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The Warren Way Is Wrong

November 10, 2019 (1,876 words)

Most everyone I know or rub elbows with on a regular basis thinks Elizabeth Warren is a crack pot. There was a guest editorial in The New York Times the other day (Nov 5) that concisely expresses the conventional wisdom regarding the senator from Massachusetts.

“The Warren Way Is the Wrong Way” is the handiwork of Steven Rattner, who is identified as a Wall Street executive and a contributing opinion writer. Mr. Rattner’s breezy synopsis references some familiar talking points:

#1: Ms. Warren proposes to pay for her Medicare for all program with a “daunting mountain” of new taxes and fees.

#2: She would “extend the reach and weight of the federal government far further into the economy than anything even President Franklin Roosevelt imagined, effectively abandoning the limited government model that has mostly served us well.”

#3: Ms. Warren’s “armada of changes” would be “highly disruptive,” for example, to the 156 million Americans who have private health insurance. And these changes would be expensive, costing at least $23 trillion over the next decade.

something even more insidious than calls for lavish spending…

But there is something even more insidious, from Mr. Rattner’s perspective, than Warren’s high profile policy initiatives such as Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, free college tuition, universal child care, and student debt forgiveness.

“Less discussed is her intention to impose vast new regulatory burdens and to revamp the way business functions, which could have an even more negative effect on our economy. Many of America’s global champions, like banks and tech giants, would be dismembered. Private equity, which plays a useful role in driving business efficiency, would be effectively eliminated. Shale fracking would be banned, which would send oil and natural gas prices soaring and cost millions of Americans’ their jobs.”

And if all that wasn’t bad enough,

“the system of state chartering of corporations would, for businesses with more than $1 billion in revenue, become a federal function. Corporations could lose their charters if they failed to adhere to an often vague set of principles, including considering in their decision-making the interest of employees, customers, and their communities.”

I, for one, can’t imagine anything more damaging to “our economy” than having corporations take into account the interest of employees, customers, and their communities. If I was on the fence about supporting Ms. Warren’s bid for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, Mr. Rattner’s litany of complaints has effectively eliminated the last shred of doubt.

something we would expect of The Wall Street Journal

The worldview expressed in Mr. Rattner’s op-ed is standard issue stuff for The Wall Street Journal. That it appears in the NYT is evidence the real divide in our country is not between left and right, but between the haves and have nots. Since the majority of NYT readers would certainly qualify as “haves,” even if they happen to lean hard left on the social issues.

The big reveal in Rattner’s piece occurs fairly early on, when he admits to being a lifelong Democrat who “freely acknowledges that substantial reforms are much needed, both to achieve a more equitable distribution of income and wealth and to make good on Donald Trump’s failed pledge to raise the economy’s growth rate.”

This has become a common refrain among defenders of the economic status quo: Yes, there are problems with how we do things now. And yes, substantial reforms are much needed. But let’s not abandon the model of limited government that has mostly served us well.

Before I go any further let me state unequivocally that I do not consider Steve Rattner or his fellow Wall Street executives as the enemy. These smart successful people need to be enlisted as allies. We need their considerable brain power if we are ever to make a dent in the large, systemic social problems that continue to plague our society.

But such people are presently hand-cuffed by a rather simplistic (and extremely self-centered) notion of what economic life can and should be. Too many of them cling to the idea that any sort of outside guidance or oversight or regulation is tantamount to “socialism.”

socialism as the ultimate straw man argument…

This is the new boogeyman, if you will. In the general parlance, “socialism” is an epithet that symbolizes an attack on the personal autonomy we hold so dear. But this facile formula exposes a basic flaw in our national philosophy. We can’t see how our insistence on “an absence of obstacles,” as the Federalist Papers puts it, removes all concern for the common good from our collective awareness.

If Mr. Rattner is able to freely acknowledge that substantial reforms are much needed, how would he like to kick off the discussion?

Yes, our limited government model has, indeed, mostly served us well. Yes, free enterprise has created a dynamic economic engine that has generated lots of opportunity, resulting in an unprecedented level of material prosperity for a broad swatch of the population. But at what point do we turn our attention to the even broader swatch of the population that hasn’t been able to jump on the gravy train?

When smart, successful people like Steven Rattner talk about the economy, too often they are describing an abstract concept where actual people are just statistics on a page.

Take for example how we are assured the economy is booming right now, because unemployment is at a fifty year low. But this encouraging sound bite ignores that when adjusted for inflation, average income has been stagnant over those same fifty years, despite dramatic gains in productivity. Where has all that gain gone, since none of it has found its way into the paychecks of average workers responsible for creating it?

an eloquent defense that ignore egregious excesses…

The fact is many of our large, systemic social problems are built into what has been allowed to function as predatory economic system people like Mr. Rattner so eloquently defend.

He and they don’t see things that way, of course, because their success elevates them above the fray. The current system has worked quite nicely for them, so they harbor a naïve belief it will eventually get around to helping all those remaining unfortunates. The problem is Steven Rattner and company cannot comprehend there might be an ideological alternative to dreaded notion of “socialism.”

This does not make successful defenders of the limited government model bad people. It just makes them intellectually and philosophically rather limited.

One might say there is absolutely nothing wrong how capitalism is currently practiced that a healthy dose of empathy wouldn’t cure. There is nothing wrong with how we ‘do’ capitalism that a little “love thy neighbor as thyself” wouldn’t fix.

So in the end, the entire thing hinges on our philosophical model. The modern age is responsible for many wonderful developments, but our dismissal of “morality” as an outdated social construct, a superstition indulged in by people who are not emotionally or intellectually capable of standing on their own two feet and thinking for themselves, is not one of them.

the strong seem to get more, while the weak ones fade…

Our large systemic social problems are caused by amoral economic behavior whereby the strong seem to get more, and the weak ones fade. While such amorality has been with us since the beginning of time, it received official sanction at the dawn of the modern era, when we emerged from the darkness of the medieval period.

Part of the Renaissance’s embrace of classical (pagan) antiquity was its ultimate rejection of Christianity (aka Catholicism), with its insistence on moral absolutes, in favor of the full emancipation of the individual in every field of human endeavor.

This emancipation required the rejection of authority, law, and tradition – all of which became suspect, since everything had been founded on the presumption of those pesky moral absolutes.

True, we have enacted new laws in place of the old ones, but our new laws are based on what we euphemistically refer to as the will of the people. This boils down to a simple application of the ancient adage that might makes right, because, as we all know, he who has the gold makes the rules.

Failing to grasp the full historical context is what traps our smart successful people in what is a philosophical dead end, from a social responsibility standpoint.

Just like Mr. Rattner and his fellow Wall Street executives, and most everyone I know or rub elbows with on a regular basis, I, too, am a fan of limited government, personal autonomy, and not being told what to do. I am an American by birth, and have proudly imbibed the national ethos of rugged individualism.

we are all prisoners of the age we live in…

But it is my Catholic intellectual heritage that finally liberated me from being a prisoner of this age.

Like all my contemporaries, I rejected that heritage at around age twenty in the name of “thinking for myself.” Unlike most of them, however, I decided to give it a second look, starting at around age forty.

I was surprised to discover embedded in this heritage an understanding of human dignity and human flourishing that is far more profound than anything the secular philosophers and opinion makers – all our modern heroes – have been able to cobble together on their own reconnaissance.

This is when I began to leave the gravitational pull of what might be called the gospel of prosperity, as promulgated at the time by Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Limbaugh didn’t invent anything new, of course, he just came along and gave voice to the libertarian obsession that started to flourish during the halcyon days of the Reagan administration.

(Mr. Reagan was an agreeable sort to be sure, and knew how to turn a phrase. But in many ways our collective awareness is still being hampered by the intellectually-stifling effects of one of his most famous aphorisms: Government is not the solution to the problem, government IS the problem.)

Getting back to Steven Rattner’s pithy editorial that finds so much wrong with the presidential bid of Elizabeth Warren, I agree with him to the extent that I wish government did not have to step in and attempt to right the ship.

I, too, wish government was not always put in the position of having to redress the many flagrant excesses of free enterprise, as practiced by flawed humans susceptible to the seven deadly sins. But, alas, that is not the world we live in.

I also agree that a certified Brainiac with a somewhat shrill speaking voice and jittery demeanor does not fit the profile of a proto-typical presidential candidate. We tend to favor the tall, dark, and handsome type, who presents well and has a reassuring air about them. But maybe the time has come to rethink our reliance on central casting to provide appropriate political leadership.

Under the circumstances, that someone like Elizabeth Warren has stepped away from academia to enter public life, contributing to the national discussion in the astute way that she has, is something we should all be grateful for.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
November 10, 2019

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