Monday, April 6, 2009

You Can't Be President, by John R. MacArthur

If I had kids to talk to (I mean kids who would listen, unlike my kids who dance in place until I stop making noise), I'd tell them to not bother learning to read. It's not worth it. If I'd never learned to read, I wouldn't have read You Can't Be President by John R. MacArthur. What makes MacArthur's book more frustrating is that, if he could lay aside his bias, I'd agree with his basic premise.

MacArthur uses quotation marks to undermine any technical term applied to conservatives. Instead of saying "Republican leaders," he'll say "Republican 'leaders,'" letting you know he doesn't think they're "leading" at all (wink wink!). For instance, he writes, "Unfortunately, instead of meeting genuine scholars, I found myself debating Joshua Muravchik, a 'resident scholar' at the American Enterprise Institute, a wealthy 'think tank' funded by right-wing corporations and individuals with little pretense of thoughtfulness but very high standards for propaganda" (29-30). MacArthur is insulted that he, a magazine publisher, is placed on a panel not with "genuine scholars," but with other magazine folks like Muravchik, who often writes for "Commentary." The constant use of stage-direction finger-quotes makes the whole thing read like it's being dictated by an indignant 13-year-old girl. "Like, the Republitards say they 'care' about the 'environment,' but, like, they totally DON'T!"

MacArthur writes, "...National Public Radio's Robert Siegel interviewed 'policy experts,' including Peter Rodman, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, the somewhat liberal counterpart to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Siegel--a mildly liberal voice on an occasionally liberal radio network--was having difficulty explaining to his audience why...antiwar members of Congress seemed incapable of influencing President Bush's war policy" (31-32). I thought, "Is he joking? NPR is an 'occasionally liberal radio network'?" I know I've never been able to listen to NPR for more than 10 minutes at a time because of the infantile level of reporting. "Next, on 'All Things Considered,' we'll talk about how corporations and Republicans want to enslave women and minorities for a million years!" Brookings is "somewhat liberal," but Heritage is definitely "right-wing." No bias here.

He excuses away the worst of Thomas Jefferson while writing an entire BOOK dedicated to the evils of party politics. Who introduced factions to our system? It was Jefferson, secretly leading the opposition from within Washington's second cabinet and then continuing from the vice-presidency itself. I'd rather have open factions than secret factions. Jefferson's slave-holding gets a pass from MacArthur with the oh-too-cute, "I can't bring myself to dislike Jefferson for owning slaves, clinging as I do to La Rochefoucauld's insight that 'hypocracy is the compliment vice pays to virtue'" (22). Rest assured that no other hypocrite in the book gets off that easily (except maybe MacArthur himself, who finds nothing wrong with bemoaning the loss of wasteful union-wage jobs and then criticizing Homeland Security spending he finds unnecessary). Parties mysteriously appeared in America, but there's no doubting who's to blame for their continuation: "...the tyranny of the majority so feared by James Madison had been supplanted by the tyranny of a determined minority made up of professional politicians, policy experts, and a hard-core faction of Republican Party loyalists" (40). Only Republicans can have "hard-core" factionists, like only Mensheviks could be traitors.

I don't think MacArthur understands the terms he uses, like when he continually refers to Howard Dean as a centrist. MacArthur is like a woman I worked with, who thinks she's a reasonable person, so that must mean she represents the center of the political spectrum. She also thinks conservatives are evil incarnate, so when we talked and she would see my political views were not evil, instead of thinking, "I must have been wrong about conservatives," she thought, "He must not be conservative."

MacArthur harps about the stealing of Florida in 2000 (didn't happen) and the stealing of Ohio in 2004 (ditto), but is curiously silent regarding the irregularities on South Dakota Indian reservations in the 2002 senate election of Tim Johnson. If Johnson doesn't cheat in 2002, Tom Daschle doesn't lose election in 2004. MacArthur disingenuously says the Supreme Court requiring Florida to uniformly enforce its pre-existing election standards is tantamount to "awarding" the presidency to Bush. (Here's are some quick rules-of-thumb for determining if you're dealing with a political moron. The first is, "Does the person hate Wal-Mart but shop at Target?" and the second is, "Does the person think Al Gore won Florida and the Supreme Court awarded it to George Bush?") Despite his concern with party politics as dangerous to freedom, he's got no problem with black and union voters turning out for Democrats at a nine-to-one pace, which he references as facts without critique (or quotation marks).

On page 49 he complains "...nothing much has been done since 2000 to lessen the likelihood, or the expectation, of vote fraud...." Just five pages before, however, he complains, "Only eight states permit 'same day registration.'" So does he have a problem with voter fraud, or does he want it to happen in a broader range of states? Same day registration makes elections nothing more than cheating contests.

Sometimes books specify on their title page that you can quote the book for the purposes of a scholarly review. Now, I already know MacArthur has pretty high standards for who can be called a "scholar" (and Joshua Muravchik doesn't pass muster), but I think this counts as a scholarly review, since I'm going to back my critique up with some philosophy and stuff. Plus, MacArthur's title page doesn't say jack about quoting, so suck it, Johnny.

Here he is bemoaning the falicy of the American ideal of economic mobility: "Of the poorest fifth of American families surveyed in 1988, 53.3 percent were still in the bottom fifth of the economic ladder in 1998. Another 23.6 percent made it up one rung to the second-lowest quintile of income earners, 12.4 percent made it to the third, 6.4 percent reached the second, and only 4.3 percent settled in the top fifth" (149).

I read those data and I am amazed at just how MUCH economic mobility there is in this country! What this is saying is that, given a cohort of the nation's poorest people, within only 10 years nearly half of them will have advanced out of that group, and over 4% have become the richest of Americans. If we say there's a 50% chance of moving out of the group every decade, then someone born poor, by the end of the average lifespan of 70ish years, has a 1-((1/2)^7) chance of not being poor any more, which is 99.21875%. (And yes, I'm exchanging "bottom 20th percentile" for "poor," but if more than 1 out of five people counts as poor, the word "poor" doesn't really have much meaning any more.)

MacArthur saves his best whining for the statistics about how FEW rich people become poor in ten-year's time. "53.2 percent of people in the top fifth of income earners in 1988 remained in the top bracket a decade later, 23.2 percent fell to the second-highest bracket, 14.9 percent dropped to the third quintile, 5.7 percent fell to the fourth quintile, and 3.0 to the fifth quintile" (149).

Again, the richest Americans have a nearly 50-50 chance of no longer being so in just ten-year's time. But to listen to people like MacArthur tell it, "The rich get richer while the poor get poorer." The rich as a group might control a larger share of the nation's wealth, but who is IN that group is constantly changing, and controlling a larger share of a growing base doesn't mean that the other amounts are shrinking. Hence the poor don't get poorer, they just get not poor much more slowly than the rich get more rich.

What really gets me angry, though, is when MacArthur complains that rich kids aren't becoming poor kids at a large enough pace: "Only .5 percent of children belonging to the richest quintile fell to the poorest quintile 10 years later, and only 1.7 percent dropped into the lowest two brackets" (150).

Now you're going to take your class warfare out on kids? I thought juvenile poverty was something to combat. It turns out it's something we WANT to have happen, as long as it happens to the children of the filthy rich. After complaining, "Oh, man, if you're born poor you should just give up because the cards are stacked against you, man," he doesn't see childhood affluence as a means of ensuring a lifetime free from the worry of poverty. Only SOME people shouldn't be poor, I guess. (And given his views on the estate tax, evidently MacArthur wants us all to start out poor, even though his statistics "prove" that being born poor makes you stay that way.)

So MacArthur has proven, in a round-about way, what is true of liberal economic policy: it seeks to make everyone equal by making everyone equally poor. Conservative economic policy, however, doesn't care about equality, and just seeks to raise all income earners. When the number one health problem of America's poor is obesity, it's questionable just how "poor" poor people are. Just because you don't have as much as someone else doesn't mean you're hurting.

Here is my final thought on MacArthur's book: it is true that the current two-party system has been manipulated into an incumbent-protection scheme. It's highly possible that the two parties are in collusion, competing not for the right to implement policies, but for the right to dispense patronage. I very, very seriously doubt that there is a single member of Congress or the administration (ANY recent administration, not just the current one) who has a guiding principle outside his own self interest. And I don't see this changing anytime soon.

Rating: 0.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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