Austerity Insanity in an Upside-Down Political Landscape: A Non-Expert’s Manic Attempt to Make Sense of It All [Matt Hoffman]

April 19, 2011

In the interest of disclosure, nearly every word that follows this sentence is opinion, conjecture, and/or the unqualified ranting of a guy who, last year, got a B.A. in Political Theory and who now finds himself waking up to grind out a long, meaningless day at a business-y office job he abhors.  If you relate or if you find the miserable mental contortion of others amusing, read on.  Here we’ll look to briefly tackle just what the hell has happened in the last few years and why it can sometimes seem as though the world has been turned upon its head. 

If you’re still among the living and breathing, you’ve likely noticed a seachange in the political, social, and moral universe in the last few years and maybe you would even agree that the bipolar message spit out of the 24-hour news cycle often feels more than a bit disingenuous.  After 8 years of thinly veiled deception and regime self-interest from the Bush Administration, it seems absurd to face familiar concerns from Obama’s hope-machine.  Still, there it is.  I’ve spent a bit time trying to think through what’s happening, who’s benefiting, and why the Tea Party seems to be the only invested (albeit misguided) response.   Here we go…

Since Ronald Reagan helmed this rudderless ship we call America, both the Business and Blue-Collar lobbies have formed a steadfast, unholy, and perplexing union.  If you’re interested in an in-depth look at why that might have happened, read Thomas Frank’s notable 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.  While a bit dated, it is certainly worth a quick read after you finish up Rand Paul’s Tea Party Comes to Washington.  Why in the world has the working class so closely affiliated itself with a business-set that has outsourced, cost-controlled, financed, and gambled our economy in to shambles all the while it amassed record profits and grossly over-compensated those pulling the purse strings?  I don’t have the answer but writing through the confusion seems cathartic so I’ll continue on. 

Could what Frank calls the ‘Great Backlash’, or the misguided pitchfork wielding response to the flippant, morally offensive (to some) tirades of 60s progressive movement be at the root of today’s Tea Party sensibilities?  Maybe so.  Whether you find your political affinities to the left, center, or right I’d wager that, at one moment or another, you’ve felt as though some cause-crusading group had taken political correctness too far; that some group’s sensitivities had become so delicate that they were now impinging upon your own liberties. 

Come on, it’s true…right?  Positive and negative rights are tricky matters and we all become personally invested when the rights in question impact our own lives.  Groups and individuals and groups and groups and individuals and individuals will always be at odds over the negotiation of rights.  In an environment where debate is stifled by the axiomatic and politically correct moral certitude, resentment, anger, and irrationality are sure to result. 

All that said, I wonder how in the world a group like the Tea Party can market itself as the arbiters of justice for the everyman, or those of us on the losing end of the American Banana Republic, and then back the dissolution of the estate tax, tax breaks for the rich, and decreased taxes for global multi-national corporations?  Heck, in his non-fiction dystopia The Tea Party Goes to Washington Rand Paul writes “most Tea Partiers would even accept their current level of taxation if government would seriously begin to cut spending”.  Confused yet?  Taxed Enough Already but it’s not about taxes, it’s about spending.  They’re worried about leaving a costly tax-burden legacy to future generations yet they’re on board with cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy to their lowest effective rates since the pre-Depression era.  Moving on. 

The point of this piece is not to vilify the Tea Party folks.  That’s been done elsewhere.  The grassroots frustration inherent in their movement is laudable but the off-the-mark focus of the resulting rage seems akin to pointing the butt of a rifle at your enemy and pulling the trigger.  We’re staring down the abyss at what some have hailed Detroit-style social, economic, systemic collapse and we’re granting tax breaks to the only folks still making money: the rich and the MNCs?  Unemployment and underemployment are out of control, post-housing-crisis property tax revenue is in jeopardy as record foreclosures are processed, service demands are up and funds and state budgets are tapped.  Anyone who could be bothered to take a few minutes to reason through the likely outcomes ought to be able to guess that we’re headed for some trouble and improving our wealthiest tax-bracket’s bottom line shouldn’t be the policy focus.

In an effort to end this written-word therapy session at some point, I’ll close with just a bit of exposition and a few final thoughts.  While I’m by no means affluent, I’m more fortunate than some.  I make a modest five-figure salary at a job I hate but hold on to so I can finance my life as I navigate the graduate school application process.  My best-case scenario is to land a decent job just as I approach or pass thirty years old and begin paying back my substantial student loan debt.  I’ll be lucky to have repaid my obligations for access to education by the time I’m fifty.  Still, even as my compensation increases (if it ever does) I can’t see myself ever complaining about taxes.  I believe that those who benefit most from the system should contribute most to its maintenance.  Those contributions keep us from an inhumane ‘State of Nature’.  It seems absurd and meaningless to live in a reverse Robin Hood society like ours: where we rob from the poor to line the pockets of the rich, look the other way, and mumble something about “those people”.