Web Only / Features » April 17, 2013
Margaret Thatcher’s Ghost
The Iron Lady is being laid to rest, but her policies haunt the White House.
Thatcher once argued for taking milk from the mouths of babes, lobbying to restrict free milk for school children. Similarly, the White House budget proposes taking money out of the pockets of the elderly by cutting Social Security cost-of-living payments.
Iciness is the defining feature of Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom’s first and only female prime minister, who died last week. She was the cold-as-steel Iron Lady. President Obama, warm, friendly, shaking hands, hugging the bereft, is the opposite.
It’s the same with their philosophies. President Obama, who worked as a community organizer, believes in the power of consensus and collective action. Thatcher, a conservative, scorned compromise and community.
It’s inexplicable, then, how a Thatcher-style policy appeared in the White House budget released last week. Thatcher once argued for taking milk from the mouths of babes, lobbying to restrict free milk for school children. Similarly, the White House budget proposes taking money out of the pockets of the elderly by cutting Social Security cost-of-living payments. Social Security is community action. It is Americans coming together to care for their parents and grandparents. Thatcher would definitely cut it. Republicans in Congress would. But Democrats should never allow the mean spirit of Margaret Thatcher to materialize in a progressive policy document.
Even in death, which tends to ease loathing, Thatcher is reviled by vast swaths of the United Kingdom. Graffiti gives her a rocky send off. The writing on the wall says: Iron Lady? Rust in Peace. Reaction to a glowing obituary in The Daily Telegraph was so vile that the paper shut down all comment boards on articles about her. Those who still despise her held “death parties” and used social media last week to push the 1930s song, “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead,” to the top of the U.K. singles chart.
She evokes this response because she slashed the fabric of British society. She took office in 1979 amid high inflation and unemployment and left office in 1991 amid high inflation, unemployment and a widened gap between rich and poor. In her dozen years in office, she cut social welfare programs, eviscerated trade unions, deregulated, sold state-owned companies and utilities and closed coal mines. All this killed good jobs that supported families and villages across the countryside. Lives were destroyed, communities devastated. This, however, was in keeping with her philosophy of every man for himself, as she said in a 1987 interview: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
She refused to allow the United Kingdom to fully join the community of the European Union. The individualist wouldn’t let her country unify with continental society.
We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.
For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn. We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative.
They strengthen us.
They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great.
We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.
In many ways, the budget offered by the White House last week reflects President Obama’s belief in community. For example, to create jobs, it includes $166 billion over 10 years for repair and construction of roads and rails and to launch an infrastructure bank to finance more public works. Also to ease high unemployment, the budget contains aid to states for job training and to retain teachers and first responders.
To pay for these and other programs, the plan proposes eliminating special deals and loopholes that have allowed the rich and privileged to pay a decreasing portion of their income toward the cost of government. It would require the wealthy and corporations to step up and fulfill their responsibilities to the American community that facilitated their prosperity. Millionaires would have to pay a minimum rate of 30 percent. Deductions for the rich would be limited. Loopholes enabling some corporations to pay no taxes at all would be closed.
But the budget also offers to change the calculation for cost-of-living increases given to Social Security recipients to a formula called Chained CPI. Senior citizens, injured veterans, the disabled, children who have suffered the death of a parent would all receive less to offset inflation.
The budget mitigates this loss for poorer and older beneficiaries, but the change would be painful for millions of senior citizens.
President Obama has said he would not change Social Security without the tax increases he has proposed for the rich. But Republicans leaders like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, immediately demanded the nation dive into the wallets of old people while leaving those of the rich perfectly well-lined. This is the philosophy of Margaret Thatcher.
British political columnist Hugo Young, a biographer of Thatcher, wrote of her in 2003:
What happened at the hands of this woman’s indifference to sentiment and good sense in the early 1980s brought unnecessary calamity to the lives of several million people who lost their jobs… More insidiously, it fathered a mood of tolerated harshness. Materialistic individualism was blessed as a virtue, the driver of national success. Everything was justified as long as it made money–and this, too, is still with us.
Democrats must exorcise the evil specter of Margaret Thatcher and promote a budget that respects Americans’ time-honored commitment to each other and to community.
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Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President
Leo Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union miner; Gerard started working at a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union's ranks to be appointed the seventh international president Feb. 28, 2001. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.
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