The Right Goes After Ty’Sheoma Bethea

February 27, 2009

This was inevitable. The assault begins – the right wing is going to use the same swift-boat tactics against Ty’Sheoma Bethea, the little girl form Dillon, SC who wrote to President Obama about the deteriorating state of her school, as they did against Graeme Frost and Terry Schiavo’s husband. And wait for them to defend it by pointing to the ‘liberal media’s’ criticism of Joe the Plumber, as if the de facto spokesperson for the McCain campaign and now, apparently, the entire conservative movement is somehow on the same level of a little girl invited to an address before a joint session of Congress. This time the attack comes from the conservative Washington Times, described here by Salon’s Joan Walsh:

“Obama ‘presented’ Bethea ‘as a plucky girl from a hopeless school who took it on herself to write the president and Congress asking for much needed help,’ the Times began, ominously. Wait, she’s not a plucky girl from a hopeless school? The editorial depicts her instead as a player in Obama’s ‘mere political theater’ because the president has been using her school, J.V. Martin, as a ‘political prop’ since he first visited in 2005. Wow. Dastardly. I’m getting the picture: Obama, that slick Democrat opportunist, has repeatedly visited one of the poorest schools in South Carolina, a state that voted for John McCain. You just know he leaves with his pockets stuffed with cash every time he makes the trip.

It gets worse. The Times insists Dillon residents haven’t been callous about conditions at Ty’Sheoma’s school; in fact they passed a 2007 bond measure to reconstruct it. That’s true, but it’s only part of the story: The Chicago Tribune’s Howard Witt reported that the bond measure ‘ran aground of the national credit crisis: No bank will loan the school district the construction funds.’

Facts be damned. To the Times, the plight of J.V. Martin is actually a story of how locals can solve their own problem, but Ty’Sheoma and Obama have hijacked it to make it an example of how only the federal government can help. Obama said Ty’Sheoma’s letter reflected ‘a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity.’ The Times disagrees: ‘What is on display is not responsibility but irresponsibility. This is the new reality in America, that those with political pull will benefit, those without will not … Connections are replacing competence as a measure of a person’s worth.’

Got it? Ty’Sheoma Bethea, she’s no enterprising teen from a broken-down school. She sounds like the new Jack Abramoff, using her “political pull” and “connections” to benefit herself.

Yes, they’re that crazy.”

I know, I’m spending way too much time on this blog criticizing Republican utterances, and it’s way too easy to dismiss it all as me picking out a handful of ill-conceived statements in what may otherwise be a sea of thoughtful conservative speech (I assure you this is not the case!). The reason I focus on things like this, though, is because I believe they are representative of the way the right thinks. Yes, there’s the aspect of it that they’re willing to go after anyone, even poor little kids. But more broadly shared by figures on the right is the belief that private citizens can accomplish on their own nearly anything better than the government. And that’s clearly the case here – the Washington Times apparently believes that what’s irresponsible here is Bethea’s reliance on the government to improve the conditions at her school, when the local adults should pull together and fix the school on their own.

Paul Krugman made the point the other day that in the past even the most conservative members of the right-wing establishment were convinced that the government should be responsible for goods that are both non-rival and non-excludable. Non-rival means that consumption of the good by one person does not prevent consumption by another. Clean air is a textbook example: my enjoyment of clean air does not take away from the ability of others to enjoy the same. Therefore, clean air is a non-rival good. Non-excludable means that it is impossible to exclude those who have not paid for a particular good from enjoying it. Clean air again fits this description: if I were to invest my own money to clean the air, I cannot prevent my neighbor from enjoying the fruits of my expenses, even if my neighbor paid nothing. Another example would be paving roads. If there were 10 houses on a small dead-end street, and three of the families on that street pooled their money to pave the road, they would not be able to prevent the 7 families that did not pay from enjoying the benefits (this would also be a case of non-rivalry, as 3 families enjoying the paved road does not take away the ability of the other 7 from doing the same).

For reasons that should be clear, the free market does a very bad job of providing goods that are non-rival and non-excludable. 10 families on a dead-end street would have a much more difficult time paving their road by relying on the free market than they would by delegating that role to a government that could tax them all and use those funds to provide the good. All of the families on the street, otherwise would have an incentive to free-ride – let any combination of the other families pay for paving the road while they enjoyed the paved road for free. It’s possible that the 10 families would agreeably conspire to pave the road, but the free-rider problem worsens with more people. A town of 2,500 people would have a tough time getting everyone to freely invest in road pavement.

Now, however, the right wing in this country seems to be moving away from this consensus, and, it should be pointed out, further and further away from mainstream economic thought. Bobby Jindal made it clear in his speech the other night that the he thought the government was worse at disaster response than private citizens acting on their own accord. Government bureaucrats complicated the private response to Katrina. By implication, private citizens should be monitoring volcanoes as well (or, volcanoes shouldn’t be monitored – it’s not clear what his problem with “something called ‘volcano monitoring’ is, other than, perhaps, it just sounds funny in a Beavis-and-Butthead sort of way). Disaster response (and prevention) is both non-rival and non-excludable. Warning of an approaching hurricane (or volcano eruption) can be put to good use by all. And, most importantly, it’s easy to free-ride: if I monitor for hurricanes, my warnings can be put to good use by anyone nearby, whether they are contributing to the expense of the monitoring or not. This is why the government is put in charge of things like constructing and maintaining levees in and around New Orleans. This is why the government is charged with disaster warning and response. There are other reasons as well (coordination problems come to mind), but the non-rival and non-excludable nature of these goods are central reasons for government responsibility in these areas.

The Republican Party has now made it clear that they reject this reasoning. It is entirely unclear what reasoning they are using in its place (my guess is none), but they have resoundingly rejected a government role in providing nearly any category of good whatsoever. It begs the question of what, exactly, they think a government is for, apart from providing a large military and intelligence apparatus (there’s no doubt that apart from Ron Paul’s faction in the party, they see these as legitimate government concerns). Grover Norquist famously said that he wants government to be small enough to drag into the bathroom and drown in the bathtub. This thinking does not seem to be restricted to Norquist.

In 21st century America, our lives have become utterly dependent (and greatly enriched) by such non-rival, non-excludable goods as public transport, clean air, clean drinking water, police, national defense, paved roads, the Interstate Highway System, air traffic control, public education, etc. I am saddened and angered by our government’s failure to maintain (or in some cases even provide) these goods. And the right wing is not offering any coherent reason why they should not be provided – only insane platitudes about how Americans can do anything (as Jon Stewart said, does that mean we can eat candy for dinner?) and bizarre conspiracy theories about Obama’s secret Muslim Marxism and claims that the president is really an illegal immigrant.

I’m guessing this is not going to turn out to be a winning formula for the Republicans (although you never know – Bush managed to win an election and tie in another), but it’s going to make life very difficult for all of us.

And, mark my words, the so-called ‘liberal media’ will make sure it is all treated as sane and serious.

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