Beware What You Ask For: Peter Radford

Brilliant article in Real World Economics by Peter Radford on the current plutocratic mess:

This has been a long and miserable time. Deluged daily by strange and almost surrealistic gyrations in Washington I decided to sit to one side and simply watch. The spectacle of America rapidly decaying and apparently unable to prevent itself from gnawing away at its institutions is compelling. The regular attempts to undermine the credibility of everything meant to act as a bastion against tyranny is riveting. The subsequent indulgence in endless introspection about how dire our political collapse is equally absorbing.

Why add to the malaise by commenting?

It’s all out there.

A great nation turned against itself, locked in polarized paralysis it drifts buffeted by the incessant whimsy of its current leadership. That denigrates the word leadership, so I refer only to the titular head of state. He is a misogynist, a racist, a child, and an imbecile.

But he is president.

And the right wing side of our political class has gathered itself around him, disregarding his manifest faults and incompetence, in order to eke out a few long-held ideologically driven policy wins. I hope they reflect on the stain they will for ever carry, and that they are able to regard that stain as being worthwhile when set against those policy wins. 

The left wing of our politics has wandered off somewhere. Apart from one of two who try to carry forward the vision of a fair society based upon the elimination of class based privilege, the rest have disappeared into various forms of narrow minded grievance driven advocacy. They have no grand statement to make about America and its aspirations, they are content to stay small and hide behind one identity or another. This, by definition, is an exclusionary approach despite their protestations to the contrary. It is an orgy of blame-laying and recrimination that will, ultimately, simply splinter America even more than it already is.

There is no center of gravity, no central coalition, no recourse for compromise. There is them, there is us, and a chasm in between.

Yes, I am exaggerating, but this is the way it feels.

And, I think, this unraveling was inevitable.

It began decades ago under Reagan when he launched his campaign in the deep south to summon up the latent racist demons that still motivate white voters in those parts. Why did he do that? Cynical vote grabbing. Why would a Republican from California not announce his campaign in his home state? Why provoke by going to the epicenter of segregation and racism?

To win votes. To encourage the tide turned by Nixon with that same exercise to keep on rolling.

We live with the consequence today: the extraordinary homogeneity of the southern states aligned strongly with the Republicans acts as a bulwark against social progress. Indeed it encourages social regression.

Meanwhile the cities and the coasts tilt ever more towards the Democrats. Why? Because the steady social and demographic change taking place there is played to by the identity policies of grievance. Plus, and leftists everywhere need to confront this, globalization and automation have thrown off great benefits to the educated class that now dominates the policy thought of the left. It is little wonder that the Democrats lost ground in the old industrial states, they have no empathy for the decline of industry. They live in the thrall of the wonders of hi-tech. They have become oblivious to the hardships of technological change.

The entire nation appears unable to enter into conversation about how to deal with change. Especially technological change.

I am tired of being told that our workforce suffers from a “skills deficit” and that ever more education is the solution to the apparent bleakness of the substitution of ignorant labor by clever capital. How, pray tell, is a midlife worker with a family, home, and lifestyle to maintain to take time off for, or afford, his or her continuing education? Especially given that our centers of education are so resistant to technological change and productivity improvement that they are increasingly expensive. And, especially given that the dominant stream in policy making nowadays is adamantly opposed to state driven solutions to anything, let alone the provision of adult education.

Those who glibly ply education as the solution to the problem created by the technologists — they are generally technologists also — utterly miss the point. Education is massively time consuming and expensive. Who will pay for it in future, surely not taxpayers?

Which raises the tax reform bill.

It was totally unnecessary. The economy is chugging along well. We do not have an issue of wealth creation. We have an issue of wealth distribution. The answer from the right is to overheat the economy in the hope that some crumbs might fall to the working people integral in the creation of that wealth. The answer from the left is … well apart from the one or two carrying the old fashioned torch for workers, the answer is to indulge in grievance driven identity politics.

Gun control is another sure sign of the weakness of America. The pathetic response to each and every massacre is to offer “prayers”, which by all available empirical evidence are worth absolutely nothing, and then to capitulate to the insane zealotry of the National Rifle Association, whose paranoia is a classic example of extremism run amok. There is no reason to hope that America will solve its gun addiction. It will tinker with a few very peripheral laws and then claim victory. Until the next massacre, whereupon it will offer up copious prayers.

All this malaise, the decline, the polarization, and the ineptitude of the current administration compiles into a single story: the inability of the nation’s elite to identify and keep pace with the social ramifications of its own advocacy of change.

On one side the elite lauds change and the enormous efficiencies we reap from new technologies; on the other it resists building the state driven institutions to mitigate the social costs of that change. Its inability to conceive of and then execute a sensible health care policy is a classic example of this dereliction.

Despite all this I am emerging optimistic.

Our decline could be temporary and simply the result of the current regimes total incapacity.

But there are preconditions for renewal.

One is that the old policy center, the failed suite of ideas that led to the decline, must be replaced.

Second is that new leadership has to emerge on both sides of the political divide.The continued domination of the left by the aging cohort that came of age under Clinton and who thus are to blame for the demise of left wing politics is absurd. And on the right there is a crying need for someone who can advocate conservatism without falling immediately into some dystopian hatred of the state. None of the younger faces who were rolled over by Trump are worthy of future consideration, although I expect them all to be on parade in 2024.

Third is that the ironclad grip on policy of corporations and wealthy individuals must be broken. Until then we cannot have democratic policy making on behalf of most Americans.

This last is the most difficult to imagine coming into being. Contemporary America is a haven for plutocrats. They are over-represented in politics. They are coddled by the Supreme Court. They are pandered to by politicians. Why would they surrender their grip on power?

Perhaps, and this is probably me dreaming, they will realize that self interest requires them to relinquish some power.

Take, for example, the current pressure being heaped on big business to disassociate itself from the NRA. As companies play and ever increasing role in setting the shape and form of society, displacing along the way our moribund government institutions, and as they thus sieze political power, they become targets for democratic feedback. They expose their decisions to public scrutiny and resistance. They can no longer simply hand over large sums of money to buy off politicians. They can no longer simply encourage the debasement and corruption that such money produces. Now they are on the political front lines.

This is an irony of plutocracy and corporatism.

Instead of being background actors, big corporations are now recognized for what they are: policy makers. They cannot be voted out of power, so they are beyond the reach of democratic control. But their profits are vulnerable.  They can be made accountable through the bottom line.

Economists have long misundertood the duality implied by this. They have long argued that consumers are exquisitely rational in their economic actions, but are extraordinarily inept in their political actions — markets are efficient because of the former, governments are inefficient and self-dealing as a result of the latter. Economists thus imagine consumers and voters to be two separate and discrete groups. The one paragons of enlightened calculation, the other steeped in ignorance and backwardness. We all suffer, according to economists, from some peculiar split personality disorder.

Yet the willingness of voters-as-consumers to identify corporations as the center of policy and consequently the targets of democratic pressure belies the split personality argument. Consumers have realized their power. They can vote through consumption patterns. This recognition of the reality of our political center of gravity is a source of encouragement and optimism.

Big business through its corruption of politics, through its money support of politicians, and through its willingness to seize power to bend policy in its self interest, has been recognized for what it is by voters. It has become the de facto responsible party for the shape, tone, and success of society. The successful engulfing of society by the market puts market actors in the political hot seat. Thus the continual struggle between capitalism and democracy has moved out of the old and increasingly irrelevant political forum and back where it started: in the workplace and in the marketplace.

Corporate management was too clever by half. Now it must wonder what it asked for.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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