Man walks into a column, no.39: Polar

True story: I have been stealing another man’s magazine subscription, for the last five years. The man: Charlie Diggle, the magazine: TIME. Mr Diggle (apparently his real name) was the previous owner of the flat we now call our home – a landlord, specifically – and each week, without fail, a new cellophane-wrapped parcel plops on the doormat.

One can only imagine Charlie was given the subscription as a gift from a friendly but remote aunt or uncle and that as far as they’re concerned their nephew is still very grateful. Or perhaps the $30 annual subscription is simply beneath Mr Diggle’s banking radar. In any case: I am the sole beneficiary of Uncle Diggle’s largesse/Charlie’s louche lifestyle.

TIME is, I feel, rather overlooked on this side of the pond. The first weekly news magazine in the US, and still the most widely read – in the western world at least – the quality of the writing is consistently high, and the coverage of US politics in particular is often just as insightful as anything you’ll find in the Washington Post or the New York Times.

And yet TIME seems to only be cited in the British media (mainstream and social alike) when there’s someone interesting on the cover. Mark Zuckerberg, say (Person of the Year 2010), or Jonathan Franzen (Great American Novelist). Perhaps it’s latent anti-Americanism, or at least anti-populist-Americanism: if 20 million yanks read it, it must be beneath us.

As evidence to counter this glib cultural imperialism, I offer two interesting insights from the latest slim red-rimmed volume to wing its way to me. (As if to emphasise the magnitude of my crime, I’m afraid to say neither of these pieces are openly online – they seem to move into ‘subscriber only’ territory after a week.)

First, the ever-excellent Joe Klein – he of Primary Colours fame – currently on a road trip through the states likely to form the chief battleground for the 2012 presidential election. Klein contrasts the vitriol of a typical Tea Party caller to a radio talkshow (‘I would vote for Charles Manson before [Obama]’) with the ‘non-stop civility’ our correspondent has encountered from all points on the political spectrum during the three weeks of his trip to date.

The polarisation of political debate is leaving the moderate middle appalled, Klein suggests. As evidence he quotes a moderate Republican – typical in his views, we’re told – who says:

It seems to me the President is trying to do the right thing on a lot of these issues, but his hands are tied by Congress. And I guess the most disturbing thing is that people like us aren’t speaking up. We’re letting the extremists do the yakking.

Klein thinks the vast majority are ‘sick to death’ of politicians who ‘play to the rant’, but that leaders of both main US parties have no choice because of the need to finance expensive campaigns (the logical extension, one would assume, being that the most giving are likely to be more extreme).

Which brings me onto the second of my TIME morsels: an article by Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The big question, Sachs thinks, is whether the scale of the ongoing financial crisis will have a similar effect as the Great Depression, in jolting the US out of a period of eye-wateringly high inequality. For the first time since 1929 the top one per cent of households in the States take almost a quarter of all household income.

In the twenties this inequality was caused by a combination of the Wall Street financial boom creating wealth at the top, and mass immigration keeping the bottom very low indeed. The more recent slide towards inequality is, in Sachs’ analysis, down to the skills of US workers failing to keep pace with the need to add value (in an industrial sense) to match the wages demanded, meaning companies cannot compete against cheap foreign labour.

What America needs, says Sachs, and it’s hard to argue, is a grown-up conversation about how to fund future competitiveness, rather than the current mud-slinging. The problem is, of course, how such a conversation can be even conceived of when US politics is as polarised as its society.

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