Saturday, October 09, 2010


I remember being asked at least twice in the past twenty years to explain the difference between “left” and “right” when it comes to politics. My older daughter asked me that question. And then a bit later, I heard it from my younger daughter. They didn’t want descriptions of all the policy positions adopted by the mainstream of the Democratic and Republican parties. They just wanted a simple way to understand the difference. And what I came up was indeed a bit reductionist, but I think it captures the divide more than any single other element: the left believes in taxing the rich so that the money can be used to benefit all who need it, whereas the right believes in keeping taxes low even for the rich and ensuring that we retain our incentives to create wealth.

In both cases, the issue comes across as a basic matter of fairness. To the left, it’s only fair that wealth is somewhat evenly distributed. This is known by “progressives” as equity, and the alternative is seen as injustice. To the right, it’s only fair that people are permitted to retain what they are able to earn. This is known by “conservatives” as respect for property, and the alternative is seen as theft. Indeed, those on the right like to point out that, to Marx, private property itself was viewed as theft, whereas in fact, the tax-loving liberals who have so little respect for property that they would tax it to the hilt are the ones who would engage in theft.

Both the left and the right can cite to the wording of perhaps the most famous sentence in American history to support their point of view. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s those final few words that split our so-called liberals from our conservatives. The liberals believe that the right to pursue happiness is key, and that as long as we live in a market economy and do not heavily tax the rich, the poor will be stripped of their dignity and effectively prevented from pursuing their happiness. Liberals who hold this vision seem to be afraid that, if we don’t watch out, America will become Dickensian England – with the underclass becoming almost sub-human. By contrast, the conservatives believe that liberty is key, and that in a free society, you not only have the right to free speech and freedom of religion but also freedom to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Conservatives who hold this vision seem to be afraid that if we don’t watch out, America will become a totalitarian nightmare, like an Orwellian dystopia – with big-government somehow sucking all the lifeblood out of the people who are actually equipped to create wealth for the entire society.

There you have it -- two antithetical visions. Yet both are thoroughly American. This could explain why, in my country, no political party or ideology ever stays dominant for very long.

Generally, I have no problem aligning myself solidly on the left. But there are moments in which I appreciate the other side of the aisle. There’s nothing quite like waiting in line at a Department of Motor Vehicles, a city Parking Agency, or a U.S. passport office to remind us that whenever we put a government monopolist in charge of providing goods and services, we’ll soon learn in a hurry the value of private competition. Then there’s the role of the left in the so-called “peace” movement. When it comes to the Israelis and Palestinians, leftists have become so imbalanced on the side of the Palestinians (the so-called “have nots”) that they can’t bring themselves to advocate the compromises necessary to make peace. That is why the would-be peace makers are really just frustrated justice advocates who are actually standing in the way of peace – they are as uncompromising as the Israeli settlers they love to mock.

Yet the most annoying problem with the left, vis a vis the right, is the lack of candor among its spokespeople in politics. Perhaps this is a uniquely American problem. If the conservatives are correct that America is fundamentally a “center-right country,” the politicians on the left may need to obfuscate about their true visions, lest the electorate realize that these politicians are too liberal to adequately represent their own “center-right” visions. Perhaps. But I’m not buying it. To me, both of the perspectives stated above are roughly of equal power, meaning that a liberal should be able to express her beliefs with candor every bit as much as a conservative. Somehow, though, this tends not to happen. And so “progressives” like Obama and Clinton have to pretend that they oppose the right of gay people (another group of “have nots”) to get married and dare not propose raising the marginal tax rate back for the wealthiest Americans to where it was under Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon. Somehow, it has become accepted that if you wish to govern as a liberal, you have to mute yourself and your positions, whereas a conservative statesperson can let ‘er rip. I’m still looking for a Democratic Reagan who will stand up for progressive reforms whether they are popular or not with the majority of the electorate.

So, yes, there are times when I find myself annoyed with the progressives and appreciative of the conservatives. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them. At the moment, I find myself annoyed with the unequal distribution of wealth and lack of equality generally, and I’m as alienated as ever by the leaders of the GOP, who seem as unconcerned about the environment as they are about the poor.

I know what you’re thinking: the Midterm Elections are about to be upon us, and I’m already putting on my war fatigues in support of my beloved Democratic Party. Right? Hardly. The Democrats have done precious little to earn my support. I’ll vote for them, but not as enthusiastically as usual. That enthusiasm has in fact been replaced with disillusionment, and the mere fact that the Democrats remain the more progressive of the two parties doesn’t mean I can muster up much energy to fight for them. (In that sense, people like me are responsible for why the Republicans can expect to win this election – but you’ve got to remember that some of us spent a fortune and devoted a ton of time to get the Donkeys elected in’08, and it became incumbent on our leaders to reward our devotion, which they did not. If there is blame to be placed for the anticipated GOP landslide, it must be assigned (a) to the cyclical nature of the economy, which is obviously not doing well at the moment, and (b) to the Democratic leaders who campaigned as progressives but have lacked the stones to fight as such once in power.)

What is reminding me of the importance of economic equity – and equity generally – is not the domain of politics but rather that of spectator sports. If I have time on my hands – meaning if I need to relax – I’ll watch about any sport. Football’s my favorite, but I also love baseball and basketball. And I can also be passionate about hockey, tennis, golf, and soccer too. There’s only one thing I ask for: honest competition. I want to know that the battle is taking place on a level playing field. That’s why I stopped watching boxing; it wasn’t the blood, it was the corruption. And that’s also why I find the baseball playoffs so maddening. One team in particular makes a ton more revenue than everyone else, spends a ton more money on players than everyone else, and starts every season with a free pass to the playoffs and a likely spot in the World Series. I feel about that much the same way that Dickens felt about old England.

Today, my beloved Minnesota Twins are preparing to play the New York Yankees in the playoffs for the fourth time since 2003. The Yankees have now won 11 out of the teams’ previous 13 playoff games. This includes a string of eight in a row, and the first two games of the current best-of-five series. Yesterday, someone told me that rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the house in blackjack. But the problem with that analogy is that in blackjack, there’s a good chance that the house will lose, whereas when the Yankees play the Twins, the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion.

It’s at times like this when I return to my progressive roots and remind myself of the obscenity of economic inequity. If the Yankee fans love baseball so much, let them see if their team can compete without an unfair infusion of cash. Let’s see if their General Manager has a better eye for talent, if their Manager has better judgment about game-day decisions, or if their players are more disciplined or motivated. As my conservative friends would say, let’s “incentivize” the Yankees to work as diligently and intelligently as possible in a truly fair competition. That is, after all, the way our economy is supposed to work, right? That’s the way Adam Smith described it in The Wealth of Nations.

While I find some capitalistic principles distasteful, there are others I love – and none more than the notion of fair competition. The fact that it’s lacking in baseball frustrates me. But when I don’t see it in the economy, it depresses me. It is depressing to imagine countries dominated by government monopolists. And it is depressing to think that so many Americans are growing up without a chance to compete on a level playing field because our society refuses to provide them adequate health care or a decent education. Just as Major League Baseball is well equipped to introduce a salary cap or the kind of luxury tax needed to bring the Yankees in line with their so-called competitors, I have trouble believing that the economy with the world’s largest GNP lacks the means to fight the kind of war on poverty that Democratic politicians seem unwilling to wage, but that we sorely need if we are to become a land characterized by fair competition.

Oh wait. There was a politician in the recent past that claimed to be willing to care about poverty and economic equity – John Edwards. You remember, the guy who built for himself a 28,000-square-foot mansion all the while he was talking about the “two Americas.” See what I mean about progressive politicians? Those who talk about progressive ideas don’t really believe in them. And those who seem to believe in them, don’t have the guts to talk about them – lest they run the risk of, perish the thought, losing an election. So for now, we have the status quo -- a land that is largely racially segregated (regardless of civil rights laws), where school test scores in our suburbs dwarf those in our inner-cities (regardless of teacher quality), and where the New York Yankees can field a team every year that could compete in an All-Star game (regardless of the talent level of their management). If anyone says “it’s not about the money,” don’t believe it.

1 comment:

Mary Lois said...

Dan, this is excellent. I'm going to link it on Facebook and hope to get you some traffic and perhaps some comments.