The self-made delusion

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Nov 07, 2010 at 16:00


Last weekend, just before the election, Sara Robinson posted the following chart in a diary at Campaign for America's Future, "The Myth of the Self-Made American: Why Progressives Get No Respect".  It's from a 2008 study reported in a recently published paper, "Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era", by Suzanne Mettler.  "The submerged state" refers to tax subsidies and expenditures that work "automatically," as it were, without a visible bureaucrary to administer them. I'll have more to say on this during the week, but for now, just let the following sink in, first the intro of Sara's diary, then the chart:

One of the biggest problems facing the Democrats going into this election is that they're getting absolutely zero respect for everything they've done for the average American over the past two years. Tax cuts, health care reform, financial reform, expanded veterans' benefits, direct funding of student loans -- the list is long, and one that, by rights, should get the Democrats re-elected handily.

The problem is that the average voter has no idea that any of this ever happened. In fact, if you ask most Americans (even a lot of Democrats), they'll tell you that Obama raised their taxes.

This ignorance is on full display at your average Tea Party gathering, which is full of people who will proudly insist that they're entirely self-made. "I did it all myself," they'll snarl, quivering in spittle-flecked outrage. "I didn't get any government handouts. Nobody ever did anything for me -- so why are all my tax dollars going to support those shiftless welfare cheats who aren't willing to work like I did?"

....

Suzanne Mettler, a professor at Cornell, actually documented this effect in a 2008 study. She asked people who'd been the beneficiaries of 19 specific government programs -- including some of the most popular and widespread programs in the country -- whether or not they'd ever used a government social program. Here's what she found:

Those are some pretty astonishing levels of denial. This is the fully-fleshed-out version of "keep the government's hands off my Medicare!"  And it's a big problem, particularly given that the narratives of conservative identity reinforce the denial displayed in the chart above.  So merely bringing the facts to light is not likely to have much of a positive impact in the rough and tumble of today's fantasy-based political world--although it can in a controlled experimental setting.

This is also the reality-based flip side of the perennial Republican quest for the golden mountain of "waste, fraud and abuse" they've spent the last 30 years searching for in vain in federal, state and local budgets.  Well, after 30 years, you'd think they might finally realize there is no such mountaint... except, of course, for the obscenely high tax deductions for affluent & especially obscenely rich taxpayers.

Paul Rosenberg :: The self-made delusion

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Missing something in the Reply (4.00 / 5)
Hey Paul,

    I agree with what you're saying, but there is something that always bothers me about Liberal critiques of the stoopid statement, "keep your government hands off my Medicare." Inherent in that statement is the key to how these fools came up with it in the first place. I remember when one of them was asked more specifically why they'd say such a thing, they said that it was something they earned and that they deserved it. It's the same reply when you ask them to reconcile cutting debt and deficit but leaving defense spending, defense jobs, and veterans benefits untouched. In their minds, they've made believed that this is a transaction. They've done something hard and so this is the government's payment for their hard work and sacrifice. As long as they can make believe that, then they aren't like the "shiftless", "lazy", and "good for nothing mooches" they make all other recipients of aid to be. The reason they can't stand to think they are paying for someone else to get benefits of any kind is they think you are devaluing their perceived contribution and "sacrifice".

  Don't get me wrong, I think the statement is stupid, but I think it is also an opportunity. What's key to these people is the notion that you've sacrificed something and should get paid for it. It shows the winning argument to protecting Social Security from the Repugs and Obama. Rephrasing any attempt to cut benefits, raise retirement ages, or indexing COLA's from "pragmatic" to "punishing people who sacrificed upfront" would ensure that support for such attempts remains low. It also shows that you can actually get widespread support to expand the safety net if it is re-oriented to appear to be a payoff for service of some kind. Something much bigger and bolder than Americorps or the Peace Corps. Or what if you re-phrased taxing the rich at much higher rates to those that contribute the least to national defense in terms of military service, must pay higher taxes to support those efforts. Though I know these people totally exaggerate whatever service they think they've done, it nevertheless shows a winning way forward.


Well (0.00 / 0)
Part of FDR's original rational for how to finance Social Security was exactly that: make it something people had paid for directly.The same is true of Medicare.

But it's still the case that almost 40% of Medicare recipients don't think they've used a government social program, just as a default position.  So I think you've got a point, but I don't think it's a magic bullet. There are just too many sources of confusion and contradiction involved.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
There is no "magic bullet" (4.00 / 1)
in relieving people of ignorance. Every effort is valuable.

The level of disconnect revealed in Table 3 will only die a death of 1,000 cuts. Or, "magic buckshot" if we insist on using gun-based analogies.

Maybe one should start thinking about dropping leaflets on Tea Party rallies? The most basic information - "Medicaid is a Federal Government Program" and the like.  

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
And maybe a detailed breakdown of federal spending (0.00 / 0)
I'm sure many people, especially dumbass conservatives, are still convinced that foreign aid somehow gobbles up 30 percent of our budget.

[ Parent ]
In all fairness, "keeping government off my Medicare" (0.00 / 0)
could mean opposition to politicians making any changes to the Medicare program, rather than a misguided belief that Medicare is somehow separate from the government.

This whole thing could be cleared up if pollsters just straight-up asked people if Medicare was a government program, yes or no.


[ Parent ]
The myth of the self-made (4.00 / 1)
The Democrats seem to think that the public will recognize and appreciate the good they've done. Not so. Just as the Republicans harp, harp, and harp some more on their lies, myths, and distortions, the Democrats need to constantly point out what they have done to help the American public, and how they will continue to make people's lives better. Maybe it will sink in eventually. My Republican acquaintances spout the party line as if it were gospel. Democrats need to show how wrong that is, not once, but repeatedly.

This is the part (4.00 / 4)
...where having a Democratic president who is not ashamed to be a Democrat trying to help working people would matter. We don't have such a President although, at one time, most of us had high hopes.

In any event, this sort of message starts at the top and bottom. Lots of people make these points to friends and family while sitting around to watch a football game or on a work break. What's missing is the top down part.

Lots of the Tea Party fear of unqualified people getting benefits is outright intolerance, aka racism. Social security is great for people like me but not so much for those shiftless blacks, browns, whatever.

Apropos of nothing, I saw a great bumper sticker the other day: God bless everyone! NO EXCEPTIONS! Takes their sanctimony and shoves it down their throat. Gotta love it. We need much more of it.


[ Parent ]
I've said for a long time (0.00 / 0)
that Democrats need to start openly chanting the mantra of "more government" (or some variant thereof) the same way Republicans constantly and unanimously demand "less government", thus beating into Americans' minds where they stand.

2009-2010 is the story of how Democrats tried to pass marginally more government (stimulus, health care, financial reform, etc.) without selling the idea that more government can be good.  And voter backlash is what happened.  We can't avoid ideological battles.  We have to capture the hearts and minds of people.

And it should start with the individual with the single biggest bully pulpit - the President of the United States.


[ Parent ]
'Your average Tea Party gathering' (0.00 / 0)
may also be full of people who are just unethical, ie, I got mine but you get fucked. That's not to say that we shouldn't try to pick off everybody out of their ranks that we can with education. Maybe the rest can be reached with shaming, or an appeal to the values that may be tucked into a different mental compartment from their politics.  

The MSM has tagged Independents the party of swing-voting 'centrism.' If Democrats no longer represent your liberal values, show America there is still a Left by registering for another left-aligned party.

I'm Sure There Are All Kinds (4.00 / 1)
But most importantly, those active in the Tea Party are only a small minority.  It's the mass image they present, which less active folks say they "support" that's a much larger, more conflicted and potentially more reachable group of people.

Best way to reach them, IMHO, is to give them something better to fix on.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Well, the problem here is that disingenuous appeals to "values" (0.00 / 0)
are without question among the most effective modes of marketing and promotion out there. Out and loud assholes aren't really the problem in terms of constructing a ubiquitous political dialogue that in turn constructs ubiquitous political realities. To wit, look at the incredible efficacy of Obama's election marketing or advertising classics, just to name one of a bizillion, like "share a coke, share a smile." The fundamental human instinct that seeks to believe noble things about one's self is, on a mass level, an infinitely more manipulable tendency than straight up appeals to selfishness. That's the first lesson in marketing 101, I tend to think.

[ Parent ]
It goes beyond this. (4.00 / 6)
The medium that all these supposed Libertarians use to convey their brave declarations - the internet - came from the government. So did interstate highways. And the public schools that educated them. If we had no cooperatively enforced endeavors we wouldn't have agriculture.

All these fat-asses shopping at WalMart and watching Fox News are so disconnected from the human condition, because of their income and privileged status - yes privileged if you are white and middle class and above in the US - that they really believe these myths that they have accomplished great things. When the new economy confronts them with the fact that "no" you are a grain of sand in the corporate-owned beach, they need a target for their anger. And the overlords of Wall Street and the US Chamber of Commerce have convinced them that it's the government.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...


True (0.00 / 0)
But infrastructure is arguably not part of the welfare state.  Though it does highlight just how fuzzy the "welfare state" concept can be.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
You know what the right would say (0.00 / 0)
"Bah, Internet!  Let private industry freely invest in building new technological infrastructure if they want!  Whoever gets there first will make tons of money!"

[ Parent ]
"merely bringing the facts to light is not likely to have…a positive impact" (4.00 / 1)
Well, first, as a minor quibble, I'm not so sure the wording "using a government social program" is a good way to frame the question, even though, offhand, a better alternative doesn't spring to mind. If you take a deduction on your mortgage interest, would you characterize that as "using" a program? I wouldn't. And who knows, in the minds of the respondents, what a "government social program" might be? The general thrust of the findings is very likely valid but the wording might skew the results.

I'm curious, Paul, though, about your comment that "merely bringing the facts to light is not likely to have much of a positive impact" in today's political world. Maybe not "much" but how about some, acknowledging that "bringing facts to light" is just one small piece of a much larger strategy. It's astonishing, given how easy the liberal case is to make-with facts, how little it is done and how shocking it seems when it is done.

During the health care "debate," the GOP goes on the attack about "socialized medicine," and Sen. Bernie Sanders's retort that the Veterans Administration is socialized medicine is viewed as a political riposte of daring rhetorical brilliance-when it's a pretty obvious thing to say. Michael Moore skewers the whole idea of "socialism as scary" in SiCKO-"I kinda like having the police department and the fire department and the library...," he says-and that movie, highlighting the WHO report which ranked the US as 37th in health care, made laughable the right-wing talking point that the US was "number one" in health care. Hmm, facts. Meanwhile, Bob Somerby has countless posts such as this one about how OECD data on health care spending in the US and other countries-specifically, the fact that the US spends over twice as much per capita as the OECD average on health care-are rarely mentioned in the mainstream media and even more rarely analyzed.

Conservatives spout nonsense constantly. I would think that facts could make a difference if they were brought to light. They rarely are. Maybe facts aren't mentioned because they would make a difference? (Of course, the many reasons why they aren't-and, when they are, why they aren't as effective as one might hope-is a different and vast subject in itself.)


Which Side Are You On? (4.00 / 3)
Real short.

Second point first: Facts alone won't do much, because you need narrative frameworks.  And narrative frameworks need to be repeated over and over again.  And that means that you need hegemonic infrastructure.

First point: In contrast with Europe, the US is notorious for doing social policy (a) indirectly and (b) via private sector intermediaries. Tax expenditures are always (a) and often (b). (Obama just dropped (b) from student loans, for example.) If you don't call government programs to implement social policy "social programs" because they arguably don't look like social programs such as welfare or food stamps from a user's POV, then you've surrendered a reality-based narrative framework right off the bat. Making it problematic, at best to state what should be the most basic of facts.

Hence the subject line of this comment.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
ok (0.00 / 0)
So you and Sara think there's a "long list" of Dem accomplishments that if only the hoi polloi would recognize it.  Well, you are wrong.  Let me see, you said "tax cuts," great, but maybe I am losing my job, maybe I am hanging on to a job barely, maybe I see my home's value plummiting, etc.  Meanwhile Obama surrounds himself with banksters and bails out Wall Street.  That tax break looks like a pittance in the big picture.  Did you say "health care"?  My health insurance is going up 10% this year; last year it went up another 10%.   I am not sure I really care anymore about pre-existing conditions because being unable to pay the premium isn't going to get me even to 1st base.  Hey then I learn that the health bill was basically written by the insurance industry.  Facts like that really help me support the Dems!  Ok, ok, the student loan thing and the veterans benefits were good.  But then I see the war going full blast; secret renditions; killing of civilians; secret detentions--and never mind that no one in the O admin is talking about NAFTA, etc. Did anyone mention the climate? Hey I have MY list of facts also.  Sure, you are right, racism and stupidity are rampant in the land, but it surely would be easier to fight that if we had REAL SOLID FACTS to go with.

Hold On! (4.00 / 4)
I've NEVER stopped criticizing Obama for his undersized stimulus, or his failure to prosecute Bush, much less end Bush's war.

But it's also true that Obama has gotten a lot of things done (though, as I've caustically noted, nothing remotely comparable to LBJ's Great Society accomplishments), and the fact that so many folks know nothing about the latter is part of the Democrats' problem.  Not all of it, by a long, long shot.  But part of it.  And if we're going to correct course, we need to be cognizant of the entire scope of what's wrong, and not just our own top concerns, even if those top concerns are justifiably most important.

Why?  Because you need to understand how the mistaken views/strategies/ideologies fit together in order to take them apart. And simply smashing them to bits won't do, because there's already a fully functioning alternative model that's 10 times eviler going full steam ahead.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
A facile rejoinder (0.00 / 0)
"The percentage who have paid in more than they have received to the government."

Rather than this laundry list of programs, people would rather have a good (read well paying and stable) job.

Another quibble: you can't fix stupid. During the health care debate some said that

1. Obama et al. were courting disaster by choosing this rather than jobs as the legislative center piece.

2. that in addition to getting a bad bill, Obama et al. would pay an electoral price for their efforts.

Who doubted that?

Again, you can't fix out-of-touch and stupid.


A good job still might not be able to pay your medical bills (4.00 / 1)
or put your two kids through college, or save your house from foreclosure.  Nor would it buy community police, fire, schools, libraries, utilities, garbage, and sewage.  We need government.

[ Parent ]
selfmade man - (and women) (4.00 / 2)
are seldom 'fazed' by arguments which point to some 'facts' they got assistance! That's an insult and you just can't argue like that -(especially if you don't want to appear like a 'socialist or communist!) - You got to leave them all their pride and then argue completely contradictionary - 'You did it ALL yourself - and we need a system where you can do IT all yourself and get them 'government help'!

Dual objectives of government (4.00 / 1)
James Madison named the dual objectives of government as protecting the rights of property and protecting the rights of the people. He feared that both could be endangered, but felt that the rights of property might prevail over the rights of the people, and that government should guard against this.

There needs to be regular education on how government protects the rights of the people, including the programs cited. These programs needs to be framed as part of the rights of the people as protected by the government.

From there the Democratic Party needs to frame itself as diligent in protecting the rights of the people, citing specifics. On a continual basis.


Rights of persons, rights of people (0.00 / 0)
Just want to note: James Madison used the term "rights of persons," which i changed to "rights of people."

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