Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Principles of the Opposition

Health Reform And Personal Responsibility | The New Republic:
"the heart of what animates the staunchest opposition to health care reform [is] a principled opposition to the idea the fortunate should be forced to subsidize the unfortunate.

A person who has [a serious disease], unless he is very affluent, is not going to be able to afford the cost of his own medical care. He is going to need to be subsidized by healthier or wealthier people -- either by being lumped in with them in an employer-based insurance pool, or getting government-provided insurance like Medicaid, or government subsidies, or the enactment of regulations that force insurers to offer him insurance at a regular price (meaning healthy people would pay higher rates.) Any way you slice it, somebody else is going to have to pay for his health care. But that's the kind of redistribution the right increasingly cannot stomach."

I've written for quite a while that American politics has become increasingly uni-linear: a continuous variation along one dimension -- "worldview" -- from Right to Left.

A number of people on the Left insist that racism lies beneath the hostility of many of the tea party activists, and there's some evidence in favor of that thesis, but I think it is actually the breakdown of racism, and a breakdown of a felt sense of solidarity, that drives the anger. Now, in the past, that felt sense of social and political solidarity was based, for many people, implicitly on race or, more generally, on membership in the dominant culture. What defines the "dominant culture" has expanded over time, with the last big intake taking place in the 1960s, when Catholics and immigrants were embraced. From the 1840s through the 1920s, nativist hostility to immigrants was a big factor in American politics; in the 1960s, it was all forgotten.

Something bigger has emerged in American politics -- Class. And, we don't know what to do with it. The elite -- across politics, business, finance, academia -- has proven itself hostile to the interests of the mass of Americans, and incompetent in managing the nation's economy and foreign affairs. But, the elite remains firmly united in resisting demands for relief and reform.

The sense of frustration is palpable across the political spectrum, but people don't know what to make of their frustration. The elite is feeding them -- everyone -- propaganda. Much of that propaganda is completely unbelievable, but there exists little alternative -- no narrative or leadership. Just a steady drumbeat insisting that "entitlement reform" is seriously needed. Iraq is oh so worrisome. What is politically practical is so limited, we cannot consider good proposals, only what is being proposed and compromised to death . . . And, so on.

The American body politic is in a state of extreme disorganization. People don't derive much of a sense of identity from their membership in various groups and organizations, because, frankly, they are not likely to be all that active, as a member of a social group or organization. Ethnic neighborhoods have become, mostly, historical curiosities. Ghettos are mostly just slums, as the prosperous and ambitious elites have moved away. Black people don't have to live in Harlem; gay people don't have to live in West Hollywood. Clubs, like the Elks or the Shriners have aged and declined in importance. Groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution have faded into idle hobbies, their ability to confer status long gone. Unions have faded in power, membership and economic importance.

So, we are left with the rare clarity of a politics that divides on worldview -- nothing with even enough philosophical substance to qualify as ideology -- but just the most superficial collection of attitudes translated directly into policy.

It is not "redistribution" that is being objected to here, it is, at bottom, that most basic, implicit assumption of government organized around nationality: that "we" are in this, in life, in government, in society, together.

I don't think people actually "oppose" solidarity, per se. That would require opposing human nature. But, they feel its absence and its absence makes them angry, and it makes them mad.

Now, it may be that the last shreds of that sense of solidarity, for some people, was in race, or in religion, or in traditions like hunting, or even feeling that they were "the real" Americans. Where those last, fading shreds were can affect the focus of their rhetoric, or carry telling demographic markers, but I think we miss important details, if we only relate these phenomena to a racist past, when it is economic oppression by a predatory elite in the present, and the economic decline that entails, which drives the frustration.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Twilight of the Elites

The Twilight of the Elites - 10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years - TIME:
"In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society — whether it's General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media — has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both. And at the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order. In exchange for their power, status and remuneration, they are supposed to make sure everything operates smoothly. But after a cascade of scandals and catastrophes, that implicit social contract lies in ruins, replaced by mass skepticism, contempt and disillusionment.

In the wake of the implosion of nearly all sources of American authority, this new decade will have to be about reforming our institutions to reconstitute a more reliable and democratic form of authority. Scholarly research shows a firm correlation between strong institutions, accountable élites and highly functional economies; mistrust and corruption, meanwhile, feed each other in a vicious circle. If our current crisis continues, we risk a long, ugly process of de-development: higher levels of corruption and tax evasion and an increasingly fractured public sphere, in which both public consensus and reform become all but impossible."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Desperately needed?

Brad DeLong: "more macroeconomists who think like Ben Bernanke are desperately needed on the FOMC" [Federal Open Market Committee -- the Federal Reserve's principal body responsible for monetary policy through the setting of short-term interest rates]