Election 2012: A referendum on selfishness

Let’s cut through the crap. Let’s not kid ourselves.

This election isn’t a referendum on Obama’s performance as president. When he came into office, the U.S. economy (and to some extent, Western civilization) was in critical condition. Today, it’s in fair condition. You could argue whether that’s good enough to re-elect him … if not for the fact that Congresscritters and CEOs have spent the last year doing as little as possible to get the economy moving, citing “uncertainty.” Some folks have at least had the honesty to say the goal is to make Obama a one-term president, proving their loyalty is to their party rather than their country.

So on the economy, Obama still rates an “incomplete.” Presidents usually get too much credit or blame for the economy, anyway. The tech boom helped Clinton. Sept. 11 hurt Bush in his first term. (We will give Bush a lot of the blame for the financial markets’ meltdown in his second term.)

Looking ahead to the next four years, none of that matters. Barring some calamity in Europe or another major shock elsewhere in the world, the economy will improve. Corporations will eventually spend some of their massive cash reserves.

The real meaning of this election? It’s a referendum on selfishness.

All we really know about the Romney-Republican economic plan is that they’ll fight like hell against any proposal to raise taxes on the upper crust, even though those taxes are a good bit lower than what we’ve seen in the past several decades, save a couple of years in the late 80s. (Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)

For all the screaming over Obama as a socialist, the fact remains that he still hasn’t succeeded in rolling back the Bush tax cuts. And where has that gotten us? While these “job creators” are paying historically low taxes at the expense of our national debt, are they creating enough jobs to wipe out unemployment? And how are these “job creators” making use of the corporate welfare that dwarfs individual welfare? (That link is a funny read, incidentally.)

Steven Pearlstein summed up the “job creators” perfectly:

I am entitled to complain about the economy even when my stock price, my portfolio and my profits are at record levels.

I am entitled to a healthy and well-educated workforce, a modern and efficient transportation system and protection for my person and property, just as I am entitled to demonize the government workers who provide them.

I am entitled to complain bitterly about taxes that are always too high, even when they are at record lows.

So it’s nonsensical to blame Obama for a stalled economy when he has barely changed a thing from the Bush years. And no, he hasn’t broken the bank on spending, either. 

Romney and the Republicans know all this. They don’t care. They certainly don’t care about future generations, as evidenced by their climate-change denialism. 

Republicans used to be able to make a convincing argument for “personal responsibility.” That’s dead, unless you count advocating our collective responsibility for our seniors, children and veterans as “personal responsibility.”

Let’s consider how one old-school Republican put it:

But the fact of the matter is that if these planned changes happen, a nontrivial number of America’s most vulnerable citizens — the very old, the very young, the chronically ill, those most hampered and hammered by the past four years of insufficient-bordering-on-indifferent action on unemployment – will die prematurely. That’s not hyperbole. That’s not an idle prediction. It is, rather, an absolutely foreseeable consequence of cutting social services, particularly Medicaid, in a time of great need and want. And if you don’t care about that, you’re a sociopath, pure and simple.

Maybe “sociopath” is a bit strong? But let’s think about how Romney and company demonize the “47 percent freeloaders,” as stated by old-school conservative David Brooks:

First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?

It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. Yes, the entitlement state has expanded, but America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey.

It says that Romney doesn’t know much about the political culture. Americans haven’t become childlike worshipers of big government. On the contrary, trust in government has declined. The number of people who think government spending promotes social mobility has fallen.

Again, I have no reason to think the Republicans trust their own rhetoric. We heard plenty of arguments earlier this year that “everyone” needs to share the tax burden, but too many people are getting by under the minimums. Then in my state, a Republican candidate for Senate ran an attack ad against a Democrat insinuating that the Democrat … wanted everyone to share the tax burden.

Brooks wrote a passionate column this year in defense of the endangered “traditional conservative” in the vein of Reagan or Bush, conservatives who believed in a subtle government hand.

Maybe Romney is more traditional than he has let on. In the debates, he has suddenly remembered he was one of the architects of the health-care reforms we now call “Obamacare." 

But we really can’t give the Republicans a pass on this rhetoric. If Romney takes office, he’ll be indebted to the gazillionaires who have spent a ton of money on misleading SuperPAC ads. He’ll hardly be in a position to turn around and say, "Hey, we have a massive debt, and you guys are paying historically low tax rates while raking in money, and it’s obvious the economy won’t fully recover unless everyone has money to spend. So … um … can we raise your tax rate one percentage point?”

Worse than that, they have nearly 50 percent of Americans believing myths. Myths that we would all be better off if we keep doing what we’re doing with taxes and then cut the net on those “freeloaders.”

And myths that those “freeloaders” are all voting for Obama. Government money – federal government money, anyway – flows more freely in the “red states” than in the blue.

Believe it or not, libertarian publication Reason has a terrific analysis of this paradox: 

One possible explanation is that the voters are misinformed. According to this theory, the people who benefit the most from federal spending simply don’t understand how much money they receive; they assume their tax dollars are subsidizing others when in fact they are the ones being subsidized. People in rural states might be convinced that liberal urban Northeastern jurisdictions get large subsidies for entitlements, welfare, and industry bailouts, while failing to understand how much their own states benefit from agricultural and welfare spending. They may mistakenly equate life in a low-density environment with self-sufficiency. Subsidies and welfare from the federal government help maintain this illusion, enticing them to vote for advocates of smaller government. By contrast, voters in highly urban areas may assume they are the ones who get the most subsidies. In turn, they vote for big-government politicians, thinking that welfare spending will ease social frictions in big cities. Ultimately, everyone is wrong.

So somehow, the GOP convinces them that everyone else is the problem. “No, no – you deserve your money. It’s that person in New York who’s ruining everything.”

The fact is that the GOP has lost whatever sense of altruism they ever had. They can’t even plausibly claim to be the party of “freedom” – not while they plan to want to stop gay marriage, deny science, restrict women’s health issues, etc. 

“Compassionate conservatism” is dead. Liberals, for all their faults, are primarily motivated by a desire to help others. Conservatives are not.*

So that’s your choice. We’ve given corporate welfare and low upper-crust tax breaks a chance under both Bush and Obama, and economic growth has been slow.  

The economy will perk back up in the next few years, barring disasters out of a president’s control. But voting for Romney and the Republicans will ensure that the recovery is felt disproportionately. And more people will continue to struggle, all for the benefit of an elite – and selfish – few.

One exception: I think some abortion opponents are indeed motivated by good will. The mainstream anti-abortion groups come up with some wild counterproductive policy initiatives, such as restricting contraception and trying to scare people so that they end up delaying abortions into the second trimester, but I fully understand individuals who are saddened by abortion and would like to take rational steps to make it rarer.


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