Ultimately, a conservative will disappoint. I was one of those liberals who liked John McCain. Not the politics, but the man. Then he ran his disgraceful Presidential campaign, a kind of disgrace – aside from the consumptive ambition – made possible only by the ideological dimensions of the Republican Party. Journalist and top-blogger Andrew Sullivan, author of the recent The Conservative Soul, is another conservative favorite of non-conservatives. He is independent, heart-felt and principled, and he has argued clearly and incisively over the past few years for the distinction between conservatism and the modern-day Republican Party, which he repudiates. He even supported Obama. All good, not for the comfort of seeing your own opinions reflected back at you, but for the pleasures and value of engaging a good and honest mind.
Yet even Sullivan’s conservative mind contains – in response to Obama’s proposed changes in the tax structure – this hoary intellectual worm in it:
Liberalism believes in punishing hard-working successful people in this manner – and the more you succeed, the more they will punish you.
It is difficult to imagine a statement – at this time and in the current economic context – more wrong in more ways. On the one hand, aside from the more apparent scoundrels – the Bernie Madoffs, etc., who will receive some kind of punishment, yet to be determined – very few people who do deserve to be punished will be. Not the bank officers, the financial professionals most charged, historically, with investing and managing their institutional assets conservatively, who, in fact, did so recklessly. Not the mortgage brokers, big and small, who preyed on home buyers, however careless and reckless themselves in the worst instances, by predatorily selling them unsustainable mortgages. Not the Lex Luthors of finance, who created the demon seed of capitalism – the Derivative, a financial instrument that manufactures nothing, provides no service, enhances neither science nor society, but only produces more wealth for those who already have it. Or brings down a world economy. Not the government regulators who let it all happen. Few of these will be punished.
On the other hand, we have the identification by Sullivan of hard work and success with wealth, or at least more money than the next person. And the government wants to take their money and give it to – apparently those who are not hard-working or successful, i.e. by this formulation, those who don’t have enough income to be taxed more. Most of us.
Communism has been gone (sorry Fidel, Hugo) for going on twenty years, but the CroMags of the Republican Party still reach back into the cave for “socialist” with which to scare everyone. McCain spent a couple of months blinding us with finger quotes on “spread the wealth around.” Horrors. The notion of everyone not eating their just deserts unsettles conservatives’ sleep. Broke? Unemployed? Ill? Screwed? That’s your cake. Eat it.
Does this seem hyperbolic mockery? What is the record? Where are the social safety net programs, the quality of life programs conceived and initiated by conservatives? The private sector? Please. The private sector, insufficiently regulated, created this predicament. Charity? It’s very charitable, but here are some statistics. (Sources available at inequality.org and endgame.org.)
1. The top one percent of households received 21.8 percent of all pre-tax income in 2005, more than double what that figure was in the 1970s. (The top one percent’s share of total income bottomed out at 8.9 percent in 1976.) This is the greatest concentration of income since 1928, when 23.9 percent of all income went to the richest one percent.
2. Between 1979 and 2005, the top five percent of American families saw their real incomes increase 81 percent. Over the same period, the lowest-income fifth saw their real incomes decline 1 percent.
3. In 1979, the average income of the top 5 percent of families was 11.4 times as large as the average income of the bottom 20 percent. In 2005, the ratio was 20.9 times.
4. From 1950 to 1970, for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162, according to the Times analysis. From 1990 to 2002, for every extra dollar earned by those in the bottom 90 percent, each taxpayer at the top brought in an extra $18,000.
5. American CEOs earned 411 times as much as average workers in 2005, up from 107 times in 1990.
6. Between 1949 and 1979, the inflation-adjusted average hourly wage for production workers rose 75 percent, from $9.00 to $15.78. Since 1979, the average production-worker wage has risen only 2 percent, from $15.78 to $16.11.
7. Between 1979 and 2004, American workers raised their productivity 64 percent, while their median hourly compensation rose only 12 percent.
8. In 2006, households in the bottom 20 percent received $23 due to the Bush tax cuts. Households in the middle 20 percent received $448. Families in the top 1 percent received $39,020. And households in the top 0.1 percent received $200,523.
9. The richest one percent of U.S. households now owns 34.3 percent of the nation’s private wealth, more than the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent.
10. The richest 1% of adults owned 40% of the world’s total assets in the year 2000. The richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of total assets. The bottom half of the world adult population owned 1% of global wealth.
Sullivan got slammed by some readers for his comment, which he sorta retracted:
Yeah, that kind of rhetoric isn’t very helpful. But it does express my irritation with the way some liberals – and only some – assume a kind of nefariousness among those who have actually made a material success of their lives, and see no real loss in expropriating their moolah. I have a visceral reaction to that assumption. Which is why, I guess, I’m still a conservative.
Given current events, why should anyone imagine anything nefarious? I suppose all we – or a conservative like Sullivan – can conclude from the stats above is that it is in the nature of things for the rich to get richer and more powerful, the have-nots to get have-notter, and keep your hands off my moolah. The creaky scare tactics have their roots, of course, in the Marxist dictum “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – a notion that has Sullivan reaching for his safe. And you don’t have to be as conservative as he is to believe that history has proven human beings not remotely noble enough – inherently or by force of ideological screws – to live by such an absolute creed.
The question is can conservatives, even a generally sane one like Sullivan, acknowledge the more modest justness of government’s role in correcting excesses in structural economic inequality? Republicans here cry “big government.” Conservatives like Sullivan too, though for different reasons. Today’s Republicans, however – far from libertarian – want big government no less than do liberals, simply in different areas of life and certainly excluding the economic.
Sullivan worries about the national debt. It’s worth noting, then, that every Democratic President since the FDR/Truman term has decreased the national debt as a percentage of GDP – yes, even Carter. Every Republican has increased it. Without exception. Reagan tripled it. By the end of Bush Sr.’s single term, in twelve years, the Republicans had more than quadrupled it. Bush Jr. added billions more. Now, in less than two months under Obama, Republicans and Sullivan are stuffing their hands in their pockets and getting, at last, hysterical over an increase in the national debt – not to expand military spending, not to enrich the rich, but to try to restore the economy and help those in the middle and at the bottom. Do they wish to have no credibility at all?
Sullivan might be reminded, too, that “moolah” first came into use among gangsters and connotes, at least, a hoard. I’ve written elsewhere of the Right that it “resists any ideal aspiration beyond the dream of God and hunkering down with a socially contracted group of like-minded families for self-preservation and the protection of their stash.” With these recent comments, Sullivan doesn’t prove me wrong.