Friday, December 10, 2010

This Economic Chance-World in Which We Live

As news of Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend tax breaks to the wealthy was breaking on Monday night, I was sitting on my sofa finishing William Dean Howells’s classic novel about American social class mores, A Hazard of New Fortunes. At the heart of the novel are a set of characters who, in today’s terms, would likely fall into all three major groups touched by Obama’s spineless compromise of a plan: an energy millionaire, middle class professionals striving to keep afloat in uncertain economic times, and an angry, unemployed war veteran. It is striking how much better Howells saw the hazards of the economic situation than Obama does.

At the climax of the book, New York transportation workers strike for fair pay and a series of violent events ensues, which end up transforming the outlook of rich and middle class alike. (I’m not giving away what happens, because if you haven’t read this book, you should get hold of it and start reading immediately – for reasons mentioned in recent posts here and because this book is both timely and much funnier than one might expect from a weighty, socially serious novel.) Basil March, the middle class editor of a New York literary journal, has throughout the novel disdained social activism and treated the miseries of the working poor as a matter for distant intellectual curiosity, a picturesque subject to be used as subject material in stories for middle class readers. This changes when two of his companions are caught up in the violence. To his wife, March declares, that yes, life is risky,

“But what I object to is this economic chance-world in which we live, and which we men seem to have created. It ought to be a law as inflexible in human affairs as the order of day and night in the physical world, that if a man will work he shall both rest and eat, and not be harassed with any question as to how his repose and his provision shall come. Nothing less ideal than this satisfies the reason. But in our state of things no one is secure of this. No one is sure of finding work; no one is sure of not losing it. I may have my work taken away from me at any moment by the caprice, the mood, the indigestion of a man who has not the qualification for knowing whether I do it well or ill. . . . and so we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot; lying, cheating, stealing; and when we get to the end, covered with blood and dirt and sin and shame, and look back over the way we’ve come to a palace of our own, or the poor-house, which is about the only possession we can claim in common with our brother-men, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.”

Basil March’s words perfectly capture the reasons we should be outraged by Obama’s tax deal. It props up the poor for another 13 months with an extension of unemployment benefits. It props up the wealthy (not that they need much help) with tax breaks that worsen the national budget deficit. As Paul Krugman and other economists have pointed out, tax breaks to the wealthy are a completely ineffective way to stimulate the economy. It fails completely to prop up work, the middle class, and economic stability, which is what a tax plan should do. Obama himself is finally getting angry, accusing liberal democrats of overlooking the needs of working Americans, but Obama should get himself a copy of A Hazard of New Fortunes too. It might show him how ultimately laughable is the professional class’s insistence on decorum in the face of the pushing and pulling (not to mention the lying, cheating and stealing) in which the wealthy engage. Nothing short of work that leads to economic security can satisfy the reason, and there is no promise of that in this ridiculous tax plan.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, or such was the conclusion that Adam Gopnik came to in a response to this novel published in the New Yorker 10 years ago (reprinted in the Modern Library edition of this novel). “A hundred years ago, the one thing that Howells – and Henry Adams and so many others – knew for sure was that a society with a tiny plutocratic class, a precarious middle class, and a large and immigration-fed proletariat simply could not go on”, Gopnik comments. “Now, at the turn of another century, we find it is the only thing that has gone on, in nearly perfect duplicate.”

How has this happened? “Hope”, answers Gopnik, a willingness to forget about recession and inequality and go on as if we all might turn out ok. (This before Obama ran on the platform of hope, no less.) As the US continues careening around with the poor getting poorer and the rich richer, and our future in doubt as our politicians squander one opportunity after another, I wonder whether Howells might turn out to be right after all.

The ethically serious in America have been predicting disastrous consequences to our moral shortsightedness for nearly 400 years, so perhaps we’ll go careening forwards out of this crisis too. About this, though Howells is surely right: when we look back, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.


noah said...

It's also interesting to consider this in the context of the present fervor over the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to a Chinese dissident. Remembering that Obama himself is also the recipient of this prize, we might want to take more seriously the Chinese government's suggestion that some of the economic reformers in Deng Xiaoping's orbit deserve recognition for bringing an extraordinary and historically unparalled number of people out of poverty.

civic literacy said...

I am sure some will come forward to tell us Obama is playing chess while we are playing checkers. Except his chess is checkmating the poor and middle class.
Watching Obama the past few months reminds me of Chauncey Gardner in Being There.

Amy Shuffelton said...

Up until this point, I've been willing to grant Obama the benefit of the doubt -- when it comes to running the world's largest economy, after all, I'm not even playing checkers. Maybe Go Fish. But he lost me on this one.

Leonard Waks said...

Simply brilliant commentary.