Let’s Tea Party Like It’s 1910

Tea Party folk and similarly motivated people think we’d be much better off if we could only get the government off our backs and go back to a simpler time when we didn’t have to pay such crushing taxes. The best government is the least government, and all that.

The year 1910 is the last time we saw this Tea Party ideal in action. This is what 1910 was like:

If we could only get
the government off our backs,
and return to the ideal
we had in 1910…

In 1910, most people did not complete grade school. Fewer than 3% earned a college degree. With no public support for education, we would revert to that norm or close to it because only the rich could afford school, particularly college. Most of us would have to work from a young age, and without government control, there would be a constant downward pressure on wages.

The standard work week in 1910 was six 12-hour days. Many children worked, if not on the farm, then in factories. Safe working conditions were rare. Paid vacation was unheard of. Life span might not fall to 47 years for men, as it was in 1910, but it would fall simply because without government support medical care would not be available to the great majority of people.

Advances in medicine
would not matter to most people,
because they could not afford insurance.

Medical treatment today is nothing at all like it was in 1910. Besides dozens of surgeries and treatments that were not possible then, virtually none of our lifesaving drugs had been developed. Those things would still exist, but without the government agencies that support and regulate medical progress, our treatment with future drugs would be at the pleasure of Big Pharma, most famous right now for a new treatment for Hep C that costs a thousand dollars a pill.

Advances in medicine would not matter to most of us anyway, because with falling wages and rising medical costs we would not be able to afford private medical insurance. There would be no government agency to manage any aspect of medicine: research, regulation, training, public health, etc. There would be no Medicare or Obamacare or anything like it, no Social Security, no disability coverage. No government social programs at all. As in 1910, almost anyone could claim to be a doctor because the agencies that decide who can call himself a doctor would no longer exist. Private insurance, already double what other advanced nations spend, would rise without control, unregulated. There would be no safety net to keep people from falling into deep poverty.

But these absences barely begin to describe what we would lose. Most of the government agencies would be gone. No NIH, no CDC, no FDA, no EPA, no FHA… There would be no safety regulations, since there would be no regulatory agency. We wouldn’t know when a new disease was about to create chaos, because there would be no public health agencies. The Education department would be gone. Census would be limited to nose counts. There would be virtually no data collection of any sort.

The important things are social:
medical care, retirement benefits,
disability insurance, education.

We love our cars and gadgets, but they are largely meaningless. The personally important things are social: education, medical care, retirement benefits, disability insurance. All those things would be lost to most people who weren’t rich. Only government can provide the economies of scale that can make them affordable, and the erroneously named “free market”, feverishly worshiped on the right, reliably makes the rich richer and the rest of us poorer. Loss of social benefits is where we would feel inequality the most. Things like medical care, education, and financial security are what really matter, and all these would be gone. It is such social benefits that spell the difference between third world and advanced societies.

Over the past forty years, inequality in the US, as measured by the Gini Index and others, has steadily worsened, and we now stand near the bottom for advanced nations. The social things that are most important to us mean almost nothing to people and corporations whose primary motivation is profit. Moreover, as Thomas Piketty has shown, once great wealth is established, it automatically grows faster than the wealth of everyone else. If Tea Partiers get their wish, in time a few families with enormous inherited fortunes will control everything, supported by great numbers of poorly educated peons, much the same as the era of feudal fiefdoms centuries ago.

Everybody in Congress wants to cut
everybody else’s expenses.
It’s very easy to endorse
a life of pain for others.

In spite of all the people in Congress who think it is important to kill all social programs entirely, there doesn’t appear to be even one of them who wants to cut his own spending. They all have a large staff and several offices. They all are paid three times the national median salary, work part time to earn it, get subsidized health care and other bennies, and full retirement pay for life. Well more than half are millionaires, and the median wealth is over a million dollars. It’s very easy to endorse a life of pain when it affects only other people, those without power.

To put the nation on the same footing as 1910, the Tea Party’s Holy Grail, would un-modernize, un-educate, de-competitive us, and sharply restrict any sort of economic participation in the modern world. We would quickly become a backward swampland that advanced nations would ignore. Does this seem extreme? Actually, it’s not. It’s the logical end of the direction the Tea Party wants us to move.

People who rail against out-of-control government spending haven’t thought this through. First, government spending has been falling for a number of years and is not at all “out of control”. Second, our taxes at present are among the lowest of advanced nations, and can hardly be called “crushing”. Third, the “least government” they idealize is most closely approximated by the way the US was in 1910, a world largely characterized by the absence of the most important elements of 21st century life. That world is very obviously not one in which most of us would want to live.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I sure think it would be nice if the Tea Party could be sent there to find out first hand how marvelous their reification of the past is in practice.


  2. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


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