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Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Clive Crook too easily descends into the “pox on both their houses” heuristic of trying to damn Republicans and Democrats equally so as not to take sides when he’s taking sides. But heuristics are useful for a reason, and here Crook’s analysis is near perfect:

Sadly for the president, the left objects to his pragmatism more than it applauds his ambitions, and the centre and right object to his ambitions more than they welcome his pragmatism.

The only issue I have here is with Crook’s lumping of the center and right together. Obama is still supported by a majority of Americans (or a near majority.) His biggest issue has been the re-polarization of the right so determinedly against his pragmatic ambitions, and their hysterical objections, which have caused concern among the center.

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Culture War: Overclass Edition

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]In which I realize that we are now observing a “Culture War” between the haves and the have mores, between the elites and the financial elites, between two opposing sides in the “overclass.”

I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the class warfare rhetoric coming from certain quarters recently – and I don’t mean from the populists. As Daniel Gross observed in Slate:

To hear conservatives tell it, you’d think mobs of shiftless welfare moms were marauding through the streets of Greenwich and Palm Springs, lynching bankers and hedge-fund managers…

All of this overheated rhetoric is about – as Gross points out – Obama proposing to undo some of the changes of the past eight years – the largest change resulting in the wealthiest few paying about $4.10 more per day to benefit the society which has enabled them to become so wealthy. But I suspect that what Gross has gotten wrong here is what I’ve been getting wrong as well – to identify those opponents of Obama’s “Great Wealth Destruction!” as conservatives. Many of them are – and many conservatives are jumping on this meme as it is the only one that seems to have gained any traction against Obama’s agenda. But the meme hasn’t gained traction because conservatives are big proponents of fiscal responsibility. Supporters of the Republican party ceased to be proponents of fiscal responsibility years ago – and the measures they are proposing now (which would create even larger deficits than the stimulus spending) prove that they truly are out-of-touch or are merely posturing for political purposes. At the same time, non-conservatives like Clive Crook, who supports both health care reform and a cap-and-trade system, have begun to join in much of the conservative criticism. The real source of energy behind this line of attack doesn’t come from conservatives – but from a culture war going on between the financial elites and the rest of the elite which has been supercharged by the financial crisis. Everyone is angry about the great destruction of wealth that has resulted from this crisis – and the question has become where to place the blame, where to direct the still largely inchoate anger.

Matt Yglesias has been suggesting something like this type of distinction over at his blog. At one point, commenting on Jon Stewart’s takedown of CNBC, he wrote:

Comedy Central vs CNBC nicely captures the cultural battle inside the American elite between “creative class” types and the business manager types. Both sides think the other side is composed of idiots…

Then yesterday, Yglesias made a related point about how “the growing overclass revolt [is] taking the American right by storm.” Yglesias critically quotes Lisa Schriffen at National Review‘s The Corner:

The doctors, lawyers, engineers, executives, serious small-business owners, top salespeople, and other professionals and entrepreneurs who make this country run work considerably harder than pretty much anyone else (including most of the chattering class, and all politicians). They are not robber barons, or trust-fund babies, or plutocrats, or even celebrities. They are mostly the meritocrats who worked hard in high school and got into the better colleges and grad schools, where they studied while others partied

[Obama] is demonizing them… [and] is penalizing their success and giving them very clear incentives to ratchet back on productivity.

Yglesias’s response is to point out that not only is no one being demonized, and that:

Guys who move furniture are, of course, working extremely hard. And even your basic retail employee needs to be on her feet for hours and hours at a time while “executives” comfy chairs. And, again, I don’t think the Salvadoran guys who moved my bed found themselves in that line of work because they were too busy partying in college.

On one level, this is an argument about the fundamental fairness of the status quo – which conservatives tend to accept and liberals tend to reject. But on a more superficial level, we’re not talking so much about a “revolt of the overclass” as a culture war among the overclass – in which the argument is less about whether or not society and capitalism has been fair to “the Salvadoran guys” and more about whether or not society and capitalism have been fair to give the super-rich which so many riches. As this is a culture war, your side on it is not based on such petty facts as your income level or total net worth but by who you identify with. 

America has established something resembling a meritocracy among it’s upper and middle classes – as college education is accessible to most – and from there, any range of careers. This is the world Schriffen is referring to. But what Schriffen misses is the growing gap between the “haves” and the “have mores” – as the lawyers, doctors, and businessmen she lionizes realized that their college friends on Wall Street who were partying instead of studying in college were now making ten, twenty, a hundred times what they were – and still partying just as hard. This resentment has now been exacerbated as we realize that these Wall Street bankers – who have been working hard, partying hard, and making obscene amounts of money – lost all of our money but get to keep their bonuses.

In this culture war of the overclass, level of wealth doesn’t cause you necessarily to identify with either side. Warren Buffet for example would clearly be a member of the have mores, but he identifies with the haves and lives a lifestyle more suited to that group. There are those who identify as or who aspire to be “rich” and “wealthy” and who consider their good forture to be of their own making, who see the crisis as hurting them and their chances at achieving obscene wealth even if they do not have it yet. They tend to blame the crisis not on the bankers but on Obama – which is a bit odd considering the timing of his rise. But as early as September, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were talking about the Obama Recession and by January, the Wall Street Journal was opinining about it as a fact. Jim Cramer, along with some others at CNBC, decided to take on on the White House with “empirical facts”:

When I somewhat obviously and empirically judged that the populist Obama administration is exacerbating the crisis with its budget and policies, as evidenced by the incredible decline in the averages since his inauguration, I was met immediately with condescension and ridicule rather than constructive debate or even just benign dismissal. I said to myself, “What the heck? Are they really that blind to the Great Wealth Destruction they are causing with their decisions to demonize the bankers, raise taxes for the wealthy, advocate draconian cap-and-trade policies and upend the health care system? [my emphasis]

I think we can all understand why Jim Cramer is angry – he’s been telling people the system is fine and cheerleading the market – and now, he looks like a fool. You can see how people who listen to Cramer might be angry – as anyone listening to Cramer’s advice would be rather screwed. On the other hand, Cramer was merely a part of the system of the financial elites – and he wasn’t saying anything that different from what everyone else believe. The question for the financial elities is whether or not they are responsible for their woes as well as the world’s – or if they can lay the blame somewhere else.

On the other hand, there is the rest of the overclass – and much of the rest of America – who, so far, place the blame for this crisis squarely on the bankers, on the financial industry (whose purpose was to protect and make money), and on lax regulation often promoted by Limbaugh and Hannity and Cramer. The many for whom Wall Street is some half-mythical place to which they entrust their savings are certainly angry today – though the rage is still largely unformed and undirected. In spurts and starts, it is directed at lavish expenses indirectly subsidized by taxpayers – but largely, these people are just hoping things get better. The financial elites themselves see the anger – and know they are the logical target, and so seek to deflect it. For the non-financial members of the overclass who know many people on Wall Street – who are the haves to the Wall Street have mores – they know where to direct their anger – at those whose outsized success has made them look foolish for choosing anything other than a Wall Street career. It is part resentment and part righteous indignation.

Either way, this Culture War of the Overclass is more entertaining than that whole abortion/gay marriage culture war.

[Image licensed under Creative Commons courtesy of shyb.]

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Clive Crook’s “Everything For Nothing”

Monday, March 9th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Clive Crook in his new Financial Times column faults Obama for:

telling almost all taxpayers they can have everything for nothing.

This is his second column on the subject – and he bases this claim on a small portion of Obama’s overall plan. He does not fault Obama for proposing to increase the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 39%, as Bush’s tax cut legislation actually mandates unless it is amended; he does not fault Obama for pusing for health care reform; he does not fault Obama for pursuing cap-and-trade legislation; he does not fault Obama for any range of allegedly “socialist” policies – rather he takes issue with the fact that Obama plans to cap the deduction for charitable contributions, so that those making over $250,000 get the same percentage credit for a charitable contribution as someone making less than $250,000. 

In addition to this rather minor tweak of our tax system (which Crook points out will generate a large amount of revenue thanks to the extreme concentration of wealth in our society), Crook raises the more substantial issue of how health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation, both of which he favors, are being paid for:

[T]he revenues from cap and trade are spent mainly on wage subsidies and tax cuts tilted toward the working poor. The down-payment on the cost of healthcare reform is financed by an additional tax increase on the rich.

Crook seems to be trying to conjure that bane of neo-liberals and conservatives alike – class warfare! All of this based on the assumption contained in the beginning, that Obama is “telling almost all taxpayers they can have everything for nothing.”

But is this so? Crook bases his argument on the presumption that the status quo is fair. He says that if Obama is planning on paying for health care reform without levying any additional taxes on the majority of Americans, then this majority is getting something – or in the exaggerated vernacular of those who make opinons for a living, “everything” – for nothing. 

But this same majority of Americans getting “something for nothing” here allows a very small minority to control a far disproportionate amount of resources. The legitimacy of these social bargains – whereby those with power and wealth are allowed to keep their power and wealth peaceably – rarely enters into the minds of those who benefit most from the bargain until we enter periods of unrest and instability. In many parts of the world – China, Pakistan, Russia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Iceland – the current crisis is calling into question the legitimacy of their social bargains in fundamental ways. In America, this crisis is calling into question the historically recent amendments to our social bargain from the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. 

The crisis might have prompted a sort of reactionary liberalism that sought to rollback the Reagan revolution in its entirety – much as Reagan’s reactionary conservatism sought to undo the Great Society. But instead, liberalism is guided by Barack Obama whose liberalism accepts some of Reagan’s most profound critiques and incorporates them into a new liberalism, leavened with both the wisdom of Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek.

Clive Crook’s invocation of the lazy masses being offered everything for nothing strikes me as a more refined take on Rick Santelli’s famous rant about the “losers” who took out loans they could not pay for. What strikes me about both sentiments is the sense of who the “losers” are – not the corporations and Wall Street bankers who lost the most. To call them “losers” may be morally appropriate but rings hollow when you’re speaking about those who benefited the most from our societal bargain. These “losers” may be feeling the pressure from our flagging economy but having benefited disproportionately during the boom of the past thirty years – and especially the Bush recovery – are still quite well-off. Those who “lost” the most also had the most – and still, after losing so much, often have more than the majority of the population. The real “losers” in the complete derogatory sense of the word as the individuals who took on mortgages they could not afford and now will be left with nothing but bad credit and the knowledge that they too contributed to the financial meltdown.

In other words, the real losers are not those whose prosperity (based on fees generated from borrowed money) is diminished, but those whose prosperity was never quite achieved as they borrowed money (generating the above-mentioned fees) to acquire some portion of their American dream of prosperity.

Crook while complaining about those being offered everything for nothing fails to acknowledge the system itself which has been redistributing wealth upwards for some time now. What – a different version of Crook might ask – did the 95% of Americans receive for allowing the top 5% to control most wealth? They received the promise of a growing economy that would lift everyone up – and the assurance that certain basic services would be provided, even to the least of our citizens. So, if the wealthy will be paying $4.10 more per day to help maintain the stability of the society which has provided them with the opportunity to become so wealthy, I wouldn’t call that something for nothing.

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