The Centrists Still Just Don’t Get It

Beijing

Construction in Beijing

Thomas Friedman has my empathy, as in I feel for you bro. I think he really is alarmed. He just got back from Beijing and while there he wrote back, “China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say ‘moon shots’ I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports; another is building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience, where the Beijing Genomics Institute this year ordered 128 DNA sequencers – from America – giving China the largest number in the world in one institute to launch its own stem cell/genetic engineering industry; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities. In essence, China Inc. just named its dream team of 16-state-owned enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.

“Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.’

Once back stateside Friedman surveyed the political scene and concluded that our “real problem” is that the country is “in a state of incremental decline and losing its competitive edge, because our politics has become just another form of sports entertainment, our Congress a forum for legalized bribery and our main lawmaking institutions divided by toxic partisanship to the point of paralysis.” Wow.

Freidman got really carried away this past Sunday, writing that a comparison between the country’s present situation and the fall of Rome “sends a shiver down my spine.”

The New York Times columnist thus joins a growing list of pundits, across the political spectrum who sound, Jeremiah-like, describing our times in apocalyptic terms. His criticism is not that of someone on the far left decrying the workings of the system. Rather, they are those of one who constantly reminds us that he is proud to be a “centrist.” It puts him right up there with one of the other proud proponent of conservative centrism, Times columnist David Brooks who sees the new cold war as one between authoritarian “state capitalism” and “democratic capitalism” and who says that of late “democratic regimes” have demonstrated “a tendency to make unaffordable promises to the elderly and other politically powerful groups; a tendency toward polarization, which immobilizes governments even in the face of devastating problems.”

That thing about “promises to the elderly” is big with these people. To get him out of the political cul-de-sac in which he has maneuvered himself, Friedman has gone from a “flat earth” to an alternative universe, one in which there are really two tea parties, the one we see on TV every day and a mythical “real tea party.” The latter, he says, want us to “actually raise some taxes — on, say, gasoline — and cut others — like payroll taxes and corporate taxes. It would require us to overhaul our immigration laws so we can better control our borders, let in more knowledge workers and retain those skilled foreigners going to college here. And it would require us to reduce some services — like Social Security — while expanding others, like education and research for a 21st-century economy.”

I’m sure I don’t need to ask who pays gasoline taxes and who pays payroll and corporate taxes and who benefits from Social Security. The class bias here is all-too obvious.

Similar prescriptions are being written out by responsible conservatives (that’s as opposed to one s that drew up the GOP’s “Pledge to America”). Times Economic writer David Leonhardt says that there really is a “truly conservative” approach to the federal deficit problem. It goes:

“The brief version might sound something like this: The federal government has outgrown its ability to pay for itself. Our economic future and even our national security depend on solving the problem. Yet President Obama has expanded health insurance, increased education spending and escalated a war of choice. Elect us, and fiscal responsibility won’t have to wait in line.

“The detailed plan would start in the same place that Republican campaign rhetoric does, with rooting out waste and bloat. Some tasks, like mail delivery and air traffic control, could be privatized. The federal work force could be reduced, and pay for federal workers could be cut. Federal aid to states could be cut, too.”

So much for Friedman’s proposal to increase education funding.

I’m sure I don’t need to ask who loses out when the Post Office and air traffic control towers are privatized and who will bear the pain when government workers lose their jobs and Washington retains more of our tax money to pay for things like agricultural subsidies and foreign wars. Class bias? What class bias?

So Friedman’s conjured up a mythical “Tea Kettle Party” to counter the really existing Tea Party movement and last week Brooks came forward with the “austerity brigades.” To illustrate his point he described his recent visit to California and his interview with billionaire Silicon Valley gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. (“Television doesn’t quite capture how physically imposing she can be, and how locomotivelike she is when focused and resolved.”) Boy did she pull the wool over his eyes. He waxed on about her humble “New England-style colonial” with its “traditional furniture” and “a middle-age Ford in the garage.”

Evidently she didn’t tell him she owns more than one mansion – one worth $2.3 million – and more than one garage. But all that was just to set the stage for asserting “Whitman is representative of an emerging Republican type — what you might call the austerity caucus. Flamboyant performers like Sarah Palin get all the attention, but the governing soul of the party is to be found in statehouses where a loose confederation of uber-wonks have become militant budget balancers. Just as welfare reformers of the 1990s presaged compassionate conservatism, so the austerity brigades presage the national party’s next chapter.”

Gov. Chris Christie is “the Hot New Thing’ in the in “austerity brigades,” writes Brooks, as he “not only has ideas to cut deficits but he’s found a political strategy to enact them, even with a Democratic Legislature.”

One of the keys to cutting budgets, Brooks quotes Christie as saying, is that “almost nothing can be sacrosanct.” “Inheriting an $11 billion deficit, he spread cuts across every agency,” he wrote. “He even had to cut education spending by $820 million but said any individual district could avoid cuts if the teachers there would be willing to chip in 1.5 percent of their salaries to help pay for health benefits (few districts took advantage of this).” Brooks can with straight face praise someone for cutting back on education in – of all places – New Jersey. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg just gave a $100 million of his own money to help the beleaguered Newark school system. When Christie appeared with the 26 year old entrepreneur and Newark Mayor Cory Booker to announce the gift, the New York Times said it promised to be ” a rare happy moment in a state troubled by budget crises, scandals, political infighting and, most recently, the loss of a $400 million federal education grant because of a clerical error.”

Well, it seems Whitman has lured Christie into California to boost her increasingly troubled campaign. Brooks says Whitman told him it was because “he offers a roadmap of where she’d like to go.” (California Parents, students and teachers beware.) We already have some idea where she wants to go. She’s practically declared war on the state labor unions. Whitman, who set quite a record for outsourcing jobs while she was CEO at eBay, has proposed cutting 40,000 state workers from the payroll, including employees of the University of California system, and is in league with those who want to reduce retirement benefits for public workers.

I guess the message is obvious. The cadre of the “real tea party,” the Tea Kettle party, the truly conservatives and the austerity brigades have one thing in common: if they come to power life will become a lot harder to pubic workers, students, the elderly and who lot of others. Class bias speaks loud.

“The important Tea Party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats, understands this at a gut level and is looking for a leader with three characteristics,” writes Friedman. “First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger — to make America successful, thriving and respected again. And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are — a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.” Lord help us.

A week after he wrote those words, Friedman got serious religion. A new “third party” is in the making, he asserted; he knows of two organizing efforts underway – one on the East coast and the other in the West and there will probably be “a serious third party candidate in 2012.” This appears to be the main conclusion he reached after spending a week in Silicon Valley, “talking with technologists from Apple, Twitter, LinkedIn, Intel, Cisco and SRI.” I guess that’s the social base of the Tea Kettle party.

“There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center,” says Friedman. Why is it that when I repeat those last two words people laugh?

The unfortunate irony here is that in their clinging to and wishing to redefine conservatism, people like Friedman and Brooks always end up leaning right. Their urge to protect the privileged like themselves puts them forever at odds with the political forces that really do support the some of the goals to which they insist they subscribe. On the other hand, Whitman opposes an already voter-approved plan to build a high speech rail system in the state on the grounds that we can’t afford it. On Monday the Times reported that the Obama Administration’s plan to build high speed rail links could be brought to a halt because of opposition from a handful of republican gubernatorial candidates.

The candidate Leonhardt chooses to quote a lot, the “truly conservative” Ron Rand Paul of Kentucky opposes energy legislation which he says will hurt the coal industry.

A reformed and adequately financed 21st Century educational system, the rebuilding and expansion of the nation’s physical infrastructure, advanced training for a skilled workforce and the accelerated development of clean, renewable energy sources; these goals find their greatest support on the left side of the aisle, But in a land marked by increasing economic inequality you can’t achieve these things by increasing the gap. That just leads to trouble.

Carl Bloice

Repubished with permission from The Blackcommentator

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