When Two Authors Hit One not-Aimed-at Target

by Martin Harris

Neither of two recently published books on the convergence of trends in US wealth, income, jobs, politics, and governance mentions Vermont by name, but both offer unintended and resonant (in the sense of ringing true) descriptions of the recent ascendancy of the Gentry-Left to the commanding heights of socio-economic-political power in a once-conservative State. Just as the high school study of Latin enabled us semi-literates to manage our English better, the reading of these two would enable anyone interested to gain a better insight into what’s been going on, behind the silly election-day street-corner sign-waving and the mostly-covert anti-business attitudes of both pols and voters, in the creation of a new State identity, one with a shrinking middle class, growing upper and under classes, ever more taxes and ever fewer comfortable-wage jobs, more retirees and fewer workers, and so on. On the hollowing-out of once-critical middle-class jobs/savings/advancement/prosperity/conservatism, the analysis can be found in Tyler Cowen’s “Average is Over”; and on the seemingly strange phenomenon of widened enthusiasm for re-distributive liberalism among the wealthy, the analysis can be found in David Callahan’s “Fortunes of Change”, sub-titled with “The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Re-Making of America”. Of the two, the latter is the more poorly-written: any non-fiction writer who puts into print such phrases as “…the fact that the Republican Party seems to have lost its mind…” (p. 143) damages the objective scholarly image upon which his credibility depends.

While the Callahan book is long on mini-biographies of wealth-accumulators and -inheritors adopting Leftist ideologies, it’s devoid of statistical facts and numbers. These can be found in the Cowen book: for examples, the Bureau of Labor Statics chart on the decline of Labor Income as a share of Total Income (p. 39) showing a shrinkage from 66% on 1947 to 58% in 2008; and the worker-productivity-vs-wage changes in 2008-09 (p.58) in support of his central argument that lower-skill middle-class jobs are decreasing with wages shrinking while higher-skill tech and management jobs are increasing with wages growing and low-end service jobs offer ever-shrinking opportunities for advancement: “average is over”. It requires little Humble Scribe insight to see Vermont’s present picture –shrinking middle class, growing over-class and under-class– clearly reflected in these data. Similarly, it takes little insight to see, in both stats and anecdotes, extensive Vermont evidence of the accuracy of the Callahan central argument that, as wealth accumulates, its owners don’t decay (a little refutation of the Oliver Goldsmith phrase, here) but do involve themselves in whatever they perceive as social-justice politics, using both their money and their mouths. Here ( pp.278-9) are a telling new label and trenchant quotes: “Affluent super-citizens don’t derive their clout merely from giving and raising money. They also participate more in nearly every kind of political (HS note: no need for a day job enables that sort of personal-time use) activity…the voices of the affluent easily overpower the voices of ordinary citizens…because they believe in government and social activism, they will often crowd out the non-rich…rich kids, as it happens, can more easily afford to save the world than can middle-class kids…” of which Vermont has not-so-many any more, as you know if you’ve been following the Federal stats on middle-class/young-family out-migration and K-12 enrollment shrinkage in Vermont in recent decades. Callahan’s view of this demographic shift is incomplete: he makes no mention of upper-middle-class-in-migration into the State, but does point out a nationwide middle-class/Democratic shrinkage as “…many working-class voters…have moved into the Republican camp”. The corollary from Cowen is that middle-class shrinkage, a very real phenomenon, is derived from job/wage/opportunity shrinkage, as former class members go socio-economically mobile, either upwards into the more education- and-skill demanding upper tiers of jobs, or downwards into unemployment, Food Stamps, and Section 8 housing. Vermont stats bear this out: remarkably low unemployment rate (fifth in the Nation at 4.5%) and remarkably high, by national standards, labor-force participation rate (70% against a national average of 62%) as job-seekers leave for better opportunity elsewhere. One could conclude from the Cowen argument against middle-class job recovery any time soon, coupled with Vermont’s nationally-recognized anti-business intellectual and regulatory climate, that the middle-class shrinkage phenomenon will be more evident and permanent inside the Green Mountain State than outside it.

Additional interesting points, two from Callahan (that, in politics, small donors don’t matter any more, and that the Platonic ideal of governance by elite, above-average Guardians, the “rule by the rich on behalf of the common good, as they define it” is an on-balance good idea); and three from Cowen (that a new meritocracy based on inequality of intelligence, intensity, and adaptability, is emerging, and that increasingly, this new meritocracy “will have increasing influence”). A longer quote explains: “The framing of income inequality in meritocratic terms will prove self-reinforcing…the wealthy class will be increasingly self-motivated, will be larger over time, …and will have increasing influence. It is their values which will shape public discourse. And that will mean more stress on ideas of personal ambition and self-motivation.” His third point, (pp. 243-5) that coming difficulties in government tax-and-spend policies will lead to extensive middle- and upper-middle-class flight from high cost-of-stay jurisdictions, resonates in the Vermont context. Some of it is already underway. Will it spread to the members (and children) of that latter group which have been migrating into Vermont in numbers sufficient to over-balance, albeit slightly, the out-migration of more traditional middle-class, -income, and -outlook people? The net for Vermont? You predict.