Moving Beyond Kansas

Call it the Curious Case of Donald Trump. He keeps reminding us that he is the most admired and respected man in America, which has become a bit of a running joke – except that for a few weeks last time around he was considered the one man the Republicans should run against Obama, maybe. That didn’t last long – he never did send that crack team of investigators to Hawaii uncover the evidence that Obama wasn’t born there, and his offer to pay five million dollars to charity if anyone would somehow force Obama to release his full college transcripts, which would show that Obama was a lazy and quite stupid man who only got ahead because black folks are always the ones who unfairly get all the breaks, went nowhere. As for his own policy positions, they were never clear, if there were any. He didn’t like the Chinese. That was about it. Then there was the weekend the Obama administration finally got that Osama guy. Obama took a short break from approving and then monitoring that operation to speak at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he mocked Trump for all the hard decisions Trump had to make on Celebrity Apprentice:

The men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks, but you recognized that this was a lack of leadership, so you fired Gary Busey. These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well-handled, sir! Well-handled!

Trump sat stolidly in the audience and seethed, but the joke became truly devastating the following night when Obama addressed the nation. That which George Bush swore he’d do and could never manage to do – what Bush had seemingly given up on – Obama had done. Osama was gone. This was justice for 9/11. Or it was close enough, after ten years of farting around. The nation cheered, which was a bit bloodthirsty, but understandable. After that, if anyone thought of Donald Trump flamboyantly firing c-list celebrities on his reality show, they also thought of that famous shot of Obama and his team intensely monitoring the raid in Pakistan that finally settled things. Obama bet his presidency on that, which could have gone all wrong. Trump had fired Gary Busey. Case closed. Trump was a clown.

That didn’t matter. Trump was rich, really rich, and that has to count for something. Each Republican hopeful made the trip to Manhattan for his assessment and possible approval – you kiss the Pope’s ring and ask for his blessing or something like that. In some circles Donald Trump still is the most admired and respected man in America – or the thought is that some people must think that, so it can’t hurt if this guy looks you over and says you might be okay, even if you’re not as rich as he is. Cover all the bases. There are those who think rich guys are rich for a reason – they know things other mere mortals don’t know. In our cut-throat every-man-for-himself free-market system – where everyone is gloriously free to thrive all on their own or die in the streets, or should be – they came out on top. One of the byproducts of the Reagan Revolution, or what started with Barry Goldwater, where the government is always the problem and never the solution, is hero-worship of the fabulously wealthy. Everyone else is sadly deficient, and they know it, or would know it with even a little honest self-reflection.

This seems to be at the heart of modern conservatism – total freedom from interference from the government, and from all others in society – the moochers and whiners and takers with no sense of personal responsibility – means there can be only one real hero – the rich man who has it all and keeps it all. It’s kind of an Ayn Rand thing. Charity is a choice you might make, for some odd reason, but that’s your choice – it’s immoral for others to force you chip in for the common good. That’s why Republicans are forever saying that taxation is theft – but then if taxes are stealing then government itself – where everyone chips in for the common good – cannot be legitimate. It is, in itself, no more than a criminal enterprise. They can’t mean that – they themselves are in fact part of government. But maybe they do mean that. They do say they’re anti-government. Maybe they’re in the wrong line of work. It gets confusing.

That’s what made the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC – sponsored by the American Conservative Union – a bit confusing. This is the big deal for that side – major donors get to see who’s hot and who’s not so hot anymore. Donald Trump was invited but spoke to a nearly empty room one morning – “I’ve made over eight billion dollars! I’ve employed tens of thousands of people. And yet I’m continually criticized by total light weights all over the place. It’s unbelievable.”

He was whining, but to make a point. His message was that Romney lost because Romney didn’t brag about how damned rich he was – you have to flaunt it to make everyone else feels like worthless scum, so they respect you. The room was nearly empty because Trump has been exposed as a pathetic clown who embarrassed all serious conservatives and the Republican Party, and he was one of the first to be invited to speak because he is the most admired and respected man in America, in the abstract. He owns things – lots of things – and he has employed tens of thousands of people, and smugly fired those he didn’t care for – and he got very rich doing it. He’s the real hero, and Mitt was kind of like a lesser him – just not quite as rich. He’s not some poor bozo-loser working for someone else, for just a paycheck. He’s what America is all about. He’s the heroic creator of wealth and progress – if casinos and luxury high-rise condo buildings count.

That may seem fairly absurd, but that’s where the party is. A recent Gallup poll shows that seventy-one percent of Americans support Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage and there’s this:

House Republicans unanimously voted down a measure Friday that would have raised the federal minimum wage, from its current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 by 2015. … An increase in the minimum wage to $9 was backed by President Obama during this year’s State of the Union, and immediately shot down by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who argued that it would drive up unemployment by making it harder for small businesses to hire.

The fight is between the poor businessmen, just trying to make it big, or at least take the first step up the Trump Ladder to eventual hero-status, and a government telling them how to run their businesses. They can hire maybe ten bozo-losers if they have to the freedom to pay them next to nothing. Without that freedom they might hire two, or none. Crappy jobs are still jobs, if jobs are what you want. Seventy-one percent of Americans are fools. They don’t understand who the real heroes are.

That seventy-one percent of Americans who like the idea of raising the minimum wage – to keep more folks out of that odd working-full-time-but-mouse-poor state so prevalent these days, and to get more folks buying even just basic goods and services to get the economy back on track – obviously includes a whole lot of Republicans. But those same Republicans still cheer for a unanimous vote like this – a vote for the heroes, not the bozos. It’s a bit puzzling. No one should cheer votes against their own self-interest.

There is a history of that however, as explained in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter With Kansas:

Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and the workers – when it implemented monopoly strategies invasive beyond the Populists’ furthest imaginings – when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work – you could be damned sure about what would follow.

Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.

Frank argues that economic conservatives want business tax cuts and deregulation, and lots of money they can keep, and systematically redirected all the potential anger about what they were up to in a different direction – at liberal elites who were sneering at your traditional values and at Jesus and NASCAR and whatever – and maybe they wanted your guns too. Frank chronicles how they did that – step by step – and it was a brilliant effort – but as Dorothy said to Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. There’s no need to point to the liberal elites these days, even if it still amuses Sarah Palin and a few others. That’s no longer necessary – we’ve left Kansas far behind. Now one need only point to the rich guys. They’ve become the heroes, and what they do justifies itself, because they’re rich. You know you’d do exactly the same thing if you were as smart and cool and impressive as they are – if you were a winner, not a total loser. Who needs social issues?

Robyn Blumner explains that this way:

In 1927, a congressman from New York explained to his colleagues why the country needed a law guaranteeing that federal contractors pay their workers local prevailing wages when constructing public works projects.

Describing what happened when an Alabama firm won the bidding to build a federal hospital in his district, Rep. Robert Bacon complained that the contractor “brought some thousand nonunion laborers from Alabama into Long Island, N.Y. … These unfortunate men were huddled in shacks living under most wretched conditions and being paid wages far below the standard.”

Partnering with Sen. James Davis of Pennsylvania, Bacon finally succeeded in passing the prevailing wage law known as the Davis-Bacon Act. It was signed by President Herbert Hoover in 1931, and has pushed against race-to-the-bottom wages in federal contracting ever since.

She points out that all three were Republicans and adds this:

Now fast forward to Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Michigan last year when he promised that, if elected, he would “fight to repeal Davis-Bacon” starting on “Day One.”

That was one of Romney’s top priorities. Because in the United States, where wages have stagnated for more than 30 years, nothing is more important for the president than to try to erode worker pay even more. Take that, 47 percenters.

But Romney was not breaking new plutocratic ground, just toeing the party line. Today’s GOP believes its solemn duty is to mow down workers’ rights and wage protections. The onslaught is incredibly well organized, particularly at the state level where the well-manicured hand of the American Legislative Exchange Council is all over it.

She goes on to explain what the American Legislative Exchange Council is up to – and Kathleen Geier offers the full and excruciating details on this national effort to actually lower the minimum wage – but Blumner us clear enough:

Legislating in the shadow of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, Bacon and Davis understood that when an economic system keeps workers powerless, poor and exhausted it can lead to social unrest. But if government stands against capitalism’s worst impulses, society as a whole can thrive. Today’s Republican leaders have forgotten that, to everyone’s detriment.

Maybe today’s Republican leaders have forgotten that, but the Occupy Wall Street movement tried to remind them, and a good number Democrats, of such things. It’s just that this wasn’t the Bolshevik Revolution or anything like it. Yes, the current economic system keeps workers powerless, poor and exhausted, but nothing much came of the brief Occupy Wall Street movement. The One-Percent said they were the real heroes here, and everyone at Fox News and CNBC agreed with them, as did any number of politicians from both parties, rich themselves or supported by the rich, or a bit fearful of where this all might lead. The whole thing started a conversation of course, but soon enough there were other things to discuss.

That movement wasn’t a total loss, however. A concept was injected into the system, a virus of sorts – the idea that there may be something fundamentally wrong with the system, and perhaps with capitalism itself. Someone, other than Karl Marx, finally said it. No one was calling for a return to communism, as that had been a colossal bust, but that didn’t mean what we have now is wonderful.

Steve Pearlstein, a Washington Post business and economics columnist and a professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University, tries to think this through, asking a simple question – Is capitalism moral?

He’s serious:

For most of the past 30 years, the world has been moving in the direction of markets. The grand experiment with communism has been thoroughly discredited, a billion people have been lifted from poverty through free-market competition, and even European socialists have given up on state ownership and the nanny state.

Here at home, large swaths of the economy have been deregulated, and tax rates have been cut. A good portion of what is left of government has been outsourced, while even education is moving toward school choice. In embracing welfare reform, Americans have acknowledged that numerous programs meant to lift up the poor instead trapped them in permanent dependency and poverty.

But more recently, we’ve seen another side of free markets: stagnant incomes, gaping inequality, a string of crippling financial crises and 20-somethings still living in their parents’ basements. These realities are forcing free-market advocates and their allies in the Republican Party to pursue a new strategy. Instead of arguing that free markets are good for you, they’re saying that they’re good – mounting a moral defense of free-market capitalism.

That’s the Donald Trump argument, and actually the Romney/Ryan argument – the rich are inherently good and everyone else isn’t. Pearlstein cites this argument also coming from Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and John Allison, the banker who just became head of Cato Institute, each with new books arguing for even-freer free-market capitalism:

As they see it, regulation is an infringement of individual liberty, while income redistribution, in the form of a progressive tax-and-transfer system, is nothing more than thievery committed against the most talented and productive by those who are not. Regulation and redistribution, they contend, also undermine the vital incentives that drive capitalism, which throughout history has been the best system for freeing large masses of human beings from lives of misery and poverty. What could be more moral, they ask, than that?

And they have history on their side:

The seeds of this moral defense of free markets were planted by John Locke, Adam Smith and Ludwig von Mises, but they blossomed in America in the writings of the Russian émigré Ayn Rand, whose novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” are mandatory reading among right-leaning intellectuals and politicians. Where Rand once saw a world divided between “producers” and “moochers,” today’s conservatives see “makers” and “takers.” Where she warned of an America about to descend into totalitarian slavery, they warn of a slide into socialist egalitarianism, special-interest kleptocracy and innovation-snuffing political correctness.

Now we have this:

Republicans tried to make “We built it” a central theme of the 2012 campaign, capitalizing on President Obama’s awkwardly-put argument that it takes public infrastructure to create successful businesses. But that message was soon drowned out by the controversy over Mitt Romney’s videotaped complaint about the 47 percent of Americans who, by paying no taxes and relying on government handouts, have become wards of the welfare state. Americans recoiled at the elitism and lack of empathy in the candid remarks to wealthy donors, and even Romney recently admitted to Fox News that the comments “did real damage to my campaign.”

Now Obama has taken up the conservatives’ moral challenge in pressing for budgetary and tax fairness. If they mean to have a war over morality, the president seems to be saying, then let it begin here.

Pearlstein says we should welcome this debate, even if no one is arguing very well now:

The traditional liberal defense of redistribution, of course, is that a lot of what passes for economic success derives not only from hard work or ingenuity but also from good fortune – the good fortune to be born with the right genes and to the right parents, to grow up in the right community, to attend the right schools, to meet and be helped by the right people, or simply to be at the right place at the right time. A market system should reward virtue, they argue, not dumb luck.

The American spin on the luck problem is “equal opportunity, not equal outcomes” – offering a leg up to those who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. While that may sound right to most of us, the practical and moral challenge comes in figuring out which disadvantages to compensate for and how much.

Given the importance of education to economic success, for example, we’ve come to believe it only fair that everyone gets a basic education. But does that moral imperative extend only to grades K-12, or should it also include preschool, as Obama has recommended? What about college or graduate school? And are we willing to take the equal opportunity argument so far as to deny wealthy families the liberty to buy their children what they and others believe to be a superior private-school education? Apparently not.

One problem with liberals’ equal opportunity argument is that they have yet to articulate the moral principles with which to determine how far the evening-up should go – not just with education but with child care, health care, nutrition, after-school and summer programs, training, and a host of other social services.

Similar questions arise over safety-net programs for the poor, which all but the most dogmatic conservatives feel some moral instinct to provide. What should be the height of the net and the tightness of its weave? Who should be entitled to its protections and for how long?

Maybe it’s time to stop arguing around the edges and get to the point:

Middle-class entitlements, which include a big chunk of programs such as Social Security, Medicare and subsidized college loans, force us to ask: How much income redistribution is enough? Must we keep redistributing until we reach the equality levels of the 1950s, which liberals seem to consider the golden years? Or until the United States matches the income distribution of other industrialized countries? Or until polls show that the middle class believes it has achieved economic security?

The common justification for middle-class entitlements is more political than moral: If we limit safety-net and opportunity-equalizing programs only to the poor and the disabled, over time these would suffer the fate of all welfare programs and gradually be starved of funding. The only way to preserve widespread political support for them, liberals argue, is to extend them to the middle class.

The interesting thing about this argument is that it effectively acknowledges what Romney and the free-market crowd have long suspected: that liberals have been able to create a welfare state only by addicting a middle-class majority to government subsidies – subsidies that now can be financed only by taking more and more money from the rich.

There’s much more, and many examples, but it comes down to this:

In our current debate over capitalism, too much attention is focused on whether, how or how much to redistribute the incomes that markets have produced, with too little focus on the institutional arrangements that determine how that income is divided up in the first place. Such a focus would take in everything from minimum-wage laws to labor laws to the rules of corporate governance. At this point, the markets’ uneven distribution of income has become so dramatic that it threatens to overwhelm the ability of a progressive tax-and-transfer system to keep up with it.

A useful debate about the morality of capitalism must get beyond libertarian nostrums that greed is good, what’s mine is mine and whatever the market produces is fair. It should also acknowledge that there is no moral imperative to redistribute income and opportunity until everyone has secured a berth in a middle class free from economic worries. If our moral obligation is to provide everyone with a reasonable shot at economic success within a market system that, by its nature, thrives on unequal outcomes, then we ought to ask not just whether government is doing too much or too little, but whether it is doing the right things.

Who knows? But Donald Trump is still a clown, or a hero, or both, or neither, so at least there’s something to talk about – and the Republicans are slowly clearing the table of all the extraneous issues – the social issues, the Kansas stuff. They know they’ve lost on gay marriage and immigration reform, and if they don’t ease up on the women’s issues they’re toast, and Obamacare is the law now, and constitutional – their very own Supreme Court said so. The country is against them on gun control too. What’s left is the core issue, of how this economic system is supposed to work and what’s moral and right about it, and what isn’t. Let them hold up Donald Trump to prove their point. This should be fun.

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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