In general, I'm a numbers and concepts guy, not a feelings guy. When I go after someone like Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, I emphasize his irresponsibility and dishonesty, not his evident lack of empathy for the less fortunate.
Still, there are times — in Mr. Ryan's case and more generally for much of his political tribe — when that lack of empathy just takes your breath away. Harold Pollack, a professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago, recently caught Mr. Ryan calling his proposed cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and more "welfare reform round two" in remarks following the unveiling of his latest budget plan and suggesting that our current suite of safety net programs is "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency."
Oh. My. God.
On "The Reality Based Community Blog," Mr. Pollack recently wrote: "I live and work in the Chicago southland, near hundreds of thousands of poor people who would be deeply hurt by policies Congressman Ryan espouses. Some are jobless. Others work hard every day in crummy jobs. Others are students in elementary school. They don't need lectures from a conspicuously pampered congressman regarding their 'will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.'"
First of all, if you think that welfare reform has been just great, read the extended New York Times report by Jason DeParle titled "Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit," about the desperation of many poor Americans trying to survive in a depressed economy, unprotected by the shredded safety net. It takes a monumental inability to imagine other peoples' lives to blithely praise welfare reform's results at a time like this.
And if you look at how desperate you have to be to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, the notion that these programs encourage "complacency" is breathtaking.
Oh, and of course, being "able-bodied" in the current economy does not, remotely, ensure that you can actually find work, no matter how hard you look.
Ryan, we're told, is a nice guy. And maybe he is, to people he knows. But he evidently has no sense of or interest in the lives of those less fortunate.
Origin of Speciousness
I was unhappy with President Obama's decision to describe Republicans as social Darwinists in a speech earlier this month — not because I thought it was wrong, but because I wondered how many voters would get his point. How many people know who Herbert Spencer was? (He coined the phrase "survival of the fittest.")
It turns out, however, that right-wing intellectuals are furious, because ... well, it's a bit puzzling. One complaint is that some 19th-century social Darwinists were racists; well, lots of 19th-century people in general were racists, and racism is not the core of the doctrine.
The other is that modern conservatives don't literally want to see poor people die. So?
As Jonathan Chait, a commentator at New York magazine, says, the real defining characteristic of social Darwinism is the notion that harsh inequality is both necessary and right. And that's absolutely what today's right believes — which is the point all the faux outrage about the Darwinist label is meant to obscure.