Friday Takeway: Great Expectations

For the Bulletin
Thursday, March 14, 2019

Despite the heated rhetoric and histrionics surrounding the trigger term “Socialism,” all successful first world economies are a mixture of capitalism and socialism, including the U.S. We literally bathe in socialism (except for those communities who signed up for privatized water). We drive on socialism. We dial it up in emergencies. Most of us are educated through socialism ... up to a point.

The U.S. Space Force and the damn “Wall” aspire to be socialist boondoggles. The internet could have only been developed through socialism. And one of our most significant and costliest socialist systems is the military, the program we putatively employ to defend our freedoms and promote our good ideals throughout the world. But heaven forfend we should ever consider the prospect of offering basic healthcare to all of our citizens, because that would be tantamount to becoming a Marxist tyrannical state … like Canada, France or the United Kingdom. 

Much of the greatness many people ironically pine for when they sport their MAGA hats was the result of tax-funded social programs introduced back in the good old days by socialist presidents like FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, to name just a few. The  “Make America Great Again” trope should always beg the question: “What point in our history are we talking about here?”

At one level, I get it. It’s a slogan, not an argument. It’s an emotional prompt that’s supposed to be ambiguous so it can resonate with as many resentful people as possible. Still, I wonder how it is understood by those who are stirred by its use.

But what metric is used to gauge this “greatness?” It doesn’t seem to consider social equity, say, or global respect or moral standing. I mean, if that were the case, Donald Trump would be the last person to represent those things, right? 

It would appear that what moves many of the MAGA crowd is the reverie of a time, viewed entirely in sepia, of wholesome white nuclear families basking in their exceptionalism and conforming to their traditional gender roles, loving their sports and kitchen appliances according to their proper assignments. This was a Dick and Jane world that was promoted after the Second World War but never really existed. It’s a fantasy. 

But there are also those who think of the “good old days” as being more like the Robber Baron era of the Roaring Twenties, when extreme wealth was concentrated among the “deserving” few who also dictated the scant rules there were. You know, before the Great Depression.

For the first cohort, they’re being sold a pallid myth that is shattered daily. Their primacy is not going to be spared. Coal is not going to be the energy of the future. The middle class is not going to expand in this economy. The next generation will earn less than the preceding generation for the first time.

The people who do stand to realize their MAGA dreams are part of the second group, the extremely wealthy. In fact, they’ve already made it. For the first time in a century, the disparity of wealth in this country is virtually the same as in the 1920s. According to the World Inequality Database, the 400 richest Americans own more wealth than all the rest of us. They’re not one-percenters. They’re 0.00025 percenters. For these folks, America is, indeed, great again.

Often the first response to criticisms of this extreme wealth is to cry “class warfare,” or to complain that we should stop picking on the “job creators.” I would argue that warfare has effectively worked the other way, against the majority. The rich have won. And having people like the Koch brothers whining about being criticized for the grotesque wealth imbalance is akin to a bully complaining that your face is hurting his knuckles.

Yet any conversation that focuses on addressing this egregious lopsidedness immediately cues the “redistribution of wealth” alarm. Which rings pretty hollow when you consider that wealth has already been redistributed and trickled — no, gushed — exclusively in one direction, away from 99.9999975 percent of us and towards a group that would only fill half the seats in the Academy of Music.

The U.S. is not a pure capitalist state. We’re an amalgam of a free-ish market economy and welfare protections. There are those who believe we should privatize everything and limit government to traffic management. And there are those who believe every enterprise should be publicly held and entrepreneurs should be sent to re-education camps. Both of those systems have been tried, and both have failed. 

Professor Sheri Berman explained how we achieved our era of greatest balance in the March 1st issue of the Washington Post this way: 

“Stable European democracies arose after World War II because a social consensus married relatively free markets and private ownership of the means of production with expanded welfare states, progressive taxation and other forms of government intervention in the economy and society. Without the impressive economic results generated by the market, the huge improvements in living standards in the West after the war would not have been possible; the 30 years after 1945 were Europe’s fastest period of economic growth ever. But without the welfare state, the benefits of growth would not have been distributed so widely: Inequality declined dramatically during the postwar decades.” 

Donald Trump’s administration is actively dismantling the institutions that at least once offered the promise of greatness, if by “greatness” you mean a nation that offers a just quality of life for the greatest amount of people. These were programs that were awkwardly cobbled together through collaboratively achieved decisions and founded on a unifying principle of service to the greater good.

I know. I know. That’s a pretty assessment of an often ugly process. But while the motives weren’t always pure and the outcomes were not always ideal, the impetus was to improve the lives of the less fortunate. 

Now all pretense to serve has been dispensed with. The executive orders and policies we see today are designed to protect less and less vulnerable people while facilitating the avarice of the extremely wealthy. And that, by any measure, is not great.

Bill Dwight is a Northampton city councilor and a pie wrangler at the Florence Pie Bar.