It is said that misery loves company. Perhaps that is why I found David Palmeter’s lengthy comment so comforting. At any rate, it prodded me to continue my assessment of the current disaster. I have devoted a lengthy post to the international changes now seemingly under way [or, to be precise, under weigh]. Today I shall try to back off and evaluate the domestic situation.
First, just a word about an intriguing idea that crossed my attention yesterday. Ignorant as I am of American history [save for African-American history,] I was quite unaware of the fact that Congress changed the size of the Supreme Court six times before 1869. If Trump appoints a pro-life justice, and Roe v. Wade is either overturned outright or threatened, a Democratic President and Congress could respond by increasing the court to eleven and establishing a liberal majority. Would I be in favor of this blatantly political use of the judicial system? You bet! Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.
Several days ago I amused myself by explaining what a Gini coefficient is. The dominant economic trend worldwide is the steady increase in the inequality of income and wealth, particularly of wealth. To those with reasonably long personal memories, this appears as an undermining of the relatively more equal pattern of distribution of the post-World War II period, but as Thomas Piketty convincingly demonstrates in his important book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the growth in inequality is in reality a re-establishment of a level of inequality typical of the past two centuries and more, which is to say virtually the entire capitalist era.
The social safety net we have come to treat as normal in the United States – Social Security, Medicare, minimum wage, union rights, and the rest – was actually a product of the Great Depression and an anomalous post-war period during which the modern Middle Class came into existence. Capital has been clawing those protections back ever since, seeking with ever greater success to impoverish all but the wealthiest ten or fifteen percent. The result world-wide [including in modern China] is a return to what Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism, which is to say the dominance of inherited wealth. One anecdotal example may put flesh on these bare bones for some of you put off by economic abstractions. Steve Jobs was one of the iconic founders of the modern digital age, making a fortune in the process. His widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, inherited his 20 billion dollar estate, without herself having done much of anything to create it. She is admirably progressive in her politics, and is doing many fine things with Steve’s money, but the fact remains that she is a beneficiary of patrimonial capitalism. Somewhat less heartwarming is the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune created by Sam Walton, their father. Collectively they are worth 140 billion dollars, and not even the most enthusiastic cheerleader for the capitalist system would suggest that they earned it. [Piketty’s favorite example is Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the l’Oréal fortune.]
Piketty argues – persuasively, in my judgment – that the fundamental structure of world capitalism, summarized by him in the simple relationship r>g, is driving each national economy towards ever greater inequality. What, if anything, can those of us on the left propose in response?
I can see only two answers. The first, and politically most plausible, is a re-establishment of a broad, vigorous social safety net, paid for by much higher taxes on the wealthy [including me, by the way, since my annual household income puts me at the bottom of the top 10%]. There are people now alive [people even younger than I!] who can remember an America of which this was true. That is not the Holy Grail for those of us on the left, but it would also not be chopped chicken liver either.
The other answer is an assault on capitalism itself, on private ownership of the means of production, a socialization of accumulated capital [and no, Bob Nozick to the contrary notwithstanding, this does not mean robbing LeBron James or Serena Williams of their well-earned wealth.] Only a few years ago, I would have considered such an idea a sad private joke among old lefties still playing Woody Guthrie recordings late at night. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and it may just be that my grandfather’s dreams are gaining some plausibility, however marginal. Just don’t wait for Chuck Schumer to embrace them [or Barack Obama, for that matter.]
Well that is about as much Tiggerishness as I can muster. Now I will get a cup of coffee and listen to the reports on MSNBC that Michael Cohen may be ready to sell out his patron.