'Ownership Society' Sells Same Old GOP Shell Game

Dummerston, Vt.

Running beneath the Bush administration's talk of creating an "Ownership Society" is something that they won't come right out and say openly -- that they are crafting a long-term strategy to render the Democratic Party impotent for decades to come.

It's no secret that virtually every act of the Bush White House is done with political considerations in mind, usually camouflaged with Orwellian language.

"Tort reform" is a code phrase for defunding the trial lawyers, one of the Democratic Party's biggest financial backers.

The No Child Left Behind Act and support for school vouchers for private schools are designed to destroy public education and the teacher unions that reliably back Democrats.

Expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement to the entire Western Hemisphere is not just about free trade, but destroying labor unions, another reliably Democratic group.

Packing the federal courts with conservatives ensures that the most odious elements of the Bush agenda will be upheld.

Permanent warfare in pursuit of empire ensures that dissent will be equated with treason and will keep people too scared to speak up.

But initiatives such as these are just the warm-up act compared to the crown jewel of their "stick it to the Democrats" strategy -- privatization (a word now banned by the Bush administration) of Social Security.

By diverting part of the money we currently pay in Social Security taxes into the stock market, Americans will become part of what conservative strategist Grover Norquist calls "the investor class."

Here's where it really gets diabolical. If privatization becomes a reality, every issue from that point on can be framed as a potential threat to people's retirement funds. Environmental laws. Labor laws. Corporate taxes. Liability laws. The whole regulatory framework of modern corporate America will suddenly be transformed into a drag on stock earnings and a direct attack on the retirement funds of millions of Americans.

It's not much of a leap from there to call the entire idea of the maintenance of the welfare state into question. The next step of the grand Bush strategy is to remove taxes on investment income and put the federal tax burden squarely on the shoulders of wage earners. When this happens, the cries to cut government spending will get louder and the legitimacy of government will get attacked further.

It's true that the richest 1% of Americans own more than the combined assets of the bottom 90%. It's also true that most of the benefits of the President's Ownership Society will go to people who already own most of our society. Despite this, the Bush administration knows that self-interest is what drives most Americans and that appealing to that self-interest rarely fails to work politically.

This feeds into the master narrative of conservatism that we've heard for decades -- if we can eliminate all the constraints on capitalism, society will flourish. Every major social program enacted since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal -- most especially, Social Security -- is held up as an example of government interference in the natural order of economics.

We know what the natural order of economics looks like and what the end result looks like. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it were the unhappy ending to a decade of wild speculation fueled by laissez-faire economics.

It took Roosevelt's New Deal to save capitalism from itself.

Rather than being grateful, conservatives have hated FDR ever since for one simple reason. He crushed one of their most cherished beliefs, that taxes and regulation lead to tyranny and depression. Instead of creating an Americanized version of communism, as FDR's critics at the time feared, we saw a nation that was economically dead on its feet come back to life.

Of course, since the US is an ahistorical nation, the success story of the New Deal has been forgotten and buried under the avalanche of conservative lies about the glories of the free market.

It would be too easy to just sit back and watch the conservatives overreach and fall apart. But the stakes are higher now. The federal deficit is growing and the nation is deep in hock to China, Japan and Europe. The cost of maintaining and expanding the American empire are clearly unsustainable. And if everything comes crashing down like 1929, the chances of seeing another Roosevelt come along are about nil.

We can't wait for the seemingly inevitable collapse, nor can we wait for the few Republicans in Congress that haven't sold their souls to President Bush to stand up and stop the madness.

We have to tell the story ourselves.

We have to let people know that the "ownership society" is nothing more than the same old "us against them" vision of the world where them that has, gets.

It's a vision where taxes aren't viewed as the membership dues we pay for a civilized society, but are seen instead as theft. It's a vision that rejects the democratic ideal of mutual support and collective responsibility. It's a vision that rejects the idea that government exists to promote the general welfare, and not to merely help the rich grow richer.

The real monument that Franklin D. Roosevelt left us was his unshakable belief in the collective strength of the American people, and his vision that that strength was best guided through an activist government that would ensure what he maintained was the only standard for judging government -- its ability to provide "the greatest good to the greatest number of citizens."

Social contracts? Safety nets? Collective responsibility? To the Bush administration, these are concepts as quaint and obsolete as the Geneva Convention. There is little doubt who will be able to join Mr. Bush's Ownership Society and who will be on the outside looking in.

This is the story that needs to be told.

Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited The George Seldes Reader (Barricade Books). Email randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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