I've written before about how Thomas Piketty's great new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has made free-market conservatives distinctly uneasy. Perhaps for the first time in the post-war era, a genuine American socialist movement might be on the horizon, thanks to growing awareness both of rising income inequality and of a system that is flagrantly rigged in favor of the financial elite.
Paradoxically, conservatives are more responsible for this socialist resurgence than anyone. By fanatically opposing the kind of mild — and yes, socialist-tinged — reforms that would make capitalism more tolerable for the most vulnerable in society, conservatives are stoking a leftist bonfire.
Some conservatives, like the reformist Michael Strain, seem to grasp the problem. But most appear to exist in a kind of time warp in which the Soviet Union still exists and leftist ideas are obviously self-discrediting. Jim Pethokoukis gave us an example of this at National Review:
Thanks to Piketty, the Left is now having a Galaxy Quest moment. All that stuff their Marxist economics professors taught them about the "inherent contradictions" of capitalism and about history's being on the side of the planners — all the theories that the apparent victory of market capitalism in the last decades of the 20th century seemed to invalidate — well, it's all true after all. In their progressive hearts, they always knew it, knew it, knew it! The era of big government is back! Let the redistribution commence! [National Review]
Sorry, Jim, jeering just isn't going to cut it anymore.
Take it from someone who had no stake in the intellectual arguments that dominated the postwar era. When I graduated from college in 2008, the American economy was hemorrhaging 600,000 jobs per month. The country was undergoing a crash course in subprime mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps. Aggregate demand was collapsing, and liquidity was freezing up. The appropriate response would have been to spend like a drunken sailor until unemployment was restored, then cut back slowly and start paying down accrued debt. Thank God we were about to elect this Obama fellow, because he knew what he was doing, right?
Wrong. We did pass the (badly underrated) stimulus, but the likes of Paul Krugman were howling themselves hoarse that it wouldn't be enough to restore full employment. He was, of course, completely right.
Unemployment rose steadily, peaking at over 10 percent before coming down with agonizing slowness. Meanwhile, the vast bulk of newly created wealth went straight to the rich. If all of this isn't indicative of an enormous failure of capitalism, then I don't know what is.
Then the Left watched with increasing horror as the entire United States political mainstream turned from stimulus to austerity, abandoning a job that was not even half-done.
Then the Republican Party — which not even two years before had proposed its own $713 billion stimulus — won a sweeping victory in the 2010 midterms, and with a crazed messianic fervor dedicated itself to making everything worse as fast as possible. They demanded Herbert Hoover–style austerity and repeatedly held the government's credit rating hostage to get it, which they succeeded in doing (abetted by Democratic "moderates," to be fair). As a result, we're well past the halfway point of our first lost decade with no end in sight.
Current political debates, while not quite so mind-blowingly bizarre as those in 2010–11, are still striking in that even political moderates are willing to toss millions of the most vulnerable people overboard for very poorly defined reasons. Unemployment isn't even close to low, and yet repeatedly discredited inflation paranoiacs are, again, cooking up highly suspect new reasons to crush wage growth.
In short, political elites have been doing all they can to convince lefties that Marx was pretty close to the mark on that whole rich-exploiting-the-poor thing. Republicans in power are against even the mildest moderating structures to keep the middle class and poor from being left behind by galloping inequality; instead, they are for obliterating what inadequate protection we do have and for savage austerity that would increase the population of desperate jobless.
Every new Paul Ryan budget — all of which openly gut safety net programs — is another bundle of kindling on a potential leftist bonfire.