But don’t despair: there are plenty of ways to slow down even an inherently strong economy. History offers plenty of examples. But as more contemporary models, take your pick of successfully ruined economies — the Venezuelan, the Cuban, the North Korean, the Greek, the Italian, the Portuguese, or pretty much any from Mediterranean Africa to the Cape of Good Hope. There are certain commonalities about why and how they fail. Let’s review some of them.
The War of Words
Prosperity is always relative, never absolute. A car, a house, or a job is not to be judged on its own merits, but in comparison to someone else who has one better. If today’s Kias are better than a Mercedes of 20 years ago, it matters little: they are not as nice as someone else’s Mercedes of today. Britain in the postwar 1940s discovered the power of envy and what it can do to slow down ill-won prosperity.
From Plato to Marx to Tocqueville, philosophical minds, for both good and bad reasons, have always appreciated that human nature is attracted to the idea of enforced equality, to such a degree that most would rather be poor and the same, than better off with some far better off. Let’s give them that chance!
I would try to redefine the entire capitalist notion of profit, getting ahead, and being rich or successful as something arbitrary. Better yet, it should be analogous to cheating, proof of unfairness, or incurring general shame. The point is to make profit-making synonymous with failure; and poverty something inherently noble. Compensation should be seen as capricious, never based on logical requisites like education, knowledge, experience, level of responsibility, hard work, personal comportment, or even the less predictable such as health, luck, fate, and chance. Redefine rich and poor to emphasize the fact that one making $20,000 a year and another $200,000 is unfair, period — and to be corrected by a fair, all-knowing, and compassionate government. I would talk always of poverty and hunger, never of the epidemic of obesity or the nation’s collective youth glued to iPhones.
Sometimes, sloppy language is critical: jumble together “millionaires” with those worth 1,000 times more, and you earn the force-multiplying evil “millionaires and billionaires.” The word “fair” is critical: as in “pay your fair share.” But “patriotic” is even better, as in “unpatriotic” past presidents who run up debt, and “patriotic” present egalitarians who borrow in four years what used to take eight.
I would also redefine entire professions in negative terms: bankers are “fat cats”; the rich “junket” to Las Vegas; CEOs are “corporate jet owners”; doctors lop off limbs and yank out tonsils to pile up profits. Material wealth alone defines us. Mitt Romney is a man with lots of money, a big house with an elevator, a wife with horses. Who cares what he did with the Olympics or as governor?