The Class Struggle of Jim Webb
Monday, November 20, 2006
Billed as a moderate, the new Virginia senator sounds more like an old-school leftist.
On election day, Arthur Brooks tried to calm the fears of free-marketeers by writing in the Wall Street Journal, "Many of the Democrats at the vanguard of today's political 'revolution' are not exactly left-wing zealots." Among the non-zealots, Brooks cited Jim Webb of Virginia.
Eight days later, Webb, now a Senator-elect, made Brooks look positively silly by writing his own op-ed in the Journal, a piece that could easily have been composed by any "left-wing zealot" you would care to mention, including the shade of Karl Marx.
Webb was widely portrayed as a centrist in a race in a state that has voted
Republican in every presidential election since 1964. But such terms--left,
center, right--mean less and less. Virginia Postrel, in her superb 1998 book The
Future and Its Enemies, distinguished between dynamists, who, with realism
and enthusiasm, welcome the opportunities of a new world of technology and
global exchange, and advocates of stasis, like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan,
who fear and rail against the changes. Writing in the journal under the headline "Class Struggle," Webb reveals himself to be a member of the latter group--a
chip-on-the-shoulder populist whose framework of analysis is an obsession with
class and power relationships.
The good news is that Americans understand what is happening, and more of them are going to college and beyond in order to take advantage of the new environment.
most important issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a
class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century,"
he writes. "America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more
removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally
living in a different country."
Webb then recites the litany: CEOs make $10 million while minimum-wage earners
make $10,000; "manufacturing jobs are disappearing"; 47 million
Americans have no medical insurance; we're suffering from the "Wal-Marting"
"trickle-down economics didn't happen"; outsourcing is stripping jobs
away. And on and on.
None of what Webb says is new or interesting. He offers no solutions except
to say, vaguely, that "it should be the first order of business for the
new Congress to begin addressing these divisions." But how? The usual
remedy might be the tax code. But there, we're tapped out. The top 1
percent of earners in America
pay 34 percent of the personal income taxes (a proportion twice as great as
their share of income) while the bottom half of earners pays 3 percent of the
Webb is not the only one to point out that the income gap in America is widening. It is. And the real reason is not difficult to find: the returns to education, especially college and post-graduate education, have increased, mainly, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker has written, because the "demand for skilled persons has grown rapidly, [which is] not surprising, given developments in computers and the Internet, and advances in biotechnology."
The good news is that Americans understand what is happening, and more of them are going to college and beyond in order to take advantage of the new environment. As a result, the U.S. has a standard of living one-third higher than Europe and continues to lead the world in technology.
It is the gap between the well-educated and the not-so-well-educated--not between what Webb calls the "overclass" and everyone else--that has become so dramatic. Between 1989 and 2004, mean family net worth for college graduates rose, in real terms, by 61 percent; for high-school graduates, by 21 percent; for those with no high school diploma, by just 12 percent.
Becker, in his discussion of income inequality, points out that "while an upward trend in the earnings gap in education is found for both men and women, and for African Americans and whites, the earnings of college-educated women and African Americans increased more rapidly than did those of white males. As a result, inequality by sex and race, particularly among college-educated persons, narrowed by a lot."
If there is a role for public policy here, it is to improve the K-12 education system, so more Americans can go to college. The way to do that, in my view, is
to introduce competition.
The message of Webb's "Class Struggle" piece is that, in America today, the upper class wants to keep the lower class down, and the widening income gap is evidence that the rich are succeeding in their conspiracy. Their tools include "tax codes [that] protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes."
He issues this warning: "If it remains unchecked, this bifurcation of
opportunities and advantages along class lines has the potential to bring a
period of political unrest."
OK, I understand that Webb is convinced that America is being rent asunder by
class conflict. But who comprises this ruling class? How do they maintain their
privileges and keep the lower classes down? By denying them entrance to
college? By keeping them out of top positions in corporations or private-equity
The Forbes 400 list is festooned with immigrants and Horatio Alger stories.
The only clue is this strange sentence: "An unspoken insinuation seems to be inundating our national debate: Certain immigrant groups have the 'right genetics' and thus are natural entrants to the 'overclass,' while others, as well as those who come from stock that has been here for 200 years and have not made it to the top, simply don't possess the necessary attributes."
Puzzled, I turned to the latest list of the richest Americans--the Forbes 400. It is festooned with immigrants of wide variety, and with Horatio Alger stories like that of billionaire Robert Johnson, an African American who was born the ninth of ten children to blue-collar parents in Hickory, Mississippi. And then there's Sheldon Adelson (number three on the Forbes list), who grew up poor as the son of a Boston cabdriver and borrowed $200 from his uncle to set up a business to sell newspapers when he was 12. As for having the "right genetics," Adelson is Jewish, but, then, maybe that's what Webb has in mind.
I am not making light of the anxiety that many Americans, especially older manufacturing workers, feel in a world that's changing rapidly. Such pain is not to be dismissed lightly. But neither is it to be exploited by Marxian sloganeering and conspiracy theories.
James K. Glassman is Editor-in-Chief of The American.