As a general rule it isn’t productive to argue politics, largely because most people don’t think about their politics. It’s rather more like religion in that they have put on a suit of beliefs without having reasons for the individual parts. (Can anyone explain the one-time popularity of spats?) Because I’m always open to learn that I need a new prejudice or, more importantly, I welcome the opportunity to dissect one of my current set, I often believe that an interlocutor is intelligent enough and open enough to make crafting a cogent argument worthwhile. Sadly, my powers of suasion are generally less than regal. Human nature being what it is I’m sure there have been times I’ve thrown up my hands and declared, “You’re hopeless!” Whether I voiced it or not, I felt it. It was, of course, an empty figure of speech.
Now I’m not so sure it was a vacuous trope after all. The feeling has been growing all year that the Republicans are exactly that: hopeless. By which I mean not that there is no hope for their redemption, but that they have lost all hope.
Fareed Zakaria wrote “The Heirs of Reagan’s Optimism” in Time magazine (17 September 2012), touching on this theme, recalling that Reagan was “three parts optimism and one part nostalgia”, but now the GOP is living on nostalgia alone. The Tea Party doubles down on the nostalgia and amps it up with anger. Alas, in the face of this the Democrats are, apparently, frightened to be frankly hopeful about America finding a course in the future, as if after a couple of centuries the game was over and they’re embarrassed to come off like Pollyanna as they look to the future. I wish they’d raise the flag higher, their platform tells me they’re still optimistic and we could stand hearing that a bit more clearly.
There are two ways to acquire more wealth. One is to grow the pot, the other is to hog more of the current one. One of those, and only one, is morally objectionable. Nobody minds a banker that gets filthy rich by funding local business, loudly promoting the area he lives in, giving scholarships so his future employees will better serve him, and raking in the cash six ways from Sunday. The man that squeezes his business partners, campaigns against school and hospital bonds, and puts up a fence to keep the riffraff out deserves the vilification that follows.
The difference is optimism. If you think the future is going to be better than today, the best way to benefit from it is to help bring about change for your community. If you think the best of times is today, the only way to benefit is to protect your every penny while your soul withers.
Wealthy people don’t like living in slums. The best way to avoid them is to make sure your neighbors make good money. Union auto workers may prefer beer to the fine wines of the upper crust but they pay their bills, keep their homes up, and raise their children to be productive members of society. If the young people in the community get good educations they’ll make good money which they’ll spend in the local stores and maybe leave in the plate at church. The wealthy may not need a low-cost clinic but their employees are a lot more likely to show up for work if vaccination is available to everyone. “Beggar thy neighbor” leads to a nasty neighborhood and responsible rich people have understood this for centuries, with some notable exceptions. And even some of those that played a bit too aggressively during their active years, from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, turned around and plowed their wealth into improving society. Guilt can be a wonderful thing.
While there have always been differences in societal generosity, and no end of grousing in some quarters, in the ’60s and ’70s there was no real dispute about the importance of providing for the least among our brethren and investing in shared resources like education, medicine, and transportation. But since 1978 the cost of college tuition has gone up twelve times while the cost of living has gone up 245%. This is not because colleges are paying so much more rent (they own their buildings, after all) or that college professors have been paid staggering sums. It’s because as a society we have been cutting back on our share of our own future. Sure, the damned kids are going to make a lot of money because of their education and if we force them to they’ll pay for it. But nobody pays educated people more out of the goodness of their hearts, businesses make more money with more capable help. Both the alumni and their employees will pay more taxes. There could be short term benefit from stiffing the schools, but those birds are coming home to roost and we’re faltering in international competitiveness as a result.
Yesterday The New York Times ran “No More Industrial Revolutions?” by Thomas B. Edsall, the clearest analysis of the problem I’ve seen. He cites a number of scholarly articles that raise the possibility that economic growth in the world has ended. One of his sources claims that per capita GDP grew at a rate of 0.2% from 1300 to 1700 and didn’t get above 0.5% until the middle of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the argument is being advanced that after the original industrial revolution, the growth accompanying electrical distribution, the automobile, telephony, and petroleum, and finally the computer and internet revolution, that that’s all there is and we’re going to go back to that medieval base line.
I’m sorry, my crystal ball is a bit hazy, so I can’t declaim that this is the load of codswallop I’d so love to label it. On the other hand I recall the director of the US Patent Office that supposedly wanted to close up shop in 1900 because there was nothing left to invent. Actually, that was never proposed, but the date makes it look even more foolish. In his 1843 report to Congress Henry J. Ellsworth, commissioner of the patent office, did say, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.” Note that this was right at the cusp of the first industrial revolution, a time when precious little had been invented. We, who have witnessed the explosion in well-being over the last century, have no excuse for feeling this despair.
Even if the doomsayers are right, unless you’re among the 1% and already have enough wealth to support your family for a few generations, joining them can only accelerate what they fear. I don’t want people in office that have given up on Freeland, given up on Island County, abandoned hope for Washington, written off the United States, or decided this planet I’ve gotten so comfortable with can’t continue to improve. Even if we’re doomed, I don’t want leaders that aren’t prepared to valiantly try to move us forward.
Governor Romney is quick to accuse President Obama of fostering class warfare but there is nothing that any Democrat has ever contemplated that compares with the process the Republicans seem intent on. The happiest thought I have about this is that I’m nearing 60 and won’t live to see the end game. It won’t be pretty. Those on the right that want to dismantle our communities in favor of the few who don’t need them should consider that they are sowing the whirlwind. (see Hosea 8:7 ) In a nation with 88.8 firearms per 100 people, a nation in which the police are facing salary and pension cuts on an unprecedented scale, those who expect to hoard their wealth with no regard to the community at large are not likely to be able to keep it and shouldn’t expect the scape-goated police to help.
It’s a fools game, those who intend to play that hand are fools. They could be right, but they can’t be honorable or worthy if they accept it. And they’re knaves and worse than fools if they think they can defend the privileged few when their grim expectations come to pass. If I Were King there would be no question: I might not be any more inspiring than Obama’s first debate performance, but I’d keep going. When the day came that I didn’t believe the future was worth fighting for I wouldn’t run for office like Romney or connive to have a place near the levers of power like Karl Rove, I’d set my crown aside and blow my brains out.