The Coming Year of Transparent Nonsense

The context – New Years Day here in Hollywood – the streets were empty. Everyone was over in Pasadena watching that Tournament of Roses Parade – which is kind of the apotheosis of corporate kitsch – or else they were nursing a hangover. People do drink a lot on New Year’s Eve.

But the morning was brilliant – bright sun and chill breezes off the mountains. In fact, from the window here the view was of the Griffith Park Observatory a few hills over, and behind that, rank after rank of sharp snow-covered mountains – and between the two the tiny Goodyear Blimp floating over the flower-covered parade floats inching down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. But you had to imagine that. It was a long way off. Locally it was just the usual palm trees and impossibly blue sky, and an odd quiet. It was a blank slate. It was the first day of a new year.

Of course you can take that Rose Parade seriously, maybe – but it really is corporate kitsch (see this visit to the float-assembly buildings a few years ago) – and riding around in a blimp is cool – but that’s all diversion. Times are hard. The economy collapsed in the last year of the Bush administration, and now only the big five major banks, the massive major corporations and those Wall Street traders – buying and selling big blocks of this and that, in microseconds, on their computers – have recovered. And those massive major corporations have made record profits, by cutting costs, consolidating and working the tax laws, and are sitting on billions in cash they’d rather not invest. They see no point in that – unemployment still hovers around ten percent, or nearly twenty if count those who have just given up. People are still losing their houses left and right. So no one wants their products. Demand has collapsed and it’s not coming back.

And that seems to be what they call the New Normal. Everyone seems to agree that the jobs will never come back. Get used to it. The only people making money are those who trade hypothetical securities to each other, minute by minute, trying to trick each other and not be left holding the bag. Everyone else is still screwed, and no one is buying much of anything beyond the basics. The business climate is awful, and the markets are soaring. And the coming year promises more of the same. For most people it will be more hard times, or even harder times. For the few, those who live in the world of capital markets and speculation about who’s willing to pay what on this bet or that, things will be wonderful. They can’t sell anything to the public – no one is buying much of anything – but they can make big bucks making bets on the future value of bundled bets on positions, as it were. It’s a living. Actually, it’s a good living.

Is this what we want? Is this how the country is supposed to work? Shouldn’t the government, charged with acting for the general welfare of the people, do something about this?

That depends on who you ask. This year opens with the Republicans decisively taking back the House and on a roll, talking about getting the government out of everything and letting America be the way America really should be, a place where the chips fall where they will – an America of real freedom, where the government stays out of the world of business, and does nothing that artificially props up losers and mooches, nothing like Social Security or Medicare or any system of unemployment insurance, and certainly not setting up any kind of healthcare system. We were meant to be free. We didn’t sign up for a nanny state. The government was never supposed to manage the economy of any of that stuff. The resurgent Republicans say they now have a mandate from the American people to stop such nonsense – stop spending, stop borrowing, and stop doing stuff. Let freedom ring.

That sounds good. But consider the upcoming substantial reductions in basic science and research and development:

Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the AFP news agency that the spending cuts could translate into a five to ten percent cut in research and development in the science sector for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

“One big fear is that one version of the Republican agenda suggested bringing funding back to 2008 levels and that for science would be catastrophic,” said Leshner. “These kinds of budget cuts work against the ultimate national goals of restoring the US economy and its international prowess.”

Nearly all “competitor countries, including India, China and Korea, are increasing investments in science and engineering research, development, and education,” he added. “US funding looks like it could be heading the opposite direction.”

So, think about the ultimate national goals of restoring the US economy and its international prowess. Is that important, or is freedom from an intrusive government that intervenes in the natural order of things by spending on basic science more important?

Matthew Yglesias suggests decline is a choice:

Don’t buy the “competitor countries” argument too much (though it may be useful for scaring House members) – increased Asian spending on these things will have spillover benefits for the USA. But it’s absolutely perverse to respond to a cyclical downturn in economic activity by curtailing useful investments in long-term acquisition of knowledge. That’s how a pothole turns into a “car spinning out of control” scenario.

But does the government have any business making useful investments in long-term acquisition of knowledge? It that something a government, any government, is supposed to do? If the year opens with a blank slate one can ask these questions. Let’s get back to basics.

And there is a lot of that in the air. The Republicans seem to have a newfound interest in all things constitutional, and now they say they do know what the framers of the Constitution really meant, and they are the true ideological descendents of the Founding Fathers. Christopher Beam in this widely-noted piece explained what the deal really is – “The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them.”

And the subtitle of his long article was this – “Libertarians, of both left and right, haven’t been this close to power since 1776. But do we want to live in their world?”

That’s a good question, but the pull is there:

There’s never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.

Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too – they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It’s not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government – tax cuts and releasing the shackles of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But Steve Benen is more worried about those on the right who say the Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state:

This is certainly a welcome characterization for those who prefer to believe most of the progressive bedrocks of modern American society – Social Security, Medicare, etc. – are not only unconstitutional, but are wholly at odds with the vision of limited government established by the framers.

The problem, of course, is that the framers weren’t libertarians.

And he recommends John Vecchione on the facts of the matter:

George Washington belonged to the Established Church (Episcopalian) of the State of Virginia; he also was the chief vindicator of national power in the new republic. Thomas Jefferson determined to wage war by simply denying foreigners the right to trade with the U.S. So did Madison. What libertarian has ever thought the government could cut off trade between free individuals?

Further, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine supported the French Revolution. That revolution denied there was anything the state could not do in the name of the people. Jefferson never repudiated his support for that tyranny and Thomas Paine was only slightly more dismissive even after it nearly killed him.

In fact these guys set up a strong government:

The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) – but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in. If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation. There was no national power. The federal government could not tax. Its laws were not supreme over state laws. It was in fact the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be … and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified. The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism.

These guys do long for the Articles of Confederation – the first “real” Constitution, abandoned in 1788 when it became clear you couldn’t have a real country if the states retained sovereignty over all governmental functions not specifically relinquished to the national government, and there’d be no tax base, and no executive agencies or judiciary. But many on the right now actually seem to want that, something like the European Union – but don’t tell them that. There is a big push for a constitutional amendment that would allow any state to be allowed not to follow any federal law they don’t like. It’s early 1788 again.

And see Jonathan Chait commenting on a recent piece from historian Gordon Wood – “The great irony, of course, is that the Anti-Federalist ancestors of the Tea Partiers opposed the Constitution rather than revered it.” That’ how Wood remembers it.

But there are more basic issues. Christopher Beam also notes that Ayn Rand’s objectivism is the “gateway drug” for libertarianism:

The core of the Randian worldview, as absorbed by the modern GOP, is a belief that the natural market distribution of income is inherently moral, and the central struggle of politics is to free the successful from having the fruits of their superiority redistributed by looters and moochers.

Ah, the natural market distribution of income is the ideal. That’s the basic thing. If a hedge fund manager makes two billion a year, well, that’s that. You don’t question the market.

But see Jonathan Zasloff on Libertarianism and the State of Nature:

I have yet to hear any coherent account of a “natural market distribution.” Why do we have any property? Because the state enforces it in court, and if necessary, with force. Why do millions of businesses thrive throughout the country? Because the government has decided to give them patents and copyrights. Corporations are creatures of the state, designed to protect investors with limited liability. (And that liability, too, of course, is a creature of the state).

Free-market libertarians, the new face if the Republican Party, don’t like to hear that. A strong state makes their ideal world possible:

Now, merely because it’s “the state” doesn’t mean that we don’t have rights, or that the state can and should do whatever it wants. There are lots of very compelling reasons to endorse the institution of private property. But that’s what it is: an institution.

One good argument for various forms of private property is that they help human beings to flourish, either psychologically, materially, or whatever. And any definition of human flourishing rests upon beliefs about human nature and really, the purpose of existence. But that is very, very far away from the libertarian notion of a “natural market distribution.” That doesn’t exist. And we should stop talking about it as if it does.

And see Matthew Yglesias – “The field of constitutional law has always featured a great deal of what’s known as ‘motivated belief’ where people look at the document and tend to see it as supporting their preexisting policy conclusions.”

And Benen put it this way:

The same is true of the nation’s founders, and the drive on the right to convince themselves that they think as the framers did, which somehow gives contemporary conservatism a weighty, historical legacy, and a strong foundation from which to attack the modern welfare state.

This might be more compelling if it weren’t transparent nonsense.

But it looks like this coming year, only a few hours old now, will be a year of transparent nonsense. Just take a minor example, Nassau County, New York, where Paul Krugman grew up. Nassau County did what Republicans are planning to do in Congress, at least according to Krugman:

A year ago, in one of the first major Tea Party victories, the county elected a new executive who railed against budget deficits and promised both to cut taxes and to balance the budget. The tax cuts happened; the promised spending cuts didn’t. And now the county is in fiscal crisis.

Well, nonsense is nonsense:

2010 marked the emergence of a new, even more profound level of magical thinking: the belief that deficits created by tax cuts just don’t matter. For example, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona – who had denounced President Obama for running deficits – declared that “you should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.”

In other words, tax cuts pay for themselves.

And what you want to do is hobble and neuter the federal government, like the framers of the constitution really intended:

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, the incoming House majority plans to make changes in the “pay-as-you-go” rules – rules that are supposed to enforce responsible budgeting – that effectively implement Mr. Kyl’s principle. Spending increases will have to be offset, but revenue losses from tax cuts won’t. Oh, and revenue increases, even if they come from the elimination of tax loopholes, won’t count either: any spending increase must be offset by spending cuts elsewhere; it can’t be paid for with additional taxes.

So if taxes don’t matter, does the incoming majority have a realistic plan to cut spending? Of course not. Republicans say that they want to cut $100 billion in spending, which is itself small change in a $3.6 trillion federal budget. But they also say that defense, Medicare and Social Security – all the big-ticket items – are off the table. So they’re talking about a 20 percent cut in what’s left, which includes things like running the judicial system and operating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; they have offered no specifics about where the cuts will fall.

Nassau County is a model for what’s about to happen in Washington:

2010 was something special. For it was the year of budget doubletalk – the year of arsonists posing as firemen, of people railing against deficits while doing everything they could to make those deficits bigger.

It will be a year of transparent nonsense – stop spending, stop borrowing, and sort of but not really stop doing stuff. Let freedom ring. It will be a long year.

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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