Regarding the Now Disputed Constitutional Duty to Promote the General Welfare

It was that first year of college, back in the mid-sixties, and the first run-in with one of them, the fetching young lady who turned out to be an Ayn Rand devotee. She was not impressed. Life was all about the virtue of selfishness. Nice guys are losers. She wanted a guy who would go out and take what he wanted, and push people around – preferably poor people, or better yet the disabled – and grab the goodies – no apologies. (Her eyes would light up.) And any talk about fairness and justice was just awful – life isn’t fair and there is no such thing as justice – justice is just the leeches taking stuff from the productive.

Okay. It was the sixties. Move on. Never saw her again. Just as well. And the music was better on the other side. And you got points for being decent and courteous and thoughtful. And sharing, for the good of all, or just for the fun of it, was the norm. Hey. He’s not heavy, he’s my brother. We were all brothers, or sisters, or something. Liberté, égalité, fraternité – it was almost French. The Ayn Rand folks were still out there, but they were not of the times somehow.

But now and then you’d think of them. Years later there was that critique of Rand’s masterwork Atlas Shrugged from Ian Williams in a 2000 Salon article about Alan Greenspan:

For those who never read Rand, be warned that “Atlas Shrugged” reads like a novelization of Mein Kampf by Barbara Cartland. She depicts bodice-ripping capitalist supermen who obtain fanatical loyalty from their workers, and then leave them in the lurch in search of a capitalist paradise where everything has a price – and it’s in gold.

That summed it up nicely. The literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith – in his “Who’s Who in 20th Century Literature” – noted that Ayn Rand’s writings “appeal to the conservatively bred young, because they encourage them to be selfish without a guilty conscience.” And yes, that is seductive. But that was not the sixties.

But maybe they won that day after all. Alan Greenspan determined the free-world’s economy for decades – no need for regulation, as selfish people free to make their own choices about everything, will – as they don’t want to screw the pooch, or kill the goose who lays the golden egg, or whatever metaphor you’d like – make sure things are stable, producing what people want at the lowest possible cost and with the highest possible value, because they want to get and remain obscenely rich. Their greed is good. They wouldn’t do anything stupid, anything that would crash the whole economic system, for example.

Yes, it didn’t work out that way, but Alan Greenspan had been tight with Ayn Rand and that’s how it should have worked.

But that’s an old story, often told. What is more interesting is how, somehow, the whole concept of fairness and justice changed. There was that Citizens United case – the Supreme Court ruling that corporations must be free to spend as much money as they want in elections, and not be forced to reveal what they’re doing, as anything less would be unfair, an unfair restriction on their First Amendment rights to free speech. So all election finance law, and all the precedents that kept corporate money out of elections, was thrown out. People must be free. And corporations are, kind of, people. You can’t deny them their right to free speech.

And there was this – “The Supreme Court appeared poised Monday to strike down a provision of a campaign financing system in Arizona that gives extra cash to publicly funded candidates who face privately funded rivals and independent groups.”

The decision will come later, but from their questions in the oral arguments it seems that the current Supreme Court thinking is that giving just plain people matching funds, so they’re not buried by the massive spending of a very rich candidate, or one supported by giant corporations, is a clear violation of the free-speech rights of the very rich – and that is really, really unfair. Why does everyone want to take away the right of the rich to espouse their message? It’s not right to gang up on the rich and take away their natural advantage, the money they earned or inherited or were given.

Ayn Rand is back. And Eugene Robinson confirms that in a piece in the Washington Post on how far-right Republicans are winning the budget wars – because they understand something that nobody else in Washington seems to grasp – “The old truism about politics being the art of the possible is no longer true.”

This is nominally about who won the big budget showdown. The outcome – nearly $40 billion in painful cuts – is far beyond the Republicans’ initial demands. Democrats were able to save a few pet programs but that was about it. And Robinson sees the bigger picture:

And as anyone who’s paying attention can plainly see, The Great Shutdown Standoff was just a skirmish in a much bigger conflict. At issue is a fundamental question – what is the nature and purpose of government – that was first answered more than two centuries ago, when Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson duked it out as warring members of George Washington’s first Cabinet. Hamilton’s centralized government was victorious. There are those who have never forgiven him.

The far-right ideologues in the House seek to starve the federal government to the point where it can no longer fulfill its constitutional duty to promote the general welfare. I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic, but that’s what this struggle comes down to.

Ayn Rand would smile. And she would smile at how this was done:

Their inspired tactic – which has worked so well that they would be crazy to abandon it – has been to take a wildly extreme position and stick to it with the obstinacy of a mule. When Democrats offer to negotiate, Republicans increase their demands. The result is that they shift the battlefield and end up fighting on terrain so friendly that they literally can’t lose.

They demanded thirty-three billion dollars in cuts, then decided they could say yes to that and raised it to sixty-one billion, and ended up getting about two-thirds of that. Cool. And on the other side:

Democrats, including President Obama, continue to play by the old art-of-the-possible rules. Bless their hearts. They caucus, they cogitate, they ruminate, they make reasonable concessions and ultimately come up with a result that everyone, surely, should be able to live with. Then they get hit with the next sucker punch.

And that’s not going to change:

The road map for debt reduction and entitlement reform that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP’s designated philosopher, has put on the table is a radical proposal. It would cut taxes for the wealthy, worsen the struggles of the beleaguered middle class and alter Medicare and Medicaid to the point where they would be unrecognizable. Ryan seeks not just to reduce the nation’s long-term indebtedness but to change the essence of the relationship between citizens and their government.

Ryan pays lip service to the need to maintain and strengthen America’s safety net, but nothing in his plan suggests he really believes in the idea of collective responsibility for those in need. His favorite author, the laissez-faire extremist Ayn Rand, would be proud.

So if progressives, as Robinson notes, believe that a healthy, prosperous nation is more than a collection of self-interested individuals, have a duty to respond, they’re just out of luck. Yes, Obama may present a plan for debt reduction and entitlement reform that will include a mix of sensible spending cuts and modest tax increase, and that should be something that everyone should be able to live with, but it won’t matter now:

But mark my words, the response from the ideologues of the far right won’t be to sit down with the president and negotiate a middle course. They won’t even pretend to look for common ground. They’ll insist on spending cuts in the 2012 budget that go far beyond even the outrageous demands that Republicans made for the current year. As leverage, they’ll have a crucial upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default. Think they won’t try to use it?

Politically, Obama gets to be seen as sensible, pragmatic and more interested in solutions than political gamesmanship. But step back and look at the bigger picture. Why are we even talking about spending cuts, rather than increases, when the economy is still struggling to climb out of one of history’s worst recessions?

Well, if you think promoting the general welfare is evil, in an Ayn Rand way, then those “solutions” are not solutions at all. It’s November 1965 again, and that pretty coed. She wanted a guy who would go out and take what he wanted, and push people around – preferably poor people, or better yet the disabled – and grab the goodies – no apologies. And yes, her eyes would light up. The sixties never happened. Hey. He is heavy, and he ain’t MY brother.

And now it comes down to Obama, and what he will do, and Joan Walsh has a few thoughts on that:

On the eve of President Obama’s heralded speech laying out his own budget vision, it seems like a waste of time trying to predict exactly what he’ll say. Tuesday brought various alarmist reports -\- he’ll endorse the Simpson-Bowles entitlement cut plan; he’ll make a deal tying raising the debt ceiling to deficit reduction (as the GOP demands) – then came evidence that those things were maybe possibly not true. I think it makes sense to wait and see what the president actually says tomorrow.

In the meantime, a debate rages on the left about a couple of budget-related moves by the president: His agreeing last Friday to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from programs like nutrition for women, infants and children, community health centers and occupational health programs, in order to prevent a government shutdown, and his depicting that deal as a victory. I wish Obama had held the line more, but unlike a lot of people, I don’t begrudge his framing it as a victory. In the short term, the strategy appears to be working: Polls show Americans credit the Democrats with compromising and avoiding a shutdown.

But she is unhappy:

Obama has failed to project and execute a vision of Democratic Party policy and values that’s as bold as the challenges the nation faces, marked by Gilded Age levels of economic inequality, as well as economic suffering surpassed only by the Great Depression. Both those periods gave us “big bangs” of social change, in the words of Jacob Hacker; this era has not. So far it produced a healthcare reform plan that’s laudable for putting a stake in the ground toward universal coverage, but whose compromises with the GOP and the insurance industry could ultimately unravel it.

Now people are worried that Obama will compromise on two signature programs of great Democratic presidents: Social Security under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Medicare under Lyndon Baines Johnson. I hope he doesn’t do that Wednesday, and I also hope he lays out some broad vision of social justice that begins to reverse the trends of the last 30 years. (Leaking that he’ll be calling for tax hikes on the rich is a little bit encouraging.) He could provide new reasons for people to support the Democratic Party: a progressive vision of fairness and equity that’s up to the challenge of the times.

But there it is – fairness and equity. Those have come to mean different things to each side. And add to that there’s just not much room to maneuver:

But at the end of the day, on domestic policy anyway, you can criticize some of the president’s tactics and decisions, but it’s pretty tough to argue he had a lot of political room to be bolder, hampered by Blue Dog Dems and now a GOP majority in the House, and conservatives like Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Joe Lieberman in the Senate. I’d like him to talk bolder, and maybe he will on Wednesday. In the Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry articulates the country’s hunger for a “story” that makes sense of our current crisis of politics, economics and values – and didn’t find it in the president borrowing the GOP “story” about how, just like a “family,” we all have to tighten our budgets.

He seems stuck, but this is new – he’s stuck because folks on his own side crapped out on him:

But the bigger issue is there’s no well-organized and vocal constituency demanding that Obama speak or act more boldly. This is why I think the left should take its focus off the president for a while, and build constituencies behind a new social justice agenda for the 21st century, working in outside organizations as well as politics at the state, local and congressional level. It’s why I oppose the idea of a primary challenge from the left; but why I also don’t want to see progressive energy solely focused on the president’s reelection juggernaut, Obama 2012.

But there is some hope:

Thanks to Scott Walker’s overreach, labor is newly energized; I don’t know if that will mean gains in unionization, although I hope it does. But the AFL-CIO has emerged as the locus of new activism and new policy discussions about economic fairness, and that’s encouraging. … Meanwhile, voters in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states that elected Republicans in 2010 are trying to figure out how to make sure those GOP gains get reversed in 2012. Speaking of Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown is taking the lead in lining up senators to urge Obama to hold the line on Medicare. House Democrats are pushing to make sure the president doesn’t cut Social Security. A House Progressive Caucus budget lays out a way to cut the deficit without hurting the vulnerable or seniors, with tax hikes on the rich, closing corporate tax loopholes and cuts to the military. Progressives are also making the case that a jobs agenda could help the long-term deficit, if we got more people back to work, paying taxes, contributing public revenue resources instead of draining them. These are all good things for Democrats, whatever the president says Wednesday.

He does have support if he wishes to actually argue that there really is, written down and everything, a constitutional duty to promote the general welfare – odd as that may seem to the other side. And maybe we ought to cut the guy some slack, but only some:

I’ve been in the middle of a hot debate over the last week that stripped down to its essentials (we’ll leave out the late-night Twitter spats) is about whether critics of the president are fair to him – a really great question, one I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. I think we have to be fair – and to push at the same time. Obama has been hamstrung by Congress on a lot of issues, so we must work to change Congress. But to sit back and just applaud the president’s wisdom and vision, and insist that nothing about what he’s doing can or should be different, bolder, more progressive, is an abdication of responsibility by any citizen, progressive or not. As I’ve said many times before, Obama is probably as liberal a president as could be elected right now. I’d like to change that, not by trashing Obama, but by changing the political equation as he sees it.

So it comes down to this:

I’m hoping there is more in his budget speech that recommits him to a course of economic equality and justice that even many Democrats seem to have abandoned, as they chased corporate dollars, in the last generation.

A generation of Democrats chased corporate dollars and abandoned the whole notion of economic equality and justice? Of course they did. The money to run a successful election campaign doesn’t exactly grow on trees. It’s an Ayn Rand world.

But there may be a simple solution to all of this. Annie Lowrey offers The Do-Nothing Plan – “How Congress can balance the budget in eight years by literally doing nothing. This is not a joke.”

The setup:

The Simpson-Bowles blue-ribbon deficit commission longs to slash Social Security and defense spending. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Alice Rivlin and Peter Domenici yearn for a value-added tax. Rep. Paul Ryan’s politically deft, economically daft plan conspires to shift the burden of health care spending, cut taxes for the rich, and make up the difference with fantastical supply-side growth assumptions. And President Obama is likely to embrace the Simpson-Bowles recommendations when he announces his long-term budget plan on Wednesday.

One might think that we need all of these big plans, these grand bargains, because of the enormity of the fiscal challenge the country faces. The United States is swimming in a sea of red ink, with trillion-dollar annual deficits and an unfathomably gigantic cumulative debt.

But the truth is we don’t need any of these plans. Every one of them is entirely unnecessary for balancing the budget and eventually reducing the debt. They may even be counterproductive.

And here’s the answer:

Leave everything as is. Current law stands, and spending and revenue levels continue according to the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline projections. Everyone walks away. Paul Ryan goes fishing. Sen. Harry Reid kicks back with a ginger ale. The rest of Congress gets back to bickering about mammograms. Miraculously, the budget just balances itself, in about a decade.

No, really, and she cites the CBO and their first chart here:

Check the “primary deficit” in 2019. The number is positive. The deficit does not exist. There’s a technicality, granted: The primary deficit is the difference between spending and revenue. The total deficit, the number more commonly cited as “the deficit,” includes mandatory interest payments on the country’s debt. Even so, the total fiscal gap is a whisper, not a shout – about 3 percent of GDP, which is what economists say is healthy for an advanced economy.

So here’s what we do, or don’t do:

The answer is that doing nothing allows all kinds of fiscal changes that politicians generally abhor to take effect automatically. First, doing nothing means the Bush tax cuts would expire, as scheduled, at the end of next year. That would cause a moderately progressive tax hike, and one that hits most families, including the middle class. The top marginal rate would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, and some tax benefits for investment income would disappear. Additionally, a patch to keep the alternative minimum tax from hitting 20 million or so families would end. Second, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama’s health care law, would proceed without getting repealed or defunded. The CBO believes that the plan would bend health care’s cost curve downward, wrestling the rate of health care inflation back toward the general rate of inflation. Third, doing nothing would mean that Medicare starts paying doctors low, low rates. Congress would not pass anymore of the regular “doc fixes” that keep reimbursements high. Nothing else happens. Almost magically, everything evens out.

Yes, these are the CBO’s baseline projections, and they’re fine:

But, of course, Congress is not likely to let the Bush tax cuts fully expire, or slash doctors’ payments. So the CBO also prepares an “alternative fiscal scenario” that looks more like the path we expect Congress to take. It’s the alternative scenario that has the horror-show deficits. But Congress doesn’t have to act. It just has to do nothing. Or when it does do something, it has to pay for it.

There is just no need to get all revolutionary:

Yes, the dollar figures are enormous, so big that it would appear to require “bold” plans that include massive new taxes or cruel new cuts. But, in fact, we don’t really need to end Social Security, sell Alaska, or ship the poor to Canada to get back in the black. We just need to stick to current law – particularly the tax and health care provisions – and then we can tinker our way toward a better, healthier economy.

That is because, by and large, the hard work of fixing the fat part of the budget has already happened – through health care reform. The Social Security crisis you sometimes hear about is essentially a myth. The trust fund will run out in 2037, “at which point tax income would be sufficient to pay about 75 percent of scheduled benefits through 2084.” Full Social Security solvency would require only about 0.7 percent of GDP, which you can get to by exposing income above $107,000 to the payroll tax. There is no debt crisis, either, as long as the U.S.’s lenders remain confident in the country. The crisis lies in spiraling health care costs. The Obama health care reform bill might not work, but it does contain programs that could turn the tide over time. The big wheels of deficit reduction are already turning – and it might be better for Congress to step back, stick to pay-as-you-go, and let them turn.

Yes, there would be some serious middle-class tax hikes and this would mean sticking with Obamacare:

But asking Congress to do nothing, at the very least, seems to have a pretty good chance of making it through Congress.

It’s a thought. But no, we’d rather argue about that bit in the Constitution that says the government is supposed to promote the general welfare, and whether doing that takes away our ability to be wonderfully selfish, which is supposed to make everything all better. Damn, this has being going on a long time.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Regarding the Now Disputed Constitutional Duty to Promote the General Welfare

  1. Justin Lee says:

    It is not so much that conservatives do not support the vacuous term “general welfare.” They incessantly talk about “national security” and the “national interest,” so they prescribe more of the warfare side of the welfare-warfare state.

    As far as I can see, the mass of liberals and conservatives are completely content with the idea of an imperial corporate state exploiting our society and the rest of the world.

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