“Free To Be Hungry”: Conservatives Believe That Freedom Is Just Another Word For “Not Enough To Eat”
The word “freedom” looms large in modern conservative rhetoric. Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks; health reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on, yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to pommes frites as “freedom fries”?
The right’s definition of freedom, however, isn’t one that, say, F.D.R. would recognize. In particular, the third of his famous Four Freedoms — freedom from want — seems to have been turned on its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that freedom’s just another word for not enough to eat.
In a way, you can see why the food stamp program — or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of G.D.P. SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.
Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can’t find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress.
The recent growth of SNAP has indeed been unusual, but then so have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession of 2007-9 was the worst slump since the Great Depression, and the recovery that followed has been very weak. Multiple careful economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains the great bulk of the increase in food stamp use. And while the economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.
Nor is that the program’s only benefit. The evidence is now overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway. SNAP, however, is one program that has been expanding, and as such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But, say the usual suspects, the recession ended in 2009. Why hasn’t recovery brought the SNAP rolls down? The answer is, while the recession did indeed officially end in 2009, what we’ve had since then is a recovery of, by and for a small number of people at the top of the income distribution, with none of the gains trickling down to the less fortunate. Adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent actually fell 6 percent. Why should food stamp usage have gone down?
Still, is SNAP in general a good idea? Or is it, as Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, puts it, an example of turning the safety net into “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”
One answer is, some hammock: last year, average food stamp benefits were $4.45 a day. Also, about those “able-bodied people”: almost two-thirds of SNAP beneficiaries are children, the elderly or the disabled, and most of the rest are adults with children.
Beyond that, however, you might think that ensuring adequate nutrition for children, which is a large part of what SNAP does, actually makes it less, not more likely that those children will be poor and need public assistance when they grow up. And that’s what the evidence shows. The economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach have studied the impact of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was gradually rolled out across the country. They found that children who received early assistance grew up, on average, to be healthier and more productive adults than those who didn’t — and they were also, it turns out, less likely to turn to the safety net for help.
SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special ire.
Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the G.O.P., because it makes Republicans look like meanspirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And that’s because they are.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 22, 2013
Last week David Brooks had an interesting column about a couple of studies that surveyed key words in a body of writings. (No, we’re not talking about tax examiners looking for Tea Party among applications.) He describes the “two elements” that he found:
“The first element in this story is rising individualism. A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases. That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.
“The second element of the story is demoralization. A study by Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir found that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion” were used much less frequently. The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the century progressed. Certain types of virtues were especially hard hit. Usage of courage words like “bravery” and “fortitude” fell by 66 percent. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” dropped by 49 percent. ”
The question I have–and would have tried to answer, had not my attempts to find these studies through google led me to data bases that thwarted my efforts to access the pieces–is this: how did the word `freedom’ do?
One of the biggest changes in my adult life is what has happened to freedom, not just as a word, but as a value. It is, it seems to me, the only value Americans put much stock in. Equality, in which immigrants and labor unions invested so much energy and support and devotion during the first part of the 20th century, now seems a hostage of identity group politics. Freedom is it–it’s what we appeal to for everything, from gay marriage to Wall Street shortcuts to environmental pollution to smoking pot to war (Free Kuwait! Iraqi freedom!) These are the years of freedom triumphant, and boy, if anything explains the mess we’re in, it’s freedom. Try arguing for something in terms of Community, or Sacrifice. Go to Congress and make a case for Majority Rule, and you’ll get an earful from Ted Cruz and Rand Paul about the freedom of the minority to thwart the majority.
More than anyone, Ronald Reagan put us on this path. I can’t imagine a figure who would be able to get us to rebalance our values.
By: Jamie Malanowski, Washington Monthly Political Animal, May 26, 2013
Check out what the loopy Ayn Randroids are up to now. In long-suffering Detroit, a libertarian real estate developer wants to buy a civic crown jewel, Belle Isle, the 982-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead—think the Motor City’s Central Park—and turn it into an independent nation, selling citizenships at $300,000 per. Not, mind you, out of any mercenary motives, says would-be founder Rodney Lockwood—but just “to provide an economic and social laboratory for a society which effectively addresses some of the most important problems of American, and the western world.” (Sic.)
Address how? Well, let’s say I’ve never seen a document that better reveals the extent to which, for libertarians, “liberty” means the opposite of liberty—at least since Rick Santorum held up the company town in which his grandpa was entombed as a beacon of freedom.
An aspiring Ayn Rand himself, Lockwood has set out his vision in a “novel,” poetically titled Belle Isle: Detroit’s Game Changer. Although he’s actually done the master one better, by imagining he can get his utopia built. Last week he presented the plan, alongside a retired Chrysler executive, a charter school entrepreneur (who apparently enjoys a cameo in the novel running one of the island’s two K-12 schools) and a senior economist at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, to what The Detroit News called “a select group of movers and shakers at the tony Detroit Athletic Club,” who included the president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Never let it be said Rod Lockwood (perfect pornstar name? You be the judge) hasn’t thought this thing through. The plan is foolproof: “Belle Isle is sold by the City of Detroit to a group of investors for $1 billion. The island is then developed into a city-state of 35,000 people, with its own laws, customs and currency, under United States supervision as a Commonwealth.” Relations with neighboring, impoverished Detroit will be naught but copacetic, and not exploitative at all: “Plants will be built across the Detroit River…. with the engineering and management functions on Belle Isle. Companies from all over the world will locate on Belle Isle, bringing in massive amounts of capital and GDP.” (Because, you know, tax-dodging international financiers of the sort a scheme like this attracts are just desperate to open and operate factories.) Government will be limited to ten percent or less of GDP, “by constitutional dictate. The social safety net is operated charities, which are highly encouraged and supported by the government.”
Although, on Belle Isle, “the word ‘Government’ is discouraged and replaced with the word ‘Service’ in the name of buildings.” Note the verb-tense slippage between present and future throughout. Lockwood is a realist.
He says what he imagines is a “Midwest Tiger”—helpfully explaining that his self-bestowed nickname is “a play on the label given Singapore as the ‘Asian Tiger.’ Singapore, in recent decades, has transformed itself into the most dynamic economy in the world, through low regulation, low taxes and business-friendly practices.”
Singapore. You know: that libertarian paradise where chewing gum is banned; thousands of people each year are sentenced to whippings with rattan canes for such offenses as overstaying visas and spray-painting buildings; the punishment for littering can be $1,000, a term of forced labor and being required to wear a sign reading “I am a litter lout”; and where pornography, criticizing religion, connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot and (yes!) over-exuberant hugging are all banned. Freedom!
What are the Commonwealth’s other inspirations, you ask? “The country of Liechtenstein, which, although a monarchy, has a very effective government.”
And indeed, just like little Liechtenstein, Belle Islanders will enjoy protection from America’s security umbrella: “As a Commonwealth of the United States…Belle Isle pays its share of the U.S. defense budget, based on its population. It amounts to about $2,000 per person per year.” In fact Belle Islanders can expect nothing but fiscal gratitude from citizens of the United States. Yes, “a citizen who lives on Belle Isle who operates an investment fund with world-wide customers will pay no income taxes” to the United States. “Won’t the US lose a lot of tax revenue?” Oh, ye of little libertarian faith. “It will probably gain revenue…. Entrepreneurs from around the world will locate on Belle Isle and headquarter there, but often have their plant operations in the US because the island is so small. Businesses producing products in the U.S. will still be taxed at US corporate rates…. the influx of capital and jobs will be staggering…. Detroiters will see this vision as the answer to their prayers, and how could the federal government deny Detroit a chance to turn itself around, accelerate its re-birth, all at no cost to the taxpayer? How could they deny this long standing population of over 700,000 their first real shot at the American dream.” (Sic.)
Want in? Three requirements. First, of course, you need to come up with $300,000. “Will the citizenship fee pay for the purchase of any land for homes or businesses on Belle Isle?” “No—that will be an additional cost.” But look what that $300,000 buys you: “One of the core values” of the new nation, Lockwood writes, “is respect for all its citizens, no matter their station in life.”
Second: approval by the “citizenship board.” (Freedom!) Third step: “a command of English.” Because nothing says “respect for all its citizens” like “funny-talkers need not apply.”
And yes, it’s true, Lockwood proposes the “Rand” as the name of Belle Isle’s currency. But I’m sure he means Rand as in “Ayn Rand,” not, you know, Rand as in “South Africa,” the former home of a social system that functioned by surrounding minority enclaves of affluent whites with a reserve army of impoverished and disenfranchised blacks. Not like that at all.
What could go wrong? What’s the downside? After all, writes Lockwood in the section of his FAQ asking, ‘What is Bell Isle used for currently?”, “It is uninhabited and functions as a public park.” Just like that dead zone between 59th and 110th Streets in Manhattan.
You can sign up for updates on the project here. Although, take note, in order do so you have to give the organizers your phone number. Because, you know… freedom.
By: Rick Perlstein, The Nation, January 28, 2013
Today, Philip Bump at Grist passed along this interesting story about a shock jock in Australia who, after spewing some false nonsense about climate change on the air, “has been ordered to undergo ‘factual accuracy’ training, and to use fact-checkers.” Obviously, the government has no such powers here in America, but it’s a good reminder that America’s particular version of free speech wasn’t handed down from above, or even by the Founders. The words in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) are very general; the contours and details of that freedom have been given shape over the decades by a succession of Supreme Court cases. James Madison didn’t have an opinion about whether it was OK for Rush Limbaugh to go on the air and call Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” so we had to figure out later how to handle that, and we chose, for some good reasons, to let it slide (legally speaking).
In other countries where people are just as committed to freedom as we are, they’ve come to slightly different conclusions about where the limits of those freedoms are. It’s not that they don’t value free expression, it’s just that competing values like truth and civility sometimes get weighed more heavily. We believe there are limits to freedom of speech no less than the Australians do; we just put those limits farther out. There are plenty of speech acts you can be sued or even prosecuted for, from intentionally libeling someone to inciting violence to revealing state secrets to conspiring to commit a crime.
I wouldn’t be comfortable with our government making decisions like the one the Australian government did, but we shouldn’t forget that our expansive interpretation of free speech comes with a cost. Because we don’t want the government policing the truth, we have to put up with a lot of lies; because we don’t think you have a right not to be offended, we have to put up with lots of offensive speech. There are countries where the consensus belief is that personal dignity is a value that outweighs freedom of speech, so you can be punished for offending someone. This is at the heart of why many people in the Muslim world can’t quite understand why our society would tolerate something like that anti-Muslim film, and why we can’t quite understand why they got so worked up over it, since it was just some jackass making a stupid video. Here in America, we offer wide latitude to jackassery.
There are lots of Americans who only value free speech so long as their own feelings aren’t being hurt and they don’t have to hear any speech they don’t like. But democracy is often painful and unpleasant. For instance, 18 days from now, half the country is going to be very, very disappointed with the results of the election. I have a feeling that when it happens, particularly if Barack Obama wins, we’re going to see how thin the commitment to democracy is on the part of some people.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 19, 2012