Age and Perspective

One of the (very few) benefits of growing old is that you gain perspective. Sometimes, that also leads to a modicum of wisdom, sometimes not–but it does mean that one’s frame of reference is larger and longer. To use a very common example, you can’t truly appreciate how dramatically the internet has changed society if you were born after the invention of the world wide web.

This morning’s Paul Krugman column reminded me again that those of us born in the mid-twentieth century have a vantage point to assess political change that younger folks don’t have.

My students are frequently aghast when they learn that I was a Republican for most of my life–that I even ran for Congress as a fairly conservative Republican, and won a primary. But as Krugman points out, and as I try to explain to my students, the positions that made me “conservative” in 1980 make me a pinko/socialist/liberal today. Most of my students grew up in an environment where conservative Republicans reject evolution and the science of climate change, talk a lot about fiscal prudence, but practice “borrow and spend” economic policies, and are totally without compassion for the less fortunate. The only Republicans they’ve known are those who preach limited government while insisting on their right to control women’s reproduction and their right to discriminate against gays. They are shocked to learn that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights and still was able to win a GOP primary.

Krugman explains the change with his usual clarity, beginning with the example of the Tea Party’s “let ’em die” eruption at the recent GOP Presidential debate:

“In the past, conservatives accepted the need for a government-provided safety net on humanitarian grounds. Don’t take it from me, take it from Friedrich Hayek, the conservative intellectual hero, who specifically declared in “The Road to Serfdom” his support for “a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect citizens against “the common hazards of life,” and singled out health in particular.

Given the agreed-upon desirability of protecting citizens against the worst, the question then became one of costs and benefits — and health care was one of those areas where even conservatives used to be willing to accept government intervention in the name of compassion, given the clear evidence that covering the uninsured would not, in fact, cost very much money. As many observers have pointed out, the Obama health care plan was largely based on past Republican plans, and is virtually identical to Mitt Romney’s health reform in Massachusetts.

Now, however, compassion is out of fashion — indeed, lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the G.O.P.’s base.

And what this means is that modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.”

What Krugman fails to note, and these radicals fail to understand, is that if they actually are successful in their frantic efforts to keep government from “stealing” even a penny in taxes to be distributed (in their fevered imaginations) to the “less deserving,” they would also be impoverished. What Hayek understood–and what those who invoke his name without reading his arguments do not-is that, just as a rising tide lifts all boats, an ebbing tide lowers all boats. They remind me of a two-year-old snatching a toy from a playmate while screaming “mine, mine, mine.”

What we are seeing from this radical fringe is not a political shift. It’s a tantrum.


  1. What I would argue is that we do have a rising tide, as in profits are up and productivity has been making gains. The problem is that the average boat in America’s harbour is taking on water, unless of course you own a yacht. The republican answer is to come to the rescue of the yacht owner who is running low on caviar.

  2. I believe the political spectrum of “liberal” has also expanded, similar to conservatism supposedly being “totally without compassion”.

    Our President, elected with supposedly the most liberal voting record in Congress, led the greatest expansion of government in years, requiring the purchase of full-tilt health care by all Americans- despite most polling showing opposition. Given the political demographics of the U.S., it’s passage required closed-door, single-party sessions with associated lobbyists, after-hours and away from the media. The actual content of the bill was of such hurried and muddled obfuscation that it caused the immortal, “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

    With equally publicized debt, deficit, and financial obligations, roughly 9% unemployment, job-creation stalled, education globally-ranked in the teens and twenties, engrossed in warfare on more than one front, deteriorating planetary climate, and competition not cooperating by going back in time to pre-steel forging, how are we to afford all of our prior entitlements and comprehensive health-care for all Americans?

    I could believe an answer that is based on outright adoption of something more “egalitarian”, closer to socialsim, communism, Marxism, etc.; something mandating productivity per family similar to what’s asked of health care purchase. It seems more believable than expecting the money to be there for everything we seem to want to do now, all at once, with no decrease in standard of living, and no formal abandonment of free enterprise capitalism.

    Given the magnitude of personal donations in time and money by conservatives, I’m not signing-up for most Tea Partiers believing “let them die” any more than Democrats believe Tea Partiers want blacks “hanging on a tree.” Arthur C. Brooks contended in a 2006 book that religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular liberals, and that those who support the idea that government should redistribute income are among the least likely to dig into their own wallets to help others.

    I agree “tantrum” is sometimes appropriate. When we’re done, maybe we make headway.

  3. Dave–while you make some valid points, there are also some factual errors embedded in your hypotheses. For example, Obama had far from the most “liberal” voting record (an accusation made by Limbaugh, et al that has unfortunately gained traction). In fact, anyone who read his books and looked at his record would find otherwise.

    Also, Arthur Brooks did find what researchers at COP also confirm: religious conservatives give more. But a majority of their giving goes to their churches, and largely for purposes that support their particular theologies. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is a very specific kind of charity.

    Over the past 25+ years, the Democratic party has actually become much more conservative than it was while I was growing up; the GOP has swung violently to the right. That doesn’t mean that Ds are always right or Rs always wrong, but the fact of those changes-and their extent–is beyond argument.

  4. Liked the article. It is on point. the hook for me was the comment that if a rising tide raises all boats. Then an ebbing tide would lower it for everyone. In other words, we have a vested interest in rising the tide of the unemployed, the underinsured and the impoverished. The same is true for another reason. What we are seeing in the arab spring is society erupting through the denial of basic needs such as education, healthcare and employment. Why should we risk it here? In some ways, health care and employment are synonymous with National Defense. Each makes a stronger country with stronger citizens.

  5. Senator Obama was voted most liberal by National Journal in 2007. Congressional Quarterly cited a 97% rating based on how often members vote with their party on bills where the parties split, also in 2007. As documented by PBS’ Frontline during the 2008 campaign, our President also voted ‘present’ many times in the Senate so as to not be saddled with potential “problem votes” later. He was targeted early as possibly being “the guy”. Good documentary and it had distasteful news about McCain as well.

    Combine that with nationalizing health care, abandoning industrial bankruptcy convention, and overseeing an NLRB that’s battling a large Boeing build when we need jobs, and both George McGovern and Barry Goldwater can chuckle in the hereafter if they’re called “extremist”.

    Again, our Presdent is persuasive, well-educated, victory of sorts for all of us, and more dialed-in on the hellbound environmental train than maybe anybody we’ll get for a Republican President. That doesn’t mean that he’s not as crazy as a loon on economics (which unfortunately is issue one), ruthless in his poltical calculation, and has an obvious compulsion about goverment as a solution (formalites be damned).

    When you combine the apparently tainted “church dollars” with the incredible money paid through taxes by the “evil rich” (if they’re as conservative as demonized), I don’t see what they have to apologize for.

    Again, I don’t think it’s parties and ideology as much as accountability and math. Whether Lincoln Plowman or Anthony Weiner, Brandon Johnson or Bernie Madoff, if there are consequences to our actions when we’re irresponsible, then combined with a vigilant and participative citizenry across all demographics, we have a shot if there’s real funding behind it.

    Thank you again for your forum and the opportunity to discuss the issues.

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