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“Liberals, Conservatives, And The Meaning Of Work”: Ideological Republicans Do Not Understand What It Means To Be Human

It appears that those who talk so much about “economic freedom” aren’t too happy when ordinary people have more choices.

It isn’t often that we spend an entire week talking about a Congressional Budget Office report and its implications, but the one currently occupying Washington’s attention—about the effects of the Affordable Care Act on the labor force—is actually pretty revealing. To catch you up, the CBO said that due to the fact that under the ACA people are no longer tied to jobs they’d prefer to leave because they can’t get health insurance on the individual market (“job lock”), many will do things like retire early, take time off to stay at home with kids, or quit and start businesses. They projected that these departures will add up to the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 million full-time positions. At first, Republicans cried “Obamacare will kill 2 million jobs!”, but when everyone, including the CBO’s director, said that was a blatantly misleading reading of what the report actually said, they changed their tune. And here’s where it gets interesting, because this debate is getting to the heart of what work means, what freedom is—and for whom—and just what kind of an economy we want to have.

Paul Ryan may have been the first Republican to articulate the new attack based on the CBO’s report, when in a hearing on Wendnesday he lamented that fewer Americans would “get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class.” The argument was quickly picked up by others. “I think any law you pass that discourages people from working can’t be a good idea. Why would we want to do that? ” asked Senator Roy Blunt on Fox News Sunday. Representative Tom Cole said the same thing on This Week: “Anything that discourages work—and that’s essentially what the CBO found, that this discourages some people from working, not a good thing at a time when the economy’s still struggling.” Representative Trey Gowdy said, “What the liberals and the Democrats want you to believe is, ‘Well, but you’ll have time to write poetry.’ Well, that’s great until you try and buy your grandkid a birthday present or you try and pay the heating bill.”

You might read that and wonder, “Just how dumb do they think people are?” If you’re, say, a 63-year-old who has enough savings to retire but doesn’t want to wait until you’re 65 and can get Medicare, the fact that you can now buy private insurance doesn’t mean you’ve failed to “get on the ladder of life.” Nobody is going to say, “Wait—I can buy insurance now, even though I once had cancer? Woo-hoo, no more work for me, ever!”

But to be honest, I’m a little torn about how far to go in interpreting the arguments Republicans are making. On one hand, it’s obvious that they are saying what they are because they feel obligated to take any and every opportunity to cry that Obamacare is destroying America, and they’ll do that no matter what the facts are. If the CBO report had said that the ACA had no effect at all on job lock, they’d probably be arguing exactly the opposite of what they are now, that it was diminishing Americans’ freedom by keeping them in jobs they hate.

On the other hand, it’s hard to say that at the moment they’re not being candid about what they really believe. Job lock never really bothered them before, and I think that’s because it’s a case of the market diminishing people’s freedom. Conservatives get very upset when the government diminishes freedom, but if the market does it, well them’s the breaks. If you got screwed by market forces, then that just means you’re a loser, and they’re the party of winners. David Atkins may go a little far here, but he’s right to point to a basic difference in how people of different ideologies view what it means to be human:

It is not an inaccurate or extreme statement to declare that ideological Republicans do not understand what it means to be human. They view human beings as economic units to be plugged at their lowest possible price into a maximally efficient market that provides the greatest possible returns on investment to the wealthy few, with any resulting human resentment and misery dulled by humility before a pleasure-fearing angry God promising rewards to the obedient in the hereafter. It is a dark, meager, shriveled and cramped vision of humanity.

I’d modify that to say that while most conservatives may view lives devoted to non-money-making endeavors as frivolous, it’s only when certain people take advantage of the kind of freedom we’re talking about that they get genuinely perturbed. They aren’t campaigning for a higher estate tax so the Paris Hiltons of the world will be forced to get jobs and contribute meaningfully to society instead of laying about all day spending their forebears’ money. It’s the idea of someone of modest means having the ability to organize their lives to work less that they find morally intolerable.

But conservatives should be quite satisfied with the way the American economy is organized, particularly compared to our peer nations. Unions are a desiccated husk of what they once were, leaving workers with little or no power. Wages are stagnant and benefits are shrinking, while corporate profits and the share of wealth held by those at the top are at or near all-time highs. Our safety net is, by international standards, quite meager. The United States is the only advanced industrialized democracy that does not mandate by law that everyone get paid vacation. If you’re lucky enough to have it, chances are you get two weeks at most. The European Union, by contrast, requires four weeks of paid vacation for all workers, and some countries in Europe go beyond even that.

In other words, this is the economy conservatives built. And yet when just one area of uncertainty is removed for ordinary people—the fear that you’ll lose your health coverage if you leave your job or work fewer hours—they begin delivering lectures to the lesser folk about “the dignity of work.” This is from a bunch of rich white guys who spend their days hobnobbing with other rich white guys. What I’d suggest is that they ask the people who clean their toilets about how much dignity and fulfillment they derive from their work, and then ask them whether they’d feel less dignified if they knew they could leave their jobs and still get health coverage. For a group of people who spend so much time talking about “economic freedom,” conservatives seem awfully hesitant to let too many people taste it.

In the real economy—not the economy of a Republican congressman’s imagining, where the only perspective that matters is that of the guy in the corner office, but the real economy—bosses are sometimes kind and sometimes beastly, compensation is sometimes fair and sometimes stingy, and for most people, work is the thing you do so you can carve out a little bit of time to do the things you’d rather be doing. It would be a wonderful world if everyone drew limitless fulfillment, engagement, and purpose from their work. But this is not that world.

Unfortunately, government can’t make everyone love their jobs so much they leap out of bed in the morning. But what it can do is stop the gross injustices, keep the ruthless from harming the helpless, soften the market’s cruelties and give people at least a chance to reach the kind of lives they want. Is that too much to ask?


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 10, 2014

February 11, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Things That Make You Go Uhm”: Why Does Romney Get A Pass?

Greg Sargent highlights this portion from an interview Mitt Romney did with Town Hall this morning:

“I think it’s very hard to tell exactly what the president would do, other than by looking at his record in his first three and a half or four years. And we can see where he took the nation in these years. It’s a massive expansion of federal spending, an expansion of the reach of the federal government, and there’s no question in my mind but that his Supreme Court nominees and his policies would be designed toward expanding the role of government in our lives. And frankly, America’s economy runs on freedom. And he has been attacking economic freedom from the first day he came into office.

Sargent sees this as an attempt to downplay the severity of the economic crisis, and pin the blame for economic stagnation on Obama’s policies. That sounds right, given the extent to which Romney’s general election strategy is predicated on inducing amnesia in the voting public.

This also serves to highlight a point I’ve made over the last week; there’s almost nothing Romney can say that can tarnish his aura of skill and competence. On Tuesday, Romney gave a speech decrying debt, despite the fact that his economic plan would add an additional $6 trillion in debt, on top of what’s projected under current policies. Today, he decries the stimulus—without giving a single idea of what he would have done—and declares that the economy runs on freedom.

Even the most charitable interpretation—that Romney is making a case for free-enterprise—falls apart when you recognize the degree to which government has been an important part of shaping our economy from the beginning. It’s the kind of rhetoric that would have been (rightfully) mocked if uttered by someone like Michele Bachmann, but goes unremarked on when adopted by Romney.

Why? It’s an honest question, because I’m at a loss.


By: Jamelle Bouie, The American Prospect, May 18, 2012

May 19, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rick Santorum’s “Liberty, Happiness And The Role Of Stuff”

Today’s Wall Street Journal features an op-ed in which Rick Santorum pledges that  “…in my first 100 days as president, I’ll submit to Congress and work to pass a comprehensive pro-growth and pro-family Economic Freedom Agenda”. No one is more receptive than I to an “economic freedom agenda”, yet Mr Santorum’s has my bullshit detector howling like an air-raid siren.

In a recent speech at the First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Georgia, Mr Santorum said that economic policy focused on the accumulation of wealth is unhealthily concerned with “pursuing stuff”.

Property is just stuff. And America isn’t just about pursuing stuff. That’s one of the problems I have sometimes with our fellow conservatives, is that all we talk about — ‘Oh, Rick, presidential candidates just focus on stuff. Focus on taxing and spending, the economy. Don’t talk about anything else. Just focus on stuff. That’s what Americans really care about.’

Mr Santorum here is discussing rival interpretations of the idea of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Though it is nonsense to think that there is any one thing that “Americans really care about”, Mr Santorum is surely right that Thomas Jefferson and his fellows in the founding 1% had more than just the accumulation of property in mind. But he is wrong that they were committed to the pre-modern Catholic  interpretation of freedom and happiness Mr Santorum invoked in his speech:

America and our founders understood that if we were just a bunch of folks that cared about stuff, we have a very, very narrow view of freedom. We have a very, very narrow view of what God’s call is in our lives. Because that’s why He gave us these rights. To pursue happiness.

…..’Happiness’ actually had a different definition, ‘way back at the time of our founders. Like many words in our lexicon, they evolve and change over time. ‘Happiness’ was one of them. Go back and look it up. You’ll see one of the principal definitions of happiness is ‘to do the morally right thing.’ God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.

As a matter of historical fact, the dominant conception of happiness at the time of the founding was the empiricist hedonism of John Locke. Locke had it that we are moved by our beliefs and desires, and that the master desire is to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain.  As for happiness, Locke said, “Happiness then in its full extent is the utmost Pleasure we are capable of…”  “Property” almost took the place of “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration precisely because the founders’ notion of happiness was so materialistic. Happiness is pleasure, and property or “stuff” is such an indispensable source of pleasure and bulwark against misery that the pursuit of property and the pursuit of happiness almost come to the same thing. For Christians such as Locke, and many of the founders, it was so important to heed God’s will not so much because divine commands are inherently authoritative, but because Heaven’s promise of infinite pleasure made Christian virtue a prudent bet.

Anyway, the likes of Jefferson would have agreed that to be happy is “to do the morally right thing” only to the extent that “to do the morally right thing” is already defined in terms of conduciveness to happiness. And the idea that the point of freedom is to do God’s will would have been affirmed only to the extent that it is due to God’s will that we are constituted to seek “the utmost Pleasure we are capable of…” The big political idea of the Enlightenment is that earthly happiness, not divine authority, is the only credible moral foundation of political authority. The long and short of it is that Mr Santorum is guilty of revisionist history. One only has to remember that John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, tried to make it illegal for Catholics to run for office in New York to get a sense of just how unlikely it is that the founders would have signed on to anything resembling Mr Santorum’s interpretation of liberty, happiness, and the role of “stuff”.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mr Santorum’s ten-point plan makes only incidental contact with economic freedom as many free-market-minded folk understand it. It may or may not be a good idea to rig our regulatory structure to make it easier for giant petrochemical companies to frack or build giant pipelines, but it’s unclear what it has to do with economic freedom. Do pipelines and fracking have something to do with God’s will in Mr Santorum’s mind?

Mr Santorum promises to “triple the personal deduction for children and eliminate the marriage tax penalty”. What does any of this have to do with economic freedom? If paying people to have children makes them more free, why don’t the childless deserve equal freedom? Because freedom is the freedom to do God’s will and God wants us to have big families? The “pro-family” elements of Mr Santorum’s plan are transparent attempts at social engineering through fiscal policy.

Mr Santorum says he’ll “cut means-tested entitlement programs by 10% across the board, freeze them for four years, and block grant them to states—as I did as the author of welfare reform in 1996.” This is unintelligible. If subsidising families through the tax code somehow adds to their freedom, then reducing subsidies to the relatively poor—to those who qualify for means-tested benefits—must logically decrease theirs. This is simply upside down. There is a compelling case that individuals require a certain material minimum to ensure that their economic liberties have real worth. If Mr Santorum’s cuts would leave Americans below that threshold, they would amount to an assault on the economic freedom of the disadvantaged.

If “economic freedom” means “a system rigged to the advantage of petrochemical companies and large middle- and upper-class families”, Mr Santorum’s proposal might have a lot to be said for it. I could be wrong, but I suspect it doesn’t really mean that.


By: W. W., Democracy in America, The Economist, February 28, 2012

February 28, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Economic Freedom”: Capitalism By Any Other Name

I’ve been thinking about the term “capitalism” since Frank Luntz, the renowned pollster, told Republicans to quit saying it. The Occupy Wall Street movement has turned “capitalism” into a dirty word, he said. If Republicans want to win in 2012, they’d better stop worrying and learn to love “economic freedom” instead.

It’s a stunning turning of the tide. No matter the kind of conservative—Southern, evangelical, libertarian, Tea Party, or old-school Rockefeller patrician—conservatives have never hidden their allegiance to the moneyed class and power elite. I have never in my lifetime seen a conservative counsel against expressing one of the major tenets of conservative ideology. You might as well advise the GOP to stop trying to repeal the New Deal and start defending labor rights.

I’ve been thinking about this rhetorical shift while riding the bus in New Haven every day. The passengers are typically at the bottom of the 99 percent. Some are destitute; some are unemployable. Most are working poor, people with full-time minimum-wage jobs who cannot rise above poverty. I wonder what they’d think of John Mackey’s definition of “economic freedom.” The CEO of Whole Foods wrote in The Wall Street Journal in November that the phrase means “property rights, freedom to trade internationally, minimal governmental regulation … sound money, relatively low taxes, the rule of law, entrepreneurship, freedom to fail, and voluntary exchange.” My guess is they’d think very little of it.

Mackey’s definition is meaningful only if you already have money. Real money. Money you don’t have to spend right away, money that can sit around for a while. But when you don’t have real money, it has nothing to do with “economic freedom.” If Mackey were defining “capitalism,” that would be one thing. The working person might have nothing to say to that. The abstract nature of “economic freedom,” though, invites interpretation, and, for the working person, it has everything to do with making a living.

Though “economic freedom” is now synonymous with capital, it used to be synonymous with labor. It makes sense. Government isn’t the largest force in our lives. Corporations are. They dictate when to work, where and how. Or none of the above if you’ve been laid off. They don’t want to pay for full-time work, health care, or pensions. During their golden age, unions were seen as a step toward greater security, which was a step toward greater freedom. If you, as an individual, didn’t have to worry about bargaining for wages, retirement, or life insurance (because your labor posed actual physical risk), you were freed of that burden. In other words, economic freedom wasn’t freedom from the rule of government; it was freedom from the rule of corporations.

More profoundly, labor’s “economic freedom” is in keeping with the grandest narratives of American history, with colonists fighting the British colonizers, slaves fleeing their masters, women struggling for the right to vote, African Americans appealing for their inalienable rights. In each of these, a David battles a Goliath—and the underdog wins. Only in America. Where is the moral thrust of capital’s “economic freedom” narrative? Making more money? Nah.

Some have warned that Luntz is setting a trap. The temptation among progressives has been to talk even more about capitalism since Luntz is “frightened to death” by the Occupy movement. If they do, critics say, Republicans will be able to portray progressives as socialists. No doubt they will, but not because the Occupiers are focused on capitalism. Conservatives are willing to cry socialist anytime something irritates business. It doesn’t take raising a country’s collective consciousness to the dangers of corrupt capitalism to draw rhetorical fire like that.

Talking about capitalism in America is somewhat like talking about class. As a social reality, it’s so familiar as to be invisible, which is convenient for those, like the moneyed class and power elite, who don’t want to talk about it. But once you start talking about an invisible force that can affect anyone, you start wondering why it doesn’t benefit everyone. That, to me, is what the Occupy movement needs to keep doing: pointing out what should be obvious to all of us.

An enormous propaganda machine paid for by capital has made it necessary for thousands of people to march in the streets and camp in public parks to make what should be truly unremarkable observations: Rich people don’t always deserve their riches, and people who work hard often can’t make ends meet. This is about capitalism, because this is about the nature of work—and the enormous constraints faced by Americans employed or not. So, no matter what kind of rhetorical hocus-pocus Republicans come up with next year, no matter what they call capitalism, the elephant is still in the room. There’s no replacing plainspoken truths.


By: John Stoehr, The American Prospect, December 16, 2011

December 17, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Corporations | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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