Thursday, June 26, 2014

Teatopia, my eye

Reihan Salam has a dream.

When I read Reihan Salam's "Teatopia" essay last week, I assumed the blogosphere would be drawn to it like wolves to a lame caribou, eager to rip it apart and spray its blood across the tundra. For some reason, though, with the exception of Salon, the wolves have stayed away. (Perhaps they're World Cup fans.) It's a shame, because the piece deserves merciless drubbing. It also raises the question: Has Salam ever met a real Tea Partier?

For starters, Salam asserts that the Tea Party's principal tenet - the thing that gets Tea Partiers out of bed in the morning, the hill they're prepared to die on - isn't the notion that we are Taxed Enough Already, even though that's what "Tea" stands for. Rather, it's something called "subsidiarity":
Deep divisions notwithstanding, there are a number of principles that unite the movement. The most important of them is a devotion to subsidiarity, which holds that power should rest as close to ordinary people as possible. In practice, this leads Tea Party conservatives to favor voluntary cooperation among free individuals over local government, local government over state government, and state government over the federal government. 
Is that so? Then why is this alleged devotion to a finely nuanced view of federalism indistinguishable from a rabid and indiscriminate hatred of government at all levels? Seriously, have you ever met a true believer who said, "Why, yes, that's a fine government program. It just needs to be handled at a more grass-roots level"?! One who was any happier paying his property taxes than his payroll taxes? These are people who seriously doubt whether education and roads should be core government services. Or for that matter, public safety: I heard a guy ask our mayor awhile back why he didn't privatize the police.

Salam goes on:
Teatopia would in some respects look much like our own America, only the contrasts would be heightened. California and New York, with their dense populations and liberal electorates, would have even bigger state governments that provide universal pre-K, a public option for health insurance, and generous funding for mass transit. They might even have their own immigration policies, which would be more welcoming toward immigrants than the policies the country as a whole would accept. 
Again, Salam asserts a level of moderation and reasonableness that is nowhere evident among the movement faithful. Once you're committed to the Tea Party view of government, it doesn't matter where that government is, or whether your fellow citizens endorse it and would like more of it. Tea Partiers in Texas and Arizona aren't about to go all laissez faire when it comes to the socialist cesspools of California and New York. A subsidized expansion of health insurance anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere.

According to Salam, schools and roads would be defunded only in Teatopia's "more conservative states." Nonsense: They'd be defunded anywhere the movement could manage it. To repeat: Nowhere outside Reihan Salam's head does the Tea Party's proclaim, "Let's strike the right balance locally." Always and everywhere, it's "Stop taking my damn money, you lazy bums."

Let's continue:
To get to Teatopia, we’d have to revisit the fact that almost all states are subject to balanced budget requirements, which are a big part of why state governments have lost ground to the federal government over the years, particularly during recessions.
We'd also have to revisit the Civil War, the outcome of which is a suspiciously sore point for many in the movement. 

And that bit about "revisiting" balanced budget requirements? That's Salam's euphemistic way of admitting that countercyclical fiscal policy, also known as deficit spending, can really come in handy in fighting recessions. You remember how supportive Tea Party types were of the stimulus, right? Having your own fiat currency helps, too. I thought Tea Partiers were mostly hard-money, goldbug types, but for Salam, those folks who chanted "End the Fed" actually meant, "Let Rhode Island set its own exchange rate."

On military policy, Salam enthusiastically endorses two Cato Institute scholars' proposal to have the government prefund veterans' benefits through outside contracts:
Military personnel would be given enough additional pay to purchase benefits at actuarially fair rates from private insurers. If war is looming, it is a safe bet that private insurers would jack up their rates to account for the fact that service members would face an elevated risk of death and dismemberment. Suddenly the federal government would have to pay for its war-waging ways even before the first shot is fired. 
And this program would work exactly as planned, according to the guy proclaiming his deep distrust of government. C'mon, Salam, we just fought two wars largely off the books, funded through supplemental appropriations; you really think Washington couldn't fudge a few insurance policies? 

The insurance industry would help with the fudging. In the real world, unless you're very careful, you don't get market prices when the private sector bids on a military contract; you get $400 toilet seats and $400 billion airplanes that catch on fire when they try to take off. The government didn't get fair rates when it ran its student loan program through private lenders; it got a bunch of unnecessary middlemen skimming themselves a generous cut of the take.

 It's also worth noting that Salam is making a very cynical and morally icky argument: He's basically saying voters will notice (and and get angry about) deficits and/or higher taxes faster than they'll notice (and get angry about) dead soldiers, aka the blood of their children and fellow citizens. 

Salam passes over in silence the Tea Party's cultural sensibilities, its white Christian chauvinism; indeed, he conspicuously cherry-picks his examples to appeal to liberals. ("See, with the Tea Party you'd have less war, and more pre-K, at least in certain limited jurisdictions. You guys like that stuff!") Overall, "Teatopia" is remarkably disingenuous. Or, in plain English, it's a bait-and-switch.

At the end, Salam makes some sense, when he says the Tea Party is a real political movement, not a passing fad. That it is, to be sure. Which makes this off-hand comment worth of notice: 
We’re talking about the Tea Party’s long-term vision, whether or not it’s particularly realistic.
Well, what if it isn't particularly realistic? What if at root the Tea Party is, say, a fundamentally reactionary crusade fueled by an aggressively revisionist reading of America's political heritage, transmuting legitimate anger at the cronyism of big business and big government into seething rage at anything more communitarian than a bill of sale? If so, then it's exceedingly important to the country's civic health that it be portrayed realistically, understood realistically, and therefore, that apologias like "Teatopia" be recognized for the humbug they are.  

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