1. The Economist is a "classical liberal" publication. The Economist understands that America needs more, not less, government spending on infrastructure if our economy is going to thrive. The Economist also understands that America needs more, not less, government spending on research if our economy is going to thrive. Which is to say The Economist understands well the existence and importance of public goods. (It occurs to me that this might be the difference between British "classical liberals" and American "libertarians"; the former will support government intervention in the economy if the intervention raises standards of living, while the latter will usually oppose it on principle.)
2. Why is American public good provision lagging? Brad DeLong blames Republicans, and I agree. Paul Ryan, the Republicans' thought leader on budget issues, wants to slash spending on both transportation infrastructure and research and development.
3. Why are Republicans so intent on starving the economy of public goods? Well, I think conservatives (and not a few liberals!) have really fallen into the rut of thinking that all government spending = redistribution. Part of this may be a simple failure to recognize that America's gravy days are over, and that arresting the rapid shrinkage of our national pie is more important than squabbling over who gets which slice.
But if you read this blog, you know I think that there is something bigger and deeper at work, namely our national identity crisis. Remember Alesina and Easterly's finding that ethnic divisions reduce public good provisions. This is what I believe we're facing. Conservative whites have decided that America will soon cease to be the white ethnic nation that they think it used to be; therefore, they have little interest in bankrolling the nation's future.
4. This tribal divide explains why the birthers are birthers. James Fallows:
Tribal knowledge vs actual knowledge front: Yesterday, about half of all Republicans thought Obama was foreign born, and therefore an illegal occupant of the White House. How many Republicans will think the same thing one week from now? My guess is: about half. We've reached that stage on just about everything...[I]f "actual knowledge" mattered, the number of people who thought Obama was foreign-born would approach zero by next week...My guess is that the figures will barely change.
Birthers believe in birtherism because it is a rallying flag for their ethnic/tribal identity movement. Experessing doubts about Obama's American-ness is a way of expressing solidarity with other people who think that only whites can be "real Americans."
5. As I see it, most American liberals want to heal the ethnic rift. Liberals seem to believe that America is a nation based on shared ideology and shared institutions, not on blood and soil. This explains why liberals are more likely to favor spending on public goods, and IMHO it also explains why liberals tend to be more redistributionist (they view poor blacks and Hispanics as their fellow countrymen, which conservatives generally do not). This is why, although I'm not generally a redistributionist, I count myself a liberal on economic issues.
But we liberals are up against the terrific power of the conservative populist narrative, which holds that all government spending is redistribution, and that all redistribution is racial redistribution.This is the narrative of the lazy blacks and lazy Hispanics using government to confiscate white money and jobs. Nearly every day I hear this narrative repeated. Just today, Republican Sally Kern declared that "minorities earn less because they don't work as hard." If you want more of the same, just listen to...well, everything Rush Limbaugh has ever said.
Conclusion: If our nation-state is going to succeed, we need to start thinking of ourselves as a single nation again. But powerful forces are at work every day, trying to get us to think exactly the opposite. This has been a major theme and focus of this blog, but I think it bears repeating.