22 July 2011

Why would anyone be a Republican?

I so don't understand why anyone would be a Republican.   Of course, for some reason it is never possible to discuss politics in a clear and rational way.  Everything I believe in as a gospel political fact is viewed as a vicious lie by every Republican.  And it works the other way around as well.  Despite this, here I present the rational logic I use to understand why I agree with Democratic positions.


Republicans argue that we should privatize all functions that are currently executed by government.  Except, apparently, the military.  Clearly there are a number of roles that a society needs that cannot be well served by private industry.  The military is one example. 

There exists a large class of investments that are difficult for private industry to undertake.  This can happen both because a large investment is needed, and because the full benefits of the investment are hard to recoup by a private investor.  An example of this is the Erie Canal.  The canal required a large investment and was barely, eventually, directly profitable.  However, it opened the Mohawk valley to farming by allowing goods farmed there to be sold at a reasonable cost in New York City and other coastal cities.  It also helped to secure the food supplies of the coastal cities.  The benefits of increased wages for farmers and lower food prices in the cities are not capturable by private industry, but are of overall benefit to society.

Other examples of large investments with large public benefits include the national highway system, the Tennessee Valley Authority electrical grid, NASA, and the California Aqueduct.


Another type of investment is the education of a country's citizens.  Here the state has at least two interests.  First, a common education helps to build nation and empire.  In the US, we teach all children English regardless of whether their parents came from Europe, Mexico, Thailand, etc.  This common language helps to forge a common identity.  We teach a standard mythology about the history of the United States, again to form a common set of values and shared identity.  We teach that diversity is good and daily pledge allegiance, again to instill first an identification with the Country, and to reduce the frictions of distinct tribal groups.

Secondly, the state benefits from a highly educated citizenry.  In general, people with a higher  education earn more money.  US News reports that the average salary of a high school graduate is around $30,000 per year.  With a bachelors, the wage increases to $50,000 per year.  And with a masters or doctorate, the wage rises to $100,000 per year or more.  This increased wage benefits the society as a whole.  The society can afford a larger military or better health care.  

Some commentators suggest that not everyone needs a college education.  They suggest that there are ditch diggers and fast food servers, garbage collectors and crop pickers for whom college would be a waste of money.  I argue that the hardworking entrepreneurs the Republicans are enamored of will find ways to automate or offshore low-skill drops while increasing employment of high-skill jobs.  And some of the low-skill jobs can be filled by our older high school students and college students while they are being trained.

Cuts and Safety Nets

Today, a standard Republican position is that we need to cut government spending.  However, apparently we can't cut military spending.  Or farm subsidies.  That seems hypocritical.

Republicans talk about the individual working hard and taking care of themselves.  They say that all Democrats are lazy and looking for a handout.   Democrats in fact do believe in hard work.  However, Democrats understand history and know that being a sole individual with no help from other people is a really hard life.  Think of Tom Hanks on his island with a tooth ache and no dentist to help him.

Society evolved precisely so that larger and larger groups of people could help each other through hard times.  Early hunter gatherers depended on an extended family.  Early agricultural societies depended on a larger village, and later, empire.  At the empire scale of things, droughts covering the entire empire are extremely rare, and by stockpiling small amounts of grain from good harvests in good places and good years, the calamitous events that might wipe out an entire region could be mitigated.  In the United States we used the collective strength of the country to mitigate the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.  In Japan, the country used its collective strength to recover from a massive Tsunami.

There will always be parts of society that are genetically unfit to fully take care of themselves.  And not all families are going to be able to take care of their weakest members.   Republicans,  being strong church-going people are unlikely to advocate that the mentally retarded, the old and addled, the simple unlucky should all be left out in the cold to die.  We are not talking about lazy people here.  We are talking about unlucky people.  Unlucky people need assistance when they've been laid off because an unregulated banking sector played havoc with the economy.  Unlucky people who get sick while they are laid off need medical assistance.

Corporate Power

Another Republican platform is that business should not be regulated.  Unfortunately, businesses have shown over and over again that they are not responsible if left unregulated.  They will dump their garbage into the atmosphere, or into Love Canal, or into the local drinking water supply.  They will allow toxins to enter their products as both China and the agricultural industry have shown.  Society decides on the level of risk they are willing to take and then enforces that level across all companies.

Republicans like to attack minimum wage laws and unions.  Just as Republicans don't seem to remember that corporations prove again and again that they will harm society if left unregulated, Republicans also don't seem to understand that corporations are very powerful entities.  Capitalism is a powerful way to run an economy because the corporations are very powerful.  The relationship between a corporation and an employee is not symmetric.  The corporation can, and has proven that it will, hire employees below the fair market value of the employee.  A corporation has access to more information than a job seeker; the corporation can look for job seekers in multiple markets, but the job seeker has more limited mobility.  With these advantages the employer can force the job seeker to take a lower wage than the job seeker is worth, and the corporation can frequently capture that extra difference as corporate profits instead of passing it on to customers through lower pricing.

Because corporations are so powerful and so prone to abusing their employees, minimum wages and unions are tools that are used to improve the balance of power between the corporation and the employee.


None of this is perfect or efficient.  Societies are messy and inefficient.  People can be stupid, confused, venal, corrupt, etc.  But we have shown over the past 10,000 years that we need these sets of tools to make societies reasonably safe and easy to live in.

  • We need governments to make the large investments with returns that are difficult for private industry to capture.
  • We need government regulation, minimum wages, and unions to help balance the immense power of corporations, and both the proven ability and willingness of corporations to damage society.
  • We need to educate our children not only through high school but through graduate school in order to maximize the economic benefits.
  • And we need to provide safety nets to help the unlucky through hard times that the individual cannot control.