Monday, November 26, 2012

Why We Need A National Election Law

The current election season has been defiled by the most massive, coordinated, and deceitful assault on the right to vote in our history--and it will continue unless the defenders of real democracy unite to defeat it, once and for all! If this vicious purge succeeds, it will deprive millions of Americans of their most precious right as citizens, especially racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the unemployed, the handicapped, the homeless, college students, and those on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder in general. Not coincidentally, these are all voters who lean heavily toward the Democratic side of the ledger. Estimates are that the requirement of photo IDs alone could impact as many as 21 million people. This conspiracy is all the more pernicious because its various components are touted as measures designed to prevent "voter fraud," when, in fact, they constitute the most blatant and breath-taking "voter fraud" ever perpetrated, one that dwarfs even the century-long emasculation of the Fifteenth Amendment by the states of the Old Confederacy--because it is nationwide in scope. Although requiring  photo IDs has received the most publicity, I have already discussed a variety of other subterfuges toward that same end in my posts on voter repression of September 17 ans 27. I would also remind readers of the comprehensive report "The Truth About Voter Fraud" compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice of the New York University School of Law, the one that concludes that the chances of average voter encountering voter fraud are roughly the same as being struck by lightning.

The major reason that this assault did not have a paralyzing effect on the 2012 election is that the Department of Justice  issued temporary stays in South Carolina and Wisconsin, Those reprieves are only temporary, however, and efforts to implement those and similar laws in several other states with solid Republican legislatures and governors will continue. In addition, suppression efforts were countered by the tireless work of the League of Women Voters, the A.C.L.U., the N.A.A.C.P., and numerous other progressive organizations to register voters and to get them to the polls on election day. Even so, there were still widespread instances of voter suppression in several key states on November 6. Thousands of Florida voters were forced to stand in line six hours after the polls officially closed.  Congressional races in Florida, Arizona, Ohio and elsewhere were not officially decided until several days later. Voter ID laws in Pennsylvania caused tremendous confusion resulting in long waits, and causing numerous voters with handicaps, jobs, and child care responsibilities to give up and forfeit their votes. Hundreds of voters in Ohio were told that they were not on the registration lists. New Jersey experienced serious difficulties with their email voting system. Incredibly, voters in Colorado and Pennsylvania were outraged to see their computerized votes changed from one candidate to the other right in front of their eyes. Many inner city precincts in my home town of Racine, Wisconsin, where the voter turnout was an amazing 91 percent, ran short of ballots, causing long waits, lots of frustration, and preventing many people from voting.

Of course, not all of these problems were the result of organized voter suppression campaigns. Even those that were so manipulated were exacerbated by the crazy quilt nature of election regulations and procedures in the various states. Many polling places are inconveniently located and ill-suited to the task. Most jurisdictions rely primarily upon volunteers to staff the polling stations;they have often received only minimal training, and are frequently unaware of the intricacies of election laws. Most of them (including my late mother) are honest, sincere, and civic-minded. They are usually of retirement age and hard-pressed to handle challenges or complaints from overly zealous voters or "poll watchers." They work long hours (sometimes as many as 16), with little or no break time. They are the true unsung heroes of the election process.So far as the average American is concerned, it is astounding how little attention or concern is lavished on the process by which we attempt to govern ourselves..

At least as ominous is the fact that the Supreme Court recently announced it intention to hear a challenge from Shelby County, Alabama to Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision requires that nine states with particularly nefarious histories of violating the intent of the Fifteenth Amendment by various subterfuges (i.e. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) clear any proposed changes in their voting requirements or procedures with Department of Justice. If any such laws are found to "deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language group," they can be blocked by the DOJ or a federal court in Washington. This provision has been reaffirmed on four separate occasions, with tremendously bipartisan support. Earlier this year, a federal court struck down Voter ID and Congressional redistricting laws on that basis. But the ultra right-wing majority of the Court has steadily narrowed the standard for enforcing the civil rights provisions in the Religious Freedom Restoration, Americans With Disabilities, and Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Significantly, 7 of the 9 states covered by Section 5 have already enacted Voter ID laws or other statutes to make voting more difficult. these will automatically will   go into effect if the Court invalidates Section 5. The Voting Rights Act also provides for a federal Election Assistance Commission to oversee its implementation, but, as incredible as it may seem, none of its four seats are currently occupied.

Taken together, all of these add up to just one logical conclusion: We desperately need a comprehensive national election law, just like a real grown-up country. We should begin by making election day a national holiday--as least as important as Columbus Day or Presidents Day. Doing so would even allow businesses to have another holiday sale. There is absolutely nothing sacred about the first Tuesday in November,any more than there was about March 4th being inauguration day. The problem with that Tuesday--and every other weekday--is that everyone has something else to do: work, school, travel, watch kids, whatever. Setting aside an entire day on which every eligible voter has only one obligation would certainly eliminate just about every possible excuse for not voting. I have thought about making voting mandatory, as it already is in Australia, but that does seem a little too "Un-American."  It has been argued, also, that non-voting is really a form of voting--a kind of "none of the above."
Many countries already vote on Sunday and--given our gigantic geographical and population size--making it an entire weekend might not be too far-fetched.

Borrowing from the voter suppression movement, we could require that every eligible voter have a photo ID card. Only the purpose would be to "franchise" everybody rather than "disenfranchise"  millions. These would, of course be issued by the federal government to every single person who meets the age and citizenship requirements, which are the only legitimate criteria left. Over the years, I have accumulated a drivers license, a Social Security card and a Medicare card. At one point, long, long ago, I even had a draft card. It would have a certain advantage over a drivers license. You wouldn't need to renew it ever so many years; it only expires when you do.It would even satisfy those who are clamoring for a national ID card in order to prove citizenship or legal alien status, although the purpose would again be inclusive rather than exclusive. The initial start-up process might be cumbersome and time-consuming, but, after that, it would just be a matter of adding each newly minted crop of eighteen year-olds. If you change addresses or polling places, the card will take care of providing the only information relevant to registration. I can only think of one potential problem: if the photo is as bad as the one on my drivers license or my passport, I might have to provide additional documentation.  

The most important reason for inaugurating a national election system is to impose some semblance of order on all of the mind-numbing chaos. Simply put, the "election season" is virtually without beginning or end, while the process itself looks like something out of Rube Goldberg. Here it is just two weeks since the 2012 election, and the pundits and talking heads are already speculating about the candidates for the 2016 contest. (For a tongue-in-cheek account that comes painfully close to reality, please read Lionel Trilling's Dogfight:The 2012 Election in 
Verse.)  This latest battle for the Republican presidential nomination that droned on for almost two entire years was somewhere between a "comedy of errors" and the "theater of the absurd."  Although President Obama had no opposition for the Democratic nomination, he spent most of that time fund raising and stockpiling money for the general election. Of course, that saga would not have occurred if we had "real" political parties with "program and discipline." If the parties picked the candidates, rather than the other way around, we could have actually have compressed the "election season" into a relatively few months, just like grown-up nations do. Of course, we would have missed most of the entertainment provided by the Republican nomination process. Imagine how empty our lives would have been without the hilarious antics provided by Perry,Cain, Bachman, Gingrich, Santorum, and "the Donald." What if Mitt had been forced to decide who he wanted to be, without reference to any of his contenders, and before the general election? It might have forced him to resolve his interminable  "identity crisis"

What would be a reasonable time limit for the "election season" and how could we achieve it? I realize that a great many people (especially five Supreme Court Justices and lots of billionaires and corporations) would object to any effort at setting a time frame as a violation of the First Amendment. (If corporations really were "persons" and money really was a form of speech, they might have a point.) Suppose Congress passed a law allowing no primaries, caucuses, conventions, and no political advertising radio in non-election years? I would like to propose a more stringent time limit---say six months prior to the presidential election. Most other advanced nations are a lot more restrictive than that. Having a series of four or five regional primaries spread over the late spring and summer  months, would provide a framework of focus,continuity and progression. Prospective candidates could no longer "cherry pick" the contests in which to participate, and pundits could no longer pontificate about why the results in one state are more significant than those in another.Candidates could all focus their campaigns in the same region of the country at the same time.

Short of that, Congress could establish a nonpartisan federal elections board to maintain a national registration database, mandate standard voting machines, and establish criteria for counting provisional ballots. As the New York Times recently advocated, a law proposed by Representatives George Miller of California and John Lewis of Georgia "would require a clear early-voting period, removing the issue as a political football in states like Florida and Ohio, and standards for absentee voting." Congress could also provide financial incentives, such as grants to states that make registration easy, allowing same-day registration, early voting, absentee voting "on demand," properly training poll workers, and mandating a sufficient number of easily accessible polling places. Seventeen states already already send electronic registration data from motor vehicle departments to election agencies, while ten allow online registration. What's not to like? Isn't everyone's real goal to provide the best means possible for every eligible voter to exercise his or her most basic right of citizenship, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, physical condition, employment status, and living arrangements?

A national voting system might also have two other unintended, but salubrious, results. It would almost certainly  
increase our voter turnout, which is far and away the worst among all of the advanced democracies.There are a lot of different reasons why the 40% don't vote, ranging from the barriers erected against certain categories of potential voters (who almost always would probably vote Democrat) to a "plague on both your houses"  attitude espoused by the most intelligent and sophisticated among us. Even so, it is certain that the profile of millions of those who don't vote fairly closely resembles that of those who are the are the targets of today's voter suppression campaign.. (To hear the pundits and organizers tell it, though, the vast majority of non-voters are some kind of deep thinkers who weigh every twist and turn in the campaign, and only decide whether or not to vote at all, or for whom to vote. Regular voting is a habit of the reasonably well-established; it is almost always  "learned behavior. Some countries actually fine people who fail to vote. A well-conceived and administered national voting system might go a long way to engaging millions of today's non-voters and giving them the incentive to participate on a regular basis. At the very least, it almost certainly wouldn't have the opposite effect.)

The other beneficial effect would be to eliminate a growing practice that harkens back to the Gilded Age, when workers were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they voted "the wrong way." Prior to Citizens United, according to Populist Progressive columnist Jim Hightower, top executives were barred by federal law from using corporate funds "to instruct, induce, intimidate, or otherwise push workers to support particular candidates." Since that ruling, many bosses "openly conscripting employees to be political troopers for corporate-backed candidates." One CEO, David Siegel of Westgate Resorts, sent a letter to each of his 7,000 employees warning them that voting for Obama would "threaten your job," since he would have "no choice but to reduce the size of this company." Another, Dave Robertson, president of the Koch brothers industrial empire, notified 30,000 workers that they would suffer assorted "ills" if Obama were reelected and enclosed a slate-card of Koch-approved candidates. Thanks to the Roberts Court, what has always been more subtly implied can now be blatantly asserted because corporations are people and the savage wielding of their life-and-control over their employees lives is an exercise of free speech. Remember that the Citizens United decision was based largely on the judgment that it would not lead to any serious form of corruption.   

To establish a viable national election system would almost certainly require reaching a consensus about the relative merits of the popular vote versus the electoral vote. Of course, that would open up a contentious "can of beans., but not only is the electoral vote system clearly undemocratic and skewed in favor of the lesser populated states, it is also a time bomb ticking in the Constitution. It is almost certain to go off someday. By my admittedly unscientific calculation, one vote in Montana (3 electoral votes and a population of about 1 million) is equal to around 963 votes in California 55 electoral votes with a population of about 38 million). If that isn't scary enough, most states operate on a "winner-take-all" basis, meaning that a narrow margin of victory gives that candidate the whole enchilada while the loser gets zip, zero,nada. Many authorities believe that replacing winner-take-all with some kind of proportional distribution, either by percentage of the popular vote or by Congressional district, would significantly lessen the gap between popular and electoral votes. but--absent a federal law or constitutional amendment to that effect--each state would have the right to keep the current system or adopt one of the above mentioned alternatives.  

What we have now is both coasts and the Upper Great Lakes (Democratic) versus the other (mostly Republican) states  In the last few weeks before the 2012 election, various commentators expressed concern that both candidates would receive the identical 269 votes, thus throwing the final decision into the House of Representatives. Of course, it is theoretically possible that the popular vote could someday end in a tie, but the odds of that happening with more than 120 million votes--as opposed to 538--are infinitesimally long. Although the elections of 1800, 1824, and 1876 had to be settled in the House, it hasn't happened since, and we had better hope and pray that it never will again.  For the benefit of those who have not yet memorized the Constitution, each state, regardless of population, is allowed just ONE vote. That would exponentially exacerbate the impact of a system that is already in favor of the less populous states. In Baker v.Carr (1964)  a far different Supreme Court mandated the standard of "one man, one vote," and observed that trees can't vote, only people can. With the current Court, you would be wise to put your money on trees. Citizens United absolutely contradicts Baker, but this Court is  substantially the same group of people who handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush.

In the 46 elections held over the past 184 years, the winning candidate in 11 of them failed to win a clear majority of the popular vote. In 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison), and 2000 (George W. Bush), the electoral vote winner did not even receive the most popular votes.  In the first case, the winner was determined by a commission established by the House of Representatives. In the second, Harrison won the electoral vote even though he lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland. You all know what happened in 2000. Gore won the popular vote and probably the electoral vote as well, but the Supreme Court decided to stop the recount because their candidate was ahead at the time.

Clearly, Citizens United the opening wedge in the most massive and blatant assault ever on democracy itself  According to Charles M Blow in the NYTimes, 24 states will have "unified Republican control," meaning both houses of the legislature and the governor. There can be no doubt that they will try to use that unified control to enact every right-wing nut, tea party obscenity possible. Only a universal nationwide election system can possibly prevent them from turning the future for the next generation and beyond into serfs and indentured servants of the super rich. We progressives need to do all that we can to prevent that--and to counter it with our alternative vision of a future based upon fairness, equal opportunity, and true social security for all    

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Breadwinner Conservatism and Tea Partying

One of the most perplexing questions for progressives is why so many people seem to consistently vote against their own self-interest? As I traveled around town during the never-ending presidential campaign, I saw several Romney-Ryan yard signs in front of homes clearly belonging to families with average to below-average incomes.  The standard answer among progressives (like myself) has been that the plutocracy and their minions have succeeded in using abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, sex education, gun control, prayer in the public schools, and numerous gender-related issues as a smokescreen to cover up their real motives, which are blatantly self-interested, such as shifting the bulk of the tax burden onto the middle and lower classes, deregulation of the economy, voter suppression, and ravishing the environment, to name only the most obvious. While I tend to agree with that argument, as far as it goes, it only speaks to the motivation of the plutocracy and begs the obvious question of why so many persons--especially white working and middle class males--continue to buy into it.

At least part of the answer probably lies in two recent books: 1) All in the Family:The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s by Robert O. Self, an associate professor of history at Brown and author the acclaimed American Babylon and 2) The Tea Party And The Making Of Republican Conservatism by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson,, professors of social policy at Harvard. Together, they present a much more complex and nuanced explanation of the millions who, by progressive lights, consistently vote against their own self interest and provide the plutocracy with much of its mass base. 
For Self, the answer lies in the emergence of what he terms "Breadwinner Conservatism": "the extent to which laissez-faire economics and social authoritarianism have become intertwined in the past thirty years." When the Tea Party emerged, it was overwhelmingly "the old Christian right in a new guise," so people should not have been surprised "when newly elected Republicans who had run for office on budget-cutting turned their attention to curtailing or eliminating access to birth control and abortion."  Although most observers thought that so-called cultural or values conservatives were different from--and even antagonistic toward- -those who focused on shrinking the size and cost of government, "the budget-cutting, anti-welfare state fiscal conservatives found natural allies in the religious right and the pro-family movement."  Ever since the 1980s, he asserts, the defense of the autonomous, idealized nuclear family "was intimately linked to the way they also sought to limit government interference in the private market." That insight helps to explain why progressives "so often fail to rally working-class and middle-class voters behind economic policies that would benefit them," and why "even in our present moment of economic desperation, fights over sexuality and family roles keep recurring."
To focus on a specific example, Self cites a feature in last July's NY Times contrasting the situation of two working mothers at a Michigan day care center entitled "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do' " The differences in their salaries was not very great, but the married woman lived a comfortable middle-class life, while the single mother struggled to get by on food stamps and other forms of aid. One of the authors, Jason DePerle,, estimates that "changes in marriage patterns--as opposed to changes in individual earnings--may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality." We are, according to DePerle,  "becoming a society of family haves and have-nots, with marriage and its rewards [such as filing joint tax returns] evermore confined to the fortunate classes." To progressives, it is axiomatic that "family values" requires backing policies that would benefit both women, especially the one without an earning spouse. If small government and traditional families are of paramount importance, however, then opposing food stamps, subsidized day care centers, and after-school programs for kids only serve to emphasize the superiority of nuclear families, private charities, and churches.

As a student of U.S. history and a card-carrying "bleeding heart liberal," such a view turns the clock back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when Social Darwinism, the Gospel of Wealth, "rugged individualism," and the Horatio Alger-type "myth of the self-made man,"--what historian Eric Goldman called "the steel chain of ideas"--dominated social attitudes. It amounts to a repeal of the the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights and Women's Movements and every other landmark designed to make the U.S. part of the civilized world. But I digress. This is about "them," not "us." Simply rehearsing our view of the world--without seriously trying to understand theirs-won't cut it. This post constitutes my first feeble efforts to understand "where they are coming from."

In fact, according to Self, progressives have been unwittingly complicit in forming the mind set of "breadwinner conservatism" and the Tea Party. The New Deal and its lineal descendants, he posits, were based largely on a premise that he calls "breadwinner liberalism," in which liberals tried to "rehabilitate the male breadwinner, who had been devastated by industrialization, globalization, racial and ethnic discrimination, and, above all, by the Great Depression. They set out to return the male breadwinner to his rightful place as head of the nuclear household, regarding working women and child labor as obstacles to building a powerful labor movement. The manpower crisis of World War II necessitated women to enter the workforce, but that was generally regarded--by most men and a lot of women--as a temporary expedient. Efforts to "put the genie back in the bottle" intensified as soon as men began returning to civilian life. With notable exceptions, according to Michelle Goldberg in The Nation, the economic policies of the New Deal and Fair Deal "were understood to support traditional families, and particularly traditional gender relations." As long as "big-government liberalism worked to uphold the nuclear family, it was supported by a fairly broad social consensus." But then came the 1960s and 1970s,when that consensus was  assaulted from the left by the counterculture, and the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, poverty, and gay rights movements. Nearly all of these, in some way, challenged the centrality of the nuclear family with the single,male "breadwinner." which was already under attack by mechanization and globalization. Most of these new movements fought to carve out a political  political home in the Democratic Party, setting off a prolonged and acrimonious struggle between the old "breadwinner liberalism" and the new "identity politics". The old and the new clashed head-on during the 1968 and 1972 Democratic national conventions--and the party has never fully recovered. Hence the evolution of millions of "George Wallace" and "Reagan Democrats" into Republicans. Having grown up in the 40s and 50s, and coming to political maturity during the 1960s, I realize that I benefited greatly by being white and male, and then had to adjust to a world in which the intrinsic value of those attributes have steadily declined. (Of course, it is still a significant advantage to be white and male in a lot of areas, especially if buttressed by certain socioeconomic attributes.) I like to think, however, that, unlike a lot of my contemporaries, I understand and appreciate the initial impetus given me by my gender and pigmentation, and have consciously worked to adjust to the changing realities.  I will leave it up to my daughters, granddaughters, and female friends and colleagues to judge how well or poorly I have done. I am particularly gratified whenever a female colleague says that "I get it."

I admit to being particularly stymied by the millions of women who have become Breadwinner Conservatives and Tea Partiers. I understand, from my own research and reading, why so many women opposed equal suffrage back in the Progressive Era.I also remember the fierce debate among women over the wisdom of the Equal Rights Amendment. I must admit to having qualms about the possible negative effect that the ERA might have on the vast body of child and female protective legislation that progressives, both female and male, fought to enact over the past century. Maybe I have just been fortunate to have been surrounded all my life by women of a different persuasion. Obviously, though, there are a vast number of women who, for a variety of reasons, are just as committed as men to the patriarchal, nuclear family, and just as convinced that a powerful, activist government poses a threat to that ideal. Although Skocpol and Williamson acknowledge that between 55 and 60 % of Tea Partiers are male, they refused an invitation to write a scholarly article on "Sexism in the Tea Party," because "in our field observations and interviews we saw so many energetic women taking the lead in grassroots Tea Party activities." Significantly, they found, that "although men may be more likely to support the Tea Party, women are dominating the organizing efforts." (This really rang a bell with me because, in my experience in putting together dozens of programs with a variety of community ethnic groups, I quickly learned that while men talked, women e organized and implemented. I also belong to Adventures  In Lifelong Learning in which more than 80 % of the really active members are women.) Many of the men who tell pollsters that they sympathize with or generally support the Tea Party, according to Skocpol and Williamson, "may be doing so from their armchairs in front of Fox News--or just sitting  in the audience with their wives at a Tea Party meeting or event."  They found this to be the case in Arizona, Massachusetts, and Virginia, where women in early middle age were in charge, and in Maine, where "older women were at the helm." Even when men chaired the meeting, women invariably prepared refreshments and were usually in charge of the sign-up sheets and tables where literature, pins, and bumper stickers were proffered. They also usually compile the email lists for local groups and arrange for car pools and speakers. As S&W correctly note, this is nothing new in the annals of American civic democracy, citing especially Christian Right organizations where "as the saying goes, female leaders travel the country to preach that women's place is in the home." Included under the broad Tea Party penumbra are the "Pink Slip Patriots" of Tempe, Arizona, who dress in pink and hand out symbolic "pink slips" to offending politicians, and the "Second Amendment Sisters," who are especially agitated about gun control.

Summarizing their conclusion, S&W argue that the combination of grassroots activists, roving billionaire advocates (the Koch brothers, Coors, Scaife, Olin), and right wing media purveyors (Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck) "create the Tea Party and give it the ongoing clout to buffet and redirect the Republican Party and influence broader debates in American democracy." The "media mavens" keep the Tea Party people "in a constant state of anger and fear about the direction of the country and the doings of government officials." Most of the 18% of American voters who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters are Republican, white, male, married, suburban, and over 45. The vast majority are middle-aged or older. They tend to be better-off economically and
 better-educated than most Americans, and regular church-goers, most likely evangelical Protestants. Many of them are retired and living at least partly on Social Security and Medicare, despite their antipathy to "entitlements." ("Make the government keep its hands off my Medicare.") Nearly all of them have some college education, even the stay-at-home Moms. The plurality tend to be small business owners, often in fields like construction, remodeling, repair, technology, insurance, or real estate. very few have worked in the public sector, except for the military.Almost none of them have ever belonged to a labor union or know very many people who do. Indeed they blame much of the country's economic problems on union "thugs" and "bosses," especially those in the public sector.  Although they live in every section of the country, the largest contingent live in the South and Southwest, where they have moved since retirement.  Needless to say, they tend to believe in conspiracies of every kind and profess political views that are even farther to the right than mainstream Republicans. While they probably have a much better grasp of the nuts and bolts of the electoral process than most Americans, their grasp of social and economic issues ranges from ignorance to narrow-minded.

It is impossible to know how many Tea Partiers subscribe to "breadwinner conservatism," but I am sure that there must be considerable overlap. They tend to live in patriarchal, nuclear families and are deeply suspicious--even contemptuous---of those who do not. They are very careful not to use derogatory terms in referring to non-whites, at least in public. They generally refer to them in code words, such as "inner city" and "minorities."
(I get a particular kick out of blatantly racist men who are rabid NFL fans, conveniently ignoring the fact that fully three-fourth of the players are African-Americans.) They get most of their news from Fox TV and "talk [yell] radio, or from literature and programs emanating from right-wing organizations. While they are actively hostile toward government in any form, they admire and place great trust in corporate America, regarding it as the champion of free enterprise, competition, and-- incredibly--small business. They harbor a particular animus toward younger people, despite the fact most of them have children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, Many regard government programs that benefit younger people as coming out of their pockets. (Ryan knew what he was doing when he promised those over 55 that their Social Security and Medicare benefits would be exempt from any restructuring or privatizing.)  Maybe it is unfair to single them out in this regard since a certain amount of schadenfrude seems to be endemic to "the American Dream." Many would rather destroy public sector unions, for example, than build their own in the private sector. Many would rather eliminate other people's benefits rather than working with them to gain those benefits for everyone.

In the final analysis, perhaps the emotion that most animates and unites Breadwinner Conservatives and Tea Partiers is FEAR. Truth to tell, we are all afraid to a greater or lesser degree. The only real question is what do we do about it?  Do we blame others at least as vulnerable as we are, and try to curtail what limited power and benefits they have managed to accrue? Or do we try to overcome our biases and work together to create a society in which every American--regardless of skin color,ethnicity,religion, age, gender, or political persuasion--has access to a decent standard of working and living? Our future--very literally--depends upon how we answer that question.




Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ryan's Mentor

The OP-Ed section of Sunday's NY Times contains a great article by Bill Keller, entitled "The Republican Id", that explains a lot about Paul Ryan's "philosophy."  It is the result of an interview that Keller had recently with William R. "Rich" Hart, a professor of macroeconomics at Miami University (Ohio) who is the closest thing to Ryan's intellectual mentor. He is, according to Keller, "a voluble, passionate supply-sider and self-described 'hard-core libertarian'." Listening to Hart, Keller asserts, "you can imagine that you are hearing what Paul Ryan might say if he were not inhibited by the demands of electoral politics." He is best known for his frequent criticizing of his university for what he regards declining academic rigor "coddling" of students in its relentless pursuit of "money, money, money." He proudly reports that of the 112 students who took his latest Principles of Macroeconomics exam, 56 failed and 27 received Ds. No "coddler' he.

Hart and Ryan share, according to Keller, "an astringent kind of Republicanism that rests on the conviction that government assistance leads to crippling dependency." In Hart's world, the 2012 presidential election will answer the question," Do we want to become a sort of European socialist welfare state?"  He has decorated his office with Elvis and Nascar memorabilia  and uses Paul Krugman's economics textbook as a doorstop. "Or, Hart continued, do we want to be a free-market capitalist economy where people who are productive get rewarded for working hard and creating wealth?" In a European welfare state, Hart argued, everybody is "equally poor," so that "I much prefer a little income inequality." (One wonders if he has ever taken a course, or even read a book, on international or comparative economics?)

More specifically, he favors rolling back environmental regulations that slow development of natural gas and coal. ("Not green energy," he said with disgust, "fossil fuel energy." He also favors entrusting health care for the poor, and just about everything else, to the "mercies of the states," having Medicare compete in a voucher market and cutting marginal tax rates. What really alarms Keller, however, is "not the policies but the fervor and the deep suspicion of the other side's motives." It is not Ryan,, who don't care about the poor, but rather the Democrats "who would make them wards of the state. And just write  them welfare checks." This "enslavement," as Hart styles it, does not come from just unintentional, but wrong-headed bleeding hearts, "but from cynical self-interest by liberal groups " Hart's view of the NAACP, for example, is "that you can't represent a group of downtrodden if you don't have a permanent group of downtrodden to represent." Ryan's goal, Hart concludes, is "to make those people [emphasis mine] productive members of society where they can lift themselves up." Although he grudgingly admits that having a federal agency to coordinate relief efforts after a national disaster, he quickly adds that my bet is that FEMA, like most government agencies, is too big-bloated and could coordinate relief efforts with (far) fewer resources than it currently receives from taxpayers".Asked if he felt that Romney was really much more moderate than Ryan and would attempt to govern accordingly, Hart replied that "I just don't think Paul would have gotten on the ticket if he didn't get some kind of commitment."

Lest anyone think that Ryan is merely his mentor's clone, Hart did admit that his protege's ideas on such social issues as abortion rights and same sex marriage contradicted his strict libertarian ideals: "I want the Democrats out of my damn pocketbook, and I want the Republicans out of my bedroom." So don't ever think that Ryan can't sometimes think for himself.