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Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
Why is this model of economic growth so appealing to the Tea Party? For one, it tends to jibe very well with the Ayn Randian belief in producerism: the idea that "job creators" — business owners — are the only source of economic growth in society, and that everyone else — the workers, government employees, and the poor — are just "useless eaters" shackling those who exercise individual initiative. While many Democrats are baffled by Scott Walker's attack on the unions — shouldn't he be focused on jobs rather than eliminating workers' protections? they ask — the fact is that today's conservatives believe this is the right and only way to create jobs.
The same delusion is present at the federal level, where House Republicans insist that deregulation and spending cuts are the only ways to create jobs. That doesn't sound like a formula for job growth, unless you account for the conviction that rolling back the public sector, and in the process impoverishing the middle-class families that depend on its services, is essential to keep any costs low enough for corporations to work their magic. The fact that the "beneficiaries" who get jobs as a result of this corporate development model will have to work for lower wages and fewer benefits, and suffer from poor schools and a violated environment, is beside the point.
The Tea Party's love of "Moonlight and Magnolias" economics also fits with its disturbing affinity for other Old South concepts, which developed during Dixie's long era of resistance to unionization, "big government" meddling with economic and social life, limits on natural resources exploitation, and judicial tampering with property rights and state's rights. Most remarkable is the spread of "Tenther" interposition and nullification theories, which hold that the states should have special sovereign rights to thwart federal policies in ways not considered legitimate since the eras of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. These have been widely touted by conservatives across the country (notably 2010 Senate candidates Sharron Angle of Nevada and Joe Miller of Alaska) and even by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (who has spoken warmly of the "Repeal Amendment" that would let states collectively kill federal laws).
The problem with this Southern theory of growth is that it won't work: Economic development experts usually deride "Moonlight and Magnolias" approaches to job creation, noting that they track the outmoded first and second "waves" of basic economic development theory — which emphasized crude economic races to the bottom — as opposed to third and fourth "waves" that focus on worker skills, quality of life, public-private partnerships, innovation, and sustainability. If Wisconsin and other states — not to mention the country as a whole — end up adopting these atavistic economic ideals, they will simply begin to resemble the dysfunctional Old South societies that spawned them in the first place.
So what is at stake in Wisconsin, and across the country, is not just the pay and benefits of public employees, or their collective bargaining rights, or the specific programs facing the budgetary knife. We are contesting whether Americans who are not "job creators," by virtue of wealth, should be considered anything more than cannon fodder in an endless war between states — and countries — over who can attract the most capital by slashing the most regulations. In this sense, standing up to Scott Walker is a truly worthy fight.
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