Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

They Said It:

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate.  That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.  It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.  For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself.  The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1, 1835.



As you know, the fallout from the disastrous launch of the Affordable Care Act – i.e. Obamacare – has been severe.  Indeed, this one law has already accomplished a great many things that were deemed impossible just a few short weeks ago.  In addition to destroying Barack Obama’s credibility and reputation, it has severely damaged his image among a majority of the population.  Whereas once he remained personally popular, while his policies and job approval took a beating, now even the man himself is disliked by more Americans than he is liked.

Obamacare has also cleaved the formerly united and recently important “youth vote” from the Democratic party, inducing anger and disillusionment among Obama’s erstwhile greatest and most dedicated demographic.  Furthermore, it has sown disunity in the Democratic Party ranks, pitting scared members of Congress against their clueless and hopeless president.  At the same time, it has plastered over some of the heretofore unrepairable cracks in the GOP coalition, making the party that was universally loathed just two short months ago, the odds-on favorite to win next fall’s midterm elections and to win them handily.  Six weeks ago, the all-important “generic ballot question,” measuring the electorate’s preference for one Congressional party over the other, favored the Democrats by nine points.  Today, the question yields a dead heat, in a poll that almost always wildly overstates Democratic support.

Given all of this, it is hardly surprising that many in the political commentariat have taken to speculating about the long-term effects of the law on the country, on Washington, on Obama, and even on our political culture itself.  Some have hypothesized about so-called “worst case” scenarios, positing the notion that the plan’s problems have only begun and that Obamacare will, ultimately and inevitably, destroy both the private health insurance market and the government’s capacity to deal with the wreckage.

Others have pondered the political implications, calculating that Barack Obama is, by and large, done as a political player on the American stage.  His manifest incompetence, coupled with his self-absorption and lack of concern for the rest of his party, have not only depleted his political capital but ensured that it will not – indeed, CANnot – be rebuilt over the course of his presidency.  And still others have forecast their calculations beyond the near-term horizon, surmising that he has finally accomplished what the greatest of American political scientists, Theodore Lowi, predicted nearly a half-century ago, namely “the end of liberalism.”  As Politico’s Todd Purdum wrote, “the fiasco of the launch of Obama’s sweeping health care overhaul has put the reputation of Big Government progressivism at risk for at least this generation.”

Among the most prominent and most highly respected  in this latter category of prognosticators is the inimitable Charles Krauthammer, who last week dared to contemplate the full potential of Obamacare’s destructive capacity, suggesting that Obama has become an existential threat to the very hard-core progressive liberalism that is responsible for his presidency.  Krauthammer put it this way:

At stake, however, is more than the fate of one presidency or of the current Democratic majority in the Senate.  At stake is the new, more ambitious, social-democratic brand of American liberalism introduced by Obama, of which Obamacare is both symbol and concrete embodiment . . .

As the only socially transformational legislation in modern American history to be enacted on a straight party-line vote, Obamacare is wholly owned by the Democrats.  Its unraveling would catastrophically undermine their underlying ideology of ever-expansive central government providing cradle-to-grave care for an ever-grateful citizenry.

For four years, this debate has been theoretical.  Now it’s real.  And for Democrats, it’s a disaster.

The essence of the entitlement state is government giving away free stuff.  Hence Obamacare would provide insurance for 30 million uninsured, while giving everybody tons of free medical services — without adding “one dime to our deficits,” promised Obama.  This being inherently impossible, there had to be a catch.  Now we know it: hidden subsidies.  Toss millions of the insured off their plans and onto the Obamacare “exchanges” where they would be forced into more expensive insurance packed with coverage they don’t want and don’t need — so that the overcharge can be used to subsidize others . . . .

If it does fail, the effect will be historic.  Obamacare will take down with it more than Mary Landrieu and Co.  It will discredit Obama’s new liberalism for years to come.

This is a fascinating and, frankly, logical conclusion to draw from the Obamacare debacle, especially for conservatives.  Everything that the Right warned the Left about before it enacted this sweeping change has been proven, or will be proven, correct.  The Right was spot on about the complications associated with such a takeover, about the perversity of the incentives involved in the plan, about the dangers of governmentalizing and thus bureaucratizing what was left of the free market in the health insurance business, and about the alienating effects of the wealth-redistribution  mechanisms in the law.  It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone on the Right that the law has been a mess and will likely damage the reputation of both the man and the ideology that produced it.

But is it true that it will discredit “big government” for at least a generation?  Has Obamacare really killed liberalism?

The answer to these questions, we think, is obvious, despite the ease with which one might be tempted to conclude otherwise.  No, liberalism will not be discredited.  It will not die.  Even the more aggressive and “progressive” liberalism of the contemporary, Obama-supporting Left is unlikely to be damaged too terribly.  And if it is, that damage won’t last for long.  As much as we might like to agree with Krauthammer, Todd Purdum, and the others, both the empirical evidence and human nature suggest that American liberalism will survive even as it fails as a governing strategy.  And all of this, we think, says a great deal about the current state of the American political conversation.

The first and most obvious reason to doubt the notion that the Left will be damaged too greatly by the Obamacare debacle is the fact that the Left, both globally and domestically, still exists, despite its manifest and catastrophic failures over the decades.  The human imagination, after all, is a strange and powerful thing.  And it is also the driving force behind political leftism.  As soon as one iteration of the leftism dream is killed – or “discredited,” if you prefer – another, frighteningly similar one arises in its stead, only to produce the same horrifying results.

Consider, for example, the case of Venezuela.  Hugo Chavez, the late avowed and aggressive socialist president/dictator of that country, was elected to office in February, 1999.  For the record, that’s less than eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the near-universal declaration that socialism had, forever and always, been discredited and thereby relegated the proverbial dustbin of history.  Chavez, as you know, implemented a series of leftist “reforms,” allied himself with the Castro brothers in Cuba, and attempted to spread his neo-communist ideology throughout the region and throughout the world – with a certain amount of success.

Of course, spreading his ideology was just about the only thing that Chavez did successfully.  Before his death last March, Chavez destroyed what human rights existed in Venezuela.  He also destroyed what there was of his country’s economy.  By playing Robin Hood – i.e. stealing from the rich and giving to the poor – Chavez lived out every socialist’s fantasy.  Interestingly, he was able to do so for a number of years without repercussion for much the same reason that the Soviets were able to do so.  That is, he was fortunate enough to have commandeered a petroleum-rich plot of land.  In the end, though, the results of his reign have been exposed and have proven just as desperate and just as fruitless as every other socialist experiment in history.

Nonetheless, the American Left loved the man.  Hollywood idols lionized him.  The President of the United States gleefully and graciously greeted Chavez, offering the dictator not only his hand but his friendship.  Congressional Democrats – including the recently elected junior Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Markey – lavishly praised Chavez and gratefully accepted his PR-motivated donations of heating oil the this country’s poor.  All of which is to say that not only did the Venezuelans not learn the lessons of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet state, neither did the American Left, which less than a decade after said collapse was back singing the praises of socialism on the global stage.

Of course, one need not trek all the way to South America to see how quickly a people forgets the dangers and the failures of leftist-liberalism.  By 1980, recall, the nearly half-century American experiment in full-blown liberalism was said to have run its course.  Everything, it seemed, was spinning out of control.  American foreign policy was a leftist mess, with America’s standing abroad destroyed by a decade-long left-wing utopian war followed by a half-decade of hand-wring leftist overcompensation.  From Central Asia to the Middle East, from Central America to the Eurasian plateaus, America was nearly universally acknowledged to be what Osama bin Laden would famously call “the weak horse.”  At home, the situation was no better.  Leftist fiscal, monetary, and social policy had stalled the American economy and killed the American dream, and only a total reversal of course could salvage what was left of the American spirit.

That reversal, of course, came in the form of a new Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, and then a new and remarkable president, Ronald Reagan.  In less than five years, the two together managed to right the economic ship.  And in less than a decade, the Gipper and his successor had managed to completely undermine the Left on the global stage.  The Right was ascendant.  And for good reason.

Yet, the Right’s ascendancy was short-lived.  A scant twelve years after it began, it was over, and the New Left had taken over the White House.  And before you dismiss the notion of Bill and Hill as “leftists,” you should recall what they were when they came to Washington, rather than what they were when they left.  The “man from Hope” was, of course, a leftist, who did his best to fit into a right-of-center country.  The fact that the office changed him and made him more pragmatic does not diminish the Leftist triumphalism that accompanied his arrival in Washington.

A more concrete example of the persistence of the Left and its economic fairytales, even in the face of its demonstrated failures, can be seen in the voting patterns of minorities in this country, particularly black voters and especially over the last few election cycles.  It is no secret, of course, that black voters tend to vote rather overwhelmingly for Democrats.  Over the last few election cycles, though, that affinity for left-of-center candidates has grown increasingly lopsided.  Barack Obama received 96% and 93% of the black vote in his two presidential elections, respectively.  And while these percentages may be inflated for reasons having little to do with partisan affinity, they are nonetheless consistent with the continued movement of black voters away from the GOP and to the Democratic party, this despite being overwhelmingly Democratic in the first place.

What is fascinating to us is that the remarkable shift continues despite what the Democratic party and its embrace of leftist economics has done to the black community in the country.  And note:  we DO mean “TO” the black community, not FOR it.

As we have noted countless times before in these pages, nearly a half-century ago now, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an Assistant Secretary of Labor, penned a report for the Johnson administration titled “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” in which he documented the damage being done to black families and black communities by, among other things, well intentioned government outreach.  In short, Moynihan noted that the majority of urban black families were being destroyed, largely by circumstances beyond their control, creating a series of “pathologies,” chief among which were a “cycle of poverty and disadvantage” and dependency on government.  Unfortunately and for a variety of political reasons, Moynihan’s report found its way rather quickly into the proverbial waste bin and his warnings went largely unheeded.

James Patterson, a professor emeritus of history at Brown University and the author of a book on the Moynihan report (Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Family Life From L.B.J. to Obama), noted the future senator’s prescience thusly in a March, 2010 op-ed for the New York Times:

Moynihan’s pessimistic prophecies have come true.  In 1963, a quarter of nonwhite births in the United States were out of wedlock, eight times the proportion among whites.  Today the proportion of nonmarital births among non-Hispanic blacks exceeds 72 percent, compared with a proportion among non-Hispanic whites of around 28 percent.

Only 38 percent of black children now live with married parents, compared with three-quarters of non-Hispanic white children.  Many boys in fatherless families drop out of school, fail to find living-wage work and turn to idleness or crime.  Many girls become poverty-stricken single mothers themselves.

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  One may argue that the goal of leftist policy, particularly with respect to the poor, has never focused on family structure and family life, and therefore that family measures provide a biased picture of the efficacy of those policies.  We’d disagree, of course.  But an argument could, at least in theory, be made.  Fine.  But there is no way to paper over the abject failure of the lynchpin of the modern day Left’s economic policy, that being to take from those who have “too much” and give to those who have “too little.”

Kevin Williamson addressed this nation’s experiment in redistibutionalism as follows in a recent piece for National Review Online.

[D]espite the daft insistence of Joan Walsh and the Affiliated Suburban Pearl-Clutchers of America, there is no neo-Confederate revanche just around the corner.  The idea is, however, a useful distraction.  But a distraction from what?  From $4,955.

Fifty years into the Democrats’ declaration of a war on poverty and President Kennedy’s first executive order for affirmative action, while spending $300 million a year on worthless diversity workshops and singing endless verses of “We Shall Overcome,” after enduring endless posturing from Barack Obama and the moral preening of his admirers, that is what black American families have to show for themselves: an average household net worth of $4,955.  The average white household in these United States has a net worth of $110,729.  Black Americans’ median net worth is less than 5 percent that of white Americans.

By way of comparison, black South Africans under apartheid had a median net worth about 6.8 percent that of white South Africans. Repeating: Black Americans are worse off relative to their white countrymen than black South Africans under apartheid were to theirs, a fact to which former Washington Post reporter Jon Jeter has drawn attention and from which he has drawn all the wrong conclusions.  (Muppet News Flash:Washington Post straight-news reporter turns out to be a garden-variety liberal.)  Philadelphia mayor John Street used to brag that “the brothers and sisters are running the city,” which would be more of a boast in a city with less criminal governance.  Mayor Ray Nagin, whose fraud/conspiracy/money-laundering/bribery/tax-evasion trial should be getting under way any moment now, liked to promise that New Orleans would remain a “chocolate city.”  A generation of one-party rule based on racial politics was enough to doom Detroit.  Outside of the womb, the most dangerous place for a black American to be is in a city run by Democrats . . . .

[B]lack Americans still have a median household net worth of less than half the price of a 2011 Ford Fiesta with 28,000 miles on it.  The median black American household is poorer than the average household in India, which has a net worth of about $5,500, according to the Economic Times.

This is not just sad, it’s heartbreaking.  And if the Left were truly ever to be held accountable for anything, then it would be held accountable for this disaster, largely because it is both obvious and ongoing.  But it will not be held accountable.  By anyone.  Indeed, black voters, so damaged and disregarded by Democrats, will nevertheless continue to vote for Democrats and, by extension, for the expansion of the liberal welfare state that has been an unarguable disaster for them.

And this brings us to the second chief reason that “liberalism” is not going to die or even go into hibernation, no matter how badly Obamacare may discredit its underpinnings.  The fact of the matter is that the welfare state and the entitlements it delivers are simply too ingrained in the American consciousness to be allowed to contract, much less to disappear.  There are too many people who rely on it, who have come to feel “entitled” to it; too many people who believe that it is the single factor that distinguishes a civilized society from the barbarians to allow anyone or anything to demean, dishonor, or disgrace it.

We could probably take up the rest of your week with statistics, quotes, and analyses related to the American welfare state.  But we’ll spare you that.  For our purposes today we’ll note simply that over the last several years – coinciding roughly with the collapse of the global economy and the start of Obama administration – the loosely defined “welfare” rolls in this country have swelled dramatically.  According to a piece published roughly a year ago in the Weekly Standard and using statistics compiled by the minority caucus (i.e. Republicans) on Senate Budget Committee, roughly one in three Americans is enrolled in or benefitting from “welfare” – not including any of the entitlement programs.  The Standard’s Daniel Halper put it this way:

Overall, there are nearly 80 means-tested federal welfare programs and, according to the Census Bureau, nearly 110 million people in the United States receive benefits from at least one of them.  (This figure includes exclusively means-tested welfare programs, not entitlements like Medicare Or Social Security.  It also excludes some means-tested benefits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or the health insurance premium subsidies included in the President’s health law.  CBO estimates that the premium subsidies, scheduled to begin in 2014, will result in at least 25 million individuals receiving means-tested federal assistance by the end of the decade.)

When you add in those entitlement programs – Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security (including disability) – roughly half of Americans (49%) now receive some variety of transfer payment from the government.  One may argue – and with significant merit – that Social Security and Medicare are hardly welfare and are merely the federal government’s repayment of payments made previously.  But that doesn’t change the fact that government transfer payments now account for roughly one-fifth all personal “income” in this country.  Perhaps most notably, the explosion in Social Security disability payments has made the entitlement state indispensable to a great many Americans.

There are all sorts of reports, studies, and analyses of the rise in and deleterious effects of Social Security disability claims.  Among the best of these was an episode of “This American Life,” a National Public Radio (NPR) program, written by Chana Joffe-Walt and broadcast earlier this year.  This analysis focuses specifically on one Alabama county in which a quarter of the adult, working-age population is enrolled in the Social Security disability program.  The basic problems detailed, however, apply throughout the country.

In the past three decades, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed.  The rise has come even as medical advances have allowed many more people to remain on the job, and new laws have banned workplace discrimination against the disabled.  Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government.

The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined.  Yet people relying on disability payments are often overlooked in discussions of the social safety net.  The vast majority of people on federal disability do not work.  Yet because they are not technically part of the labor force, they are not counted among the unemployed.

In other words, people on disability don’t show up in any of the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing.  But the story of these programs — who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that — is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy.  It’s the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net . . . .

As far as the federal government is concerned, you’re disabled if you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to work.  In practice, it’s a judgment call made in doctors’ offices and courtrooms around the country.  The health problems where there is most latitude for judgment — back pain, mental illness — are among the fastest growing causes of disability.

Disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills.  But it wasn’t supposed to serve this purpose; it’s not a retraining program designed to get people back onto their feet.  Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work.  Fewer than 1 percent of those who were on the federal program for disabled workers at the beginning of 2011 have returned to the workforce since then, one economist told me.

People who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare, the government health care program that also covers the elderly.  They also get disability payments from the government of about $13,000 a year.  This isn’t great.  But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you at most $15,000 a year, and probably does not include health insurance, disability may be a better option.

If you add the roughly 10 million recipients of Social Security disability and/or spouses and dependent children who receive benefits to the recipients of the various welfare programs, you’re talking about roughly 120 million Americans receiving payments from the state and who have no connection whatsoever to the traditional entitlements, i.e. Social Security old-age insurance and Medicare for those over 65.  Does anyone, anywhere believe that this massive welfare state is going to disappear, or that Obamacare is going to kill the ideology that created it?  Certainly, we don’t.

A related and perhaps bigger problem is the fact that the “success” and indispensability of the welfare state is something that is largely accepted uncritically by the entirety of the political class.  Liberals, “conservatives,” Democrats, Republicans, ALL of the Washington establishment generally accepts that the welfare state as it exists today is not merely a fact of life, but a beneficial fact of life; one that demonstrates government’s abilities and compassion and permits the people to enjoy “the good life.”  The following is an excerpt from a transcript of an interview conducted last month on “The Daily Show” by that show’s host Jon Stewart.  His guest, as you will be able to tell, is a longtime Washington insider, a defender of nominally conservative politics, but of the political class and the status quo as well.

STEWART: Here is my issue with conservative politics as they stand right now.  It’s too easy.  It doesn’t have any of the responsibility of governance.  If your mantra is government cannot help, then any chaos or lethargy that you sow in the government helps to prove your point.  You have no incentive to be responsible in creating solutions to many of the problems that face us.

GUEST: That would be true but unfortunately, the assumption is a caricature.  The conservative idea is not that government has no role.  You might have argued that in the thirties when conservatives opposed the New Deal.  There’s no question of accepting the great achievements of liberalism — the achievements of the New Deal, of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare.  The idea that you rescue the elderly and don’t allow the elderly to enter into destitution is a consensual idea that conservatives, at least the mainstream of conservatives —

STEWART: I would say that the rhetoric is the same.  If you look at the rhetoric when conservatives opposed the New Deal, opposed Social Security, opposed Medicare — it is identical.  Ted Cruz quotes Ronald Reagan’s Medicare speech in 1960 as he opposed Obamacare.

GUEST: Ted Cruz is not the official spokesman for American conservatism.  If you want somebody who has been out there, who has offered an alternative — the person who offered an alternative for example is … Paul Ryan.  But, let me start with his assumption.  His assumption is not that government doesn’t have a role.  His assumption is that the welfare state as established with great success by liberals has now reached a point where it no longer fits.

Ah, yes.  The “great achievements of liberalism,” and the “welfare state established with great success by liberals.”  How could anyone not know of these wonders?  More seriously – and more to the point, we suppose – does anyone really believe that “liberalism” is under any real threat, when these are the musings of the establishment “conservatives”?  Would your answer to this last question change at all if we told that this “conservative” who lauded the great victories and successes of liberalism is a longtime commentator and the author of a new book, the same Charles Krauthammer who above predicted the death of liberalism?  Does it matter much anymore?

Last week, the New York Times joined a growing chorus of observers and commentators who have compared Barack Obama’s handling of the Obamacare rollout to George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.  As it turns out, the Times also worried that the Obamacare failure will lead to a backlash against Obama and his liberalism, just as Katrina led to a backlash against Bush and his conservatism.  Of course, on this matter as so many others, the folks at the Times haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re talking about.

George Bush took a beating in the aftermath of Katrina not because he failed to do those things which a president should do, or because his “conservatism” had somehow led him and his administration to believe that the people of New Orleans should be self-sufficient.  The suggestion is laughable.  Rather, Bush took a beating because he never, ever disabused anyone of the notion that the federal government can and should protect and comfort everyone, everywhere in the face of every threat, up to and including natural disasters.  Early in his presidency, Bush famously (infamously?) declared that “we have a responsibility, when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”  In so doing, he confirmed that his “compassionate conservatism” was premised on the acceptance of an omnipotent and benevolent state.  Such a state can never exist, of course.  And when Katrina proved it, Bush suffered for it – and for the fact that he allowed the American people to believe otherwise.

What’s most troubling about this, we think, is the fact that the New York Times is right – sorta.  Bush’s perceived failure with respect to Katrina did indeed change the political calculus and did indeed set the stage for a successor with a more activist ideology.  But the American people did not reject conservatism for liberalism.  They rejected status quo liberalism for a reenergized, more militant liberalism.

Charles Krauthammer et al. seem convinced that this time, in the wake of Obama’s failures, the American people will reject this militant liberalism for something more conservative.  This is ridiculous.  The fact is that it very well could go the other way – again.

Already, nearly half of the American public has grown accustomed to the entitlement/welfare state enriching their lives and their lifestyles considerably.  It is absurd to believe that they would willingly give that up, particularly when even the “conservatives” in the political class insist that such enrichment is the proper function of government.  The entitlement/welfare state will have to crash completely before it is reformed, we’re afraid.

That crash is inevitable, given the demographics of the country and the demographic dependency of the entitlement/welfare mechanism.  But contrary to the views of Krauthammer and others, the crash is not imminent.  Liberalism and the welfare state will be around when they are gone.


Copyright 2013. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.