Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Confession from a repentant right-winger.

Today we'll go to the polls (those of us who do) and decide what the Washington political climate looks and sounds like for the balance of Barack Obama's presidency. Obama may or may not get reelected in 2012, but 2012 seems impossibly far off at the moment. Think about the surreal shift in American sentiment just since 2008: Obama was then the candidate of capital-c Change, sweeping in on what appeared to be a mood of broad rethinking and a mandate for reform. Now America wants a different kind of Change and has apparently rethought its earlier rethinking, in the process forgetting completely, it would seem, the way things felt in those last few years under Bush-the-Younger. Pulling back from the specifics and considering the overall tableau, one overarching conclusion suggests itself: We have no idea what the hell we want. And whatever it is that we want (this week), we don't have the patience to see it through.

There was a time when I, Steve Salerno, your current left-wing radical, was a conservative. In fact, I was vocally and vehemently conservative. My conservatism rang out from highly visible media like The Wall Street Journal and The American Enterprise and National Review Online. I bought in, fully, to Reaganomics, with its twin notions of trickle-down prosperity and job-creation-via-business-incentives; I bought into the whole shebang. If I've given up on conservatism in recent years, it's not because I no longer believe that those ideas work, in theory. The ideas themselves, in all likelihood, are sound.

It's We-the-People who have changed.

Just as the Framers of the Second Amendment, whatever their original intent, could not have envisioned a world in which tweener gang members on a testosterone high were riding around in cars with loaded AK-47s across their laps, the evolving American free-market experiment depended on the belief that businesspeople would use the tool of capitalism as it was designed to be used, thereby flooding society with the fruits of individual initiative. There's a metaphor here that actually works equally well with regard to my thoughts on both the Second Amendment and latter-day capitalism: A hammer is a wonderful instrument if you're working with Jimmy Carter and his Habitat crew to assemble a house. But if you have a whole bunch of people running around using hammers to bludgeon their neighbors to death, well, at that point you have to think about the wisdom of having so many hammers in circulation. That has become the way I feel about today's free market. It is not being used for good. So we need to keep it in check.

Although I am as guilty as anyone of misquoting or excessively invoking de Tocqueville, that line of his about how a successful democracy presupposes and absolutely requires the good will of the people
or else it will self-destructis truer and more relevant than ever. The free-market system may work well when used as intended, but too many people in positions of power aren't using it as intended. It has become an instrument of greed, a way of creatinginstead of jobssimply more and more wealth for the oligarchy. (And that's leaving aside the incredible boondoggle perpetrated by the lords of derivatives and other high-level financial machinations.) This is clear in figures that show the percentage-wise concentration of wealth over the past half-century. As Bill Maher and others have pointed out, that is the real redistribution: not from the rich to the masses in some socialist sense, but from the masses to the rich. [The above chart is kind of fuzzy. Click on it to enlarge.]

See, we have become too narcissistic as a people. We no longer believe in share-and-share-alike
SHAMland having certainly played a role thereinand therefore, the tools that were originally designed to ensure continued growth and widespread prosperity...don't. They ensure fantastic wealth for a few and inescapable poverty (or at best, lower-middle-class mediocrity) for everyone else. And to be clear, I'm not saying that Joe Poor is any more noble or selfless in his aspirations than Joe Rich. It's just that Joe Poor has no power, and the system as presently constructed guarantees that he will continue having no power. He's trapped. He has little or no access to the nation's almighty financial and political systems. Unless he is very, very lucky, his fate is sealed.

Until all of that changes, until we renounce Me-First-ism and learn to stop being so damned selfish, I will be voting Democrat in the hopes of forcing the collective hand.


NormDPlume said...

What is normal, in an economic sense? What should define "middle class"? Is a high school education and a union job the same as it was 40 years ago?

The problem I have with unions is that they look to the glory days of 40-60 years ago when a union guy could do quite well with a marginal education and a 40-hour a week factory job, and they point to that period as "normal". Free health care; pensions and a strong salary with lots of benefits.

European factories were destroyed, and Japan, Korea and the Far East were decades away from emerging. The US had about 85% of the world's heavy manufacturing capacity; thus the unions could be the bottleneck and get away with all sorts of demands.

But Europe rebuilt; Japan, Korea and the Far East became manufacturing powerhouses, and US union labor priced themselves out of the market. The US manufacturing heartland became a rust belt.

The 1950s and 1960s were not normal; they were a time in history where the US middle class got fat and lazy: the high tide floated all ships.

It is not up to the government to guarantee outcomes for everybody. There will be winners and losers - and even the losers in our country have a higher standard of living then many of the winners in the rest of the world.

Capitalism isn't perfect; but it is better than any other system out there.

Steve Salerno said...

NDP: You write as if I'm a fan of labor unions, or at least their activities over the past 50 years, and I'm not. They brought Detroit to its knees and--on a more personal note--have never stepped up and taken responsibility for their role in the utter demolition of Bethlehem Steel, whose old headquarters and principal manufacturing facilities are just down the pike from me; they stand today as a tragic rusted monument, Ozymandias-like, to what has happened to American steel; I believe I've blogged on this a number of times. Unions, in their own ironic and twisted way, have become part of the capitalist dance of death in recent years, driving the nation's vast industrial machinery over the cliff.

You also write as if I'm indicting the system, per se, when I'm not; I'm merely trying to emphasize that one of the major problems with capitalism is that it's too easily perverted if the people running the show are venal or otherwise of ill will--and that's what's happening.

A Corvette is a wonderful car. But put a drunken 16-year-old (whose girlfriend just broke up with him) behind the wheel, and encourage him to drive at breakneck speeds, and you've got a serious problem on your hands--not just for him but for innocent bystanders.

Elizabeth said...

The ideas themselves, in all likelihood, are sound.

Even trickle-down? Steve, I think these ideas are only sound if they translate into reality. That one certainly didn't -- it ain't tricklin', from where I see it.

propman222 said...

Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
Alexis de Tocqueville

Christoph Dollis said...

It's a representation of a way of life, an unapologetic approach to conspicuous PERSONAL consumption, that you don't see from any other party. Sure, there are rich Democrats, notably the Kennedy clan, but they claim to stand for the working man, and for the most part (or at least to a far larger degree than the GOP), they put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.

Bull, Steve. You're all about evidence. Let's go with evidence.

Conservatives donate more money than liberals.


ABC News Link

Arthur Brooks, the author of "Who Really Cares," says that "when you look at the data, it turns out the conservatives give about 30 percent more." He adds, "And incidentally, conservative-headed families make slightly less money."

And he says the differences in giving goes beyond money, pointing out that conservatives are 18 percent more likely to donate blood. He says this difference is not about politics, but about the different way conservatives and liberals view government.

"You find that people who believe it's the government's job to make incomes more equal, are far less likely to give their money away," Brooks says. In fact, people who disagree with the statement, "The government has a basic responsibility to take care of the people who can't take care of themselves," are 27 percent more likely to give to charity.


So, to recap:

- Conservatives make slightly less money, on average, than liberals do
- Yet they donate significantly more than liberals do

You're just wrong here, and you should admit it.

The difference is, conservatives believe they and others have a right to the fruit of their labors, and don't believe others should be allowed to take it BY FORCE.

However, they are MORE -- a lot more -- willing to give it away voluntarily than liberals are despite the fact that liberals generally have more money.

And conservatives and liberals are both taxed at the same rates, aren't they? Despite high taxes imposed by liberals on everyone including conservatives, conservatives still out-donate liberals. The discrepancy between conservative and liberal giving would probably be higher with lower taxation rates. There's other economic data to support this, as higher taxes suppresses charitable giving.

The real-world evidence does not support your internal, heartfelt delusion on this topic.

The article linked to above does show that, percentage-wise, the rich donate less than the poor. But there are also more liberal rich.

Christoph Dollis said...

I should have mentioned this, but they also donate more in time too, not just money and blood.

I would be entirely fine with agreeing with you if the facts supported it.

For example, I believe the abilities to create income and wealth are good, and liberals seem to be somewhat better at this, on average. I grant that.

Liberals are more likely to be scientists, by far, and I think science is good.


One could go on for other positive attributes of liberals.

But generosity? Not so much.

Sure, there are many generous liberals, but there are lots of Al Gores who are rich yet give 0.2 percent of their income to charity, figuring that their government work/support is their charity. But conservatives are also subject to the same tax rates, yet dig deeper.

Conservatives are even more likely to risk their lives for the national (collective!) defense by joining the military.

Am I saying this is entirely good? No, not necessarily. Maybe conservatives just think it's cooler or something, although I think that's trite. I believe that conservatives feel a strong PERSONAL desire to be directly involved with helping others, as opposed to a yearning that other people, collectively, should band together to help. If you get the distinction.

It really is a different worldview.

Steve Salerno said...

Ahh, Christoph, if it were only the good old days, and I still had the time and intellectual/emotional energy to engage you fully. I stand by what I wrote here, however, and if spare time (and an abatement in entropy) ever permit, I'll give your remarks the attention they deserve.

Thanks for weighing in, anyway!