There were a lot of great comments to yesterday’s Road to Serfdom post, and I want to keep the discussion going.
For example, K wrote
What the right has succeeded in doing is brainwashing a couple of generations that all the problems are individualsâ€™ fault and responsibility and that group action( group insurance, group investment, group labor, even group retirement, group education, group military service) is evil and inefficient. They want to destroy public education, public retirement, public service, public military service, public investment, public works, public â€˜insuranceâ€™. Give it all over to private interest so someone can get wealthy off of what used to be a public good and turn it into exploitation of individuals who have no power to fight large powerful interests. And yes welfare is great when it all goes to the few very wealthy to the toadies and the contributers. They just redirected government benefit to their little club and have loosed the vultures on what used to be a middle class america with economic and political stability. divide and conquer indeed.
That’s the plan, isn’t it? The first step in the new road to serfdom is persuading people that it’s selfish — immoral, even — for people to expect government to do anything for them. Then, as quality of life erodes because old systems are breaking down, tell people that their problems are personal, not systemic. So, We the People are divided from our government — our government, notice — and from each other. And then the vultures move in.
Steven Andresen linked to an article by Carl Bloice about the mortgage crisis. Millions of Americans face hardship and dislocation because of subprime loans and other “easy credit” scams. Further, the crisis is causing a ripple effect across many economic sectors that could leave the nation in recession. And apparently the leaders of many of these sectors got to President Bush, who announced yesterday the government would take steps to help some homeowners keep their homes. However, he was careful to explain his proposals were not a “bailout.” “It’s not the government’s job to bail out speculators or those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could never afford,” Bush said.
You’d think that these deadbeats held mortgage lenders at gunpoint and forced them to cough up bad loans. The truth is that many were scammed, lied to, manipulated, cheated, whatever else you want to call it, to go into debt over their heads. I was struck by this bit from the article Steven linked:
Many dealers and lenders perceive these consumers as having fewer options, less financial experience, and a diminished sense of marketplace entitlement, thus making them more likely to be desperate or susceptible when it comes time to close the deal.
However, Carl Bloice found “a pattern of responses to the subprime mortgage mess that seeks to absolve the financial sector of responsibility and place it on the shoulders of its victims.” The rhetoric in many of these responses poured contempt for those who were scammed. But I saw no criticism of the scammers.
Mark Schmitt has a must-read post at The Guardian‘s Comment Is Free site.
On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we would do well to consider this statement from Jim Risch. He is currently lieutenant governor of Idaho and, if Craig resigns as expected, Risch appears poised to be appointed to succeed Craig immediately, which will enable him to run for the senate in 2008 (when Craig was scheduled to face the voters anyway) as an incumbent.
A year ago, Risch was the acting governor of Idaho. He told this newspaper’s Oliver Burkeman how he viewed the victims of Katrina:
“Here in Idaho, we couldn’t understand how people could sit around on the kerbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something. We had a dam break in 1976, but we didn’t whine about it. We got out our backhoes and we rebuilt the roads and replanted the fields and got on with our lives. That’s the culture here. Not waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water. In Idaho there would have been entrepreneurs selling the drinking water.”
Taken on its own terms, this is a cruel and unsympathetic statement, assuming that the deeply impoverished people of a city that had washed away could and should have just taken care of themselves. But if you look at what Risch was talking about, it’s truly astonishing.
The dam that broke in 1976 was the Teton dam, built on the Snake River just a few months earlier, at a cost of $100m. (That’s worth almost $500m today.) Built not by entrepreneurs, but by the federal government’s bureau of reclamation. It was built at the political insistence of a few millionaire ranchers and potato-growers, whose political allies had persuaded the government to build a series of dams that transformed a desert into some of the richest and wettest agricultural land in the country. And it was built despite predictions that it would fail.
And when it did fail, it was not the self-sufficient entrepreneurs of Idaho who “rebuilt the roads and replanted the fields.” It was, once again, the federal government. According to the government’s official history of the incident, federal agencies quickly rebuilt all the irrigation systems, and paid more than $850 million in claims to about 15,000 people who had lost property in the flood.
In other words, it’s fine for a few “self-sufficient” ranchers to grow wealthy at taxpayer expense, but the poor are on their own.
Mark Schmitt concludes (emphasis added):
This, not Larry Craig’s awkwardly closeted sexuality, is the hypocrisy that matters. This hypocrisy consists not in a failure to reconcile public and private life, but in two public positions that are in absolute contradiction to one another: The belief that people must make it on their own, with no “whining” and no help from government, coexisting with a staggering, slavish dependence on government – and the federal government, and thus taxpayers of the rest of America, in particular.
In a foreshadowing of Risch’s comment about the New Orleans victims, the author Marc Reisner, whose 1986 book Cadillac Desert is the finest account of these Western politics, quotes one of the Teton dam’s earlier opponents about the culture of this part of Idaho: they “get burned up when they hear about someone buying a bottle of mouthwash with food stamps. But they love big water projects. They only object to nickle-and-dime welfare. They love it in great big gobs.”
This is the culture in which American conservatism – from Barry Goldwater’s Arizona to Ronald Reagan’s southern California, to George Bush’s Texas, where great wealth was made possible because the government subsidized money losing oil companies – was bred. It is a culture of self-delusion and hypocrisy that excuses great cruelty. And it’s far more dangerous than a poor old man in airport lavatory.
This week no end of right-wing voices have heaped abuse on New Orleans. Klaus Marre writes for The Hill:
GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) said Friday it is â€œtime the taxpayer gravy train left the New Orleans stationâ€ and urged an end to the federal aid to the region that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.
â€œThe amount of money that has been wasted on these so-called â€˜recoveryâ€™ efforts has been mind-boggling,â€ said Tancredo, who is running a long-shot presidential campaign. â€œEnough is enough.â€
Two years after Katrina, everywhere you turn, there are people carping, whining, and kvetching. Just why hasn’t the pity party for the citizens of New Orleans run out of booze and chips yet?
Everywhere on the rightie blogosphere you can read that New Orleans “got” $127 billion in taxpayer dollars, so what’s the problem? However, some of that money never left Washington; New Orleans was promised it, but hasn’t “gotten” it yet. [Update: I see in this Washington Times article that the $127 billion was allocated for “the region” of the Gulf Coast, not just New Orleans, but this is a distinction that got lost rather quickly.] It’s been stuck in bureaucracy or, in some cases, not released at all. And much that has been released was eaten by corruption and cronyism, or diverted into pork projects unrelated to Katrina. Yes, there’s a gravy train, but the folks stuck in FEMA trailers aren’t the ones lapping up most of the gravy. (There’s an article about this in the rightie e-zine Reason Online that’s not half bad; I don’t normally link to Reason but I’m making an exception in this case. See also “New Orleans: Where’s the money?” at CNNMoney.com.)
Bob Herbert’s New York Times column (outside the firewall here) focuses on Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, and the fears of American workers.
The feeling that seems to override all others for workers is anxiety. American families, already saddled with enormous debt, are trying to make it in an environment in which employment is becoming increasingly contingent and subject to worldwide competition. Health insurance, unaffordable for millions, is a huge problem. And guaranteed pensions are going the way of typewriter ribbons and carbon paper.
â€œWeâ€™re ending defined benefit pensions in front of our eyes,â€ said Mr. Stern. â€œIâ€™d say todayâ€™s retirement plan for young workers is: â€˜Iâ€™m going to work until I die.â€™ â€
The result of all of this â€” along with such problems as the mortgage and housing crisis, and a domestic economy that is doing nothing to improve living standards for ordinary Americans â€” is fear.
â€œWorkers are incredibly, legitimately scared that the American dream, particularly the belief that their kids will do better, is ending,â€ said Mr. Stern. He is trying to get across the idea that in a period of such profound change, the old templates, the traditional ideas and policies of even the most progressive thinkers and officeholders, will not be sufficient to meet the new challenges.
People are afraid because the systems that sustained the American middle class for many decades are breaking down. This breakdown is partly the result of new stresses, such as globalization, but in many cases the systems deliberately are being dismantled by the Right. The steady erosion of middle class quality of life is not a matter of laziness or lack of virtue or even bad luck. But our political and business elites address our concerns as if we were children fearing monsters under our beds.
The American electorate needs to learn two things, and fast — one, our fears are well founded; and two, we have a right to use our government — our government — to find solutions that work for us. And I don’t mean by trickling down from some political crony’s over-stuffed pockets.
Update: See also Steve Benen.