Several comments on my last post on the economic difficulties of the people who attacked the Capitol took aim at their characters in one way or another.
I certainly do not want to defend the Capitol invaders in any way. I think they should be vigorously prosecuted. However, it is critically important to step back from the violent horror of the assault and think strategically about how we can use public policy to reduce the risk of political violence and democratic failure. And that means thinking about conditions that influence people, not simply focusing on their character defects (they’re stupid, they’re selfish, they’re racist, etc.). Whatever character flaws the insurrectionists have, they or others like them will have the same flaws next year, and the year after that, and on and on. The crooked timber of humanity is . . . crooked. Politics is not a morality play.
This is the reason that we should hope that economic factors played an important role in fostering the discontent that led to the election of Trump and eventually to the attack on Congress. Researchers and journalists should actively look for economic causes. It is not about professional bragging rights for economists. It’s about looking for solutions. We have some ideas about how to cure problems like economic insecurity and downward mobility. We have, I think, fewer politically viable ideas about how to cure anxiety over demographic change or outright racism. (I would be happy to be wrong about this. And my point is not that we have no ideas about how to reduce prejudice. We do. For example, promoting interracial contact may lessen prejudice and anxiety. But many policies to promote interracial contact, such as integrating schools, would be exceedingly difficult to pass into law and implement on a large scale, and any effort to do so might provoke a backlash that hands control of the government to Republicans. Politics is the art of the possible.)
Take the article I quoted from in my earlier post. Many people who stormed the Capitol have had trouble with debts, taxes, and bankruptcy. There are policies we can adopt that might make their lives go better. One obvious idea suggested by the article is to make it easier to declare personal bankruptcy. We could implement a wage insurance program. We could try to foster regional economic development. We could limit the cost of college. We could raise the minimum wage or try wage subsidies. We can make Obamacare more generous. We can pay child allowances.
These policies might or might not quell the anger, fear, resentment, and polarization that contributed to the insurrection on January 6. They might or might not preserve our democracy. We are skating in front of the breaking ice, and there are no magic bullets. But at least they are concrete policies that could plausibly get passed through Congress.
This is why the article quoted in the earlier post was interesting to me.