Dog Whistles, Poverty Traps, Lyin’ Paul Ryan and My Sister’s Scumbag Ex-Husband


The austerity strategy of Paul Ryan, the Fix the Debt crowd, and other Very Serious People has failed, but only after doing huge damage. Indeed, Fix the Debt pretty much has been disbanded. Imagine that? A bunch of billionaires telling us we need to stick it to retirees couldn’t get any traction.

Now we’re back to plain old dog whistle politics. On that front, lyin’ Paul Ryan has stepped in it again, talking about how men in inner cities lack of a culture of work. I’m not sure that’s even in dog whistle territory. It sounds a bit closer to outright race baiting. And as the BlueMeanie reported, Ryan’s dog whistle even works in references to eugenists. As Laura Clawson of Daily Kos reported, even when he walked it back, Ryan whistled a bit.

Of course, dog whistle politics is best combined with talk of “poverty traps,” those disincentives our safety net programs create for the poor to work. The upshot? “We don’t need no big government administering programs for minorities so they won’t bother to get jobs.”

Our buddy Ryan is all over that message. And so’s my sister’s scumbag ex-husband, Michael Tanner. Here’s a guy who has spent the bulk of his career at the Cato Institute, living off the tax-deductible contributions of the Koch brothers, yet feels entitled to make judgments about others. Tanner explains how In fighting the “job lock,” Democrats may have opened a poverty trap. Ryan, Tanner and their cohorts (including the Thuckmeister, by the way) seize on the fact that the loss of safety net benefits, combined with taxes can create a disincentive for safety net beneficiaries to find work. Of course, neither Tanner nor Ryan speak about the possible solutions to so-called poverty traps. They just use the existence of the poverty traps as a basis to argue for the elimination of safety net benefits.

Paul Krugman does a good job of calling bullshit on the poverty trap malarkey in his op-ed, The Hammock Fallacy:

But why, exactly, should that be such a concern? Mr. Ryan would have us believe that the “hammock” created by the social safety net is the reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty. But the evidence says nothing of the kind.

After all, if generous aid to the poor perpetuates poverty, the United States — which treats its poor far more harshly than other rich countries, and induces them to work much longer hours — should lead the West in social mobility, in the fraction of those born poor who work their way up the scale. In fact, it’s just the opposite: America has less social mobility than most other advanced countries.

And there’s no puzzle why: it’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive in later life than those who didn’t. But we don’t do enough along these lines. The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much; it’s that it helps them too little.

Which brings us back to the hypocrisy issue. It is, in a way, nice to see the likes of Mr. Ryan at least talking about the need to help the poor. But somehow their notion of aiding the poor involves slashing benefits while cutting taxes on the rich. Funny how that works.

In my mind, however, it’s more basic than that, which may be what Krugman was alluding to in his last sentence. There may very well be poverty traps in our safety net system.  But the solution to those poverty traps is not to cut off aid to those in need, including innocent children. That’s absurd, but its the solution Ryan and Tanner hint at when they speak of poverty traps. The obviously better solution would be to restructure the phase out of benefits in our safety net programs so as to eliminate poverty traps.

But that’s not where folks like Ryan and Tanner want to go. Why? Because that doesn’t make for good dog whistle politics. Once you’ve put someone on a path to work and self-sufficiency, you’re no longer in a position to demonize him for his laziness, no matter how black he is. So Ryan and Tanner really have no interest in  fixing the situation they bemoan.

Democrats are feeling smug about dog whistle politics these days. They think demographics are on their side. I’m not so sure. Here’s Ian Hanley Lopez speaking to Bill Moyers last week on Moyers & Company:

I think that’s exactly right. So this is where I say dog whistle politics is going to evolve. Now, a lot of Democratic strategists are looking at these numbers. They’re saying the Latino population’s increasing, they’re saying the Asian population’s increasing. Then they’re saying, we don’t need to worry about dog whistle politics anymore. Demography’s going to solve this for us. Let’s just hang tight. 2012 showed us the good news, Barack Obama could win, even though there was a 20 percent deficit in terms of white voters, 20 percent more voted for Romney than Obama, but Obama won the White House anyway. Let’s not worry about this.

That’s a recipe for disaster. Because dog whistling is going to evolve. And if it has to evolve in a way that brings in certain portions of the Latino population, certain portions of the Asian population, that’s what it’s likely to do. Unless we start addressing this within minority communities, but also in terms of national politics, we should expect these sorts of racial provocations to continue to define our politics for the next decade, two decades, three decades.

The Democrats following a recipe for disaster? No way. Couldn’t happen. Any interest in a bridge?


  1. Great post. We really enjoyed your tax and spend talk at Drinking Liberally.

    Your theory that the 1%’s overriding strategy is wage suppression is spot on. By keeping wages low and slashing safety net benefits (like Medicaid, food stamps, and unemployment) they can keep the 99% desperate.

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