In his speech today to a supportive crowd at CPAC in Washington, Sen. Marco Rubio brushed aside criticism that he and others in the Republican Party have no new ideas to offer.
“We don’t need a new idea,” Rubio said. “There is an idea — that idea is called America, and it still works.”
And the crowd cheered.
That is, I think, the crux of the issue separating the left from the right in the economic debate now underway. The perspective of the right is that nothing fundamental has changed in the American economy, and that the only thing we need to do to return to the era of a fast-growing economy with good middle-class jobs is to get government out of the way.
From the perspective of the left, the American economy has changed in fundamental ways that have little or nothing to do with government. Government did not create the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of America. Government could not restrain technology that rendered the labor of so many less valuable. Government did not push millions of jobs overseas to take advantage of workers who make a few dollars a day. But from the perspective of the left, government can be used as a tool to help Americans adjust to those changes.
Clearly, I disagree with the conservative critique. It strikes me as ivy-covered nostalgia for a day that is now long gone.
In his speech, Rubio did nothing to discourage that sense of wistful nostalgia. Consider, for example, his argument for disengaging government from many of the social programs it now undertakes:
“Ultimately, we should recognize (that) we do have obligations to each other. In addition to our individual rights, (we have) our individual responsibilities to each other, but not through government, through community, through our churches, and through our neighborhoods, as parents and neighbors and friends. Those are the best ways in which we can serve our fellow Americans, through voluntary organizations where every single day Americans from all walks of life are literally changing the world in one day, one life, one neighbor at a time.”
Again, that’s an attractively nostalgic, even Rockwellian picture drawn by the senator. There is no question that volunteers and community groups play a critical, highly laudable role in American life, and that ought to be encouraged. In his budget proposal, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan makes a similar point, blaming the erosion of community on an encroaching government.
“To avert the debt crisis,” Ryan writes in his budget, “we need to stop this encroachment and to revive community in American civil society.”
I disagree on two major points. First, it is far too simplistic to blame government for the erosion of community. A transient lifestyle, an economy based on hyper-consumption, a cultural emphasis on the self and technology that serves to isolate us even as it seems to connect us — those and other factors have far more of an erosive impact upon community than does government. But Rubio’s analysis does at least have the merit of consistency, given the conservative movement’s insistence that every evil can be traced back to the same villain.
Second, I find it impossible to conceive of a “civil society” that can be scaled up to meet the enormous needs of a modern, highly industrialized, increasingly urban nation of more than 300 million people under economic stress. Ryan, Rubio and others in their party of course believe otherwise. By cutting back severely on support for nutrition programs, medical care, job training and other aid for the poor, Ryan brags, “Our budget makes room for community — for the vast middle ground between government and the person.”
Again, while it would be nice to believe that, reality suggests otherwise. Take the issue of nutrition. Even with tens of millions of Americans on food stamps in these tough times, volunteer soup kitchens and food programs report themselves overwhelmed by demand. It would simply not be feasible for such community-based programs to step in and fill the void left by a withdrawal of federal resources.
At some level, Rubio and his colleagues probably know that. But they dare not acknowledge that reality, because once acknowledged it undermines the very foundation of the do-nothing ideology that they preach.
Consider, for example, the predicament of a Florida couple described by Rubio himself to his CPAC audience.
“There’s this couple that I know, they’re on my son’s tackle football team. Their son is eight years old. It’s a couple, they’re married. She works as a receptionist at a dental office, a medical office. He loads boxes from trucks at a warehouse. I don’t have to tell you, they’re struggling. They live in a little, small apartment; they share one car. They’re not freeloaders. They’re not liberals. They’re just everyday people who want what everybody else wants. They want a better life. They want a better life for themselves, and an even better life for their children. They’re desperate.”
Rubio describes their situation with compassion, but the only assistance that he suggests, job training, would almost certainly be government-provided. And the Ryan budget slashes job-training funds significantly.
Furthermore, if that couple’s eight-year-old son suffers a concussion or breaks a leg in a football game, who pays for the medical bill? Given the jobs that his parents hold, it is unlikely that they have employer-provided health insurance. It is far more likely that they would be covered by Medicaid, another program that Republicans insist must be slashed significantly.
Given their incomes, it is also highly likely that the couple in question takes advantage of the earned income tax credit, designed to bolster the income of low-earning working people. Ronald Reagan called it “the best anti-poverty bill, the best pro-family measure, and the best job-creation program ever to come out of the Congress of the United States,” but today’s Republican Party deems it a handout. (The EITC is a major reason why the infamous “47 percent” — which probably includes this couple — pays no federal income tax.)
And in another 10 years, the couple’s eight-year-old boy should be ready for college. How would two working-class parents afford such an expense? In his comments, Rubio recalled that as a son of the working class, he financed his own college education through $100,000 in federal student loans. However, he also suggested that such programs have outlived their usefulness and cause more problems than they cure. Both Pell grants and student loans would be cut significantly under Ryan’s budget plan.
Rubio is right about one thing: America works, and it has always worked. But it has worked because it has been more willing than other countries to adapt to changing times with new ideas. The concept that no new ideas are necessary, that the path ahead can be reached by turning back to the past, has never been the American way.
– Jay Bookman