Tuesday, January 24, 2012


There have been a couple of times you have conjured up images of Dickensian London as a counter-argument to my admiration for the power of markets. I ignored the comments at the time but always wanted to come back to what you imply is an example of markets run amok.
First, relative to today, nothing I propose, and little of what I hear proposed by others, is going to take us back to Dickensian London. The notion that anyone is proposing an elimination of air pollution laws that would result in a Dickensian-like, coal-fired, haze over the US, and that the electorate would stand for such a thing is, frankly, absurd. Unfortunately, President Obama keeps warning us of a time when there was a “free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can” and “when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” (Both of these from his Osawatomie speech). My (Democratic) Congressman and many others constantly remind me they are the only defense against a Republican party that wants to do away with the EPA. It’s all a little overwrought.
I was reminded of your comments by a passage from “Monsoon,” by Robert Kaplan. The book is part travelogue, part history, part geo-political analysis. Kaplan is somewhat skeptical of a claim that the poor in Kolkata (Calcutta) are mobile. That is, skeptical of the assertion that their station in life, and the station of their descendants, is not fixed for all all times. He is skeptical there is great mobility as the people build up their stock of capital (human and monetary) which affords them a better life.
Some time ago I read “Rebirth of a Nation,” by Jackson Lears and he too sneers at the notion of growth and mobility. Lears, in one passage grudgingly admits that growth in the American economy in the latter half of the 19th century led to a better life for most. His denigration of growth, took me aback. Growth means an easier, longer, happier life for the overwhelming majority of people. And the group it helps most, I maintain, is the poor. Think of the life we have versus the life our parents and grand-parents had. We have better housing, better food, better health care, greater ability to modulate our environment with heating and air conditioning. We have greater access to entertainment, transportation and leisure. It is remarkable to me. And it came about because of growth.
What bothers me then, about your suggestion that our choice is between some Dickensian-like nightmare or the valhalla of  Obama (Obamahalla?) is one, that it is a completely false choice and two, that it places way too little weight on the power of growth to lift everyone, particularly the poor.
Finally, “Monsoon” was a Christmas gift from my youngest. She chose it based entirely on the appeal of its cover. Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover.

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