So Paul Ryan--the guy who last night delivered the least factually accurate speech in convention history--I knew him in college.
OK, I didn’t actually know him, and in fact didn’t even attend Miami University until over a decade after the guy, but as a graduate of that school, I can tell you I knew kids exactly like him. Miami is a strange place because it is divided evenly between relatively normal middle-class (mostly white) kids, who want to go to a prestigious but relatively cheap public university, and the half that is decidedly more upper-crust, who give Oxford, Ohio’s streets a flavor of BMWs that can be jarring to the uninitiated.
I sat with the Paul Ryans in all those political science classes that left me three credit hours short of a triple-major (hey, I was a senior and had an honor’s thesis and drinking to do). I worked at the front desk of King Library where the entrance took on the appearance of fraternity and sorority social hour every day after four o’clock. I worked at The Miami Student as editorial editor where my boss forced me to print way too many right-wing screeds by Professor Rich Hart—one of Ryan’s mentors.
Miami is one of the few schools where the College Republicans feel like the vast majority. During the Bush years, they cheered on the catastrophe that became the Iraq war, even as their hero cut taxes disproportionately for their parents, the deficit ballooned, and the government became a staff of useless cronies who couldn’t figure out how to get food and water into the Superdome when Katrina hit. I’d sit in my classes and listen to these people and get mean and nasty toward them because I almost couldn’t believe how clueless they were—how lacking in self-awareness, how completely oblivious to their own privilege.
That last one has stuck with me: one of the character traits I find most unsettling in politics is when a person has no conception of their privileged place in society. First of all, everyone reading this is, to a degree, hyper-privileged. We are Americans. We consume a quarter of the world’s resources as 4 percent of its population. We are taught from birth that unbridled consumerism and materialism is our right, and politicians of both parties reiterate this in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways. Yet the degree to which this certain type of Miami student would spout off about the laziness of people who were not at Miami University and people’s freedom to choose the life they wished to live and the freedom at the core of the American experience without any understanding that their places in that classroom were premised 99% on who they were born to and under what economic circumstances never failed to make me want to rip off my own head and vomit into the bucket of my skull.
I remember so vividly being in a class with a girl wearing pearls and a skirt you’d wear to your interview at Citigroup (yes, I would’ve fooled around with her, but in a really pissed off kind of way), and she was going on and on about the virtues of capitalism. The professor, Pat Haney, said something along the lines of, “So you believe in absolute capitalism?”
“The government can only screw things up,” she replied assuredly.
“So you don’t believe in any kind of environmental protection or child labor laws or rules that keep human thumbs out of your hot dogs?” he said.
And when I saw this girl’s face contort, because clearly to say “yes” would make her sound like either an idiot or a sociopath, I wanted to distill the moment and inject it into rich kids’ brains the world over.
Economist and author John Cassidy calls it “utopian economics”—the idea that if we just stand back and let the market work, somehow the outcome will not be disaster. We are living through an age of unprecedented market failure: the financial crisis, a health care system more expensive and less protective than any in the industrial world, and the greatest failure of the free market ever--the climate crisis--are all examples of how the “invisible hand” can fail a society. To deny this is to deny basic reality, but that’s the place where most of today’s Republican Party stands—without any ability to challenge their own platitude-riddled narrative.
Here’s another rule of thumb, though:
If multi-millionaires like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and their billionaire backers—who’ve never lived a day in their lives not backstopped by the incredibly fortunate circumstances they were born into—run around telling you to cut taxes for their economic class while slashing money for any other program that might benefit anyone who makes less than $250,000 a year because programs like Pell Grants and home heating oil subsidies make these people “less free”, please be skeptical.