Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
They Said It:
“Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.” “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.” “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” 1843.
FERGUSON AND THE SURPLUS POPULATION.
Like many of you, we have been following the events of late in Ferguson, Missouri with a mix of antipathy, sympathy, and confusion. The antipathy, naturally, is the result of the absolute senselessness of the rioting and looting. A young black man is shot in a confrontation with a police officer. And this is somehow viewed by a large group of individuals, including many in positions of influence, as a justification for burning to the ground an entire neighborhood, including many minority-owned businesses, and disrupting normal economic and social activity in places hundreds of miles away, up to and including a group of completely innocent schoolchildren singing Christmas carols in Seattle.
The sympathy, in turn, is that which we feel for Brown’s parents, for many young black men and women across the country, and for anyone who has ever had to deal with the untimely death of friend or relative in the prime of life. And, of course, this sympathy also extends to those many men and women in law enforcement who have the thankless task of protecting a population that is often conflicted about law enforcement’s very presence in their communities and is occasionally hostile.
And finally, the confusion is over the fact that there appears to be no consensus whatsoever among the various parties who have a stake in this mess as to what might be done even to mitigate the associated problems much less solve them.
To hear the President of the United States or the nation’s newspaper of record or even the cable news networks tell it, Michael Brown’s death is irrelevant to this twisted tale. It is, rather, a vehicle for launching yet another hackneyed and politically charged attack on the dastardly racists who spend their every waking moment trying to keep black Americans from realizing their God given right to freedom, dignity, and economic and social equality.
As far as we can tell, there are at least two problems here, both of which have contributed to our confusion and both of which make it impossible to begin unraveling the issues of race, crime, dependence, and frustration in this country. The first of these is the simple fact that almost all of the discussion on race in this country is factually inaccurate, ideologically driven, and, for the most part, reflects nothing more than the desires and prejudices of the writer/speaker rather than anything approaching genuine analysis of reality.
Take, for example, the weekend column by the New York Times’ highly respected and highly decorated columnist Nicholas Kristoff. “Racial divisions remain raw,” Kristoff notes. Therefore, he says, we should “borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.” And what horrible examples of racial outrage does Kristoff see that would prompt him to insist that this country follow in the proverbial footsteps of one of the most heinous and loathsome racialist regimes in recent memory? Funny you should ask. Here’s what he said.
We as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life. Two economists, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, found that white N.B.A. referees disproportionally call fouls on black players, while black refs call more fouls on white players. “These biases are sufficiently large that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games,” Price and Wolfers wrote.
You can’t make this stuff up.
But it’s not as though Kristoff is alone in this nuttiness. Indeed, most of the commentary and analysis on the racial problems in America today is irredeemably unbalanced and unthoughtful. Without question, one reason for this is the well documented near-uniformity of opinion among the nation’s political and media elites. Another, more insidious reason is the calculated intimidation by those same elites of those who dare to deviate from the accepted views on race, those who dare to discuss race more than just superficially and in keeping with the accepted narrative. The outgoing Attorney General of the United States has called his fellow countrymen a “nation of cowards” for their refusal to discuss race openly and honestly. In some ways, he has a point. But then, who would want to have an open and frank discussion on race when any statement that is either open or frank will undoubtedly be used by the same Attorney General and his media enablers as evidence of racism? All the while, of course, the country’s most famous inciter of race-riots is rewarded for his decades-long efforts to sow genuine racial acrimony with positions of legitimacy on cable news and in the Democratic party.
A third reason that the topic of racial problems in Ferguson and elsewhere is so poorly understood and addressed is that the mainstream press and the nation’s liberal intelligentsia are simply incapable of seeing beyond race when addressing any issue in which racial minorities feature prominently. Everyone from Barack Obama on down has insisted, for example, that Ferguson and race are inextricably bound. A black man was shot by a white cop in a majority black suburb that has a majority white police force; and the cop was eventually let off with a warning by a white prosecutor and a majority white grand jury. It’s all about race, and nothing more. Race, race, race, race, race.
It is true, we’ll concede, that race does indeed matter a great deal, especially in the Ferguson tragedy. Nevertheless, we think that the real and critical driving characteristic of the events there is class. We know this sounds like something of a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true. The tragedy of Ferguson stems not from racism, the longtime scourge of the black community, but from what we will call, for lack of a better term, “poorism.” And while this may seem at first glance like a distinction without a difference, the fact is that it is a highly important difference because the effects of “poorism,” as seen in Ferguson, are unlikely to be confined in the future to the black community alone.
In order to explain what we mean by this, it is necessary to take a step back and to look first at an abridged history of progressive governance in this country.
As we have noted countless times before in these pages, the start of the contemporary culture wars in this country can be traced back almost exactly a half century to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s groundbreaking and uber-controversial study “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which the late Senator wrote while serving as an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson Administration.
Among other things, Moynihan noted the existence and the pervasiveness of black poverty and the correlation between that poverty and the breakdown of the nuclear black family. In an attempt to explain why black economic advancement lagged both political advancement and the economic fortunes of other ethnic groups, Moynihan examined countless reams of data and endless studies of black family life. And what he found – a paradox which came to be known as “Moynihan’s Scissors” – was that welfare and male unemployment in the black community no longer appeared to be nearly perfectly correlated, as they were in other populations and as they had always been in the past.
As it turned out, male unemployment was diverging from welfare outlays because the family was breaking down. In other words, welfare made it possible for women, primarily black women, to survive and raise their children without said children’s father present in the home. In turn, the absence of the father from the home became necessary for the collection of welfare. A vicious circle had been created, and it was exacerbating black poverty tremendously.
Although Moynihan was accused of “blaming the victim” and attempting to shift responsibility for black poverty away from racism and to that which he called the “pathologies” of ghetto culture, time eventually proved his research and conclusions to be essentially accurate. As Kay Hymowitz noted in a defense of Moynihan’s work on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, the years after the report was issued proved every bit as devastating for the black community as Moynihan feared they would. She put it this way:
Indeed, by 1980, 15 years after “The Negro Family,” the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks had more than doubled, to 56 percent. In the ghetto, that number was considerably higher, as high as 66 percent in New York City. Many experts comforted themselves by pointing out that white mothers were also beginning to forgo marriage, but the truth was that only 9 percent of white births occurred out of wedlock.
And how was the black single-parent family doing? It would be fair to say that it had not been exhibiting the strengths of kinship networks. According to numbers crunched by Moynihan and economist Paul Offner, of the black children born between 1967 and 1969, 72 percent received Aid to Families with Dependent Children before the age of 18. School dropout rates, delinquency, and crime, among the other dysfunctions that Moynihan had warned about, were rising in the cities. In short, the 15 years since the report was written had witnessed both the birth of millions of fatherless babies and the entrenchment of an underclass.
The catch here is the fact that over the subsequent three-plus decades, the problems associated with the black family, its dissolution, and government dependence did, in fact, become far more widespread in the population at large, with whites and Hispanics mirroring the pathologies first noted by Moynihan. In this sense, then, the dissolution of the black family proved not to be a phenomenon unique to the black experience in America, but a more universal response to the welfare state, the sexual revolution, and the broader amplification of the progressive political agenda throughout the culture.
In 2013, the Urban Institute released a study called “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” which documented the ongoing turmoil in the black community and noted the spread of the conditions noted by Moynihan. The report concluded, therefore, that the fight for the family and thus the rescue of the working class would be far more difficult than anyone had originally suspected.
The UI report, you may recall, followed Charles Murray’s landmark book Coming Apart, the State of White America, 1960-2010, which was published just over a year before. Murray, of course, is one of the finest, most creative, and most rigorous and thorough social science researchers working today. He is also a pariah among the intellectual crowd for having had the gall to report honestly his findings with respect to race, poverty, and intelligence. In any case, as we noted repeatedly in the weeks after Murray’s book was released, he demonstrated rather conclusively that the black family was indeed the proverbial canary in the coal mine and that what had happened to black working-class families by the 1960s had also happened to white working-class families, only at something of a time lag. Specifically, Murray put it this way:
In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites ages 30–49 in both Belmont and Fishtown were married — 94 percent in Belmont and 84 percent in Fishtown. The unquestioned norm in both neighborhoods was marriage. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in Belmont and Fishtown. Then came the great divergence. In Belmont, marriage among prime-age adults stabilized during the mid-1980s and remained flat thereafter, standing at 83 percent in 2010. In Fishtown, marriage continued a slide that had not slackened as of 2010, when the percentage of married whites ages 30–49 had fallen to a minority of 48 percent. What had been a 10 percentage point difference between Belmont and Fishtown in the 1960s stood at 35 percentage points in 2010. The culprits — divorce and failure to marry in the first place — split responsibility for the divergence about equally.
Another aspect of marriage showed just as great a divergence: the percentage of children born to unmarried women. Frightened though politicians and media eminences are to say so, nonmarital births are problematic. Children who are born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than children raised in intact families even after controlling for the income and education of the parents. The technical literature on that topic is large and damning. The literature on what happens when large proportions of children within a neighborhood are born to unmarried women is less extensive, but the coincidence between that phenomenon and communities that have fallen apart, whether they be in the inner city or rural America, suggests that a large proportion of nonmarital births within a community constitutes a social catastrophe.
In 1960, just 2 percent of all white births were nonmarital. When the Vital Statistics first gave us the mother’s education in 1970, 6 percent of births to white women with no more than a high school education — women with a Fishtown education — were out of wedlock. Or to put it another way, 94 percent of such births were within marriage. By 2008, 44 percent were nonmarital. Among the college-educated women of Belmont, less than 6 percent of all births were out of wedlock as of 2008, up from 1 percent in 1970.
By 2010, in other words, the phenomenon that was first noticed as the tragedy of the black family had fully become the tragedy of the working class. Black Americans, who continue to earn fewer college degrees than whites, are therefore more firmly ensconced in the working class and thus more deeply affected by this working class pathology. One can, of course, spend countless hours and spill endless ink debating the interaction of race, education, and class, but the end result would nevertheless be the same: the dissolution of the nuclear family and the attendant prevalence of poverty, once seen as primarily a racial problem, has become a class problem, a development not coincidentally encouraged by the expanse of the welfare state and the pervasiveness of progressive economics.
Now, consider for a moment the economic conditions – as opposed to social conditions – in black America today. More to the point, consider the economic conditions in black America under Barack Obama. Obama has, of course, made a great deal about the economic recovery he has overseen. As any schoolboy knows, however, that recovery has been both fitful and extremely unevenly distributed. Under Obama, the rich have grown richer, the uber-rich have grown uber-richer, and everyone else – and especially blacks – have done notably worse. Black unemployment remains exceptionally high. Black wages – like all wages – are stagnant or falling. The country’s first black president has, in many ways, been an economic disaster for black America. Indeed, in a recent piece for the Financial Times, Edward Luce noted the following:
[T]he facts are deeply unflattering. Since 2009, median non-white household income has dropped by almost a 10th to $33,000 a year, according to the US Federal Reserve’s survey of consumer finances. As a whole, median incomes fell by 5 per cent. But by the more telling measure of net wealth – assets minus liabilities – the numbers offer a more troubling story.
The median non-white family today has a net worth of just $18,100 – almost a fifth lower than it was when Mr Obama took office. White median wealth, on the other hand, has inched up by 1 per cent to $142,000. In 2009, white households were seven times richer than their black counterparts. That gap is now eightfold. Both in relative and absolute terms, blacks are doing worse under Mr Obama.
Luce attempts to absolve Obama of this decline, insisting that “by no honest reckoning can Mr. Obama be blamed for the decline in black America’s fortunes.” We’d argue that, at best, such a contention is debatable. At worst, it’s inconsistent with what we know about Obama’s economic policy and the greater progressive effort. Luce contends that Obama has done right by the black community in that he has preserved and expanded the welfare state, particularly with respect to Medicaid and food stamps. We’d argue in response that Luce completely misses the point. And the point is that Medicaid and food stamps are not signs of Obama’s concern for the poor – be they white, black, or otherwise – but of his dedication to the end-stage welfare state, which is both the cause and an effect of black poverty. As with the early-stage welfare state, the end-stage version produces a vicious circle, which we noted back at the beginning of the year in a piece titled “The Welfare State and Its Discontents.”
In Obama’s world, Big Government cooperates – some might say “colludes” – with big business, i.e. big banks, big technology, etc. And in return for government’s “cooperation,” big business agrees to give back. The masses are largely cut off from wealth creation and any from aspirations of becoming part of the new gentry. At the same time, however, they are taken care of through the largess of the state. Big Government rubs Big Business’s back. Big Business rubs back by filling Big Government’s coffers. And the “little people” are kept fat and happy in their dependency.
The problem with all of this is that this particular condition, which the Left views as ideal, is itself analogous to the historical condition of serfdom, which, as you may recall, is the precise destination to which conservatives have been warning the welfare state will lead since 1944. In a recent essay, Joel Kotkin, the Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, explained how this all works in practice:
[I]nstead of a land of opportunity, California has become increasingly feudal. According to recent census estimates, the state suffers some of the highest levels of inequality in the country. By some estimates, the state’s level of inequality compares with that of such global models as the Dominican Republic, Gambia, and the Republic of the Congo.
At the same time, the Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the country — 23.5 percent compared to 16 percent nationally — worse than long-term hard luck cases like Mississippi. It is also now home to roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, almost three times its proportion of the nation’s population.
Like medieval serfs, increasing numbers of Californians are downwardly mobile, and doing worse than their parents. . . .
California produces more new billionaires than any place this side of oligarchic Russia or crony capitalist China. By some estimates the Golden State is home to one out of every nine of the world’s billionaires. In 2011 the state was home to 90 billionaires, 20 more than second place New York and more than twice as many as booming Texas. . . .
Silicon Valley’s wealth reflects the fortunes of a handful of companies that dominate an information economy that itself is increasingly oligopolistic. In contrast to the traditionally conservative or libertarian ethos of the entrepreneurial class, the oligarchy is increasingly allied with the nominally populist Democratic Party and its regulatory agenda. Along with the public sector, Hollywood, and their media claque, they present California as “the spiritual inspiration” for modern “progressives” across the country.
Through their embrace of and financial support for the state’s regulatory regime, the oligarchs have made job creation in non tech-businesses—manufacturing, energy, agriculture—increasingly difficult . . . .
If current trends continue, the fastest growing class will be the permanently property-less. This group includes welfare recipients and other government dependents but also the far more numerous working poor. In the past, the working poor had reasonable aspirations for a better life, epitomized by property ownership or better prospects for their children. Now, with increasingly little prospect of advancement, California’s serfs depend on the Clerisy to produce benefits making their permanent impoverishment less gruesome.
This, sadly, is the New Left’s ideal. It is the welfare state in all its glory. It is also, as Hayek might have said, the crisis of our civilization.
In our estimation, the consequences of this “new serfdom” are both significant and numerous. For the purposes of discussion today, though, the key consequences are twofold. First, the conditions that are today pervasive in urban communities predominantly populated by African-Americans constitute a portent of conditions that will prevail throughout working-class communities – white, black, Hispanic, and so on – in the near future. As with the pathologies of family destruction, the end results of the progressive neo-feudalism will eventually be manifest society-wide. They are showing up first in the black community because the black community has been far more intensely targeted for and by government economic intervention. But they will eventually spread, consuming the entirety of working-class America.
Second, this neo-serfdom is, in large part responsible for the Michael Browns of the world, in that it created the conditions, indeed the world, in which he – and countless others like him – lived. Brown, recall, lived in a census tract that had double the poverty rate of the state average. He lived with his grandmother, who had taken over his guardianship. He had just graduated high school under an “alternative education program.” He had no job – although was reportedly about to entire a trade school to learn air conditioner repair. He was also a petty thief who smoked pot. According to reports and to friends, he was a normal kid who “spent a lot of time playing PlayStation 3.” In short, he was, more or less, one of the forgotten men in our society, a poor black man with few prospects, struggling to get an education, and filling his days with empty pursuits like pot and video games. He was part of what the great and not-so-great economists of the 18th and 19th centuries would have called the “surplus population.”
Please note, when we refer to Brown as part of the surplus population, we do not mean to say that he was expendable or that he was unnecessary. We are using the term in the sense that the likes of Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx used the term, to denote that segment of society that has been left behind, made obsolete by the economic system. Of the three mentioned above, Marx is probably best known for his use of the term – or for synonyms like the “reserve army of labor” – and for describing the conditions under which the surplus grows. In Chapter 25 of Part I of Das Capital, for example, he put it this way:
The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and therefore also the greater the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productivity of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital, also develop the labour-power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army thus increases with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour-army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to the amount of torture it has to undergo in the form of labour. The more extensive, finally, the pauperized sections of the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws, it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here (emphasis in original).
What’s interesting here is that Marx was, for a change, right about the growth of the surplus population, even as he was wrong about its cause. The cause is not, as he believed, “capitalist” accumulation, but rather “corporatist” accumulation. The surplus population – as we are proving in this country and as the Europeans have amply proved over the last few decades – grows not simply because capital accumulates in too few hands. It grows when capital accumulates in the hands of those favored by the government and who, in turn, provide the government with the means to create and maintain a comfortable and largely unobjectionable welfare state. The surplus population, then, are the forgotten ones, the new serfs, the men and women like Michael Brown who are compensated for doing nothing by a government that finds it is easier and more self-rewarding to provide that compensation than to disturb the economic activity of the new oligarchs. The ultimate irony is that it turns out to be the Leftist redistribution of wealth, not capitalism, that is the cause of Marx’s surplus army of labor.
It should be noted as well that most of those who worried about the surplus population, its causes, and its effects – from the Luddites, to Malthus, to Marx – misunderstood or completely ignored the importance and the role of technology in improving he lives of the working class. No one quite grasped that technological advancement would not only forestall the calamitous resource shortages that Malthus anticipated but would also permit capitalist society to grow at such a pace as to provide countless new jobs and new fields of opportunity, even as some jobs were lost to mechanization. All of them missed, essentially, what Jean-Baptiste Say, the French disciple of Adam Smith, understood, namely the power that would be created by the synergy between entrepreneurship and technology. “The entrepreneur,” Say wrote, “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” And by doing so, the entrepreneur, harnessing technology to create wealth, provide jobs, and enhance resources at an unexpected rate, avoided the calamities of surplus population.
Without wondering too far afield, we’ll conclude our foray into classical economics by noting simply that while Say may have been correct about entrepreneurship, the same forces that altered the Marxist growth of the surplus population also deeply affected the state of entrepreneurship in the West and in the United States in particular. Entrepreneurship has been both declining and changing in this country for the better part of three decades, falling off precipitously during the Great Recession and then recovering to some extent afterward, but in an altered state. A combination of regulations, tax burden, debt burdens, and especially the government-endorsed consolidation in corporate America have both reduced the number of start-up companies and turned those that are formed into “microbusinesses,” which employ fewer than ten people. All of which is to say that the culprit here is, again, government and its collusion with favored businesses. Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and the rest may seem like entrepreneurs in the classical sense, but unlike their predecessors, they have captured and been captured by government, making them impediments to present and future entrepreneurship and a contributing factor in the creation of the surplus population.
In the end, then, we are left with an economic model that, because of government’s ubiquitous and resource-draining capacity, has more or less neutered the great, historical leavening agents of the capitalist economy, technology and entrepreneurship. Amazon is testing drones to replace delivery drivers. It is testing robots to replace warehouse workers. Momentum Machines is creating burger-making robots to replace fast-food workers. And so it goes. The difference today is that all of this technological advancement is taking place under the watchful and supportive eye of the corporatist system, which is to say that the disruptive power of technology is yielding destruction, but without the “creative” component, leading to job losses, but not the erstwhile usual subsequent gains.
Michael Brown was not the only member of the surplus population to play a role in the Ferguson drama. Those who burned down the city in the aftermath of his shooting and who did so again last week in the aftermath of the grand jury decision are every bit as ensconced in the government/corporatist-created ghetto of purposelessness as was Brown. Critics, observers, and pundits have all wondered why in the world these “protestors” would burn down their own homes, their neighborhood businesses, their own city. The answer is actually pretty simple, because they have nothing better to do.
The story is much the same in the other cities that have seen Ferguson-related protests. In Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere, protestors and rioters are either members of the surplus population or members of the white gentry elites, who don’t really have to worry about the plight of the working class but who have the resources that allow them to play at being activists.
Elsewhere, the future members of the surplus population, the white working class, are watching in horror as their own future unfolds before them. As we have noted more than once over the last few months, these voters, once the core of the Democratic Party, have moved heavily and irreversibly in the Republican direction over the last few election cycles. The principal reason for this shift is not race, as most leftist commentators suspect, but economic uncertainty. The ruling class, and especially the Democratic component of the ruling class, presumes that these fears are either feigned or exaggerated, believing that the pervasiveness and the relative comfort of the safety net should allay any genuine concern. Why worry, they wonder, when you know that government will ensure that you have a roof over your head, a full belly, shoes on your feet, a Playstation to occupy your time, and, depending on where you live, legalized pot to ease your emotional pain?
What these generous and magnanimous rulers of lesser men never quite seem to grasp – largely because they’ve never had to worry about work – is that idleness is destructive, not just on a societal level, but on a personal level as well. As Adam Smith noted, labor, and the personal creation of wealth are both inextricably linked and a critical source of happiness in the working class:
The liberal reward of labour, by enabling them to provide better for their children, and consequently to bring up a greater number, naturally tends to widen and extend those limits. . . . The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the effect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing population. To complain of it, is to lament over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity.
When labor is obstructed, in other words, when dependence becomes the norm rather than the exception, the public prosperity suffers, naturally, but the public happiness suffers as well. And eventually that unhappiness manifests itself, sometimes as petty theft and confrontation with authorities, and sometimes as wanton rioting and looting.
While most, if not all of the commentators on Ferguson are fretting about the sad state of racial relations in this country and trying to figure out how to lessen racial tension going forward, we believe, fervently, that the key issues here are not racial, but economic and derived from the corporatist economics of the progressive ruling class. What this means, in turn, is that the ongoing focus on race is not only irritating but likely to be completely fruitless as well. The only solutions to the problems of Ferguson are radical solutions that are largely beyond the capabilities and willingness of the ruling class to foster. The corporatist structure must be broken, but it must be broken not by weakening the power of business, but by weakening the power of government to choose the winners and losers in business. In the absence of such reform, the surplus population’s frustration, which is currently on display in Ferguson and throughout the black community, will simply metastasize and will split this country definitively along class lines.
We’re not exactly optimistic about the likelihood that such anti-corporatist reform is in the offing or that the corporatist structure will indeed soon be broken. But we are more hopeful today than we were last year, or the year before, or especially six years ago. The rise of the populist, libertarian wing of the GOP gives us at least some reason to expect that the status quo can be changed. If the young Tea Partiers fail, though, or if they become a part of the problem rather than the potential solution, then the results will be quite ugly, we’re afraid. The corporatist model is doomed eventually. And when it fails, those who have become dependent on it will suffer and suffer badly.