Friday, December 23, 2011

This I Believe: On Noah's Ark and Individualism

There are apparently still six or seven American voters who have not yet made up their minds to detest Congress. Last week, in an attempt to win these last few holdouts over to the “Congress Sucks” bandwagon, Speaker John Boehner orchestrated a roadblock against a bill that would have extended tax breaks and unemployment compensation for millions of Americans.

Boehner’s scheme seemed to be working until, under pressure from Senate Republicans and the Wall Street Journal, he caved. Consequently, there may still be a few citizens who continue to believe that Congress will occasionally do the right thing.

Speaker Boehner

There were actually a number of good reasons for supporting the bill that Boehner tried to kill. First, it benefits tens of millions of Americans, particularly those whose extended unemployed status has kept them in desperate poverty. Secondly, it would give a needed boost to the economy when those citizens spend their extra income. After all, it is these very citizens who are America’s real job creators, not the corporate fat cats on whom the GOP seems to have an undying crush.

Of course, Tea Party Republicans had a powerful rationale for opposing the bill, namely that President Obama favored it. Tea Party doctrine says that anything Obama supports must be evil, socialistic and Kenyan, so they felt obligated to take a stand against it, but to no avail.

It is possible to move beyond the petty politics embodied in last week’s dispute, beyond the tiresome posturing that has spawned deadlock after deadlock in our government since the 1990s. There are, in fact, real philosophical differences that divide left from right, Democrat from Republican.

Leaving aside the hostility to gays, to non-whites and to non-fundamentalists that motivate much of the Republican base, we can consider the real discernible differences in ideas about how the economy works that divide liberals from conservatives. The essential difference boils down to a belief in individualism which conservatives embrace but toward which liberals are leery. The conservative view (as I, an outsider, understand it) holds that some people become rich and successful because they are hard-working or clever innovators or bold and prescient risk-takers whose efforts make the economy surge. So, if the government will simply back away and let the best people strive, the economy will naturally work out a just system of rewards while at the same time generating robust growth from which all, rich and poor alike, will benefit.

It is hard for me to write those words, actually, because they seem so patently false. But there you are. Right wing, anti-government hyper-capitalists are hereby invited to let me know if I have your philosophy wrong.

I would actually agree that there is an element of truth to this ideology, but it is a very limited element. It is true that, as a rule, a hard-working individual does better economically than a lazy one, given the same opportunities, etc. It is true that risk-taking investors help promote innovation and diversification of the economy. The problem is that the limited truth embodied in this ideology is pumped up by conservative propaganda into a kind of religious fervor. Conservatives seem to believe in this ideology with the same single-minded intensity that Pat Robertson believes in Noah’s Ark -- and in the face of similarly damning counter evidence. But evidence counts for little to those whose beliefs are based on religious fervor.

I’ve heard the conservative argument, for example, that the Federal Reserve is an evil institution that should be abolished because it entails government intrusion in the economy. Yet there is widespread agreement among economists that the Fed, since it was created, has muted the effects of most of the recessions over the past hundred years. During the hundred years prior to the creation of the Fed, the U.S. economy suffered one devastating panic after another.

The FDIC, a government program, has prevented the disastrous unregulated bank failures that impoverished thousands of middle class families in the 1930s.

The Social Security Act has made the lives of tens of millions of retired people comfortable when, before it was enacted, the misery and humiliation of the poorhouse was a common end-of-life experience for the elderly. Do right-wing efforts to “privatize” or otherwise destroy this government program really make sense? Is Social Security an example of government evil? If not, why argue that government intervention is always bad for the economy? Same thing with Medicare, unemployment insurance and the G.I. Bill.

On the G.I. Bill, I have to point out that a beloved gentleman of my acquaintance who, through hard work and intelligent effort lifted himself from Depression-era poverty to millionaire prosperity, once told me that the single thing that made the biggest difference in his life was the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill, this liberal Democratic program, this entitlement, allowed him to get a Bachelor of Science degree when, as a young man during the Depression, he never imagined there would ever be any way for him to attend college. Oddly, as a conservative Republican, he continued to rail against “government entitlements” throughout his life. It’s like a religion, I tell you.

This topic is too big to cover adequately in a blog post, but let me just end with a handful of questions for which I have never found convincing conservative answers: If effort and ability determine who gets rich and who stays poor, why is it that the overwhelming majority of Americans live and die within the same class into which they are born? Why is it that no child, born as a migrant worker, has ever become a senator, governor, or, to my knowledge, powerful CEO? Why did the American economy grow so rapidly during the heyday of liberalism (1945-79) and why has it done so much worse since the rise of conservatism? Why, during conservatism’s rise, have the “one percent” managed to suck into their own coffers such a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth? Did these one-percenters suddenly become more “hard-working and intelligent” after 1980? And, finally, what impressive personal qualities made George W. Bush a solid member of this privileged one percent?

 From America's Top One Percent: George W. Bush