Life is sales. And a good sales pitch comes from a place of empathy: It demonstrates how the product relates to the buyer’s desires. This can only happen with understanding and respect for what the buyer wants. A good sales pitch does not feel smarmy or unpleasant, but forms a kind of cooperative, practical relationship. A good politician is good at sales.
I’ve barely tracked the competing reconciliation ($3.5 trillion) and infrastructure ($1 trillion) bills worming their way through the Congress. While I have maintained a high interest in politics since my youth, I never found budget issues particularly interesting. It is all arcane and the rhetoric on both sides is exaggerated. Taxes go up and down a little. Money gets spent on programs that have almost no impact on me. A lot does not change, because most government spending is locked in by entitlements and inertia. When it’s all over, the debt goes up, and life goes on.
That said, these are very big spending bills. They are coming on the heels of large spending programs enacted last year to mitigate the economic damage from COVID-19, which itself followed a long period of extensive spending on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have seen the tangible impacts from this spending spree, including widespread inflation and unexpected damage to the ability of companies to find workers, which has been suppressed in part by generous unemployment benefits.
These two spending bills are the centerpiece of the Biden agenda. Passing them is critical for his reputation, but they are running into headwinds from Democratic defectors from both the centrist and progressive wings of the party, as well as Biden’s own inability to gin up enthusiasm for them.
What’s notably missing from the debate are the basics of retail politics. Which problems do these laws solve, and how do they solve them? How does this affect most people? Who benefits? In other words, like most people, I’m wondering, “What’s in it for me?”
The infrastructure bill at least has some facial plausibility. While the details have not really been spelled out, most people—and particularly those who have traveled internationally—cannot help but notice our decrepit, failing infrastructure: large fires in the West caused by aging transmission lines, widespread power outages in Texas after a winter storm, our crummy airports, and traffic jams everywhere.
Obsolete and aging infrastructure are the marks of a nation that has neglected investment and maintenance. There is a case to be made that repairing and upgrading infrastructure will help everyone, though the urgency of such investments is usually deemed more pressing in times of economic recession, not, as at present, runaway inflation.
But the other bill? Its contents are, even now, a mystery. Some of the funds, apparently, will go to welfare programs and state governments. Others will subsidize child care, free community college, electric cars, and various other pet liberal causes. Beyond helping those already on the government’s dole, it’s not clear why most people are supposed to care that much. In contrast to some other ideas that have been explored—student loan forgiveness or a flat tax—this grab-bag spending bill lacks the “wow” factor.
Not only does it lack imagination, it lacks a sales pitch. Barack Obama may have lied or never even understood the details, but “universal healthcare” had an obvious appeal in a country where many were ruined by runaway medical bills. It was also a memorable, short phrase denoting what his signature legislation was designed to achieve. Earlier, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” provided a rallying point for the massive mid-term Republican takeover in 1994. Similarly, Trump’s “Build the Wall” was a popular, tangible symbol of immigration reform.
A symptom of Biden’s “tin ear” and the congressional leadership’s aloofness from the American people is that all of the legislative machinations are being conducted behind closed doors, such as strong-arming recalcitrant Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or trying to stop the mass defection of AOC and “the Squad.” The one important group being completely left out of the debate and discussion is the American people.
Biden recently has addressed the American people on the failures in Afghanistan, vaccine mandates, and indirectly in his call for diplomacy at the United Nations. On his signature legislation, however, he has only made a few stray remarks, none of which really amount to a coherent sales pitch. He even insulted our collective intelligence by saying it would “cost nothing,” meaning it would (allegedly) be paid for with tax increases. This is insulting in more ways than one, since the spending packages deliberately create $1 trillion per year in deficits for the next decade.
Private Sector Americans
Economists have some disagreements about how much deficit spending hurts the economy. But one rather obvious effect is that all of the extensive government spending has made everything more expensive: gas, houses, education, healthcare, etc. A few people benefit from the government picking up the tab—the poor and the elderly mostly. Another group benefits from being the private counterparty to the government’s nearly limitless expense account, such as healthcare providers and defense contractors. But for the vast numbers of people in the private sector, all of this inflationary spending just makes life harder and more expensive.
Roads, parks, libraries, police and fire departments, and other services provide tangible benefits at the local level. On the other hand, the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Labor, Education, Agriculture, and most of the rest do nothing I have ever personally interacted with or benefited from. When the government “shuts down,” other than for essential services like the military and the prisons, I would not know if I did not hear it on the news.
That says a lot. Namely, for those footing the bill, those struggling in the private sector and simply trying to make it, the government is a net taker, a parasite. The federal government does not provide “public goods,” so much as it spends a lot of its time and energy on transferring wealth from the top part of the struggling middle class to the lower echelons. Meanwhile, the large ocean of connected managerial types within or adjacent to the government benefit, while the super wealthy are largely unbothered.
We Don’t Even Talk Anymore
Just as life is sales, much of life is about relationships. The structure of the debate—one behind closed doors involving different parts of government splitting the pie—shows no apparent desire to cultivate legitimacy by persuading Americans, in spite of razor-thin congressional majorities and a disputed presidential election. Republican government is not merely supposed to reflect majoritarian sentiment, but to show respect for the minority by seeking the common good. Efforts at persuasion show this respect, in a way that closed-door horse trading does not.
The American people and the managerial class are behaving like an alienated couple at that numb stage right before a breakup, where no one even cares enough to argue anymore. Rather than a government “of” and “by” the people, government officials are growing distant and disconnected and hateful toward ordinary Americans. Whether elected or unelected, they are content merely to foist things upon the people and say it is for their own good.
The American people, like a victim waking up after years of gaslighting and abuse, are no longer buying it. The old appeals to trust and expertise ring hollow, after so much failure and manifest indifference to our point of view from the ruling class. Like other failed relationships, it is as if both sides are speaking different languages.
The American people deserve a better partner.