Something struck me from Julian Castro’s Presidential announcement speech-
Today we live in a world in which brainpower is the new currency of success.
There’s nothing at all wrong with what he said there. In fact, it’s been a boilerplate assumption of both sides in Washington for basically my entire life. It’s the backbone of globalization, and really of the post-industrial America. The idea that nurtured intellect is the key to modern success isn’t a revolutionary idea, or for that matter wrong. So don’t take any of this as a criticism of him.
Let’s have a real conversation though, about how a great country goes from great to Trump. The question I would pose to Castro and every other candidate for President in 2020 is simple- if intellectual capital is the key to success, what are we going to do with the 250 million people or so living in this country that are either unprepared or incapable of competing in that world? The “opiate of the masses” for these people in recent decades has been “more education funding” and “job training,” and that’s great and all, but it’s not radically altering outcomes. These people may be inconvenient for policy makers, but they’re not going away anytime- not just not soon. The country will always have low-skilled workers, mediocre people, and frankly, some people who are not very smart. They count as people, the same as the rest of us, they get the same vote, and you can’t just ignore them away. What they’re being offered hasn’t cut it so far.
Let’s be honest, neither political party has shown that it cares much about the folks we’re talking about. Democrats snicker about them, Republicans exploit them, and the political Press only really covers them as an insult. From within that void, a complete conman like Donald Trump can emerge. Sure, he promised them the ridiculous- a return to coal mines, protection for their world views, and even a return to prominence- but consider the alternative. I worked for Hillary Clinton, I love Hillary Clinton, but her campaign conceded a lot more of America to Trump than it should have, or needed to, just as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and all the Republican primary candidates did before them. She did not lose because she didn’t go to Wisconsin, but it is anecdotal of why she did lose- her campaign believed it could win without competing in places it didn’t want to compete.
The point of this piece isn’t to re-hash 2016 though, that’s been done a lot. The point of this piece is to highlight the degree to which American politics are detached from Americans, and how it impacts our system. Over 90% of America didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I’m guessing a large majority didn’t go to even a private college. Find the last American President without an Ivy League degree? You’re going back a ways. Remove the military academies and you can count the “commoner” Presidents of the last century on one hand. Find a Supreme Court nominee not from Harvard Law- let alone the Ivy League. You almost can’t be a U.S. Senator without being a millionaire first. Members of the U.S. House, “The People’s House,” are all living in a class well above the income of the average member of the public. Last year in Illinois, we actually saw a billionaire vs. billionaire Gubernatorial race. Here in Pennsylvania, both men were multi-millionaires many time over. New Jersey’s last two Democratic Governors we’re multi-millionaires, with a background at Goldman Sachs.
Don’t mistake me pointing this out as a call for us to go down to the local McDonald’s to pick our Congressman. What I’m stating is just a fact, and while it doesn’t make our government all bad, it clearly has impacted our decision making and values. Our response to the 2008 economic meltdown was to bail out the banks- arguably the right choice- but to limit the size of the Stimulus that was supposed to reach the general public. While military spending has grown exponentially since World War II, spending on infrastructure hasn’t grown at the same rate. States never lack money for economic development that benefits rich developers, but seem to struggle at funding public education without tax increases on the middle class. It’s not that they’re always, actually wrong, it’s that they seem to always err on the same side of judgment.
I’m not into Democratic socialism, or straight up class warfare, but it’s not a radical leap to say that rich people tend to value the things rich people know. Their perspective places the value on the work they do. It also tends to downplay the problems of the “other people,” people that most of them just don’t even know. There is a good reason they view ideas like guaranteed universal income, Medicare for All, guaranteed housing, increases in Social Security, and other safety measures as “radical,” and it’s not the merit of their ideas. They’re just not that important. There’s also a reason the payroll tax hasn’t kept up with inflation (which, by the way, is how we fund entitlements), and most of the big tax write-offs are for the wealthy, rather than everyone getting their first $30,000 tax free. There is a good reason we discuss drug-testing and work requirements for welfare and Medicaid, but not for farm subsidies and tax breaks, and it is neither the cost of the ideas, nor the merit. It is perspective, values, and priorities- and the value we place on what each group of people does.
Our government is largely out of touch with the public, and we are living through the backlash now. While Trump ran as change, it’s important to note that he is handing subsidy money out to agribusiness conglomerates right now, rather than consumers buying milk- I’m saying he’s a fraud of course. Regardless of him though, it’s worth understanding that the sickness in the government isn’t confined to him. As long as campaigns cost as much as they do, the government will be full of rich people- and I don’t have the solution to that today. You will have populist grifters and thieves come along from time to time and promise the world, with no record or plan to get them done (I’m thinking of two 2016 candidates, and even a new, young Congresswoman here), but they are not the solution to the detachment of our elites from the public. Our government desperately needs a change in perspective, in values, and in priorities, one that the average Harvard MBA just doesn’t have.