By: Ethan Lamb
Tucker fails to reconcile his diatribe against the free market with the incontrovertible truth that capitalism has been the most formidable poverty-reducing mechanism the world has ever known.
On January 2nd, popular news anchor Tucker Carlson opened his showTucker Carlson Tonightwith a captivating monologue, capturing the attention of millions. This segment precipitated an intriguing debate among conservative intellectuals about the relationship our government ought to have with the economy and the extent to which this relationship bears responsibility for the contemporary issues plaguing the middle-class, such as the declining marriage rate, life expectancy, and the opioid crisis. Now, Tucker Carlson is not an economist. He is not an expert on public policy, nor does he claim to be. However, he does resonate with the vast swaths of the country who feel that their lives are expendable as a consequence of the initiatives advanced by the elites.
Tucker Carlson accuses the ruling class, which he claims, is largely untroubled with the plight of the middle-class, as the predominant culprit. He stipulates, “they have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.” Tucker contends that, governed by their self-interests, elites have embraced certain initiatives such as unilateral free trade, unfettered low-skill immigration, and automation. Such policies, according to Tucker, have made prosperity increasingly untenable for the middle-class. These sentiments, distrustful of free markets, are not dissimilar to something you’d hear at a Bernie Sanders rally (Sanders, until recently, lambasted the support of high levels of immigration as a Koch brothers conspiracy). To encapsulate his point, Tucker questions, “The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.” However, this contention presupposes that the degradation of societal pillars is a consequence of a market economy— preserved and protected by the ruling class. As evidence for the growing discontent with the political class, Tucker points to the populist movements arising in Brazil, the Philippines, and all around Europe. He continues, “voters are suddenly backing candidates and ideas that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These are not isolated events. What you’re watching is entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their lives.”
Tucker’s rebuke is not restricted to just one political movement. When referring to libertarians’ deference to market outcomes, he responds that “it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.” When addressing social conservatives, he asserts, “you’ll hear them say, is that the American family is collapsing. Nothing can be fixed before we fix that. Yet, like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it.” He then proceeds to question the feminist movement’s celebration of female performance in the workplace. He states, “study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.”
His ire for the free market is exceedingly clear when he claims that “families are being crushed by market forces” and “any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having.” When listening to this viewpoint, one invariably wonders what policy solutions he might propose. While he does not actually propose any concrete solutions in this monologue, he is known to support government interventionism. He routinely expresses concerns about the impact of automation on the job market. He has pilloried Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for underpaying his employees. In fact, he even told conservative commentator Ben Shapiro in an interview that he would support a wholesale ban on driverless trucks in order to protect existing jobs. Such sentiments hardly resemble someone who has confidence in the market process.
Granted, there is an element of truth to Tucker’s skepticism. Applying free market principles to destructive substances such as opioids may not be of benefit to society. However, the free market did not create these addictive avenues to exploit. There had to have been an existing demand for such substances. Therefore, the problem may lie deeper than economics.
But first, let’s unpack the merits of Tucker’s claims. On the substance, he is correct in diagnosing troubling indications of a struggling middle-class. For the third year in succession, life expectancy in the United States has actually decreased. According to the CDC, the national suicide rate has uninterruptedly risen 33% since 1999. Furthermore, deaths from drug overdoses have risen steadily each year since 2000, with a conspicuous increase in deaths specifically from opioids. Moreover, in 1979 the average male with a high school degree and a family of four had earnings high enough to double the poverty line threshold. By 2007, his earnings were only high enough to clear the poverty threshold by less than 50%. Such statistics cannot be attributed to reduced government aid. Means-tested government spending has increased from $73 billion, at the time that Lyndon Johnson instituted “The Great Society,” to over $1.1 trillion as of 2015, when adjusted to 2015 dollars. This statistic means that the government is spending an average of $20,000 for every individual that is below the poverty line. In fact, federal outlays currently account for over 20% of GDP, with the overwhelming majority allocated to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The aforementioned statistics should be disconcerting irrespective of whether Tucker’s ire is correctly placed.
What’s more confounding is the divergence in family structure between the upper-class and the working-class, paving the way for an increasingly stratified society. Political scientist Charles Murray points out in his book Coming Apartthat, in 1960, the proportion of married couples between the ages of 30-49 was 84% for those considered working-class and 94% for those considered upper-class. However, by 2010, while the marriage rate remained high at 83% for the upper-class, the rate markedly declined to 48% for the working-class. Furthermore, while the percentage of children living with a single, divorced, or separated parent was under 5% for both upper and middle-class households in 1960, the percentage of middle-class households satisfying these criteria has eminently risen to 22% in comparison to just 3% for upper-class households. These are not merely unrelated factoids. These disturbing trends are replicated in a multiplicity of other studies including divorce rate, recorded happiness in marriage, non-marital birth ratio, and participation in the labor force. Such evidence, at the very least, lends credence to the notion that the certain foundations, including family structure and economic performance, that have historically undergirded the welfare of working-class families have started to erode in recent decades.
This breakdown in family composition has deleterious effects on both present and future generations. In a study conducted by Richard Reeves at the Brookings Institution, children born in the 1980s and 1990s were tracked until 2014. Reeves found that, when juxtaposing children born in the bottom income quintile raised by both parents in the same household with children born in that same quintile raised by a never-married mother, those in the former group stood a much bigger chance (19%) at progressing to the top quintile than those in the latter (5%). Stanford Professor Raj Chetty affirmed this study when he found that the single-parent household variable had the highest causal impact in determining upward economic mobility within a region. In fact, the very institution of marriage itself has been found to have a positive causal impact on earnings. According to a study conducted by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman of the American Enterprise Institute, a substantial “marriage premium” exists, in which the act of getting married has a causal impact in boosting individual income. Such social science studies affirm the unassailable truth that individual decisions and family structure do impact economic outcomes on the micro level. However, this data does not support Tucker’s most fervent assertions.
Herein lies the main issue with Tucker’s monologue: He does not actually bother to explain the degradation of family structure in working-class communities. He, rather, forms a non sequitur that posits that because plight is existent in the middle-class, it mustbe the manifestation of free market policies at fault, despite no evidence to substantiate this claim. He pillories the free market and unjustly conflates the free market with the status-quo. This same argument is prominent among left-leaning circles when discussing healthcare, where health outcomes in the United States are compared with single payer-systems abroad in order to demonstrate shortcomings of the free market system– when in reality, the healthcare industry is considered to be the most regulated industry in the country. By identifying free market excesses as the underlying issue, without articulating precisely how, Tucker is able to artfully construct a specious case for government intervention.
Perhaps by design, Tucker fails to reconcile his diatribe against the free market with the incontrovertible truth that the capitalism has been the most formidable poverty-reducing mechanism the world has ever known. The shrinking middle-class paradigm often propagated by both leftwing and rightwing populists ignores the fact that a large part of the middle-class has actually moved upin the economic latter over the past five decades. Economist Mark Perry states:
The 19.6 percentage point increase in the share of high-income US household between 1969 and 2016 (from 8.1% to 27.7%) was a result of: a) an 11.1 percentage point shrinkage in the share of middle-class households (from 53.2% to 42.1%), and b) an 8.5 percentage point shrinkage in the share of low-income households.
When examining the economic trends through a deeper account of human history, the case against free markets simply falls apart. Managing editor of Humanprogress.org Chelsea Follett points out, “In 1820, more than 90 percent of the world population lived on less than $2 a day and more than 80 percent lived on less than $1 a day (adjusted for inflation and differences in purchasing power). By 2015, less than 10 percent of people lived on less than $1.90 a day, the World Bank’s current official definition of extreme poverty.” During this time, the number of people living in abject poverty dropped from 1 billion to 700 million despite the massive population growth. In fact, since just 1970, the amount of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by more than half. This eminent spike in the standard of living is certainly a narrative-buster and demonstrates how free markets redound to society’s benefit, especially for the poorest among us.
The inconvenient truth that the emergence of some disturbing trends in the middle-class have coincided with unambiguous growth in economic prosperity is very difficult to address because there is no easy remedy. Economic hardship absolutely does precipitate some of the unfortunate trends like drug abuse and family formation, but I don’t think anyone would characterize the last fifty years as a period of economic turmoil, especially when comparing it to other periods in history. This lends credence to the theory that this increasingly bifurcated society has a lot more to do with culture rather than purely economic reasons. This notion is encapsulated nicely by Political commentator Kevin Williamson:
What evidence is there, if any, that it is our economy that produces the horrors that Vance describes so eloquently? The United States and El Salvador have about the same suicide rate; so do the United States and Finland. So do Belgium and India. So do Japan and Burkina Faso. Desperately poor Yemen has a suicide rate about one-third that of Russia, which is governed by economic nationalists much-admired by some in the American nationalist-populist camp. What should this tell us about the relationship between economic policy at the broad level and social dysfunction?
This may be inconvenient to those seeking political capital, but it is the reality. While there is no easy fix, certain narratives about the top 1% rigging the system through the vehicle of “hyper-capitalism” can actually be counter-productive. This is because such broad-brushed sentiments, without any sufficient evidence, actually rob those living in these imperfect conditions of any agency. By insisting that the elite are subjugating an entire class, rather than promulgating the message that we are living in the most prosperous and just time in human history and that good decisions will generally yield prosperity, we are unjustly disarming people of realizing their potential. Conservative pundit David French acutely makes this point:
Carlson is advancing a form of victim-politics populism that takes a series of tectonic cultural changes — civil rights, women’s rights, a technological revolution as significant as the industrial revolution, the mass-scale loss of religious faith, the sexual revolution, etc. — and turns the negative or challenging aspects of those changes into an angry tale of what theyare doing to you.
In fact, in Creating an Opportunity Societyby Ron Haskins and Isabell Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, it was found that only 2% of adults that finished high school, who got a full-time job, and waited until marriage to have kids found themselves in poverty. In other words, responsible decisions can still lift people out of poverty.
This argument, however, is not to suggest that government policy is perfect — far from it. However, it is irresponsible and ahistorical to ascribe many of society’s issues to free markets — the most efficacious mechanism for poverty reduction in human history. Rather, the influence of the elites that Tucker Carlson pillories is entirely antithetical to the workings of the free market. Such a relationship between the well-connected in society and the government is often referred to as “cronyism” which seeks to undermine, rather than foster, creative destruction.
Instead of seeking to curb the free market, government officials should focus on cultivating conditions that are likely to generate more auspicious outcomes through the free market. History has shown that embracing the creative destruction that comes with free markets ultimately leads to higher productivity and wages. This displacement does not come without consequences. But it is evident that the plight of the working-class cannot be explained by the economic conditions, nor can it be reversed through economic solutions. The problem, unfortunately, runs much deeper. Tucker Carlson is a talented speaker and has a huge following. With that in mind, his myopic calls to stifle market forces are not only misplaced but can actually exasperate human suffering.
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