On Accepting the Natural Order of Things

By all accounts Alexander Pope was a short and quite unpleasant man – four-foot-six and a hunchback – and with a chip on his shoulder from being a Catholic in Anglican England, and thus a double-outcast. Think of Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, without the laughs. But Pope was one of the great English poets – graceful and clever and formal of course, as his was the Augustan Age. Yes, England at the time was mad for measured and sane formality, and a sort of graceful perfection was the order of the day. Everything should be in its place, as it has been long ago in the reign of Caesar Augustus – and thus the nickname for the era. Public architecture at the time was all that perfectly proportioned Palladian calm stuff that steadied your nerves. Adornment was kept to a minimum – one discrete marble statue would do. And Bach and Scarlatti – the younger one, not his father who invented the opera – were in the air. Wild passion was not in the air, perfect balance was.

And there was Pope’s poetry – his Essay on Man was his philosophical poem, written in heroic couplets and published between 1732 and 1734 – sort of a proposed system of ethics in poetic form. And it has its famous lines. Act well your part, therein all honor lines. And that was more than submitting to God’s will – which no one really understands – it was also accepting the rigid class system of the time. You see, you may have been born poor and ugly, but don’t get too uppity – maybe that’s where you belong, so you might as well do the poor and ugly thing with grace and good humor, as you’re not going anywhere anyway. The poor stay poor, as that’s just how things work – accept it and move on. And of course the rich stay rich. God allows an absurdly wealthy aristocracy, most often populated by dimwitted fops and blustering braggarts – but it’s not man’s place to question God. He no doubt has His reasons for allowing hereditary fortunes and titles, and vast accumulated wealth while millions starve. Perhaps it’s His sense of humor, but you’ll never know. Don’t fret about it. The poem wraps up on a general theme – Whatever is, is right.

Of course that view was not to last – by the end of the century Locke and the rest were writing about the Rights of Man, of all men – to life, liberty and property, later revised, here, to the pursuit of happiness. The Age of Revolution came soon enough, here and in France and elsewhere. Guess what? Whatever is can sometime, and often, be wrong. So you fix it. And of course by the end of the century there was the Romantic Movement – passion was all, even the Sorrows of Young Werther, and various Romantic poets were trudging about in the Alps, staring into deep chasms and thinking deep thoughts. And no one was writing in heroic couplets. Tumultuous Beethoven was in the air, not those elegant Three-Part Inventions of Bach, or the brilliant complex Scarlatti sonatas. Balance and graceful perfection had been overrated, you see.

The shift from Augustan order and balance to the free-for-all of what we loosely call democratic-populist ideals was inevitable – people don’t much like being told to sit down, shut up and accept their lot in life. It ticks them off. Maybe God didn’t want them to be poor and powerless through generations, to the end of time. That’s what the rich and powerful always say – that they’re rich because they’re supposed to be rich and you’re poor because you’re supposed to poor. But what do they know? And of course Alexander Pope, deformed and grumpy, had his own demons. He didn’t deserve his lot in life – all he was doing was trying to come to terms with that. But that’s his problem.

But why are we still having this argument? Did Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber read Pope, and groove on it? That seems unlikely. But those two, and the Tea Party folks in general, and most Republicans, seem to be arguing the rich are rich because they’re supposed to be rich and the poor are poor because they’re supposed to poor. That’s the argument about tax policy, and particularly about the Estate Tax. The rich should be allowed to keep every penny they’ve earned and not chip in – even if it blows a hole in the national debt that could reach half a trillion dollars. Everyone, even the poor, can chip in to cover that somehow. That’s just the way things are. Hereditary fortunes and vast accumulated wealth must be God’s will, or something. Accept it and move on. Devine order and balance should prevail. It’s the social theology of the early eighteenth century.

And there’s the other side of the argument, the late eighteenth century notion that whatever is might not be right at all. And Jacob Weisberg covers that in Obama’s War on Inequality – noting that Obama is losing that war. And that opens with the key question. Wasn’t reversing the decades-long trend toward income inequality supposed to be the big theme of the Obama administration?

Yes, that’s what Obama said in his inaugural address – “a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” And Weisberg notes that Obama followed up that with a 2010 budget proposal that sought “to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last thirty years” – at least that’s what the New York Times’ David Leonhardt heard. And Weisberg adds more:

Obama has raised the issue at major occasions since, including his first State of the Union address in 2010, when he noted, “We cannot afford another so-called economic ‘expansion’ like the one from last decade … where the income of the average American household declined.”

But Obama may have given up on that:

In the deal he just cut with congressional Republicans, the president not only agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners but also to eliminate the estate tax for all but the microscopic percentage of people passing down more than $5 million—causing inheritance tax proponent Ray Madoff to declare the battle lost for good.

And despite the role skewed financial rewards played in cratering the global economy, the Obama administration’s policy response has failed to address outsized Wall Street and CEO compensation in any meaningful way. Bonus season is upon us, and with the big banks now liberated from their TARP obligations, the general attitude seems to be, “What financial crisis?” Class war, prosecuted from above, is depicted as a threat from below. A few months ago, billionaire private equity manager Steve Schwarzman had the gall to compare the Obama administration’s attempt to tax “carried interest” at the same rate as other forms of income to “when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

The rich should be allowed to keep every penny they’ve earned, you see. Hitler! Hitler! Hitler!

But when it comes to raising working-class incomes, Obama has not exactly won that battle either:

As it is implemented over time (and assuming it survives legal challenge), Obama’s health care reform may become a significant factor both in reducing the burden of medical costs on middle-class families and in promoting social equality. From 2008 to 2009, however, the number of people without health insurance rose from 46.3 million to 50.7 million. In the longer term, the key to combating inequality is upgrading the education and skills of American workers. But with the Republicans now in charge of the House, Obama’s hopes for major new investments in worker skills seem more elusive than ever. In particular, his goal of every American receiving some higher education is going nowhere. In the coming year, the president will be lucky to protect pro-egalitarian programs that already exist.

Whatever is must be right, you see. But think of Versailles by the late eighteenth century. The problem is getting worse:

According to a study by Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley, the top 1 percent of earners captured two-thirds of all income growth between 2002 and 2007. The most recent census statistics show a continued march in the same unbalanced direction. The bottom 20 percent of the population – which earned 5.4 percent of national income in 1967 – earned just 3.4 percent of it in 2009. The highest 20 percent went from 41.5 to 49.4 over the same period. The Gini Index – the standard measure of income inequality – ticked up again between 2008 and 2009, from .451 to .458. According to the CIA World Fact Book, this figure puts the United States ahead of Russia and Turkey in inequality, and on par with Mexico and the Philippines.

But of course we won’t resort to the guillotine. More than enough folks would agree with Pope:

On one hand, Obama is up against macro forces like globalization and a system that has grown highly effective at transmuting economic privilege into political power. Somehow, wide majorities have come to support tax law changes that benefit only tiny minorities. While I was writing this column, a press release arrived in my inbox from a New York estate lawyer telling me about the goodies hidden in the new bill: “For the first time, wealthy individuals can make gifts of up to $5 million during their lifetime to anyone, including grandchildren, and pay no tax.”

Maybe God wants it that way. But Weisberg thinks it’s just odd:

It is an American peculiarity that rich people want to be thought of as middle class, while those in the middle class identify with the economic interests of an upper class they have only a remote chance of joining. The United States, the land of opportunity, now boasts the world’s second-lowest level of intergenerational income mobility. Meanwhile, the people most alarmed about the rise of new economic dynasties seem to be the enlightened superrich themselves, people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

And Weisberg is most unhappy with Obama:

Obama deserves fault for failing to articulate this abstract threat in a way ordinary people can appreciate. Like the deficit, income inequality never killed anybody – it merely has the potential to sap the entire country’s health and spirit.

Elliott Morss, with many tables, has a few things to day about that:

The latest global results on reading, math and science achievements have just been reported by the OECD. These educational achievements of young people are probably a pretty good leading indicator on how countries will fare in the 21st Century. In this article, these results are coupled with information on income inequality to draw interesting conclusions.

What do these findings tell us? Note the dominance of Asian countries at the top of the table. And note where most European countries and the U.S. end up. Europe and the U.S. had a tremendous head start on other nations. But now, does anyone in Europe or the U.S. really care about how well-educated their children are? These finding suggest the answer is no.

And he comes up with this:

I hypothesize that educational attainment and income inequality are related: in countries with high income inequality, test scores will be lower. What is the basis for this hypothesis? In all countries, most students attend public school. But in countries with high income inequality, rich families will send their kids to private schools: and as a result, they don’t care about the quality of public schools and won’t want to support them.

Yep, the rich are rich because they’re supposed to be rich and the poor are poor, and increasingly badly educated, because they’re supposed to poor. Accept and move on.

And that leaves us here:

1) Nearly 25% of students fail the written exam to join the U.S. military;

2) 75% of those aged 17 to 24 don’t qualify for the military because they are physically unfit (25% of American youths are obese), have a criminal record or didn’t graduate from high school.

But whatever is, is right, you see.

And see James Surowiecki in the New Yorker on the Jobs Crisis:

It’s a perennial: nearly every recession leads pundits to proclaim that the job market is facing structural challenges, and that higher unemployment is here to stay. During the 1981-82 recession, now seen as a classic cyclical recession, the economist Barry Bluestone warned that, as a result of structural issues, there might not be “much recovery in terms of overall employment in the United States.” Yet, by 1984, unemployment was back to where it had been before recession hit. A 1964 survey of economists found that more than half believed structural issues were playing a significant role in limiting the number of jobs; three years later, unemployment was below four per cent. And, during the Great Depression, even FDR thought that unemployment might well be stuck at a permanently higher level. Recessions are, among other things, crises of confidence, and one manifestation of lack of confidence is the conviction that this time we’re not going to be able to climb our way out.

And Prairie Weather offers this:

It seems to me that if you tell a guy he’s laid off but we’ll climb out of this recession “eventually” – well, that’s bad enough but at least there’s hope. But if you tell him he’s laid-off and will never be needed again because the whole system is changing, that’s the road to suicide (though you could call it murder). Best not to use that phrase “structural unemployment” unless you know it to be true and unless you have a solution for what it does to the formerly employed and to our society.

Surowiecki does argue that “at times when everyone is cautious about spending, companies are slow to expand capacity and take on more workers.”

But another, more skeptical account has emerged, which argues that a big part of the problem is a mismatch between the jobs that are available and the skills that people have.

According to this view, many of the jobs that existed before the recession (in home building, for example) are gone for good, and the people who held those jobs don’t have the skills needed to work in other fields. A big chunk of current unemployment, the argument goes, is therefore structural, not cyclical: resurgent demand won’t make it go away.

Though this may sound like an academic argument, its consequences are all too real. If the problem is a lack of demand, policies that boost demand – fiscal stimulus, aggressive monetary policy – will help. But if unemployment is mainly structural there’s little we can do about it: we just need to wait for the market to sort things out, which is going to take a while.

And see Digby:

If you read Krugman, you’re already aware of the emerging argument that current unemployment is “structural” rather than “cyclical” and that we just have to live with a very high level until … well, I’m not sure. Until the people who are unemployable die off? Emigrate?

Anyway, James Surowiecki of the New Yorker offers a succinct explanation as to why the current unemployment is in fact cyclical and therefore why the government needs to provide more stimulus rather than “waiting it out.” He points out that there are always those who insist that unemployment is structural and that’s certainly correct. The usual suspects have been saying this in recessions as long as I can remember. But this time, I’m a little bit worried that it’s going to come from Democrats rather than Republicans as they attempt to rationalize the persistence of unemployment on their watch.

Ah yes, it’s another way to say that whatever is, is right. There’s not much you can do about it. Sit down, shut up, and accept it. A grumpy short hunchback in eighteenth century England said so.

And in a parallel way, Steve Benen in this item reminds us that it has been eight years since the Wall Street Journal editorial page introduced the idea of lucky duckies – the millions of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes because they don’t earn enough money. And he notes that George Will spoke with incoming House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, who it seems intends to make things deliberately harder on those millions:

Many conservatives, including Camp, believe that although most Americans should be paying lower taxes, more Americans should be paying taxes. The fact that 46.7 million earners pay no income tax creates moral hazard – incentives for perverse behavior: Free-riding people have scant incentive to restrain the growth of government they are not paying for with income taxes.

“I believe,” Camp says, “you’ve got to have some responsibility for the government you have.” People have co-payments under Medicare, and everyone should similarly have some “skin in the game” under the income tax system.

Benen:

Let’s set the record straight here. When conservatives talk about nearly 47% of the country paying no income taxes, the argument tends to overlook relevant details – such as the fact that these same middle- and lower-class families still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes.

In other words, they already have some “skin in the game.” It’s not as if these folks are getting away with something – the existing tax structure leaves them out of the income tax system because they don’t make enough money to qualify.

But even if we put all of this aside, let’s appreciate the underlying point of the conservatives’ concern – for all the talk on the right about cutting taxes at every available opportunity, there’s also a drive to raise taxes on those who can least afford it. The GOP has a natural revulsion to any tax system, but there’s an eerie comfort with a regressive agenda that showers additional wealth on the rich while asking for more from lower-income workers.

Benen just isn’t that into Pope:

In fact, the drive on the right to increase the burdens on these middle- and lower-class families is getting kind of creepy. Some on the far-right have begun calling these Americans “parasites.” Earlier this year, Fox News’ Steve Doocy went so far as to ask whether those who don’t make enough to qualify for income taxes should even be allowed to vote.

To be sure, most congressional Republicans won’t go quite this far, at least in their rhetoric, but the GOP’s drive to raise taxes on these lower-income workers is pretty transparent, as Dave Camp’s comments to George Will help demonstrate. If Republicans seriously pursue this approach in the next Congress, it should set up a pretty fascinating debate.

Actually that pretty fascinating debate would be a recapitulation of many a debate from the latter part of the eighteenth century. Someone will say whatever is, is right. And sooner or later everyone will figure that guy has issues, and move on.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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