The Words Used

Let’s talk academics. First, there’s Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, who was our secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. His latest book is Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future – and it is a Keynesian effort, with the premise that the best economy is an economy where the greatest number of people are doing well, with robust uniform growth. The question is how to get there from here. The idea is that John Maynard Keynes had it right – that aggregate demand determines the overall level of economic activity, and inadequate aggregate demand – often caused by low wages or periodic systemic crashes – will lead to protracted periods of high unemployment. The best thing you can do is increase demand – make sure lots of people have at least some money to buy stuff. That’s the only way economies grow.

And that’s the opposite of the supply-side economics that all Republicans subscribe to – the idea that if you make it easy to create supply, with next to no taxes and next to no regulations, and if you coddle the millionaires and billionaires, they will decide to invest in supplying stuff, and the economy will grow by leaps and bounds – and demand hardly matters at all, as it will come along eventually, as a secondary effect of all the rich folks building factories and such, making stuff, so they can get even richer. And we’ve been testing that theory – an odd mixture of Milton Freidman and Ayn Rand – for the last several decades. It hasn’t worked out.

Reich, and the economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz with their Nobel Prizes, have been pointing that out for some time. Few have listened to them, but now, more and more people are thinking along those lines. In fact, the Occupy Wall Street movement is, at its core, an argument against supply-side economics. The care and feeding of the One Percent – to make it so easy for them to supply stuff – has not worked out. The One Percent preferred financial speculation in ever more exotic forms – there was just more money to be made in buying and selling collateralized debt obligations guaranteed by credit default swaps and that sort of thing, than in building factories and producing stuff. And thus no new jobs were created, and many jobs were eliminated. Financial Services was where the action was, and is – not in something as mundane as manufacturing, with its solid but hardly spectacular profits. The One Percent guys weren’t dumb.

And thus the only demand alive was kept alive by the Ninety-Nine Percent running up their credit card debt and taking out that second or third mortgage on the house. That was a house of cards, and the underlying supply-side economics of it all seems to have ruined the economy, and the other Ninety-Nine percent are ticked off about it. That’s Reich’s beef too.

And the polar opposite of Robert Reich might be the late William Graham Sumner – the man who might be said to have laid the groundwork for Milton Freidman and Ayn Rand and now Paul Ryan. Sumner held the first professorship in sociology at Yale. Heck, he taught the first sociology class ever, before there was the academic field. But what he was teaching was Social Darwinism – the rich are rich because they are better than everyone else, as society is a matter of the survival of the fittest (Herbert Spencer’s term) which improves mankind, as the pathetic losers eventually just die out. Darwin never spoke of this. He wasn’t an economist. This was Sumner’s extrapolation, which he saw as a logical extension of what Darwin was saying about turtles or whatever. And in the late nineteenth century this made sense to people. John Maynard Keynes came along later, saying this was nonsense.

So that’s the academic side of things – dry and historical, and over and done with. Except it’s not over and done with, a now Reich asks us to meet the new Social Darwinists:

What kind of society, exactly, do modern Republicans want? I’ve been listening to Republican candidates in an effort to discern an overall philosophy, a broadly-shared vision, an ideal picture of America.

That’s an interesting question, and along with wanting a society where gays and Muslims and anyone vaguely Mexican simply disappears, and where science is rejected for the Biblical Truth, or for economic considerations – well, it is a bit hard to tell what they want. They hate Darwin and his theory of evolution of course, except when they talk about the economy, and the natural superiority of the rich. So, as Reich notes, there is something odd going on here, judging by what they say they want:

They say they want a smaller government but that can’t be it. Most seek a larger national defense and more muscular homeland security. Almost all want to widen the government’s powers of search and surveillance inside the United States – eradicating possible terrorists, expunging undocumented immigrants, “securing” the nation’s borders. They want stiffer criminal sentences, including broader application of the death penalty. Many also want government to intrude on the most intimate aspects of private life.

They call themselves conservatives but that’s not it, either. They don’t want to conserve what we now have. They’d rather take the country backwards – before the 1960s and 1970s, and the Environmental Protection Act, Medicare, and Medicaid; before the New Deal, and its provision for Social Security, unemployment insurance, the forty-hour workweek, and official recognition of trade unions; even before the Progressive Era, and the first national income tax, antitrust laws, and Federal Reserve.

They’re not conservatives. They’re regressives.

And Reich suspects that the America they imagine is the one we had in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century:

It was an era when the nation was mesmerized by the doctrine of free enterprise, but few Americans actually enjoyed much freedom. Robber barons like the financier Jay Gould, the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, controlled much of American industry; the gap between rich and poor had turned into a chasm; urban slums festered; women couldn’t vote and black Americans were subject to Jim Crow; and the lackeys of rich literally deposited sacks of money on desks of pliant legislators.

And that was, of course, a time when the ideas of William Graham Sumner, dominated social thought. Reich notes that Sumner’s writings had an “electrifying effect” on America during the last three decades of the nineteenth century:

To Sumner and his followers, life was a competitive struggle in which only the fittest could survive – and through this struggle societies became stronger over time. A correlate of this principle was that government should do little or nothing to help those in need because that would interfere with natural selection.

Listen to today’s Republican debates and you hear a continuous regurgitation of Sumner. “Civilization has a simple choice,” Sumner wrote in the 1880s. It’s either “liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest,” or “not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.”

Sound familiar?

Newt Gingrich not only echoes Sumner’s thoughts but mimics Sumner’s reputed arrogance. Gingrich says we must reward “entrepreneurs” (by which he means anyone who has made a pile of money) and warns us not to “coddle” people in need. He opposes extending unemployment insurance because, he says “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing.”

Sumner, likewise, warned against handouts to people he termed “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.”

And there’s that other guy:

Mitt Romney doesn’t want the government to do much of anything about unemployment. And he’s dead set against raising taxes on millionaires, relying on the standard Republican rationale millionaires create jobs.

Here’s Sumner, more than a century ago: “Millionaires are the product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done… It is because they are thus selected that wealth aggregates under their hands – both their own and that entrusted to them … They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society.” Although they live in luxury, “the bargain is a good one for society.”

And that other guy:

Ron Paul, who favors repeal of Obama’s healthcare plan, was asked at a Republican debate in September what medical response he’d recommend if a young man who had decided not to buy health insurance were to go into a coma. Paul’s response: “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.” The Republican crowd cheered.

In other words, if the young man died for lack of health insurance, he was responsible. Survival of the fittest.

Basically, Social Darwinism “offered a moral justification for the wild inequities and social cruelties of the late nineteenth century” – and there is nothing new under the sun:

Social Darwinism also undermined all efforts at the time to build a nation of broadly-based prosperity and rescue our democracy from the tight grip of a very few at the top. It was used by the privileged and powerful to convince everyone else that government shouldn’t do much of anything.

And we did not rid ourselves of it until the thirties and beyond:

We created the large middle class that became the core of our economy and democracy. We built safety nets to catch Americans who fell downward through no fault of their own. We designed regulations to protect against the inevitable excesses of free-market greed. We taxed the rich and invested in public goods – public schools, public universities, public transportation, public parks, public health – that made us all better off.

In short, we rejected the notion that each of us is on his or her own in a competitive contest for survival.

And shall we go back? We’re all being asked that question.

But we’re not being asked that question directly. No one is quoting William Graham Sumner. No one has heard of him. And his words are harsh. They need to be softened, and the man for that is the master of that, Frank Luntz – the man who provides the Republican Party with the appropriate words for the circumstance – you know, the Estate Tax is now the Death Tax and that sort of thing. Taxing the billions left to the idle children of the massively wealthy is now picking on folks who are in grief and should be left alone, if we had any decency at all. It’s a Death Tax. And now the Affordable Care Act – which pretty much forces everyone to buy health insurance from giant for-profit insurance companies without the government providing any services at all – is often called The Complete Government Takeover of the Healthcare System. Luntz was awarded the 2010 PolitiFact Lie of the Year award for that. But that only made him smile. His current company is called The Word Doctors. Think of him as Doctor Kevorkian.

And now he’s worried:

The Republican Governors Association met this week in Florida to give GOP state executives a chance to rejuvenate, strategize and team-build. But during a plenary session on Wednesday, one question kept coming up: How can Republicans do a better job of talking about Occupy Wall Street?

“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

Luntz offered tips on how Republicans could discuss the grievances of the Occupiers, and help the governors better handle all these new questions from constituents about “income inequality” and “paying your fair share.”

And do not talk about Wall Street bonuses:

Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a “bonus.”

“If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you’re going to make people angry. It’s ‘pay for performance.'”

It’s a modernization of William Graham Sumner:

Don’t say “capitalism.”

Don’t say that the government “taxes the rich.” Instead, tell them that the government “takes from the rich.”

Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the “middle class.” Call them “hardworking taxpayers.”

Don’t say “government spending.” Call it “waste.”

Don’t ever say you’re willing to “compromise.”

The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: “I get it.”

Out: “Entrepreneur.” In: “Job creator.”

“Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming”

Don’t ever ask anyone you want them to “sacrifice.”

Always blame Washington.

And there is this detail about that word capitalism:

“I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,'” Luntz said. “The public … still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”

And Digby reacts:

I didn’t know that the word “capitalism” is now a dirty word so they’re changing it to mean something it doesn’t mean at all: economic freedom.”Tax the rich” is quite popular so they have to change it to “take from the rich”, (which strikes me as pathetically lame). They can’t say they support the “middle class” obviously, so they are going to change the term to “hardworking taxpayers.”…

I think it shows just how badly the Masters of the Universe have bungled this. If the word “capitalism” is so discredited in the United States of America that the propagandists feel obliged to “re-brand” it, they’ve got a problem.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this report is that this advice wasn’t actually delivered to big Wall Street firms looking to fix their image. It was to the Republican Governors Association. If you ever wondered whose interests these people represent, I think this pretty much says it all, don’t you?

And Greg Sargent at the Washington Post looks at this whole array of suggestions and offers this:

This is a pretty striking concession. This longtime GOP pollster, adviser, and messaging expert is admitting that the Dem push for tax hikes on the rich has Republicans on the defensive, and that Republicans need to come up with a better way of obscuring what Dems are trying to achieve on the issue. He’s also admitting that the public isn’t inclined to believe Republicans represent the interests of the middle class.

But hey, Occupy Wall Street protesters defecate everywhere so there is no way these protests can be having any impact on the debate, right? And the Dem embrace of class warfare against Republicans must be alienating the middle of the country, right?

Not exactly:

In all seriousness, it’s instructive to compare this to the way Congressional Republicans talk about these issues. I tend to think Luntz’s actual influence over Congressional Republicans is often overstated, because it benefits Luntz and Democrats alike for him to be perceived as an all powerful Svengali who has scripted every word that comes out of GOPers’ mouths. But still, consider this overlap. Luntz suggests that Republicans refrain from describing the target of Dem tax hike proposals as “middle class,” because, he says, the public will be skeptical that Republicans are really defending “middle class” interests. He proposes instead that Republicans refer to them as “hardworking taxpayers,” deliberately blurring the class definition of those who would be impacted.

And many Congressional Republicans do in fact try to blur these class lines. They frequently refer to the target of high end tax hikes as “job creators” or “small business” people.

I don’t really think Congressional Republicans are taking their cues from Luntz. But it is worth asking whether they have reached similar conclusions about messaging and the politics of taxing the rich that Luntz has here.

Maybe they’ve all been reading the collective works of William Graham Sumner. And Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog adds this:

Even if “capitalism” isn’t playing poorly with Luntz’s focus groups, “economic freedom” could be a nastily effective pseudonym – the right-wing noise machine has spent decades portraying angry 60s hippies as being the enemies of freedom (defined as freedom for decent people to act the way they always did toward the poor, minorities, and so on). “Take from the rich” seems especially potent – it taps into parent-style thinking about fair play, as well as fears of being a crime victim. (Americans still don’t see the rich as them, so when they hear “take from the rich,” they’ll think “take from me.”)

The nastiest trick is replacing “government spending” with “waste.” Because of decades of right and centrist government-bashing, our side can never, ever win the tax battles in Washington, for the simple reason that most Americans now believe there’s a virtually limitless supply of waste in government, so any budget imbalance can be solved without compelling anyone to sacrifice. Luntz’s language just makes the implicit explicit: he’s saying that government spending is waste, by definition. Far too many Americans simply believe that. (According to the most recent Gallup survey on the subject, Americans believe the federal government wastes 51 cents of every dollar.) “Always blame Washington” fits here, too.

I hate fact that this stuff works, but this stuff works. I don’t want to live in a world run by dueling Luntzes, but it’s worse to live in a world dominated by the one Luntz and his allies, with no counterweight from our side. Snicker at this now, but expect to hear this from winning candidates (and your right-wing relatives) in the foreseeable future.

And there is David Atkins:

The retreat from capitalism is astonishing, if not altogether surprising. The Occupy movement can’t really take credit for this, as the polling on capitalism versus socialism has been weak for years now since the economic crash. Still, there’s no question that with income inequality having been successfully vaulted to the forefront of the national discourse by the Occupiers, the perception of capitalism as a system has taken a hit. But to retreat from capitalism as an idea isn’t just a big loss for the right wing alone: the problem is that “economic freedom” can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. Single-payer healthcare and free public education means economic freedom. Forgiveness of student loan debt means economic freedom.

And as for reframing taxing the rich a bit more as “taking from the rich” from now on, Atkins sees issues here:

The problems with this approach for conservatives are numerous. First off, it’s a retreat from the issue of taxes – an acknowledgment that a word they used to spin as entirely evil (“taxes”) no longer carries such a negative punch. Instead, they are recommended to use more violent imagery of theft. The only problem with that is that everyone pays taxes: most people who aren’t libertarian anarcho-capitalists get that taxes aren’t exactly armed robbery. Besides, Robin Hood has always been and continues to be a pretty popular legend.

And then there “blaming Washington” for everything:

He goes on at length about this in his book Words that Work: Washington is a cold, distant, corrupt and unfeeling place for most voters, and it’s associated with intrusive big government, which paints the Left in a negative light. Fine insofar as that goes. But the problem for Luntz here is that every poll up to this point makes clear that most voters blame the Bush Administration and Wall Street for the economic crisis. Only in the fetid fever swamps of the Fox News demographic are Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to blame. Now, many progressives see catering to Wall Street’s interests as a bipartisan affair. But telling angry voters to “Occupy the White House” instead of Wall Street is going to fall on deaf ears. Even if they are inclined to believe that the current occupant of the White House isn’t doing much to solve the problem, the only people who believe the current occupant is the cause of the problems are people already firmed entrenched in the conservative camp.

So it comes down to this:

One could argue here that Luntz is losing his magic touch here. But one could also say that conservatives are in enough of a message bind right now that this is all Luntz has to work with on the subjects of Wall St. and inequality. I tend to lean toward to the latter view.

This is a big glass jaw for the conservative movement, one they can only protect by attempting to steer the conversation to something, anything else.

So, what kind of society, exactly, do modern Republicans want? What is their broadly-shared vision, their ideal picture of America? It’s the America that William Graham Sumner saw – survival of the fittest, and you’re not one of the fittest. But they decided not to tell you that.

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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