It's Not About the Benjamins

I’ve had some tough words for Mike Huckabee in the past — including the not-so-distant past. And I’m sure I’ll have like words for him in the future (not-so-distant included). But George Will’s attempt to destroy Huck by presenting him as an irrational and morally defective anticapitalist in league with John Edwards requires a firm rebuttal.

It’s obvious Will is in high rhetorical form, and that’s fine, but a hit column of this intensity needs to keep at least one foot on the ground to keep from flying into outer space. So I’ll pass on Will’s attack on Huckabee’s sanity and attitude and focus instead of his defense of the economic status quo — without which his column becomes mostly a list of insults. The centerpiece of Will’s substantive critique is that Huckabee doesn’t understand the health of the current economy. The evidence he marshals to prove the point contributes as much to public delusions on that count as anything Huckabee’s offered.

Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 — because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled from 12 to 24, while the percentage earning less than $30,000 is unchanged. “So,” Rose says, “the entire ‘decline’ of the middle class came from people moving up the income ladder.”

But increasing household income doesn’t automatically translate into greater economic security. As full of anxiety as we are, we’ve resigned ourselves to praising a status quo in which families with two working parents can pull in over $100,000 and still not enjoy economic security. Beyond the damage done by inflation, taxes, and the high costs of living and education ‘up the ladder’, the deadening effects of enslaving yourself to the corporate world in order to clamber up that ladder drive ever-older segments of the ‘working rich’ to spend far above their incomes — wasting what they earn on quickly-obsolescent status pleasures and spending what they can’t earn with credit they can’t afford. Defenders of the economic status quo have the smug capacity to praise, from one corner of their mouths, the hardworking exuberance of Americans frantic to max out their purchasing power — while damning their reckless pursuit of trivial delights, and their neglect of savings and parenthood, from the other. It’s time we recognize that the logic of our economy today actively promotes the evisceration of the moral status quo the Republican establishment has so fretfully tried to defend.

Are individuals responsible for their own bad choices? Sure. But I don’t want to live in a culture where the economic structure is applauded for whipping them into a frenzy of never-satisfying overcompensation. And I sure as hell don’t want to hear about how pharmaceutical companies — who cash in beyond any stressed-out yuppie’s wildest dreams on the costly, partial, and lifelong mitigation of his stressed-out yuppie’s diseases — are helping us all get rich. And I shudder to witness the politics we’ve earned from the successful attempt to pay lip service to Madison’s Constitutionalism while parading him up and down Madison Avenue in Hamiltonian drag.

Edwards, synthetic candidate of theatrical bitterness on behalf of America’s crushed, groaning majority, says the rich have an “iron-fisted grip” on democracy and a “stranglehold” on the economy. Strangely, these fists have imposed a tax code that makes the top 1 percent of earners pay 39 percent of all income tax revenues, the top 5 percent pay 60 percent, and the bottom 50 percent pay only 3 percent.

That’s a badass knock on Edwards — so dazzling that it blinds us once again to the difference between high-wage-earning Americans who work too much and those who hardly work at all. To become a member of the true leisure class is beyond the reach even of many high-earning American households. So they buy fleeting leisure experiences instead of saving the money necessary to become really sovereign. Without real, aristocratic leisure, the working rich have little time to engage politics on any level other than lobbying and casting partisan reflex-votes every two years. And do we really feel like, as we get richer, we’re raising better families? We’re making ourselves healthier — not just physically but in our heads, even our souls? To do this in the short time we have on Earth, one gets the feeling the best hope is to cheat today’s economy — cashing in quickly, somehow, on some momentarily overcompensated product demand. Get on TV. Make a splash. Sell out everything for 15 minutes and then get the hell out. But at about minute 14, all too many realize that the high-earning lifestyle is an addiction that’s hard to kick. Born and raised according to the logic of the contemporary economy, we have no faith in the reality of lasting satisfaction.

The way to achieve Edwards’ and Huckabee’s populist goal of reducing the role of “special interests,” meaning money, in government is to reduce the role of government in distributing money. But populists want to sharply increase that role by expanding the regulatory state’s reach and enlarging its agenda of determining the distribution of wealth. Populists, who are slow learners, cannot comprehend this iron law: Concentrate power in Washington and you increase the power of interests whose representatives are concentrated there.

That last line is an old story, and for good reason. But here’s a news flash: the way to reduce the role of money in government is to reduce the amount of money going into government, not the amount of money coming out. The devil’s bargain of low taxes and high spending is addling American minds. We’re happy to let government look after itself, spending its money to cope with, and never cure, its pathologies, so long as government lets us do the same.

Some populists want to concentrate public power in Washington; some want to smash the private interests that flatter it there in an open conspiracy of irresponsibility and infidelity. Whatever you think about the wisdom or justice of that latter course of action, you’ve got to recognize that rising wages tell us almost nothing about our economic health. Indeed, obscuring that fact permits us a great round of self-flattery — with so many getting richer, and wealth an unquestionable sign of personal responsibility, we need open no discussion about the sicknesses and chronic failures that have afflicted our culture and our politics. For all Huckabee’s faults, he recognizes much of how and why we should break the hold of our group grope on that collective lie. George Will’s written some great things. He has an incisive mind. But his visceral distaste for Huckabee has led him to reinforce something far more troubling than the Republican candidacy of an evangelical populist. If Will and his ilk want to embarrass Mike Huckabee, they should take care not to lay bare the embarrassing truth about our economic perversity in the process.