The Romney/Ryan campaign has resurrected Reagan’s “Welfare Queen.” It would be laughable, if they weren’t serious, if the stakes weren’t so high, and if there weren’t so likely to get away with it.
“There’s a woman in Chicago,” Ronald Reagan told an audience in New Hampshire while campaigning in 1976. “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands. And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.” The story—an exaggerated account of a 47-year-old black woman on the South Side of Chicago—played on racial stereotypes that struck a chord with white, suburban voters. The specter of the “welfare queen” has been with us ever since.
Despite high hopes, the election of a black president has done little to quell racial resentment. If anything, Obama’s election, the recession, and the changing demographics of America have heightened the fear that “real Americans” are losing their country—and their money—to undeserving minorities. It is precisely this anxiety that the Tea Party, some of whose members still doubt the president was born in the United States, has tapped into, and that Newt Gingrich was exploiting when he called Obama the “food-stamp president.” Now, with its latest series of ads and messaging, it has also become a cornerstone of Mitt Romney’s attacks against the president.
It’s hard to find a better example of today’s, white, wealthy, wingtip-wearing welfare queens, but don’t expect the media to say anything about it, or the GOP base to even notice.
First, the obvious and already thoroughly debunked lies:
- Romney’s claim that president Obama will “gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements” is a lie. (The Heritage Foundation laid the groundwork for this lie just last month.)
- “Welfare Reform” was was a failure. The growth in extreme poverty has been “has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.”
- “Welfare Reform” was a “catastrophic success.” It reduced the number of people receiving help, not the number of people needing help.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, that Romney could launch such an attack —given his own record, and that of his new running mate — is stunning. Not surprising. But stunning.
Mitt Romney: Welfare Queen
Naturally, Mitt Romney doesn’t think of himself as a welfare recipient. How could he? Mitt Romney came from money. Mitt grew up the privileged, protected son of auto-company executive and Michigan governor George Romney. Mitt got a sizeable inheritance from when his father died in 1995, but gave it away because — by his own admission — “I figured we had enough of our own.” Of course, by then Mitt Romney had ventured into vulture capitalism by founding Bain Capital. There, Mitt would make the fortune that places him “among the wealthiest 0.001 percent in the U.S.”
So, Mitt Romney came from money. And, sure, he had inherited wealth from his dad. But Mitt Romney built his own fortune; one so big that he didn’t need the inheritance from his dad, and could afford to give it away. And Mitt Romney built that fortune on his own, without any government help. Right.
Well, that depends on how you define “help.”
- Does building a factory subsidized by South Carolina taxpayers — though millions of dollars in “utility support” and construction bonds — count as help from the government?
- Does receiving $2.3 million from the Maryland governor’s administration — in the form of grants and low-interest loans — count as help from government?
- Does getting $600,000 from state and local officials in North Carolina, to move Sealy’s corporate offices and a factory from Ohio to North Carolina?
- Does receiving $4 million in tax breaks from state and local government to open a call center in Montana count as getting help from government?
- Does getting a $500,000 grant from Florida, and $1.25 million in grants and low cost loans from Wisconsin, to open commercial laundry facilities in those states count as help from government?
- Does receiving $37 million in grants from state and county government, to build a new steel plant in Indiana, count as help from government?
- Does a $44 million bailout from the federal government, needed because Bain underfunded pensions as GS Steel, count as help from the government?
- Does hiring a lobbying team to secure a federal loan guarantee count as getting help from government?
- Does spending $3.3 million on lobbyists to secure federal funding for the 2004 Winter Olympics count as getting help from government?
- How about hiring lobbyist to keep the capital gains tax loophole open for private equity? Does that count?
And that’s only a sampling. [Via RealRomneyRecord.Com, Lee Fang @ Salon.Com, Ari Berman @ TheNation.Com, Jennifer Granholm @ HuffingtonPost.Com, and DirtDiggersDigest.Org.] Even a cursory glance at his much-touted history in the private sector makes it pretty clear that Mitt Romney has made his personal fortune with at least some assistance from local and state governments, as well as the federal government — and, thus, at taxpayer expense. These deals would be easier to swallow the benefited state and local economies, as the Romney campaign has tried to claim in defending Romney’s record as a corporate welfare recipient.
“When government, rather than the market, routinely selects winners or losers, or puts its hands on the scales of justice then enterprises and entrepreneurs can’t predict their prospects,” Romney said in a March 19 speech at the University of Chicago.
Asked about the disconnect between Romney’s free market rhetoric and Bain’s track record, Amanda Henneberg, a campaign spokeswoman, said: “It’s not at all uncommon for state and local governments to use competitive incentives and programs to create a favorable business climate.”
Yet in his Chicago speech, the former Massachusetts governor decried the “endless subsidies and credits intended to shape behavior in our economic society,” and assailed government “intrusion in the workings of the free marketplace itself.”
As I wrote a couple of years ago, these deals are common in states that have been the epicenter of job loss. That includes rust belt states hit by the recession, which have become new sources of cheap labor, as the very offshoring that Romney helped pioneer led to a decline in union membership and the loss of good jobs that unions won, and that gave workers a shot at upward mobility, and a chance to give their families the advantages of middle-class economic security. It also includes the Southern states that became the last stop for jobs headed overseas, after offshoring killed the Southern textile industry.
The problem is that the kind deals Bain cut with state and local governments rarely benefit state and local economies, workers, or tax-payers.
Some of the same workers have probably gone to work in some of the auto plants that sprung up in the south, thanks to very generous subsidies for foreign automakers — $253 million in state and local tax breaks, worker training and land improvement for Mercedes- Benz; $158 million in similar perks for Honda, plus another $90 million later; $577 million in breaks for Volkswagon; another $197 million for Nissan; etc. — voted in by the same lawmakers who fulminated against the Detroit bailout. It adds up to more than $3.8 billion, and not without painful cutbacks for some.
“It’s exceedingly difficult to determine whether the returns warrant the original incentives,” said Matthew N. Murray, executive director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “It’s just hard to show that it’s going to produce enough tax revenue.”
Others wonder if the incentive packages don’t go too far to divert taxpayer dollars from vital state services. When Tennessee courted Nissan in 2005, for example, its $197 million gift came about the same time the state was cutting 170,000 low-income adults from its Medicaid rolls. A 1998 Time magazine report found that an Alabama elementary school adjacent to the Mercedes plant was home to 540 kids in a building designed to hold 290.
“The Mercedes-Benz plant illustrates a fundamental principle of corporate welfare,” the article read. “Everyone else pays for economic incentives — either with higher taxes, fewer services or both.”
None of the results of these incentives have come close to replacing the jobs that were lost due to the same push for globalization that gave birth to these deals. The incentives, tax cuts and other deals to get BMW to build in South Carolina, for example, hasn’t come close to replacing the 250,000 jobs lost there. The same lawmakers voted against thousands of their own constituents keeping their jobs, with U.S. auto manufacturers.
Paul Ryan: Welfare Queen
For all the “self-made” mythology surrounding him, Paul Ryan was born to wealth he didn’t build, but that came largely from tax-payer funded work — the scion of a construction company empire started by his great-grandfather. That company turned to road-building at the turn of the century, and most of its work from 1910 to 1970 was building the Interstate Highway System. Since 1996, it’s has had at least 22 defense contracts with the federal government since 1996 — including one worth $5.6 million from 1996. [Via Salon.Com.] No wonder Paul Ryan would rather cut food stamps than but the military budget.
Apparently, a good deal of his family’s wealth comes from federal defense contracts. And apparently Ryan married into the what wealth he didn’t inherit. While he not exactly mega-wealthy, like the guy at the top of the ticket, all of the above ads up to make Paul Ryan very well-off.
It gets better. Social Security helped make Paul Ryan. Much like his ideological muse, Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan received Social Security. After his father’s death, Ryan received Social Security from ages 16 to 18, which he then used to help pay for college without having to borrow as much as he might have otherwise.
OK, but but beyond that, Paul Ryan pulled himself up by his tasseled loafers, right?
You see, while the rest of us welfare recipients sit at home eating Doritos we bought with food stamps, Paul Ryan has been out there catching fish with his bare hands. Faced with the death of a family member, Paul Ryan “took the path of individual responsibility and maturity”—unlike the rest of us, whom grief would have pushed into the arms of the government.
Did anyone at the Times or the Post stop and say, Wait a minute, are we writing a profile or a fairy tale? Like countless kids across America, Ryan had a fast-food job in high school. He went to college. Surprisingly, when he took an internship on Capitol Hill, they didn’t let him start out as a legislator, so he had to deliver mail. Sucking up to big wigs helped him make connections (he was voted “Biggest Brown Noser” in high school), which helped out his political career. He works out and hunts. He loves Ayn Rand. Nothing about these traits or accomplishments indicates that he is any more independent than, say, Barack Obama. But in an attempt to draw a connection between Ryan’s ideology and his biography, journalists and politicians cite them as evidence of his extraordinary self-reliance.
But if you wipe the stardust from your eyes, you’ll be forced to admit that for all his talk about the free market, Ryan has spent precious little time in it and in fact has benefited from government help more than most. When his father died, Ryan received Social Security payments that helped pay for his college tuition. He attended Miami University, a public institution that receives millions of dollars in federal and state money every year. Since then, Ryan has spent most of his life—15 years, to be exact—on the government’s payroll. And as opposed to Mitt Romney, who earned his money in private equity, Ryan married into his fortune. Finally, one shouldn’t forget that Ryan took home $20 million in stimulus money for energy efficiency in Wisconsin while protesting the stimulus, and $5.4 million in earmarks in 2008 while protesting earmarks—accomplishments that might have pleased his constituents but don’t square with his small-government image. In short, Ryan is only around to warn about the evils of government because of government.
We’re All Welfare Queens
Interestingly enough, Paul Ryan and I have a few things in common. We’re basically the same age. (I’m not quite one year older than him.) We both worked at McDonald’s as teenagers, dreaming of futures beyond Big Mac and grease pits. We both relied on student loans to get the education that would put that future within reach, and worked to pay off those loans. In a sense, we’ve both spent most of our professional lives outside the private sector; him in government, me in the non-profit sector.
There’s one more thing Paul Ryan and I have in common. We both read Ayn Rand in college.
That’s where the similarities end. I read The Fountainhead in college, after losing a bet with an Objectivist classmate. Where Ryan was inspired I was appalled. Or, as James Zogby — who also encountered Rand’s work in his youth — puts it, I grew up.
Rand’s philosophy holds a particular appeal and is especially attractive to the developing adolescent mind. It is self-centered and certain — traits appreciated by adolescents. And Rand’s heroic individualists could be angry and dismissive of others, seeing them as burdensome and obstacles to be overcome on the way to self-fulfillment — again attitudes quite compatible with adolescent behavior.
While it appears that Ryan never got over his fascination with Ayn Rand, referring to her work in recent years as defining “what my value systems are and what my beliefs are”; I did get over her — or better put, my mother knocked some sense into me.
At one point in my late teens, after listening to me spouting off about government controlling this or that and infringing on the rights of individuals, my mother sat me down, wagged a finger in my face and reminded me that if it were not for Social Security benefits and the New York State Regent’s Scholarships, I wouldn’t be able to afford to go to college. “Don’t deny to others, what you have benefited from,” she said.
My mother, who passed away in 1998, was a devout Catholic and the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the last century. Her family came to America, like most immigrants, seeking freedom and opportunity. And they found it — but not without difficulty. They worked tirelessly, overcame hardships, started businesses, and educated their children.
They survived two World Wars and a Great Depression and, as my mother would note, “when the country was suffering and people were in need, Roosevelt knew that it was the role of the government to lend a hand to lift people up and give them a boost.”
I didn’t have anyone to knock me in the head. I didn’t need it. Having been raised on the speeches and writings of Martin Luther King Jr., which lead me to the writings and philosophy of Mohandas K. Gandhi, I naturally recoiled from Rand. (And I never made another bet with that particular classmate, whom I now think either hoped to convert me from my left-leaning politics, or merely enjoyed torturing me because of my left-leaning politics.)
What Zogby’s mother pounded into his head and my upbringing pounded into mine is that we’re all welfare queens. We all receive government assistance; in many instances, because of the myriad ways in which our government already favors the “have” and the “have-mores” over the “have nots.”
Frank Rich describes Paul Ryan as “another white conservative with inherited wealth.” Pierre Tristsam at Common Dreams referred to the GOP ticket as “Two White Men Who Like to Cut Things.” But I think the best description of both the Romney/Ryan ticket and the brand of conservatism it represents is Matt Miller’s “Drawbridge Republicans.”
Wealthy political candidates are nothing new, of course. But we’ve never had two wealthy candidates on a national ticket whose top priority is to reduce already low taxes on the well-to-do while raising taxes on everyone else — even as they propose to slash programs that serve the poor, or that (like college aid) create chances for the lowly born to rise.
Call them the Drawbridge Republicans. As the moniker implies, these are wealthy Republicans who have no qualms about pulling up the drawbridge behind them. Such sentiments used to be reserved for the political fringe. The most prominent example was Steve Forbes, whose twin obsessions during his vanity presidential runs in 1996 and 2000 — marginal tax rates and inflation — were precisely what you’d expect from an heir in a cocoon.
This is the compassionless conservatism that has been ascendant since the George W. Bush left office. The Romney/Ryan budget marks its triumph in the Republican party. It’s a budget that peddles what Miller calls “indefensible priorities” — cutting taxes further for the wealthiest Americans, and slashing assistance for the poor and vulnerable essentially out of existence.
The question is, how to these compassionless conservatives rationalize raising the drawbridge behind them, and leaving the rest of us to whatever fate awaits us? What makes it possible for Mitt Romney who “campaigned and governed in a liberal state,” and “enacted a pioneering universal health care law that’s helped many of modest means achieve health security,” manage to sell this ideology? How does Paul Ryan— a blue-eyed boy-next-door, whose ill fitting suits and amiable “aw shucks” manner comprise a disarming “everyman” veneer — talk about “upward mobility” while advocating an economic agenda that will obliterates even the possibility of upward mobility for millions of Americans?
Tom Morello, lead singer of Paul Ryan’s self-proclaimed favorite band, pretty much nailed it.
I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of “Fuck the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!
Don’t mistake me, I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta “rage” in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.
You see, the super rich must rationalize having more than they could ever spend while millions of children in the U.S. go to bed hungry every night. So, when they look themselves in the mirror, they convince themselves that “Those people are undeserving. They’re . . . lesser.” Some of these guys on the extreme right are more cynical than Paul Ryan, but he seems to really believe in this stuff. This unbridled rage against those who have the least is a cornerstone of the Romney-Ryan ticket.