Entry from December 7, 2011

Writing in The New York Times last week, Brian Stelter claimed that “whatever the long-term effects of the Occupy movement, protesters have succeeded in implanting ‘We are the 99 percent’. . . into the cultural and political lexicon.” He knows this because Judith Stein, history professor at the City University of New York told him so. “The ‘99 percent’,” she claimed, “and the ‘one percent,’ too, are part of our vocabulary now.” Far be it from me to gainsay the professor — or Mr Stelter, for that matter — but if she is right about this, it is just one more indication of the fantastical nature of our politics today. No one believes that anywhere near 99 per cent of Americans think that this gaggle of embittered hippies represents them. The fantasy that they represent anyone outside of a tiny minority, most of it in the media it appears, is just a variation on the old Marxist claim to stand for “the people.”

Even in their own terms, their numerical slogan is nonsensical. What? Are we to believe that those with a household income of $360,435 per annum — which according to The New York Times is the 98th percentile among American households — can be expected to take up their pitchforks and storm the nearby McMansions of those making $506,553, which is the 99th percentile? Even President Obama’s oft-proclaimed definition of “rich” as $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for married couples would only strike at the top five per cent. What’s wrong with “We are the 95 per cent”? It wouldn’t be true but it would be a bit more plausible. These protestors need to get their message straight and lined up properly with the media’s and the Democrats’.

Actually, I reckon that to have a plausible class war you would have to take on roughly the top 20 per cent — say, anyone making six figures. For one thing, you couldn’t get enough out of the top five per cent, even at confiscatory rates of taxation, to do very much “spreading the wealth” or make a significant redistribution to everyone else. They are too few and the rest are too many. The class enemy can’t really consist of just a handful of “millionaires and billionaires.” Not if you want to make a real difference. But making a real difference, at least in the near term, is not really on the agenda, either of the OWSers or of the President. As befits those who believe that “history” has a “side” and that they are on it — that is, those who call themselves “progressives” — what they really want is to establish the principle that redistribution of incomes to achieve greater “fairness” is one of the principal tasks of government. That, once achieved, would be the progressives’ foot in the door of our political culture, a symbolic victory opening the way to serious redistribution hereafter.

We saw the same strategy at work in the health-care debate. Nobody really believed that Obamacare would do anything to improve our health-care system or, even more absurdly, “bend the cost curve.” By vastly increasing the number of insured and therefore of demand for medical care, it could only drive up costs. Remarks like Nancy Pelosi’s about having to pass the bill in order to see what’s in it showed that they weren’t really interested in what was in it — and nor was the President, who left all that up to congressional Democrats. What they cared about was the establishment of the progressive principle that the government should be in charge of overseeing health care. The details would be worked out later as history pursued its inevitable course of increasing government control over people’s lives.

That’s why the President and the congressional Democrats have now thrown down the gauntlet to the Republicans over a tax increase, any tax increase, on the rich, any rich. It won’t do anything to solve our problems or significantly reduce the deficit. They aren’t even pretending that it will. It is much more likely to harm than to encourage growth in jobs or the economy. But it will be, they claim, “fair” — by which they mean that it establishes the redistributionist principle (or, rather, re-establishes it after its repudiation during the Reagan era) for progressives to exploit further down the road. The Republicans’ so far adamantine resistance to this tax increase suggests that they have understood this, though if today’s Washington Post is right, they haven’t. For the Post says that they are “wavering.” We anti-progressives must hope that the Post is wrong.

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