“I will show you a better way…” 1 Corinthians (translations vary)
If Paul Ryan spent half as much time as he does hectoring the poor and devising ways to hold them accountable for their measly government benefits; if he spent, as I say, half that much time preventing billionaires like donald trump from gaming the system ("I'd be stupid not to") in order to escape paying taxes, we’d be a much fairer nation. But Representative Ryan (R-Hooverville) has his sights set not on the uber rich but on the hapless poor.
Talia Lavin (at The Baffler) rightly notes that one of the more pernicious effects of the trumpy victory is that it puts Ryan, as Speaker of the House, in charge of shredding dismantling overhauling the social safety net, the one he has characterized as a “hammock” for moochers and idlers who (for their own good, of course) must be disabused of the notion that they’re “entitled” to anything—including food.
Ms. Lavin ably demolishes Speaker Ryan’s agenda, which he has heralded as “A Better Way” for America:
His “Better Way” plan is as ambitious as its blue-eyed messenger. In the name of a more “confident” and “bold” America, it constitutes a comprehensive restructuring—and dismantling—of benefits on a scale that dwarfs Clintonian welfare reform. A throughline in Ryan’s plan is a principle that Mather might have approved of: pervasive and draconian work requirements. These extend beyond those who receive direct cash assistance to other programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which aids twenty-eight million Americans yearly to purchase nutritious food. In this fashion, the Speaker claims, he will aid Americans in poverty to “make the most of their lives.” A “Better Way” factsheet implores supporters to “Reward Work,” informing us that “an increasing number of SNAP recipients are work-capable adults,” and lamenting, falsely, that “most welfare programs do not actually require or even encourage work.” 1
After taking Ryan to task on the many falsehoods and misconceptions that underlie his proposals, Ms. Lavin turns to history (and to an historian) for a comparison:
To the food historian Andrew Coe, co-author with Jane Ziegelman of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, the brittle, peppy ethos of the “Better Way” recalls another period in American history wherein Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the Presidency: the administration of Herbert Hoover. “A Square Meal” depicts with chilling precision Hoover’s decision to decline to give direct food aid to those starving in the early years of the Depression, under the principle, first articulated by President Grover Cleveland, that “though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”
“The moral condemnation of idleness, which goes through the history of the U.S., you can still see it in today’s Republican Congress,” Coe said in a recent interview. “It’s a very hard-hearted, self-centered viewpoint, but it’s definitely part of the dark side of American culture.”
During the Hoover era, the president dined from gold-plated dishes while sharecroppers in the South starved in their shacks, and breadlines threaded through American streets. Coe and Ziegelman portray Hoover as a president caught in the grips of ideology, unwilling to change his policies in response to the dire needs of his citizens.2 While farmers in Arkansas rioted for food in 1931, Hoover recoiled at the prospect of a direct food aid bill, while a supporter of his in Congress, James Tilson, predicted that “the idle and shiftless will accept it as a gift, dismiss any attempt at repayment, and live off the Federal Government as long as the opportunity exists.”
Talia Lavin recognizes latter-day Hooverism when she sees it:
The narrative that Ryan depicts is distinguishable from Tilson’s vociferous disgust for the “shiftless” only in its blander rhetoric. The “Better Way” offers a paper-thin veneer of narrative—the notion that work requirements are a form of necessary encouragement to the loafing indigent—to cover its essential harshness, what Coe describes as “the streak of cruelty” that stretches from Mather to Hoover to the current Republican party. What the welfare debate requires is a counter-narrative: one that posits, with more forceful, open, and accurate moral rhetoric, but the same urgency, that no one should starve in the wealthiest country in the world.
But this plainly obvious moral truth is not enough, since condemnation of poverty, and the attendant conflation of poverty with poor character, has deep roots in the American character, and therefore demands a deracination of great vigor. We must decouple poverty from moral failure, lack of work from shiftlessness, need from parasitism. The mealy-mouthed, Randian platitudes of the “Better Way” mask an extraordinary failure of compassion, and a willingness to ignore the reality of those who want to work yet suffer from starvation in homes from coast to coast.3
Our problem right now is that we, the American electorate, have handed the reins of power to a demagogue charlatan man who has shown no inclination whatsoever to use them to restrain Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues. Ms. Lavin urges us “to contend” with our present circumstances “with ingenuity,” but I’m not sure there’s enough ingenuity in the world to stop Speaker Ryan from imposing his “Better Way” upon us—for our own good, of course.
1 I can’t prove that Paul Ryan chose the slogan “A Better Way” to deliberately evoke the apostle Paul; but since it was also Paul (of Tarsus, not Wisconsin) who supposedly penned the admonition “If a man will not work, he shall not eat,” I’m willing to bet that Speaker Ryan had him in mind.
2 We have met the enemy and it is ideology (although president-elect trumpy, whatever his faults, is no ideologue), which I define as “a preference for ideas over facts.” Ideology is a bipartisan scourge; whether from the Right or from the Left, it imperils both critical thought and open-minded discourse. For ideologues, the conclusion on any issue has been reached and there’s no point in considering evidence or engaging in further discussion. Ideology is where thinking goes to die; as some wit has (probably) said, a mind, unlike a bed, is not better off for having been made up in advance.
3 “Randian platitudes”: the reference, of course, is to Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan’s ideological pin-up girl whose Atlas Shrugged changed the course of Ryan’s thinking, his life, and—if we don’t prevent it—the lives of millions of Americans, and not for the better.