Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's the end of the world as we know it, but we feel fine

Gerald F. Seib, Wall Street Journal:

Amid the Great Depression of the 1930s, the country moved sharply to the left politically, then stayed there.

Amid the Deep Recession of 2008, the country zigged to the left, but now seems to be zagging back to the right.

Why the difference?

"Left" and "right" in US politics describe a range of governmental approaches meant to foster economic growth, the principal concern of those groups which constitute "the economy" and subsequently dominate the government.

The right believes in limited government, which means government must be limited to what business wants; the left believes in an expanded government which can better meet business needs. In other words, they pursue the same objectives, while appealing to the electorate on different grounds.

"Shifts" between left and right typically reflect the degree of success business has in forging alliances with the public. When business is successful, governmental policy shifts right; when business is less successful, policy shifts to the left. Shifts to the right indicate that business is getting what it wants on economic policy; shifts to the left indicate a conflict between business and the public which must be mediated by the government on behalf of business.

Shifts to the left often yield benefits for the public, for the simple reason that the government can meet public needs in a way that for-profit organizations can't, pursuant to their mandate for profit. Throughout US history, groups that concerned themselves with social justice emerged from the "left" anytime the profit-motive proved itself unable to deliver.

"Amid the Great Depression of the 1930s," socialists comprised a highly organized portion of the left which sought to expand the public needs met by the government, that were otherwise not being met at all. This shift was sustained by the commitment of activists and the success of socialist initiatives, like Social Security.

Today the public is organized as consumers, not activists, and so we have seen a slow shift back to the pure prerogatives of business over several decades -- a shift back to the "right." This is what Seib means when he writes that the US is "a nation that stands center-right ideologically": the ideology of the nation is now, appropriately, back in harmony with that of its owners.

In spite of numerous, obvious, conflicts between big business and "the common good," consumerism has transposed itself onto the political arena in such a way that people don't know what to do but to occasionally vote and in the meantime orient their lives toward buying more stuff.

This is a fundamental problem that didn't exist in the 1930's, when failure in the political arena imposed unmistakable costs on people's lives. Today, those costs are obscured by the delight of buying cheap junk forever, and an abundance of 20-second amusements. Meanwhile, the world proceeds with its death pangs, and demands an appropriate response.


Jack Crow said...

The spectacle as an offset?

Jad said...

"The right believes in limited government, which means government must be limited to what business wants; the left believes in an expanded government which can better meet business needs."


I think the profit motive doesn't handicap "business" in meeting "public needs," nearly as much as the government's ability to print, borrow and steal money allows them to appear as magical benefactors to electoral subgroups. The hidden costs (inflation, future debt and reduced private capital) aren't as readily apparent as the immediate, widely publicized 'service': social security, 'free' medical care, etc.

At some point, political failures can't be masked by consumer distractions. That, and the atrocities and theft are reaching astronomical proportions. At some point, the consumer will become an activist again. The question is, what will they be advocating?

Jack Crow said...

Good question, Jad. I think it is in part answered by the subject you present.

So long as people agitate *as consumers,* the logic of revolt favors business interests.

JRB said...

I took Jad's statement to mean that people may eventually transcend consumerism into something else -- and the question is whether it will be more terrifying or less.

I think that's a good way of framing it, as it points to our role in contributing to an outcome.

Jack Crow said...

Gotcha. Makes sense.

Ethan said...

JR, if you really think this blog should be criticized more often, you should stop being so brilliant.

Enron said...

Good post, again.

almostinfamous said...

deficits again! once again, i aks youze, have you read any of the 'Modern Monetary Theory' (aka Chartalism) folks around the blugosphere and what they have to say about the role of deficits in a fiat money world

for example, Bill mitchell is a popular guy among these circles (he is noted on the wiki page for MMT): http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=332

JRB said...

Thanks, almostinfamous. It looks like good stuff. And all new to me. We'll see how it hits me in the coming posts!

Always appreciate anything you have to pass on...

DPirate said...

Uh, I think it is alot simpler than all that intellectualism in your post. First, the guy writing for the post is full of shit. By 'zigged to left' he means they elected Obama, I guess, and by 'zagging back to the right' I can only assume he means Obama isn't doing any of the things he promised and network coverage of the teabaggers.

The people haven't zigzagged much at all, as far as I can tell. The same people who descry communism and liberalism without even knowing what the words mean are still doing so, and those who descry the social justice evils of the system are still doing that. What the writer is really talking about is the media, and it's blindered coverage of "The People".

Second, the majority of America, thanks to our bread and circuses, and our public education system, and our propaganda, as noted above, do not make any informed political decisions. If their brother made them be Tonto, they vote democrat, and if they got to be the Lone Ranger, they turned out republican. That is all we really need to know about our electoral system.

PS: If I was the Lone Ranger I would just be writing how you were all a bunch of hellbound Godless hippies ruining the country. With mis-spelled words.