Inside Senator Rubio's Brain

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   On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's speech to the Congress in which he committed his administration to a "War on Poverty," Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio challenged President Johnson's vision and the policy initiatives that his administration introduced to reduce poverty. These initiatives included the Social Security Act 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 that created the Community Action Program, Job Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. 

      In his speech, Rubio acknowledged that, during the period between1980 and 2005, the top1% of the work force earned more than 80% of the total increase in income. Senator Rubio also conceded that upward mobility in the United States had declined in comparison to other countries and that "our modern day economy has wiped out many of the low-skill jobs that once provided millions with a middle class living."


     Rubio's response to these widely documented, systemic economic problems was to blame the federal government, urge less government regulation, lower taxes and reduced public spending to address the growing national debt. In his address, Rubio took aim not only at Johnson's War on Poverty, but also at the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that was introduced during the Roosevelt administration to ensure that American workers are paid a minimum wage for every hour they work.

      Rubio insisted that, if economic problems were addressed at the state, rather than the national level, economic inequality would be reduced and that America's middle class would once again expand and thrive. As such, Rubio proposed to dismantle existing federal welfare programs and turn the money used to fund all such programs over to the states with flexible block grants. "Innovations are difficult to pursue because Washington controls the money," he stated, "But I know from my time in the Florida legislature that if states were given the flexibility, they would design and pursue innovative and effective ways to help those trapped in poverty."

       Senator Rubio's website describes three immediate concerns that he argues show the need to devolve political power and decision-making to the states. His first is the issue of healthcare. Rubio claims that "Floridians everywhere have expressed their concern about health care costs spiraling out-of-control. The President's new health care law will drive costs up, bankrupt the country and create bureaucratic red tape when it comes to everyday health care decisions. Lowering health care costs is essential to growing our economy and creating jobs in our country."

      Rubio's answer to the health care crisis is to unleash the purported power of the free market: "We should propose common sense, free-market ideas to make health care more accessible and affordable. Senator Rubio will focus on three goals: repealing and replacing Obamacare; allowing individuals to control their own health care choices; and returning control of health policy to the states."

      It is impossible to square Senator Rubio's rhetoric about returning control of health care policy to the states and to the private sector with the magnitude of the health care crisis that exists in Florida. For example, according to an August report by the U.S. Census Bureau, 24.8 percent of Florida residents under age 65 were without health insurance in 2011. As a result, Florida now has the country's second highest number of residents without health insurance after Texas. In addition, the recent census data shows that 30 percent of full-time workers in Florida and 60 percent of part-time employees don't receive insurance through their jobs.                 

     Senator Rubio's website describes federal spending as his second major concern. Rubio contends that "Floridians are concerned about the out-of-control spending in Washington that is piling up debt. Today, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says the 'federal budget is on an unsustainable path.' Right now, forty cents of every dollar the federal government spends is being borrowed from future generations...a $14 trillion debt is unsustainable. We need a government that stops spending more money than it takes."

      To address his concern, Senator Rubio recycles the usual right-wing austerity agenda peddled by the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation: freeze non-defense, non-veterans spending at 2008 spending levels, cut the budgets of the White House and Congress by 10%, and reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy. Rubio also opposes raising taxes, proposes an automatic sunset to government programs and a presidential line-item veto, and supports a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.

      The good Senator conveniently ignores the fact that Florida is a "taker" - a moocher state - that receives $1.39 from the federal government for every tax dollar that it remits to the U.S. Treasury. His critique of the size of the size of the federal bureaucracy is also not fact-based. Data compiled by the Federal Office of Personnel Management documents that the number of civilians employed by the executive agencies of the federal government has declined from a peak of 3,040,000 employees in 1969 to 2,756,000 employees by 2011, notwithstanding the fact that the population of the United States has doubled during that same time period. Third, although a lawyer, Rubio, sadly, appears to be unaware that the United States Supreme Court, in Clinton v. New York, 524 U.S. 417 (1998), declared that the Line Item Veto Act enacted by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1996 was unconstitutional.

      Lastly, Senator Rubio's support for a constitutional amendment that requires a balanced budget would, if adopted, threaten the country's well-being. Without deficit-spending - i.e. borrowing - the United States government could not have prosecuted World War I or II. Further, without an increase in taxes - that Rubio says he also opposes - the federal government would be unable to provide emergency disaster relief and flood insurance to residents of Florida and other states when unforeseen disasters have exhausted federal budget allocations for emergency relief. A May, 2011 study by FEMA - captioned as a "Strategic foresight initiative" - observed that federal disaster relief exploded after September 11, rising from an average of $2.7 billion between 1991 and 2000 to an average of $11.4 billion between 2001 and 2009.

     As part of his second major concern, Rubio also invokes the current favorite fantasy of the Republican noise machine that "Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are going broke and will bankrupt our country. Benefits for those currently receiving them or those approaching retirement should not and will not change. But for those who are younger, the programs will need to change or they will no longer exist when they themselves approach retirement age."

     The existing data shows that residents of Florida are heavily dependent upon existing federal entitlement programs. At the end of 2013, 2.89 million Floridians were on Medicaid, as reported by the Florida Department of Children and Families, while the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 3,527,830 residents of Florida received Medicare benefits in 2012, out of a total population of 19.32 million. Further, a study by AARP noted that nearly a third of Florida's nearly 3 million retirees, 65 and older, rely entirely on Social Security.

      It is doubtful that without a carefully-regulated, European-style single-payer or single-provider system, the exploding costs of our existing insurance-brokered, fee-for-service medical system - which also drives up the costs of  Medicaid and Medicare - will be reduced. Without structural improvements in the economy - including an increase in the minimum wage and a commitment to full employment policies as mandated under existing federal law - Senator Rubio's support for an increase in the age before which benefits for Medicare and Social Security could be received would exacerbate the poverty of millions Florida residents because they would be left without medical care or a source of income when needed most. Senator Rubio's proposal also smacks of class bias: those who are privileged to do the kind of "work" that he does are able to defer retirement far longer than those who work in physically demanding jobs, such as construction, or in emotionally demanding jobs, such as public school teaching or policing. 

      Senator Rubio's third professed concern is the economy. His website announces that he "believes we need to permanently extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that will sunset in two years, cut corporate taxes, permanently end the Death Tax, end double taxation, reform the Alternative Minimum Tax and ensure that we do not pass a value-added tax. His website also notes that he "opposes Democrat efforts to pass a cap-and-trade plan... and opposes efforts to strip away workers' rights to a secret ballot, will work to halt regulations that are hurting job creation, and supports free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that will promote economic and job growth."

      If Florida is an exemplar of the kind of state-based, economic decision-making that Rubio urges, what kind of "innovative and effective" programs have its Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature designed to improve the state's economy and "to help those trapped in poverty?" The most current Census Bureau data shows that Florida still suffers from a high poverty rate. As of 2012, 12.4 percent of families were reported to be living below the federal poverty line, and that 17 percent of all individuals in Florida, or more than 3,410,000 of its residents, were classified as poor.

      Karen Cyphers, a public policy researcher, reports in an August 19, 2013 post on St Petersblog that Florida provides fewer welfare benefits today than 45 other states, and that the total value of welfare benefits for Floridians, in1995, on average, was $26,092. As of 2013, adjusted for inflation after using1995 as the base year, the total value of welfare benefits decreased by $7,971 to $18,121. In addition, the Fiscal 2013 budget signed into law by Governor Scott eliminated 4,400 public sector jobs, cut Medicaid payments to hospitals by 7.5 percent, and froze the pay of state workers for the sixth straight year.

      According to the Census ACS 1-year survey, the median household income for Florida was $45,040 in 2012. Compared to the median US household income of $51,371, Florida's median household income was $6,331.00 lower. In fact, Florida's median household income has lagged well below the median U.S. household income for every year from 2005 to 2012.

      How then does one explain Marco Rubio's politics? Since his formal education suggests that he is not a stupid man, there are only two possible explanations. The first is that Senator Rubio actually knows better, but that he has chosen to pander to the lunatic base that supports him so enthusiastically. As such, Senator Rubio is a demagogue who, much like the fictional Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip in Sinclair Lewis's novel It Can't Happen Here, will say and do almost anything that is politically expedient to promote himself politically.

      The second, equally unsettling explanation is that Senator Rubio is, in fact, unable to distinguish between social reality and what he believes is social reality. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has described how the paradigms in which individuals live and work - what phenomenologists refer to as a "shared field of meaning" - continue to control the beliefs and behaviors of individuals long after the anomalies have overwhelmed the paradigm and long after the paradigms have ceased to explain what is actually happening in the real world. This holds true whether the issue at hand involves a scientific hypothesis or an economic theorem.

      As individuals and societies hold fast to beliefs that no longer explain or inform social reality, fear, anxiety and anger mount and cause what social scientists describe as cognitive dissonance. As a result, the death-throes of those ideas is all too often resisted with a ferocity that overwhelms civility and rational political discourse.

      Rubio's critique of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan,  who proclaimed that government was not the solution but, rather, the problem, but neither  Senator Rubio nor President Reagan appear to have studied the lessons of history. The historic record shows that during the late 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, as Western European countries responded to the misery and inequality spawned by the Industrial Revolution by dramatically expanding their social safety nets, poverty and inequality declined dramatically in Western Europe. By contrast, until Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the United Sates remained the outlier among Western democracies.

      The more recent record shows that because of the Great Society's initiatives, poverty in the United States, especially among the elderly, has been significantly reduced. Sadly thereafter, however, as a direct result of the "Reagan Revolution," the economy began a measurable march backwards - as the middle class was hollowed-out, upward mobility declined, and wage stagnation and economic inequality increased exponentially. Rather than having stimulated competition and created a level-playing field, the policies endorsed by Reagan and by successor Republican and Democratic administrations - including the lack of anti-trust enforcement - have, instead, promoted dangerous economic concentration and led to the emergence of oligopolies.

      Rubio's belief in vastly smaller federal government and his insistence that the mythical free market, if left to its own devices, will in some mysterious, magical way uplift everyone's standard of living raise profound questions about the legitimacy of political power and upon whose behalf such power should be exercised in a democracy. Impairing the authority of a national government to regulate an increasingly dysfunctional market economy, or to try to ensure through legislation a minimum basic standard of living for all of its citizens, improperly transfers the power to make decisions about the public interest from elected officials, who are legally and ethically accountable to the people, to the private sector where that power will be exercised by private actors. Because they are not elected, they do not have a duty to serve the public interest, nor a duty to account for their actions.

      The present economic crisis that Rubio claims to deplore was caused by too little government intervention in the economy, not too much. Without a robust, well-regulated economy, a progressive tax system, and significant public investment in job creation, job training, infrastructure investments, family assistance, education, nutrition and public health programs, the gap between the 1% who now live lives of opulence, and the 47% of Americans whom Mitt Romney castigated as the takers will only grow wider.

      Rubio's political and economic agenda should be profoundly disconcerting to every sentient American. His single-minded zeal to adopt the discredited Social Darwinism of William Graham Sumner is inexplicable since it would shackle the ability of policy-makers to respond to emerging economic crises. Rubio's efforts to undue the modest successes of the New Deal and the Great Society are, in equal parts, callous and reprehensible. His efforts serve only the short-term interests of the 1% upon whom Rubio and Tea Party continue to rely for their financial support. 

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