A Dime’s Worth Of Difference

I was reading Corey Robin’s rountable discussion of lefties wondering what the deal is with Barack Obama and kind of choked over the idea, expressed by one participant, that “I really see no daylight between his and both [Irving] Kristols’ politics.”

This kind of thing always makes me want to pursue the follow-up question: “compared to what?” I remember well the contention that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between George W Bush and Al Gore. And, indeed, there wasn’t. Both wholeheartedly embraced American military hegemony as a foreign policy and the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” approach to international economic policy. Both emphasized improved education as the key to long-term prosperity, both valorized capitalism as an engine of growth, and neither in any meaningful way challenged the various prevailing economic and social dogmas of the era. And yet looking back in concrete terms, it seems to me that the 2000 election turns out to have been one of the most consequential in American history. That’s because while both Bush and Bill Clinton pursued policies from within the paradigm of the elite American ideological consensus of the post-Cold War era they actually pursued very different policies. This is one reason I think The American Political Tradition is such an interesting book. In a sense, all American Presidents have been cut from the same bland consensual cloth. But in another sense, American public policy obviously changes from time to time often in important ways.

I suppose someone could say that Stalin and Brezhnev were basically the same: Avowed Communists who sold out Marxist internationalism in favor of Sovet/Russian imperialism. Or Mussolini and Franco. And yet obviously the difference between a brand of Southern European authoritarian Catholic nationalism that involved getting your country involved in World War II and one that didn’t is quite large in terms of practical consequences.

Something I’ve seen on the web lately from libertarians who ought to know better is a chart purporting to show that the debt ceiling deal doesn’t “really” cut spending because discretionary spending will still go up in nominal terms. The sensible counter, of course, is that these are cuts in inflation-adjusted (i.e., “real”) dollars and the cuts are even bigger in per capita terms. But it’s a reminder that people sometimes put an irrational weight on the zero point. A real small government advocate “cuts” spending whereas a real liberal increases it. Consequently, judgments about the appropriate baseline end up attracting disproportionate weight versus talking about practical impacts. By the same token, a policy of cutting something by 1% is much more similar to a policy of increasing it by 1% than it is to a policy of cutting it by 5%. But in the way we talk about these things, the person backing the 1% cut and the person backing the 5% cut are both backing “cuts” and thus “the same.”

Anyway, I’m going to go back to complaining about the details of this deal which will be quite bad for the economy. But I always caution people to remember that there’s more to life than the view from 50,000 feet up. Even if faced with two candidates who genuine agree about everything except the exact extent and composition of austerity budgeting, you’re still faced with two candidates who are disagreeing about something meaningful and important to people’s lives.