Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Is Economic Bridge-Building Still Possible?

Chuck Collins, Born on Third Base: a One Percenter Makes the Case For Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good

Activist Chuck Collins was born rich. Like, really rich. Probably richer than you’re thinking right now. A fourth-generation heir of the Oscar Mayer meatpacking fortune, Collins enjoyed the accoutrements of inherited wealth, like education, social networks, and job opportunities. But a brief sojourn volunteering among America’s poor opened his eyes. He committed his wealth to charity, and has spent decades working to build bridges across class divides.

This, the latest book in Collins’ remarkably prolific career, comes across as half autobiography, half call to action. (Note, not “call to arms”—Collins adamantly opposes war, even as metaphor.) He describes meetings with Americans from throughout the economic spectrum, organizing the working class, well-off retirees, corporate boards, and others. His message rings true to those familiar with history’s great successful reform movements: only a joint effort of rich and poor can truly reverse America’s widening inequality.

To Collins, inequality isn’t an issue exclusively of the have-nots. The upward concentration of wealth has resulted in a remarkable economic narrowing that stifles entrepreneurship and weakens demand. Collins describes this in both statistics and storytelling, a masterful application of appropriate anecdote to further a less obvious general claim. He makes the stories of inequality, and their eventual remedy, seem human. (I should note, this book launched in September 2016, so his tone already looks somewhat dated.)

Union across class divides, not an attempt to demonize the rich, makes the most sense to Collins. Well, it would, but he makes a strong case. Early on, Collins presciently identifies why, knowing what we do of American history, a politics of stoking hatred makes bad policy: “In the United States, we’re more likely to get Donald Trump regressive populism than Bernie Sanders’s progressive populism.” Remember, he wrote this before the election, when Trump seemed a longshot protest candidate.

I admit having serious stipulations regarding this position. “Instead of a class war of shame,” Collins writes, “I advocate an appeal to common humanity and empathy.” Which is fine, with wealthy people capable of either shame or empathy—of which I'm unpersuaded with President Trump. But billionaires like Mark Cuban and Nick Hanauer strengthen my confidence. And to their credit, the Koch Brothers sat out the 2016 general election, unwilling to sully their money.

Zuccotti Park, 2011

Even if some billionaires do wrong, Collins makes the case that “if people feel attacked, they respond from fear. If they are shamed, they respond from anger. If ridiculed, they withdraw. But if they are respectfully engaged, people show up.” Or enough do to change the game. Once upon a time, George Soros, “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England,” was the Left’s only wealthy representative. Now a small but growing number recognize that widespread poverty hurts their bottom lines, too.

America’s post-WWII wealth didn’t just happen, Collins reminds us. Public subsidies like the GI Bill, the FHA, and the Small Business Administration put education, homeownership, and entrepreneurship in ordinary Americans’ reach. Subsidies to science, arts, education, and public works weren’t just generous donations; leaders saw such spending as investments toward winning the Cold War. Yet we’ve grown averse to the very public goods which made American exceptionalism, and a durable middle class, possible.

Collins doesn’t just limit himself to the plight of a generalized, and therefore whitewashed, poor. He dedicates entire chapters to the unique economic plights of women, Black and Hispanic Americans, and other historically marginal groups.“As in real life, there are well-publicized stories of exceptional runners starting far back in the pack and breaking to the front of the field…. But the overall picture is one of steadily growing class-based inequality.”

Much as I like this book, I don’t recall Collins addressing one major element: Americans’ tendency, as Gar Alperovitz writes, to kick down the ladder we’ve just ascended, before anyone can climb after us. We hate the very public-private partnership mechanisms that made our own success possible, and actively attempt to prevent anyone following suit. The billionaires Collins describes inordinately benefited from such arrangements, which some now inveigh against. This needs addressed to build any lasting remedy for today’s social breakdown.

So briefly, Collins provides both tools and justifications to combat the collapse of America’s belief on common good. Using his tools, and his storytelling acumen, could reverse our two-generation trend toward increasing inequality. But he overlooks some aspects of the cultural milieu—a milieu that has soured radically in under six months since this book launched. The protest movement suggests hope exists. If we can channel that movement toward Collins’ approach, and away from anger, hope may still exist.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, I've not yet read the Collins book, but I suspect Jordan Flaherty's NO MORE HEROES: GRASSROOTS CHALLENGES TO THE SAVIOR MENTALITY would be a good follow-up.