The Makers and the Takers

Friday, November 9th, 2012 Politics

If only one good thing comes out of the rhetorical cacophony surrounding this year’s election results, I hope it’s this: can we please, as a nation and as a society, reverse the inverted positions of “provider” and “taker” in our political language?

Former Nixon economic adviser Herb Stein first used the term “supply side” in 1976, well before Reagan-era demagoguery fueled the “Laffer curve” and “trickle-down” economics of the 1980s—the exact policies that are, astoundingly, still being “debated” decades later, long after repeated disastrous experiments in non-proportional taxation and infrastructure starvation have demonstrated conclusively how fraudulent and fantastical these non-Keynesian theories really are.

But beyond the overwhelming evidence (multiple collapses, joblessness, a lost manufacturing base, and income disparity graphs that look like breeder-reactor chain reactions), the entire premise needs to be challenged on a more atomic level. The basic armature of this half-century-long exercise in graft and deception is (as with most things) visible in the language itself: what does “supply side” mean? Why is every Red State poster and Drudge Report reader (as well as Rush Limbaugh and other prominent conservative luminaries) so convinced that President Obama’s supporters are “the takers?” How did the basic facts of capitalism get so reversed?

Wealth is created by workers; by wage-earners, by laborers. Just as happened in pre-mercantile economies, farming, industry (of any kind), trade and sustenance for any community of any size is based on the generation of wealth through labor. Starbucks cannot earn a dollar without somebody standing behind a counter creating a latté from beans that were picked and paper cups that were manufactured on assembly lines by machines that were operated by line workers and designed and constructed by engineers who were trained by teachers; a chain of labor that turns the raw stuff of the earth into the elements of our modern lives.

Yes, entrepreneurs “create” businesses. Yes, they “innovate” beyond the constraints that limit the work product of most employees—but they require capital to do it. Either they have investors, or they are independently of means, but in either case their venture capital is invariably siphoned from the fruits of somebody else’s labor. And yes, they work hard—although I doubt that their “hard work” compares in any meaningful way to that done by what we used to call “blue-collar” employees, none of whom have chefs or private jets or European vacations or limitless medical care and young retirement ages to compensate for their toils.

In fact, when I look at the “management class” (or “ownership class”)—those of the notorious “1%” who actually deign to work at all, rather than sitting on dividends or inheritances—I don’t see meaningful “production” of anything. And, at least people like Sam Walton are causally responsible for the creation of businesses; today’s most strident and vocal top-earners tend to be Wall Street types, whose wealth is completely disassociated from the creation of any goods and services at all (and whose predatory activities strip ailing companies of their employees and assets in order to enrich their own bank balances).

Has Mitt Romney (or his guests at that fundraising dinner where the clandestine “47%” video was captured) ever done a meaningful day’s work in his life? Does he do anything for his obscenely high Bain Capital salary? (Remember the controversy about the two-year period during which he was “uninvolved” but still drawing a paycheck.) Not only is Romney sitting on a massive family fortune (like Donald Trump and so many others who lecture us about the value of “hard work”), but his “company” has literally destroyed the value of dozens of other American businesses, liquidating and absorbing their assets in exactly the way that Reagan-era movie icon Gordon Gekko famously defended. Was Gordon Gekko a “provider”?

This basic inversion of the language of commerce and business must be turned the right way up. Once the Roger Sterlings of the world are properly labeled as “takers”—once having one’s “name in the lobby” is understood to be a result of extraordinary good luck (genetic or otherwise), and, far more often than not, license to “rest and vest,” rather than a badge of personal achievement—and the tireless line-workers and employees and wage earners are properly regarded as “makers,” then we can begin to have a reasonable conversation about American economic strength and recovery.