OK, I didn’t actually know him, and in fact didn’t even attend Miami University until over a decade after the guy, but as a graduate of that school, I can tell you I knew kids exactly like him. Miami is a strange place because it is divided evenly between relatively normal middle-class (mostly white) kids, who want to go to a prestigious but relatively cheap public university, and the half that is decidedly more upper-crust, who give Oxford, Ohio’s streets a flavor of BMWs that can be jarring to the uninitiated.
I sat with the Paul Ryans in all those political science classes that left me three credit hours short of a triple-major (hey, I was a senior and had an honor’s thesis and drinking to do). I worked at the front desk of King Library where the entrance took on the appearance of fraternity and sorority social hour every day after four o’clock. I worked at The Miami Student as editorial editor where my boss forced me to print way too many right-wing screeds by Professor Rich Hart—one of Ryan’s mentors.
Miami is one of the few schools where the College Republicans feel like the vast majority. During the Bush years, they cheered on the catastrophe that became the Iraq war, even as their hero cut taxes disproportionately for their parents, the deficit ballooned, and the government became a staff of useless cronies who couldn’t figure out how to get food and water into the Superdome when Katrina hit. I’d sit in my classes and listen to these people and get mean and nasty toward them because I almost couldn’t believe how clueless they were—how lacking in self-awareness, how completely oblivious to their own privilege.
That last one has stuck with me: one of the character traits I find most unsettling in politics is when a person has no conception of their privileged place in society. First of all, everyone reading this is, to a degree, hyper-privileged. We are Americans. We consume a quarter of the world’s resources as 4 percent of its population. We are taught from birth that unbridled consumerism and materialism is our right, and politicians of both parties reiterate this in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways. Yet the degree to which this certain type of Miami student would spout off about the laziness of people who were not at Miami University and people’s freedom to choose the life they wished to live and the freedom at the core of the American experience without any understanding that their places in that classroom were premised 99% on who they were born to and under what economic circumstances never failed to make me want to rip off my own head and vomit into the bucket of my skull.
I remember so vividly being in a class with a girl wearing pearls and a skirt you’d wear to your interview at Citigroup (yes, I would’ve fooled around with her, but in a really pissed off kind of way), and she was going on and on about the virtues of capitalism. The professor, Pat Haney, said something along the lines of, “So you believe in absolute capitalism?”
“The government can only screw things up,” she replied assuredly.
“So you don’t believe in any kind of environmental protection or child labor laws or rules that keep human thumbs out of your hot dogs?” he said.
And when I saw this girl’s face contort, because clearly to say “yes” would make her sound like either an idiot or a sociopath, I wanted to distill the moment and inject it into rich kids’ brains the world over.
Economist and author John Cassidy calls it “utopian economics”—the idea that if we just stand back and let the market work, somehow the outcome will not be disaster. We are living through an age of unprecedented market failure: the financial crisis, a health care system more expensive and less protective than any in the industrial world, and the greatest failure of the free market ever--the climate crisis--are all examples of how the “invisible hand” can fail a society. To deny this is to deny basic reality, but that’s the place where most of today’s Republican Party stands—without any ability to challenge their own platitude-riddled narrative.
Here’s another rule of thumb, though:
If multi-millionaires like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and their billionaire backers—who’ve never lived a day in their lives not backstopped by the incredibly fortunate circumstances they were born into—run around telling you to cut taxes for their economic class while slashing money for any other program that might benefit anyone who makes less than $250,000 a year because programs like Pell Grants and home heating oil subsidies make these people “less free”, please be skeptical.
You want to know why really Paul Ryan and other people of privilege love Ayn Rand? Because her philosophy caters to their selfishness and narcissism (ignoring that she was a depressive amphetamine addict who lived out her life in the hushed cradle of Medicare). It allows them to believe that it’s okay that they use their political power to vacuum up society’s resources, and if anyone on a lower rung of the economic ladder falls? Well, fuck ‘em. They didn’t try hard enough.
(And holy Christ--the erection I get when non-affluent people try to extol the virtues of Objectivism. It's all I can do to not laugh with glee at the sky, screaming madly, "Dude! You realize you are the parasite in 'Atlas Shrugged' right? You are not the self-made man, you are the one John Galt gets to use, by virtue of his greatness, as his personal butt-donkey!")
Of course, Ayn Rand was not the first person to exalt the rich as “job creators” at the expense of the “parasites” who lived off their accomplishments. Historian John Kelly points to Paul Ryan’s ancestors in Ireland who fled the Great Famine—which didn’t become “Great” until Irish politicians imposed an economic philosophy called “Moralism.”
Kelly points to the eerie similarities between what Irish officials like Charles Trevelyan were saying as people starved and died in the streets and Ryan’s budget, where he speaks of a safety net that “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.”
Of course a rich kid, an able-bodied person who’s lived an entire life of dependency, can still rise to become a vice-presidential candidate (as can the son of millionaire who used a government bailout to save his company, Bain) so I don’t see why a guy who was born to a single mother surviving on food stamps and came of age as a biracial kid in one of the most tumultuous racial chapters of modern American history couldn’t do it, right?
Ryan’s abject cluelessness extends to nearly every facet of his public life. Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine barely had to do any research to point out all the glaring fallacies in Ryan’s philosophy. Economists can’t stop writing about what a total fraud his budget is--how it would increase the deficit while cutting taxes for the wealthy. Ryan Lizza pointed out that his hometown of Janesville wouldn’t have an economy if it weren’t for the Obama Stimulus. After Ryan declared Rage Against the Machine as his favorite band, Tom Morello wrote an op-ed explaining why Ryan was the very definition of the Machine he rages against. When Ryan gave his speech last night, Twitter nearly melted from everyone rushing to debunk his easily-discredited inanities that amounted to him either being a liar or the least informed person in America (for instance, he made hay over Obama’s role in the closing of a Janesville GM plant, which in fact, closed during the Bush presidency, and which, if Republicans had their way, would have been followed by every other GM plant in the industrial Midwest).
Yet Paul Ryan scares me.
He scares me because he’s a clean-cut guy who doesn’t sound like a Santorum-style yahoo, and for many low-information voters, that’s more than enough. His economic ideas are frightening, the culmination of forty years of right-wing policy intent on rolling back the New Deal. As I say in my new book/essay/type-thing, his budget is the most radical redistribution of wealth from the poor, working, and middle-classes to the wealthy ever proposed by a mainstream politician. And his ideas, in the form of the "Potemkin" Romney candidacy, have now entered the mainstream.
Make no mistake, Ryanites do not care about deficits. Any Republican who actually cared about deficits would, you know, throw out an olive branch to raising at least a couple dimes of revenue from guys like Mitt Romney, whose tax rates are half of everyone else’s. Free markets move money, and our free market political system, where the most money gravitates toward the candidates most willing to flatter the oligarchs and plutocrats who wish to hoard wealth, have produced a political movement that basically cares about nothing else, that preys on ethnic fear and religious fervor but in the end cares only about its own economic exaltation. Paul Ryan is the very definition of the Great Dysmorphia.