The 2020 campaign saw Biden label Trump voters as “chumps”, adding this trash talk to Clinton’s 2016 calling them “deplorables.” This article digs into how subversive and destructive is the progressive drive to have government policies deliver outcomes regardless of individual effort and talent. James B. Meigs explains in his article at City Journal The Chump Effect. Excerpts in italics with my bolds.
Progressive policies penalize those who play by the rules and shower benefits on those who don’t.
Last January, a small but telling exchange took place at an Elizabeth Warren campaign event in Grimes, Iowa. At the time, Warren was attracting support from the Democratic Party’s left flank, with her bulging portfolio of progressive proposals. “Warren Has a Plan for That” read her campaign T-shirts. The biggest buzz surrounded her $1.25 trillion plan to pay off student-loan debt for most Americans.
A man approached Warren with a question. “My daughter is getting out of school. I’ve saved all my money [so that] she doesn’t have any student loans. Am I going to get my money back?”
“Of course not,” Warren replied.
“So you’re going to pay for people who didn’t save any money, and those of us who did the right thing get screwed?”
A video of the exchange went viral. It summed up the frustration many feel over the way progressive policies so often benefit select groups, while subtly undermining others. Saving money to send your children to college used to be considered a hallmark of middle-class responsibility. By subsidizing people who run up large debts, Warren’s policy would penalize those who took that responsibility seriously. “You’re laughing at me,” the man said, when Warren seemed to wave off his concerns. “That’s exactly what you’re doing. We did the right thing and we get screwed.”
That father was expressing an emotion growing more common these days: he felt like a chump. Feeling like a chump doesn’t just mean being upset that your taxes are rising or annoyed that you’re missing out on some windfall. It’s more visceral than that. People feel like chumps when they believe that they’ve played a game by the rules, only to discover that the game is rigged. Not only are they losing, they realize, but their good sportsmanship is being exploited. The players flouting the rules are the ones who get the trophy.
Like that Iowa dad, the chumps of modern America feel that the life choices they’re most proud of—working hard, taking care of their families, being good citizens—aren’t just undervalued, but scorned.
Thousands of norms, rules, and traditions make civilized life possible. Some, like paying taxes or not littering, are enshrined in law. Others are informal. Most of us take pride in adhering to basic standards of etiquette and fairness, to say nothing of following the law. And we have a deep emotional investment in having the people around us follow these norms as well. There’s a reason that we call selfish, disruptive, or criminal behavior “antisocial.” We know that if everyone stopped paying their taxes, or started running red lights and shoplifting, our society would be on its way to collapse.
It’s bad enough when some random jerk makes you feel like a chump; it’s much worse when government policies create entire classes of chumps. Warren fizzled as a presidential candidate, but her activist positions remain very much in play, promoted by far-left Democrats and party leaders. Many of these plans would penalize people who follow traditional norms and shower benefits on those who don’t. Joe Biden’s platform includes many similar proposals, including a scaled-down college-debt plan. And, across the country, progressive governors, mayors, and district attorneys are pushing local policies—including ultra-lenient treatment of lawbreakers—that turn responsible citizens into chumps, too. The economic and ideological disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have only intensified this ongoing bifurcation of America. Call it the Chump Effect.
Both types of Chump-Effect policies—those that unfairly distribute benefits and those that normalize transgressive behavior—are dismissive of what many call bourgeois norms. Policies that selectively favor the needs, or tolerate the misdeeds, of certain groups often have the perverse corollary of undermining the norm followers. When disruptive students remain in the classroom, it’s their attentive classmates who suffer. If a big business games federal programs for an unfair advantage, smaller businesses and consumers pay the price. What’s particularly galling about such policies isn’t just that they reward norm violators—it’s that they’re predicated on the assumption that everyone else will continue adhering to the norms. That’s wishful thinking, of course. Over time, policies that excuse lax behavior by the few will begin to influence the many, corroding the standards that keep a society healthy.
Politicians ignore such primal forces at their peril. On the right, free-market advocates have long downplayed the social tensions caused by rising income inequality. Today, many young people, facing poor job prospects despite heavy education debts, see American society—and capitalism itself—as fundamentally unfair. That’s one reason the initial outrage over George Floyd’s death ballooned into a much broader protest movement. But policies promoted on the left can also lead to backlashes. Under Barack Obama, many heartland Americans believed that government policies were biased toward helping undocumented immigrants and educated elites, while undermining opportunities for the middle class. That frustration led to the Tea Party movement and, later, the stunning rise of Trump.
“Democrats believe we must embed environmental justice, economic justice, and climate justice at the heart of our policy and governing agenda,” the party platform states, using the coded jargon of the modern Left. In progressive circles, “justice” doesn’t mean fairness or evenhandedness; it describes a world in which every problem is the fault of some entrenched power group. Therefore, every solution should involve both special aid for the victims and some sort of punishment for those who created the problem.
The Democratic platform promises a root-and-branch overhaul of federal programs to ensure that they operate according to elaborate calculations of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other metrics. As the country struggles through the Covid recession, for example, the party promises that funds supporting small businesses will flow preferentially to companies owned by women and minorities and promises to “combat gentrification” and offer relief from “exorbitant” rents. (Under the “justice” paradigm, landlords are guilty until proven innocent.) A Biden Department of Education would bring back Obama-era rules forbidding “disparate disciplinary treatment” of students based on race. In practice, that means that students will be disciplined not based on the frequency of their misbehavior but according to racial quotas.
Even Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan seems designed more to spread wealth among favored groups than to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
You’d think anyone who believes that climate change is an existential threat would want to build green infrastructure as quickly and as cheaply as possible—the faster it’s deployed, the quicker emissions come down, right? But in announcing his plan, Biden said, “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’” His platform proposes obligating green contractors to hire union workers, which would drive up costs dramatically. “And we will do all this with an eye towards equity, access, benefits, and ownership opportunities for frontline communities,” the platform says. In other words, expect every green project to be bogged down in endless reviews to ensure that contractors and workers represent the prescribed racial and gender mix. The plan is a recipe for high costs, slow progress—and sweetheart deals. Who pays for this? Ordinary consumers—the chumps—who will see their energy, food, and other expenses skyrocket, all for surprisingly little environmental benefit.
The platform offers sticks along with carrots. Some far-left climate advocates tend to focus more on their desire to drag energy companies into court than on the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. “These are criminals,” Bernie Sanders has said of fossil-fuel executives. Warren uses similar language. Biden’s platform also threatens legal action against companies that “put profit over people.” For these politicians, the top priority seems to be ensuring that the right villains are punished and the correct “frontline communities” get their subsidies. They are less interested in how much their policies will actually help the climate or how deeply they will disrupt the lives of ordinary Americans.
California is a test case in how environmental programs can wind up burdening the poor and middle class while benefiting the affluent.
For example, people who purchase electric cars in California receive a state rebate of up to $4,500 per vehicle. Given that the most popular EV in California is the luxury Tesla, with an average price of over $50,000, we can assume that few lower-income people are cashing these checks. EV owners also get the right to drive—alone—in the coveted high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the state’s crowded freeways. The upshot: while working-class chumps stew in traffic, rich Tesla owners sail by in their own special “diamond lane,” serenely isolated from the gas-burning hoi polloi.
In 2010, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds made an offhand comment on his Instapundit blog. The government often tries to expand the middle class by subsidizing the things that middle-class people have, he observed:
If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status; they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits—self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc.—that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
Since then, that insight has been cited so often that it’s become known as Reynolds’s Law. It’s based on a deep truth: success in life isn’t determined by owning things, or even having a high income. It is largely the result of certain habits that lead to lifelong advancement—what economists call “cultural capital.”
Sadly, the values that lifted generations of immigrants out of poverty have been under thoroughgoing attack for at least two generations. In an effort not to stigmatize the poor, social-welfare reformers overshot the target and also dismantled the stigmas against behaviors that keep people poor. It became considered unseemly to criticize unwed childbearing, drug use, or even petty crime. Under the social-justice paradigm, those behaviors were reframed—not as choices but as symptoms of an unjust social structure.
In a weird revival of racist stereotypes, today’s critical-race theorists see dysfunctional behaviors occasionally found among minority groups as being emblematic of those groups. In turn, traits that help people succeed—ones shared by cultures around the world—are stigmatized as typically “white.” Earlier this year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture explained this bizarre framework on its website. A handy chart summarized some of those “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness,” including “self-reliance,” “the nuclear family,” and the idea that “hard work is the key to success.” Reliance on the scientific method, mathematics, and “rational linear thinking” were also identified as instruments of white dominance.
If a secret arm of the KKK created a doctrine designed to undermine the advancement of minority communities, it could hardly do a better job than the Smithsonian’s woke theorists.
Chump-Effect policies don’t just undermine societal values; they also typically fail at their stated goals. One reason they so often backfire is that they rely on present-tense thinking. Lawmakers—and the voters they answer to—tend to look at issues in the current moment, rather than seeing them as evolving conditions. So they create policies to solve a problem for a particular group of people right now, without considering the perverse incentives that their program puts in place.
Rent control is a classic example: a ceiling on rent hikes certainly helps current tenants. But years pass; family incomes climb; children grow up. Decades later, a well-off widow might be paying minimal rent to stay in an apartment much bigger than she needs. With many people like her staying put in underutilized apartments, the price of unregulated units soars, making it hard, if not impossible, for the next generation of low-income families to find housing. Landlords, the chumps in this scenario, adjust by cutting back on maintenance, and sometimes by simply walking away from money-losing buildings. “Rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city,” writes Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck, “except for bombing.” Somehow, this reality always takes progressives by surprise. True to form, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year proposed a federal rent control law, and she has joined in the campaign to #CancelRent in the wake of the Covid crisis.
Eliminating penalties for petty crimes is another example of present-tense thinking. Reduced penalties for “minor” offenses in several states have led to huge spikes in shoplifting and other crimes. In Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and other cities, progressive DAs have cut back on prosecutions of many low-level crimes. The University of Chicago’s Charles Lipson calls the new policy “‘Go ahead, break our windows’ policing.” And, just as the Broken Windows theory would predict, the resulting upswing in lawbreaking goes beyond petty crime. According to the Wall Street Journal, homicides have spiked in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest cities.
Nonetheless, progressives see tolerance for transgressive behavior as a kind of moral duty. If the perpetrators are poor, or perceived as targets of injustice, the plight of their victims is a secondary concern. After all, the progressive project focuses on structural inequities—that is, the status of entire groups of people as being part of either oppressive or oppressed classes. If a particular crime—say, an unjustified police shooting of a minority suspect—seems to embody that power dynamic, it becomes the focus of national attention. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself. Unjustified police shootings should merit calls for reform. But if crimes don’t fit the framework—say, gang-related killings, vastly more common—they get little notice. In the end, the large majority of people in poor communities who actually do follow the law are treated as chumps.
This selective focus has been on dramatic display during the months of protests following the Floyd killing. It’s true that only a small fraction of protests turned violent, but those incidents still added up to thousands of cases of looting and arson and dozens of shootings. Most didn’t make the national news. And, while the peaceful protesters have mostly returned to their lives, the violent minority is growing more emboldened.
Independent journalist Michael Tracey, who spent weeks touring overlooked riot zones in cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Olympia, Washington, was shocked by the scale of the destruction. Minority and immigrant communities “bore the brunt of the damage,” he reports. Even as the violence has spread, calls to “defund the police”—even “abolish the police”—are being heeded in many cities. Budgets were being slashed even as riots continued. In Portland, the district attorney is declining to prosecute hundreds of protesters arrested for “nonviolent” crimes. (One such quickly released suspect allegedly stabbed two people to death a week later.) In short, one of the most destructive crime waves in U.S. history is being met with a collective yawn from the media and a mild scolding, at best, from some representatives of law enforcement. It wasn’t until polls started showing rising voter concern that Biden and other Democrats began cautiously criticizing the violence.
In North Minneapolis, Tracey talked with Flora Westbrooks, a black woman who had owned a hair salon there for 34 years. The business helped her earn enough to buy a house and send her son to law school. On May 29, arsonists burned it down. “Sometimes I’m like, OK, I gotta go to work,” she told Tracey. But then she remembers: “I don’t own anything anymore. Everything’s burned to the ground. I have nothing no more. Everything I worked for.” The tragedy of the Chump Effect is in stories like these. People devote their lives to making things better for themselves, their children, and their communities. They follow the bourgeois norms so disdained by the Left. Then, when our society stops defending those norms, they’re the ones who suffer.