Now on the edge of passing the final House-Senate conference, the bankruptcy bill sets a pattern-one that threatens to persist unless the Democrats act far more aggressively than they did before the Jeffords switch. Those with power have long believed that whatever damage they do to individual lives or communities, they themselves can skate through, exempt from costs. But the Bush administration is giving the wealthy more chances and subsidies than ever, and creating ever-harsher policies for the rest of us, left to scavenge in the ruins. If we mess up, we're left with only empty phrases. When Bush proposed cutting funding for abused children, after-school programs, low-income childcare, health care, and housing, he did so with kind and gentle words-in part to give an extra $53,000 per year to those one in a hundred Americans whose annual incomes average a million. If you grow up in poverty, however, you're now even more likely to stay there. Is the pace or design of your workplace leaving you crippled? Wave good-bye to ergonomics standards that took a decade to craft, but have now been gutted. Hunger-relief lobbyists worked for years to get Congress to oppose user fees in international aid programs, which prevented people without money from getting health care or going to school unless they paid the institutions that served them. Bush has now reversed the stand. The Clinton administration belatedly passed a rule making it more difficult for corporations that consistently violated laws to bid for federal contracts.
That too is gone.
Bush is also denying a second chance for the earth--the chance to learn from the blind paths of the past. Instead, he's sandbagged the Kyoto global warming treaty, reversed his stand on limiting carbon dioxide emissions, cut alternative energy research and international family planning funds, proposed unlimited oil drilling, nominated a timber industry shill to head the forest service, and resurrected the rancid corpse of the nuclear power industry. Given the accelerating pace of global climate change, species extinctions, and population pressures, he's risking the chance for recovery of the planet.
All this comes from a president whose career has consisted of unearned breaks and forgiven mistakes: launching a succession of failed oil companies, losing millions of his father's friends' dollars, and walking away with more money each time; partying through Andover and Yale, bypassing a hundred thousand others to get into the Texas National Guard, and then ducking out on a year of service once he entered; being bailed out by connections every time. Now, Bush has revived a previously dormant law denying federal financial aid to college students with drug convictions. If you grow up wealthy, you don't need the aid, so you can be as 'young and irresponsible' as you want and you'll be fine. But if you're broke and get busted, that's it-even if you change your ways.
Of course GW would never have entered the White House were it not for the most profound elimination of second chances in our society-the banning of 1.4 million ex-felons from the voting rolls. In Florida alone, 650,000 people were banned from voting for this reason, including one in three African-American men. Tens of thousands more were knocked out through letters purging them from the rolls for convictions that never applied under Florida law-or never existed. Rules barring ex-felons proliferated a century ago, spearheaded by former Confederate states restricting black voting and establishing racial segregation. They've disenfranchised far more people in the wake of bi-partisan mandatory sentencing laws and other measures that have left us leading the world in the percentage of our citizens in jail. No other advanced industrial democracy bars former prisoners for life: Many actually encourage current inmates to vote. But our laws 'elected' GW, even before all the discarded ballots and cancelled recounts.
The ethic of no second chances threatens to dominate the next fifty years if Bush appoints enough judges like those who installed him in office. Are you a cancer patient on chemotherapy, who needs medical marijuana to keep down your medication and food? The Supreme Court overrides the will of local voters and calls that illegal. Are you an Alabama prison guard with asthma, wanting to be protected against working in a smoke-filled environment that destroys your chances of recovery, or a nursing home employee demoted for taking time off for cancer treatments? Too bad, say the Justices: The American with Disability Act doesn't apply to state employees. Are you a Texas mother who neglects to fasten your children's seat belts? The police can now handcuff and arrest you in front of them-you'll get no sympathy here.
In the worldview of the Bush team, exemption is contingent on class. If you're rich and contribute to Republican coffers, you deserve every forgiveness and reward. If you're not, but are struggling with the downside of the American dream, you just don't have what it takes. We've not quite revived workhouses and debtor's prisons, but they seem close on the horizon, cloaked in words of compassion.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin's 1999). See www.soulofacitizen.org.