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Friday, March 17, 2017


Invasion of the soul snatchers

by Tom Sullivan

Someone might want to check if there are alien seed pods on the White House lawn. Pod people is somehow a less worrisome explanation for Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney than he and his colleagues lacking souls. Taking questions from the press yesterday, Mulvaney explained why Donald Trump's proposed budget reflects compassion. The 2018 budget would eliminate programs for the poor and unemployed, but boost spending for the military (wars being such great jobs programs).

CNN's Jim Acosta asked about cuts to Meals on Wheels and Head Start:

These are programs, Mulvaney argued, that "aren't showing any results." If feeding 80 yr-olds would get them to go back to work in the salt mines, I mean, OK. But what's the ROI in feeding them if we see no increase in GDP? Speaking for the entire United States, Mulvaney said we can't spend money anymore on programs that don't get "results." It's an actuarial, cost-benefit thing. No one followed up to ask what results justified spending more than $1.6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, yet in Trump's budget the Defense Department gets a 9 percent increase in its spending.

The exchange with Mulvaney continued:
Acosta: You were talking about the steel worker in Ohio and the coal miner in Pennsylvania and so on. But those workers may have an elderly mother who depends on the Meals on Wheels program, who may have kids in Head Start. And yesterday or the day before you described this as a 'hard power budget' but is it also a hard-hearted budget?

Mulvaney: I don't think so. I think it's probably one of the most compassionate things we can do to—

Acosta: Cutting programs that help the elderly?

Mulvaney: You're only focusing on half of the equation, right? You're focusing on recipients of the money. We're focusing on recipients of the money and people who give us the money in the first place. I think it's fairly compassionate to go to them and say, look, we're not going to ask you for your hard-earned money anymore. Single mom of two in Detroit, OK, “Give us your money!” We're not going to do that anymore unless we can—please let me finish. Unless we can guarantee that money will be used in a proper function. That is about as compassionate as you can get.

Slate's Jordan Weissmann writes:
Got that? Mulvaney says the White House is cutting Head Start to make sure it doesn't waste the taxes of single mothers in Detroit, because it's just that compassionate. Honestly, I would have more respect for the man if he'd stood up on stage with a stock pot and said the administration had decided that the poor should be boiled into bone broth. At least then he'd have the courage of his convictions.
"Proper function" is a most curious turn of phrase. In What is America for? a few weeks ago, I noted that caring for money has taken the place of caring for people in American governance. Mulvaney's response confirms that, as does Trump's choice of Goldman Sachs veterans for high positions in his administration (and Obama's before him). Serving money takes precedence over serving people — unless they have lots of money.

At Netroots-Detroit in 2014, Anat Shenker-Osorio spoke to the conceptual shift that makes not feeding hungry children and the elderly "compassionate." With schools, for example:
We've moved from this garden metaphor to the language of the factory, right? So we have inputs, and we have outputs and we ratchet up expectations, and the kid is a product of a good school.

The entailments of that metaphor are that children are like widgets, they're all uniform and why would the widgets need art? And the teachers are factory workers and they do a thing to the kids, and it's all the same and they're on a conveyor belt and they move to the next one after they've been tested and a stamp is put on their ass and they're... none are left behind.

This mechanistic language is so widespread, that we have now monetized children, right? We invest in the future and we invest in our kids, and they're too small to fail. And we can kid ourselves all we want, but the prevailing understanding of the investment frame is financial return. That is how it is used in language. And so we are saying, "The reason to do a thing, the reason it's right, is because it's lucrative"

Who knows lucrative better than Donald Trump? Trump and a lot of other pod people view the world through that frame. Where once we had souls, now we worry about "proper function" and whether spending money on (investing in) our fellow citizens will deliver an increase in productivity that generates more money. Because the only proper function of pod government is to serve money or to turn people into it as they sleep. It is a fetish of the sort for which we otherwise require violators to register when they move into a neighborhood with a school.

I need some beers today, preferably not the color of money.