Progressivism and a Tea Party Approach to State Government

governor rick scott

Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, is demonstrating why most of us who consider ourselves progressives dislike the politics of Tea-Party-backed candidates. For many of us, compassion and empathy are central political values, and Scott’s first budget proposal, unveiled on February 7th, reflects little of either value.

According to The Miami Herald, the budget would eliminate

  • Florida’s Office of Homelessness, which assisted more than 74,000 people last year;
  • a suicide prevention program in public schools;
  • a program encouraging the state to deal with minority businesses; and
  • the Coastal Clean-up Trust Fund, which taxed various pollutants.

His budget would also transfer funding previously designated for indigent criminal defense and for dealing with domestic violence and rape into general revenue coffers. In addition, it would slash public school spending, almost certainly bringing about cuts in art, music, and extracurricular funding. It would also abolish almost 17,000 Department of Corrections jobs, shift up to 15,000 prisoners to private prisons (“prisons for profit”), and increase the workload of probation officers. In dealing with rising medical costs, Scott has proposed taking a similar approach by seeking a federal waiver to transfer state Medicaid recipients into private (for profit) managed-care programs. And all this is just a partial list.

None of this should come as a surprise considering Scott’s background and campaign promises. He became one of the country’s most influential businessmen by early 1997, when the company he ran, Columbia/HCA, became the world’s largest health care provider by controlling more than one thousand hospitals, surgery centers, and home health agencies employing almost 300,000 people. Although critics charged the company with “putting profits before patients,” Business Week magazine included it as one of the U. S. top companies.

Later in 1997, however, his company’s board of directors forced him to resign as CEO after federal agents raided company offices in seven states.  He left the company with a settlement package worth almost $10 million, plus company stock worth much more. And he remained in the healthcare business as a venture capitalist, owning or investing in health care clinics and pharmacies. As a multimillionaire he invested heavily in his own campaign in 2008, which outspent that of his Democratic rival by more than 2 to 1.

In 2003, a U. S. Department of Justice web site summed up the results of the government’s protracted legal actions against Columbia/HCA under Scott. “The government will have recovered $1.7 billion from HCA [previously Columbia/HCA], by far the largest recovery ever reached by the government in a health care fraud investigation.” One assistant Attorney General noted: “Health care providers and professionals hold a public trust, and when that trust is violated by fraud and abuse of program funds, and by the payment of kickbacks to the physicians on whom patients and the programs rely for uncompromised medical judgment, health care for all Americans suffers.”

Weeks before he was elected Florida governor one of the state’s newspapers opined that “he intends to replicate his Columbia/HCA cost-cutting strategies in state government, advocating deep cuts in spending on prisons and health care to pay for deep cuts in property taxes and the elimination of the corporate income tax. Scott’s agenda led the Republican chairman of a state Senate budget committee to note that Scott doesn’t understand the importance of funding ‘critical needs’ like health care for the poor and for nursing-home patients.” The budget Scott submitted on February 7, 2011 reinforced the newspaper’s predictions.

Recognizing all of the above does not mean we should ignore state budgetary problems, inefficiencies, and waste or that “big government” solutions are always the best. The principal of subsidiarity—that a central authority should only perform those functions that cannot better be performed more locally —is a good one. But, as I pointed out in an earlier article, even New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks praised the Democratic Party for its “basic concern for the vulnerable,” and noted that it “protected the unemployed starting with the New Deal, then the old, then the poor. Now, thanks to [Obama’s] health care reform, millions of working families will go to bed at night knowing that they are not an illness away from financial ruin.”

As might be expected Scott has been a determined and leading opponent of what some have labeled Obamacare. A Salon.com essay in late 2009 speculated that “Scott’s virulent opposition to Democratic healthcare proposals may simply be a business decision. The post-millennial incarnation of Rick Scott has plunged into several new healthcare businesses that could be adversely affected by reform.”

In general, Scott’s political orientation has been consistent with the laissez faire approach that U.S. progressives have fought against for over a century. That approach has been hostile to almost any government regulation of business or private property, especially any that would curtail employers’ rights.

Like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher before him, as well as many Tea Party activists, Scott wants to dismantle many government programs and “privatize” them. This desire is defended by the belief that big government is inefficient and wasteful and that the private enterprise, profit-driven, approach is the most efficient model for dealing with most social problems. Like Reagan, Scott also wishes to reduce taxes, and in a way that would benefit primarily corporations and the more affluent. For those who are poorer, a version of Reagan’s old trickle-down economics is offered. 

A Miami Herald analysis broke down the $4.1 billion in tax and fee relief Scott’s budget proposal promises over two years. The analysis concluded that “two of the three biggest tax cuts—the reduction of the corporate income tax and the changes to the unemployment compensation tax—apply only to corporations. . . . Supporters of the cuts argue that the benefits could trickle down to average Floridians through additional jobs or cheaper prices for goods and services. But there’s no guarantee either will happen”—in the last several years we have clearly seen once again that corporate profits don’t necessarily trickle down to average households. Aside from the corporate tax breaks, the newspaper’s analysis calculates that the average Florida household would see its taxes reduced by only $267 over two years.

Throughout the twentieth century U. S progressives have realized that capitalism, whatever its economic merits, did not provide a political philosophy. Conservative economist Milton Friedman once wrote that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” (He also wished to abolish the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), believing that it was in the self-interest of pharmaceutical and other companies to oversee themselves adequately, and he also favored eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Labor.)

But the belief that people should be able to earn profits in a market system, that the availability of an ever expanding number of goods and services was good, and that capitalism was the best means to insure this end was not in itself a comprehensive social philosophy. Capitalism itself provided no adequate answers for how to deal with such problems as unsafe working conditions, unfair business practices, pollution, public health, slum housing, or the abuse of child labor, and it left unaddressed the problem of the distribution of income and poverty. Progressivism has at least addressed these problems, which only a rational, pragmatic, open-minded, compassionate, and empathetic approach can meaningfully hope to ameliorate.

During the past years I have done considerable research on wisdom and wise people and concluded that compassion and empathy are two important wisdom values. Having recently completed reading the book Practical Wisdom, I agree with its authors who contend that in considering the relationships between HMOs, insurance companies, the government, doctors, and patients the welfare of the patients, not profits, should take first place. They contrast the Mayo Clinic, where patient welfare is strongly emphasized and costs are reasonable, with medical care in McAllen, Texas, where doctors emphasized profits more, and where in 2006 the cost of Medicare spending per patient (according to a New Yorker essay) was almost twice the national average.

The authors also furnish two quotes that seem appropriate here. The first is applicable to all those who consider themselves professionals, whether doctors, lawyers, teachers, or others and comes from a former dean of Harvard Law School:

“The term [profession] refers to a group . . . pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service—no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood. Pursuit of the learned art in the spirit of a public service is the primary purpose.”

walter mossThe second quote is from a portion of what Barack Obama said at a press conference not long before his inauguration:

“Everybody from CEOs to shareholders to investors are going to have to be asking themselves, not only is this profitable . . . but is it right? Does it conform to some higher standards, in terms of how we operate?”

Although Obama was speaking of financial reform, his sentiment is applicable to government policies in general regardless of whether on the local, state or federal level.

Walter G. Moss

Published by the LA Progressive on February 14, 2011
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm