Paradise of the real

More good stuff from Kevin D. Williamson in Welcome to the Paradise of the Real:

We treat the physical results of capitalism as though they were an inevitability. In 1955, no captain of industry, prince, or potentate could buy a car as good as a Toyota Camry, to say nothing of a 2014 Mustang, the quintessential American Everyman’s car. But who notices the marvel that is a Toyota Camry? In the 1980s, no chairman of the board, president, or prime minister could buy a computer as good as the cheapest one for sale today at Best Buy. In the 1950s, American millionaires did not have access to the quality and variety of food consumed by Americans of relatively modest means today, and the average middle-class household spent a much larger share of its income buying far inferior groceries. Between 1973 and 2008, the average size of an American house increased by more than 50 percent, even as the average number of people living in it declined. Things like swimming pools and air conditioning went from being extravagances for tycoons and movie stars to being common or near-universal. In his heyday, Howard Hughes didn’t have as good a television as you do, and the children of millionaires for generations died from diseases that for your children are at most an inconvenience. As the first 199,746 or so years of human history show, there is no force of nature ensuring that radical material progress happens as it has for the past 250 years. Technological progress does not drive capitalism; capitalism drives technological progress — and most other kinds of progress, too.

None of this should be taken as minimizing the problems faced by the poor, in this or any other country. But let’s stay in the realm of the real for a little while: What is it, in terms of physical goods and services, that we wish to provide for the poor that they do not already have? Their lives often may not be very happy or stable, but the poor do have a great deal of stuff. … Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable-TV bill as well as to put food on the table.” They also point out that there’s a strong correlation between having boys in the home and having an Xbox or another gaming system.

In terms of physical goods, what is it that we want the poor to have that they do not? A third or fourth television?

Partly, what elites want is for the poor to have lives and manners more like their own: less Seven-Layer Burrito, more Whole Foods; less screaming at their kids in the Walmart parking lot and more giving them hideous and crippling fits of anxiety about getting into the right pre-kindergarten. Elites want for the poor to behave themselves, to stop being unruly and bumptious, to get over their distasteful enthusiasms, their bitter clinging to God and guns. … A second Xbox is not going to change that very much.

What is it the poor actually need? In general, they do not have access to very good education. But our problem with education is not that we spend insufficiently on it. Rather, the problem is that our K–12 system is organized as something between a monopoly and a cartel. Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, is designed similarly, and, no surprise, the poor receive inferior health care. If they are not often materially deprived, they are very often materially insecure, with little in the way of savings or assets. Even after a lifetime of full-time work, many poor people have retirement options far inferior to those enjoyed by wealthier people, despite having their paychecks garnished to the tune of 12 percent or so for — this should start seeming familiar — participation in a government-monopoly retirement program.

None of those problems facing the poor — and they are the key problems — is an economic problem. All of them are political problems. For progressives, the obvious solution to that is less economics and more politics. The possibilities of economic division will always be limited by what there is to divide — so many houses, so many cars, so many apples and oranges, so many SweeTarts. Progressives don’t care what’s in the bag, so long as they get to be in charge of it. It is no accident that they talk about the “distribution” of wealth and income as though those things were literally distributed, like candy out of an Easter basket, by the distribution fairy.

For the conservative, people are an asset — in the coldest economic terms, a potentially productive unit of labor. For the progressive, people are a liability — a mouth to be fed, a problem in need of a solution. Understanding that difference of perspective renders understandable the sometimes wildly different views that conservatives and progressives have about things like employment policy. For the conservative, the value of a job is what the worker produces; for the progressive, the value of a job is what the worker is paid.

The farther away we move from the physical economy into the manipulation of symbols through public policy, the more progressive ideas make apparent sense. And symbolism is more comfortable for progressives in general, owing to a disinclination to literally get their hands dirty. There is, for example, no environmentally clean way to produce energy, and the really productive ways of producing energy — like fracking for gas in Pennsylvania — give them the fantods. There is no environmentally clean way to build a man a house, either, or provide him with clean drinking water, or to heat that house, or to grow a crop of wheat, or to make that wheat into bread. If you think you can have health care and electric cars without steel mills and oil refineries, you are mistaken. But actually expanding physical production within our own political boundaries, for instance by building more pipelines to connect petroleum producers with petroleum refiners, scandalizes the progressives. Every smokestack is another Barad-dûr to them — even as they bemoan the loss of “good factory jobs,” the largely mythical former prevalence of which provided their political forebears with a deep bucket of solutions to throw at the problem of potentially bumptious poor people. They detest the economic use of undeveloped lands, whether for energy or timber or grazing cattle — as though beef comes from Trader Joe’s. They refuse to understand that if you want more oranges and apples, you have to plant some trees — maybe even cutting down some other trees to make room for them, or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, harassing a tortoise in the process.

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