About 99 percent of us have that sinking feelingPosted: January 23, 2011 | |
You know me and my wonky graphs. You also know I blog a lot about rising income inequality and that I think it’s a huge problem. So, this MOJO Power graph and the article it came with piqued my curiosity. It’s from an article by Kevin Drum writing on a Timothy B Lee blogpost on the preemption of ‘genuine left wing voices’ by libertarians. I’m not sure how libertarians could be confused for moderates, liberals or lefties but given that establishment conservatives have an orthodoxy so tight that few fit, I suppose everything else gets to wear the liberal label. But, maybe there’s more to it than that.
We talked about this a little on a thread yesterday. Both Ariana Huffington and Kos used to be Republicans. They left the party when the religious right took over and because, frankly, I don’t think they like the fact that so many blue collar Reagan Democrats had just up and joined their old country club. There’s also the odd phenomenon of tea party populists that don’t seem to know where they are or where they belong either. We’ve seen how a lot of these folks have made their way into policy circles through their support or their horror of the current administration so I think it’s worth viewing three blog writers on that topic. Why are so many people confused about their political identity any more?
Libertarian ‘insight’ used to the butt of jokes at academic cocktail parties where you discussed Utopian moonbattery and even worse fiction. Now there seems to be an industry around producing what they call journals, institutions, and philosophy that is some how running loose in mainstream conversations demanding to be taken seriously. It’s hard to do that because they don’t associate with data and they seem to thrive on passing memes that have no basis in reality. (The ones on the FED just kill me.) They’re in the tea party, they’re all for Rand and Ron Paul, and yet, some of them have made their way to the liberal blogosphere. What’s going on? Plus, what’s the deal with all these solid working class–in some cases UNION folks–heading to tea party rallies? Haven’t they ever heard of Dick Armey?
Drum shows how the worst of the libertarian assumptions they hold up as facts just don’t hold up to the light of day. He starts with a shared assumption from the right wing and libertarians as described by Will Wilkinson. This meme is the mild form libertarianism from the Hayek-Friedman sect.
It’s best to just maximize growth rates, pre-tax distribution be damned, and then fund wicked-good social insurance with huge revenues from an optimal tax scheme.
We’ve got scads of data that show this meme to be a completely false assumption. We’d have a better economy right now if that were true. In fact, the only time we had a decent economy in recent history was when that particular assumption was rolled back during the Clinton years. But, don’t take it from me, read what Kevin Drum has to say. Those assumptions are very wrong.
First, it contains an implicit conviction that libertarian notions of tax and regulatory structures will maximize growth rates. This is practically an article of faith on the right, but there’s virtually no empirical evidence to support it. As it happens, I’d argue that my preferred brand of the modern mixed economy is, on the whole, probably more efficient than a stripped down libertarian state, even one that includes lots of centrally-directed income redistribution. But not by much. Personally, I’d be pretty happy if both sides accepted the notion that within a fairly wide range of modern capitalist systems — from Sweden to the U.S., say — overall growth rates change very little. For the most part, we’re really arguing about other things.
Second, I suspect there’s no feasible path to Will’s state of the world. The problem is that a system that generates enormous income inequality also generates enormous power inequality — and if corporations and the rich are allowed to amass huge amounts of economic power, they’ll always use that power to keep their own tax rates low. It’s nearly impossible to create a high-tax/high-service state if your starting point is a near oligarchy where the rich control the levers of political power.
Third, look at the graph. We’ve had this trickle up to the one percent form of economic nonsense since the Reagan years and all it’s done is made things radically worse. It’s led to this situation where the supply side of the curve completely craps all over the demand side of the curve in product markets. The outright hostility to unions and the abuse and disempowerment of human beings–not human “capital”–have completely shifted income levels and underlying market power to some place where you truly think you’d see some kind of general revolt, strike, or overthrow.
It should be patently obvious now that Wall Street has recovered, bonuses have recovered, and corporate profits have recovered while any one not up at the top of that racket can hardly survive these days. The unemployment rate, the numbers of foreclosures, and the numbers of bankruptcies are tips of the icebergs. We’re not going to see growth rates of GDP that will clear that up too. More frightening is that the powers that be don’t seem to even fake caring.
When you point all these things out to libertarians, they’ll shift the ground on you and say point me where it says in the constitution and mutter something about Wilson and the imperial presidency. This is the place where they firmly intersect the right wing. Look, Wilson is dead. The Bush legacy lives and the Obama legacy is still being written. Still, some of them have crept over and become neoliberals and identified with the left. Why?
Lee talks about classic Liberalism and then states Matt Yglesias has been labeled a leftie when in fact, he’s a libertarian that supports many of what used to be mainstream republican talking points. Lee also looks at the classical ideal of liberalism.
Matt lists 10 economic policy goals that he favors. What’s striking about the list is that about half of them are straight-up libertarianism (less occupational licensure, fewer subsidies for suburbanism) and there’s only one item on the list (“more redistribution of money from the top to the bottom”) that Milton Friedman would have strongly opposed. One way to interpret this is to say that Matt is a moderate libertarian with a redistributionist streak, but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. Rather, what’s happened is that liberalism in general has internalized key libertarian critiques of earlier iterations of liberal thought, with the result that a guy with a largely Friedmanite policy agenda can plausibly call himself a liberal. And actually, this shouldn’t surprise us at all, because Friedman called himself a liberal too.
Liberalism in the 19th century focused on opposing concentrated power and entrenched privilege, whether it was monarchy, slaveholding, or protectionism. In the 20th century, the American left became infatuated with concentrating power in the hands of democratically-elected governments. The libertarian movement arose to counter this trend and defend the original, bottom-up conception of liberalism. Since the fall of communism, the left has largely (though not entirely) backed away from its 20th century infatuation with central planning. And the result is what critics call “neoliberalism”: a left-of-center ideology whose egalitarianism is balanced by a healthy skepticism of concentrated power.
Wilkison lists these things as libertarian talking points.
- Democracy sucks.
- Unions hurt more than they help.
- Campaign spending is political speech.
- Economic inequality does not undermine democracy or democracy’s role in establishing and protecting equal liberty.
- Economic rights are as important as political and civil rights, and should be just as vigilantly protected, even if that leads to huge inequalities, which do not, by the way, threaten democracy or the value of political and civil rights.
- Taxation is coercive but imprisoning the guy who nicked your lawn gnome isn’t.
Lee suggests that the true mark of a liberal is to show “fealty to labor unions, big government, and the dictatorship of the proletariat”. That is just plain weird too. What is even weirder, is I think all of these people are arguing that they are ‘the mainstream.’ I don’t think any one knows what mainstream is any more. Hell, Nixon was more liberal than most of the Republicans walking around these days.
So, speaking of things slightly past the Nixon years, I decided to take a trip back in time to the late 70s when I was minoring in Political Science and was handed The American Political Dictionary. Their most basic definition for Liberalism is
A political view that seeks to change the political, economic, and social status quo to foster the development of the individual. Liberals regard man as a rational creature who can use his intelligence to overcome human and natural obstacles to a good life for all without restoring to violence against the established order. Liberalism is more concerned with process, with the method of solving problems, than with a specific program
They also discuss the difference between 18th and 19th century liberals who emphasized the full development of the individual, free from the restrains of government, and 20th century liberals who look to government as a means of correcting the abuses and shortcomings of society. Libertarians and Randians didn’t even make the book. The closest definition I can find is that of Individualism which basically promotes the well being of the individual over those of a group, society or nation. It’s considered an offspring of laissez-faire economics and was introduced by de Tocqueville. It stands in contrast to collectivism. Many rightists groups fall into this category although the rightists also believe in a strong executive power.
Leftists advocate expanded roles by democratic governments that empower the masses. These are people that generally support the welfare state and collectivism. Leftists advocate governmental action to correct injustices. They support modification of capitalism and political democracy. This last discussion basically ignores the radicals in both the left and the right that advocate violence and support revolutions that usually wind up with dictatorships. I’m still operating under the assumption that only a few kooks in the tea party want to really take up arms. I’m also fairly sure there are few, if any, revolutionary Marxists in the US any more.
I took one more look in the political ideology section for Conservatives. This book relies on the classic definition given by Edmund Burke who thought that political stability could be maintained only if changes were made at a glacial pace. The first line of the discussion is this:
Defense of the status quo against major changes in the political, economic, or social institutions of society.
A lot of water has gone under a lot of bridges since Burke uttered his sensibilities. Conservatives today aren’t about gradual change at all and they hate the status quo. I notice that in my old text book they also said this about Conservatism.
Today, in American politics, the term “conservative'” has no precise meaning and is often used accusatorially against a rival party or candidate.
The world seems upside down in more ways than one as I’d insert the world liberal for the word conservative today. They did mention the main issues, however, which are still pretty consistent. Those would be “opposed to government regulation of the economy and civil rights legislation, and in favor of state over federal action, fiscal responsibility, decreased government spending, and lower taxes.” The deal is they may say these things, but as we know, they don’t do them. Deficits only matter when they come from spending not tax cuts, for example.
So, is Lee’s critique close to finding the truth of this messing up of political ideologies? I’d say not really. First, the left has never been a fan of ‘central’ planning. If anything, ‘central planning’ is a right wing concept. It strikes me as being more in the fascist column with Mussolini. There are two choices when you have a natural monopoly or a good or service that is mostly produced for the public interest. You can hand it over to private sources that operate on a for profit basis and then decide how much you intend to regulate or watch them or you can hand it over to a public entity. It’s a matter of who you trust to be least corrupted or corruptible.
Liberals have generally felt that the federal government is the least corruptible which is why they’ve relied on it to do things like desegregate schools or regulate acceptable levels of carbon emissions. This imbalance of power is what is central in “Power, Baby, Power” written about by Drum. He says that Unions used to check the private sector and they are what is missing in that equation. The Federal Government used to check them too. They’ve gone missing in the equation too.
Any particular institution that gets too much power in a situation is going to abuse it and that’s why our little libertarian friends just might be canaries in the coal mine. They can’t decide if they want to join the lefties or the righties. They’re confused. The power equation isn’t what it used to be. They want to rail against Wilson and FDR but deep down there’s something more disturbing in the force. That’s also why many of us ‘disaffected’ democrats don’t know what to do either. We’ve generally looked to Democratic leaderships and administrations to fight for the greater good. We now have one that seems hell bent on doing the opposite. Hence, some are drawn to populist speak from the right.
With the Soviet system, the corrupt power was the political party itself. With the current Russian system, it’s some of that left over party apparatus plus a completely new group of capitalist criminals let lose in the private sector. In the United States, corporate power is on the rise and it’s pretty much unchecked these days by anything. It pervades everything. There are no labor unions to check it in the labor market. The political system has become so tied up in money donations that nearly all politicians have been co-opted. The Judiciary has now been over run by judges who are blatantly empowering corporate institutions and state/federal executive power. Just look at Justice Thomas who thinks he’s so above the law he can ditch on reporting his conflict of interests. Don’t forget, just a few short years ago SCOTUS presumed to decide who would be president rather than count votes cast by voters.
This is a huge problem and maybe it’s why libertarians are so schizophrenic these days. That’s why they’re half in the Republican camp and invading the Democratic camp in the form of “neoliberals”. That doesn’t make their notions any more relevant because a lot them are still discuss things like rolling back institutions like the FED or getting rid of various illegitimately enacted constitutional amendments. Oh, and they hate FDR and they hate Wilson, and they hate everything and everybody since some where around the Civil War. They’re like Marxists waiting for the proletariat to rise up.
But this might be what’s sending them all over the place like those poor redwing black birds shocked by fireworks dropping out of the sky. Where’s the centralized power these days? Where’s the folks to distrust? The centralization of power comes from the one percent up there and its every where and its unchecked now. There’s no powerful unions. There’s no one politician willing to stand firm for any of the New Deal policies. The decay is everywhere.
See that graph up there? Since 1980, the majority of growth in wealth has gone to that top one percent who have concentrated their power by buying laws, elections, politicians and judges. It represents people like the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch who have spent decades now consolidating their little plutocratic grasp. The rest of the folks just care about removing the obstacles to the really big profits; including the human ones. That’s where the mash up of philosophies has to come together if we’re going to maintain any semblance of a Republic or a Democracy.
That much wealth and that much power can’t be concentrated into such a small number of hands that have very little concern about the good of any one but them and theirs. They are buying elections. They are buying the media outlets. They’re consolidating things faster now than ever before and getting away with it. There’s no one minding the Sherman Anti Trust law anymore. Watch the SOTU. Watch the new president mouth their words. Too much regulation. Too many corporate taxes. More competitiveness. More “free” trade.
Kevin Drum says that given the choice between higher taxes and passage of Employee Free Choice Act, they’d go for the taxes. Strong unions would check them. That’s somewhat the choice the plutocracy was given back in the FDR days when it was either a few deals like social security or the real chance that some real wobblies in real Marxist unions would lead a worker’s revolt. Fat chance of any us pigeons would do that now. We just live on the breadcrumbs and line up for the TSA body probes to be safe from ‘terrorism’. Oh, and we’re distracted by bread and circuses … football and chips.
What exactly do we have left to us? This is where I wish the libertarians would quit obsessing on Wilson, the FED, and FDR and the true right wing populists would realize that they are being taking for a ride by the Tea party funders. None of us has any power under this situation. Even gun toting righties are easy pickings for drones. You know, nice little surgical strikes without the weirdness of Waco fires or policemen beating up striking workers?
Is that why Beck is suddenly out for the blood of a 78 year old retired academic? Is it because they might actually fear a general strike? Has some puppetmaster pulled one of his strings to shut up any one that looks like their about to organize something unorchestrated by the spokesmodels of the one percent? I don’t know. All I know is that what we have here is the makings of a real serious predicament and I don’t know how it’s all going to end.