“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
– Frederick Douglass
“I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion about the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Like many of you, I’m trying to understand an economic landscape that’s changing by the day – and rarely for the better, at least from the standpoint of the middle and lower classes. I am also trying to understand how in the world the two great US political parties have conspired to give us a choice, as Peggy Noonan has said, of “Crazy Man vs. Criminal.”
I think these two questions are related, and not just in the United States. Populist angst is taking hold around the world. Like all anger, it isn’t necessarily rational and may not bring the desired changes, but the anger and frustration are real. People have real problems, and increasingly they don’t trust traditional leaders to solve them.
Last week I had the privilege of meeting first privately and then publicly with Peggy Noonan. For those who don’t know, she was President Reagan’s speech writer and is now a Wall Street Journal columnist and celebrated author. As a writer, she is one of my heroes, perhaps the greatest essayist of my generation – a true wordsmith.
Back in February, with the presidential campaign in full force, Peggy wrote a column that has been on my mind ever since. She titled it “Trump and the Rise of the Unprotected.” Everyone should read it, preferably several times. It is that good.
Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he is a symptom of larger trends. So is Bernie Sanders. A major fraction of the population is living on the edge, vulnerable and unprotected. Most of you reading this letter aren’t in that category; you have homes, steady incomes, and some investment capital. That puts you way ahead of average.
Today we’re going to look at the real-world economic pain that so many people experience in daily life. Some of this will be hard reading, but it’s important. Reading it, you will better understand what is going wrong and how badly we need solutions. You may also come away with a better idea of the direction this country is headed if we don’t see real change in the near future.
Many establishment types in both the Republican and Democratic parties seem to think that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are anomalies. That goes double for the Republican Party establishment class that thinks their money can control things. Trump is not an anomaly; he is a harbinger of a growing frustration that is bigger than corporate donors and super PACs.
Protected vs. Unprotected
Peggy Noonan says the current unrest is the logical progression of trends that began long ago. The upper stratum of society is increasingly “protected” from sharing, and often even from seeing, the travails of daily life as most people experience them. Here is how she describes our situation (the boldface emphasis is mine):
There are the protected and the unprotected. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.
The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful – those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. Again, they make public policy and have for some time.
I want to call them the elite to load the rhetorical dice, but let’s stick with the protected.
They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they’ve got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them, or provide buffers. Some of them – in Washington it is important officials in the executive branch or on the Hill; in Brussels, significant figures in the European Union – literally have their own security details.
Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They’re insulated from many of the effects of their own decisions.
This insulation is now so common we don’t even notice it – and not just in government. Business executives meet in a nice office, tweak a few numbers, and somewhere down the line people lose their jobs. Those folks are thousands of miles away, and the decision-makers never even see them. This is what it means to be “protected.”
Peggy goes on to explain why immigration is such a watershed issue.
Many Americans suffered from illegal immigration – its impact on labor markets, financial costs, crime, the sense that the rule of law was collapsing. But the protected did fine – more workers at lower wages. No effect of illegal immigration was likely to hurt them personally.
It was good for the protected. But the unprotected watched and saw. They realized the protected were not looking out for them, and they inferred that they were not looking out for the country, either.
The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment – another word for the protected – nothing, no particular loyalty, no old allegiance.
Mr. Trump came from that.
Loyalty and allegiance flow in both directions. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where the people who make decisions are so separated from the people who pay the cost of those decisions that neither group feels any loyalty to the other at all. This is not a recipe for a stable social order and a thriving economy.
I want to take Ms. Noonan’s thoughts a little further. The protected are not just the politicians and bureaucrats who make and execute public policy; they are all the people who, because of their jobs and income, can generally protect themselves from the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. They have the money to hire the lawyers, doctors, mechanics, pay for the insurance, etc., to deal with whatever problems arise.