Wednesday, February 4, 2009

And now for something completely boring...

There was a really interesting piece in last weekend's New York Times Magazine that presented recommendations and alternatives for the Obama administration in resuscitating the American economy. What caught my eye was a policy map advocated by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (titled Rahm's Doctrine), which is essentially a lay-person edition of University of Maryland scholar Mancur Olson's 1982 work The Rise and Decline of Nations. Basically, what it advocates is seizing the financial crisis as an opportunity to lay a new social groundwork, with the infusion of dollars into recharting such decidedly unsexy arenas as health care, infrastructure and education.

At this point, anyone who has read Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine is probably noticing some serious parallels. Klein's thesis, which was thoroughly verifiable based on historical events, added another notch in its belt with the recent $700 billion bailout package bestowed upon failing U.S. financial institutions. What she posits is that governments have utilized instances of disaster, be it physical, financial, or military conflict, to unfurl a slew of freeper-friendly measures and programs designed to enrich their corporate boosters. These changes are codified and acted upon in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, as the populace is often too weak and traumatized to put up any sort of opposition. Pertinent recent examples include the 2003 Iraq invasion (the plunder of the country and establishment of security industries by the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater) and Hurricane Katrina a few years back (where the Bush administration outsourced essentially everything in the aftermath, even to the crass point of awarding a contract to a major campaign donor to retrieve bodies of the dead once the floodwaters receded).

Emanuel's proposal essentially turns Klein's theory on its head while simulatenously validating it. In his world, changes are similarly made while the population is in punch-drunk, only the shifts are to benefit the commonweal rather than bloated corporations and greedy executives. For instance, Obama's new stimulus package would essentially double the education budget, which predictably has Republicans and states-rights types spoiling for a fight. Here's the thing, though: not only does increased program spending make moral sense, it makes economic sense. Matter of fact, Rahm's Doctrine is ultimately the most feasible method of salvaging the American economy; it's going to require a healthy degree of trial-and-error and, above all, patience, but how is the alternative of pitchforking money into the maw of existing unsustainable industries and financial schema even remotely sane? Instead of lending and opening the credit spigot, what have the banks done upon receiving their stimulus cash? Hoarded it. Well, save for expenses incurred attempting to tenaciously maintain their disgusting opulence.

Much like a smack-addict, deregulated capitalism operates on jolts and insularity. Looking beyond the next fix simply doesn't occur; there's a myopia and tunnel-vision that manages to ignore (or merely pay lip service to) happenings without, but change won't occur unless its through painful sacrifice. In the case of the junkie, it's the excruciating path to rehabilition. For the U.S., it's eschewing rigid economic dogma and instead taking a hard look at social determinants: a recognition that increasing numbers of undereducated and unhealthy citizens are providing a drain on the economy without precedent. Reinvigorating the school system to create a generation of engaged achievers is going to require an assload of cash and political capital, which is why it's normally a non-starter amongst elected officials. The financial turbulence presents an opportunity to examine ideas generally branded 'unorthodox.'

Despite Obama's popularity, I remain pessimistic. Bafflingly, the Republicans have managed to co-opt the idea of the 'American Dream,' which they've used as a cudgel to beat down detractors of the unbalanced status quo (which is probably a reason why Democrats haven't been able to mount an effective challenge to this greed-heavy school of thought, although their general spinelessness and the fact that their noses are nearly as deep in the trough as the GOP are the major factors). If you question America's brand of capitalism, you're disparaging wealth and industriousness, no questions asked. I was at a bookstore the other day, and have developed an ongoing game: when I see a book on display by a right-wing media figure, of which there are a depressing amount, I open it up to a random page and see how many nanoseconds it takes to completely debunk the first claim I read. The other day, it was a tome called An Inconvenient Book by some guy named Glenn Beck, who apparently is a particle physicist (nah, I'm just fucking with ya: he's an angry, doughy radio screamer, just like the rest of them). The first line I saw was along the lines of 'liberal fun fact: they think government were awful during Hurricane Katrina, yet they want them in charge of a massive, complicated plan to manage carbon credits.'

First of all, huh? Secondly, Beck is flaunting a tried-and-true right-wing trick, which seems to have spread to the general public through the airborne, anti-intellectualist disease that has overridden the country: the distinction without a difference. No, we weren't repulsed by the government response to Katrina, we were sickened by that government's inaction. The same holds true in this debate: when myself and like-minded people question U.S. capitalism, we're disparaging greed, not wealth. Earlier today, President Obama spoke of an admirable initiative to cap the salaries at a half-mil of executives with companies receiving taxpayer bailout money. You'd think this would be common sense, really, and that it wouldn't be necessary for the President of the United States to intervene in remedying such blatant injustice. Upon announcement of the administration's endeavour, a rebuke was issued from a 'compensation consulting firm' called James F. Reda & Associates. Their managing director had this to say:

“That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus.”

Okay, to expand upon my earlier claim, we're disparaging greed and shitheads, not wealth. Simply unreal: as working-class people lose their jobs and homes, the entitlement knows no bounds. When it comes to the idea of wealth, if you invent something or otherwise make an honest impact, fine, and there should be a carrot. However, if you're simply head bean-counter for a gaggle of white-collar kleptomaniacs, this is entirely different. Menial labourers receiving minimum wage often make a far more quantifiable contribution to society than CEOs, and it's ridiculously unfair that they're the ones suffering through this downturn. Personally, I'm a democratic socialist a la the Nordic states: I believe firmly in markets, but think they should be closely regulated, and that a strong social safety net and equitable wealth distribution is imparative. In short, I think a rising tide should raise all boats, not just the yachts.

Weighing the peril of the times, let's hope America casts aside established orthodoxy and opts to construct a fairer, more just society out of the ashes. It's going to take a strong stomach, but the Obama administration has a chance to entirely discredit the prevailing ethos of greed while forging a more equitable country. Such a change doesn't mean that prosperity and individualism won't flourish. Let's use Klein's Shock Doctrine benevolently instead of greedily.

By the way, sorry this wasn't very funny or anything, but hearing the news today about those avaricious executives spurred me to write. Also, it wasn't supposed to be this lengthy. I'll return to tomfoolery going forward, promise.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Jared.

    I think one of the main problems at work, at least in the last 40 years or so, has not been greed, but delusion. I think greed is just a symptom. It really seems as though some of these people think that there is a level playing field, since the American Dream as I understand it is based upon the idea that anyone in America has an equal chance of success. In many ways, this justifies greed. The rich justify is because that's what the Dream delivered. And many poor people buy it, because that's what the Dream promises. My advice? Stop dreaming.

    Cheers for the article!