Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Great Moving Left Show

I know this will be misinterpreted as me saying everything's great and no one needs to bestir themselves to get rid of Trump and otherwise try to improve the country and the world.
But a clear-eyed look at the historical record does suggest that America has been moving to the left and we're a better country for it (despite Trump, etc etc). It seems to me that confidence in the reality of social improvement should serve as a motivator in these troubled political times. It is not only possible to improve things, we've already done it in many, many ways!
This is the case Lane Kenworthy makes in a couple of articles on the Post's Monkey Cage blog. I am a fan of Kenworthy's meticulous empirical work and I highly recommend his books Social Democratic America and the just-published Social Democratic Capitalism. If you read them, you will become a wiser person.
"The Democratic Party has moved left in recent years. Evidence from 2000, 2004 and 2008 suggests that until then, the party’s positions on a wide range of issues were like those of many center-right parties in other rich democracies. But starting in 2012, the Democrats began shifting left — and by 2016, were more in line with center-left parties elsewhere. In the current Democratic presidential primary, the front-runners’ proposals — including those of centrist former vice president Joe Biden — are to the left of the party’s 2016 positions. That’s consistent with the views of Democratic voters, who have also shifted left.
But Democratic voters are hardly outliers. On cultural issues and government social programs, the United States as a whole has been moving left for decades....
1. Affluent societies shift left on cultural issues
Many observers believe the United States is in an endless culture war, with neither progressives nor conservatives gaining a lasting advantage. That’s not so. Every noteworthy cultural shift over the past half-century — on race, gender roles, families, sexual orientation, gender presentation, drugs and more — has moved the country in the direction of greater personal freedom. Not only Democrats have moved to left; Republicans have, too. While abortion might seem an exception, public opinion on this issue hasn’t shifted to the right, and Americans’ growing access to “medical” abortion via the mifepristone and misoprostol pills — which were used for 39 percent of abortions in 2017, up from 1 percent in 2000 — has helped offset new restrictions on surgical abortions in conservative states...
2. Well-off countries tend to offer more public benefits
Rising affluence also brings more expansive and generous government social programs. The higher someone’s income, the more insurance they are generally willing to buy to minimize potential loss. Governments are the most efficient source of some kinds of insurance. Think of income in old age: Voluntary savings clubs could help people set money aside for retirement, but a public pension program does that more effectively and efficiently. So as countries get richer the welfare state tends to grow.
That includes the United States’ welfare state, which has kept expanding, if slowly — even through the Reagan era and beyond. True, the United States now offers less money to fewer people through its main assistance program for poor families: TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly AFDC, or Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
But at the same time, the U.S. government has expanded many other programs. The average Social Security benefit, adjusted for inflation, increased from $11,500 in 1980 to $17,000 in 2017. The Earned Income Tax Credit, a program created in 1975 to boost the income of low-earning households, has been expanded to cover 23 percent of Americans, up from 8 percent in 1980. Its two main disability benefits, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), reach 5 percent of Americans, up from 2 percent in 1980. Medicare and Medicaid now insure about 40 percent of Americans, double the share in 1980.
Aggregate indicators paint a similar picture. Among households in the bottom fifth of incomes, the average amount of government transfers received minus taxes paid, adjusted for inflation, rose from $7,300 in the 1980s to $9,400 in the 2010s. Government expenditures on social programs rose from 13 percent of GDP in 1980 to 19 percent in 2018.
3. The American public dislikes ‘big government’ but likes social programs
Many Americans dislike the idea of big government. Between 55 and 75 percent regularly say they agree that “When something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful,” according to the Pew Research Center. But once new social programs are enacted, Americans tend to support them....
America hasn’t moved to the left on all issues. But the country’s progressive turn on cultural issues and government social programs is real, long-run, broad-based and unsurprising....
Over the past half-century, Americans’ beliefs and the country’s policies have shifted leftward on an array of cultural issues. The United States has also expanded government social programs, and nearly all such programs are solidly supported by a broad swath of the U.S. population. On top of this, in the past decade, the Democratic Party has been moving left in its policy commitments.
This progressive turn is likely to endure. Once norms and laws favoring tolerance, personal freedom and a big welfare state get institutionalized and don’t have significant adverse side effects, citizens become accustomed to them, making them hard to reverse. Further, getting major policy changes through the U.S. political system is difficult, so once new social programs are enacted, they are hard to dilute or eliminate."

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