Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occupy Wall Street is not the Tea Party of the left

What it portends is actually much more serious than the Tea Party, and it will not be co-opted by the Democratic party the way the Tea Party was by the Republicans.

Let's first examine what the Tea Party actually is, at its core: it is the resurgence of anti-federalism.  This has been discussed at length in other areas.  They've done a rather effective job of dictating to the Republican party how business is (or rather, is not) going to be conducted in Washington.  The Tea Party is not interested in finding better ways for Washington to do business.  They are interested in stopping business.  They view any action on the part of the federal government as an infringement of liberty.  It should be noted that they are not "Constitutionalists" as they like to present themselves.  Their views are more in line with a re-establishment of the Articles of Confederacy.  They are not a conservative movement.  They are retrogressive.  At a minimum, they want to roll back the New Deal.  They are all but openly campaigning on this.

I do not believe that the Tea Party have any use for the religious right, except as a way of gathering votes for their party.  And pro-corporate conservatives are fine with them, as long as they don't expand the reach of the federal government.  Their interests happen to align, since it's the federal government telling religious conservatives that they can't force kids to pray in public schools and telling corporations that they can't dump toxic sludge in the water at will.  The Tea Partiers generally oppose the federal government on principle.

To be sure, this is a radical position at this point in our history, but it's the latest incarnation of a very old debate, and they've been successfully brought back into the Republican party fold.  Republicans call themselves "Tea Party conservatives" as a way of hitching a ride on the latest fad.  Neo-conservatives and religious conservatives are not true Tea Partiers, because the Tea Party, it bears pointing out again, is not a conservative movement.  It is retrogressive and anti-federalist, but in the end, they're happy to fall back in line with the Republican party as long as they promise to cut spending and never raise taxes.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is something else entirely: it is the natural blowback from the Tea Party's anti-federalist policies and President Obama's attempts to appease them.  If the Tea Party are the philosophical heirs of Patrick Henry (who, aside from his famous "Give me liberty, or give me death" quote, was a staunch anti-federalist and opponent of the Constitution). then the Occupy Wall Street movement are the philosophical heirs of Huey P. Long.

The key planks of the Share Our Wealth platform included:
  1. No person would be allowed to accumulate a personal net worth of more than 300 times the average family fortune, which would limit personal assets to between $5 million and $8 million. A graduated capital levy tax would be assessed on all persons with a net worth exceeding $1 million.
  2. Annual incomes would be limited to $1 million and inheritances would be capped at $5 million.
  3. Every family was to be furnished with a homestead allowance of not less than one-third the average family wealth of the country. Every family was to be guaranteed an annual family income of at least $2,000 to $2,500, or not less than one-third of the average annual family income in the United States. Yearly income, however, cannot exceed more than 300 times the size of the average family income.
  4. An old-age pension would be made available for all persons over 60.
  5. To balance agricultural production, the government would preserve/store surplus goods, abolishing the practice of destroying surplus food and other necessities due to lack of purchasing power.
  6. Veterans would be paid what they were owed (a pension and healthcare benefits).
  7. Free education and training for all students to have equal opportunities in all schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions for training in the professions and vocations of life.
  8. The raising of revenue and taxes for the support of this program was to come from the reduction of swollen fortunes from the top, as well as for the support of public works to give employment whenever there may be any slackening necessary in private enterprise.

This was during the Great Depression.  Much of the New Deal was implemented as a way of countering Long's populist appeal.  They were also a way to circumvent a communist revolution.  They were effective.  By establishing a social safety net and building a strong middle class, it minimized the number of disaffected people who could push for a communist revolution.  The Tea Party wants to smash all of that in the middle of one of the worst economic conditions since they were implemented in the first place.

What the Occupy movement is demanding is, essentially, a certain amount of wealth redistribution.  Not a lot, but some.  That's what the New Deal was.  The government ignores that sentiment at its peril.  If the injustices of wealth distribution in this country are not addressed, and indeed, the social safety nets put in place generations ago are stripped away as the Tea Party would like, then the Occupy movement's position is going to become increasingly radicalized.  It is going to become violent.  There will be some within the movement who will conclude that protests are not enough.

The Democrats are embracing the movement because they believe that this will be a chance for them to reignite their base.  They misread the mood.  These protests are not going to conduct get out the vote drives for Obama and congressional Democrats.  They did that in 2008.  They already got Obama elected.  Now they've come to demand the change they were promised, and they're not going away until they get it.

And Republicans need to understand that there's more at stake here than whether or not Obama wins re-election.  They need to address the real problems Americans are facing, or they're going to have some real problems of their own.

In short: the Tea Party is an anti-federalist Get Out The Vote drive for the Republican party.

The Occupy movement is the birth pangs of a revolution.  The Republicans recognize this and are scared to death of it.  But their response is all wrong.  They think they can ridicule it away.  They can't.  They need to address the concerns before it gets out of hand.

I say this as a patriot who loves his country: politicians in Washington, please pull your heads out of your asses.  Your employers are pissed.  Do something to calm them down, before this gets ugly.

Some changes to this blog.

The template of the blog has changed somewhat so as to better avail myself of Blogger's new features.  It allows me to do a few things that I've wanted to do for a while, which is to have a feed of postings from blogs I want to direct people toward.  On top of that, text formatting is much cleaner in this format than it was in the old one.  If you happened to read my Paul Ryan post before, you may remember that the quoted text was choppy.  I made no edits to the post; the new Blogger template corrected that for me.

Also, I've set the blog up to be available on mobile, in mobile format.  This should help greatly when I want to text somebody my blog address and refer them to a specific writing while we're in a bar or some such.

I would especially like to recommend No Rest For The Awake, especially considering that is where the bulk of my traffic comes from.  Least I can do is try to return the favor.

Now that I've made my blog much cleaner and more user friendly, I suppose I'll have to start writing on it some more.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Response to Paul Ryan

In this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) reviews a book titled, The Price of Civilization, by Jeffrey Sachs. While I have not read the book and cannot thusly respond to that, there are a few assertions which Ryan makes (and doesn't make) which merit a response.

He begins,

Free enterprise has never lacked for moral critics. In the mid-18th
century, for instance, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected the
proposition that the free exchange of goods and services, and the competitive
pursuit of self-interest by economic actors, result in general prosperity—ideas
then emanating from Great Britain. In a commercial society, according to
Rousseau, the people are "scheming, violent, greedy, ambitious, servile, and
knavish . . . and all of it at one extreme or the other of misery and opulence."
Only a people with "simple customs [and] wholesome tastes" can be

Of note is that Rep. Ryan does not dispute this premise. It is instructive to understand that Rep. Ryan does not, at any point in this article, dispute any of the moral criticisms directed toward capitalism, but rather offers his own moral criticisms of the author's suggestions. The article is hardly a full-throated endorsement of capitalism, and it isn't the type of ideological thumping which I've come to expect from anybody discussing politics these days. His responses are thoughtful, he acknowledges certain failings of our system, and even posits that there may be a better way forward, but that the author's suggestions are not it. In short, it's one side of the type of discussion intellectuals on both sides of the political divide ought to be having, would that we could shut out the noise. To wit:

Mr. Sachs is honest enough to acknowledge that the "rich" are not nearly
rich enough to pay for his ever-expansive vision of government. We're told that
"each of us with an above-average income" (i.e., $50,000 per household) must
"understand that if we are prudent, we can make do with a little less take-home

Such appeals to the citizenry to make sacrifices might be more
compelling if Mr. Sachs coupled them with calls for spending restraint in
Washington. Instead, his budget proposal insists on the need to "augment"
government spending by trillions of dollars in the years ahead. Thus the
sacrifices of citizens are to be made to increase the size and scope of a
federal government that Mr. Sachs admits has demonstrated little aptitude for
allocating resources efficiently or even fairly. This conundrum leads him to a
conclusion that would be comical if he were not deadly serious: "Yes, the
federal government is incompetent and corrupt—but we need more, not less, of

Rep. Ryan offers us a false choice here, however. It's not simply a question of "more government" versus "less government". There's also "efficient government", "effective government", and "useful government", as opposed to the often wasteful and clueless government we have now. In short, we could simply decide to cut spending or increase spending, as though those goals are ends in and of themselves, or we can decide which government agencies and programs are worth preserving, which are not working, and why. Once we establish the "why" of whether a program is working or not, we can decide whether it's a question of doing something better or whether it's not worth doing at all.

An example of a program which is worth doing but could be done better is the Department of Defense. Just because this is an essential agency does not mean that every expenditure by DoD is essential. Obviously. On the flip side would be the public housing program, which is widely acknowledged as a failure not due to a failure of delivery, but because the program as designed failed to meet its objectives. The larger point is that simply because programs which are designed to alleviate poverty often fail to do so (although that is up for debate) does not mean that alleviating poverty is not a goal worth pursuing. Returning to a pre-New Deal economic model is not the answer. To argue that we need to move away from a 20th century model does not mean that we need to move toward a 19th century model. We need to find a new model for the 21st century -- one which meets the challenges of the day.

Ryan wraps up with this:

The dialogue between capitalism and its critics is an old one, and it will
continue. But as citizens of a self-governing nation, Americans must choose from
time to time between alternative visions for our future. This book's budget
proposals and economic policies are profoundly revealing. They lay bare the real
agenda of those who wish us to abandon the American idea and consign our nation
to the irrevocable path of decline. If only in that sense, "The Price of
Civilization" is a useful contribution to the conversation we must have in order
to make informed political choices in the years ahead.

And in choosing that vision as his foil, I would argue that Rep. Ryan is reaching for low-hanging fruit. This may be an easy argument to defeat, but doing so isn't particularly enlightening. I give Rep. Ryan more credit than that regarding his intellectual acumen, so I can assume that this article was a way to frame the discussion as a choice between Republican policies and America's decline. The two are not mutually exclusive, frankly. Austerity is a sort of tacit admission of decline; it says we simply cannot afford the excesses of yesterday and we have to make do with less. This may or may not be true, but scaling back social safety nets to protect those most vulnerable is not a sign of strength. A truly virtuous and strong society makes a determination that those who have benefited most from our economic system have a responsibility to help those who have fallen between the cracks. A free market economy is not equipped to handle that responsibility. When profit is the ultimate virtue, then charity is a vice. Only government has the resources and authority to fill those gaps.

What is needed is a means by which to change or eliminate programs which are not meeting their objectives. Often, entrenched interests (be they civil servants or contractors who make their living off these programs) will resist efforts to eliminate programs which aren't doing the job. Writing performance metrics into legislation as a prerequisitive to continued funding may be a way to circumvent that. If, for instance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act fails to substantially reduce the number of uninsured Americans, then it should be eliminated and replaced with something else. As it stands, it has yet to even be fully implemented. To call it a failure at this point would be, to say the least, premature.

I'm glad to see the Rep. Ryan wishes to engage in a real discussion as opposed to the shouting past one another I too often hear in the larger debate in this country. Simply winning the next election should not be our goal. Actually meeting the challenges facing our country today should be the end to which winning an election is the mean. I hope to see more of this type of debate.