Monday, October 28, 2013

Christianity vs. Capitalism: A Critique of "Economic Movers," Poverty, and Intelligent Opinion

        There is a very old and venerable religion that enjoys considerable currency amongst the nation’s elite. It is the theology of the “economic mover,” the benevolent despot whose unsurpassed wisdom in economic affairs keeps the world spinning on its axis. If it were not for a pantheon of such gray-eyed men – and the odd woman or two – the international economy would cease to exist as we know it: markets would crash, stocks would plummet, and the human-race would be sent back into the Dark Ages. Like Atlas, these stern but publicly-minded demigods are the shoulders upon which modern life rests. With knowing forbearance they sort out the messes made by the rude, innumerate masses; the velocity of money can be divined with their crystal balls; inflation is kept in check through use of their mysterious spells; and excessive spending on the poor is disciplined with the iron rods of austerity and structural adjustment. Their names are embossed on public monuments, universities and buildings. “Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Stanford…” they are names that inspire awe as they slip off the tongue; names that are meant to be whispered, inscribed, praised, rather than simply spoken. 

        Today’s economic movers are found in the pages of Fortune 500. Rather than assuming the stiff demeanor of a Victorian banker they tend to wear the sleek, modish outfit of a tech entrepreneur, or, if more conservative, fitted suits with designer shoes. “Knight, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerman…” their names grace the pages of ‘The Wall Street Journal’; a few, such as Zuckerman and Jobs, have even gained mortality on the silver screen. 

        But the capitalist theology which they embody is ultimately a morally bankrupt one. It is a religion of dollars and cents, and a rather peculiar one at that. Instead of collecting money to help the poor, money is collected before being redistributed to the top – this being the core tenet of the capitalist creed: the accumulation of surplus value. And the forgotten masses are supposed to celebrate this state of unnatural inequality. (Though perhaps all the hoorah is part of a subconscious effort to salve their own consciences with white noise, to insulate them from the misery they are creating – like a separation wall – and buttress their delusions with evidence as artificial as the GMOs they peddle.) In a world of symbols, of dollars and cents, the “economic movers” are the symbols of modern capitalism; icons splashed across the agitprop of the corporate state; the essence of a system whose soul is thin as the paper money on which it is printed. 

        But the staying power of this propaganda should not be underestimated: after decades of increasing inequality and multiple recessions, producers of intelligent opinion still profess faith in the theology of the “economic mover”. If anything, however, the Great Recession has disproved the “economic mover” thesis in spades: the international economy was shaken not in spite of these “movers,” but because of their malfeasance and greed. Indeed, the past several years has shown that the main types of “movement” produced by these “movers” is the collapse of sweatshops (as in Bangladesh) onto workers, and the eviction of American families from their homes. And I would be remiss if not to mention the relentless “movement” of the nation’s wealth from the hands of the 99% to the tax havens, portfolios, and bank accounts of the 1%.  
        In Oregon, the theology of the economic mover is most ardently espoused by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. The Nike brand is a religion unto itself, its ubiquitous Swoosh likely enjoying more recognition than the cross in the post-Christian West. Besides being suffused with quasi-religious iconography, the company also has its own golden rule: “Just do it.” In 21st century America, this maxim translates as follows: buy, buy, buy. Thinking about what you purchase is, of course, unnecessary; it is the act itself that matters. With an “economic-mover” like Knight at the helm, the rest of society does not need to think; they just need to listen, to follow; to do as they are told. “Just do it.” Thus, with faintly Orwellian overtones, Nike sets out to capture markets, control the cheapest labor, and monopolize the industry. Its single-minded aim is victory – as its name implies – and if a few eggs are broken in the process, this is of no concern. After all, they have decided to “Just do it”. 

        What makes the case of Knight noteworthy, though, is his eagerness to play the part of the far-sighted mogul, the towering philanthropist whose uncanny insights and self-denial balm society’s ills and uplift the poor. His and his wife’s recent pledge of $500 million to cancer research – that is, if Oregonians can raise matching funds – is just one example of such staged self-sacrifice (or should we say self-adulation?). Just as with their famous shoes, the Knight’s love to advertise their philanthropy. 

        Much the same can be said about Knight’s favorite pet-project, the University of Oregon. As students face soaring tuition rates, classrooms fall apart, and teachers are sloughed off like a dead snake skin, Knight has channeled his money into what is obviously the most pressing issue at the school: building a new football operations center. The new facility boasts 64 television screens, a 45 foot ceiling and imported construction materials – and this is just the entrance. To “rid the body of waste-products,” twin 40-foot long pools were built (with variable water temperatures, of course) for the athletes; a 170-seat movie theater allows football players to engage in serious “study”; and a state-of-the-art kitchen with a chef-nutritionist caters to each player’s diet. Across the river, where actual students go to school, the campus faces $105 million in lagging maintenance costs. As Diane Dietz reports for ‘The Register-Guard,’ this sum will grow to $291 million within the next decade. 

        If one is inclined to dismiss such ostentation as an unusual lapse in Knight’s good judgment, it is worth remembering his last “contribution” to the university: the Jaqua Center, a study hall built exclusively for student athletes. The Jaqua Center – or the Taj Mahal, as it is referred to by the student majority who is forbidden from using it – has an entirely glass façade, Italian-leather sofas, and cost a cool $42 million to construct. According to ‘The Oregonian,’ this means that the building “cost about twice as much per square foot as Portland's priciest condo buildings”. Apparently student athletes were too good, delicate, or stupid for the preexisting study centers on campus. Within its first two years of operation the building already began to experience serious water damage. And there is no evidence that the building fulfills any service that is not rendered elsewhere on campus – that is, besides providing the local fowl a massive reflection pool to play in. 
        Recently, Knight has been playing the “economic mover” card with special insistence. In fact, sources claim that he was a driving force behind the creation of the newly inaugurated “independent” governing boards, semi-private school boards separate from the Oregon Board of Higher Education. Why would Knight lobby for more independent – i.e., private – influence over the University of Oregon? The answer is straightforward: he wants more control over how the university is run, instead of having to pay attention to the will of the pesky public. At present, public schools are, well, public. That means they are legally obligated to respect the wishes of Oregonians in general, rather than run by elite fiat. By adopting a governance system that is more open to private interference, however, Knight can more easily leverage his “philanthropy” in order get his policies of choice enacted – even over the will of the public. 

        This is disturbing for several reasons, not the least of which being the fact that most of the “contributions” Knight has made to the university have been motivated by thinly veiled self-interest. To Knight, the university is one big marketing scheme, a chance to immortalize his name and peddle the Nike brand. This is why every recent “contribution” has been to sports facilities – the basketball arena, football operations center, and Jaqua Center – which invariably use Nike products, and have obvious commercial value. Televised sports coverage allows the Swoosh to proselytize consumers across the country; the Swoosh has a prominent role in university publications; and through these avenues Nike corners a large chunk of the collegiate sports market. 

        Knight’s record exemplifies the tendency amongst “economic movers” to make “contributions” not on the basis of public need, but, rather, on the basis of narrow self-interest. This is one of the big flaws of the economic mover thesis. Economic movers generally fail to advocate coherent policies which help the public at large because their motives, priorities and vision are conditioned by the prejudices of their class. So while they may pour millions into pet projects, these projects are often of dubious value. The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, for instance, was famous for erecting libraries, but his libraries were often empty. His workers were forced to labor for such long stints – sometimes over 24 hours – they did not have time to read. 

        Much the same can be said of Knight. Movie theaters, Italian-leather sofas, and personal chefs are frivolous investments that do not benefit anyone except for the clique who uses them, and the interests whom they serve; that is, Knight Inc. That Knight did not foresee that such expenditures – during the Great Recession and a student debt crisis – were in very poor taste, is perhaps the strongest indicator of just how removed he is from the needs of the average student. Indeed, anyone who can convince themselves that they “deserve,” or are wise enough to handle $16.8 billion – Knight’s net worth – is either too foolish or conceited to be trusted with serious policy-making.      
        And it is worth asking how Knight came to be rolling in dough in the first place. The problem with the economic mover is the problem with capitalism: it relies on extracting more value from workers than what they are rewarded for their work. This is, in fact, what makes the principle of profit possible; if workers were fully rewarded for all the labor they put into their work then the accumulation of profit would be impossible. In practice, this has meant: one, squeezing the most labor power possible out of workers during working hours; two, deskilling work in order to make each worker easier to replace; and three, pushing wages down as low as possible by exploiting the most vulnerable labor pools (usually by “outsourcing”). 

        This is precisely how Nike managed to become a heavyweight in the textile industry. Like other clothing-makers, the company manufactures its clothes in countries where sweatshops are the norm. Here safety regulations are often disregarded and labor laws violated. Sometimes Nike has even paid private militias to protect its business interests. In short, the theme of Nike work is bad pay and bad conditions. As a ‘Labor Notes’ article (“Nike’s Love Affair with Sweatshops: Still Doing It”) on Gina Cano and Lowlee Urquía, two Honduran sweatshop workers, explains, the company breaks labor laws: 

        The two women represented more than 1,700 workers who are owed $2.2 million in severance pay [after a sudden factory closure]. The workers are also owed health care premiums, which were deducted from their wages but never paid to the health care system. This meant that workers could not access health care in the four months before the closure. At least one worker, who had been receiving cancer treatment, died because of this denial of care, according to Cano and Urquía.”

       The collapse of Rana Plaza and the Savar building site – the deadliest garment factory incident in history – this year, underscore the fact that the life of the modern garment worker is as bad as it has ever been. In an era of great wealth, when student athletes study on Italian leather sofas, there is no good reason for this to be the case. Besides raising ethical questions about capitalism in general, these developments pose another question: should the University of Oregon accept the “contributions” of Knight, a known human rights violator, since he “earned” this wealth by stealing it from poor people? And the reader should consider just how ridiculous the entire situation is: families are starved, brutalized, and broken so that Nike – a company that ironically champions sports participation in the Third World – can build garish monuments to the sacred Swoosh. As in the case of Carnegie’s libraries, Knight may give athletic equipment to the poor, but in the long-run his “contributions” are not helpful. After all, these children are too busy sewing the Swooshes in his sweatshops to have a childhood, let alone play sports.
        Lastly, it is important to note that the crimes of Knight reflect the criminality of capitalism in general. One can spend all day (rightly) chiding Knight for his misplaced priorities, but the capitalist system within which we all live is based on similar distortions. It is a system that reduces human life to a brute means to an end, and puts the accumulation of profit over the well-being of the planet. It is one which reveres money – a literal “means” of exchange – as the ultimate “end,” even over the well-being of humanity, the “end” it is supposed to serve. This is ironic, and in bad taste, seeing as the value of money only comes from human labor; in other words, humanity is the real “end” or source of value, even if we are to use capitalism’s confused logic. The problem we face is thus one of disconnect, blindness; to forget that the economy is meant to serve humans, not humans the economy. 

        In a world of misplaced priorities, it is thus important to redeem the truths that have been hidden and to reevaluate our priorities; to rectify the language. The first step towards this goal is to take back the philosophical truths that capitalists have hidden, distorted or perverted for their own. In the West, for example, Christianity has long been used to justify capitalism, despite the fact that the teachings of Jesus are inimical to the status quo. There are several basic points that I would like to emphasize along this vein: 

        Firstly, the Bible is emphatic about the injustice of poverty, and the corruption that great wealth engenders. For conservative “Christians” to blame the poor for their poverty is not only stupid – the idea is a tautology – but to deny the Bible itself. Ecclesiastes chapter five, for example, directly links the suffering of the poor to the greed of the rich, noting that “If you see the poor oppressed… and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised”. The chapter goes on to explain that “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless,” before noting a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded”. For “Christians” to suppose that the poor are less morally fit is consequently unchristian. After all, Jesus was born into poverty and stayed poor his entire life. The people he ridiculed in his teachings were usually the Pharisees and religious elite – in other words, the rich people.

        Secondly, the predatory lending schemes and debt bondage that exist today are unbiblical. In other words, the modern financial system – one marked by hedge funds, predatory lending, and the spread of debt-based securities – should be opposed by Christians. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to forgive each other their debts every seven years, and Psalms 15 notes that the person who follows God “lends his [or her] money without usury.” It is also worth noting that the only time Jesus is recorded as using force is when he drives the money-lenders out of the temple. 

        The existence of financial institutions like the Word Bank and IMF, which lend money to poor countries on onerous terms, makes God sick. It is worth noting that the raison d’être of these institutions is to provide financial support and liquidity to poor countries, yet they still choose to operate for a profit. In other words, they choose to benefit from the suffering of the most vulnerable members of human society. Almost half of the national budget of countries like the Philippines, for instance, has gone to paying just the interest on such debts. And most of the time the “structural adjustment” plans agreed upon as a precondition for these loans is based on the exploitation of cheap labor with foreign capital. Put another way, the “development” plans take advantage of poverty, i.e., low wage levels. Poverty is built into the system. And, of course, many of these countries – like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Honduras – are poor because of the legacy of Western imperialism. In other words, they are penalized for having been exploited in the past – by the very same people. 

        Thirdly, the Bible does not support a laissez-faire approach to poverty, especially if this means killing government programs that would help the poor. The current notion – much in vogue – that poverty should be left to the private sector or churches is not only unpractical but unbiblical. In Deuteronomy, for instance, the Israelites are commanded to levy a tax in support of the poor. It is also clear that Jesus would not see the tax obligations of the rich as unduly burdensome. This is a significant point because many self-identified “Christians” claim that the rich should only be taxed the same percentage of their income as the working-class. In fact, Jesus explicitly states that the contributions of the less wealthy, even if smaller, are greater than those of the rich. Because this is a sensitive point, it is worth citing the relevant passage at length:

        “As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:1-4).

        Since Jesus states that the lady who gave “out of… poverty” gave “more” than the rich, the notion that the rich assume an undue share of the tax burden seems wrong. For Obama and the nation’s political elite to champion the principle of “shared sacrifice” may very well be unchristian. In Jesus’ eyes, at least, a sacrifice is hardly “shared” if some people are forced to give “out of… poverty” while the “sacrifice” of others only amounts to shifting around some numbers in their checkbook. One person feels their “sacrifice” in the form of hunger pains, insecurity and hopelessness. The other person just gets peeved – that is, if they even learn of the difference.

        And lastly, rich people who claim to be Christians are commanded to share their wealth. The idea of the “economic mover” is not biblical, and, in fact, the Bible has far more warnings against the trappings of wealth than perhaps any other evil. 1 Timothy 6:9-10 states that “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…” Later in the chapter, Paul tells Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth…. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” The idea that the rich are somehow more deserving or far-sighted than the poor is completely foreign to Christian philosophy.

        Christianity is an anti-Establishment religion. It teaches that the world is divided by sin, the powerful are usually corrupt, and the poor are always exploited. If the status quo is screwed up, as the Bible claims, then it seems decidedly unchristian for “Christians” to champion the system that is, in fact, the status quo. Instead, Christians should be very skeptical of capitalism, with its theology of the “economic mover” and sublimation of greed. Above all, they should fight for the poor, and be willing to give what they have to help those in need. What they have is not their own, it is God’s, so they better be wise about how they use it. 

        The hero worship and corporate allegiance that accompanies capitalism is interesting to behold. Commercials pop-up on the television screen and tell you what to buy; they dot the computer screen and tell you what you need to be happy; they fill the air-waves and even line the roads, overwhelming the senses until you don’t even notice them anymore. They become a part of you. “Are you a Mac or a PC?” they ask. Which corporation will you sell your soul too? They both are congenital polluters, wage-slavers, and poverty-makers, but oh, they are so different! Which one is bigger, better, sleeker, more youthful, sexier, intelligent… So which one are you?

        And there are so many choices to make. There is no time to think, only time to do; to react. “Just do it.” Mildly amused, the parents watch their children run about in childhood bliss. Their rock collections, trading cards, postcards all seem so insignificant to the grown-ups. The adults, of course, have matured: they have dedicated their lives to collecting green paper, the more the better. Some will even kill for it. They have chosen. Or perhaps most has been chosen for them. Born into poverty, the dollar acquires different significance: the difference between a meal and going hungry, keeping your home or losing it, taking the baby to the doctor or…
        Rising from the bottom to the top, we encounter the knowers, the economic movers, those rich enough to live out their own delusions. They enjoy charades. The poor are poor because they are poor; they want to stay that way. Welfare aid (aside: welfare is, by definition, meant to provide aid to those without work) should only go to those who are working. If they don’t work they should not get aid for those who don’t work. It’s simple math, we are proportionally smarter and harder working than everyone else and deserve to be compensated accordingly. Yes, even if our salaries are three-hundred times that of our workers. Of course we work three-hundred times harder! 

        Oh, it’s time for my meeting with the chamber of commerce. We’ve got to prevent those communists from trying to unionize downtown. “Family wage” my ***! If they are so poor they just shouldn’t have babies. They’re like rats you know…



Friday, October 4, 2013

The Politics of Cruelty: The Shutdown, Cancer, and the Republican Party

 “I don’t wanna live in America no more
 ‘Cause the tide is high
 And it’s still rising
 And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill.”
                                            – Arcade Fire, ‘Windowsill’

“You’re a politician. Don’t become one of Hitler’s children.”
                                            – The Ramones, ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down’

        The day after the government shutdown began I was listening to public radio, when a duo from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, came on the air. The two guests were in an expansive mood, all too ready to take the moderator’s questions about the unfolding showdown in Congress. It was kind of like a game-show, really. In my mind’s eye I could visualize each of these young, aspiring pundits squirming in their seats, ready to pounce on each question as if it were live prey. And like a lioness ripping apart her victim with grim satisfaction, their answers were nothing short of appalling. 

        Just before the two conservatives were introduced, the same radio program had been going over the latest casualties to congressional gridlock. Between 700,000-800,000 government employees had been laid off, food assistance programs for impoverished seniors and children left to bleed, funding for national parks and historic landmarks dried up, and programs ranging from national security to veteran services chopped off at the root. 

        A government employee who had just been laid off was then interviewed. His voice was heavy, weighed down by a deep sense of resignation, the type of resignation that grows from the inside-out when someone is thrown yet another blow which they had foreseen, but had no chance to dodge. Yes, he said, this was the second time that he had been laid off from a government job, the first time having occurred during the (Republican instituted) shutdown of 1995-6. It will be hard, he admitted, “but you prepare for these sorts of things.” The interviewer then left him with the future dangling over his head, left to (once more) contemplate what it means to live an uncertain existence in the land of the free and home of the brave. 

        That should give you an idea of where we were when these two aspiring pundits came bumbling onto the stage. I had a glimmer of hope, though. After all the Heritage Foundation, the very think-tank that the two guests represent, had drafted the original blueprint for what became the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) during the 1990s. So surely they would not subject us to the typical Republican rant against the alleged – in other words fictitious – villainies of ObamaCare. Alas, never overestimate a Republican. 

        Right out of the gate, both of them made it crystal clear that they thought ObamaCare was a really stupid idea; maybe even a totalitarian one. Whether they purposefully meant to insult the intelligence of the listeners or are just that dense was not altogether clear. Their failure to explain why a healthcare plan that was first taken up by a Republican candidate for president had suddenly become unacceptable to the Republicans also seemed incongruous – though by this point this disconnect was expected. 

        Instead, the two sunk their teeth into the debate with relish, letting their saliva spray and teeth gnash without reservation. The substance of their argument can be divided into three parts:

        First, the shutdown is Obama’s fault: he is refusing to compromise with the Republicans and thus engaging in unconscionable brinkmanship. 

        Second, the shutdown is not a big deal because few people are affected and the services that are being cut are “inessential,” even “wasteful”. 

        And last, the shut is a great idea, a shrewd demonstration of Republican statecraft which should be admired. Not only does it cut “inessential” and “wasteful” government spending, but the shutdown will show the American public just how wasteful the government really is. 

       There are several implications of this argument that I would like to explore. Far from being an anomaly, the government shutdown should be understood as a natural development in the Republican Party playbook, reifying several ideological and strategic aims that the party has pursued over the past half century. What follows is an exposition of these partisan currents: an unraveling of the contradictions embedded in Republican ideology, and an explanation of their significance. And this is no academic exercise; for these very contradictions are what make the Republican Party possible. 

        The first and perhaps most obvious contradiction entertained by the two party intellectuals is their willingness to blame Obama for the shutdown while simultaneously claiming that the shutdown was brought about by the Republican Party – you know, a masterful stroke that will educate Americans about the federal government’s profligate spending. It is as if the two were a pair of schizophrenics, at one moment casting aspersions on Obama for his refusal to compromise, while at the next moment eulogizing the fortitude of Boehner et al., above all their refusal to compromise on a matter that involves “principle”. But, of course, this is exactly what they were doing. Indeed, it is what the Republican Party has been doing for years.

        The next contradiction is a bit gutsier.  It resides mainly within part two of the argument, namely the assertion that the shutdown is insignificant because only a few people are affected, and only “inessential” or “wasteful” services have been put on the chopping block. I say that this contradiction is gutsier because the two party cadres suggested that few people are affected by the shutdown right after the radio program noted that 700-800,000 people had been laid off. And, I should mention, right after one of these now unemployed Americans had given a personal account of his struggle to subsist. 

        This contradiction resolves itself, however, when one realizes that it is precisely these 700-800,000 people, their families and their jobs that the Republicans believe are “inessential” and “wasteful”. For it is only by denying the essential dignity of these Americans and their work that the party and its apologists can be blind to – or rather, accept – their suffering, even when the great magnitude of their suffering has been, quite literally, laid before the party’s eyes or, as in this case, their ears. Is this what the two yuppies from the Heritage Foundation meant when they claimed that Americans would learn just how wasteful government spending is? Put another way, are these 700-800,000 Americans the very “Americans” to whom the Republican Party is trying to teach the supposed excesses of government spending – that is, through inscribing frugality into their souls by way of empty stomachs, heightened insecurity and lost employment? Apparently. 

        But is the Republican Party really so concerned about balanced budgets and the virtue of thrift? No. At least it is impossible to justify these cuts using real logic – you know, reasoning that does not violate the principle of non-contradiction at every turn, or defile the raiment of truth. In fact, recent Republican policies belie the claim that the party is at all concerned about keeping a balanced budget or the health of the average citizen. Just last month, for example, the party voted to cut food stamps, a vital source of nourishment for one in seven Americans, and widely considered to be one of the government’s most efficient programs. In 2012, food stamps – officially known as SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – lifted 4 million Americans out of poverty and SNAP is widely recognized as having some of the most exacting quality control provisions of any public assistance program. What’s more, SNAP likely generates revenue over the long-run because it provides temporarily needy workers with the extra support necessary for them to reenter the tax-paying, gainfully employed middle-class. 

        Even so, the Republicans have slashed food stamps on the trumped up charges of fraud and misuse. How did they slash food stamps? SNAP is usually incorporated in a farm bill that also pays billions of dollars to lavishly endowed corporations which are involved in mass food production. By making a separate food stamps bill the party was able to cut meals for hungry children, seniors and needy adults while still plowing through subsidies to very, very wealthy corporations. According to Republican logic – or perhaps insanity – wealthy corporations are to be further lubricated with tax dollars in order to subsidize food that only the wealthy can afford to eat. Or, as the Republicans enjoy reminding us, there are people who are “undeserving poor,” people whose very existence is redundant. To use the indelicate verbiage of our friends from the Heritage Foundation, such people who are “inessential” and government support for them is “wasteful”. 

        So now we can connect the dots. Republicans do not actually care about excessive spending, but, rather, they are concerned about where this abundance is funneled to: is it going to the rich or the needy? By destroying the jobs of 700-800,000 Americans and savaging SNAP they have definitively shown themselves to be against the well-being of the average American and firmly on the side of the ultra-rich – those, for instance, who received corporate subsidies in the farm bill which the Republicans just signed. 

        And if one looks closely at the arguments voiced in opposition to food stamps, one further finds that allegations of “fraud” are just a smokescreen to hide their real motives: Republicans hate the program as a whole. This outlook was summed up by Republican idol, Ronald Reagan, when he said that, “Welfare's purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence.” But, of course, they did not take on food stamps with such alarmingly candid rhetoric, instead claiming that “fraud” has increased, this supposedly being indicated by the fact that the number of people receiving food stamps has increased in the past five years. 

        In fact, the number of people receiving food stamps has increased because the economy is in the middle of the Great Recession – if the Republicans have not already noticed – and, consequently, there are more needy people. The fact that the number of food stamps has increased during a recession is, if anything, a sign of their efficacy: most of the people who are eligible for support are getting it. Of course, for a party with ties to the same institutions that caused the Great Recession and one which has never shown the least support for social programs (besides those that help the rich), it should hardly be surprising that they are blind to the objective facts as well as the hardships faced by the average American. Indeed the average American is, for them, expendable – “inessential”.  

        The suggestion made by the Heritage Foundation that the services (and people) being cut are “inessential” also betrays another tenet of Republican dogma, mainly that public services as a whole are unpalatable to the party. National parks, cemeteries and other public spaces are considered by most Americans to be an essential part of the nation’s patrimony; its heritage, something that makes America distinctive. By protecting wildlife, forests and magisterial landscapes, the very ecology of the country is protected from the utter destruction that would occur (as in the past) if private interests are allowed to exploit nature at will. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill reminds us that if misanthropic corporations are allowed to tamper with the environment without oversight they are liable to engage in disastrous policies for short-term gain. There is a reason why you do not see cod swelling the banks of Massachusetts or antelope roaming the Great Plains anymore. 

        Yet Republicans do not believe in public ownership or oversight. Rather, they would prefer that everything be privatized, thus allowing the “free market” – the market monopolized by corporations and wealthy individuals – run everything. This is why these services – national parks, cemeteries, wildlife reserves and other public spaces – are labeled “nonessential” by conservatives. Lubricated by lobbies, campaign donations and kept on a steady diet of wishful thinking, the very idea of public space is rejected by them. For most people, however, public space is important. It denotes a spatial realm in which individuals are free to engage in collective action, enjoy activities that could not happen elsewhere (like scaling Mt. Adams), and have a say in how space is to be used. Public space is, by definition, our space. We get to choose how it is used, allocated and maintained. It is democracy in miniature, a space within which democracy finds itself at its most organic. Indeed, the “tragedy of the commons” is not that the commons were ravaged by the public (a myth believed by many economists but disproved by historians), but rather, the fact that the commons were stolen from the public by greedy landlords. 

        When Republicans attack public space they are implicitly questioning the ability of those in charge to take care of it; in other words, they are questioning the public’s ability, our ability, to handle our own land.

        But what does all this have to do with the Republican Party? First, and to reiterate, the party is ready to sell off the nation’s patrimony, especially its natural wealth and public spaces, because of their theology of privatization – a policy which has seldom (if ever) panned out well in the past. This conviction was vividly evoked by Ronald Reagan when he opposed the expansion of Redwood National Park on the grounds that, “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?” 

        Secondly, ObamaCare makes healthcare part of the nation’s patrimony, a right which is guaranteed to all citizens. It is a public service to the poorest members of society, as they will receive insurance without cost, and it provides other Americans with more space within which to choose insurance. Yes, the program has its problems but, if anything, these problems are linked to the fact that there are still loopholes which could allow insurance companies to form cartels. If insurance was entirely a public good – an option the Republicans fiercely oppose – then this would not be a problem. Even so, the extension of insurance to all Americans regardless of income, and the elimination of obstacles for those with preexisting conditions are two reforms that we can all appreciate.

        When the Republican Party chose to shut-down the government, their decision was replete with symbolism. Rather than a break with the past, the shutdown was the natural synthesis of party doctrine, representing the “best” from the party’s illustrious history. In the tradition of Reagan the red-baiter, the party attempted to smear Obama as a “socialist” for creating universal health insurance, a plan the Republicans originally created and had already put in place elsewhere. Then in the tradition of Nixon they attempted to scare Congress into caving into their demands by feigning insanity – Nixon’s famous “madman theory” – leading the responsible adults to wonder as to whether or not the party was just that stupid, or just that cruel.

        Would they really risk defaulting on the national debt, needlessly sending the economy into a nosedive, one possibly worse than the meltdown in 2008? As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes, “hitting the ceiling would force a huge, immediate spending cut, almost surely pushing America back into recession.” And given a history distinguished by ignorance, the plausibility of their present ignorance – or “madness,” to borrow from Nixon – seems high. Krugman notes that “On the economics: Republican radicals generally reject the scientific consensus on climate change; many of them reject the theory of evolution, too. So why expect them to believe expert warnings about the dangers of default?” 

        I suppose, if anything, the shutdown has taught us that all the moralistic talk about fixing the national deficit and fiscal responsibility that the Republicans have disgorged on the public for the past decade was all a charade. After all, it they were really so concerned about the nation’s credit rating then they would not be setting the U.S. up to default on its debts. 

        And again, the Republican Party has evolved over the years, but in the present assault on ObamaCare one can spot certain threads from the past: contempt for the most vulnerable members of society, whom the party stigmatizes as “inessential”; antipathy for all social programs which allocates money to help the poor that could be used to pad the rich (like the money that goes to food stamps); the desire to make all public space a private commodity that can be sold, even if this means destroying the country’s “wasteful” natural patrimony; and a willingness, yes, even a compulsion to lie in order to keep the party – an organization based on lies – afloat.

        For the Republican Party is a study of how one lie can birth more lies, starting a snowball effect that only stops once the whole structure, a foundation of lies, crumbles under its own great weight. The result is farcical but deadly. And it may bring down the country’s government, not to mention the economy. In this way, the lies of the Republican Party are like a cancer within the body politic, seeping deep into its veins before literally shutting it down. A sick, ignorant and confused public will not recover from this disease, this web of lies, until they are able to see again with unclouded eyes, freed from the dizzying influence of disease and opiates administered in mass – through Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and a host of other unlicensed “professionals”. 

        And how can Americans get better unless they have healthcare? With access the healthcare the public would finally see that the lies about “ObamaCare,” “big government,” and “socialism” are indeed false. That, in fact, healthcare is a good idea and a country as wealthy as the United States should be able to guarantee that its citizens are protected by insurance just as in every other first-world country. In other words, with healthcare the cancerous lies of the Republican Party would be defeated, disproven. 

        But if the Republican Party does succeed in dismantling the Affordable Care Act then their cancerous lies may continue to metastasize. And this much is certain. Every death from preventable illness or cancer that could have been stopped with healthcare will be on the hands of the Republican Party. In other words, each death will have been an act of murder. But this is a party which simply does not give a damn: not about the poor who rely on foot stamps, not on the 100,000s who have lost their jobs in the shutdown, not about the millions who will suffer if the economy implodes because of a Republican initiated default. No, we do not have time to wait.       

        Let us stop this cancer before it reaches the point of no return.