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New Yorker Must-Read: Empty Wallets

By Erica C. Barnett July 27, 2011

A bit outside my city hall-centric beat, I'll admit, but George Packer's lead Talk of the Town piece in this week's New Yorker---which indicts Republicans in Congress for being "destructively consumed with their own [nihilistic] dogma" and Obama for proposing a solution to the looming debt crisis that "may outflank the views of the average Republican"---is a must-read.

Packer zooms in on one of the victims of the 16.2 percent effective unemployment rate: Laid-off packaging-plant worker Danny Hartzell, who is, when Packer catches up with him, leaving his hometown of Tampa---and a four-hour-a-week graveyard-shift job at Target---for a new start in rural Georgia. Four days before Hartzell and his family leave their roach-infested Tampa apartment, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law making it harder for state residents like Hartzell to collect unemployment benefits.

On the day the family moved, there were officially 14.1 million unemployed Americans, or 9.2 per cent of the workforce. Hartzell himself probably isn’t counted in these statistics. In recent years, he has fallen into the more nebulous categories of the part-time employed, the long-term unemployed, and the “marginally attached”—the no-longer-looking unemployed. Economists report that the broader, and more accurate, unemployment rate is 16.2 per cent. Three years after the economic meltdown, nearly one in six Americans are out of work.
In Washington, President Barack Obama and Congress are engaged in high-drama brinksmanship, like members of an ordnance-disposal unit arguing about how to defuse a huge ticking bomb. Obama, securely in character, called on all sides to rise above petty politics, acknowledged the practical realities of divided government, and proposed a grand compromise that would lower the deficit by four trillion dollars. According to the Times’ Nate Silver, Obama’s offer, in its roughly four-to-one balance between spending cuts and revenue increases, falls to the right of the average American voter’s preference; in fact, it may outflank the views of the average Republican. Among other drastic cuts to domestic spending, the President proposes a ten-year, hundred-billion-dollar reduction in federal contributions to Medicaid, a program that helped provide new sets of teeth for Danny Hartzell and his wife just before their move.
Republicans are also securely in character. They’ve rejected everything that the President has proposed, because Obama’s deal includes tax increases and the closing of loopholes for hedge-fund managers and corporate jets and companies that move offshore. Ninety-seven per cent of House Republicans have taken something called the “No Tax Pledge.” Some Republicans have also proposed that any deal require Obama to repeal the country’s new health-care law, which, had it been in place last year, would have provided the Hartzells with medical insurance, instead of forcing them to rely on charity hospitals for their daughter’s cancer treatment. Representative Paul Ryan’s ten-year budget plan, which remains his party’s blueprint for the future, would impose a fifty-per-cent cut on programs like food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, which, as long as Danny Hartzell remains jobless, represent the Hartzells’ only income. By the last day of June, the Hartzells had twenty-nine dollars to their name. The Republicans in Congress won’t be satisfied until the family is out on the street.

 

The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” drew a distinction between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. These ethics are tragically opposed, but the true calling of politics requires a union of the two. On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad.

 
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