Tuesday, November 13, 2012


In a chapter on the middle class in his new book, The Tyranny of Cliches, Jonah Goldberg made an assertion that I had to stop and re-read a couple of times to make sure I understood what he was saying. Not because I didn't think it was true, but because it rang so true, and has (I think) escaped serious analysis.

He begins with a quote from Nancy Pelosi, defending Obamacare as a boon to the creative classes:
"We see it as an entrepreneurial bill, a bill that says to someone: 'If you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care. You don't have to be job locked.'"
As an appeal to voters, it's curious - the number of people whose creative urges would compel them to throw over their job to pursue their muse is surely tiny, but I suppose Pelosi is casting a wider net, at the sort of people who, Walter Mitty-like, daydream about doing such a thing, and the larger number of liberals who, although they have no intention themselves, think it would be an altogether wonderful world if this were possible. And these are the people who call their politics "reality-based."

Goldberg isn't convinced that there's any plausible link between socialized medicine and enterpreneurialism  - it's beside the point, of course, when you're trying to sell a fantasy - but goes on to take the Democratic notion behind this to its logical end:
"The larger point is that the liberal vision of an advanced society is one where it is finally rich enough to liberate the middle class from their comfortable bourgeois lifestyles and to subsidize their conversion to bohemian ones. If you want to be a 'musician or whatever' it's okay, because we'll tax the rich enough so that you don't have to worry about life's essentials (like health care or housing or food or your kids' education) anymore. In other words they are going to win their centuries'-old war on the middle class by subsidizing the bohemian lifestyle to the point where it no longer pays to be bourgeois. It probably won't work in the long run. But in the short run, it will bankrupt us all, not only financially, but morally as well."
What resonates for me is how much of this I've already seen transpire up here in Canada, where the arts-supporting government bureaucracy is probably a few years more advanced than in the U.S. I've known plenty of creative people who, before they even finished their degrees, figured out that there were institutions in place to subsidize their creative ambitions, and did their best to tailor their life - and work - to maximize their potential as clients of this bureaucracy.

There were classes of grants, from the municipal to provincial to federal level, that they could apply for, in addition to grants for travel and housing. There are government-subsidized co-op apartments in many major Canadian cities built for the express purpose of housing the creative. (And not-so-creative: The late leader of our socialist federal opposition party lived in one for many years when he and his wife were municipal politicians.) Every now and then I would hear someone I knew express fatigue with their workaday life and a longing to express their creative ambitions, which would inevitably lead to them musing aloud about working on a grant application.

Arts grants exist in the U.S., of course, but many of them - including the most generous - are maintained by private foundations. In Canada, however, private arts funding is far more minimal, as the government has had a virtual monopoly on arts funding for decades. But what Pelosi is talking about here isn't a subsidy structure based on applications and deadlines and juries, but an expansion of current social welfare to include not just those who can't work (for a variety of reasons, some valid, some not,) but those who won't work because of the demands of their muse, or the shortage of truly suitable work for those of creative temperament.

I assumed that this sort of thing making headway in the U.S. would be at least a few years in the future, but a Salon article from over two years ago (h/t SDA) suggests that it's already happening:
Mak, 31, grew up in Westchester, graduated from the University of Chicago and toiled in publishing in New York during his 20s before moving to Baltimore last year with a meager part-time blogging job and prospects for little else. About half of his friends in Baltimore have been getting food stamps since the economy toppled, so he decided to give it a try; to his delight, he qualified for $200 a month. 
I’m sort of a foodie, and I’m not going to do the ‘living off ramen’ thing,” he said, fondly remembering a recent meal he’d prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes. “I used to think that you could only get processed food and government cheese on food stamps, but it’s great that you can get anything.”
I might be reading too much into Goldberg, but I think his point about the current motivation for the "centuries'-old war on the middle class" is an abiding distaste of progressives for the sumptuary comforts that the bourgeoisie have gained with the success of capitalism, and their pride in being able to afford them. (Not to mention the ill-concealed elite horror at their persistent bad taste.) Diminishing that - or "liberating" the creatively stifled bourgeois - and they'll see the straitened circumstances and love of small creature comforts that come with the bohemian lifestyle as a feature, not a bug. At least for a while, anyway.

So - government-subsidized roast rabbit with sweet potatoes but no savings, delayed plans for a family and little choice in education for kids when you have children, reliance on public transit and renting but not owning: A twentysomething student or recent arts graduate might not regard these as real hardships, but if they can be sold to at least a measurable minority of the citizenry, they'll certainly ease the burdens on a government committed to programs that necessarily hobble a healthy economy. I know that sounds like a conspiracy, but when you've already produced a generation notable for its sense of entitlement, it's never too early to transform them into a voting demographic reliant on its entitlements.

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  1. This reminds me of a blog post Paul Butzi wrote about Harry Callahan...


    1. Well, wouldn't we all like a more pleasant life - for us and for others. But I always like to ask people who apologize for the grant-funded art system (usually because they took a grant or two themselves at some point): Would you have done it anyway? Would you have made your art without having to take public money? If making photos creates a more pleasant life for Callahan and his audience, why couldn't he see it as a sort of low-cost philanthropy, as opposed to a tax in advance?