American Pie

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JUNE 4, 2007

American Pie

I had thought that conservatives were taking the democratic outcome
of the 2006 elections rather well, all things considered. Then I
read a column by American Enterprise Institute (AEI) economist
Kevin Hassett, and now I'm not so sure. Hassett points out that,
over the last decade and a half, free-market dictatorships had
faster economic growth than free-market democracies. The obvious
explanation would be that dictatorships tend to be poorer countries
(e. g., China) that can grow more quickly by catching up with
modern technology. But Hassett offers up a different
interpretation: Unlike democracies, dictatorships "are not
hamstrung by the preferences of voters for, say, a pervasive
welfare state." In other words, while Western democracies are held
back by voters--with their pesky demands that citizens get health
care and old people not be left to starve in the
streets--autocracies march nobly toward a free-market paradise.I suppose it's good that, in the wake of Iraq, AEI is rethinking its
zealous commitment to forcibly exporting democracy across the
planet. But perhaps the think tank is now veering a bit too far in
the opposite direction. AEI's signature foreign policy
neoconservatism was well-reflected in Karl Zinsmeister, the former
editor of its magazine, who was best-known for his celebration of
President Bush's foreign policy--"there is now no chance whatever of
the U.S. losing this critical guerrilla war," he wrote of Iraq in
2005--and for finding innovative but not entirely ethical ways to
turn the publication into a vehicle for personal profit (as
detailed in James Kirchick's "The Enterprising American" in the
last issue of The New Republic).

Tellingly, AEI's magazine has abandoned the Zinsmeister model and
relaunched itself with a new name (The American) and a new mission
("a magazine of ideas for business leaders"). The new editor, James
Glassman (who was tnr's publisher from 1981 to 1984), is best-known
for co-authoring, with Hassett, the kitschy stock market-utopian
tract Dow 36,000. His most recent venture was running Tech Central
Station, a "think tank" owned by a lobbying firm whose clients
would find their views taken up in purportedly independent op-eds
written by Glassman and his minions. (This arrangement, also
innovative and also not entirely ethical, was aptly dubbed
"journolobbying" by Nicholas Confessore in a 2003 Washington
Monthly expose.) Mirroring the change in leadership, The American
now seems less dewy-eyed about the virtues of democracy and far more
dewy-eyed about the virtues of the bottom line. Out is the
conservatism of Paul Wolfowitz. In is the conservatism of
Montgomery Burns.

In addition to Hassett's odd defense of dictatorships, the current
issue defends CEO pay, expresses skepticism about global warming,
and denounces corporate democracy. University of Chicago economists
Gary Becker (a Nobel Prize-winner) and Kevin Murphy contribute an
essay titled "The Upside of Income Inequality." The upside I was
expecting them to emphasize was that people with large incomes get
very, very rich. But I guess that part was taken as a given. Becker
and Murphy instead argue inequality has grown because "the labor
market is placing a greater emphasis on education." Education makes
people more productive; ergo, inequality is good.

It's true that the gap between college-educated and
non-collegeeducated workers has grown. But the big rise in
inequality is not between workers with degrees and workers without.
It's between the top 1 percent and everybody else. Wouldn't raising
taxes a bit on the top 1 percent help alleviate inequality? Becker
and Murphy reply that, while a fairer tax code "may sound sensible,
it is not," because it would amount to "a tax on going to college."
So, if we raise the top tax rate, then 18-year-olds will choose to
become convenience store clerks rather than go to college and run
the small risk that they'll one day get so rich that they could
face a slightly higher marginal tax rate?

But the issue's piece de resistance is a cover story pleading for
more lenient treatment of white-collar criminals. In the "good old
days," author Luke Mullins reports, white-collar prisons allowed
convicts to order takeout from fancy restaurants, sneak away for
golf, and enjoy other trappings appropriate for men of their class.
Alas, embarrassed by the "Club Fed" reputation, prison officials
cracked down. Today, as Mullins's sympathetic subject tells us,
white-collar prison is "a hellish place."

How hellish? I'll let Mullins pick up the description two paragraphs
later: "Alongside the housing units and administrative buildings
are such amenities as a gym, a softball diamond, a bocce pitch, and
a tennis court slipped inside an oval track. From the grounds,
inmates gaze at the soft mountaintops that rim the horizon."

OK, that might not sound very hellish. But Mullins's point is that,
while such punishment might sound rather lenient to the average
person, it's unbearable for men accustomed to great wealth
(ill-gotten though that wealth may be). "You've been giving orders
your whole life," explains one advocate of more lenient conditions,
"and now there's this buffoon with an IQ of twenty telling you to
clean the toilet." Actually, this part isn't quite as bad as it
sounds, either; as Mullins reveals two pages later, wealthy
prisoners typically hire fellow cons to do such jobs for them. But
there are other indignities-- they may no longer wear civilian garb
and can't spend more than $290 a month at the prison commissary.
You try limiting yourself to that budget when you're used to
shopping at Barney's.

Why would The American develop such a strong sympathy for the
suffering of white-collar criminals--especially when, like other
conservative organs, it generally ignores the far greater horrors
inflicted on regular prisoners? One might suspect this sudden
concern was inspired by the potential wave of coming Bush
administration indictments. But the real answer seems to be that
The American sees the idea of rich criminals having an unpleasant
time in prison as yet another sign of egalitarianism run amok. "As
the widening gap between high- and low-income Americans has become
a focus for politicians and journalists," laments Mullins,
"arguments [for more lenient treatment] are unlikely to find much
support."

Ah, those irrational voters, hamstringing the government again. In
China, rich crooks can just buy their way out of trouble. No wonder
we're falling behind.

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