The little sourball of American politics, Ralph Nader, likes to say that there’s no basic difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, they just look different on the surface. He has it backwards, of course. The parties have superficial similarities, but the differences between Democrats and Republicans are profound and basic.
Last year you could see one of these differences playing out as Republicans waged guerilla warfare in Congress against the Democrats’ health plan. The skirmishes dragged on for months, the details were abundant and confusing. So it’s no surprise that a lot of spectators came away thinking that Republicans and Democrats were merely wrangling over how the government plan should work. But Republicans are against ANY government health plan, no matter how it’s constructed, no matter how it works.
Republicans have been waging class warfare for years, attacking social programs that benefit the poor and marginal in our society. They opposed Medicare from the day it started in 1966 and have tried to put it to death with “improvements” ever since. They have opposed Social Security from it’s beginning and have tried to “reform” it out of existence for the past 74 years. Despite these vampire kisses by conservatives, Social Security and Medicare remain vibrantly alive as the two most popular government programs we have.
But that doesn’t matter to Republican thinkers. In the ideal Technicolor world of conservatives, Social Security would be replaced by each free citizen prudently saving money and wisely investing the savings to insure years of comfortable retirement. And, of course, Medicare would be replaced by free citizens freely buying their own health insurance. Healthy Americans, typical Americans in their Golden Years (thick white hair but springy steps), could go scuba diving in the Caribbean or take a cruise to Greek islands.
Alas, in the real world, Social Security and Medicare were created because most people weren’t able to save for a cushioned retirement. For a great, great many, the years between leaving work and getting completely dead were years of poverty made worse by unpayable bills from relentless doctors and hospitals. The fortunate stayed out of debt by working until they dropped; the less fortunate moved into the back room of the family home, which was now headed by one of their children. The really bad off went to the poor house.
Now, for the first time in a long time, Republicans are in a position to get rid of all those government programs and government fundings that aid the middle and lower classes. Here’s how it works. Currently, the United States has big money problems, short term and long term. The government is spending more than it takes in. Most politicians want to do something about this right away. As you know, the House of Representatives is where money bills originate – you knew that, right? – and Republicans now control the House. They plan to solve our money problem by cutting government spending.
Republicans are eager to cut spending, because that way they can cripple or eliminate programs that benefit people and not corporations, large private businesses, banks, brokerage houses, insurance companies, and the like. The man leading the Republican slash-and-burn army is Representative Paul Ryan. As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has put forward a strategic plan he calls The Path to Prosperity. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Ryan said his plan “cuts $6.2 trillion in spending from the president’s budget over the next 10 years, reduces the debt as a percentage of the economy, and puts the nation on a path to actually pay off our national debt.” And, yes, it does.
Ryan’s Path to Prosperity reduces the top income tax rate – the rate that rich people pay – and the tax rate for corporations, from 35 percent to 25 percent, gets rid of estate taxes and establishes a national sales tax – a tax that impacts the poor and middle class far, far more than the rich. It gets rid of Medicare and offers in its place an inadequate sum of money to citizens reaching 65 so that each one can go out and buy limited private health insurance. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that two-thirds of the cuts in Ryan’s plan are cuts that will hit the poor and disadvantaged.
As it turns out, most Americans don’t want Ryan or anybody else messing with Medicare and, in any case, Democrats still control the Senate and they won’t be going over that particular cliff on the Path to Prosperity. But the battle over the budget is just beginning and if the opening moves by Republicans appear outrageous, they also show the direction and ambition of conservatives. They hope to reshape US society with a very long-bladed budget knife.
The economist and Noble Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz recently noted that “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.” Of course, that didn’t happen by accident. Congress makes our social policies our House and Senate answer to the rich and powerful to a formidable degree.
No one likes to use the word “class” when speaking of our society, but it’s difficult to analyze what’s gong on without using it. We can sanitize our political discourse by talking, as economists do, of quintiles and percents. But no matter the language, all the evidence points to the existence of class and a determination of the uppermost to further impoverish the middle and lower classes. Check it out over the next several months.