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Is It Possible for America to Have an Honest Discussion About Government?

The front page of today’s Times, in one of a series of fine analytical reports that have cropped up in the wake of Occupy Wall Street (but, to be fair, might well have been in the works anyway), points directly to the dishonesty of the You’re-On-Your-Own, Social Darwinist orthodoxy that wholly owns the Republican Party and buffaloes non-Republicans too.  The headline:  ”Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It.”

This piece is full of illuminations.  A few are here:

[T]he poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.

So the so-called middle-class, that loose and baggy category that most Americans identify with (and have done so for decades), increasingly succeeds in remaining middling insofar as it is favored with various government subsidies.  And this article is talking about individual and family subsidies, not the larger net of government spending for infrastructure, public services, and so forth that composes so much of the fabric of everyday life and has done so ever since the federal government started building bridges, roads, and canals in the time of Alexander Hamilton.

The childishness of America’s unacknowledging schnorrers reveals itself here:

Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.

In other words, by pretending not to benefit from government expenditures, the budget-cutting legions not only disguise their dependency but are psychologically comfy when they disdain paying for it. It’s easier to blame welfare queens/food-stamp cheats. But their comfort zone is furnished with self-deception.

And the Times article doesn’t even touch on the American-dream mortgage-interest deduction that fueled the crazy housing boom which detonated the bubble with consequences still unfolding.

We can legitimately debate which taxes are fairer, and which expenditures most necessary and just, but as long as up-by-the-bootstraps ideology runs rampant, realistic debate is crippled by dishonesty. Unacknowledged dependency on the whole social network—not just on government—makes for delusions about how easy it would be to dispense with the safety net.

Which brings me back to the stymied non-Republicans I referred to above, those who resist a straight-on recognition of the degree to which fortunes are made on the back of subsidized entrepreneurs who masquerade as rugged individualists. I think of that awful moment in the 2000 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman when the moderator, Bernard Shaw, said to Cheney: “I’m pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers that you’re better off than you were eight years ago.” To which Cheney replied, “I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.” Laughter and applause ensued. In fact, during most of the years after he served in the George H. W. Bush administration, Cheney had been Chairman and CEO of Halliburton, which received lavish government contracts, including contracts for military construction awarded on the basis of payment at cost plus a guaranteed 13 percent. Lieberman did not mention the governmental largesse, nor did the moderator. Instead, Lieberman rolled out an all-too-familiar tidbit of material envy: “I can see my wife, and I think she’s saying, ‘I think he should go out into the private sector.’”

What Lieberman would not say—what the Occupy Wall Street movement does say—is that no one is the proverbial self-made man or woman. No one. Businesses benefit not only from government contracts but from taxpayer subsidies without which they would wither.

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