Tuesday, December 24, 2013


“Inequality is in.  The president, you have probably heard, has declared income inequality to be ‘the defining challenge of our time.’ (Except he didn’t quite, but we’ll get to that.)”

From the start of his New York Times op-ed, tellingly titled “Inequality for Dummies,” former editor-in-chief Bill Keller announces his strategies of diminishment and dishonesty in addressing perhaps the most important political issue of our time.

It sounds cute, when Keller confesses parenthetically, that he is willfully misstating the President’s theme, but be not disarmed:  the fact is, as Keller notes, some 4 paragraphs later, “President Obama’s speech … was actually billed by the White House as a speech on economic mobility. The equality he urged us to strive for was not equality of wealth but equality of opportunity.”

This is, of course, a distinction with a difference.

Keller almost immediately endorses the President’s goal: “A stratified society in which the bottom and top are mostly locked in place,” he says, “is not just morally offensive; it is unstable.”

Then, he brings in expert support for his thesis. “’The most pernicious fact of inequality is when it translates into political inequality,’ said Daron Acemoglu, a co-author of the book [Why Nations Fail] and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist. ‘That means our democracy ceases to function because some people have so much money they command greater power.’ The rich spend heavily on lobbyists and campaign donations to secure tax breaks and tariff advantages and bailouts that perpetuate their status. Not only does a dynamic economy stagnate, but the left-out citizenry becomes disillusioned and cynical. Sound familiar?”

So, if President Obama’s speech hit the bull’s-eye, why distort its meaning and then wait for 4 paragraphs to agree with it?

Because the reality of inequality,-- economic, political, legal, and social,-- does not interest Keller.  What he wants to write about is the public conversation about inequality, and how pathetic and, ultimately futile it is.

Note Keller’s gratuitously cynical lead: “Inequality is in.”  Even Keller will eventually admit that the reality of inequality is not only real, but devastating, it’s the rhetoric of inequality he’s mad at. He seems to believe his long-standing avoidance of the issue is a victimless crime, while addressing inequality is a waste of time.  In fact, his second paragraph is entirely focused on another self-admiring confession of the unworthiness of his column.  “If you traffic in opinions, as a pro or an amateur, you’d better have opinions about inequality. And so I set off into the intramural battlefield to see what’s up.”

Gee, he moans, I feel so silly to be writing, even thinking about the disappearing American dream of opportunity for all. 

As for those who, by talking so well about it, have forced him to devote a column to inequality, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, are given the derogative label “progressive idols,” and characterized as fanatical persecutors “of Liberals of a more centrist bent — notably the former Clintonites at the Third Way think tank — [who] have refused to join the chorus and been lashed by fellow Democrats for their blasphemy.”

The idea of a crowd of well-paid Clinton toadies clutching their testaments of triangulated belief as they are led to the fiery stake by a mob of angry populists, attractive though it may be, has as much to do with reality as Keller’s alleged secret goal of the inequality critics: “forcing the rich to become poor.”

In Keller’s paper, it seems the overdogs are always the victims of “class warfare.  Poor babies. 

The populists, who Keller likes to call “the left-left,” a phrase that has no meaning at all, except a reductive “off the cake,” are accused of a vengeful campaign to redistribute wealth downward.  They want, Keller says, ”to take from “the 1% … to subsidize the needs of the poor and middle class.”

That means, Keller asserts, they “would string the safety net higher: expand Social Security, hold Medicare inviolate, extend unemployment insurance, protect food stamps, create more low-income housing.”   

The bastards!  Those left-left lefties want the people who have benefited most from America to contribute something closer to the traditional share of their wealth to improve institutions and infrastructure created for all Americans to use, schools, hospitals, highways and bridges, airports and parklands.  They want Social Security to give old people better and, yes, more secure lives.  They want poor families not to go hungry, or homeless.

And, it should be noted, far from wanting Medicare to be inviolate, they want to extend its coverage to more people while simultaneously making it a much tougher price bargainer against the truly inefficient greed mills of the health care and health insurance industries and Big Pharma.

Notwithstanding this harsh stance against oligarchic pricing, populists are, to Keller, well-meaning suckers, simpletons.  They are dangerous plaque in the bloodstream of progress.  Keller contrasts them with, “The center-left — and that includes President Obama, most of the time — [which] sees the problem and the solutions as more complicated. [They understand] you also need to create opportunity, which means, first and foremost, jobs. Yes, you can raise taxes on the rich, but you don’t want to punish success.”

But much of Warren’s and DiBlasio’s programs have nothing to do with punishing success.  They are about creating jobs, construction and engineering jobs, teaching and service-providing jobs, and by using the tax codes and enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, bringing back to America some of the jobs that have gone abroad, mostly to places with low wages, high corruption and lax environmental protection.

As his piece develops, Keller continues his contrast between the extremists and moderates by demeaning the former and dreaming up false dichotomies that allow him to praise the latter (who are, after all, the same people who presided over, even fostered, the inequality gap in the first place.)  The populists,” he says, simply want to give your tax dollars away, “putting more money in the hands of the bottom and middle, who will then spend us back to economic vigor. This is classic Keynesian thinking, largely vindicated by history.”

That’s it, he says, that’s the populist program: confiscation and redistribution, of the foreign, if proven, Keynesian sort.  In contrast,  he notes with approval, “In a line from his speech that was not widely quoted, President Obama said, ‘The fact is if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private-sector investment.’” 

Keller actually gives a good translation of what the President’s generalities mean: “While closing loopholes, Obama would also lower corporate tax rates; he would do trade deals to expand our diminishing share of foreign markets; he would shrink long-term deficits and streamline regulations.”

Obama would attack the inequality injustice by protecting corporate profits, heading back to historic highs, from taxation, and by doing trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which I discussed in an earlier post, as a way to re-empower the powerful multinational corporations of media, pharmaceuticals and energy, at the expense of consumers and netizens worldwide.



There is no evidence that these “trade deals” do “expand our diminishing share of foreign markets.”  Quite the contrary, they reward the job exporters.

TTP will globalize the kind of ruinous deregulation those Clinton “moderates” imposed on the American economy.  How “moderate” is that?

The second argument,” separating the loony from the lovable, Keller says, “is over entitlements. The left tends to treat entitlements as sacred,” he lies, while “centrists favor measures to slow the growth of entitlements.” 

Nope.  Both groups acknowledge a need to slow the growth of entitlement.  The disagreement is over how to do it.  Here’s Keller’s “moderates’” formula: “using a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) formula that more accurately reflects how people spend, cutting benefits for those who don’t really need them, possibly extending the retirement age a couple of years, and using the government’s leverage to drive down the costs of medical care.”

A populist plan would include some of the same items, but turn the priorities upside down.  First, not last, would be to restructure entitlement services to allow more government cost and performance controls and fewer open-ended cost-plus contracts.  Second, would be tax reform that, by slightly steepening the graduation curve on everyone’s  income taxes would obviate the need to figure out who “needs” their social security benefits, or precisely what COLA  does reflect the cost of living.  If the rich or the undeserving non-poor get too much, the IRS will get it back. 

On the question of retirement age, populists worry less about forcing older people to work longer, than they do about the non-retirees keeping  jobs that might go to unemployed younger workers.  Keller mentions neither of these “complications” to an argument he simplifies for “the Dummies.”

“A third difference between the near left and the far left,” says the Simplifier, “is the question of making government more efficient.”

It seems, only the moderates want that.  “In education, health care, Social Security and other areas, the center seems more receptive to reforms intended to get decent results at lower costs. Further left, reform is seen as a euphemism for taking stuff away. 

Of course, the “entitlement reforms” Keller praises do consist almost entirely of takeaways from the poor, the sick and the elderly.

But “reform” is just a word, a label every bit as useful as “moderate,” “left” and “left-left,” and as susceptible to abuse.

Take “education reform,” the determination to pay edu-corp contractors to design standardized tests to measure un-standard-izable children, and draw from them, consequential conclusions about the quality of their teachers.  Who is guilty here of criminal simplification of extremely complex social and pedagogical issues?  Seems to me it’s those “moderates,” and the “education reformers” who sell them these bogus tests. 

Education reform alone cannot succeed without social service reform to help all students realize the opportunities a classroom can provide.  Teachers by themselves cannot overcome their students’ long-known disadvantages of poverty, cultural marginalization, and family disintegration, but more and better government provision of  educational, recreational and counseling services can certainly mitigate them.

As bad as Keller’s cynical lead may be, his declaration of futility at the close is even worse.  “Barring a purge of Congress,” Keller says, “most of the ideas put forth by the liberals, center-left or left-left, are going nowhere in the partisan sludge pit that is Washington.”

From his “Why am I writing about this?” at the top, he bottoms out with a “Why bother?” at the end. 

Inequality may be real, may be destroying America, but it ain’t gonna change.  And isn’t it brave to say so?

No, it is not.  Bravery means admitting that real reform requires displacing powerful, but illegitimate interests, and honestly taking them on. This is the opposite of the “healthcare reform” of the Affordable Care Act, which displaced nobody in power, just handed a freshly marked deck of cards to the health industry’s institutional elite to use to fleece their customers.

Before we punish the practitioners of such success, we should punish their enablers: politicians and pundits alike.   

No comments:

Post a Comment