I wonder if other readers of the Times Op-Ed page are as aware of the mighty struggle that seems to be taking place in that venerated temple of received wisdom. It would appear that David Brooks has thrown down the gauntlet and seeks to unseat Tom Friedman as my-lips-to-all-asses, all-things-to-all-men purveyor of regime-justifying bromides. Personally, I think Mr. Friedman stands no more chance head to head with the odious Mr. Brooks than Salieri did against Mozart; whether it’s chamber music or intellectual sycophancy, mere talent has no chance against genius.
If Mr. Friedman falls, I won’t be unhappy. To be frank, these days I find myself increasingly in agreement with my fellow golf nut, Mr. Flat Earth, as he backtracks and backtracks to conclusions on Bush, globalization, energy conservation, Iraq and Iran, corporate America, etc., long obvious to commonsensical grownups with a shred of conscience, concern and experience.
As Mr. Friedman recently put it, very nicely, we have wandered, fat, dumb and happy, into the jaws of what might prove a lethal paradox: The billions we spend on imported oil (a number that might well be extrapolated to include the billions that China, India et al. spend on oil to run factories producing export goods destined for the U.S. market) go in most instances to people who basically don’t like us and in some cases are trying to kill us.
Imagine if F.D.R. had allowed Germany and Japan to sell tax-exempt war bonds on Wall Street in 1942 to fund research on the V-2 rocket or a more efficient kamikaze navigation system (the Street would have gone along if the price was right). That’s sort of what’s happening now. If Iran goes nuclear, it will have been on our dime, directly and indirectly, and I can’t say that I’m likely to give three cheers for globalized capitalism if I end up as a speck of radioactive dust wafting over the East River.
Obviously, it’s easy to overstate the threat: It cannot be lost on Tehran that if they’re connected to any event that results in the death of any sizeable number of Americans on home ground, retribution may result in zero Iranians left alive. Or that if the American consumer, pushed to the wall, picks up his marbles, there goes the price of oil. Still, on balance, the outlook here in Brooklyn is decidedly blue: e.g., what to do, what to do, what to do?
Unlike David Brooks, I don’t feel (see his column of 5/11) that the answer lies in more talk, more symposia, more chin-scratching. The people he sees bringing about innovative centrist solutions are the same people who’ve sat at the top for the past 20 years. I don’t trust 99 percent of the politicians out there whose name recognition exceeds 10 percent. This voter agrees with what Mr. Friedman recently wrote: The only way out is a third party.
Let’s call it “The Equity Party.” While it respects the aspirations of those at the top and those at the bottom, it will mainly speak—in a language that can be understood—to and for those who dwell in the gray and desolate zone wedged between East Hampton and affirmative action, people who feel their backs are to the wall, that Washington doesn’t give a shit about them and neither does Harvard. These are the folks who represent a rich vein of resentment that can be captured by imaginative, honest policy proposals. Folks like this don’t want class war; they do want a fair deal.
It helps to tie the new to history, if only as an earnest of character, if you will, an indication of the sort of thinking—the kind of people—the Equity Party wants to speak for and appeal to. Why not set as broad objectives the goals set forth in F.D.R.’s 1944 “Economic Bill of Rights”? But we must emphasize that we can only come as close to these as conviction, courage and realism will take us, which may be no more than halfway to the further limits of the possible.
In a politics of polarities, a party defines itself as much by whom and what it opposes as by the values it embraces. What and whom shall we stand against? I’d proclaim a crusade against corruption, the monetized cynicism that has led to the pervasive degradation of our politics and our markets and the public and private institutions that embody them and feed off them. Corruption is the ultimate killer: It truly is political and economic cancer. If you don’t believe me, read the hair-raising piece on Berlusconi’s Italy by Alexander Stille in the current New York Review of Books. It can happen here. To a considerable but hopefully not irreversible degree, it already has.
The new party must otherwise stand for fresh thinking on deficits, income and wealth disparity, taxation, immigration, Iraq, Iran, medical care, jobs and opportunity, energy, government, man and nature. Ideas that depart from the Op-Ed wisdom that all that’s needed to set this nation straight is an adjustment of this or that process or a percentage-point shift here or there in existing economic or political modules. The thinking should be on the largest, furthest-reaching scale practicable, innovative where it makes sense, but above all realistic. The overriding analytical and prescriptive imperative will be: no cure that’s worse than the disease, considered in all its aspects.
There are some big things that can be done if properly thought through, presented and articulated; there are others that simply can’t be. Here’s an example: make corporate dividends fully deductible at the point of payout but tax the bejesus out of retained profits, which can all too readily be absconded via management stock options. Let management go back to the stockholders for big-project capital dollars. The cycle should be: pay out, put back in—if the stockholders have faith. This is the way these big “private equity” buyouts (essentially no more than tax-efficient recapitalizations) work. Keep the money moving; that’s the key to a vibrant long-term economy.
Who should spearhead the Equity Party? My nominee is less than a mile away across the river from where this is written. He’s no man’s fool, no man’s political chattel. If you look seriously at how Michael Bloomberg has accomplished what he has, and the way he’s done it, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he is, in fact, a one-man third party. He’s beyond price; he knows who the other smart people out there are, and who are the B.S. artists.
Who better, then, to do what Lars Porsena did in Macaulay’s great poem: to bid “his messengers ride forth, east and west and south and north, to summon his array”? Yeah, yeah, I know: Porsena’s grand design was thwarted by Horatius at the bridge. But Hillary and Pataki and Kerry and Frist and the rest of those self-serving, doublespeaking clowns who offer nothing but ambition? Horatius they sure as hell ain’t.
Onward, I say! Up and at ’em! Excelsior! Equity!