Monday, July 23 , 2018, 7:40 am | Fair 67º


Randy Alcorn: Wealth Disparity, Erosion of Economic Liberty Are Increasing Threats to Democracy

Listening to the harsh delusional discourse from either side of America’s political-cultural chasm, it is apparent that many brains are functioning at the primordial level. The mutual antagonism rarely rises above emotional diatribes, unsubstantiated accusations and fantastical paranoid conspiracy theories.

There is certainly enough of this on the left side of the chasm, but it is particularly pronounced on the right where the many Trumpian true-believers teeter over the abyss of absurdity as they tighten the chin straps on their tinfoil hats.

Emotion and reason have always been difficult to reconcile, and few emotions obstruct reason more so than fear. The rise of populism culminating in the seemingly improbable election of President Donald Trump, is not so improbable when lizard brain thinking is taken into account.

Although Trump did not win the presidency by a majority vote but rather via the anachronistic Electoral College, there is no overlooking the fact that 60 million Americans voted for him.

Why? Fear.

Fear over a rapidly changing culture, but more so over personal economics. For millions of Americans, expectations for a comfortable level of affluence — i.e. a middle-class lifestyle — have sharply declined since the 1970s.

Trump tapped into their fear, frustration and anger, and directed it toward easy to blame but mostly erroneous targets.

Global trade, immigration and government regulations were the primary scapegoats for the declining fortunes and prospects of America’s struggling working class.

Appealing to lizard brains obviates the need to make fact-based arguments that support a policy position or an accusation. For example, only 15 percent of America’s lost manufacturing jobs is attributable to global trade. The remaining 85 percent is due to automation. Rescinding environmental regulations to favor bygone industries such as coal extraction not only results in few new jobs, it ignores the reality that the energy industry has already shifted to alternate, cleaner fuels that provides thousands of new jobs.

The fact of the matter is that there has been a massive and ongoing sea change in the American and world economies that all of Trump’s ham-fisted interventions will not undo. Instead, his clumsy, misguided policies will likely make matters worse for Americans.

What really ails America is the age-old disease of greed that has now progressed into morbid economic disparity. It manifests itself in a panoply of symptoms, including stagnant or declining worker wages and disproportionately lavish pay for executives; resurgent child poverty; increasing homelessness; the decline of public education and health; widespread despair leading to an epidemic of drug abuse and suicide; the collapse of ecosystems; severe prolonged recession; the pervasive offshoring of wealth; and, most troubling, the dilution of democracy.

The declining fortunes of America’s working and middle classes instigated a reactionary populist movement that seeks quick fixes and restoration of their economic status.

We are now a nation in which the top 20 percent has virtually become an entrenched, exclusive economic aristocracy into which the remaining 80 percent is less and less likely to rise — a nation of haves-a-lot and haves-a-lot-less.

For the latter, hope is a powerful elixir, especially when pushed by a practiced con man. Desperate, disillusioned people who feel left behind in a changing world are more easily persuaded to abandon democratic principles for the promises of would-be autocrats.

We are a nation operating under a kind of cannibal capitalism in which everything has become a profit center, everything is a commodity, and everyone is just another consumer to be exploited to the maximum. Think health care and higher education.

The forces of greed work to convince the public that the free market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve and that everyone has the opportunity to succeed. Attempts to interfere with the market — e.g. regulations to prevent monopolization, support organized labor or promote economic equality — are condemned as market distortions that impede the natural Darwinian hierarchy of winners and losers.

Economic inequality with the increasing concentration of wealth at the top of the food chain is justified as the virtuous reward for the generators of wealth. And, besides, some of that wealth eventually “trickles down” to enrich everyone, even the stragglers. Right.

Actually, it has been more like table scraps than trickle down. If America’s version of capitalism worked as advertised, millions of Americans would not have rallied to Trump and Bernie Sanders.

The entrenched forces of greed rail against any efforts or proposals to foster economic equality as counterproductive, corrosive socialism.

The rote demonization of socialism derives from the Neoliberal ideology of Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who equated America’s New Deal and the rise of Democratic Socialism in Britain with the oppressive collectivist tyrannies of nazism and communism.

This hyperbolic comparison continues to inform many economic and political conservatives who consider government efforts to promote the general welfare, e.g. Social Security, public education, environmental protections, universal health care and regulations to restrain corporate greed as existential threats to freedom and greasing the slide into collectivist hell.

It’s a familiar story in the history of civilization. A minority of elites grabs and holds onto a hugely inordinate share of wealth and power while the vast majority of the population descends into economic despair that eventually erupts into radical, sometimes, violent social upheaval.

The erosion of economic opportunity and sharply increasing wealth disparity are a looming threat to our social cohesion and democratic foundations. It foments lizard-brain thinking, which is primitive survival mode, reactionary and merciless.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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