Thursday, April 15, 2010

Contract From (disaffected, white) America

The NY Times reported the results of a poll, yesterday, indicating that those who identify with the "Tea Party" movement are predominately well-educated, middle-to-upper-middle class Americans. They also are predominately white, male, Republican (not a surprise) and married.

In the same issue, the NY Times reports on a new Contract From America, an allusion to the Newt Gingrich-led Republican effort called the Contract with America, which the G.O.P. took to the electorate in 1994 and recaptured control of Congress. Unlike the Contract with America, the Contract From America, as its name implies, is described by its compilers as coming "direct from the American people," rather than from elected officials in Washington. More precisely, the Contract actually comes from a segment of the American far right: The document was reportedly developed by polling some 450,000 Tea Party adherents.

The new Tea Party-inspired Contract asks candidates for public office — those who want Tea Party votes, anyway — to sign off on all of the following ten CFA planks (you can read the Contract at

1) Tea Party candidates must seek to pass legislation that would require the authors of each bill before Congress to identify the "specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the authority to do what that bill does." This one was supported by 82 percent of the CFA surveyees. Tea Partiers need to take another look at the Constitution's Section 8 before they get to excited: "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States ... (italics mine)." Two centuries of U.S. judicial review have, of necessity, defined this "general welfare" clause in terms of our country's people (the government is, of course,"of the people, by the people and for the people"). And the trend has been to apply general welfare provisions to all its people, thus, landmark pieces of civil rights legislation. That clause includes the possibility that the federal government might want to help out with things like health care for people who cannot afford it. It's important to note, also, that there is nothing in the Constitution that specifically mentions (let alone favors) free-market economics. In fact, the "Powers" section specifically gives Congress permission to impose and collect duties and other taxes designed to control market activity. The Constitution, from the get go, was not a "free-market" document. We've never had "free-markets." In fact, the Constitution implies just the opposite, that there need to be some government controls. I'm no socialist, but there also is nothing in the Constitution which prohibits socialism, should the American people so choose it. Americans are free, of course, to oppose socialism. But it's not (sorry, Ms. Palin) specifically "unAmerican." Plank #1 really won't change things much. According to the Constitution the Tea Party folks are so anxious to protect, the Founding Fathers they revere anticipated questions of constitutionality and built into our system of government a mechanism for testing it. It's called the federal judidiary at the pinnacle of which sits the Supreme Court. (Also see plank#7).

2) Pols who want Tea Party votes must "reject cap-and-trade regulation of climate-warming gases." The CFA sees cap-and-trade as a strategy that will increase unemployment, raise consumer prices, and weaken U.S. global competitiveness, while making little difference in greenhouse gas emissions. CFA says 70 percent of the respondents called for this one. But even if Tea partiers are right and climate and environmental scientists who actually have done research into this are wrong, the job losses Tea Partiers predict from cap-and-trade enactment are unlikely to be anywhere near as severe as the unemployment epidemic that will follow combined action on planks 3, 6, 7, 9 & 10. Cap-and-trade actually is a very good way for companies that responsibly reduce the carbon footprint to reap a windfall by selling their carbon credits to those who don't, and cover the costs of doing so. It introduces a competitive advantage for those who act responsibly. Capitalism at its best.

3) Tea Party candidates must seek to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget and require a two-thirds majority in Congress for every tax increase. Has anyone been watching the fiscal circus in California the last two years? Taxpayer initiatives in this and a number of other states, have tied the hands of legislators during the downturn, precipitating cuts to and shut downs of vital services, among them public security and education. Tea Party people apparently see this outcome as a good thing, and want to (sorry, I can't resist) californicate the whole country (also see plank #5).

4) Candidates must press for a "simple and fair single-tax system" that can be described in a document no longer than the Constitution (a little more than 4,500 words). Cute, and frankly, I'm OK with this, personally. Most years, I could fill out the 1040EZ anyway. My life is not very complicated. But will well-to-do Tea Partiers really consider "fair" a tax code devoid of the myriad personal and corporate tax shelters and loopholes to which they and their armies of accountants have become accustomed? And think of the devastation this will wreak on said bean counters, who owe their profitable livelihoods to our current IRS code?

5) This one calls for a Blue Ribbon panel that will audit all federal programs for constitutionality, effectiveness and waste. Actually, this is mostly a good idea. But Mr. Obama had the idea first. Minus the constitutionality thrust (which is covered by the judiciary; see plank #1), he ran on this idea, remember? But both the Party of No and his fellow Democrats nipped that idea in the bud. Politicians and their constituents only want the other guy's programs cut (see plank #9). And who's to sit on this panel, anyway? Who picks these folks? The U.S. Senate can't even approve people to head minor government agencies or sit on a federal court bench without some Senator sitting on the appointment for six months or threatening a filibuster. What makes the Tea Party think there's a chance in the world that such a panel will ever be formed, much less that its members could actually agree about a program's merits?

6) Tea Party candidates must also impose a cap on the rate of government spending growth. This provision will be unnecessary if the Tea Party passes its balanced budget amendment. Since one-third or better of the economy is currently dependent on government spending, cuts to government programs will make the 2009 recession's and the Great Depression's unemployment rates look like good times by comparison. The effect on the economy will be immediate and devastating — just as it has been in California, where taxpayer-driven balanced budget initiatives (noted in plank #3) and forced cuts have helped drive California unemployment to levels far higher than in the rest of the country). Tax revenues will plummet, and the government spending will have to plummet along with the plunging revenues. Costing more jobs, of course. We'll all lose our shirts, but we'll have a balanced budget. The only way to reduce the budget deficit without running everyone's life in the process to grow the economy by encouraging job creation, collecting the increased tax revenue, carefully ratcheting back on costs (via such measures as health care reform, which concerns another 30 percent of the GDP) and, sorry, by raising additional revenues. If you're not willing to raise revenues, then your only other choice, if you truly want to balance the budget and keep it under control, is to go after Social Security. Like that's going to happen.

7) Tea Party vote getters must also "defund and repeal" the recently passed "government-run" health care legislation and replace it with an "open, competitive and transparent free-market" health care system and an insurance system "unrestricted by state boundaries." First off, the government didn't run it before, and it doesn't run it now. Second, Tea Partiers favored, in a recent poll of 2012 Presidential hopefuls, none other than Gov. Mitt Romney, who championed a health care plan very similar to the Obama plan in his home state (no one, to my knowledge, not even newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Brown, has yet proposed a repeal). Beyond the inaccuracy and inconsistency of Tea Party pronouncements on this subject, the more serious flaw in Tea Party reasoning here is that, apart from the state boundary limitations, what they're proposing is essentially what got us into the current health-care crisis in the first place. Are Tea Partiers really willing to go regress to a scenario in which insurance companies could cancel the policies of those who actually use the insurance, and exclude the most needy from coverage? If the Tea Party gets its way, insurance eventually will be accessible only to those who can afford to pay for most of their health care straight up, and largely unavailable to those who most need this social safety net. Here's what I don't understand: In the last century, state governments enacted laws that forced all car owners to carry insurance. Why? Because the costs imposed on society by medical and property damage claims involving a growing number of uninsured drivers were rising and becoming unmanageable. The costs of carrying the uninsured were ultimately laid on taxpayers (or added to public debt, which is the same thing) and therefore negatively affected Tea Partiers, whether they were aware of it or not. There were no mass protests when auto insurance was made compulsory. And those who do not comply don't just pay a fine (not a tax) but they also lose their driving privileges. And those laws have kept insurance rates remarkably stable. There is no difference whatsoever between that and requiring that all people who want health care buy some kind of health insurance. Including everyone in the insurance pool is the only way to control the individual's insurance costs. The risk must be spread over the broadest possible cross-section of society. No issue before the Congress in recent years has better met the Tea Party's test for "constitutionality" than health care reform. If the rising costs of health care and the fact that 47 million people have no insurance aren't matters of "general welfare" then nothing is, and the Constitution becomes a piece of brittle parchment full of hollow promises.

8) Tea Partiers want Congress to authorize exploration of "proven energy reserves" to reduce dependence on "foreign energy sources from unstable countries" and "reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation." Since this sounds a bit like something written by one of the folks that makes up the so-called Washington elite, I'll translate: "Proven energy reserves" means oil, presumably oil within U.S. borders. "Foreign energy sources" means imported oil. "All other forms of energy creation" include coal and nuclear. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have actively supported (not just removed barriers to) alternative energy sources (solar, wind, bio-fuels) and Mr. Obama recently stepped up to support both new offshore drilling for oil and nuclear redevelopment. No major hydroelectric project has been prevented by regulatory barriers that I know of. The U.S. has been bullish on hydropower (a pro-hydro agenda that dates from President Roosevelt's (another socialist, by Tea Party standards) Depression Era Works Progress Admin. The Tea Party is strong in Nevada, but apparently has forgotten that Nevada owes both its water and its electric power to a socialist project, the Hoover Dam. (Ironic, eh?) So what we're left with is leaves coal, the other big polluter, which is what this is really about (revisit plank #2).

9) The Tea Party also wants a moratorium on Congressional earmarks until the budget is balanced and thereafter, earmarks require a two-thirds majority. This one made me laugh. Congress has recently passed bills designed to create jobs in the wake of the recession, and that has obscured for the moment what Tea Partiers don't seem to get: Congress has always been about the business of job creation. That's what pork is for. I wonder how many of those Tea Party folks have yet to realize that their reasonably secure jobs depend, at least indirectly, on the earmarked government dollars that their Senators and Representatives bring home to their state or district? If we cut all the pork projects tomorrow, a lot of Tea Party folks would find that their jobs — the ones they have been so worried would be shipped overseas — would simply disappear into the ether of Congressional inaction and gridlock. While we're on the subject of job protection, I'd just like to point our that in the Tea Party's free market, shipping your job overseas is something your employer is, well ... free to do, right? Either the market is free, and employers and Wall Street bankers can do whatever they think is necessary to increase profits and reduce costs — and we live with the bubbles and the bursts from their unrestrained greed — or the market isn't free. You can't have it both ways. Tea Partiers want to be free-marketeers only when it's someone else's job on the line.

10) Finally, the Tea Party wants a "permanent repeal of all tax hikes scheduled to begin in 2011." Let's look at the recent history on that. Politicians from both parties were so fearful of offending voters in the last two decades, that leaders of both parties have consistently proposed and approved tax cuts. this was done during an economic bubble when, presumably, they could have raised taxes a bit without too much pain and done something about controlling the then much smaller yearly budget shortfall. Far from favoring the poor, those cuts benefited most those who need tax cuts least, those in the upper middle and $200,000+ income circles in which many well-educated, successful Tea Party folk travel. Now that the bubble bash is over and we're struggling to pay the bills for the free-market excesses that got Tea Partiers where they are (and also brought retribution when the bubble burst), they want to repeal the Obama Admin.'s comparatively mild efforts to match taxation to our economic reality?

Tea Party folks may be well-educated in their narrow fields of endeavor and experience, but they appear to lack "big picture" knowledge of the political systems they hope to reform. They represent a conservative slice of the U.S. population that, unfettered by impediments such as unusual national or religious heritage, skin color and/or English as a second language, have established solid careers and settled lives in the predominant white establishment. They, therefore, have had little contact with the negative underside of public policy until recently, and, therefore, little real interest into looking into it (a common refrain among Tea Partiers is that, until recently, they "haven't paid much attention to politics"). While their recently piqued interest in the political sphere is laudable, there is a regrettable gap in their knowledge that explains, in part, the vagaries and inconsistencies in the CFA platform.

But lack of knowledge doesn't explain it by half. Let's forget the uncomfortable facts: that a vocal segment of the Tea Party movement supports the formation of citizen militias to "protect" them from their own federal government, that Tea Party adherents applaud secessionist rhetoric, and that Tea Party folks privately admit and sometimes publicly proclaim that their dislike of President Obama, in particular, goes beyond policy and politics and is rooted in race. It's no secret that white America is soon to become an American minority group. Under the veneer of Tea Party anger lies a vast reservoir of fear. It's what's left after all that is stripped away, however, that really is the crux of this matter. The fact that the CFA document was drafted for presentation on April 15th says it all: The Tea Party, for all it's concern about budgets and proper government function, is really motivated by the thing that motivates their "free" markets. Money. They believe that the current administration favors the poor and discriminates against the middle and upper income folks. It's my money. I earned, and I want to keep it. I don't want it to go to people who didn't earn it.

The Tea Party faithful want their government to work on a balanced budget, but have no intention of paying for it with any of their money. They want to safeguard their jobs in an ailing economy, but want to slash or kill government programs that support jobs and underpin a large portion of that economy. They want to tie their government's hands with two-thirds majority requirements that will stifle their government's ability to govern and will certainly prevent any action to alleviate the devastating financial and human costs that will certainly follow in the wake of the next economic bubble, which will surely come and burst spectucularly, if the Tea Party's "free" market becomes a reality.

No comments:

Post a Comment