Abuse of Wealth Spells Trouble in Our Future

On the morning this appears, the interminable campaign of the year 2000 will at last have come to an end, and the nation will finally know who its next President will be. One thing this correspondent feels certain of: It will not be my man, Ralph Nader. On the other hand, there seems some chance as of this writing that of the two worse choices after Nader, the lesser evil–and the common sense of the great American heartland–may prevail and Mr. Bush and his family will move into the White House next January. I can live with that, if only because, should a real crisis arise, Mr. Bush will have his father to consult, which I personally find a consoling prospect. I was horribly mistaken to have turned away from George H. in 1992 and to have contributed my electoral mite to putting into the White House a man who has proven to be a liar, a cheat, an adulterer, a fraud, a bought person–with a wife who is more than his equal in most if not (but very probably) all of those categories. Both George H. and I have had much to reflect upon in the ensuing eight years; I hope what he has learned from experience may at least be available to the nation.

Should Al Gore be the choice, so be it. There is no reason to believe him other than the soul of decency, and the mistakes he may have made as a member of the Clinton administration seem to have been the inescapable compromises visited upon someone who hires on in good faith and then finds himself working for a bunch of crooks and charlatans.

There are aspects of Mr. Gore that trouble me. He has children who hang out in New York society, such as it is. On that subject, any reader who wishes to see a more compelling argument for the continuance of the inheritance tax (sure to be a hot-button issue in the coming years) than can be articulated by any polemicist or economist known to me is advised to peruse a copy of something called Bright Young Things , as repellent a book as I have seen in many a year. I regret to say that I have varying degrees of personal acquaintance with the parents of at least seven of the young people connected with this book, including its co-begetters, and it saddens your correspondent to ponder what the appearance of their children in such an enterprise says about their upbringing–although to the credit of one of the subjects, a request was made of a leading Silk Stocking bookstore to remove the offensive volume from the window.

There is one very simple rule in life: Boast about your wealth, lifestyle and possessions, and it will occur to others either to get the same for themselves, or to deprive you of yours. The more remote a possibility the former becomes, the tastier the latter will seem.

What bothered me most about Mr. Gore was (and may continue to be) that he gives the impression that he believes himself to know more than any man possibly can.

Here comes Jimmy Carter all over again, I think, but with arrogance in place of the humility, Harvard instead of Annapolis and with zero practical executive experience. Al Gore has never had a real job (Bill Clinton was at least a governor, albeit in Little Rock, the Palermo of our great enterprise), and now he may end up with the biggest, most difficult job in the world. It’s a dreadful prospect. For him, for us.

I say this because the singularity of conditions that gave us the boom of the past eight years–a boom that would have occurred had anyone other than Ross Perot been President–is over. As long as the dollar retains absolute hegemony, things will go better than by rights they would in a just world, but we have “enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury”–as Gibbon said of the Romans of the second century A.D.–to a degree that suggests that trouble, when it comes, may come harder than anyone will not only like but will find it possible to cope with. For 200 years, this nation has, essentially, comprised the right people in the right place at the right time. That’s a long run. Longer than we had any right to expect, but then who could know that God’s final joke would be to put Wim Duisenberg on earth to manage the fortunes of the euro and prolong our illusions?

I can see problems. Problems by now invested with a near-actuarial inevitability. Problems in the financial markets, of credit principally. A major successful terrorist episode on American soil involving a loss of life in the thousands, if not multiples thereof. Anti-American feeling wherever you turn, of every shade and temperature, from Gallic resentment to Islamic hatred. Problems–of class and equity and personal security–which only politics can solve, thrown on a generation that thinks the market has annihilated politics and the need therefore, and is thus utterly unequipped to handle.

I think a political tsunami is out there, of which the first ripples are being barely felt, that will arise from the fact that millions and millions of us have been promoted or manipulated or coaxed or deceived into buying stuff that doesn’t work and that we can’t find anyone to fix. This may produce a mood ahead similar to that which elected Teddy Roosevelt and licensed him to go after the trusts with an ax-handle, a mood that will not be good for the Dow Jones. I see the spread of the class-action mentality and its presiding syllogism, which goes: If I buy something and then change my mind, not only do I not have to pay for it, I can sue the person who sold it to me. Then there’s the environment. As the ice melts, the heat will rise, until the very air itself becomes combustible.

These are developments which the Clinton-Bush-Gore generation seems politically unequipped to deal with, or perhaps is just too stupid, or too arrogant in its stupidity.

The latter is a real issue. The much-discussed “dot-com collapse” has been an exercise in the arrogance of ignorance that future historians may speak of just as my generation has looked back on past, failed autocracies and preached about the arrogance of power. What hasn’t been noted properly is that the same ignorant, arrogant, history-denying, values-negating generation that orchestrated the dot-com Golgotha has taken over the media, finance, publishing: all the lines of work in which one doesn’t have to get one’s hands dirty, or deal with one’s inferiors. Taken over and debased, just as the dot-com bubble required debased notions of finance and commerce.

I have probably written 20 times in this space that the mantra of the Clinton administration appears to be: If everyone’s lying, no one is. The corollary mantra of the Clinton-Gore-Bush generation could be phrased as: If no one knows anything, then everyone knows all there is to know.

Let me recommend a splendid book to you. It’s The New Elites , by George Walden, a former Tory M.P. and Minister of State for Higher Education. It is published in England by Allen Lane-Penguin, but may not be published here (it’s not on Amazon.com, but it is readily available through Heywood Hill, the best bookstore in the world: e-mail HeywoodHill@netscapeonline.co.uk).

Mr. Walden’s subject is the growth of what he calls “populist elites”: power-cravers who build on the mass market. The flavor of his argument is well conveyed by the following:

“[T]hose who suffer most are the people. Populism as a public policy implies manipulation from above and a contempt for the manipulated. It is a perversion of democracy, the sickness of the age. When its attitudes and assumptions invade every sphere of our lives, demanding our allegiance and denouncing those who demur as snobs, elitists, or as alienated from the people, the democratic dictatorship against which Tocqueville warned–’an anonymous despotism for which no one person would stand responsible’–is in danger of coming about.”

A government of, by and for consultants, in other words. Not a pretty prospect. No matter who our President-elect is when you read this, it might not be a bad idea to take Margo Channing’s admonition to heart: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

Abuse of Wealth Spells Trouble in Our Future