The Big Stick

The neo-liberal creed: We're tired of feeling your pain.

IF THERE WERE any rationality in the way Americans regard politics, we would be starting to smell the fried synapses of those citizens who still profess belief in the familiar distinctions between left and right, Democrat and Republican. Only weeks ago a dispirited electorate was presented the bizarre vision of a Democratic president hopscotching the country talking of fiscal growth and balanced budgets, while his Republican counterparts set up shop in New Hampshire to argue over who among them cast the coldest eye on corporate greed and the depredations visited on the American worker. In the past year anomalies of this sort have occurred so frequently that they cease to look like anomalies at all. But the national religion, which holds that the two-party system is the only thing standing between us and godless chaos, forbids making much of the fact.

It was the Republican contingent on the Waco hearings panel that was left to raise questions of civil liberties and undue government force. It's the ever-reviled House freshman class that has so far stalled the passage of Clinton's fearsome antiterrorism bill, which promises more damage to basic liberties than any single act of Congress in this century. The principal critic of the property forfeiture abuses wrought by the drug war is a Republican, Henry Hyde of Illinois. And Pat Buchanan is the only presidential candidate who wants to make an issue of the eroding conditions of the American working class.

Republicans ended up in this position not through any virtue of their own, but thanks to the utter abdication of Democrats. Then again, it's a little misleading to call it abdication. To the recurring plaint What has become of liberal traditions?, there is now a perfectly obvious answer. It lies along the road from liberalism to neo-liberalism, a journey that can be summed up in a phrase: Out with the carrot, in with the stick. Consider the history of the mess that is the American welfare system. Critics who speak of its irrational, byzantine nature and its disincentives to work have a point. Why go off welfare and take a minimum-wage job, for example, when it means giving up your family's health care coverage? The system evolved in this manner largely because it was not conceived as a means of defining and guaranteeing minimum living standards for all, as the social welfare systems of Europe generally were, but as a means of managing and pacifying the surplus population in times of crisis during the 1930s and 1960s. A carrot, whose ad hoc character was a testament to its ad hoc roots.

Modern Democrats by and large retain their devotion to managing the fate of the surplus population, which is now growing at a rate unprecedented in our history, but tough love is the order of the day. Thus does child advocate Hillary Clinton endorse the linkage of welfare benefits to the right of the state to enter and inspect the recipient's home any time it pleases. Closer to home, a housing act currently making its way through the Minnesota Legislature aptly summarizes the neo-liberal way.

The bill, which is sponsored in its respective Senate and House versions by two of the capitol's liberal eminences, Randy Kelly and Andy Dawkins, is couched as an effort at rehabilitating communities and ensuring viable, affordable housing. Toward that end it seeks to appropriate something over $12 million. But the largest chunk of the money, $5 million, would in fact be used to tear down existing low-income housing in the name of addressing urban blight. The legislation further contains provisions that would make it practically impossible to build new low-income housing in the areas where it now exists. The rationale lies in the newest mantra of neo-lib urban policy wonks, "deconcentration of poverty." Inner-city poverty breeds pathology, the thinking goes, and the best way to address it is to scatter the poor round the suburbs, where they can all find good jobs.

The whole notion is full of political as well as moral hypocrisy. Property values are a root concern of the bill, as the original version tactlessly conceded in preamble language that has since been removed. And where property values are at stake, it hardly takes a Machiavelli to see that the suburbs possess both the will and the means to resist any substantial encroachment of low-income housing developments (think of Maple Grove) and to gut what affordable housing stock they already are burdened with (as in Brooklyn Park). The bottom-line message to those being "deconcentrated," like the dubious beneficiaries of the Hollman settlement that now promises the destruction of 700 apartments in north Minneapolis, is that we don't care where you go--just go away. A new class of nomads, our own Palestinian problem, is being created; once President Bill and the Congress can agree on a welfare package that sends funds back to the states, the race will be on to downgrade benefits and see to it that they don't end up in our backyards.

FOLLOW THE NEO-LIB road far enough and it leads to a Malthusian analysis of the problems besetting society and an inevitable prescription: Keep the lower orders from breeding. It leads to folks like David Lykken, the UM psychology professor who believes that people should have to obtain a license from the state in order to bear children. "What I would propose as requirements for licensure," he writes in the December issue of Law & Politics, "would be a mature married couple, economically independent, having no criminal record or debilitating mental illness, who had both passed a basic course in parenting at a local community college."

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