Optimism for the Middle Class?

If, like me, you are a conservative living in the world of academe, you tend to take a dark view of the present moment. Quite apart from the seventh-century barbarism that suddenly erupted into the modern state of Israel last month, it is depressing, even terrifying, to watch our country sleep-walking into multiple economic crises, costly wars, the overturning of our whole system of morality, and the worst choice of presidential candidates our political system has ever thrown up (double entendre intended).

Then, suddenly, there appears in your inbox, as though from the starship Enterprise, a blast from Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen. This contains a “techno-optimist” manifesto proclaiming that all the world’s problems are capable of ready technological fixes, sparkling with such gems as:

Our enemy is anti-merit, anti-ambition, anti-striving, anti-achievement, anti-greatness.
Our enemy is statism, authoritarianism, collectivism, central planning, socialism.
Our enemy is bureaucracy, vetocracy, gerontocracy, blind deference to tradition.

All right, as a traditionalist reactionary, I wish there was more deference to tradition, blind or otherwise, and I’m not sure what “vetocracy” is. Rule of the veto? Rule of veterans? I’m in favor of both, other things being equal. The manifesto is an orgasm of libertarian enthusiasm, and as part of the gerontocracy, I’m not eager to overtax my heart.

Still, it’s hard not to be bucked up by all this good old American, can-do optimism, linked to a cheery contempt for government solutions. Then it struck me: Maybe some of that optimism about private solutions to the problems of the universe could be redirected to solve intractable social problems. 

Ask yourself: what is the most pressing social problem in America today? If you answered “income inequality,” you are probably on the left. Income inequality has been a marquee issue for progressives for well over a century. It’s effective as an issue because it allows the left to paint those who oppose redistributionist schemes as selfish advocates for the haves over the have-nots. It is reflexively assumed that only government can solve this problem, principally through progressive taxation, meaning massively disproportionate taxation of the rich.

We opponents of redistribution via taxation are left to grumble that the economy suffers when wealth is transferred from the productive to the unproductive. Progressive taxation is really a tax on social mobility, we say. We point out that redistributionist policies don’t work, and after trillions have been spent on anti-poverty programs for half a century, the poor are still with us, in pretty much the same proportions as before. The wealth stripped from taxpayers goes to Washington, DC, where it is used to manufacture voting blocs for the politicians who hand out the goodies. We notice that programs for the poor tend to turn into welfare for bureaucrats, who then clamor for more “investment.” We would rather see wealth remain in the hands of successful entrepreneurs in the private economy, where it will be more intelligently invested, and in ways likelier to benefit the poor through jobs and general prosperity. Private wealth shouldn’t be drained off for the use of venal politicians and their rent-seeking friends, whose main interest in setting tax policy is securing reelection.

Sadly, none of these arguments work at election time. Yet income inequality is a serious problem, and not just for progressives. Aristotle (that old Greek guy we traditionalists like) long ago demonstrated that societies characterized by huge inequalities became factionalized and unstable. Check. Growing inequality means a shrinking middle class. Check. A healthy middle class, the same Greek guy said, is the best defense of real democracy, the kind where the people rule themselves. Simply on grounds of political prudence, and quite apart from compassion—an emotion, contrary to popular opinion, often experienced by non-progressives—no conservative, traditional liberal, or even techo-optimist libertarian should want an economically polarized society.

My modest proposal would be for a coalition of right-minded billionaires to create and fund a private non-profit corporation that would offer individuals a combination of debt relief and income support in exchange for agreeing to train for useful jobs in the skilled trades.

We now have two parallel underclasses, one that depends on the party of government and another that turns to Mr. Trump as its tribune. High-profile politicians on the progressive left have expressed their contempt for this second group, describing them as “deplorables” who “cling to their guns and religion.” A more charitable view would recognize them as our fellow citizens, people who would on the whole prefer to stand on their own two legs and who pride themselves on not taking government handouts. But they are prevented from flourishing by mountains of debt, terrible addictions, and—thanks to globalization, inflation, and rising interest rates—a growing inability to support their families.

There is also a second group of working people whose plight is less obvious. These are holders of what the anthropologist David Graeber inelegantly referred to as “bullshit jobs”: store greeters, telemarketers, survey administrators, compliance officers, assistants to the assistant director of directory assistance. These excremental jobs are mostly pointless and lead to a loss of self-worth. They also lower productivity. If productivity is measured by GNP divided by hours worked, the proliferation of jobs like these must be responsible for much of the economy’s falling productivity since 2000. This group too has an enormous pile of debt, mostly from educational loans.

You don’t have to be a techno-optimist to doubt that either major party, even if Mr. Trump is elected in 2024, will be in a position to significantly improve the lot of deplorables and excremental workers and restore the American middle class. Recently, the gridlock that is the default position of Washington, DC has been looking more like the final car chase scene in The Blues Brothers. But if the initiative could be taken by wealthy private individuals, bypassing Washington, real solutions might well emerge.

A good number of the wealthy right now have decided that it’s time to stop giving to elite universities who cheer on pro-Hamas activism and justify atrocities. Then there are other wealthy men like Mr. Andreessen who just like tackling problems no one else seems able to solve. Why not use some of that wealth and genius for innovation to help move the underclass into the middle class? If the one-percenters could use their resources to incentivize even a few million underemployed or unproductively employed Americans to train for useful, skilled occupations, it could make an enormous difference to the country’s social cohesion and prosperity. Electricians, carpenters, plumbers, car mechanics, and others who work with their hands also, among other things, make pretty sensible citizens. Their jobs are local and not easily offshored or replaced by robot labor. They certainly tend to be more sensible than the women’s studies majors that seem to multiply uncontrollably in human resource departments—a fine example of negative utility if there ever was one.

My modest proposal would be for a coalition of right-minded billionaires to create and fund a private non-profit corporation that would offer individuals a combination of debt relief and income support in exchange for agreeing to train for useful jobs in the skilled trades. These occupations, producing as they do things of real value, are more satisfying than excremental jobs, even if they are not popular among college guidance counselors. The US currently has a massive shortage of skilled workers, a shortage that has serious knock-on effects on construction, manufacturing, and other businesses. A well-designed program run by successful businessmen and financiers, sequenced to provide more and more debt relief as individuals move into productive trades and crafts, could put millions of Americans on the path to more satisfying and well-remunerated working lives. It might also help show other Americans the best place to look for solutions to our country’s many challenges.