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Aspen: A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Why did all the brainpower assembled at Aspen have no solutions to the United States' biggest problems?

Downtown Aspen.


  • Selling entrepreneurs as the silver bullet to America's problem of ever more uneven income distribution? While it sounds appealing, it's simply unworkable.
  • Rarely have I come across moments where two worlds collided more starkly, in the same room, with such gentility, as the decorum understandably requires.
  • The one solution that truly counts for reducing inequality, reverting to Clinton-era tax levels for the most fortunate Americans — read: much of the Aspen crowd — was not to be heard.

If you have never been to Aspen, go. It’s a beautiful place. Most of the people who can afford to live there permanently, and/or have a residence there, have truly lucked out in life.

And if you decide to go in the summertime, you can, depending on your personal preference, either attend the Aspen Summer Music Festival, or, equally stimulating, the Aspen Ideas Festival.

I chose to go to the latter. This week-long confab, usually held around the July 4th holiday, features a boatload of terrific panels and speakers. Every participant can also look back on many pleasant encounters with other people wandering through the idyllic Aspen meadow, on their way from one speaking (or listening) event to another. The contrast between the serene, magnificent, eternal mountains and the fleeting depth of human conversation was spellbinding.

As stimulating as the festival always is, it can also have its more shocking moments. Take a lunch conversation during which a table mate of mine proceeded to tell me that it was good that the United States currently had such high unemployment. I could hardly believe these words. After all, this is Aspen, and not some Marxist-Leninist indoctrination camp chock full of people happy to see the sworn class enemy (the United States in toto) finally getting its comeuppance.

Politely, as is the style at Aspen, I asked my neighbor why this was not just ok, but actually good. The answer? “Because our American manufacturing companies are actually so productive that they manage to produce all they need with ever fewer people. And that’s efficient.”

Clearly, this was the voice of somebody who experiences the ups and downs of the American economy via a sizable stock market portfolio. Viewed from that perspective, the recent downsizing is actually an “up” because it permanently reduces companies’ costs.

Not ready to leave it at that, and turn to polite conversation, as the situation would usually require at such a moment of unvarnished truth telling, I ventured to ask my neighbor this question: “Do you realize that this is not just a replay of Clinton’s welfare reform, when he basically took many people off the public support rolls who weren’t really trying to get a job? And that this time it’s not only blue-collar folks who face the prospect of an end to any gainful economic life, but plenty of white-collar folks as well?

“I don’t know your personal background,” I continued, “but let’s assume you married somebody rich, and are of much humbler origins yourself. Do you realize that you’re effectively condemning your own 50-year-old brother to a life without further employment? Don’t you think this will have political consequences? It’s the classic backbone of America that’s in trouble now. Believe me, this time, it is truly different, unless things, miraculously, turn around real fast.”

At that very moment, the lunch hour’s speaking program began, and we weren’t able to continue the obvious dispute we had. But then again, there was little that could have been said in addition. Rarely have I come across moments where two worlds collided more starkly, in the same room, with such gentility, as the decorum understandably requires.

When, 45 minutes later, the luncheon speaker was finished with his talk, one of the first questions he received was this: “During this year’s festival program, we are hearing much more talk about rising income inequality in America. What, in your view, can we do to fix that? And wouldn’t it really help if we had more charter schools (experimental private school start-ups receiving public funding) in the United States, to defeat the public unions that have our public schools in a chokehold?”

Imagine the audacity. The fact is income trends in the United States are closing in on the more egregious levels of disparity seen in Latin America. And it’s the U.S. teachers’ unions fault? The questioner’s rather strained economic logic must have been this: If teachers were better, young people would be better trained, earn more money in their careers and eventually close the income gap, or at least keep it from widening.

Thankfully, the luncheon speaker, a Canadian man, had the audacity to challenge the questioner by saying that he was not inclined to engage in teacher bashing. “Some of the finest people in all of our societies are teachers. I just don’t see what it gains us to engage in teacher bashing. Sure, there are some bad apples among them who don’t perform. But so are there underperformers among private schools and charter schools, as well as in all other professions.”

So far, so good for the speaker. Unfortunately, he went on to suggest that the only way to solve the inequality problem was to strengthen entrepreneurship, which is “where all the net new jobs are created in America.” Now, I’m an entrepreneur myself, operating for ten years in the field of original content creation, online education and other tough matters. So far be it from me to bash entrepreneurs. But selling them as the silver bullet to America’s problem of ever more uneven income distribution?

While it sounds like an appealing solution, it’s simply unworkable. In the glorious days before the presumably socialism-infested Obama Administration came into office, virtually all net new jobs during the Bush years were created by government at all levels (and its outsourcing partners among consulting and staffing firms). Yes, the government sector boomed personnel-wise, and under a Republican president. Most of this hiring came in response to staffing needs stemming from the heightened response to combating terrorism.

Strange though it may be, the one solution that truly counts in this case, reverting to Clinton-era tax levels for the most fortunate Americans — read: much of the Aspen crowd — was not to be heard.

In retrospect, I figured I must have been dreaming. None of this could have been said at Aspen. This is, after all, not just a well-heeled and well-traveled crowd, but also generally a quite liberal crowd. In the end, I put it down to a severe case of a bad midsummer’s midday dream, probably owing to the lingering effects of my jet lag.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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