D. Dowd Muska


Wrong Economic Diagnosis, Right Policy Prescriptions

May 26, 2016

Do we need another book about “income inequality”?

F.H. Buckley thinks so. His The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America (Encounter Books; 359 pages; $27.99) explores the “barriers to advancement that trap the poorest of Americans in poverty, and … the special advantages enjoyed by the richest of Americans, the members of the New Class.” It’s a frustrating tour of where the nation finds its standard of living, and quality of life, in the second decade of the 21st century. Part misdiagnosis, part advocacy for policies to smash “barriers to mobility,” the book is maddening and enlightening.

Buckley embraces the facile narrative that the “one percent” is grabbing an ever-greater share of national wealth. But even worse, to the George Mason School of Law professor, “income mobility” is inadequate -- ranking lower in the U.S. than in France, Germany, Australia, and Denmark. The Way Back characterizes the 1800s as “a golden age” for those seeking to get ahead, and pines for the decades immediately after World War II, when “more people than ever before went to college, aided by the G.I. Bill,” landed “good jobs,” and bought “better homes than the ones they grew up in.” Those were the days. Now, the middle class is “shrinking.”

We’ve heard all this stuff for years, from the folks who provide dodgy data to “Occupy Wall Street,” MSNBC, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). But Buckley errs in swallowing the sound bites. He approvingly cites the research of class warrior Thomas Pikkety, without devoting much attention to the French economist’s sizable cadre of debunkers. The exclusion of Alan Reynolds, a skillful skewerer of income-inequality hokum, is inexcusable. (Noting that “real personal consumption per person has tripled since 1968 and doubled since 1980,” the Cato Institute senior fellow wonders who “all those shopping malls, big box stores, car dealers and restaurants” are catering to.) Overlooking Gary Burtless, of the liberal Brookings Institution, is another stumble. (“American living standards have improved over the past three decades. Further, living standards have improved not only at the very top of the income distribution, as everyone suspects, but also in the middle and at the bottom.”)

Things aren’t as bad as Buckley wants us to believe, but when he turns to policies designed to restore mobility, his book shines. The Way Back fingers the New Class as the leading obstacle to reforms, and presents “a wish list of federal and state legislation that would help to undermine entrenched hierarchies and assist everyone except Americans’ aristocrats.”

Buckley’s critique of government schooling is devastating -- as is his assault on the enemies of change. America’s K-12 teachers are “amongst the best-paid in the world,” but the dismal outcome of their efforts “imposes a tremendous financial burden on the country.” Sweeping alterations are needed, but progress remains stubbornly slow. The New Class, he charges, has an “apparently pathological desire to ensure that other people’s children enjoy the dubious blessing of a public school education,” and thus, “opposes vouchers” and “hobbles charter schools.”

As for higher education, after student loans became widely available, “colleges simply jacked up their tuition, and invested the money in grandiose buildings, frivolous offerings, and deep ranks of sustainability officers.” In addition, admitting “the undistinguished sons of powerful men” -- think Al Gore and George W. Bush -- keeps “more qualified children of the middle class” from attending top universities.

Next in Buckley’s crosshairs: crony capitalism. Savvy members of the New Class use their political juice to secure subsidies (think Solyndra), as well as lucrative “financial and business regulations, tax loopholes, and … corporate law rules.” Worst of all: occupational licensing. Many “strippers, masseuses, hair stylists, florists, interior designers, milk samplers, manicurists, animal breeders, makeup artists, painters, and tree trimmers” need state certificates in order to ply their trades. “There’s usually a cartel of insiders behind the regulations, protecting their turf from new competitors who can’t afford the licensing fee.”

Buckley’s best insight relates to the ontology of the New Class. America’s elites -- a cohort that leans strongly to left -- “went to the best of universities,” where they “espoused politically correct causes.” They got married and had their children late, and “abstained from every kind of abuse.” But they’re hardly “risk-takers.” Instead, New Classers have “ordered their lives to minimize risk.” The group is “deserving … but not so deserving as they think they are.”

It’s a gutsy, and original, critique of the people who brought America unlimited government. For it alone, The Way Back is worth a read.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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