Keller and Krugman

In “The Republican Id” Mr. Keller says at Miami University in Ohio, Paul Ryan’s mentor provides a window into the party’s thinking.  Prof. Krugman, in “Sandy Versus Katrina,” says the federal response to two hurricanes shows that government can help in times of crisis.  Here’s Mr. Keller, who’s in Oxford, Ohio:

This patch of southern Ohio between Cincinnati and Dayton is not the up-for-grabs Ohio you’ve read so much about. This is decided country, where House Speaker John Boehner is running for re-election unopposed, where “Defeat Obama” and “Romney/Ryan” lawn signs glisten in the chilly drizzle.

At the heart of it is a university whose students, according to a poll by the campus paper, favor Romney by 49 percent to 40 percent, and tend to think, as one senior half-joked, “that Sean Hannity is the news.” This is clearly not the place to gauge the last-minute mood swings of a state that many consider decisive.

It is, however, an interesting place to ponder the governing mentality of a Romney/Ryan administration, if that is what voters deliver on Tuesday. Miami University, a pretty grid of red brick, lawns and autumn foliage, is the place where Paul Ryan’s view of the world jelled, under the tutelage of an economist he describes as his mentor. I decided to spend my last column before the election peeking through this little window into the Republican id. If Mitt Romney is our next president, many in the party hope Ryan will play the role of chief ideologist. And if Romney loses, Ryan starts the 2016 campaign for his party’s nomination near the front of the line.

Ryan’s alma mater draws mostly white, upper-middle-class students from Midwest Republican families that are attracted to Miami as a place unlikely to turn their children against them. A well-endowed business school (Ryan majored in economics and political science) and a robust frat culture (Ryan was an enthusiastic Delta Tau Delta) tend to reinforce the conservative values represented by the Republican ticket — with one important asterisk we’ll get to later. In 2008, many Miami students veered out of character, thrilled by the historic Obama campaign, but now that enthusiasm has given way to disappointment and to something few of these kids have ever experienced: economic anxiety.

The macroeconomics professor who helped shape Paul Ryan is a voluble, passionate supply-sider and self-described “hard-core libertarian” named William R. Hart, known as Rich. Listening to him, you can imagine that you are hearing what Paul Ryan would say if he were not inhibited by the demands of electoral politics. Hart is the opposite of politic — to the point of regularly, publicly denouncing Miami University for what he regards as declining academic rigor and coddling of students, all in the university’s pursuit of “money, money, money.” Hart is not a coddler. He proudly reports that of the 112 students who took his latest Principles of Macroeconomics exam, 56 failed and 27 got D’s.

Rich Hart does not speak for Paul Ryan, but he spent many hours talking to Ryan, his eager student, and regards the candidate as a good friend and kindred spirit. What they share is an enduring and astringent kind of Republicanism that rests on a reverence for self-reliance, a conviction that government assistance leads to crippling dependency.

Hart sees the election not as a difference of approaches but a clash of philosophies. “Do we want to become a sort of European socialist welfare state?” he asked when we chatted in his office, decorated with Elvis and Nascar memorabilia, with Paul Krugman’s economics textbook demoted to a doorstop. “Or do we want to be a free-market capitalist economy where people who are productive get rewarded for working hard and creating wealth? What happens with these European welfare states is, everybody’s equally poor. I much prefer a little income inequality.”

Hart’s policy expectations for a Romney/Ryan regime are familiar from the campaign. They include rolling back environmental regulations that slow development of natural gas and coal. (“Not green energy,” he said with disgust. “Fossil fuel energy.”) They include entrusting health care for the poor, and as much else as possible, to the mercies of the states; requiring that Medicare compete in a voucher market; cutting marginal tax rates, of course. What is striking, talking to Ryan’s mentor, is not the policies but the fervor and the deep suspicion of the other side’s motives.

“My liberal friends say, well, Paul Ryan doesn’t care about the poor,” Hart said. “I would argue it’s the Democrats who don’t care about the poor. They’re the ones that make them wards of the state. And just write them welfare checks.”

This enslavement, as Hart sees it, is not well-intentioned nannying gone wrong, but cynical self-interest by liberal groups: “My view of the N.A.A.C.P. is, you can’t represent a group of downtrodden if you don’t have a permanent group of downtrodden to represent.”

Ryan, his former professor says, wants to “make these people productive members of society, where they can lift themselves up. Maybe others think along these lines, but he’s the only one that would actually try to implement policies.”

In his infamous 47-percent video and in some of his primary-season rhetoric, Mitt Romney leaned toward this view — that programs like food stamps and welfare and jobless benefits and the minimum wage had produced a parasite class. But in Romney, that feels like a casual attitude born of lifelong privilege. In Ryan, I think, it is bedrock. It’s not just a belief that austerity works, but an embrace of austerity as a moral imperative.

“I don’t know how I would have handled the 47 percent comment, if only because I would never have said such a thing,” Hart told me. “Although I understand the context of the remark given the dependency state that government policies have created for so many. Instead, I would have stressed from the outset the need for policies to end long-term dependency by so many on government handouts, policies that wean them off the taxpayer dole and make them productive elements of society — make them givers rather than takers.”

The vision of hands-off government will strike many — strikes me — as harsh, and particularly harsh now, against the backdrop of the storm’s ravages. Romney spent last week avoiding his earlier suggestion that the Federal Emergency Management Agency be disbanded, and you aren’t hearing anything of the kind from Ryan. When I put that to Hart in a follow-up e-mail, he replied, a little grudgingly, that it was “not inappropriate to have a federal agency to ‘coordinate’ relief efforts after national disasters. Having said that, my bet is FEMA, like most government agencies, is too big/bloated and could coordinate relief efforts with (far) fewer resources than it currently receives from taxpayers.”

It is possible that Romney’s inherent pragmatism, the moderation that emerged late in his campaign, could drive his presidency. I hope so. But that would require the cooperation of Ryan’s fellow House Republicans, who revere Ryan more than Romney and who seem unlikely to regard a Republican victory as a mandate for compromise.

“I just don’t think Paul would have gotten on the ticket if he didn’t get some kind of firm commitment,” Hart told me.

The one area where Ryan’s libertarian mentor is utterly out of sync with the Republican ticket is on social issues like abortion rights and gay marriage. “I want the Democrats out of my damn pocketbook,” he said, “and I want the Republicans out of my bedroom.”

This is also where Miami University’s student body is about as liberal as the rest of its generation, according to the university’s own research. Ryan’s no-exceptions opposition to abortion and embrace of the Defense of Marriage Act are such anathema here that the campus Republican chairman, Baylor Myers, told me his executive committee voted to avoid social issues altogether.

“We won’t discuss it this election,” he said. “Our entire focus is economic.” He added that he wished the national Republican Party would drop abortion from its platform and “reform its position” on gay rights. Because if the economy revives and questions of jobs and growth no longer overshadow issues of personal liberty, Paul Ryan can no longer count on being the big man on this campus.

Here’s Prof. Krugman:

As Sandy barreled toward New Jersey, there were hopeful mutters on the right to the effect that it might become President Obama’s Katrina, with voters blaming him for the damage, and that this might matter on Tuesday. Sorry, guys: polls show overwhelming approval for Mr. Obama’s handling of the storm, and a significant rise in his overall favorability ratings.

And he deserves the bump. For the response to Sandy, like the success of the auto bailout, is a demonstration that Mr. Obama’s philosophy of government — which holds that the government can and should provide crucial aid in times of crisis — works. And conversely, the contrast between Sandy and Katrina demonstrates that leaders who hold government in contempt cannot provide that aid when it is needed.

So, about that response: Much of the greater New York area (including my house) is still without power; gasoline is scarce; and some outlying areas are feeling neglected. Right-wing news media are portraying these continuing difficulties as a disaster comparable to, nay greater than, the aftermath of Katrina. But there’s really no comparison.

I could do a point-by-point — and it’s definitely worth it, if you’re curious, to revisit the 2005 Katrina timeline to get a sense of just how bad the response really was. But for me the difference is summed up in two images. One is the nightmare at the New Orleans convention center, where thousands were stranded for days amid inconceivable squalor, an outrage that all of America watched live on TV, but to which top officials seemed oblivious. The other is the scene in flooded Hoboken, with the National Guard moving in the day after the storm struck to deliver food and water and rescue stranded residents.

The point is that after Katrina the government seemed to have no idea what it was doing; this time it did. And that’s no accident: the federal government’s ability to respond effectively to disaster always collapses when antigovernment Republicans hold the White House, and always recovers when Democrats take it back.

Consider, in particular, the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Under President George H. W. Bush, FEMA became a dumping ground for unqualified political hacks. Faced with a major test in the form of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the agency failed completely.

Then Bill Clinton came in, put FEMA under professional management, and saw the agency’s reputation restored.

Given this experience, you might have expected George W. Bush to preserve Mr. Clinton’s gains. But no: he appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, to head the agency, and Mr. Allbaugh immediately signaled his intention both to devolve disaster relief to the state and local level and to downgrade the whole effort, declaring, “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” After Mr. Allbaugh left for the private sector, he was replaced with Michael “heckuva job” Brown, and the rest is history.

Like Mr. Clinton, President Obama restored FEMA’s professionalism, effectiveness, and reputation. But would Mitt Romney destroy the agency again? Yes, he would. As everyone now knows — despite the Romney campaign’s efforts to Etch A Sketch the issue away — during the primary Mr. Romney used language almost identical to Mr. Allbaugh’s, declaring that disaster relief should be turned back to the states and to the private sector.

The best line on this, I have to admit, comes from Stephen Colbert: “Who better to respond to what’s going on inside its own borders than the state whose infrastructure has just been swept out to sea?”

Look, Republicans love to quote Ronald Reagan’s old joke that the most dangerous words you can hear are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Of course they’ll do their best, whenever they’re in power, to destroy an agency whose job is to say exactly that. And yes, it’s hypocritical that the right-wing news media are now attacking Mr. Obama for, they say, not helping enough people.

Back to the politics. Some Republicans have already started using Sandy as an excuse for a possible Romney defeat. It’s a weak argument: state-level polls have been signaling a clear and perhaps widening Obama advantage for weeks. But as I said, to the extent that the storm helps Mr. Obama, it’s well deserved.

The fact is that if Mr. Romney had been president these past four years the federal response to disasters of all kinds would have been far weaker than it was. There would have been no auto bailout, because Mr. Romney opposed the federal financing that was crucial to the rescue. And FEMA would have remained mired in Bush-era incompetence.

So this storm probably won’t swing the election — but if it does, it will do so for very good reasons.


2 Responses to “Keller and Krugman”

  1. John Cross Says:

    When Republic idealogs say they want to end reguation, I ask: Where do you mean? Do you want to end regulation of pharmaceuticals? How about nuclear power?

    When they say they want to end welfare dependency, I ask, how about the disabled?

    When they say they want to enable competition in health care, I ask why is the government forbidden to negotiate drug prices for Medicare?

    When they say they want to encourage risk taking and self-reliance, I ask, why do you want to abolish the estate tax?

    Give me a break. Conservatives are very, very selective in what they mean by their slogans.

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