Monday, May 09, 2005

Putting the "Oh" in Oligarchy
It's fashionable among activists on the left to disparage The New Republic in terms almost as strong as those used to castigate the Democratic Leadership Council. AIS readers know that I have somewhat mixed feelings about the DLC; two of their blogs are linked at left, and I often read their e-mail updates and articles from Blueprint magazine, while at the same time I'd cross the street to spit in Al From's ugly mug. The crux of it is that the obnoxious personalities of the organization's principals doesn't, to me, overshadow the value of the work they do.

TNR suffers from a variant of the same problem, but its richer history, and the dilution of personalities by dint of its format, makes it perhaps more palatable. Yes, you sometimes have to put up with Martin Peretz and his Democrat-bashing and inane Israelophilia (though his son did a fine job playing bass for the Lemonheads), and they have that one neo-con guy who's really obnoxious and borderline unreadable. But they also have a bunch of really smart, ideologically heterodox writers who bring a level of analytical insight otherwise rarely seen outside the Washington Monthly, which not surprisingly seems to have an ongoing staff rotation with TNR. One of the best of the bunch is Jonathan Chait, and his most recent article should be gathering a lot more attention than it seems to have drawn. Chait takes the key step of extrapolating the travails of House Republican kingpin Tom DeLay, and his uber-lobbyist buddy Jack Abramoff, into the larger government culture in which both have thrived, and makes a crucial connection to the fiscal profligacy that has characterized the administration:

The failure of intellectuals on the right to adequately define big-government conservatism reflects their failure to grasp the ways that DeLay and Abramoff became central to the conservative movement in Washington. To define big-government conservatism as a form of pragmatism or as the promotion of virtue is to miss its fundamentally corrupt nature. In truth, the most accurate definition--that is, the definition that explains the broadest scope of Bush's big-government initiatives--is far less edifying: Biggovernment conservatism consists of initiatives that benefit economic elites without using free-market mechanisms. 
Begin with the Medicare bill, Bush's largest social spending initiative by far. It's true that Bush probably embraced the notion of adding prescription-drug coverage because opposition had grown untenable. But the distinctive characteristic of Bush's bill is its staggering array of handouts to private interests. The goodies included a $71 billion subsidy for corporate health care plans, $46 billion for Medicare HMOs, $25 billion for hospital chains, and more than $100 billion for pharmaceutical companies, not including a lucrative provision forbidding the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices. Just about all of Bush's big-government conservative agenda works the same way. Whereas Clinton signed a law phasing out federal crop payments, Bush lavished $180 billion in subsidies for agribusiness. His energy plan, roundly condemned by free-market economists, would have done the same for the energy industry, which, after all, wrote much of it. Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, had he been more committed to their funding, could have turned thousands of charities into federal clients. 

Bush's expansion of government is not limited to higher spending. At various points, he has imposed protective trade barriers on imports of textiles, steel, lumber, shrimp, and other goods. And he has been particularly shameless in creating narrowly targeted tax breaks of the sort that increase, rather than diminish, Washington's role in the economy. Last fall, Bush signed a little-noticed corporate tax bill that, rather than cut rates across the board, showered benefits on bow-and-arrow manufacturers, foreign dog-race gamblers, ceiling-fan importers, and other dubious beneficiaries whose only claim to preferential treatment lay in their ability to lobby for it. 

It's all right there: the unfettered corporatism, the hand-in-glove coordination between business lobbies and governing majorities, the total lack of distinction between the public interest and the "special interest". (Chait's final graf, on this point, is a beaut.) The frustration for progressives, to whom little of this will come as news, is that the argument of "government by lobbyist" has largely fallen on deaf ears among the electorate; the porcine abundance in the corporate tax bill just isn't as newsworthy, it seems, as gay marriage or whatever bug is in Rev. SpongeDob's ear this week.

But isn't this a moral question as well? Government isn't here to enrich Jack Abramoff, or the pharmaceutical firms, or the members of the NAM, anymore than it is to enshrine Tom DeLay on a figurative (or literal) throne. Progressives need to keep pushing a broader conception of the common good, and to call their adversaries on the hypocrisy of their claims to morally prescribe for all, while corporally legislating for a chosen few.

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