The Tea Partys Bankrupt Values

Terrance Heath

Remember when I said the tea party has the potential to be the GOP’s psycho ex-girlfriend? Well, Dana Milbank’s latest column — about tea party activists attacking John Boehner, Paul Ryan and the GOP for not killing the hostage tying an increase in the debt ceiling to undoing health care reform, and preserving "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" — seems to bear this out. Especially the part where they blame the economic crisis on immorality, in genera, and gay people, specifically. Again.

Of course, the irony is that the meltdown and the ensuing recession have less to do with immorality than amorality run amok in the in the marketplace, and the conservatism that allowed it.


“Instead of a fighter for U.S. taxpayers, Mr. Boehner has been a surrenderist, if that’s a word,” proclaimed William Temple, chairman of the Tea Party Founding Fathers. “It seems House Speaker John Maynard Boehner and his fellow RINOs — Republicans In Name Only — like to spend other peoples’ money just as much as the Democrats.”

…As for Ryan, economist Brian Wesbury asked, “What is he? Is he for bigger government?” Wesbury suggested that Republicans should show some “adult kind of behavior.”

This was a curious request coming from a group that included two men wearing tricorn hats and colonial costumes. Temple had a feather in his hat, carried a 5-foot musket and, without explanation, switched to a Scottish accent during the news conference. Next to him was a man dressed up as George Washington who read a 215-year-old passage.

…The splintering goes beyond the fiscal matters that motivated the tea party. Temple and his activists included on their list a demand that Republicans use the debt-limit fight to keep gay soldiers from serving openly in the military. Temple condemned the “effeminization” of the military and opposed “injecting open homosexuality and females into forward-combat roles.”

Another participant, Bob Vander Plaats of the Tea Party National Convention, saw a link between homosexuality and the debt. “When you start going away from core value issues, the ripple effect leads right to economic issues,” he explained.

Is this the kind of "magical thinking" conservatives mean when they claim that social issues are inextricably linked with economic issues? Not exactly. Sure, many hold beliefs along the same line as Temple and Plaats, but some conservatives are attemptingto wrap those beliefs in a kind of logic.

Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who organized a day-long meeting on Saturday that attracted presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour, Herman Cain and Bachmann, said that “the economic component of this is important, but when it goes wrong it is because it is the byproduct of a society that’s getting off track.”

“We need to work on the economic issues, yes we do. But if we let our society deconstruct, to the point where it’s Godless and faithless and valueless, and it’s every man and woman for himself, collecting the spoils from someone else’s labor, we’re just simply pitted against each other. We’re not a unified people anymore,” King said. “It destroys us as a nation. I want to see a nation that is solidly bound together from a social construct.”

It is something of a change from the past, when religious conservatives often argued that America would rise or fall — militarily and economically — based on whether it was following the God of the Bible. God would bless the nation, or curse it, based on its faithfulness to him.

Many would still believe that. But they are moving away from a more fundamentalist argument toward a new, more practical message.

First of all, this isn’t anything new. Fundamentalists have been blaming gay people for the Wall Street meltdown and the economic crisis for years. Oklahoma Republican state Rep. Sally Kern introduced a resolution blaming same sex marriage for the economic crisis. The Liberty Counsel claimed it was Washington Mutual’s support for the "homosexual agenga" that caused it to fail. Right wing commentator Michael Savage jumped on the bandwagon, along with House Republicans.

Between this and blaming blacks for the Wall Street meltdown and the economic crisis, I’m starting to feel like I can’t catch a break. Gay people caused the economic crisis. Or black people did it. No, atheists did it. Nobody has blamed Buddhists or vegetarians (yet), but I’m starting to wonder if I should just go ahead and confess already. It’s my fault, buys. Seriously, I did it. My bad. Won’t let it happen again, etc., etc.

Not that evidence is going to mean anything to the folks I just mentioned, but it’s a bit much to blame the whole economic crisis one group or one thing. "Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan," the saying goes. But a failure of this magnitude and complexity can only be the bastard child of many fathers. When it comes to the financial crisis, the paternity won’t get sorted out anytime soon.

But now, according to "the village," the blame seems to have shifted to all of us. Well, all of us who weren’t setting policy in Washington or making deals on Wall Street. Specifically, us for "wanting something for nothing" and "weak-minded" politicians who indulged our foolishness, leading to our huge deficit, among other things.

According to Paul Krugman, that’s lot of hooey.

So who was responsible for these budget busters? It wasn’t the man in the street.

President George W. Bush cut taxes in the service of his party’s ideology, not in response to a groundswell of popular demand — and the bulk of the cuts went to a small, affluent minority.

Similarly, Mr. Bush chose to invade Iraq because that was something he and his advisers wanted to do, not because Americans were clamoring for war against a regime that had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, it took a highly deceptive sales campaign to get Americans to support the invasion, and even so, voters were never as solidly behind the war as America’s political and pundit elite.

Finally, the Great Recession was brought on by a runaway financial sector, empowered by reckless deregulation. And who was responsible for that deregulation? Powerful people in Washington with close ties to the financial industry, that’s who. Let me give a particular shout-out to Alan Greenspan, who played a crucial role both in financial deregulation and in the passage of the Bush tax cuts — and who is now, of course, among those hectoring us about the deficit.

So it was the bad judgment of the elite, not the greediness of the common man, that caused America’s deficit. And much the same is true of the European crisis.

Again, the meltdown and the ensuing recession have less to do with immorality than amorality run amok in the in the marketplace, and the conservatism that allowed it. But that’s just one of the ironies. The other is that the whole mess might have been avoided if the free market fundamentalists on the right had taken the religious fundamentalists; both get the something very important and very basic very wrong, but the latter gets at least one thing right. Because the latter could fill the former in on the whole story of the "fall of man" resulting in a "fallen world," where "…nobody is born truly innocent and pure, but has the inbuilt desire to sin."

The best representative of free market fundamentalism is probably "The Maestro" Alan Greenspan, the ex-Ayn Rand acolyte and former Federal Reserve Chairman, whose fingerprints are all over the meltdown and the economic crisis because — ironically enough — he didn’t lift a finger to stop either from happening (despite numerous warnings).

Though he’s since returned to the fold, Greenspan admitted his actions (and inaction) as Fed chairman stemmed from his faith that people participating in financial markets would act responsibly. With "shocked disbelief," Greenspan confessed there was a tragic flaw in that faith.

But, as fundamentalists usually do, Greenspan missed the biggest flaw of all.

There were many flaws that Greenspan failed to see, and that other free market fundamentalists must avoid seeing if they want to continue to believe. A major one, as pointed out by Soros, Reich and others above is that the government has constantly intervened in the “free market” in order to save the market from itself and its own “innovations.” But there’s another that has its basis in nothing more than human nature.

All the time I’m sitting in the audience thinking that these models are far too simplistic and based on countless unrealistic assumptions. I tell people that these instruments are dangerous, that no one understands the risks. But no one cares.

As long as people are compensated hugely for taking risks with other people’s money, and do not suffer equally on the downside, then those risks will inevitably become outrageous. Whether markets are efficient or not, I don’t know for sure. But I do know that, if there’s a way for someone to make money at another’s expense, he will.

Simply put, it only works if everyone (in Greenspan’s terminology) behaves honorably. Put even more simply, in order for it to work, everyone has to behave themselves. Taken a step further, everyone will behave themselves, because it is in their “rational self interest” to do so. Thus Greenspan can say with a straight face that he believed self-interest would regulate Wall Street.

For years, a Congressional hearing with Alan Greenspan was a marquee event. Lawmakers doted on him as an economic sage. Markets jumped up or down depending on what he said. Politicians in both parties wanted the maestro on their side.

But on Thursday, almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a humbled Mr. Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending.

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Who can blame him for being “in a state of shocked disbelief”? After all, it would be irrational for an organism to destroy the very environment that sustains it. Wouldn’t it? And rational organisms like human beings wouldn’t do that. They’d stop themselves before things went too far. Right?

Of course, to believe that you’d have to ignore not only thousands of years of human history but also the simple truth of what the columnist I quoted earlier said. If people get big payoffs for taking big risks with other people’s money and suffer no consequences, some of them will do it. Or, if some people can beat you out of a buck and get away with it, they won’t think twice about doing it.

Refusal to recognize this reality results in exactly the kind of Barnum and Bailey values that led to the economic crisis.

OK. Maybe just a Barnum world — P.T. Barnum, that is. This legendary promoter of famous hoaxes comes to mind once again as I watch the various congressional hearings related to the financial crisis, or read of the testimony from those hearings. Why? Because the most famous thing he probably never said"There’s a sucker born ever minute" — could be, and perhaps is, the unofficial motto of Wall Streets banksters and the conservatives (plus some Democrats who should have known better) that aided and abetted them.

And, no, it hardly matters that Barnum is said to have denied uttering the famous words. The phrase was coined in connection to Barnum’s role in the Cardiff Giant hoax, an amusing bit of history about a battle between hoaxers and hucksters who didn’t much care if their customers knew what what they were paying for or got what they were paying for — so long as the scam paid off, and the scammers got paid in the end.

…If the "Barnum Rule" has a corollary perhaps it’s another famous saying— this time from W.C. Fields: "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break." (In fact, the phrase became the title of Field’s last movie.)

It’s pretty self explanatory. But it essentially boils down to this: There’s no wrong way to make a buck.

It is one of the great curiosities of conservatism that its adherents enthusiastically destroy regulations which — besides a conscience — act as a bulwark against greed and corruption, thereby making greed and corruption inevitable. Because when (a) there’s no wrong way to make a buck, and (b) no accountability or consequences for malfeasance, there’s no disincentive either. (Other than being able to sleep at night, which isn’t a problem if you don’t have a conscience in the first place.)

The only thing "wrong" is getting caught. Those values, the ones at the heart of the Goldman Sach’s deal and others like it, were laid bare by Levin’s questioning of Viniar, who had to be coaxed from "it’s unfortunate that we got caught" to "it’s unfortunate that we knew we were selling a ‘shitty deal’ to our customers, and sold it anyway."

In other words, it was a scam and they knew it. But in their world, there’s nothing wrong with that.

And, as Chrystia Freeland noted in explaining the problems with corprate social responsibility, the danger arises when what we believe becomes the chief primary social responsiblities of business and government.

But getting confused about the principal job of business is even more dangerous for the state. CSR, and the communitarian philosophy behind it, asks us to believe that the interests of an individual company and those of the wider community are fully aligned. They aren’t — a truth too many regulators forgot in recent years.

Corporate social responsibility sounds as unobjectionable as motherhood and apple pie — and it would indeed be crazy to object to rich companies writing big checks for good causes. But we shouldn’t let that distract us from the fact that the chief social responsibility of business is to make a buck — and the social responsibility of government is to be sure that perfectly proper corporate greed is channeled and constrained for the greater good of us all.

The fundamentalist belief that markets will regulate themselves isn’t much different than the fundamentalist belief that if everyone "gets right with God" then God will right our economy. Both beliefs share a fundamental flow: the only work if we all behave ourselves, but we’ve never all behaved ourselves and never will. That tragic flaw of fundamentalism is also what makes fundamentalists so dangerous — when their worldview comes crashing down.

Theirs is the anger of fundamentalists whose world view has come crashing down, taking their identity — or a significant pat of it — along for the ride. It is born out of two more traits of fundamentalism — an inability or unwillingness to re-imagine a world or an identity that synthesizes the new reality in front of them. And us. It’s easier to rage against a reality that refuses to conform to what their beliefs — their fundamentalism — tells them must be, and against those whose insufficient faith allows them to adjust to what is.

…One of the most dangerous people in the world may be a disappointed fundamentalist — one who has discovered that on some basic level his beliefs simply don’t work, because people don’t, can’t, and won’t behave the way he expects them too, or needs them so. Fundamentalism, by its very nature is not grounded in reality because it depends upon the purity of belief, intent, and action on the part of all players. In the course of human events, that is almost always a recipe for failure.

The whole of human society and the rule of law is based on the understanding the not all people can be relied upon to behave honorably, and thus we have laws and regulations prohibiting and punishing some dishonorable behavior, because it has negative consequences for the rest of us.

In other words, it is because there are villains that we have laws — to make clear which acts are villainous, so that they might be stopped before too much damage is done. Prevention is as important, perhaps even more important, than punishment. It will never be perfect, and almost certainly anyone who wants to will find a way around even the tightest regulations, but it may have stopped the current crisis or significantly decreased the damage.

It doesn’t matter to the fundamentalist that his beliefs don’t take human nature into account. His anger isn’t directed at himself, his beliefs, or the individuals and institutions from whom he learned and inherited them — because that would be a threat to his very identity.

Instead, that anger is diverted down one destructive course or another — directed instead against non-believers whose failure to conform to the fundamentalist’s beliefs is, in the fundamentalists mind, the real cause of his misfortune. That diversion may come to dominate the 2012 elections. The conservatives are already couching the economic policies in religious terms, and the religious right is linking anti-union policies to Christian faith.

The tea party has come to embody that anger, both its intensity and misdirection, enveighing against the "bankrupt values" of unions, public employees, reproductive freedom, and families like mine, rather than taking on the institutions that bankrupted the country — diverted away from the party, politicians and policies directly responsible for their economic plight, and down dangerous but well-worn paths that have in the past and may yet again bear political fruit for conservatism, but that lead them and us nowhere.

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