Presidential Bookshelf

Among the journalistic glowworms lighting the way to the Bush White House is Myron Magnet, a reporter for Fortune who makes his living in the most ancient clerical profession: explaining to the wealthy how profoundly they deserve their wealth. Magnet’s 1993 book, The Dream and the Nightmare, is a ready reference for those wishing to decant the old wine from the new bottle of “compassionate conservatism.” Although the phrase is most closely associated with Christian rightist and Bush intimate Marvin Olasky, Magnet’s echoing judgment of the welfare state as an idea whose time never came remains the conventional Republican wisdom, dearly maintained in the Bush inner circle. Karl Rove, the Austin political consultant who is Dubya’s answer to Dick Morris, calls the book a road map to the Bush program, and hands copies of The Dream to those wishing to understand Bushean teleology. And while the Candidate’s own reading (beyond a daily dose of the Bible) remains veiled in a mist like that which embraced Moses on Mount Sinai, his favorite campaign refrain – that his sixties generation ruined the culture and we must win it back for traditional values – is also the central message of Magnet’s book, albeit aimed most directly at those unpleasant people at the bottom of the heap.

So we are likely to hear much of Mr. Magnet in the next eighteen months, and would do well to get at least a cursory sense of his sobering night thoughts. Magnet’s Dream, of course, refers to the sixties’ idealism he acknowledges motivated at least some of the social reforms we associate with that uneven period of rebellion and governmental activism; his Nightmare is what he believes to be the almost uniformly negative results of that idealism, which he catalogues in sensational detail.

The ideal that guided them was a vision of democracy; their honorable aim was to complete democracy’s work, to realize democratic values fully by making American society more open and inclusive. Out of this democratic impulse sprang the War on Poverty, welfare benefit increases, court-ordered school busing, more public housing projects, affirmative action, job-training programs, drug treatment programs, special education, The Other America, Archie Bunker, Roots, countless editorials and magazine articles and TV specials, black studies programs, multicultural curricula, new textbooks, all-black college dorms, sensitivity courses, minority set-asides, Martin Luther King Day, and the political correctness movement at colleges, to name only some of the almost endless manifestations.

Looking at that imposing list of Magnetic perfidies, a reader might immediately wonder whether the outrage that is “Archie Bunker” can readily stand on four legs beside, oh, special education. But more curious are the Magnet’s grand omissions, e.g.: the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the women’s movement, which span his chosen period with real history instead of the potted, anecdotal stuff to which he devotes his book. Civil rights and women’s rights, to the extent that they appear at all, are seen as nominally good ideas that ran off the rails after the official end of discrimination; the war that rocked a generation is mentioned only in passing, as the source of the notion (patently absurd to Magnet) that the U.S. government is violently militaristic. One would think that a book explicitly about the sixties’ “cultural legacy” might have something useful to say about the fundamental outgrowths of the major mass movements of the era. One would be wrong.

But then Magnet’s real target is much less the “sixties,” writ large, than the other half of his subtitle: “the underclass.” This he quickly makes clear in his portentously titled introduction, “What’s Gone Wrong?” From his opening rhetorical flourish, “Weren’t dizzying contrasts of wealth and poverty supposed to have gone out with Dickensian London?,” Magnet attempts to answer the question burning in the heart of every Manhattanite (or would-be Manhattanite) attempting to enjoy a sparkling night on the town: What are all those poor people doing, mucking up my landscape, and why won’t they go away? Magnet stamps his well-shod little feet in empathetic outrage.

Like Death interrupting the dumbstruck banquet, the poverty and vice that pervade America’s cities appall the prosperous. What’s wrong with the country, they worry, that such problems are everywhere? Does the same system that enriches the Haves simultaneously degrade the Have-Nots? Does the comfort of the prosperous somehow rest upon the debasement of their poorest fellow citizens, the homeless and the underclass? Are the prosperous responsible for the condition of the poor?

Furrow not that unwrinkled brow (you “dapper investment bankers, some of whom made seven-figure incomes rearranging the industrial order before they were forty” – and more power to ’em, says the awestruck Magnet). The man from Fortune purrs soothing reassurance to his troubled celebrants:

But happily, modern society isn’t hierarchical, in Victorian fashion. Today’s Haves aren’t the ‘betters’ or the ‘masters’ of the Have-Nots, and today’s worst-off poor are nobody’s mistreated dependents or exploited employees: they are radically disconnected from the larger society, and they don’t work.

And that’s that. Well-heeled Friends of Rove won’t even have to venture past “What’s Gone Wrong?” to discover that whatever’s gone wrong, it has nothing to do with them. Even better, coos Magnet, they don’t have to do anything about it: “Victorian philanthropy isn’t equal to [the Have-Nots’] plight.” One can go on, of course, and discover Magnet’s unembarrassed

nostalgia for nineteenth-century distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, but the line is drawn in his first few pages. Taking a skeptical breath from Magnet’s post-Victorian perturbations, only a besotted sixties idealist would condescend to notice that as Magnet’s “dapper investment bankers” have gotten richer and richer (and richer) over the last thirty years, eighty percent of the U.S. population has seen its real wealth and income steadily decline, and that these two facts may have something to do with each other – and that the people at the very bottom have consequently dropped all the way, into the street. Not for Magnet such logical arithmetic, which he repeatedly dismisses as vaguely Marxist “economic determinism.” In the endlessly job-generating economy of Magnet’s America, the only poor are the desperately (and annoyingly visible) poor, and they are poor (and annoying) because they are vicious or crazy, because they choose not to work, and because they prefer life on the streets. If only spineless judges and feckless bureaucrats would either jail them or commit them, we wouldn’t have to step over the noisome buggers on our way to dinner and the theater.

It’s not all their own fault, of course, else Magnet wouldn’t have a book. The gist of his argument is that certain deluded and liberal “Haves,” motivated by misplaced sixties guilt and misconceived sixties idealism, tricked the undeserving poor into believing they were deserving. “This book’s central argument is that the Haves are implicated because over the last thirty years they radically remade American culture, turning it inside out and upside down to accomplish a cultural revolution whose most mangled victims turned out to be the Have-Nots.” Who are the particular culprits? Round up the usual suspects: LBJ, whose anti-poverty programs created the delusion of a human right to minimum subsistence; Norman Mailer, whose essay “The White Negro” made black hipness a fashionable response to white conformism; Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing, who theorized that mental illness should not inevitably require incarceration; Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, who rudely noticed that America’s ballyhooed prosperity left far too many people in the dust; Thurgood Marshall, whose legal attacks on segregation inevitably produced forced busing, white flight to the suburbs, racial job quotas, and impertinent speech codes on college campuses. Nowhere do relentless cutbacks in social spending, or the persistent neglect of public education, the explosion in prison construction, or the increasing militarization and corporatization of the economy, have any visible place in Magnet’s Panglossian universe. On the contrary, poor people are poor and nasty because they choose to be so, and any attempt by the community at large to ameliorate their unhappy circumstances is by definition counterproductive. And though he tap-dances around the subject in various statistical ways, the undeserving poor (a.k.a. the underclass), whom Magnet pities and despises in almost equal measures, are most specifically the black urban poor: those foul-mouthed, crack-smoking, baby-dropping, white-folks mugging, wild-running Caliban-caricatures of the suburban imagination, who refuse to work because they have learned (apparently from reading Norman Mailer, Michael Harrington, and R.D. Laing) that they can act crazy on streetcorners selling dope without fear of retribution while readily pocketing twenty grand a year on welfare.

What are the solutions to this cultural catastrophe? Do nothing – only much more nothing. Scratch these neo-cons and one inevitably turns up Charles Murray (of Losing Ground and The Bell Curve), the “brilliant” sociologist who has concluded repeatedly that all welfare programs should be abolished because they do more harm than good (especially by allowing able-bodied mothers to stay home with their kids when they should be on the job market keeping wages down). Lately Murray has taken to saying the same thing about public education, since certain children are, well, ineducable. (We all know who they are.) Magnet suspects Murray is right, although he says he wouldn’t go that far – the requisite political will is unfortunately lacking, and perhaps in the short-term, “casualties would be too great.” He counsels instead the usual draconian measures to force welfare mothers (only the deserving widowed or divorced, of course) into the job market, although with surprisingly liberal provisions for day care and Head Start programs. (One wonders what he might say, in 1999, now that his recommendations have largely been adopted by the Clinton administration and the states – reassuringly unencumbered by his soft-hearted qualifications, which would only encourage the brutes.)

It’s worth noting in passing that Mr. Magnet’s diligent work on The Dream and the Nightmare was supported by those friendly folks at The Manhattan Institute, one of the more notorious conservative think tanks dedicated to advancing the right-wing agenda with the help of tax-deductible donations. Apparently welfare programs for conservative hacks are beyond reproach. But why you and I should be asked to underwrite Magnet’s Hymn to Complacency is just one of the more painful conundrums of his thoroughly meretricious book.

Welcome to The Bush World Theme Park – which I rush to acknowledge has been sponsored and designed by the reigning political orthodoxy, Republican and Democrat, and which is likely to persist until the end of this particular economic bubble. The natives may not yet be restless, but their masters certainly are. Magnet himself bravely resists any plausible economic explanation for the parlous situation of poor people. He repeatedly dismisses as discredited “Marxist” doctrine the notion that unemployment and poverty have anything to do with the ordinary working of the capitalist economy, and that an “industrial reserve army” (his unemployed underclass) might be useful to capitalists “by imposing a discipline on regularly employed workers, who must rein in their just demands when so many stand eager to replace them.”

Magnet finds this utterly conventional economic notion preposterous, of course. But I had just read this passage when I happened to pick up the May 23 Sunday Times magazine, and found M.I.T. economist Paul Krugman worrying that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had been a little too “explicit” recently in suggesting that interest rates might have to be raised, because too many unemployed people are finding work – which might eventually mean wage increases for those already employed. Krugman didn’t disagree with Greenspan that we must maintain “a suitably high rate of unemployment” to avoid inflation (i.e., diminishing capital gains for investors). He just thought Greenspan should keep his mouth shut, because “when the Fed acts to cool off an overheated economy, what that literally means is that a group of comfortable men and women in suits are deliberately acting to limit the job prospects of some of their worst-off fellow citizens.”

If Krugman had read Magnet, he would know whom to blame: the sixties, whose cultural legacy mysteriously tricked that shiftless slacker Alan Greenspan into telling the truth.

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Published at 12:00 am CST