A battle against prosperity

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 28, 2000

With a Republican like Arianna Huffington, Americans have little cause to criticize Bill Clinton.

If the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush was an irritant, then Huffington's constant proselyting is turning into a major pain in my neck. The self-crowned compassion queen has been tireless lately in chronicling how America's poor have been forgotten while we're all enraptured by dot com billionaires made continually richer thanks to inflated stock prices.

In recent essays published in Salon, Huffington complains that Americans have forgotten about poverty and inequality despite large numbers of layoffs in the 1990s, low-paying jobs, CEO pay rates, child poverty and a myriad of other socioeconomic ills. She even goes as far as lauding former New York governor Mario Cuomo and other Democrats -- members of a party which struck down a promise from its platform in 1996 to "help those who cannot help themselves" -- for attacking Reagan's relentless optimism and economic record in the 1980s.

Huffington, an admirer of the anti-Jeffersonian and friend of big government Teddy Roosevelt, has also had enough of the current field of political candidates for continually promoting America's current economic strength in their campaign.

"Don't worry, they're saying, we're not going to ask you to even think of community and civic responsibility or anything that is not in your direct, economic self-interest -- and, somehow, a nation that we can be proud of will materialize," wrote Huffington in a September 1999 piece in Salon.

Huffington's rant over want is all a set-up for her real target, the Republican Party. Although she takes the Democratic Party to task, her real anger is directed at the GOP. Huffington blames the party for essentially gutting the American Community Renewal Act (ACRA) -- sponsored by Reps. J.C. Watts (R-Ok) and Jim Talent (R-Mo) -- and charitable tax credits proposed by Rep. John Kasich (R-Oh) and Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind) which would have allowed taxpayers to funnel some of their money to charities.

Even the media earn some ire from America's queen of compassion, with studies proving that the fifth estate has cut back its reporting on poverty, homelessness and inequality and given President Bill Clinton a "free pass for his 'don't look down' economy." The better to write more profiles of Bill Gates or Steve Case no doubt.

It's obvious that Huffington is no fan of the economics favoured by many conservatives and popularized by the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, one that arguably is responsible for the prosperity Americans are enjoying today under Clinton. Her solution -- one which of course involves government intervention -- will only exacerbate the problems she is spotlighting and is no different from the distributionist politics promoted by people like Al Gore or Bill Bradley.

The charitable tax credits proposed by Kasich and Coats merely allowed a taxpayer to decide where $1 000 of their income tax will go, something that Huffington says will instantly turn Americans into educated poverty fighters, not allowed them to have kept it and done what they saw fit. Watts' and Talent's ACRA, a combination of tax incentives, public housing reforms and regulatory relief, would have merely addressed the needs of just 100 neighbourhoods.

If Huffington really wants to address the issue of poverty, what America's poor needs more than Roosevelt-brand government intervention is more of the free market policies of Reagan that she clearly dislikes. The numbers bear this out.

Under Reagan's brand of economics, the poorest 20 per cent of Americans saw their income rise 12 per cent from 1983 to 1989. The percentage of families earning less than $15 000 dropped. The U.S. Treasury's Office of Tax Analysis reports of those in the bottom-fifth income bracket in 1979, 65 per cent jumped at least two income brackets during the 1980s. Average family income grew 15 per cent from 1982 to 1989. The numbers of Americans below the poverty declined by 3.8 million people between 1983 and 1989. Families with incomes between $10 000 and $50 000 a year experienced a higher percentage of growth in net worth than those in the top fifth income group. Twenty million new jobs were created with 87 per cent of those being higher skilled and higher paying.

Critics will argue with all of this prosperity the decade of greed lived up to its name, but that turns out not to be the case. Charitable donations by individuals rose from $64.7 billion (in 1990 dollars) in 1980 to $102 billion in 1989, an increase of 57.7 per cent. As a percentage of income, charitable donations rose from 2.1 per cent in 1979 to a record 2.7 per cent in 1989. So much for Masters of the Universe stepping on the average man.

What Huffington needs to understand is that the poor in America need more freedom and less in the way of touchy-feely handouts and capitalism is the answer because it flows from freedom. Her unspoken belief is that capitalism should serve the public benefit, that it should be harnessed to provide the maximum good -- at least as defined by her -- not a rare belief among conservatives, whether a so-called compassionate conservative like Huffington or an economic protectionist like Patrick Buchanan.

The evidence from the Reagan years suggests, however, that unharnessing capitalism from the bonds of expectation has the effect of serving the public good -- allowing the people to act to improve themselves. Enlightened self-interest -- greed as Huffington would call it -- is tolerated by people like her because of its perceived benefits to society. It's time for her realize that allowing capitalism and that self-interest to flourish free of impediment from politicians would solve many of the problems she continues to rail against.

And then a nation Americans can be proud of will materialize.

Steve Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor of Enter Stage Right.

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