No Point in Discussing It

Easter is now over, another of those holidays where the extended family – folks who haven’t seem much of each other recently – gather in late afternoon around a large ham – no, not a flamboyant odd uncle in show business – just a ham – and by tacit agreement, decide not to talk about politics. After all, the kids, on their sugar-highs from all the chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps, are bouncing off the walls. Things are chaotic enough as it is. Yes, the economy is a mess and we seem to be well on our way to some sort of race war, and there’s Iran and Israel, and Europe collapsing, and Fox News is forever ramping up righteous anger about most everything, while folks like Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart are kidding but really nagging everyone about the need for sweet reason, which the folks on the right say will get us all killed. Informed and dispassionate discussion of any of this is impossible. There’s no point in even trying. It’s best to deal with the kids and talk about lawn care or something.

But it’s an election year and things are getting hot:

Barack Obama has attacked Mitt Romney for supporting what he called “social Darwinism” as the US president sought to mark a clear distinction between himself and his likely Republican challenger for the White House.

In a sign that the political clash over fiscal policy could define the presidential race between now and November, Mr Obama criticized Mr Romney for describing as “marvelous” a budget presented last month by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the budget committee in the House of Representatives. “These are not words you hear often when describing a budget,” he quipped.

So it’s time once again for labeling things, in this case the Ryan budget, which cuts spending by 5.3 trillion dollars over the next decade, mostly wiping out social benefits for the poor. It also cuts taxes by two trillion, mostly on the very wealthy, and could deliver real deficit reductions, somehow – but those details aren’t offered – somehow some unspecified tax loopholes will be closed. We’ll be told about that later.

And Obama fired away at this somewhat generalized budget:

“Disguised as a deficit reduction plan, it’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It’s nothing but thinly veiled social Darwinism,” Mr Obama said early this month at a lunch in Washington hosted by the Associated Press.

“It’s antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who’s willing to work for it – a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class,” the president said.

Game on! And Kevin Drum offers a detailed analysis of what can be cut and what taxes increased by closing loopholes, ending with this:

The big ticket items are things like taxing healthcare and pension benefits; the mortgage interest deduction; the Earned Income Tax Credit; the charitable contribution deduction; various state tax deductions; and exclusions for Medicare and Social Security benefits. Needless to say, those are going to be eliminated over a whole bunch of dead bodies. Other big ticket items include tax breaks on dividends, capital gains, inheritances, and offshore income, and all of those would be eliminated only over Paul Ryan’s dead body. There’s not a single thing in this entire table that wouldn’t be a stupendous political lift, and the prospect of eliminating not just one of them, but $400 billion worth of them, is very slim indeed.

That’s why it’s important for Ryan to put his money where his mouth is. You can’t plausibly claim that your tax cuts will be revenue neutral if that claim depends on a whole bunch of tax increases that are all but impossible politically. At the very least, you need to set out a marker so that everyone can judge just how palatable your preferred menu of increases is, and whether any of Ryan’s fellow Republicans are willing to face up to the political backlash of supporting it.

We already know they love the rate cut part of Ryan’s plan. Now it’s time to see if they’re willing to stand up and be counted on the tax increase part that goes along with it.

That’s not likely, but New York Times columnist David Brooks, as always, welcomes the discussion, because there are two sides to everything, and his let’s-talk-about-it column scolds Obama for his far too nasty criticism of Ryan’s budget. We should talk about this like reasonable people, as Ryan is really a centrist-reformer, just like Obama, but for this:

It should be said at the outset that the Ryan budget has some disturbing weaknesses, which Democrats are right to identify. The Ryan budget would cut too deeply into discretionary spending. This could lead to self-destructive cuts in scientific research, health care for poor kids and programs that boost social mobility. Moreover, the Ryan tax ideas are too regressive. They make tax cuts for the rich explicit while they hide any painful loophole closings that might hurt Republican donors.

And Ed Kilgore jumps in:

Since regressive tax cuts paid for by vast domestic spending cuts targeting the social safety net – which are also intended to claw back money for defense spending that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need – is sort of the essence of the Ryan Budget, this brisk treatment of its provisions as things worth quibbling about is pretty rich. Brooks is far more exercised by Obama trying to make a big deal out of these details. Quoting two very dubious sources, he announces that Ryan and Obama are actually pretty much on the same page because total spending won’t be vastly different ten years from now. So who cares if one side wants to cut Medicaid by one-third during this same ten-year time-frame, while the other is pursuing universal health coverage? Nothing to get all demagogue-y about!

And here is Brooks’ conclusion:

As I say, I have my own problems with Ryan’s plan, which Obama identified. But Ryan has at least taken a big step toward an eventual fiscal solution. He’s proposed necessary structural entitlement reforms, which the Democrats are unwilling to do. He’s proposed real tax reform, which the Democrats are also unwilling to do.

But Kilgore will have none of that:

These “necessary structural entitlement reforms,” mind you, include “ending Medicare as we know it,” which Brooks called a lie three paragraphs earlier, and block-granting Medicaid, which he does not deign to mention at all. As for “real tax reform,” Brooks himself says near the beginning of his column that Ryan proposed no such thing because he didn’t want to distract the very wealthy from the new benefits he is showering on them.

The really weird thing is that everyone other than Brooks – not just Obama, but Ryan himself (who has described his safety-net cuts as necessary to reduce the immoral dependence of non-tax-paying lucky duckies on public assistance) and his presidential candidate Mitt Romney – seems to agree that the Ryan Budget does indeed represent a stark difference in values, goals and programs between the two parties, and a worthy general election campaign topic.

Ah, but here’s why: Brooks wants Obama to stop all this divisiveness, and in recognition of the deficit “calamity” facing the nation, compete with Ryan by “topping him with something bigger and better.”

Think of Brooks as the good guy at Easter dinner if politics does come up – as Kilgore says, all Obama has to do is “admit his kinship with Paul Ryan and compete with him to roll back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the progressive nature of the federal tax code.” See, we can all get along.

But his fellow columnist on those pages, Paul Krugman, is having none of it:

So, can we talk about the Paul Ryan phenomenon?

And yes, I mean the phenomenon, not the man. Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and the principal author of the last two Congressional Republican budget proposals, isn’t especially interesting. He’s a garden-variety modern GOP extremist, an Ayn Rand devotee who believes that the answer to all problems is to cut taxes on the rich and slash benefits for the poor and middle class.

No, what’s interesting is the cult that has grown up around Mr. Ryan – and in particular the way self-proclaimed centrists elevated him into an icon of fiscal responsibility, and even now can’t seem to let go of their fantasy.

And after an extended discussion of the few details of the Ryan budget, we get this:

What does it mean to be a centrist, anyway?

It could mean supporting politicians who actually are relatively non-ideological, who are willing, for example, to seek Democratic support for health reforms originally devised by Republicans, to support deficit-reduction plans that rely on both spending cuts and revenue increases. And by that standard, centrists should be lavishing praise on the leading politician who best fits that description – a fellow named Barack Obama.

But the “centrists” who weigh in on policy debates are playing a different game. Their self-image, and to a large extent their professional selling point, depends on posing as high-minded types standing between the partisan extremes, bringing together reasonable people from both parties – even if these reasonable people don’t actually exist. And this leaves them unable either to admit how moderate Mr. Obama is or to acknowledge the more or less universal extremism of his opponents on the right. …

So you can see the problem these commentators face. To admit that the president’s critique is right would be to admit that they were snookered by Mr. Ryan, who is the same as he ever was. More than that, it would call into question their whole centrist shtick – for the moral of my story is that Mr. Ryan isn’t the only emperor who turns out, on closer examination, to be naked.

And this puzzles Ed Kilgore:

Paul Krugman does something rather odd. On the one hand, he very effectively demolishes the idea that Paul Ryan’s budget proposal represents anything other than a radically conservative agenda for the country, while establishing Barack Obama’s bona fides as the closest thing available to a “centrist” when it comes to a balanced approach to dealing with the budget and all the associated issues. On the other hand, he is so furious at “centrists” for their failure to figure all this out that he virtually spits out the c-word as an epithet, a condemnation all the more sweeping because he does not name a single name, though I’m reasonably sure he has his New York Times colleague David Brooks in mind.

Well yes, but the problem is finding the real centrists:

I know “centrism” is already an epithet to many progressives, representing that yellow stripe of cowardice in the middle of the road, stab-in-the-back triangulation, corporate whoredom, etc., etc. And for similar reasons, some people with views often described as “centrist” or “center-left” sometimes disclaim the term, implying as it does not a coherent or morally defensible point of view but a relative and wavering position between two fixed poles.

But to just regular folks out there – particularly the 35-45% of Americans identifying themselves as “moderates” – there’s some value in the brand, implying as it does a certain degree of reasonableness and perhaps even unpredictability. And as it happens, self-identified “moderates” are a much larger segment of the coalition that votes for Ds than the one that votes for Rs. Given that reality, does it make more sense for progressives to deny that people like David Brooks (much less Paul Ryan!) are “centrist” in any meaningful sense of the term, or instead to make the term itself so toxic that it’s ceded to crypto-conservatives because anyone to their left has stopped using it?

It does get confusing. The far right is now the center and no one else will use the word. And Kilgore would like Krugman to be more careful:

For those of us not so convinced that maximum polarization is an unambiguously good thing, or who believe that for all the many shortcomings associated with them, ideological “brands” do have some political value, then it’s not that great an idea to call both Barack Obama and David Brooks “centrists” in the same column, while trying to deny that one is at all like the other. In other words, it’s not helpful to be a mushy moderate in one’s definition of “centrism.” By all rights, the brand should belong to the Donkey Party right now – if it wants it – because it has been so decisively abandoned by the party of Paul Ryan. It’s better to police membership in the centrist camp than to burn it down.

That’s a nit perhaps, but labels do matter, as that’s all most folks offer in political discussions. And Jonathan Chait is fine with the label Obama used:

I happen to think “social Darwinist” captures the prevailing Republican philosophy pretty well. The point of the label, created by historian Richard Hofstadter, is that a species of laissez-faire economics treated the market the way Darwinians treat natural selection – as the sole natural and correct mechanism for distributing rewards. You do not have to venture into the Republican fever swamps to find evidence of this belief.

And on that he cites Greg Mankiw, the noted economist and adviser to Mitt Romney, who Chait says is considered a relative moderate within the party, saying this:

People should get what they deserve. A person who contributes more to society deserves a higher income that reflects those greater contributions. Society permits him that higher income not just to incentivize him, as it does according to utilitarian theory, but because that income is rightfully his.


Now, I suspect that right-wingers object to the term “social Darwinist” because it can be understood to imply a more literal application of Darwinism – that the poor should be killed off so they cannot reproduce. Almost none of them would take the theory quite so far. But the more symbolic application of Darwinism to the market, as a morally optimal tool for allocating rewards, seems appropriate. Republicans may prefer a more positive-sounding label, but in politics you don’t always get to pick your label.

And one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers offers this:

Connecting “Darwin” to this budget is a very smart move by the president.

Where conservatives say things like “culture of life” Obama is being very slick connecting the word “Darwin” to the GOP tax plan. Many older people are a) already convinced Darwin was the devil, and b) are a vulnerable demographic when the budget comes up due to their dependence on entitlements. If Obama beats the social Darwinism drum enough, Romney will have to say something like “No, we should take care of the weak” (anathema!) or even worse, “Darwin wasn’t that bad” – or something mealy-mouthed and middle of the road, which will reinforce impressions of him. Check.

And in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki gets to the heart of the matter:

The budget is, as many have said, an act of political theatre, a way for Republicans to demonstrate what they stand for. But that’s precisely what makes it so revealing: what Ryan is proffering here is something like the platonic ideal of a budget. And what his plans tell us is that there’s very little the federal government has done over the past hundred and fifty years, apart from fighting wars, that the House Republicans approve of. In that sense, the Ryan plan is not about fiscal responsibility. It’s about pushing a very particular, and very ideological, view of the proper relationship between government and society. The U.S. does need to get its finances in order. It just doesn’t need to repeal the twentieth century to do so.

Ah, you can see why people don’t talk politics at Easter dinner. Screw the poor? People should get what they deserve? Pass the ham. And anyway, Easter isn’t about politics or about chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps – it’s about Jesus. You can always talk about Jesus. But even there it gets tricky, as Easter morning, Rick Warren, with his Saddleback megachurch out here in Orange County and all his books on the Purpose Driven Life fame, was on ABC’s This Week, where Jake Tapper asked him about Obama’s suggestion that God tells us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor… But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You – you rob them of dignity.

Was he really saying Jesus just didn’t get it, that dim-witted Jesus just didn’t understand fairness and dignity? Kevin Drum wonders about that:

You know, there’s nothing really wrong with a Republican politician saying this. Or a Democratic politician, for that matter. My first preference for helping the poor is indeed to make sure they have decent jobs. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet met anyone who has a brilliant plan for making the economy boom on such a sustained basis that jobs are always available for everyone.

But I’m a blogger, not a minister. And while I might not be an expert on the Bible, I’ve read enough to know that Jesus sure didn’t seem to think that helping the poor robbed them of dignity. Can someone help me out here? What part of the gospels do you think Warren is referring to?

That’s a good question, and Ed Kilgore helps him out:

The short answer, Kevin, is that there’s not any.

Now that’s not the same as saying the Bible lays out a clear-cut religious mandate for a social democratic regime or any other particular form of political economy. Lest we forget, even the most recent chapters of the Good Book were written by and for people living in a relatively primitive agricultural economy and under relatively demanding and arbitrary public authorities claiming (and often embodying) divine sanction.

But in any event, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are sufficiently loaded with injunctions to social justice, condemnations of idle and conspicuous wealth, and identification of righteousness with concern for the welfare of people in need so that you might say the burden of proof for the godliness of anything approaching laissez-faire capitalism is pretty heavy.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done:

Some conservatives of a religious bent seek to radically distinguish between personal charity and public assistance, and argue that the latter undermines the former. Others have developed theologies that treat private wealth as signs of divine favor. Still others have excoriated efforts to “redistribute income” as public reflections of the private sins of theft or envy. Perhaps the most common Christian Right rationalization of economic conservatism is that a state that can “confiscate” income has the power to justify wickedness (e.g., legalization of abortion and same-sex relationships) or oppress the righteous. And in a less articulate way, cultural conservatives of every stamp naturally prefer the economic arrangements of the 1950s or 1930s or 1880s just as they prefer the family structure and moral codes of bygone days.

And then there’s a special subgroup:

Roman Catholics have a more complicated path to membership in a conservative coalition that includes and is financed by plutocrats and their apologists, thanks to a reasonably rich heritage of social justice teachings and (in this country at least) a history of solidarity with the working class. Many wonder why, for example, the Bishops seem absorbed with reversing a contraception coverage mandate for non-church entities instead of fighting for social justice in an increasingly unequal society.

That’s a good question. The Catholic Church in America is gaining quite a reputation for ending all sorts of programs for the poor if there’s even a hint of some administrative relationship to Planned Parenthood or gay folks hanging around. Better the poor should starve and die than such things happen. It’s a theological matter – purity and no compromise. They ask us to admire them for it, and to forget all the altar boys who have been molested. That’s not everyone’s theological cup of tea, and makes them an active arm of the Republican Party. But it’s good enough for the two Catholic candidates this time around, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. And it probably makes for some interesting Easter messaging.

But Kilgore sees a larger problem:

Suffusing all these issues is a strong tendency among Christian conservatives to apply all the biblical passages providing encouragement for the afflicted and the persecuted to themselves, strange as it may seem. Much of the over-the-top language of the Christian Right, in fact, is part of a difficult but psychologically essential effort to turn comfortable white suburban believers into the wretched of the earth, hounded by powerful secular elites and their corrupt poor-and-minority clients into subjection. Enter one of those brightly colored evangelical megachurches and attend closely and you will catch more than a whiff of the Catacombs. It’s no accident that Christian Right leaders like James Dobson just love to compare themselves to the brave rebels of the German Confessing Church, and why nothing thrills the rank-and-file quite like those viral emails suggesting that Obama is plotting to ban religious broadcasts or even herd martyrs into concentration camps. A lot of today’s Christian conservatives are feeling too much pity for themselves to share much with the poor, who generally vote wrong and can be dismissed as pawns of the Evil One.

And as for Rick Warren:

It does take a lot of self-deception to read the Bible regularly and come away not only believing but preaching that Ayn Rand was basically right, except for her atheism. But it seems a remarkable number of American religious leaders are up to the task.

Okay then, don’t talk about taking what little they have from the poor, in Jesus’ name, at Easter dinner, or about the Ryan budget, which is doing the same taking from the poor, but for their own good, so they sink or swim all on their own, but have dignity. And don’t talk about Social Darwinism either. Just peel the hyperactive kids off the ceiling and talk about lawn care or something. The election year will be over soon enough – or maybe not soon enough.

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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