Why did this war happen? It happened because the left, despite its focus on the poor, has almost always been controlled by the rich. When the left adopted new issues several decades ago, these rich people refused to listen to those among the poor who protested. But while the left's war against the poor goes back only a few decades, the fact that the left has been controlled by the rich ever since the left began means that the left has never really been wholly committed to helping the poor. Instead, the analyses and policies formulated by rich leftists have helped rich leftists (who get to keep their wealth and to control the government) more than the poor.
This book argues that a leftism by and for the poor will be strikingly different from leftism as it now exists. While Rich People's Leftism blames capitalism for exploiting the workers and wants a redistribution of wealth, Poor People's Lefism wants job creation. The more jobs there are for the poor, the less they are exploited. It is job creation more than anything else that will help the poor escape from poverty.
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The Left's War Against the Poor
Rethinking the Politics of Poverty
By John Pepple
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 John Frederick Pepple
All rights reserved.
The Five Income Taxes
Before I give evidence that the left has been waging a war against the poor, I want to make an analogy. Imagine that there was not one, but five separate income taxes. Of these, one was the original income tax from the early part of the twentieth century, while the other four were new ones instituted in the 1960s by the Democrats. Imagine also that the following policies were in place. With respect to the original income tax, the Democrats demanded that it be high but also that it be progressive. In other words, they believed that the poor—and here I am including everyone in the bottom half as poor—should pay a smaller percentage of their income than the rich. However, with respect to the other four income taxes, the Democrats were indifferent. If those taxes happened to be regressive rather than progressive, they were not troubled.
The Republicans had a different policy. With respect to the original income tax, they weren't interested in whether it was progressive or not. They simply wanted the rates reduced. As for the other four income taxes, they wanted them eliminated.
Now, whose policies do you think the poor would prefer? Any Democrat who thinks that the poor would prefer their policies over those of the Republicans has blinders on. The poor don't like those extra four taxes, especially because those taxes tend to be regressive. The Democrats heartlessly say, "Well, you just have to pay them. They're needed." Meanwhile, the Republicans are saying, "We don't like those taxes either, and we want them eliminated."
Even worse, the Democrats' policy of having the original tax be high, the idea being that the money will be redistributed back to the poor, doesn't sit well with many poor people because (1) whatever they receive from a redistribution is gobbled up by paying the other four taxes, and (2) they believe that much of that money goes to people other than themselves anyway. Accordingly, they are stuck with high, mostly regressive taxes, and they don't like them at all. The Republicans swoop in and say, "We want to cut your tax rates." And many poor people love it.
From the late 1960s down to today, this has been the situation that Democrats have faced, and most of them have not understood it. This has had severe electoral consequences for the Democrats since at one time they regularly won presidential elections, whereas since the 1970s, their record has been much less impressive.
Since the 2008 election, what I am saying may not seem very important. There was a lot of talk after that election of a realignment in American politics, in which the Democrats would gain a lot of power and the Republicans would lose. I didn't believe this because I live in a lower-middle-class neighborhood, and I could see nothing there that would suggest any such realignment. It didn't surprise me at all when the Republicans came roaring back in 2010. Confidence returned to the Democrats with the 2012 election, but it may be a little misplaced. President Obama won re-election with fewer votes than he received in 2008, which isn't suggestive of a realignment. Anyway, the election of 2014 was another big win for the Republicans, a win that gave them control of the Senate and many state legislatures and governorships. Accordingly, I'm going to assume that any realignment is something that might happen twenty or thirty years from now, but is not happening right now, and so the Democrats are back to figuring out how to get more poor voters on their side.
Let me consider some other reasons leftists might be inclined to dismiss what I am saying. Many Democrats imagine the poor will always favor their policies. This is an article of faith among the Democrats to such a degree that perhaps not even using the analogy of the five income taxes will get through to them. In the minds of such ideologues, the left is the poor person's natural ally. That was carved in stone ages ago and can never be overthrown, nor can any amount of empirical evidence ever show them that some poor people now have different attitudes. But I say that poor people will generally go to whichever party or group they think will help them more. If they are desperate—and poor people often are—they will follow (whether knowingly or unknowingly) the adage, "Any port in a storm." Their attitude will be, "So what if I've been voting for the Democrats for half a century? I need help now, and while the Democrats are not willing to provide it, the Republicans are." Any Democrat who clings to the idea that the poor will always see the Democrats as their ally will never understand the election of various Republicans over the last half century, and they might as well save time and stop reading this book now.
A slightly less deluded Democrat may, when considering the extra taxes I am talking about, dismiss them as unimportant. He or she may say, "The Republicans hurt the poor so much through their other policies that these regressive taxes you talk about don't mean anything." But that isn't the way the poor see it. Their attitude is, "You should not be hurting us at all." The fact that they perceive the Democrats as hurting them makes them feel betrayed. When everything is toted up, it might be true that Republicans hurt the poor more than Democrats did, but I wouldn't bet on it. I believe that poor people, especially the working poor, have sound instincts and that they know better than Democratic theorists what their situation is and who is helping them more. But let's say they are wrong. It is nevertheless true that the workers believe that the Democrats betrayed them, and people who feel betrayed are not necessarily going to think rationally about the matter. They will just vote for the Republicans to get back at the Democrats.
Another response of the Democrats may be to blame the regressive nature of those new taxes on the Republicans. This response, however, doesn't seem especially intelligent. It was Democrats who wanted those extra taxes, not Republicans. The Republicans simply want them eliminated. Democrats may claim that the new taxes our country ended up with were a compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans, that the Democrats wanted them to be progressive but had to settle for them being regressive if they wanted to have them at all. However, I know of no historical evidence for such a claim. As far as I can tell, the Democrats never even considered the possibility that their new taxes were regressive. Their rhetoric would have been vastly different during the last fifty years if they had. No one who knew they were instituting regressive taxes would have also talked about "fairness" as much as the Democrats have these last few decades, so this explanation has to be jettisoned. The Democrats alone are to blame for the regressive nature of these new taxes.
Now of course if the Democrats were to make these new taxes progressive, poor people might change their minds. They would then feel those taxes were less of a burden or not a burden at all, and they would stop seeing the Democrats as their enemy. But so far the Democrats aren't demanding such a policy, and there seems little chance that they will. Accordingly, the schism between the poor and the Democrats will likely continue. The Democrats' only hope for dissolving this schism is to wish that the Republicans will make enough missteps for the poor to abandon them and go back to the Democrats. But such a tack will never cause the poor to go back wholeheartedly. Instead, they will go back grudgingly and will abandon the Democrats again as soon as the Republicans look more viable. The only tack that will work is to stop imposing regressive taxes.
In making my analogy and drawing my conclusions, I am going against the views of Garrison Keillor in his book Homegrown Democrat, for Keillor believes that the Democrats want to help people. Likewise, I am going against what Thomas Frank says in his book What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank imagines that the poor are reacting to social policies rather than economic policies, but I have to disagree. Many policies that the Democrats instituted several decades ago have economic consequences for the poor that the Democrats somehow cannot see. Of course, some poor people abandoned the Democrats because of a single social issue (abortion, for example), and it may be impossible to woo such voters back. But most, I believe, left because of economic rather than social policies.
Let me note that, while the left has been hurting all poor people, it has generally been poor whites who have reacted by going over to the Republicans. The situation is quite different for poor blacks because the support they get from the Democrats is so huge that they are willing to overlook these extra taxes. But for poor whites, it is a different matter, and for poor white males, it is a very different matter. Poor white males don't receive any special support from the Democrats, and so they have basically left the party. Many poor white women have joined them, either because they are resentful on behalf of the men in their lives or because they see the support that Democrats have offered women as something that goes to upper class and middle class women rather than to themselves.
I know that many Democrats will be shocked at what I am saying and will want to reject it. The Democrats' illusion is that they are the party that helps the little guy, but I am saying that is not true. What their party does instead is to help some little guys while ignoring other little guys; maybe it even goes so far as to help some little guys at the expense of other little guys. Or it helps the little guy in some ways, while hurting him in other ways. The result has been that a large number of little guys have left the party. A few, generally the older ones, have stayed. But many others have either dropped out of politics altogether, or they split their vote, or having felt betrayed, they vote Republican.
The Democrats' explanation for the behavior of these people never puts the blame where it lies, namely on their own policies. Instead, Democrats believe that these people have been bamboozled by right-wing propaganda, or else that they are too racist or sexist to accept the new policies, or (the latest explanation noted above, from Frank) that they are influenced by social policies rather than economics. All of these explanations miss the stunning reality of the last fifty years, which is that the Democrats are no longer the wholehearted friends of the poor. Democrats will sometimes favor policies that help the poor, but just as often they will favor policies in which the poor get the shaft. Or they will favor some of the poor, but not others. Whatever the case, it is bad news for the Democrats, either because they lose elections or because they win them by smaller margins than they otherwise would.
Moreover, the reactions of the poor who have been hurt by the Democrats leads to certain consequences that Democrats haven't liked. To begin with, there is the decline of the word "liberal." For many poor people who used to like liberals, the word now has an odious connotation. Second, Democrats love to talk about social injustice and how they are helping overcome this problem and how the Republicans aren't. They often get angry when this plea falls on deaf ears. But it falls on deaf ears for many people who have drifted away from the Democrats over the last fifty years because (1) they feel that they themselves have been victims of social injustice, (2) they believe that the Democrats and not the Republicans are responsible for the social injustice that they have experienced, and (3) they can see that their suffering doesn't matter to the Democrats. No one should be surprised when such people are unmoved by talk from the Democrats about social injustice. No one should be surprised when they just tune out.
Let me close by repeating what I said in the Introduction: perhaps leftists think they couldn't possibly be waging a war against the poor because that war would take a certain form, such as pushing to end welfare, exploiting the workers, and so forth. But there are many ways to hurt the poor. Conservatives don't have a monopoly on those ways, as I shall elucidate in the next few chapters.CHAPTER 2
The Environment or the Poor: Which Has Greater Priority for Leftists?
Today my wife and I have a comfortable middle class existence, but twenty years ago we were quite poor. I was mostly unemployed, and my wife was struggling to finish her doctoral thesis. We were living in Minnesota, and two things happened to us that highlighted the good and the bad of leftist politics.
Minnesota has a special tax refund for renters known colloquially as rent credit. The idea behind the rent credit refund is that renters are paying property taxes indirectly through their rent, but that property taxes are regressive, so they deserve to pay less. The rent credit program allows them a refund. Since my wife and I were poor, and since we were paying comparatively high rent, we got a fat refund from the state.
That was leftist politics at its best. Here it is at its worst.
Everyone in the Twin Cities was at that time required to have their car inspected every year to ensure that it wasn't polluting too much. One year our car failed, and we had to have it "repaired." The repair cost us over a hundred dollars. Given our income, that was a huge bite. That was leftist politics at its worst: it was punishing the poor for being too poor to have a new car.
It is amazing that no one on the left seems to have realized that a well-meaning environmental program like this one actually hurts the poor. In fact, it was a triple whammy against the poor because (1) the poor are more likely than the rich to have older cars that will fail the test; (2) the money required to repair the car represents a greater percentage of a poor person's income than a rich person's income; and (3) the poor are much less likely to have a second vehicle to use while their first vehicle is being repaired. The last item may be a minor annoyance, but the first two are substantial.
It Is Virtually Impossible To Have Two Issues as Your Top Priority
Let me note that this example I have given is hardly unique, and I will give more examples later. For now, I will point out that (1) the policy that caused us trouble was an environmental policy; (2) environmentalism has overwhelmed leftist politics ever since the 1960s; and (3) leftists, whether they know it or not, prefer to help the environment rather than the poor. In other words, one cannot have both helping the poor and helping the environment as one's top priority; one must choose one or the other. Most leftists have chosen helping the environment over helping the poor, yet they imagine that helping the poor is still their top priority.
What happens when one tries to have two priorities? At some point one has to make a decision. Sooner or later an issue emerges in which one can either help the environment and hurt the poor, or help the poor and hurt the environment. Which does one choose if one is trying to help both? There are no easy answers here, but there are several options. One could try to help the environment while crafting a policy so the poor wouldn't be hurt; but this may mean having a less than ideal environmental policy or else a lower likelihood of its being implemented. Or one could carefully weigh the pros and cons for each decision and make whichever choice entails the least amount of hurt. Or one could set up in advance a randomizing procedure like flipping a coin so that, as conflicts emerged, the choice made would depend on that procedure and not on anything else. In that case, neither side—the environmentalists on one side and the poor on the other—would always be the winner. In practice, however, the left over the last few decades has always chosen helping the environment over helping the poor. In spite of a theoretical commitment to helping the poor, the poor have been left behind by environmentalism.
How Did We Get Here?
Hardly anyone on the left thinks about this choice. Generally, liberals and leftists seem to think that helping the environment means helping the leftist cause and that then there is no more to think about because everyone, including the poor, will be helped. But helping the environment generally means making sacrifices, and often the poor will have to make greater sacrifices than the rich. How did leftists get into such a predicament?
Excerpted from The Left's War Against the Poor by John Pepple. Copyright © 2015 John Frederick Pepple. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: The Left's Recent War Against The Poor, 17,
Chapter 1: The Five Income Taxes, 19,
Chapter 2: The Environment or the Poor: Which Has Greater Priority for Leftists?, 25,
Chapter 3: Being Soft on Crime, 46,
Chapter 4: Pushing for the Decline of Our Schools, 62,
Chapter 5: Making College Unaffordable, 73,
Chapter 6: A Miscellany of Smaller Complaints, 80,
Chapter 7: Conclusions Concerning the Left's War Against the Poor, 90,
Part II: Capitalism Is Not the Problem, 97,
Chapter 8: The Evils of Capitalism Can Arise Even When Capitalism Is Absent, 99,
Chapter 9: Eliminating Capitalism Doesn't Necessarily Help the Poor, 118,
Chapter 10: Eliminating Capitalism Causes Its Own Problems, 122,
Chapter 11: The Real Problems of the Industrial Revolution, 127,
Chapter 12: How the United States Overcame Those Problems, 132,
Part III: A Leftism by, for, and of the Poor, 139,
Chapter 13: The Left Is Run by Rich People, 141,
Chapter 14: Against Redistributions, 162,
Chapter 15: Listening to the Poor as They Vote with their Feet, 186,
Chapter 16: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: What Poor People Need and What Rich People's Leftism Doesn't Give Them, 191,
Chapter 17: Some Differences Between Rich People's Leftism and Poor People's Leftism, 211,
Chapter 18: A Closer Look at Some of These Differences, 220,
Chapter 19: A New Role for the Rich Leftist, 239,
Chapter 20: How to Do a Redistribution If It Is Needed, 242,
Chapter 21: Dispelling Some Myths about Capitalism, 245,
Chapter 22: How Is Poor People's Leftism Different from Conservatism or Libertarianism?, 267,
Chapter 23: A Whole New Leftism, 278,