One of the most famous episodes of The Twilight Zone is, “It’s a Good Life.” In it, Bill Mumy plays Anthony — a little boy with special mental powers that isolates a small group of people in his own world where we acts like a monster, killing and torturing at will. At the same time, he doesn’t like it when people aren’t “happy.” He is a spoiled child, but with infinite power. He reminds me of the rich in the United States.
Paul Krugman posited a few of reasons the rich are so obsessed with economic austerity even though it is not in their long-term interests, Inflation, Septaphobia, and the Shock Doctrine. As the title of the article indicates, he suggests it is because: (1) they are rentiers; (2) they are obsessed with the stagflation of the 1970s; or (3) it is just a convenient excuse to screw the working class. I think he is closest on the third point, but it does kind of beg the question. It doesn’t explain why the rich are interested in screwing the poor.
I think it is all about a kind of social psychopathy. The rich are in favor of what they see as being in their interests. It doesn’t really matter if a given policy works in an absolute sense — only that it works in a relative sense. What I mean by this is that it doesn’t matter if the rich see their income go up by 10% if they also see the poor’s income go up by 20%. They see that as losing ground. Just the same, losing 10% would be okay as long as the poor’s income decreased by 20%.
Over the last four decades, we’ve seen this more or less happen. The only time the poor have seen their situation distinctly improved was during the Clinton era and the rich hated it, even though they did vastly better. It is hard not to see it as something like childish spite. But this shouldn’t be shocking. Obama was widely supported by Wall Street when he ran in 2008. But they turned against him soon after his election. And why was that? Certainly it wasn’t because of his anti-finance policies, since he didn’t have any. It was because he called them fat cats. That’s childish nonsense.
It is also dangerous. Thanks to what was mostly racial backlash, Ronald Reagan was swept into power in the 1980s and he effectively destroyed organized labor in this country. As far as the rich were concerned, this was fantastic. But here we are in our fourth decade and we seem to have reached a new equilibrium where large numbers of people are permanently unemployed. The only time we reach full employment is when there is a stock or real estate bubble. I’m talking about secular stagnation. And what this means in the long term is that corporate profits will decline. But as William Lazonick noted in Profits Without Prosperity, many corporations are now destroying their long term profitability for short term profits.
The problem is that companies cannot be profitable if there is no market for their goods. By gutting the middle class, the rich managed to take more short term profits. That seems to have come to an end. So now they are destroying themselves in a kind of autocannibalism. But it doesn’t matter to them. The point is that they keep doing better. And it doesn’t much matter that the long term results of their actions are catastrophic. They know from experience that the government will never let them fail. They are the “right” kind of people. After they did enormous damage to the global economy, the government bailed them out, and during the recovery, almost all of the gains went to them. Most Americans are still waiting for the recovery to trickle down to them.
So at every point, regardless of how shortsighted it may be, they will pick whatever is good for themselves and bad for the rest of us. They live in a consequences-free world. Call it affluenza or spoiled brat syndrome. The problem is not them. The problem is that we continue to give them political power that allows them to continue to affect policy that enrichs them regardless of how they behave. It’s like we’re stuck in “It’s a Good Life,” and no one is willing to attack Anthony when he is vulnerable. Tomorrow ain’t gonna be a real good day.