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Progressive Review



by Sam Smith

Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should. - Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, writing in 1957 to the NY Times about a critical review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

THE ECONOMIES OF DEVELOPED countries no longer demand the amount of work by most of their citizens that helped to create the myth of modern capitalism. Changes in technology, outsourcing, and labor intensiveness have made and will continue to make a growing percentage of the American population superfluous to the needs of the country's capitalists, a phenomenon that is being dramatically reflected in our politics but not in our understanding of it.

You have to read between the lines to see it. For example, a remarkable article published by the Washington Post just in time for the State of the Union borrowed heavily from right wing analyses of the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic & International Studies to paint a picture of older Americans as a looming crisis just this side of terrorism:
Wrote Jonathan Weissman:

"From untamed health care programs to military pensions, housing and heating assistance to coal-miners' benefits, programs for the elderly have proliferated and grown more generous, even in the face of an aging trend that demographers have long seen coming. In that light, the fight over Social Security marks only the beginning of a national debate over the cost of a graying society -- and the inevitable reallocation of resources that is sure to produce winners and losers, in the United States and around the world. "The question is whether we can support the elderly with a decent standard of living without imposing a crushing burden on the young," said Richard Jackson, director of the global aging initiative at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "Whether we can is a real concern."

In short can we afford to have old people or should they, in Greenspan's phrase, be considered "parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason [who must] perish as they should?"
The Weissman article, far more than most of the debate over Social Security, reveals the rotten core of such arguments: a growing social bigotry, reminiscent in many ways of ethnic prejudice, by the successful and comfortable against those considered parasitical and useless.
To be sure, Weissman, well down in his piece, gets around to interviewing a progressive economist writing that "technological progress will continue to make workers more productive, even as their numbers diminish relative to retirees, said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research. 'Previous generations had sacrificed to build our infrastructure, to invest in technologies' that help current and future workers, Baker said. 'If they're paying a larger amount of taxes to help their parents, I don't see where the harm has been done.' But such arguments are held by a minority."

Weissman provides no polling data for the claim that Baker is in the minority, or of what, but he immediately quotes what he falsely describes as the "liberal" Brookings Institution which is like calling Ohio a west coast state because it doesn't border the Atlantic.

Weissman's piece is badly misleading in other ways. A large chart shows expenses for elders soaring between now and 2015 but defense spending barely rising. It uses only federal figures to compare senior and child spending, ignoring the huge local costs of the latter.

But worst of all, as with much discussion of the cost of older Americans, is the implicit assumption that the country owes them little for their part in making the economy and that they serve no useful purpose at present, ignoring completely, for example, the huge non-quantified economies of child-care and volunteer work.

The standard used is that of the social bigot Greenspan: they are no longer "creative individuals" with "undeviating purpose and rationality" and thus deserve to fail. Send them to the ice flow and let them freeze to death.

The attitudes that propel such bigotry are not limited to the Republican right or to the Bush regime. They infect our media, including public radio which only this morning featured a piece about Arthur Laffer, the godfather of modern economic selfishness, who has discovered that socially responsible corporations don't do quite as well as greedy ones. The fact that corporations might, as they once did under law, have social responsibilities beyond profit was never even considered by the news broadcast. Even the liberal media has accepted the lie that all we need in life anymore is money and profits.

This is a pathologically dangerous assumption because it not only rewrites American history but human history: it denies the significance of community, cooperation, decency, fairness, and commonwealth. One ends up sharing the sick myth of Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."
But beyond this, it also creates the justification for massive social bigotry because once one has defined the only good as that one provides the economy everyone who fails the test becomes an economic nigger.

This bigotry has been growing unnoticed for some time. We would never have had large scale urban ghettos if we had adequate employment for black men. We would not have had "welfare reform" whose major purpose has been to place blame on the poor for the effect on them of the economy. We would not be obsessed with the presumed dangers of immigration in a country that owes its very existence to immigration. We would not be sending young non-college educated males to prison in large numbers for smoking marijuana instead of using the drugs of choice of "creative individuals." We would not be starting on a similar isolation of persons considered too heavy and the drugging of children considered too noncompliant in class.

The war now declared against seniors fits a pattern in which we find a socially acceptable reason for prejudice against segments of the American public for the sole reason that they not considered employable or reliable once employed.

There is no more justification for this than there was to exclude people on the basis of their skin color or religion. It is plain bigotry that we refuse to see plainly.

Trade is a social act. Whoever undertakes to sell any description of any goods to the public, does what affects the interest of other persons, and of society in general; and thus his conduct, in principal, comes within the jurisdiction of society. - John Stuart Mill