skip to main content

Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

SD Futurist Looks To The Past To Size Up Today’s Presidential Race

Aired 3/1/12 on KPBS News.

Futurist and science fiction novelist David Brin sees the 2012 election as a debate over how to preserve the American middle class.

— 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.

Comments

Avatar for user 'BD Cruz'

BD Cruz | March 1, 2012 at 1:08 p.m. ― 2 years, 7 months ago

I usually don't always agree with Brin, but I'll agree with his sentiment: can't we at least discuss things like adults?

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'al_mac_62'

al_mac_62 | March 1, 2012 at 4:45 p.m. ― 2 years, 7 months ago

Why is Brin only concerned with tax rates, and not with profligate and inefficient spending government spending?

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'RobInNJ'

RobInNJ | March 29, 2012 at 11:22 a.m. ― 2 years, 6 months ago

Probably because government spending isn't actually all that "profligate", unless you are really keen on revoking our grandparents' medical coverage, and telling the unemployed they don't deserve another chance to find work. The reason to worry about the tax rates is because the government's income is very low these days - too low to pay our expenses, most of which cannot simply be magically "cut" without serious consequences. Like, say, seniors who can't afford medication or retirement, or mass waves of firings destroying our fragile recovery from massive unemployment.

Don't get me wrong; pork and waste are certainly bad; trimming it would be good. I'd be ecstatic if people would sit down rationally and talk about how to get that done - although listening to the right these days, it seems unlikely to happen. The problem is that in any case, there isn't enough pork we can safely and quickly trim. And when you can't pay your bills, and can't afford to cut your expenses enough, there's no way around it for an honest man: you need more income. For a government, that generally means raising taxes.

We are living on debt right now, which actually makes some sense for a change - we are still clawing our way out of a recession. But make no mistake: If taxes don't start to rise as the economy climbs its way back to normalcy, we will have made a very grave financial mistake.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'bwrich'

bwrich | April 5, 2012 at 2:36 p.m. ― 2 years, 5 months ago

One of the big issues we need to discuss is whether we can and should cut back on the military spending. It's a huge part of the budget, and is being used ineffectively, with the wrong goals. It's supposed to be there for our nation's defense, not to support a global empire.

( | suggest removal )