The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics


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I think there are grounds for considerable doubt. Start with Murray. His reading of American history is breathtakingly shallow. He seems not to have read, or not to care about, the extensive work by actual historians and social scientists analyzing our past, perhaps because their work would not fit so neatly into his template. For example, economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz show in their book, The Race Between Education and Technology , how critical the development of open, free, relatively gender-neutral public schooling was to our economic growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, allowing us to surge past our European competitors.

He treats problems like rural poverty, urban ghettos, racism, the subordinate position of blacks, women, and gays, and so on as just minor footnotes to an almost perfectly functioning society. Clearly Murray is seeing what he wants to see in fifties society, and only what he wants to see. But his view of society since the s is radically different. He throws away his rose-colored spectacles and now can see nothing but class and inequality. Indeed, his relentless focus on this problem and some of the economic trends he documents would not be out of place coming from a liberal think tank or academic.

Yet that overlap has not led him to pay the slightest attention to the careful work these think tanks and academics have done analyzing the growth in inequality. Murray dismisses out of hand explanations rooted in structural shifts in the economy, slower growth in educational attainment, changes in labor market institutions unions, the minimum wage , or really anything other than increasing rewards for smart people and declining morals for dumb people.

This is no more believable than his Panglossian view of s America. Perhaps he senses that his analysis is a bit less than completely convincing once he strays from documentation for example, the top 20 percent are growing away from the bottom 30 percent—hardly big news to explanation.


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He admits that some of his cultural claims are necessarily anecdotal, relying on the work of social commentators like David Brooks, whose generalizations, he says, are consistent with his own. In other words, if it seems right, it must be right. As we used to say back in graduate school: Garbage in, garbage out. Wrong diagnosis inevitably leads to wrong prognosis, and so it is with Murray.

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Better policy might actually make a difference. Government might actually have a role to play. People might actually benefit from having more education and opportunities to get ahead. He fully accepts the negative verdict on economic trends promulgated by the Economic Policy Institute and other left-leaning groups. But then he tacks to the center and completely embraces the themes of centrist pundits like Thomas Friedman who see both parties as completely incapable of compromise and meaningful policy reforms though Edsall is especially hard on the Republicans.

Perhaps most damaging, however, he repeats, in the gloomiest possible tones, the predictions of various deficit hawks on the coming debt crisis that will bring America to its knees—predictions that the EPI and Paul Krugman, among others, have done their best to debunk. Call it the austerity assumption: America will grow slowly. America will have high structural unemployment. America will be forced to cut lots of stuff. The parties will fight over what stuff to cut. Not enough stuff will be cut and things will get worse, necessitating more cuts and more fighting.

You get the picture. No way out! But what if the austerity assumption is incorrect?


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  • What if slow growth is not locked in and high unemployment is not structural? What if, in short, the extraordinary depth of our current problems is driven in large part by cyclical factors that are likely to improve? He implicitly admits this when discussing Arizona and some other cases where the rise in political brutality tracks very closely with the deterioration of the economy.

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    It follows logically that if the economy improves, brutality will subside. Looked at in, say, a six-month time frame, these beliefs might appear reasonable. Looked at in broad historical context, however, they seem excessively pessimistic. There have been other periods of American history with high inequality, and they have been followed by periods of compressed inequality; other periods of slow growth have been followed by periods of faster growth. The same can be said for his vision of an ever more coarse and brutal politics that accomplishes nothing.

    Sure, again, over six months that may sound plausible. And they see the out group as an adversary, which they are much more willing to cut benefits, for example, for poor people and for those who are not those within the conservative Republican constellation. And you describe conservative Republicans as almost better equipped, better innately able to fight what for they believe in, in this age of — time of scarcity than are Democrats.

    There is a much more — and I don't mean this pejoratively. There is a stronger natural instinct among conservatives to see contests in zero sum terms, that there are going to be losers and winners.

    The Age of Austerity

    Therefore, I want to get into this and be sure that I am the winner and that people that are around me are winners. And the consequence of that is what? Because conservatives say, that's a good thing, because they think spending does need to be cut, we need to unleash capitalism, the free markets to work their will. But this atmosphere of scarcity and austerity that the country in and the long-term debt concerns is an ideal environment for the conservatives, and it's a very rough one for liberals.

    Liberals do not see the world — they see much more of the world as a unity, as one, and that everyone shares. They don't like to inflict harm on anybody particularly, so that they're not really prepared for this kind of fight over limited — and not just limited, but diminished resources, diminishing resources. What do you see as the — as at stake here?

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    You have a pretty pessimistic outlook here at the end about where the country's headed. You talk about a period of decline, potentially, for the United States? Well, I think that this is — this whole conflict and the polarization we're in right now has limited the ability of this country to deal with what are very serious problems. And I think the view that a number of economists hold, which is that at the moment this country really ought to be taking advantage of the fact that money is virtually free.

    You can borrow money at almost zero cost, and there ought to be more investment right now. But you have to combine that with a long-term plan to reduce the deficit. But, at the moment, there has to be — instead of that, we are frozen, basically, in an austerity mentality, much like Europe. And I think that is a pretty constrictive one. And in just a few words, Tom Edsall, what do you see that could turn that around, that could get the United States back on a path toward less polarization, and seeing a way through this current economic crisis?

    Well, I don't think there's a real solution in a sense. I think we have been through a year-long upheaval, with the civil rights movement, women's rights movement, all these things, and that the process of going through this is going to take some more time.


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    • A lot of it now has to do with demography, with the rise of the Hispanic vote, increasing numbers of single voters. The Republicans, I think, right now see their strength, the conservative coalition that has been sort of a default majority for much of the past almost half-century as really threatened by these demographic changes. And they want to win a big one in , use that election to take the White House, Congress and the Senate, and try to enact as much as they can along the lines of the Paul Ryan budget, get that in place.

      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics

      And then if things sort of fall apart for them, they will have the law in place, and it becomes much harder for a new, more liberal majority to change things, because a minority can block so much in the future. Support Provided By: Learn more. Watch Nov 29 Shields and Brooks on impeachment public opinion, shifting Democratic race.

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      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics
      The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics

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