It’s so great that Americans are finally angry about the state of their country.
But it’s beyond awful that all the wrong people are beside themselves for all the wrong reasons.
When I look at the tea party movement in America today, any number of words come to mind, most of which are not fit for print in a family newspaper. But, above all, I cannot help but be struck by the irony of it all.
It’s ironic, to begin with, that the ones who are bitching loudest today are precisely the people who created the mess we’re in.
We’re actually in a whole heaping helping lot of messes, but I’m referring principally to the economic one. I suspect that the rabble ranks of the tea party movement are populated by people who have equally bad politics on social matters and foreign policy issues. But – for different reasons – they don’t talk about those questions too much. Instead, they largely confine themselves to economic beefs, especially deficits.
These are conservatives, however – more properly labeled as regressives – and the astonishing irony here is that they’ve had their way with economic policy in this country for thirty years running. And, excuse me, but now they’re pissed off at the results?
Think about it. Economic policy can be divided into a handful of key domains, including taxes, trade, labor relations, regulation, privatization, the budget and the welfare state. In every single one of these areas – with one partial exception – regressive policy choices have entirely predominated over the last generation. Only in the latter case of welfare state spending has that not been true, but even there only partially so.
Taxes today are a mere hint of what they used to be, just as the right has insisted must be the case. For the rich especially, top marginal income taxes have come down from 91 percent to 35 percent. But, of course, even that doesn’t include earnings on capital gains, a giant portion of their income, which is now at 15 percent. Nor does it include the estate tax, which has now disappeared entirely. Nor does it include deductions and write-offs. Put this all together and you can see why Warren Buffett, one of the richest people in the country, was moved to reveal that he paid a 17.7 percent tax rate on his $46 million of taxable income in 2006, while his employees paid an average of 32.9 percent, and his receptionist’s tax rate was 30 percent.
On trade, previously existing barriers and protections for domestic industries have been eviscerated almost completely, so that for much of the world today, it’s a single market for products and capital. Labor? Not so much. What a shock, then, that America’s good jobs – especially in manufacturing – are now all located in Mexico. Or at least they were, until even those became too expensive and got moved to China and India and Vietnam. Smug Republican white collar workers thought they were immune from wealthy corporate masters cutting their legs off from underneath them. Now, when it’s too late, they stand in unemployment lines while someone in Bangalore does their job for a tenth of the pay. So how’s that whole free-tradey thing workin’ out for you now, people?
The story is the same in the domain of labor relations, where the playing field has been slanted massively in the direction of capital, starting with Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers. The upshot of these rule changes and enforcement laxity has been that the portion of union-protected jobs in America has shrunk from about 35 percent to about 7 percent, with precisely the results for workers that you’d expect.
With deregulation, too, we’ve seen massive changes as well over the same period, across industries far and wide, not least of which includes the repealing of Glass-Steagal and the unleashing of Wall Street. The right insisted – and still does – that this is great news for the economy. History begs to differ.
Similarly, America looks radically different today in terms of who performs the functions of government, with everything from prisons to the military to espionage having been privatized. With respect to the budget, conservatives say they believe in fiscal responsibility. When they come to power, however, nobody deficit spends like they do. Reagan wanted to triple the nation debt, so he did. Bush wanted to double it again, so he did.
Among all these economic policy domains, then, that leaves welfare state spending as the only one in which regressive policy choices have not been completely dominant, and there the story is somewhat mixed. Spending on social programs dropped – just as regressives wanted it to – under Reagan and Bush, but especially under the conservative Clinton, who eviscerated welfare programs in America. On the other hand, welfare state spending increased dramatically under Bush because of his prescription drug bill, which cost twice as much as he told Congress it would (and he knew it). Obama has, of course, added his health care plan too, but according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, it will not cost any additional revenue. So, in this one economic domain, the record is decidedly mixed.
The point is this: Add all this up and what you see is regressives winning essentially every economic policy fight of the last generation. Nearly every single one. And where they didn’t, the biggest example was a policy advanced by George W. Bush.
The result, of course, has been economic devastation far and wide. The rich have gotten massively richer, the rest of us are sinking, the federal debt has skyrocketed, our jobs have been exported to China and India, Wall Street has plunged the global economy into the toilet, corporations like BP do whatever they want without fear of consequence, and the United States is imploding as a great power. These are not coincidences, either. And now here comes the great irony: the same people who have been getting their way on the economy for thirty years now are just absolutely livid about what they themselves have created! They’re just completely enraged at the product of their own politics.
Ah, but that’s just the beginning. A second great irony is the extent to which the tea party bozos are being manipulated by elites like the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch and the likes of Dick Armey. The very people who created the public’s economic insecurity in order to get rich off of it, are now channeling the resulting rage into support for more of the same. And the folks on the street with their signs and their venom think they are manifesting some sort of spontaneous outpouring of patriotic rage, unaware of who is directing their efforts and who will benefit.
Another pretty serious irony is that the tea partiers are likely about to gain some substantial power, but have no solutions to the problems they perceive. Or problem. So much of this seems to be about government spending. And fair enough – it’s a good point. Spending is out of control. I’ve got some ideas for solutions. It’s just that they don’t.
Unless, of course, they’re prepared to slash Social Security and Medicare spending. Which they’re not. When the New York Times ran a poll on tea partiers back in April, it found that they tend to favor the generic idea of cutting government programs. Just not the only ones that really matter. Some were unable to reconcile the competing concepts: “‘That’s a conundrum, isn’t it?’ asked Jodine White, 62, of Rocklin, Calif. ‘I don’t know what to say. Maybe I don’t want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security.’ She added, ‘I didn’t look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I’ve changed my mind.’”
Welcome back to sanity, Jodine. But that’s a bit of a problem. A Paul Krugman column recently reported why: “Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: ‘No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress.’”
I kinda like that last part. Maybe tea partiers do too. But I don’t think they’re really contemplating a shut down of the federal government when they insist on slashing spending. More likely they’d have the same reaction to creating the Frankenstein they’re policies call for as Jodine did when she found out what the implications of her own tea party rants would be for her nice gubmint bennies. I notice that nobody running for Congress this year is specifying just how they’d kill the deficit. They want to cut spending, and they say they can, but they can’t see any rush in specifying how they’ll do it. That can wait til after the election. Republican duplicity and hypocrisy – what a shock, eh? Call it irony number four.
Number five is that those who bitch most about the oppressive federal government in America tend almost always to be the ones who benefit most from it. According to Eric Scigliano, writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “In 2003, the top subsidy-sucking state, in percentage terms, was red-lite New Mexico, which received $1.99 in federal money for every dollar it sent to Washington, D.C. All the next eight net recipients of federal spending were redder yet: Kentucky, Virginia, Montana, Alabama, North Dakota, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alaska, which received $1.60 to $1.89 back for each tax dollar. The list of net losers in the state-federal exchange, by contrast, reads like a Who’s Who of Blue. Two of the top 14 were traditionally red Western states that are starting to turn purple, Colorado and Nevada. The other 12 are all blue: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Wisconsin and the biggest chump of all, New Jersey, where the federal government spends just $.57 for every dollar it collects. … Only five blue states were net recipients of federal subsidies. Only two red states were net payers of federal taxes.”
No wonder Sarah Plain and her protégé, Joe Miller (did I mention that he took federal farm subsidies at one time?) join others in Alaska in getting so upset about the tyranny of the federal government. According to the Tax Foundation, Alaska was number one nationally in federal spending per capita in 18 of the 25 years ending in 2005, pulling in nearly two of your and my tax dollars for every one they sent to Washington. Now that’s some serious oppression, people! I for one am sick at heart to think that my tax dollars are being used to brutalize crackers from Alabama to Alaska, bludgeoning them over the head with fat federal subsidies. This must stop! From this moment forward let the word go forth: I am willing to sacrifice having taxes taken out of my paycheck in order to support their brave “Don’t tread on me!” campaign to end the oppression of having to receive my money. I know, I know – it’s a bold statement. But somebody has to take a stand!
A sixth irony is that tea partiers are better off individually than the rest of us are. They are more likely to be college educated (oh god, I need a new career) and to have a higher income than the rest of the population. They are also older and considerably more likely to be retired. I’m pretty sure that also means that they’re sucking up those fat government pay-outs in far greater proportion than the rest of us too, unless they’ve bravely waived their Social Security and Medicare benefits in the interest of reducing government spending. Call me crazy, but somehow I don’t think so.
Seventh, solving the problem that most animates the tea party crowd will do nothing to solve the problems that America faces today. Federal debt is a serious matter, but it is not pinching us in any way right now. In fact, it is probably keeping us (barely) afloat by stimulating some small degree of demand in our wrecked economy. It’s absolutely true that this is an issue for the future, and that it must be dealt with. But any fool who really believes that slashing spending is going to make things better now is in for a rude shock. It would almost certainly make things worse in the short term, and potentially in the long term as well.
The last irony that really slays me concerns the timing of the tea party outrage. There’s a graphic I’ve seen online recently that shows a smirking George W. Bush saying, “I fucked you all, but thanks for blaming it on the black guy”, and I can’t help thinking of that as I survey the indignant outrage on the right these days. Never mind that the tea party crowd is whiter, older and more male than the general population, and never mind the obscene posters they bring to rallies, such as ones saying, “Hitler gave great speeches too”, or “Undocumented worker” (under a picture of Obama), or “Acts Muslim, Talks Muslim Equals Mosque (with a picture of Obama in Taliban style garb and beard), or “By ballot or bullet restoration is coming”. Maybe those are just “bad” tea partiers who are unrepresentative of the wider movement. Perhaps they haven’t quite hit that sweet spot of just the proper amount of permitted outrage toward the democratically elected government chosen by the American people – you know: more than the already crazed GOP average, but less (for now at least) than a white-robed lynch mob.
But even leaving all that aside, those of us barely hanging on here in the still sentient part of the universe really kinda hafta wonder why all the outrage now? After all, it was Ronald Reagan who massively increased the debt of the country, with enormous help from George W. Bush, who took the largest surplus in American history and turned it instantly into the largest deficit. And did so principally to give the rich massive tax breaks and fund an incredibly expensive war based on lies. And, please correct my calendar math if I’m wrong, but wasn’t that just two years ago?
But now they’re outraged? Now? What, because Obama has been deficit spending even more than Bush? Well, wait a sec here. You know, I’m not the slightest fan of Barack Obama, but I am a very big fan of telling the truth, something which will get you in a lot of trouble in tea party America, that’s for sure. And the truth looks like this: If you take away from Obama’s budgets Bush’s wars, Bush’s tax cuts, Bush’s prescription drug plan, and the interest on the debt borrowed by Reagan and Bush, and about all you’re left with is two things. First, the stimulus and bailout spending, which only exists at all to deal with Bush’s recession. And, second, Obama’s health care bill, which the CBO has determined comes at no additional cost whatsoever to the taxpayer, and in any case doesn’t even kick in until 2014. Not to mention that Bush had his own stimulus bill and that the hated TARP program came on his watch. But, somehow, the rage of the white male retired guys only appears when “the black guy” is in office. Somehow, the shrill screams about “taking our country back” only show up when the dark-skinned guy who is only nine-tenths beholden to the oligarchy is the president.
What would it look like if Obama didn’t have to pay for Bush’s wars based on lies, didn’t have to pay for Bush’s prescription drug plan, didn’t have to pay for Bush’s tax cuts, didn’t have to pay for stimulus funds to rescue the country from Bush’s Great Recession, and didn’t have to pay interest (one of the biggest items in the federal budget) on the money that Bush and Reagan borrowed previously? Most likely, it would look like it did on January 20, 2001, the day that Bush came to office, and the United States was running the greatest surplus ever in its history.
So here we stand. The people who created endless disaster as far as the eye can see are now completely beside themselves in outrage that someone is spending a few dollars to clean up the mess these same folks have made by convincing America to follow their policies over the last thirty years. They want big changes, right now, even though they can’t quite specify what they want – other than changes that won’t hurt them, personally – and even though these changes would do absolutely nothing to solve the current problems facing the country, and would in fact probably exacerbate those.
They are absolutely fuming! How dare Obama do that?! They’ve come to take back our country, and most likely they will have great success in the election next month.
What do you call that?
Well, ironic, for sure.
But don’t forget tragic, too.
Oh, and massively stupid.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net