Political Animal


March 21, 2012 3:09 PM Moral Fiber

By Ed Kilgore

It takes a lot these days to get the jaded and cynical Washington observer Dana Milbank angry. Paul Ryan managed easily to do so during his remarks on his budget plan at a friendly American Enterprise Institute audience yesterday. After outlining the details of the Ryan budget, Milbank observed with rising bile:

Taken together, Ryan would cut spending…by $5.3 trillion, much of which currently goes to the have-nots. He would then give that money to America’s haves: some $4.3 trillion in tax cuts, compared with current policies, according to Citizens for Tax Justice.
Ryan’s justification was straight out of Dickens. He wants to improve the moral fiber of the poor. There is, he told the audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute later Tuesday, an “insidious moral tipping point, and I think the president is accelerating this.” Too many Americans, he said, are receiving more from the government than they pay in taxes.
After recalling his family’s immigration from Ireland generations ago, and his belief in the virtue of people who “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” Ryan warned that a generous safety net “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.”
How very kind: To protect poor Americans from being demeaned, Ryan is cutting their anti-poverty programs and using the proceeds to give the wealthiest Americans a six-figure tax cut.

Yeah, Ryan’s tough love for the poor is pretty impressive. The “complacency” of the unwashed and unemployed has been especially evident of late. Fat and happy, they whistle on April 15 while hard-working job-creators at the top of the wealth ladder have to trudge to their accountants’ offices and sign over an unconscionable percentage of the assets that both God and nature—operating together, as they do of course, through markets—have assigned to them.

I know that some conservatives with the best will in the world have concluded that smaller government, lower and more regressive taxation, and in general a world where private forces exert more power produce a better society for everybody. I don’t agree, but I can respect their position. But when they befoul it with this sanctimonious claptrap about concern for the “moral fiber” of lesser breeds, it makes me crazy. When the housing market and the financial system collapsed and jobs disappeared—in 2008 or 2009, or for that matter in 1929—did millions of people suddenly lose their “moral fiber?” Does the ability via public assistance of one sort of another to feed their children or provide them with medical care when they are sick truly darken their souls and destroy their motivation to better themselves?

You know, much as I dislike the viral adolescent-intoxicating legacy of Ayn Rand—you know, the author of Atlas Shrugged, the book Paul Ryan used to (or for all I know, still does) require his staff to read—at least she had the honesty to disclaim any pity for the poor. Indeed, she called altruism the one great moral abomination, as bad as “looting.” I’d have a lot more respect for Paul Ryan if he loudly and proudly embraced the “virtue of selfishness” himself, and didn’t pretend he wanted to cut food stamps in order to improve the lives of the working poor through some character-building hunger.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • massappeal on March 21, 2012 3:16 PM:

    If we're going to be broad-minded and inclusive in our approach to Rep. Ryan, perhaps what he's trying to say is that his own moral fiber was brutally and irreparably twisted and harmed by growing up on Social Security survivor benefits.

  • Bruce S on March 21, 2012 3:19 PM:

    Yeah - I have a lot more respect for libertarians and Randites who are clear on the concept that, frankly, they don't give a damn, than claims that their weird schemes, narcissistic delusions and paranoid obsessions will be "good" for Les Miserables. The Cato Institute is particularly egregious in trying to mimic (badly) liberal concerns regarding mobility, opportunity and access to affordable health care, etc. while concocting "free market" schemes that supposedly address such. It's bogus and indicates that they recognize that rigid economic libertarian concerns aren't normative or politically palatable on their face value.

  • jjm on March 21, 2012 3:24 PM:

    Well and passionately said, Ed!

    The GOP worked so hard to kill off social science, social analysis, that they can only rely on increasingly ludicrous caricatures of 'the poor' to get their voters' dander up with envy and disdain. Anyone say 'out of touch?'

  • SecularAnimist on March 21, 2012 3:29 PM:

    Nothing about this is the least bit new, or surprising.

    It's what we always get from bought-and-paid-for corporate stooges who play "conservatives" on TV to bamboozle weak-minded, ingorant, gullible dupes into voting for them:

    "The problem with America is that the poor have too much, and the rich have too little."

    That's been the foundation of the Republican Party's pseudo-ideological bullshit for a generation now. Paul Ryan is just the latest puppet to mouth the words.

  • Irwin on March 21, 2012 3:36 PM:

    How about we improve the moral fiber of Paris Hilton by levying a very high inheritance tax.

  • ack ack ack on March 21, 2012 3:37 PM:

    Shorter Paul Ryan: Let's sack Rome before it burns.

    You can quote me on that.

  • Milt on March 21, 2012 3:40 PM:

    I, for one, am sick of hearing about those damn bootstraps. For thirty years conservatives have sung about that physically impossible activity. Don't they realize that in assuming the position necessary to pull one's bootstraps they are presenting their posterior to whomever is behind them? Perhaps they are suggesting the poor bend over so the 1% can have their way with them.

  • king buzzo on March 21, 2012 3:46 PM:


  • Ron Byers on March 21, 2012 3:50 PM:

    You understand that the two groups receiving "welfare" as Ryan defines it are the very old and the very young.

    It is hard for a child to improve his moral fiber if he isn't getting enough regular fiber to survive.

    Pretty soon we are going to be watching commercials about starving children in Denver or Miami instead of Central America or Africa. At least the TV producers won't have to travel as far.

  • schtick on March 21, 2012 3:50 PM:

    I wish these tealibanazistanizans would live my "handouts" for just a year. I'd love to see all the goodies they would have the extra money to buy, like groceries, rent, heat, phone, and even the innertubes. I'm so rich I'm ready to trade in my ten yr old vehicle for a Town Car.....from ToyRUs.

  • arkie on March 21, 2012 3:53 PM:

    From the 1951 film "Scrooge":


    First Collector: At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute.

    Ebenezer: Are there no prisons?

    First Collector: Plenty of prisons.

    Ebenezer: And the union workhouses - are they still in operation?

    First Collector: They are. I wish I could say they were not.

    Ebenezer: Oh, from what you said at first I was afraid that something had happened to stop them in their useful course. I'm very glad to hear it.

    First Collector: I don't think you quite understand us, sir. A few of us are endeavoring to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth.

    Ebenezer: Why?

    First Collector: Because it is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. Now what can I put you down for?

    Ebenezer: Huh! Nothing!

    Second Collector: You wish to be anonymous?

    Ebenezer: [firmly, but calmly] I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish sir, that is my answer. I help to support the establishments I have named; those who are badly off must go there.

    First Collector: Many can't go there.

    Second Collector: And some would rather die.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 21, 2012 3:58 PM:

    I'm sorry, but unless you were born in 1873 or something, you really shouldn't be blathering about "bootstrap" theology. Ryan was born in 19-effin-70... yet he's waxin' poetic like he grew up in during the Dust Bowl. STFU--twice!!!!

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 21, 2012 4:04 PM:

    @arkie: everytime the massacre-the-social-safety-net GOP starts, I think of that very same exchange from A Christmas Carol.

    And my favorite quote of course, for all the "business-minded" 'Publicans (I'm lookin' at you, Mitt).

    The Ghost of Jacob Marley to Scrooge: "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

  • Ron Byers on March 21, 2012 4:12 PM:

    Only somebody who has never experienced privation of any kind, somebody like Paul Ryan, could possibly believe the moral fiber crap.

  • GlenInBrooklyn on March 21, 2012 4:17 PM:

    I read Rand when I was 18. Intellectually, Ryan is STILL 18.

  • Varecia on March 21, 2012 4:20 PM:

    Ayn Rand's Objectivism is a faulty philosophy. But then again, what would one expect from a Hollywood scriptwriter?
    In short, Homo sapiens require other Homo sapiens in order to become genuinely human.
    So much for Objectivism.

  • SecularAnimist on March 21, 2012 4:27 PM:

    Ron Byers wrote: "Only somebody who has never experienced privation of any kind, somebody like Paul Ryan, could possibly believe the moral fiber crap."

    Only somebody who has never experienced critical thinking of any kind, somebody like the average Tea Party voter, could possibly believe that Paul Ryan believes a word of the moral fiber crap.

  • JW on March 21, 2012 4:34 PM:

    "But when they befoul it with this sanctimonious claptrap about concern for the “moral fiber” of lesser breeds, it makes me crazy".

    New Dealers, New Frontiersmen, Hippies, Atheists, Scientists, Blacks, Hispanics, and (most recently) Women.. on and on.... they have ALL been on the receiving end of the GOP's sanctimonious claptrap for decades. The peoples of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (among others) might even make a plausible case that the GOP has taken that very same show on the road, too, its expense being paid for in their blood and treasures.

  • Anonymous on March 21, 2012 5:27 PM:

    Precisely how the Sassenach spoke of the Irish while his ancestors starved.
    Someone needs to give him a copy of "A Modest Proposal" to shake him out of his self righteous posturing.

  • KarenJG on March 21, 2012 5:27 PM:

    I think it's time to revisit - and redistribute - John Scalzi's iconic 2005 essay "Being Poor." Scalzi is one of my favorite writers. He writes mostly science fiction, with lovely little quirks & kinks. His prose can be lyrical & profound in one sentence, and side-splittingly funny in the next. This essay isn't really any of those things. It's just a series of simple statements - some of them heart-rending - about the reality of everyday life when you're poor. And somehow the sum of the statements manages to be both lyrical and profound anyway.


  • Kathryn on March 21, 2012 5:29 PM:

    As Ron Byers wrote, regarding the coming commercials to help the starving children of Denver and Miami, not far fetched at all, Remote Area Medical ( think that is the correct name) has been active in this country for several years. For anyone not familiar with them, they go to poor areas where there are many medically uninsured Americans such as Southwest Virginia where poeople line up hours in advance to see dentists, eye doctors and general practioners to help them. Many haven't seen doctors for years and many do no get seen because time runs out. Remote Area Medical normally operates in poorer countries than the U.S.

    One more thing, that Paul Ryan is such a powerful and well regarded figure in the Republican Party is similar to Sarah Palin 's continued support. To entrust your tax plan to a smug acolyte of Ayn Rand who is treated like a financial guru/god by them and some media is pitiful. Ryan suffers from some form of arrested development still clinging to his college utopian delusions.

  • Shelly on March 21, 2012 5:38 PM:

    I love this part: "Too many Americans, he said, are receiving more from the government than they pay in taxes."

    Let's look at that issue on a state by state basis, shall we? Of course most of the states that receive more in federal government money than they pay in taxes are the reddest of red states, where people believe Ryan's nonsense.

    So let's take them at their word, and make sure that those states no longer receive so much federal money. I know here in my true blue NY, I'd be happy for more federal support for our transit system, schools, police & fire forces, etc.

  • zandru on March 21, 2012 5:52 PM:

    @arkie: That quote may have been in the "1951 film", but it's straight out of "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens, 1843. And you left out the money quote:

    Second Collector: And some would rather die.

    Scrooge: Then let them die, and decrease the surplus population.

    @Anonymous and "A Modest Proposal": be careful; Ryan might think it's a really great idea.

  • Jim Pharo on March 21, 2012 5:59 PM:

    I know that some conservatives with the best will in the world have concluded that smaller government, lower and more regressive taxation, and in general a world where private forces exert more power produce a better society for everybody. "

    Really? Name one.

    I think if there are such people they haven't thought very carefully about their views. "Smaller government" is like "too many notes" in Amadeus -- it's just a wrong-headed approach. I think if you probe, you'll find people who think their own taxes are too high, or who blame Americans for their own misfortunes. Hardly the "best will in the world."

  • Quaker in a Basement on March 21, 2012 6:19 PM:

    Moral fiber? You pasty-faced sonofabitch, I invented moral fiber!--Pappy O'Daniel

  • Objective Dem on March 21, 2012 7:03 PM:

    The right likes to say the media is controlled by the left. The fact that the mainstream media is not writing stories exposing the evil in Ryan's plans tells me otherwise.

    I don't like to use the word "evil" but I cannot think of any other term for stealing from the poorest to give to the richest.

  • tcinaz on March 21, 2012 7:07 PM:

    Wow, KarenJG, Scalzi nailed it. I'd forgotten many of those things of 50 years ago when I was a poor kid. If you've never been there, or you can forget over time, it's easy to become Paul Ryan. Thanks.

  • Doug on March 21, 2012 8:08 PM:

    When (If?) those "Masters of the Universe" start showing us THEIR "moral fiber" by putting loaded revolvers to their own heads and pulling the triggers in atonement/shame for their misfeasance, malfeasance, and/or plain old corruption; when, as I said, THAT happens, THEN maybe I'll listen to Rep. Ryan's posturings about "moral fiber".
    Until that happens, I'll just shake my head at the stupidity of CD voters...

  • Al Swearengen on March 21, 2012 8:12 PM:

    Ayn Rand's mother gave away all her toys when she was a little kid. That's why she turned into such a despicable, selfish monster. As they say where I grew up "Her momma did a job on her!"

  • Hyde on March 21, 2012 8:43 PM:

    This is where Democrats' perennial issues with messaging come into play, because if this isn't "class warfare," nothing is. So say it, Dems!

  • shameful on March 22, 2012 3:45 AM:

    not only paul ryan is radical but he is also stupid.

    it is immoral and irresponsible for him to punish the poor, mostly children, and give more tax cuts to the rich.

    Shame is on him, not the poor.

    He is fiscally irresponsible. This cut to the food, medical and educational assistance will increase our debt by increasing personal debts on our citizens, which will cause banks to not lend to businesses while reducing consumer demands.
    It will create a bigger unemployment.

    Not helping the poor and youth will cost more on our society both on governments and private businesses. Only animals don't help each other. That's why animals don't progress.

    but i don't mind. i welcome his stupidity. it exposes a lot of hypocrisy of the far rights.

  • toowearyforoutrage on March 22, 2012 8:49 AM:

    Does the ability via public assistance of one sort of another to feed their children or provide them with medical care when they are sick truly darken their souls and destroy their motivation to better themselves?

    Yes. Just imagine how motivated they'll be to work harder when one of their children dies slowly of starvation.

    Now a question of logic:
    As for some people getting more than they pay in taxes....

    If everyone got less than they received in taxes... where would this money be going??? The right wing HATES when the government collects extra money. Clinton's surplus was met with cries for tax cuts, not debt paydown (honest, look it up!)

    So if every taxpayer is expected to only get back everything they put in, why bother with taxes at all? Just have everyone buy what they would anyway and...

    I get it.
    Paul Ryan... you tricked me!

    Okay, everyone, go home and home-school your kids. Buy some textbooks and school supplies with your tax cuts. And BTW, when are you going to repave your part of our road to work? I lost a rim on YOUR pothole on Thursday!

    At the last, I award the thread to Irwin. We'll always have Paris.

  • boatboy_srq on March 22, 2012 9:01 AM:

    @zandru, Anonymous:

    The most galling thing about Ryan not "getting" Swift is this: A Modest Proposal was written as a critique of what at the time was known as the Irish problem.

    The man either has no self-awareness, or no conscience. Or possibly both.