Thursday, March 1, 2012
Futurist and science fiction novelist David Brin sees the 2012 election as a debate over how to preserve the American middle class.
SAN DIEGO David Brin is a science fiction writer who's published many books, including The Postman. But he's not just a fiction writer. He takes positions on political issues, like calling for greater openness in his book The Transparent Society. He says in general he likes to see both sides.
“Moderate people on the right are right to worry about accumulations of undue power by snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats," said Brin. "People on the left are right to worry about undue accumulations of power by conspiring oligarchs and faceless corporations.”
David Brin lives in north San Diego County, and he and I chatted this week outside a coffee house near Del Mar Heights Road. Brin is one of several well-known San Diegans, with whom KPBS will engage in an in-depth discussion of the politics of this election year. As a professional prognosticator, Brin says he tries to imagine the future by looking at long-range political trends.
“It’s my job to look at the big perspective," he said. "Hundreds of years... both into the future and into the past.”
And when he looks through that prism he sees this year’s election as an ongoing debate over how to preserve the miracle of the American middle class.
“Every society in the past that had agriculture organized itself into a pyramidal social structure, with a few at the top lording it over those below," he said. "Ours is the first human civilization that had a diamond-shaped social structure. That’s with a giant middle class that is educated, dynamic, competitive, and in which the middle outnumbers the poor.”
So what does that have to do with today’s presidential primaries? Though Brin claims to be nonpartisan, he’s clearly irked by the GOP focus on tax cutting, especially proposed cuts to capital gains taxes and levies on high earners.
“The truth of the matter is the federal government's share of the economy, and the federal government’s top marginal tax rate, are both at the lowest rates that they’ve been since 1950,” he said.
Brin points out we're approaching the hundredth anniversary of the income tax in America. After WWI, the tax rates were very low. But then the depression and WWII caused taxes to shoot up until they reached their zenith in the 1950s.
“JFK dropped those rates," said Brin. "Reagan dropped them some more. Then under Bush Senior they plummeted.”
There’s a word Brin likes to use when talking about American politics: oligarchy. It refers to the people at the top of that old societal pyramid. Brin believes a new American oligarchy is forming today as income disparities increase, the rich become richer and the middle class become fewer.
In an email, I asked Brin if he believes trends in tax policy are part of an effort by the American oligarchy to maintain it's power and create an uneven playing field that could undermine the middle class... and whether this effort was being aided by the GOP.
But he demurred, saying, "What today's historically low tax rates prove is not that taxes should be raised, but that we should discuss it calmly, like adults."
Finally, I asked Brin what American values should govern that calm, adult discussion.
“I think it’s utterly important that we recognize that American society was the first that understood that competition is the great creative force of nature. It’s what drives evolution. It’s what made us," said Brin.
"But competition carries the seeds of its own destruction. Marx was right about that. You look across 99 percent of human history, and it was the lords who succeeded at competing for power, who then clamped down and prevented further competition as our new oligarchs are trying to do," he said.
"If you want the good stuff from competition, in science, democracy and in markets, ironically you have to have what Adam Smith asked for, and that was intervention to keep the rules fair," Brin added.
Translation: make society like a diamond not a pyramid.
David Brin is coming out with a new novel in June, called Existence.