What You Should Think About Wealth

“Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.”

–Benjamin Franklin

A great challenge facing the crop of national leaders to be selected this November will be promoting national unity.  For any office of import, surely an uncontested election is worse than a hotly contested election.  Yet one side effect of heated political contests is a wide range of fried political nerves.  Unscrupulous panderers are sure to cater to outrage about “socialism” in America while continuing to leave millions of citizens worse than misinformed about political realities.

Ultimately, the debate comes down to a clash of opinions about the nature of wealth.  Speaking from the gut, concerned liberals may rightly point out that millions of American households face extreme economic distress, then forget about facts and simply conclude that it is time for “a change.”  Yet concerned conservatives rightly point out that major American businesses also face economic distress, only to forget about facts and simply conclude that more tax cuts will certainly remedy the situation.

Fortunately the same clash can also be framed in cerebral terms.  Few serious thinkers dispute that the economic environment could be much better for both American consumers and American businesses.  The real work to be done on these issues comes from sorting out just what policies and practices will improve those conditions.  National dialog is severely impeded to the extent that handwaving media commentators reinforce popular claptrap about economics being “too complicated” for popular debate.

To the degree that the complexity is not a phantom generated by self-justifying academics, it is largely a matter of delineating the boundary between fact and opinion.  Whether it is “better” to break your leg in Canada, Connecticut, or Cuba is a fuzzy argument.  Yet the populations, budgets, and outcomes in each territory are facts.  Available calculations may not achieve metaphysically perfect precision, but arguments that depend on impeaching basic non-partisan public health data are implausible on their face.

To see progress in related civic discourse, there must be more than answering false narratives with alternative narratives.  Even casual conversations often offer up some opportunity to address reality.  Media professionals should feel shame whenever appeals to fear or anger eclipse rational discussion of substance.  Like never before, it has become possible to subsist on a diet of lies.  This makes it all the more urgent that the veil be cast aside whenever reality has the opportunity to intrude.

Do not let “tax cuts create growth” simple sit unchallenged as if it were the alpha and omega of wisdom about economics.  After all, where has tax cutting been practiced with more consistency and commitment than the United States in the early 21st century?  What sort of growth followed those policy changes?  Can it all be chalked up to the grave threat posed by fanatics with boxcutters?  Can it all be swept under the rug of incompetence and corruption?  Even if we grant that this growth generation strategy requires competence and integrity to implement, how plausible is it that such traits should come to dominate the White House and Congress?

Such trains of reasoning yield only to unreasonable resistance.  No doubt regurgitated talking points and flat out denials of reality are common outcomes of political clash.  Yet each instance where a sane adult falls back on irrational behavior to defend a political belief is one more instance in which the belief itself becomes distasteful.   Often these beliefs are incorporated into self-identity.  Changing them is not like learning the location of a new supermarket or the time change of a favored television program.  Yet the slower and deeper nature of these changes is no reason to deny that they occur . . . or that it is worthwhile to encourage them.

As the American people belatedly turn their backs on the absurd notion that every citizen ought aspire to be some sort of tycoon, we will collectively turn toward something else.  Even the most extreme of conservatives should be much more interested in tying these new ideals to reality than in jabbering on about doom and gloom born purely of political fearmongering.  Even the argument to desist with the mythology and get down to brass tacks is itself rooted in facts, from ongoing capital losses to polls projecting consolidation of legislative power.

One potential, perhaps ideal, casualty of contemporary politics would be this notion of “job creation.”  Short of making actual federal hires, there is nothing a President or Congress can do to create a job.  Still the term is a staple of hollow campaign promises.  Likewise, corporations often argue for a particular policy or subsidy based on theoretical “job creation” that is in no way linked to concrete workforce expansion plans.  Furthermore, new hires that do not actually accomplish some productive purpose create a false prosperity that simply cannot be sustained over time.

Between a natural tendency for leaders to take undue credit for good news and a body of policies oriented toward promoting quantity (and largely ignoring quality) in employment, it was entirely foreseeable that hearty growth achieved in recent years would eventually come undone.  Promoting this sort of unsustainable growth may delay the next downturn in the business cycle, but at the cost of its amplification.

Arguments from the political right are rarely short on hostility toward usefulness of promoting economic equality.  Yet they are rarely answered by questions about the usefulness of perpetuating (or amplifying) economic inequality.  Through a process that begins with facts, it is possible to provide compelling support for a conclusion that condemns some extreme scenario that not even Stalinists would actually have attempted.  Rather than wasting energy on the straw man of hypercommunism, there are two approaches informed commentators can take to provide a positive contribution to the shape of things to come.

The first is simply to point out that the United States could make tremendous moves away from cutthroat competition without getting anywhere near communism, real or imagined.  It is one thing to have difficulty grasping nuance — quite another to simply refuse all discussions that are not confined to absolute extremes.  Moments like that call for the subtlety of pointing out truly childish behavior while stopping well short of a counterproductive level of invective.

Perhaps more importantly, it is worthwhile to take a look at the nature of wealth itself.  What are the existent inequalities?  What is their usefulness, and how would that be diminished if those inequalities were diminished?   Mountains of data from dozens upon dozens of stable national economies demonstrate that prosperous corporations, complete with growing workforces, thrive well enough in a wide range of economic and social environments.  If there were a correlation between concentration of wealth and creation of wealth, then why is the current American economy as (or more) prone to difficulties than any other large modern economy?

As Pollyanna attitudes are put down by harsh realities, we must look inward as well as abroad.  Even allowing for some negative emotional bias at work on capital markets today, it is clear that slashing taxes on investment income and high levels of personal income is no way to build a more prosperous future.  A moment of national lucidity, prompted by crisis and under constant assault from bombastic pundits, provides a rare opporunity to strike a new balance.

Our future, be it more or less prosperous than today, will originate with this moment.  For those of us who care about the wealth of the nation, it is imperative that this new balance facilitate broad, real, and sustainable expansion of human achievement.  It may indeed be difficult and complicated to craft a detailed and comprehensive solution, but by now hopefully all earnest patriots can agree that it should be well within our means to do much better than Reaganomics.

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