Baby Boomers talk admiringly of their late fathers, and you’d think that is a Greatest Generation thing, but much of the talk has little to do with the war in Europe or in the Pacific. Hitler had to go, and the Japanese badly miscalculated, but the war was a nasty business. Those who fought it didn’t talk about it much. They saw their friends die. They didn’t. What is there to say? You move on. So the kids had to imagine, as best they could, what that was all about – and Hollywood and John Wayne helped with that. All the classic war movies came after the war, as a way to fill in the blanks for the kids – and maybe for the fathers too. So that’s what that was all about. It took a long time to build a series of narrative frameworks that made everything make a kind of collective and often individual sense.
What the kids didn’t have to imagine, what their fathers made clear, was what was going on in the years before the war, when they were in their early teens or even younger – the Great Depression. And you knew what you father did, when he was just a kid, to help the family survive – the odd below-menial jobs, and maybe hustling pool, and then the slow climb with any real job that popped up – butcher or construction worker or whatever came along. And school was impossible – the family had to eat, and pay the rent. Many a father dropped out of school by the eighth grade. There was no choice. But hard work, and diligence, came to matter more. You could make it with those. And they made it, becoming successful businessmen or even executives. At the very least they ended up solid citizens, with a solidly middle-class life.
And they’d talk about that. They had seen hard times – the hardest of times – and they climbed out of all that. They were proud of working hard and not ever giving up and of doing what you must, without complaining – and without hesitation. And look where it got them. And hey, any kid would be impressed with what a father like that had done. This was a kind of heroism. And if he says stay in school, and maybe even go to college, because he never could, you do just that. His rags-to-riches story is an inspiration. You can be anything you choose to be, if you work hard and never give up. Your father told you so, and told you of his life in hard times, and you believed him. This seemed to be true. This must be true.
And now men in their sixties speak admiringly of their late fathers, but grow uneasy. That undoubtedly true rags-to-riches story was an inspiration. But something has changed. What do you tell your kids? Work hard and do the right thing and you will make it big? Is that still possible?
Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, seems to wish this were still so – but he admits that the Occupy Wall Street movement has raised important questions about the respect paid to wealth in our society. Making it big may be becoming uncoupled from hard work. It cannot be that those in the One Percent are the only hard workers in the country. Deliberately targeting them is a way to speak about the unfairness in the American economy – even if your late father never, ever, made the claim that the economy was unfair.
But Cowen goes there, as someone, he says, who comes from a conservative and libertarian background. He thinks he is hearing far too much talk about riches and not enough talk about values, and he wants to remind us of why so many Americans have respected the wealthy in the first place:
The United States has always had a culture with a high regard for those able to rise from poverty to riches. It has had a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit and has attracted ambitious immigrants, many of whom were drawn here by the possibility of acquiring wealth. Furthermore, the best approach for fighting poverty is often precisely not to make fighting poverty the highest priority. Instead, it’s better to stress achievement and the pursuit of excellence, like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel. These are still at least the ideals of many conservatives and libertarians.
Those ideals might not be so widely held as he would like. Many Americans have always respected the wealthy, and many have despised them, or at least considered them either fools or oddballs. But Cowen’s answer to that is this:
The egalitarian ideals of the left, which were manifest in a wide variety of 20th-century movements, have been wonderful for driving social and civil rights advances, and in these areas liberals have often made much greater contributions than conservatives have. Still, the left-wing vision does not sufficiently appreciate the power – both as reality and useful mythology – of the meritocratic, virtuous production of wealth through business. Rather, academics on the left, like the Columbia University economists Joseph E. Stiglitz and Jeffrey D. Sachs among many others, seem more comfortable focusing on the very real offenses of plutocrats and selfish elites.
In short, the traditional, pro-wealth cultural vision has a great appeal for me.
But now he’s not so sure:
The first problem is that higher status for the wealthy can easily lead to crony capitalism. In public discourse social status judgments are often crude. Critical differences are lost, like the distinction between earning money through production for consumers, as Apple has done, and earning money through the manipulation of government, which heavily subsidized agribusinesses have done. The relevant question, in my view, is not about how much you have earned but about how you have earned it. To further confuse matters, many right-wing Republican politicians supported corporate bailouts and corporate welfare far beyond what was necessary to stabilize the economy, in doing so further muddying the difference between productive and predatory capitalism.
And he is also unhappy that conservatives seem to be so into what he calls their cultural vision that they have ceded sound reasoning to the left and center:
For instance there is a common willingness among conservatives to defend the Bush tax cuts, even though the evidence does not show much of an economic payoff. Conservatives’ own culture, and the sheer desire to validate wealth, discipline and reward through law and the tax code, may have convinced them that the tax cuts have been beneficial. Measuring the actual effects of a tax cut isn’t always their main concern, even if they sometimes cite such numbers for rhetorical purposes. They feel in their bones that antagonism toward the rich is a dead end and so don’t favor highly progressive taxes.
That rhetorical line appeals to tax-weary voters, and seems part of a core conservative vision, but it is treading on dangerous ground because it moves away from testable theory: those tax cuts have already been in place for many years, yet it remains to be seen when or if they will spur the economy.
One could wait a long time. It’s not going to happen. And then there’s what he sees as the problem with “the pro-wealth cultural vision” – it is far too optimistic about human willingness “to embrace the idea of responsibility” – as, well, you know how people are these days:
Conservatives often believe that much of the poverty in the United States is an issue of insufficient discipline and conscientiousness. In this view, not all children grow up inculcated with a strong enough devotion to education and career. Yet how can such a culture of discipline be spread? At least as far back as John Bright, a classical liberal in Victorian England, it has been argued that society should grant respect to business creators and to stern parents who instill discipline.
That sounds unpleasant. But Cowen admits conservatives these days are not exactly a disciplined lot:
In fact, in the United States, the red states, where conservatives are more powerful, tend to have higher divorce rates and weaker educational systems than do blue states. Many Americans have not been personally persuaded by all the talk about pro-wealth and pro-discipline norms, least of all in the geographic strongholds of conservatism.
The counterintuitive tragedy is this: modern conservative thought is relying increasingly on social engineering through economic policy, by hoping that a weaker social welfare state will somehow promote individual responsibility. Maybe it won’t.
For one thing, today’s elites are so wedded to permissive values – in part for their own pleasure and convenience – that a new conservative cultural revolution may have little chance of succeeding. Lax child-rearing and relatively easy divorce may be preferred by some high earners, but would conservatives wish them on society at large, including the poor and new immigrants? Probably not, but that’s often what we are getting.
So this is a new world – or this is not your father’s Oldsmobile. Cowen see that complaints about income inequality are likely to grow, and conservatives and libertarians won’t have much to say in response. So all he has is his tattered ideal:
Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores – of discipline and hard work – because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution.
That’s an interesting contention – look at the very few rich folks, who won a rigged game that they are still rigging, and at everyone else who is dirt poor and getting poorer, and of course you’ll tell your kid that if he works hard and never gives up, he is certain to make it big. And then he laughs in your face.
Kevin Drum puts it a little more eloquently:
It’s the fact that hard work pays off very, very differently for different classes of people these days.
Take me. When I graduated from college and joined the business world, it was clear that hard work could earn me a lot of money. It would mean promotions, it would mean job offers from other companies, it would mean stock options, and more. And it did. I was a tech writer first, then a product manager, then a director of marketing, then a VP of marketing, and finally a divisional manager. My income multiplied nearly 10x over the course of 15 years, and it would have multiplied more if I’d had the ambition to stay where I was and keep moving up the ladder. …
But if you work in, say, an Amazon fulfillment warehouse, what does hard work get you? Not nothing, certainly. You probably get to keep your job, for starters. You might get small but steady raises. You might even rise into a supervisory position. Compared to a clock puncher, maybe you’ll make 30 or 40 percent more. If you’re really lucky, half again as much. And that’s it. With rare exceptions, that’s about the best you can hope for.
Drum concedes that this has always been true, but argues now things have gotten much worse:
College graduates – the kind who write op-eds and blog posts about the virtue of hard work – are sincere in their promotion of an ethic of work. And they aren’t wrong. But they do overrate how much difference it makes for most people. Especially in an era where working and middle-class wages have been stagnant for over a decade, the rest of the workforce just isn’t buying the Horatio Alger story anymore: working hard barely even gets them a small annual raise these days, let alone the chance for significantly higher wages. So it only barely seems worth it.
And as for the idea that more people and especially more parents yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution, Drum suggests that’s not likely. Upper middle-class parents may well yearn for that revolution, and act on this ideal, hammering the value of hard work and diligence into their kids, and that’s nice, but irrelevant:
For everyone else, increasing income inequality will likely have just the opposite effect. As those Horatio Alger tales seem increasingly fanciful, and as dreams of even modest wealth become ever more obviously out of reach to the average person, it’s going to get harder and harder to keep up the pretense that discipline and hard work are really the key to great wealth for anyone not in the upper middle class to begin with.
There’s no easy answer to this. The world is going to keep getting more complex and the rewards to education and skills are going to keep increasing. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Maintaining the conviction that hard work matters is obviously important.
But that may not be enough:
The reality of the world is simply too hard to camouflage, which means that if we want working and middle-class high school grads to believe in the vision of hard work and wealth, real life has to match the vision at least tolerably well. This in turn means reducing the amount of absurdly undeserved wealth that goes to casino operators on Wall Street. Ditto for the wildly disproportionate salaries paid to CEOs. It means that even if most middle-class workers are never going to become rich, they should at least see their wages rise steadily through their lifetimes. It means that politicians have to stop handing out massive goodies to the rich for no good reason, and they have to stop insisting that these goodies be paid for by raiding the “unaffordable” benefits of the middle class.
None of this is easy. But the truth is that it’s increasingly impossible to sell people transparently self-promoting fairy tales that plainly don’t reflect how the real world works. If you want them to believe that hard work and discipline are important, then hard work and discipline have to really be important. Not just modestly helpful. Not mere drops compared to the obviously undeserved piles of so many of the super rich.
Good luck with that:
Until we all believe this – until conservatives believe this – the notions of responsibility and discipline that conservatives talk about so much are probably going to continue fading. In recent decades they’ve simply dedicated too much of their lives and too much of their energy to patent unfairness to be surprised any longer that belief in being fairly rewarded is on the wane.
Drum says that’s the lesson of Occupy Wall Street. And as for dedicating far too much of their energy to patent unfairness, in Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson adds some perspective to the Republican’s increasingly tone-deaf pursuit of tax cuts for the very rich:
It’s difficult to imagine today, but taxing the rich wasn’t always a major flash point of American political life. From the end of World War II to the eve of the Reagan administration, the parties fought over social spending – Democrats pushing for more, Republicans demanding less. But once the budget was fixed, both parties saw taxes as an otherwise uninteresting mechanism to raise the money required to pay the bills. Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford each fought for higher taxes, while the biggest tax cut was secured by John F. Kennedy, whose across-the-board tax reductions were actually opposed by the majority of Republicans in the House. The distribution of the tax burden wasn’t really up for debate: Even after the Kennedy cuts, the top tax rate stood at 70 percent – double its current level. Steeply progressive taxation paid for the postwar investments in infrastructure, science and education that enabled the average American family to get ahead.
All this is true. In today’s degenerate GOP, Eisenhower would be a communist, as, indeed, the John Birch Society insisted he was at the time. But I don’t think you need to get into the argument about redistribution to note simply that the US has a massive debt that needs to be tackled urgently, and that obviously revenues – at half century lows – must be part of that mix. Taking taxes back up to where they were under Clinton, who presided over a boom, solely to tackle the debt crisis is such a no-brainer that only the current GOP would oppose it. Especially since in return, the Dems would have to cut entitlements by a serious amount.
Americans, by the way, see this. They back tax hikes on the successful and wealthy by 2 – 1 as a way to reduce debt.
But it doesn’t matter. America moves “left” – back to the Clinton way of seeing this, and the Republicans, Sullivan notes, are moving far to the right of even Ronald Reagan. Sullivan says that at some point, something will have to give. He has no idea what. In any event, this is not the work-hard-and-you-will-succeed world of your late father.
And maybe the world has just changed. Andrew Bacevich thinks so. He is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and the author of the recent Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Bacevich has a long and distinguished military career and previous taught at West Point) and he argues that the American Century is over:
The “postwar world” brought into existence as a consequence of World War II is coming to an end. A major redistribution of global power is underway. Arrangements that once conferred immense prerogatives upon the United States, hugely benefiting the American people, are coming undone.
In Washington, meanwhile, a hidebound governing class pretends that none of this is happening, stubbornly insisting that it’s still 1945 with the so-called American Century destined to continue for several centuries more (reflecting, of course, God’s express intentions).
Here lies the most disturbing aspect of contemporary American politics, worse even than rampant dysfunction borne of petty partisanship or corruption expressed in the buying and selling of influence. Confronted with evidence of a radically changing environment, those holding (or aspiring to) positions of influence simply turn a blind eye, refusing even to begin to adjust to a new reality.
And he cites as evidence of the change the collapse of the Freedom Agenda:
In the wake of 9/11, the administration of George W. Bush set out to remake the Greater Middle East. This was the ultimate strategic objective of Bush’s “global war on terror.”
Intent on accomplishing across the Islamic world what he believed the United States had accomplished in Europe and the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, Bush sought to erect a new order conducive to U.S. interests – one that would permit unhindered access to oil and other resources, dry up the sources of violent Islamic radicalism, and (not incidentally) allow Israel a free hand in the region. Key to the success of this effort would be the U.S. military, which President Bush (and many ordinary Americans) believed to be unstoppable and invincible – able to beat anyone anywhere under any conditions.
Alas, once implemented, the Freedom Agenda almost immediately foundered in Iraq. The Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to be a short, tidy war with a decisively triumphant outcome. In the event, it turned out to be a long, dirty (and very costly) war yielding, at best, exceedingly ambiguous results.
And then there is the Great Recession:
In the history of the American political economy, the bursting of speculative bubbles forms a recurring theme. Wall Street shenanigans that leave the plain folk footing the bill are an oft-told tale. Recessions of one size or another occur at least once a decade.
Yet the economic downturn that began in 2008 stands apart, distinguished by its severity, duration and resistance to even the most vigorous (or extravagant) remedial action. In this sense, rather than resembling any of the garden-variety economic slumps or panics of the past half-century, the Great Recession of our own day recalls the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Instead of being a transitory phenomenon, it seemingly signifies something transformational. The Great Recession may well have inaugurated a new era – its length indeterminate but likely to stretch for many years – of low growth, high unemployment and shrinking opportunity. As incomes stagnate and more and more youngsters complete their education only to find no jobs waiting, members of the middle class are beginning to realize that the myth of America as a classless society is just that. In truth, the game is rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many – and in recent years, the fixing has become ever more shamelessly blatant.
This growing realization is of course making a mess of American politics:
In just a handful of years, confidence in the Washington establishment has declined precipitously. Congress has become a laughingstock. The high hopes raised by President Obama’s election have long since dissipated, leaving disappointment and cynicism in their wake.
One result, on both the far right and the far left, has been to stoke the long-banked fires of American radicalism. The energy in American politics today lies with the Tea Party Movement and Occupy Wall Street, both expressing a deep-seated antipathy toward the old way of doing things. Populism is making one of its periodic appearances on the American scene.
He says where this leads in unclear, but the change is real enough:
Ours has long been a political system based on expectations of ever-increasing material abundance, promising more for everyone. Whether that system can successfully deal with the challenges of managing scarcity and distributing sacrifice ranks as an open question. This is especially true when those among us who have been making out like bandits profess so little willingness to share in any sacrifices that may be required.
Who knows where that leads? It’s much like the Arab Spring:
Will Tunisia, Egypt and Libya embrace democracy? Can Islamic movements coexist with secularized modernity? This much can be safely said: the ongoing Arab upheaval is sweeping from that region of the world the last vestiges of Western imperialism. …
What events of the past year have made evident is this: that lid is now off and there is little the United States (or anyone else) can do to reinstall it. A great exercise in Arab self-determination has begun.
And then there is what is happening in Europe:
To a considerable extent, the story of the twentieth-century – at least the commonly-told Western version of that story – is one of Europe screwing up and America coming to the rescue. The really big screw-ups were, of course, the two world wars. In 1917 and again after December 1941, the United States sent large armies to deal with those who had disturbed the peace. After the first war, the Americans left. After the second, they stayed, not only providing soldiers to safeguard Western Europe, but also rejuvenating the shattered economies of the European democracies.
Even with the passing of a half-century, the Marshall Plan stands out as a singular example of enlightened statecraft – and also as a testimonial to America’s unsurpassed economic capacity following World War II. Saving continents in dire distress was a job that only the United States could accomplish.
That was then. Today, Europe has once again screwed up, although fortunately this time there is no need for foreign armies to sort out the mess. The crisis of the moment is an economic one, due entirely to European recklessness and irresponsibility (not qualitatively different from the behavior underlying the American economic crisis).
Will Uncle Sam once again ride to the rescue? Not a chance. Beset with the problems that come with old age, Uncle Sam can’t even mount up.
This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. GM does not even make Oldsmobiles anymore. GM is lucky to even be in business these days. And all Bacevich can offer is this:
No, America is not “over.” Yet a growing accumulation of evidence suggests that America today is not the America of 1945. Nor does the international order of the present moment bear more than a passing resemblance to that which existed in the heyday of American power. Everyone else on the planet understands this. Perhaps it’s finally time for Americans – starting with American politicians – to do so as well.
But that’s so hard. And your late father’s stories of hard work leading to certain success were so compelling, and they were true. But they were only once true. He wouldn’t know what to tell you now.