Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: Dog whistles, deficits and the racist politics behind 'pay as you go' rules in Congress

Nina Banks, William Darity, Darrick Hamilton
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Key Points
  • We are taught that it is simply a matter of common sense to think of the federal budget the way we would a household's.
  • This deeply misleading, revenue-constrained frame orients virtually all debates regarding the viability of federal spending proposals.
  • Insidiously, it provides cover for some of the most pernicious of racist dog whistles, long crippling our ability to attend to public priorities, and disproportionately harming the Black community.
A man makes his way past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, February 26, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society, opponents of the post-war welfare state found themselves in a novel position: federal social programs, which under the New Deal had largely been reserved for whites, had now been much more widely extended to Blacks by Great Society legislation.

This provided a potent means of turning white public opinion against such social programs, by allowing opponents to play on the perception (however unfounded) that these programs primarily served Blacks. Yet thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, it was no longer socially acceptable to make explicit appeals to racism.

To thread this needle, the effort to systematically dismantle our federal social programs would turn to coded racist political messaging, known as "dog whistles," to appeal to white voters as taxpayers.

This weaponization of racist dog whistle politics had a profound impact on American society, and continues to define our political discourse and public institutions in underappreciated ways that the Democrats would be wise to confront as they take power.

The Great Depression achieved a historic feat in that it legitimized federal social programs and higher tax rates. But by the time the Civil Rights Movement had driven overt racist political rhetoric "underground," the memory of the Depression had grown distant enough for opponents of "big government" to begin to chip away at its legitimacy.

If the Democrats wish to give meaning to Biden's "Build Back Better" slogan, they must decisively put behind us the economic precarity which left the door open for Trump's rise, and ultimately brought us to the recent incident at the Capitol.

And so we saw the rehabilitation of discourses that delegitimized higher tax rates and the public provisioning of social services. These discourses cast social programs as handouts to the lazy, unjustly confiscated from those who worked hard and earned their living.

Of course, the thinly veiled subtext of these discourses was that social programs took money from hardworking whites and gave it away to lazy blacks.

The most iconic of such racist dog whistles was the infamous "Cadillac Welfare Queen," used to great effect by Reagan. 

Today, the "PAYGO" provision in the House rules package, the "Byrd Rule" in the Senate, and the Congressional Budget Office's scoring criteria each, however unintentionally, play critical roles in abetting this racist dog whistle politics, which continues to cast a shadow over our society to this day.

These institutional shackles discourage legislation that would add to the budget deficit and codify an ideological framework wherein we are taught that it is simply a matter of common sense to think of the federal budget the way we would a household's.

This deeply misleading, revenue-constrained frame orients virtually all debates regarding the viability of federal spending proposals. Insidiously, it provides cover for some of the most pernicious of racist dog whistles, long crippling our ability to attend to public priorities, and disproportionately harming the Black community.

False narrative

Now, in this most challenging and pivotal of historical moments, these institutional shackles, and the household budget frame they codify, threaten to handcuff our ability to rise to the occasion and muster the needed response.

And yet, the implicit narrative of tax dollars of hardworking whites going to fund social programs to benefit lazy Blacks is not only false, it relies upon the obfuscation of the critical fact that our federal government is a currency issuer, and therefore does not need to obtain money from elsewhere in order to spend.

Federal spending is ultimately best understood simply as an exercise of public power to attend to public priorities. The household budget frame that underlies PAYGO, the Byrd Rule, and the CBO not only obfuscates this essential reality, it also enables the dog whistle rhetoric which undermines support for federal spending on social programs.

After all, in order to imagine this spending as a redistribution of tax dollars from hard working whites to lazy Blacks, we must first understand federal spending as a redistribution of tax dollars. But while there are a variety of important reasons for taxation, the need to obtain money to then spend cannot be one of them for a government that issues its own currency.

To his credit, President Joe Biden has pushed back against concerns about deficit spending, raised by many even in his own party, as the basis of their handcuffed posture toward further desperately needed crisis-relief spending. But we must make no mistake as to the meaning of last year's opening of the public spigot for crisis relief, which conjured trillions of dollars with mere keystrokes.

Many of the most obscene and intractable social ills that plague our society are in fact entirely unnecessary. From unemployment, to homelessness, to student debt, to lack of healthcare, we pass the buck to the for-profit private sector, rather than using our immense public power to attend to our public priorities.

Guaranteeing and upholding the basic rights that would eliminate these ills is not a matter of raising sufficient tax revenue. It is a matter of democratically demanding the exercise of public power to uphold what should be seen as basic pillars of a civilized social order.

If the Democrats wish to give meaning to Biden's "Build Back Better" slogan, they must decisively put behind us the economic precarity which left the door open for Trump's rise, and ultimately brought us to the recent incident at the Capitol. To do this, they must rise to the occasion and put into place such sorely needed systemic pillars.

Dr. Nina Banks is an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University. Dr. William "Sandy" Darity is the Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. Dr. Darrick Hamilton is professor of economics and urban policy at The New School.

Correction: This op-ed has been updated to remove an author who did not contribute to the piece.