Brooks and Krugman

Bobo is still wringing his hands over “The Fragmented Society” and says Yuval Levin offers a gripping diagnosis of changes in society in his new book.  I guess he and/or the NYT got tired of Bobo being taken to the woodshed because comments have been turned off.  I’ll just point out that one of the “authorities” that Bobo cites is Charles Murray.  Here’s what the Southern Poverty Law Center has to say about him.  Prof. Krugman considers “Obama’s War on Inequality” and says two events this week highlight little-known progressive successes.  Here’s Bobo:

There are just a few essential reads if you want to understand the American social and political landscape today. Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and a few other books deserve to be on that list. Today, I’d add Yuval Levin’s fantastic new book, “The Fractured Republic.”

Levin starts with the observation that our politics and much of our thinking is drenched in nostalgia for the 1950s and early 1960s. The left is nostalgic for the relative economic equality of that era. The right is nostalgic for the cultural cohesion. The postwar era has become our unconscious ideal of what successful America looks like. It was, Levin notes, an age of cohesion and consolidation.

But we have now moved to an age of decentralization and fragmentation. At one point in the book he presents a series of U-shaped graphs showing this pattern.

Party polarization in Congress declined steadily from 1910 to 1940, but it has risen steadily since. We are a less politically cohesive nation.

The share of national income that went to the top 1 percent declined steadily from 1925 to about 1975, but has risen steadily since. We are a less economically cohesive nation.

The share of Americans who were born abroad dropped steadily from 1910 to 1970. But the share of immigrants has risen steadily ever since, from 4.7 percent of the population to nearly 14 percent. We are a more diverse and less demographically cohesive nation.

In case after case we’ve replaced attachments to large established institutions with commitments to looser and more flexible networks. Levin argues that the Internet did not cause this shift but embodies today’s individualistic, diffuse society.

This shift has created some unpleasant realities. Levin makes a nice distinction between centralization and consolidation. In economic, cultural and social terms, America is less centralized. But people have simultaneously concentrated off on the edges —- separated into areas of, say, concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty. The middle has hollowed out in sphere after sphere. Socially, politically and economically we’re living within “bifurcated concentration.”

For example, religious life has bifurcated. Church attendance has declined twice as fast among people without high school diplomas as among people with college degrees. With each additional year of education, the likelihood of attending religious services rises by 15 percent.

We’re also less embedded in tight, soul-forming institutions. Levin makes another distinction between community — being part of a congregation — and identity — being, say, Jewish. Being part of community takes time and involves restrictions. Merely having an identity doesn’t. In our cultural emphasis and life, we’ve gone from a community focus to an identity focus.

Our politicians try to find someone to blame for these problems: banks, immigrants or, for Donald Trump, morons generally. But that older consolidated life could not have survived modernity and is never coming back. It couldn’t have survived globalization, feminism and the sexual revolution, the rising tide of immigration and the greater freedom consumers now enjoy.

Our fundamental problems are the downsides of transitions we have made for good reasons: to enjoy more flexibility, creativity and individual choice. For example, we like buying cheap products from around the world. But the choices we make as consumers make life less stable for us as employees.

Levin says the answer is not to dwell in confusing, frustrating nostalgia. It’s through a big push toward subsidiarity, devolving choice and power down to the local face-to-face community level, and thus avoiding the excesses both of rigid centralization and alienating individualism. A society of empowered local neighborhood organizations is a learning society. Experiments happen and information about how to solve problems flows from the bottom up.

I’m acknowledged in the book, but I learned something new on every page. Nonetheless, I’d say Levin’s emphasis on subsidiarity and local community is important but insufficient. We live within a golden chain, connecting self, family, village, nation and world. The bonds of that chain have to be repaired at every point, not just the local one.

It’s not 1830. We Americans have a national consciousness. People who start local groups are often motivated by a dream of scaling up and changing the nation and the world. Our distemper is not only caused by local fragmentation but by national dysfunction. Even Levin writes and thinks in nation-state terms (his prescription is Wendell Berry, but his intellectual and moral sources are closer to a nationalist like Abraham Lincoln).

That means there will have to be a bigger role for Washington than he or current Republican orthodoxy allows, with more radical ideas, like national service, or a national effort to seed locally run early education and infrastructure projects.

As in ancient Greece and Rome, local communities won’t survive if the national project disintegrates. Our structural problems are national and global and require big as well as little reforms.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

There were two big economic policy stories this week that you may have missed if you were distracted by Trumpian bombast and the yelling of the Sanders dead-enders. Each tells you a lot about both what President Obama has accomplished and the stakes in this year’s election.

One of those stories, I’m sorry to say, did involve Donald Trump: The presumptive Republican nominee — who has already declared that he will, in fact, slash taxes on the rich, whatever he may have said in the recent past — once again declared his intention to do away with Dodd-Frank, the financial reform passed during Democrats’ brief window of congressional control. Just for the record, while Mr. Trump is sometimes described as a “populist,” almost every substantive policy he has announced would make the rich richer at workers’ expense.

The other story was about a policy change achieved through executive action: The Obama administration issued new guidelines on overtime pay, which will benefit an estimated 12.5 million workers.

What both stories tell us is that the Obama administration has done much more than most people realize to fight extreme economic inequality. That fight will continue if Hillary Clinton wins the election; it will go into sharp reverse if Mr. Trump wins.

Step back for a minute and ask, what can policy do to limit inequality? The answer is, it can operate on two fronts. It can engage in redistribution, taxing high incomes and aiding families with lower incomes. It can also engage in what is sometimes called “predistribution,” strengthening the bargaining power of lower-paid workers and limiting the opportunities for a handful of people to make giant sums. In practice, governments that succeed in limiting inequality generally do both.

We can see this in our own history. The middle-class society that baby boomers like me grew up in didn’t happen by accident; it was created by the New Deal, which engineered what economists call the “Great Compression,” a sharp reduction in income gaps. On one side, pro-labor policies led to a striking expansion of unions, which, along with the establishment of a fairly high minimum wage, helped raise wages, especially at the bottom. On the other side, taxes on the wealthy went up sharply, while major programs like Social Security aided working families.

We can also see this in cross-country comparisons. Among advanced countries, the U.S. has the highest level of inequality, Denmark the lowest. How does Denmark do it? Partly with higher taxes and bigger social programs, but it starts with lower inequality in market incomes, thanks in large part to high minimum wages and a labor movement representing two-thirds of workers.

Now, America isn’t about to become Denmark, and Mr. Obama, facing relentless opposition in Congress, has never been in a position to repeat the New Deal. (Even F.D.R. made limited headway against inequality until World War II gave the government unusual influence over the economy.) But more has happened than you might think.

Most obviously, Obamacare provides aid and subsidies mainly to lower-income working Americans, and it pays for that aid partly with higher taxes at the top. That makes it an important redistributionist policy — the biggest such policy since the 1960s.

And between those extra Obamacare taxes and the expiration of the high-end Bush tax cuts made possible by Mr. Obama’s re-election, the average federal tax rate on the top 1 percent has risen quite a lot. In fact, it’s roughly back to what it was in 1979, pre-Ronald Reagan, something nobody seems to know.

What about predistribution? Well, why is Mr. Trump, like everyone in the G.O.P., so eager to repeal financial reform? Because despite what you may have heard about its ineffectuality, Dodd-Frank actually has put a substantial crimp in the ability of Wall Street to make money hand over fist. It doesn’t go far enough, but it’s significant enough to have bankers howling, which is a good sign.

And while the move on overtime comes late in the game, it’s a pretty big deal, and could be the beginning of much broader action.

Again, nothing Mr. Obama has done will put more than a modest dent in American inequality. But his actions aren’t trivial, either.

And even these medium-size steps put the lie to the pessimism and fatalism one hears all too often on this subject. No, America isn’t an oligarchy in which both parties reliably serve the interests of the economic elite. Money talks on both sides of the aisle, but the influence of big donors hasn’t prevented the current president from doing a substantial amount to narrow income gaps — and he would have done much more if he’d faced less opposition in Congress.

And in this as in so much else, it matters hugely whom the nation chooses as his successor.

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