A curious news story got buried this week, one that seemed to signal a shift in American politics, but that’s understandable. In Gaza, the Israelis are rolling on, intent on wiping out Hamas and smashing everything in sight, and most of the world is appalled at their ruthlessness. Palestinian civilian deaths are nearing a thousand, with more than two thirds of them women and children, while Israeli military casualties have reached thirty, with maybe one Israeli civilian casualty in all this – and the Israelis are still howling they’re the victim in all this. Even if Hamas is pretty much a terrorist organization, as we have designated it, Israel may be charged with war crimes. There’s been a massive shift in public opinion – except on Fox News and in the offices of the Weekly Standard. That’s news, and that has put the United States in an awkward position. We send Israel over three billions dollars in foreign aid each year, mostly military aid, and that does make us complicit in blowing up schools full of little children, because God promised Israel this land in the Bible.
We may want to rethink this, but we can’t. We’re committed, and Netanyahu thinks Barack Obama and John Kerry are fools – he was rather open in his enthusiastic support of Mitt Romney the last time around – so Republicans like Ted Cruz can ride the Obama-hates-Jews thing to new heights, and the rest of the Republican Party can too. Israel can send every Palestinian man, woman and child in Gaza – or on the West Bank too, which has just irrupted – to the gas chamber, as a final solution, which given their history they would never do, and the dynamics of American politics is clear. We’d support that genocide. This is Israel. If we turn our back on Israel, God will turn His back on us – Senator Lindsey Graham said so – so that’s that.
Israel is sitting pretty. They know they’ve got us by the balls. America’s Christian right turned out to be useful after all, at least useful to Israel, and it’s little wonder this mess consumed every news cycle for the week, when there wasn’t breathless coverage of the awful mess in Ukraine, created by Vladimir Putin and now being escalated by him, for Greater Russia. We can’t fix that alone, and where we did fix something, ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, the fix made things even worse – ISIS is establishing a Sunni caliphate there and in parts of Syria, our Shiite government in Baghdad has an army we trained that won’t fight them, and only our Shiite enemies, Iran and Syria, can help out. That’s a mess, and there are the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who have crossed the border illegally and asked for refuge here. That’s not been resolved, and every time our government finds another place to house them, mobs of True Christians and True Patriots – perhaps those are registered trademarks now – show up to scream obscenities at them and spit on them – and that is great copy. Bewildered and frightened little kids, in a tight spot in a new land, are always great copy – it tugs on the heartstrings and all that. Obamacare may be in trouble now, because of ambiguous wording in one subsection of an obscure paragraph, but that story was secondary to all the rest this week, and John Boehner is suing Barack Obama over how he scheduled something or other, but no one cares, and the IRS scandal and the Benghazi scandal, such as they are, were forgotten. Oh, and of course no one was following the Tour de France – strange man in spandex on bicycles is a French thing. Who cares? There were other things to worry about, real issues and real problems.
That means that Paul Ryan’s effort to save the Republican Party was hardly noticed. The man who is in a constant struggle to reconcile his deep love of that Ayn Rand stuff – selfishness is a virtue, so greed is good, and it should be every man for himself because that’s freedom, and the morally superior Makers should just let the morally inferior Takers die – with his Catholicism – feed the hungry and clothe the naked and take care of the blameless poor, for they shall inherit the earth, not the rich man – was at it again. He knows as well as anyone that the Republicans may never win another Hispanic vote ever again, given their stance on immigration reform, or many women votes, as the party is now firmly opposed to forcing health plans to cover contraception, which is for sluts, and opposed to equal pay for women, as mandating that would distort the free market, which is the source of all good. The party also may not win many black votes or urban votes or the votes of anyone under thirty, or the votes of those who think science is useful.
All of that is a given – Paul Ryan lived through that with Mitt Romney. They got clobbered, but it was Romney’s forty-seven percent comment that did them in. Romney was caught on tape saying that forty-seven percent of Americans are useless parasites, who think the government owes them something, as if this is some sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble, when these losers should take care of themselves, damn it. They have no sense of personal responsibility and never will have – they are simply morally inadequate. Maybe they were born that way. There was no point in trying to get their vote. He didn’t want their vote anyway.
Those remarks were meant to be private, but it’s just as well that they surfaced and were discussed endlessly. They clarified matters. One side did hold that government is not some sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble. It can’t be, if freedom means anything at all. Government exists to provide the freedom to succeed, or fail, and then gets out of the way – or it should. Obama had always run on the idea that our government really is sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble – we’ve got each other’s backs, as he had been saying since 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston, where John Kerry was nominated. Some called that socialism, the most evil thing any American could ever propose, while others called it patriotism and a sense of community, a sense that we’re one people, almost family perhaps. The nation was split on that, implicitly. Romney’s comments on that one odd evening, made in private, made the two ways of looking at government explicit. Romney tried to walk them back a bit but got all tongue-tied the more he tried. It’s hard to go back and obfuscate what you just made quite clear.
Now it’s time for the man who was once his running mate to walk them back. There’s all this talk about income inequality in the air, and what is left of the middle class, and those who have tumbled out of it, know the economic recovery, from the collapse of everything in 2008, is a bit of a joke, a cruel one. They know they haven’t recovered at all. Only the One Percent is now fat and happy again, and they also know the Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, blocked any extension of long-term unemployment benefits – Ryan called that “hammock money” that would keep people from getting off their lazy asses and actually finding work. They also know that the Republicans will make sure the minimum wage will not be raised – that would hurt businesses, cutting into their profits – and know the Republicans are always pressing for tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, because they are the “job creators” – even if the whole idea is nonsense – empirically, that is. It’s almost as if Republicans still think that the struggling middle class, and those who have fallen out of it, and the persistently poor, are scum, that they are inadequate people in some moral sense. Why are they even here on this earth?
The problem is that such people are still allowed to vote, at least for now, and Paul Ryan knows it, so this week he tried to undo the Romney damage:
Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, outlined a plan to combat poverty on Thursday that would consolidate a dozen programs into a single “Opportunity Grant” that largely shifts antipoverty efforts from the federal government to the states.
Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a leading voice in his party on fiscal matters, said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that the federal government represents the “rear guard – it protects the supply lines.”
In short, get the federal government out of all this social safety net stuff. Let each state do what it wants. Let’s see what happens, and let’s make whatever each state comes up with be a plan to make these struggling folks better people, which is the real problem:
Mr. Ryan tumbled somewhat awkwardly into the antipoverty discussion this year when he said a “tailspin of culture in our inner cities” perpetuated poverty, a comment that Democrats and some African-American groups called racist. But since then, Mr. Ryan has appeared to try to make amends, traveling the country to listen to Americans in poorer cities as he prepared to unveil this proposal.
The Opportunity Grants resemble block grants to individual states, which would have autonomy to spend on whatever antipoverty programs they desire as long as Washington approves the plan. The federal government currently spends about $800 billion on social welfare programs like food stamps and housing assistance. Mr. Ryan said that total spending would remain the same, and that his plan would not add to the deficit.
It’s just a different way of doing what needs to be done with confused and morally inadequate human beings:
If a state opted into the pilot program, it would have low-income residents meet with case managers who would create an “opportunity plan” offering both financial advice and coordinating the provisions of the several different programs they need. The residents would sign contracts with these case managers that would offer incentives to reach financial security and sanctions if they do not.
In short, we don’t need to spend more money. We have to force people to shape up, with an approved plan to be a better person, and fine them heavily if they don’t meet the specific milestones in the plan. All they need is a kind of “life coach” to help them become adequate human beings, and that sets off Slate’s Jamelle Bouie:
Even for conservatives – who champion welfare drug tests and robust work requirements – this is breathtakingly paternalistic. As Annie Lowrey notes for New York magazine, “It isolates the poor. Middle-class families don’t need to justify and prostrate themselves for tax credits. Businesses aren’t required to submit an ‘action plan’ to let the government know when they’ll stop sucking the oxygen provided by federal grant programs.”
What’s more, as she also points out, it treats the poor as if they want to stay that way and all but punishes “the poorest and most unstable families for their poverty and instability.” As with other measures that tie aid to “accountability”—like family caps for welfare—a sanction can spark a downward spiral to deeper poverty.
People with low or no earnings, in contrast, face diverse obstacles. Some need short-term help to, say, fix their car, which will allow them to commute to work, or to make a deposit on a rental apartment. Others don’t have the skills they need to earn enough to support themselves and, for whatever reason, will have a very hard time acquiring them. Sure, you could give both kinds of people food stamps and call it a day. Or you could recognize that one-size-fits-all programs don’t do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary. …
The theory behind having smart, dedicated caseworkers working on behalf of people who are down on their luck is that spending a bit more time and money now could help save time and money later.
That sounds sensible, but Bouie isn’t buying it:
The idea that life skills are necessary to climb out of poverty – that the poor are plagued by low income and bad habits – doesn’t jibe with the facts on the ground.
Mandatory life coaching makes sense if most poverty is persistent and generational. Even with federal assistance, adults with little-to-no market income – and little experience in the workforce – are at a long-term disadvantage and likely to pass those barriers on to their children. But poverty in America is fluid; depending on the season, the unstable nature of market work may force a period of personal retrenchment.
The research bears this out. According to the latest Survey of Income and Program Participation, which draws from three years of interviews from a representative sample of American households, almost one-third of Americans were poor for two months or more during 2009, 2010, and 2011. More importantly, 44 percent of those poverty “spells” ended within four months and only 15.2 percent lasted more than two years. By contrast, just 3.5 percent of the population was poor for all three years—a tiny constituency for the kind of generational poverty that needs a Ryan-esque intervention.
At the left-leaning think tank Demos, Matt Bruenig crunches the numbers of the Census Bureau’s 2012 social and economic supplement to its annual population survey and identifies the “officially poor” as “35 percent children, 8 percent elderly, 9 percent disabled, 8 percent student, 18 percent working, and 21 percent everyone else.” He concludes: “The adult, able-bodied, non-student poor who lack personal market income comprise 3 percent of the population.” It’s just a snapshot, but it tells us there aren’t many Americans who need the intense paternalism recommended by Ryan and others.
Jared Bernstein simply wonders what the hell Ryan is talking about:
The broader reason his plan is misguided is because Ryan starts from the mistaken assumption that the current U.S. anti-poverty system is broken, when in fact it’s actually quite effective, and not just in lowering market-based poverty rates, which it does by almost half, but also by investing in the longer term well-being of its beneficiaries. (Bob Greenstein provides the details here.) That’s not good enough by a long shot, but neither is it motivation to radically change the system in ways that introduce a dangerous set of new risks, as this new plan does…
The implication here is that while a faceless bureaucrat in D.C. can’t possibly evaluate your nutritional needs, for example, a bureaucrat in Albany or Sacramento can easily and efficiently do so. And while the plan requires state officials to use the resources for poverty reduction, and not, say, tax reduction, consolidation also raises serious risks of diverting funds to areas of anti-poverty interventions that state officials favor vs. areas of need.
Well yes, there is that possibility. Officials in a red state could that take massive amount of what was once federal social safety net money and declare that the poor are real losers and what they need is a copy of the collected works of Ayn Rand in their home, which they must read – there will be quizzes – and since that costs next to nothing, the rest of the money could be used to do what really fights poverty. Cut taxes on the rich and on corporations. You know, like the Republicans did in Kansas – where the state is now near bankruptcy.
As for Ryan, Bouie adds this:
At some point in their lives, millions of Americans will experience a short spell of poverty. Not because they don’t have a plan to fix their lives or lack the skills to move forward, but because our economy isn’t run to create demand for labor, isn’t equipped to deliver stable work to everyone who wants it, and wasn’t built to address the distributive needs of everyone who works.
It’s the economic system, not the losers who are just like little children. They need mommy or daddy to force them to follow a step by step plan for being a better person, or maybe even an adult one day. That’s what Ryan is proposing, something not far from making the poor – people he now says he really cares about – memorize long passages from Atlas Shrugged. Make them study how “good” people operate. It’ll work wonders. The implication is that Romney should have suggested something like that – classes in how to be more like Mitt Romney perhaps. That would have shown he cares. Ryan wants to show he cares.
That may be hard for Republicans, which is why a lifelong conservative like Andrew Sullivan gets upset when people assume that means he’s a Republican. He’s had it with Ryan and his party:
Any party that can respond to the fact of yawning economic inequality in the 21st Century by blaming the 99 percent for not working hard enough has put ideology before reality. Any party that even now thinks slashing taxes below their current historically low levels will cure our economic ills is utterly delusional. Any party that is unconcerned with the social dangers of an economic system that increasingly rewards only the very, very rich cannot be trusted with government. There has to be a pragmatic element to any conservatism and an ability to adjust to new circumstances and new problems.
Oh yeah, there’s this too:
The conduct of the GOP during the Obama administration has been a nihilist disgrace. In 2009, Obama inherited crises on every front: an economy in terrifying free-fall, a bankrupted Treasury, an even more morally bankrupt foreign policy, and two failed wars. He deserved some measure of cooperation in that hour of extreme national peril and need. He got none. From the get-go, they were clearly prepared to destroy the country if it also meant they could destroy him.
In fact, from that first stimulus vote on, Obama faced a unanimous and relentless nullification Congress. If he favored something, they opposed it. Despite Obama’s exemplary family life, public grace and composure, and willingness to compromise, they decided to cast him as a tyrant, a radical, a traitor and an incompetent. Their demonization of a decent, pragmatic man simply disgusts me to the core. And, sorry, if you do not smell any whiff of racism in all of this, you’re a better person than I am.
Wow. Can Paul Ryan rescue this party? Can he rescue this party by taking this one first step of boldly saying he actually cares for the poor – that like any good Catholic he actually loves the poor as God’s children too – that in fact, unlike Mitt Romney, he actually loves the forty-seven percent too? He only wants to help them grow up and become something like marginally adequate people. What’s wrong with that? He does have a plan.
So he does, and he’s lucky that Israel rolled into Gaza, and ISIS is taking over the center of the Middle East, and the Russians are still helping the Ukraine separatists, even if they do blow Malaysian airliners out of the sky by mistake, and that all those little kids are showing up at the border, alone, asking for help, and being reviled and harassed. Had Ryan introduced his new antipoverty plan on a slow news day, in a slow news week, he’d be toast. And he cannot save the party anyway. It’s too far gone. Too many Americans have decided that they do live in a sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble, and we’re all adults here. No one needs a “life coach” – just some support now and then from our brothers and sisters, which we would offer to them when they’re in trouble. But it doesn’t matter. No one is listening to Paul Ryan anymore.