Tom Price and Metropolitics

First, off, regrets for the delay between starting this post when Tom Price’s appointment was news and publishing it today, when no one in the media has got time for Tom Price at all. Just pretend that Russia, Exxon, and the Electoral College don’t exist and that Tom Price still matters. Because he most certainly does, if you plan to get Medicare or Medicaid or have paid taxes on the premise that your payments might entitle you to partake of those social services someday.

(Ahem)

Most of the attention paid to Donald Trump’s naming of Georgia Congressman Tom Price as his prospective Secretary of Health and Human Services has focused on Price’s adamant opposition to the Affordable Care Act and social services in general.

Amy Goldstein and Philip Rucker reported in the Washington Post that Price is a loyal Trumpist, a foe of Obamacare, birther-curious, and, perhaps most importantly,

supports major changes to both Medicaid and Medicare, health insurance pillars of the Great Society programs of the 1960s. Under his vision, both programs would cease to be entitlements that require them to provide coverage to every person who qualifies. Instead, like many House Republicans, he wants to convert Medicaid into block grants to states – which would give them more latitude from federal requirements about eligibility rules and the medical services that must be covered for low-income Americans. This plan would also require “able-bodied” applicants to meet work requirements in order to receive health care benefits — an idea that the Obama administration has consistently rebuffed.

No doubt, all of those concerns are legitimate and important. I echo all of them. But I think it’s worth pointing out that where Price is coming from is important; his extremism on social services reflects not simply fiscal conservatism but also a politics of (sometimes) veiled (and sometimes not) racial resentment formed in (but hardly unique to) post-1970s metro Atlanta. And, as I’ll discuss below, Price’s brand of politicized racial resentment has been disguised as principled concern for the fate of democracy with the help of words attributed to, but most likely never written by, a Scottish Enlightenment scholar of little significance outside of That Uncle’s email forwards and, unfortunately, the United States Congress.

By happy coincidence, I’ve published some articles about the part of metro Atlanta that contains Price’s 6th Congressional District. As I noted recently, Price won a landslide re-election hand in hand with an overwhelming (edit: atypically narrow 48.3-46.8% ) vote for Trump in his district. North suburban Atlanta, hardly a bastion of the working class (white or otherwise), was the type of affluent and educated area strategists expected to swing to Clinton. (edit: the neighboring 7th and 11th districts returned Republicans to Congress and went for Trump 51.1% to 44.8% and 60.3% to 35.3%, respectively. Many 2012 Romney voters clearly defected, but given the magnitude of Democratic hopes for more crossovers, the real story is how many affluent suburbanites in Cobb, Cherokee, Fulton, and Gwinnett Counties Trump held on to). The vote (in the most populous part of the state) monkeywrenched Clinton’s predicted win in Georgia into something the Georgia Bulldogs might choke up in a big game against ‘Bama.

Here’s the map of the district.

6th Congressional District of Georgia

6th Congressional District of Georgia

While many national Democrats were looking toward Fairfax County, Virginia as a model of a winning Clinton coalition of post-partisan educated professionals and service workers horrified by Trump (and post-election analysts like Matt Karp have compellingly argued the narrowness of that vision), north Fulton didn’t act like Fairfax. Which reflects the region’s relatively recent history.

Note that Price’s district contains all or part of several cities incorporated within the last 12 years, including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Milton in Fulton County, and Dunwoody in DeKalb County. The story of those incorporations, while spun by proponents as an effort to achieve accountable, efficient, and responsive local government ostensibly denied by the county governments that previously served the areas, is, I’ve argued, part of a broader campaign to shield affluent and majority-white suburban areas from political control, and specifically control of property taxes, by Black elected officials or elected officials accountable to Black constituents.

This is partly evident in the fact that the local governments established by recent incorporations have been neither honest nor inclusive, though they have been notable for their roster of white elected officials.

from "New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race", Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

from “New Cities Ignite Debate Over Race”, Johnny Edwards and Bill Torpy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 2014

Now, I would avoid characterizing the drive for incorporation as a product of simple bigotry. It’s impossible to know the mindset of residents, those who voted for or against creating new cities, and the officials they elected to govern them. However, it is possible to understand the particular ways in which suburban governments operate as instruments to defend property rights and values and to hoard economic resources embodied in real estate against claims made by those residing outside the local boundary. It’s further possible to understand, as New Regionalist scholars have, that metropolitan areas are substantially integrated economies, despite extensive political fragmentation. It’s finally possible to understand that social processes, notably housing segregation, income inequality, and racial discrimination can work to place people in particular parts of the metropolitan area, while political fragmentation creates different levels of access to resources.

Accordingly, there is a profound connection between racism, property value, and the stakes of local politics. As Atlanta’s northern suburbs began to boom in the 1960s, and the city of Atlanta sought to annex some of them, the prospect of Black elected officials making decisions involving taxing suburban property and spending the proceeds fueled movements for defensive incorporation. Suburban voters fought Atlanta’s city government to a stalemate over annexation, until a movement for suburban municipal incorporation emerged, gaining considerable momentum from a 1991 property tax revolt.

A substantial irony of the tax revolt was that the property of many of these suburbanites had been grossly undertaxed for years. As I wrote in the Journal of Urban History, drawing on contemporary public sector economists’ analysis of late 1980s and early 1990s tax receipts, the market value of north suburban property was galloping ahead of tax appraisals and, accordingly, tax assessments were lagging far below levels mandated by state law. This was not a racially innocent process. As Kevin Kruse has most notably observed, Atlanta’s housing market had, since the desegregation of Atlanta’s city schools, created a premium for property in mostly white communities. Further, following Paula Ioanide’s discussion of affective economies, many white Atlantans’ perceptions of positive use value (aka “quality of life”) in their suburban communities has hinged on whiteness, adding an additional set of political stakes around both integration and local control, with the facially race-neutral values of good schools and quality of life dominant in public discussions.

Despite the evidence that many north Fulton homeowners had received a double whiteness dividend (increased property value plus a tax discount), when Fulton County conducted a countywide reappraisal to put the tax rolls in line with the market, those homeowners rebelled, with both Black County Commissioners and countywide public services (notably, for the purposes of our discussion, Grady Hospital, which serves the poor of Atlanta and Fulton County) taking the heat.

In my article, I identified a key conflict around social services. Embattled County Commission Chair Michael Lomax, who was nearly recalled in a 1991 petition campaign, attacked the perception that Atlanta’s public services were a benefit only to Atlanta’s poor residents and an unjustified burden to others, specifically arguing in a May, 1991 Commission meeting that while metro Atlanta residents outside of Atlanta enjoyed the benefits of the institutions and infrastructure paid for by the city and county, outlying areas were not contributing adequately to maintaining those facilities, including the care for the indigent provided at Grady. Other commissioners were more blunt, insinuating that racial animosity inspired austerity.

Things were probably not quite that simple, but in the context of a sudden tax reassessment, affluent white homeowners were quick to shift responsibility from their previous free ride to the presumed wastefulness of public services. A year after the 1991 tax revolt, a north Fulton realtor named Mark Burkhalter launched a political career that would take him to the state legislature by leading LOGTAX (Lower Our Grady Taxes), a group that openly framed the public hospital as a rip-off of north Fulton taxpayers. One of LOGTAX’s mailers presented a leading True/False quiz, which included such “questions” as “North Fulton homes are unfairly taxed for a hospital that doesn’t serve them.” The questions were misleading on a number of levels. As Creative Loafing (Atlanta’s longstanding alt-weekly) notes in a brief history of the politics of Grady Hospital, the facility in fact does serve residents of the entire metropolitan area through its trauma center, though its image as a facility for the black and poor obscures it:

When he first started working as a paramedic, Lunney remembers the stigma certain Atlantans attached to the hospital. He recalls instances in which affluent people such as a “soccer mom from Alpharetta” involved in a car crash on I-75/85 would “flip” at the suggestion of going to Grady, despite the fact that the level-one trauma center offered the best possible care.

Grady’s service to the whole region works indirectly, too. The indigent receive care there, making the for-profit facilities in the region more profitable, allowing middle-class Atlantans to afford private health care by shunting the cost of caring for the poor off the books, and benefitting the not insubstantial number of homeowning doctors and healthcare executives in north Fulton County. One of the ironies of Grady’s recent history is the extent to which local private hospitals panicked at Grady’s financial problems, fearing that they might be forced to absorb them. This proved to be of little consequence in the political arena, however, where aggrieved taxpayers and their spokespersons could make hay.

As the tax revolt matured and institutionalized within the Fulton County Republican Party, north Fulton tax hawks readily embraced a theory that Black elected officials were using the public budget for redistribution and racially-motivated reparations against white homeowners. I describe the response of a local reactionary columnist to the 1991 recall of Lomax, which evinces a particularly racialized take on taxing and spending:

Dick Williams likewise accused [Commission Chair Michael] Lomax of “playing the racial card,” asking “where is the racism in struggling for breath after finding a 100 percent or more property re-evaluation?” In the very same column, however, Williams blamed black politicians and voters for the crisis. Since “a greater percentage of whites own homes and businesses,” he wrote, “black lawmakers are freer to lay the tax burden off on people who didn’t vote for them anyway.”

If this formulation sounds familiar, it should. The idea that using the institutions of representative democracy to meet the needs of the largest number of people is not only improper but fatal to democracy itself is a contemporary favorite. Its purest form is reflected in this meme:

At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution, in the year 1787, Alexander Tyler (a Scottish history professor at The University of Edinborough) had this to say about “The Fall of The Athenian Republic” some 2,000 years prior:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

“The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage.”

In case That Uncle ever sends you this over email or posts it to social media, I will suggest as a service a few critical approaches to rebuttal. We could, as historians, nitpick the neat teleology of progression from “Bondage” to “Abundance” and back again, or the blatant artificiality of a two-century rule for civilizational collapse, or note that the parties in bondage tended to stay that way under Anglo-American settler government. We could even question whether the failure to consider warfare as a contributing factor to Athenian decline calls into question Tytler’s knowledge of shit from shinola. We could, as political scientists, be astounded at how Tytler’s quotation utterly mistakes the extent to which the Constitution purposefully separates the citizenry from the treasury. Think Electoral College. Think whether your vote counts as much as your Congressman’s. Think about what would happen if you demanded trillions of dollars to build an F-35 in your garage. Think about every Gadsden Flag waver who ever brayed “it’s a republic, not a democracy.” I think we’re actually safe from the masses voting themselves Obamaphones. We could, as rhetoricians, note the use of anachronistic phrases like “loose fiscal policy” that, with these other analytical errors, contribute to the propounding of a historical doctrine coincidentally suited to the exact needs of Tea Party conservatives today.

And, we could wonder why, if this Alexander Tytler was so goddamn smart and important, nobody’d ever heard of him until the invention of the email forward. Indeed, it appears that while an Alexander Tytler did exist, his authorship of scholarship on Athenian democracy is, to say the least, lacking in evidentiary support:

The “Alexander Tyler” quoted at the head of the article is actually Lord Woodhouselee, Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish historian/professor who wrote several books in the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, there is no record of a Tytler’s having authored a work entitled The Fall of the Athenian Republic (or The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic), and the quoted material attributed to him above is likely apocryphal.

Would it surprise you to learn that Ronald Reagan was an important figure in catapulting this bit of propaganda into our collective consciousness? If it does, you should read Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge as soon as possible (though the fact that the Trump campaign could have used it as a how-to manual is distressing).  Their historical fraudulence notwithstanding, the words attributed to Tytler have been mouthed with disturbing frequency by Republicans in Congress, usually while advocating policies of upward wealth redistribution (and often after having been forwarded the quote by a constituent!).

I’m just not lucky enough that Tom Price himself ever read this quote into the Congressional Record– although his Republican colleague Mark Sanford (whose judgment is unquestionable) did, in a debate on the FY 2015 budget for which Price was the Republican leader. Here’s Sanford’s conclusion:

Ultimately, what I think that this budget is about is avoiding that very bondage that that historian and many others have talked about over the years.

To sum up, then: Mark Sanford thinks the federal budget should be written based on the fabricated musings of a non-expert on ancient Athens, who, even had he offered comment on that democracy’s failure, made no observations of republican government in the United States or anywhere else in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. The case is airtight.

And, if Price never offered the Tytler quote, he certainly channeled its spirit in his own remarks in the same session:

Remember, Mr. Chairman—the American people know this—every dollar that is taken for taxes and every dollar that is borrowed, stealing from the next generation, is a dollar that can’t be used to pay the rent, to buy a car, to buy a home, to send a kid to college, to open a business or to expand a business and create jobs. We think there is a better way.

Social expenditure is theft, from the deserving (you) to the undeserving (them). But, to make it sound less like whining and more like principle, Price and his colleagues have continued to dress this essentially political mantra in the universalist robe of obscure enlightenment figures to make Obamacare, or Medicaid, or SNAP the equivalent of an attack on democracy itself and the supporters of such programs the equivalent of the Barbarians.

Even when Tytler isn’t dragged into it, the formula jumps up repeatedly. It echoed in Rick Santelli’s call for a Tea Party to protest a tiny proposal for mortgage relief, aptly described by Ian Haney Lopez as a dog-whistle of group antagonism:

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford, 2013)

Paul Ryan turned the Tytler formula around to pretend to care about poor people’s own good, calling social services a “hammock” that could trap people in poverty by eroding their self-reliance. The Tytler formula animated the Tea Party attack on the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, suggesting a tidal wave of moochers threatening the Republic. And, in a March 2010 debate over legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act so loathed by Tom Price, Republican Congressman Tom Posey of Florida (a birther whose professional life has unfolded in the federally supported industries of aerospace and real estate) trotted it out once more, though this time not even bothering to attribute it to anyone, noting “it has been said….”

So, this fabricated quotation from a figure of no authority on modern governance is so entrenched in the culture of right-wing Washington as to hardly require attribution, let alone critical reflection on its merits as a guide to policy. But, its core premises are also deeply entrenched in metropolitics, where the politics of taxing and spending are just as contentious but often more immediate.

As I’ve argued in another article (available through Journal of Urban Affairs) that links the tax revolt to prior and subsequent politics of suburban separatism in north Fulton County, the racialized tax politics of the 1990s were critical to building political support for incorporating Sandy Springs in 2005, which sparked a wave of new cities formed in the next decade and was part of a campaign to split north Fulton from Fulton County, which would have substantial benefits for wealthy north Fulton residents and dire consequences to the (poorer and majority-Black) remainder of the county. As I wrote,

As the near absolute segregation of [north Fulton] has receded in the new century, so have overtly racial declarations of community interest given way to public appeals to efficiency, local control, and privatization as rationales for Sandy Springs’s political independence. Yet, black voters and officeholders remain the prime symbol of threat to the interests of white homeowners and taxpayers, who seek, as their predecessors did, to organize political space to avoid the influence of black officials and common obligations to black fellow citizens.

Throughout, the theme of zero-sum conflict was sounded. As I wrote, no one in Atlanta politics exemplified this better than attorney and anti-tax activist Robert Proctor, described by a local columnist as “Rush Limbaugh with a law license.” Proctor’s rhetoric merged the concepts of social services as theft and black political leadership as an illicitly race-conscious enterprise:

Proctor, described as “Atlanta’s Rush Limbaugh with a legal license” (Pendered, 1994a), became the director of the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), and initiated a series of lawsuits that demonstrate the deep intersections of the tax revolt and white political grievances. Proctor and SLF challenged affirmative action policies of the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems, DeKalb County, and Grady Memorial Hospital, as well as Atlanta’s policy of extending health benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees (Campos, 1999; Helton, 1996). Proctor frequently described affirmative action as reverse discrimination, arguing “the playing field has been leveled for at least 30 years [but now] is being made unequal” (Kimbrough & Daniels, 1997) to the detriment of taxpayers. Proctor only implicitly identified “taxpayers” as white, but was willing and eager to identify their oppressors as black. Interviewed in 1994, he argued that Atlanta’s black political leadership, when not busy being “wasteful of taxpayer dollars” and “trad[ing] political favors with each other,” raised the cry of racism to shield themselves from criticism. Proctor further dismissed arguments for government programs to aid black businesses or employment, asking, “Should we take 50 percent of the wealth of white America and … pay reparations, as some of them are urging? When does it end? I think … if we’re truly interested in dealing with quote, unquote, racism … we need to stop talking about race all the time’” (Applebome, 1994). Although Proctor identified black politicians and, indeed, African Americans generally, as his adversaries, he nonetheless framed his own position as the race-neutral one (saying “I’m not a member of the Ku Klux Klan”), insisting that minorities were responsible for racial strife.

Public expenditures took from us to give to them, on the sole basis of them commanding more votes. The necessary rhetorical step is to turn democratic outcomes (and Democratic victories) into attacks on democracy; they’re not content to just take your taxes, they’re trying to take your freedom.

So, to summarize and bring thing back to the present. We can understand a bit more what’s driving Tom Price if we can understand the specifically metropolitical context of his career. The Fulton County Republican Party, mobilized around property taxes, became a key bloc in an ascendant conservative and suburban Republican caucus in the legislature that thrived not only by preaching austerity, but by specifically attacking Black-serving institutions like public hospitals. Rather than providers of key services, they were corrupt vehicles for self-dealing, wasting taxpayer money to give others something for nothing.

This is the context in which Tom Price, representing north Fulton County, became the Georgia Senate Majority Leader in 2002 before jumping to fill Johnny Isakson’s open Congressional seat in 2005. If you are looking for principles that might predict Price’s actions as HHS Secretary, “screw them, we’ve got ours” is probably as good a place as any to start.

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