Monday, October 31, 2011

The Inequality Narrative

The reaction in conservative and liberal circles to the speech Paul Ryan recently delivered at the Heritage Foundation entitled “Saving the American Idea: Rejecting Fear, Envy and the Politics of Division” says a lot of about the current state of play in the ideological struggle between conservatives and liberals.  He’s mostly deploring Obama’s recent decision to recast himself as a class warrior in the run-up to the next election.  “Envy” is the crucial word in Ryan’s title.  He argues that Obama’s catering to our regrettable weakness for taking intrinsic pleasure in seeing people who are better-off than us get a little worse-off, even if it otherwise doesn’t make us any better-off.  Ryan’s more than happy to have Republicans take sole possession of the language of social solidarity and the common good that Obama used to such great political effect in 2008.    

The interesting thing is that, while writers with conservative instincts like Peggy Noonan are swooning at Ryan’s clear-headed statesmanship, liberals are smelling fear.  Here, for example, is E. J. Dionne sensing Ryan’s ideological anxiety in the face of Obama’s recent ideological aggression and the reaction to the people occupying Wall Street:
 “. . . Ryan would not have given this speech if the Republican Party were not so worried that it is losing control of the political narrative. In particular, growing inequalities of wealth and income — which should have been a central issue in American politics for at least a decade — are now finally at the heart of our discourse. We are, at last, discussing the social and economic costs of concentrating ever more resources in the hands of the top sliver of our society.
“All of which explains why efforts to taint Occupy Wall Street as nothing more than a bunch of latter-day hippie radicals haven't worked. It's also why Obama, by sharpening his arguments about what's fair and what's unfair, has finally stopped his slide in the polls.”

Being an egalitarian, I'm gratified by the prospect of the electorate coming to grips with inequality's  “social and economic costs.”  But you have to wonder whether the current version of the inequality narrative Dionne has in mind has any legs. To that end, ask yourself this: how are the costs of inequality measured? 

The answer, I submit, can only be our rough-and-ready sense of the difference between the prospects of lower- and middle-class people under current arrangements, and what their prospects would be under your favorite more-egalitarian social scheme.  Unless you have some feasible and sustainable social alternative in mind, the notion of "inequalities having a determinable social cost" lacks any semblance of meaning.  

Even if you find Ryan’s model of a fiscally sustainable welfare state as unattractive I do in certain respects, you have to admit that he’s not shy about telling you what it is.  His candor puts him in a position to take Democrats to task for trafficking on socially corrosive passions.  Ryan thinks they're proposing to take well-off people down a couple of notches without having any good reason for thinking it will sustainably improve the lot of lower- and middle-class people over the long haul.  That's arguably a matter of fomenting "class envy" on anyone's definition.   

That’s surely a rebuttable argument, but you have to admit that, so far, Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, aren't doing much to rebut it. Indeed, if they have a viable model of the welfare state in something like its present form they're going to considerable lengths to keep it to themselves.  Indeed, even when they controlled all the elected branches of the federal government they dispensed with the ordinary instruments of governance (like passing budgets) that project any illusion that they're charting a sustainable future for a political economy with a robust social safety net.  

Everywhere you look modern welfare states are tottering and the best you’re getting out of American liberals now is proposals for fiscal triage of one sort or another.  I don't know about you, but I’ll start believing that liberal Democrats are "seizing control of the political narrative" (whatever that means) when they stop spending all their time talking about stabilizing the welfare state’s precarious condition and start talking persuasively about bringing it back to some semblance of permanent health. 


Pete said...

Talk about self-fulfilling prophesies. Noonan thinks Ryan is serious and statesmanlike because she and her friends at the WSJ agree with him. How many voters really want to ditch Medicare as we know it? Dionne decides that the inequality narrative is taking hold because he and his friends in the liberal press have decided to talk it up. How many people are actually in the street?

Anonymous said...

To Pete's comment: How many voters really want to ditch Medicare as we know it? Who cares? What choice does the US Government have but to change it? Hard choices. That's what leadership is about. Looks what's happening in Greece. No one can make the hard choice and it's going down in flames.