Of the “Re-distribution of Wealth” and the “Welfare State”

Mr. Romney’s tactic (Romney seems unencumbered by a strategy) for extricating himself from the quicksand into which the almost hour-long tape has plunked him seems to be to say, in effect, “President Obama was ‘secretly’ taped, too, and he was caught talking about helping poor people!”

Mr. Romney is getting some help. Rush Limbaugh asserted that President Obama is not the president of all, hates people who make money, and wants to take that money and re-distribute it. Robert Samuelson suggests that Mitt Romney is missing an opportunity to emphasize the degree to which Mr. Obama supports “a welfare state.” Samuelson also suggests that about 90% of the population receives some kind of federal monetary support, not the mere 47% whom Romney insulted.

Let us slip out of this circus’s tent and examine two terms, “re-distribution of wealth” and “welfare state,” for we are about rhetorical focus while they are about noise.

Of course, “re-distribution of wealth” is meant to send Marxist electrical shocks through our flesh, nerves, and bones. I’m feeling nothing because I’m focused on the “re.” Why not just “distribution” of wealth? I feel the same way about “re-doubling” our efforts. How about if we go more slowly and just try doubling them? And if we have to quadruple them, how many efforts were we giving in the first place?

Second, does raising the income-tax rate of the wealthiest from 33% to 39% constitute a distribution of wealth? I’m trying to imagine a (former) very wealthy person chatting with a friend and saying, “Bob, I’m not rich anymore. I just paid my taxes.” It’s more likely that Bob’s friend will continue to get richer regardless of the tax-bill because of the way capital grow, the way it keeps distributing wealth to those with capital. Ladies and lads, let us dispense with the “re” and politely ignore subliminal Marxist alarms–not, I shuffle to add, for political reasons but for linguistic and rhetorical ones. Let us also remember that during the presidency of Dwight David Eisenhower (a noted Marxist), the income-tax on the wealthy was much higher than 39%. Chill out, fellow capitalists! Mr. Lenin, he dead.

Concerning “the welfare state,” I choose to define that as a state concerned with the welfare of its citizens. It is a shocking notion, I admit. The effects of this notion have almost devastated Sweden (a noted “welfare state”) because it gives glum Swedes too little about which to be gloomy. It is a clean, well lighted place. Well, not so well lighted in Winter. “Erik, more vodka, my good man–I can’t see the sun, and it’s noon.”

On a more serious knot, I mean note, has President Obama done anything to alter the essential capitalist character of the United States’ economy? Could he do so even if he wanted to? How?

Even Mr. Samuelson admits that much of the dreaded “federal assistance” comes in the form of Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements, which follow hard upon the heels of imbursements. We who get a paycheck distribute some of that to the Social Security program, and, through a payroll tax, we distribute another part of that paycheck to Medicare. If we live long enough, we get that money back–figuratively. As far as I know, this system has not eradicated private property, eviscerated the rich, or put clamps on the alleged “free-market” system, which often seems as free as a rigged lottery.

Ours is a capitalist economy, so capitalist that, arguably, much of Congress represents corporations more faithfully than it represents constituents “back home.” The federal government, however, does in fact distribute some money collected to the following: military veterans who have earned a pension and/or who need health-care; people who have been out of work but are still looking for work; old people who paid into Social Security for 20, 30, 40, 50 years; old people who need to see a doctor and/or buy medicine. President Obama seems to support the basics of such a system. Many presidents seem to have supported it. It seems like a pretty good system to me, especially given the alternative: large numbers of people in every community who are ill but get no treatment, hungry but get no food, old but have no place to go. One upon a time, the systems were invented to address such problems in our communities. Okay?

Inside that aforementioned tent, much noise is directed at this system of distributing money to those who, apparently, need it and who paid into the system themselves. I wish more noise were directed at another distribution of money: that which goes to our military system, which costs more than all the military systems of the world combined. I think a military system is a good thing to have, but does ours need to be this big? Even if I were inclined to say “Yes” (I am not so inclined), I’d want more “debate” about the topic and less debate about how Social Security, Medicare, and checks for the unemployed are (not) draining the wealth of the wealthy. Mr. Romney wants to distribute even more money to this military system. I think this smacks of Marxism. I kid the Romster.

Rush, take your “welfare state” and “re-distribute” it where the sun doesn’t shine–and no, that’s not Sweden. Mitt, the tape runs for almost an hour, and it captures you giving the rich diners what you know they wanted to hear. Your words were distributed.


Social Media and Propaganda

Among the key points Jacques Ellul makes in his magisterial book, Propaganda,is that one aim of modern (WWII and after) propaganda is to direct its communication to the masses so as to make individuals in the masses feel as though they are being communicated to more or less one on one.

The new social media only enhance this technique, it seems. For example, it is now routine for millions of Americans to receive an email “from” the President of the United States “signed” “Barack.” Of course, it’s a mass-email, but the tone is informal, as the signature appears to be. For another example, the cable “news” channels feature talk-show hosts and “news” anchors who routinely ask what “your” opinion is on a matter, and they invite you to send an email or to “text” (a relatively new verb) them. The effect on some people, even if they are jaded, may be, if only for an instant, to make them feel special.

The purposes are several: to raise money, to maintain ratings, to solidify a “base,” which might also be appropriately called group-think. These purposes haven’t changed much if at all over the decades, but, in my opinion, social media are something that would not have surprised Ellul (with regard to technique) but that may have astounded him, so perfectly tailored are they (email, Twitter, facebook, texting, etc.) to the mass/individual deployment of communication about which he wrote. I imagine his response (though it would be in French) to be something like a simultaneous “Of course/Wow!”

It may be important to emphasize that, with the kind of propaganda Ellul discussed and with which we are bombarded (or spammed), there is little if any difference in techniques between mass media and political communication and between any points on the political spectrum. That is, plenty of people probably receive emails “signed” “Mitt.” Also, don’t MSNBC’s ads about itself (one example) look basically like political ads? To what extent is almost anything a “news” cable channel does advertising? As they “report” (whatever!), they advertise themselves.

It may be the case that Fox News has virtually obliterated the boundary between a medium and a political party, at least compared to CNN (one example), but still, all mass media have to serve somebody (pax Dylan), such as a corporation, multiple corporations, or a corporate/political establishment. They’re not serving you and me, even though they ask us–personally!–to text our opinion.

Cattywampus Politics

“Cattywampus” means askew, and not purposely so. That is, one doesn’t want the foundation of one’s abode to be cattwampus even as one might tolerate and even enjoy a cattywampus cubist-painting.

Is the political realm inherently cattywampus? Is careening what it does “best”? Perhaps so. Even so, American politics now seems extraordinarily cattywampus because of how politicians with power and those who egg them on seem extraordinarily uninterested in agreed upon facts and, arguably, persistent crises. Let’s look at some examples:

1. Agreed upon fact: the U.S. budget is cattywampus, moreso than usual. Agreed upon fact: Congress and W. allowed two wars to be fought without raising taxes or selling “war-bonds.” President Obama and the current Congress are doing the same. Agreed upon fact: President Reagan and the Congresses during his terms drastically reduced the tax-rate on those with the greatest means to pay taxes. Agreed upon fact: successful programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are in trouble, partly if not largely because of demographics (here come the Boomers).

2. The responses to the agreed upon facts: Both the GOPers and President Obama seem to want to correct the budgetary imbalance chiefly by making the three successful programs less successful, in a variety of ways, including using a different (and worse) cost-of-living-increase formula. I think this is called cheating, but I’m not sure. Both are afraid to raise taxes in any serious way because they are afraid they won’t get re-elected. However, the most sensible thing to do (in my opinion) would be to go back to pre-Reagan tax-rates and stop the wars as soon as possible–and/or sell war-bonds.

3. Worse, the GOPers chief response to the alleged budgetary crisis is to make it worse, to turn it into a zero-sum game. GOPer-friendly pundits egg them on. Call Obama’s bluff, they cry. Obama, for his part, negotiates craftily, but at the same time, he is essentially GOPerish in his willingness to make successful programs bear the main burden of fixing the budget. Sure, he mumbles things about private jets, but he’s not willing even to propose the sort of tax-increases Clinton instituted. Apparently Clinton raised taxes on those of means about 3%, and that helped the economy a lot, although even I, a mere poet, realize that many economic changes are cyclical; that is, to some degree, Clinton got lucky. Still, his economic policies were less cattywampus.

The current overall response to the cattywampus economy seems profoundly stupid, almost the worst of politics. One impending result seems to be to hurt those who are hurting already: the aged, the infirm, the working class. Either the structure or the powerful inhabitants of American politics or both seem incapable of looking at a cattywampus situation and bringing it back into balance–even when their response seems to hurt them politically! That is, lots of Obama’s supporters have turned their backs on him, and in California (for example), GOPer voter-registration is down to 31%. Yep, only 31% of registered voters are Republican in California. Additionally, the Democratic Party seems to be an ineffective version of the old moderate Republican Party, while the Republican Party seems to define itself more narrowly and freakishly every day. Good grief, McConnell and Boehner are the best they have, apparently! Bachmann is ahead in the polls in Iowa.

The Pseudocracy is ascendant, or so it seems to this poet. The carpenters on the job seem unable or unwilling (or both) to correct a cattywampus foundation. Political scientists and historians may have different, less pessimistic views. I hope so–I think.

The Wages of the Pseudocracy Is Dysfunction

I’ve long been intrigued by the sentence, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” The main source of intrigue demonstrates, again, what a nerd I am, for I wonder why the sentence wasn’t translated, “The wages of sin are death.” Another source of interest is the word “wages,” a nice surprise, different from “price” or “cost” and emphasizing the arguable fact that we earned it, brothers and sisters: we all have it coming, as Clint Eastwood’s character suggests in “The Unforgiven.”

Speaking of the unforgiven (ah, the creaking of a clumsy transition), politicians shouldn’t be forgiven for not behaving in a statesman-like fashion in these times. The wages of the pseudocracy, in which seemingly all political communication and action spring from extremely narrow, vile, self-serving motives, is dysfunction. Consider the debt-ceiling crisis, which has been MADE a crisis by the pseudocracy. As Senator Jim Demented said, “We will break him” (of Obama)–and when a white Southern senator says that of an African American president, listeners may be forgiven (pax Clint) for wondering about the extent to which the country has evolved.

Republicans want Obama gone. Fine. Politics is rough. But it also happens to be the way the country gets things done. That is, politicians actually do have a job besides lying. No, really. There’s a time to go after the opponent (the Book of Ecclesiastes), and a time to do what’s better, if not best, for the country. The health-care crisis remains because the only compromise that could eke by Congress is a mess. Few politicians will talk soberly about how long the American Empire can be sustained, and by Empire I mean all the bases (and therefore treasure) scattered around the world. You know the stats about “defense”: how we spend more than the rest of the world, combined, on it. Not sustainable. Few if any in Congress discuss the high rate of imprisonment in the U.S., especially among African Americans but also among the working class. Few if any will discuss the widening gap between rich and poor or the demonstrable folly (or knavery) of “trickle-down” economics, and we’ve discussed here before how, even at its imagined best, trickling isn’t a good economic model. And it is perhaps indicative of the pseudocracy that that phrase was ever allowed to slide by. To quote my students, “WTF?” Not in so many letters, all journalists, not to mention citizens, should have asked that, continually, of Reagan and his boys. And now of Boehner and his boys and girls, who continue to sell the Trickler to willing buyers (order now and get the Slice-o-matic free).

No, of course, the Dems aren’t immune from pseudocratic nonsense. Most of them are mussels and clams. Mr. Obama negotiates in perplexing ways, and Senator Sanders is correct in asking what, exactly, Obama stands for since he seems to stand for (tolerate) any GOPer ridiculousness.

The wages of the pseudocracy is dysfunction, now not just chronic but acute in the USA. When Michelle Bachmann is a serious presidential candidate, then the Party from which she comes must be deemed foul and ghoulish. When Harry Reid is the leader of the Senate, the Party he represents must be deemed mollusks. When Mr. Sanders, alleged socialist, is as mainstream as most Dems used to be, then one suspects the nation’s politics have lurched. Spasmed. Live by the wedge-issues, die by the wedge-issues. Ignore revenue when discussing the budget? What working-class American family could get by with that crap? Say things like “the American people won’t tolerate taxing job-creators” (Boehner), and you are pseudocratically stewed, a slobbering drunk at a country-club bar.

But I guess we have it coming to us.

Concerning “Safety Net”

A local newspaper-columnist recently praised a group of volunteers who had “repaired a hole in the safety net” by providing goods and services that had once been supplied by state or city funding.

The reference induced me to . . . think of the Reagan administration, which often spoke of federal social programs as “the safety net”; . . . consider how awful the analogy is; . . . . [but also] to think of how blithely most, if not all, of the fooled people (see previous post) accept the analogy.

With such a comparison, it’s best to recall the literal: trapeze artists use safety-nets when they practice. Probably some construction-projects use them.

Therefore, we’re asked to believe that a net used by those few who earn a living on the trapeze is to represent usefully such programs as health-care, unemployment checks, social security, and food for the hungry (breakfast programs for school-children, e.g.).

Everyone gets sick, many people become unemployed through no fault of their own (and, from 2008 forward, through the fault of Wall Street), hungry poor or homeless people deserve food (otherwise, the point of civilization is what, exactly?), and so. A “safety net” is there to stop softly the fall of someone in a highly rare event, such as a trapeze artist falling during a practice. How does an analogy using it help discussions about what programs to support via taxes, to what extent, and why? It hinders; it does not help.

It hinders by trivializing great needs that spring in part (arguably) from our economic structure. That is, the structure seems to require regular bubbles and recessions; thus it requires spikes in unemployment, which may lead to spikes in food-assistance. The nature of the human body is such that all bodies get ill, and medical-care is so sophisticated and expensive that the old system of paying a local GP a few bucks is long past, as every industrialized nation but us seems to have figured out quite a while ago. The new USA healthcare-program, if it survives the courts, is a modest attempt to catch up, in my opinion; regardless of my opinion, it is an attempt to deal with a massive problem: @ 40,000,000 citizens without the means to pay for healthcare. “Safety net” is not an apt comparison, but I think Reagan and current GOPers rely on it because they can have things both ways, rhetorically: cut or eliminate “social programs” but not seem menacing to the working class and lower middle class because they pretend to recognize the importance of “the safety net.” A safety net is there to catch one or two people, not 40 million, not those experiencing chronic unemployment because some salespersons and hucksters on Wall Street decided to cheat and to gamble recklessly.

What better analogies and comparisons might be I shall leave to you.

A GOP Self-Wedge?

In their new way of turning state elections into national ones and pursuing steam-roller politics, has the GOP, masters of manipulating such wedge-issues (and perhaps Frank Luntz invented the term, who knows?) as abortion, “defense of marriage,” and “gun-rights” (although the rights belong to people, not guns), wedged themselves? It’s a possibility. Consider:

Wild Bill has forwarded me an op-ed in the NYTIMES (March 22) by historian William Cronon, who notes, among other things, that Wisconsin not only has a distinctive progressive history but a bi-partisan progressive history, which includes the following:

Republicans and Democrats supported the unionization of state and federal workers decades ago–the main reason being efficiency and consistency in negotiations.

Wisconsin professors helped design Social Security.

Republicans and Democrats worked together to design the state health plan.

Republicans and Democrats worked together to design the state’s unusual open-meeting laws and other measures aimed at transparency.

Cronon’s point is that Governor Walker is not simply a radical targeting groups he and Rove don’t like, but he is also in effect attacking a history of progressive bipartisanship.

Now that Cronon has published his op-ed, Republicans want to get hold of his emails. That’s right: they’re retaliating against a professor with an opinion. About this retaliation, NY Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote (a few days after Cronon’s piece appeared):

Professors are not just ordinary state employees. As J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a conservative federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, noted in a similar case, state university faculty members are “employed professionally to test ideas and propose solutions, to deepen knowledge and refresh perspectives.” A political fishing expedition through a professor’s files would make it substantially harder to conduct research and communicate openly with colleagues. And it makes the Republican Party appear both vengeful and ridiculous.

Herbert may be right that Wisconsin’s (and Indiana’s and Ohio’s) GOP appear vengeful and ridiculous, but in advancing a national effort to break unions and dismantle health-care, via the election of governors, the GOP may have finally inserted a wedge between itself and “regular people.” A key to the political success of Nixon and Reagan (and of GOPers after Reagan) was to appear to represent (white) working folks. Nixon attracted men who wore flag-decals on their hard-hats. Reagan played his role as average guy beautifully. “Well, aw shucks.”

Of course, both did the bidding of Big Money (as do Democrats). But as a result of the grand Rovian design to use thuggish governors to break unions, take money away from education and healthcare, and never, ever examine the revenue-side by increasing taxes on wealthy persons, there is a chance the GOP has shined a bright light on its disdain for wage-earners, working families, run-of-the-mill (so to speak) union members, farmers, senior citizens, and so on. Luntzian re-labeling (“death panels,” “defense of marriage,” “right to work”) may not be so effective in this context, and the old wedge-issues may not overcome the new
solidarity Walker and others may have created accidentally.

So it’s not just that the GOP my look vengeful and ridiculous, but it’s also that they may finally look like who they are. I don’t think that’s supposed to happen to politicians from either Party. They’re supposed to look like who they wants us to see.

Because the GOP has so much money (Rove’s alleged target is 120 billion from his billionaires club) and is so good at running campaigns (if not running governments and parts thereof), one would still have to think they will succeed. But the possibility that they are wedging themselves away from big parts of the electorate is substantial enough to ponder. If you’re a professor who sometimes ponders in print and happen to live in a state current hosting one of these new-GOP-governors, I reckon you have to expect some retaliation. Professor are so very dangerous, you know.

Euphemism-Alert!: “Entitlement Reform”

At the Huffington Post, I read this excerpt from an article about Tim Pawlenty’s plan to run for the presidency:

Pawlenty’s message to Tea Party voters, whose energy helped the Republican party take control of the House last fall, combined two of the movement’s favorite phrases: “We the people of the United States will take back our government,” he said in voiceover while the video showed U.S. Marines marching.

The 50-year old father of two summarized his time as governor with the claim that his administration “proved we can restore limited government in America.”

As for a platform, Pawlenty gave a vague clue to what he’ll define as his basic planks. “We know what we need to do — grow jobs, limit government spending, and tackle entitlements,” he said.

I hope you didn’t miss the irony of a voice-over concerning “we will take back our government” fused with images of the U.S. Marines marching. The U.S. Marines represent the federal government, the last time I checked. So is Pawlenty’s plan to take back the Marines from the government, or to use the Marines to give the government to Tea Party voters, or . . . ? I hope you get the bigger picture: please don’t analyze Pawlenty’s images and rhetoric. He’s got Paw-lenty of nothin’, nothin’ is Paw-lenty for him.

But let us focus on “tackling entitlements” or “entitlement reform,” the euphemism du jour of pandering GOPers.

So, when you go to a cafe and give the cashier money, guess what? You are entitled to the beverage you ordered!

When out of your paycheck is taken a Medicare tax and a Social Security tax, guess what? You are entitled to an annuity-payment and to health-care when you are old. How dare you accept the annuity payment and the health-care. Free-loader!

That well known Leftist, Harry Truman, came up with the idea of Medicare, by the way, but it took twenty years for that bit of common sense to get passed–during the Johnson administration. By all means, let’s limit government to the size it was when Truman was president.

My suggestion: reject the euphemism, “entitlement reform.” Insist upon something slightly more blunt and truthful: screwing over old people while always ignoring the revenue-side of the equation.

And “limit government”? If he’s serious, Pawlenty will limit . . . government’s massive military-budget (our military-spending is greater than that of the rest of the world’s, combined); government’s interest in whether a woman has a baby or not; government’s definition of marriage (I suspect you and another adult can handle that definition, especially since you, not Pawlenty, will be the ones getting married); and so on.

Of course, Pawlenty and the other Panderers want to “tackle” entitlements (image: Marines tackling old people) but never tackle, say, mega-corporations via anti-trust laws. Nor will they tackle corporations who pollute or mining corporations that laugh at safety-regulations.

Fire up the Orwellian crap-detector when you hear or read “entitlement reform” and “limited government,” please. Keep your hands off my coffee, please, Governor Paw. I paid for it. Limit government on behalf of whom, please? Be specific, Governor.

And how does a president’s government “grow jobs” without asserting itself? Okay, I’ll play along: by staying out of the way, the Free Market and all that. But if you’re staying out of the way, you’re not growing anything, and if you really want to stay out of the way, you’ll not run for president. I mean, if you really want to limit government, stop running for office, for God’s sake. If government is so repugnant, run away, run away!

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