Monday, September 19, 2011

The Era of Ranters

Angry ranters are all over the web. The anonymity of virtual communication encourages their vituperation. The racist, know-nothing, jingoist language of online political commentators would be shocking if expressed in person. In normal life, these ranters hide their less pleasant feelings and less defensible ideas. Alone, in front of their computers, they liberate their inner ogres.

Because they spew playground epithets, it is easy to dismiss them. But they are worth listening to. They have something to say about America, although it’s not what they think they are saying.

The ranters possess an absolute faith in their versions of the truth. This faith cannot be shaken by mere facts, because anything which contradicts their cherished beliefs couldn’t possibly be a fact. Anyone who expresses contrary ideas must be part of a world-wide conspiracy. Any news article which contains unwelcome information can be attributed to the biased media in the hands of the enemy. No credential can affirm the worthiness of any expert’s ideas, if those ideas don’t fit preconceived categories. So saying something like this, in response to one of my articles, can make sense: “You, along with scientists, don't have one iota of a clue about global warming.”

Most of the ranters are white men. They are stuck in a simpler world, an idealized version of some long ago America. There was no talk of racism, because there was no questioning of white supremacy. Men were men and women were in the kitchen. The whole world worshiped America, with good reason, since we were the most powerful and most virtuous nation ever. Religious and secular schooling, popular culture in all its forms, and legislation at every level, reinforced those ideas.

In the last 50 years, that vision has been shattered. Life became less comfortable for white men. Not hard. In every comparison of earning power and occupational prestige, white men are at the top. White men have half the unemployment rate of black men at every educational level, just as it was 20 years ago. However badly white men may be faring at any moment, even when the economy has been run into the ground by rich white men, they are better off as a group than anyone else.

But their comfortable position at the top of the social pyramid is under attack. Every time one of those anti-American professors publishes one of those government-funded studies about racism or poverty, the liberal media shoves it down everybody’s throat. Then they turn around and fawn over some foreigner, as if they might be nearly as good as Americans, talking about their Canadian health care or their German labor system or their Chinese economy.

The whole pyramid may be threatened by changes in the earth’s atmosphere that nobody can see or feel, claimed by those same government-funded ivory-tower liberals, who are also socialists, and they say it will cost us gazillions to stop.

It’s tough to be told that you should recycle cans, eat less meat, buckle up, wash some dishes, and accept all those other people as your equal.

The ranters don’t want to talk about white privilege, because it doesn’t exist. They don’t want to talk about global warming, because it doesn’t exist. They don’t want to talk about Muslims in America, because they shouldn’t exist.

I would not call them losers, because ranters occupy all segments of our population. Some of them have billions to help fund other ranters. Some of them publish carefully crafted essays and books that other ranters can read to prove again to themselves that they are right.

How many ranters are there? In the New York Times/CBS News survey last week, 12% said that there is no global warming. lists Ann Coulter’s “Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America” in the top 1000 among all books. Rush Limbaugh’s 3-hour radio program is carried by 600 stations across the US. 23% in the 2010 Gallup poll said that only creationism, not evolution, should be taught in public schools. There’s a ranter in your neighborhood.

Are they dangerous? The ranters are generally not in positions of leadership in our communities, because their closed minds and disdain for what others think make it unlikely that people would follow their lead. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for their outsized anger – nobody will listen. For them the world is filled with dupes and hypocrites, people who just can’t see the truth.

There would be fewer ranters if responsible people, who actually know better, did not encourage them for temporary political gain. For example, how many Republican politicians denounced the birthers as mistaken, or criticized any of the ideas I listed above? But that’s America today, ranters and their enablers against the rest of us.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 20, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Texas Economic Model

The economy of the state of Texas should serve as a model for the rest of the United States. At least that’s what Rick Perry says. On his campaign website, Perry claims that he “has helped build the nation’s strongest economy”; in another place, he says Texas has “the nation’s top economy”. So let’s see what he would like the rest of the US to look like.

Perry has been trumpeting one of the notable features of the Texas economy: the large number of new jobs in the state since 2009. In a stagnant national economy struggling to emerge from a disastrous near-depression, the growth in jobs in Texas is significant. Rick Perry will cite this growth thousands of times, until he is defeated or elected President.

Perry wants us to know some other facts about his long record as Texas Governor. His website is proud of his economic policies: “Texans enjoy one of the lowest tax burdens in the country and one of the lowest government debt burdens per capita”; he “cut taxes on small businesses and delivered a historic property tax cut”; he “protected the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which currently has $6 billion set aside for future needs”.

Here are some things that Perry never speaks about. Texas has the second highest poverty rate among the 50 states, behind only Mississippi. It has the second highest percentage of population without a high school diploma. Texas leads the nation in the percentage of people with no health insurance, over one quarter. It is tied with Mississippi for having the biggest percentage of workers paid at or below the minimum wage.

These facts are just as significant a part of the Texas economic model as the growth of jobs. Low taxes and low social services mean high poverty and poor education. As Governor, here is what Perry has done to deal with these problems. To maintain a balanced budget during the recession, the state just cut $4 billion from K-to-12 public education, about 6% per district. Although unemployment has risen and remained high in Texas, as across the country, Perry refused to accept $555 million in stimulus money for unemployment insurance. Perry has protected his Rainy Day Fund by not using it to help the millions of impoverished Texans.

But this is not an article about Rick Perry. The policies and attitudes I have described in Texas are no invention of his. They are the staple ideas of conservatives around the country: governors in Wisconsin and New Jersey; think tanks in Washington and New York and all over virtual space; Tea Party organizations of American citizens and of billionaires and political operatives; fundamentalist religious organizations; people in every town and city in America. The Republican Party has made these ideas its official creed, and it subjects anyone who thinks differently to withering criticism, even though Republicans themselves have promoted very different ideas in the recent past, often the same Republicans.

None of these conservative talkers mentions the poverty rate in Texas, or anywhere else. It’s embarrassing. If the great state of Texas has so much poverty, with all of the natural and political advantages that its boosters constantly boost, and poverty there has increased since 2000 just as fast as in the rest of the US, then what are we to make of the Texas economic model?

Republicans don’t mention poverty, because they don’t plan to do anything about it. The millions of poor Americans are invisible to Republican politicians. They pretend that trickle-down economics will reach the poor, but it hasn’t and won’t. During the economic disaster of recent years, Republicans have voted against extending unemployment benefits, have demanded cuts in food stamp programs and Head Start, and have ganged up to criticize the first attempt to offer health insurance to all Americans.

For conservatives, poverty is not our collective social problem. It is the individual problem of the poor themselves. They have bad habits and insufficient motivation. They have become willing dependents on welfare programs. They are not really poor, according to the Heritage Foundation, because some of them have TV sets. They don’t count anyway, because they tend not to vote and are disproportionately minorities.

If you try to talk about poverty or inequality, conservatives bring out their litany of curse words: promoter of class warfare, bleeding heart, socialist. Here’s a phrase I wish was in their political vocabulary: social conscience.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 13, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Do Republican Politicians Believe?

Now that the Republican Presidential field is being narrowed, and the remaining candidates will debate tomorrow, it is important for us to understand what they believe.

Rick Perry laid out his ideas in his 2010 book, “Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington”. Here is what he says about our climate. Global warming is “one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight”. The world’s scientists are promoting a “hysteria of global warming”. In fact, “we have been experiencing a cooling trend”. Perry sticks to these claims. In New Hampshire in August, he claimed, “I think we're seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists that are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

In Fed Up, Perry offered his belief that Social Security is unconstitutional, created “at the expense of respect for the constitution and limited government.” Since then he made headlines in August by saying that Social Security is a “monstrous lie”, “a Ponzi scheme”, and reiterated that it is unconstitutional in an interview with Daily Beast’s Andrew Romano.

Perhaps less well known, now that he puts himself forward as a President for all Americans, is Perry’s comment in 2006, after a sermon attended by dozens of political candidates, that he agreed with the minister, John Hagee, that non-Christians will be condemned to hell.

Michelle Bachmann used similarly strong language on climate in 2008: “The big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It's all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.” Like Perry, Bachmann does not believe in evolution and promotes the teaching of creationism in public schools. When asked, however, on a radio call-in show in 2003 about evolution, she displayed remarkable ignorance about the science that she dismisses, thinking it is the same as “spontaneous generation”.

Bachmann’s comment in Sarasota last week about recent natural disasters has been widely reported: “I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?'” God, like the Republicans, was demanding spending cuts.

Her belief that God would throw a calamity at America to promote conservative causes echoes what John Hagee said in September 2006: “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans. New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God,” because “there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.”

I think these comments by leading Republican candidates are significant windows into their core beliefs. Perry has had plenty of time to consider the positions he took in his book, about which he says, “I haven't backed off anything in my book.” Bachmann has been consistent in her comments about science. Both Perry and Bachmann are completely wrong about climate and climate scientists. There is no cooling trend: the 2010 report on global climate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that the 1980s were the warmest decade since measurements began, but then were topped by the 1990s, which are now topped by far by the 2000s. Scientists who were skeptical about global warming have been moving the other way as evidence has piled up.

Bachmann’s use of the word “hoax” tells us how she will treat overwhelming scientific evidence that she doesn’t like. Perry’s description of Social Security as an economic hoax, a fraudulent Ponzi scheme intended to cheat the American people, as Bernard Madoff did, provides insight into how he might deal with the necessary discussion of how to insure Social Security’s solvency in the future.

Perry’s and Bachmann’s links to John Hagee, their agreement with his beliefs about Christians and non-Christians, show what it might mean to bring their versions of fundamentalist religion into the White House.

I have focused this essay on some Republican politicians. I believe that Republican voters might well not share these ideas or approaches. Most Americans believe that the main issue facing the country is jobs. Republican Governor of Florida Rick Scott said last month, “Whoever has the plan for jobs is going to win.” Displaying scientific illiteracy or telling disaster victims that their suffering is God’s punishment won’t create one new job. Scaring Americans about Social Security, the most successful social program in American history, won’t improve economic confidence. The fundamental beliefs of Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry make them unsuitable leaders for our country.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 6, 2011