John Boehner, the Republican House leader who will become Speaker if Democrats lose control of the House in the upcoming midterms, recently offered his solution to the current economic crisis: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life.”
Actually, those weren’t Boehner’s words. They were uttered by Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon, after the Great Crash of 1929.
But they might as well have been Boehner’s because Hoover’s and Mellon’s means of purging the rottenness was by doing exactly what Boehner and his colleagues are now calling for: shrink government, cut the federal deficit, reduce the national debt, and balance the budget.
And we all know what happened after 1929, at least until FDR reversed course.
Boehner and other Republicans would even like to roll back the New Deal and get rid of Barack Obama’s smaller deal health-care law.
The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.
In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.
Republicans have wanted to destroy Social Security since it was invented in 1935 by my predecessor as labor secretary, the great Frances Perkins. Remember George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize it? Had America agreed with him, millions of retirees would have been impoverished in 2008 when the stock market imploded.
Of course Republicans don’t talk openly about destroying Social Security, because it’s so popular. The new Republican “pledge” promises only to put it on a “fiscally responsible footing.” Translated: we’ll privatize it.
Look, I used to be a trustee of the Social Security trust fund. Believe me when I tell you Social Security is basically okay. It may need a little fine tuning but I guarantee you’ll receive your Social Security check by the time you retire even if that’s forty years from now.
Medicare, on the other hand, is a huge problem and its projected deficits are truly scary. But that’s partly because George W. Bush created a new drug benefit that’s hugely profitable for Big Pharma (something the Republican pledge conspicuously fails to address). The underlying problem, though, is health-care costs are soaring.
Repealing the new health-care legislation would cause health-care costs to rise even faster. In extending coverage, it allows 30 million Americans to get preventive care. Take it away and they’ll end up in far more expensive emergency rooms.
The new law could help control rising health costs. It calls for medical “exchange” that will give people valuable information about health costs and benefits. The public should know certain expensive procedures only pad the paychecks of specialists while driving up the costs of insurance policies that offer them.
Republicans also hate unemployment insurance. They’ve voted against every extension because, they say, it coddles the unemployed and keeps them from taking available jobs.
That’s absurd. There are still 5 job seekers for every job opening, and unemployment insurance in most states pays only a small fraction of the full-time wage.
Social insurance is fundamental to a civil society. It’s also good economics because it puts money in peoples’ pockets who then turn around and buy the things that others produce, thereby keeping those others in jobs.
We’ve fallen into the bad habit of calling these programs “entitlements,” which sounds morally suspect – as if a more responsible public wouldn’t depend on them. If the Great Recession has taught us anything, it should be that.anyone can take a fall through no fault of their own.
Finally, like Hoover and Mellon, Republicans want to cut the deficit and balance the budget at a time when a large portion of the workforce is idle.
This defies economic logic. When consumers aren’t spending, businesses aren’t investing and exports can’t possibly fill the gap, and when state governments are slashing their budgets, the federal government has to spend more. Otherwise, the Great Recession will turn into exactly what Hoover and Mellon ushered in – a seemingly endless Great Depression.
It’s also cruel. Cutting the deficit and balancing the budget any time soon will subject tens of millions of American families to unnecessary hardship and throw even more into poverty.
Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon thought their economic policies would purge the rottenness out of the system and lead to a more moral life. Instead, it purged morality out of the system and lead to a more rotten life for millions of Americans.
And that’s exactly what Republicans are offering yet again.
Robert Reich served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Labor under President William Jefferson Clinton from 1992 to 1997. He blogs regularly at robertreich.blogspot.com, where this post first appeared.