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Sounds familiar

The regular morning trip to the coffeeshop for the newspapers was attempted, out of a combination of uncaffeinated inertia and curiosity, but aborted when a foolhardy plunge into a bank of snow resulted in a boot full of the stuff.

Back home, an old pamphlet, acquired in the free box outside Powell’s Books, presented itself:  “A Choice, Not an Echo,” by Phyllis Schlafly (1964); and the bitter tale of the betrayal of conservativism in the mid-20th century Republican Party led, as such things often seem to around here, to checking the version in the magisterial and highly entertaining “American Political Parties: Their Natural History” by Wilfred E. Binkley, also acquired outside Powell’s.

The relevant chapter goes a bit further back, and some of it sounds strikingly familiar.

There’s Andrew Mellon, treasury secretary from 1921 to 1932, who argued in 1924 that “if income and inheritance taxes were drastically reduced…the money hitherto paid in taxes would then be diverted from the Treasury to productive industry and provide ample employment and bustling prosperity,” as Binkley puts it.

The historian comments:  “Instead, much of it served to stimulate a bull market and contributed to the stock market crash of 1929.”

Then there’s William Humphrey, appointed by Calvin Coolidge to the Federal Trade Commission, which had been created under Woodrow Wilson “to scrutinize business practices, warn violators of anti-trust laws, and, if necessary, recommend prosecution of the heedless.”  Humphrey denounced the FTC on which he served as a “publicity bureau to spread socialistic propaganda” – which “harassed and annoyed business instead of assisting it.”  He vowed a new role for the commission: “to help business help itself.”  That worked out well, too.

By mid-century, with “a leadership prepared to govern in a static society, but bewildered…by one suddenly become intensely dynamic,” the GOP was “threatened with the palsying conservatism that had doomed the Whig Party,” according to Binkley.  Writing in the early 1960s, he saw hope for the party in the rise of “Modern Republicanism” – the very thing Shlafly viewed as a conspiracy of eastern internationalist elites and the source of the party’s irrelevance.

Today Schlafly stands vindicated, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell brands as unconstitutional a health care reform much closer to versions backed by Richard Nixon and Mitt Romney than to Harry Truman’s.

At Huffington Post, Robert Borosage writes, in anticipation of next month’s celebration of the centenary of the 40th president, that our current morass of economic decline and crisis could be considered “the ruins of Reaganism.”

Anti-union and free trade policies have decimated manufacturing and shipped millions of jobs overseas, sapping the middle class.  This has undermined the real engine of our prosperity – and perhaps the ballast for political moderation and tolerance – leaving us with economic strategies largely dependent on speculative bubbles and consumer borrowing.

Anti-regulatory policies that would have made Humphrey proud have gutted protections for consumers, workers, and the environment and left us vulnerable to the recklessness of the Enrons and the big banks.

Anti-tax and anti-spending policies have widened the nation’s huge income inequality gap which, as Robert Reich argues, is at the root of our economic malaise, and left government at all levels impotent to address the jobs crisis or invest in badly-needed old and new infrastructure – not to mention threatening basic services like schools and police.

Some folks think the economy is rebounding, but that requires accepting a “new normal” where jobs are hard to find and unavailable for increasing numbers, and where this advanced economy stops advancing. HuffPo’s Peter Goodman takes a skeptical look at claims of economic revival, pointing out that we’ve already experienced a “lost decade” — with a devastating downturn on the heels of the weakest recovery on record; over 25 years, while the cost of health care, education and housing have skyrocketed, workers’ earnings have stagnated.

We’ve gone from casino capitalism to cannibal capitalism, an economic system which feeds on its own, where homeowners are marks for predatory profiteering by powerful banks, where schools are cut and the big money is in prisons, where low-price, low-wage retailers make money from the food stamps their employees spend at their workplaces.

What’s scariest, perhaps, is the way economic decline feeds political reaction and division, which brings more economic decline in a vicious cycle.  We can do better than that.  We just have to get some people out of their 1924 mindset.

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Category: economy, history

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