Sunday, April 20, 2014

When Will Conservatives Stop Defending Income Inequality?

The Tea Party: White people acting white.

I've always been fascinated by the support given by conservatives to policies that would seem to run counter to their values or interests. Conservation is one such case. Another is less obvious but shouldn't be: income inequality.

Nonetheless, the usual suspects gather round the issue and behave in the usual fashion.  Thomas Picketty writes a masterful tract, Capital in the 21st Century, on income inequality, pointing out with rock solid data that a new Gilded Age is upon us, and that, additionally, incomes for the middle class has been stagnant for decades. What do the usual suspects do? They do their level best to knock down the thesis. Why?

First, let's turn it around and ask: Why don't conservatives take Piketty's message -- that income inequality is at 19th-century levels and that a growing amount of the lopsided wealth is becoming inherited instead of earned -- and scream bloody murder?

An obvious answer is that the rich love lower taxes and so do conservatives. The rich love unfettered markets and so do conservatives. The rich love consolidated political power, and so do elite conservatives. If you want to have a slice of that political power, better to buddy up to the rich than to oppose them. I get that.

Yet middle- and working-class conservatives that should be outraged by damage to our ecosystem and the widening inequities in income distribution haven't caught on to the fact that their futures are compromised, too, and that their income streams have been drying up, too.

I suppose the usual pundit suspects need to keep their jobs by finding ways to nibble around the edges of Piketty's rock-solid thesis because they're paid to do it.

The conservative dream is to have it all in grand libertarian style, with free markets, low taxes, minimal regulations. Every conservative plebe is just one big payday, one lucky break, away from eternal financial independence, while every liberal is just one welfare check away from, I don't know, having another welfare check. That supposed dichotomy has never made any sense to me. Liberals are ambitious, too, and are no more likely than conservatives to be on welfare.

Everyone in the working/middle classes is one paycheck away from noticing that they haven't been keeping up, and if that job disappears there might not be another one.

Meanwhile Ross Douthat decides that Piketty is channeling Karl Marx and that some dude from Forbes has found a sliver of a way to undermine Piketty's data and that the middle class is okay after all. This is what Douthat spends his op-ed pages on?
Piketty’s dark vision relies, in part, on economic models I am unqualified to assess. But it also relies on straightforward analysis of recent trends in Western economies, and here a little doubt-raising is in order.
In particular, as the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship has pointed out, Piketty’s data seems to understate the income gains enjoyed by most Americans over the last two generations.These gains have not been as impressive as during the post-World War II years, but they do exist: For now, even as the rich have gotten much, much richer, the 99 percent have shared in growing prosperity in real, measurable ways.
Douthat, with an assist from Scott Winship, in essence is saying, yeah, the rich are enormously richer than the middle class, but the middle class actually have a few more bucks and they own their own homes for heaven's sake, so don't pick on the rich because the new model -- you know, where the rich have just about all the money -- is conceivably "sustainable" for the middle class. In other words, if the middle class would just adjust to its lowered expectations, scraps will be had for all. Because it's sustainable!

Sheesh. Among other points that are sloughed over is the fact that the self-same middle class is the one that just had millions of their homes foreclosed on if not stolen by the banks. Also, millions of Americans have fallen into long-term unemployment that may be permanent. Careers shut down early, never to be revived.

Douthat says that liberals can't make hay over Piketty's new assertions because there's a powerful cultural identity component that the right has used to usurp the populist urge.
This possibility might help explain why the far left remains, for now, politically weak even as it enjoys a miniature intellectual renaissance. And it might hint at a reason that so much populist energy, in both the United States and Europe, has come from the right instead — from movements like the Tea Party, Britain’s UKIP, France’s National Front and others that incorporate some Piketty-esque arguments (attacks on crony capitalism; critiques of globalization) but foreground cultural anxieties instead.
The taproot of agitation in 21st-century politics, this trend suggests, may indeed be a Marxian sense of everything solid melting into air. But what’s felt to be evaporating could turn out to be cultural identity — family and faith, sovereignty and community — much more than economic security.
Well done, Ross Douthat. You take what little you will acknowledge as valid in Piketty's critique of capital's dominion over labor and hand it over to white nationalists who also inhabit your happy place, i.e. family and faith, sovereignty and community. I'm sure I knew that the true believers have long claimed faith and family as their own special province, but I didn't know that the extreme right wing has properly acquired ownership of sovereignty and community, as well.

If Douthat left me anything to relish from his sorry attempt to claim it's okay that the rich get richer as long as they throw us enough scraps to be "sustained," it's his possibly accidental admission that the American Tea Party rightfully belongs in the category of white power fascists like France's National Front. Ross, you really did give away the store, intellectually speaking, with that one.

France's National Front: White people acting white.

Footnote. I did want to look for other conservative writers on the subject, and Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post delivered:
Still, the present concentration of income and wealth instinctively feels excessive. It understandably stirs resentment. We’d be better off if the rich were less so and other Americans were more so. But it’s doubtful that political action to force this transformation would be similarly beneficial. Class warfare is bruising; today, it would degrade the confidence needed for a stronger recovery.
So Samuelson's prescription is to do nothing. After all, class warfare is bruising. Brilliant.

To finish on a positive note, Thomas B. Edsall has a good critique of Piketty here.

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