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June 1, 2003 Opinion

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"I just want to be alone... ."


These are the start of several "open forum" pages. Send your comments to be posted to these topics, or suggest additional topics.  Or don't do either?


In last week's column I discussed a conversation with a friend I didn't name.  I still won't name him, but I apologize to him for my setting up a political "straw man" that wasn't really him, but only a composite of several viewpoints I've been hearing.  The individual -- not that "straw man" I used for rhetorical purposes -- will indeed go to France in September, but he is studying French intensively and won't play the ugly American shouting in English louder and louder to be understood.  Funny thing, no matter how loud you shout that doesn't work very well.  Anyway, this real individual has deep regard for much of French culture from the art to Django Reinhart to the cuisine to the wine.  In fact, he'll be touring Burgundy and stopping off in Reims to check out the champagne makers.  Had I the means to make his September dates I'd drag us off to a town in the area, the one named Cognac. And we'd have a good time. The "straw man," that imaginary fellow I invented, would not be in country with us.


This week's comment:  Basic Stuff - Disagreements

This week in my on-line discussion group there's been some the back-and-forth about what the game is with the killer tax cut here in the states and the recent war-of-ever-shifting-rationales we just won in Iraq. 

It occurred to me that the real issue in both discussions was the wider-by-the-hour conflict between two mutually exclusive views of the "social contract" we have to live with, here at home, and with pesky foreigners who speak silly languages and don't understand that they're rather inferior.  Well, that seems to be how some folks feel. 

Last week Paul Krugman - a Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton - had an interesting commentary in the New York Times.  (May 27, if you want to go to their website a find it.)  Krugman quoted the Financial Times of London - who were pretty much aghast at what we Americans are doing to drive this country into a society with no services and massive debts.

The issue under discussion was what kind of country we want this to be.  Krugman in the Times, like so many others elsewhere, pointed out what he saw as important -- just as the recent war wasn't really about the immediate threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but rather about changing how we operate in the world - it was a war to demonstrate our new ideology - so the massive tax cut just passed isn't really about stimulating the economy.  It is really about ideology - jacking up the deficit so high that no matter what taxes might be raised in the future, there will be no money for government medical programs, welfare or unemployment coverage, or for government supported retirement plans like Social Security, and to some degree no money for public education.  It's an attempt to end, or at least cripple, those kinds of government activities.  Maybe so.

With the war, even if we never find any weapons of mass destruction, we did what our new ideology demanded - we showed the world from now on we kick ass and get what we want through a mixture of intimidation, punishment and humiliation.  And frankly it works.  No one blew up anything in New York, and the Israelis and Palestinians are talking this week.  We may be hated and resented, but we're safe and no one is giving us shit. 

Krugman claims there is a matching economic ideology.  His argument is that this ideology is something like this - in deep deficit now, the government lowers taxes and makes the deficit much bigger and almost certainly "unpayable" over the next several decades.  There thus is simply not the money for collective government efforts for the common good.  And there won't ever be such money again -- because taxes won't go up again, because no one who wants to be elected or reelected in this country would say, hey, it's time to pay in more money for the common good.  That won't happen.  This then will force some issues.

As for me, I imagine the conservative position for setting things up this way, starving the federal government to change how it works, would come out this way --

Folks will finally have to take personal responsibility for their lives.  To survive in the coming economic climate their attitude will have to change to "can do" optimism.  They know if they want a particular medical service, they have to earn the money to pay for it on their own - no "shared risk" pool of money will pay for that liver transplant or open-heart surgery.  This fosters self-reliance and independence, and, of course, individual achievement.  Heck, to get the money you need you're going to have got to work hard and get somewhere in this world.

Similarly, if folks want money for retirement, they will have to earn it themselves, and save it and invest it wisely.  No government retirement program they foolishly paid into will keep them afloat.  It'll be gone.  It's like growing up and becoming an adult.  Folks need to take care of themselves and stop whining and confiscating the wealth of those who are successful.

This is an ideology of personal responsibility, of a proper "can do" attitude, and of an Emersonian self-reliance.  And frankly, if you cannot talk people accepting this way of living -- into stopping the whining and starting to take care of themselves -- and convince them to stop ripping off those who made something of themselves -- then you can force the issue.

Everyone I read and listen to - all those pundits left and right, and the scholarly economists to a man (or woman) - agree that is was kind of a joke to even claim this tax cut will help the economy.  Everyone knew it wasn't going to help that much.  The whole point really was to change the way people think and act.

In essence the effort is to change how we think of the "social contract" - the contract now will be to guarantee everyone maximum freedom to reach their best potential - that will be the role of government.  Not a caring "mother."  More like a stern "father" that forces you to grow up.  It's a "hands off" thing.  Just as the government, basically, shouldn't ever tell anyone what to do, it shouldn't be in the business of coddling people.  Set them free to sink or swim, and let the succeed or fail.  You keep what you earn.  You live with the real consequences of your actions. 

And now we seem to be making this so, as much as we can.

Closing down all public schools is going a bit far for "Leave No Child Behind" Bush.  But that is also in the air.  I remember what that Texas Republican woman said a few weeks ago when things were falling apart down there -- Representative Debbie Riddle (R-Houston) -- "Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education?  Free medical care?   Free whatever?  It comes from Moscow.  From Russia.  It comes straight out of the pit of hell."  You get the idea.   If folks truly value their individual freedom and think achievement should be rewarded, as this ideology claims, then home-schooling and private tutors is the way to go.

Imagine a hypothetical conservative with this ideology.  Ask him if he carries any insurance, thinking that, since the concept of a "shared risk pool" seems so wrong to these folks, you'll trap him.  Probably not.  He'd have only car insurance, because you cannot drive in any state without it.  He's probably dropped all health insurance, on principal.  He's not going to pay for someone else's problems, and he'll pay for his own and ask nothing of anyone else.  Okay.

I suspect there is no one, really, like my hypothetical conservative.  But the "starve the government to make people think and act differently" idea is out there.

My friend Rick Brown has this comment:

"I've been struck by the playful use of language that has crept back into the discussion of "tax cuts".  Just a few years ago, Republicans were ragging the Democrats for using the phrase "tax cuts" when what was really being talked about was a "reduction in the increase" of taxes down the road.  But now, the Republicans are using "tax cuts" -- along with phrases like, "Gosh darnet, it's not the government's money, it's YOUR money!" --  to lead people into thinking this is some sort of rebate check they're going to get in the mail, all to somehow help goose the economy.

"But what it really comes down to -- especially in light of recent discussion that the sun will probably never set on these "sunset" tax bills -- is what conservatives and Republicans have wanted for years but couldn't sell to the masses: Plain old "lower taxes." And, of course, once we lower taxes, people will see that we'll be forced to stop spending all their money on all those things government shouldn't be sticking its miserable nose into in the first place."

This seems to me to be true.

But, all in all, my "hypothetical conservative" is at least consistent.  He (or she) is the "rugged individualist" that is so much a part of our heritage.

He (or she) wants to be left alone.  And this person actually gives to charities, and simply thinks that the government should not.  It should be everyone's personal decision.  Giving to charity, helping others, is not the proper function of government.  Is is often the right thing to do, and a good thing to do.  But it's not what a geovernment should do.  The government might give money to losers and whiners.  He (or she) objects.  It's his (or her) money.
And if people want to form little communities for "the mutual aid and comfort the one might have of the other" - as those words from the 1928 version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer go - that's fine.  The "rugged individualist" just doesn't want to be forced to join.  If people want to join "shared risk pools to cover emergency costs" then fine.  Let them.  But why should the "rugged individualist" be forced to join?  What about freedom?
This is a comprehensive worldview.  Individual achievement matters.
This person would never stop you from buying insurance, or from choosing to pay high taxes for public schools and for support of the homeless and for funding the meals of folks who have retired.  But you choose that.  The "rugged individualist" doesn't.  The "rugged individualist" thinks it is very wrong.  But the "rugged individualist" would never tell you that you couldn't do what you want.  Just don't force him to do what he knows is wrong and dangerous.

How can the "community of man" deal fairly with the rugged individualist who doesn't want to be restricted?  How does the "rugged individualist" deal with the community of man, with the shared burdens of things that are obvious stuff that needs done -- fixing potholes and bridges (infrastructure) and stopping auto theft or arson (basic safety) and all that other stuff governments must do.  What restrictions and burdens are just plain necessary?  What are the basic "must do" things?  I don't know. 

[ NOTE: Click here - June 1, 2003 Mail - for Rick Brown's take on this issue.  He answers the question, actually. ]

And that brings us to what God wants.  Huh?  It does?
As for how God gets into the political discussion of all this - well, it was Bush and most of the Republican Party who brought "Him" into it.  If they do that - and they did do that and do that still -- then I get to call them to task for such foolishness.  Fair is fair.
Remember the first debate with Gore and Bush?  Bush was asked what philosopher or great thinker he read, just who inspired his way of seeing the world?  He said Jesus was the greatest philosopher and political thinker of all time - he didn't read anything else - he didn't need to.  Bothered me then.  Bothers me now.  When he says he feels humbled that he was chosen by God to lead the nation now in these current crises, well, my ass twitches.  I wish he wouldn't say things like that.  He does.  Want dates and times?  He does.  Send a note and I'll send a list. 

[ Click here - Phillip's Tale - to go to Phillip Raines' column, where at the end he comments on this God business. ]

I though I might do a riff on Calvinism here - on how you know you're righteous and going to heaven because by God's grace you got these worldly goodies -- so he must favor you.  But that's too easy.  It does seem, however, that this idea is central here.  There's a lot of that quasi-Calvinism going around these days.  You succeed because you have the right attitude and have your staunch self-reliance and solid sense of "personal responsibility."   Your success, and your goodies, proves your worth.  Luck plays no part.  Through your hard work -- and through God's liking you and your attitude whole bunches -- the result is obvious.  The flip side is obvious too.  Losing your job or not getting ahead has little to do with the vagaries of the economy and its cycles, and has nothing to do with unfairness in the social structure that denies minorities and odd people jobs, schooling and the right to vote.  God just doesn't like you, or your piss-poor whining attitude.  As one of the chosen, my not supporting you in your "need" is God's will.  And it's for your own good.  In order that you change.  Maybe then God will get around to liking you a bit better, if He has the time.  We'll see.  He's been busy.

[ Go to the review section - June 1, 2003 Reviews for comments on a book considering Calvinism and luck and such things ]
I need not remind you when GWB was forty-three he claims he was born again - he stopped drinking heavily, actually entirely, and stopped doing cocaine - and he became a new man.  He gave himself to Jesus.  It's all there.  Not hidden at all.  He knows he's doing the right thing. 
The current spirit of these times?  This is a country of God, and a country of winners.  So get over it, get with God, or get out.   Ain't no free lunch for the likes of you, here, anymore.  And so on and so forth, as I always say.

We live in interesting times.



1.  an excerpt from Jay Bookman, in The Atlanta Journal Constitution  Thursday, May 29, 2003

Certainly, the president does not lack confidence in his goals. Rather than preserve the status quo or tinker at the margins, he and his advisers pursue an agenda of dramatic transformation that would inspire awe under any circumstances.   But coming from an administration that just 30 months ago drew fewer votes than its main challenger, the ambition is even more impressive.  In fact, the scope of proposed change is difficult to even describe. 

Reward success, punish failure, at least for those outside the corporate boardroom. Unshackle the wealthy; shrink government. Drive the middle and working classes to become more productive by dismantling the social safety net and exposing them to the discipline of the market.

Make private enterprise, not government, the primary provider of services from the education of our children to the income security of our elderly. Loosen and in some cases remove altogether the regulatory handcuffs that restrain corporate power in fields ranging from environmental protection to labor relations to media ownership.

And while we abandon the top-down, "command and control" system of regulation here at home, we build exactly that kind of system internationally, with the United States sitting unchallenged in the seat of global power. 

I accept the fact that in time, the president and his ideological soulmates may be proved correct, but I also confess that I just don't see how. In so many ways, his approach contradicts how I understand the world to work. It challenges my concepts of who we are as a nation and a people.

According to the polls, most Americans don't yet share those misgivings. Maybe they never will.  We shall see.

2. an excerpt from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr in The Seattle Times  Thursday, May 29, 2003

Now our president has proclaimed a new doctrine of "anticipatory self-defense," which is simply a fancy term for preventive war. In fact, the policy of anticipatory self-defense is the same policy that imperial Japan employed in its attack on Pearl Harbor on a date that still lives in infamy. Today, it is we Americans who live in infamy. The global wave of sympathy that engulfed the United States after 9/11 has given way to a global wave of fear and hatred of American arrogance.

Should America serve as the world's initiator of preventive war, its self-appointed judge, jury and executioner? As we struggle to make this decision, I would ask Americans to reflect on the words uttered by a president whom I had the honor and good luck to serve in the White House.

"We must face the fact," President John F. Kennedy said 42 years ago at the University of Washington, "that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient... that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity - and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."


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31 May 2003