The first Op-Ed, written by David Brooks, argues that we've lost our "economic values" as a country. We need to return to our Calvinist roots, etc. I wrote about that here, but left most of the heavy lifting to Andrew Leonard over at Salon, who I quoted as writing,
"Has Brooks somehow forgotten that just nine years ago the U.S. operated under a balanced budget and enjoyed a budget surplus? The explosion of public debt since that point has very little to do with the moral failings of Americans, and everything to do with objective fact. George W. Bush cut taxes, but did not match those cuts with spending cuts."
I agree with his argument, but Paul Krugman, another Times columnist, had something else to add. Yesterday, he wrote:
"David would have you believe that what happened then was a decline in Calvinist virtue. But, um, didn’t something else happen around 1980? Can’t quite remember .. someone whose name begins with the letter “R”?
Yes, Reagan did it.
The turn to budget deficits was a direct result of the new, Irving-Kristol inspired political strategy of pushing tax cuts without worrying about the “accounting deficiencies of government.”
Meanwhile, the surge in household debt can largely be attributed to financial deregulation."
Good for Krugman for saying it. Lots of this country's problems can be attributed to the Bush administration, but to find the causes of the institutional breakdowns, we must return to the Reagan era.
In that spirit, let's move on to [insert blowjob joke] Friedman's column from yesterday. I have to admit--as far as Friedman goes, this wasn't his worst offering, by far. It's still either ignorant or intellectually dishonest, but it doesn't call for the blood of Brown people. I'll take what I can get.
Friedman rightly argues that there is no "we" in America right now. He begins by describing similarities between Israel in '95 (when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated) and contemporary America. He calls out the far right in this country for engaging in hateful, xenophobic tactics that he feels are corroding the political culture. But in typical pundit style, he must create false equivalencies between the right and the left. He writes:
"Sometimes I wonder whether George H.W. Bush, president “41,” will be remembered as our last “legitimate” president. The right impeached Bill Clinton and hounded him from Day 1 with the bogus Whitewater “scandal.” George W. Bush was elected under a cloud because of the Florida voting mess, and his critics on the left never let him forget it." [emphasis added.]
Yes, quite. Never mind the fact that W. was installed by the Florida supreme court, and that the left was pressured by every single media institution in the country to "get over it and move on."
The most glaring omission from Friedman's analysis, however, is that the tactics he claims to despise are wholly a product of the Right. Beginning with Barry Goldwater, through Nixon, and then perfected by Ronald Reagan, the Right has constantly exploited racial tensions for political gain. You simply could not have "Obama is a socialist" without Reagan's hateful caricature of the "Cadillac-driving welfare queen."
Similarly, you couldn't have the kind of income disparity that we see in America without Reagan's policies of deregulation and union-busting. From crushing the air traffic controllers union to letting Wall Street collect more and more of the national income, it was clear that the 80s were a decade in which the money moved up the ladder, and fuck you if you couldn't fuck somebody else out of it. Reagan left the country atomized and greedy, distrustful of solidarity, with a context of xenophobic paranoia firmly in place.
That is where we stand as a country. Organized labor still exists, barely, but the Democrats are far, far more in line with the corporations that pay for their campaigns than the unions who mobilize to support them. Glenn Beck and the Right have managed to create a kind of Zombie Reaganism, in which the government is the problem and so is that Nazi Commie in the White House. It's amazing to see the white poor in this country embrace an economic philosophy that has decimated the working and middle classes. But we must remember that Reagan gave his party the playbook to exploit the fears of the white poor. But Friedman can't say that, because Globalization and Free Markets will save us all.
Yet Reagan remains the figure to which every major Republican candidate must swear allegiance. He remains untouchable by both conservative politicians and columnists. It's truly remarkable to read Brooks and Friedman lament the direct consequences of Reagan's legacy, yet never even mention him by name, much less assign anything resembling blame. Whether that's because of malice or ignorance is impossible to know, but neither answer is particularly comforting.