Recently a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in South Dakota (unfortunately Democrat Tim Johnson is retiring), a doctor of medicine for God’s sake, posted on her Facebook page the following viral image with a typical Tea Party message:
How hilarious. A real knee-slapper.
That a doctor, who says that “God is calling her to serve a higher purpose and to fight back against an intrusive federal government,” would subscribe to such stupidity—military families are increasingly using food stamps and 83% of the money spent on the food stamp program goes to households with “a child, an elderly person or a disabled person”—says either a lot about the God she worships or about the God she wants to worship or about how evangelical Christianity mixed with Republican politics can stain the mind with a glorious Technicolor of ungodliness.
Sadly, the idea behind that viral message is shared not only by a lot of Republican candidates and politicians holding office, but a lot of average folks, some of whom benefit from government programs, like the food stamp program, and some of whom will not walk but run to a polling place in November and gladly vote for people like this doctor-candidate in South Dakota.
Why is that?
Let’s start with Thomas Piketty, whose 700-page book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” is all the rage. Piketty’s book, which essentially is a look at the changes in the concentration of wealth over time, has surprised a lot of people, including the venerable liberal economist Paul Krugman. Here’s what he said to Bill Moyers (I highly recommend watching or reading the entire interview):
BILL MOYERS: Inequality’s been on the table for a long time. You’ve written extensively, others have, too. I mean, it’s a familiar issue, but what explains that this book has now become a phenomenon?
PAUL KRUGMAN: Actually, a lot of what we know about inequality actually comes from him, because he’s been an invisible presence behind a lot. So when you talk about the 1 percent, you’re actually to a larger extent reflecting his prior work. But what he’s really done now is he said, “Even those of you who talk about the 1 percent, you don’t really get what’s going on. You’re living in the past. You’re living in the ’80s. You think that Gordon Gekko is the future.”
And Gordon Gekko is a bad guy, he’s a predator. But he’s a self-made predator. And right now, what we’re really talking about is we’re talking about Gordon Gekko’s son or daughter. We’re talking about inherited wealth playing an ever-growing role. So he’s telling us that we are on the road not just to a highly unequal society, but to a society of an oligarchy. A society of inherited wealth, “patrimonial capitalism.” And he does it with an enormous amount of documentation and it’s a revelation. I mean, even for someone like me, it’s a revelation.
BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask, what could– what has Paul Krugman had to learn from this book?
PAUL KRUGMAN: Even the title, the first word in the title, “capital.” We stopped talking about capital. Even people like me stopped talking about capital because we thought it was all about human capital. We thought it was all about earnings. We thought that the wealthy were people who one way or another found a way to make a lot of money.
And we knew that that wasn’t always true. We knew that in the Gilded Age or in the Belle Époque in Europe, which he prefers to talk about. That high incomes were mostly a result of having lots and lots of assets. But we sort of said, “Well, that’s not the way things work anymore.” And he says, “Oh yeah? It turns out that you’re wrong.” That’s true, that right now, a lot of high incomes in America are people who didn’t start out all that rich. But we’re rapidly moving towards a state where inherited wealth dominates. I didn’t know that. I really was– I should’ve known it. I should’ve thought about it, but I didn’t. And so then here comes this book with– I mean, it’s beautiful– absolutely analytically beautiful, if that makes any sense at all.
BILL MOYERS: As you know, I’m no economist, but I found this book, as I said in the opening, just very readable and suddenly there would be this moment of epiphany.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah, it’s a real “eureka” book. You suddenly say, “Oh,
this is not– the world is not the way I saw it.” The world in fact has moved on a long way in the last 25 years and not in a direction you’re going to like because we are seeing not only great disparities in income and wealth, but we’re seeing them get entrenched. We’re seeing them become inequalities that will be transferred across generations. We are becoming very much the kind of society we imagine we’re nothing like.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s Piketty’s main point: capital tends to produce real returns of 4 to 5 percent, and economic growth is much slower. What’s the practical result of that?
PAUL KRUGMAN: What that means is that if you have a large fortune, or a family has a large fortune, they can — the inheritors of that large fortune — can live very, very well. They can live an extraordinary standard of living and still put a large fraction of the income from that fortune aside and the fortune will grow faster than the economy.
So the big dynastic fortunes tend to take an ever-growing share of total, national wealth. So once you– when you have a situation where the returns on capital are pretty high and the growth rate of the economy is not that high, you have a situation in which not only can people live well off inherited wealth, but they can actually pass on to the next generation even more, an even a higher share.
And so it’s all, in his terms, “r” the rate of return on capital, and “g” the rate of growth of the economy. And when you have a high r, low g economy [r > g], which is what we now have, then you’re talking not– you’re talking about a situation in which dynasties come increasingly to increasingly to dominate the top of the economic spectrum and a tiny fraction of the population ends up very dominant.
Not only does that “tiny fraction of the population” dominate the economic spectrum, but those same folks are dominating the media, with messages like the one spread by our Christian Republican candidate in South Dakota. Krugman says that,
…there’s a very effective apparatus of TV and print media and think tanks and so on who hammer against any suggestion of redistribution. It’s just, they’ve managed to convince a lot of people that it is somehow un-American.
Which actually, if you look at American history, that’s not all true. But they– it’s just been pushed very hard. I think also the United States, look, we have to admit, race is always lurking under almost everything in American life. And redistribution in the minds of a lot of people means taking money from people like me and giving it to people who don’t look like me…
That media “apparatus” is how a lot of people, who are either benefiting from government programs or who would benefit from an expansion of government programs, become sympathetic to that “don’t feed the humans because they’ll grow dependent on government” meme represented by that ridiculous viral image spread by a doctor who wants a seat in the U.S. Senate. Average folks are being manipulated by the moneyed class, a class of people who somehow feel oppressed:
BILL MOYERS: You wrote something the other day that’s hard to forget. You said, “We live in such an ugliness in America right now.”
PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah. This is one of the things that puzzles me actually about my own country, which is it’s one thing to have disparities of income and wealth and to have differing views about what we should be doing about it. But there’s a level of harshness in our debates mostly coming from the people who are actually doing very well.
So, you know, we’ve had a parade of billionaires whining about being– you know, the incredible injustice that people are actually criticizing them. And then comparing anyone who criticizes them to the Nazis. You know, it’s almost a tic that they have. This is– this is very strange. And it’s kind of scary because, you know, it’s one thing if someone without a lot of power seems to be going off and into a rage for no good reason. But these are people who have a lot of influence because of the amount of money they control.
Influence. Money buys influence. It always has and, thanks to the Supreme Court, it can buy more influence than ever. Here is one definition of influence:
the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something…
That is why we find so many average people supporting candidates who perpetuate such hateful nonsense about food stamps and government dependency—and who perpetuate the myth that we all can have the American Dream, if we’ll just keep working our asses off at two or three jobs and keep our heads down and our mouths shut. These average folks are actually doing the bidding of billionaires.
Obviously, if the rich have the means and the permission to buy tons of influence and thus effect the “character, development, or behavior” of people, the very idea of democracy is undermined. If what we see going on right before our eyes continues, we are just kidding ourselves that “we the people” actually rule.
But regular readers know that I try to find hope in and for the future and refuse to say that all of this depressing stuff dooms us forever. Refreshingly, Paul Krugman does the same:
BILL MOYERS: Given what you just said and given the fact that there’s this ugliness, what do you think it’s going to take? A mass uprising? Consistent demonstrations? Insurgent politics? How are we going to stem the tide that he says is taking us into oligarchy?
PAUL KRUGMAN: There’s a negative and there’s a positive take. Piketty argues — seems to argue through much of the book that we only escaped the old oligarchy for a while thanks to really disastrous events. Thanks to wars and depressions, which disrupted the system. That’s an argument you can make.
On the other hand, if you read histories of the New Deal, you know that it didn’t come– it didn’t spring out of nowhere. That we had a progressive movement and a lot of proto New Deal programs building for quite a long time.
There was, in fact, a move in America. There was an increasing political, philosophical readiness to take on inequality of wealth and power long before FDR moved into the White House. And so, I think there are better angels of our nature. That there is this ugliness which can be frightening. But there is also a redemptive streak in — here and in other places.
And that– don’t give up hope on this. That given consistent argumentation, given events, and perhaps you know, as people become more aware of what is actually going on, then there is a chance of changing things. Do we know that? No. But there’s nothing in what we know now that says you should give up hope of being able to change this even without a catastrophe.
If it is any consolation, and I admit it isn’t much, the doctor in South Dakota who posted that ignorance-inspired message on Facebook is losing in the polls. The problem is she is losing to a Republican man who will likely be the next U.S. Senator from South Dakota, former governor Mike Rounds, who right-wingers are accusing of being a RINO on repealing the Affordable Care Act, and who said in response,
Obamacare is bad for the country and I have always opposed it.
I didn’t say it would be easy to keep hoping.