For the new class of self-proclaimed progressives there is a tale of two cities, one privileged and one underprivileged. This dichotomous model comes right out of the Marxist playbook. However, despite its simplicity and repudiation of human nature, it continues to have appeal as President Obama and Mayor Bill de Blasio can attest.
The tale of two cities appeals on several levels. It plays into the psychology of guilt-riddled individuals who feel they may have been responsible for the condition of the downtrodden. It also appeals to those who are indeed downtrodden by suggesting their condition will improve if you can redistribute resources from the rich and give it to them.
Of course history demonstrates that you cannot make the poor rich by making the rich poor. But most people ignore empirical evidence. It is the narrative that counts. Hence Marxism appeal even if it is now progressivism or another euphemism. Taking from Peter to give to Paul always satisfies Paul.
The tale of two cities is a tale of tails for the actual distribution of the wealthy, those earning over $300,000 annually, is about five percent and the poor, those earning or living on $20,000 for a family of four or more, is about 15 percent. In other words, this tale is one of extremes that leaves 80 percent out of the equation.
One might assume that any theory or narrative that ignores the bulk of the population would be rendered useless. But this narrative has vitality because it is what many choose to believe. Nuance hasn’t any standing. In fact, a progressive tax of the kind the U.S. has, does take disproportionately from the rich (nationwide one percent of the population pays 40 percent of the taxes) and has yielded trillions over the last four decades to the poor in welfare payments, public housing, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. However, the percentage of the poor remains largely unchanged.
Although the explanation for this phenomenon is complicated with several variables in play such as illegitimacy, joblessness, structural economic change, it should be noted that most rich Americans were once poor. Children are generally not born with a silver spoon in their mouths. At twenty-one many Americans do not lead a hardscrabble life. But wealth is generally beyond their reach.
In the political world and in popular culture the tale of two cities narrative persists. It does so because in films that explore the tension between rich and poor, with the poor protagonist the hero who triumphs in the end, is a story line the public embraces. Similarly, in the New York mayoralty race Bill de Blasio spoke of the two cities theme, yet offered few concrete proposals for reform. His major reform, if you can call it that, is raising the taxes on the rich to pay for pre-kindergarten education. How much this tax will be and what the definition of rich may be remain obscure. There is also no evidence to suggest pre-k education necessarily advances the achievement level of poor kids. Whether you can pay for it and whether it works are irrelevant concerns. It sounds good and strikes the right public nerve endings.
In 1922 Antonio Gramsci, the architect of the Italian Communist party, converted the communist ethos from economics to culture. It was a brilliant tactical move that gave communism an appeal that its failed economic theory could not. It is the Gramscian view we live with almost a century later, despite its perverse and wrongheaded analysis of reality.
If perception is reality, however, a president and a mayor have adopted this stance. They see the world through a Marxist lens that defies all we know about the failures of the communist experience. For them the failures do not matter because they realize the tale of two cities narrative lives in the hearts of true believers.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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