- - Tuesday, June 27, 2017



By Eric Liu

Public Affairs, $25, 222 pages

Some years back, The New Yorker ran a cartoon showing a tour guide and his charges overlooking a ruined Mayan temple. Their civilization had died, the guide explains, after everyone became a motivational speaker and no further food was produced. We may be getting there ourselves.

New Age, feel good motivational publications and videos dominate the bookstores and the airwaves, offering shortcuts to everything from expanded income to contracted waistlines, from spiritual fulfillment to more and better sex. Even public broadcasting, for all its claims to elevated intellectual standards, peppers its fundraising weeks with dubious “self-improvement” programming promising the elderly eternal youth, the financially challenged easy affluence, and the ailing and obese ways they can eat their way to weight loss and better health. It isn’t all baloney. Some of the advice is actually sound, practical and helpful. But the overall tone is one of boosterish hype.

So it is with Eric Liu’s “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.” Mr. Liu is an intelligent, facile writer and a sincere advocate of greater citizen engagement, or to use the flavor-of-the-week terminology, “political empowerment.” He has obviously given a lot of thought to his subject and makes his case with conviction and good faith. In the end, however, most of his organizational message could have been summed up in a single sentence not contained in the book: “Politicians tend to ignore people who ignore politics.” Unfortunately, the author also served as a White House speechwriter for that overly slick, underly honest pitchman, Bill Clinton and, occasionally, it shows.

Mr. Liu’s narrative is studded with Clintonesque exercises in fact-bending and casuistry which, while seldom outright untruths, are often distortions of the truth. Thus, early on, he informs us that: “In America we have been told for decades that the wealthy got that way because they earned it through superior smarts and better choices. The powerful earned it by their superior savvy and better choices. … This storyline is part of a larger ideology of rugged individualism and free-trade capitalism. And to be clear: the wealthy and powerful made it up. But why did the rest of us accept it? Because it at least implied that improvement was possible with greater grit and wiser effort. It implied that in a market driven by merit, we too could be winners one day.”

Mr. Liu’s own implication about all of this “implying” is that the whole thing was a scam. Of course, if it were, then the descendants of the poor but highly motivated legal immigrants who came to American by the millions in the 19th and early 20th centuries would still be living in impoverished ethnic ghettos and Wall Street, the media and academia would all be monopolized by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. People believe in the “storyline” because they have seen it work, not because they are passive losers looking for an excuse, as Mr. Liu suggests. In another bit of logical shape-shifting, the author draws a false economic contrast “between the ‘trickle-down’ and … a ‘middle-out’ theory”:

“Trickle-down economics says the rich are ‘job creators’ who must be coddled in the tax code and economic policy so that their wealth can make its way down to the rest of us. Middle-out economics says that the working and middle classes are the real job creators. It’s their demand that powers a great economy and it’s from their paychecks that the system generates lasting prosperity.”

But those paychecks don’t come from the tooth fairy. They are paid for by the large and small businesses created and expanded by investors and entrepreneurs, especially when the tax code and regulations encourage investing and entrepreneurship. To confiscate and redistribute capital in an attack on “income inequality” is an exercise in economic suicide.

Organized citizens can, indeed, “make change happen” as Mr. Liu asserts. But there is a distinct difference between citizen movements based on a sense of victimhood and claims on other people’s money, and citizen movements based on a positive, opportunity-based agenda. As Taylor Budowich, the executive director of the Tea Party Express, recently pointed out in USA Today, “The tea party’s message captured voters the Republican Party failed to reach. The [current anti-Trump] resistance merely reorganized those Clinton voters who have yet to accept Trump’s victory and cling to the ‘Not My President’ hashtag. That’s not the formula for a political revolution, it’s just sour grapes.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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