Posted by: mutantpoodle | April 10, 2009

Weak Tea

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I find it hard not to giggle when talking about the “grassroots” teabag movement, largely for the reason enunciated by the Sex in the City cast in the definitely Not Safe for Work video above (courtesy of the Great Orange Satan). Last night’s Rachel Maddow – Ana Marie Cox back and forth on the Teabaggers was one for the books. It’s a miracle neither of them dissolved into giggles, although Rachel came closest.

My personal encounter with Teabaggers has been limited to a brief e-mail exchange with one of them.

My business school has an alumni mailing list which is used for everything from looking for jobs to finding a nanny to selling a car. And then there was this note, from a late-90’s graduate, whom I’ll call “Bill”:

Tired of our government’s overspending? If you are, please join us on April 15th for a Tax Day Tea Party at Dockweiler State Beach. This is an event for people who re angry with the spending extravaganza in Washington and want to do something about it.

All across the country on April 15th Americans will gather to peacefully protest the direction our Federal Government has taken. This is not meant to be a Republican or Democrat issue, but an American issue that concerns all of us since we, our children and their children will bear the burden of the decisions made today.

As “Bill” asked that people respond to him directly, I did. I noted that it wasn’t a terribly controversial economic theory to spend in a recession, that the outcry over spending rang false considering how virtually all of those behind the current movement stood silent while George Bush ran up our credit cards, and that this is really about taxes, which will have to go up, and too bad, because those who benefited during the first 8 years of this century are going to have to help out a little more. And I said this:

Leaving aside the cause of the protest for the moment, I assume that the “teabag” reference is to the Boston Tea Party, which, of course, was a protest against taxes levied against colonists without their representation in the matter back in England. Certainly, it was not against excessive government spending. Even if this is peripherally about taxes, no one who attends your event will have been subject to taxation without representation, which makes the teabag motif a bit – how can I say this – silly.

But to the substance: you say this isn’t a Republican or Democrat (sic) issue. And while that’s a nice thought, don’t be fooled: underlying the teabag movement are folks on the right side of the ideological spectrum who oppose Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise.

My biggest problem with all this is that it’s clever and sound-bite friendly, but it’s not serious. You don’t like spending now? What do you propose? How would you lead this country out of a severe recession, prop up ailing banks (remember – you can’t take them over yet, because you don’t have the legal authority to do so), and cut the deficit? I’m all ears, because what I hear from most people behind this extremely silly, in my opinion, “movement” is nothing but knee-jerk criticism that has, at its root, fundamental political opposition to Democrats being in power. Which is fine, but be honest about it.

To his credit, Bill responded. He suggested that as a member of the “pragmatist school” I was bound to view any sort of “populist uprising” with suspicion. He suggested that the Japanese banking crisis proved that Keynesian economics didn’t work. He acknowledged that the budget had been balanced in 2001 and run up in the interim. He suggested that no amount of taxes would get us out of this mess. He (like me) believes zombie banks should be allowed to fail. And, also to his credit, he suggested an alternative to what is now being done.

A 20%, across the board cut to every government program, including defense.

If anyone is wondering why I think the teabag movement is devoid of ideas, it’s this: Bill’s idea is the only prescription I’ve heard from any of these folks.

And it’s – how do I put this – insane. The notion that cutting GDP MORE when it’s already been hammered by the financial system collapse flies in the face of virtually every knowledgeable economist.

Here’s the tail end of my final response to Bill:

Spending is neither good or bad. What you buy is good or bad. When you spend a trillion dollars blowing stuff up, you get nothing for it. When you spend a trillion dollars improving our electrical infrastructure, improving medical information technologies, investing in clean energy to help wean us from fossil fuels – those investments quite often pay off.

I think this is what separates us: you see an immediate problem – huge deficits – and want to address it with an immediate solution – even though, according to most people who know more about this than I do, that solution would be devastating in the near AND long term for our economy. I see a longer term problem – one that needs a long-term focus and investments that can pay off. I am under no illusions that it will be easy. I just think my way is less bad than yours.

Andrew Sullivan, who wants to sympathize with the Teabag contingent, finds that he can’t:

I’ll proffer a simple point: If the tea-partiers are concerned about debt and concerned about taxes, one presumes they favor drastic spending cuts. But what are the tea-partiers proposing to do to Medicare, Medicaid, and social security?

I’d love to see a proposal that they support on any of these entitlement programs, but particularly Medicare which is the culprit for much of the debt burden. Where is it? Or are we really going to hear more diversions about “pork”?

As a fiscal conservative who actually believed in those principles when the Republicans were in power, I guess I should be happy at this phenomenon. And I would be if it had any intellectual honesty, any positive proposals, and any recognizable point. What it looks like to me is some kind of amorphous, generalized rage on the part of those who were used to running the country and now don’t feel part of the culture at all. But the only word for that is: tantrum.

These are not tea-parties. They are tea-tantrums. And the adolescent, unserious hysteria is a function not of a movement regrouping and refinding itself. It’s a function of a movement’s intellectual collapse and a party’s fast-accelerating nervous breakdown.

Sadly, we could use a serious discussion of all this. Instead, we get Teabags. Whatever the opposite of rising to the occasion is, that’s what these folks are doing.


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