Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bob Herbert Tells A Story

Today, former NYTimes Op-Ed journalist, Bob Herbert, came to our school to talk.

In what has become something of a January tradition for me, I teach the Gilded Age and Communism and post-Communism simultaneously in two different courses.  I therefore spend a lot of time talking about wealth inequality when the thermometer falls below zero.

I was therefore grateful when Mr. Herbert spent the meeting - and the post-meeting discussion photographed above - discussing the real problems that the profound inequality can bring to a democratic society.  Among the anecdotes he shared was that if Michael Bloomberg gave away $10,000 every day, it would take over 8,000 years to gave away all his money.  Meanwhile, 20,000 children go to sleep in homeless shelters every night in the city that he was mayor of.

The essential problem, of course, is that a profoundly unequal society - even one that is fundamentally wealthy - is a society rife with potential violence.  The protests in Ferguson and elsewhere have turned violent, and these issues are largely tied to race, and they should be.

But they are also tied to poverty.  When you are poor and there is no easy route out of your poverty, when in fact the deck seems mercilessly stacked against you, you are simply not interested in the social contract of America.  That social contract is primarily middle class in its values - work hard, play by the rules, and your children will have a better life than you - and it is increasingly impossible for the poor and disappearing from the horizons of the very middle class that created it.

Herbert likened the state of America today as having a new aristocracy and a new peasantry.  Increasingly, that can't be argued against with any compelling evidence.  Meanwhile, the rich think the poor have it easy, lulled to sleep in their safety net.  Herbert told the story of a young woman who had to work an 8 hour shift from 4 to midnight every day, while trying to graduate from high school.  It was impossibly hard and impossible to imagine her graduating.  College?  Please.

What was interesting to me was how Herbert approached a solution.  Not prone to ideological dogmatism, he simply suggested talking across lines, looking at problems and trying - in good faith -  to address those problems.  He also suggested that his generation - the Baby Boomers - had it very easy and proceeded to make things much worse.  I would add that I find most Boomers cling to precisely those ideological dogmas that have failed us in the past.  Right or Left, the Boomers are still fighting the ideological fights of the '60s.

Hopefully, a new generation - the so-called Generation X, prone to pragmatism - can find a way forward.

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