Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Zombies and Gerrymanders

Zombies and Gerrymanders

People who know me understand I will not eat coleslaw.  I am sure it’s wonderful, to others, but the combination of chopped cabbage mixed up with a mélange of other roots and smothered (or doused, or soaked) in some form of mayonnaise-based goop is not merely a bridge too far but perhaps even occupies an alternate universe of culinary horror (with haggis, perhaps?)

My rational mind understands that coleslaw comes in little side dishes that diners and delis leave on tables as a warning to future generations.  But actually having the kitchen place the offending matter directly on the plate with your entrée produces the most profound difficulties; how do you dam up the runny awfulness from contaminating the entire dish?

Yes, I have been mocked, but now, I have proof, in the form of an article in the Science Times.  Even if one puts aside the toxic nature of mayonnaise, it is cabbage itself, drawn from the very Earth, which creates the risk.  In every serving of coleslaw, the cabbage contains about 100 million baculoviruses. It turns out that this virus causes caterpillars to lose their minds (such as they are) and to become zombies, climbing to the top of trees and feeding constantly, where eventually they dissolve from exhaustion, spraying their baculovirus-laden selves upon the leafs below, perpetuating the cycle.

I found this story particularly compelling in light of our current stalemate on the fiscal cliff.  It is going to be very hard for Republicans, and particularly House Republicans, to support anything that looks like a tax increase, particularly on higher earners.

Wait, you say, what about Speaker Boehner’s offer?  It is true the Boehner has put on the table $800 million of “revenue enhancements” but a) he doesn’t really have the support of his caucus, b) he doesn’t really want to tell us what they are, for fear that ordinary voters won’t like them, c) they extend the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners, and d) they retain most of those special tax treatments available to those who’s tax attorneys wear handmade shoes.  So, the Boehner “revenue enhancements” are really the Boehner re-imagining of the tax burden to have it fall more heavily on those working, middle and upper middle class families.  And, needless to say, the Boehner cuts to entitlements fall most heavily on the working, middle, and upper middle class families.  Shocking, isn’t it? 

And therein lies the genius of Boehner’s offer.  If he can get Mr. Obama and the Democrats to ante-up on entitlements and other domestic spending, it will be a coup of the highest order.  Boehner will have done his job as he sees it; protect the wealthy while getting everyone else to pay for deficit reduction.  And, he will do it while letting most of his caucus vote against it, so they can claim later on that they opposed the Democrats on both tax increases and entitlement reforms.  It’s brilliant. 

So, if Boehner hasn’t offered anything serious (and he hasn’t) and this is such a shrewd play, why can’t he convince his fellow Republicans to get on board?  That’s actually a very interesting question, and brings me back to coleslaw, and zombies.

The short answer, for most of them, is they can’t.  The “job creator” genus of baculovirus that invades their central nervous systems is far too powerful.  In fairness, there is a wing of the Republican party that simply belives that all entitlement programs should be eliminated as quickly as possible.  Some, like the conservative columnist George Will, dress up their opposition in intellectual finery by claiming that the original New Deal legislation was unconstitutional.  Others are more simplistic in their approach.  They divide the country into the takers vs. the makers.

There is, of course, a cognitive dissonance in this.  The self-image the GOP indulges itself with, prudent, thrifty, devout Puritans in a battle for the nation’s soul with the slothful, beer and chips swilling lads on the dole, is a tad detached from reality. And yet, like caterpillars relentlessly moving up the tree trunk, the GOP holds fast to this fiction.

Why?  Yes, we can be cynical and say some are paid handsomely.  There’s always a think tank to manage, a gig on Fox, a book to write, a speech to give, a lobbying organization to help out. But many others don’t know any other reality, and, more importantly, don’t have to defend their views.  The GOP is solidly in control of the House, even though they lost the aggregate popular vote in all House elections. Their districts have been carefully drawn to maximize their chances of re-election, with Democratic-leaning voters surgically snipped away and sutured together.  The most appalling example of gerrymandering might be in North Carolina, where Democratic House totals led statewide.  How did that voter muscle turn out at the ballot box?  Not so well.  Democrats won only 5 of 18  Congressional seats (no, that’s not a typo).  Check out the Congressional results in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, and in Ohio, and you would have thought Romney won in a romp

And that leads us to a type of peculiar moral hazard that has become more and more pervasive in our political system, particularly among Republicans.  There’s no risk to acting irresponsibly. Unlike the zombie caterpillars, zombie politicians have no real risk in being completely insensate to new ideas or new realities.  They remain well fed, safe and comfortable, and seemingly indestructible.  The greater danger is when they stray; then they can be primaried. So they don’t think independently, they don’t look to craft compromise legislation, they can’t see beyond their own interests.  Instead, they wrap themselves up in the pleasant poetry of a shared political prosperity theology.  And time drains away.

Are we going over the cliff?  I really don’t know, but in the spirit of the holidays, I offer the devout a thought from Dickens:

“Scrooge was better than his word.  He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.  He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

It’s a start.