Politics & Policy

Government for the Strongest and Richest

The future belongs to those who will displace progressive aims with an agenda of economic growth.

Intellectually undemanding progressives, excited by the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) — advocate of the downtrodden and the Export-Import Bank — have at last noticed something obvious: Big government, which has become gargantuan in response to progressives’ promptings, serves the strong. It is responsive to factions sufficiently sophisticated and moneyed to understand and manipulate its complexity.

Hence Democrats, the principal creators of this complexity, receive more than 70 percent of lawyers’ political contributions. Yet progressives, refusing to see this defect — big government captured by big interests — as systemic, want to make government an ever-more-muscular engine of regulation and redistribution. Were progressives serious about what used to preoccupy America’s Left — entrenched elites, crony capitalism, and other impediments to upward mobility — they would study The New Class Conflict, by Joel Kotkin, a lifelong Democrat.

The American majority that believes life will be worse for the next few decades — more than double the number who believe things will be better — senses that 95 percent of income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the wealthiest 1 percent. This, Kotkin believes, reflects the “growing alliance between the ultra-wealthy and the instruments of state power.” In 2012, Barack Obama carried eight of America’s ten wealthiest counties.

In the 1880s, Kotkin says, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s railroad revenues were larger than the federal government’s revenues. That was the old economy. This is the new: In 2013, the combined ad revenues of all American newspapers were smaller than Google’s; so were magazines’ revenues. In 2013, Google’s market capitalization was six times GM’s, but Google had one-fifth as many employees. The fortunes of those Kotkin calls “the new Oligarchs” are based “primarily on the sale of essentially ephemeral goods: media, advertising and entertainment.”

He calls another ascendant group the Clerisy, which is based in academia (where there are now many more administrators and staffers than full-time instructors), media, the nonprofit sector, and, especially, government: Since 1945, government employment has grown more than twice as fast as America’s population. The Founders worried about government being captured by factions; they did not foresee government becoming society’s most rapacious and overbearing faction.

The Clerisy is, Kotkin says, increasingly uniform in its views, and its power stems from “persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society.” The Clerisy supplies the administrators of progressivism’s administrative state, the regulators of the majority that needs to be benevolently regulated toward progress.

The Clerisy’s policies include dense urban living as a “sustainable” alternative to suburbia, and serving environmentalism by consuming less. Hence the sluggish growth and job creation since the recession ended in June 2009 — a.k.a. the “new normal” — do not seriously disturb the Clerisy. It preaches what others — including the 43 percent of non-college-educated whites who consider themselves downwardly mobile — are supposed to practice. The result, Kotkin says, is a “more stratified, less permeable social order.” And today’s “plutonomy,” an economy fueled by the spending of the relatively few people who guaranteed that luxury brands did best during the recession.

Michael Bloomberg, an archetypical progressive, enunciated a “‘Downton Abbey’ vision of the American future” (Walter Russell Mead’s phrase) for New York. As New York City’s mayor, Bloomberg said: “If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.” Progressive government, not rapid, broad-based economic growth, will “take care of” the dependent majority.

In New York, an incubator of progressivism, Kotkin reports, the “wealthiest 1 percent earn a third of the entire city’s personal income — almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country.” California, a one-party laboratory for progressivism, is home to 111 billionaires and the nation’s highest poverty rate (adjusted for the cost of living). One study shows that young Californians are less likely to become college graduates than their parents were. “The state’s ‘green energy’ initiatives,” Kotkin observes, “supported by most tech and many financial Oligarchs, have raised electricity rates well above the national average, making it difficult for firms in traditional fields like manufacturing, fossil fuels, agriculture or logistics.” California is no longer a destination for what Kotkin calls “aspirational families”: In 2013, he says, Houston had more housing starts than all of California.

In 2010, there were 27 million more Americans than in 2000 — but fewer births, a reflection, surely, of what Kotkin calls “the end of intergenerational optimism.” The political future belongs to those who will displace the progressive Clerisy’s objectives with an agenda of economic growth.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post

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