David Hoppe

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:: Paul Ryan's Gilded Age

Whose government is this anyway?

By David Hoppe


It's tough living in a country that's in the middle of a nervous breakdown. How else can you explain what's become of our politics?

There's something hallucinatory about a system that treats corporations like individuals, yet actual individuals -- people, that is, like your mom or sister, or the neighbor across the street -- are expected to fend for themselves.

And we call that living responsibly.

This is what's behind the current state and federal identity crises over what government is supposed to be. Republicans are very sure of themselves. They want to cut spending, or "starve the beast," as a few of their more inflamed members are given to saying in moments of unguarded giddiness.

As for Democrats.they're dismayingly uncertain. They act as if they're stuck in one of those dreams where they're afraid they've made a big mistake - they're just not sure what that mistake might be.

No wonder, then, that many Dems were thrown back on their heels by Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's proposal to fix America's budget woes by piling everyone into a way back machine and recasting the 21 st century as something that would look pretty much like the Gilded Age of the late 1800's.

Ryan appears to have a soft spot for the robber barons that lorded over the industrial boom that took place in this country after the Civil War. There were virtually no rules or regulations to constrain their swashbuckling ways and they did, indeed, build a dynamic economy. That's what built some of those mansions on the Old Northside.

Yes, it's amazing what an entrepreneur can accomplish when he pays workers whatever he wants, in many cases actually owns the houses where the workers live and sells them their groceries, doesn't have to offer any benefits and has little or no rules or regulations, environmental or otherwise, to worry about. Unions were practically unheard of during the Gilded Age. Child labor and unsafe working conditions were commonplace. In many ways working in America back then was like being a Chinese worker today.

It looks like Rep. Ryan thinks we need a new generation of robber barons. Not only is he against raising taxes for American millionaires and billionaires, he wants to cut the top income tax rate for individuals and corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent.

This means, of course, the government will have a harder time raising the money necessary to pay down the debt Rep Ryan is so concerned about.

That's where people like you and me come in. Rep, Ryan wants us to get the country out of debt. He wants, for example, to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid. Have you got grandparents, or a mom and dad? Today, if they are 65 or older, their health care is largely paid for by Medicare. Yes, you pay tax to help make this happen. But imagine if, as Rep. Ryan would have it, mom and dad were being given vouchers to help pay for private insurance. You think insurers would be lining up for that business? You better start saving up, because unless mom and dad are loaded, they're going to need you to pick up the slack.

Rep. Ryan probably thinks this kind of familial sacrifice is a good thing. It will bring the generations closer together. Like in the old days, when grandma and grandpa and the kids all slept in the same room.

But while Rep. Ryan wants us to fend for ourselves, he treats corporate America as if it were an orchid, delicate and vulnerable to the slightest changes in humidity. He has nothing to say about reforming the waste and inefficiencies of big banks, big insurance, big energy, big agriculture or the military-industrial complex. The large corporate entities that make up these parts of our economy are, if Rep. Ryan is right, just waiting to make even bigger profits than they do already so they can help us all to help ourselves through competition and a cold water bath of self-improvement. If only that darned government of the people, by the people, for the people, would stay out of the way.

To put the best face on it, Ryan and his colleagues really believe in an America whose business, as Calvin Coolidge once said, is business. As they see it, the rich are our champions, the straws that stir our country's cocktail. Want more jobs? You need a rich guy - or a group of rich guys, in the form of a corporation, to create them. That's why Republican politicians can say with straight faces that preserving tax cuts for the richest Americans equals a jobs program.

The dirty secret at the heart of America has always been that all people are created equal, it's just that some are more equal than others. Lately, this notion has been pushed even further to include the country's biggest corporations. When the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that free speech means that corporations should be able to speak out on issues the same as you and me, except, of course, with a lot more money, the stage was set for a country of big business, by big business, for big business.

And that's what our country's identity crisis is all about: whose government is this anyway? It looks like we're about to find out.