Not Where We Started the Year

The year comes to a close, and that means we get the usual lists of what people have decided were the defining moments of the last twelve months – trying to satisfy that all too human urge to figure out what the hell just happened. There are the lists of famous people who died – like Steve Jobs – but people die all the time. Everybody dies, sooner or later. And the other lists are endless, and sometimes inventive – like The Twenty Unhappiest People You Meet In The Comments Sections Of Year-End Lists or the Top Jackasses of 2011 (“Too Many Make the List”) or Ten Fictional Holidays from TV That You Can Actually Celebrate – all cool. And there’s the Top 10 Comedic News Stories and the old standby, the Top 10 Celebrity Pix of 2011. And for the serious-minded there are lists of lists, like In 54 wide-ranging lists, Time surveys the highs and lows, the good and the bad, of the past 12 months – and the The New Yorker offers the Best/Worst Scandals of 2011 – but of course E! Online offers the Best of 2011 Top 10 – with lists for movies and reality shows and stylish stars and royal moments and on and on and on. This sort of thing can drive you crazy. Adam L. Penenberg, a journalism professor at NYU, seems to have tracked down most of the major lists – if you feel a need to waste a great deal of time. Hey, stuff happened. But you knew that.

But we aren’t where we started at the beginning of the year – that Osama fellow is now dead and gone, as is that Gadaffi fellow in Libya, and the people rose up in Egypt and Mubarak is now gone, and we are gone from Iraq – all our troops just left, all of them, as Bush had set up before he left office, and as the new Iraqi government, such as it is, had insisted – done, for better or worse. And Don’t-Ask Don’t-Tell is over – gays can serve openly in the military, and although every one of the Republicans who wants their party to nominate them to run against Obama says they’d bring the policy back, immediately, by executive order, they each may be starting to realize that their worst fears have come true – the repeal worked fine – no mutinies, no mass resignations, no impact on recruiting or morale, no nothing – because no one really cares about the issue. It’s just not a big deal. You do your job and your personal life is your business. And for the Republicans this must be painful. It must be a terrible thing when that the-world-as-we-know-it-is-ending big moral issue that you’ve been screaming about turns out to be something that elicits, at most, a shrug from the rest of the nation. Where once you were on the side of God, or at least the angels, people are now asking you why you won’t just let people be, and let them do what they want, as long as they’re not hurting anyone or making too much noise or whatever? What’s YOUR problem? Yes, the Republicans are used to asking that question, not being forced to answer it. It seems that history turned the tables on them – once again they were on the wrong side of it. It happens. It was that kind of year.

And that was another big change in 2011 – the Republican Party torn itself apart, with the big-money business folks a bit at odds with the social-conservative evangelical base, and with the Tea Party crowd, whose general aim seems to be to end pesky government messing up our lives, and thus end most of government itself, making sure nothing gets done and as much as possible gets shut down. This was less than impressive – and those who they’ve considered as the one to run against Obama have turned out to be problematic, at best. There’s Rich Lowry in the National Review – We Don’t Have Our “A Team” on the Field – but there is no A Team. No one is riding to the rescue. Jeb Bush isn’t the answer – it’s the name of course.

But Herman Cain was fun while he lasted. And the year ended with that payroll tax fiasco – where the House Republicans ended up opposing extending a minor tax cut for one hundred sixty million Americans, at Christmas. The Senate Republicans were aghast. Even Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal wondered what the hell the House Republicans thought they were doing. The nation in general wondered the same thing. And then the House Republicans backed down and extended the tax break – with John Boehner, the speaker, telling his Tea Party members to just knock it off. And they did, for now. But this was the year the Republican Party splintered and lost its way.

But this was the year change was in the air – and it wasn’t just the Arab Spring and the death of Osama and the odd end of the longest of our wars, one we fought for reasons that never made much sense, and the year of the woes of the Republicans. It was the year of Occupy Wall Street, now the Occupy Movement – now a worldwide movement. Yes, America periodically goes through a Great Awakening – 1720, 1800-1840, 1880-1910 and perhaps the late sixties. We suddenly decide to get religion, again. But this last year the Great Awakening had nothing to do with Jesus, tent-meetings and bible-thumping. It had to do with many waking up to the fact that the whole of our lives is run by a rich few, for their own enrichment, and everyone else is getting screwed – and it doesn’t have to be that way. And the conversations changed, as all the talk about the danger of the deficit getting too large was drown out by talk of who was really in control and how we could make sure we had a system where everyone got a fair chance to at least try to succeed. And it was a simple awakening. Hey, this game is rigged!

So by the end of the year people were noticing, noticing things like, adjusting for inflation, and not counting home equity, members of Congress are more distant from their constituents than ever before:

The financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably since [the 70s], according to an analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post. Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 2½ times, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, rising from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

Kevin Drum flags that and adds this:

It just costs too much to run for Congress today for anyone who’s not fairly well off to do it. And that’s no coincidence. As income inequality goes up, campaign funding from rich donors also goes up – partly because the rich have more money and partly because they’re more motivated to use that money to influence the political process in order to protect their wealth. This creates an arms race that effectively precludes anyone who doesn’t have either money of their own or access to wealthy donors from running. And that means that Congress has fewer and fewer members with any real connection to the working world.

Is it any wonder that members of Congress these days don’t really care at all about the views of the poor and the working class?

You might remember the fight about extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires:

A small but growing number of moderate Democrats are balking at boosting taxes on the rich. Many face electorates that recoil at the mention of any tax increase. Some represent areas that are loaded with wealthier taxpayers. Further, some incumbent senators who don’t face voters this fall are reluctant to increase taxes on anyone while the economy remains sluggish. Without their support, the push to raise rates on the rich probably will fail….

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., represents the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, one of the nation’s wealthiest districts. Median family income there in 2008 was $117,892, well above the national average of $63,211. He said that repealing the top rates would have political consequences. “Sometimes we forget how we became the majority. We did it by winning some affluent districts,” he said.

That’s just how it is, for Democrats too. That’s why the Occupy Movement does not want to be sucked into the Democratic Party. And the Tea Party did themselves no good by signing up as Storm Troopers of the other party. And as Kevin Drum pointed out at the time those tax cuts were in dispute:

This is the shape of American politics. If your income is low – and probably a fair number of the 56% who want Bush’s tax cuts for the rich repealed are low-income voters – politicians simply don’t care. If you’re middle class they care a little more. But if you’re rich, then they really, really care. And it’s safe to say that most high earners are opposed to repealing tax cuts on high earners. That goes for all Republicans and a growing number of Democrats too. So what seems like a no-brainer isn’t as simple as it looks. Economically it makes sense to repeal Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, and a majority of American citizens are in favor of it. Unfortunately for them, they belong to the wrong majority. They’re not rich themselves, and increasingly in America, that means their votes just don’t count.

And that was the problem, and is the problem. How can anyone who is not filthy rich count for anything at all these days?

But if you’re going to be on the wrong side of history, you might as well go all the way, and Thomas Edsall discuses this in Mitt Romney’s new big thing, The Anti-Entitlement Strategy:

Mitt Romney wants to stigmatize most “safety net” spending – the array of social insurance programs from Medicare to food stamps to unemployment compensation to free school lunches – as a form of welfare that is “cultivating government dependence.”

“Our growing welfare state is slated to cost $10.3 trillion over the next 10 years – that’s $72,000 a household,” Romney told voters in Bedford, N. H., on Dec. 20:

“Once we thought ‘entitlement’ meant that Americans were entitled to the privilege of trying to succeed in the greatest country in the world. Americans fought and died to earn and protect that entitlement. But today the new entitlement battle is over the size of the check you get from Washington.”

Edsall does point out that an entitlement, as the government defines it, “legally obligates the United States to make payments to any person who meets the eligibility requirements established in the statute that creates the entitlement.” So one might wonder what the problem is here, and Edsall explains:

Romney and his aides have designed his rhetoric to define pretty much all spending on entitlements, including provisions for the injured, unemployed, sick, disabled or elderly as benefits to the poor who, Romney implies, are undeserving. And it doesn’t matter whether the money to pay for these programs comes from employer and employee contributions and not just tax revenue – they are all under suspicion.

And that means that even if you paid into a government program, for coverage should something go wrong, you shouldn’t get what you paid for, as Romney says in this op-ed:

Will the United States be an Entitlement Society or an Opportunity Society? In an Entitlement Society, government provides every citizen the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to innovate, pioneer or take risk. In an Opportunity Society, free people living under a limited government choose whether or not to pursue education, engage in hard work, and pursue the passion of their ideas and dreams. If they succeed, they merit the rewards they are able to enjoy.

And Edsall offers this:

Romney’s formulation exploits public distrust of programs that explicitly serve the poor. In 2010, about a fifth of the federal budget – $786 billion or 22 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – went to programs that “kept an estimated 15 million Americans out of poverty and reduced the depth of poverty for another 29 million people.” These programs include Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, earned-income tax credits, cash payments to eligible individuals or households such as Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor, unemployment insurance, food stamps, school meals, low-income housing, child-care and programs for abused and neglected children. 2010 spending for Pell college grants for low-income students was $21 billion and spending that year for Head Start was $7.2 billion.

Without the underlying belief many voters hold that programs serving low-income beneficiaries perpetuate poverty and discourage work, Romney could not have banked on voter support for his answer in this exchange between the candidate and Chris Wallace on FOX News Sunday the week before Christmas.

Wallace pressed Romney to explain how poor recipients of government entitlement programs would fare under his campaign’s plan to “cut Medicaid, health coverage for the poor, by $700 billion. Cut food stamps by $127 billion. Cut Pell Grants for low- income college students in half.” Wallace then pointedly asked, “You don’t think if you cut $700 billion in aid to the states that some people are going to get hurt?”

Ah, there’s the problem, which Romeny says isn’t a problem:

In the same way by cutting welfare spending dramatically, I don’t think we hurt the poor. In the same way I think we cut Medicaid spending by having it go to the states, run more efficiently with less fraud, I don’t think we’ll hurt the people that depend on the program for their health care.

Huh? But Edsall adds this:

In attacking the “entitlement society,” Romney is not breaking new ground; he is following in the path of conservative talk show hosts and Tea Party leaders who think social insurance spending is destroying America.

Elements of the conservative intelligentsia see it the same way. An editorial last year in The Wall Street Journal charged, for example, that the Obama administration’s health care reform bill was designed to become another element of the Democratic “cradle-to-grave entitlement citadel.”

A sign held up prominently at Tea Party rallies reads, “You Are Not Entitled to What I Earn.”

And there’s the trick:

The campaign strategy adopted by Romney attempts to mitigate one of the problems facing Republicans pressing for major domestic spending cuts: the American public is highly conflicted on the subject of providing aid to people in need. While strongly opposed to “welfare,” decisive majorities support more spending in key public policy areas.

Polls conducted since 1972 by the General Social Survey show that by margins of two to one, voters consistently say too little is spent on the poor, on education, on health care, on drug treatment – the list is long.

This internal conflict on the part of voters – opposed to welfare but supportive of programs for the poor – demonstrates how important it is for each side to frame the debate in terms favorable to its own cause  – just what Romney is trying to do with his use of the catch phrase “entitlement society.”

Edsall offers a lot of statics on this and refers to Why Americans Hate Welfare – where Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton, sums up this way of looking at the world – “In large measure, Americans hate welfare because they view it as a program that rewards the undeserving poor.” And one needs only to follow the data – “First, the American public thinks that most people who receive welfare are black, and second, the public thinks that blacks are less committed to the work ethic than are other Americans.”

And Edsall says that is that. So Romney’s goal is to persuade swing voters of the “imminent moral and material danger that Obama and the Democratic party pose” – and stress Obama has been replacing our merit-based society with an Entitlement Society – and this can’t go on or we’ll all go broke (implicitly because of the black folks, of course) – and government dependency can only foster passivity and sloth, as everyone knows.

And Edsall adds this:

This is not the Republicanism of compassionate conservatism, far from it…. Romney’s adoption of an anti-entitlement strategy comes at a time when he appears to be looking up from the primaries toward Election Day, which suggests that his hard-line stance will be central to his campaign against Obama and not just a temporary maneuver. We are headed toward an ideological confrontation over the next 11 months of an intensity rarely seen in American political history.

And who will be on the wrong side of history? Listen to Fox News and you’re learn that everyone hates the Occupy Movement and everyone, to a man, hates Obama. Listen to any other news source and you don’t see the world that way. And your lists of what big things happened in 2011 might be different from those of others too.

Well, you are not entitled to what I earn, but if we all chip in and followed the rules everyone agreed on, that’s a different matter. And Digby puts it this way:

Maybe the people holding those signs are as rich as Mitt Romney, but I doubt it. Assuming they aren’t among those poor deluded souls who are collecting SSI and holding up those signs, they are probably average working people who believe that government spending goes disproportionately to people who don’t “deserve” it. (Each one has to answer for him or herself what that means.) And the very, very entitled Mitt Romney is exploiting their grievances and prejudices for his own enrichment and ambition, knowing very well that it’s his class – the 1% – who are getting a greater return on their lobbying and campaign donations than they ever could have dreamed.

That doesn’t let the believers off the hook, of course, but it does make Mitt Romney a very special sort of asshole.

Ah, there was that one year-end list, Top Jackasses of 2011 (“Too Many Make the List”) – so add one more. But these lists are meant to remind you of what really changed over the last year, and it seems Republicans don’t read them.

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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