Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Death, Taxes and Homocons

The Only One Missing Is The Mad Hatter: Today's front page story in the New York Times on Tea Party activists reveals what we already suspected: that many of its leading activists are comfortably unemployed. Many key players at the local level are older people of retirement age who are supporting themselves on Social Security and Medicare: one actually retired so that she could pursue her activism full-time. This is why they are able to dedicate themselves to running off at the drop of a hat to make signs or protest the extension of health care to younger people who have failed to exercise the responsibility to stay, or be, employed at the jobs that would give them access to affordable insurance. Because they have already paid into these big government entitlement programs, senior activists explain, "they are getting what they deserve." Hoo-hah!

But it's still big government, right? So some people deserve services from big government and others don't? How about the people who have paid into Medicare who are undocumented immigrants? Or the 11.5 million people who have paid into unemployment for their whole lives whose benefits and COBRA will run out on April 5 because Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) are blocking an emergency spending bill (as the US spends $720 million per day on the war.)

Well yes, it's all big government. The maintenance of rest stops on the highway is also a function of big government, one that probably costs less than about a half day of war. In a bell weather move, the Arizona Department of Transportation -- starved of money by the good people of that state -- has had to close thirteen rest stops. This means that you can drive the width of the state on Highway 40 and have absolutely nowhere to go to the bathroom that is safe, private and clean. Arizonans, at last report, are incensed. So are people in the states where they are raising taxes on everything from haircuts to funerals because elected officials are too chicken to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

My advice to academics is that whatever you are teaching next year, find some way to talk about how and why governments raise revenues; and the misinformation that "small government," low income, corporate and property taxes, and de-regulation hold the promise of utopia for the little guy because it is just not true and never has been true. By trying to kill taxes, so-called populists and their spokespeople in both parties have produced a regressive system that actually is hardest on the little guy who needs to take a whizz or bury grandma. Poor people are actually paying taxes on behalf of the rich when state revenues are collected primarily at the cash register. Curricula should also include discussions of the infrastructure maintained by government that allows us all to actually go to work; the reasons why education should be a loss-leader, not a break-even endeavor; why feeding people and keeping them healthy is good for the economy; and other material connections between the health of large institutions like banks, hospitals, universities and public transportation systems and the well-being of the littlest hard-working guy or gal. Don't want the government to bail out the banks, but you do want to prevent your overpriced house from going into foreclosure? It's two sides of the same problem: you can't help the people without helping the banks, and vice versa.

Finally, United States history demonstrates quite graphically an unregulated economy is not a better economy: look at the nineteenth century, why don't you, which was just one big boom-and-bust cycle. In fact, while you are at it, volunteer to teach a history class at a senior center, since that is where it seems you could do a lot of good.

Speaking of Taxes, There Is Also Death: The book of the week, hands down, is Final Acts: Death, Dying and the Choices We Make, edited by Nan Bauer-Maglin and Donna Perry (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010). While I must add the disclaimer that I know one of the authors Very Well, it is a beautiful collection of reflections on death and dying, with a high emphasis on the choices that one's own death potentially entails. How to plan for death, how to receive death, how to struggle with the choices loved ones have made -- or not made -- about their own final decline, and how chronic illness and/or aging creates the possibility for thinking about one's time on earth are all reflected upon in this collection. The scholars and writers represented in the collection represent the social sciences, medicine, philosophy, psychology, literature and women's studies. Anthropologist Nancy Barnes writes about her strong-willed mother who had intended to end her life in the event of a long, fatal illness -- and then was unable to do so as her dementia eroded the rational mind that had made those plans. Historians may wish to take a special look at a personal essay by Sara Evans on the decline of her parents, Claude and Mackie. You can buy Final Acts by going to the above link, or you can click here.

Then There Is Social Death: One of the best pieces I have ever read, ever, about conservatives in the closet is Joanne Wypijewski's "Hey, Sailor" (The Nation, April 5 2010). In "Carnal Knowledge," a column that does not appear frequently enough, Wypijewski puts the Eric Massa Ticklegate scandal in a broader cultural perspective. Here's the thing: you might not be able to get it unless you subscribe, but so what? For only $18.00 you can get the online edition for a year, and you can actually get a free, four week trial subscription if spending $18.00 for a left wing pig in a polk is not your kind of thing. But actually? To get Katha Pollitt, Eric Alterman, Patricia Williams, Eric Foner, Richard Kim, Greg Grandin, Calvin Trillin's political satire in verse, and all the news you need to read mainstream sources critically? It's a bargain.

And you get access to fabulous cover art like the one featured at the top of this post.


JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, weren't you out there interviewing the tea party folks a few months back? How many that you talked to were unemployed? (Of course at the rate we are going under the current administration, we'll all be unemployed before long. Oh, I know -- blame it on Bush, but when you do, remember that the Democrats have had control of congress for the past four years.)
I don't know whether the President can actually do much to influence the economy, but the least he can do is act like he's concerned and trying, instead of spending 90% of his time on other issues.

Tenured Radical said...


I did suspect it from my experience, since I talked to lots of retired people (and my superficial impression was that it was an older crowd. By that, I mean substantially older than me, and I am 52.) but that wouldn't be relevant except as far as the allusion to suspecting that what the Times article commented on could be the case.

Anyway, I think it stands to reason that the health bill -- of it expands services - is a job creator, since it will pour money into the insurance companies and more people will seek routine care.

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, do you know if there is anything in the bill just passed that will increase the supply of primary-care physicians to accommodate all of the new customers? I heard they were going to fiddle with Medicaid reimbursements to encourage more folks to go into primary care, but that doesn't seem to be adequate. Increasing demand without correspondingly increasing supply seems to me will lead to increasing cost, delay and frustration rather than more jobs.

Mark Kille said...

"In fact, there are incentives in this law to enlarge the pool of primary care doctors. One big one, which was added very late, is that they are going to increase payments for Medicaid primary care doctors to what Medicare pays. That will be a big increase.

There is increased loan forgiveness — up to $50,000 — for primary care doctors who join the National Health Service Corps. They go off and practice in underserved areas.

There's going to be more primary care residency slots, and there will be other inducements for primary care doctors. As I mentioned earlier, there will be changes in the way doctors are paid and health care is organized, so those will be other kinds of longer term changes in the medical system that are supposed to encourage doctors to become primary care doctors. On the other hand, there's not that much to be done about the fact that medical school is very expensive and that specialists will still be paid more than primary care doctors."

Anonymous said...


I'm a long-time reader and a big fan. Any recommendations for sources on taxation - primary or secondary - that I can include in my US survey (second half) next semester? Thanks!

Vanessa Vaile said...

Not all of us "comfortably unemployed" (some far less comfortable than others) are out tea partying. Activism, digital agitating and ankle biting for the greater good, is the ideal retirement hobby. I am active in the New Faculty Majority Coalition - comfortable (in a different sense of the word) in the sure knowledge that the unemployed cannot be fired (or not rehired) for speaking out.

cliotropic said...

The best book on US economic policy I read for general exams was Robin Einhorn's American Taxation, American Slavery. Its basic point is that arguments for low taxes and small government, in the early 19th century, went hand in hand with pro-slavery political cultures (though the details are more subtle than that.) The economic historians hated it, to judge from the review articles, but it's entirely worth a read.

(Put it together with Soul By Soul and The People's Welfare and you have the makings of a good survey lecture or 2 on "the market" in the early 19th century.)