In the musical Hamilton, there’s a song, although it pains me to call it that, entitled “The Room Where It Happens,” which deals with the whole idea of compromises and deals made behind closed doors, as well as a few other matters. In counterpoint to that, a recent article by Jonathan Rauch in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “What’s Ailing American Politics” dissects the reasons for the current failure of the American political system, and much of the reason for that failure Rausch attributes to “excessive reforms,” all made with the best of intentions, but which now, in the age of excessive media coverage, which he fails to note, interesting enough, has resulted in a situation where political compromises in Congress are essentially almost impossible, except in extreme and extenuating circumstances. In turn, that forces the President to use what administrative tools he or she has in order to get much accomplished, and that, in turn angers Congress more and further polarizes the political spectrum.
As illustrated both in history and the Hamilton musical, in the past often the bitterest of political opponents managed to hammer out compromises – except on one issue, that of slavery, which failure led inexorably to the Civil War. Some have said it was over states’ rights, but the principal reason for wanting a greater degree of states’ rights in the old South was the perceived need to continue the institution of slavery. In the end, however, that failure to reach an accommodation resulted in the bloodiest war in U.S. history. In an intellectual sense, and in terms of the views of southern landholders, the need to retain slavery is certainly understandable, since often the majority of the worth of those plantations lay as much, if not more, in the value of the slaves as in the value of the land. And no one likes the idea of an “outsider” confiscating by law family assets and changing an entire way of life, particularly when those in charge of the state governments are also generally from the ranks of the affluent landholders.
Unhappily, we’re seeing a variation on this theme today, where the current “landholders” are various segments of the one tenth of one percent of the U.S. population that don’t want their ways of life changed. The quest for profits and control have become paramount in the U.S. today, particularly the profits of massive corporations, and much of that profit has come from reducing the cost of labor as a percentage of operating costs, either through off-shoring labor-intensive processes or through automation. Although I’ve never seen it quantified, these two initiatives have resulted in the displacement of comparatively well-paid skilled and semi-skilled workers, putting them into the labor pool at a time when not as many other good-paying jobs were being created in the United States. In turn, this effectively restrained wage growth across the entire economy. The result was the effective devaluation of the worth of the minimum wage and general degeneration of middle class wage levels over the past thirty years.
Because of the popular perception that the majority of higher-paying jobs require a college or even a post-graduate degree — a perception that has a great deal of truth in it, but which neglects higher-skilled jobs requiring additional non-collegiate training and education, not surprisingly, young people began attempting to obtain those credentials at an ever higher rate, but with the demand, colleges and universities had to expand, and expansion costs money, which state legislatures didn’t want to fund. So tuition costs soared. And because a great number of parents of these younger people didn’t have the funds to pay for their children’s higher education, unsurprisingly, since their wages hadn’t kept pace, the students took out student loans.
This has resulted in a situation where the U.S. is now producing roughly twice as many college graduates each year as there are higher-paid college jobs for them, and that, in turn, has a depressing effect on the wages and salaries of those who do obtain those jobs, and a debt burden that most likely can’t possibly be repaid be those who have to settle for lower-paid jobs. Another result of all these trends is that we now have possibly the largest percentage of “under-employed” people in the history of the country.
And they aren’t happy about it, as shown by the recent presidential primary campaigns.
Yet those who are responsible for this situation seem to be oblivious to the potential forces that they have unleashed, and they oppose any changes, any compromises to deal with this continuing and growing problem, just as the old South refused to confront the growing problem of slavery. The same is also true, by the way, of the position of the NRA.
As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. I might be missing something, but it seems to me that the Russian aristocracy of 1910, the southern landholders of 1860, and the U.S. robber barons of the 1880s all might rhyme with the U.S. economic aristocracy of today.
That sort of rhyme usually doesn’t turn out well.