Prigs and Bullies

Much to the disappointment of many college students stuck in that inevitable required English Literature course, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh isn’t a porn novel – it’s just another bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that follows the protagonist as he finally figures out how the world really works, which is always a long struggle full of dramatic trauma. In this case the protagonist is the son of a prissy clergyman – a classic prig, actually – and a goofy but pleasant delusional mother who likes to fantasize about one day being the mother of the next Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s not promising, and the kid does become a clergyman himself, one even more priggish than his father – but he finally wakes up, after a series of amazing blunders and miscalculations. Our hero decides it’s best to do only that which makes him happy and hurts no one else. Self-sacrifice combined with lecturing others about their failures just isn’t cutting it. He decides to throw his lot in with the nice people, as “all animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.”

That may be Butler’s key observation – which was a bit subversive in Victorian England and perhaps why he arranged that the novel only be published after his death – but Butler makes other observations along the way which explain a lot about childhood itself:

Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances. Even if they are unhappy – very unhappy – it is astonishing how easily they can be prevented from finding it out, or at any rate from attributing it to any other cause than their own sinfulness.

The powerless adapt to circumstances, as the game is rigged in favor of those at the top:

To parents who wish to lead a quiet life I would say: Tell your children that they are naughty – much naughtier than most children. Point to the young people of some acquaintances as models of perfection and impress your own children with a deep sense of their own inferiority. You carry so many more guns than they do that they cannot fight you. This is called moral influence, and it will enable you to bounce them as much as you please. They think you know and they will not have yet caught you lying often enough to suspect that you are not the unworldly and scrupulously truthful person you represent yourself to be; nor yet will they know how great a coward you are, nor how soon you will run away if they fight you with persistency and judgment. You keep the dice and throw them both for your children and yourself. Load them then, for you can easily manage to stop your children from examining them. Tell them how singularly indulgent you are; insist on the incalculable benefit you conferred upon them, firstly in bringing them into the world at all, but more particularly in bringing them into it as your own children rather than anyone else’s… You hold all the trump cards, or if you do not you can filch them; if you play them with anything like judgment you will find yourselves heads of happy, united, God-fearing families… True, your children will probably find out all about it someday, but not until too late to be of much service to them or inconvenience to yourself.

That might sound familiar. As Edison Research showed in their 2004 polling, there’s a reason that people refer to the Republicans as the Daddy Party:

Chris Matthews, the host of the MSNBC political talk show Hardball, long ago came up with the meme of the Democratic Party as the “Mommy Party” and the Republicans as the “Daddy Party.” As he tells it, Democrats want to hug you and kiss you and tell you everything will be all right. Republicans want to spank you and send you to bed without your supper to toughen you up. In 2004, or so it is argued, Bush squeaked out his victory in part because enough Americans were looking for someone tough enough to deal with the monsters who caused the 9/11 attacks, and they simply didn’t see Kerry as the person to deliver that. Edison’s exit polls seem to imply that Moms are looking for Moms, and Dads for Dads, in an ever increasing fashion.

Nothing much has changed since then, other than Butler’s satiric advice to parents seems to have formed the basis for the Republican presentation of how things work in this sorry world. If you’re not happy, if you’re not rich like Mitt Romney or Herman Cain, it’s your own damned fault. The rich are models of perfection and you should have a deep sense of your own inferiority, and do something about it – die or adapt to circumstances. Hey – you keep the dice – load them then, as you can easily manage to stop the whining pesky kids from examining them. Yep, don’t release your tax returns. Pass laws to make sure no one knows who finances your campaigns with hundreds of millions of mysterious dollars. Block all efforts to make all that odd stuff that happens in the financial markets open and transparent, so people can’t possibly know what’s happening with their 401(k) and the mortgage. You hold all the trump cards, or if you do not you can filch them. Play the game with anything like judgment you will find yourselves heads of a happy, united, God-fearing nation.

What? You thought that stuff you were forced to read in English class had nothing to do with real life? Think again. Butler nailed it. This is how prigs who are natural and proud bullies operate – assure and exploit structural weaknesses, and make those weaker than you blame themselves for everything in sight. Yes, it’s a scam and they will probably find out all about it someday, but not until too late to be of much service to them or inconvenience to yourself – you and your money will be in the Caymans.

The current scam is the debt crisis – which we are told is the biggest crisis America has ever faced. The greedy Baby Boomers are ruining everything, expecting that the plan they paid into for all their working lives should pay out the small but vital benefits codified in the basic agreement – but times are tough, so maybe benefits should be reduced, or the age when you can retire and receive those benefits raised, to sixty-seven, or seventy. The same goes for Medicare. Everyone must sacrifice for the greater good. Deficit reduction and making sure the very rich – the job creators – pay far less in taxes is what’s necessary. We must cut spending, except that ThinkProgress points out something odd:

Even without the spending cuts included in the so-called “sequester,” America’s domestic spending levels are scheduled to hit historic lows in the coming years. That’s because the Budget Control Act, signed into law as part of the plan to raise the debt ceiling in August 2011, capped future spending levels.

Those caps will ultimately reduce spending to its lowest level as a percent of the economy since the 1970s, according to a report from Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.

We’re there already, and this is getting absurd:

Food safety: The Food and Drug Administration nearly doubled its inspection of food imports between 2007 and 2011, but such inspections would be reduced by 24 percent under scheduled spending caps. Food imports are skyrocketing, but the FDA inspects only 2.3 percent of them. In addition, budget cuts have jeopardized implementation of major food safety reforms.

Aviation Safety: The Federal Aviation Administration has faced $205 million in cuts to programs meant to help update its infrastructure, even as the department is switching its monitoring system to a safer one based on satellites.

Heather Parton discusses this almost channeling Samuel Butler – “When our food supply is tainted and airplanes fall out of the sky, they can blame it on the Big Bad Gummint which can’t do anything right.” Hey – you keep the dice – load them then. And of course people buy into this, as Duncan Black finds Bob Woodward declaring this:

If you stabilize the debt in some reasonable way, we’re going to have growth. The unemployment rate should come down.

Why? No one knows, although Steny Hoyer is on the same page:

A deficit reduction agreement would provide the biggest single stimulus to the economy we could achieve. Setting our economy back on a sustainable, predictable fiscal path will help us create jobs by restoring certainty for businesses and enabling them to plan for a future without the brinksmanship that has characterized this Congress. Without certainty, businesses can only focus on the short-term, which leads to missed opportunities for growth and fewer investments that have wider economic benefits. There is over $2 trillion in cash being held on corporate balance sheets just waiting for the right time – just waiting for a restoration of confidence – to put that money back to use growing the American economy. A comprehensive agreement on our fiscal future would, I believe, restore the atmosphere of fiscal calm needed for businesses to unleash their capital to great effect.

Paul Krugman cites these and throws up his hands:

What is the evidence that fiscal uncertainty – as opposed to overall lack of demand – is the reason corporations are sitting on cash? There isn’t any.

This is, of course, just another illustration of the amazing way in which conventional wisdom has become dominated by fantasies that make DC insiders feel good about their preferred efforts – Bowles/ Simpson is the universal elixir – despite a complete lack of evidence for these fantasies. And what’s even more amazing is that I suspect that Woodward, for example, had no idea that he was saying anything questionable; it was just part of what everyone in his circle knows.

Yeah, everyone knows that, but everyone also knows that as part of the deal last year to raise the debt limit, as usual, the agreement was to raise it on the condition that serious discussions about spending cuts and increased revenue would occur later. Republicans agreed that in exchange for not refusing the government the means to pay the bills now due, thus crashing the world’s economy forever, at the end of the year there’d be matching spending cuts that both sides would find appalling. Those cuts would be at least twenty percent across the board, on all the spending on healthcare and social services and education, which would infuriate the Democrats, and on defense spending too, which would infuriate the Republicans. In short, both sides created a major crisis for everyone out of thin air – wholly arbitrary sequestration of about a fifth of all government spending – and they then gave themselves an absolute deadline to solve this cooked-up crisis. If the debt is the biggest problem in the world, and the only way to fix it is by cutting spending, not by goosing the economy so it actually grows, this would force the issue. Cuts that everyone hated would be made – but for the good of the nation.

Yeah, but the deadline came and went. Congress put off the massive meat-axe sequestration cuts for three months. They got cold feet, and maybe they weren’t serious after all. The first day of March is looming and Major Garrett reports that things are getting hot:

Tea-party-inspired conservatives now say the only thing worse than defense cuts is no cuts at all. Increasingly, the GOP rank-and-file is nodding in agreement. And GOP leaders now see sequester as the only point of leverage and accountability for Obama. If he wants to replace spending cuts with higher taxes, Republicans will fight that battle – and prefer it to clashes over default or a government shutdown. Obama owns the sequester as much as Republicans, and enforcing what is (spending cuts in law) beats fighting over what might be (default or shutdown).

House and Senate Republicans are closer on this approach than they’ve ever been. They want to make Obama sweat the sequester, and part of that is gamely holding a poker face that they can absorb the political fallout from deep defense cuts and other government-wide spending restraint (even if it means reducing the number of Border Patrol agents, food inspectors, and air-traffic controllers). And if Obama wants to avert these cuts, he will have to offer alternatives more palatable to Republicans (see: Shrugged, Atlas).

No new taxes or the country gets screwed! Ed Kilgore says game on:

Democrats aren’t real crazy about the likely economic impact of a sequester, or the overtly stupid, ham-handed way it would operate. But there’s something to be said in the long run for forcing Republicans to choose, finally, between their small-government rhetoric and their lust for Big Stick foreign policies and “Kill ’em All” attitudes towards enemies real and imagined.

See Samuel Butler:

They think you know and they will not have yet caught you lying often enough to suspect that you are not the unworldly and scrupulously truthful person you represent yourself to be; nor yet will they know how great a coward you are, nor how soon you will run away if they fight you with persistency and judgment.

They know now, and Greg Sargent reports this:

There’s been a good deal of chatter to the effect that Republicans still retain leverage in the sequester fight, because some of them are willing to let the sequester happen. But Politico reports that GOP resolve is cracking, with GOPers privately conceding that they’d prefer to reach a deal, because the politics of allowing deep spending cuts, a gutting of defense, and a major hit to the economy are too dangerous.

Of course, GOP aides continue to say they want a deal, but only on their terms – which is to say, they’ll only accept a deal that averts the sequester through spending cuts alone, with no new revenues.

But that shows what Sargent sees as a fundamental weakness of their position:

The problem is that Republicans who care about defense are now on record claiming the sequester will threaten our national security. As Lindsey Graham put it yesterday, “I’m sure Iran is very supportive of sequestration.”

Prigs and bullies can get caught out on a limb:

If the sequester will help our enemies, and put the country at risk, shouldn’t Republicans be willing to discuss closing tax loopholes that benefit the rich and corporations – the same loopholes they were previously willing to entertain closing – to avoid it?

Senate Democrats are drawing up a plan to avert the sequester by limiting tax breaks for oil and gas exploration, nixing tax breaks for private equity employees who pay a lower capital gains tax, and other measures. The idea is to put pressure on Republicans to choose between protecting tax breaks for special interests on one side, and gutting defense and tanking the economy on the other.

Sargent notes this puts them in an odd position:

If Republicans were to agree to closing loopholes, they would also get some of the spending cuts they want. In other words, the choice isn’t: Either give Dems what they want while getting nothing in return or let the sequester destroy the economy. Rather, the choice is: Reach a compromise that gives both sides some of what they want or let the sequester destroy the economy.

But no, that’s too sensible:

Republicans have dealt with this problem by pretending that Dems aren’t actually willing to cut spending. As John Boehner put it yesterday, “At some point, Washington has to deal with its spending problem.” But of course, Dems have not only agreed to cut spending; they have already accepted a good deal more in spending cuts than Republicans have agreed to in new revenues. And the plain fact is that Obama has reiterated that the same spending and entitlement cuts he offered in 2011 are still on the table, even irking his own base in the process.

Ultimately, what this comes down to is that the public is less likely to see Republicans as the party that’s acting in good faith here. Since Republicans are on record claiming the sequester will help the enemy and even admitting it will tank the recovery, are they really going to protect loopholes and deductions enjoyed by the rich and corporations – again, as part of a compromise that gives them some of what they want, too – rather than avoid such an outcome?

Maybe they are going to protect loopholes and deductions enjoyed by the rich and corporations, even if the bad guys win and the economy crashes, but it’s more complicated than that. Stan Collender had his monthly breakfast meeting with what he calls the inside-the-beltway budget wonks – the green-eyeshades guys – and says they have no idea what will happen, other than a resolution of the sequester showdown isn’t likely to happen:

This week’s proposal from the White House to delay the sequester and substitute a combination of revenue increases and other spending cuts in the meantime was rejected by House and Senate Republicans almost instantly. A Senate Republican preference to substitute more domestic reductions for the military cuts is a nonstarter with Senate Democrats. And the House Republican preference to substitute Medicare and Medicaid changes for the sequester reductions has been rejected by House and Senate Democrats.

Now what? This:

A backup plan being discussed by Senate Republicans that would keep the sequester in place but give the departments and agencies flexibility in how they may be achieved is just as confusing but for a very different reason. The flexibility the Senate GOP wants is not acceptable to House Republicans because they’re afraid that the Obama administration will use the flexibility to cut programs, projects, and activities in Republican-held districts while adding funds in those represented by Democrats.

Meanwhile, the word from the White House is that it doesn’t want the flexibility the Senate GOP wants to provide because that could leave it open to criticism from those whose programs are cut rather than saved. The administration’s reasoning apparently is that the very strict sequester spending-cut formula will mean that it cannot be blamed for the results if sequestration happens.

This is absolute deadlock, but Kevin Drum says not to worry:

Republicans don’t want more defense cuts; Democrats don’t want more domestic cuts; and neither side wants the president to have more flexibility. And of course, simply doing away with the sequester entirely for a couple of years, which is by far the smartest option, is completely off the table. The wise men of Washington, along with the flamethrowers in the GOP, simply can’t be convinced that budget deficits are a good thing to have right now, even though all the evidence in the world points in that direction.

Still, although everyone may seem intransigent at the moment, there’s actually good reason to suspect that there are growing cracks in the GOP position. It’s not February 28th yet. No need to panic until then.

Yes, give it time. After all, our young hero in the Samuel Butler novel needed a few years to work out just who was a bully and a prig, and who wasn’t, and a few more years to decide he’d rather hang around with the nice people. This too is the same sort of thing, and the principal business of life is to enjoy it, after all.


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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2 Responses to Prigs and Bullies

  1. BabaO says:

    . . . or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb.

  2. Russell Sadler says:

    Love those literary allusions. Keep’em coming ;-)

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