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Paul Ryan’s plan, the coming shutdown, and what’s really at stake

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | April 6, 2011

I was there in 1995 when the government closed because of a budget stalemate. I had to tell most of the Labor Department’s 15,600 employees to go home and not return the next day. I also had to tell them I didn’t know when they’d next get a paycheck.

There were two shutdowns, actually, rolling across the government in close succession, like thunder storms.

It’s not the way to do the public’s business.

Newt Gingrich got blamed largely because his ego was (and is) so big he couldn’t stop blabbing that Clinton should be blamed. (Gingrich’s complaint of a bad seat on Air Force One didn’t help.)

But the larger loss was to the dignity and credibility of the United States government. When average Americans saw the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States behaving like nursery school children unable to get along, it only added to the prevailing cynicism.

Cynicism about government works to the Republicans’ continued advantage.

Case in point. House Budget Chair Paul Ryan unveiled a plan today that should make every American cringe. It would turn Medicare into vouchers whose benefits are funneled into the pockets of private insurers. It would make Medicaid and Food Stamps into block grants that allow states to ignore poor people altogether. It would drastically cut funding for schools, roads, and much else Americans need. And many of the plan’s savings would go to wealthy Americans who’d pay even lower taxes than they do today.

Ryan’s plan has no chance of passage – as long as Democrats are still in control of the Senate (even Democratic deficit hawks like Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson are appalled by it) and the White House.

But this so-called “blueprint” could be a blueprint for America’s future when and if right-wing Republicans take charge.

Which is where the cynicism comes in – and the shutdowns. Republicans may get blamed now. But if the shutdowns contribute to the belief among Americans that government doesn’t work, Republicans win over the long term. As with the rise of the Tea Partiers, the initiative shifts to those who essentially want to close it down for good.

That’s why it’s so important that the President have something more to say to the American people than “I want to cut spending, too, but the Republican cuts go too far.” The “going too far” argument is no match for a worldview that says government is the central problem to begin with.

Obama must show America that the basic choice is between two fundamental views of this nation. Either we’re all in this together, or we’re a bunch of individuals who happen to live within these borders and are mainly on their own.

This has been the basic choice all along — when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, in the Civil War, when we went through World War I and World War II and the Great Depression in between, during the Civil Rights movement and beyond.

The President needs to remind us that as members of the same society we have obligations to one another — that the wealthiest among us must pay their fair share of taxes, that any of us who loses our jobs or homes or gets terribly sick can count on the rest of us, and that we have collective obligations to our elderly, our children, and the rest of the planet.

This is why we have government. And anyone who wants to shut it down or cut it down because they say we can’t afford it any longer is plain wrong. We are the richest nation in the world, richer than we’ve ever been. We can afford to remain a society whose members are in it together.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “Paul Ryan’s plan, the coming shutdown, and what’s really at stake

  1. but how is the president going to make this clear when he insists on placing himslef as the “reconciliator?”
    he keeps on playing himslef as “above” the “petty” politics, as if none of the sides has real points to make, as if it’s only a question of who has the numbers and that both sides are right.
    how is he going to say what he needs to say without presenting some clear principles, and not playing the language game?
    why can’t he accept that he will never have the support of everyone, and that that is fine in a democracy, and that he needs to have some principles and get on with the job?
    what sort of person has no clear principles? is everything on sale?

  2. @ Sammy Planesphere:

    1) *bargaining
    2) *amateur
    3) *cognitive

    4) *the highest tax bracket for Americans is set at $375,000/yr. So Clinton’s $100M and Bush’s $10M receive the same treatment, good or bad. Your last argument is irrelevant.
    +(It’s worth noting that Clinton MADE his money, as opposed to Bush who was born into it. I’ll let you guess which one is more respectable).

    5)*50% of Americans do not believe that Obama, in his 3 years, is a bigger failure than Bush in his 8 years. This is because most cognizant individuals realize that “failing” to immediately clean up the “failures” of the biggest “failure” in U.S. history in 3 years should be probably be taken in context. So once again your argument “fails” to matter.

    I still doubt anyone will take your rant/post seriously, but at least now it’s a little more polished.

    -jsharp, FOTL (Friend of the Libtards)

  3. First off, it should be stated: Ideologically, a government shutdown is exactly what the Tea Party / Libertarians want in the end… They want only the essential features of government to remain. Therefore, a shutdown is definitely not something problematic and may even be seen as something positive. Republicans and Independents need to realize that when they vote for members of the Tea Party, Libertarian Party, and even sometimes the Republican Party, this is what they are telling their representatives to do.

    Somehow, politicians have convinced average people to vote against the quality of their own lives and the lives of their children. It should be obvious who is being hurt as our representatives continue to slash taxes of corporations and billionaires and concurrently slash funding for public education, health benefits, etc…

  4. Cal Student, your questionable writing ability calls your claim to be enrolled at UC into question. Your reasoning skills are equally lacking. Before you challenge Robert Reich and “liberals” further, I suggest that you enroll in some remedial classes which will help you improve your communications and thinking skills. Fiat lux!

    • Actually, BerkeleyGrad, you must be a lot older than you’d like to admit. Cal student, in spite of his run on sentences and comma splices, writes creditably for a Cal student. The academic standards for admission to UC have become appallingly low, mainly to accommodate the sharply rising demographic of students who seem to have no first language.

  5. I am absolutely fascinated and revolted by the conservative opinions posted in some of the comments below – In the history of American political life, there has existed a legitimate and compelling conservative politics that argues for smaller government and a protection of individual liberties without spewing a resentful, and frankly hateful, invective at perceived “foreigners” and outsiders. While I consider myself to the far left, I have always been respectful of this position but I am now resolutely disgusted with the fact that the right now couches these broader values in a language of individual bitterness and entitlement from which no serious political debate can be had.

    Even more baffling to me is the fact that the contemporary right-wing seems to return to the days of immigrations quotas in which they combine hyper-nationalism with a suspicion of immigrants, a disinterest (if not complete hatred) towards social programs, and an embrace of libertarian values. If you are so committed to individualism, why are you also rabidly nationalistic? The nation is a collective of people bound together by a set of political values that concern everyone who counts, or could potentially count, as a citizen. If you have no interest in your fellow Americans, if as one post said, you don’t want to pay for the “shortcomings” of others, than why even affiliate with America or the nation more broadly?

    Guess what, liberal-democracy is a political system that protects individual liberty through COLLECTIVE political participation and action. The individual is always part of a social network that is totally necessary for a democratic public culture to thrive. More than that, liberal-democracy demands (or at least I believe it does) an ethical investment of each individual in the health and flourishing of the group with which they affiliate – we should actually have an interest in the lives of others and be willing to spend our tax dollars to improve the lives of all – EVEN those who we do not necessarily see as “worthy” of our individual pennies. This is called being part of a radical democratic community.

    I cannot for the life of me understand why so many people on the right are both against this set of political values and, more so, bitter and resentful about anyone enjoying the fruits of our collective labor. Doesn’t it interest you that others are thriving alongside you? Doesn’t it make for a better life for us all when people are educated well, have food and nourishment that allows them to think better and make greater contributions to our society, feel valued for their labor? Why must we enjoy our individual success on the backs of everyone else? That isn’t only an antidemocratic but also morally bankrupt position.

    And to the two posters below who implied that welfare recipients and Latino-Americans are ruining our country, who gave you the idea that you are entitled to this country more than anyone else? Who suggested to you that you represent the norm against which all other citizens must be measured?

    The same goes for those who posted to deride teachers unions – first of all, teachers get paid a pittance in this country and there’s absolutely no reason to begrudge them a living wage. But more broadly speaking, how exactly does anyone think that a nation is going to escape a recession full of uneducated people without good ideas? Teachers facilitate new ideas, train people to think more critically, to pursue important and challenging careers – HOW does an advanced society grow and evolve without well-paid teachers? I just don’t get this logic.

    All of these resentful political positions based on self-interest and a false anger at everyone who might even want some piece of the pie are an absurd way to conceive of your status as an American citizen, and in deep contradiction with the values of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, not to mention a nearly two century long series of struggles for Civil Rights and the expansion of citizenship more broadly.

    I completely agree with you Prof. Reich, that Obama’s failure has been the inability to articulate a compelling political vision that is not merely defensive in the face of right-wing critiques, but also offers a new picture of what government could and should be. I am convinced that the left’s larger failure has been exactly this: to project an image of a different, more egalitarian, political world and sell it without reservation.

    Why, for instance, wasn’t the healthcare plan sold to Americans as a necessary part of an advanced industrial society? Rather than defending against all the expense it would cost (something no one seems to have to do in regards to the Iraq War) we should be saying that it will indeed cost a great deal of money, but that it will be worth the cost in terms of elevating our national standard of living.

    The left needs to stop hedging its bets and present a picture of what the world could be like with a new set of ethical and political values. It is amazing to me that it should be so radical to simply claim that more people should live better, lead more fulfilling lives with less debt, fear of destitution and hunger, and with more confidence that they will continue to advance somewhere beyond a basic standard of living.

    There is a reason that so many people loved watching Barney Frank speak back to the young woman who equated Obama with Hitler (a video that went viral on YouTube a couple years back). That was because Frank took a stand and didn’t try to defend Obama against such an absurd and political irresponsible attack — rather he offered another vision of politics that was based on confrontational, but democratic, dialogue. People loved this video because they so rarely see anyone on the left respond flat-out to the racism, sexism, homophobia and classism of so much contemporary right-wing politics with a resounding NO. We need to start saying no to this kind of hateful discourse and demand a new way of doing politics.

    Thank you for this post. As a former Cal student and graduate student in training for academic work, I am grateful for your insights and your ability to spark dialogues that speak to the values of a democratic society.

  6. It’s not that either party is right or wrong. If the government can’t come to a conclusion on the budget, then shut-down the government. Let them feel the pain the rest of the country is feeling. Maybe it will straighten out these politicians for a short period of time.

    The key to the problem is not the political views or either party, but the lobbyists. Eliminate the lobbyist and you will eliminate squabbling for 50% of the problems on Capitol Hill. Then eliminate all party affiliations. Politicians should belong to one party–the American peoples party. No more division, no more b.s. Then they can get down to focusing on solving the problems that this nation needs to address. Until then, we will be a divided country of blue and red, who can’t even balance a check-book!

  7. Rep Ryan from my home state of Wisconsin, proposed budget is a mean spirited betrayal of all hard working men and women. When I grew up in Wisconsin, we all learned this simple work ethic “we fulfil our duty to God by diligence, hard work, and restrained expenditure, with the resulting accumulation of goods acting as a reassuring sign of eventual salvation.” Now, Rep Ryan and his spiteful associates are blaming the financial meltdown on the hard workding middle and lower class, so they can justfy looting our public coffers and deny us the benefits we pay for like Medicare, Medicaid and Food Stamps, at a time when many in our nation need them most. Bah Humbug

  8. “This has been the basic choice all along — when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, in the Civil War, when we went through World War I and World War II and the Great Depression in between, during the Civil Rights movement and beyond.”

    But those were extraordinary times. What we are enduring now is the “new normal” as the white majority baby boom generation recedes into senility. Our suicidal social and immigration policies were supposed to replace them with net tax contributors who would sustain Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, the majority of immigrants turned out to be a drain on the public treasury and are not assimilating to the norms of high achievement which have distinguished this country since its founding by white Europeans. And we’re shocked! Shocked, I tell you! Who would have guessed?

    America is not doomed. It’s merely being transformed a la “Hope and Change” into an extension of Latin America, characterized by chronic factionalism, hyperinflation, bloated government agencies providing crummy public services, market dominant minorities controlling most of the wealth (and hence the government), and economic stagnation. So everybody just relax. Being poor and ignorant isn’t so bad. You’re kids will have more time to hang out and hook up.

  9. You should read Ann Coulter ( Grad from Columbia), she illustrates well the fact that in the last 20 years Democrats are wed to public unions and provide them breaks from the rest of society. It fits well you, either all of us in this together, in which I agree 100% or individualism, everyone for themselves, no boarders — I intend Obama is the later. Here is a snippet of her latest peice, much as is focuses on Wiss. and Walker, and things the libmedia never reports on which happens to be propoganda, as it is only one-side of the economic story.

    Liberals don’t love big government because they think it’s efficient, compassionate, fair or even remotely useful. They support big government because they are guaranteed the support of nearly everyone who works for the government.

    Public sector employee contracts are written by the union and rubber-stamped by Democrats – and the taxpayers only find out years later that public school teachers are allowed to get a full year’s pay for 30 days’ work over three years after they retire – as is the case in Green Bay, Wis., where one out of every 12 teachers retired this year to take advantage of the “emeritus” scam.

    Read more: Thanks for raising my taxes – what else can I do for you?

  10. Debt On Track To Hit 800% Of GDP…
    I wish all the conservatives would leave offices, go somewhere else besides U.S.A. and watch the inevitable happen, like clock-work.

    Liberals eat their own when no Republican/Conservative is around to get bullied. Obama is an absolute failure, he caused and prolonged this economic crises, and is a polemic, hater, bias, uncooperative, and a a two-faced- wacko.

    F.D.R. never championed public unions nor collective barganning. Obama does, and this differentiates a good leader from a amature ‘special circumstance’ Harvard-lazy. Harvard’s standards are waaaaay down, they must admit imbeciles. First 50% of Americans believed G.W. Bush was the most stupid president yet, and now 50% believe Obama is the most stupid president ever — so each went to Harvard, thus Harvard is turning out imbeciles. Cal cannot get anyone into the pres. office because it is more imbicilic than Harvard; Cal professors intend that the cause of all wrong, injustice, human-rights, and natural disasters are caused by a single human — G.W. Bush — and that is not an exaggeration.

    Robert Reich, you keep blaming republicans as any other Cal professor who has no congative ability does. Obama handed out over 1,500 Obamacare waivers and 2/3 rds of our large corporations pay no-taxes. Can you explain that — he is no socialist, he is a fascist — it is all about him getting very wealthy, like Clinton who had no money and now has $100,000,000 and that is compared to Bush’s $10,000,000. Who are the rich that pay no taxes? The LIbtards !!!! Word to your mother!

  11. You have just one man’s opinion. Some of us don’t believe that the role of government is to cover for the shortcomings of others.

    If you firmly believe that you should pay for other’s short comings, please feel free to pay my ‘excess’ tax due to your one sided view!

  12. Professor Reich,
    you make persuassive points, but most of the right isn’t even listening. It’s too bad, but I wonder what the peole over at Fox will accuse you of by being reasonable and concerned. It’s hard to believe that America will ever again “care’ about the unfortuante, and not just bunch them with the bums that live in any society. Please don’t stop . . .

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