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Facts, values and our politics

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A conundrum is emerging that confounds my understanding, limited as it may be, of politics and economics.  

As a student of political ideology, and the author of two books on media and politics, I’ve long supposed that there is a wide range of legitimate, dignified opinion in any democracy. Indeed, democracy virtually requires such a range of opinion; capitalism makes us materially unequal, and so we have different and conflicting interests and need to have debates about how to divide the economic pie. Democracy, by granting us nominal political equality, makes it possible to have those debates.

Thus, I’ve long considered myself both an ideological agnostic (at one level) and a committed partisan. We have to respect our differences, up to a point, and consider them co-equal. But we still have our differences.

Values never exist entirely in a vacuum, however, even if they seem to. And certain facts are getting in the way of this rational model of political discourse, in which decency and civility are the common thread running from the acceptable left to the acceptable right. Facts are muddying the picture.

Let me back up a bit. It’s a central tenet of modern conservatism (in most of its accepted forms) that small government, low taxes, and maximum individual freedom are the keystone values; that government should in most areas leave us alone, regardless of what we may do to each other, or what private institutions may do to us. The point is to expand the pie as much as possible, and not worry about how it’s divided, and small government is the way to accomplish it.

That’s always seemed to me an entirely reasonable view, although one with which I strongly disagree. But now I’m finding that I have to rethink the whole rational discourse model of political values.

The reasons for this unsettling change (even though it is biased toward my views) have become apparent in the past decade. They are summarized in a recent book by the Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz titled “The Price of Inequality,” as well as in economic speeches by President Obama — such as the one he delivered July 24th at Knox College in Galesburg, IL.

When I heard Stiglitz speak recently, his argument perfectly echoed my own thinking. I’m no economist, but that’s almost beside the point. The facts almost speak for themselves. And the central fact that he and Obama are pointing to is this:

 

Small government doesn’t expand the pie. Activist government supporting and opening up the middle class expands the pie. It isn’t just fairer; it’s better for America prosperity as a whole.

 

Libertarians and other conservatives argue for both economic growth and for tolerating (or encouraging) the boundless inequalities of free markets. But in fact there is a contradiction between these. Evidence is emerging that inequality is inefficient and doesn’t maximize prosperity. As President Obama has been arguing, prosperity comes “from the middle class out,” not from the upper class down or from the bottom up.

When we keep people out of the middle class, through deregulation, letting Wall Street and bankers run amok, or taxing the poor and middle class disproportionately while coddling the rich, as we’ve been doing for several decades, it hurts our economy and our standing in the world.

Many countries that don’t share our penchant for economic anarchy actually do better, in part because they don’t have the drag of inequality and the loss of human capital that it represents. They educate and care for their citizens and reap the results. Our loss is somewhat analogous to the enormous loss of human capital in Muslim countries that don’t allow women to be educated or to work. Poverty is a drag on our political culture; but it also causes economic stagnation.

That’s Stiglitz’s basic message, and Obama’s; and I’m half afraid that they are right. Half afraid because, faced with facts they don’t like, Americans on the right don’t have a strong track record of adjusting to reality. And because this “fact warp” in the political spectrum calls even my own ideological agnosticism into question.

Our democracy needs a dignified, non-paranoid right, and a similar left. (The difference right now is that the “left” is scarcely a factor. Calling Obama a socialist doesn’t make it so.) But I’m no longer content that a conceptually pure spectrum divides the values of left and right.

I think Stiglitz has hit upon something very basic: an empirical argument that skews political values. We need markets, and we need some equality to offset them. He argues that we need regulation to limit monopolies, bad corporate governance, and minimize externalities (such as pollution and environmental hazards that disproportionally harm the poor).  But more fundamentally, we need to recognize — as Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and others have been arguing with increasing power in recent years — that the level of inequality we have now in America just doesn’t work, except for the very few at the top. It shrinks the pie for everyone else. That’s no way to run an economy.

Jeff Scheuer is a writer and critic based in New York. He is the author of two books about media and politics: The Big Picture: Why Democracies Need Journalistic Excellence (2007), and The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left (1999), named a Choice “Outstanding Academic Title.” Jeff is currently writing about critical thinking and the liberal arts.

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