Alone At Last
The fundamental principle of stage magic is to distract the audience's attention with a little move, some snappy patter or a foxy assistant while the magician plays with the hat and the rabbit. That's what's happening with the new Republican concept of "The Ownership Society". The words say "we're all going to get rich" or at least get well, but the tune is still "give me the money". The second term of George W. Bush has a theme and they are running at it full tilt, but its not anything new, and its not anything you're going to like.
As long ago as Richard Nixon, Republican's broke with the majority view of fairness in economic life. When Nixon took office the US economy was starting to hurt from all the borrowing LBJ had done to keep escalating Viet Nam and save his "Great Society" programs. Nixon's response was twofold, spread over a number of years. First, to freeze wages and second, to cut the dollar loose thereby destroying the Bretton Woods agreement and abandoning the developing world to the tender mercies of corporate America. At the time a lot of people complained about both of those on grounds of fiscal stupidity and rank unfairness but everybody missed an underlying philosophical message.
By the mid '70s, when Jimmy Carter took office, the economy was in pretty poor shape. To try to bring inflation under control, Carter accepted a recessionary fiscal and monetary policy, banking on Americans understanding the long term positive effects of his energy and foreign policies. We didn't. Reagan came to office on a triumphant drumroll from the right wing think tanks and began the work of disassembling the American consensus. He announced to the business community that the government would no longer protect worker's rights. He announced to the world that America would do what America would do, get used to it. And he announced to us that we were the happy, lucky ones and we could have our money back. I recall wondering when mine was going to come.
The Clinton years featured a Republican Congress for 6 of the 8 and a number of "reforms" continued to be imposed on the body politic. The most visible was the expulsion of everybody who could not justify themselves from any share of the public purse. They called it "welfare reform". But others happened tat were probably more important and more damaging. While Al Gore labored to "reinvent" government, Newt Gingrich dealt with "privatizing" services. From mail handling to benefits processing, the law began to insist that government at all levels make an effort to turn its functions over to the tender mercies of corporate America, suffering from the end of the cold war. The compromise allowed was that individual contracts were to be let for competitive bidding and the government office in question was allowed to bid. That process came to a particularly ripe head about a year ago over a janitorial contract at Walter Reade Army Hospital.
The Army had discovered that hiring retarded citizens for the dirty work in the basement was cost effective. The retarded people were dedicated employees, on time and eager to work and capable of the tasks before them. Modest wages allowed them some dignity and independence. The problem, of course, was that they were union employees and hungry people could be found who would work cheaper. Not, however, enough cheaper to allow for a decent profit. Bill Frist carried the bill demanding that government offices bidding on work arbitrarily add a percentage of fictional overhead so that private contractors could win the bids and Carl Levin of Michigan rebelled and demanded debate on the floor of the Senate. What, after all, could be said to justify taking away the jobs of people who had few other options in the interest of adding to the bottom line of a Virginia Business consortium? Frist caved. The question is, will he do it again?
The next debate is over Social Security, the one after that over making the inheritance tax cut permanent. Its the same deal. The goal is to separate the citizenry from their government. To pretend that, just like Newt and Frist, you have the money, the acumen and the connections to select a path to wealth with a small percentage of your income on a regular withdrawal. Or, would you prefer to throw your lot in with the rest of your fellow citizens, relying on the government to deliver a modest but regular return in the system that has worked flawlessly for 70 years? The Republican bet is that phrases like "The Ownership Society" will make you believe that you're better off on your own. That you,like them, are so well born and lucky that you can stand alone. Personally, I like some people around.