Posts Tagged romney
Welcome one and all to the Grand Finale, the very last week of “Atlas ‘Clubbed” — which I will admit in retrospect should’ve been called “Atlas Blogged,” or even more accurately, “Atlas Trolled.”
But it’s too late for that now, and more importantly — tomorrow’s the election! So here’s how this blog’s waning days are going to break down:
*Today, a thorough review of everything Atlas Shrugged has taught us about American politics in 2012.
*Tomorrow, what lessons should Democrats and Republicans each learn from Ayn Rand going forward?
*Wednesday will obviously be dedicated to the election results, to whatever degree they’re definitive by morning.
*Thursday, some final reflections. How reading Atlas Shrugged (twice!) has affected my beliefs and attitudes personally. “Dessert for Thought” if you will.
*Friday I’ll cast this sucker in amber and announce my future blogging plans.
So, without further ado…
For most of American history, our two political parties were ideologically diverse, with lots of different conflicting interest groups existing within each. And while there are still factions within them, the parties have become far more ideologically cohesive over the last half-century.
The Republican Party in particular has become extremely doctrinaire: conservatives today speak of their “Cause” and their “Movement,” and their candidates face a number of “purity tests” and “pledges” on their way to office.
These are characteristics of a “closed” ideology, a belief system that is less interested in adapting to reality than forcing reality to fit its ideas. And such belief systems can be extremely effective at doing that. But the approach has its limits. Push reality too hard and reality pushes back.
In contrast, Democrats are the more diverse party, and this is why congressional Republicans can vote in almost perfect lockstep and unanimity but congressional Democrats often have trouble maintaining the party line. To the lay voter who pays scant attention to politics, all this makes Republicans look strong and righteous, and Democrats look weak and confused. On a public relations level, the “closed” ideology has an advantage.
So even though this blog was initially intended to be as non-partisan as possible, as the election drew nearer I felt it necessary to declare that independent voters should definitely, absolutely pick the Democratic Party — not always, but for now. Because ideologies that are open to evolution and change are good, and ideologies closed to new evidence are bad. And while history tells us that polarized ideological parties aren’t good for America in general, as long as we have them we should vote for the one that is “open” and not the one that is “closed.”
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn presents two ideological factions, one that swears by proper science and factual evidence and moral justice, and one that ignores the reality in front of their eyes by hiding behind a broken philosophy. In today’s world, partisans can more or less agree on this dynamic but put each other in the opposite roles. Ayn, for her part, says the faction of objective truth is the anarcho-capitalist faction, and the faction of false belief is the faction of social democrats.
Of course I started this blog because I think Ayn’s fictional world has great relevance to our own, but obviously I believe that as far as her world relates to America in 2012, Ayn got the morality of the political factions backwards — but NOT because of the politics themselves.
See, I don’t think libertarianism and conservatism are “false beliefs,” nor do I think liberalism is fundamentally objective and right. I think defining moral right and wrong along political lines is one of Ayn’s biggest mistakes. The moral dividing line isn’t libertarianism v. social democracy, it’s how you think about your beliefs that matters. It’s not left or right, but open or closed to evolving.
Looking at it that way, it just so happens that the Democratic Party is morally right and the Republican Party is morally wrong, not because of liberalism and conservatism, not even because of what each party claims its moral values are, but because the Democratic Party as a whole is open to new ideas and evidence in a way that the Republican Party as a whole is not.
Ayn dedicates her whole book to the idea that one way of thinking is morally right and one way of thinking is morally wrong — she just doesn’t live up to her own definition of the right way. And neither do her followers.
So let’s examine how well our real-world parties fare against this Randian standard. Three axes: economics, social policy, and political strategy.
When Ayn was doing all that world-building in Atlas, I made clear that I found the broad strokes of her vision effective because I think fiscal discipline and small government make an enormous amount of sense. I think Democrats fail to fully appreciate the burden of excess regulation and regulatory uncertainty, and I think liberals tend to vilify capitalism and business as an abstract generality even though they are the world’s great drivers of prosperity. On top of all that I find the idea of a lean, mean, stream-lined state that leaves as much as possible to the liberty of the people to be a beautiful and elegant theory of government.
However, we must abide by logic and reason and the evidence of the applied sciences in our universe, just as Rand would have us do in her own customized version of the universe. And that means we must recognize the serious threat that climate change poses to economic prosperity and human quality of life more generally. We must recognize that as a matter of history, radical income inequality and political plutocracy lead to a collapse of the economic buffer between rich and poor otherwise known as the middle class (or the bourgeoisie, if you prefer).
On these matters, the places where ideal theory must either bend to meet cold hard reality or break upon impact, the value of some government regulation and a socially intelligent tax system should be obvious. Yet in the face of not only repeated freak hurricanes, but also financial disasters and the fiscal recklessness of its own recent leaders, the Republican Party refuses to amend its ideal theory to improve its relationship with reality. And considering the great potential of that theory, the fact that it is the Democrats who have the healthier relationship to math, facts, history, and responsibility is a huge self-inflicted wound and a deep mark of shame on the GOP.
Again and again, the 21st century Republican Party has had the opportunity to live up to the virtuous ideas of its historical forebears, and again and again it has failed. Today’s Republicans talk a good game, but when you educate yourself on how they actually behave in office, you see that they are Rand fans fetishizing Francisco’s speech about money as karma, one of the most logically sloppy sections of the book.
2. SOCIAL ISSUES
This one could not be simpler. Liberalism today means being pro-abortion, pro-sex, pro-gay… social liberalism has a decidedly more libertarian reputation in nearly every category. Ayn tested, real world approved!
Which isn’t to say social conservatism doesn’t have merits. Its attention to questions of social stability and positive environments for raising children are important concerns to have. The surprisingly fast acceptance of gay marriage is, I think, largely due to the fact that the fundamental right gays are fighting for is access to a conservative, traditional institution of family and stability.
And please notice that for both sides, they win on social issues when they are “pro” something. When liberals violate the libertarian virtues of their popular positions and start going all “nanny state” about cigarette packaging or soft drink sizes or whatever, it rubs people the wrong way. That’s a “con” of social liberalism.
But the “cons” of social conservatism are far worse, at least politically, because social conservatism today is defined largely as anti-sex, which must be the most losing political argument in the Western world. Ayn would be utterly apalled.
Now, there is actually a Randian argument in favor of conservative attitudes towards sex, founded in the fact that Ayn believes sex is unavoidably an exchange of spiritual value. The rights to accessible birth control and abortions, while enormously important for the economic and social freedom of at least half the population of America and the earth, do create a culture in which the relationships between sexuality and pregnancy, sexuality and sheer personal intimacy, are loosened. That raises some valid questions about spiritual health, moral values, and the cultural environment in which our children develop.
But that certainly doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of modernity, including women’s rights, science, and higher education. And sadly, just such a rejection is the headline characteristic of a number of religious conservative movements today.
And so, just as it was with economics, I believe the right champions important moral questions that the left would do well to consider, yet goes so overboard with religious/ideological fervor that it disqualifies itself from wielding power.
3. POLITICAL STYLE
This is where I find myself viscerally upset by today’s Republican Party. Particularly if you buy into the moral value of being rational and objective about facts, the political strategy of the 21st century GOP is truly vile.
I think it’s simplest to put it this way:
The only serious tactic in the Republican governing arsenal since 2008 has been to hold the economy hostage. On the stimulus bill, on health care reform, on the debt ceiling, on the jobs act… the GOP consistently sabotages the nation’s short-term or long-term economic health, and then blames Obama. Does anybody recognize that tactic, can you think of anyone else who uses it? I can. It’s John Galt.
You see, the thing that makes Ayn Rand fandom so disturbing is that Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in democracy. She believes the wealthy deserve complete freedom from taxes and social responsibility as a matter of moral justice, and so the only just laws are those designed to protect the wealthy from the population at large. To Ayn Rand, the purpose of government is to protect plutocracy from the dangers of democracy.
And this is what the Republican Party of 2012 is really doing, except instead of abstaining from government like the fictional Galt, they work to take over government from the inside, which Galt specifically rejects.
I don’t think this is an intentional conspiratorial cabal situation. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as this: the billionaire Rand fans fund The Party. The social conservatives and the small government fiscal hawks vote for The Party. And The Party, which believes in money but doesn’t believe in government, makes sure to do what the funders want, and really doesn’t give a shit about the governing part that the social conservatives and the fiscal hawks have a genuine stake in. In the end, the public is left in ruins and the richest took the money and ran, and by their moral logic this is not only okay, it proves they were right all along.
And that’s why you have to vote Democrat by default. That party believes in democracy. It’s a party of many creeds and colors, a party of economic opportunity and legal equality. It is within the historical tradition of great American government. It is not the most aggressive or impressive to a superficial observer, but it is the better option.
In the sections above, I listed a number of reasons why I can sympathize with Republican voters and right-leaning independents. I pointed out where I respect their philosophy and values at every opportunity. But once you come down to the basic, craven politics of it, I cannot escape this conclusion, based in fact and historical evidence, that to whatever degree you support the Republican Party of today, you are ignorant of, or in denial about, its true nature and its moral reality.
A democratic vote for an anti-democracy party is a reward for moral perversity and social injustice, anti-logic, anti-life, ignorance, denial, cynicism, contradiction, and self-destruction. Make your choice, America, but make it in full awareness of what it is you’re choosing.
That’s what Ayn would’ve wanted.
At the end of my commentary on John Galt’s speech, only twelve hours before Mitt Romney’s debate performance rebooted the race from a potential Obama landslide into a genuine toss-up, I concluded that
If [Randians who have no respect for truth] are evil by [their] own definition and, per Rand, those who face their own evilness must either go mad or commit suicide? Well, the evidence is right in front of our eyes: the Republican Party as an institution has gone mad, and is in the midst of a grand political suicide. Objective reality wins again.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that by the end of The Speech I had gone pretty far overboard mimicking Ayn’s bluster and absolutism in my polemic against her. But my point about the nature of the modern Republican Party is sound; what’s changed is that the Party’s truth-free and reality-averse political strategy is working a lot better now. I still think Obama is going to pull out a victory, but the GOP’s “political suicide” turns out to have been a lot less real than it seemed on the morning of October 3rd. So to moderate the hyperbole of my Galt’s Speech conclusions, I’m going to imagine the potential Romniverse — in decidedly less hysterical terms than conservative pundits use when they imagine (and I do mean imagine) the Obamaverse.
First things first: when it comes down to it, I don’t consider a Romney presidency to be the real danger in this election; I consider a win for the Romney campaign to be the greater danger, because it would mean objective reality lost to post-modern relativism and willful ignorance. Even his supporters seem to defend him primarily on the grounds that you can’t believe half the things he says, which is the worst sort of moral complacency (and the sort condemned so rightly by Ayn in Atlas Shrugged).
This moral issue is the true crux of the election. As far as governing goes, I made it clear very early on this blog that there are elements of Rand’s “Objectiverse” and parts of conservative ideology that I can appreciate. Even though I prefer Democratic policies to Republican ones on the whole, it’s really the politics and the rhetoric of the Republican Party that I object to with the moral certainty I played up in the Speech commentary.
What elements of a Romney presidency would I be okay with? The most promising is that if Romney wins, we will get another stimulus bill to help goose short-term economic growth. Even though the Republican House has been the faction blocking more stimulus under Obama, it is more or less a given that Paul Ryan would convince them to reverse their position if they also held the White House. Jon Chait outlines that case here. Despite the infuriating fact that this is a perfect example of the “politics over policy”/”party over country” nature of modern Republican leaders, releasing the hostage economy would be good for the country, so I could take some solace in that.
But when it comes to the other accomplishments of a hypothetical Romney administration that I could potentially get behind, the other elements of conservative ideology I support, well… the situation is more troubling. I am extremely skeptical that they would actually happen. Specifically, I would be in favor of tax reform, a balanced budget, and deficit reduction, which are really all the same issue. But if the history of Republicanism over the last thirty years is any indication, expecting follow-thru on these goals would just make me (and Republican voters) Charlie Brown to the GOP’s Lucy.
After all, both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush made sure to cut lots of taxes, but never got around to the cutting spending part. They didn’t put government on a diet, they just let it go malnourished. To be fair to Ronald Reagan, even as he racked up debt, he did pass responsible, bipartisan tax reform, and increased taxes several times to compensate for his initial tax-cut binge in 1981. So really it’s just George W. Bush who single-handedly starved America: he moved the country away from a year-to-year budget surplus that would have erased the debt by now, to annual deficits that added $4 trillion dollars to the national debt over 8 years.
Now even though conservatives are constantly pointing out that President Obama has added even more than that in under 4 years, the cause of this massive annual deficit is the spending commitments made by Bush (two wars, a huge expansion in the Medicare entitlement), paired with tax rate cuts established by Bush, exacerbated by a huge drop in actual tax dollars collected due to the economic collapse (which also happened on Bush’s watch). So Republican campaign messaging that blaming Bush is old news, boring, or irrelevant… that’s willful amnesia and defiance of reality.
If we set our expectations based on how Republicans have behaved and not on what they say, then they are far more likely to slash taxes but preserve spending, therefore ballooning the deficit even more. If nothing else, Republican fealty to Grover Norquist blocks any meaningful tax reform.
But what about Paul Ryan? Would his role in this hypothetical Republican government lead to a change in GOP seriousness about budgets? He certainly seems to think President Obama should have prioritized fixing Bush’s deficit problem — even though he helped create it and has actually tanked bipartisan efforts to fix it.
Well, okay, despite that last, incredibly relevant fact, let’s
pretend assume that he’s only been biding his time as a team player on his way to the real levers of power where he can get serious about slashing spending. I still have two concerns about this.
One is that fiscal austerity hurts the recovery. Europe proves this. In fact, the “fiscal cliff” coming at the end of the year represents just this problem: it cuts the deficit too much. And although Republicans want to get rid of the cliff, “cliff” is actually the wrong metaphor because the cuts would take effect over enough time, in future budgets, that they can be adjusted, turning the “cliff” into a controlled landing that actually resolves the budget/debt/tax issue responsibly.
The key word there is “responsibly.” Since the Republican record is so irresponsible, having a Democratic veto pen handy makes responsibility far more likely. A more powerful GOP would happily erase the politically painful (deficit-reducing) parts of the “cliff.” This is, once again, outlined in Jon Chait’s afore-mentioned article.
Chait is really the indispensible writer on Rand and modern Republicanism. In his 2008 book The Big Con, Chait points out that the only part of the Republican agenda that the party never compromises on is tax cuts for the rich. When the Republican Party is in power, Christian conservatives are constantly disappointed by inaction; budget hawks are constantly disappointed by profligate spending; the wealthy are never disappointed.
Which brings us to my second concern about Paul Ryan’s approach to balanced budgets. This one is not about a short-term shock to the economy, it’s about the long-term structure of the economy. As the facts of the last three decades make clear, economic growth under Republican policies accumulates at the top. Tax-slashers today say that the 1% pays a larger share of the income tax than ever before, so it would be immoral to tax them more. But this is another example of willful ignorance: not only does the 1% store a lot of its wealth in investments that are taxed at the lower capital gains rate, but their income tax rates have been cut over and over. So how could their share of the income tax grow when the rates are getting lower? Because they make so much more of the nation’s income! Tax cuts and economic collapse have moved lots of people out of the income tax brackets entirely. The people who don’t pay income taxes still pay payroll taxes, state and local taxes, sales taxes, &c, all of which are taxes that disproportionally affect the poor. Yet the rich, who have gotten richer and richer, complain!
The Romney and Ryan plans explicitly encourage this trend, and history confirms that this is the campaign promise they are most likely to keep. Add to that the gutting of domestic discretionary spending, and we would soon find ourselves in a country with a class of super-wealthy plutocrats paying fewer and fewer taxes while the poor face taxes that eat up a significant share of their income, undermining social mobility, living standards, and both literal and fiscal health. On top of that, cuts in clean energy investment and a draconian immigration policy would undermine the foundation of America’s strength in the middle and late 21st century.
So, hey, you might’ve noticed that my intention to look on the bright side of a Republican victory has hit a pretty solid wall, a wall whose bricks I like to call “evidence,” “facts,” “reality,” and “truth.” Frankly, call it whatever you want. The important thing to realize is that this course which would be a disaster for everyone except the super-rich plutocracy is the Ayn Rand dream scenario. It is literally the plot of Atlas Shrugged, except in real life it is Rand’s version of utopia that is being achieved by corrupt plutocrats and lobbyists taking over the federal government. Rand’s utopia just happens to be the rest of reality’s dystopia.
I think any Republican voters who come across this site probably disregard it, take offense when I say all these negative things about their party. But I’m not talking about them! I’m talking about the people in power, not the masses. The masses see corruption among the powerful and think, “Better vote for the guys who want to shrink government,” but those guys are the ones pulling the most corrupt con of all! And if this indisputable fact is depressing to Republican voters because it proves them to be ignorant dupes, well, the proper reaction is not to hide from reality, but to face it and reform themselves to be more virtuous. Don’t take it from me, take it from Ayn Rand! Her advice for individuals is actually extremely valuable, for the most part, because she loves individuals — it’s her advice for society that is disastrous, because she actively wants to see it fail! She’s very explicit about it!
In accordance with that distinction, please note that the explicit purpose of this post has been to figure out a way to respond to a hypothetical Romney victory with equanimity, to prepare to swallow and digest frustration and disappointment and channel it into something productive and creative. In short, to react like Hank Rearden or Francisco D’Anconia, Randian heroes.
Likewise, I will abide by another Randian ideal, one that she herself failed to live by: facing reality and the evidence clearly. In the context of this hypothetical Romney victory, that means I would have to remain open to evidence that his policies work better than I can reasonably expect of them bsaed on history and logic. But in the far less theoretical, uh, “actual reality,” I must acknowledge that Randian economics, and Randian attitudes toward society and community, in short all those things that Romney and Ryan represent politically — these have been proved by the historical record to be a civic travesty.
More than the economic policy, the social policy, the long-term vision of the role of government, I consider the defining feature of the partisan divide in this country to be modes of thinking. Do we validate a solipsistic philosophy that is closed to evidence, that so willfully defies reality that the weak-minded are dominated and impressed? Or do we reward a philosophy that is open to evidence and evolves, that allows itself to be vulnerable precisely because it is willing to adapt and compromise? As I discussed in my commentary on Galt’s Speech, I consider this issue to be the fundamental measure of moral virtue, and therefore the fundamental reason I’m obligated to call modern Republicanism immoral. Though I cannot speak to the intellectual character of every individual in either party, I can speak to the aggregate character of the two institutions.
So this election is not ultimately a verdict on the candidates. It is a verdict on the nation, the people. It is a verdict on America’s relationship to objective reality. Will we choose to see the truth of our time and place in history and renew our commitment to democratic tradition, or will we choose to ignore the facts of the last several decades and allow ourselves to slip down the road to serfdom under a corrupt plutocracy that has bought the government?
Democracies get the governments they deserve. Let’s deserve our democracy.
Last night was the first presidential debate and I will say without qualification that Mitt Romney cleaned President Obama’s clock. There are two angles on that performance that I want to consider here briefly.
The first is what Romney did well. He took control of the agenda of the debate from very early on, and made a very effective sales pitch for the conservative idea that reducing taxes and regulatory hoops leads to greater growth and is thus a more efficient solution to the jobs crisis as well as the deficit and debt problem. He also spoke to the Randian vision in alluding to bureaucratic panels making decisions and the idea of “trickle-down government,” all of which suggest the constantly expanding and increasingly inefficient central government infringing on the ingenuity of the private sector that Atlas Shrugged presents for criticism.
The Atlas comparisons inevitably cut both ways, though. Romney moderated almost all of his declared positions to appeal to the centrist voter, seeking to distance himself from the extremity of the Republican agenda as much as possible. He also offered a lot of details that don’t square mathematically with his established policy positions, which do reflect that GOP agenda. This is smart politics, for sure, but it plays into the “etch-a-sketch” meme, which makes for a classic Mouch/Thompson politician. Nevertheless, in terms of a sales pitch, it was gangbusters.
By contrast, President Obama repeatedly got lost in the policy weeds, eating up time while scoring fewer rhetorical points. While his facts may have been less misleading, the overall effect was to play into the Republican narrative of government as a knot of technical jargon obstructing (business)people from doing what they want to do.
All of that is largely about horse-race coverage and spinning media narratives. Romney won that handily. The second issue I want to look at is the objective validity (or invalidity) of those claims Romney made to win the narrative. Here’s the three examples of misleading decontextualization that jumped out at me as I watched:
1) Early on Mitt referred to American tax policy moving “small businesses” away from America, but this dynamic can obviously only affect multi-national corporations. This conflation of small business and the larger corporate playing field is misleading. It isn’t that the corporate scale isn’t vital to the economy — it is — but discussing policies that benefit corporate institutions as if they were primarily aimed at local community businesses is intellectually dishonest. Romney did later make some sounder points about actual small businesses, though as with his statistics on green energy investments, he radically exaggerated the numbers. Either way the elision of the difference between Exxon-Mobil and your local plumber is deeply misleading and, I think, highly characteristic of Romney’s exploitation of voter ignorance.
2) President Obama pointed out, accurately, that Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts add up to $5 trillion dollars. Romney pointed out that he will close loopholes so that this number would not be accurate. He still refuses to specify those loopholes, even though basically all of the options on the table have to be adopted to make the math work. Yet he claims that he will not be raising taxes on the middle class or reducing taxes on the wealthy, all while his reforms remain revenue neutral. This is not only mathematically impossible but politically disingenuous. His line of defense essentially boils down to “Because I say so, so trust me,” and since his claims as they stand do not square with the hard data, there is no reason to trust him on this unless he provides more details. This example is extremely similar to the politicians in Atlas Shrugged.
3) During a discussion on health care, Mitt said he would keep Obamacare but leave its implementation up to the states, which makes no sense on its face if you actually know anything about how the policy works. But besides that, this plan would be a disaster for — ironically — the states that reliably vote Republican. Many of these (the most notable exception being Texas) are the welfare queens of state government; they receive far more federal funds than they contribute in taxes. Without these federal subsidies, most of the south and the mountain west would be unable to provide adequate health care services. This would make residency in these states less attractive, it would increase poverty among the elderly and economic drag on the families now supporting them out of pocket, and over time it would worsen these regions’ already low scores on health care outcomes, increasing health care costs and creating a vicious cycle.
This last example brings us back to the broader ideological point, which is this: sometimes competition does not produce a race to the top; sometimes it produces a race to the bottom. Arms races lead to nuclear proliferation and thus a more dangerous world. The race to provide the cheapest oil leads to overproduction and overconsumption and environmental catastrophes that damage the stability of the economy in which people are trying to prosper. Health care costs are another key example of this.
I noted up top that Romney’s arguments about lowering regulation to increase economic efficiency are factually valid. The reason they don’t persuade me away from Democratic proposals is that he radically exaggerates the size of these efficiency effects. Dynamic scoring of proposed tax policy changes usually produces something like a savings of 30% of the cost of the cuts — for every dollar you cut, the boost this provides to growth only gets you thirty cents back, not the whole dollar. The Republican pitch on taxes constantly suggests that you would be getting far more of a return than what the historical record suggests.
Just as importantly, the growth of the economy in this situation is not evenly distributed among the population. “Trickle-down” or supply-side economics benefit the wealthy first, and the middle class later if at all. And if we look at the historical record since supply-side was first institutionalized under Ronald Reagan, the money amasses mostly among the wealthy and the middle class stagnates, creating a larger lower class of menial service laborers and welfare dependents. This is a serious shortcoming of Republican proposals, to say the least.
Combine these factors and what do you get? Poor priorities. Good constructive criticism; bad proposals for addressing the most longview, structural issues. The post-Reagan Republican narrative has always been so effective because it is a wonderfully elegant theory of how things should work. But when it turns out that reality doesn’t work that way, that narrative becomes the problem and not the solution. And we reached that tipping point long ago.
As always, Romney’s means are the perfect example of why he shouldn’t achieve his ends, especially by a Randian measure. He is clearly an excellent salesman, but by winning through the obfuscation of the truth, he exploits the difference between the merits of his sales pitch and the merits of the product he is pitching. That difference in and of itself accounts for why market outcomes and business acumen are not equivalent to moral integrity, and how they can easily incentivize an appeal to the lowest common denominator instead of a call to raise standards.
Mr. Romney won definitively when it comes to subjective reality: our collective reactions and opinions. But when it comes to objective facts about what’s driving American decline and who is responsible for our inability to address those issues legislatively? Not so much.