Journalist Thomas B. Edsall

The veteran journalist discusses his new book, The Age of Austerity, and explains how austerity has become “a great political tool.”

A veteran reporter on national politics, Thomas Byrne Edsall spent 25 years with The Washington Post, where he covered presidential elections, the House and Senate, lobbying, tax policy, demographic trends, social welfare, the politics of race and ethnicity and organized labor. He’s now a professor at Columbia University and a correspondent for The New Republic and writes an online 2012 election column for The New York Times. Edsall is also the author of several books, including The Age of Austerity, and has written extensively for numerous magazines.


Tavis: Thomas Edsall is a professor of public affairs journalism at Columbia who spent 25 years covering politics for “The Washington Post.” He now writes an online column for “The New York Times.”

His new text is called “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.” Tom Edsall, first of all, thanks for coming on, and thank you for all the years of good reading courtesy of your penmanship. So thank you, sir.

Thomas Edsall: I’m honored to be here.

Tavis: I’m delighted to have you here. Let me start by asking whether or not austerity is overrated.

Edsall: It’s a great political tool. What has happened really is since 2008, with the economic collapse and the deficit and debt going way up, austerity has come to dominate all political thinking. If you look at Congress last year, that’s all they did was cut, cut, cut. The whole notion that the debt was out of hand, that we’re going to go broke, we’d be like Europe, all of that, whether it should be or shouldn’t be, it was.

That set a whole tone and tenor in Washington of basically zero-sum politics. If I win, you lose, if you win, I lose. That took the polarization that we already had in Washington between Republicans and Democrats and turned it into a pocketbook fight, making it all the more nasty. Well, at any rate, the results last year were pretty evident.

Tavis: What are the lessons at this moment to be learned about austerity from Greece, or is it too soon to draw lessons?

Edsall: Well, I think my own view, and I’m not an economist, is that trying to impose austere policies on a country on the ropes is not the wisest idea. Not just Greece, but England is having troubles, all the (unintelligible) countries in Europe. If you, at the time when the whole country is contracting, you then contract government spending on top of that, basically you restrict growth, you worsen the conditions at that moment.

I think, and there’s a pretty strong economic consensus on this, that at that juncture you should spend more, even though it may sound illogical to some people when the revenues are down, but spend more to juice things up and then do the cuts later once you’re back, your economy is back in gear and running.

Tavis: To your point then, now, Tom Edsall, why then does austerity always seem to be, or certainly at the moment seem to be the default position? Or put another way, why is that where politicians go first?

Edsall: Basically what happened is you have the 2008 election. It looks like the Democrats have finally figured out how to put together a majority. Republicans are anxious, fearful that the Democrats have a new majority that’s going to start beating their conservative majority that had really controlled politics for nearly 40 years.

Then the economic collapse occurs. That gives a whole new edge to the Tea Party. People think in terms of how their household budget works. They say, “Oh, we’ve got less money, we’ve got to cut back.” It gives the Republican Party a huge lever in politics and in policymaking, and they can portray Obama as being a big spender at a time – just driving up deficits, driving us into a European entitlement society.

It’s an ideal circumstance for one party. The Democrats are really split on this issue. You’ve got half of them are austerity Democrats, half are not austerity. So you have one party fully in favor of austerity; the other party divided and uncertain. In that circumstance, the people who are united are going to win.

Tavis: Your statement now leads me to three more questions, so thank you very much for that. (Laughter)

Edsall: No, keep going.

Tavis: The first is – no, I’m enjoying this. I’m learning from it. The first is why Democrats are divided on this particular issue. If you consider what we are told, at least, the Democratic base is how could Democrats be divided on austerity?

Edsall: Democrats are always divided, for one thing. (Laughter) That’s inherent in the party.

Tavis: Yeah, okay, I accept that.

Edsall: Secondly, there are divisions in class, race and ethnicity within the Democratic Party that are less so in the Republican Party, which is fundamentally an overwhelmingly white party.

The Democratic Party has a very substantial – one of its biggest growing blocs are fairly upscale, well-educated white professionals. At the same time there are more poor people, but in terms of having the real voice and if you look at a Democratic Party convention, the people who attend the convention set the policy platform, who are the party activists, really come from this more elite sector.

You then have labor unions; you have poor people, relatively poor people. These are real tensions. You then have racial tensions. Blacks are overwhelmingly Democratic but they are – and Hispanics are pretty solidly Democratic, but the party is just now getting to the tipping point where the party itself will soon become majority minority, but it has not yet achieved that point.

When you’re in that state, that’s a real state of flux. You see that in cities like Chicago, Baltimore. Every time they’re right at that tipping point, if anything, conflicts become more intense.

You then add the sense of austerity and everybody’s trying to protect what they have, and so you add racial conflicts, ethnic conflicts and class conflicts and you add to that austerity, you make it a very nasty fight and you have that clearly between the Republicans and Democrats, and you have it as an underlying issue within the Democratic Party.

Tavis: Give me a second to set this up, this question, that is, because I want to get you to unpack for me a bit more your notion that this almost all-white Republican Party is pro-austerity, and I agree with you on that.

But here’s what I don’t get about that. The party may be overwhelmingly white, but poverty in this country is no longer color-coded, number one. Number two, I believe that the new poor in this country are the former middle class, and the former middle class aren’t all Democrats. I think you see where I’m headed with this.

There are many in the Republican Party, and many who consider themselves and who vote Republican, who have been just as hurt in this economic downturn as Democrats are, so how can their party abandon them in the name of austerity?

Edsall: One, the people who are really hurt really are more democratic than – when you start cutting more social programs, they are more Democrats than there are Republicans.

Tavis: Agreed, but not exclusively, though.

Edsall: Nope, not exclusively.

Tavis: Yeah.

Edsall: Secondly, a lot of people see Obama and the Democratic Party as trying to take away from them. They see Obamacare as a program providing healthcare basically to poor and low-income people who are not now covered by any health insurance, and they see that done, in part, financed by cuts in Medicare, which is the older program serving basically a much whiter population, I might add, old – as you go down the generational sort of ladder, the oldest people are the most white. The youngest people are the most minority.

So you have an older white constituency getting Medicare but seeing it cut in order to pay for Obamacare. They see themselves taking a hit in order for money to go to them to be put in the context that they see things.

Like you see the Tea Party, the 2010 election saw a huge surge of senior voters switching to the Republican Party, and you also saw a big surge in the 2010 election of white voters voting in larger numbers and by bigger margins for Republicans. So white strategy worked in 2010.

Tavis: I hear the argument, convoluted though it might be, I hear the argument and it is plausible, but it’s not persuasive. It’s not persuasive because you either have to be terrible politically naïve, respectfully, or completely stuck on stupid to somehow blame – and this is not a defense of Mr. Obama; watchers of this program every night know that I’m not defending President Obama.

Edsall: Yeah.

Tavis: But you have to be politically naïve or just completely stuck on stupid to not in that argument make any connection to Wall Street, to the rich and the lucky and the greedy. But it’s all about Obama? Obamacare just started and hadn’t even kicked in yet. As you know, most of this stuff hasn’t kicked in yet.

So how do you make the argument that it’s Obama – I’m just trying to get inside people’s heads, and you’ve done the research here – how do you make the argument that it’s Obamacare and not the greedy Wall Street banksters, who everybody knows we, Republicans and Democrats, we bailed them out, but you want to blame Obama for this?

Edsall: I cannot explain the rationality or lack of it in the political system. Clearly, the Tea Party has not been an anti-Wall Street movement, if you look at it. They’re not calling for tougher regulation. They’re not calling for ending “too big to fail.”

Tavis: That’s right.

Edsall: That’s not part of their message at all.

Tavis: Right.

Edsall: It is all cut the budget, cut spending, cut the programs, basically, that serve what they see as the undeserving poor. I agree with you that Wall Street ripped off the country to an extraordinary degree, but it just hasn’t translated into the political system, and there’s – I wish I had a good answer for that. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m like, keep on trying, Mr. Edsall, because respectfully, you ain’t got there yet, and I know you –

Edsall: No, you’re absolutely right to raise the question, but it’s one of the big, amazing things. It’s not just in this country, but conservative parties, since the economic collapse, have been on the rise here and in Europe, and the Social Democratic Party or the Democratic Party here, but Social Democratic parties, which are sort of the equivalent in Europe, all of them have taken a hit since the economic collapse.

There has not been this reaction that you’re describing that may well be perfectly rational. Who should you be mad at because you’re out of work? Not Obamacare, you’re absolutely right. It does not go into effect until 2014.

Tavis: It just doesn’t equate for me at this point, yeah.

Edsall: But it’s just not clicking that way, and –

Tavis: What do you think this conversation, since you’re covering the presidential race and writing this blog for “The New York Times,” where do you think this conversation about austerity and about scarcity is going to go in the presidential race as we move forward?

Assuming that Mr. – who knows if Mr. Santorum’s still hanging around, but if Mr. Romney pulls this off, given his background, which I don’t need to get into with you or the audience, for that matter, they know this full well, given who Obama is and who Romney is, where does this conversation again about austerity and scarcity go in this campaign?

Edsall: Well, clearly, Romney has staked out a position where he’s saying he wants to prevent the emergency of an entitlement society. He wants to cut back the entitlement state.

I’m not sure he realizes fully what he’s saying, because there’s been a study came out just this week, last week, showing that 90 percent of entitlement spending does not go to poor people. It goes to old people; it goes to people who are disabled.

It’s not being channeled into welfare; it’s being channeled into programs to people who need it. But he basically is using entitlement, I think, in a way to describe basically welfare, not entitlement as it in fact is. But he certainly is going after entitlement.

He’s talked about Obama wants to turn this country into a European welfare state mentality where more people are getting money from the government than are making money.

He has moved, himself, personally, as has the Republican Party, moved considerably to the right on these issues. Obama I don’t think really likes this kind of fight, but he has also moved more to the left, and in effect you’re getting two guys, Romney, who really was a moderate Republican back in the day of his Massachusetts days, and Obama, who’s a very moderate centrist Democrat, both of them getting pushed into positions that are much more ideological, and we’re going to have a really very interesting, ideological 2012.

Tavis: Do you really believe Barack Obama has moved to the left, or is Obama offering up a populist message at campaign time?

Edsall: The latter. If he had his own way he would – his whole belief system was that he thought he could bring love and consensus to Washington, and it turned out that, in fact, there wasn’t a market for love and consensus in Washington. That there’s sort of a political war taking place and he was not able to step into it and bring everyone together.

Tavis: You did a fascinating piece and asked viewers and readers to respond. What was the takeaway for you when you ask people on the right to offer up what the left is getting right, and conversely, you asked folk on the left to say and offer up what folk on the right were doing right. What did you take away from that?

Edsall: Well, I was surprised. People on the left were more generous to people on the right –

Tavis: And that surprised you?

Edsall: Hm?

Tavis: That surprised you? (Laughs)

Edsall: No, actually, it – there’s been a lot of studies of the character of what it is to be a conservative, what it is to be a liberal.

Tavis: Right.

Edsall: Conservatives are tougher. They fight harder, they fight for their own, and they’re willing to win for themselves and they’re willing to impose pain on the opposition.

Liberals are much less willing to do that. They’re much more – they would much rather give to everybody, and I think they conceded a fair amount of ground to conservatives when I did this story – two stories, actually.

Whereas conservatives would say things like, “Liberals do care more about people. They bring some compassion that we need to pay attention to, but they should never be left in charge.” They kept stressing sort of like the role for the left is to be advisory, keep us a little bit in check, but we’re the ones who need to be in charge, running the show.

Whereas the left never really made that distinction. They would just say there’s some interesting things conservatives have to say and arguments, and we should pay attention to them. They wouldn’t keep trying to say, “But we should be the ones in charge, no matter what.”

Tavis: As I’ve said before on this program, Tom Edsall, I think that after their winter solstice break, the Occupy movement is going to come back strong in the spring.

Situate as you see it, situate for me where and how the Occupy movement, back online, will fit into this debate about austerity and scarcity in America.

Edsall: Well, they’ve already had quite a substantial effect, I think. Before they had surfaced, the whole argument was totally on budget cutting and austerity. They have added to that debate and they’ve forced the issues of inequality and basically the lack of mobility, which are two key issues, and very present.

We’ve obviously had much more inequality. But America has tolerated inequality because people think they can get ahead. If you have immobility on top of inequality, then people are not going to be happy campers.

If you’re stuck on the bottom and there just isn’t much churning in society and you’re stuck there through your adulthood, that’s not a nice life to look forward to. So they have raised those issues and they have put them on the table.

It will be interesting to see what role they play come – especially during the election and as we get to the conventions in the summer of this year. Will they conduct major protests at both conventions? Will it actually hurt the Democrats to have, say, the protests get violent? I don’t know. These are a lot of ifs and we’ll see.

Tavis: If you had said to me, with the subtitle of this book, Tom, that this age of austerity would reposition American politics, I’d buy that. But you suggest that it’s going to remake American politics.

I’m not suggesting I don’t buy that. Repositioning the debate is one thing, remaking America, redefining America, this debate, that is, is quite another. Tell me why you make the latter argument.

Edsall: Because we’ve had a country where up until recently you could pretty well depend on continued growth. If you look at the gross domestic product, the stock market, all these things are upward to their trajectories over the years. What that’s meant is that when you’re bargaining in Congress you can say, “Okay, conservatives, you can have some tax cuts, liberals, you can have some more social spending,” and you can cut a deal. Not everyone’s happy, but everyone gets a piece of this bigger pie.

What’s changed is now, and especially if austerity becomes the ingrained – whether it’s right or wrong – becomes ingrained in the system and people act as if austerity is necessary, it’s that you have a zero sum or negative sum situation.

For every gain you make, I’ve got to take a hit. It may even be worse than that. One of us has to take a hit; the other one’s just going to hold on desperately to what he’s got.

I think you see that in politics now, where the Republicans are determined not to give anything on a tax hike issue, even though the public, in fact, supported tax hikes on the wealthy by pretty strong margins. They just didn’t bend. They’re not going to cave. They forced all of the reductions in spending to be focused on domestic spending, not on tax increases.

Tavis: So how much, then, of this debate about austerity has to do purely with ideology and nothing to do with ideas?

Edsall: Well, I don’t know if you can say “nothing,” because there are some believers in this. But an austerity debate favors conservatives. If you have austerity as your dominant theme, it favors conservatives really for two reasons. One is you’re cutting – they want to cut.

Tavis: Right.

Edsall: But even more than that, that atmosphere means people in the middle, everyone starts thinking about I’ve got to protect what I have, I’ve got to hold on to it, I don’t want to give anything to anyone else.

The liberal posture really requires a willingness to give to others, and that works, as I say, when you have an expanding pie. But if you don’t have an expanding pie, everyone starts hunkering down.

Tavis: See, and that’s what gets me and what kills me. I believe that austerity leads to nativism, and I don’t know how that’s a winning –

Edsall: It does.

Tavis: That’s not a winning strategy, long-term.

Edsall: But you’re talking reality and I’m talking politics. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Edsall: I don’t mean to – there’s nothing wrong with talking reality. (Laughter) But you’re absolutely right. Like this nativism, Arizona is a great case study. In 2003, when things were growing like crazy there and their economy and everyone’s building, they passed, by referendum, the voters approved a huge expansion in the Medicaid program so that every adult who was poor qualified to get Medicare.

They knew that a lot of the people who would be getting Medicare would be Hispanic in Arizona. It sounds like they’re being nice, generous, giving. Come 2008 in the decline, they become the lead dogs in the anti-immigrant fight. So at a time of prosperity they take a liberal position. Things go downhill, they get nasty.

Tavis: I’ve got just a minute to go here, and I could do this for hours, but just a minute to go. The budget that President Obama has just offered up – are there any signals here about how this thing is going to trend, at least where he stands?

Edsall: Well, the budget this year is probably going to be a gridlock fight. No one is going to win. But he’s staking out the position that we’ve got to spend some money now on infrastructure, on community colleges, start training people for jobs, and basically taking what a lot of economists tend to agree with – that you have to, at this juncture, going for austerity is not a good strategy.

The problem is he set himself up by supporting a lot of the austerity principles early on in his administration. Now he’s trying to regain control of the debate. But Romney is staking out the opposite position and the Republicans will soon.

So we’re going to have a real – the budget will be a big fight, but I don’t think it’s going to get anywhere.

Tavis: Quickly here, speaking of the president staking out one position and then doing a 180, how does his embrace, although – how does his embrace of this super-PAC reality make all of this even more muddied?

Edsall: It makes it a lot more muddied, because the people who give to the super-PACs are the rich constituents. They’re guys who can write million-dollar checks.

Tavis: Or more.

Edsall: Or more – a lot more.

Tavis: Yeah.

Edsall: That’s not the core constituency of the Democratic Party, so those divides that I was talking about at the beginning, if anything, it accentuates the divides.

Tavis: I’ve loved his work for years, loved reading it, and I’m honored to have him on this program. His new text is called “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.” His name, Thomas Edsall. Mr. Edsall, an honor to have you on the program. Thank you, sir.

Edsall: Been great to be with you.

Tavis: I enjoyed the conversation. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in to PBS, and keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm