Wednesday, September 21. 2005
The Sept. 12 issue of The New Yorker dedicated its cover and "Talk of the Town" section to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but what I found most interesting was the letters section. The first two letters were in response to an earlier piece on small/dead government guru Grover Norquist:
These are good points, but they leave the basic question unanswered, which is why? I don't know about Norquist, but the key issue for some Republican ideologues isn't the size of government so much as their wish to break the poor, and for that matter the middle class, of the habit of looking toward government to help solve their problems. Starving the government beast is one way to do this, but more effective still is to render government incompetent. Bush may have failed the straightforward task of shrinking government, but he's done a bang-up job of making it incompetent -- or at least making it useless to all but his political backers. For Bush, this is a multi-pronged attack, but the main thrusts are: 1) put political agents in charge everywhere, especially to maximize the patronage potential of the government; 2) undermine the civil service system and the unions; 3) muck up all regulatory processes; 4) start a few wars to suck up resources; 5) pile extra security responsibilities on top of all other government functions; 6) cut taxes on the rich, driving the government ever deeper in debt; 7) push as much unfunded work as possible onto state and local governments. In this framework, greater debt does double duty: it provides discretionary rationale for rejecting spending now, and it makes future spending more prohibitive. The resulting government will, for most people, become so useless that they won't mind drowning it in a bathtub. It may not be as clean and principled an outcome as Norquist might prefer, but the differences are more tactical than strategic.
Still, there may well be a growing split between the principled ideological conservatives and the Bush politicos in that the latter are much more concerned with the preservation and extension of their power than any principles they might espouse. The latter discovered that controlling government's purse strings is a dandy way to further their political prospects by rewarding their core constituencies. The latter turn out to include plenty of companies and organizations who have no real beef with government spending as long as they get theirs first. But note that none of the above -- not the anti-government ideologues nor the spoils grabbers, and least of all the politicos -- have shown the least bit of support for the traditional reason behind a balanced budget (the need for long-term stability of the dollar) let alone any concern that a functional, competent government might be a useful thing to have.
This all comes into stark relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where the disaster is of such magnitude that even a competent and sound federal government effort is going to be stretched beyond our imagination. Had ideologues like Norquist succeeded New Orleans would have to be written off as a lost cause, leaving a half million people stranded, a giant hole in the economy, and a massive blow to America's self-conception as any sort of power at all. Even Bush understands that's not a politically acceptable position, so the administration has struggled to regain its political footing the only way it knows -- by throwing money down. In the short-term that's no big deal -- adds to the debt, but that just burdens future governments. The real problem is that they now have to acknowledge that there's a part of the government that people expect to work. That's a tough one for those who believe in the government of the corrupt for the corrupt. They couldn't quite get away with failing to reconstruct anything in Iraq; do you think people won't notice the same failure here?
Ever since Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980, America has been in denial, and the Republicans have capitalized on that denial by feeding people fantasies. That worked because until lately it's never really been tested. First Reagan then Bush put together improbable coalitions of the rich and the foolish, and now that coalition is starting to show signs of fracture. Polls show that Bush is losing support among fringe groups like libertarians and racists. The more serious question is whether, or when, the rich will abandon him. The rich have more to lose than anyone -- do tax cuts matter so much that they're willing to countenance such thoroughgoing corruption and incompetence?
The third letter in The New Yorker is relevant at this point:
This is, of course, just one more example of where Bush's coalition of the rich and the ignorant leads to dysfunction -- where the insatiable demands of the anti-abortion diehards lead to greater impoverishment in the not-really-developing world, antipathy to America and its businesses, and worldwide strife. All for a few votes, to rig some tax cuts, to bankrupt the nation. In such lose-lose scenarios, how can the losers claim to be surprised?
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