In Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth, there is an aphorism supposedly from China which informs much of the narrative:
“When the rich are too rich, there are ways and when the poor are too poor, there are ways.”
Those “ways” often involved violent upheaval when the imbalance between the wealthy and the poor bedrock of society becomes too vast. Buck’s protagonists experience this cycle of poverty and prosperity personally as they struggle through subsistence and then ruin, only to gain riches in the end through their relationship with the land.
Every great society has grappled with how its structure governs wealth, with the cancer of greed and accumulated economic power a recurrent theme through all great thinkers’ writings about society, from Plato’s Philosopher Kings who were barred from owning wealth to Moore’s Utopia where gold was a sign of shame hung about the necks of slaves.
Perhaps none is a starker warning that Marx’s, who predicted a final revolutionary upheaval that would supplant the greedy capitalist class once and for all. While Marx’s prediction that communism could somehow best human greed seems hopelessly naive to our modern eyes–which have witnessed the failure or subversion to autocratic capitalism of nearly every communist state born in the twentieth century–his prescience about the shortcomings of capitalism continues to be useful in studying the modern world. After the 2008 collapse, many a wonk admitted that nobody had seen it coming…except for Karl Marx.
And, of course, his ideas live on in modern socialism. Every developed country has some measure of socialist thinking incorporated into the way it governs and structures society, but the United States in particular resists anything with the taint of socialism. In fact, much of the political discourse in this country is dominated by loud voices that like to treat the term as a dirty word, despite the success of democratic socialist regimes in Europe.
Instead, the political ideologies of America–and of the American right in particular–owe their allegiance to the Enlightenment Liberalism of the Founding Fathers.
This Liberalism was a search for “ways” to regulate the relationship between social classes and those empowered by society’s structure that did not require continual upheaval and bloodshed, ways to shape society so that it could rebalance and adjust itself to the realities of history as it unfolded, instead of being crumpled up and discarded in favor of a brand new design or dynasty. Ironically, though, establishing a republic based on these ideals required…bloodshed and upheaval.
In the intervening centuries, though, the American Republic has functioned relatively well as designed. (There is one interregnum of note.)
The success of the basic model of American government has led some, “originalists” like Neil Gorsuch, to fetishize our Founders for the accomplishment of crafting this Republic. These typically right wing figures seek to assiduously preserve the model envisioned by the Founders, believing their intent is the most important metric by which to assess law and custom in today’s America.
Let that sink in for a minute: Men like Gorsuch think that the best way to govern a nation of three hundred million smart-phone toting citizens competing in a global market is the game plan put together by some eighteenth century farmers as they crammed fewer than three million colonists under one federal umbrella.
The Founding Fathers of the American republic do deserve a lot of credit, but they were only all-too-human beings, not demigods. They knew they were not crafting a perfect system (3/5s compromise, cough cough). They knew that this system would need to evolve and change. Some predicted that every generation would have to draft a new constitution. Most would likely be awestruck that their basic design for a network of fledgling states on the edge of what they saw as a wilderness was still (more or less) governing a vast, industrialized and metropolized superpower state in the 21st century. Some might be horrified.
It’s important to understand the genius of the Founders, yes. Because the Founders accomplished so much not by being paragons of virtue and transcendent models of human wisdom (slavery, cough cough), but rather by studying history carefully. As students of history, they crafted a government meant to meet the challenges of their time. It is only logical that to preserve and adapt their system to the challenges of our time, we too must study history.
Yet again and again, we refuse to learn from this teacher, to study its lessons, or even admit its shape. A key example of this failing is the proposed package of “tax reform” being hashed out in Congress.
You see, the Republican tax plan learns exactly nothing from history.
The basic premise–or at least, the stated premise–of the tax reform bill is to cut taxes to stimulate growth in the economy, allowing business and capital to create more economic activity and thus, by extension, create better jobs and more opportunities for Americans.
So, what does history tell us about how to do this? Nothing. It tells us we will get nothing out of this plan because the outcome promised by this bill’s proponents has never, ever happened…ever. The idea that giving capital what it wants will produce broad outcomes for other stokeholders in the economy is pure fantasy. It has never worked. It will never work.
Some proponents of “tax cuts” try to use history to justify this disingenuous tax reform package, citing the success of the tax cuts proposed by Kennedy before his assassination that actually increased government revenue. No honest scholar can compare this bill to those measures. Though Kennedy did propose cutting taxes on the rich–down to 65% compared to today’s 35%–his tax cut proposal was Keynesian in design, aimed squarely at demand-side stimulus. This Republican tax plan, though, only offers temporary demand-side cuts for middle America. Its tax cuts for corporations are permanent and it does nothing to address the giant tax loophole for the rich in America: capital gains.
What history does tell us is what will really happen when you give up tax revenue to corporations and the wealthy–because we’ve been doing it for a generation. Supply-side economics, the theory behind the Republican tax plan, has governed our economy since the Reagan era and in that time we have reaped clear results.
We have witnessed massive growth in GDP and absolute stagnancy in real wages and income.
Our national and personal debt has grown and grown and grown.
We now have an economy completely out of balance. The rich have indeed become too rich, with a handful of billionaires controlling the same about of wealth and hundreds of millions of others. So far, our society has been protected from the more disruptive and violent “ways” that imbalances like this have historically been reshaped because the poor have not yet become “too poor.”
That, though, is because of spiraling debt. It is a system heading for a crash…in fact, we already faced that cataclysmic reckoning and we paid off the Pied Piper with more debt.
The Republicans profess to be fiscal conservatives and say they are deeply concerned about the deficit and debt levels produced by government spending. Yet their tax reform package is not a grown-up solution to those problems. By making the income tax system less progressive, they will only further perpetuate these issues. Their eventual aim is to shrink government and the so-called entitlements to reign in this disparity, but by cutting government spending, and undermining the economic stimulus provided by government spending, they will only hasten the advent of those other “ways” that history has of righting economic imbalance.
Eventually the poor will be too poor and then their entire house of cards will come tumbling down.
Their solution will only perpetuate these problems. But that’s beside the point from the ideological position they’re coming from. Essentially, their anti-regulation, small-government stance is motivated by an antipathy towards the evils of socialism and an allegiance to their distorted image of the Liberalism of the Founders.
From this vantage, they imagine a dystopia welfare state. Eying the political landscape, they see that so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare have already begun to gobble up more and more of the country’s wealth. Some of them are smart enough to point out that shifting demographics will make this problem much, much worse in the future. Likewise, they are concerned about our enormous national debt, which they legitimately decry as “generational theft.”
They are rightly concerned with these deficits and debt and this looming demographic bomb that so-called entitlements will drop on the next generation, but aren’t really honest about the nature of these problems:
Though the national debt has been an issue for decades, its current stratospheric levels are thanks to, in large part, the bailout after the Great Recession. That crash was exactly what unregulated capitalism gets you. Again, this is a lesson from history that we (should have) learned well. Left to its own devices, a capitalist economy will continually expand and contract, spasming from crash to boom and back again. To fight this natural inclination, we have constructed all manner of regulatory measures–from social safety nets to robust monetary policy. The 2008 crash was due, at least in part, to Republicans pushing to relax regulations to protect consumers. So our national debt is debt owed to bailing out a faulty capitalist system that had been deregulated…by Republicans.
On entitlements, the right is similarly misguided. Yes, there is a looming demographic crisis that we must grapple with. Benefits for retired boomers threaten to derail our economy if there aren’t enough taxable high-wage jobs to provide fresh cash for the social security and medicare slush funds. Yet, the Republicans are the ones who have pushed to remove protections for unions and minimum wages (and against immigration), the very factors that history tells us can fill those coffers again.
Not to mention that the biggest driver in the growth of entitlement expenses is rising healthcare costs, a problem which other developed nations address through socialized medicine. Yet, the Republicans have tried and tried to repeal Obamacare, the only piece of legislation that has had any impact on those outrageous, spiraling healthcare costs.
What we’re left with is the story of three isms: Liberalism, Socialism, and Capitalism.
We have long assumed that Liberalism and Capitalism belong in the same boat, yet even Adam Smith warned that capitalism could become a monster if not watched carefully. In creating the invisible hand, he did not intend to slap back the very real and human hands of human beings from protecting society from the ills of capitalism.
In the modern world, Liberalism needs Capitalism…and Socialism. Capitalism needs Socialism. Liberalism–the very ethos of democracy–can only flourish in a populace with the opportunity to pursue happiness and the knowledge that their lives and liberty are protected. Capitalism drives growth and prosperity, making sure the well is full. Socialism, though, we use to safeguard the general welfare, steadying the ebb and flow of Capitalism, smoothing out the rough patches.
Without each other, each will implode. As a society, we need to find the right balance. As one idea pushes forward, another sways to the side. As two are about to collide, another passes between them, pulling the others in its wake.
It’s a dance. And with the two-right-feet Republicans leading, a lot of toes are going to be stepped on.