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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cowen: Whatever Happened to Discipline and Hard Work?

Tyler Cowen:

Whatever Happened to Discipline and Hard Work?, by Tyler Cowen, Commentary, NY Times: ...The United States has always had a culture with a high regard for those able to rise from poverty to riches. It has had a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit and has attracted ambitious immigrants, many of whom were drawn here by the possibility of acquiring wealth. ...
In short, the traditional, pro-wealth cultural vision has a great appeal for me. But I must admit that it is showing some wear and tear, which may partly be why the criticisms made by the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park have so much resonance.
The first problem is that higher status for the wealthy can easily lead to crony capitalism. ...
The second problem is that many conservatives have become so attached to their cultural vision that they have ceded sound, technocratic reasoning to the left and center. For instance there is a common willingness among conservatives to defend the Bush tax cuts, even though the evidence does not show much of an economic payoff. ...
The third problem is that the pro-wealth cultural vision may be overly optimistic about human willingness to embrace the idea of responsibility. ...
The counterintuitive tragedy is this: modern conservative thought is relying increasingly on social engineering through economic policy, by hoping that a weaker social welfare state will somehow promote individual responsibility. Maybe it won’t.
For one thing, today’s elites are so wedded to permissive values — in part for their own pleasure and convenience — that a new conservative cultural revolution may have little chance of succeeding. Lax child-rearing and relatively easy divorce may be preferred by some high earners, but would conservatives wish them on society at large, including the poor and new immigrants? Probably not, but that’s often what we are getting.
In the future, complaints about income inequality are likely to grow and ... higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should.
It remains to be seen how many of us are up to its demands.

I am not a sure as he is that as inequality continues to increase, people will adopt conservative values rather than wondering why the playing field needed for those conservative values to express themselves has become increasingly unfair. And if they do conclude it's unfairness rather than values that is at the root of the growth in inequality, their reaction may be different.

(Also, my view of what is behind society's problems is also quite different from Tyler's. I suppose this makes me one of the "academics on the left" who "seem more comfortable focusing on the very real offenses of plutocrats and selfish elites," but I'll note that Tyler seems quite comfortable focusing on the problems posed by "today's elites" himself, i.e. the impediment they pose to the cultural values he'd like to see take hold. The comments on wealth and crony capitalism are also not far from complaints about plutocracy. We on the left have values that we believe in every bit as much as conservatives, but those values differ from those held by conservatives in important ways and that will naturally lead us to focus on different aspects of these problems. The fact that we talk about issues such as crony capitalism and powerful elites does not mean we have abandoned those values any more than it means Tyler has abandoned his values when he raises these issues himself. All it says is that the path to reach these values differs from the path preferred by conservatives.)

    Posted by on Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 02:34 PM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (115)


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