No Second Chances

Using rhetoric of compassion, a president who owes his career to
unearned breaks is defining his presidency as the regime of no
second chances. Not for individuals, nor for the planet, nor for
anyone except the wealthy and well-connected. Think back to his
bankruptcy bill, pushed through, on the eve of a recession, by
credit card companies that gleefully send cards to your dog, cat,
and 12-year-old, but don’t want you to be able to make a fresh
start if you lose your job or have a medical crisis. If you went
bankrupt under the old system, you paid some costs, but at least
you could get out from under. Now, thanks to these key Bush
funders, if your luck runs bad, you’re indentured for life.

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.

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