Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Fighting the 'Submerged State:' Why Conservatives Really Fear Barack Obama

Conservatives are right to fear President Barack Obama and his agenda.  Of course, they spin deceitful lies about what the president is up to, where he was born, label him as a muslim, call him unpatriotic, and many other partisan political attacks in an effort to delegitimize him in the eyes of the American people.  All of these efforts are simply methods of obfuscation on the part of the GOP.  In other words, the Republicans want to confuse and confound the American people by calling things what they are not.  A few examples come to mind quickly, such as the nonexistent yet infamous 'death panels' in the Affordable Care Act and PolitiFact's 'Lie of the Year', the government takeover of health care.  Neither of those things are a part of the law but the truth can be so limiting that Republicans feel they might as well make stuff up to scare the unwashed masses, who remain largely ignorant of public policy and who benefits from it.  Suzanne Mettler (The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy) makes a convincing argument that people are ignorant about government policies and their beneficiaries, especially social welfare policies, largely because they have been 'submerged' into the modern state.  In short, people who receive the benefits of these policies aren't even aware of the fact they are receiving government benefits.  Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 was largely about exposing the submerged state so that citizens would understand 'who gets what and how,' as Harold Lasswell famously stated.  That's what really scares conservatives about President Obama.

We've all heard the phrase uttered by the ignorant Tea Party conservative about keeping the government's hands off 'my' Medicare, right?  Perhaps you think that's an extreme example?  Consider the results of a survey of government issues conducted in 2008.  One of the questions asked respondents if they had ever received benefits from a government program.  Nearly 57% of respondents said they never had.  Later in the survey, 19 government programs were identified and it turned out that over 91% of respondents had used at least one government program at some time in their life, many without ever realizing it was, in fact, a government program.  For example, 60% of people claiming the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (HMID) said they had never benefitted from a government program.  Yet, the HMID is the 2nd largest tax expenditure in the IRS code, costing approximately $105 billion a year.  The vast majority of beneficiaries of this program apart from realtors, construction companies, and bankers?  American families with earnings of $60,000 a year or more.  In other words, it is a government program for the top 25% of income earners in the country.  Citizens with lower incomes typically don't have enough other deductions to itemize on their tax returns and thus are unable to claim this benefit.  A broader question that I won't answer here is why does the government subsidize economic activity that consumers are likely to engage in anyway?  It isn't as though wealthy Americans will stop buying homes and begin renting apartments if they are unable to deduct mortgage interest, is it?  Don't get me wrong, I've been able to claim this deduction for the last several years and I'm happy to do so.  A few more examples:  52% of people claiming the child and dependent care tax credit don't think they received a government benefit. Really?  My two favorites are the federal student loan program (53% of recipients don't think it is a government program) and Social Security (44% don't see it as a government program).  On the latter program people seem to believe they are only receiving back what they paid in.  Right.

Why do conservatives (and some Democrats) fear Barack Obama's attack on the submerged state?  Because many of their financial backers are dependent upon the subsidies they receive from submerged government programs.  Take the Republicans opposition to Obama's plan to end the more than $6 billion a year in federal subsidies to banks making student loans.  Student lenders spent on average about $80 million a year lobbying Congress in an (unsuccessful) effort to take student loan programs out of the hands of the private banks and create a direct lending system in which the government is the creditor, allowing more students access to federal loans at lower interest rates than ever before.  Guess what just disappeared?  Nearly $20 million a year in campaign contributions from student lending institutions to 'friendly' Republicans and Democrats.

This is just one example of Obama's war on the submerged state.  There are many others, including health care and the real estate industries (each contribute about $140 million to political parties, PACs, and campaigns annually), which spend about $60 million each per year on lobbying activities.  The benefits received by these industries each year is measured in billions of dollars.  And it's all under the radar of most Americans.  We see rallies and protests against government welfare programs designed to aid the poor and unfortunate, like providing health insurance to low income workers, but nary a word against the upward redistribution of wealth to bankers, realtors, and big pharmaceutical companies.  In the end, Mettler argues, the invisible nature of these programs disconnects citizens from their government.  Unearthing and making citizens aware of these issues may lead to a more activist base of citizens who get involved with their government.  This is why conservatives fear Barack Obama.  It is why they oppose full disclosure laws when it comes to political spending.  It is why they oppose 'Obamacare.'  It is why they support unlimited spending by wealthy corporate interests to sway the outcome of American elections in their favor.  A fully informed citizenry just might say enough is enough and put an end to the influence of big business in politics.  And that would have disastrous results for the party of big business, the GOP.


  1. Social Security is funded by workers and their employers. The federal government only administers andd borrows from the program. They fund it only as an employer.

  2. Yes, at least that's the way the government wants us to see it...as if we are only getting back what we have contributed. Part of the problem, however, is that many get back much more than they contribute and some get nothing (a single worker who dies before retirement age, for example). It is rightly called 'supplemental security income' and a 'social insurance' program with good reason. Since it is an entitlement, government must pay the benefits regardless of whether the money is there or not, unless Congress changes the law. That, as we know, is never going to happen.