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Richard (RJ) Eskow Headshot

Contempt

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"Clueless." "Stupid." "Middle-class welfare." Sometimes a guy who likes facts and figures gets slapped in the face by reality, and apparently today's my day. Several recent stories showed me how some of these "austerity economics" advocates in Washington really feel about the middle class. I guess I always knew it intellectually, but these stories made me feel it on a visceral level. They let me know exactly what these politicians and pundits feel toward me,my family, and the people I grew up with:

Contempt.

We're not talking about lofty and imperious disdain, either. This isn't the old-school,"look down your monocle with a lofty air" genteel antipathy once practiced by the gentlemen at the club. We're talking about complete and utter contempt, a repugnance so white-hot it feels like it could melt your face off.

Debts of a Salesman

How else are we to interpret remarks like these from John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives? "People in Washington assume that Americans understand how big the problem is," Boehner said of Social Security, "but most Americans don't have a clue." Boehner added, ""I think the president shrank from his responsibility to lead. He knows the numbers as well as we do."

The Wall Street Journal account of Boehner's remarks goes on to quote Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews who, according the the Journal, said "tackling big problems would be tougher if the two sides criticized each other." Rep. Andrews: "It's impossible if the process begins with the parties attacking each other."

Then allow me, Rep. Andrews: Boehner's remarks are profoundly insulting to the American people. Don't worry about his attacks on the President, who can presumably take care of himself. It's the rest of us I'm worried about.

The Speaker said: "I think it's incumbent on us, if we are serious about dealing with the big challenges, that we go out and help Americans understand how big the problem is that faces us ... Once they understand how big the problem is, I think people will be more receptive to what the possible solutions may be."

The Speaker's already on record with his recommended "deficit solution": cuts to Social Security that could, according to the Speaker, help pay for America's war. The Journal article reiterated that Boehner is "determined to offer a budget this spring that curbs Social Security and Medicare."

The most generous interpretation of Boehner's remarks to the Wall Street Journal would be to assume that the Speaker is profoundly ignorant of the funding process for Social Security. But why can't we believe that the Speaker is merely misguided, as comforting as that would be? Because he and his party pushed a tax cut through for the wealthiest Americans last year that would have paid for any expected Social Security shortfall for the next 75 years! Specifically, as Daniel Marans pointed out, "the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of Americans is equivalent to the cost of filling Social Security's 75-year shortfall. Both equal 0.7% of the GDP."

In other words, the Speaker doesn't care about the deficit. Whatever "big challenges" we face financially are largely the making of his party's policies on taxation, military spending, and -- lest we forget -- deregulation, which led to the trillion-dollar Wall Street crash and the BP oil spill. Fellow conservative David Frum has the Speaker pegged when he describes Boehner's remarks this way - "Boehner: I can sell voters on benefit cuts."

That's exactly right. What Boehner's really saying is "I can make these rubes buy anything." Have you ever met a really slick and utterly amoral salesman? There's an uber-hustler personality that's common to all salesmen of this type, whether he's a Wall Street banker or a car salesman in Idaho. One of the most common characteristics of the super-salesman personality is a sense of utter superiority to your sales prospect -- your mark. Boehner's really saying "I can sell you on giving up your future for my rich clients, and I'll make you love me for it."

And yes, we know that Boehner comes from humble beginnings. A lot of super-salesmen do. With this kind of personality, that background creates even more contempt. I rose above your little world, they say to themselves, but you never will. And as for those of us from middle-class or lower class backgrounds who think there are more important things in life than dedicating yourself to the pursuit of money and power ... for John Boehner and his kind, we're the biggest suckers of them all.

Middle-Class Welfare Queens

Robert Samuelson just doubled down on an amateurish insult to the American middle class by repeating his assertion that "Social Security is welfare." He gets the economics of the issue completely wrong, but the real contempt comes through with his insistence that "We don't call Social Security 'welfare' because it's a pejorative term, and politicians don't want to offend."

No. We don't call Social Security "welfare" because that word, like all words, has a commonly accepted definition and Social Security doesn't meet it. Whether you're using the conversational definition ("aid in the form of necessities for those in need") or the legal one ("government benefits distributed to impoverished persons to enable them to maintain a minimum standard of well-being"), the word doesn't describe Social Security. Social Security doesn't target the "impoverished" or "those in need" by design. Here's the word Mr. Samuelson would have found had he done some research:

Insurance. Social Security is a social insurance program, not a welfare program. And like any insurance program, it's designed to pay benefits when an insured event happens: A car accident. A plane flight you had to cancel at the last minute. Your retirement. Insurance programs aren't "means tested." If you've paid your premium and the insured event takes place, you receive the benefit. And Samuelson's argument that you should get back exactly what you put in is shown to be ludicrous when the proper word is used. I haven't "gotten back what I paid in" on my car insurance. And I could die without ever collecting Social Security benefits. I'm not being ripped off, I'm being protected.

Since he couldn't be bothered to look up the definition of the word, Samuelson just made up his own: "Here is how I define a welfare program," he writes. "First, it taxes one group to support another group, meaning it's pay-as-you-go and not a contributory scheme where people's own savings pay their later benefits. And second, Congress can constantly alter benefits ..." Leaving aside the misleading statement that Social Security "taxes one group to pay another," what else could be considered "welfare" under the making-sh*t-up" Samuelson definition? Let's see ... Military paychecks. The President's salary. The Senate dining room. The coffee they serve when junior Cabinet members meet with members of the press.

Yes, Samuelson's argument is that absurd, and the pejorative overtones of the word "absurd" are deliberate.Robert Samuelson's essentially calling the American middle class, whose pension plan was funded through a government-managed trust fund, "welfare queens."

Contempt.

Stupid. Greedy. Teat-Sucking.

"You've got a country that is stupid, a government that is stupid," said the always-quotable Alan Simpson today. What's so stupid about us? Here's Simpson's explanation: "... (W)e're always talking about the couple at the kitchen table--well, here it is: For every buck we spend, we borrow forty cents. If that isn't stupid--we've got a country that is stupid, a government that is stupid, to borrow forty cents, not from your good old uncle Henry, but from the world."

We've already dissected the lame analogy that says our country's spending is like a family's budget. It isn't - not even a little. But what really expresses Simpson's contempt for the American public is this: The set of personal suggestions he put together with Erskine Bowles (after the Deficit Commission they co-chaired collapsed into deadlock and failure) actually proposes lowering the maximum income tax rate for for wealthy individuals and corporations. Like Boehner, Simpson thinks he's found a bunch of suckers he can hoodwink in the American middle class.

For the record, Simpson's first name really is "Alan" and not "Abe," although he shares the Simpsons character's tendency to go off on foul-mouthed, insulting rants (in what's an arguably ageist characterization). It was Abe - sorry, I mean Alan Simpson who sneered at the entire population of the United States by saying government programs were like "a cow with 310 million tits." (That makes every one of us a "teat sucker.") It was Simpson who insulted a representative for women - and a lot of other women, too - after she wrote about his comment. It was Simpson who called elderly Americans "greedy geezers." It was Simpson who screamed at a female reporter in the 1990's (she screamed back) and went off on an activist in a now-famous profanity-ridden video tantrum.

And it's Simpson who has now insulted younger Americans - the ones who would be most hurt by his draconian anti-Social Security proposals - with another logorrheic rant, this one against young Americans who, he says, are "walking on their pants with the cap on backwards listening to the enema man (presumably meaning Eminem) and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dogg."

It's not funny anymore - not that it ever was. The typical DC elite's response - "Oh, Alan's being Alan again" - doesn't cut it. This is vile, contemptible, hate-filled behavior with creepy scatological overtones. The crowd that loathes bloggers for the rude language of anonymous commenters embraces Simpson on a daily basis. Who in either party has said of Alan Simpson, "I can't work with somebody so unpleasant, so close-minded, so rude, so uncooperative, and who clearly holds the public in such vile disregard?"

I'll make the answer easy for you: Nobody. Such is the arrogance of the Beltway insider, and such is alienation of Washington reality from the hard work and anguish of the American middle class. A Washington culture that prides itself on "bipartisan" civility - that is, politeness to fellow members of the elite - finds Simpson's abuse of the American public perfectly acceptable.

Like I was saying: Contempt.

______________________

(Dean Baker has an excellent piece on Samuelson that makes many of the same points, plus quite a few others, and which reinforces this point: "Social Security is a pension that is run through the government.")

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at "rjeskow@ourfuture.org."

Website: Eskow and Associates

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