In this terrifying political landscape, can Paul Krugman help us through? Maybe David Sirota?
"The Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd is merely using the argot of fairness, empiricism and morality to hide its real motive: selfish greed."
-- David Sirota, in his syndicated column today,
I imagine you're experiencing something similar to what I am, mute horror as we look out at the spectacle of what this country has become. Has that much of the country really lost their minds? Not to mention their basic civility.
Often I have answers to these questions. Today I've got nothing. Nor is this insanity making it any easier to write a post I've been trying to get written all week, a reminder -- apropos of any reform movement you can point to -- that in the end, money makes the world go around, the world go around, the world go around. (Yes, we've even got Joel and Liza all set to sing for us, if I could ever get the damned thing written!)
I get the feeling that Paul Krugman is in pretty much the same situation, but he didn't let that stop him from producing a useful column in today's NYT: "The Town Hall Mob." He's at least determined to get down a good description of what he sees happening. This part really stuck with me:
There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they "oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care." Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.
Now, people who don't know that Medicare is a government program probably aren't reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they're probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they've heard about what he's doing, than to who he is.
That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the "birther" movement, which denies Mr. Obama's citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don't know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn't be surprising if it's a substantial fraction.
And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.
Does this sound familiar? It should: it's a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.
But in the end what Krugman is offering here is mostly his deep-rooted anxieties (dare we sum them up as "dread"?) based on what he sees.
As so often happens, our friend David Sirota -- in today's syndicated column --has found a somewhat different angle from which to view the spectacle. And from that angle he's finding some fighting spirit. I can sure use some of that. Once again with David's column, I find it works best presented the way he wrote it, without synopsizing or editorializing:
The Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd
By David Sirota
Creators Syndicate, 8/7/09
I know I should be mortified by the lobbyist-organized mobs of angry Brooks Brothers mannequins who are now making headlines by shutting down congressional town hall meetings. I know I should be despondent during this, the Khaki Pants Offensive in the Great American Health Care and Tax War. And yet, I'm euphorically repeating one word over and over again with a big grin on my face.
Finally, there's no pretense. Finally, the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd's ugliest traits are there for all to behold.
The group's core gripe is summarized in a letter I received that denounces a proposed surtax on the wealthy and corporations to pay for universal health care.
"Until recently, my family was in the top 3 percent of wage earners," the affluent businessperson fumed in response to my July column on taxes. "We are in the group that pays close to 60 percent of this nation's taxes ... Think for a second how you would feel if you built a business and contributed more than your share to this country only to be treated like a pariah."
This sob story about the persecuted rich fuels today's "Tea Parties" -- and I'm sure you've heard some version of it in your community.
I'm also fairly certain that when many of you run into the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd, you don't feel like confronting the faux outrage. But on the off chance you do muster the masochistic impulse to engage, here's a guide to navigating the conversation:
What They Will Scream: We can't raise business taxes, because American businesses already pay excessively high taxes!
What You Should Say: Here's the smallest violin in the world playing for the businesses. The Government Accountability Office reports that most U.S. corporations pay zero federal income tax. Additionally, as even the Bush Treasury Department admitted, America's effective corporate tax rate is the third lowest in the industrialized world.
What They Will Scream: But the rich still "pay close to 60 percent of this nation's taxes!"
What You Should Say: Such statistics refer only to the federal income tax. When considering all of "this nation's taxes" including payroll, state and local levies, the top 5 percent pay just 38.5 percent of the taxes.
What They Will Scream: But 38.5 percent is disproportionately high! See? You've proved that the rich "contribute more than their share" of taxes!
What You Should Say: Actually, they are paying almost exactly "their share." According to the data, the wealthiest 5 percent of America pays 38.5 percent of the total taxes precisely because they make just about that share -- a whopping 36.5 percent! -- of total national income. Asking these folks to pay slightly more in taxes -- and still less than they did during the go-go 1990s -- is hardly extreme.
Stripped of facts, your conversation partner will soon turn to unscientific terrain, claiming it is immoral to "steal" and "redistribute" income via taxes. Of course, he will be specifically railing on "stealing" for stuff like health care, which he insists gets "redistributed" only to the undeserving and the "lazy" (a classic codeword for "minorities"). But he will also say it’s OK that government sent trillions of dollars to Wall Streeters.
And that's when you should stop wasting your breath.
What you've discovered is that the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd isn't interested in fairness, empiricism or morality.
With 22,000 of their fellow countrymen dying annually for lack of health insurance and with Warren Buffett paying a lower effective tax rate than his secretary, the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd is merely using the argot of fairness, empiricism and morality to hide its real motive: selfish greed.
No argument, however rational, is going to cure these narcissists of that grotesque disease.
UPDATE: Or Maybe Rachel Maddow Can Help... Or Sarah Palin?
Sarah Palin? She's involved too? You betcha!