Sunday, September 5, 2010

Odes and the Tea Party

So I'm a bit torn and I feel like ranting, one of the great joys of running a blog is getting to do classic blogging just sharing your thoughts rather than my usual advocacy.

On one hand I'm a liberal who thinks Barack Obama and Harry Reed are doing a very good job and I adore Nancy Pelosi. On the other hand this feeling of warmth is coming from the diminished expectations of a lifetime of disappointment. For example, half the time I can think of Health Care Reform as a historic accomplishment, something that Democrats have been aiming to accomplish since Truman. For the first time ever it is going to be possible for the government to start having national health policy and we may finally be able to make American health care rational.

The other half I think of it this way:
That really this bill was nothing like Truman's. Essentially it was enacting the counter proposal first suggested by Nixon and drafted by Dole.
Obama cut secret deals to sell out America with the Drug companies.
When the insurance industry objected to the bill the major provision in the public interest, the public option was removed and instead strong provisions making it a finable criminal act to not buy the health insurance industries products which amounts to little more than the same kind of corporate fascism that we've had for a generation.
Worse yet to get it passed Obama had to pay huge bribes. It would have been a lot cheaper to just give Nelson and Landrieu a suitcase full of cash then the obscene way they were bribed.
So in the end we got mild insurance reform masquerading as health reform, a defeat made to look like a victory, and a defeat that institutionalized corruption even further.

My turning point when I decided our government was nothing more than a facade for corporate corruption was the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (wikipedia page). Up until then I had believed that we basically had a good but flawed government. Since then I've lived in a world of diminished expectations looking for candidates that are the least destructive. Appalled at our leadership and appalled at Americans for voting for this leadership. It seems like TARP had that effect on millions of other people and I'm thrilled that lots of people now view our government as a kleptocracy since maybe that understanding will create the pressure needed for real reform. With huge leads in the House, 59 Democratic Senators and the Presidency and a population more progressive than any since the 1930s was this year's Financial Reform Bill really the best we could do? TARP, which I was neutral too, demanded real reform in exchange for these huge loans, but I've watched with complete disgust as our Senators and Congress were bribed and bought off by banking interests to act against the common good. Even TARP was designed in such a way to make sure that the public achieved almost no benefit from taking on hugely risky assets and that the profits would flow back to Wall Street. Pure institutional corruption involving tens of billions of dollars. Timothy Geithner's theft from the treasury may very well be the largest financial crime of my lifetime.

One of the differences I noticed between living in California and New Jersey/Pennsylvania was the corruption of local politicians. In New Jersey we have political machines and corrupt non idealogical politicians. Things can get done as long as the right hands are greased. There is a casual indifference to corruption. For example the Chief of Police in Elizabethtown owns the towing company with the exclusive contract to tow off the Highway. And everyone thinks this is funny, a gallows humor born of the desperation of people having given up on having the sort of government we were raised to think we had. When some disadvantaged kid rips off a store he does years in jail. When the Chief of Police uses his office to transfer hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars from the public to his own accounts its treated as a joke. That Elizabethtown corruption pales in comparison to the corruption at the national level but its a perfect example of the problems in the North East and why we can't have decent government here.

Conversely in California we had no corruption that I knew of in local government. California public officials were mainly idealogical: environmentalists, right wingers, liberal activists.... These officials were drawn to government over a few limited issues they were passionate about; and once there had to active in many issues so they ended up joining coalitions and reinforcing one another. These California officials were generally independently wealthy and thus hard (or at least expensive) to bribe, unlike the blue collar or professional class politicians of New Jersey who are on average middle class. Senator Heinz used to make a joke that he was "Too rich to be bribed and too powerful to be threatened", and there is a lot of truth to that. One of the reasons I like idealogical politicians is that at least they they act on the public interest as they see it. So given the intense desire to corrupt our system I think we need more ideology not less.

Its one of the reasons I have mixed feelings about citizens united. It might just create a group of politicians that are adequately funded and don't need to be constantly hawking for money. On say 3% of the issues they are bought and paid for but on the 97% they can vote their conscience. That's a lot like how the system worked in the 70s and 80s. So there is some hope, but I'm appalled that the best I can hope for, for my country is that the attempt of the Supreme Court to facilitate easier bribery backfires into accidentally producing a more honest government. But alternately, wealth doesn't seem to work on the Presidentially level, Kerry was still a weasel even though Teresa Heinz (who had Senator Heinz's fortune) is worth between $750m and $1.2b.

All this brings me to the Tea Party. Where we suddenly have a group of ideologues taking a major political party. People who are definitely planning to shake things up in Washington. Of course we've all heard this before, and I may be setting myself up for disappointment. But still its hard to live in constant disgust with your government. Pat Buchanan sees the Tea Party as playing the role of commissars ensuring that the Republicans officeholders don't sell out. I can easily see that. Lately I heard the Tea Party's anthem and I was moved. While I doubt I agree with Krista Branch, the singer, on the solutions I completely agree with her on the problems, we both agree that a government completely unresponsive to real American concerns and focused on K-street is the real threat to America:

And this little patriotic ditty is moving. She may be hokey but I'm desperate for any kind of patriotic message that I can actually believe in at all, what she in the previous video and Glen Beck mean by "restoring honor". Under Clinton corruption was terrible, but George Bush pushed it to a level not seen in America since Andrew Jackson drove John Quincy Adams from power. She is absolutely right that America has forgotten who we are, we are not a people damned to forever live under a government so incompetent and dishonest that the rest of the world can look across the ocean in pity for how poorly governed we are.

So could I be one of those 8% of the Tea Party which are Democrats? First off I just don't agree with them on the issues. Economically I am a Keynesian. I agree, with Paul Krugman's critique that the problem with Obama's policies has been that the stimulus was too small. Where I disagree with Krugman is believing this is accidental, high unemployment has been very useful in driving down wages and maintaining profits allowing corporations to de-leverage without harming the income of the investing class. I think Summers and Geithner were quite willing to throw ten million people out of work to make sure the right 100,000 didn't see their income drop off. Krugman's perspective is the exact opposite of what the Tea Party has argued. Also I don't think they way the Tea Party have been debating is helpful. I guess I'm also an intellectual and incoherent rage is scary. This is the first mass armed citizens political group active in the USA since the Klan.

But as I thought about it more, one can make a pretty good analogy between the reconstruction scalawags and our current elected officials, the reconstruction carpetbaggers and k-street. Carpetbaggers were Northern business interests that had come down to the South after the civil war bribed public officials and seized control of the means of production. The Redeemers considered these people the way occupied people consider the investing class of a foreign invader and understood with absolutely clarity that their continued involvement eliminated the ability to self govern. Our current crop of corporate oligarchs is if anything worse than the crop of business interests that exploited the south's defeat. A Scalawag, literally a worthless deformed animal, was a term for the southerners that were helping the north, generally government officials, the recipients of the bribes. Its a great word to apply to the modern government officials that have let money so corrupt their purposes that they no longer do anything like what they were sent to Washington for. The Redeemers which arose out of the first Klan had a simple program for rebuilding self rule drive the Northern army out of the south; and then soon thereafter put in place economic reforms ending carpetbagging. This gave the South, or at least the white south, back a democracy a government which represent the people rather than national business interests. The analogy is very very apt; the Tea Party's primary enemy is the sort of crony capitalism that both our parties support. Being a Northerner myself the Klan has nothing but negative emotional connotations for me, but when I abstract away my own upbringing and try and relate to this like a southerner; yeah I get it, and I agree.

But then on a third pass, my frustration with the Republican party today, which is southern dominated, is very similar to the New England Republicans abandoning the carpetbaggers (Northern Republicans that had moved south) right after the civil war for their political corruption. In the other words the North East became so offended by Southern Republican corruption that they (passively) supported the Redeemers including their militant arm. Hmmm..... this analogy gets better and better. For corporate lobbyists there are billions if not trillions of dollars at stake, violence might be the best way or even the only way to break K-street's hold on our elected government. In the 2008 crisis I must admit to rooting for the bear and not the government.

So is this is a role I'm comfortable in, the North Eastern Republicans who passively sided with the Redeemers? We know that this policy was a moral disaster, once the Redeemers drove out the North they, like any revolutionary party facing a similar problems, immediately turned on the indigenous population likely to side with the North. That brought on Jim Crow and generations of racial tension that still hasn't healed. But..... we don't get to run history backwards. Had the North Eastern Republicans not passively supported the Southern Democrats and allowed corruption to become intrinsic to US government would we have fallen into a cycle of destructive corruption, with a 1870-1950 century history similar to Argentina or China rather than the explosive growth we did experience? And moreover I'm not sure in our modern analogy there is an indigenous population the Tea Party redeemers will need to turn on, does the metaphor break down here and offer the good without the bad? And then I flash to Hispanics and the anti-immigration movement that is part of the Tea Party and, well, I can see there might be a population that could play the role of the blacks.

In 2008 when Sarah Palin was nominated I was excited. I knew immediately that Sarah Palin has the potential to be America's Eva Peron. The platform of the vice presidency could have been a powerful voice for good. When she was unable, as my cousin put it, "to channel her inner Pat Buchanan" and instead essentially parroted George Bush positions on everything, I decided to vote for Obama. Obama didn't inspire me but at least had sensible policy prescriptions. And he has not disappointed in either regard, his policy prescriptions have been excellent though far too weak and he remains uninspiring, tinkering around the edges to create a better run and kindler gentler corporate oligarchy. To this day Palin has been an odd paradox, personally taking classical Neo-Conservative positions very much George Bush; while strengthening and leading Paleo-Conservatives (including the virtual rebirth of the John Birch society) and hardcore Libertarians. I think with Palin's involvement in the Tea Party and the new platform coming out Palin will get another bite at the apple to decide whether she wants to offer a different vision or just be a stupid hot looking version of Mitt Romney. In Eva's case her goal was to get Argentine business back into the hands of Argentina and away from the British, another analogy to our finance class; and one hopefully tis analogy is a little less inflammatory than the Redeemers driving the North out.

But in less Fascistic direction the Tea Party came out of the Ron Paul Libertarian movement's Tea Parties and both Glenn Beck and Dick Armey are clearly inside this new vision. A simplified tax code, non interference in markets a tiny government, the end of the military industrial complex provides a decent vision. That could starve state capitalism and possibly allow us to be free again. The Tea Party still runs quite explicitly on the sorts of massive spending cuts needed to shrink the government. The Tea Party could just be the Libertarian Party finally getting big enough to have a real electoral impact. Redeemer philosophy and Libertarian philosophy mesh quite well, the old Libertarian party was northern this southern flavor could be quite exciting. The question would be whether the Libertarians could handle the temptations towards corruption, the history of American Railroading which happened when Libertarian philosophy had broad support in both parties seems to indicate they probably couldn't. Worse when you poll the people who attended Tea Party protests last year, even though they were mouthing Libertarian slogans their actual concerns seemed to be rooted in fears that their own generous benefits will be cut. So, some of the GOP's most reliable voters are simultaneously demanding budget restraint and protesting anything that might reduce their own benefits. This is a tricky circle to square, and so I have much less hope that Libertarianism would be followed in practice but less hope is not no hope. Our modern carpetbaggers don't have an enemy army that first needs to be driven out, so perhaps this can all be done peacefully.

I'll close with a rapper named Jasirix who makes the same point regarding the Tea Party's imagery and how to think about them. His perspective, is in this case directly related to race:

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