Monthly Archives: August 2012

‘We built that’ class conflict

The Republican National Convention borrowed from the playbooks of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand in manufacturing a conflict last week.

“We built that,” was the theme of the convention. It was a reaction to President Barack Obama’s comment, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
Almost every GOP speaker repeated the, “We built that,” theme. It was a glorification of the business owner that presented a stark contrast to Obama’s claim that capitalists deserve no credit.
Over and over at the convention, a spliced version of Obama’s comments played in the background. Speakers rejected the claim just as often, with words like those of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul: “When the president says, ‘You didn’t build that,’ he is flat out wrong. Businessmen and women did build that.”
Marx saw this conflict as inevitable. Marx viewed the class the GOP was promoting, the bourgeoisie, as the oppressor of the far more numerous proletariat.
Rand preached the flip side of the Marxist coin. She too saw the classes as being in conflict. As made clear in this statement by a hero of her novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” she had a very different view of the identity of the oppressor:
“Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or the looters who take your product by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce.”
GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is a devotee of Rand.
“I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are,” he said at a speech to the Rand revivalist Atlas Society in 2005. “It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
So on one side of the conflict highlighted at the GOP convention we have the owners of the means of production, and on the other we have the moochers and looters, or proletariat. Using Occupy Wall Street terminology, it is basically the conflict between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
If Obama so firmly embraced the side of the proletariat, as the edited quote replayed at the convention and in Mitt Romney ads suggests, it may be no surprise that the Romney campaign sided with the oppressed bourgeoisie.
The quote Romney uses in his assertion that Obama is slamming business owners, however, is a fabrication. The full quote is below, with the portions that were deleted from the GOP video and audio loops in bold:
“Let me tell you something. There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
As a reporter, I have interviewed dozens of successful businessmen. Not one would disagree with Obama’s unedited statement. They credited their success to factors outside their direct control: hard-working employees, customers and, frequently, the government-created infrastructure or incentives that allowed them to operate.
They were, I know, being humble. I owned a business, and it was hard work. It involved risk, stress and an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the employees whose livelihood depended on my continued investment. I miss the financial rewards that came with my bourgeois status, but little else.
In a democracy, capitalist humility makes a lot of sense. As Rand suggested in “Atlas Shrugged,” the proletariat has the power to shape the government in a democracy. It can — through its votes — raise capital-gains and inheritance taxes to confiscatory levels. It can refrain from maintaining institutions that protect property rights and educate the work force. It can eliminate the corporate shell, making owners responsible for corporate liabilities.
For sound economic reasons, our society reserves its greatest financial rewards for capitalists. A class-conscious democracy could destroy that reward system and undermine our economy.
The Romney campaign has not just reacted to class conflict, it has created it. With the deceptive editing of Obama’s statement, and the decision to use the spliced version as a theme for the Republican National Convention, it has fueled the very conflict that Marx and Rand anticipated.
While Marx recognized the class tensions the GOP exploited in Tampa, history has shown him utterly wrong in his conclusions. Marx was right that the capitalist cannot succeed without the more numerous proletariat, but he was wrong in his belief that the proletariat can succeed without the skill and capital of the bourgeoisie.
On the eve of Labor Day in 1936 — a time when Joseph Stalin controlled the Soviet Union and the financial distress of Americans was even greater than it is today — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt feared the consequences of a belligerent capitalist class.
In what could have been a rebuke of the Tampa conventioneers, Roosevelt said, “It is those short-sighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.”
In America, he said, “We refuse to regard those who work with hand or brain as different from or inferior to those who live from their property. We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property … Our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy in which all can profit.”
Contact Eric Fleischauer at or


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Filed under Capitalism, Class warfare, Election 2012, Obama, Paul Ryan

Condi Rice, unlike Ryan, tries honesty

Two speeches at Wednesday’s Republican National Convention demonstrated a strategic divide as the party seeks to regain control of the White House.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice of Birmingham was a superb spokesperson for the Republican Party.
She highlighted the philosophical differences between the parties, which are significant. She pressed the view that corporations, free of government oversight, will improve the U.S. economy. She emphasized concerns about the deficit while calling for strong support of the military.
She pointed out the contrasts between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and explained why she preferred Romney.While her interpretation of the Obama presidency is subject to debate, Rice did not use falsehoods to build her case.
Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan did.
Ryan has an excellent stage presence. He is relaxed and articulate. He deftly weaves humor and policy.
Part of his job was to attack Obama. Rice had already shown that such an attack could be made with integrity.
Instead of trusting that voters can understand the actual differences between Obama’s and Romney’s visions, Ryan created a fictional Obama and attacked it, instead.
Ryan began with a sad story about the closing of a GM plant in his hometown, a plant he said Obama failed to save. But GM announced its plan to close the plant in early 2008 and halted production in December 2008, all before Obama took office. Obama managed to save a now-profitable GM with a bailout opposed by both Ryan and Romney.
Ryan — who plans to replace the Medicare system with a voucher system using private insurance — then claimed Obama is cutting $716 billion from the program. While it is true that Obama implemented cost controls and cut subsidies for insurers, saving $716 billion, the implication that he cut benefits is false. Ryan’s proposed budget cuts the same amount from Medicare without the cost controls, necessarily reducing benefits for seniors.
Ryan then accused Obama of failing to act on a bipartisan debt commission report. What he failed to say was that the report did not achieve support from a majority of the commission, mainly because Ryan — a commission member — opposed it.
Republicans and Democrats have different visions and propose different strategies. Ryan and Romney would do well to adopt Rice’s approach of honestly highlighting those differences, rather than relying on false claims.

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Filed under Election 2012, Paul Ryan

GOP plan leaves out 681,437 Alabamians

In Morgan County, according to a Census report released Wednesday, 19,086 people — 19 percent of those under 65 — have no health insurance.
Across the state, 681,437 — 17 percent of those under age 65 — have no insurance.
We routinely brag about having the best health care system in the world, but for the uninsured it is one of the worst among developed nations.
The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect. It is an awkward compromise between interest groups and partisan advocates. But it is a serious effort to solve an enormous national problem.
In Tampa, Republicans are chanting their hatred of the law. They promise to repeal it before the 681,437 Alabamians can enjoy its benefits. The GOP is embracing a status quo that forces people to cling to Medicaid or Social Security Disability, because they cannot afford to accept a job without health insurance benefits.
The party that claims to promote equal opportunity over equal outcome is rejecting a law that has nothing to do with controlling outcomes but everything to do with opportunity.
The 19,086 uninsured people in Morgan County will not get rich under Obamacare. Nor will the 5,562 uninsured in Lawrence County or the 11,663 in Limestone County.
They will, however, be able to afford individual insurance while working at a job that does not offer insurance. They will have the option of working several part-time jobs, even though none of those jobs offer insurance.
Workers can take the risk of switching to a job that offers them more opportunity, without worrying about losing coverage for pre-existing conditions. They can even pursue entrepreneurial dreams, an option now out of reach for most who cannot risk a gap in access to health care.
The Affordable Care Act helps the poor, a characteristic that apparently makes it unacceptable to the tough-love conventioneers in Tampa. It has its roots, though, in a conservative recognition that the existing health-care system is mucking up our economy.
Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation did not embrace versions of the Affordable Care Act out of pity. Rather, they understood that our economy functions best when all have the opportunity to participate.
The fact that 681,437 Alabamians are deprived of adequate health care is not just a problem for them, it is a problem for all of us.
The Affordable Care Act is not about equality of outcome. It is, rather, about providing the opportunity necessary for both individuals and our nation to maximize their potential.

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Filed under Election 2012, Health care, Obamacare

More on anti-immigrant sentiment

I’ve received many thoughtful emails on today’s column, The cruelty of kind Alabamians. Here’s one I particularly liked, along with my response.

Thank you for this Op Ed. You make an observation that I have also found to be true, and I’ve puzzled over it from time to time. It seems paradoxical, but it is not by accident that individual good will gets turned to collective ill will, it is by design of the Hammons and Beasons of the world. This awareness can help us who do become targets from time to time remember that we were not naïve or stupid to trust in the sincere good will that we perceive from our neighbors, but that they are being manipulated.

This is not to say our neighbors are not responsible, and I am still trying to work out why they have this resentment that can so easily be tapped into and directed toward vulnerable groups. I speculate that it is because they themselves feel targets when they are stereotyped as bigots, and this is where the paradox really twists in on itself because they seem to react with a defiance that reinforces those very stereotypes.

As you can see, the thinking gets convoluted, the more I think about it which is why I appreciated your clarity. I thought it was great that you illustrated the point clearly with a lovely example, at the same time protecting the identity of the subject of your story.

My response:

Thanks for the kind comments.

I, too, struggle for an explanation. I especially struggle on Sundays, when I watch good people professing their individual commitment to help the needy, even though most voted for institutional intolerance. It’s not a complete explanation, but I think the economy plays a part. Animosity toward the Jews in Germany and the Irish in America and now Hispanics becomes much more acute when people have economic fears. “They are taking our jobs,” or “They are increasing our deficit.”
I suspect an element of the economic contribution to intolerance has to do with our need to feel superior to others. As income and wealth polarization widens, there is less distance between most Americans and the poor. Racial distinctions become the method by which many whites assure themselves that they have more in common with the elite than with the destitute.
Just a theory. Whatever the actual cause, a lot of human tragedy and ugliness is the result.


Filed under Alabama politics, immigration, Recession

Hard choices require facts

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., a candidate for the U.S. Senate, took a cowardly approach in supporting his political views.
The issue of whether the state should require rape victims to deliver the resulting child is horribly complex. It rouses sincere and incompatible views among many Americans. Religious beliefs, views on the appropriate limits of government and gender-equality issues conflict hopelessly because the biology of conception does not lend itself to simplistic solutions.
If it were true that rape victims do not get pregnant, the thorny problem would go away. So Akin — parrotting the statements of a fringe pro-life doctor — relied on false science to buttress his views.
It’s an increasingly common tactic among our elected representatives.
Rather than confront the complex question of what — if anything — we should do to control climate change, they claim it does not exist. Rather than acknowledge the economic evidence that moderate increases in the tax rates of the wealthy do not reverse economic growth, they claim the contrary.
The fact that rape victims do get pregnant does not, by itself, mean that pro-life advocates are wrong. The fact that human activity is contributing to climate change does not, by itself, mean that we should pay for a solution. There are arguments for keeping taxes low on the wealthy that do not require the false premise that doing otherwise would undermine economic growth.
All of these issues are complex. Elected officials need to confront them head on, not change the facts in an effort to dodge the hard choices they demand.

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Filed under Election 2012

Voters needed a choice

Republicans have a point when they cry “foul” at Democrats’ late substitution of a candidate for chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
The State Democratic Executive Committee unanimously voted to remove Harry Lyon from the ticket for violating ethical rules. Lyon, who over the years has had frequent brushes with the law and ethical rules applicable to lawyers, criticized homosexuals and supporters of gay marriage. He claimed his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, was a “devil worshipper.”
The Democratic committee replaced Lyon with a respected Jefferson County Circuit Court judge, Robert Vance.
If it was a game, the 11th-hour substitution would feel suspiciously like cheating.
Much more is at stake, however, than the success rates of the two parties.
Three Republican candidates campaigned for the chief justice spot in the primaries. Two of them would have placed their respect for the law above personal beliefs. Two recognized their religious beliefs did not trump the U.S. Constitution.
The third was former Chief Justice Roy Moore. He won the nomination.
Moore, determined to place his personal religious beliefs above his oath of office, became a national symbol of intolerance after his election as chief justice in 2000.
Writing in 2001, a federal district judge described Moore’s actions:
“He installed a two-and-a-half ton monument in the most prominent place in a government building, managed with dollars from all state taxpayers, with the specific purpose and effect of establishing a permanent recognition of the ‘sovereignty of God,’ the Judeo-Christian God, over all citizens in this country, regardless of each taxpaying citizen’s individual personal beliefs or lack thereof.”
The district judge and a federal appellate court ordered Moore to remove the Ten Commandments monument because it violated the U.S. Constitution. Moore refused. The other state Supreme Court justices had to overrule him. Moore remained defiant, and finally was removed from office by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary.
The message Moore sent to Alabamians and the world was that in this state, legal protections exist only for those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian beliefs. He merged church and state in Taliban fashion.
If this were a game, the Democratic Party’s substitution of candidates would have been perilously close to cheating.
It is not a game. At stake is not just Alabama’s reputation, but the sanctity of a system of justice that should view all people as equal before the law.
Moore proved himself unworthy of office. Alabamians of both parties needed another choice.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Religion

The cruelty of kind people

Alabamians are loving as individuals but can be nasty in groups, a lesson that undocumented immigrants struggle to understand.

The best story I ever wrote ended up in a trash can, all drafts carefully deleted from my computer.

It was the story of a friend. He was a leader in his high school, a talented musician, an honor student. He volunteered at his church and for numerous local groups. He loved America and even Alabama with an innocent passion.

It was the story of how Alabamians embraced his family when they arrived here when he was a child. Teachers and new friends helped him learn English; a church provided furniture to his impoverished family. It was the story of a family that found success in Decatur and continues to repay the community for the warm welcome that made all the difference. They left Mexico because they feared the effect poverty and violence would have on their child, and he has flourished here.

The young man, troubled by actions of the state Legislature, wanted to tell his story. He sensed a flawed stereotype drove the politics of hate. Far from being a drain on the community, he and his family are contributors. So are the other undocumented immigrants he knows. They are Christians who place a high value on education. They are hard workers. The families he knows came to Alabama out of a desperate desire to improve the lives of their children.

It is no wonder the young man thought telling his story would ease the anti-immigrant anger that suffused Alabama. He had been the beneficiary of countless acts of kindness, of Alabamians who defined him not as an illegal alien but as a fellow Christian with tremendous potential. His love of Alabama is rooted in these encounters.

His optimism was unwarranted. I killed the story because I knew the individual compassion of Alabamians twists into cruelty when they are in groups, and I did not want him to become a target. Individually, we love the young man. Collectively, we attack him.

As a group, we in Decatur elected a representative — House Majority Leader Micky Hammon — who promised to pass a law that would make the lives of undocumented immigrants so miserable that they would leave.

Hammon and other state officials congratulated themselves Monday because the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals only found most of their law to be unconstitutional. The surviving provisions would still make undocumented immigrants — and, intended or not, many Hispanic citizens — miserable.

As voters, we blasted a shotgun and a few of the pellets found their targets. State Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, wanted to “empty the clip” to rid the state of undocumented immigrants, and we happily supplied him with the ammunition.

The sad irony is that the provisions that survived the 11th Circuit’s review hurt both immigrants and the state.

The young man’s parents benefit their community through their work and church activities, but must violate the law to do so. The law precludes them from obtaining a driver’s license or license tags. Their undocumented-immigrant friends who employ Alabamians must close their businesses, because the law prevents them from obtaining a business license. The young man, despite his academic excellence, could not attend college in Alabama. The law we as voters supported alienates the most promising undocumented immigrants by barring them from attending public colleges or universities.

The stereotypes that motivated voters to support the law — the career criminal or the family that lives on the public dole despite an ability to work — no doubt describe some undocumented immigrants, just as they describe some native Alabamians. The irony is that those who fit the stereotypes are unperturbed by the law. In our collective, flailing cruelty, we have only injured those who share our values and benefit our state.

The young man, my friend, is confused. He cannot understand how the kind people who surround him can be so merciless when acting together. I share his sadness, but can offer no explanation.

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Filed under Alabama politics, immigration