Ayn Rand has a large and growing influence on American politics. Speaking at an event in her honor, Congressman Paul Ryan said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
A few weeks ago, Maureen Fiedler, the producer of the weekly radio show, Interfaith Voices, asked me to participate in a debate with Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. I eagerly accepted. I wanted to hear how a follower of Rand would defend proposals to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps while exempting the wealthy from paying their fair share.
In one sense there was agreement. Maureen, a Sister of Loretto, argued that Republican budget proposals turned their back on Christ’s admonition to care for “the least among us,” the hungry, the sick, the homeless. Ghate did not dispute that. Rand, he said, was an atheist who did not believe in government efforts to help those in need.
Ghate countered Sister Maureen’s religious position with a moral argument. He maintained that redistribution of wealth was unfair to the rich and weakened the ambition of the rest. I wasn’t surprised by this position, since I’d heard it repeatedly during the fight on welfare reform.
What I did find startling was Ghate’s insistence that just as there should be a separation of church and state, so there should be a separation of economics and state. That notion really got me thinking.
I’ve always understood that one’s loyalty to God should take precedence over one’s patriotic duty. Churches are exempt from taxation, and conscientious objectors aren’t required to serve in war. Our high regard for the First Amendment shows the preeminence of faith in the American consciousness.
But to place economics on the same level as religious freedom seemed to me almost blasphemous. Are we really to believe that the freedom to make money should stand on the same level of religious liberty? Are the words of Milton Friedman equal to the Sermon on the Mount? I don’t think so. But maybe in the eyes of Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan, they are.
Ayn Rand’s biography goes a long way toward explaining her animus to government. Her first-hand experience of communism showed her how the state can crush people, kill dissent, and exile lovers of freedom to the gulag. Horrified by what government power could do, she was determined to shrink it to the point of impotence.
America was the perfect place for Rand’s single-minded celebration of the individual. After all, this was the nation that inspired intrepid emigrants to leave behind country, family, and friends with little more than the shirt on their back to make a new life. Here they wouldn’t be judged by what they were before or who their parents were but by what they could made of themselves.
America was a beacon of freedom from its earliest days. But the freedom to earn one’s living is not the same as the freedom to emasculate government. It’s a mistake to enshrine individual liberty without acknowledging the role that a good government plays in preserving and promoting it. Look at places like Haiti, Somalia, and the Congo to see what happens when governments aren’t around much.
When government is marginalized, it’s not just individual freedom that suffers; the economy suffers too. A vibrant capitalism requires a legal system: contracts must be honored, fraud punished. Markets have to work, and for that we need a strong infrastructure of roads, rail, energy, and water and sewage systems.
Good government sets us free to spend our days in fruitful endeavors, not evasive action motivated by fear and distrust. Government regulations reassure us that speeding drivers will be arrested, that the financial products we buy won’t cheat us, and that it will be safer to put our money in banks than under our pillows. If we can’t trust our food to be healthy, our drugs to be safe, or our planes to fly without crashing, we’ll waste a lot of productive time.
During the debate, I also raised the point that the separation of economics and state implies that businesses and the people who run them are under no obligation to be patriotic.
In the 19th century, the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Fricks, and J.P. Morgans wanted America to do well because their own fortunes were tied to American prosperity. They made America a great economic power by creating jobs and technological advances right here at home. They knew that their own fortunes were bound up with the well-being of their fellow Americans.
In Ayn Rand’s America, the first obligation of CEOs is to their shareholders, not to citizens. Their business is global, not local. Why should they care if they send jobs overseas? Why should they be concerned if American kids can’t do math or write a sentence? They’ll just outsource the work. Why should they worry that the next generation of Americans is going to have a tough time? Their own kids will do just fine. And in the meantime, they’re doing just fine themselves.
Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, sees a problem with this view. He writes, “You could say, as many do, that shipping jobs overseas is no big deal because the high-value work–and much of the profits–remain in the U.S. That may well be so. But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work–and masses of unemployed?”
Don Peck makes a similar point in his new book, Pinched, and in an Atlantic cover story. “Arguably,” he writes, “the most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the ever more distinct sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the slow hollowing-out of the middle class.”
Besides this economic problem, I also see a moral issue with Ayn Rand’s insistence that all of us, CEOs included, should be totally free of the ties that bind. I especially disagree when it comes to CEOs. As I wrote here a few months ago, the wealthy have a special responsibility. Much will be asked of those to whom much has been given. Participating in government and civic life, serving in war, helping the less fortunate, and–yes–paying a fair share of taxes are inescapable responsibilities for all Americans, especially for those who have realized the American dream that inspires us all.
I doubt there was anything I could have said in the debate that would have induced Onkar Ghate to view the meaning of freedom in a different light. I suppose he might say the same of me. Still, I can’t see how one can be free in a vacuum. Freedom takes work, by each of us, and by our government, to create the place where each of us can prosper. The freedom to sleep under a bridge is no freedom at all. We can only be free when we work together for the well-being of all Americans–including the least among us.
By: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, The Atlantic, August 23, 2011
Christian Schneider, a fellow at a right-wing Wisconsin think-tank, has been writing regular dispatches for National Review, in which he channels the view of the state GOP. This latest one makes Wisconsin Republicans facing a recall sound pretty desperate:
If both Hopper and Kapanke lose, that leaves only one more seat Democrats have to pick up to retake the Senate. In order to delay recall elections, the GOP has planned to run fake Democratic primary candidates against the GOP challengers, which would push the elections back another month. That would give Republicans an extra month’s worth of distance from the collective-bargaining imbroglio that got them in this situation, and would allow more time to campaign.
Yet this will almost certainly be seen as a “dirty trick” by media and some voters. It certainly appears like an admission that Republicans are struggling. And while it can be argued that the recall elections in themselves are merely dirty tricks, enough of a double standard exists that this ploy could backfire.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says the same thing. Fake candidates are needed in order to give them “another month.” And it’s justified because a recall is also unfair — (“I think the cynicism comes from the recalls. Recalling senators for taking a tough vote is just wrong.”)
It’s a great glimpse into the process of rationalization. Fake candidates might be a dirty trick, but so is… petitioning to recall elected officials under Wisconsin law for enacting changes they didn’t campaign on that offend their constituents!
The more interesting thing to emerge here is that Republicans just want to drag things out as long as possible because they understand that right now they’re losing. You don’t try to buy time if you think you’re winning. It’s like Homer Simpson’s strategy to get through a test he knows he can’t pass — “I’ve been working on a plan. During the exam, I’ll hide under some coats, and hope that somehow everything will work out.” If you don’t have any particular reason to think more time will help other than “something could happen,” then delay is a mark of real desperation.
What happens if Democrats win a net of three recall campaigns? Obviously it will be a shot against the bow of the most aggressively partisan Republican governors across the country. And note also that Wisconsin Republicans were planning to protect Paul Ryan from electoral challenge by making his district more Republican. But if they lose the state Senate, they’ll need to agree on a bipartisan redistricting plan, and they may not be able to pull it off.
By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, June 8, 2011
Ten years ago today, the wealthiest Americans caught a multi-billion dollar break from their benefactor, then-president George W. Bush. In the decade since, through two wars, natural disasters, a plummeting economy and a soaring debt, the wealthiest Americans have gotten to keep those Bush tax cuts. Happy birthday, everybody!
As the Republican Party now lines itself up behind Rep. Paul Ryan on his mission to cut the resulting deficit on the backs of working people and the elderly, I find myself surprisingly and strangely nostalgic for another GOP hero, whose legacy, at least when it comes to taxes, has become woefully misunderstood. Can it be that I find myself nostalgic for Ronald Reagan?!
Of course, I’m not alone in my nostalgia. I’m joined by the entire Republican leadership in this, but I think our reasons may be quite a bit different. In the spirit of unity, I’d like to suggest to Republicans in Congress that they look closely at the record of their favorite 20th century hero and adopt yet another policy named after the Gipper. I’m no fan of much of President Reagan’s legacy, but in a new spirit of bipartisanship, and historical accuracy, I’d like to present Republicans in Congress with an idea: the Ronald Reagan Tax Reform Act of 2011.
A key element of the Reagan lore believed by today’s GOP is that Reagan’s embrace of “trickle-down economics” is what caused any and all economic growth since the 1980s. In fact, after Reagan implemented his initial tax-slashing plan in 1981, the federal budget deficit started to rapidly balloon. Reagan and his economic advisers were forced to scramble and raised corporate taxes to calm the deficit expansion and stop the economy from spiraling downward. Between 1982 and 1984, Reagan implemented four tax hikes. In 1986, his Tax Reform Act imposed the largest corporate tax increase in U.S. history. The GDP growth and higher tax revenues enjoyed in the later years of the Reagan presidency were in part because of his willingness to compromise on his early supply-side idolatry.
The corporate tax increases that Reagan implemented — under the more palatable guise of “tax reform” — bear another lesson for Republicans. The vast majority of the current Republican Congress has signed on to a pledge peddled by anti-tax purist Grover Norquist, which beholds them to not raise any income taxes by any amount under any circumstances, or to bring in new revenue by closing loopholes. This pledge, which Rep. Ryan’s budget loyally adheres to, in effect freezes tax policy in time — preserving not only Bush’s massive and supposedly temporary tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, but also a vast mishmash of tax breaks and loopholes for specific industries won by well-funded lobbyists.
The problem has become so great that many giant American corporations have become so adept at exploiting loopholes in the tax code that they paid no federal income taxes at all last year — if Republicans in Congress follow their pledge to Norquist, they won’t be able to close a single one of the loopholes that are allowing corporations to avoid paying their fair share.
Even Reagan recognized the difference between just plain raising taxes and simplifying the tax code to cut out loopholes that subsidize corporations. In 1984, he arranged to bring in $50 billion over three years, mainly by closing these loopholes. His 1986 reform act not only included $120 billion in tax hikes for corporations over five years, it also closed $300 billion worth of corporate loopholes.
These kinds of tax simplification solutions are available for Congress if they want them. As I wrote in April, nixing Bush’s tax cut’s for the wealthiest Americans would help the country cut roughly $65 billion off the deficit in this year alone. Closing loopholes that allow corporations to shelter their income in foreign banks would bring in $6.9 billion. Eliminating the massive tax breaks now enjoyed by oil and gas companies would yield $2.6 billion to help pay the nation’s bills.
But before Republicans in Congress change their math, they have to change their rhetoric — and embrace the reality of the economic situation they face and the one that they’d like to think they’re copying. In 1986, during the signing ceremony for the Tax Reform Act, Reagan explained that “vanishing loopholes and a minimum tax will mean that everybody and every corporation pay their fair share.”
It’s time for the GOP to take a page from their hero’s playbook. If they do so, they might be able to find some allies that they never thought possible. It’s time for “everybody and every corporation to pay their fair share.” We can all get along. Sign me up for “The Reagan Tax Reform Act of 2011.”
By: Michael B. Keegan, President, People For The American Way, Published in Huffington Post Politics, June 7, 2011
During the White House meeting this week between President Obama and the Republican leadership, Rep. Paul Ryan took the President to task for demagoguing Ryan’s proposed Medicare changes.
According to the Congressman, the insistence on the part of the President- and his brother and sister Democrats – that the program is a voucher system rather than the ‘premium support’ program Ryan steadfastly claims the idea to be, is grossly misleading Americans, all for the purpose of political gain.
While Ryan’s confrontation with Obama brought cheers from the GOP freshman class who fill the corridors of Congress these days, the question that needs to be asked is, ”Who is demagoguing who?”
In truth, the concepts behind premium support and voucher programs are fairly close, each with a similar objective – the government helping out the beneficiary by paying a portion of a benefit, in this case an insurance premium.
Rep. Ryan likes to point out that his proposed Medicare program is the same as that employed by the Federal Employees Benefits Program and the Medicare Part D benefit that helps seniors pay for their prescription drugs. Both these programs operate using government premium support, whereby the government contributes towards the payment of the premiums charged by the private insurance carrier to the beneficiary, but makes the government’s share of the premium payment directly to the insurance company issuing the policy.
This direct payment is what is often considered the point of distinction between a voucher and premium support. In a voucher program the government gives the financial support directly to the beneficiaries who are then on their own to do what they will with the money, so long as they don’t look to the government to do anything else for them.
Using this standard alone, Rep. Ryan would have a point.
Indeed, his plan proposes seniors going to private insurers for their health care coverage with the government contributing a share of the premium charges and making the payment directly to the insurance company. This is just as the federal government does in the cases of federal employee benefits and Medicare Part D.
However, there is a more important distinction between premium support plans and vouchers.
In the plan that provides heath care benefits for federal employees, on which Ryan relies to make his premium support case, if a government employee’s premium costs go up –and they always do – the government increases the premium support in lockstep with the increased premium.
Not so with RyanCare.
Ryan’s proposal, that would turn Medicare into a private insurance program with the government providing assistance to seniors on their premium payments, limits increases in that support to the cost of living index – an amount wholly insufficient to cover the extra costs as we know that rising costs of health care and premium charges always exceed annual cost of living increases. Thus, if premiums increase (and of course they will) the costs of these increases will be shifted to our senior citizens who, in most instances, would not appear to have the ability to take on these increased costs on their fixed retirement budgets.
This, by anyone’s definition, is a voucher program.
In a recent piece by Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, Ezra interviewed Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institute and Bob Reischauer of the Urban Institute. Messrs. Aaron and Brookings are the two gentlemen who originally came up with the term “premium support” to describe their idea for a Medicare system where the program is opened up to competition by private insurers but has safeguards built in to protect Medicare beneficiaries from the very cost shifting program the Ryan plan proposes.
While Ryan has largely adopted this model – the two originators make clear that he has done so without the key cost shifting safeguards that they believe are so essential to it working.
According to Aaron-
If one does the arithmetic, income grows a few percentage points faster than prices. Health-care spending grows faster than income by a couple of percentage points. So we’re looking at linking to an index that grows less rapidly than health-care costs by three to four percentage points a year. Piled up over 10 years, and that’s a huge erosion of coverage. It’s vouchers, not premium support.
Clearly, Ryan’s plan bears a far greater resemblance to a voucher program than the premium support programs he looks to as back up for what he is selling.
We can have a debate as to whether we would be better off turning Medicare over to the private markets. While I believe it is an idea fraught with dangerous consequences to our future seniors (those who are not yet 55 years of age), an honest debate to discuss these different ideas cannot hurt.
However, when Ryan and friends continue to play the political game of blaming the President for misleading the public when it is, in fact, Ryan who is attempting to mislead, there will be no honest debate.
It is not the President who is demagoguing on this one – it is Paul Ryan.
By: Rick Ungar, The Policy Page, Forbes, June 5, 2011
When President Obama met with congressional Republicans this week, GOP leaders were particularly incensed about Democrats using the word “voucher” when describing the Republican plan to end Medicare. Paul Ryan and others prefer “premium support,” and consider the Dems’ rhetoric to be “demagoguery.”
There are two main problems with this rhetorical disagreement. The first is that the GOP plan really does rely on vouchers, whether the party cares for the word or not. The second is that plenty of far-right Republicans are inclined to ignore their party’s talking-point instructions.
Here, for example, was Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin, a Tea Party favorite, explaining one of the things he likes most about his party’s Medicare plan.
“What I like about the Paul Ryan plan is it’s trying to bring a little bit of free-market principles back into Medicare.
“If you need subsidized care, we’ll give you vouchers. You figure out how you want to spend. You select what insurance carrier you want to use. It’s a start.”
It’s not just Johnson. Last week, GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain argued, “Nobody’s talking about the fact that the centerpiece of Ryan’s plan is a voucher. Now, a lot of people don’t like to use that term because it has a negative connotation. That is what we need.” Even Fox News has referred to the Republican plan as being built around “vouchers.
If conservative Republicans are using the word, why is it outrageous when Democrats do the same thing? Are Johnson, Cain, and the Republican cable news network all secretly siding with the left?
As for the substance behind the claim, it’s worth noting that this isn’t just about semantics — the GOP claim that their scheme doesn’t include vouchers is just wrong. Paul Krugman explained yesterday:
[T]he ACA is specifically designed to ensure that insurance is affordable, whereas Ryancare just hands out vouchers and washes its hands. Specifically, the ACA subsidy system (pdf) sets a maximum percentage of income that families are expected to pay for insurance, on a sliding scale that rises with income. To the extent that the actual cost of a minimum acceptable policy exceeds that percentage of income, subsidies make up the difference.
Ryancare, by contrast, provides a fixed sum — end of story. And because this fixed sum would not grow with rising health care costs, it’s almost guaranteed to fall far short of the actual cost of insurance.
This is also why Ryancare is NOT premium support; it’s a voucher system. No matter how much they say it isn’t, that’s exactly what it is.
Given this reality, why do Republicans throw such a fit about the use of the “v” word? Because vouchers don’t poll well. For the right, the key is to come up with phrasing, no matter how deceptive, that persuades the public. If GOP leaders throw a big enough tantrum, they’re hoping everyone — Dems, pundits, reporters, even other Republicans — will use the words they like, rather than more accurate words that make the party look bad.
No one should be fooled.
By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, June 4, 2011