To understand The Paul Ryan and his hapless plans to save America (the latest one, under discussion here, is a doozie), we need to start with The Ronald — just as to get the idea of silly putty you ought to have some idea of what putty is.
Ever since President Reagan uttered his most notorious Zen koan — “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” — conservatives of the heartless type (the neoconservatives) have been running around trying to convince the unwashed, the gullible, and the angry old white men and women of a myth: that if government is shrunk, then the nation, its young and old, its rich and poor, will soar to ever-higher prosperity. National and international greatness will soar in step.
Soar, that is, if and only if: costly government-run social “entitlement” programs (what a wretched label!) are cut back or eliminated; certain taxes shrunk or eliminated; union extortion of free-enterprise, job-creating heroes is blocked; and certain (note that word again) government regulatory powers are neutered or eliminated. Then and only then will riches and happiness pour down along the Laffer Curve and spray upon the rabble.
Of course, Reagan’s principle, so sweeping and unmodified, is for that very reason empty of rational support, either empirical or deductive — another way of saying that it is rubbish. But constitutionally harmful rubbish. Cloaked in the drama of the Immense and Immediate Danger of the “runaway” national deficit, this approach of favoring wealth and the wealthy served Ronald and Nancy well politically during their ascension and reign in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, it undermines attention to what our Constitution refers to centrally as “the common welfare,” which one would have thought comprises the welfare of all our people — welfare of many kinds and in many shapes. Hey, Willard and Grover and “Dick,” we live here too! Are we really supposed to mope around in the national sump waiting for scraps of largesse to trickle down upon us?
Governments everywhere are established in order to … govern. The Reagan principle, as if the excited impulse of a child, blatantly ignores the raft of things our national government, in particular, does that everyone seems to like. This is a looong list, such as getting a man on the moon, researching medical applications (which are then usually handed over to Big Pharma), providing disaster relief, building the Interstate Highway System, making sure airplanes don’t crash into each other, bringing aid to people suffering from massive disasters, making sure the economically marginal elderly have food and get medical care, and — oops, better be careful here — invading countries that are not imminent threats to us, with 100% of routine congressional Republican support…
The primary target of Reagan and his whining acolytes of our own day has been the power to regulate activity within our society, a power which is of course vested at all levels of … yes, government. Regulation is an aspect of social control. And it is overwhelmingly the conservative mentality to glorify control, and has been since Edmund Burke at least. Control is needed to protect and, yes, conserve the social order that serves them well, keeping the disorderly riff and the raff out of the gated communities and the lobbies of doorman condos. It so happens that the Big Daddy of social control is none other than government regulatory activity: by dint of laws, statutes, and all sorts of other rules. The relevant term of art here is “police power.” But wasn’t it the founding neoconservative, The Ronald, who ordained that government is the problem, not the solution? What’s going on here?
INTO THE AMERICAN WEEDS:
We need control: traffic lights, drivers’ licenses, and such. The efforts of conservative control go beyond those things, into extended control of behavior in the general population. This starts locally, with zoning laws and other restrictions on property us such as un-mowed lawns, the prohibition of “saggy” pants (as in Ferguson, Missouri), and the like. In short order it rises to government-ordered vaginal ultrasounds (Virginia and elsewhere) and oversight and control of women’s uteruses, and of bedroom activity they deem to be contrary to God’s natural order, as they claim He has been telling them. On the still-wider stage, they have vigorously taken up The Ronald’s lead to more closely regulate union organizing.
Yes, that’s right: the conservatives do want some government regulations. (Union counter-pressure against corporations of course reduces the corporations’ own powers of control — and which friends sit highest at the Republican table?) The full list of controlling activity on the neoconservative wish list — some active, some reactive — is achingly long: prohibiting personal use of marijuana; shrinking the use of food stamps for the poor; minimizing supplemental school meals for poor children; removing pesky industrial safety inspections; reducing the power of organized workers…. It’s a list that is always growing.
Growing, because control is addictive and — like most addictions — it is dynamic, always driven by the feeling that a higher dose is needed to get that warm glow of well-being. Control never lays back in calm satisfaction with a task well done. Laws to control the behavior of us ordinary citizens are always seen to be in need of extension, as cracks in existing controls — real, potential, or imagined — rise to mind. Threats abound, if you put yourself to looking for them. The neoconservatives are always a-trembling about something.
Note that most of the social control of us folks down in the weeds, selectively cataloged above, is exercised by … why, by government. It’s the very same entity Reagan’s neoconservative camp followers loudly and consistently disparage. Aren’t their principles, taken together with their fondness for social regulation, a fundamentally unstable system internally? How to resolve this paradox?
AMERICAN VALUES AS SEEN FROM ON HIGH:
Wait — there’s even more confusion. There appears to be a big blank space on that ever-lengthening conservative list of aspects of our society deemed necessary to regulate. What about the activities of our financial and corporate giants? Say what? Stifle the exercise of The Free Enterprise that Made America Great? Tax corporations and hit high personal incomes, both engorged with the plunder derived from various financial rent-taking schemes plus tricky but mostly legal tax avoidance? No, regulating those things would be unfair to those “persons” who create jobs. Inheritance tax on those who have not themselves earned the money? A rape of God-given property rights. (Yet unfettered inheritance is an “entitlement” program, truly labeled, if there ever was one.)
Given the loud woes and the gnashing of teeth by the neoconservative Republicans about corporate and financial regulation, it is no accident that the people down in the weeds perceive the Republican Party as the party of business and wealth. (Wealth which today massively bankrolls the legislative and judicial election efforts largely within the Republican Party — a mutually self-sustaining ecological cycle.)
Still, we must consider the scholarly macroeconomic evidence the Republicans have to offer on the overriding value to our nation of these trade-offs away from the poor and needy and powerless, and in favor of the ever-greater benefit of the wealthy and powerful? Well, there isn’t any such evidence. In fact, there is mounting hard economic evidence supporting the contrary view. No matter: Reagan has spoken, and that is just fine with the beneficiaries of his dicta. Control of the rich and powerful and their interests is deemed a no-fly zone; it is socialistic and contrary to individual liberty. It violates a concoction called natural law. At best, it is socialism. But … this fervent conservative tic further deepens the internal instability of neoconservative thought.
Neoconservative thought seems to have become the default position in much of our country, especially in the halls of Congress. And so the paradox lying at the heart of our nation’s polity and politics as of Labor Day 2014 remains unresolved. Government to control the unwashed: OK. Government control for the plutocracy and the corporations they control: not OK, un-American. If history is any guide here, this inner “cultural” contradiction suggests that dynamics will build up within society at large and the national polity until there is some kind of major, tectonic shift-like resolution. We can only hope that it will not be violent.
So far, these broad thoughts about the neoconservative right are a distillation of what might be looked at as a kind of astrophysics-like Standard Model of the twenty-first century American polity. In other words, these are not new views. They are commonplaces among intelligent, balanced, good-spirited observers, people who can and do actually think and who get their news and commentary from The New York Times' side of things, that is, and not the MSNBC’s or Fox’s or National Review’s. This Standard Model is summarized here for the purpose of setting up a discussion of Paul Ryan’s latest plan to save the America that matters.
Before finally getting to the new Ryan plan, however, we might recall the Reagan principle and keep in front of mind the neoconservative mantra of reducing government. It is precisely that absolutely central anti-government consensus on the Right which Ryan seems now to be bucking. Ryan is no addled wanderer in life who thinks that there is such a thing as libertarianism that is not actually anarchism. No, this supposed change of spots comes from a — if not the — leading Village Philosopher of the congressional Right. A man who has read unreadable concept novels in order to forge his own soul and go forth to heal the soul of America.
SLASHING AT THE GORDIAN KNOT OF POVERTY IN AMERICA:
After having been caught receiving anal intercourse from the fat cats during the 2012 election campaign, Republicans have been struggling to find ways to get ordinary, not-so-fat-catlike folks to believe that their party really, truly cares about them (it doesn’t). It is within that context that U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wis., recently completed a tour of America to “listen to Americans in poorer cities” about “their needs,” as reported in The New York Times largely from a Ryan press release. (Don’t you love the “poorer” cities twist?) Imagine Ryan in a college class being asked, What might the needs of poor people be? “Uh, uh … money? Maybe food? No, everyone can afford some food, can’t they? We can’t all live on caviar, ha ha. Medical care? Well, I guess they have the ER. Uh, they need jobs, too, I guess. Why don’t they just go out and get them? And they have houses, don’t they? Yeah, they’re already living somewhere, right?”
The transparent listening-tour cliché is laughable in its own right, of course, but there’s more. As reported in the July 25, 2014, New York Times, Ryan — having subsequently become deeply knowledgeable about poverty in America during his whole week of photo ops with Americans in a carefully selected posy of those poorer cities, has come up with yet another of his seat-of-the-pants plans to “combat it.” Shades of the bizarro old “war on drugs.”
Chairman of the House budget committee, Ryan is renowned within his circle of apparently less intellectually endowed fellow Republican congressmen and craven, sell-out think-tank camp followers as something of a economic genius. (The hard evidence of that is … well, there really isn’t any for that, either, except that he pontificates a lot on the economy; in the country of the blind….) According to the Times, Ryan’s plan “includes a mix of both traditional Republican proposals to expand the earned-income tax credit and [but of course!] reduce regulations.”
The first step of Ryan’s plan is the consolidation of a dozen federal anti-poverty programs, then to move responsibility for administering the new stew from the federal government to the individual states (states such as Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, and Wisconsin, whose governments are so notable committed to providing succor to their poorest and neediest).
Right away, an overpowering scent of rat arises. Each state would have autonomy to spend the federal anti-poverty funds on whatever anti-poverty programs it, the individual state, desires — so long as Washington approves the state’s plan. (Note: or not spend, on poverty or anything else? And “Washington” means the Administration? Congress? Hey, gang, when that money would leave the U.S. Treasury and hit Madison or Atlanta or Jackson or Boise or Lansing or Austin, it would be whisked away out of public sight forever.)
The shift of anti-poverty efforts to the states is not a casual prescription. It is direct and slavish obeisance to the states-rights platform, a corollary to the Reagan anti-government principle. It is the national government that has been a burr under many American saddles since the days of Jefferson, John Taylor of Caroline, and of course John Calhoun and the slaveholders in the major slaveholding states. It is thus the Apostles’ Creed of the Southern secessionists — a critical tool of the shifty Nixon, with his “Southern strategy” that successfully hobbled the Democratic Party. States-rights efforts remain virulent, hobbling our Republic.
If the neoconservatives cannot neuter Washington, DC, they can at least cry states’ rights — while moving as many regulatory and police powers as possible down to the state or local level. There, the “good” conservative controls can be expanded, and the “bad,” so-called liberal regulations — environmental, safety, equal rights, and in particular financial regulations and taxation — can be drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub.
Ryan has christened his states-centered consolidated program one of “Opportunity Grants.” “Opportunity” is one of the Republican juju words, signifying the great promise America offers with open hands. But if that rather mysterious but supposedly omnipresent opportunity happens not to be grasped by some person, such as a poor person and family — maybe single mothers working at shit jobs, or an elderly widow living alone — and they remain impoverished, that’s regrettable, but it’s the way of the world. Jesus said so.
To the conservative mind, it is ipso facto their own fault; more than a hundred years ago Herbert Spencer and the conservative doctrines of Social Darwinism ordained it so. The opportunity-averse poor — including their infants, little children, and other dependents such as aged parents — must reap what they have failed to sow. Why, the oldsters should have been saving ten percent of their income every month for those golden retirement years, as the Wall Street Journal has been saying for decades, but they themselves chose to ignore that wise counsel. So far in this story, the Ryan plan is just more same old, same old.
OK, but what about the administration of these Grants. How will they work? The devil really is in the details here. So, hold onto your chair! This is where Ryan, that sworn enemy of government and its regulations, converts, like Saul on his way to Damascus — prostrating himself before the need for even more regulation. A huge brand-new steaming heap of it, and so anathema to the Reaganites? Well, let’s take a look: control of whom, exactly?
Per the Times’s summary of Ryan’s “Grants” program: [Step A] “If a state opted into the … program, it would have low-income residents meet with case managers who would create an ‘opportunity plan’ offering both financial advice and coordinating the provisions of the several different programs they need. [Step B] The residents would sign contracts with these case managers [i.e., with the state?] that would offer incentives [for the residents] to reach financial security and sanctions if they do not. A neutral agency would evaluate each provider’s success at moving poor Americans out of poverty.”
Mother of pearl! What a Rube Goldberg apparatus this would be, and stretching from coast to coast! Case managers. Contracts. Incentives. Providers (?). And sanctions. Oversight by a “neutral” agency (whatever the hell that might mean). All a vast new-from-the-ground-up nationwide (but definitely not national) bureaucracy — one luscious and ripe for outsourcing to private contractors within each state, which is to say the more avid contributors to a state’s political hacks. Can this really be what the top line of the Ryan plan means by “reduce regulations”?
We do have to be especially curious about those “sanctions.” They may turn out to be steps to push the failed applicants even deeper into debt and poverty if not actual incarceration (in private-capital funded facilities, of course), even though that last would contradict another of the Ryan plan’s anti-poverty tools: sentencing reform. With marijuana on its way to legalization, private prisons’ business models may however need some shoring up with a new class of customers.
REACTION FROM THE RIGHT:
Keep in mind that the underlying theme of this polemic is the absolutely central principle of conservative Republicans, their Holy Trinity: to reduce the size and reach of government and its regulations, a k a control — albeit highly selective in that reduction. So, what would neoconservative saint Ronald Reagan say about Ryan’s heaping up of new government scaffolding? You can only imagine his horror. But not to worry. None of that Opportunity Grant night soil will ever hit our statute books, so long as there is a Democrat in the White House, or a Republican president who is not mean spirited and devoid of understanding of what it means to have government for the people (or devoid of a brain and a heart).
Even many Republicans are likely to recoil, perhaps the ones who privately loathe “Bill” Kristol’s Mephistophelean smirk and the felon Ralph Reed’s Uriah Heep imitation and the lies and horrors that pour out of “Dick” Cheney’s mouth in a deadly monotone. After the Ryan plan was unveiled, Paul Krugman commented on Ryan in his Times column: “One of the best insults I’ve ever read came from Ezra Klein…. In 2007, he described Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.’ It … applies to quite a few public figures. Rep. Paul Ryan … is a prime current example.” The chairman has no clothes.
But then another columnist, Ross Douthat, entered the lists with an especially witless column, even for him. Douthat, the Times’s second-string conservative-opinion placeholder, concocted an admiring distillation of Ryan’s latest Plan to Restore America’s Greatness and Cure Poverty. After cataloging other conservative, libertarian, or tea party public-policy fabulists — Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul — he goes on, “Now that list includes Paul Ryan, who last week released a blueprint that folds together many of the strongest reformist [??] and libertarian ideas…. [As if there exists a coherent set of Libertarian ideas, beyond the classic, I’m all right, Jack; how about you?]”
Douthat continued, “There’s…
• a larger earned-income tax credit [only for childless single filers, not so incidentally],
• proposed cuts to corporate welfare [You have to smile at the artful term “proposed” reserved for the corporate item in an anti-poverty plan],
• a call for sentencing reform for nonviolent offenses,
• a critique of ‘regressive regulations’ like licensing requirements [Ah, yes, regulations yet again. Which might those be? What might the ‘critique’ entail? And which progressive regulations, if such things are even deemed to exist in Neocon World, would survive? If any, let’s hope they include eighteen-wheeler truckers’ driving licenses and licenses to practice medicine.],
• and much more.” [Bullets added.]
So after we pour this cocktail of single-filer tax credit (how much?); “proposed” cuts to corporate welfare; sentencing reform; and fewer regulations and license requirements, then — voilà — poverty in America will surely become a thing of memory, like polio and typewriters.
We have to wonder: were those people in “poorer” cities to whom Ryan supposedly listened actually poor? If so, did they really tell him that they need a reduction in those terrible governmental regulations suppressing them? Or an urgent need for more earned-income tax credits for all those poor but childless single people who are careful to file on April 15th every year? Did they actually call for a reduction of corporate welfare to help them and their families out of poverty?
Hmmm. Did the Word file Ross zapped down to the Times pressroom accidentally delete the account of Ryan’s revolutionary poverty-fighting “Opportunity Grants” program, with its phalanx of case managers and sanctions and “neutral” review agencies? His published column contains not a single word about the “Grants” program, not even a breath of a hint. Or, as is more likely, did the power player wannabe Douthat sense how loony the program is, and put his thumb over the “Grants” stuff as he cobbled together his copy.
We might well suspect that the ol’ sly-boots Ryan is indeed floating mock-liberal proposals on poverty so his Party can say, “See, we do so care about poverty. Hence we care about you.” He and his benighted staffers may even have glimmers of how brainless their poverty proposals are, but Chairman Paul and fellow party hypocrites may think they can hoodwink the public into delight over the St. Francis- and Pope Francis-inspired charity that the party of the plutocrats has miraculously become. As the public is pretty dim-witted, chockablock with millions of low-information voters in what liberal writers call the Moron Crescent, Ryan and his cynical buddies may well be right.
That seems to indicated by the way Arthur C. Brooks, identified as president of the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, chimed in on the Times OpEd page following the Douthat nonsense — quickly, and, as it were, out of hand. Mr. Brooks’s flimsy column fits in pretty well with a golly-how-Republicans-really-hate-poverty-wink-wink conspiracy hypothesis. Brooks: “Mr. Ryan’s new anti-poverty plan, for example, features an expansion of the earned-income tax credit for childless workers — an outstanding idea the Democrats have favored for decades. The Washington Post declared the Ryan plan ‘so bipartisan it doesn’t sound like [sic] he’s running in 2016,’” the gullible Post adding the supposition that Ryan’s proposal might hurt him with the Republican base. Ooooh, it’s a risky move for Paulie, so it must be the real deal. What a mensch!
Arthur Enterprise then hears a sour note to his left. “The influential progressive blog Think Progress quickly posted a series of pieces dismissing Mr. Ryan’s plan out of hand. ‘While Ryan is trying out new rhetoric around the issue of poverty,’ they wrote, his plan ‘is full of the same empty promises he’s been making for years.’ Other progressive pundits followed suit, some appearing more eager to silence Mr. Ryan than to build a compromise that would help the poor.” (“Compromise?” What compromise?) Arthur Enterprise — who may be cynical but is probably very intelligent, unlike Ryan — goes on to suggest that the Democrats would do well with voters if they would openly discuss “personal morality” and extol “strong leadership in foreign affairs.” Thanks for the advice, Arthur; we’ll get back to you on it. Well, it seems unlikely to at least one polemic-writer that any politician or political party has something of any value whatsoever to say about “personal morality.” As for Enterprise Brooks’s phrase “strong leadership in foreign affairs”: a stirring concept, but wonderfully empty of any specificity, hence meaning. (By the way, we must remember to go to Think Progress more often, as their quick, out-of-hand assessment is spot-on about the ludicrous Ryan “plan.”)
To spend a minute analyzing Arthur C. Brooks’s cunning wordplay in the preceding: “quickly” is quack commentators’ code for knee-jerk; “out of hand” is also think-tank code for knee-jerk, as in, No thought being applied. “Pundits” is the old polemic substitute for commentators or authorities — but of course Arthur Enterprise is himself a pundit. And a polemicist, like me! Hello, my brother. Dear Reader, there is another well concealed but telling clue. Note the slick use of “for example,” above, when Arthur mentions a single detail — only one — of the Ryan “anti-poverty” plan (the childless single-filer earned-income tax credit). So there: that should put an end to poverty in America. But not a word from Enterprise Brooks, not even a tantalizing hint, about the wildly lunatic “Opportunity Grants” part of the Ryan plan, or any other example (because there is none).
THE KNOT YET STANDS:
Let’s not beat around the bush. Today’s Reagan-worshipping mainstream Republican Party, not just the snarling neoconservatives, doesn’t give two farts about reducing poverty or helping make more opportunities available to that formulaic entity “all Americans.” If they did, our Congress would long ago have expanded pre-school nationally, as well as full funding for school breakfasts and lunches for our needy children, and after-school programs. The Democratic President would have signed the bills in a heartbeat. The leading Democrats wouldn’t have had to trade off some of the family jewels to get the supplemental child nutrition program (SNAP) approved. The food stamp program would have been expanded, not cut — paid for maybe by reducing socially and economically useless subsidies to “farmers” (giant agribusiness corporations). Sorely needed major public works projects would be pumping up economies from coast to coast. And so on, in ways actually to help reduce poverty in America, ways that operate far from the influence of insipid anti-poverty plans enshrined in press releases.
Is it too much to hope that angry old white Americans, even in the Moron Crescent, will suddenly wake up and figure out that increased government help for themselves is more important to them and their children than social fluff such as keeping gays from marrying — or shielding the “job creators” who are dicking the country over for ever more profit to be sequestered among the One Percent? Yes, it probably is too much to hope. “The American People” is, as so many of the Founders fretted about, ignorant and emotionally vulnerable.
So, no more Mr. Nice Guy. Only a polemic can do justice to the foolishness — and the ugliness — of all this flapdoodle from Ryan and the chorus of neoconservative toadies. How else we can convey the stench of the evident lack of intellectual application and statesmanship of so many of our leading political figures, some of whom — not including Ryan — actually do possess smarts? Paul Ryan is no statesman. More than that, he is a jerk. This polemic has a serious purpose: to try to demonstrate why he’s a jerk, not just throw out an epithet. To think that he might have become Vice President — or President! And may still. It’s time to send him back to the smug little village that spawned him.