Krugman which opened with the following rather stark and striking paragraph:
Modern American politics is dominated by the doctrine that government
is the problem, not the solution. In practice, this doctrine translates
into policies that make low taxes on the rich the highest priority, even
if lack of revenue undermines basic public services. You don’t have to
be a liberal to realize that this is wrong-headed. Corporate leaders
understand quite well that good public services are also good for business.
But the political environment is so polarized these days that top executives
are often afraid to speak up against conservative dogma.
Krugman goes on to illustrate his point with the story of how Toyota
decided to locate a new Rav4 assembly plant in Ontario, because Canada’s
national health system frees them from providing an expensive benefit
to its workers. The Dowbrigade, however, has spent the day pondering
the questions posited in that provocative opening paragraph.
It seems clear to the Dowbrigade that the ability of the rich and poor
to see each other as partners in a national enterprise, the end objective
of which is the advancement of the interests of all of the participants,
is a necessary condition for a healthy society and economy. It also seems
clear that the fabric of this melding of interests has been fraying for
some time now, to the detriment of the common good and America’s competitiveness
in the world economy.
The estrangement between the rich and the poor seems to be coming mostly
from the side of the rich, who, in the flight to the suburbs, the retreat
to gated communities, the reliance on the enclosed, self-contained environments
of SUV’s and the economic stratification of everything from restaurants
to sporting events to airline seating, seem to want to isolate themselves
from the common classes as much as possible.
They are abandoning the concept of the common good in favor of desperately
protecting their privileges in what they see as dangerous and uncertain
times. They, and large segments of the poor, have lost the sense
that we are all in this together.
In their clubs, and private schools and vacation resorts, the rich have
succeeded in isolating themselves, and managed to rationalize that while
immigration was fine for their own ancestors, times have changed and
we need to let in a better class of people now.
To a certain degree, this has always been true. The founding fathers
were members of the elite, such as it was back in the day, and Washington
and Jefferson both owned slaves. But, as the song says, those were
different times, and we’ve gotta give our man Thomas J his props, just
for writing those five words, "All men are created equal."
But during the first century and a half of our history, the United States
was a highly stratified society, and the opportunities for the poor to
mingle with the rich, or ascend to their lofty status, was limited in
the extreme. But forces were at work which would allow the US to realize
the potential that was lurking in their polyglot population of rebels
The key to any country or culture to ascend to a position of dominance
in their era is the ability to take advantage of the human resources
inherent in their population. Talented, capable, intelligent, creative
people are salted throughout the population without regard to region,
sex, or social class. Systems that allow these individuals to rise to
positions where they can contribute to the national enterprise will have
an advantage over those that do not.
This is the basic reason that a culture that systematically prohibits
or discourages half of their population (for example, women) from developing
their abilities or performing certain functions cannot in the long run
that encourages them to participate.
Every culture that has risen to dominate its era has had some increased
vertical mobility or mechanism for identifying or importing talent which
gave it an advantage over its contemporaries. The Egyptians took
conquered people into slavery, but then allowed them to rise to important
positions even in the heart of the executive administration of the empire
(Moses raised by the Pharaoh). The Romans also allowed slaves and foreigners
to become citizens, fighters to win their freedom (Gladiator) and commoners
to become rich merchants and traders. Why Nero even appointed a
HORSE to the Senate – hard to beat that for an example of vertical mobility.
The Chinese developed an exam system that allowed smart and studious
types from throughout the empire to join the bureaucracy, regardless
of family connections or formal education, and their civilization has
any and all competitors. The ability to identify and nurture talent is
certainly a civilizational survival skill.
And for a while there, America had it down better than anyone else on
the planet. Going back to Horace Mann and the institution of universal
public education, through the New Deal and the creation of a social safety
net, through the massive educational revolution of the GI bill, and the
huge waves of immigration at the beginning and end of the past century,
the United States managed to attract and integrate a greater range of
human talent and effort than anyone else in the world. As a result we
went from being a third rate nation with a developing economy to the
most powerful empire in the history of the planet.
Of course, even in an open, egalitarian society, the rich have certain
prerogatives which allow them to retain a hold on power and pass it on
to succeeding generations of rich kids. Talent is not the only
ingredient in success, even in a meritocracy. Education, opportunity,
and character are also indispensable in rising to the highest levels,
character is expensive. Kids growing up hard-scrabble on the street,
between gangs, drugs and a sex-fueled materialism have a harder time
learning the virtuous chacteristics of discipline, accountability and
it is not impossible, but extremely difficult.
Presidents as dissimilar as Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy epitomized
the "we’re all in this together" ethos. Politicians really
strived to bring people together and find common ground, rather than
mine differences and resentments to transitory political benefit. There
was still rich and poor, as there always will be, but the poor didn’t
but rather as the ideal to which they aspired, and the rich didn’t fear
the poor – rather they saw them as a resource on which their common good
This was the true Spirit of America. It is a spirit that is clearly
scarce in these trying and troubled times. We are no longer all in it
together – the affluent have abandoned an entire segment of society as
too dirty, dangerous,or dissolute to be saved – a lost cause better off
institutionalized, either in prison, or, if they are lucky, in the Army,
than running around
loose in the streets.
A great mass of the poor now no longer see the rich as admirable models
of a lifestyle to which they aspire. Rather, they see them as
avaricious, duplicitous, underhanded and determined to keep them, the
poor, down on the floor. Jobs that allow the possibility of escape from
the underclass are fleeing offshore. College has become so unreasonably
expensive as to be less a dream than a joke
Unless we can recapture the sense of being embarked together on a national
voyage to a better land for all of us, our fortunes and position in the
world are sure to continue to decline.
Paul Krugman quote from the
New York Times