The worrisome rebirth of class conflict

The current legislative session in Olympia is providing, unintentionally, a look at an issue that is changing American politics and the American economy: class conflict.

Included in the proposed budget is a plan to reduce tuition at the state’s public universities, including the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University. The reductions vary, but are substantial, even drastic by some definitions, 25-percent for some schools.

Those who favor the proposed tuition reductions say it will help middle class families cope with the costs of obtaining a college education for their kids. Those who oppose it say that it will hurt some low-income, poor, students and that the supporting budget is deceptive.

Besides shaping up as a political fight pitting Democrats against Republicans, the argument is also an early-stage class conflict setting the poor vs. the middle class. It may not be the last one.

Karl Marx is the go-to guy on class conflict. In the “Communist Manifesto,” for example, he and his co-author, Friedrich Engels, opened up Chapter 1 with this line: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Like the Gershwin song goes, though, “It ain’t necessarily so.” There are a lot of powerful forces in economics and in history. Class conflict is just one of them. Besides, Marx never understood America.

Class conflict is a worrisome thing, however, with a strong potential for lasting mischief and unintended consequences.

Our country has always been conflicted about class structure. We were from the beginning much aware of class distinctions. George Washington, for example, spent much of his adult life worried that his lack of a college education affected his social standing and how people perceived him.

Still, we enjoyed a healthy, humorous skepticism about the wealthy, their obsessions and their sometimes foppish ways. After the Civil War, though, things began to change. Our economy began to industrialize and it created wealth and an upper class that dwarfed all previous dreams. The ways of the rich were analyzed and skewered by Thorstein Veblen in his “Theory of the Leisure Class,” which gave us phrases like “conspicuous consumption.”

One thing that also changed was urbanization and the development of mass media. Both meant that ordinary Americans became more aware of the wealthy and even more aware that they, by contrast, were part of the “working” class.

The lingo of class consciousness didn’t catch on, really, until the Depression of the 1930s created a market for it. Discussions of alternatives to market capitalism found an audience. World War II, the ensuing Cold War and, more than anything, the soaring U.S. economy put an end to those discussions for the most part. The idea of class warfare in our country was consigned to the dust bin of history.

Now it’s back, dusty but wide awake. It first it appeared in the math-soaked impenetrable prose of economists and statisticians trying to figure out why this economic recovery was so anemic — and why its gains were being so unevenly distributed. As that income distribution pattern stabilized, though, concerns arose that it somehow reflected a restructuring of our economy and could be permanent.

Class warfare is the driving force behind the union-backed minimum wage demonstrations and strikes in cities across the country. Fast-food workers want a super-sized share of the economic pie and believe that open conflict is the way to get it.

Whether they are correct or not, the language and the visibility of class distinctions is back in the discussions, debates and arguments. It will probably be a part of the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton recently said she believes a “toppling” of the wealthiest 1 percent is required. It’s not as pointed as “Eat The Rich,” the T-shirt philosophy that P.J. O’Rourke once spotted, but equally improbable and it certainly illustrates the point that class conflict has become more visible.

How all this history and economics will affect the conflict in Olympia over tuition costs isn’t known for sure. Federal schemes, state government and the colleges themselves have made such an unholy mess out of the financial side of higher education that ordinary mortals are unable to figure it out. There are so many subsidies and financial aid programs that it seems that no two students at the UW pay the same amount, even for identical courses. Parents have to turn to complex algorithms and consultants to find the lowest cost gimmick they can use.

This session, both politics and class conflict will probably surrender to the cash drawer, and resolution will be based on how much short-term money is available. But class conflict, like a grizzly bear, won’t go away quietly now that we have awakened it.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a column for the monthly Herald Business Journal.

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