Thursday, April 7, 2011

non-rhetorical questions and out of control abstraction

One thing that I hope the Ryan budget opens up a dialogue about is my old formulation of the fundamental liberal question: what comes next? In other words, let's say the Ryan budget were to pass. What would it mean, concretely, in terms of programs cut is an interesting and important question. But the really important question is, what then? And the difficulty is that when asked specifically, this question is either taken as rhetorical (and frequently as emotional or unfair), or is answered with a great deal of abstraction.

Here's what I mean. Consider cutting SNAP benefits. Cutting SNAP benefits leads to more hungry children. Yet pointing out that consequence is consistently regarded as a blood libel, or crossing the line, or not engaging in substantive! respectful! debate! This is why I talk so much about the tyranny of social relationships in political commentary. It's considered out of bounds to say things like "your proposal leads to hungry kids," but cutting SNAP benefits leads to hungry kids. It just does. The thing is that when you're stamping around talking about the unfairness of the question, you aren't answering it.

The other alternative to treating such a question as rhetorical and insulting is to wax abstract. "Ah, well, getting our financial house in order means shared sacrifice...." And their eyes sort of roll back and they are lost in the world of abstraction. But hungry kids are strikingly non-theoretical. Just like, for example, homeless senior citizens or seniors who can't afford medical care without which they will die are strikingly non-theoretical. So, what will we do about them in the future? Let's complete remove any moral considerations here. Let's not even consider what these people deserve and what we think they should get. Let's just get to practical concerns. Look, letting Grandma live in the alley is an option. That could happen. Just like hundreds of thousands of kids not getting nearly the nutrition they need is an option. I'm just asking if we're cool with it. When you have the dorm room conversation with the Randian about whether we should literally let people die in the street, you've got to insist on the practical problems (do we just let the corpses pile up? do we pay teenagers to push around a cart?) as well as the moral problems.

Think that this isn't a realistic line of questioning, talking about hungry kids and homeless seniors and unemployed people turning to crime? Peep these numbers and really think about it. Forgive the large block quote here-- this is from the CBO's letter on the Ryan plan:
The path for all other federal spending excluding interest—that is, for discretionary spending and mandatory spending apart from that for Social Security and the major mandatory health care programs—was specified by Chairman Ryan’s staff. The remaining part of mandatory spending includes such programs as federal civilian and military retirement, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unemployment compensation, Supplemental Security Income, the refundable portion of the earned income and child tax credits, and most veterans’ programs. Discretionary spending includes both defense spending and nondefense spending—in roughly equal amounts currently. That combination of other mandatory and discretionary spending was specified to decline from 12 percent of GDP in 2010 to about 6 percent in 2021 and then move in line with the GDP price deflator beginning in 2022, which would generate a further decline relative to GDP. No proposals were specified that would generate that path.
Think about that for a little bit. All non-Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid spending reducing at that rate in that amount of time. These aren't deep cuts. These aren't harsh cuts. These are transformative cuts. And they will have consequences that are going to be, frankly, crazy. (I'm really going to enjoy watching the Republicans cut military pensions. Should be a winner.)

But abstraction will survive. The pundits, journalist, politicos, bloggers, and so on who advocate these cuts aren't the people who will live with the consequences. It's one of the most persistent and most vexing problems with our democracy: both the politicians in our country and the people who report and comment on them live in an entirely different economic station from the average American. David Brooks will never go to some poor hungry child's home and look the kid in the eye and praise Paul Ryan's toughness. He's not going to be forced to live with the day in, day out consequences of cutting unemployment benefits for millions of people. Nobody's going to be calling him, begging him to watch their kids for a couple hours because they can't afford day care anymore. Meanwhile, he and others like him will live in the world of abstraction, where the pleasant lies of metaphor shield them from a cruelly literal world.


Josh said...

Nailed it with that last paragraph. Thank you.

Miriam said...

I wish the problem was restricted to elite Ivy Leaguers who have never had any financial struggles, but I fear it isn't. When I talk to self-styled libertarians, including people who have needed help from the government themselves (most have been in the military and/or attended public schools and universities), they still insist that some magical formula consisting of free market fairy dust and Christian charity will kick in to help the poor when food stamps and public education disappear. Or even worse, they really don't care what happens to the poor, because the poor in their worldview are lazy drug addicts, mostly of the wrong color. Their single mother cousin who gets SS benefits for her disabled child somehow doesn't count. Sadly, even if David Brooks crawled back into his cushy University of Chicago hole, the white cracker terror that some undeserving welfare queen might benefit from his tax dollars won't go away.

RJBenfatto said...

I would posit that we must first decide where we stand with what the Red Priest - Jacques Roux - said to the French Convention in 1793:

"Freedom is nothing but a vain phantom when one class of men can starve another with impunity. Equality is nothing but a vain phantom when the rich, through monopoly, exercise the right of life or death over their like. The republic is nothing but a vain phantom when the counter-revolution can operate every day through the price of commodities, which three quarters of all citizens cannot afford without shedding tears."

So - where do we stand?

jim filyaw said...

it isn't just the commentariat which seems hopelessly enamored of abstractions. the m.s.m. is pitiful. they take people like ryan at their word, never asking the hard questions. i remember when i was growing up in the 50s and 60s, when commentators like cronkite, severeid, shorr, and murrow were the prominent reporters. these guys weren't afraid to ask tough questions. that habit engendered the hatred of people like joe mccarthy and birthed a permanent conviction in the right wing that they were "liberal." maybe. but maybe it was because these guys had really lived life, through the depression, the war, and the mccarthy infamy. those guys didn't see people, especially little people as abstractions. and they were too damned tough to swallow b.s., be it right or left wing.

aboulian said...

Conservatives believe in the natural justice of the prevailing order, and in the virtue of the transiently strong, as items of ideology. Conservatives, as an item of ideology, believe too in the profit motive as the best and soundest engine of human effort. But there need be no explanation for this grander than that they are bad people. They become pernicious when, acting as though it were true because they depend on its so being and need that, they inflict their ideology on a world whose calm intractability confounds it.

Southern Beale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Southern Beale said...

Sorry. Must fix typos.

what comes next?

I and every other sensible person who believes the government has a functioning role in society moves to Canada or Norway. That's what comes next.

I mean seriously, what else is there to say? You look at this craziness and "serious" people like Andrew Sullivan go on Bill Maher to laud Ryan as the only one with the cojones to tackle the debt and you're like ... WTF?

We always have money for war. We never have money for sick kids or single mothers or old or disabled people. This is a tremendous failing of our democracy, an indictment of our society. And if that's the way it's gonna be ... see ya.

Platosearwax said...

I and every other sensible person who believes the government has a functioning role in society moves to Canada or Norway.

As an American who has lived in Norway for the last 12 years, I couldn't help but comment.

A couple of years ago we considered moving the family back to the States. What has happened over the last few years though has turned that into the worlds most terrible idea. Gone would be job security, health care, retirement. All of which are guaranteed here.

I get really worked up about all the craziness that is going on over there and I am slowly coming to the conclusion that, apart from caring about the welfare of my family and friends there, I should stop investing so much of my time and worry into it. I should just give thanks that I live in a sane country and get on with enjoying that.

Buck said...

"I’m really going to enjoy watching the Republicans cut military pensions. Should be a winner."

They aren't going to cut military pensions. They will get Democrats to do it for them and Democrats will, in the name of bi-partisanship, cut their own throats again and wonder why they lose elections.

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Really interesting and thought-provoking piece. I have asked some of my right-leaning friends to read it and get their reactions.

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