COMING ATTRACTIONS

Posted in Quick Hits on March 27th, 2012 by Ed

In grad school I had a professor who was big in the study of state politics, and he enthusiastically referred to states as "laboratories of democracy." He didn't coin the term but he certainly believed it with all his heart. Basically it means that in a federal system, one state implementing a new policy offers the other states an opportunity to watch and learn. If it succeeds it is imitated; if it fails everyone learns a valuable lesson from someone else's mistake.

Pavlov and Skinner and the other pioneering behavioral psychologists proved that almost any animal can be trained to learn from its mistakes through reward and punishment. That is, all animals except Republicans, whose brains never progress beyond an attachment to ideology. Combined with never-ending internecine litmus testing, it makes damn sure that no one ever learns from experience or the available evidence. Just keep doing the same thing over and over again, torpedoes be damned.

John Carl Baker has an outstanding piece ("Austerity in Heaven's Corridor", h/t Mike) on one little Laboratory, Florida, that has dived headfirst into austerity with its 2012 budget. It's like a sneak preview of what other states, and likely Congress as well, will be doing in the immediate and near future. No one will wait to see if it works in Florida or learn any lessons when it fails. It's just the only acceptable course of action, and there's not a goddamn thing you can do about it. Baker points out that what little opposition gets in the majority's way comes from factions bought off by lobbyists. For example:

The reality is that Governor Rick Scott, elected during the 2010 wave of Tea Party victories, is so stridently right-wing (and the state Democrats so weak) that opposition to the leadership’s more draconian proposals inevitably comes from other Republicans. A few, such as centrist Paula Dockery, have fairly consistently voiced disapproval of their colleagues’ more egregious actions, but this dissent is highly circumstantial: decisive opposition to the notorious prison privatization plan, for instance, came from two Senators with direct ties to law enforcement. And the Parent Empowerment Act, a highly controversial proposal allowing for the swift conversion of neighborhood schools into publicly-funded charters via parental petition, was scuttled not by a united front of political moderates, but by intra-Republican skepticism.

Florida narrowly dodged $100 million in cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs, once again through a last-ditch ad hoc coalition: a motley crew of law enforcement officials, Republican politicians, health care advocates, and members of the judiciary successfully lobbied for funding that approximates 2011 levels. Florida’s per-capita mental health financing is already ranked 50th in the U.S. [pdf], and deep cuts would have had immediate disastrous effects across the state. Even redneck county sheriffs recognize the apocalyptic shadings of forcing hordes of the mentally ill to roam the state’s multitudinous strip malls.

His brief description of the benefactors and the driving force behind these legislative moves struck me as particularly keen:

The full list of tax breaks paints a grotesque but accurate portrait of the diverse subgroups within Florida’s bourgeoisie: faux-populist ranchers, managerial charter profiteers, neo-Confederate citrus plantation owners, still-panicked real estate swindlers eager to take a mulligan and rewind to 2005. But Scott’s plan—which may eventually eliminate corporate taxes entirely in a right-to-work state that already lacks a personal income tax—is the Hayekian wet dream everyone in Florida’s ruling class freak show can agree on. Banks got in on the feeding frenzy too.

For the better part of my post-adolescent life I've been waiting for the voting public to figure out that the Republican Party is a front group for both the New Money and Old Money plutocracies, and it isn't happening. Intellectually I understand why people who vote for guys like Rick Scott do so. But on a psychological level I don't get it. I can't empathize with some woman with three kids and two jobs who lines up to support the Palin/Gingrich/Scott/Walker/Ryan types. Regardless of how little sense it makes, it's not going to stop anytime soon. Consider Florida's budget a sneak preview of what will be appearing in your local legislatures soon. The Florida Experiment has been a smashing success at the one and only thing it was designed to do – line the pockets of the usual suspects on the right – and as such other states will be tripping over themselves to replicate it.