Paul Nitze: The Dalai Lamas answer
As I sat in the Benedict Music Tent on Saturday morning listening to the Dalai Lama, I found myself wondering whats on his bookshelf these days. For a spiritual leader, his tastes seem to lean more heavily toward political science than theology. I imagined a bedside table crammed with volumes of Marx and Weber.While his call for inner disarmament grabbed the headlines, his was not a talk primarily about personal virtues. Rather, politics and international affairs seem to be what fuels the Dalai Lamas engine. And, like any good politician, he knew which lines would please the crowd. Speaking (and pointing) to a group of Chinese professors in the front row, he drew big cheers when he called for political freedom for Tibet. Rarely did he criticize the current state of play in American society.The one major exception was during the Q&A afterward. Although the questions were prescreened, Margot Pritzker and the other organizers should be credited for not throwing only softballs. What, Pritzker asked His Holiness, does an avowed Marxist make of Americas commitment to capitalism? The Dalai Lamas answer came in two parts. First came the spoonful of sugar capitalism, he said, is a much more benign animal than it was back in its early days. While far from perfect, he suggested, weve come a long way from Blakes dark satanic mills. But then came the medicine. Recalling one of his first visits to Washington, D.C., when he met with a group of African-Americans in one of the citys poorer neighborhoods, the Dalai Lama posed a rhetorical question: How, he asked, could the capital of the richest nation on earth allow so many of its citizens to live in desperate poverty?In a further political flourish, he didnt leave the question hanging in the air as a moral imperative. To be sure, he said, we have a duty to help those who are less fortunate. But in perhaps the most telling moment in his 90-minute talk, he said that if we dont address the needs of the poor, we risk fostering their jealousy and anger. Addressing the well-heeled crowd (I counted roughly a dozen billionaires in the audience), he made a pitch straight to their own self-interest.Was anybody listening? No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, America is in the midst of a new Gilded Age. The top 20 percent of Americans now earn a bit more than half of the national income and control more than 80 percent of the nations wealth. Youd have to go back to the late 19th century to find comparable levels of wealth and income inequality. Looking for the capital of the current Gilded Age? My vote is Aspen.The reasons for rising inequality are complex, and some are benign. As Americans become older, less likely to be married and more educated, inequality increases, but without much social cost. Moreover, it appears that consumption, a better measure of well-being, has held up better than income (mostly because of the safety net provided by government subsidies).Accordingly, Americans appetite for fire-breathing populism is still limited. This has led many conservative commentators and wealthy Americans to write off rising inequality as a paper tiger. That would be a mistake. Though were unlikely to see bread riots in the streets, there are other signs that trouble is brewing.Political scientists have long theorized that partisanship increases along with inequality. And this is exactly the trend weve witnessed over the past decade. Even as many Americans abandon the two major parties, Congress finds itself deadlocked on issue after issue. From civil liberties to the war to health care, the gulf between the two sides has never been wider. There is no simple explanation for this phenomenon, but one factor is a shift in political influence. Greater wealth allows the richest Americans to increase their leverage over the political process. In the past the middle class had the resources to check that influence, but the scales have now tilted sharply away from them.Eventually something has to give. What the Dalai Lama said to the Aspen crowd was that they can choose to do it the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is to support policies that will keep inequality in check, like moderately higher taxes on income and an estate tax rate of around 50 percent. Does this mean redistribution? Of course. Does this mean the United States must become the next Norway? No.In an unflattering comparison, the Dalai Lama finished his answer by comparing the United States to China. The gap between the incomes of the Chinese coastal elite and the rural poor poses a deepening political threat. Maybe I read too much between the lines, but my sense was that he thinks this might work to Tibets advantage. Regime change might come not through diplomacy, but through the avarice of the Chinese leadership.Aspen felt a long way from Beijing on Saturday. No wonder it was so easy to stand and applaud when the Dalai Lama called for Tibetan political autonomy and poked fun at the Chinese professors. For those who were listening, however, there was another message that struck closer to home.
Paul Nitze is a deputy district attorney in Adams County and has been a part-time Aspenite his entire life. Before attending law school, he worked as a legislative assistant to another part-time local, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
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