Dave Johnson’s post on the broken contract that’s allowed private interests to siphon off our public wealth for the past 30 years is incredibly important. His basic argument is this:
We, the People built our democracy and the empowerment and protections it bestows. We built the infrastructure, schools and all of the public structures, laws, courts, monetary system, etc. that enable enterprise to prosper. That prosperity is the bounty of our democracy and by contract it is supposed to be shared and reinvested. That is the contract. Our system enables some people to become wealthy but all of us are supposed to benefit from this system. Why else would We, the People have set up this system, if not for the benefit of We, the People?
Dave points to the practical effects of a piece of conservative theology that deserves a bit of deeper drilling. It’s this: Conservatives believe that only private individuals should hold wealth. They do not believe in commonly-held public wealth of any kind. And that’s why they feel perfectly free to raid the vast legacy that our ancestors have accumulated and stewarded for us over the past 230 years.
It is a legacy — the biggest one ever amassed in history, in fact — and we do need to be thinking about it that way.. What they’ve stolen from us and arbitraged away isn’t just our own money; it’s the vast accumulation of civilizational wealth that was bought with the blood, sweat, tears, endless sacrifice, earnest planning, and bold dreaming of a dozen generations of American ancestors, and then bequeathed to us to ensure our own futures. Each of those generations received it in trust from the one that came before, added its own unique contributions to it, and then passed it on as an endowment to the next. As time compounded the gift, the legacy got richer; and our sense of who was entitled to share in the bounty got broader. By the time we got our hands on it, the American legacy was, quite simply, the biggest trust fund of physical, social, and cultural capital on earth.
To understand the magnitude of the gift, consider how things work in the great aristocratic houses, both in Europe and the US. If you are a Mountbatten or a Rothschild or a Morgan or a Bush, your clan has a deep well of resources, built up over many centuries of careful investment, that ensures that you will never go without. There’s always a family-owned house somewhere to stay in, an income stream to support you, and connections that will open any doors you might want to pass through. There’s a villa, chalet, or yacht where you can vacation. There’s a fleet of cars standing by to take you wherever you need to go. There are trusted family retainers to advise you on matters of money and law. If you need anything at all, ask around: there’s undoubtedly someone in the extended clan who already has it to share, or knows how to get it for you.
It’s impossible to underestimate or overstate the lifelong advantages that come with being born into a family like this. At every turn, throughout your life, you’ll have every opportunity to make good — and no excuses not to.
For the first 200 years of our existence, being born American was not unlike being born into the richest, most powerful family on the planet. By the middle of the 20th century, generations of sound investment and careful stewardship had built our collective trust fund to the point where we, too, began to believe that the shame would be on us if any member of our great household ever had to go without. If you needed decent housing or a monthly remittance to get by, we could cover that. If you needed doors opened for you in other countries, we had friends all over the world who were glad to deal with Americans. If you wanted a world-class education or the vacation of a lifetime, no problem: the family ran the best schools and universities in the world, and owned breathtaking national parks for your pleasure. If you needed to get around, we provided safe transportation networks. If you needed advice or help with a plan, there were trusted public servants on retainer. Our attitude toward the proper role of government was that, at our best, America was a big, powerful clan that had a moral duty (however imperfectly and selectively met in practice) to take care of its own, and maximize the opportunties availble to its members.
It’s only when you think about our common wealth the way the world’s richest families do — as a bequest from a long line of distinguished ancestors, as a vast common resource base that provides us with extraordinary material comfort today, and as a sacred trust that we must manage and multiply on behalf of generations yet to come — that you can really begin to understand the sheer magnitude of everything they took from us.
The thieves didn’t just steal our houses, our retirement funds, our careers, or our tax money. It went far beyond that. They also stole the family jewels — the vast infrastructure that’s been built up for centuries by generations of foresighted Americans, now collapsing into uselessness. They defunded the great universities, crowded our kids into classrooms like factory farmed chickens, and are shutting down the magnificent state and national parks. And they’re also stealing our future, committing us to endless debt, sucking the marrow out of our international standing, foreclosing our opportunties, making it impossible to solve looming problems, and forcing us to hand off to our children a far more meager legacy than the one we received.
They’re not just cheating us. They’re stealing from all those hardworking generations that sacrificed to bring us here; and all the generations still yet to come, who will be so much poorer because we let them loot us blind.
Here’s the irony: the people who did this to us did it precisely because they also understand wealth in these generational terms. In many cases, the thieves were themselves from wealthy families that have operated exactly this same way for a very long time, and who have personally benefitted from the private wealth accumulated by their ancestors. In other cases, they were “self-made” billionaires who may not have wealth in their past, but were determined to capitalize a dynasty in the future.
So, if they understand this, where’s the disconnect? Why couldn’t they respect the public’s need to manage our common wealth the same way they manage their own private wealth?
The disconnect is this: In the conservative worldview, it’s right and legitimate for private families and corporations to accrue generational wealth, and build great dynasties. But it’s absolutely wrong for the democratic masses to accumulate wealth that way; or to collaborate, via the government, to ensure that all of their children will have a birthright sufficient to open the doors to their dreams.
Maggie Thatcher told us outright: “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families, and their interests.” And if there’s no such thing as society, then society has no right to accumulate wealth — via taxes, investment, or any other means. Viewed this way, a conservative might even think it’s a virtuous thing to defund and defraud the public out of any capital it does manage to acquire.
In the view of these economic royalists, the bottom line is this: it’s OK to steal from their American brothers and sisters because they don’t really believe that the family is legitimate in the first place. Being bastards — heirs only to a social contract they insist never existed in the first place — the rest of us were never entitled to the blessings of a birthright, any more than we’re entitled to any other rights, including the right to govern ourselves.