My CNN.com column.
“I got some conservative, you know, leanings. But I can’t be a Republican, man. I’m not rich.”
That’s what the black guy with the smiling eyes said to me as we ordered drinks. To him, like many others in the bar, I was an amusing oddity: a conservative. I was at an after-show party for Real Time with Bill Maher – I know, I’m so big time – and my new friend was telling me that he couldn’t vote for tax cuts for the wealthy. Not at least, he said, until he was wealthy.
I looked at his suit and the huge blocks of bling in his ears. “You look like you’re doing alright.”
“Yeah, I make like $100,000. But man, you know how it is. I’ve got two kids. It’s hard,” he said earnestly.
I nodded silently hoping his earrings were CZs.
Am I Doing Okay? Depends – How Are You Doing?
The middle class is being told that something has been taken from us, that the system is rigged, that we’re victims.
In January, on his CNN show Parker/Spitzer, Eliot Spitzer challenged my assertion that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Spitzer showed me a graph that illustrated the widening gap between the earnings of the rich and the middle class. “What if only the yachts are being lifted?” he asked.
Similarly, when I was on Real Time, Maher suggested that the NFL – with its salary cap and revenue sharing – is more popular than baseball – with its “everyman for himself” economic approach – because of it’s socialistic practices. Maher said, “If you’re not in the game, you become indifferent to the fate of the game, and maybe even get bitter. That’s what’s happening to the middle class in America.”
Spitzer and Maher are partly right. Over the past 35 years the income growth of the middle class has stagnated. In his book, Faultlines, Raghuram Rajan says that in 1976 the top one percent of households accounted for only 8.9 percent of income. But by 2007 the top earners share had grown to 23.5 percent of all income. Rajan says:
…since the 1980s, the wages of workers at the 90th percentile of the wage distribution in the US – such as office managers – have grown much faster than the wage of the 50th percentile worker – typically factory workers and office assistants.
The problem with this outlook though, is that it is strictly comparative. By this analysis, it doesn’t matter how much the wealth or standard of living of the middle class has grown, only how much it has grown in comparison to the rich. And the truth is, when it comes to standard of living, a rising tide has lifted all boats. In his book The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley points out that:
Today, of Americans officially designated as ‘poor’, 99 percent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 percent have a television, 88 percent have a telephone, 71 percent a car and 70 percent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these.
The middle class has experienced a similar boom in standard of living. Thomas Sowell wrote a few years ago that, “in 1970 only about a third of American homes had both central heating and air conditioning, while more than four-fifths had both in the 1990s. Just over one-fourth of American households had a dishwasher in 1970, but more than half did by the 1990s. Only 34 percent of households had color television in 1970, but 98 percent did in the 1990s.”
Still, despite this massive growth in standard of living, the income of the middle class has stagnated since the 1970s. Why? David Brooks recently wrote a column in the New York Times suggesting that in the early part of the 20th Century income and living standards were synonymous. But, he suggests, because of technological growth, people my age have been able to improve their standard of living relatively cheaply, even for free. Facebook – free. Twitter – free. Iphone – cheap compared to buying long distance service, CDs, camera, video camera, etc., etc. For many people there just hasn’t been great incentive to increase their income (and the jobs their work would create) because their standard of living is just fine.
Meanwhile, the lesson that Spitzer, Maher and innumerable politicians are sending to the vast swath of middle class America is that everything is not fine. They want us to know that we are entitled to something more, and that we are getting screwed out of that “something.”
Which brings me to a point I’ve been thinking about. I’m going to say something very few people want to hear, something that won’t make me popular. The reason the son of a $60,000 a year teacher doesn’t grow up to run Halliburton has much less to do with a rigged system and much more to do with something very few are willing to admit: complacency.
Look, I grew up middle class and I’m middle class now. I’ve got middle class buddies who’ve grown up to become lawyers, doctors, start businesses, and make millions in finance. And I’ve got middle class buddies happy to work 9-5 and coach Little League. The difference between these guys wasn’t access to a secret system of favors and breaks. The difference was ambition.
But there’s no reward in telling anyone this, there’s only punishment. Watch the comment section of this article if you doubt that. People have internalized and crystallized the mantra “You’re not better than me.” We want to be told that others have had inheritance or privilege that made the difference. That way we never have to consider that someone else worked harder, was smarter, took more risk, or is in any way more deserving than us. We want to be told that we’ve been screwed.
And politicians and TV hosts are ready to oblige. Politicians know that the biggest voting block is the middle class. So they win votes convincing us that we’re victims. TV hosts know that the middle class provides the biggest ratings. So they preach that we’re victims. Just like the NAACP has justified its ongoing existence by repeatedly telling black people that they are victims, politicians and television shows are doing the same to the middle class.
But while we have our collective Good Will Hunting moment, and our therapist-politicians tell us “it’s not you’re fault”, we’re forever relegated to the status quo. Why try if the system is rigged against us?
By the way, nothing I’m saying here has anything to do with the truly poor. I, like most people, recognize that there are destitute people in our country, for whom access to opportunity is severely limited. And whether or not it is through education or some other welfare, there is role for a social safety net for those trapped in poverty.
What I take issue with, though, is the concerted effort to convince the middle class that we are the have-nots. What I take issue with is telling the middle class that we deserve something more – like a federal entitlement program or a “fair” income redistribution. I take issue with is the victimization of the middle class.
“And Harry, Jimmy, Trent wherever you are out there, $@#% you too!”
Knowing my politics, many people on the other end of the spectrum often ask me, what freedoms is it that are being taken away? Here’s a freedom that has been taken away: the freedom to fail.
Just like without darkness there is no light, without the devil there is no God, without failure there is no success. “Oh yea?” They say, “tell that to Wall Street.” And they would be right.
Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs (did they want the money or were they forced to take it?) and all the other bailed out banks avoided failure by dumping their problems on the public. They are Harry, Jimmy, and Trent from this scene in Scent of a Woman and they are not the model of success for the middle class. Anything these banks accomplish, any money they make, from this point forward… is tainted. They are playing with money that wasn’t theirs. They are playing by rules that do not exist in a free market. They cannot succeed, because they couldn’t fail.
If you doubt this, I hope you run in to one of these guys in their pastel plaid shorts in the Hamptons or some other soft place one day. When you are introduced, shake hands and look him in the eye. See who looks away first.
So why would we do this now to the middle class? Why would we set up a safety net of Social Security, Medicare, and mortgage restructuring? Why would we take away the prospect of failure? Why would we take away their potential to succeed?
The middle class in America is doing okay, despite what geniuses like Ed Shultz say. Yes, the middle class could be doing better. But looking internally, not at our rich neighbors, not to the government, should solve that.
The middle class doesn’t need to be told that we’re victims. If the middle class wants more, it should go for more. Dare to succeed. Risk failure.
Or, if we don’t want to – and we like our life – fine. Just quit bellyaching about those that do.
That’s a fact…says National Review’s Kevin Williamson.
PICK THE CRAZIES OR THE BASTARDS
The choice in Egypt – and more broadly the Middle East – has traditionally been presented as: the autocrats versus the theocrats. We could either back the bastards (Mubarak, the Shah of Iran) or suffer the crazies (Ahmadinejad, The Taliban). But it’s obvious now that this was a false choice. As a recent National Review editorial wrote: “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously said we traded freedom for stability in the Middle East and got neither.”
We got both the crazies and the bastards. In the New York Times earlier this week Ross Douthat wrote:
“In ‘The Looming Tower,’ his history of Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright raises the possibility that ‘America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt.’ By visiting imprisonment, torture and exile upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, (Hosni) Mubarak foreclosed any possibility of an Islamic revolution in his own country. But he also helped radicalize and internationalize his country’s Islamists, pushing men like Ayman Al-Zawahiri — Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, and arguably the real brains behind Al Qaeda — out of Egyptian politics and into the global jihad.”
In fact, were this poker, Mubarak has ingeniously hustled the table and kept the United States bankrolling him by intentionally folding a few hands to the Muslim Brotherhood. Because at the same time he’s creating and exporting international terrorists from the prison cells of Cairo, he’s allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to build up just enough of a stake to be the only viable alternative to him. As the National Review editorial said:
“Mubarak has systematically neutered his organized democratic opposition, leaving the Islamists as the most obvious alternative to him — the better to spook us whenever we push him to liberalize.”
National Review summed it up by saying: “Mubarak was supposed to be ‘our SOB,’ but in distorting Egypt’s political landscape to make the choice him or the Islamists, he’s just been an SOB.”
A DEBATE OVER GOD AND MAN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht makes the case that the only way to progress in the Middle East is to embrace a fully free and open democracy…a democracy that includes Islamic fundamentalists. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Gerecht said, “The history of democratic Christendom suggests that you don’t get to arrive at Thomas Jefferson unless you first pass through Martin Luther.”
In a subsequent interview with National Review’s Duncan Currie, Gerecht rejected:
“…the notion that somehow the region could embrace genuine democratic pluralism while keeping religious fundamentalists on the sidelines.”
He argued that:
“…over the long haul, drawing Islamic fundamentalists into the cross-pollinating world of democratic competition is essential to defusing the ideological appeal of jihadism.”
While Gerecht told Currie that Islamic fundamentalism had to be brought out of the dark shadows of society and into the light of public debate, he was realistic about the short-term outcome. He recognized that the Muslim Brotherhood recently captured 20 percent of all the parliament seats in the Egyptian national assembly and that the Palestinians elected Hamas. Similarly, Hezbollah is a political force in Lebanon and as Turkey continues to democratize, Islamic fundamentalists gain more power.
“I fully expect the Muslim Brotherhood to do well in any election,” Gerecht told [Currie]. “They have a fairly substantial following.”… “But the country will never achieve real progress, [Gerecht] says, without first creating the political space necessary for a momentous debate over God and man.”
Gerecht told Currie that secularism must win the battle of ideas in the Middle East, that it is the only way to allow for the evolution of these societies. In other words, the Middle East must invite Islamic fundamentalism into the public debate, endure its possible short-term wins, and chafe under its rule, before embracing secular democracy.
The big gamble in this analysis is the hope that the people will ultimately reject the rule of Islamic fundamentalism and free elections beyond the first won’t be canceled or stolen as we have seen in Iran.
This is all pretty easy for Americans, half-a-world away, to theorize about. Short-term instability or Islamist rule may lead to an Arab secular democracy over the long arc of history. But I’m not sure Israel, staring at the prospect of being surrounded by Islamist theocracies, is ready to accept the ‘long play’. And what is the model for success of a primarily Muslim country becoming a pro-democracy, pro-liberty, pro-free market nation?
Still, if Dr. Phil were analyzing our current approach to the Middle East, one where we’ve got both the bastards and the crazies, the inevitable question would be: “How’s that working out for ya?”
In the end it’s hard push all your chips in behind any theory. And the most accurate analysis might actually come from Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
In the movie Charlie Wilson’s War Hoffman, playing CIA officer Gust Avrakotos, tells Congressman Charlie Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, the story of the Zen Master and the little boy.
“There was a little boy, and on his 14th birthday he get’s a horse. And everybody in the village says ‘How wonderful, the boy got a horse!’ The Zen Master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says ‘How terrible!’ The Zen Master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go out and fight, except the little boy can’t because his leg is all messed up, and everybody in the village says ‘How wonderful.’ And the Zen Master says…’We’ll see.’”
I was on Real Time with Bill Maher last week where we had a confusing climate change/evolution combo debate.
Click here for the Overtime segment of Real time with Bill Maher. We discuss whether America is exceptional.
National Review’s Kevin Williamson disagrees with Charles Krauthammer (audible gasp!) and says Republicans should pursue defunding Obamacare.
Why is Michelle Bachmann speaking for the Tea Party? And why did she give a rebuttal to the State of the Union? And why did she stare at the nation’s collective left ear? None if it sat well with me.
This sums it up:
The Devil We Know, Ross Douthat, New York Times
If not that, then this:
That seems to be the biggest takeaway from my recent debate with Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker. Actually we had a pretty good conversation on whether health care is a “right.”
Check it out:
11/16 (Tues.) – Fox Follow the Money 8pm EST
11/17 (Wed.) – CNN Parker Spitzer 8pm EST
11/18 (Thurs.) – MSNBC Dylan Ratigan Show 4pm EST
11/19 (Fri.) – Fox Red Eye 3am EST