Turning the dialogue from wealth to values

My latest column is about the top one percent, and OWS, here are some paragraphs, including the last three:

The United States has always had a culture with a high regard for those able to rise from poverty to riches. It has had a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit and has attracted ambitious immigrants, many of whom were drawn here by the possibility of acquiring wealth. Furthermore, the best approach for fighting poverty is often precisely not to make fighting poverty the highest priority. Instead, it’s better to stress achievement and the pursuit of excellence, like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel…

But how is that playing out in practice?

For one thing, today’s elites are so wedded to permissive values — in part for their own pleasure and convenience — that a new conservative cultural revolution may have little chance of succeeding. Lax child-rearing and relatively easy divorce may be preferred by some high earners, but would conservatives wish them on society at large, including the poor and new immigrants? Probably not, but that’s often what we are getting.

In the future, complaints about income inequality are likely to grow and conservatives and libertarians won’t have all the answers. Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should.

It remains to be seen how many of us are up to its demands.

It will be very interesting to see, if labor market polarization continues, what kind of disciplinary alternatives will be offered.  How about a boot camp, or a neo-Victorian boarding school, to turn your kid into a successful engineer?  My admittedly counterintuitive view is that growing income inequality will provide a big boost to cultural conservatism, and perhaps political conservatism too, albeit at levels which are often rhetorical rather than real.

There is much more in the column itself, including a discussion of what Stiglitz, Sachs, Ayn Rand and modern American conservatives get right and wrong.  I’m a big fan of the pro-wealth, pro-discipline ethic, although I don’t think that current intellectual discourse is serving up an especially palatable version of it.

I should add that for this column I am grateful for a conversation with John Nye.

Addendum: Mark Thoma comments, as do his commenters, always worth reading.


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