Politically, 2016 could be another 1968—minus, we pray, the assassinations. Now, as then, forces on the far left and right are tearing at the fabric of American life.
The academic left is unhinged and suicidal, unable to defend what should be its absolute core: Free speech. Melissa Click, who is an assistant professor of communications at the University of Missouri, was seen on a video calling for “muscle” to remove the student who was recording a campus protest. It’s nauseating to see a professor inciting violence against a student.
Voices on the right have become both harsh and stupid, an unattractive combination that’s otherwise known as bullying. Last month, I was seated at a lunch next to a state senator from what I think of as a safe red state. He bellowed that the 2016 election would come down to makers versus takers. But, to his mind, the local farmers receiving lavish taxpayer subsidies, cheap water and trade protection weren’t the takers. The takers, well, they’re the welfare recipients in the cities. (Cue the dog whistle.) But facts are stubborn things: Red states take in far more federal money than they put out in federal taxes.
As it happened in 1968, good-hearted people are getting sucked into toxic political arguments. Fights break out on Facebook. Friendships unravel. Siblings stop talking to each other. Thanksgiving dinners are ruined. If you search for common ground these days, you risk being labelled a sellout (the left’s phrase) or a squish (the right’s). A longtime friend, who hails from the right, told me: “You’re not getting it, Rich. The other side is trying to destroy us. We can’t give an inch.” Was he talking about Isis, Russia or China? No. He was talking about Democrats. My friend admits that he’s angry “all the time” and that his work productivity has suffered.
Are you getting sick of this? I am. Coincidentally, a very liberal friend who lives in Silicon Valley was feeling the same way. He asked me to join him for lunch to see if we could find common ground. This friend is famous in Silicon Valley for being a successful tech investor. He put money into Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg was a pup and the social media giant was valued at a mere billion dollars. My friend once managed money for the Grateful Dead and, for fun, has his own touring band.
Heading to lunch, we knew we’d never agree on some things. In the name of civil liberty, he’d like to strictly limit phone and data surveillance; I think it’s one of today’s awful necessities. And we disagree on what constitutes torture.
Search for common ground
We agreed on most of the big economic issues. Shareholder capitalism, a necessary corrective to 1970s malaise, now lacks countervailing forces and has become an end unto itself. We agreed that a fat tax could be a progressive, as well as a conservative, cause. A conservative might want the rate to be 15 percent, a progressive 25 percent, but that’s close enough to have a healthy debate. Then, apply the fat rate to capital gains, as well as income, and get rid of all corporate subsidies. My liberal friend surprisingly takes a conservative position on inheritance taxes; they shouldn’t break up family businesses, he says.
We both agree that new-company formation in the US has taken a disastrous nosedive. You really can’t argue against the Kaufman Foundation’s superb research on this point. I happen to think that excessive government regulation and lack of capital access—due to Dodd-Frank—explains much of the startup torpor. To this, my friend adds a 1998 change in US bankruptcy law, which now exempts government student-loan debt. Heavily indebted college grads are afraid to start businesses, he says.
My friend thinks legalising marijuana would be a great source of tax revenue, as well as a way to boot illegal growers out of national parks and depopulate our prisons of non-violent offenders. I’m still pondering that one.
We had our lunch on Friday before that evening’s Paris terrorist attacks. Not surprisingly, my friend’s subsequent Facebook postings echoed the left’s reluctance to blame radical Islam for the attacks. Poverty explains it, or GW Bush’s interventionism. On some issues he and I will never agree.
But it was worth meeting for lunch to find some common agreement. And, mostly, to reinforce our friendship and mutual humanity. He’s not my enemy, nor am I his.
Rich Karlgaard is the publisher at Forbes
(This story appears in the 08 January, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)