A Voice of Reason
The Republican Party is not simply the "just-say-no" party. It's also a shameless advocate of the free lunch. Ronald Reagan famously told us he could jack up defense spending, cut taxes and balance the federal budget all at the same time.
George W. Bush put two big wars on a credit card. And now we have the perennially clownish Newt Gingrich, in an embarrassing rant against President Obama, assuring the deluded G.O.P. faithful that, yes, the party can indeed bring down the federal deficit while cutting taxes.
The Great Recession and the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been savage enough to reintroduce the G.O.P. to reality.
One of the reasons so many conservative Republican absurdities became actual U.S. policy was the intellectual veneer slapped upon them by right-wing think tanks and commentators. The grossest nonsense was made to seem plausible to a lot of people - people who wanted to believe in a free lunch. When Mr. Reagan told the country that "government is the problem," the intellectual handmaidens of the corporate and financial elite were right there to explain in exhaustive detail why that was so.
The result, in addition to the terrible consequences of Iraq and Afghanistan and the damage to America's standing in the world, was the tremendous (and tremendously debilitating) transfer of wealth from working people in the U.S. to the folks already in the upper echelons of wealth and income. The elite made out like bandits - often literally.
The liberal or progressive community was slow to counter the remarkable effectiveness of this intellectual offensive from the right. But during the 1990s and into the early-2000s, that began to change. And one of the progressive organizations that has done a really good job (but has never been particularly well known) is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Demos, headquartered in New York City, grew out of a series of meetings of scholars, activists, journalists and elected officials who were concerned about the ever-increasing influence of the right on public policy. "The thinking was that there should be more moderate, liberal and left-of-center voices," said Miles Rapoport, the group's president. The group was formed in 2000, a year that would later see the disputed election that gave the presidency to Mr. Bush.
It didn't take long for Demos to begin issuing loud warnings about the danger that ever-increasing debt was posing to American households, while pointedly disputing the argument that over-the-top credit card debt was primarily the result of excessive consumer spending.
Working people from the middle class down were in serious trouble, and Demos, along with many other voices (the bankruptcy expert and middle-class advocate Elizabeth Warren comes quickly to mind) was sounding the alarm long before the Great Recession hit like a Category 5 hurricane.
In a 2003 report called "Borrowing to Make Ends Meet," Demos spotlighted the increasing gap between the incomes and the day-to-day living costs of many low- and middle-income families. That report was updated steadily in subsequent years, and in 2007 Demos was reporting: "Many households have tried to cope with this financial imbalance by relying on credit cards to cover basic expenses that earnings do not meet. Homeowners, ominously, have then relied on cashed-out home equity - $1.2 trillion over the last six years - largely to pay down those debts and to cover other costs of living."
The Bush crowd during this period had taken us into Iraq and was fashioning its own fantasy of free-lunch economics.
In 2006, Tamara Draut, Demos's vice president of policy and programs, wrote a book called "Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead." Ms. Draut made the case that the hallmarks of adulthood - from getting an education to buying a home to finding a good job with decent benefits to raising children and beginning to save for retirement - had been eroded by the shortsighted public policies that have prevailed in recent decades.
What has been left are just the remnants of the American dream.
Ronald Reagan and the right-wing zealots who revere him have preached a gospel that, when carried to its logical conclusion, would all but abolish government. It's a failed philosophy.
Demos has responded with admirable real-world scholarship, a highly respected fellows program to encourage new writers and thinkers and steadfast efforts to promote civic engagement. (It's a big champion, among other things, of same-day voter registration.)
It's not just comforting but essential to have sane countervailing voices like Demos to remind us that government action is necessary to plan for the common good, to set proper rules for economic activity and to be a bulwark against predatory practices in the private sector.
Demos is holding its 10th anniversary celebration on May 11, and Ms. Warren will be one of the honorees. If you think about it, raise a toast in the group's honor.
© 2010 The New York Times