The Economy As Culture War

Loosely in response to Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein, my view is that if you want to understand the extent to which business executives loathe President Obama, you need to understand that the economic policy debate in the United States is in part just another culture war issue.

Private sector labor unions are so weak in the United States that you can’t really organize politics around a management versus labor axis. A lot of what you have is, instead, a kind of bitter feud between businessmen and the kids they went to college with who didn’t go on to become businessmen. What did they do instead? They became teachers or doctors or nurses or professors or lawyers or scientists or nonprofit workers. And they fight with each other in part because of genuine economic clashes of interest. The businessmen tend to be targeted for tax hikes, while the people they went to college with tend to actually capture some of the public sector expenditure streams. An even though us BA holders are only about 20 percent of the population, this culture war helps structure much broader economic trends. Urban areas are generally built around hospitals, colleges, and state government as the economic pillars that drive the local service sector, and artists and media professionals who generally wouldn’t think of themselves as businesspeople are drawn to these areas. Urban areas are also havens for the poor, the end-users of social services whose interests bind them together in a coalition with the service providers.

But while there’s an element of objective economics to this The business coalition sees the service coalition as composed of useless moochers, and the service coalition sees the business coalition as greedy bastards. If it were merely a clash of objective interests, it really wouldn’t be much of a clash. A healthy business environment needs schools and hospitals and public infrastructure to backstop it, and nobody is made happy by a business cycle downturn. There’s tension at the margin, but it’s not a zero-sum world. Layered on top is, I think, a raw level of gut-level dislike — both kinds of people think the other kind of people are clueless about what really matters in life.