by our two political parties. I don’t think the only choices are between dismantling Social Security and Medicare on the one hand and a third of the country permanently on the dole and Medicare for all on the other. I don’t think the only alternatives are crony capitalism on the one hand and micromanagement from Washington, DC on the other.

    I also don’t think that adding thousands of GS-12 through 14s necessarily means a better government. I think that we need to reorganize the way people interact with government at all levels completely to bring government into the 21st century and I think that means a lot fewer government employees, particularly at the higher levels.

    I could go on for hours about the ridiculously lousy use of automation in government at all levels (old clients of mine includes the Chicago Public Schools, the Federal Reserve, and the U. S. Customs Service so I have some knowledge of the subject).

  • Michael Reynolds Link

    A lot to think about Dave. And I hope we get a chance to engage on this further.

    Unfortunately I’m just coming off 3 weeks book tour in the UK, used up my two days at home, and have a 4 AM limo to start another 3 weeks on he road. I’m jet-lagged and extra stupid, swallowing Ambien with Scotch at the moment.

    I didn’t want you to think I’m blowing you off, but right now my IQ is at about room temperature.

  • I didn’t want you to think I’m blowing you off, but right now my IQ is at about room temperature.

    I would never think that. Best of luck on the book tour.

  • Andy Link

    Yeah, good luck with the tour Michael.

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