Things end, and that college graduation, way back in June 1969, seems odd now. There was an elaborate commencement ceremony of course, and someone tangentially famous probably gave a fine and uplifting address to us all – but it’s hard to remember. You remember other things. We all knew the sixties were ending. Woodstock had been followed by Altamont – peace and love followed by crappy violence and death – and after the change-the-damned-system riots at the Democratic convention the year before, Nixon was now president, and the Beatles were about to go their separate ways. Their last album would be recorded later that year – Let It Be. Jack Kennedy had been shot and killed early in the decade, and then Bobby and Martin had been shot and killed – and we were still in Vietnam. And that June the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland finally caught fire – but at least that led to Richard Nixon eventually establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, out of sheer embarrassment for the nation. On the other hand, that same month Judy Garland died of that drug overdose in London – so much for all that Over the Rainbow crap. Let it be. That’s probably why they had a band at graduation perform that 1965 hit song from The Byrds – Turn! Turn! Turn!
That was a Pete Seeger song from 1959 rediscovered and repurposed for the counterculture sixties, all about how there’s a season for everything, a time and a place for everything under the sun – so accept change. All the words were from Ecclesiastes 3:1 – verbatim, save for what Seeger added at the end, that perhaps it was now “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
King Solomon never said that, not that it mattered. The Byrds had a monster hit with Seeger’s song in the middle of the decade, and maybe that song was performed at many a graduation as the decade ended. But things had changed. The song seemed to have taken on another meaning. It was no longer the younger generation telling their elders to relax and accept that big and wonderful changes were coming, as they must and as they always will. Now it was that second-rate cover band singing to the graduating seniors in the university chapel, reminding them that things always change, they turn and turn again, and the sixties were over. It was now the Age of Nixon and the Silent Majority and all the rest. The Age of Aquarius, if there ever had been one, was over. Maybe that didn’t seem fair after all that had happened, but that’s how it was. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Deal with it.
That was what really happened at that graduation long ago – a Bible lesson, in accepting what is. Not much is in your hands, really – and that’s a hard lesson to accept. Parents in the sixties, staring in dismay at their long-haired hippy kid, found it hard to accept that after all they had done, this is how the kid turned out, and there wasn’t much any parent, even the best of parents, could have done about it. It had to happen. They somehow had to accept that, and somehow did, sooner or later. But at the end of the decade the kids felt the same way – all the marches and demonstrations, all the amazing new music and art, all the free love and deep understanding, had been wonderful – and then the wheel had turned again. The nation went back to sleep.
Maybe the nation is still asleep. Back in 2008, Jon Meacham offered his long and closely-argued thesis that America Is a Center-Right Nation – it always had been and always will be, and Obama really needs to remember that or he’s toast. Yep, the sixties are over, but Meacham didn’t cite Ecclesiastes. There are some things that really don’t turn, turn, turn – or so he implies – which is a comfortable thesis, for the comfortable, for the One Percent. Those are the folks in charge, who get to make the rules – from tax rates to ending regulations and now to deciding who can or cannot vote, without an expensive ID card.
Maybe they really should be in charge, simply because they got so rich. That’s a thought. They must know things that the rest of us just don’t know – they’re smarter than us, or maybe they work harder, or maybe they have real character while the rest of us are all hopeless flakes, or maybe God loves them and is exasperated with the rest of us. That’s one set of theories and you hear variations of that sort of thing all the time. Mitt Romney has based his entire presidential campaign on such notions, and a good number of people buy into it all, or one part of it or another. But that ignores another passage from Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes 9:11:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Yes, life is not fair. There’s just plain dumb luck, and that too is a hard lesson to accept. Time and chance trump smarts and hard work and virtuous industriousness every time. Read your Bible – it says so.
Al Gore would call this an inconvenient truth, but David Frum argues that Obama may be running for reelection on this passage from Ecclesiastes – or at least something like it, as Obama had echoed the words of that woman running for senate in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.
You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Warren is offering a single message: your success was made possible by the contributions of others, now you must contribute in turn. Nobody would seriously dispute her claim. We’re just left to haggle over price: Should the successful pay forward 36% of their success or 39% or 28% or what.
That seems harmless enough, even if it ruffled a few feathers, but Obama put it this way:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me – because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t – look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something—there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
That wasn’t harmless. “If you’ve got a business you didn’t build that” – the Republicans pounced all over that line. Frum explains that while that was bad enough, that wasn’t the real problem here, because Obama added this:
I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
Frum argues that was a far more dangerous thing to say:
Obama’s second idea is that success is to a great extent random, a matter of luck. You think you succeeded because you were smart or hard-working? Listen – a lot of smart and hard-working people don’t succeed.
This second idea is not original to the president, obviously. In fact, Friedrich Hayek often made a similar point, suggesting that a big part of capitalism’s PR problems originated in the fact that markets did not distribute their rewards according to ordinary ideas of moral deservingness. Yet it’s also true that we badly want to believe that success is earned and is deserved. A universe that distributes its rewards randomly is a frightening place – and even worse is the suspicion that success is often seized precisely by the undeserving.
Maybe Obama is pissed off that Romney didn’t ever read Ecclesiastes:
In this particular election cycle, the argument that the successful are almost by definition deserving and that the unsuccessful are correspondingly undeserving has exploded into noisy public controversy. The president appears to have heard that argument, and it irks him. And when it came time to reprise Elizabeth Warren, he allowed pieces of his rebuttal to the claim to drift into a speech that was probably meant to adhere to the safer ground that she had previously staked out.
But it’s easy to drift from what’s safe to what’s dangerous:
In Elizabeth Warren’s version of the speech, taxes can be conceived as something like a fee. You want roads, police, a skilled work force, an uncorrupt judiciary, and a military to protect you from foreign invasion? Of course you do! Well, they must be paid for -and it is reasonable to ask those who benefited most from public goods to pay most for those goods. Again, we can argue about how much “most” should be, whether 28, 36 or 39%, but in principle: not so shocking.
President Obama’s stray sentences however point to a bolder conclusion. If it’s not brains or work that account for success, what is it? The answer must be … luck. Not maybe entirely luck, but luck to a great degree.
By definition, however, luck is amoral. Nobody can deserve luck, otherwise he wouldn’t be lucky. To the extent success is due to luck, success is undeserved – and to extend the idea that success is undeserved, the successful have no very strong claim to the proceeds of their success. Whereas Warren suggests that the wealthy should be taxed to repay tangible benefits they have personally received, Obama is indicating a possibility that the wealthy should be taxed … because their wealth is to a great extent an accident of fate.
Those are fighting words of course, and Frum sees why Obama didn’t extend the argument:
Indeed, he quickly drops it. Nor does he build any very radical policy conclusions upon his argument: he’s proposing only the restoration of the Clinton tax rates – the tax rates that prevailed during the greatest period of private fortune-building since the 1920s. Yet people who believe in the morality of the market are not wrong to hear in those few stray sentences of the president a more radical critique of their core belief than is usually heard from American politicians.
This really is a big deal:
Those who say that the Republicans are taking the president’s words out of context to misrepresent him make a serious mistake. Even if we concede that the “that” in “you didn’t build that” refers to roads, bridges and the Internet (and it’s not so clear that it does, but let’s concede it anyway), even if we restore the context in full, the president is still delivering the shocking news, as unwelcome today as it was when first propounded…
And that is where Frum cites Ecclesiastes 9:11 (the other frightening 9/11 perhaps):
To be sure, other politicians have declared that “life is unfair.” But that instruction is usually directed to society’s losers. Obama is – almost uniquely – directing the message to society’s winners, including the very grand winner who will soon be nominated to run for president against him. They’re not used to it, and they don’t like it, not one bit.
Yeah, the rich guy can pat the poor guy on the head and tell him, sadly and regretfully, that sorry, life’s not fair. But the poor guy can sneer and say the same thing to the rich guy, to plant a seed of worry. Of course he doesn’t worry, but remind him of that passage from Ecclesiastes often enough and he might. Maybe he didn’t build that, whatever it is. If it’s not brains or work that account for success, what is it? The thought that it might be a matter of time and chance is terrifying. A universe that distributes its rewards randomly really is a frightening place.
Digby (Heather Parton) comments on Frum’s argument by adding this:
This election’s overarching theme boils down to an argument over the idea that those who are making obscene amounts of money in this obscenely unequal “recovery” are doing so because of their moral superiority and work ethic, while the rest of us floundering because we are lazy and undeserving. And he thinks this irks Obama, who sort of let his irritation show.
Well, I should hope so. It sure as hell irks me.
Assume she’s not alone and consider this:
To even imply that luck plays a role in the success of the 1% is to expose what they are really afraid of: if luck was partly responsible for getting them where they are then luck could easily put them back where they started. This is why they are working so hard to secure all the protections, all the rewards, all the power for themselves. They are trying to hold bad luck at bay, trying to build a wall of money and privilege so high that they are impenetrable.
And yet it’s obvious that they have been hugely lucky. Just to have been born in this time is lucky. There were countless moments where they beat the odds, got an unanticipated break, happened to know the right person, were in the right place at the right time. To fail to acknowledge that, to not know that and be humble, awed and grateful is one of the causes of hubris.
Ah well, hubris is like that:
These folks are all too willing to chalk up foreclosed mortgages and lost jobs to “bad luck” and have no problem shrugging their shoulders at those who have the misfortune of getting sick without health insurance and thinking “those are the breaks.” But when it comes to the other side of that coin, the side that makes people vastly wealthy with one (or many) good breaks, we are required to believe that it’s all a matter of hard work and talent that got them there.
The idea Obama was skirting around was the idea that all of us are subject to the vagaries of luck. The central idea of our modern society was just that we would try to provide opportunity for everyone to be prepared to take advantage of the upside when it comes along and provide some cushion for everyone on the downside. That’s it. The whole thing was just an attempt to even out the odds a little bit.
And here’s her warning:
I hate to tell you this Masters of the Universe, but just like the rest of us unlucky losers, you’re all going to die one day. Every single one of you. No amount of talent, hard work, moral superiority, money or luck can save you.
That’s almost biblical. Time and chance determine more than anyone wants to believe. And Paul Krugman saw this coming in a 2002 column:
The official ideology of America’s elite remains one of meritocracy, just as our political leadership pretends to be populist. But that won’t last. Soon enough, our society will rediscover the importance of good breeding, and the vulgarity of talented upstarts.
For years, opinion leaders have told us that it’s all about family values. And it is – but it will take a while before most people realize that they meant the value of coming from the right family.
Now Krugman says this:
There was a time when that sort of sentiment would have been considered anti-American. But I guess that was a different country.
Elsewhere, Krugman argues that this is the country now:
Disputes in economics used to be bounded by a shared understanding of the evidence, creating a broad range of agreement about economic policy. To take the most prominent example, renowned free marketeer Milton Friedman may have opposed fiscal activism, but he very much supported monetary activism to fight deep economic slumps, to an extent that would have put him well to the left of center in many current debates.
Now, however, the Republican Party is dominated by doctrines formerly on the political fringe. Friedman called for monetary flexibility; today, much of the GOP is fanatically devoted to the gold standard. N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard University, an economic adviser to Mitt Romney, once dismissed those claiming that tax cuts pay for themselves as “charlatans and cranks”; today, that notion is very close to being official Republican doctrine.
As it happens, these doctrines have overwhelmingly failed in practice.
Krugman documents that, and wonders how we’ll get out of a situation where facts and evidence don’t matter:
Many pundits assert that the U.S. economy has big structural problems that will prevent a robust recovery. All the evidence, however, points to a simple lack of demand, which could and should be cured very quickly through a combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus.
No, the real structural problem is in our political system, which has been warped and paralyzed by the power of a small, wealthy minority. And the key to economic recovery lies in finding a way to get past that minority’s malign influence.
Maybe the key is to have them read Ecclesiastes 9:11 over and over and over, and think about it. Obama, in a way, did nudge them in that direction. Yes, they hated it, but it’s a start. They can smile and grin, and sneer too, saying that life isn’t fair, and then buy another Ferrari or two, with an elevator in the garage of course. But that cuts both ways – not that Romney is suddenly going to blurt out that he really didn’t deserve his success. A universe that distributes its rewards randomly is too frightening a place. It’s just that it says that in the Bible.
Where’s Pete Seeger when you need him?