The American Mythic World

Moby Dick and Joyce’s Ulysses, and War and Peace, and all of Proust and so much else – there are famous books no one really reads. Well, some do – but most everyone else is, as they say, familiar with them. That means you know about them, and thus you can drop a few observations which reference Ahab or Molly Bloom or whatnot, and not get caught. And you can appear wise, as you have a grasp of the long arch of western thought, or something. You might even laugh at Woody Allen’s jokes about Kierkegaard, although, secretly, you haven’t the slightest idea why you’re laughing. And forget Wittgenstein. But there is such a thing as king-of-the-hill intellectual competition, and you don’t want to be the tongue-tied bumpkin everyone ignores, rightfully, because some people just don’t know the basics. And that’s not so odd. Teenagers do this with music or movies, or something else these days – those of us who are old farts no longer have any idea what, which is fine. Grown men do this with sports statistics. Others do it with wine, or travel. Do you know the best place in Arles to get pie-eyed drunk on a summer afternoon? Manhattan mothers do it with private preschools. All of life is status competition.

But you can be sure you need not read the Horatio Alger books – all those late nineteenth-century tales of impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. No one reads those. They were crap – pious homilies for young readers. But they became myth – and the myth was about attaining the American Dream – rags to riches and all that. All you need is hard work, determination, courage and honesty, you see. You’ll be fine.

And the myth persists. As Herman Cain said of the Occupy Wall Street protestors – “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” Yes, Cain explicitly sees himself as a sort of Horatio Alger character. He made it all on his own, on the basis of hard work, determination, courage and honesty – and pizza and sexual harassment. And of course the Republican Party is the party of Horatio Alger. That seems to be the central myth over there. And yes, any myth is a fanciful story that frames a concept – that illustrates it. It’s not true, precisely, or at all, but the concept is as true as true can be.

But here’s the thing. Horatio Alger is dead. In fact, the economist Jared Bernstein in this item suggests we look to Katharine Bradbury of the Boston Federal Reserve, who has done this longitudinal study of income mobility over the past four decades – and he’s dead. Jim. As Bradbury shows, that rags-to-riches stuff, perhaps once plausible, has become quite implausible:

By most measures, mobility is lower in more recent periods (1995–2005) than in the late seventies and the eighties (the 1977–1987 or 1981–1991 periods). Comparing results based on pre-government income suggests that an increasingly redistributive tax and transfer system contributed to rising mobility into the 1980s, but that its impact has since waned. Overall, the evidence indicates that over the 1969-to-2006 time span, family income mobility across the distribution decreased, families’ later-year incomes increasingly depended on their starting place, and the distribution of families’ lifetime incomes became less equal.

In short, no one is going anywhere, and Kevin Drum adds the details:

The study tracks the income of families over a ten-year period, and includes only families that were both independent (i.e., not living with their parents) and not retired for each ten-year period under study. Income is also adjusted for family size. Putting this study together with everything else we know, we can see a grand total of four things happening during the 35-year period from 1970 to 2005:

Income inequality is increasing: the rich are much, much richer today than they used to be.

To deal with this, tax rates on the rich have gone down.

Income mobility is decreasing. If you start out poor or middle class, you’re more likely to stay there than in the past.

To deal with this, government assistance to the poor has gone down.

Jared Bernstein thinks these things are correlated – “The relationship between income concentration and political power is one important link.” And Drum agrees, and adds more:

In other words, more income concentration among the rich has given them more political clout, and that’s allowed them to influence public policy in ways that encourage even more income concentration among the rich.

I’d add to that another dynamic: as the poor increasingly stay poor, the public starts to view them not as victims of larger trends, but as a permanent underclass that’s not willing to work hard enough to better themselves. And who wants to see their tax dollars spent to support a bunch of shiftless layabouts?

Drum points to the data – the number of poor families who move up even in the slightest has decreased over the past thirty-five years, and the number who have moved up more than just trivially has decreased even more – there are hardly any. As Drums says, the American Dream isn’t what it used to be.

But is Drum right? Does more income concentration among the rich give them more political clout, and allow them to influence public policy in ways that encourage even more income concentration among the rich? Well, duh. But don’t tell that to John Boehner. He says Republicans are definitely not the servants of the rich:

“That’s very unfair,” Boehner said in an interview aired Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “Listen, I come from a family of 12. My dad owned a bar. I’ve got brothers and sisters on every rung of the economic ladder.”

And there’s this:

“What our job here in Congress is to do – and the reason I came here 21 years ago – was to make sure that the American dream that was available to us is available for our kids and our grandkids. That – most people don’t believe that’s the case today. And, frankly, I’ve got concerns that it may not be the case,” the Ohio Republican went on. “We can’t have government debt that’s snuffing out the future for our kids and grandkids. We can’t have a government that’s taking in 30, 40 cents out of every dollar from our kids and grandkids to pay for government. That’s – you can’t have both. And I do believe that my – my job and my vision is to make sure the American dream is alive and well for everyone in America.”

No one told him Horatio Alger is dead, and Steve Benen comments:

I’m tempted to respond that this argument is foolish, but in reality, it’s not even an argument. The charge, backed by years of unyielding evidence, is that he and his caucus fight for policies that almost exclusively benefit the wealthy. The Speaker’s response is, well, that he has an economically diverse immediate family. That’s about as compelling as a bigot who says some of his best friends are members of a minority group.

But there’s more:

Look, it’s a simple matter of credibility. Boehner voted for the Bush tax cuts, and added the costs to the national debt. Boehner then voted to finance the war in Afghanistan by adding the costs to the national debt. He then voted to put the costs of the war in Iraq onto the national debt. Boehner supported a massive expansion of the government’s role in health care, Medicare Part D, and voted to pile all of its costs right onto the national debt. He then backed the financial industry bailout, and added the bill to the national debt.

Last December, Boehner demanded an extension of Bush-era tax rates, didn’t even try to pay for them, and insisted the costs be added to the national debt. This year, the Speaker has been offered a variety of Democratic debt-reduction plans, including President Obama’s Grand Bargain, and Boehner has turned them all down.

The debt is “snuffing out the future for our kids and grandkids”? Does Boehner really think anyone should take him seriously on this?

But a myth is a myth – not true, precisely, or at all, but the concept is as true as true can be. And that leads to what Thomas Edsall sees as The Politics of Austerity – arguing that the economic collapse of 2008 transformed American politics:

In place of shared abundance, battles at every level of government now focus on picking the losers who will bear the costs of deficit reduction and austerity. …

The new embattled partisan environment allows conservatives to pit taxpayers against tax consumers, those dependent on safety-net programs against those who see such programs as eating away at their personal income and assets.

In a nuanced study, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” the sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol and her colleagues at Harvard found that opposition to government spending was concentrated on resentment of federal government “handouts.” Tea Party activists, they wrote, “define themselves as workers, in opposition to categories of non-workers they perceive as undeserving of government assistance.”

In a March 15 declaration calling for defunding of most social programs, the New Boston Tea Party was blunt: “The locusts are eating, or should we say devouring, the productive output of the hard working taxpayer.”

And there you have it:

The conservative agenda, in a climate of scarcity, racializes policy making, calling for deep cuts in programs for the poor. The beneficiaries of these programs are disproportionately black and Hispanic. …

Less obviously, but just as racially charged, is the assault on public employees. “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” declared Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.

For black Americans, government employment is a crucial means of upward mobility. The federal work force is 18.6 percent African-American, compared with 10.9 percent in the private sector. The percentages of African-Americans are highest in just those agencies that are most actively targeted for cuts by Republicans…

Well, Horatio Alger wasn’t black, was he? And as for myth, at Prairie Weather you’ll find this:

The other day in an international conference, an economist said that god has been dead for years and has been replaced by austerity. As off-track as that may seem, he wasn’t kidding. I think there’s a good deal of truth in the perception. Much of right wing culture has crumbled. They live in a world in which their cane, their whip, treasured class and ethnic distinctions, and abominations like the death penalty can be said to survive but are not in good health. Worse, their god, the daddy god, the god of punishment and reward, is now demonstrably weak, has lost control of this planet’s climate that humans now increasingly admit they have had a hand in damaging.

The right in this country, in Germany, and elsewhere, has seized upon austerity as the missing control mechanism, the missing patriarch.

Yes, as has become obvious, in Britain, the austerity policies have already messed thing up rather hopelessly – but no matter. Austerity is now part of the myth:

It’s more than a Republican political game. It goes far deeper than that. It’s more than an attempt to control Obama’s political future. Austerity is an attempt to control what the right see as the cultural (and racial and ethnic) liberalities of the left while continuing to reward themselves (as they have for decades) with varieties of homoerotic and heterosexual sprees, plenty of money, and power wherever they have the money to assert it. It’s a handy way of confirming long-held prejudices.

That may seem over the top, but myths are like that. And some myths including flagellation and pain of course, as Paul Krugman has implied he referred to “members of the pain caucus, those who claim that raising interest rates and slashing government spending in the face of mass unemployment will somehow make things better instead of worse.” And later Krugman gave us this:

When the recession officially ended, spending was rising at an annual rate of around $60 billion; now it’s declining at an annual rate of $60 billion. That difference is around 1 percent of GDP – and maybe 1.5 percent once you take the multiplier into account. That makes the turn toward austerity a major factor in our growth slowdown.

Still, I guess the beatings will continue until morale improves.

In many myths the gods are quite nasty – jealous and angry, and the beatings will continue until the gods are propitiated. And Prairie Weather also cites the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki:

There are those, on both the left and the right, who would argue that Republicans are pushing for austerity because, whatever its consequences for workers and borrowers, it serves the interests of business and the wealthy. But it doesn’t serve those interests at all.

In fact, these folks are being foolish:

Decades ago, America’s rich were a true rentier class. They got most of their income from bonds and lived off their investments, and their main priority was keeping inflation low, regardless of anything else that happened. So austerity suited them nicely. The rich of today, by contrast, get much more of their income from their jobs and from the stock market, which means that they do better when growth is strong. And, while companies have figured out how to make money even during steep downturns – during this very weak recovery, corporate profits have rebounded strongly – over-all corporate profits are below where they were in 2006. That’s been reflected in the stock market, which, even before last week’s precipitous tumble, was nearly twenty-five per cent below its 2007 peak. In fact, the S. & P. 500 hasn’t really budged in a decade. So, while corporate America has been doing well relative to everyone else, it would be doing much better, and investors would be much happier, if growth were stronger and unemployment were lower, even if inflation and government spending were higher. Austerity during an economic slowdown isn’t just bad for the unemployed. It’s also bad for business.

But no matter – the myth persists. And from “Dakinikat” there is this comment at Sky Dancing:

I cannot believe the toxic environment in which our public policy plays out these days. There appears to be a well-funded campaign fomenting the politics of resentment. There also is a campaign of disinformation that continually puts out lies about our economy and our history. Much of it seems to be rooted in the same kind of anti-intellectualism that plays to fundamentalists of all sorts. These are people that believe in myths, ideologies and religion without question and seek to demonize any one that brings facts, education, and knowledge to the table. It is a well-funded campaign and it will bring down our country if we do not stop it.

It’s that myth thing again, and it’s leading us nowhere good:

We’re in the process of throwing our children, our elderly, our veterans, our public servants – like teachers, public health providers, and public safety officials – straight under the bus, in order to maintain unrealistic tax structures that benefit the few but have been sold as helping the many who aren’t lazy, shiftless, and criminal.

Well, that’s about it. And it’s been said before. And we are offered this for why this is so:

I think all of this comes from spending too much time in Beltway, Washington DC and on Manhattan Island. These are basically two places untouched by falling incomes, falling house prices, and any educational experience outside of law schools and esoteric Ivy League degrees. Then there’s a bunch of know-nothing imports that come in with backgrounds in religious extremism, rural isolation, and decades in dysfunctional state governments. Our political and journalist class are basically spoon-fed by plutocrats or isolated backwaters. The carving up of the national voting map ever so often doesn’t help. This nearly ensures that we get representatives that specialize in one voter segment and probably one industry. They totally don’t have to pay attention to anything remotely “average” in America.

And of course there’s no hope for any understanding of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

It looks like the press is trotting out every possible outlier behavior possible in a society and smearing it to everyone carrying a placard. They all are so threatened that the average American might realize that other average Americans are focused on them instead of segments of each other they are in total panic mode! I’ve been completely dismayed by a set of villagers that can justify police brutality against veterans and young women. The right wing is trying to scare ordinary Americans away from the picket lines with stories of old women beaten by protestors, small business people unable to do business due to exuberant drumming by lazy people and of stories of encroachment by mentally ill homeless and sexually predatory men.

Again, this is typical of the divide-and-conquer political strategies we see today. Anyone with any kind of nuance is drummed out of their perspective clubs. I am by no means a supporter or slightly sympathetic of Rick Perry but I have to wonder if his statements about immigration that didn’t include alligator-filled moats and electrical fences didn’t lead to his eclipse by Herman “Racism isn’t a problem until I can use it” Cain.

And that’s just a taste of that post – a cri de coeur from the left. They have their myths too. And maybe their myths are also dead. But Matthew Yglesias is clear on what he thinks killed the Horatio Alger myth:

If I look at America today, what I see undermining any meaningful notion of work ethic is a kind of run-amok ethic of moneymaking. The old Calvinist idea about money, as I understood it, was that hard work, discipline, and prudence were moral virtues. They were also things that are more likely than not to lead to personal prosperity. So prosperity shouldn’t be stigmatized as ignoble, it should be rather seen as something likely to flow from virtuous behavior. But this equation assumes that morally speaking what matters is the hard work, the discipline, and the prudence. Cutting corners, lying, cheating, or stealing to make a quick buck doesn’t fit the bill. Earning a multi-million dollar salary to deliver below-average performance as the CEO of a firm and then take a multi-million dollar golden parachute when you get sacked doesn’t fit the bill. Spending your days and nights dreaming up smart regulatory arbitrage schemes doesn’t fit the bill. In terms of what it says about your personal virtue, if you’re going to earn your keep identifying and exploiting previously unknown loopholes in the legal framework, you may as well just go out and break the law.

So these folks misused even those puerile Horatio Alger stories:

There’s no particular honor and dignity in owning the copyright to Mickey Mouse or Batman, and then spending money lobbying congress for retroactive copyright extensions. A businessman who takes the ideas of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility seriously would forget all about that nonsense. But the idea is aloft that business executives actually have a moral obligation to spend their days finding ways to engage in profit-maximizing rent-seeking and loophole exploiting.

This kind of “you should make as much money as possible through any legal means necessary” spirit is toxic to the kind of ethos that’s made the various forms of modern industrial capitalism successful. Whether or not a person who gets in a car wreck gets free surgery (as in Canada) or merely surgery implicitly subsidized through the tax code (as in the USA) is neither here nor there. A well-designed welfare state is an excellent thing to have, but to have a culture that valorizes hard work you need to actually valorize hard work not just money-making.

Ah, but there are always books no one actually ever reads. Maybe that’s the problem. No one actually ever read those Horatio Alger books after all. And there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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.
This entry was posted in Austerity Economics, Conservative Framing Devices, Conservative Thought, Conservative Values, Republican Framing Devices, Republican Idealistic Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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