Getting to Know You

Here, one block up from the Sunset Strip at the foot of Laurel Canyon, tucked out of the way, summer nights are quiet. The apartment has a balcony out back – a good place to sit and smoke a pipe. Across the hills the white marble Griffith Park Observatory catches the last of the sunlight – it just pops out of the twilight – and then, when the sun is gone, the floodlights make it glow. Cool – and the partying and cruising down on the Sunset Strip are really just a distant whisper. And Hollywood proper, with the hot new clubs now, is five or so blocks east – just a glow in the distance, with searchlights sweeping the sky now and then if there’s a premiere at the Chinese Theater or something. There’s no sound, except, at the end of the evening, odd low distant rumbling. That would be the fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl on the other side of the hills out back. Major events, with major stars, end with fireworks in the summer season there – and Saturday night it was Liza Minnelli, so of course there were the thuds of those distant unseen fireworks. Apparently the show was a bit of a shambles – the woman is well past her prime now – but there’s something about Broadway show tunes, and the women who belt out such things triple-fortissimo, with a smile and a wink. It’s quite odd. But perhaps it’s an acquired taste – and the place was packed. There really is an audience for simple-minded nonsense delivered with over-the-top raw emotion. It’s just that it all seems part of a distant past – Ruby Keeler through Bob Fosse – from the days before Times Square and the theater district there, so far back east, were domesticated by the Disney folks and the whole place turned into something like a theme park about some hypothetical Great White Way. The world moved on. No one really listens to Broadway show tunes anymore – it’s all nostalgia. The genre is dead.

Only the residue remains, those of us old enough remembering an odd tune like Getting to Know You – from the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. Deborah Kerr sang it in the 1956 film adaptation – but not really, as she was dubbed by someone who could actually sing. Not that it mattered – the ditty was about as simple-minded as you can imagine. Anna sings it to the children and the wives of the King of Siam – she’s so glad she now gets to meet them and really know them and that makes her feel all warm and fuzzy and happy. And that makes them happy too. Everyone is happy. No doubt many a kindergarten teacher in the fifties sang that same song to her kids on the first day of class, and no doubt many of those kids just rolled their eyes. Yeah, yeah – you’re introducing yourself and we all like each other and we’ll all get along just fine, but we’ll see about that. The world doesn’t work that way.

Paul Ryan just found that out. Saturday morning Mitt Romney named him his running mate and Monday we had his first solo appearance, at the Iowa State Fair – and before he could sing that Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty he was heckled and mocked mercilessly. That was where Romney himself had been heckled and mocked the year before, when he laughed and said corporations are people too, and said it over and over. No one was buying that, and for Ryan exactly one year later, no one was buying all his cheery talk about how he was really, honestly, trying to help the middle class. They laughed at him, and then got angry – and then got dragged away by the police. Ryan handled it pretty well, staying cool, but this was not like the song said it was supposed to be. And he passed on eating deep-fried butter on a stick. Bonding with the common-folk at the state fair has its limits.

Romney himself canceled a campaign event in Orlando – he decided to hit the gym instead – no point in trying to explain to the old farts in Florida why he chose a running mate who wants to slowly end Medicare and let Social Security become a system where what you save for retirement is between you and your Wall Street broker. That’s a problem, but Romney’s remaining Florida event also didn’t go well at all:

A campaign stop by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Miami on Monday was held at a restaurant owned by a convicted drug trafficker. Romney, hoping to get support from the Cuban-American community in Miami, held an event at El Palacio de los Jugos, famed for its tropical juices, fruits and Cuban-style snack food. Court documents show restaurant owner Reinaldo Bermudez pleaded guilty in 1997 to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. The case in federal court in Miami led to a three-year prison sentence for Bermudez.

Oops. This business where you get to know everyone and everyone gets to know you and everyone is happy is trickier than it seems. Still everyone knows Romney by now and this was just another boneheaded mistake by this man who almost defines what it means to be unaware. The real problem is Paul Ryan and his charm offensive, like in the song.

David Frum, George Bush’s former speechwriter, argues that Romney has made it impossible for anyone to see the charm:

In 1992, for example, Republicans wanted the election to be about George H.W. Bush’s steady leadership in a dangerous world: the end of the Cold War and victory in the Persian Gulf. Democrats countered, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

This year, an incumbent even more embattled than George H.W. Bush has his own preferred election theme. He doesn’t want to debate his own record, which is pretty dismal. He wants to debate the record of the congressional Republicans elected in 2010, a bunch radically less popular even than the president himself.

You’d imagine that Romney’s job was to refuse the Democratic invitation, to choose his own ground for the election, and to keep his distance from the congressional GOP. You’d imagine, but you’d be wrong.

Romney has instead chosen to bolt himself to the House Republicans. He has chosen as his running mate Paul Ryan, the House Republican leader – not their formal leader, but their intellectual leader, the person who set their agenda. He has effectively adopted Paul Ryan’s agenda as his own: big immediate cuts in spending, a dramatic cut in the top rate of income tax to 28% and a bold reform of Medicare for those 55 and under.

There is no charm here:

The Romney-Ryan team will tell you that fixing Medicare is crucial to their plans for economic growth. By assuring markets that Medicare costs will grow more slowly after 2023, a Medicare fix – it’s argued – will ignite job creation in 2013. In the meantime, federal spending cuts and upper-income tax cuts will restore business confidence.

Will voters accept this argument? Possibly, although relatively few economists will… Most economists would draw a distinction between the government’s fiscal problems over the medium term and the economy’s problems in the near term.

It all goes back to the housing crisis:

Americans assumed crushing levels of debt in the 2000s to buy expensive homes, homes they assumed would continue to rise in price forever. In 2007, household debt relative to income peaked at the highest level since 1928. (Uh oh.) When the housing market crashed, consumers were stranded with unsustainable debts, and until those debts are reduced, consumers will drastically cut back their spending. As consumers cut back, businesses lose revenue. As businesses lose revenue, they fire employees. As employees lose their jobs, their purchasing power is reduced. As purchasing power is lost throughout the economy housing prices tumble again.

It’s a death-spiral:

Since 2008, the debt burden on households has declined somewhat, partly because of increased saving, mostly because of mortgage default. But household debts have declined nowhere near enough, and the pace of household debt reduction is slowing. The result: slow recovery of the private economy, weak consumer demand, paltry job growth – considerably offset by continuing job shrinkage in the public sector.

And Ryan offers no way out:

Paul Ryan’s various plans and road maps contain many interesting elements for the reduction of government in the decades ahead. They do not respond to the most immediate and urgent problem: prolonged mass unemployment caused by heavy household debt.

Why not? There’s why the ideology makes itself felt. Conservatives ardently believe that big future deficits are the cause of today’s unemployment. They feel it. They know it. And they don’t want to hear different.

That not what the happy-happy Rodgers and Hammerstein tune was about. You’re supposed to want to hear different, and enjoy it. This is just a closed system:

Romney has been constrained first to endorse Paul Ryan’s budget plan (which he did in December 2011 after months of attempted evasion), to endorse a cut in the top rate of income tax to 28% (March 2012), and now finally to choose Ryan himself as his running mate. No leeway – and now no exit.

Conservatives exult that the GOP will now offer the country “a choice, not a referendum.” That phrase does not make a lot of sense. (What is more of a choice than a referendum?) But there’s good reason why conservatives say it. They are looking for a rephrasing of the slogan uppermost in their minds: “a choice not an echo” – the title of the best-selling manifesto that helped persuade Republicans to follow Barry Goldwater to disaster.

Getting to know you can be dangerous, with odd wrinkles, like this one Ezra Klein notes:

Three years ago, Mitt Romney proposed a constitutional amendment that would say “the president has to spend three years working in business before he becomes president of the United States. Then he or she would understand that the policies they are putting into place have to encourage small business to grow.”

That would disqualify Paul Ryan, who started out as a congressional staffer and then became a congressman:

To be clear about the point here, I think this reflects how dumb Romney’s proposed constitutional amendment is, not Ryan’s fitness for the presidency. It also reflects Romney’s tendency to take positions strategically without carefully considering their long-term impact. When he made that comment, was it really so difficult for him to imagine naming a vice president without business experience? That would, for instance, disqualify career military men, like Gen. David Petraeus.

Everything is so damned complicated! Or it’s not. Timothy Noah says just get to know Paul Ryan:

He wants to abolish Medicare “as we know it” and replace it with a voucher system that will shift significant costs onto the elderly.

He wants to abolish Medicaid and the food stamp program, too, and replace them with block grants that would radically shrink available funds for the indigent.

As a budget-balancer he’s a phony because his drastic cuts in federal programs are accompanied by irresponsible cuts in taxes for the rich, and because when George W. Bush was president he voted for the unfunded Medicare drug benefit.

Klein is not playing nice, and that is followed by a detailed discussion of the clear evidence that Ryan worked hard to keep unemployment high – several dense paragraphs for policy wonks only (here’s an even more interesting discussion of that) – but the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold says Ryan is still liked on the right, although it’s complicated:

Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, has been described in the past few days as a combination of two congressional ideals. Tea Party activists say he is an uncompromising budget-cutter. Romney himself says Ryan is a deal-maker, able to find common ground with Democrats.

Both cannot be true:

For more than half his career, Ryan was a dutiful GOP foot soldier, which meant he voted for many of the budget-busting, Bush-era measures that tea partiers have come to hate. Ryan was a “yes” for expanding Medicare prescription-drug coverage, as well as bailing out the financial sector and automakers.

Then, in recent years, Ryan recast himself as a GOP visionary: instead of seeking compromises with Democrats, he sketched out uncompromised GOP ideals on Medicare and Social Security.

During more than 13 years in Congress, Ryan has passed just two of his bills into law. But he has still managed a remarkable feat: creating a political persona in which nearly all facets of the GOP can find something to like.

They just don’t look at things too closely. Ryan’s heart is in the right place, even if he’s done little:

After a year and a half on the job, Ryan reached a milestone: He passed his first bill. It renamed a post office. Four years later, Ryan got another bill passed. It lowered the excise tax on the parts used to make arrows.

This is the sum total of Paul Ryan’s changes to U.S. code. After 2006, Ryan’s focus was on a committee – the Budget Committee – whose main job is to produce theoretical statements of policy, not actual law. He has not passed a law since.

Hey, the man is Mister Theory. That’s what you need to know about him – and that he doesn’t compromise on theory.

Fahrenthold also demonstrates Ryan doesn’t work with Democrats at all, ever. After all, he does have his principles, as we saw a year ago:

Paul Ryan was chased by a protester waving a giant Bible and decrying libertarian author Ayn Rand on his way out of the Faith and Freedom Conference, a social conservative gathering in DC where he delivered a speech on his budget.

“Why did you choose to model your budget on the extreme ideology of Ayn Rand rather than the faith of economic justice in the Bible?” the blond, twenty-something male asked. He said he wanted to “present” Ryan with a Bible to teach him how to help the “most vulnerable.”

Ryan talked to reporters briefly and signed autographs for fans, and pretty much blew off the protester. And Ryan never mentioned Rand in his speech, even though he has cited her as a hero in the past. In fact he discussed his faith and its connection to American government and all that sort of thing – “Our rights our not given to us from government, our rights are given to us naturally, given by God.” And he said that “applying these principles” is what keeps America from entering decline with each new generation. But of course Ayn Rand was a total atheist, and proud of it. The blond, twenty-something evangelical fellow at the time smelled a rat. And the rat is still there.

Amy Sullivan at Time’s Swampland back then noted Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand Problem:

I am fairly certain that when Paul Ryan first decided to publicly share his admiration of Ayn Rand, he could not have imagined it would lead to him speed-walking to his SUV to avoid a young Catholic trying to give him a Bible and telling him to pay more attention to the Gospel of Luke.

But there is a bit of a problem here:

These days, when people question a politician’s “morality,” they usually mean his or her personal behavior and choices. But an interesting thing is happening right now around the GOP budget proposal. A broad coalition of religious voices is criticizing the morality of the choices reflected in budget cuts and tax policy. And they’ve specifically targeted Ryan and his praise for Rand, the philosopher who once said she “promoted the ethic of selfishness.”

Across the street from the Faith & Freedom Conference Friday afternoon, a group of religious leaders continued the attack on what they now consistently refer to as “The Ayn Rand Budget.” Father Cletus Kiley, a Catholic priest, declared the Ryan budget “does not pass our test” of Catholic teachings, and suggested that supporters of the budget “drop Ayn Rand’s books and pick up their sacred texts.”

And yes, Paul Ryan has said Ayn Rand is the reason he entered politics, and he once required his staff to read her works, but the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer explains what happened next:

Ryan distanced himself from Rand, whose atheism is something of a philosophical wedge issue on the right, dividing religious conservatives from free-market libertarians. This year, with his political profile rising, Ryan stressed not only that he had differences with Rand’s atheism – a point he had made as far back as 2003 – but went so far as to denounce her whole system of beliefs, describing his early attraction to her writing as little more than a youthful dalliance. He admitted that he had “enjoyed her novels,” but… he stressed that, “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas.”

You do what you have to do:

Ryan’s sidestep from Rand was politically essential. As a Mormon, the last thing Romney needs is to alienate the Christian Right further by putting an acolyte of an atheist on the ticket. So it was not surprising that Romney made a point of stressing Ryan’s Catholicism during his announcement of Ryan today, introducing him as, “A faithful Catholic” who “believes in the dignity and worth of every life.”

But not so fast there, Sparky:

While Ryan may be distancing himself from Rand now, the Democrats will surely argue that her views on the virtues of selfishness have left a more lasting legacy in the policies that he and Romney embrace. In his début today, Ryan stressed that “We promise equal opportunity – not equal outcomes” – a philosophy that telegraphed a tough message to those who are worst off. Ryan also signaled a Rand-like celebration of the winners, and dismissed complaints from the losers, saying, “We look at one another’s success with pride, not resentment.” Rand’s language was tougher still. She used words such as “refuse” and “parasites” to describe the poor, while celebrating millionaire businessmen as heroes. She abhorred government social programs, such as Social Security, at least until she reached the age of eligibility, and reportedly signed on for both its benefits and those of Medicare.

It all fits:

Getting to know you,
Getting to feel free and easy
When I am with you,
Getting to know what to say

Haven’t you noticed
Suddenly I’m bright and breezy?
Because of all the beauty and new
Things I’m learning about you
Day by day.

It just doesn’t work that way – no one is feeling all that bright and breezy right now, except for those who see the unemployed and unlucky and the not-rich, and generally anyone who has been reduced to working for others to survive, as the useless “takers” and not the noble “makers” in Ayn Rand’s terms. Of course there are many who feel that way. You can get to know them too.

This is heading nowhere good. It wasn’t just the Iowa State Fair. The distant rumble right now is not the late evening fireworks from over the hills out back here. Americans are getting to know each other.

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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4 Responses to Getting to Know You

  1. Rick says:

    Ezra Klein:

    “Three years ago, Mitt Romney proposed a constitutional amendment that would say ‘the president has to spend three years working in business before he becomes president of the United States. Then he or she would understand that the policies they are putting into place have to encourage small business to grow.’ “

    Maybe instead we need an amendment that says, “the president has to spend three years working as a community organizer, so he or she would understand the needs of the community at large, rather than just the parochial needs of his own economic class.”

    Another way of putting this is, a president doesn’t need to understand business as much as he needs to understand the economy, something neither Romney nor Ryan seem to do.

    What caught my attention yesterday was the stories of Obama and Ryan in Iowa, the president asking people to taunt Ryan for holding up a farm bill in Congress (purely partisan politics, of course), with Ryan having nothing to come back with but, “Where are the jobs, Mr. President? Where are the jobs?”

    Where are the jobs? Hey, you’re a Republican! Why would you be asking Obama that?

    It’s so simple, I don’t understand why these guys aren’t constantly nailed for not knowing it (and yes, I know I’m somewhat repeating myself, but I’m still searching for that slam-dunk explanation of what should be obvious and irrefutable to everyone in the first place):

    Everybody talks about the economy, even as hardly anybody seems to understand what an economy is: An economy totally consists of spending.

    If you take away spending — that is, take away all money changing hands — you’ve taken away the economy.

    And as the economy is made up of spending, it follows that the more spending we have, the healthier the economy is. And what follows from that, of course, is that the less spending we have (and yes, that includes government spending, federal, state and local), the weaker the economy is.

    (We shouldn’t forget the “Economic Equation”: An economy = C + G + I + (X-M), in which C is consumer spending, G is government spending, I is investment, X is exports, and M is imports. Republicans and others that tend to belittle governments seem to pretend that government spending is not a component of the economy.)

    When you cut spending, you’re cutting jobs.

    When you reduce the size of government, you’re reducing spending, and you’re hurting the economy. It’s all well and good to embrace a philosophy of smaller government, but at least be honest enough to admit that reducing the size of government hurts the economy, mostly by reducing jobs.

    So it always amazes me when Republicans demand that government be shrunk (which reduces spending, and therefore reduces jobs — not just those of government workers, but the workers in the private sector who sell food and clothing and housing and fuel to those now-out-of-work government workers) and they then turn around and blame President Obama for the loss of those same jobs.

    So the bottom line is, Paul Ryan having to ask President Obama where the jobs are is just an indication that he doesn’t know how the economy works, not something you want to see in someone so close to the seat of power.


  2. Chris says:

    While I am skeptical of the claims of Ryan’s “deep intellectualism,” I have no doubt that he understands how an economy works. I believe a big part of the Republican plan is to stall the economy through obstruction, blame the Democrats, and take back power. Once in office, I think you will see increased government spending (just like Reagan and G.W. Bush), a complete lack of concern about deficits and debt (unless they are tied to social welfare programs), and a messianic pursuit of tax cuts for “Job Creators.”

    Of course, I may just be cynical.

    Thanks for the blog, Alan. I’ve been reading it every day for nearly a year now.

  3. Douglas Day says:

    And now if we can just get,say, a couple ten million hits right here before November… Nice return to the lyric. Nice circle. Doug DayO

  4. Madman says:

    DAVID FRUM: “Conservatives exult that the GOP will now offer the country “a choice, not a referendum.” That phrase does not make a lot of sense. (What is more of a choice than a referendum?)”

    I am surprised that Mr. Frum does not see the nuance in this statement, AND that Alan does not call him on it. My interpretation is that a Referendum would apply to the policies and results of the Obama Administration; whereas, a Choice is what voters are offered between two competing visions of America’s future.

    I for one am extremely pleased that Bishop Romney has chosen the Tea Party star of the House as his running mate. The contrast now between the Democrats and Republicans in this Presidential election could not be more clear, since there is now no daylight between Bishop Romney and the far right wing of his Party. There is NO WAY he can now attempt to “move to the center” with Ryan at his side and on his ticket.

    As the generous offering of quotes suggests, the only people ecstatic about the Ryan choice are the far Right ideologues — a VERY noisy minority. I say the American people are not ready, willing, nor able to repeal the New Deal in 2012 — or EVER. Once created, a middle class does not go gently into that good night!

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