Bread and Circus—but hold the bread


It’s difficult to locate a single act that better exemplifies the right’s ideological incoherence than the current farm bill. Larded with billions for the huge and predominately white agribusiness firms, the GOP tried to balance their largesse at the billionaire’s table by stripping another 20 billion in food security from our poorest citizens, doubling down on their previous SNAP reduction. Because apparently the previous 20 billion cut just wasn’t enough.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the bill would deny SNAP to approximately 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade.

The individuals who would lose basic food assistance under the House provision are among the poorest people in the nation and they are a diverse group. More than 40 percent are women. One-third are over age 40. Among those who report their race, about half are white, a third are African-American, and a tenth are Hispanic. They are your neighbors, and some may even be your friends.

Questions naturally occur. Does the right honestly believe that hundreds of thousands of poor people are living the high life on SNAP, an assertion flying around the right-wing echo chamber utterly un-backed by either facts on the ground or reason? (David Darden shows how specious the ‘free loader’ argument is here … or you can check out The Center On Budget Policies and Priorities here.)

What to say to such Scrooges? Sometimes I’m afraid there is no chain that can be rattled loudly enough.

It appears the only thing the far right fears more than libertine sexual mores or strangers with strange skin color is the thought that someone, somewhere might be able to get something for nothing in this ridiculous economy. The notion of community isn’t just ignored with this latest rounds of cuts; it’s taken out back, stripped, whipped and then shot through the skull for good measure. It’s as though the right is vigorously trying to define themselves as the worst pack of jackals to ever inhabit Congress—and, if you know the history of that peculiar institution, you know that’s saying something.

Panem et Circenses was the old adage from the failing days of the Roman Empire. Bread and Circuses. The bread in question was actually a grain dole, or an ‘Annona’. It was a necessary ‘dole’ because the consolidation of Roman agricultural lands in the hands of a few noblemen had pushed landless peasants into the city, where they could not find jobs—a rather interesting parallel. Under the Roman grain law established by Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC, a portion of the grain collected as revenue for the state was sold at a subsidized rate to citizens.

I imagine many conservatives today would line up to denounce this activity, ignoring the historical precedents, naturally, and the brute fact that there were no jobs for those peasants whose land formed the basis for the Roman nobleman’s wealth. After all, to channel Paul Ryan, dependence on any form of public assistance “erodes the moral fiber” of the poor. Like morality is a set of jeans that somehow gets threadbare in the ass. No word yet if that same morality applies to agribusiness firms and their privileged helping of government subsidies. If you’re rich, you are apparently absolved of the need to ‘fend for yourself’, ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’, or of even possessing ‘moral fiber’, much less wearing it out. Jon Chait makes a point in the NY Times magazine that the Republicans are probably aware of the blatant hypocrisy of their position, but so fearful of losing elections, they try to bury it. Specifically, “The ultraconservative Republican Study Committee recently banned the Heritage Foundation from its meetings because Heritage denounced the GOP’s farm subsidies. There is a grim hilarity here: Republicans punished Heritage for its one technocratically sane position.”

So now the far right has offered themselves up as a kind of inverted moral circus, lined with the usual measure of hypocrisy, deciding to keep bread from those who most need it. No doubt, their deluded base approves, and the leadership certainly doesn’t suffer. Paul Ryan helped quaff a 350 dollar bottle of wine with like-minded economists last week while SNAP was being cut, one of two $350 bottles consumed that evening. That’s a total of $700 in wine consumed over the course of a 90 minute dinner or more than the entire weekly income of a couple making minimum wage. When confronted by a Talking Points Memo reporter, Paul Ryan said he had no idea how much the wine cost when it was being ordered.

TPM: So you wouldn’t do it again?

Ryan: Well, of course not, because I think it’s too much money to pay for wine. Yeah, I don’t really know what exactly it cost. It was expensive. But um, 250 maybe it was 250, I don’t really remember.

Besides a faulty memory his remark rather misses the point about the hypocrisy. He seems genuinely irritated at the cost, but not the incredible disparity between his life and the millions of others his actions seek to make worse. So here’s a historical parallel that might offer a note of caution for the right. The last time thousands asked for bread and didn’t receive it, a royal dame, equally clueless, suggested the starving peasants should simply “eat cake.”

We all know how well that turned out.

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