Justice Scalia’s passing, Beethoven quartets, and Reich on the problem of extreme inequality

by Rob Tiller

Raleigh at sunrise

Raleigh at sunrise

Yesterday we were getting ready to head for Durham for dinner and a concert when I learned that Justice Scalia had died. The news was unexpected, and disorienting. I spent an intense year working a few steps away from him as one of his clerks, and felt close to him in a way. He was a good boss and mentor. Despite our very different political orientations, I admired his intelligence, energy, and humor. He demonstrated (including by hiring non-conservative clerks) that engaging with people who disagreed with one’s views was not a thing to avoid, but rather to embrace — stimulating and potentially creative. I disagreed with him vigorously on many things, but I liked him, and will miss him. This will take some time to process.

We met our friends John and Laurie for dinner at Dos Perros, a stylish Mexican restaurant, where we had good food and conversation. Then we went over to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the Danish String Quartet, three young Danish guys, and one Norwegian one. They played an all Beethoven program, including two famous late quartets (Op. 131 and 135). This is challenging, craggy music, which the Scandinavians played with fearless commitment, embracing all the extremes of angularity and the subtlety. I thought the sound of violist Asbjorn Norgaard was particularly beautiful.

Zürich at sunset

Zurich at sunset

There’s been a lot in the press recently about the extreme inequality in the U.S., and frequent references to such facts as the top .1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This seems disturbing on its face, but I got a much better grasp of its implications from reading Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, by Robert Reich. Reich is a former Secretary of Labor (Clinton administration) and a professor of public policy at Berkeley. In Saving Capitalism, he argues that the increasing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of very wealthy individuals and corporations threatens the fabric of our society. Dramatic inequalities of wealth and opportunity strike the majority as deeply unfair, undermining the trust that’s essential for social order. Without redress, the system could fail.

Reich contends that the arguments over whether the free market is preferable to the government are based on a false premise, inasmuch as the market is created by human beings and is subject to modification, for better or worse, by those same beings. At various times in American history, the rules have been dramatically changed (the Jacksonian era, the Progressives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the New Deal), and they can be changed again. Only relatively recently have corporations been viewed as limited to serving shareholders, without regard to other stakeholders (employees, consumers, the public at large). The system can be fixed.

Reich is primarily focused on identifying the problems, rather than proposing solutions, but he does offer some preliminary thoughts on fixes. He notes that we need to get big money out of politics. Campaign finance reform is surely an important step. A more equitable tax system is another. We need to fix the rule system that applies to intellectual property, along with other legal reforms. Reich also favors a basic minimum income that guarantees everyone a minimally decent standard of living. He recognizes that automation and artificial intelligence are going to cost many more jobs, and we have to help those who get hurt. This is a timely book, well worth reading.