Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Critical Reform: Public Funding of Elections I

As we enter the final month or so of the election, it is good to think about the systemic problems we have with the way we choose our political leaders.  Widespread disgust with government has been with us since the 1970s when the legitimation crisis first appeared, with Congressional approval rating now at a pitiful 13.8%, and disapproval at nearly 80%.  I hear from people all the time that representatives just don’t do what’s right for the general public.  While conservatives think the system is distorted by those who they imagine to be the betrayers of America -- liberals, scientists, unions, immigrants, feminists, people of color, and the LGBT community -- a more reality-based view begins with the question, cui bono? Who benefits?  Who is it that gains the most from our current electoral system, as it actually functions (or more accurately, dysfunctions)?  

Given that middle- and working class incomes have stagnated since the early 1970s while the share of society’s commonly-created economic pie going to the wealthy has exploded, the obvious answer is that it is the wealthy few who are the main beneficiaries of the status quo.  Despite conservative attempts to divide and conquer the working class with culture wars, ultimately the main special interest group that a democracy should always vigilantly watch as a potential source of tyranny is the wealthy elite. 

While the United States (and other advanced societies) call themselves democracies and ideally believe themselves to be governed of, by, and for the people, the names of things do not always match reality.  We still retain some vestige of democratic control, in that the public when roused can slow the machinations of the 1% for a time.  But for all other practical purposes we are an oligarchy -- a government of, by, and for the wealthy few -- that keeps up the illusion and pretense of being a democracy.  We are in effect an oligarchy because most of the political decisions, large and small, are made by an elite corporate class.  

Friday, September 28, 2012

Lessons From the NFL Referee Lockout

The NFL’s professional referees were welcomed with cheers and applause when they returned to the field on Thursday, after the fiascos of last Sunday and Monday. Some lessons:

1. The NFL’s regular referees were taken for granted and much maligned, but the lockout showed how valuable they actually are to the game.  Lesson: we're all interconnected, and those who are invisible to us may be critical to running the show.
2. The referees are a key part of the “government” of the NFL; while the owners make the rules in concert with the NFL Competition Committee, the refs apply, interpret, and enforce those rules.  And we have learned from the lockout that good governance is important to the functioning of the NFL; perhaps we will learn that good governance is important to society as a whole, too.  
3. Like the referees, government is often taken for granted, but very valuable.  Unless you are paying attention, you don't see it when it does its job well and only notice it when it does its job poorly, as when it produces fiascos like Iraq, Katrina, or the Great Recession.  Those conservatives who would reflexively shrink government to a minimum, regardless of whether such shrinkage is good or bad for the public, are as wrongheaded and neglectful as the NFL owners were during the lockout.  Better to have some civic virtue and actually look to what is good for the polity, no matter what size of government it involves. 
4. The NFL owners “did not build that,” i.e. the National Football League.  The players and even the formerly-despised professional referees are the ones who actually make the game, and they have all together built the edifice of the NFL -- although the owners still exploit all for profit.  They should have been more willing to share the fruits of the common labor of all.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why Do Bad Economic Ideas Persist?

Protests have erupted in Greece and Spain over austerity measures, which are bound to keep those economies depressed far longer than a large Keynesian booster-shot of government spending would.  As liberal economists argue, as history shows, and as common sense indicates, cutting spending for the working class and taxes for the rentier class is not a recipe for economic strength. While Ireland and the other countries that have followed the austerity path are struggling -- and making their people miserable -- Iceland has maintained its social welfare spending, forgiven homeowner debt, and penalized those responsible for financial failure, and is consequently recovering well.

It seems that austerity it is a zombie idea that has to be continually beaten back, no matter how often it fails.  As the protests show, there is increasing resistance because more people know that austerity does not make an economy do what an economy is supposed to do -- meet the economic needs of people.  That increasing awareness is a good thing, even if a critical mass of protest, combined with organized politicking, doesn't exist yet to create real change.

Why do zombie ideas persist?  Not just austerity, but budget deficit obsession, the investor confidence fairy, radical privatization and deregulation, the welfare queen lie, Randian heroic businessman myths, or climate change denial?  Indeed, the whole Milton Friedman, trickle-down, neoliberal ideology has long been a failure as an economic model, producing fewer jobs, less economic growth, greater inequality, and worse social conditions than progressive social democracy; it should be a lifeless corpse by now, but it keeps crawling on like the undead.  For the last generation Europe, with its more expansive regulatory welfare state, better balance between private and public spheres, and strong labor unions, created healthier economies with strong middle classes and greater social mobility, while the United States underwent a middle-class squeeze.  But despite the success of the European model in raising the standards of living for regular people, now the economic crisis caused by neoliberalism is being used to undermine Europe’s social democracy and spread neoliberal austerity.  Why do these lousy ideas last? 

The answer is that it is in the interest of wealthy oligarchs to have these ideas remain widespread in society, and they have the means and power to keep reviving them and propagating them.  They can pay for think tanks, business schools, economics departments, television networks, radio empires, newspapers, journals, conferences, and advertising agencies that will find rationales for the ideas that maintain their profit privileges, no matter how often they fail.  Indeed, they keep all of civilization awash in these bad ideas such that they have become second nature to many people, especially the political-economic elites themselves. 

This opens up a whole host of interesting philosophical issues about capitalism's touchy relationship to evidence, standards of assessment and judgment: these things are valued only when they support profit, while deception, advertising, illusion, and propaganda are equally valued -- when they deliver profits too.  Facts don’t matter, money does.  This creates a whole alternative universe of neoliberal capitalist illusions, what Marx called "false consciousness."  But eventually these illusions and deceptions run up against the reality of a world that is quite different. 

 Zombie ideas live on after their shelf life because it is in the interest of the wealthy that they do so.  The first step in replacing them is to recognize that this is so; after that, one has to rely on deceptions eventually running aground on the shoals of reality, usually during crises.  The best thing to do is to prepare people for those moments of truth by persistently making good arguments to expose the illusions and to provide an alternative path, so that people will have somewhere to turn when the illusions collapse. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Conservative Hubris to be “Unleashed” to Win More Voters

There seems to be a congenital defect in the conservative psyche: they so strongly believe (despite the evidence) that they know best how to run an economy, and they so strongly believe that they have the true American values on their side, that they are convinced that voters will rush into their camp if they just clearly present their conservative ideology more loudly and clearly. They are the “real Americans,” after all, so why wouldn't America vote for them?  This sort of overconfidence and overreach was Newt Gingrich’s fatal flaw, and it looks like a similar hubris might be germinating in the Romney campaign.

As polls going into the final months show that President Obama has taken a small lead, the Romney campaign has set out to re-adjust its strategy in a more conservative direction.  All traditional indicators suggest that an economy this lousy would be bad news for an incumbent, but Mitt Romney’s continual gaffes (ultimately a product of his silver-spoon pedigree and his background as a corporate raider) have shown him to be out of touch.  Since he doesn’t understand regular people’s economic problems, enough distrust exists to negate some of the electoral advantage the bad economy would give him.  So it’s not surprising that the Republican party would adopt a new strategy that emphasizes conservative social issues.  

“No one in Boston thinks this can only be about the economy anymore,” one top aide said last week. “The economy narrows the gap and puts us in contention, but we have to bring more to the table.”

The core factor in the search for a new message, aides say privately, was the August jobs report. The anemic job growth was widely viewed as bad news for Obama even as the unemployment rate dropped due to people leaving the workforce. But the national shrug confirmed Romney campaign concerns that the most visible economic indicator would remain muddled through Election Day.

[Vice Presidential candidate Paul] Ryan himself has emerged as a central player in this calculation, making the case internally for a clearer conservative policy message. One high level Republican with ties to the campaign told BuzzFeed that Ryan was chaffing at Boston constraining him from talking about and defending his policy ideas from Democratic attacks. Ryan wanted to be "unleashed," the Republican said.

Although I can’t read minds, my guess is that Ryan and the conservative wing mean that they want to be “unleashed” to present their radical, quasi-libertarian economic principles as well as their reactionary, neanderthal social views in a more assertive, naked way to voters.  So they’re going to be out there telling the public even more loudly how they’re going to cut taxes for the rich, turn Medicare into a coupon, and make gays, hispanics, blacks, and women act according to the values of straight white men.  Robert Reich argues here how alienating every minority group is a really bad campaign strategy when white men are no longer a majority.  

It should make for a lot more interesting political gaffes:  Romney’s most recent is the contemptuous dismissal of people who use government programs -- the ones who rely on middle class public programs like Social Security and Medicare and student loans -- that was caught on video at a millionaire fundraiser.  Romney, the Republican candidate for the job of president, actually said about nearly half of America, "My job is not to worry about those people," and my guess is that the electorate will make sure that that remains the case after November.  It might even be downright amazing to see Romney and Ryan repeat the same Gingrich error.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Thought of the Day: the Forgetfulness of the Demos

There are many asymmetries in the political contest between the elite class of any society and the common people (what the Greeks called the demos, root of the word democracy).  The simple fact that the elite are fewer than the people works to their advantage, for example, because it allows them to be more unified and focused in pursuing their interests, whereas due to numbers the people’s interests are many and their focus diffused.  This unified, persistent focus enables elites to make more effective use of their resources -- money, power, knowledge, education, leadership skills -- and to acquire even more of those resources.  I think that easier focus and persistence among the few elite is why political fortitude is such an important civic virtue for the demos to have: they are less focused simply by virtue of being more numerous, and they have to inculcate the quality of fortitude to make up for it.

Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy,  pointed out another asymmetry: whereas most common people are focused on the quotidian activities of making a living and caring for family, the positions of power and wealth where the elite dwell tend to attract greedy, narcissistic, power-hungry types who are interested in dominating others; at any given time those at the top are likely to be far nastier in their character than regular people are.  The people are more interested in simply not being dominated.  Machiavelli thus concluded that when designing a constitution you should invest political power in the common people, who would be much less likely to abuse it and better motivated to protect liberty.

Another asymmetry, one that America really struggles with, is political memory.  The elite succeeds in part because the people, with their many varied interests and a focus on daily life rather than wielding power, are more forgetful of past political events.  Americans certainly lack long-term political memory in that they don't know much of history: most are only exposed to a simplistic summary version of American history in high school and college, and learn almost nothing of European or world history.  (And the kind of “history” that conservatives promote is revisionist, jingoistic, and hagiographic.)   But common people also lack short-term political memory.  They often don't have to mind elite abuses and other political events from within living memory or from even just a few years ago.  A stronger short-term political memory alone would go miles towards exposing elite lies and allowing people to correct the world’s problems.  Thus people need assistance to remember.  This is supposed to come in two forms: good education, including history, and a fourth estate of critical expert journalists who have recorded the elite's track records and actively  remind the people of what's been said and done.  We lack both of these, and that’s one reason why democracy is in trouble.  

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Veil of Opulence, Impartial Observers, and False Consciousness

I found this New York Times article by University of Colorado, Boulder professor Benjamin Hale to be an interesting and well-framed discussion of a common, but corrupting, psychological phenomena in American political culture that he calls the "veil of opulence": the mental habit of putting ourselves in the shoes of the rich and famous and making decisions from that imagined social position.  Americans have the bad habit of imagining themselves to be millionaires, or of at least imagining that they, too, will someday be millionaires.  This has the effect of turning regular, struggling people into the unconscious allies of the very wealthy elites who are fleecing and exploiting them.  John Steinbeck said it concisely: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Professor Hale hearkens back 40 years to the philosophy of Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, who gave us a modern version of liberal social contract theory that he called justice as fairness, which was first presented in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice.  Rawls was the most influential American political thinker of the second half of the 20th century, and even those who disagreed with him had to argue according to the terms that he laid down.  Justice as fairness, like other social contract theories, is based on the idea of an original agreement or sort of constitutional convention for the basic structure of society, the fundamental political, social, and economic institutions that determine people’s chances and expectations in life.  Rawls sets up a thought experiment to determine what would be the best way for a people to negotiate these basic rules so that they will be fair for everyone: he asks us to imagine that we negotiate under what he called a veil of ignorance, in which you undergo a sort of selective amnesia and forget who you are.  You don’t know any specific information about yourself or your social position or status: you don’t know your sex, race, generation, socio-economic class, occupation, wealth, strength, intelligence, talents, etc.  You also don’t know your religious preference, ethnic background, basic philosophy of life, or conception of the good life.  This amnesia under the veil of ignorance ensures that no one can twist the basic rules of society to their own advantage. 

Rawls says that in such a situation people would agree to two very egalitarian principles of justice: 1) the first guarantees each person equal basic rights and liberties, such as freedoms of thought and conscience, freedom of assembly, choice of occupation, etc.  2) The second principle deals with social and economic inequalities, and they must satisfy two conditions: a) they are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;  b) they must satisfy what Rawls called the difference principle: inequalities are to be to everyone’s advantage, in particular, they are to be to the (greatest) benefit of the least advantaged members of society.  Income would start from a baseline of equality, and any inequality must, to quote John F. Kennedy, be “a rising tide that lifts all boats.”

The graph illustrates the difference between a distribution under the difference principle and an unregulated capitalist distribution.  Capitalism allows potentially infinite income inequalities, in which some rise above the line of strict equality and become fabulously wealthy while others fall bellow that line into absolute penury.  Note that on the capitalism line, some people have absolutely nothing: zero property and income.  No one under the veil of ignorance, who didn’t know which position they would end up in when the veil was lifted, would choose a capitalist distribution for their society.  The risk is too great that once the veil is lifted you will end up impoverished, with a ruined life and little opportunity to improve it.  Instead, people would choose the difference principle: inequalities are allowed when, and only when, they raise the income of all, including those at the absolute bottom, as, for example, when profits are distributed widely to all through union contracts and government social programs.  Note that while inequalities still exist on the difference principle line, the poorest of the poor never fall to zero or even below the baseline of equality, but instead even their lives are improved by whatever inequalities do exist, because those inequalities are channeled in such a way to benefit everyone.

Rawls thus provides a strong justification for progressive liberalism: if you didn’t know what class you’d be born into, this is the kind of society you’d choose. Why ? Because you’re most likely to be born into the lower or middle ranks that benefit from strong unions and cooperatives, social security, public health care, public education, college loans, unemployment insurance, and social welfare, rather than into the upper class1% who have no need of such programs.  For Rawls the specific programs can vary and be adapted to different places and cultures, as long as they conform to his two principles of justice.