Friday, March 30, 2007

Who's Bankrupt Now? Thoughts On "How The Right Went Wrong"


In Time magazine's March 26 cover story, "How the Right Went Wrong," Karen Tumulty began by quoting Ronald Reagan in a sort of "bandwagon" logical fallacy at the 1985 Conservative Political Action Conference. "... the other side is virtually bankrupt of ideas. It has nothing more to say, nothing to add to the debate. It has spent its intellectual capital." The core argument: Cons rule; get with it.

The writer seemed to veer even more off the track after that, going into the general gloom among conservatives -- but failing to adequately discuss the many failures of policy and ideas that put the Right in this mood. This kind of obfuscation is common in the Mainstream Media.

I'd like to get this back on the real track. Fast-forward to 2007.

For all but two of the past 26 years, the Republican Party, dominated by its "conservative" wing, has controlled either the executive branch, the legislative branch, or both, of the federal government. In that time:

-- The national debt has grown to over $5 trillion. When Reagan entered office, it was less than $1 trillion. The only balanced budgets, or surpluses, run during the past 26 years were in the final years of the Clinton presidency, when the rich were being taxed somewhat more than they are now, or were in the '80s.

So much for fiscal responsibility.

-- The welfare state has actually grown overall. An Associated Press analysis of government data shows that nearly 1 in 6 Americans relies on some kind of public assistance, the most since the government began the measurements two decades ago.

I can already hear the "cons" muttering, but this didn't happen because of liberals. The 1996 welfare "reform" was mainly a GOP idea. It has indeed cut the welfare rolls, by nearly two-thirds. But when former recipients went to low-wage, no-benefits jobs like those at Wal-Mart, guess what? Applications for food stamps grew, and the number of Medicaid recipients went off the charts. The new, not-so-improved welfare state is basically a huge subsidy for low-paying corporations like Wal-Mart.

More results: Real wages had already been slipping for decades, and the trend accelerated. Could it have been all those low-wage workers pouring into the work force? And all the while, other sets of numbers have been trending up--consumer debt and corporate profits. Call me paranoid, but sometimes it seems like somebody in a boardroom thought all this up.

The problem is, what's generating short-term profits for the few seems to mean long-term misery for many. Census figures show that the number of Americans categorized as severely poor--not just under the official poverty line--grew by 26 percent, to 16 million, between 2000 and 2005.

-- For two generations we've heard politicians rant about "law and order," even many Democrats. But the GOP Right Wing got by far the most political capital out of the issue, mainly by promising to lock up drug offenders and throw away the key, and to whittle Death Row down to about a dozen inmates.

I won't dwell on the possibility that some undetermined number of innocent people have been executed. (Although recent DNA-testing breakthroughs give some hint at the number of wrongful convictions.) I'll focus instead on "The Drug War." America had a serious crack cocaine problem in the '80s--but the approach to drugs in general became shotgun-style, where a rifle was needed. With that, and mandatory sentences, the federal prison population exploded. People were getting hard time for small-amount possession. From 1980 to 2000, the overall U.S. prison population quadrupled, despite a decline in violent crime and property crime since the early '90s. In federal pens, 57 percent were in for drug offenses. The overall U.S. incarcerated population in 2006: 2.2 million. In 2005, 1 out of every 136 Americans was in some kind of jail. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. (Source of all stats above: Wikipedia.)

Predictably, the taxpayers, even Republicans, got tired of paying for the U.S. being the world's biggest jailer. Here in Texas, Republican state legislators are introducing bills to cut way down on probation revocations, especially for nonviolent offenders. Even in the GOP, "lock 'em up" for damn near anything has become an impractical notion whose time has passed.

-- Tumulty wrote that Reagan "... helped bring about the defeat of what he very undiplomatically christened 'the Evil Empire.' " She apparently buys, at least to some degree, the notion that Reagan presided over a military buildup that "bankrupted" the Soviet Union.

This is one of the most toxic myths that the Right has sold to many as history. When Russian economists have been interviewed about this, their response has often been laughter. Everybody there who could see the big picture knew what the problems were, and they had been serious for many years before Reagan took office. All economic indicators had been declining for years. Life expectancy, down. Absenteeism, alcoholism, infant mortality--all up alarmingly. (Dartmouth College historians Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth.) It was requiring 25 percent of the Soviet GDP to support their military empire. But military spending, CIA stats show, was very level between 1975 and 1985.

The problem was systemic. The Soviets' particular experiment with socialism was a debacle--a top-heavy, command economy that basically collapsed under its own weight and inflexibility. Yet, many cons argue that Reagan's goofy "Star Wars" initiative was the final blow. With the Soviet economy already so dead in the water, this was like giving Reagan credit for every sunrise that occurred on his watch. If he even hastened their collapse, I doubt that it was by as much as a year.

But the Right has had uncanny success at selling such mendacity to tens of millions of Americans. They've built a hard core of about 30 percent of the electorate that will swallow any such B.S. and lick their lips like it's a fudge brownie.

How did they do this? One must go back in history. Liberal hegemony in U.S. politics was roughly 1932-1980. At the start of that period, about one-third of Americans lived in poverty. It was more serious then, with no food stamps or Medicaid. By the '70s, poverty had been cut by about two-thirds, down to around 11 percent. By the '50s, union membership peaked at 35 percent. In 1959, corporations paid 39 percent of federal income tax revenue (Barlett and Steele citing IRS stats, 1990. It's a fraction of that now).

Gradually, progressives and liberals became victims of their own successes, convictions, and coincidences. In the '60s, the Democrats lost the white South by embracing civil rights. In the '70s, demand-pull inflation, fueled in no small way by the OPEC embargo, began plunging the U.S. economy into deep recessions.

And, when people become affluent enough, they forget about G.I. Bills, federal housing loans, Pell Grants and the like that helped them get there. Lower taxes and higher property values become the main concerns. The Democrat becomes a "Reagan Democrat."

Then came the wedge issues: Abortion, affirmative action and gun control drive a bigger "wedge." And finally, the Reagan Democrat, under pressure from his golf buds, becomes a Republican.

And, the Right never has a problem getting money. Starting in the '70s, a network of "think tanks" formed, lavishly financed by Corporate America, to undertake such campaigns as selling "intellectuals" such spurious ideas as the Laffer Curve and utility deregulation. Such ideas eventually "trickle down" to the general public, even if the real money doesn't.

Tumulty talks about "conservatives," not liberals, being victims of their successes. Which triumphs are those? The ones I just reviewed?

The main success I can see is that the "conservative movement" ran one of the most longlasting and successful "cons" on the public in U.S. political history. They have nothing at all to show for 26 years of being more or less in power. Their astonishing talent is for keeping discredited ideas alive:

-- Cutting taxes on the rich and big corporations was supposed to increase revenue and eliminate the deficit by growing the economy. It never happened, even when tried twice.

-- The Clinton economic plan, which passed in 1993 without a single Republican vote, was supposed to wreck the economy. It didn't. (What it did do, eventually, was balance the budget, and even produce a surplus.)

-- We have heard over and over that raising the minimum wage is supposed to set off inflation and increase unemployment. It's been done many times, and it never has.

I won't stoop to Reagan's fallacy of intellectual bankruptcy. It's more like a case of a high-roller who finally goes into debt so deeply that the bank just keeps lending him more money, because if he goes under, the bank does, too.

But fortunately, more voters are deciding he's not the guy to put in charge of the Treasury.

Manifesto Joe is an underground writer living in Texas. Check out his blog at Manifesto Joe's Texas Blues.


Anonymous said...

The Time magazine piece was too glowing in its praise of Reagan for my taste. I can't understand how anyone could call Time magazine liberal.

Anonymous said...

The American labour movement never survived Reagan; it's been going downhill ever since. Same thing in the U.K.; Thatcher destroyed Britain's labour movement

Anonymous said...

Star Wars is supposed to be one of Reagan's great legacies. In reality, SDI was never built. It was nothing more than a sinkhole for hundreds of billions of dollars. A number of top scientists have said it can never work. On top of that, in the 1990s, the Russians unveiled a new missile (the Topol) that is capable of evasive maneuvers and is immune to any missile defence system. No doubt, the cash-strapped Russians will make this missile available to any and all buyers.

Anonymous said...

The idiot right praises Reagan for outspending the Soviets at a pace they couldn't maintain, thus leading to the fall of the U.S.S.R. This is a crock. During the entire Cold War, the U.S. always vastly outspent the Soviets, every single year.

Anonymous said...

regarding this comment:

Even in the GOP, "lock 'em up" for damn near anything has become an impractical notion whose time has passed.

I'm not sure this is true. I know plenty of Republicans who all still fervently believe in "lock them up and throw away the key."
What's more, the U.S. incarceration rate shows no sign of slowing.


Anytime you see a government pass laws against "terrorism" you can be sure that government is in the process of doing things for which "terrorism" is the only recourse: