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Saturday, September 28, 2013

GOP Launches Race War to Boost the 1 Percent


GOP Launches Race War to Boost the 1 Percent

From Newt's epithets to the gutting of food stamps, Republicans try to unite white people to serve a hideous agenda.



The recent vote of House Republicans to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program reflects a deep-seated and insidious racial resentment toward Americans of color. This racial resentment rears its ugly head within the provisions for the bill that demand that non-employed participants in the program get a job, job training or do community service activities. Though the bill in its current form will most likely die in the Senate, the fact that Republicans would even pass it should concern us.

Conservatives continue to lead under the aegis of a deliberate and willful ignorance about the long-term existence of a group known as the working poor, people who work long hours in low-wage paying menial labor jobs, and therefore cannot make ends meet. Moreover, there is a refusal to accept that the economic downturn in 2008 created conditions of long-term unemployment, such that people simply cannot go out and “get a job” just because they will it to be so.

I often wonder if government officials actually talk to real human beings about these policies, because if they did, they would find many people with a deep desire to work, but a struggle to find well-paying jobs. Some of those people would gladly take jobs that pay far less, but are frequently told that their education and years of work experience make them over-qualified.

This is not a race-based problem. The American middle class itself is shrinking dramatically each year in relation to a poor economy, an insistence on austerity measures from the right, and a capitulation to these measures on the left. However, the complete irrationality and utter severity of the legislation, and the total lack of empathy and identification that inform contemporary Republican social advocacy is tied to a narrative about lazy black people and thieving “illegal” brown people.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan invented the term “welfare queen,” to characterize the actions of exactly one person in Chicago who had bilked the welfare system out of a staggering amount of money. Buttressed by an underlying white racial resentment of the liberal pieces of legislation that emerged during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations – laws that had attempted to change conditions, but could not change hearts and minds around racial inequality issues — white conservatives latched on to a narrative about lazy African-Americans stealing from taxpayers and living lavish lives financed by the welfare state.

That narrative has persisted well into the 21st century when Newt Gingrich derisively referred to Barack Obama as the “Food Stamp President” in the 2012 elections. Uninterrogated and misplaced racial resentment has been the most effective strategy for making white people support draconian social policies in the name of “taking the country back.” This is true, even though in sheer numbers, white people are the largest group of recipients of the SNAP program.

Fiscal conservative politicians (including some Democrats like Bill Clinton) have presided over a massive and systematic redistribution of wealth into the 1 percent since the 1980s. For African-Americans this means that we lost over half of our collective (and meager) net wealth, in just the last five years, due to predatory lending and the the machinations of big business. But it is easier to hate and regulate welfare recipients.

Since everyone knows that welfare queens finance their lives of luxury through the receipt of food stamps, which amounts on average to about $135 in groceries each month, cutting the food stamp program, a move that will take nearly 4 million people off the rolls in the next 10 years, is not merely a pragmatic measure or a “necessary evil,” but rather a deeply symbolic act that points to recalcitrant and entrenched racist attitudes on the right. It turns out, then, that African-Americans are not the only group of voters whose political behavior is motivated – at least, in part — by racial identity.
The Republican Party often capitalizes on these attitudes about poor African-Americans in moments of economic downturn, as a way to rally white working- and middle-class American voters. This is very similar to the strategy used by the Southern Planter class in the 1850s to curtail alliances between working-class white people and enslaved African-Americans.

Rather than create a more equitable system by freeing the enslaved and paying everyone fair wages, the plantocracy deployed a narrative about white racial superiority that caused poverty-stricken white people to disavow their own class interests in service of racial unity. In fact, as David Roediger outlines in his now classic work “The Wages of Whiteness,” this is one of the key processes that led to white people in the U.S. becoming a unified racial group, beyond the ethnic identities (Polish, German, Irish, etc.) that had previously characterized them. Without benefit of this historical context, the consistency with which contemporary white conservatives vote against their own economic interests, in order to remain beholden to fiscal and social conservatism would appear downright peculiar.

Beyond the academic implications of these choices, I am concerned about real people who need access to these services. There are members of my own family who need public assistance, because they live in economically depressed areas where job opportunities are few. There are college students and graduate students whom I teach, who are supporting themselves through school, and use food stamps so they can eat each month. And there are countless children, who come from poor homes in rural and urban areas throughout this country, who need the security that comes from being able to eat three square meals a day, so that they can be healthy and perform well in school.
A final note of caution: In a world with no food security, there will be increased violence. This is related to a contemporary crisis that we are seeing among youth.

When we scratch our heads wondering why we have seen a surge of bullying in schools and bullying deaths in response, perhaps we should admit that we are a nation of bullies. Our children are merely modeling the logic of a nation that ties its own sense of status, identity and power to its ability to unrelentingly pick on the “least of these.” In this American dystopia, the disproportionately black and brown least of these will be left with no other choice but to fight back or (destroy themselves and others as they) die trying.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The GOP’s Mean-Spirited Hostility Towards Food Stamps

Featured Post

The GOP’s Mean-Spirited Hostility Towards Food Stamps

September 14th, 2013 12:00 am Cynthia Tucker


For decades now, the Republican Party has been honing its reputation for hostility toward the downtrodden, the poor, the disadvantaged. While a few of its leaders have tried to either shed that image or to dress it up with a more appealing facade — think George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — lately the GOP has been enthusiastically embracing its inner Ebenezer Scrooge.

Consider its all-out assault on one of the government’s most venerable programs to assist the most vulnerable, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, usually known as “food stamps.” Last month, the GOP-dominated House passed an agriculture bill that omitted funding for the food stamp program — partly because the Republican caucus disagreed over whether cuts to the program should be merely harsh or extremely severe. Congressional conservatives have said they also want to include a work requirement and mandatory drug tests for beneficiaries.

Not so long ago, hardliners sought to cloak this sort of cruelty in the language of the greater good: the need to reduce government spending. But last month’s bill didn’t even attempt that pretense: It included billions in agricultural subsidies for wealthy farming interests, including some Republican members of Congress. It was the first time since 1973 that the House of Representatives omitted the food stamp program from the farm bill.

“It sounds to me like we’re in a downright mean time,” said Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which procured and distributed 45 million pounds of donated food and groceries in the last year. He said that his agency has doubled its distribution over the last four years, since the Great Recession devastated household incomes.

The profile of his client base has changed, too, over the last four years, he said. About 20 percent of beneficiaries report that this is the first time they’ve ever asked for assistance from government or charitable programs. Among them are people who once belonged to the secure middle class; some were formerly donors or volunteers at the food bank.

Moreover, Bolling said, about half the people who seek food assistance have jobs.
“They’re keeping their part of the social contract. They are getting up every day and going to a job, maybe two jobs. If a man gets up and goes to work every day, I don’t care what his job is, he ought to be able to feed his family,” he said.

Conservative critics paint a very different picture. They tend to speak contemptuously of those struggling to make ends meet, to describe a lazy “47 percent” who want nothing but handouts, to dismiss those who can’t make ends meet as responsible for their own hard luck.

Some of that hostility toward struggling Americans can be explained by a racial antagonism that presumes that most of them are black or brown. In Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, University of Michigan professor Donald Kinder and Vanderbilt professor Cindy Kam explain that means-tested programs such as food stamps have long been associated with the black poor. That makes them more likely to be viewed with suspicion by “ethnocentric” whites — those more likely to be antagonistic toward other racial groups.

Kinder and Kam say that public discourse by political “elites” — especially those on the conservative side of the spectrum — has “racialized” means-tested welfare programs. “Programs like … food stamps are understood by whites to largely benefit shiftless black people,” they write.

Those beliefs have persisted even though the Great Recession laid waste to the finances of many white families, too. They account for about 35.5 percent of food stamp recipients. Black Americans are disproportionately represented, but account for only about 23 percent. Latinos account for about 10 percent of recipients, while other racial groups account for smaller percentages, according to government data. (Eighteen percent of food stamp recipients belong to “race unknown.”)

Not that the facts tend to matter in a debate such as this. Nor do common decency and simple compassion hold much sway. If they did, there would be far fewer parents worrying about how to feed their children tonight.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Do We Want to Live in a Libertarian World?

New York Magazine

The Trouble With Liberty

Libertarians, of both left and right, haven’t been this close to power since 1776. But do we want to live in their world?

By Christopher Beam 
Published Dec 26, 2010 
Illustration by David Drummond  
...In an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Ron Paul called for Congress to be groped. The Transportation Security Administration, having rolled out its new airport body scanners, had decreed anyone who opted out could be subjected to the now-infamous enhanced pat-down. “Let’s make sure that every member of Congress goes through this,” Representative Paul said, waving his finger in the air. “Get the X-ray, make them look at the pictures, and then go through one of those groping pat-downs.” Perhaps this would put Congress in touch (quite literally) with real Americans.

Paul, the 75-year-old Texas libertarian and quixotic 2008 Republican candidate best known for his quest to abolish the Federal Reserve, is used to fighting lonely battles. But this time, he had company. Fox News went wall-to-wall on the (nonexistent) health hazards of body scans, naked outlines of passengers, and pat-down paranoia. “If you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested,” said newfound freedom fighter John Tyner to a TSA agent in a video that went viral. The left backed Paul too. Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald argued that the screenings had “all the ingredients of the last decade’s worth of Terrorism exploitation.” Blogger Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake called the X-ray devices “porno-scanners.” For one beautiful moment, the whole political spectrum—well, at least both vocal ends of it—seemed to agree: Too much government is too much government.

Maybe it was inevitable that the National Opt-Out Day, when travelers were going to refuse body scans en masse, failed to become the next Woolworth’s sit-in (how do you organize a movement that abhors organization?). It turned out most Americans actually supported the body scanners. But the moment was a reminder of just how strong, not to mention loud, the libertarian streak is in American politics.

No one exemplifies that streak more than Ron Paul—unless you count his son Rand. When Rand Paul strolled onstage in May 2010, the newly declared Republican nominee for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat, he entered to the strains of Rush, the boomer rock band famous for its allegiance to libertarianism and Ayn Rand. It was a dog whistle—a wink to free-marketers and classic-rock fans savvy enough to get the reference, but likely to sail over the heads of most Republicans. Paul’s campaign was full of such goodies. He name-dropped Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s seminal TheRoad to Serfdom. He cut a YouTube video denying that he was named after Ayn Rand but professing to have read all of her novels. He spoke in the stark black-and-white terms of libertarian purism. “Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state?” he asked the crowd in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Election Night.

It’s clear why he played coy. For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged. And Rand Paul’s dad is the craziest uncle of all. Ron Paul wants to “end the Fed,” as the title of his book proclaims, and return the country to the gold standard—stances that have made him a tea-party icon. Now, as incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Fed, he’ll have an even bigger platform. Paul Sr. says there’s not much daylight between him and his son. “I can’t think of anything we grossly disagree on,” he says.

There’s never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.

Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too—they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It’s not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government—tax cuts and releasing the shackles of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Much of Americans’ vaunted anger now comes from a sense of betrayal over libertariansim shrugged. Right-wing libertarians charge that the Bush presidency gave the lie to small-government cant by pushing Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a $3 trillion war. Left-wing libertarians are furious that Obama talked a big game on civil liberties but has caved on everything from FISA to DOMA to Gitmo. Meanwhile, the country faces a massive and growing deficit (too much government!) that neither party has the power or the inclination to fix. If there were ever a time to harness libertarian energy—on left and right—it’s now.

Illustration by David Drummond  

Libertarianism is a long, clunky word for a simple, elegant idea: that government should do as little as possible. In Libertarianism: A Primer, Cato Institute executive vice president David Boaz defines it as “the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.” Like any political philosophy, libertarianism contains a thousand substrains, ranging from anarchists who want to destroy the state to picket-fence conservatives who just want to put power in local hands. The traditional libertarian line is that government should be responsible for a standing army, local security, and a courts system, and that’s it—a system called minarchy. But everyone has his own idea of how to get there. Washington-think-tank libertarians take an incrementalist approach within the two-party system. The Libertarian Party offers a third way. Ayn Rand–inspired Objectivists promote their ideas through education. Reason magazine preaches the gospel of cultural libertarianism. Silicon Valley techno-entrepreneurs would invent their way to Libertopia. Wall Street free-marketers want deregulation. The Free State Project plans to concentrate 20,000 libertarians in New Hampshire. “Seasteaders” dream of building societies on the ocean. And then there are the regular old Glenn Beck disciples who just want to be left alone. “They all want to shoot each other in the face over who gets to be the real libertarian,” says Matt Welch, editor of Reason. At the very least, they all agree they should be allowed to acquire the weapon with which to do so.

Libertarianism gets caricatured as the weird, Magic-card-collecting, twelve-sided-die-wielding outcast of American political philosophy. Yet there’s no idea more fundamental to our country’s history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them. (Though some Founders, like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to centralize power.) All the government-run trappings that came after—the Fed, highways, public schools, a $1.5 trillion-a-year entitlement system— were arguably departures from our country’s hard libertarian core.  

Ayn Rand is the gateway drug to Libertarianism, though many toke into adulthood.

About one in ten Americans self-identifies as libertarian, and even fewer consider themselves “movement” libertarians. Most of them don’t subscribe to Reason or attend conferences at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank funded in part by the infamous brothers Charles and David Koch. But many are libertarians without knowing it. That is, they identify as economically conservative and socially liberal. That number may be growing. In a 2009 Gallup poll, 23 percent of Americans responded to questions about the role of government in a way that categorizes them as libertarian—up from 18 percent in 2000. A survey conducted by Zogby for the Cato Institute has put the libertarian vote at around 15 percent. Loosen the wording, and the pool expands. When the Zogby survey asked voters if they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian,” the number rose to 44 percent. When it simply asked if they were “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” a full 59 percent responded yes. Not bad for a bunch of trench-coat-wearing dungeon masters.

Libertarianism is far from synonymous with the tea party, but the tea party is the closest thing to a mass libertarian movement in recent memory.
Tea-partyers surveyed by Cato split down the middle between social conservatives and social liberals, making half of them traditional Republicans and half libertarians. But the fact that the tea party organizes around fiscal issues alone—smaller government, lower taxes—gives the movement libertarian cred. Its members speak the language, too, waving Gadsden flags, quoting Hayek, and carrying signs that say WHO IS JOHN GALT?—a reference to the hero of the Ayn Rand book Atlas Shrugged.

Libertarianism gets marginalized in American politics because it doesn’t fit into the two-party paradigm. Libertarians want less state intrusion into the market, which aligns them with Republicans, but also less interference in social choices, which aligns them with Democrats. As Massachusetts governor William Weld put it in 1992, “I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom.” To the partisan brain, this doesn’t compute. “In 1976, people didn’t have the vaguest idea of what I was talking about,” says Ron Paul. “Why was I voting with the left sometimes and with the right other times?”

Yet libertarianism is more internally consistent than the Democratic or Republican platforms. There’s no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition. Libertarianism lies crosswise to the partisan split, giving its adherents a kind of freethinker, outcast status. This can be especially attractive for young people. “When I was 19, libertarianism was an argument for being awesome,” says Will Wilkinson, a former Cato scholar who now blogs at The Economist. It’s about flouting convention and rejecting authority—the political equivalent of getting an eyebrow ring. It’s also an excuse to indulge your most selfish instincts. But you don’t have to call it “selfishness.”

The latest Republican to mistakenly put money to mouth.

Illustration by David Drummond  
Ayn Rand has been called the “gateway drug” to libertarianism, but many converts keep toking well into adulthood. Her novels, including 1943’s The Fountainhead and 1957’s Atlas Shrugged, sell more than 800,000 copies a year. Other libertarians credit their conversion to Hayek, fellow Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (Ron Paul’s personal fave), American free-marketer Milton Friedman, or Austrian-influenced American anarcho-capitalist and father of modern libertarianism Murray Rothbard. Ever since its publication in 1944, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has been the anti-regulatory Ur-text. Hayek wrote the book in response to the spread of socialism—including National Socialism— which at the time was a genuine existential threat to Western society. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, socialism isn’t the menace it used to be. Hitler is long gone. Yet libertarians still cite Hayek and Rand with the same urgency. Ron Johnson, the newly elected senator from Wisconsin, called Atlas Shrugged, which tells the story of a group of creative capitalists who retreat from an overregulated society to form their own Utopia, a “foundational book” that serves as “a warning of what could happen to America.” Representative Paul Ryan, also of Wisconsin, requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, describes Obama’s economic policies as “something right out of an Ayn Rand novel,” and calls Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.” Glenn Beck touted The Road to Serfdom on his show, wondering out loud if it might be “the road we’re on.” The irony is that Hayek believed in a role for the state. “In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing,” he wrote. He favored government intervention in the markets, for example, and supported environmental regulation. When he warned against “socialism,” he meant actual socialism.

Wilkinson still identifies as a libertarian but distances himself from the doomsaying. “Part of my political maturation was realizing there’s really not that much at stake,” he says. “That our culture isn’t on the road to serfdom, we’re not one step away from drifting into Fascism or totalitarian socialism or anything like that.” It’s a realization many politicians have yet to make.

Republicans speak the language of libertarianism. They talk about shrinking government and cutting the deficit. But when one of them turns words into action, he gets shunned. The latest Republican to mistakenly put money to mouth: Paul Ryan. During the debate over health-care reform last winter, the GOP was getting savaged for failing to present an alternative to the Democrats’ plan to reduce long-term spending growth. Ryan, an econ wonk and the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, decided to take a crack. He introduced a budget and called it “A Roadmap for America’s Future.” The Roadmap made all the tough cuts that other Republicans discussed vaguely but never specified. It would simplify the tax code, privatize Medicare and Medicaid, and replace parts of Social Security with personal accounts. And it would work: The Congressional Budget Office estimated that Ryan’s plan would put the country in the black by 2063. Sure, it would rip a Texas-size hole in the social safety net, but it was a bona fide libertarian solution.

Ryan got points for boldness. Obama called the Roadmap a “serious proposal.” But Republicans including John Boehner and Newt Gingrich voiced doubts. Some GOP candidates initially supported the Social Security plank but then flipped when their Democratic opponents called them out. More recently, Republicans have studiously avoided specifics when it comes to deficit reduction.

That’s how conservative politics is played—talk shrinkage, do growth. Even right-wing godhead Ronald Reagan expanded the federal government, bailed out Social Security, and signed off on tax hikes. Bush 43 was only the latest in a long line of Republican spenders.

It’s this hypocrisy that makes some libertarians stray outside the two-party monolith. Some gravitate toward the Libertarian Party, which calls itself the third-largest political party in the country. But few of its candidates are ever elected. Infighting can also be a turnoff. “There’s something about libertarians where working as a team is inconsistent with the whole concept of being a libertarian,” says Warren Redlich, the 2010 Libertarian candidate for governor of New York, who was sued by one of his opponents for the nomination.
Others buck the political system altogether. In 2001, a graduate student at Yale named Jason Sorens wrote a paper arguing that if enough libertarian activists moved to a small state in the union, they could transform society—an undertaking he called the Free State Project. A decade later, more than 10,000 libertarians have signed the group’s pledge promising to move to New Hampshire once they get 20,000 signatures. About 800 activists are already there. What they do once they arrive is up to them. Some Free Staters have won seats in the State Legislature. Others engage in acts of civil disobedience: One man, inspired by the movie Gandhi, got arrested for performing a manicure without a license.

Why the last best hope for Libertopia may be the ocean. 

The last best hope for Libertopia may be the ocean. There’s a long, not-so-proud history of seeking freedom at sea. In 1972, Nevada real-estate developer Michael Oliver built an island in the southwest Pacific by dredging sand near an an existing reef, which he called the Republic of Minerva. The nearby Kingdom of Tonga quickly conquered it. A proposal in the late nineties to create a “Freedom Ship” nearly a mile long that would house 50,000 people never got past the planning stage.
That hasn’t stopped Patri Friedman, grandson of libertarian hero Milton Friedman, from trying once more. Friedman founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008 with the goal of creating a floating society free from government’s grasp. While seasteading communities would start small—just a bunch of family-size platforms floating off the coast—Friedman imagines them harvesting energy and growing food.
What distinguishes seasteading from pure fantasy is money. Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and bought a stake in Facebook back in 2004, has become the Johnny Appleseed of futurist libertarians. Since 2008, he’s given upwards of $750,000 to the Seasteading Institute. He recently announced that he will offer twenty grants of up to $100,000 each to teenagers who want to start their own tech companies—a proposal that drew liberal scorn. Thiel is unapologetic about his disdain for government. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” he wrote in a 2009 essay. He’s not alone. Silicon Valley has produced a whole cadre of libertarian entrepreneurs, including longtime Sun Microsystems president Scott McNealy, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and Cypress Semiconductor CEO T. J. Rodgers.
It speaks to the breadth and versatility of libertarianism that it unites Teva-wearing California entrepreneurs and flag-waving tea-partyers under the same banner. The aesthetic is different, but the ideas are the same.
Over the TSA airport pat-downs, the whole political spectrum seemed to be in agreement.
And yet, for all of libertarianism’s diversity, the libertarian movement—those who feel so strongly about live-and-let-live that they want to make you live and let live, too—still prizes doctrinal purity. In 2006, a Cato scholar named Brink Lindsey wrote an essay for The New Republic called “Liberaltarians,” in which he argued that liberals and libertarians have more in common than they think. Both support civil liberties and gay rights. Both want to end the two wars. There’s also a growing willingness among some liberals to embrace libertarian ideas like school vouchers. The cold-war alliance with conservatives has situated libertarians too far to the right, Lindsey argues. It’s time to start reaching out to the left.
While the project drew attention in the D.C. wonkosphere, traditional libertarians took a dim view, especially when Lindsey and his colleague Will Wilkinson proposed writing a book. “There were a lot of people at Cato who didn’t very much like the book,” says David Boaz, executive vice president of Cato. The final straw was Lindsey’s scathing review of a new book by Arthur Brooks, head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In August, Cato and Lindsey parted ways. Wilkinson left soon after. The Cato exodus was a reminder that for all of libertarianism’s supposed ecumenism, there’s still an Establishment that does not brook dissent any more than its conservative counterparts. AEI pushed out former Bush speechwriter David Frum in March after he repeatedly criticized Republicans. Frum described his and Lindsey’s departures as “very similar situations, unfortunately.”
W hen I was in high school, I owned a book by Penn & Teller called How to Play in Traffic. It’s mainly a series of jokes, gags, and madcap yarns by the magic-comedy duo. But it also channels the libertarian id of Penn Jillette. “I sincerely don’t want to offend any of our readers, but I’ve got something to say,” he writes. “It’s very simple, but a bit controversial: The United States of America does not have a problem with terrorism. We just don’t.” Airport security is not worth the hassle, he continues: “Hey, we’re alive, there’s risk. Some planes are going to go down like falling twisted burning human cattle cars and there’s no stopping it. No one can make any form of travel 100 percent safe. We’ll take our chances.” As for the victims of a security-free transportation system? “Let’s consider those terrorism victims heroes,” he writes. “Let’s say they died for freedom. They didn’t die for us to have our phones tapped and have our time wasted at airports.” He then describes a prank where you create a screensaver for your laptop that looks like a countdown to detonation.
Jillette might choose his words differently today. Everyone knows going through airport security sucks, even without “porno- scanners.” But few dispute the need for some line of defense. More-efficient, less-intrusive security would be great. But none at all? Jillette’s tract is a good example of how libertarianism ventures down some fascinating paths but usually ends up deep in the wilderness.

Same story on issue after issue. Taxation isn’t just a poor allocation of resources; it’s an act of violence. “At least the highwayman would take your money and leave you alone,” says Douglas French, president of the Mises Institute. “The government takes your money, then stands around and tells you what to do with it.” The Federal Reserve doesn’t just restrict the markets; it’s an arrogant monstrosity that should be abolished and replaced by the gold standard—a policy that most economists agree would lead to economic meltdown. War isn’t just bad; it’s a bankrupt excuse to suppress personal freedoms and wield state control that’s never justified by the inciting incident. The North should have let the South exercise its “right to secede,” argues libertarian commentator Lew Rockwell. Conservative Pat Buchanan penned a book in 2008 calling World War II “unnecessary.”

No political movement deserves to be defined by its extreme elements. (For Democrats, that way lies socialism.) But middle-of-the-road libertarianism is already pretty far out. “The dominant strain of libertarianism these days is—and I’m not using these words in any kind of pejorative sense—radical and utopian,” says Lindsey. But if Libertopia is the goal, no one knows how to get there. Lindsey compares libertarians who preach purity to the “Underpants Gnomes” in South Park, a popular analogy in wonk circles: “Step one, articulate Utopia. Step three is Utopia. Step two is a big question mark.”

Libertarian minarchy is an elegant idea in the abstract. But the moment you get specific, the foundation starts to crumble. Say we started from scratch and created a society in which government covered only the bare essentials of an army, police, and a courts system. I’m a farmer, and I want to sell my crops. In Libertopia, I can sell them in exchange for money. Where does the money come from? Easy, a private bank. Who prints the money? Well, for that we’d need a central bank—otherwise you’d have a thousand banks with a thousand different types of currency. (Some libertarians advocate this.) Okay, fine, we’ll create a central bank. But there’s another problem: Some people don’t have jobs. So we create charities to feed and clothe them. What if there isn’t enough charity money to help them? Well, we don’t want them to start stealing, so we’d better create a welfare system to cover their basic necessities. We’d need education, of course, so a few entrepreneurs would start private schools. Some would be excellent. Others would be mediocre. The poorest students would receive vouchers that allowed them to attend school. Where would those vouchers come from? Charity. Again, what if that doesn’t suffice? Perhaps the government would have to set up a school or two after all.

And so on. There are reasons our current society evolved out of a libertarian document like the Constitution. The Federal Reserve was created after the panic of 1907 to help the government reduce economic uncertainty. The Civil Rights Act was necessary because “states’ rights” had become a cover for unconstitutional practices. The welfare system evolved because private charity didn’t suffice. Challenges to the libertopian vision yield two responses: One is that an economy free from regulation will grow so quickly that it will lift everyone out of poverty. The second is that if somehow a poor person is still poor, charity will take care of them. If there is not enough charity, their families will take care of them. If they have no families to take care of them—well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Of course, we’ll never get there. And that’s the point. Libertarians can espouse minarchy all they want, since they’ll never have to prove it works.
There are all sorts of situations the private market isn’t good at managing, such as asymmetrical information (I know my doctor is qualified to treat me because he has a government license) and public goods (it makes sense for the government to cover vaccines, which benefit everyone, not just the consumer). There’s also a consistency problem: Why should the government be responsible for a public good like national defense but not air-quality protection?

Or, say, a stable world financial system? Most of the libertarians I spoke with said they would have let the big banks fail in 2008. “I wouldn’t have done anything,” says French. “The key to capitalism is you have to have failure.”
The financial crisis was not an indictment of their worldview, libertarians argue, but a vindication of it. Letting the banks fail would have been painful. But the pain would have been less than it will be now that the government is propping up the housing, banking, and automobile industries. Plus, the economy would have recovered by now. “You’ve probably never heard of the depression of 1920,” says French. “You haven’t heard of it because it came and went in one year, because the government didn’t do anything to prop up failed businesses.” (Other economists argue that the government’s response was actually consistent with the philosophy of John Maynard Keynes.) Letting banks fail would also avoid moral hazard, say libertarians, since investors wouldn’t take such risky bets the next time around.

It’s a compelling story. But like many libertarian narratives, it’s oversimplified. If the biggest banks had failed, bankers wouldn’t have been the only ones punished. Everyone would have lost his money. Investors who had no idea how their dollars were being used—the ratings agencies gave their investments AAA grades, after all—would have gone broke. Homeowners who misunderstood their risky loans would have gone into permanent debt. Sure, the bailouts let some irresponsible people off easy. But not intervening would have unfairly punished a much greater number.

There’s always tension between freedom and fairness. We want less government regulation, but not when it means firms can hire cheap child labor. We want a free market, but not so bankers can deceive investors. Libertarianism, in promoting freedom above all else, pretends the tension doesn’t exist.

Case in point: A house in Obion County, Tennessee, burned to the ground in September because the owner had not paid the annual $75 fee for opt-in fire protection. As the fire raged, the house owner told the dispatcher that he would pay the cost of putting out the fire. The fire department still refused to come. The house burned down, with four pets inside. Libertarians point out that this is how opt-in services—as opposed to taxpayer-funded public services—works. If you don’t pay, you don’t get coverage. The firefighters can’t make exceptions without creating moral hazard. This makes sense in theory. In practice, not so much. The firefighters showed up to protect a neighboring property. The homeowner offered to pay not just the cost of the fire protection but the full cost of the spray. A court would have enforced that contract. But because the firefighters stuck to a rigid principle of opt-in services, a house was destroyed. Will this serve as a cautionary tale next time a rural resident of Obion County is deciding whether to buy fire insurance? No doubt. But will someone else inevitably not learn his lesson and make the same mistake? No doubt.

And that’s just the government side. Consider the social side of Libertopia. It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers. At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. “Man’s first duty is to himself,” says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. “His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.” Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise. If you don’t get your way, blow things up. And there’s the problem. If everyone refused to compromise his vision, there would be no cooperation. There would be no collective responsibility. The result wouldn’t be a city on a hill. It would be a port town in Somalia. In a world of scarce resources, everyone pursuing their own self-interest would yield not Atlas Shrugged but Lord of the Flies. And even if you did somehow achieve Libertopia, you’d be surrounded by assholes.

To a Libertarian, nothing is worth sacrificing principle for—least of all political power. Yet Rand Paul has already made some concessions. The first sign of Paul’s domestication came when he appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show after winning the Kentucky primary. Maddow asked him whether he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal for businesses to turn away customers on the basis of race. Paul said it all came down to a question of private versus public businesses. “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant?” he said. “Or does the government own his restaurant?”

Paul got slammed, even within his own party. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, usually a staunch defender of libertarian positions, wrote that Paul was wrong “even on his own libertarian terms.”

Paul went into lockdown. He gave few media interviews. His public statements were tightly scripted. And his stance changed: He would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act after all.

And he won. The lesson: If a libertarian wants to get elected, he’s going to have to bend a few principles, deal with reality as it exists. The same is true if he wants to legislate. Since the election, Paul has challenged Republican orthodoxy by suggesting he’s willing to cut military spending. He’s talked about expanding the House Tea Party Caucus to the Senate. But he also drifted from his “no pork” pledge by hinting he would accept federal earmarks for Kentucky in the end. (Paul said he was misquoted and subsequently pushed for an earmark ban.) During an appearance on CNN on November 9, he ended the interview rather than name a spending cut. The test will be whether Paul is willing to slash government in ways that irk his party—by cutting back Social Security, say, or trimming Medicare. Luckily for him, that kind of showdown will happen only if Republicans regain the Senate.

Ron Paul might even get the Fed to cough up a few extra receipts. But no one is under the illusion that he will “end” it. (If he tried, Republicans would smother him just as quickly as Democrats would.) It took 35 years for Ron Paul to reach the center of American politics. And it could take another 35 before he or someone like him is back. It’s certainly a libertarian moment—but it’s not liable to last too long. Libertarianism and power are like matter and anti-matter. They cancel each other out.

Monday, September 9, 2013

GOP’s massive new lie: The truth about Obama’s second term


GOP’s massive new lie: The truth about Obama’s second term

It's factually and morally wrong to say his agenda is doomed if war vote loses. Here's why they're doing it

GOP's massive new lie: The truth about Obama's second termEric Cantor, John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

When President Obama decided to seek authorization to bomb Syria, he didn’t just throw the fate of his plans into the hands of 535 unpredictable members of Congress. He also made himself vulnerable to overblown suggestions that his entire second term is on the line.

Political reporters have a weakness for narratives, and the narrative of a weakened president is irresistible. Moreover, members of Congress will feed that narrative. Even Democrats. If you’re Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid, a great way to pad your vote count is to plead to your caucus that if the resolution fails, Obama will become a lame duck a year earlier than he ought to.
This pitch is both morally and factually incorrect.

Let’s assume that absent a divisive, losing debate over striking Syria, Obama would have real potential to accomplish meaningful things before the end of his presidency. An immigration bill, say. It would be perverse for members to accede to acts of war they’d otherwise oppose to salvage an unrelated issue like immigration reform. The moral argument here is the same one that made the “death panel” charge so offensive — making the country’s health systems affordable is a praiseworthy goal, but that doesn’t make killing old people OK.
But the good news for Democratic whips on Capitol Hill is that they don’t need to engage in this kind of manipulation. If the Syria vote goes down, the gloom and doom tales of Obama’s losing gamble will be false.

To the extent that Congress has the will to do anything other than vote on an authorization to strike Syria, the outcome of that vote is disconnected from those other issues. If House Republican leaders believe they and their party have an interest in passing immigration reform or any other issue, they’ll do it no matter how the Syria vote comes down.

The same moral argument works in reverse. If Republicans think an immigration bill should become law, it’s wrong of them to block it because of hard feelings, just as it’s wrong for John Boehner to kill legislation he supports in the abstract for member management purposes, or the self-interest of his own speakership.

Whether the vote to bomb Syria passes or fails, I expect some Republicans will cite it as a key reason when other unrelated issues fizzle. But they’ll be lying. The fight over Syria — like the fights over funding the government and increasing the debt limit — will provide useful cover to Republicans who have already resolved themselves against supporting immigration reform, or a farm bill, or a budget deal, or anything else.

Which brings us to the more depressing point. The idea that Obama will make himself an early lame duck if Congress rejects his request to bomb Syria is more easily belied by the fact that Congress probably isn’t going to do anything else anyhow.

Syria won’t derail Obama’s second term — Republicans will. As New York magazine’s Dan Amira put it, “After losing Syria vote, Obama’s chances of passing agenda through Congress would go from about 0% to approximately 0%. #hugesetback.” That’s an extremely wry way of conveying a depressing truism: Syria won’t derail Obama’s second term — House Republicans will.
Anyone who lends credence to the idea that the Syria debate sealed the fate of issues like immigration reform is giving Republicans a free pass. They have complete agency. And though they’ll attempt to shrink the responsibility that comes with it by connecting the Syria debate to other issues within their control, it’s a ruse nobody should fall for.

So if everything’s disconnected, and each issue creates different incentives, what should we expect when Congress debates Syria? As with almost everything in this Congress, I think a great deal depends on what the Senate does. If the Senate authorization fails, then the House is probably off the hook. If it passes, then I imagine John Boehner will have to rethink his role in the debate: He supports the strike, but isn’t trying to persuade any of his members to join him, and claims responsibility for GOP votes lies with President Obama.
That won’t be a viable position if the fate of the authorization lies in the House and the House only. If Boehner were opposed to striking Syria he could maintain consistency no matter what happens in the Senate. But he doesn’t. And so if the resolution passes the Senate, he’s going to have to ask himself whether he’s comfortable with the idea of it dying in the House, because he, unlike Nancy Pelosi, couldn’t marshal his share of the votes.

Maybe he’s fine with that. Personally, I think it would be the best possible outcome, for Congress, the White House and the country. But then those same narrative-starved reporters will have a new villain if the Assad regime responds to the development, as the administration has suggested, by launching more chemical attacks against the Syrian opposition.

Brian Beutler Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at bbeutler@salon.com and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.