In “Party of Strivers” Bobo says the Republican Party unabashedly celebrates individual responsibility en route to material success, but our destinies are shaped by other forces. In “Made in the U.S.A.” Mr. Cohen tells us that all by himself he has built the perfect column for the second American century. Prof. Krugman looks at “The Medicare Killers” and says Paul Ryan’s big lie in his convention speech was his claim that a Romney-Ryan administration would protect and strengthen Medicare. Here’s Bobo:
America was built by materialistic and sometimes superficial strivers. It was built by pioneers who voluntarily subjected themselves to stone-age conditions on the frontier fired by dreams of riches. It was built by immigrants who crammed themselves into hellish tenements because they thought it would lead, for their children, to big houses, big cars and big lives.
America has always been defined by this ferocious commercial energy, this zealotry for self-transformation, which leads its citizens to vacation less, work longer, consume more and invent more.
Many Americans, and many foreign observers, are ambivalent about or offended by this driving material ambition. Read “The Great Gatsby.” Read D.H. Lawrence on Benjamin Franklin.
But today’s Republican Party unabashedly celebrates this ambition and definition of success. Speaker after speaker at the convention in Tampa, Fla., celebrated the striver, who started small, struggled hard, looked within and became wealthy. Speaker after speaker argued that this ideal of success is under assault by Democrats who look down on strivers, who undermine self-reliance with government dependency, who smother ambition under regulations.
Republicans promised to get government out of the way. Reduce the burden of debt. Offer Americans an open field and a fair chance to let their ambition run.
If you believe, as I do, that American institutions are hitting a creaky middle age, then you have a lot of time for this argument. If you believe that there has been a hardening of the national arteries caused by a labyrinthine tax code, an unsustainable Medicare program and a suicidal addiction to deficits, then you appreciate this streamlining agenda, even if you don’t buy into the whole Ayn Rand-influenced gospel of wealth.
On the one hand, you see the Republicans taking the initiative, offering rejuvenating reform. On the other hand, you see an exhausted Democratic Party, which says: We don’t have an agenda, but we really don’t like theirs. Given these options, the choice is pretty clear.
But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.
Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.
But there’s a problem. I see what the G.O.P. is offering the engineering major from Purdue or the business major from Arizona State. The party is offering skilled people the freedom to run their race. I don’t see what the party is offering the waitress with two kids, or the warehouse worker whose wages have stagnated for a decade, or the factory worker whose skills are now obsolete.
The fact is our destinies are shaped by social forces much more than the current G.O.P. is willing to admit. The skills that enable people to flourish are not innate but constructed by circumstances.
Government does not always undermine initiative. Some government programs, like the G.I. Bill, inflame ambition. Others depress it. What matters is not whether a program is public or private but its effect on character. Today’s Republicans, who see every government program as a step on the road to serfdom, are often blind to that. They celebrate the race to success but don’t know how to give everyone access to that race.
The wisest speech departed from the prevailing story line. It was delivered by Condoleezza Rice. It echoed an older, less libertarian conservatism, which harkens back to Washington, Tocqueville and Lincoln. The powerful words in her speech were not “I” and “me” — the heroic individual. They were “we” and “us” — citizens who emerge out of and exist as participants in a great national project.
Rice celebrated material striving but also larger national goals — the long national struggle to extend benefits and mobilize all human potential. She subtly emphasized how our individual destinies are dependent upon the social fabric and upon public institutions like schools, just laws and our mission in the world. She put less emphasis on commerce and more on citizenship.
Today’s Republican Party may be able to perform useful tasks with its current hyperindividualistic mentality. But its commercial soul is too narrow. It won’t be a worthy governing party until it treads the course Lincoln trod: starting with individual ambition but ascending to a larger vision and creating a national environment that arouses ambition and nurtures success.
Do you get the feeling that Bobo is becoming a bit horrified by his beloved Republicans? Here’s Mr. Cohen:
I built this column.
I built it all by myself in this second American century.
I built it after seeing banners at the Republican National Convention saying, “Build, Baby, Build!” So I decided to drill down and see what I could find.
I found I needed a laptop that somebody else had built, somewhere outside the United States, somewhere like China, where there’s a lot of building going on. Naturally enough I discarded the computer in horror because I believe in building things myself from the ground up, just like my role-model Mom told me. She, by the way, was from Sicily and came via Wales to the United States, where she built a small business.
Now, that’s the last time I’m going to mention foreign countries in this self-built column. Real Americans know the rest of the world does not exist. The rest of the world is just a bad fantasy the other party has.
If I do allude to the national debt as I build further into this column, and I may because real Americans know it is no good mortgaging the future, I promise not to identify America’s creditors even once — not even China.
What I do is build words one after the other, which may sound like a ridiculous way to earn a living, and in many ways it is. To learn to do this I had to get an education. Fortunately I got it from teachers who love children rather than teachers who love unions. Otherwise I might have imagined tax dollars and an education are in some way related — an awful European-type thought.
I believe in self-reliance even though I’m not part of the greatest generation and almost certainly never will be.
Still, I want my children and my grandchildren to look back at me and my contemporaries and think: That was not a mediocre-to-poor generation. They built things!
Because of my belief in individualism I never read anything. Reading what others write may compromise my entrepreneurial ability to build rugged, pioneering, can-do columns single-handed.
My Dad, by the way, was an immigrant to this greatest country on earth. My mother was also an immigrant to this greatest country in the universe. My dad died when I was young, my mother did not — or vice-versa. They both knew the rest of the world would just have to get used to the fact that the 21st century is the second American century.
My parents got no education. They were proud of their ignorance. They worked hard, got ahead and taught me that you build brick by brick and buck by buck.
And here I am! Fellow Americans, this is the home of incredible self-built stories! Why, I’ve built myself a big belly while all those scrawny Subaru-driving eggheads only know how to grow one thing: the federal government, the central planners’ good old Uncle Sugar.
Now, I’d like to build in a mention here of love and respect. Ann Romney believes in love. Governor Chris Christie believes respect trumps love. (You get squabbles in the best families). He also believes in using the first-person pronoun as often as possible and the words Mitt Romney as little as possible. But that’s another story.
What I want to say right here is that love is far more important than respect; that is a no-brainer for a self-built human being like myself. Respect for elders might lead to the conclusion that we owe seniors shelter and health care and a decent way to live out their days. We all know where that leads, folks. The road from respect to entitlements is paved with intentions that were not self-built.
Love, by contrast, leads to all kinds of good stuff, like five children, and 18 grandchildren, and memories of a high-school dance, and getting the parents out of the house, and eating off a self-built fold-down ironing board in a basement, and getting elected in a state — Massachusetts — that is only 13 percent Republican — the very same percentage that entrepreneurs who build with maximum brutality pay in taxes.
With love and some arms sales to the Gulf, we will build this second American century! We will build it ourselves — without any help from each other.
Here I must make a confession. After I discarded my laptop I wrote for a while with a pen, sitting at a wooden desk, only to discover that the pen was made in India and the desk in some Euro place like Slovakia or maybe Slovenia. (I had to mention those countries but you can now continue ignoring them.)
I thought for a while about writing on a self-built fold-down ironing board while eating self-caught tuna and self-produced pasta but concluded that would not fly. So I took a sharp implement I had fashioned myself and headed out into the American woods where I know the goodness of this greatest of lands will provide me with some natural surface on which to etch these last words of a true American:
I built it, nobody else did.
Last but never least, Prof. Krugman:
Paul Ryan’s speech Wednesday night may have accomplished one good thing: It finally may have dispelled the myth that he is a Serious, Honest Conservative. Indeed, Mr. Ryan’s brazen dishonesty left even his critics breathless.
Some of his fibs were trivial but telling, like his suggestion that President Obama is responsible for a closed auto plant in his hometown, even though the plant closed before Mr. Obama took office. Others were infuriating, like his sanctimonious declaration that “the truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” This from a man proposing savage cuts in Medicaid, which would cause tens of millions of vulnerable Americans to lose health coverage.
And Mr. Ryan — who has proposed $4.3 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, versus only about $1.7 trillion in specific spending cuts — is still posing as a deficit hawk.
But Mr. Ryan’s big lie — and, yes, it deserves that designation — was his claim that “a Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare.” Actually, it would kill the program.
Before I get there, let me just mention that Mr. Ryan has now gone all-in on the party line that the president’s plan to trim Medicare expenses by around $700 billion over the next decade — savings achieved by paying less to insurance companies and hospitals, not by reducing benefits — is a terrible, terrible thing. Yet, just a few days ago, Mr. Ryan was still touting his own budget plan, which included those very same savings.
But back to the big lie. The Republican Party is now firmly committed to replacing Medicare with what we might call Vouchercare. The government would no longer pay your major medical bills; instead, it would give you a voucher that could be applied to the purchase of private insurance. And, if the voucher proved insufficient to buy decent coverage, hey, that would be your problem.
Moreover, the vouchers almost certainly would be inadequate; their value would be set by a formula taking no account of likely increases in health care costs.
Why would anyone think that this was a good idea? The G.O.P. platform says that it “will empower millions of seniors to control their personal health care decisions.” Indeed. Because those of us too young for Medicare just feel so personally empowered, you know, when dealing with insurance companies.
Still, wouldn’t private insurers reduce costs through the magic of the marketplace? No. All, and I mean all, the evidence says that public systems like Medicare and Medicaid, which have less bureaucracy than private insurers (if you can’t believe this, you’ve never had to deal with an insurance company) and greater bargaining power, are better than the private sector at controlling costs.
I know this flies in the face of free-market dogma, but it’s just a fact. You can see this fact in the history of Medicare Advantage, which is run through private insurers and has consistently had higher costs than traditional Medicare. You can see it from comparisons between Medicaid and private insurance: Medicaid costs much less. And you can see it in international comparisons: The United States has the most privatized health system in the advanced world and, by far, the highest health costs.
So Vouchercare would mean higher costs and lower benefits for seniors. Over time, the Republican plan wouldn’t just end Medicare as we know it, it would kill the thing Medicare is supposed to provide: universal access to essential care. Seniors who couldn’t afford to top up their vouchers with a lot of additional money would just be out of luck.
Still, the G.O.P. promises to maintain Medicare as we know it for those currently over 55. Should everyone born before 1957 feel safe? Again, no.
For one thing, repeal of Obamacare would cause older Americans to lose a number of significant benefits that the law provides, including the way it closes the “doughnut hole” in drug coverage and the way it protects early retirees.
Beyond that, the promise of unchanged benefits for Americans of a certain age just isn’t credible. Think about the political dynamics that would arise once someone born in 1956 still received full Medicare while someone born in 1959 couldn’t afford decent coverage. Do you really think that would be a stable situation? For sure, it would unleash political warfare between the cohorts — and the odds are high that older cohorts would soon find their alleged guarantees snatched away.
The question now is whether voters will understand what’s really going on (which depends to a large extent on whether the news media do their jobs). Mr. Ryan and his party are betting that they can bluster their way through this, pretending that they are the real defenders of Medicare even as they work to kill it. Will they get away with it?
If we have to rely on the news media doing its job we’re doomed.