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Averting American self-destruction

This Sunday NYT article focuses on the over-arching problem that will, in time, destroy our nation as it has destroyed so many in the past — unless we have the courage and foresight to fix the problem. What is the problem? Basically, this:

Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But… virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

(I encourage you to read the whole thing.)

The problem is economic in character, but political in both its origin and solution. Here, I’m not so concerned about the details of the solution: We already know how to make our society more inclusive and less extractive, because we pursued political and economic policies that accomplished exactly that from the mid-1930s through the late 1970s. So the question is not so much how to do it, but who will do it?

The policies of the Republican party are in every way designed to make the problem worse rather than better, to further benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots, to advance the extractive society and undermine the inclusive society. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded, and Republican political strategists put a great deal of effort into fostering such delusions. The current theocratic culture war, its predecessor the race-baiting “Southern Strategy,” the always-useful tactic of fanning fear and hatred of immigrants “coming to take your jobs,” bashing unions as job-destroying while promoting policies that destroy both unions and jobs — all these are just tools used to manipulate people into voting against their own economic self-interest.

Fortunately, the Republican party seems to be self-destructing, having lost control of their own tools of manipulation. Part of the problem is simple demographics: The segments of the population on which their tools work best are shrinking as a proportion of the whole. But part of their problem also seems to be self-created: Researchers on religion in public life (like the Pew Research Center) have consistently found that the rising tide of religious disaffection among young Americans is directly tied to their sense that the religion of their parents is too judgmental and too wrapped up in politics. In essence, the very culture war that the Republicans have promoted so ferociously and relied on to drive voter turnout since Reagan is turning the children of their “base” against them.

(Maybe the problem is that Republicans tend to read horrible hacks like Ayn Rand instead of true visionary geniuses like Frank Herbert. Certainly they should have heeded one of Herbert’s Bene Gesserit proverbs: “When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”)

Unfortunately, what ought to be the opposition party has been turned into the more-of-the-same party by multiple corrosive influences which feed into one another: the perpetual campaign and fund-raising cycle, the lobbying industry, the revolving door between employment in government and the government-contract-seeking private sector (most especially the aforementioned lobbying industry). While policies advocated by the Democratic party do not actively promote the extractive society for the most part, they certainly do little to reverse the problem — and they never will, unless the party drastically changes in character. For the most part, Democratic party leaders studiously ignore the ever-growing gap between the haves and have-nots, or mention it for rhetorical purposes without acknowledging either [1] that it is a product of public policy choices (which it manifestly is), or [2] that different policy choices could reverse it (which we know from direct historical experience). For example, Obama’s plan to return taxes on top earners back to pre-Bush levels is trivial. The gap between the rich and poor has been growing since the mid-1980s, so the starting point for any sensible policy discussion would at least consider rolling tax rates on the wealthy back to Reagan-era levels — but no Democratic leader dares suggest such a thing. (Here are two very informative graphs connecting income disparity and top tax rates.)

Worse yet, there is currently no viable alternative in the American political landscape.

The Libertarians, for all their laudable stands on civil liberties (opposition to the drug war and the PATRIOT Act and so on), advocate the same regressive economic policies that Republicans do: Whether it is self-identified Libertarians or Republicans making it, the claim that unregulated laissez faire capitalism — if only we carried it far enough! — can somehow magically create a level playing field out of one that is manifestly un-level to begin with is not only unsupported by reasoning and evidence, but directly countered by all the historical evidence anyone has ever examined. It is an ideology held with dogmatic religious fervor, not a viable economic theory. Although they are usually explained in different terms, Libertarian economic policies are almost indistinguishable from Republican policies, and the same economics “authorities” are relied on by both. I was recently reminded by this article exactly how the economic ideologies favored by Republicans and Libertarians gained so much unwarranted respect and prestige.

(Short version for those who don’t care to read the linked article: The “Nobel Prize” in economics is not, in fact, a true Nobel Prize at all, but was created several decades later by bankers for the explicit purpose of promoting “free market” economic ideologies theories friendly to the extractive society, like those of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. In fact, Hayek’s academic career was basically over — because his theories were considered wildly implausible and completely unsupported by the evidence — until the turd-polishing faery dust sprinkled on his theories by winning a phony “Nobel prize” suddenly made him seem respectable. Friedman was a much more respected and respectable economist on his own merits before winning his faux-bel prize, for whatever that’s worth; however, he also deserves primary blame as the Reagan economic adviser most directly responsible for the policy changes that started our slide towards an increasingly extractive society in the first place.)

Because the Libertarians are as bad as or worse than Republicans in economic policy terms, and because Democrats are basically Republicans-lite on economics (and other policy matters, such as foreign policy and the drug war), the only genuine opposition to the extractive society in the U.S. lies in progressive politics — currently embodied in the Green Party and the Occupy movement. Unfortunately, American progressives have no political traction, and every progressive movement seems more hamstrung by ideological purity and practical incompetence than the one before it. For example, the Tea Party may be full of extremist lunatics, but they somehow managed to get a bunch of their favored candidates elected in Republican Congressional primaries in 2010 — something the Green Party has never managed to do, nor really even tried to do. Meanwhile, the Occupy movement — which looked for a moment like it might be a nucleus around which a progressive successor to the perpetually ineffective Green Party could coalesce — appears to have already dwindled to a small core of activists who don’t seem to have a clue about how to grow a movement, and spend more time infighting than strategizing.

As Rebecca Solnit eloquently (and acerbically) argues here, there is a relentlessly negative and emotionally immature undercurrent in the American political left that leads it to undermine itself. Unless American progressives grow up — unless they learn how to hold and pursue high ideals without letting the unattainable perfect become the enemy of attainable goods — they will never amount to anything. What they should be trying to do is take over the Democratic party from within like the Tea Party has taken over the Republican party, but without the Tea Party’s self-destructive commitment to ideological purity that alienates everyone but fellow extremists. Will progressives ever see the need to do this? Will they succeed if they try? I don’t know. But if they don’t try, they surely won’t succeed, and we will continue to recede further and further from the inclusive society, until our extractive society collapses in on itself, like all plutocracies eventually do.

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