Fool on Parade: Grover Norquist's Fresh Air Interview

Fresh Air, Thursday, October 2

I just finished listening to Grover Norquist's recent interview on NPR's Fresh Air, conducted by Terry Gross.

Norquist's frequent MO is to take certain aspects of a situation and blow them out of proportion. This isn't an example of shoddy thinking, however. It's evidence for his genius at constructing memes. By accepting his definitions and dealing only with his brilliantly conceived takes on the subjects at hand, his opponents can soon find themselves overwhelmed.

The first battleground of the interview was over the definition of We. He will not allow anyone to identify the people of the United States with the government of the United States. For Norquist, anyone who says that cutting taxes costs "us" is standing in the shoes of the state, and not of the citizenry. Tax cuts will always benefit us the citizens, but it may result in the government having few resources. The government must always be They in Norquist's world.

But it is our government. The American government is our property. We the people ordained it and established it to bring us certain benefits. Cutting taxes strikes at the ability of government to provide those benefits. If we cut off too many resources to our government, we as a people endanger the derived benefits. So it can be reasonably said that cutting taxes costs us as a people.

But Mr. Norquist's antipathy to government is rooted in this proposition: many government services can and should be provided to the people by private organizations who competively bid for contracts. This would provide the same or better services at lower rates, which would enhance the quality of life for the people, reduce government spending and taxation, and invigorate the economy. Some governmental functions should be left to the government alone, like national defense, prosecution of criminals, some police powers like arresting, and a court system that protects property rights (if courts only protect property rights, only those with property will have rights). But everything else is up for grabs - the government monopolies, like all monopolies, do a poor job in providing services at a reasonable cost.

Public education money should flow with the child (vouchers) because on average, private education provides a better education for less money spent per child. Social Security and Medicare money should be fragmented into personal retirement and medical accounts that can be invested in a risk-manageable way. Prisons can be and are being run by competent private organizations. Roads projects shouldn't be bound by the "racist" Davis-Bacon act so as to open up bids to smaller companies.

This all sounds pretty good until you see the common thread in all these programs: a union pay scale. For Mr. Norquist and his followers, the adversaries are governmental unions that drive up the price of services. Vouchers attack the teacher's union and public school bureaucracy. Unionized workers staff the offices of Social Security and Medicare. The Davis-Bacon act mandates "prevailing wages" as a factor in bidding for road construction, protecting union wages and cutting any subcontractor that doesn't pay union scale from ability to bid, regardless of race.

Increase privatization and eliminate the ability of workers to unionize - this is the America Norquist is working to bring about. When Gross forced him to acknowledge that his tax cuts will necessitate lower wages, he tied this to longer work periods - you can make the same amount of money if you're willing to work longer for it. He painted a brief picture of wealthier and more successful non-union employees before moving on to education. He neglected to mention that the rise of unionized labor is what made working conditions for all workers improve in America. But then again, he would.

Gross and Norquist exchanged a few shots when Norquist called Social Security a Ponzi scheme - a "pay as you go" scheme with no saving for you. Gross rejected that, because in Ponzi schemes, the bottom tier never sees a return, which is not the case in Social Security. She then pointed out that the personal retirement accounts Norquist advocates holds much more potential for loss of investment than the system it would replace. Norquist would have none of it - risk can be managed in his plan, and Social Security takes from current investors and pays the former investors, and so is a Ponzi scheme.

By Norquist's strict logic, a bank teller who uses the cash I just deposited in my account to pay the person behind me in line a withdrawal from theirs is involving the bank in a Ponzi scheme. What investment in existence could survivefulfill the request of its investors to withdraw their funds simultaneously? Is it all a Ponzi scheme? No.

The Social Security program, like any arrangement involving money, is in danger of Ponzification, but it can be managed effectively, and should continue to be. It was built on a principle: we the working Americans support our own. The solvency of Social Security is not based on the empty promises of a 'get rich quick' quack, it's based on the surer guarantees of the American worker's power to create wealth. It's meant to provide a basic level of protection against the chances of life, not a ticket to Easy Street. No one was ever intended to get wealthy from Social Security funds, and no one ever should. This especially applies to those investment firms looking for a little governmental cash cow.

The real highlight of the interview, however, was when Norquist's rhetoric portrayed those who would defend the estate tax as exercising the morality of the Holocaust.

Governments should treat all people fairly, said Norquist, and the estate tax singles out a small minority (those few citizens who amass enough wealth to qualify for it). If we justify the estate tax by saying, "Only a small percent of Americans are affected - it doesn't affect the majority of American citizens; it doesn't affect you," then Norquist informs us that we are using the morality of the Holocaust, of apartheid, and of East Germany's Soviet rule.

Dividing people so that you can mug them one at a time is a bad thing to do, whether you're doing it on racial grounds, religious grounds or 'whether you work on Saturdays or not' grounds, or economic grounds.
There have been four US estate taxes and only this one has lasted so long. It was enacted in the thirties, when the gap between the wealthy and the poor had never been greater in this country. When this country entered WW2, the estate tax had helped to build and equip the military that eventually shut the Holocaust down. Now those who support the estate tax are supposed to be the moral equivalent of the people who perpetrated the Holocaust?

Charging the wealthy in a progressive tax system is simply not the moral equivalent of state-sponsored genocide. I can feel no great remorse in turning away from the awful plight of the wealthy here. The wealthy can pay someone to feel sorry for them, and Grover Norquist seems to be doing an admirable job, wouldn't you say?