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Echoes Of Ayn Rand: How The GOP Came To View The Poor As Parasites And The Rich As Our Rightful Rulers

Last week the Republican Party sounded two distinct voices. First we heard the angry demands of the Tea Party, speaking through its hardline conservative allies in the House, pushing the government to the brink of a shutdown. But then emerged the soothing tones of Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, who fashions himself the intellectual leader of the party, unveiling a budget manifesto he calls the “Path to Prosperity.”

Ryan portrays his goals in reassuringly pecuniary terms—he’s just the friendly neighborhood accountant here to help balance your checkbook. “I have a knack for numbers,” he chirps. ABC News compared him to a character in Dave, the corny 1993 movie about an average Joe who mistakenly assumes the presidency and calls in his CPA buddy—that would be Ryan—to scour the federal budget and bring it into balance. If he has any flaw, he just cares too much about rescuing the country from debt, gosh darn it!

In fact, the two streams—the furious Tea Party rebels and Ryan the earnest budget geek—both spring from the same source. And it is to that source that you must look if you want to understand what Ryan is really after, and what makes these activists so angry.

The Tea Party began early in 2009 after an improvised rant by Rick Santelli, a CNBC commentator who called for an uprising to protest the Obama administration’s subsidizing the “losers’ mortgages.” Video of his diatribe rocketed around the country, and protesters quickly adopted both his call for a tea party and his general abhorrence of government that took from the virtuous and the successful and gave to the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt—in short, the losers. It sounded harsh, Santelli quickly conceded, but “at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rander.”

Ayn Rand, of course, was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard—a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.

John Galt, the protagonist of her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, expressed Rand’s inverted Marxism: “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

In 2009 Rand began popping up all over the Tea Party movement. Sales of her books skyrocketed, and signs quoting her ideas appeared constantly at rallies. Conservatives asserted that the events of the Obama administration eerily paralleled the plot of Atlas Shrugged, in which a liberal government precipitates economic collapse.

One conservative making that point was Ryan. His citation of Rand was not casual. He’s a Rand nut. In the days before his star turn as America’s Accountant, Ryan once appeared at a gathering to honor her philosophy, where he announced, “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.” He continues to view Rand as a lodestar, requiring his staffers to digest her creepy tracts.

When Ryan warns of the specter of collapse, he is not merely referring to the alarming gap between government outlays and receipts, as his admirers in the media assume. (Every policy change of the last decade that increased the deficit—the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—Ryan voted for.) He is also invoking Rand’s almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse. That is the crisis his Path to Prosperity seeks to avert.

Viewed as an effort to reduce the debt, Ryan’s plan makes little sense. Many of its proposals either have nothing to do with reducing deficits (repealing the financial-reform bill loathed by Wall Street) or actually increase deficits (making the Bush tax cuts permanent). It relies heavily on distant, phantasmal cuts. During the debate over health-care reform, Ryan insisted that Medicare cuts used to finance universal coverage might add up on paper but they’d never stick—they were too far down the road, and Congress would just walk them back when people complained.

But Ryan proposes identical cuts in his own plan. What’s more, he saves trillions of dollars from Medicare by imposing huge cuts on anybody who retires starting in 2022. So not only has he adopted the cuts he claimed would never come to pass because they’re too harsh and too distant, he imposes far harsher and more distant cuts of his own. Indeed, Alice Rivlin, the fiscally conservative Democratic economist who endorsed an earlier version of his Medicare plan, called his new plan unrealistic. (Ryan nonetheless continues to imply that she supports it.)

Ryan’s plan does do two things in immediate and specific ways: hurt the poor and help the rich. After extending the Bush tax cuts, he would cut the top rate for individuals and corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent. Then Ryan slashes Medicaid, Pell Grants, food stamps, and low-income housing. These programs to help the poor, which constitute approximately 21 percent of the federal budget, absorb two thirds of Ryan’s cuts.

Ryan spares anybody over the age of 55 from any Medicare or Social Security cuts, because, he says, they “have organized their lives around these programs.” But the roughly one in seven Americans (and nearly one in four children) on food stamps? Apparently they can have their benefits yanked away because they were only counting on using them to eat.

Ryan casts these cuts as an incentive for the poor to get off their lazy butts. He insists that we “ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” It’s worth translating what Ryan means here. Welfare reform was premised on the tough but persuasive argument that providing long-term cash payments to people who don’t work encourages long-term dependency. Ryan is saying that the poor should not only be denied cash income but also food and health care.

The class tinge of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity is striking. The poorest Americans would suffer immediate, explicit budget cuts. Middle-class Americans would face distant, uncertain reductions in benefits. And the richest Americans would enjoy an immediate windfall. Santelli, in his original rant, demanded that we “reward people [who can] carry the water instead of drink the water.” Ryan won’t say so, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.

By: Jonathan Chait, Senior Editor, The New Republic

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Deficits, Democrats, Economy, Federal Budget, Financial Reform, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Health Reform, Ideologues, Income Gap, Journalists, Media, Medicare, Middle Class, Politics, Rep Paul Ryan, Republicans, Right Wing, Social Security, Tea Party, Uninsured, Wall Street, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Threat Of The Tea Party’s Budget Terrorism

Round one of the season’s big budget battle is over, with no real winners. Rounds two and three—the 2012 fiscal year budget and the debt ceiling—are bound to be nastier and more difficult. And it’s not just because budget-cutting is no fun and the Hill is so partisan. It’s that we now have a new element in the war against congressional impasse: the government suicide bomber.

It used to be, in budget battles past, that there was a common element that served as both a brake on emotional decision-making and an impetus for compromise. No one wanted to stop the entire government from operating, to deny basic services to people far away, literally and figuratively, from the partisan fights on the Hill. The floor fights had personal implications, as well, with lawmakers engaging in vitriolic, in-person arguments on the floor. I have a vivid memory of former Rep. Richard Gephardt somehow managing to slam the swinging doors in frustration as he exited the House chamber during one such battle. I remember former Rep. Ron Dellums, dressed exquisitely in a  tuxedo—and not in honor of the budget fight  vgb—as he pleaded for progress so he could attend the wedding of one of his children. “Mr. Speaker, can I please go love my son?” the former California lawmaker said.

As bad as those days were, they at least included a human element, and a common desire to avoid hurting their constituents. Now, lawmakers rarely debate each other on the House floor—they are more likely to come to the floor, make a two- or three-minute speech, then head back to their offices or party caucus meetings. And now, just as we have learned to adapt to airline security in a post-9/11 world, we have to contend with a federal budget terrorist mindset—the camp that is prepared to bring us all down to advance a political mission. What was once an ominous threat is now a battle cry, with antigovernment, Tea Party forces gleefully yelling “shut it down!”—as though all that was needed for peace and prosperity was to send home government workers.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy in some of that crowd; Michael Fletcher smartly reports in the Washington Post about the antigovernment mood in Oklahoma, which as a state benefits greatly from federal largesse. But while worries about the federal debt and deficit are justifiable, contempt for the very existence of government—and, by extension, the democratic process—is not. Members of Congress were elected to serve in the U.S. Capitol, not blow it up.

By: Susan Milligan, U.S. News and World Report, April 11, 2011

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Class Warfare, Congress, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Tea Party, Terrorism | , , , , | Leave a comment

How The Media Promotes Ignorance And Stifles Debate

Friday night, my eyes were glued to to the news, as I awaited any and all emerging details about the possible government shutdown. As outlets began reporting that republicans and democrats had finally reached a deal, I immediately felt a sense of relief.  Thank goodness, I thought, so much unnecessary suffering averted.  But the relief didn’t last long, because in the pit of my stomach was fear for the many millions of people who will be affected by the $38 billion in budget cuts passed by congress. Unfortunately, the media feels differently, preferring to discuss ad-nausium the budget cut’s political ramifications for the two parties.

The same thing happened when the GOP was determined to shutdown the government if democrats did not sign on to defunding Planned Parenthood.  Again, the media’s focus was not on the health of the 3 million people the organization treats every year, by providing cancer screenings, HIV and STI checks, and contraceptives.  They focused on how this painted republicans as partisan ideologues, or the democrats as supporters for women’s rights, which party was to blame for the almost-shutdown, and most notably, the consequences this would have on their popularity.

Almost all of the reporting by the establishment media centers around how X will affect the democrats favorability numbers, or how Y will affect the republicans chances in 2012.  Whether I was watching MSNBC or CNN, the sole concern was always on the political implications of the budget cuts, rather than the real life consequences for the many millions of Americans already suffering from unemployment, foreclosures, and sky-rocketing medical costs.

And therein lies the problem with our media establishment: Every major policy issue is strangled by the established “right vs left” consensus.  Whether it’s civil liberties, our endless wars, healthcare reform, or the economy, all are presented through the prism of democrat and republican disagreement.  Not only does this ignore the tribulation of people around the country, but most importantly the media omits discussion of issues that receive bipartisan support, which has increasingly become the case, issue after issue.

There is very little that republicans and democrats in office disagree on.  They both support the wars, the private insurance industry, tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, budget cuts during an economic recession, and the list goes on.  Perhaps this is because both parties are corporately owned by the same interests.  The only real difference today remains their position on social issues.  Republicans are still against women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality, while democrats remain pro-choice and advocates for ending institutionalized discrimination against homosexuals (although they don’t do a very good job at consistently standing up for these rights).  While these issues are of great importance, they are not the only problems afflicting the nation.

Look no further than the lack of coverage on economic suffering for proof.  Republicans want to cut all social spending, while democrats prefer to cut a fraction of social services that benefit the public at large.  So rather than discussing alternatives to austerity aimed at the working class and poor, the media solely focuses on how much austerity is enough.  Poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly support increasing taxes on the wealthy to reduce the deficit.  In addition, major cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security to balance the budget are wildly unpopular.  But the mainstream narrative does not even challenge whether budget cuts are necessary, or if other alternatives for deficit reduction exist, let alone the public’s opinion.

The media also refuses to bring up defense spending, which costs upwards of $1 trillion annually.  Probably because both parties agree that the national security and warfare state are untouchable.  Which is interesting, given that the public prefers cutting defense spending rather than social spending to reduce the deficit.  Then again public support for the Afghanistan war is at an all-time low, but the bipartisan Washington consensus in support of the war remains unmoved.  The fact that war spending is draining our treasury should be a significant story for the media, particularly since the government just launched another war in Libya, while ironically calling for fiscal responsibility.

If they aren’t even capable of exposing the cost of war, it is no surprise that the casualties of war, both the injured and dead, soldiers and civilians, are completely omitted from discussion.  Again, this makes sense, given the bipartisan support for war, with tactical nuances making up the few points of contention.  This was most apparent in the lead up to the Iraq war, which enjoyed strong bipartisan support, with the media following suit by forcing a pro-war narrative and firing those who loudly dissented.

The same is true for healthcare reform.  Americans overwhelmingly support a single payer, medicare-for-all system, but since democrats and republicans are both in the pockets of the private insurance industry, single-payer is not a viable topic for debate on the airwaves.  Even climate change has become a forgotten issue.  Now that President Obama and his fellow democrats have adopted the Bush approach — i.e. refusing to cut greenhouse gas emissions, regulate resource exploiting industries, or invest in alternative energy — climate change and it’s very real, disastrous effects, are almost never examined.

It is no wonder so many Americans are turned off by politics.  Many don’t realize how political decisions effect their everyday lives, from the quality of the water and air that they breath, to the seat-belts they wear and sick days they receive.  If not for independent media outlets like Democracy Now! and independent journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Marcy Wheeler, to name a few, I would be an apathetic liberal uninterested in “silly political debate”.

If the goal of the establishment media class is to portray significant political decisions as boring ideological nonsense, then they have succeeded.  One doesn’t need to attend journalism school to understand that the mainstream media has failed at its job of informing the public and holding those in power accountable.  Instead they have successfully promoted ignorance and stifled debate, to the detriment of truth and social justice.

By: Rania Khalek, CommonDreams.org, April 10, 2011

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, Education, Elections, Foreclosures, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Human Rights, Ideology, Journalists, Media, Medicaid, Medicare, Populism, Public Opinion, Pundits, Republicans, Social Security, Tax Increases, Womens Rights | , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Are People Acting Like Health Care Reform Never Happened?

Ezra Klein, responding to the widespread perception that Paul Ryan has a plan to tackle medical cost inflation and Democrats don’t, points out that this is the opposite of the truth:

The Affordable Care Act’s central hope is that Medicare can lead the health-care system to pay for value, cut down on overtreatment, and cut out treatments that simply don’t work. The law develops Accountable Care Organizations, in which Medicare pays one provider to coordinate all of your care successfully, rather than paying many doctors and providers to add to your care no matter the cost or outcome, as is the current practice. It also begins experimenting with bundled payments, in which Medicare pays one lump-sum for all care related to the successful treatment of a condition rather than paying for every piece of care separately. To help these reforms succeed, and to help all doctors make more cost-effective treatment decisions, the law accelerates research on which drugs and treatments are most effective, and creates and funds the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute to disseminate the data.

If those initiatives work, they head over to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which can implement cost-controlling reforms across Medicare without congressional approval — an effort to make continuous reform the default for Medicare, even if Congress is gridlocked or focused on other matters. And if they don’t work, then it’s up to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a funded body that will be continually testing payment and practice reforms, to keep searching and experimenting, and when it hits on successful ideas, handing them to the IPAB to implement throughout the system.

The law also goes after bad and wasted care: It cuts payments to hospitals with high rates of re-admission, as that tends to signal care isn’t being delivered well, or isn’t being follow up on effectively. It cuts payments to hospitals for care related to infections caught in the hospitals. It develops new plans to help Medicare base its purchasing decisions on value, and new programs to help Medicaid move patients with chronic illnesses into systems that rely on the sort of maintenance-based care that’s been shown to successfully lower costs and improve outcomes. 

Keep in mind that the Congressional Budget Office made the very conservative decision not to assign savings to these measures, on the assumption that since they had never been tried before, there was no way of measuring how well they would work, so it gave them no financial savings value. And the Affordable Care Act also included a limit on the tax deduction for expensive health insurance, a powerful cost-saving tool that the CBO did score.

But to zoom out for a second, what Klein’s identifying here is part of a larger phenomenon. It’s not just that the debate about health care costs seems to take place as if the ACA never happened. The entire political debate seems to take place as if the ACA never happened. Moderate liberal Jacob Weisberg lamented liberal opposition to Paul Ryan as advocating government health care for the old but nobody else — when of course we now have government-provided health insurance for everybody else (except illegal immigrants.)

The deficit hawks embrace Paul Ryan’s plan as a starting point of a debate about deficit. (David Brooks today: “Because he had the courage to take the initiative, Paul Ryan’s budget plan will be the starting point for future discussions.”) But of course the ACA was not just a starting point but an enormous stride forward. Ryan proposes to undo much of it. Yet he is the courageous leader, and his critics passive observers.

What happened? The details of the ACA’s cost-containment are wonky, and few people paid attention to them. Staunch liberals either didn’t care about cost containment, or devoted their energy to agitating for more sweeping alternatives. Moderate liberals supported the measure, but, taking their cue from policy wonks, took the very honest posture of conceding that some parts might not work as planned, and thus contributed to a massive asymmetry of passion. Centrists simply assumed that any deficit plan that wasn’t a grand bipartisan deal could not be a real deficit plan, since their fundamental premise is that a grand bipartisan deal is the only way to address the deficit. And the whole health care issue was sucked into the vortex of an unhinged debate, so that millions of conservatives understand the whole package as nothing more than an assault on freedom, with little or no grasp of the particulars.

The end result of all this is a debate around an issue with a peculiar backwards character.

By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, April 4, 2011

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Conservatives, Consumers, Democrats, Federal Budget, GOP, Health Care Costs, Health Reform, Politics, Republicans, States | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mangled Mandate: How Paul Ryan And The GOP Are Misreading The American People

As with any election, there are competing narratives about what message the voters were sending last November when Democrats got routed in the mid-terms. Each party has offered a view on the meaning of the election. In the Democrats’ view, an economically anxious electorate was focused on jobs and repudiated Obama’s party for not delivering on job growth. In this telling, voters did not reject a liberal agenda but saw health care and other issues as diversions from their immediate pressing economic concerns. And there is some evidence to support this view: Nearly two out of three voters picked the economy as the single most important issue in deciding their vote, and Republicans won that vote. Republicans, on the other hand, argue that voters threw out Democrats in record numbers because they recoiled at incredible levels of government spending. And, indeed, some exit polling showed that voters registered their opposition to a more activist federal government: 56 percent said the government is doing too much, while only 38 percent said the government should do more to solve problems. Meanwhile, 40 percent of voters favored deficit-reduction.

Now, Republicans are intent on using their interpretation of the election to achieve their policy goals. They are offering a budget blueprint that slashes spending on Medicare and Medicaid and other government programs. Representative Paul Ryan’s plan dramatically cuts services to the middle class. As my colleague Jonathan Chait has pointed out, these cuts would be made by lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations. The whole proposal, in other words, represents a giant redistribution of wealth away from the middle class toward the rich. As the Congressional Budget Office notes about Ryan’s plan for Medicare, for example, “most elderly people would pay more for their health care than they would pay under the current Medicare system.” What Ryan is really saying, then, is in the middle of this recession, after a decade of declining wages, the real problem in our country is that middle-class Americans have too many services and the rich have been too put upon. And he seems to think he has public support to back him up.

But are Ryan and other Republicans about to walk over quicksand, fooled by the illusion of firm ground beneath their feet after the November elections? Do Americans really want slashes to programs that serve them? Evidence suggests not—meaning Paul Ryan is teetering on the edge of a cliff, threatening to take all House Republicans down with him.

Even the Tea Party movement, whose momentum was built on outrage at government spending, seems to be waning somewhat; the movement’s rallies that once boasted huge numbers now bring only hundreds to the Capitol. As poll analyst Charlie Cook has pointed out, independents have also shifted to being more neutral toward government intervention in the economy over the last few months—from 60 percent saying the government was trying to do too much in October to only 47 percent agreeing with that idea now. (Or, seen from another angle, in the same time frame, people saying the government should do more has risen from 38 percent to 51 percent). And, perhaps even more ominous for Republicans, according to a recent Kaiser poll, 56 percent of Americans do not support any Medicare reductions, 35 percent support minor reductions, and only 8 percent support major reductions. The story is the same with Medicaid: 47 percent do not support Medicaid reductions, 39 percent support minor reductions and 13 percent support major reductions.

Dress it up as he likes, Paul Ryan is proposing to do just what polls show the American people don’t want—to shift more costs shift to individuals, including middle-class Americans. And many House Republicans agree with him, although, already, a few members are refusing to embrace the Ryan budget proposal. Politico has reported that several more vulnerable Republican members, including Blake Farenthold, Sean Duffy, and Ann Marie Buerkle, have called the plan bold, yet not embraced the details.

After every election, the victors try to define and act on their mandate. As Ryan and other Republicans rush through their effort to slash spending, however, they would do well to ask themselves whether it’s what the public really wants—or whether they’re woefully misreading the voters, and setting themselves up for disaster in the next election.

By: Neera Tanden, The New Republic, April 7, 2011

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Health Care, Ideology, Jobs, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Medicare, Middle Class, Politics, Populism, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Tea Party, Voters | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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