Monday, April 30, 2012

The Politics of No

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is so unpopular in his state that his campaign for the upcoming recall election is a closely guarded secret. Campaign events are not publicized and are closed to the public. Even the campaign headquarters is at an undisclosed location.

Recall elections used to be uncommon in Wisconsin, but that was before Republicans there said there was no alternative but to suspend the constitution to pass a long series of austerity measures that most voters disagreed with. Since those measures passed, Wisconsin’s economy has collapsed, shrinking faster than that of any other state in the country. These are the problems with government austerity programs. First, they involve very visibly breaking promises, and then, they slow down the economy, and that is also a very visible problem.

Austerity programs are justified with the political argument that there is no other way. There is no alternative. Politicians might as well just be saying no. No, you cannot see a doctor. No, you cannot keep your job. No, there is no hope for the future.

This line of argument upsets voters perhaps just as much as the awful economic consequences of austerity programs. It is bad enough that some countries are seeing the highest unemployment rates most people alive can remember. When politicians say there is nothing that can be done to make things better, it is infuriating. In Wisconsin, Walker will have a hard time competing in the recall election if he is unable to show his face in public. Things are not quite so bad in Europe, yet one national government after another has been ousted there, a trend that may continue through next year.

Another problem with the assertion that there is no alternative is that it is not true. In political matters there are always alternatives. In the current situation, there are well-known alternatives that would make almost everyone better off. Any economist can tell you that a high level of unemployment is a waste of resources. More work gets done if people who want to work are working than if they are not. It is better to put people to work on any work of proportional value than to force them to sit idle. The reason this is not mentioned as a possibility is not that it is hard to do, but that it is upsetting to people in positions of power.

And that leads me to the fundamental problem of the politics of no. It is not just politicians saying no to the people. It is a whole entrenched power structure resisting change. Resistance, by nature, leads to more resistance, and voters and consumers are coming to realize that they can say no too.