Right way and wrong way to pur­sue cit­i­zen power


The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

Some years back, the New Yorker ran a car­toon show­ing a tour guide and his charges over­look­ing a ru­ined Mayan tem­ple. Their civ­i­liza­tion had died, the guide ex­plains, after ev­ery­one be­came a mo­ti­va­tional speaker and no fur­ther food was produced. We may be get­ting there our­selves.

New Age, feel good mo­ti­va­tional pub­li­ca­tions and videos dom­i­nate the book­stores and the air­waves, of­fer­ing short­cuts to ev­ery­thing from ex­panded in­come to con­tracted waist­lines, from spir­i­tual ful­fill­ment to more and bet­ter sex. Even public broad­cast­ing, for all its claims to el­e­vated in­tel­lec­tual stan­dards, pep­pers its fundrais­ing weeks with du­bi­ous “self-im­prove­ment” pro­gram­ming promis­ing the elderly eter­nal youth, the fi­nan­cially chal­lenged easy af­flu­ence, and the ail­ing and obese ways they can eat their way to weight loss and bet­ter health. It isn’t all baloney. Some of the ad­vice is ac­tu­ally sound, prac­ti­cal and help­ful. But the over­all tone is one of boos­t­er­ish hype.

So it is with Eric Liu’s “You’re More Pow­er­ful Than You Think: A Cit­i­zen’s Guide to Mak­ing Change Hap­pen.” Mr. Liu is an in­tel­li­gent, facile writer and a sin­cere ad­vo­cate of greater cit­i­zen en­gage­ment, or to use the fla­vor-of-theweek ter­mi­nol­ogy, “po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment.” He has ob­vi­ously given a lot of thought to his sub­ject and makes his case with con­vic­tion and good faith. In the end, how­ever, most of his or­ga­ni­za­tional mes­sage could have been summed up in a sin­gle sen­tence not con­tained in the book: “Politi­cians tend to ig­nore peo­ple who ig­nore pol­i­tics.” Un­for­tu­nately, the au­thor also served as a White House speech­writer for that overly slick, un­derly hon­est pitch­man, Bill Clin­ton and, oc­ca­sion­ally, it shows.

Mr. Liu’s nar­ra­tive is stud­ded with Clin­tonesque exercises in fact-bend­ing and ca­su­istry which, while sel­dom out­right un­truths, are of­ten dis­tor­tions of the truth. Thus, early on, he in­forms us that: “In Amer­ica we have been told for decades that the wealthy got that way be­cause they earned it through su­pe­rior smarts and bet­ter choices. The pow­er­ful earned it by their su­pe­rior savvy and bet­ter choices . ... This sto­ry­line is part of a larger ide­ol­ogy of rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism and free-trade cap­i­tal­ism. And to be clear: the wealthy and pow­er­ful made it up. But why did the rest of us ac­cept it? Be­cause it at least im­plied that im­prove­ment was pos­si­ble with greater grit and wiser ef­fort. It im­plied that in a mar­ket driven by merit, we too could be win­ners one day.”

Mr. Liu’s own im­pli­ca­tion about all of this “im­ply­ing” is that the whole thing was a scam. Of course, if it were, then the de­scen­dants of the poor but highly mo­ti­vated le­gal im­mi­grants who came to Amer­i­can by the mil­lions in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies would still be liv­ing in im­pov­er­ished eth­nic ghet­tos and Wall Street, the me­dia and academia would all be mo­nop­o­lized by white An­glo-Saxon Protes­tants. Peo­ple be­lieve in the “sto­ry­line” be­cause they have seen it work, not be­cause they are pas­sive losers look­ing for an ex­cuse, as Mr. Liu sug­gests. In an­other bit of log­i­cal shape-shift­ing, the au­thor draws a false eco­nomic con­trast “be­tween the ‘trickle-down’ and ... a ‘mid­dle-out’ the­ory”:

“Trickle-down eco­nomics says the rich are ‘job creators’ who must be cod­dled in the tax code and eco­nomic pol­icy so that their wealth can make its way down to the rest of us. Mid­dle-out eco­nomics says that the work­ing and mid­dle classes are the real job creators. It’s their de­mand that pow­ers a great econ­omy and it’s from their pay­checks that the sys­tem gen­er­ates last­ing pros­per­ity.”

But those pay­checks don’t come from the tooth fairy. They are paid for by the large and small busi­nesses cre­ated and ex­panded by in­vestors and en­trepreneurs, es­pe­cially when the tax code and reg­u­la­tions en­cour­age in­vest­ing and en­trepreneur­ship. To con­fis­cate and re­dis­tribute cap­i­tal in an at­tack on “in­come in­equal­ity” is an ex­er­cise in eco­nomic sui­cide.

Or­ga­nized ci­ti­zens can, in­deed, “make change hap­pen” as Mr. Liu as­serts. But there is a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence be­tween cit­i­zen move­ments based on a sense of vic­tim­hood and claims on other peo­ple’s money, and cit­i­zen move­ments based on a pos­i­tive, op­por­tu­nity-based agenda. As Tay­lor Bu­dowich, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Tea Party Ex­press, re­cently pointed out in USA To­day, “The tea party’s mes­sage cap­tured vot­ers the Repub­li­can Party failed to reach. The [cur­rent an­tiTrump] re­sis­tance merely re-or­ga­nized those Clin­ton vot­ers who have yet to ac­cept Trump’s vic­tory and cling to the ‘Not My President’ hash­tag. That’s not the for­mula for a po­lit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, it’s just sour grapes.”

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