NEW YORKER’s Ryan Lizza Sorta Gets It About Dave Brat

It’s a pleasure to have in Dave Brat a Ph.D. economist who isn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of either the plutocracy or the Democratic Party.

From The New Yorker:

DAVID BRAT, THE ELIZABETH WARREN OF THE RIGHT
POSTED BY RYAN LIZZA

On January 14th, David Brat, the college professor who defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday, in a Republican primary in Virginia, was reading the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section when the premise of his improbable campaign was revealed to him.

Randall Stephenson, the C.E.O. of AT&T, had recently been named chairman of the Business Roundtable…. Stephenson’s piece, which came after a year of Tea Party-inspired upheaval in the House, was called “A Business Short List for Growth,” and in it he laid out his group’s policy agenda for Congress in 2014. At the top of the list for Stephenson was “stability,” by which he meant an end to the crisis policymaking that has regularly threatened a government shutdown or debt default in recent years.

Brat, a free-market purist and a devotee of Ayn Rand, read the op-ed and turned to his wife. As he recounted several times on the trail this spring, he told her, “This guy just wrote my stump speech for me!” What was useful to Brat about the Wall Street Journal article was not that it echoed his own views, but that it clarified for him everything that Cantor was for and that Brat was against. “Stability,” for Brat, was simply code for a status quo in which companies like AT&T fleece the government.

Here’s an excerpt from Stephenson’s WSJ piece that Brat objected to:

The final pillar of this growth agenda must be fixing our nation’s broken immigration system. America’s unique competitive advantage has always been its ability to attract the best talent. We can’t turn back on that now, not at a time when high-tech innovation is more important than ever. A successful overhaul of immigration law would create a larger pool of visas for higher-skilled workers, enact a new visa system for lower-skilled workers, offer a path forward for undocumented workers already living in the U.S., and allocate greater resources to strengthen enforcement and secure our borders. Done right, immigration reform can increase our economic growth rate, reduce our deficit and contribute significantly to America’s future.

Lizza carries on:

From what I’ve observed, Brat has not talked like a forty-seven-per-cent conservative complaining about how tax dollars are being shovelled to the undeserving poor (although maybe he does believe that and didn’t emphasize it in the campaign). He comes across, instead, like a ninety-nine-per-cent conservative who sees the real villain as corporate America and its addiction to government largesse. One of his biggest applause lines is about how bankers should have gone to jail after the 2008 financial crisis. Brat is the Elizabeth Warren of the right.

The divisions within the Republican Party since 2010 are not always obvious from the shorthand we commonly use: Tea Party versus establishment, conservatives versus moderates, outsiders versus insiders. Brat’s stump speech, inspired by the country’s top corporate-lobbying group, was notable for the clarity with which it defined these often opaque categories. Eric Cantor “is running on the Chamber of Commerce growth plan,” Brat told a small gathering at the Life Church in Hanover, Virginia, last April. “The Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable. If you’re in big business, he’s good for you. But if you’re in any other group, it’s not good for you.”

What Wall Street was asking from Washington was, “Just keep it stable for us so we can make profits.” Brat went on:

I’m an economist. I’m pro-business. I’m pro-big business making profits. But what I’m absolutely against is big business in bed with big government. And that’s the problem.

Put aside for a second whether it’s actually true that a C.E.O.’s plea for an end to fiscal brinksmanship is actually a mask for extracting corporate subsidies. The more interesting phenomenon is that, for Tea Party conservatives, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page had morphed into the voice of the enemy.

In his campaign against Cantor, Brat turned every issue into a morality tale about big business cheating ordinary Americans. He attacked Cantor for supporting the farm bill (“Do those billions of dollars go to the small American farmer? No, they go to huge agribusiness, right? Big business again.”), the flood-insurance bill (“Who does that go to? A lot of the money goes to gazillionaires on both coasts who have homes in nice real-estate locations.”), and the STOCK Act, an effort to stop insider trading by congressmen, which Cantor gutted by including an exception for spouses. In his Stephenson-inspired stump speech, Brat was more worked up about the STOCK Act than anything else. He promised, “If you tell your friends or neighbors about this issue, I will be your next congressman!”

Granted, at the core of Brat’s ideology is an unvarnished belief, one that does not maintain majority support in any recent national poll that I have encountered, that the government should return to its pre-New Deal roots. This is not surprising. He’s a libertarian. But his message, which today is being embraced by Tea Party candidates around the country, is also sharply different from the Romney-Ryan view of limited government celebrated by Republicans in 2012.

Instead of lecturing the most vulnerable about the moral beauty of the marketplace, Brat targets the most well off. “Free markets!” he declared in Hanover, like a teacher about to reveal the essence of the lesson. “In a nutshell, what does it mean?”

It means no one is shown favoritism. Everyone is treated equally. Every firm, every business, and you compete fairly. And no one, if you’re big or small, is shown special attention. And we’re losing that.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the kind of rhetoric that Ralph Nader, and even Noam Chomsky, have used for many years to pillory the government for protecting the rich and the well connected from the vagaries of the free market.

But, Brat’s a realistic free marketeer. He wants libertarianism in one country. I suspect that when he read Neal Stephenson’s line in his sci-fi novel Snow Crash about how in near future America, ”once the Invisible Hand has taken away all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity” Brat was a rare libertarian to realize Stephenson was writing a dystopia not a utopia.

By the end of the campaign, immigration reform, another policy championed by Stephenson in his op-ed, had become Brat’s most visible point of attack against Cantor. But even here, Brat framed the issue within his larger argument about corporate welfare, arguing that the Senate bill would reward big business with a stream of cheap labor at the expense of American workers. (And anyone who followed the debate over the Senate bill knows that it was larded with favors for big corporations.)

Lizza doesn’t quite get how important two words are here: “cheap labor.” It used to be that Americans were proud that they got paid more for doing the same work as people in foreign countries. In recent decades, elites have hammered home the impression that that’s shameful, making Brat’s criticism of “cheap labor” hard for them to comprehend, even if they are as acute and fair-minded as Lizza.