Sunday, October 14, 2007


Frost, Intellectual Bankruptcy & Baby Bonds

Back again, I’ve been trying to keep my promise but as someone once said, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Unfortunately it isn’t flesh that’s keeping me away but a host of other distractions which I’ve allowed to disrupt my blogging. This is not good, though, because I see my traffic has been literally exploding by several hundred percent in the last few days. Soon I will break into the double digits of visitors per day, at that point you’ll be happy you were reading me in the early days.

For a while I’ve been arguing that the right wing in the US is intellectually bankrupt. By that I mean a while ago (I’m going to say around the first Bush administration) they ran out of ideas. Not so much ran out as in using them all up but as in ran them down. Cheap tricks, character assassination, ‘spin’ replaced thinking as their defining characteristic. This is a shame because ever since the 1970’s the Conservative movement saw itself as an intellectual movement that got the ideas right even if they lost elections.

Of course all intellectual movements are limited in their access to truth and need to be taken with good humor and a healthy grain of salt. Getting access to power, though, is rarely good for an intellectual movement. Needless to say, that doesn’t mean that out of power ideas are best. A lot of ideas are out of power simply because they are stupid and don’t work.

Paul Krugman has a good piece on Graeme Frost. He is a 12-year old boy who suffered brain injuries after a car accident. He was selected to give the response to Bush’s weekly radio address two weeks ago. Frost received insurance through Maryland’s SCHIP program because his parents could not afford it. Soon afterwards the right went after him (technically after his parents) accusing them of not needing a government program to insure their kids. Many of the initial rumors, though, turned out to be false:

Soon after the radio address, right-wing bloggers began insisting that the Frosts must be affluent because Graeme and his sister attend private schools (they’re on scholarship), because they have a house in a neighborhood where some houses are now expensive (the Frosts bought their house for $55,000 in 1990 when the neighborhood was rundown and considered dangerous) and because Mr. Frost owns a business (it was dissolved in 1999).

What’s interesting about this story is that this is exactly what government help should be. It sounds like the Frosts are your typical Americans trying to always improve their lot and sometimes having setbacks (losing a business) and sometimes getting it right (getting a house cheap that is now worth a lot more).

The original New Deal was similar in that it tried to address the concerns of ‘normal Americans’ with typical values. Take Social Security, for instance. You work hard and it provides you with something when you’re so old that you may not be able to work again. Take unemployment insurance, you pay while your working and collect should you get laid off. Neither program was designed or sold as tool for counter-cultural values. In fact, they were tools to make it easier to conform with what are normal values for most people.

Likewise many of the best liberal programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit work exactly like this. They reward positive values by limited help. Recently some on the right have gone ballistic because Hillary Clinton proposed giving every child born a $5,000 endowment.

Leaving aside the cost issue (which I suspect is not all that major. At $10K per year for 12 years a child already costs $120K or so to educate so a $5K endowment is actually minor in the big scheme of things), the idea is actually very good. It helps give everyone an equal opportunity but does not demand equal results. Some may simply cash in on their $5,000 at 18 and throw a huge party. Others, though, will do creative and productive things with it. Many will be unsurprising. They will pay for college, buy a car or maybe just roll it into retirement savings. What’s interesting is the surprising decisions many will probably take. They will start businesses, perhaps travel and explore, maybe religious ones will even found their own churches. The nice thing is that this will be their decision and their opportunity. I suspect many will make a lot of it.
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