Saturday, October 5, 2013

Turning Off the Lights

With all of the hullabaloo about the partial government shutdown and the fighting over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or, as it's entered the popular parlance, "Obamacare"), the actual purpose of the "debate" that we're currently having has been lost.

In the comments section for Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Obamacare and the Conscience of a Radical" the role of Federal Housing Authority home loans (namely the fact that African-Americans were often prevented from obtaining them) in the creation of urban ghettos was raised, and Mr. Coates makes the following observation: "The 'positive impact' came from the FHA insuring mortgages. The insurance was provided by taxes--taxes paid by blacks and whites. Taking funds from one community and using it to aid another community is not moral. It is thievery." In this case, of course, he's referring to the fact that many ostensibly race-neutral government policies exacerbated the United States' racial wealth gap by taxing everyone, yet only spending those tax dollars on certain communities.

Anyone familiar with the politics of the modern American Right can see where I am going with this. Conservative economic ideology (as opposed to theory) holds that a) the "free market" (the definition of which seems to vary) will solve all problems in a short enough term to be relevant to the observer and b) every dollar paid out in taxes with which the individual taxpayer disagrees is theft, plain and simple. Of course, the American Left tends to hold to the ideological position that it is the job of government to remedy the tendency of markets (and human action) to create unequal opportunities and/or outcomes for different groups of people.

As I right this, a large minority of the federal workforce is furloughed, and a good number of them are working without pay over what is really an argument about the moral significance of where resources end up, as opposed to where they start out. To the degree that Conservative ideology envisions the world as a place that starts out fair (in that "individuals who work harder will accumulate more wealth") and that it is the action of governments and other unjustified collectives that interfere in this, the primary argument against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is really about suddenly drawing a line in the sand against 200+ years of government becoming less about protecting the "negative" rights of (certain of) its citizens and shifting to enumerating and  working towards a growing body of "positive" rights for all of its citizens - but at the expense of those who do not require government aid to fulfill them.

Because the United States is a representative democracy, the idea of rolling back many of the positive rights already in place is pretty much a non-starter, despite the air of hypocrisy that it lends to the overall Conservative movement. For Conservative lawmakers (despite what aggrieved Liberals may have to say about them) attempting to roll back some of the collective supports to individuals standards of living would be political suicide. (Four words: "Hands off my Medicare.") But those same voters who are, for the most part, okay with being funded by people in far-flung corners of the United States (most of what it termed "flyover country" is propped up by tax-dollar-exporting major urban areas and Blue states on the coasts) are now adamant that the flow of "their tax dollars" to the undeserving be halted.

Despite popular mythology to the contrary, the United States of America has never truly been united in spirit. An Us Versus Them dynamic has more or less always been in play, even in the midst of war. These grievances are now playing themselves out in an acrimonious policy debate and fights on legislative floors. Winning, while it's unlikely to turn out to be what the average voter thinks it will, still carries with it an important affirmation of the victor's worldview (regardless of its accuracy) and values. And that's what everyone is fighting for.

No comments: