Divided and Conquered

There were a lot of great comments to yesterday’s Road to Serfdom post, and I want to keep the discussion going.

For example, K wrote

What the right has succeeded in doing is brainwashing a couple of generations that all the problems are individuals’ fault and responsibility and that group action( group insurance, group investment, group labor, even group retirement, group education, group military service) is evil and inefficient. They want to destroy public education, public retirement, public service, public military service, public investment, public works, public ‘insurance’. Give it all over to private interest so someone can get wealthy off of what used to be a public good and turn it into exploitation of individuals who have no power to fight large powerful interests. And yes welfare is great when it all goes to the few very wealthy to the toadies and the contributers. They just redirected government benefit to their little club and have loosed the vultures on what used to be a middle class america with economic and political stability. divide and conquer indeed.

That’s the plan, isn’t it? The first step in the new road to serfdom is persuading people that it’s selfish — immoral, even — for people to expect government to do anything for them. Then, as quality of life erodes because old systems are breaking down, tell people that their problems are personal, not systemic. So, We the People are divided from our government — our government, notice — and from each other. And then the vultures move in.

Steven Andresen linked to an article by Carl Bloice about the mortgage crisis. Millions of Americans face hardship and dislocation because of subprime loans and other “easy credit” scams. Further, the crisis is causing a ripple effect across many economic sectors that could leave the nation in recession. And apparently the leaders of many of these sectors got to President Bush, who announced yesterday the government would take steps to help some homeowners keep their homes. However, he was careful to explain his proposals were not a “bailout.” “It’s not the government’s job to bail out speculators or those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could never afford,” Bush said.

You’d think that these deadbeats held mortgage lenders at gunpoint and forced them to cough up bad loans. The truth is that many were scammed, lied to, manipulated, cheated, whatever else you want to call it, to go into debt over their heads. I was struck by this bit from the article Steven linked:

Many dealers and lenders perceive these consumers as having fewer options, less financial experience, and a diminished sense of marketplace entitlement, thus making them more likely to be desperate or susceptible when it comes time to close the deal.

However, Carl Bloice found “a pattern of responses to the subprime mortgage mess that seeks to absolve the financial sector of responsibility and place it on the shoulders of its victims.” The rhetoric in many of these responses poured contempt for those who were scammed. But I saw no criticism of the scammers.

Mark Schmitt has a must-read post at The Guardian‘s Comment Is Free site.

On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we would do well to consider this statement from Jim Risch. He is currently lieutenant governor of Idaho and, if Craig resigns as expected, Risch appears poised to be appointed to succeed Craig immediately, which will enable him to run for the senate in 2008 (when Craig was scheduled to face the voters anyway) as an incumbent.

A year ago, Risch was the acting governor of Idaho. He told this newspaper’s Oliver Burkeman how he viewed the victims of Katrina:

“Here in Idaho, we couldn’t understand how people could sit around on the kerbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something. We had a dam break in 1976, but we didn’t whine about it. We got out our backhoes and we rebuilt the roads and replanted the fields and got on with our lives. That’s the culture here. Not waiting for the federal government to bring you drinking water. In Idaho there would have been entrepreneurs selling the drinking water.”

Taken on its own terms, this is a cruel and unsympathetic statement, assuming that the deeply impoverished people of a city that had washed away could and should have just taken care of themselves. But if you look at what Risch was talking about, it’s truly astonishing.

The dam that broke in 1976 was the Teton dam, built on the Snake River just a few months earlier, at a cost of $100m. (That’s worth almost $500m today.) Built not by entrepreneurs, but by the federal government’s bureau of reclamation. It was built at the political insistence of a few millionaire ranchers and potato-growers, whose political allies had persuaded the government to build a series of dams that transformed a desert into some of the richest and wettest agricultural land in the country. And it was built despite predictions that it would fail.

And when it did fail, it was not the self-sufficient entrepreneurs of Idaho who “rebuilt the roads and replanted the fields.” It was, once again, the federal government. According to the government’s official history of the incident, federal agencies quickly rebuilt all the irrigation systems, and paid more than $850 million in claims to about 15,000 people who had lost property in the flood.

In other words, it’s fine for a few “self-sufficient” ranchers to grow wealthy at taxpayer expense, but the poor are on their own.

Mark Schmitt concludes (emphasis added):

This, not Larry Craig’s awkwardly closeted sexuality, is the hypocrisy that matters. This hypocrisy consists not in a failure to reconcile public and private life, but in two public positions that are in absolute contradiction to one another: The belief that people must make it on their own, with no “whining” and no help from government, coexisting with a staggering, slavish dependence on government – and the federal government, and thus taxpayers of the rest of America, in particular.

In a foreshadowing of Risch’s comment about the New Orleans victims, the author Marc Reisner, whose 1986 book Cadillac Desert is the finest account of these Western politics, quotes one of the Teton dam’s earlier opponents about the culture of this part of Idaho: they “get burned up when they hear about someone buying a bottle of mouthwash with food stamps. But they love big water projects. They only object to nickle-and-dime welfare. They love it in great big gobs.”

This is the culture in which American conservatism – from Barry Goldwater’s Arizona to Ronald Reagan’s southern California, to George Bush’s Texas, where great wealth was made possible because the government subsidized money losing oil companies – was bred. It is a culture of self-delusion and hypocrisy that excuses great cruelty. And it’s far more dangerous than a poor old man in airport lavatory.

This week no end of right-wing voices have heaped abuse on New Orleans. Klaus Marre writes for The Hill:

GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) said Friday it is “time the taxpayer gravy train left the New Orleans station” and urged an end to the federal aid to the region that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.

“The amount of money that has been wasted on these so-called ‘recovery’ efforts has been mind-boggling,” said Tancredo, who is running a long-shot presidential campaign. “Enough is enough.”

Rightie blogger John Hawkins writes at Townhall:

Two years after Katrina, everywhere you turn, there are people carping, whining, and kvetching. Just why hasn’t the pity party for the citizens of New Orleans run out of booze and chips yet?

Everywhere on the rightie blogosphere you can read that New Orleans “got” $127 billion in taxpayer dollars, so what’s the problem? However, some of that money never left Washington; New Orleans was promised it, but hasn’t “gotten” it yet. [Update: I see in this Washington Times article that the $127 billion was allocated for “the region” of the Gulf Coast, not just New Orleans, but this is a distinction that got lost rather quickly.] It’s been stuck in bureaucracy or, in some cases, not released at all. And much that has been released was eaten by corruption and cronyism, or diverted into pork projects unrelated to Katrina. Yes, there’s a gravy train, but the folks stuck in FEMA trailers aren’t the ones lapping up most of the gravy. (There’s an article about this in the rightie e-zine Reason Online that’s not half bad; I don’t normally link to Reason but I’m making an exception in this case. See also “New Orleans: Where’s the money?” at CNNMoney.com.)

Bob Herbert’s New York Times column (outside the firewall here) focuses on Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, and the fears of American workers.

The feeling that seems to override all others for workers is anxiety. American families, already saddled with enormous debt, are trying to make it in an environment in which employment is becoming increasingly contingent and subject to worldwide competition. Health insurance, unaffordable for millions, is a huge problem. And guaranteed pensions are going the way of typewriter ribbons and carbon paper.

“We’re ending defined benefit pensions in front of our eyes,” said Mr. Stern. “I’d say today’s retirement plan for young workers is: ‘I’m going to work until I die.’ ”

The result of all of this — along with such problems as the mortgage and housing crisis, and a domestic economy that is doing nothing to improve living standards for ordinary Americans — is fear.

“Workers are incredibly, legitimately scared that the American dream, particularly the belief that their kids will do better, is ending,” said Mr. Stern. He is trying to get across the idea that in a period of such profound change, the old templates, the traditional ideas and policies of even the most progressive thinkers and officeholders, will not be sufficient to meet the new challenges.

People are afraid because the systems that sustained the American middle class for many decades are breaking down. This breakdown is partly the result of new stresses, such as globalization, but in many cases the systems deliberately are being dismantled by the Right. The steady erosion of middle class quality of life is not a matter of laziness or lack of virtue or even bad luck. But our political and business elites address our concerns as if we were children fearing monsters under our beds.

The American electorate needs to learn two things, and fast — one, our fears are well founded; and two, we have a right to use our government — our government — to find solutions that work for us. And I don’t mean by trickling down from some political crony’s over-stuffed pockets.

Update: See also Steve Benen.

25 thoughts on “Divided and Conquered

  1. “Everywhere on the rightie blogosphere you can read that New Orleans “got” $127 billion in taxpayer dollars, so what’s the problem?”

    The problem is that I don’t believe that anywhere close to $127 BILLION has been given/granted/loaned to the people or the govt of New Orleans.

    $127 BILLION divided into 200,000 households in NOLA is…what? Well, it is a preposterous number. See for yourself. I don’t believe it.

    Americans have to learn to “do the math” when they read a newspaper.

  2. It IS a preposterous number, and I see from this Washington Times article that the $127 billion (which includes “tax relief”) was allocated for “the region” of the Gulf Coast, not just NOLA. But the rightie bloggers and other right-wing publications are saying New Orleans got $127 billion.

  3. I’m interested in the seeming inability of this argument between the rich and the poor to make any headway.

    You said this to end or summarize your feelings,

    “…The American electorate needs to learn two things, and fast — one, our fears are well founded; and two, we have a right to use our government — our government — to find solutions that work for us. And I don’t mean by trickling down from some political crony’s over-stuffed pockets.”

    So, I would like to summarize, the problem is that the rich figure they can get all the wealth for themselves because, after all, they’ve already made a bundle. Seeing as how government is there, and it can be so useful, might as well use it to make as much as possible. The poor suppose that they need to get more wealth so that they can survive, get more healthy, and prosper. Government is there, and if they could use it, it might be able to pry out of the hands of the rich some of the wealth that they need. So, if they can, the poor try to get control of government to use against the rich.

    You think, I suspect, that the poor have a right to use government for their purposes and the rich don’t have the right to use it for theirs. Shouldn’t we wonder about this. Do the poor have any more right to use government, or their pitchforks, to take from the rich, any more than the rich have the right to hire goons to take from the poor?

  4. Yes indeed. For an idea of how it works, try using the postal “service” to send a parcel using the congressionally- approved lower cost rates for media mail and parcel post. This gov’t agency has gotten so screwed up that every shipper will switch to using private companies and welcome the day when their most reliable government service is privatized after years of suffering through its poor job performance. Of course the mess its in now will be blamed on the demands of unions for a living wage and a safe work environment rather than poor decisions by greedy management. ,,, My personal experience – as a worker and a customer.

  5. Steven — you go wrong in your first sentence. This is not an “argument between the rich and the poor.” It’s an argument between oligarchy (plutocracy, to be more precise) and republicanism. I advocate republicanism.

    And you are making it sound like a zero-sum game — whatever is given to the poor is taken away from the rich. That’s extremely short sighted. In fact, what we need to work toward is sustainable growth for everyone, which in the long run will benefit everyone. On the other hand, when resources and opportunity are hoarded and squandered by a small group for their own exclusive benefit, generally the entire nation is poorer for it.

    You think, I suspect, that the poor have a right to use government for their purposes and the rich don’t have the right to use it for theirs.

    That’s ridiculous, and I’m disappointed that you would assume such a thing.

  6. If you want a real eye-opener, read “Republican Ascendency” by J.D Hicks. It was written in 1960 and examines the last period of GOP dominance, which was the 1921-1933.

    Here’s a taste:

    “As later events seemed to prove, money poured in at the top of the economic system tended to stay there, whereas money poured in at the bottom tended to rise through all levels of business and to strengthen the economy as a whole.”

    Hicks wrote this two decades before anyone heard of voodoo economics.

    (It just happened to be next to “The Road to Serfdom” on my bookshelf.)

  7. “But the rightie bloggers and other right-wing publications are saying New Orleans got $127 billion.”

    Exactly. My point was simple, and not directed only at you:

    1. This lie that NOLA got $127 billion must be challenged at every turn.

    2. We should all learn to “do the math” in every newstory with numbers in it as very often, once you play out the math and compare it to your own experience, such stories make no commonsense. (And this is NOT a left/right issue; I’ve seen lots of nonsensical stuff from left/liberal sources as well.)

  8. Barbara – I am going to go off topic here and if you delete me I understand. But I think I discerned today a palace coup that should be examined. When Rove resigned, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. His departure did little to make the WH safer from congressional inquiriries. And I think he loved the power and would not have given up a minute of it – willingly.

    Gonzo quit suddenly and I agree with reports that his departure was called for by Bush, not accepted sadly by the Prez. Gonzo was a safety valve for the Prez, willing and eager to bend or break the law to block prosecution of presidential cronies. He semed comfortable with lying to Congress and willing to withstand calls for resignation. It was not until I was watching a story on CNN that I realized who the authority in the Executive office NOW is.. and that thre has been a realignment of who holds the strings which control Bush.

    The story was about the intention of DHS to begin to use info from Social Security to go after employers who have done nothing about Name-SSN mismatches. Employers will be given 90 days to resolve issues with wrong – or phony – SSNs or face fines and possible prosecution. Historicly, Bush has partnered with the Dems in conflict with most Republicans on the issue of amnesty and this policy is a total reversal by the administration, and it reveals who the new masters are – the RNC.

    How did the RNC get the power to take over staffing and policy in the WH?.. Impeachment. The RNC threatened Bush & Cheney with impeachment if they did not become lap dogs for the RNC. The Republicans fear the next election and the hammering they will take over the war and other failures of the Administration. Illegal Imigration is the only Republican plank that resonates with independent voters, and Bush was pissing that away. Iraq will get them all lynched if that’s the campaign central issue. And Bush is in denial there. So we are going to declare victory and start a withdrawl, at the slowest rate that will deflate the Dems attempt to make the War a central theme. Amnesty and the greed of employers who deliberately employ undocumented workers, to the harm of the middle class is going to be THE central theme. And Dems are firmly positioned on the WRONG side of that issue, where voters are concerned.

    Thre’s a new Sherrif in town – at 1600 Penns Ave – the RNC and they have the Mayor in their pocket. And they have a strategy to reverse the debacle of the 2006 elections. Is anyone at the DNC awake?

  9. Interesting theory, Doug Hughes.

    But “RNC” by itself isn’t convincing….have to have real names and faces with the nerve to challenge a sitting Prez/V-P in such a bold manner.

  10. A theory is all it is – but watch the news for the next 30 days and see if you don’t see Bush moving in un-Bush ways that all serve to strengthen the position of Republicans running for re-election in the House & Senate. Wouldn’t I love to have a transcript of the meeting where Bush was handed the word from on high – and made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

  11. DMS — regarding “do the math,” anyone who knows me very well understands that I’m not what you call “gifted” in the math department. Which is to say I get lost when I run out of fingers. Any time you want to correct me, go right ahead. I need all the help I can get.

  12. Actually, tell you the embarrassing truth I am not very good at figures either, Maha. 🙂 And I would have put the number into my comment but I was in a cafe and my laptop doesn’t have a good calculator, no paper/pen etc etc. So I waited till I got to my desk to divide that 127 Billion (by what I guess might be the number of NOLA households effected/eligible) into 200,000 households.

    (The 2000 pop of NOLA was somewhere around 500,000. Figure 2.2 people per household and you get 227,000 households. But not everyone was hurt so call it 200,000. It’s just an order of magnitude, anyway.)

    And so if we do the math as I suggest we get about $635,000 per household! Crazy! It strikes me as about as absurd a number as I have run across in a while. (Tell me if my math is way off, anyone.)

    And if right-wing kooks are saying that we have given/loaned $635,000 to injured parties in NOLA then it’s just another example of Bush administration incompetence.


    Btw I just checked and per
    the number of household in NOLA in 2000 was 188,000, not all of whom could possibly be eligible for Katrina-related assistance, so my guesses were fairly close and even a bit high.

  13. Maha,
    Good stuff! The phenomenon of people hating “Big Gummint” , and voting against their own economic interests is hard to grasp. But I do think the culture war has a lot to do with it, and those folks on the TV from NO are mostly, well, black, and as I’ve overheard, “probably on welfare anyway..” Interestingly, I heard that comment from a Mexican laboror. ( I live in New Mexico) Things are getting strange and complicated.

  14. A few of us have been saying for some time now that the overall goals of Bu$hCo reflect the establishment of a theocratic neo-feudalism. As we progress further down the road to fossil fuel depletion, it will be harder and harder for lower classes to match the lifestyle and degree of control the new aristocrats mobilize.

    Chaos is the plan.

  15. Thanks alot for the quote. I have long thought that the individualization or atomization of all responsibilities/risk in life is the root of the problem. ( for example if I pay for home insurance or health insurance it ought to cover what it advertises itself as but we all know how people have to fight for the coverage they paid for)Individuals are expected to be their own accountants tax lawyers doctors brokers etc. the media is constantly preaching to us as if we are children or telling us we have to do this that and the other about every issue in our lives as if everyone could know and do everything. The rich do not do this- they hire it out. But the average person is really stuck fighting a brick wall that is stacked against them. The individual is stuck with 100% responsibility and none of the control.
    One of the reasons Schwarzenegger was fighting the nurses in California was that they are organized and their labor power and investment power threatens- If Calpers can tell companies how to act then that gives a collective group of retirees actual say and control and there is nothing Republicans hate more.

  16. Maha-

    The first step in the new road to serfdom is persuading people that it’s selfish — immoral, even — for people to expect government to do anything for them.

    It’s not that it’s “immoral” to expect anything from the Gov’t- it’s merely ignorant!

    Just ask the ‘Katrina victims’!

    Please tell me exactly what the “Gov’t” has ever done for me

    For instance, I was “incarcerated” at age 15 in Ohio. Ms Carolyn Staudt (My HS Chem teacher 1979-1980) was actually a former Ohio Youth Commission educator- yet she was specifically prohibitedby a “State” juvenile court judge– from voluntarily ‘tutoring’ me at any time during my incarceration…

    The “Gov’t” was simply not going to allow me to get any ‘benefit’ from my incarceration!- because I was “intelligent”! ) –This was explicitly” told to me by my “social worker” at “Riverview School for Boys”!

    So, despite the fact that I was getting straight A’s– in HS Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Statistics, and English– as a 10th grader… my “OYC education” in mathematics started with a test on-


    Then, we moved to ‘Subtraction’!

    At this point– I simply turned the page over- and used an “implicit proof” to show that “the sum of the first ‘n’ positive integers equals (n)(n+1)/2″…

    I was given a “zero” (-not to mention the 7 days in “solitary confinement” –that I got for asking the teacher if he could actually ‘follow my work’!).

    When I got back to class, I got the “Subtraction” test– again!

    So, I then “proved” that ‘the sum of the first “n” odd integers equalls “n^2” ‘… and told my teacher he was a fucking asshole simply collecting his Left-wing Gov’t check…

    I got 2 weeks in “solitary” this time…

    And, I never, ever advanced past “subtraction” during the entire 9 1/2 months that I served following this incident…(I spent 54 minutes a day- every day– simply staring at the teacher for the entire class time…- for 287 days…). Go State!

    BTW, I still got a 760 on the SAT Math test (640 Verbal) in March 1981 — less than 3 months after my release from the OYC… I then received a perfect “36” on the ACT Math (and a 35 “overall”) one month later…

    Let’s also talk Socialist InSecurity!

    My father died at age 42 (pancreatic cancer) when I was 17- and a “senior” in HS- SS does not pay a check for the month the parent dies- and also for the month when you turn 18…

    So, My mom got exactly 5 checks ($502.60 ea.) in my name–for my father’s 25 years of contributions into the SS fund…

    (Hint: My parents were not “married”… thus, no “spousal” benefit’s…)

    Furthermore, I declare myself to be an asexual (43 and never married) – do current “marriage laws” discriminate against me?

  17. fletch — if I’ve got the years added up correctly, all these things happened after the “Reagan Revolution,” which means you are proving my point.

  18. I think all things done by the government should be taken away those who oppose the government doing anything–and it should be retroactive. Thus, all these rightwing whiners will have to stop using the U.S. Highway system. They will only be allowed to drive where there are no roads. Also, they seem to object to state and local taxes; thus, they should not have any garbage pickup, mail service, etc. And, they should also get off the internet.

    The other thing about the way the rich is trying to destroy the middle class and make them all poor is that, they will only be able to get money from the Government. Because if we are all too poor to buy what many of the rich are selling, they will stop getting rich. It seems like they are trying to kill the goose who laid the golden egg. Stupid is as Stupid does . . .

  19. Oh, I also wanted to say that the reason there is no criticism of the scammers is because Bush is the biggest scam artiist in the country.

  20. While this is all correct, and I agree particularly with 13 and 14, I think your all missing the bigger point. What we are really talking about is the fundamental flaw in the American physic. This independence we like to pretend to have is reflected in our dis-trust of government, assumption that every single person on welfare is buying lobster at a red lobster with it (or doing drugs), and general presumption that all private industries preform better than government. These are all part of the myth culture America has developed and Maha has pointed to.

    Maha recently suggested that liberals need to develop myths of our own – preferably one that can be repeated over and over on the news in under 2 minutes. How about we start with the government being capable of good deeds?

  21. New Orleans was a predominantly-black, predominantly-low-income, predominantly-Democratic city.

    Then Katrina.

    Then Karl Rove was put in charge of New Orleans reconstruction. Remember?

    Now New Orleans is a predominantly-white, predominantly-Republican, predominantly-financier-class city.

    Mission accomplished. Karl Rove racks up another success.

    You don’t recognize this as a successful recontruction? You don’t share BushCo’s definition of “success”.

  22. As a few others have said, Hayek’s book is actually worth reading. Not that it will change your mind or anything, but it will shed an interesting light on matters that concern you, Maha, and provide some elegant, useful phrasing. His chapter “How the Worst Come Out on Top” shows a man reflecting on the rise of the Nazis and their allies in his own country, and helps explain a lot of features of the Bush administration: basically, the more you need officials to do unpleasant and immoral things, the more the virtuous ones will leave and the remainder become degraded. No surprises there, but he puts it well and thoughtfully. Likewise, his exposition on why rule by experts can so easily go awry, because of the ways the pursuit of expertise isolates the pursuer from the concerns facing the rest of the population, is entirely current as a critique of the Very Serious People.

    He overshot when it comes to what must be, as opposed to what are recurring temptations, but…I have to feel some charity for a man who came throught eh rise of fascism as he did, in light of how my own country’s gotten so thoroughly hosed lately. Furthermore, he meant well in a way that the American conservative movement simply doesn’t. He was wrong on some key matters, and I’m not proposing him as a source of all wisdom or anything, but there is real merit in his work in interpreting our current crisis.

  23. Oh, and one last thing about Hayek: He genuinely wasn’t conservative in any sense that the word means in American politics. He was wonderful un-afraid of the future, inclined to believe that customs exist for underlying good reasons but not inclined to give them anything more than an initial benefit of the doubt. He looked forward to continuing social as well as technological change, and believed that people could and should expect to live better tomorrow than they do today. It’s such a wonderful rebuke to the ghastly bedwetting childishness of the American conservative movement, along with its downright evil love of the worst social misery of the Industrial Revolution.

  24. Stella, what’s the matter with media mail? I use it nearly every day with no problem.

    Of course, in the latest round of rate increases, ordinary users like us took a hit, and the megausers benefited in the proposal cooked up by Time-Warner to favor their mailings in the millions and hike the prices for small-circulation magazines, but that’s another story.

  25. “However, he was careful to explain his proposals were not a “bailout.” “It’s not the government’s job to bail out speculators or those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could never afford,” Bush said.”
    I can’t remember what he said when he gave billions to the airline industry, or to the corporate farmers, or Israel, or the arms manufactures, or the super rich through tax cuts.
    But it doesn’t matter really… I hear so many people say we have no power to fight back, but we do. Stop spending or better yet stop going into debt to the corporate world.Pick one corporate gaint at a time and bring them to their knees, Monsanto would be a good starting place.

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