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Rich People Things

April 20, 2020 (1,384 words)

Here we are, just a few weeks into the coronavirus stay-at-home order, and already I’ve started the once every ten years, clear-out-the-attic, no holds barred, major life re-organization.

In going through and throwing out all sort of files, originally clipped and set aside as potential research material, but long since made largely redundant by easy internet access, I came across a blurb for a 2010 book of social commentary by Chris Lehmann, Rich People Things: Real Life Secrets of the Predator Class.

It sounded as interesting as the day I first filed the promotional piece away, so I made a mental note to order it online sometime soon.

A few days later, with the file cabinets suitably purged, I turned my attention to the raft of books that have accumulated over the last forty-five years. Many of which I purchased in my twenties, which now looking back may have been of form of overcompensation for my failure to get a college degree, and for earning my living at the time through manual labor.

As I made my way through shelf after shelf, arranged like any good library by category and then by author, determined to winnow things down to a reasonable collection of can’t-live-without, I came across my very own trade paperback copy of Rich People Things.

Apparently I had picked it up in a secondhand bookshop somewhere, judging from the penciled-in price on the top of the first page, but had never gotten around to actually reading it.

Until now.

I’m also doing all the related things one does these days when one reads a book: check out a couple of YouTube interviews from ten years ago with Mr. Lehmann discussing the book. And a 2016 talk he gave at the legendary Prose & Politics bookstore in Washington, D.C., to promote his then just-released newer book, The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream.

A quick internet search also reveals that last April (2019) Mr. Lehmann was named the full-time editor of The New Republic. This has got to represent a plum assignment for a guy who spent the past decade editing at fringe outlets such as The Baffler. The New Republic, of course, is well-known for its liberal political journalism, and its thought-provoking cultural commentary, though it has experienced a bumpy editorial ride in recent years.

It will take me awhile to catch up to Lehmann’s 2016 book and his current editor gig. For now I am contenting myself with enjoying and learning from Rich People Things.

For instance, only three pages into the Introduction we read:

“Nevertheless, it’s been striking to observe just how little the present crisis (the 2008 meltdown) has altered the basic terms of political engagement on all sides. When the US economy veered toward cataclysm in the 1890s and the 1930s, mass political movements registered a new national distemper.

“The People’s Party of the late nineteenth century went so far as to advocate an alternate production-based system of currency and exchange, known as Subtreasury, a reform that eventually got watered down into the Free Silverite attack on the gold standard when the party fused with the Democrats in 1896.”

(This anecdote puts a little meat on the bone of an historical event many of a certain age might be familiar with – William Jennings Bryan and his famous “Cross of Gold Speech” – doesn’t it?)

Mr. Lehmann then continues:

“And the thirties, of course, witnessed the enactment of many of the core reforms first advanced during the populist and Progressive eras – public ownership of utilities, federally funded income support and retirement plans, enormous national public works projects, and the like.

“One might reasonably ask what it would take for the basic truths of class division to sink in on today’s American scene, after the reckless expansion of our paper economy has consigned entire productive sectors of business enterprise into the dustbin of history…

“Instead, we remain in thrall to an unserious liberalism that continues to entrust most major economic policy decisions to career investment bankers, and to a conservative movement rhetoric that equates “populism” with heartland approved consumption habits and evangelical culture-wars posturing.”

Whew. And he’s just getting warmed up.

In his Chapter Six, “The Free Market,” Mr. Lehmann starts out by describing a condition many of us are already familiar with:

“The notion of a self-regulated market, magically governed by the invisible hand of self-interest, dates back, of course, to Adam Smith’s famed eighteenth century treatise, On the Wealth of Nations.

“Smith’s Scottish Enlightenment vision of economic enterprise as a mystical haven of uncoerced social relations has always been catnip to the ownership class in the resource-rich and labor-stunted New World.

“Smith’s thesis – a heady world-historical expansion of how he saw the division of labor unfold in a Scottish pin factory – seemed intuitively true in an early American Republic long on frontier expansionism and short on fixed class division and institutions of social welfare. If anywhere could be the natural home of a free market, why, this certainly must be the place.”

But then he adds a detail that most of us probably didn’t previously know:

“Meanwhile, Smith’s British compatriots took a far more dour view of his achievements. As economic historian Michael Perelman recounts, Francis Horner, the editor of the Edinburgh Review and chairman of the Bullion Committee in the British parliament, declined an invitation to contribute an introduction to an 1803 reissue of Smith’s book with the candid assessment:

‘I should be reluctant to expose S’s errors before his work has operated its full effect. We owe much at present to the superstitious worship of S’s name; and we must not impair that feeling, till the victory is more complete…. (U)ntil we can give a correct and concise theory of the origins of wealth, his popular, plausible, and loose hypothesis is as good for the vulgar as any,’”

But the “superstitious worship” has endured, and glows ever brighter.

“Smith has largely been enshrined as a post hoc prophet of market sovereignty for the modern right, which has made an industry of reviling the New Deal and the notion of government intervention in the economy….

“And in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis those efforts have not abated; unlike the New Deal’s battery of efforts to deconcentrate finance and industry, and thereby stimulate consumer demand and job growth in public-backed enterprise, today’s economic regulators have doubled-down on the cartelized finance sector with lavish, too-big-too-fail bailouts….

“…in the face of such grievous gaming of the finance dole, public discourse has doubled down on free-market dogma. University of Chicago behavioral economist Steven Levitt has leveraged classical market-speak into an all-purpose pop explanation of virtually everything in his ‘Freakanomics’ franchise.

“The result is virtually a photographic negative of free market theory, with federal income support going straight into the coffers of finance capital.”

And how’s this for a tidy summation:

“In reality, the market has no organic existence at all. It has always been a contrivance of contract law, interlocking trusts, and trade protocols – and its putative freedom is primarily a function of who is best positioned to benefit from this or that set of advantageous relationships.”

Culminating in this observation:

“Likewise, the free market in health care that conservative activists are now so hot to preserve from the federal government’s meddlesome regulating hand is in fact an elaborate patchwork of gamed Medicare contracts, erratically enforced state regulatory codes that are still the only government curbs on the excesses of most major insurers, and the lobbying wish list of a pharmaceutical Leviathan that seeks to secure patent rights on its most lucrative products, like the next generation of microbionic cancer drugs, into perpetuity,”

“But the myth of the free market remains a powerful intellectual opiate, and its pushers are legion, from Malcolm Gladwell to Steve Forbes to Sarah Palin.”

This is one book I will be reading start-to-finish. As a writer, Chis Lehmann is not only smart and snappy, he also possesses the enviable quality of knowing how to make his point concisely. In this book at least, he is the master of the short chapter.

I have twenty-four of those short chapters left to go, the last of which is entitled “The Language Problem.” I can hardly wait.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
April 20, 2020

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