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The Southern State Fast Becoming Ayn Rand's Vision of Paradise

Apr 14, 2013 | Updated Jun 14, 2013

If you're worried about where America is heading, look no further than Tennessee. It's lush mountains and verdant rolling countryside belie a mean-spirited public policy that only makes sense if you deeply believe in the anti-collectivist, anti-altruist philosophy of Ayn Rand. It's what you get when you combine hatred for government with disgust for poor people.

Tennessee starves what little government it has. It ranks dead last in per capita tax revenue. To fund its minimalist public sector, it makes sure that low-income residents pay as much as possible through heavily regressive sales taxes, which rank 10th highest among all states as a percent of total tax revenues. (For more detailed data see here.)

As you would expect, this translates into hard times for its public school systems which rank 48th in school revenues per student and 45th in teacher salaries. The failure to invest in education also corresponds with poverty: It has the 10th highest poverty rate (15 percent) and the 13th highest state percentage of poor children (26 percent).

Employment opportunities also are extremely hard to come by for the poor. Only 25 percent have full-time jobs, 45 percent are employed part-time and a whopping 30 percent have no jobs at all.

So what do you do with all those low-income folks who don't have decent jobs? You put a good number in jail. In fact only Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico have higher jail incarceration rates.

From the perspective of Tennessee legislators, it's all about providing the proper incentives to motivate the poor. For starters, you make sure that no one could possible live on welfare payments (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families -- TANF). Although President Clinton's welfare reform program curtailed how long a family can receive welfare (60 months) and dramatically increased the work requirements, Tennessee set the maximum family welfare payment at only $185 per month. (That's how much a top hedge fund manager makes in under one second.) As a result, the Volunteer state ranks 49th in TANF, just above Mississippi ($170).

Kick 'em when they're down or Tough Love?

In the Randian universe, it's not enough to starve public education and the poor. You also must blame the poor both for their poverty and for the crumbling educational system. If a poor child is failing it must be the fault of low-income parents. So how do you drive the point home? You take away their welfare checks if their kids don't do well in school, which is precisely what the Tennessee House and Senate are about to do. The KnoxvilleNews.com reports:

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.

More amazing still the bill originally applied to all children of TANF parents, even if they were severely disabled. Realizing that they had gone too far, the bill was amended so that, "it would not apply when a child has a handicap or learning disability or when the parent takes steps to try improving the youngster's school performance -- such as signing up for a "parenting class," arranging a tutoring program or attending a parent-teacher conference." (Imagine the uproar if those provision were applied to upper income parents, assuming any still use the public school system.)

Dennis told the House Health Subcommittee the measure now only applies to "parents who do nothing." He described the measure as "a carrot and stick approach."

Obviously, this is insane, right? Not if you've already started down the road of whipping the poor into shape. The proposed draconian cuts, in fact, are just an extension of previous policies which already made welfare contingent on school attendance. As Travis Waldron reports in ThinkProgress:

When Campfield introduced the legislation in January, he said parents have "gotten away with doing absolutely nothing to help their children" in school. "That's child abuse to me," he added. Tennessee already ties welfare to education by mandating a 20 percent cut in benefits if students do not meet attendance standards, but this change would place the burden of maintaining benefits squarely on children, who would face costing their family much-needed assistance if they don't keep up in school.

By the way, the Tennessee legislature is lily white: One percent are Latinos, 6 percent African-American and 91 percent Caucasian. But the complexion of poverty is darker. Nearly 80 percent of Tennessee's poor children are black and hispanic.

Attacking the Poor as the Answer to the Wall Street Crash?

These attacks on the poor, rather than on poverty, are not peculiar to Tennessee. In fact, similar concepts circulate among political and policy elites in Washington. For Ayn Rand acolytes, Wall Street's reckless, greedy casinos couldn't possibly be the real reason the economy crashed. After all the rich get rich because they are terrific at what they do. We should reward these creators, not blame them for their foresight, their ingenuity and their obvious success. The blame instead should fall on the poor -- the takers -- and on the collectivist government liberals who cater to them. Didn't the government force banks to put unqualified poor people in homes they couldn't afford? (It doesn't matter that the data shows that low-income buyers who gained loans through the Community Readjustment Act didn't default in higher numbers than anyone else. The idea of blaming the poor has power.)

Blaming low-income people for chronic unemployment is the next move. As the rate stays stubbornly high (precisely because all Republicans and even a few Democrats don't want the government in the business of job creation) we hear talk of "structural" unemployment. That's code for the jobs would be there if only the workers were qualified. But you know, those lower-income workers just don't have the skills and work habits to compete in our globalized economy. Even older middle class workers are hopelessly out of date. So there's really nothing government can do about it.

The final twist is to claim that the richest country in human history doesn't have the means to eradicate poverty. Instead, we are told, rising debt is forcing us to tighten our belts -- rather, we need to tighten the belts of the poor by taking away a few more dollars from Medicaid and Social Security.

How to Justify Meanness?

It's not easy to be cruel to someone who is down and out. After all, most of us feel ashamed when walking by a homeless person or watching kids crammed into over-crowded classrooms. It requires several psychological twists and turns to make life even harder for low-income Americans.

•First, you have to blame the low-income parents for their own economic problems. Even if the unemployment rate is sky-high it must be the poor person's fault.
•You need to feel superior as well -- that somehow you got to where you are today not by an accident of birth but rather by your own hard labors. Anyone not as successful as you, by definition, is inferior.
•You also have to believe that meanness really is tough love -- that by taking away benefits from the poor you are actually helping them on the road to self-sufficiency.
•It's helpful also to have access to the broader Randian/libertarian philosophy that argues all forms of collective government action are an attack on freedom. In this view, altruism is seen as a curse that justifies collective government programs which essentially steal money from the makers and to waste on the takers. All collective caring by the state, therefore, is evil, so that all support for the poor via government is evil as well.
•And finally, it's psychologically crucial to have your prejudices confirmed by charismatic alchemists like Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan who peddle selfishness as the highest form of morality (although only Ayn Rand had the guts to say it so bluntly.)

Is Washington locked into increasing inequality?

While the Republicans in Congress are committed to supporting the rich and crushing the poor, smug Democrats can too easily look down upon the bumbling Tennessee legislators. Tie welfare to school success? How crude. But many of these same Democrats also are totally in sync with the Wall Street hucksters who have, for a generation, siphoned off America's wealth into their bottomless pockets. In fact both parties again are in competition for Wall Street campaign cash as if nothing much has happened. And both parties clearly are unwilling to break up the big banks, cap obscene financial incomes, or create public banks to serve the public interest.

Washington politicians and pundits from Obama on down (with very few exceptions) are enthralled by Wall Street wizardry. Making a million dollars an hour no longer seems strange or repugnant. Too big to fail, jail and regulate are just the natural order of things. In fact, more than a few public servants can't wait to race through that revolving door to get in on the big casino games.

This should tell us that the path to social justice requires a new political movement that operates outside the two great corporate parties.

Is it too late?

I ran into a young woman who is very concerned by the enormous gap she sees between life on campus and the hardships of the low-income people. She wants to know what she can do with her life to really change things.

What can we say? I look back over a lifetime in the cause of social justice and I don't have much to show for it -- more war, more poverty, more inequality, more disinvestment in critical human infrastructure. Yes, we've made great strides on gender, sexual preference and overt racial discrimination compared to a generation ago. But how can we explain why America has the world's highest incarceration rates? Why couldn't we prevent a criminal justice system from sending 40 percent of young black males to prison? How, on our watch, did our relatively egalitarian country develop the most obscene wealth gap in the world? How is it possible that so many of our cities are in worse shape than a generation ago? It's almost to impossible to comprehend, and even harder to change.

But that young woman already senses that we have no choice but to try. And that requires building a movement that targets the core of the problem --- the systems that allow the economic royalists and their political minions to hijack our country.

It's a long-term project. After all, it required almost two generations of painstaking work for the Ayn Rand right to take over the national debate. It may take just as long to recapture it. Let's hope there are enough caring young men and women who still have a sense of the common good. Altruism may have died in Galt's Gulch, but it's still alive and well in the hearts of those who share a passion for justice, even in Tennessee.

This blog post originally appeared on Alternet.org

Les Leopold is the author of How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds are Siphoning away America's Wealth (John Wiley and Sons, 2013)