In the midst of the debt crisis in Washington, D.C., Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building that is on a strip of motels and pawnshops in Tampa, Florida. He had been laid off by a packaging plant during the financial crisis of 2008, had run through his unemployment benefits, and had then taken a part-time job stocking shelves at Target in the middle of the night, for $8.50 an hour. His daughter had developed bone cancer, and he was desperate to make money, but his hours soon dwindled to four or five a week. In April, Hartzell was terminated. His last biweekly paycheck was for a hundred and forty dollars, after taxes. "It's kind of like I've fallen into that non-climbable-out-of rut," he said. "If you can't climb out, why not move?"
On the afternoon of July 1st, Hartzell was loading the family's possessions into the rental truck-and brushing off the roaches that had infested the apartment, so that the bugs wouldn't make the move, too-when a letter arrived from the State of Florida. Four days earlier, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, had signed a law making it harder for Floridians to collect jobless benefits, and the letter informed Hartzell that he was ineligible for new benefits after losing his job at Target. "I guess it's just all water under the bridge at this point anyway, being that we're going to stake a new claim," Hartzell told his fifteen-year-old son. "Right, Brent?" Then the Hartzells drove ten hours north, to rural Georgia, where no job or house awaited them-only an old friend Hartzell had reconnected with on Facebook, and the hope of a fresh start.
On the day the family moved, there were officially 14.1 million unemployed Americans, or 9.2 per cent of the workforce. Hartzell himself probably isn't counted in these statistics. In recent years, he has fallen into the more nebulous categories of the part-time employed, the long-term unemployed, and the "marginally attached"-the no-longer-looking unemployed. Economists report that the broader, and more accurate, unemployment rate is 16.2 per cent. Three years after the economic meltdown, nearly one in six Americans are out of work.
In Washington, President Barack Obama and Congress are engaged in high-drama brinksmanship, like members of an ordnance-disposal unit arguing about how to defuse a huge ticking bomb. Obama, securely in character, called on all sides to rise above petty politics, acknowledged the practical realities of divided government, and proposed a grand compromise that would lower the deficit by four trillion dollars. According to the Times' Nate Silver, Obama's offer, in its roughly four-to-one balance between spending cuts and revenue increases, falls to the right of the average American voter's preference; in fact, it may outflank the views of the average Republican. Among other drastic cuts to domestic spending, the President proposes a ten-year, hundred-billion-dollar reduction in federal contributions to Medicaid, a program that helped provide new sets of teeth for Danny Hartzell and his wife just before their move.
The Republicans are also securely in character. They've rejected everything that the President has proposed, because Obama's deal includes tax increases and the closing of loopholes for hedge-fund managers and corporate jets and companies that move offshore. Ninety-seven per cent of House Republicans have taken something called the "No Tax Pledge." Some Republicans have also proposed that any deal require Obama to repeal the country's new health-care law, which, had it been in place last year, would have provided the Hartzells with medical insurance, instead of forcing them to rely on charity hospitals for their daughter's cancer treatment. Representative Paul Ryan's ten-year budget plan, which remains his party's blueprint for the future, would impose a fifty-per-cent cut on programs like food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, which, as long as Danny Hartzell remains jobless, represent the Hartzells' only income. By the last day of June, the Hartzells had twenty-nine dollars to their name. The Republicans in Congress won't be satisfied until the family is out on the street.
The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay "Politics as a Vocation," drew a distinction between "the ethic of responsibility" and "the ethic of ultimate ends"-between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. These ethics are tragically opposed, but the true calling of politics requires a union of the two. On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber's terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a "leader's personality." Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad.
Representative Austin Scott, from the Hartzells' new state of Georgia, is the president of the House Republicans' freshman class. Last week, Scott, addressing the possibility that the United States might default on its debt, offered this blithe assessment: "I certainly think you will see some short-term volatility. In the end, the sun is going to come up tomorrow." It was Lenin who first said, "The worse, the better," a mantra adopted by elements of the New Left in the nineteen-sixties. This nihilistic idea animates a large number of Republican officeholders. The battle over the debt ceiling is a contest between grown-up sobriety and juvenile righteousness, which doesn't leave much choice.
Nor does it leave much hope. President Obama, responsibly acceding to the reality of divided government, is now the leading champion of fiscal austerity, and his proposals contain very little in the way of job creation. More important, he no longer uses his office's most powerful tool, rhetorical suasion, to keep the country focussed on the continued need for government activism. His opponents' approach to job creation is that of a cargo cult-just keep repeating "tax cuts"-even though the economic evidence of the past three decades refutes such magical thinking. What does either side have to offer the tens of millions of Americans who have settled into a semi-permanent state of economic depression? Virtually nothing. But if responsibility were fused with conviction-if politics were a vocation in Washington today-the Hartzells would be represented at the negotiating table.