Monday, September 08, 2008

Duh

Maybe it’s simply a case that the rich don’t get it. Never have, never will. Well, the born rich, at least. People like David Frum, whose father made millions in real estate and whose mother was successful in journalism, now Frum’s own field. People who, as Jim Hightower once described George Bush 41, were born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.


Frum has an article in this week’s The New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled “The Vanishing Republican Voter” in which he argues that inequality (gasp!) is reducing the pool of Republican voters.


Frum ends with this:


Equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal. But inequality taken to extremes can overwhelm conservative ideals of self-reliance, limited government and national unity. It can delegitimize commerce and business and invite destructive protectionism and overregulation. Inequality, in short, is a conservative issue too. We must develop a positive agenda that integrates the right kind of egalitarianism with our conservative principles of liberty. If we neglect this task and this opportunity, we […] will lose America.

Putting aside the idiocy of positing contradictory goals (self-reliance and national unity), the idea that inequality can be an issue to consider—while, at the same time, equality is no goal—is preposterous.


What strikes me as so odd about Frum’s piece is that his main thesis, that inequality reduces confidence in the ruling class, should be so obvious that it needs no restating. I mean, all you have to do is look back to the French and Russian revolutions, where inequality grew to such extremes that those left with nothing more than (as Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar says in Some Like It Hot) “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” rose up and killed the elite.


It’s incredibly frustrating to read a piece like Frum’s, for he doesn’t even recognize the causes of inequality. In the article, he writes:


The first reason is the revolution in family life. Not so long ago, most households were home to two adults, one who worked and one who did not. Today fewer than half of America’s households are headed by married couples, and married women usually work. So America and other advanced countries have become increasingly divided between families earning two incomes and those getting by on one at most.


The family revolution coincided with another: a great shift from a national to a planetary division of labor. Inequality within nations is rising in large part because inequality is declining among nations. A generation ago, even a poor American was still better off than most people in China. Today the lifestyles of middle-class Chinese increasingly approximate those of middle-class Americans, while the lifestyles of upper and lower America increasingly diverge. Less-skilled Americans now face hundreds of millions of new wage competitors, while highly skilled Americans can sell their services in a worldwide market.


What nonsense. As one who has never had to worry about pennies, Frum doesn’t understand that a two-income family (at the lower end of the scale) doesn’t have much more than a one-income family. The costs of things like daycare eat a much higher percentage of income than they do for people themselves making many times what low-end workers do. Both parents work often because even the few dollars one might earn above the expense incurred by working can mean the difference between immediate financial disaster and staving it off for a bit. Or because that’s the only way to get health care. A huge proportion of lower-income American families hold more than one wage earner… and many of those work more than one job. The divide, then, is not between two-income households and one-income households.


Nor is it based on any “planetary division of labor.” Or on immigrant labor (as Frum goes on to suggest). Frum assumes that value for labor has something to do with “skill” and, one assumes, productivity. He completely ignores the fact that, no matter how you slice it, value comes primarily from natural resources and labor. Frum’s “skilled” people are not generally skilled laborers (what, for example, does Frum himself produce that tangibly adds value to anything?) but are those with access to, and control over, resources and labor—and they have been taking a higher and higher percentage of the profit from these over the last quarter century, forgetting that it would be wiser to bring the laborers up with them rather that squeezing them ever tighter on the assumption that faux-free-market capitalism has “won” and that revolution is a thing of the past.


Not surprisingly, Frum avoids any consideration of race as part of the divide. Race and social class, two determining factors that Frum, like many of today’s conservatives, has convinced himself are nothing more than minor roadblocks that the ambitious and able will easily overcome. But that’s another story.


What the conservative movement has become over the past decades is an excuse machine for exploitation and a political machine for fooling just enough of the public from voting for their own best interests. Both of these are beginning to break down as the mechanisms for sustaining a belief on the part of the general public that it, too, can join the elite are collapsing. Sub-prime mortgages, for example, were nothing more than a way of fooling people into thinking that they could easily bridge the gap between the new elite and the rest. And wedge issues such as single-sex marriage and abortion are beginning to lose effect as people see their own dreams of economic success slipping their gears.


The smart thing for the elite to do, and the reason more and more of them are voting against what Frum sees (in his myopia) as their best interest, is to make sure that the lower portions of the economy start rising in earning power once again, even if that means reducing the riches of those who already have more than they need and much more than they are actually worth through their own “real” contributions to increased value. More and more people at the upper end do recognize the danger of great class divide, and wish to reduce that danger by reducing the divide. If that means a smaller cushion, house, or BMW, so be it. Better that than the social disruption continued widening of the gap will surely spawn.

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