And other familiar group "fictions:" Just how dumb are we "rational animals?"
More specifically, how dumb is our nation's "public discourse" at this point in time? Let's put that a different way:
To what extent is our national discourse really a war between rival scripts? As we try to answer that question, consider part of a recent column by George Will in the Washington Post.
Will's column appeared in the Post on Sunday, February 17. In many ways, the column made excellent points.
Throughout the column, Will noted that, while everyone likes to discuss "socialism," no one knows how to define it. Along the way, he also noted the sheer stupidity in Donald J. Trump's relationship to this ill-defined yet highly evocative "ism:"
WILL (2/17/19): In 1962, Michael Harrington, a founder of the Democratic Socialists of America...published “The Other America.” It supposedly kindled President John F. Kennedy’s interest in poverty, which had not escaped his attention while campaigning in West Virginia’s primary. Harrington, like “democratic socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today, thought socialism should be advanced through the Democratic Party.Donald J. Trump is the silly, preening president mocked by Will in that passage. But that wasn't the columnist's only good point this day.
Today, socialism has new, angrier advocates. Speaking well of it gives the speaker the frisson of being naughty and the fun of provoking Republicans like those whose hosannas rattled the rafters when the president vowed that America would never become socialist. Socialism is, however, more frequently praised than defined because it has become a classification that no longer classifies. So, a president who promiscuously wields government power to influence the allocation of capital (e.g., bossing around Carrier even before he was inaugurated; using protectionism to pick industrial winners and losers) can preen as capitalism’s defender against socialists...
It's also true that those who speak well of "socialism" rattle the cages of modern Republicans. Indeed, Republicans have long built a movement on the backs of their opposition to "socialism," and of course to "class warfare."
Over time, the conservative war against "socialism" has surged through various theaters and fronts. Back in the days of FDR, the war was waged against Social Security. In the time of LBJ, it was waged against Medicare, with private citizen Ronald Reagan stumping extremely hard.
As many liberal writers have noted, today's standard conservative wouldn't dream of eliminating those highly popular programs. But the war against socialism persists, now aimed at "Medicare for all."
The war against "socialism" continues, though none of the warriors would know how to define this useful monster in any serious way.
That said, who needs clarity? Over the course of the past many years, "socialism" and "class warfare" have functioned as useful, ill-defined battle cries within our dull-witted discourse. They've served as highly effective scare terms and as little else.
These terms provide a lot of heat and very little light. But then, the discourse we "rational animals" have created and tolerated tends to function precisely this way—and so it was that this passage appeared in that recent column by Will:
WILL: Socialists favor a steeply progressive income tax, as did those who created today’s: The top 1 percent pay 40 percent of taxes; the bottom 50 percent pay only 3 percent; 50 percent of households pay either no income tax or 10 percent or less of their income. Law professor Richard A. Epstein notes that, in the last 35 years, the fraction of total taxes paid by the lower 90 percent has shrunk from more than 50 percent to about 35 percent.Will made several good points in his column. At one point, he even said that today's socialists argue, "with some justification," that our economic system is "rigged" in favor of the wealthy.
Will was certainly right about that! But just how dumb is the public discourse permitted by our biggest newspapers? Will's factoid about the top one percent provides a case in point.
Alas, poor oligarch! "The top 1 percent pay 40 percent of taxes," Will wrote at one point, quickly eliding the fact that he was talking about federal income taxes, not about overall taxes in general.
That's a familiar talking point in the eternal Republican war against "class warfare." It's also a claim that should never be allowed to appear in a newspaper like the Post.
What's wrong with Will's highly familiar factoid? Duh! In his factoid, Will seems to identify a gross disparity, with the top one percent of earners forced to pay some forty percent of [federal income] taxes.
One percent forced to pay forty percent—that sounds like a gross injustice! But this talking point, though highly familiar, is also grossly misleading. It's built on a dimwitted sleight of hand, to wit:
Duh! You can't even begin to evaluate that factoid until you know what percentage of overall income that top one percent receives! We'll assume that every journalists understands this obvious point, but editors at major newspapers keep waving Will's factoid into print, grossly misleading the public.
"The top 1 percent pay 40 percent of taxes!" Over at the Fox News Channel, Sean Hannity has peddled this groaner for decades. We're visiting the southern frontiers of our rational impulse when readers of the Washington Post are also exposed to such cant.
That said, this is one of the talking points which has long driven the war against "class warfare." Such gong-show claims come very close to being the "fictions" which Professor Harari discusses in his best-selling book about our war-like, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Sad! Within our script-riddled national discourse, one tribe has long conducted a war against "socialism" and "class warfare." Now, though, we on the left have begun to create our our tribal scripts and cries.
How rational are we rational animals even within our own liberal tents? All in all, not very! As a simple matter of fact, the public discourse under which we all suffer is, at the present time, very dumb.
That said, two tribes are now extremely active throwing scripted scare terms around. In the pages of the New York Times, our own tribe's growing approach to war recently spread to mink coats.
The Others complain about socialism. Our tribe complains about something else.
How rational are our liberal cries? Reader, must you ask?
Tomorrow: Letters, they print letters
Fuller disclosure: What percentage of total income goes to the top one percent?
Let's just say that the share has been increasing! According to Berkeley's Emmanual Saez, the top one percent were receiving 8.9% of total income as of 1980.
By 2015, their share of total income had risen to 22.0%. We'll note that this is roughly the same "past 35 years" to which Will refers in the passage posted above. That said, facts like these are rarely allowed to intrude on the pleasures of tribal war which emanate from our major news orgs.
Even among our ranking journalists, we "rational animals" just aren't very sharp! If we want to understand our world, we have to get clear on that fact.