Once upon a time, in a land not too long ago, there was a Republican party that, while I did not generally vote for them, I could respect. This was an honorable party of fiscal conservatism and sometimes (at least in the Northeast) moderate social liberalism. That time has passed. Two things have happened to make me lose respect: first, the Republican party abandoned fiscal discipline; second, they adopted very self-consciously the use of inflammatory rhetoric designed to enrage instead of to inform. Allow me to explain.
Up until the administration of Ronald Reagan, the Republicans were a party of fiscal conservatism, including fiscal responsibility. Ronald Reagan abandoned that tradition by enacting tax decreases that he did not budget for. The assumption of his “trickle down” economics – a policy that his own budget chief, David Stockman eventually repudiated – was that the tax breaks would generate enough growth in the economy to balance out the lost tax revenue. It didn’t work out. This policy of fiscal irresponsibility was really accelerated under George W. Bush, who (with complicity from the Democratic-led Congress) failed to finance either the Iraq or Afghanistan war. If Bush had had to reveal their true cost to U.S. taxpayers and charge us for their cost, the wars would have been much less popular. Hence the deception.
Now the theory that tax breaks for the “job creators” will stimulate the economy is based on the concept of the multiplier effect: if new jobs are created, those new employees will have more money to spend, helping to grow other businesses like local shops and restaurants, who will in turn have more money to hire new employees, and so on and so forth. Of course, it doesn’t really work if most of those jobs are created in India and China, which is where most of them are being created right now. If you look at manufacturing in the United States, where it is increasing is mostly in industries that make heavy use of robotics and other high-tech machinery. Not many new people are being employed in manufacturing. Where there is job growth is mostly in low wage service jobs. McDonalds. Walmart. That sort of thing.
By the way, it was recently reported that the non-partisan Congressional Research Service withdrew an economic report that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth, a central tenet of conservative economic theory, after Senate Republicans raised concerns about the paper’s findings and wording.
The federal government has two tools with which it can effect the economy: monetary policy and fiscal policy. Monetary policy is, of course, controlled by the Federal Reserve. And with interest rates at historic lows, there isn’t much more that the Federal Reserve can do. Fiscal policy is all about spending. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”) is an excellent example of fiscal policy. By the time Obama came into office, Bush had amassed such a large federal deficit that Obama’s options were much more limited than they would have been without that burden (a burden which Bush did, of course, not inherit from Clinton). In addition, it was clear from the outset that the Republicans would not cooperate with Obama to try to fix the economy, so that the resulting stimulus (officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or “ARRA”) was only about half of what Obama wanted. Would giving Obama the full amount have made a difference? It’s hard to prove one way or another. I’m not an economist, but a number of them seem to think it would.
In any case, one thing is clear: the ARRA act was much more effective in helping to stimulate the economy then giving tax breaks to the “job creators” because ARRA actually created jobs in the United States, especially well-paying construction jobs. Almost every highway work project over the last couple of years included a sign that it was funded in whole or in part by ARRA. Those construction workers really did contribute to the “multiplier effect.”
The second phenomenon, the change in political tone, really began with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” during which time the Republicans took back the House for the first time in forty-two years. It’s not that rhetoric hadn’t occasionally been overheated before; the distinction was how methodical and consistent the Republicans were in its use. In particular, words like “patriotism” were used to attack anyone who disagreed with Republican policies. We can see it more recently in the use of the name “USA Patriot Act” as applied to Bush’s post-September 11 anti-terrorist legislation. Anybody who opposed Bush’s legislation must, by definition, have been unpatriotic.
In this election the Republicans are fond of throwing around the word “socialism” and applying to Obama’s administration. When Paul Ryan was announced as the Vice-Presidential nominee, his former mentor at the University of Miami in Ohio, Professor Richard Hart, accused Obama of promoting socialism.
Professor Hart is an idiot. Or more likely, he’s pretending to be an idiot. Professor Hart, he of the University’s economics department, surely knows that as conceived by Marx, “socialism” was a transitional period in the Marxian dialectic between Capitalism and Communism. But more to the point, as practiced in Soviet and other Eastern Bloc countries, “socialism” was characterized by planned economies and state ownership of the “means of production.” It was the failure of economic planning that brought us two hour lines to buy toilet paper in the old Soviet Union.
Obama is no more a socialist than Bush was a fascist. Yet, there were no mainstream Democrats calling Bush a fascist eight years ago, and you can imagine the howls of protest from the Republican party if they had.
So when Professor Hart says that Obama’s policies are “socialist,” it’s a red herring, it’s red meat, it’s the red scare. Don’t take the bait. If some of the European nations can be characterized as being social welfare capitalism, then ours might be characterized as corporate welfare capitalism. You need to go no further than the bail outs of the financial industry, of General Motors, and previously of the savings and loan industry to recognize that. Or to take a look at our oil and farm subsidies.
By all accounts, from people who actually know him, Mitt Romney is not a bad guy. He is smart and competent, and when he was our Governor in Massachusetts, he wasn’t a bad Governor. He tried to reorganize some of the executive branch departments – moving human resources and information technology from the individual departments to the secretariats, for example – but it didn’t really make any difference. Oh sure, a few people retired a little early because they didn’t want to move their offices. But the salaries of the 64,000 or so Commonwealth employees make up less than 10% of the approximately $30 billion state budget; in the end, all of Romney’s business-acumen-aided efforts made no dent in state expenditures.
Mitt’s signature achievement, on the other hand, was “Romneycare” – on which “Obamacare” is squarely based – and he achieved it by doing what the Republican Congress refused to do, which is negotiate with the opposition. The Democratic State Legislature compromised with Romney, and they achieved a reasonable result. And, as the cognoscenti may remember, the indivudal mandate that was at the core of the enactment had initially been proposed by the politically conservative Heritage Foundation in 1989 as an alternative to single-payer health care.
Romney is now trying to run away from his signature achievement and he is trying to do so on the basis of “state’s rights” (the notion that certain powers should be reserved for the states instead of the federal government). Universal health care was good for Massachusetts, he argues, but not necessarily good for the rest of the nation. That’s like arguing that we should dismantle the social security system on the basis of state’s rights, because some states might want to enact a different social security system than the one we already have. No sane person, not even the Republicans, have yet made that argument. And let’s remember that Social Security was, inevitably, attacked as leading us towards “socialism” at the time that it was enacted.
Dear Republicans: not every effort to provide a social safety net to our poor, our elderly, our disenfranchised, or even our middle class, is socialism.
Now, the most basic problem with Romney is that he has no political core. He’s a politician of extraordinary convenience. When it suited him to be a pro-choice moderate to run for Governor of Massachusetts, that’s what he was. When he had to cater to the Teaparty, he transformed into a pro-life “severe” conservative. Romney is the worst of the two previous Bay Staters who ran for President: more than Kerry, he’s a flip-flopper; more than Dukakis, his only raison d’être for running is his managerial expertise.
It’s clear that Romney has no vision, other than that he envisions himself as uniquely qualified to manage the federal government. He wants to be the CEO of the USA. If he gets elected, he’ll want to get re-elected. And given his now obvious propensity to say anything at all to get elected, and there is no way of knowing what he would actually do if he became President.
We’re already living, by the way, in the Republican Nirvana. I want to ask the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, what do they want that they don’t already have? Income in the United States has already been bifurcating since the late 1970s, and has now reached extreme proportions of inequity.
The Republicans seem to want to return us not to the “good old days” of the 1950s, but to pre-turn-of-the-Century Patrician England, with the job creators substituting for the Dukes and Duchesses and Landed Gentry. Romney co-owns a dressage horse, Rafalca, for crying out loud. Not only does he co-own the horse, but it competed in the London Olympics and did very well. Mitt, you never thought of selling the horse before running for President?
But Romney doesn’t want to sacrifice anything in running for president. He doesn’t want to give up his horse, or his bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, or to publicize his tax returns. He wants to be our President and our Patrician at the same time.
Obama, for his part, has been a far from perfect President. It has, by his own admission, been a “promise he has kept.” A former Constitutional Scholar, Obama has been disturbingly regressive in matters of civil liberties, of all things, such as when he authorized a policy permitting the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens overseas. But let’s also take a look at his accomplishments. First, he did manage to keep us from sliding from recession to depression. According to most of the credible economists. Second, in Obamacare, he managed to enact a universal health care program for the entire nation. This was the conclusion to an effort that began with Ted Kennedy and Richard Nixon, more than forty years ago. I believe that at some point in the future, people will look at the Affordable Care Act just as we look on Social Security now: how did we ever live without it? Just as folks will someday think the debate over gay marriage is just as wayward as we now look at anti-miscegenation laws.
Romney now wants to take credit for the bipartisanship that led to the creation of Romneycare. The credit for that, it seems to me, goes more to the Commonwealth’s Democratic legislature. The discredit for the stalemate down in Washington must go mostly to the Republican-led Congress. They brought us to the brink of financial catastrophe by refusing to negotiate on the debt ceiling because the Presidents’ proposals – based on the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles recommendations – actually included modest revenue increases. It didn’t matter that the cuts offered were literally ten times more than the revenue increases sought. No revenue increase of any kind would be considered by the Republicans because they had almost all mortgaged their political souls to the Grover Norquist Taxpayer Protection Pledge.
Seriously? Is this what we’ve really come to?
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell famously went public with the Republican agenda when, in October of 2010, he cheerfully declared that the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Not, fix the economy, not provide a safety net for our citizens, not find alternatives for universal health care. Just make Obama a one-term President.
So here is my bottom line: this election is important to me because I don’t want to reward the Republicans for their abject cynicism or their nearly absolute obstructionism. I don’t want them to achieve their one-term objective. I want them to learn that when they are elected, they are elected to represent all the people in their districts, and not just the ones who agree with them. I want them to remember that compromise is the indispensable proverbial oil that allows the machinery of politics to run. I don’t want their cynicism to be rewarded.