Friday, August 17, 2012
Thomas Edsall has reviewed a new book by noted economist Joseph Stiglitz entitled The Price of Inequality.
The book is, in Edsall’s opinion, “the single most comprehensive counterargument to both Democratic neoliberalism and Republican laissez-faire theories”. And there is much justification for that assessment.
But it’s also not the key to what has happened to Us that has led – to use Edsall’s term – to “our bleak present”.
Stiglitz – and rightly, I think – refuses to accept the very widespread professional economist’s view that Our current mess is and always has been “inevitable”, i.e. that megaforces both historical and economic have simply dethroned the U.S. from its postwar (1945-1970) economic hegemony of the planet, and thus that “our bleak present” is simply the result of all those forces (globalization, automation, the easy movement of capital and goods around the planet) working on Us and working through the rest of the economies on the planet.
And Stiglitz is surely correct to reject the “inevitability” of the Bubbles (credit, mortgages) that – finally in 2008 – burst and tore the bottom out of everybody’s boat. (The remaining two Bubbles – U.S. government solvency and the status of the Dollar as the world’s reserve currency - still have not burst, although the bankruptcy of an increasing number of American municipalities and towns is ominous in that regard, as are the increasing number of arrangements among governments in various around the planet to trade among themselves in currencies other than the Dollar).
But I can’t completely agree with Stiglitz’s conclusions: that while what has happened to Us is not and cannot be ascribable merely to “uncontrollable technological and social change”, but rather Our current “two-tier society” is “the result of the exercise of political power by moneyed interests over legislative and regulatory processing”.
This shades too closely, I would say, to being merely a repetition of the dynamical explanation classically assigned to the First Gilded Age (1880-1929, roughly).
“Politics shapes the market” as well as historical and economic forces, says Stiglitz. Yes. But that’s precisely where things have gone off the track, and while the bad Consequences of much of that political maneuvering may not have been foreseen (I said “may not”) yet they were not considered with sufficient seriousness, so eager was the Beltway to run a very dodgy and certainly highly-fraught political strategy to ensure electoral viability since at least 1972.
As I have often said on this site, the Democrats in the period 1965-1972 were first and foremost concerned for developing some reliable electoral coalition of voters to replace the New Deal coalition of Southern (and Jim Crow) interests and the blue-collar industrial workers in the Northern and upper Mid-Western cities.
With an impressive practicality, the Dems worked with the materials at hand. But they were unable to keep steady on the surf board as the Wave began to take some very very torturous twists. Advocacy for American blacks had with an alarming quickness dropped Martin Luther King’s marvelous, sober, and almost Lincolnesque vision of blacks joining the mainstream of American life through the liberation from the constraints of Jim Crow (the stunning counterpoint of the Watts riots took place within ten days of the passage of LBJ’s Voting Rights Act of 1965, fatally hampering his ability – as that President realized instantly at the time – to get any further major ‘civil-rights’ legislation passed). Replacing King’s vision was a congeries of black separatism, anti-white sensibility, and even ‘revolutionary’ agitation that deranged even so seemingly worthwhile an impetus as the emphasis on Black Pride.
But the Dems tried to work with what they had, vowing to put the full weight and force of the government behind a now-urgently-needed new ‘demographic’.
But the profound problem – in view of the Constitutional and Framing Vision – was that while the Jim Crow South had comprised a matrix of many (Southern) States’ unconstitutional race laws, which clearly could be overridden by the Federal government, yet this was not true of other regions of the country.
And even in the South, there remained the ominous Question: once the Federal government had forced the abolition of those matrices of race-laws, precisely how much further could it go without deranging the entire balance of power (Federal vis-à-vis State and local government) and engorging itself vastly in relation to government’s role in regard to not only political but cultural and social dynamics? Was the Federal government really designed and authorized to terraform the Southern culture and society, rather than merely ensure that the matrix of laws in regard to racial relations was made conformable to the Constitution? Would that not simultaneously engorge the government and set it on a dangerously slippery slope?
This Question became even more vital – and, alas, thus also even more un-disussable – as the civil-rights movement entered a second phase (i.e. beyond King’s first phase) not only in the South but in the rest of the country. Which immediately complicated matters even more because there were no matrices of overt and clear Jim-Crow-type race laws in the rest of the country that would justify the engorged and active power (such as it might or might not legitimately be) of the Federal government to start terraforming not simply the Southern Jim-Crow culture and society but the national culture and society.
At this juncture, postwar French and German (the Frankfurt School, as it is known) thought became useful. There are ‘structures’ in societies, cultures and civilizations; these structures work at profoundly deep levels to accustom their peoples to see as ‘natural’ many inequalities and injustices (a stunningly complex and yet vague concept, an empty suitcase waiting to be filled by whomever gets to it first); these deep and preconscious forces exercise a profound and powerful formative influence before the conscious thought and will of individuals and even the formally-embraced principles of a society and culture come into play; thus conventional (and traditional) political activity enters the picture far too late to really have any worthwhile effect because by the time people are ready to exercise Citizenship they are already mal-formed and tainted; and so clearly the government (European revolutionary thought is inevitably statist in this regard ,even when it seeks to be ‘revolutionary’ – it doesn’t seek to simply overthrow government but to capture it and, more specifically, its power and its capacity for expanding that power) must actually take it upon itself to profoundly run the society, the culture, and the people (which is hell-and-gone from the Framing Vision).
These ideas were developed partly by European writers critiquing ‘colonialism’, which was still alive (barely) and kicking after World War Two, and partly by transplanted German and other European writers who had spent their formative or early-adult years under Hitler, had escaped in the 1930s or after the war and come here, and now hit the nails that their hammers required: the U.S. was in its own way also a ‘regime’ and demonstrated the power-patterns so monstrously demonstrated by Hitler’s Reich. And consequently, but of course, steps have to be taken …
And, of course, there were also numerous intellectuals – native-born or otherwise – who still thought that Communism – Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, or a misch of all of them – was The Way Forward for the world and its peoples.
The Dems may not have wanted to be seen embracing such an alien (and, in truth, profoundly anti-American and anti-Framing Vision) set of dampdreams, but they were desperate. Perhaps they might ‘baptize’ all the whackness while taking political advantage of the remarkably broad menu of (statist) possibilities that was on offer in this panoply of concepts? Perhaps they could graft some of the body-parts of the European Frankenstein onto the (apparently diseased) American body politic?
And thus the Dems could somehow both create a new demographic for themselves (the American blacks) while also hugely engorging the power of the Federal government to terraform the country’s culture and society in order to give this newly-‘empowered’ demographic everything its self-proclaimed ‘official advocates’ desired and demanded.
Thus the American Federal government would start down the road of so many European governments: actively arrogating to itself the power to not merely tinker-with but to profoundly Shape and re-Shape the minds and hearts, the thoughts and feelings, of its own Citizens – who in the Constitutional and Framing Vision were The People, and who, acting in their collective capacity as The People, were the governors of their own government and the sole and indispensable source of its Sovereign authority … and legitimacy.
You can see the problems here.
And then it dawned on the Dems that even at their most numerous, their newly-valorized ‘black’ demographic would only constitute nine percent of the population.
Thus baffled once again, the Dems were obviously going to be open to any ‘solution’ pushed their way.
Feminism – most especially in its Radical variants, shrewdly enamored of European and Euro-communist and structuralist thinking – offered the jaw-dropping potential of a full fifty-one or fifty-two percent of the population. This was a demographic to be sought at all costs and in the service of whose agendas the pols would have to ‘do whatever it takes’.
It has taken quite a lot.
Especially when the Radical Feminists kicked their more moderate sistern to the curb and then (without too much messy attribution) shrewdly and slyly adopted the culture-war, culture-undermining strategy of early 20th-century Italian communist thinker Antonio Gramsci. And his signature concerns were: hegemony, dominance, oppression, and marginalization; his objective: to bring the marginalized into the center (of political power, not of any moderate centrist political praxis) and thus undermine the functioning democratic polities of the West and open the path for Lenin’s version of communism.
The Dems figured they could baptize this into the American Vision and in their lab on the Hill create some fresh new creature that would combine all the best of Gramscian and Framing thought (with the indubitable emphasis, of course, on their clients’ Gramscian bits).
Thus in a stroke the Dems a) ensured their political ‘success’, b) engorged the statist power of the Federal government, c) conceptually doubled the workforce at a stroke (women needed jobs to be ‘independent’ and shouldn’t have to spend their lives enserfed to families and raising kids and having happiness-obstructing babies), and d) ignited a profound culture-war (spun as merely backlashing by traditional power-holders who didn’t want to share power) that then also e) served to distract national attention from the hugely vital and increasingly urgent Question of how to remain a powerful and productive and solvent economy in the face of increasing competition from a Europe now recovered from World War Two’s devastation and a Third World now able to begin emulating the West and competing for production and business opportunities.
Quickly surfing in on the coat-tails of ‘structuralism’ came Victimism. This was an international movement that had begun in the immediate postwar era, concerned for the innumerably and monstrously demonstrated ways that people could be victimized by their own governments.
It quickly went viral here, under the eager horticultural ministering of the pols. And mutated ominously: now ‘victims’ were not ‘victimized’ by their governments, but rather by the structures in their culture and their society that ‘marginalized’ as well as ‘victimized’ them. A Problem for which the government would, in the engorged plentitude of its power, ride to their rescue, as if it were saving baby harp seals from evil predatory hunters (formerly known as the Citizenry, now cast as the ‘dominant, oppressive, hegemonic, marginalizing and backlashing’ evil power-holders).
Additional Identities were quickly embraced: Youth being one of the largest (the Boomers clearly constituted a seductively huge demographic and 18 year-olds were given the vote in 1972).
Immigrants were another: and a neat two-fer, since you imported a vast amount of ready-made non-White Oppressor folks who would vote (somehow) against all the ‘traditional’ arrangements while also undermining the well-paid status of unionized blue-collar American labor (the iconic Archie Bunkers who were destined now for the trash-bin of America’s History).
And if you added up all the Identities, and their inevitable Necessary Oppressor-Monsters, you got an amalgam that could be handily described as the White, Adult, Patriarchal, Sex-crazed (and later Straight) Male, especially if he was Middle-Class or Working-Class; and thus conversely you got a Victimry (if I may) comprised of everybody who, in whole or in part, was not that.
The problems this ‘strategy’ posed for a democratic politics along the lines of the Framing Vision should have been as clear as a fire in an oil refinery, but while the flames were acknowledged, they were cheeribly asserted to be merely ‘creative destruction’ and ‘liberating transgression’.
The Dems worked overtime in the lab up in the castle on the Hill. By the presidential election of 1972 they were ready to unveil their new Party to The People. They were rejected 49 states to one (Teddy K’s Massachusetts). And then they got really dark. And decided that ‘traditional’ democratic politics were not The Way Forward.
Meanwhile, watching the Dems fabricate a new Leviatha, the Republicans decided it was OK for them to bring back Leviathan – that monstrously engorged and omnivorous government that had been caged so ably by the Framers, and locked-lips with the Big Money interests.
This wasn’t such a big problem for the Dems, since now both Parties were somehow indenturing themselves to not only their ‘special interests’ (Identity-politics demands and Big Pain on the Left, Big Money on the Right) but also to the Very Very Big Government necessary to ensure that all the agendas, objectives, and demands of the various ‘special interests’ could be met.
And as Theodore Lowi observed as early as 1967, the government had now solved the Problem of not-wanting to appear ‘coercive’ in the immediate postwar era by allowing the ‘special interests’ of that era – mostly Labor, Business, and Agriculture – to write their own laws, which the pols would dutifully pass, or their own regulations – the authority for which the pols ‘delegated’ to an increasing pandemonium of all-powerful regulatory Agencies. Which, I would then add, was a dynamic monstrously engorged when the ‘special interests’ were astronomically expanded to include the various Identities of the Left and all their demands and their agendas and their objectives.
Meanwhile, the economy – and especially the Dollar – was in as much trouble as were the Culture and the Framing Vision. Nixon had to abrogate the 1946 Bretton Woods international financial arrangements and float the Dollar in 1971. And nothing really worked right after that.
The Identities demanded all sorts of regulation and policy and legislative ‘reforms’ that made hiring and keeping employees increasingly onerous for employers large and small. Big Money and Big Capital sensed that there were far less complicated sources of labor overseas. The solution for the Beltway (now in a condition of abject but robust Indenture): make American employees increasingly unattractive through various ‘protections’(ensuring continued domestic political ‘success’) while simultaneously allowing Capital and Production to go overseas (thus ensuring the satisfaction of Big Money and Investment Capital).
Genuine domestic Productivity dropped at intensifying rates.
The solution deviesd to handle that was to create government jobs wherever possible; although government employment beyond a certain point is not useful economically because it doesn’t create produced-materials for sale but rather simply re-shuffles (and redistributes) public tax monies like the peanut in the proverbial shell game. And to create an increasing panoply of ‘entitlements’ (so many people were ‘victims’ and were being ‘structurally victimized', no?).
And in addition to all that, the intensifying sense of ‘entitlement’ – coupled with the increasingly unreal environment of a national life that offered few constructive employment opportunities for the enterprising or the simply dutiful and responsible – did nothing to improve many folks’ sense of personal industriousness, productivity, and even responsibility (which was itself kicked to the curb as being ‘oppressive’ and 'blaming the victim').
Meanwhile, and especially as actual Production declined, the actual management of Big Money (the so called F.I.R.E interests: finance, insurance, real estate) actually became the primary sources of such wealth-generation as remained, and they had their own agendas and objectives which the government (Executive as well as Legislative) could no longer ignore … or even control: as regulations increased in the service of the Left, they were increasingly removed in the service of the Right and Big Money.
And this led to an intensifying downward spiral of smoke-and-mirror shows to try to keep up everybody’s confidence in the health and wealth of the financial system and the economy: there was borrowing on the authority of America’s (former) economic strength and hegemony – in Reagan’s second administration the U.S. went for the first time ever from being a creditor-nation to being a debtor-nation); diversification (corporations that made machinery getting into cookie-manufacturing and such); and hostile-take-overs (to simply lay off workers, drive up the stock price of the acquired business and then sell it to whomever at a profit, where the process would be repeated); out-sourcing (the jobs going overseas); off-shoring (not only the jobs but the taxable profits going to the host country); and then finally a series of Bubbles (about which you probably already know).
And, of course, extensive and habitual government jiggering of official figures to make the whole thing look a lot less bad than it was quickly becoming; while simultaneously everything was being spun as ‘liberating’ and proof that you can have ‘many revolutions at the same time’, kill the Goose that laid the Golden Egg, and still keep up the world’s greatest supply of Golden Eggs.
And then – even more ominously – as the tricks finally ran out, there was a lethal turn to overseas military (mis-)adventure to Go Out And Grab (GOAG) other people’s stuff. Which was cheeribly and nobly spun as ‘liberation and thus We embraced the national strategy of Go Out And Liberate And Grab (GOALAG), using – marvelously – the well-entrenched domestic trope of ‘sensitive’ Liberation to justify ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the regime-changing of whatever governments had lots of useful resources and couldn’t fight back and had – by whatever standard was convenient to the case – an ‘oppressive’ government. (And of course, if you’re talking about ‘women’ being ‘oppressed’, then just about any other government on the planet could easily be placed on the List.)
And yet these military (mis-)adventures cost the lion’s share of whatever actual national wealth remained and required a huge investment in the Pentagon operations.
(I pass over in silence the huge costs to military operation efficiency imposed by the various Politically Correct impositions on the military, and the catastrophic ill-consequences to the fighting forces of not only those impositions, but then the experience of fighting un-winnable military operations for years on end. We had been assured in the 1990s that with the USSR gone We would have no peer-competitor in a military sense and that thus We could afford to 'de-prioritize' military operational efficiency and competence, and then that It Doesn’t Make Any Difference Anyway because computers and whizz-bang technology would win all the wars and operations. And has any of that been working for Us?)
So then, I don’t think Stiglitz gets to the heart of the matter by blaming everything on the Right and the rich – who, admittedly, are now a ‘top-tier’ that approaches the obscenities of the First Gilded Age, but at least back then We were a rising nation whose potentials had not been fully tapped … which isn’t the case any longer. Not hardly.
And thus too, “inequality” is not the heart of the Problem now: just as the inequality of passenger classes on Titanic was not the core Problem facing those hapless souls after she ripped herself open like a tuna can on the berg.
If for no other reason, there really isn’t any money left to ‘equalize’ people; even if you took all the billions personally owned by the ‘top-tier’ tomorrow and ‘redistributed’ it (the Big Lie seduction of the past 40 Biblical years of the Left’s magic-act) you wouldn’t begin to make a dent.
People need not only to ‘earn’ money, but they need to feel like they are earning it through a useful and productive job: otherwise you don’t create Citizens but only unripe and (dependably ) dependent ‘clients’, like the masses of ancient Rome (and Czarist Russia’s serfs and proletariat). No democratic and Constitutional republic can survive if it has to rely on material like that. As you perhaps have begun to see.
Thus also I can’t fully credit that assertion that “inequality violates moral values [and] … also interacts with a money-driven political system to grant excessive power to the most affluent”.
In the first place, it hasn’t been just “money” that has been driving the political system for the past 40 Biblical years – it has been the agendas of the ‘special interests’ and organized Advocacies of the Left’s Identity-Politics, whose lethally deforming influence has been exercised not through political contributions of cash but through the power of votes – votes ‘bought’ with the various schemes and stratagems of their pandering patrons in the Beltway.
Face it: individual ‘votes’ that have been ‘bought’ with the deliberately un-boundaried largesse of public tax monies are as lethally deranging to the American Vision’s political dynamics as legislative votes bought with corporate cash.
And face this: “dominant interests” cannot accurately be defined today as merely the old bugaboo ‘special interests’ of the First Gilded Age. Today’s dominant interests include those on the Left, through Identity-Politics and the whole of that lethally misguided strategy.
If Big Money has “captured” regulatory authorities and legislators, so has Big Identity – and if either of them are cause for serious concern, then both of them working in tandem are cause for the most vital and profound public alarm.
Nor is it enough for Stiglitz to lament – accurately enough as far as it goes – that “lack of opportunity” means that the nation’s “most valuable asset – its people – is not being fully used”.
Decades of the government operating as a snow-plow of first-resort to clear the paths of Life that human beings vitally and profoundly need to feel they have cleared for themselves have worked a horrible and soul-stifling corrosion, as any sense of personal or communal enterprise and responsibility were baffled and choked away.
Nor is it completely relevant – although hardly inaccurate – for Stiglitz to observe that “the rich”, needing fewer “public services”, don’t want to pay for any. The rich need fire and police and highway maintenance just like everybody else.
What’s more accurate is to acknowledge that what is nowadays meant by “public services” is hell-and-gone beyond what that term has usually meant in prior eras of American history: that term now means the entire panoply of government largely and literally substituting itself for both individual maturity and enterprise and effort and local community concern and effort, and the ever-increasing pandemonium of ‘service providers’ that battens off the whole thing.
We have replaced the fiber and capacities of individual human beings and communities, of Citizens and their locally-administered polities, with blanket government imposition of tax monies in the service of political convenience. And – who can be surprised? – the more that such a dynamic undermines the competence of individuals and communities, the more We ‘need’ the ever-engorging Feds and their government impositions. We are well on the way to becoming soup-rabbits, caged in iron or velvet, awaiting the Call to the Cook-Pot.
This is the genuine fons et origo of Our intensifying and expanding en-serfment, which is now no longer merely political (as if that weren’t bad enough) but morale (used as an adjective here; ‘moral’ has too many religious connotations, which are not inapt but in this context, I think, distracting).
Avoiding that reality will do Us no more good than having another glass of champagne or a quick shot of rot-gut or moving queasily aft toward the still-dry fantail appeared as a good idea to the hapless and doomed souls aboard Titanic.
We approach – by coincidence – the 46th anniversary (August 20, 1966) of Mao’s kick-off of the Cultural Revolution with the campaign against “the Four Olds”: old Stories, old Customs, old Habits, old Ideas. That ‘Revolution’ – as revolutions so often do because that’s what revolutions do – wrecked so much of the matrix and fabric of Chinese history and culture that almost half a century later China is still trying to repair what damage can be repaired.
It is, however, more than a coincidence that at precisely that point in time the Dems began to consider doing the same thing here. Because if the demands and agendas of its soon-to-be-embraced Identities and Advocacies were to be met, then huge and deeply-laid chunks of American Tradition, Culture, Belief, and Ideas would have to be ripped out and tossed away – under whatever ‘philosophical’ or legal or political pretexts could be devised.
Neatly, the Advocacies pushed a whizzbang New Idea their way: if you call all of our demands and agendas “rights”, then you pols won’t have to worry about trying to explain anything or persuade the Citizenry – you can just claim that this is ‘a matter of rights’ and so you don’t have any choice but to give in and rip out the Old; you’ll be covered by the hallowed American respect for “rights’ so you won’t even have to do much heavy political lifting.
The Supreme Court had already beaten Mao to the punch – without perhaps quite realizing it – when in 1965 it declared that it had found more “rights” in “the penumbras of the Constitution”, which is to say, in the shadows and darkling historical and conceptual fog surrounding the actual document that the Framers wrote … where nobody had seen anything before. Neat.
Then the structuralists got into the act and claimed that since there were levels of ‘marginalization’ and ‘victimization’ so deep that nobody even realized they were there, then – but of course – all such marginalized and victimized persons (and groups and demographically valuable groups) must – but of course – have some “rights” that required the government to make all that marginalization and victimization go away. And the pols – and the Supreme Court – were happy to agree and comply.
And the victimists certainly agreed with all that.
And so did the Gramscian-soused ‘radical feminists’ and the Eurocommunist ‘radical democrats’ (who really had no use for ‘democracy’ or ‘deliberative democratic politics’ at all).
And lubricating the friction of the whole queasy and treacherous scheme was the general and specific frisson provided by Mao’s then-current and then-imagined ‘success’ in imposing and unleashing the Cultural Revolution against the Four Olds in Red China.
The Great Helmsman would rip out the framework of the hull while the Great Vessel, loaded to the gunwales with ‘souls’ trying to make it through Life, was far out on History’s sea, ploughing through the mountainous waves and the not-infrequent storms and typhoons of modern History.