Conservatives keep claiming liberals want a “cradle-to-grave nanny state.” That rhetoric has distracted us from the real social re-engineering taking place all around us. The right, along with its “centrist” collaborators, is transforming our nation into a bloodless and soulless Randian State.
Their decades-long assault on our core social values is on the verge of consuming its first complete generation of Americans. Born at the dawn of the Reagan era, Millennials were the first to be fully subjected to this all-out attack on the idea that we take care of each other in this country, and they’ll pay for it from the cradle to the grave.
Some of us are the parents of Millennials. On this Father’s Day it’s hard not to wonder: Who’ll fight with them, and for them?
The Simpsons made a running joke out of Springfield’s “Ayn Rand School for Tots,” where toddlers fend for themselves in playrooms whose signs say things like “Helping is Futile.” That’s very funny. What is happening to our country isn’t.
A successful social contract has bound us together since the FDR era. The Randian State is an effort to dismantle it, replacing our nation’s web of mutual trust and support with a lifelong helplessness and dependence on the whims and generosity of corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals.
The Randian State is built in the morally depraved mold of right-wing über-heroine Rand, who reviled the less fortunate – and even those who tried to help them – as “parasites,” while at the same time idolizing sociopathic killers.
That last statement isn’t rhetoric. It’s reporting. “He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman,” Rand wrote admiringly of child murderer and dismemberer William Edward Hickman. “He can never realize and feel ‘other people.'”
As Mark Ames points out, this echoes Rand’s description of her hero in The Fountainhead: “He was born without the ability to consider others.”
Hickman’s actions were certainly not those of a “nanny.” But, while most conservatives undoubtedly disapprove of his deeds, the glorification of sociopathic selfishness represents the mentality with which the Administration is perpetually seeking “compromise.” It has infected everything from the Beltway’s “bipartisan” consensus to the content of our national media.
Conservatives went into rhetorical overdrive last year after the Obama campaign released an “infographic” ad called “The Life of Julia,” depicting ways Obama’s policies help women throughout their lives.
A typical reaction came from self-declared moralizer, former Reagan official, and chronic excessive gambler William Bennett. Bennett intoned that “Julia’s entire life is defined by her interactions with the state … Notably absent in her story is any relationship with a husband, family, church or community … Instead, the state has taken their place and is her primary relationship.”
That’s deceptive, of course. The presentation focused on government because it was about government. The Obama campaign wasn’t proposing to marry her or drive her to church. But reason rarely intrudes on such arguments. The Romney campaign quickly prepared a counter-slide show and the “socialist” debate was on.
Curiously, “Julia’s” story seems to have disappeared from the BarackObama.Com and Organizing For Action websites now that victory’s been achieved. Old links to it are dead, and attempts to click on this introduction only lead back to the site’s main page.
Bennett’s phrasing was drawn from conservative avatar Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher represented a radically un-American vision of life which lacks either our sense of community or our bonds of mutual trust, and which denies even the existence of society itself.
“Who is society?” demanded Thatcher. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families …”
Conservatives went searching for evidence that centrist Obama was really pushing cradle-to-grave socialism. The only target they could find for their faux outrage was Michelle Obama’s campaign to encourage breastfeeding, an embarrassing right-wing misfire which suggests there may be Freudian overtones to their “nanny” outrage.
Instead of pushing “cradle to grave” statism, the Administration pivoted immediately after the election to government-shrinking Grand Bargains. A “sequester” agreed to by both parties began slashing services on both ends of life. And the Administration’s attempting to end the sequester, not by calling for its straight repeal (as it should), but by offering cuts to Social Security at the later end of that “cradle to grave” span.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why “Julia” has disappeared from the Obama website.
The Randian State’s first manifesto may have been the startling document produced by Ronald Reagan’s “blue ribbon” education commission in 1983, which proposed to use schools as factories for more effectively turning Millennials – and every generation that follows – into usable raw material for corporate production.
The commission approached American education in a self-declared state of crisis, saying it was asked to address “the widespread public perception” – held by whom, exactly? – “that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.”
The sternly ideological report which resulted was called “A Nation At Risk.” Though right-wing in content, it reads like a Soviet proclamation on industrial production. Students are redefined as inputs in a system to maximize American corporate competitiveness, productivity and profits.
“History is not kind to idlers,” says the report. “We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets …”
The rhetoric is hectoring and fierce:
“(T)he educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
The “problem” was stated in terms that were both militaristic – “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament” – and moralistic: “Our Nation’s schools and Colleges … are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve.”
That was an assault on an idea that had been uncontroversial among Americans of all political persuasions for generations: that education can and should help children learn to participate more effectively in society. The authors had more concrete objectives in mind. Like Communist commissars plumping next year’s wheat harvest, their goal was productivity, productivity, productivity.
“Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce,” wrote the Commission. And by “raw materials,” Millennials, they meant you.
The rest of the Commission’s report is largely taken up by a) platitudes, and b) statistical studies which soon challenged aggressively. But the Randian State moved on, Millennials firmly in its maw. And while A Nation At Risk only targeted students, it soon had Americans of all ages in its sights.
Birth School Work Death
During the Thatcher years a British punk group called The Godfathers put out a song called “Birth School Work Death.” Here are nine ways the Cradle to Grave Randian State is harming Millennials in those four stages of life.
1. Prenatal Nutrition
For some the new regime began even before they were born. The Reagan Administration moved to cut nutrition funding for 600,000 pregnant women, a particularly hypocritical act for a movement which claims to be concerned about the rights of unborn children.
2. Early Childhood Nutrition
The same cuts also lowered food budgets for children in 4.6 million households, eighty-seven percent of which lived below the poverty line.
3. School lunches
The National School Lunch Act of 1946 and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 both promoted healthy meals for America’s schoolchildren. Seems benign and even wise – unless you’re a Randian, of course. The Reagan Administration added to cuts in 1980 budget, then passed into infamy when it stated that ketchup and pickle relish could be considered “vegetables” when designing a balanced diet.
Few, if any, parents adopted this approach at the family dinner table. “Kids, finish your vegetables!” never became “Kids, finish sucking the factory produced, sugar-drenched condiments out of those little folding packets!”
4. Cutting education funds.
The Reagan Administration’s cuts to the Department of Education, some occurring under Education Secretary William Bennett, eventually totaled $19 billion.
The right has continued to mount an assault on school funding at every level ever since, from local school boards up to the state and Federal level. They’ve been joined by “centrist” Democrats like Rahm Emanuel in their efforts to demonize teachers and privatize schools.
5. Making college unaffordable.
The University of Virginia’s Miller Center conducted a study for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and found that “Since the mid-1980s” – roughly the start of the Millennial Generation -“the costs of higher education in America have steadily shifted from the taxpayer to the student and family.”
Median family income have risen by 147% since then, while college tuition and fees rose 439%, a tripling of education costs in real dollar terms. The impact has been greatest on lower-income families, sounding a potential death knell for social mobility.
From the New York Times: “Among the poorest families … the net cost of a year at a public university was 55 percent of median income, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000.”
6. Leaving graduates drowning in debt.
The misguided ‘privatization’ of Sallie Mae, the government’s student loan enterprise, led to a series of political and financial scandals. (See “Sallie Mae’s Jets.”) It also contributed to an explosion of student loans, many of which went to highly dubious ‘colleges’ which issued high-cost, worthless degrees. Many other students went to more legitimate institutions, but found themselves drowning in debt.
Now 7.4 million students are about to see a doubling of their interest rates unless something is done. Elizabeth Warren has proposed given them access to the Fed’s ultra-low rates for banks, while more modest proposals would keep current rates in place.
The student debt situation for Millennials would be morally unconscionable even if rates remain at current levels. Anything else is shocking to contemplate. The UPI reports today that Sen. Lamar Alexander said the President and Republicans “agree” on what should be done.
That’s not reassuring.
7. Massive unemployment.
There are 10 million unemployed young people in the United States. The official youth unemployment rate is 16.2 percent, the adjusted rate (including discouraged workers) is 22.9 percent – not much better than the Eurozone’s – and the anemic ‘jobs recovery’ is even weaker for Millennials.
The crisis covers everything from high-school-age summer and after-school jobs to employment after graduation.
Studies show that youth unemployment lowers income for the rest of a person’s life. That means this crisis is urgent as well as massive. Every passing month harms the future of an entire generation. What immediate, major measures are being proposed to address this emergency?
8. An increasingly inequitable, wage-stagnating economy.
When Millennials do find jobs – hopefully – they’ll enter a marketplace and economy plagued by historic levels of wage inequality and stagnation.
That’s not an accident: It’s policy.Tax rates favor inequality. Right-wing Republicans and “centrist” Democrats have savaged unions, an effective counterweight against growing inequality. And both parties have served the growing financialization of our economy (although the GOP does it with more gusto), making things worse for everybody except Wall Street.
9. Greater fear and insecurity in old age.
Now the President has proposed cutting Social Security benefits through the cynical “chained CPI.” The “Chain” is also a tax increase, but only on income below the highest level, which means it will aggravate the inequalities that are hurting the vast majority of Americans.
Every generation will suffer if it passes, including those who have already retired. But for Millennials it will be a final late-life kick from the Randian State.
A Letter to Millennials
The year was 1984. Wham! and Cyndi Lauper were topping the charts. The top movie of the year was, appropriately enough, The Terminator. And the nation was re-electing Ronald Reagan. Americans are now suffering from birth to death as a result of this triumphal year for Randians, which plunged us deeper into a red-in-tooth-and-claw world and left millions struggling with its social consequences.
As they used to say back then: Have a nice day!
Dear Millennials: We tried to stop them. We failed. We’re sorry. Now we need a party – and more importantly, a movement – that will refuse to allow the continued destruction of government’s vital role in our social fabric.
Until we do, every generation will suffer. But you, the Millennials, will continue to carry the dubious distinction of being the first generation of Americans to have been assaulted from the cradle to the grave. For your sake and everyone’s else, you must fight back.
This Father’s Day, here’s a promise: Some of us will be right there beside you.
(This piece has been edited slightly since first published, mostly to replace the awkward phrase ‘Rand-y’ with ‘Randian.’)