Terrance Heath

Three Questions, Pt. 3: Should We?

Filed By Terrance Heath | September 13, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: economic crisis, financial crisis, progressive politics, should we, three questions

In the previous post in this series, I wrote:

To progressives, it seems a given that of course we must do something to alleviate the suffering that the financial collapse and economic downturn have the inflicted on millions of Americans. That’s the moral response to human suffering: Do something about it. Most of our complaints about the current state of our politics is that too little has been done in this regard.

Yet, the moral response to suffering and the circumstances -- whether a crisis or unfortunate circumstance -- depends on your point of view.

"Do something" and "Do nothing," are statements that both reflect and answer the question, "Should we?."

Both raise questions that demand justification: "Why?" and "Why not?"

Recent headlines underscore the difference between doing something and doing nothing, and why progressive and conservative answers the second question -- "Should we" -- are so starkly different.

Do Something

Remember the auto-bailout? Around beginning of June, and again in mid-August, we started seeing reports that it at last this bailout was starting to pay off. Particular attention given to GM’s turnaround: the first quarterly profit reported in almost three years, rising prices for the company’s cars, filing to once again sell shares publicly, and already producing returns on the government’s investment. Where U.S. manufacturing has lost nearly 175,000 jobs in the last two years, the U.S. auto parts and production sectors grew by 41,000 jobs to 704,000 between July 2009 and July 2010.

No wonder president Obama, when he toured a GM factory in Detroit, touted the success of GM’s turnaround to vindicate government intervention to save U.S. automakers -- and the jobs of auto-workers, as well as those in the parts, supply, and service sectors that depend on the auto-industry. White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs summed up the administration’s argument: ""

It serves to remind Americans of what conservatives would rather we forget: that they were adamant that the government stand by and "do nothing" as U.S. automakers failed, with disastrous consequences for workers, families and communities that relied on the industry. Likewise, conservatives were willing to let the financial sector collapse, and let million of Americans suffer another Great Depression, "For the sake of the altar of the free market." Many of the congressional conservatives who advocated letting the U.S. auto-industry die, came from southern states that offered generous incentives to foreign automakers to build factories, which came the expense of their constituents, and failed to yield the promised economic growth.

None could claim to be as successful, in fact, as our government’s investment in saving the U.S. auto-industry. No wonder conservatives who claimed at the time that president Obama effectively "owned" GM, with a government rescue in place for the company and other automakers, are now claiming that he can claim no credit for its turnaround.

Nothing Doing

That jobless claims hit 500,000 in July, and foreclosures hit 300,000, only underscores that government intervention saved at last some Americans from adding to those numbers. Conservative policies, in terms of the auto bailout, would have meant even more jobless claims. Even most conservatives would be hard pressed to argue right now that workers whose jobs were lost in the collapse of an entire indigenous industry would have been "absorbed" by the private sector by now.

More recently, USA Today reported that one in six Americans receive help from government anti-poverty programs -- including a 17% increase of Americans on Medicaid -- since the recession began in December 2007.

Government anti-poverty programs that have grown to meet the needs of recession victims now serve a record one in six Americans and are continuing to expand.

More than 50 million Americans are on Medicaid, the federal-state program aimed principally at the poor, a survey of state data by USA TODAY shows. That’s up at least 17% since the recession began in December 2007.

... More than 40 million people get food stamps, an increase of nearly 50% during the economic downturn, according to government data through May. The program has grown steadily for three years.

... Close to 10 million receive unemployment insurance, nearly four times the number from 2007. Benefits have been extended by Congress eight times beyond the basic 26-week program, enabling the long-term unemployed to get up to 99 weeks of benefits. Caseloads peaked at nearly 12 million in January -- "the highest numbers on record," says Christine Riordan of the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers.

More than 4.4 million people are on welfare, an 18% increase during the recession. The program has grown slower than others, causing Brookings Institution expert Ron Haskins to question its effectiveness in the recession.

Understand that even as these numbers illustrate that an increasing number of Americans are in need of help, conservatives are enthusiastically advocating cuts that would certainly make circumstances even more dire.

The USA Today article notes that the programs have grown because the recession has made more people eligible for these programs, and Congress has expanded eligibility and benefits in response to increased need. What it doesn’t mention is that, particularly when it comes to unemployment benefits, congressional conservatives consistently blocked extensions, and have even advocated cuts in the very programs that more Americans are finding themselves in need of.

It’s a conservative "Nothing Doing" approach to government that has a firm rooting in conservative philosophy, worldview, and understanding of government.

Counterintuitive Conservatism

Demanding cuts that would almost certainly impact programs would seem counterintuitive to many people, certainly to progressives. After all, if the moral response to the suffering caused by the economic crisis is to do something to alleviate it, then cutting the programs that provide some measure of relief is counterintuitive, or "seemingly contrary to common sense."

That is, unless you’re an adherent of what passes for mainstream conservatism today. Then it makes sense.

When conservatives, after months of blocking unemployment benefits for millions of Americans, started talking about extending tax cuts for the wealthy it seemed counterintuitive. But in the conservative world view it made perfect sense.

Just as it was "a tragedy of the first proportion" for the government to hold BP responsible for the consequences of it’s oil leak, spending tax dollars to extend unemployment benefits is "punishing" the wrong people. At least according to Rand Paul, taxes are a "punishment" rather than paying ones fare share for the public infrastructure that we all use, but that the wealthy use to varying degrees to increase their wealth.

Listen carefully to the what conservatives -- media spokespersons, office holder, and office seekers -- have been saying about Americans caught in the unemployment crisis: that helping them with unemployment benefits will make them not want to get jobs; that people are unemployed because they want to be; that they’re choosing not to work; that there are jobs available, but the unemployed are too lazy and too busy using drugs to bother applying for the jobs that are out there just waiting for them; that they should just go work at McDonald’s; and so on.

It hardly matters that unemployed workers outnumber lob openings, or that unemployment benefits don’t discourage job hunting, because the benefits are nowhere near enough to replace a paycheck. And it hardly matters that millions of Americans are struggling to survive on unemployment benefits, living day-to-day, not knowing how they’ll survive when benefits run out again.

It makes perfect sense to cut taxes for the wealthiest citizens while cutting benefits for the neediest, as well as the government programs that serve those in the most need, and it’s easy to do so without thinking of the consequences those already in desperate need. It just depends on the context in which you view all the realities above.

The USA Today article cited above ends with a quote from an anti-poverty expert that pretty much sums up the progressive position.

Other anti-poverty experts say the record caseloads are a necessary response to economic hardship. "We should be there to support people when the economy can’t," says LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.

The current ascendant strain of conservatism says, "No we shouldn’t" be there to support people when they economy can’t (or won’t).

Because to do so would be immoral.


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In my lifetime I can't think of a single problem that government has solved. Not one.

People solve problems, not politicians. It doesn't matter what kind of politician, either. Liberal or Conservative or even Progressive politicians have never solved a single problem. Not one.

Our current economic challenges will only be solved with innovation and a renewed American spirit. Government can postpone economic hardship, but it can't prevent it. WE need to do that. Entrepreneurs, inventors and innovators. That's something any political type should support. It's the only thing that we know works.

I'm really enjoying this series, Terrance. I hope it continues. Very well thought out.