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November 21st, 2017

Insight

Provocations

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published April 16, 2015

   Provocations

Let's talk about inequality in American society. Tell us again what a terrible country this is, dominated by the super-rich who care only about preserving their wealth and privilege. Nobody else has a chance.

Better yet, tell it to Harold Ekeh, 17, a Long Island, N.Y., high school senior who had a tough time adjusting to his new country when his family moved here from Nigeria when he was only 8, but when the time came applied for admission to 13 American universities, including all the Ivy League schools. And was accepted by all 13.

What? Can all those politicians and ideologues who keep saying inequality is Problem No. 1 in this country have overlooked something? Like the American dream and how it keeps turning into the American reality? Surely not. This heartening case out of Long Island must be an exception to the otherwise dismal rule.

And yet American society is indeed unequal. Except that the inequality isn't the kind that critics of the American system usually mean. For inequality here is only incidental to being rich or poor in material goods. It's an inequality of values, of family stability, of spiritual and moral guidance, of community life. Compare the brutish existence of kids growing up in our violent, gang-infested slums and those who are part of ordinary, middle-class life in terms of family, school, community. And there's no comparison. However much money each manages to make every year -- by hook or crook, legit or not or somewhere in between.

Success with all its gold-plated trappings -- Upward Mobility! -- is not wealth, not the kind that is reflected in character, endures for a lifetime, and is then passed on from generation to generation. What is the essence of that kind of wealth? Simple human dignity. A life well lived. Not just capital but moral capital. That's what the social critics and ambitious politicians with their pie charts and graphs of gross annual income tend to overlook. Gross is indeed the right adjective for their kind of judgment, or rather misjudgment. How put this simply? They just don't get it.

Like father, like son: Is there something, anything new in American presidential candidates? Rand Paul, senator from Kentucky and son of the former congressman from Texas, claims there is, and he's it. Much like Paul the elder, he's a hybrid of conservative, libertarian and advocate of a foreign policy that will keep America out of foreign wars. And yet Sen. Paul will be a familiar figure to those who remember the isolationists of the 1930s -- Taft, Borah, Langer, Norris, Col. Lindbergh ... they were everywhere. But one day and one event changed everything: On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and isolationism all but disappeared. The most fervid isolationists became fighting internationalists.

In the case of Rand Paul, historians of American isolationism needn't go back to the 1930s to find his like. One day and one event early in the 2000s changed everything again -- the suicide attacks of September 11, 2001. Suddenly the flags came out everywhere. The country was at war. Americans demanded a more rigorous approach to national security, even if it meant we would all have to sacrifice a degree of personal convenience and privacy -- whether on boarding an airplane or sending an email.

But all that was more than a decade ago. The shock has faded. Complacency returns. And a presidential candidate now objects to all these intrusions in the name of national security. Whatever he claims, Rand Paul's ideas aren't new. He's the personification of the national mood as of September 10, 2001. For the same old pattern is repeating itself -- from complacency to vigilance and back to complacency. And its embodiment in this year's presidential campaign is Rand Paul.

Let it be noted that Sen. Paul, again like his father, is said to have been a fine physician. Unfortunately, American medicine's loss has not been American politics' gain.

For a veteran of Chicago's machine politics who's supposed to be cut in the mold of Mayors Daley I and II, Rahm Emanuel isn't. He's just had to win a runoff election to get a second term in the mayor's office. A run-off election? In Chicago? Such a thing would have been unimaginable when the Daleys decided just how many votes they needed to win -- and proceeded to supply them.

So now the victorious Mayor Emanuel gets to deal with a city dominated by the labor unions who spent millions trying to defeat him, and came unnervingly close to doing it. Then there are the city's four pension funds to deal with. They are some $20 billion in the red. And the debt is mounting daily. Congratulations on the outcome of your latest campaign, Mr. Mayor, though here's a question for you: Is your re-election a political triumph or fitting punishment?

Remember the Energy Crisis, and how it was bound to go on forever -- much like the oil cartel that exploited it? There was just no fighting the age of Peak Oil, for petroleum would always be a diminishing commodity whose price could go nowhere but up. Yet today the supply of oil keeps growing and its price keeps tumbling. To quote one analyst of the oil-and-gas market in Houston, "There's simply not a shortage at all. There's a big glut, and that glut remains intact."

Why? In a word, fracking. One American wildcatter's invention, and his ingenuity and persistence in developing it, has changed the whole energy picture. George P. Mitchell's may not be a household name, but it should be. For he's the one man who revolutionized the market for energy, and for much the better. All of us now benefit by the lower prices and more abundant energy his imagination and determination made an everyday reality. Even if the experts and analysts of his day said his was an impossible dream. They overlooked just one small detail when they assumed the future of energy would be but a projection of their present: the ingenuity of man.

To quote Friedrich von Hayek, father of the Austrian school of free-market economics: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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