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Friday, July 05, 2013

OK, Krugman: How will hypocrisy help us?

Paul Krugman, Jeremiah of galloping income inequality in the United States, today manages a rather half-hearted tribute to the nation's long-term fidelity to its founding ideals. Half-hearted, because seeing those ideals subverted by encroaching oligarchy, he takes rueful solace only in our national hypocrisy:
Of course, our democratic ideal has always been accompanied by enormous hypocrisy, starting with the many founding fathers who espoused the rights of man, then went back to enjoying the fruits of slave labor. Today’s America is a place where everyone claims to support equality of opportunity, yet we are, objectively, the most class-ridden nation in the Western world — the country where children of the wealthy are most likely to inherit their parents’ status. It’s also a place where everyone celebrates the right to vote, yet many politicians work hard to disenfranchise the poor and nonwhite. 

But that very hypocrisy is, in a way, a good sign. The wealthy may defend their privileges, but given the temper of America, they have to pretend that they’re doing no such thing. The block-the-vote people know what they’re doing, but they also know that they mustn’t say it in so many words. In effect, both groups know that the nation will view them as un-American unless they pay at least lip service to democratic ideals — and in that fact lies the hope of redemption. 

So, yes, we are still, in a deep sense, the nation that declared independence and, more important, declared that all men have rights. Let’s all raise our hot dogs in salute.
Left unspoken here is how hypocrisy helps. It's said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue -- bad conscience with a cover. The question is, how productive will our ethical unease prove? Now that our income distribution (and opportunity distribution) has reverted to roughly where it was before the Great Depression and the New Deal, will this retrogression prove, to borrow a bit of econ-speak, 'secular or cyclical'?  That is, will we readjust, as Obama in '08 argued we must, from a 30-year Reaganite right turn turbo-charging pressure on wages powered by automation and globalization? Will we find means to train our youth to create and fill "good-paying jobs of the future"? Or was the relatively weak American version of the welfare state merely a one-time strategic retreat by elites that have more recently tightened a now unshakable proprietary grip on the means to prosperity?

It's easy to argue the latter. Our largest banks' crimes continue unabated as they extend their dominance and gut Dodd-Frank in stages. In response to the Affordable Care Act, our rising healthcare elite find new ways to game the payment rules and charge ever-more for services. CEO pay resumes its gallop apace.  ALEC, the Koch brothers and their like continue to find willing dupes to control state government and enact industry-written legislation boosting profits in guns, prisons, energy, and for-profit education. Wages continue stagnant and unemployment elevated while the Gini coefficient picks up where it left off in 2008.

On the other hand: big business has always had highly effective means to pursue its interests. Fresh bursts of economic growth always seem unlikely in the midst of an extended downturn. Obama has labored to turn a fleet of battleships "a few degrees in the right direction" -- via the Affordable Care Act, education loans, education reform (for better or worse...), stimulus to alternative energy industries, regulation first of auto and soon of power plant emissions, bank regulation that may prove less ineffective over time than many claim now. Outside of government, the long-term historical pattern has been that what technology taketh away, it eventually giveth back in spades. And as America changes demographically, the conservative base may continue to shrink until we can finally drown it in the bathtub -- or rather, effect a water-birth of a reality-based conservatism that can provide effective electoral competition without waging all-out war on the safety net and effective regulation.

To speak of perpetual American hypocrisy is to put a caustic cast on politicians' rosier narratives -- e.g., that of Obama, who likes to speak of the nation's perpetual quest for a more perfect, never perfected union and an historical process of expanding the promise of equal opportunity to ever-widening circles of the previously excluded -- "through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall," as he put it in his second inaugural address."  It has proved easier in recent decades to extend the rights of previously oppressed groups defined by non-economic characteristics than to effectively expand opportunity for those growing up in poverty or tightly constrained and beleaguered lower middle class circumstances. But perhaps the refreshing of human capital effected by our openness -- to women in the workforce, to immigrants -- will help trigger the next economic resurgence.

I personally remain an optimist with regard to the big picture, for both the United States and humanity at large. Francis Fukuyama, foreseeing "the end of history" in the sense of the end of non-representative government, was rechanneling the vision of enlightenment thinkers, including Thomas Jefferson, who wrote ten days before his death on the July 4, 1826:
may it [the choice for independence in 1776] be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.

all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them,”
I don't think either Fukuyama or Jefferson was wrong -- just early. Globally, democracy continues its bumpy forward ride. So do health, education and welfare.

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