Two articles this weekend caught my eye as a great study in contrasts, one by George Will called Burning Down the House, the other by Frank Rich, titled Obama’s Original Sin. They both discuss the 2008 financial collapse and policies surrounding it, and they are both critical of some people in the Democratic Party, but the resemblance pretty much ends there.
Will’s column is a particularly remarkable example of how modern corporate conservatives are so worshipful of the free market über alles that when they read something critical of it, they are only capable of recognizing the nuggets of anti-government and anti-Democratic Party analysis in it. Will’s column recounted how he had just read the book “Reckless Endangerment” by New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson and financial wunderkind Joshua Rosner, and how it is full of analysis documenting the terribleness of government, liberal policies, and Democrats. According to Will, that is the single overwhelming message of the book, that progressive policies of all kinds were responsible for the housing crash — that the Community Reinvestment Act, efforts to stop racial discrimination, Bill Clinton, and an old Mondale campaign aide who had become head of Fannie Mae created an evil vortex that destroyed the poor, benighted free market which would have sorted everything out nicely for everyone if left to its own devices.
Of course, Will believed this before he read “Reckless Endangerment,” and has been making the same points in a number of columns for three years running. And he will believe all of this until the day he dies, no matter what books he reads in the meantime that might contradict this view. You know how I know this? Because “Reckless Endangerment” is not all about how perfect the free market is in the banking sector. The authors, who are brilliant writers on the financial sector whose columns and blog posts I have avidly read for years, are not free market banking apologists. They do have a lot of negative things to say about Fannie Mae, as they certainly should; it evolved into an out-of-control corporate monster that beat back every attempt at even modest regulation. But they are also extremely critical of the banking industry, and argue for a far tougher regulatory cop on the beat throughout the financial sector. You wouldn’t know that from Will, though: apparently the only sentences he read in the book were the ones critical of Fannie Mae and its CEO Jim Johnson, who had once been an aide to Walter Mondale.
Will is an emblematic modern conservative. Everything about the free market is glorious, to be worshipped at some fundamentalist altar no matter its contradictions, and everything about the government (except defense) is evil. Any nugget of information you find that reinforces that worldview, you shout it out over the hilltops. But if you run across some facts and analysis, such as those in “Reckless Endangerment” that run contrary to that point of view, you just ignore it or forget about it.
Frank Rich’s column was a classic one for him as well. He pulled no punches, being very critical of President Obama and his administration for their handling of the Wall Street banks and the economy in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. But Rich’s approach was very different from Will’s. Rather than being blindly convinced that government is good or bad, Rich wants to know the answer to a simple question: Which side are the people who run our government going to be on?
To me, that question is the most critical one there is when it comes to government policy. I don’t believe that government is inherently good — having lived through Vietnam, Watergate, J. Edgar Hoover’s corruption at the FBI, the massive deficit producing tax-cuts-for-the-rich policies of Reagan and Bush, the S&L crisis, financial deregulation, media consolidation, the Iraq war, Katrina, and the utter economic incompetence of the President George W. Bush economic years. I have no illusions that government as a whole is always on the side of most people. But what I want and believe in is a government of, by, and for the people — most especially for the people. Given the size and power of the financial industry, and other huge multinational corporations, I want a government that is on our side in making sure these massive companies don’t destroy our economy (again), and then demand bailouts (again) because they are too big to fail. I want a government on our side so that big insurance companies don’t tell people they can’t have coverage anymore because they got sick. I want a government on the side of senior citizens who have worked hard their whole lives and now want to live with some modest measure of dignity and economic security through Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid coverage. I want a government on the side of working class families thrown out of their jobs and homes through no fault of their own. I want a government that is on the side of our kids and helps them get a good education. I want a government that is on the side of small business and start-up entrepreneurs as they work their butts off trying to compete with huge corporations.
The Republican Party and conservatives like George Will seems to have been captured lock, stock, and barrel by the wealthiest and most powerful special interests. That is the only side they are on, and the policies they are proposing will only make things worse — a whole lot worse — for regular folks. People like Frank Rich — and Rosner and Morgenson for that matter — are critical of Democrats when they get too close to those wealthy special interests. Rich argues that it is only by standing up the powers that be on the economy, and standing up for the middle class, that Democrats will find their political way. I couldn’t agree more.