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Despite living there for

Despite living there for the better part of four years, there are many things I can’t explain about Britain: the instinct to queue, the bad plumbing, and how a culture with such bland native food can love curry so much. What I can explain are the basics about the British elections held tomorrow. These next few posts should set the scene for people just tuning in to these elections.

The Basics: 646 parliamentary seats are at stake -– 529 of them are in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 in Northern Ireland. 324 is the number needed to form a majority government. Seats are allocated on a first past-the-post basis in each district. That is, it doesn’t matter how many votes each party gets nationwide; it matters how many ridings a party wins. Thus, it’s possible to win the most votes, but not the most seats -– a phenomenon that last happened in February 1974.

The Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, holds a 160-seat overall majority and have had a commanding majority since winning election in 1997. If Labour wins re-election, it will be the first time in British political history that Labour has won three consecutive elections.

The Players: The Labour Party, led by Blair and his once and future rival, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, is the main center-left party. Blair has re-made the party into New Labour, shedding its socialist past, attracting middle-class voters, and proving that Labour can manage the economy -– and quite successfully at that. There’s a tension within the party between the working-class beans-on-toast crowd and the more affluent focaccia- and-roasted-vegetables set (think Quad Cities vs. Tribeca). Bigger than these class differences is the huge rift within the party on the war in Iraq. This is -- by far -- Blair’s biggest vulnerability.

The Conservative Party (aka the Tories), led by Michael Howard currently has 165 seats in Parliament. The Conservative Party today is like the Republican Party in 1940: a small opposition party of rural and wealthy voters that has to contend with a rejuvenated and dominant progressive party. After being obliterated in 1997 and embarrassed in 2001, the Tories are having a more successful campaign in 2005 -- one waged on the basis of social issues such as: crime, school discipline, and immigration. While – as James Harding notes in Slate -- their campaign lacks the big vision of Thatcher, the Tories stand to gain seats this election because of their careful targeting of swing districts and the mere fact that they really have only one direction to go.

The Liberal Democrats. Imagine if the Deaniacs split from the Democratic Party over Iraq, and you've got the Lib Dems. This is a middle-class party strong in university towns, and in odd suburban places throughout Britain. Led by Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dems have 51 seats in Parliament. Their pure anti-war stance has attracted many disgruntled Labourites as well as some Muslim voters. Lib Dems can play the Nader role in this election, siphoning off enough Labour votes to throw the election to the Tories or diminish the Labour majority enough as to provoke a leadership challenge to Blair. If there is a total Tory meltdown (a swing of about 10 percent from Tory to Lib Dem), the Lib Dems could become the official opposition.

More to come. But in my effort not to totally embrace the blogger lifestyle, I'm off to the gym.

Chuck Todd the man

<$NoAd$>Chuck Todd, the man behind Hotline, has an excellent column today on the National Journal website (subscription only) about the big issue looming on the radar screen for 2008: immigration. He writes:

There's a disconnect between the politically correct legislators and media in Washington and the general public on the issue. Call it xenophobia if you want, but these [anti-immigration] initiatives are popular with the public, particularly as the economy stagnates and some lower-income workers are looking for someone to blame.

Add in the possibility of a terrorist attack, and the shut-the-doors crowd will be clamoring for the Great Wall of Brownsville.

Chuck is right that immigration will be a big issue for both parties, but on the presidential level, I still believe that it stands to damage the GOP more. While many rank-and-file Democrats may have serious reservations about immigration, there is no Democratic anti-immigration constituency -– and in the presidential nominating process, it’s the groups and activists who count. The GOP not only has an anti-immigration constituency, they also already have anti-immigration candidates. One Tom Tancredo in the race, and the whole field can easily be pulled to the right. While the opposite dynamic could happen on the left, the ambivalence toward unchecked immigration among Hispanics themselves should put a break on that.

Matt has raised an

Matt has raised an interesting point: New Labour is to the right of Old Labour in relative terms, but in absolute terms, it is to the left of the New Democrats in the US. Thus, Matt says, why does the DLC and other New Democrats embrace Blair and New Labour and folks like the old guard at the American Prospect have its reservations?

My first instinct is to say, well England is England and the US is the US; chalk up their individual positions to their unique political cultures and history. But, it wouldn’t be so bold to attack the very premise of Matt’s argument: is New Labour really to the “left of mainstream thinking inside the Democratic party?” Read its latest manifesto. All things being equal (because it still is another country), what in it couldn’t conceivably been uttered by Bill Clinton -– or Joe Lieberman? Just because Britain has nationalized health care and stronger unions, it doesn’t mean that it’s a socialist paradise. Couldn't it be said that New Labour is to the right of the mainstream thinking inside the Democratic Party?

The thing to remember is that the main dividing line between New Labour and New Democrats and the more recalcitrant portions of their respective parties is a realization that the industrial age has come and gone and that we now live in a interdependent world which demands different policy responses in order to live up to the values of fairness, equality, opportunity, etc. that progressives cherish. If you drill down past the name-calling and the various issue positions, at the root of the divide is that New Labour and New Democrats are people on the left who have come to terms with -– and even embraced -- the market. In Britain, this entailed a more drastic break (one that culminated in the Labour Party repealing its Clause IV which called for the nationalization of the means of production). In both countries, it has resulted in a shift in how government provides for its citizens -– namely, finding ways to help people get what they need to compete in the global marketplace and using the power of the market to achieve social ends.

I don’t want to go on and on and on about this, and before the “netroots” starts burning my digital likeness in effigy, let me say that there is a lot more to say about this as it relates to foreign policy, domestic policy, and political strategy. That said, check out the relevant books on the topic: Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw’s Commanding Heights (which lays out the history of the rise of the market), Andrei Cherny’s The Next Deal (which only gets more relevant as time goes on), and although I have yet to read it, Thomas Friedman’s latest, The World is Flat, I am sure has a lot to say about this.

Well Matt has certainly

Well, Matt has certainly set the stage for my debut. I just got back from the dentist, so let me do the requisite introductory remarks now, and think about what Matt wrote while I dig out from what's in my in-box.

To start, let me just say that it's a real honor to be on this side of TPM. I’ve been a faithful reader of the site since the dark days of the 2000 recount when Josh’s first posts were glimmers of hope for a dejected Gore speechwriter stuck sunning himself in the Plumbers and Pipefitters’ parking lot in West Palm Beach while his future employment slowly slipped out of reach. I’ve been a huge admirer and friend of Josh’s ever since he stuck up for me when a certain liberal magazine blackballed me for having the gall of supporting President Clinton’s agenda. And, of course, over the past few months, Josh -- and Matt Yglesias -- have performed a real service by guiding us all through the complex thicket of Social Security privatization. But until the tan and rested Josh returns from his tropical paradise, that service will be on hold.

I must confess that I know just about nothing about Social Security. When I have a question, I call Josh. When that fails, I bother Peter Orszag or Jason Furman. And when I have a real retirement question -– that is, investing on top of Social Security -- I follow my grandmother’s advice: “Ask your Uncle Arnie.” So, for the next few days, we’ll be taking a break from Social Security and talking mostly -– but not exclusively -- about the biggest political news happening this week, the British elections and why we Americans should care.

I first went to England as a grad student in Politics in 1994. While I didn’t study British politics, just being there for the rise of New Labour and their eventual election in 1997 was an education in and of itself (you’d be amazed what one can learn procrastinating from the work you’re supposed to do; then again, if you’re reading this, you probably already know.). It, in turn, informed my own work on the rise of the New Democrats which I turned into a book, Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (Kansas, 2000). Since then, I’ve followed New Labour closely, writing about it from time to time, and most recently -– and this is the last shameless plug, I swear -– this week for my column for the New Republic Online.

As we approach tomorrow’s election day, I’ll post as often as I can -- and as often as I hear from my sources all across the UK (actually, it’s just an eclectic group of my friends scattered across southern England, including journalists, politicos, political scientists, and the world’s expert on the 17th century English book trade). To that, I welcome the thoughts of any British TPM readers that may be out there. And, of course, if you have any good gossip or stories outside of the British Isles that need attention, now’s your chance. I got a password to TPM -- and Josh won’t be back until Sunday.

My time here will

My time here will be done shortly, with Kenneth Baer taking over in just a little while. It's been a real pleasure to blog for you all here and to get feedback from Josh's massive audience of readers. Speaking of which, a person doesn't just undertake uncompensated work for his own amusement. No! This was all a devious plot to promote my own work. So I hope that if you like what you've read, you'll check out my writing elsewhere. My blog has mostly been dedicated to silly stuff since I've been saving serious content for TPM, but after the handover there will be a return to substantive political commentary over there. In addition, I co-write Tapped with my colleagues from The American Prospect and you can browse my archived columns and magazine articles for the Prospect if you're so inclined.

If you really, really like what you read here you might want to call up The New York Times Book Review and say something like, "hey, have you heard of this Matthew Yglesias character? Wouldn't it be great if you actually printed that review of two books about Ronald Reagan you have on file and that you already paid him for?"

People also should know that I am capable of writing about things other than Social Security, I just thought it would be appropriate to focus on that issue this week since we're in the midst of a major now phase-out push and as we all know it's both a crucial issue and something TPM has played a big role in throughout the year. But to prove I have ideas on other subjects, and because Kenneth says he's going to be writing some about the British elections, here's a concluding thought. Tony Blair, as everyone knows, has moved the Labour Party to the right, dubbing it "New Labour" and antagonizing the apostles of "Old Labour" ideology. This, it seems, has greatly endeared him to "New Democrats" here in the USA who've been engaged in a similar project. But how similar is it, really? Iraq War aside, it seems to me that Blair's substantive views on domestic policy -- on the NHS, say -- would place him well to the left of mainstream thinking inside the Democratic Party. Which is to say that while he plays a similar role to Bill Clinton relative to the British political scene, in absolute terms his views are quite different simply because "Old Labour" was far to the left of anywhere the Democrats have ever been. So what gives?

There seems to me to be some muddled thinking on both sides of this question. The DLC should like Blair less, and my distinctly Old Democrat bosses at the Prospect should like him more. Since my successor literally wrote the book on the DLC, perhaps he can enlighten us about this. I'll also note that anyone who thinks the Liberal Democrats have gotten to Blair's left by opposing fees for university students needs to think harder. Free college tuition is a subsidy to the upper middle class, not to the poor. Given the availability of student loans, the main barrier to higher education for working class kids isn't tuition, per se, it's primary and secondary school systems that don't let them compete on a level playing field in the admissions sweepstakes. Now I'll doubtless enrage you all by suggesting that No Child Left Behind is a step in the right direction in that regard and sign off. But remember: Social Security now, Social Security tomorrow, Social Security forever!

Can you taste the

Can you taste the integrity?

Several months ago, we knew the president wanted to kill Social Security somehow, but he wouldn't tell us what his plan was. Back then, the Heritage Foundation was backing across the board price indexing. The Cato Institute had this plan that would have forthrightly eliminated Social Security. Then Bush said he wanted "progressive" indexing. And -- like magic -- Cato and Heritage now support just that. The White House sure is persuasive!

Mississippi Republican Senators turn

Mississippi Republican Senators turn out to be not too thrilled with the idea of "progressive" indexing of Social Security benefits. And how's this for mumbo-jumbo? The president's "aides say the benefit cuts proposed by Mr. Bush have to be judged against what will happen if nothing is done to shore up the system as the baby boom generation ages and life expectancy increases. Social Security's trustees estimate that if no action is taken, the system can pay full benefits until 2041, and after that will take in only enough through payroll taxes to cover about 73 percent of promised benefits."

Fair enough, sort of. If we change nothing until 2041, and the Social Security Administration's estimates prove correct, then to achieve balance after 2041 wholly through benefit cuts, we would need to cut benefits by about 27 percent. Under the Bush plan, average workers would have their benefits cut by 28 percent by 2075, and 49 percent for higher-income workers. On top of that, the Bush plan doesn't even achieve its ostensible goal of solvency! You would need unspecified further benefit cuts to make the numbers add up, cuts approximately equal in size to the ones Bush has already put on the table.

I dont like the

I don't like the term "add-on accounts" which, to me, frames the issue poorly and suggests a feeble-minded tactical response to the effort to phase-out Social Security. Programs designed to broaden the scope of asset ownership in America are more than defensible on their own terms, and like lots of other things I support (health care for the uninsured, a military capable of handling post-conflict stabilization missions better, etc.) shouldn't really be viewed as either a substitute for, or an enhancement of, Social Security as such.

The narrow economistic case for asset-building is simply that the national savings rate is very low and there's reason to think we'll be more prosperous in the long tun if we can turn that around. The broader moral case, however, is more important. The remorseless logic of technological progress and globalization is that the trend toward income inequality will continue apace. Inequality per se isn't the worst thing in the world. In addition to the bad inequality of the 1980s and 2000s where folks near the bottom see their income fall even as the economy grows and the rich get richer, you can get the 1990s full employment scenario where everyone wins. But it's not the best thing in the world, either. We can -- and should -- try to combat the trend through policies aimed at full employment and strengthening labor unions, but this is a tough nut to crack and it's worth deploying every tool one can think of.

The idea of asset-building is that instead of relentlessly inegalitarian capitalism or infeasible collective ownership of the means of production, that we ought to build what John Rawls called a "property-owning democracy" where productive assets are in private hands (like in today's America), but they're also widely dispersed (unlike in today's America) so that everyone has a stake in economic growth and everyone reaps the gains of growth.

It's an idea that's very much in the best American tradition. The Homestead Act in the 19th century created a situation where the government would give away for free the main productive asset of the era -- farm land -- to anyone willing to work for it. That's not feasible today, but the basic picture of letting every American who's willing to work hard acquire ownership over a home and some assets is still a sound one.

How to do it? Well doing it right would be hard, but fortunately this is an ambitious agenda that can be implemented in steps. The first step we should take is the surprisingly easy one of changing the default rules for 401 (k) plans. Right now, to start a 401 (k) you need to fill out a bunch of forms. A better plan would be to automatically enroll people in 401 (k) plans and make it so that you need to fill out forms in order to not contribute. This sounds pointless, but research indicates that it would dramatically broaden participation in these useful savings vehicles. There's also no reason for this to face opposition from any sort of entrenched interests or even the no-taxes brigade in the GOP. The next step, as Gene Sperling has argued is to switch the tax treatment of savings and investment around to make it more friendly to middle- and working-class people: "Without measures to have robust matching credits for low- and moderate-income workers and tax reform that would lead to a flat tax credit for savings, those arguing only to make 401K enrollment more automatic will do little to reach the huge numbers of Americans who are falling through the cracks or to turn our upside-down system for savings incentives right side up."

On top of that you could add some version of the ASPIRE Act which would give each child born in the United States "a starter deposit of $500 from the government and children from households below the national median income would be eligible for a supplemental contribution up to an additional $500." Those numbers are pretty modest, but it would be a foot in the door for bigger things to come, and could easily be linked up to some version of the Automatic 401 (k) which, in turn, should be given a more appealing name. A revived estate tax would seem to be a fitting and proper way of financing this sort of thing. At any rate, there's plenty of room for disagreements about the details here, but the Sperling article linked to above provides what are, I think, sound guidelines for what is and is not acceptable from the liberal point of view.

What can you do

What can you do about a guy like Joe Klein? As if his support for the Bush phase-out wasn't bad enough, he needs to insist that Democratic opposition to Bush's plan is not only misguided (by his lights), but is, in fact, comprised of "phony bleats of outrage from leading Democrats" who are "more interested in the demagogic exploitation of the issue than they are in the impact of baby boom retirement on their grandchildren."

I can assure everyone that my outrage is entirely genuine. It's also never been clear to me why the High Lords of Punditry think it's unacceptably "demagogic" to point out that the Republican Party wants to gut middle class retirement security. And then there's this shameful effort to pretend that privatization is all about helping out young people. But as I've point out before, under Bush's plan the younger you are the more your benefits are cut! If you think it's crucially important to the future of the country to finance tax cuts for today's wealthiest individuals by sharply reducing the living standards today's twentysomethings will enjoy when we retire, then fine. I'll say you're wrong, but lots of people have misplaced priorities. But to pretend that you're doing my generation some kind of favor is just absurd.

We have a winner

We have a winner in The Wall Street Journal editorial page competition -- thanks to all the many readers who've sent me something. "Public Trust Busting" appeared in the Journal on my seventeenth birthday, May 18, 1998. It's mostly dedicated to praising the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's support for partial privatization. But, they also write: "Now, let us acknowledge that 'privatizing' Social Security is not what Mr. Moynihan desires. His political goal is to reform Social Security just enough to be able to save its universal guarantee." A misguided strategy, but not, I think, a malign one. More Washington Post editorial page than WSJ edit page. Certainly the Journal-ists do not approve: "No doubt many conservatives will want to go much further than the New Yorker, us among them."

In other words, they wanted then what they want now -- the elimination of Social Security as we know it.

Thanks to reader M.A. for the tip. I'd send you a t-shirt, but I don't think I have that authority.