"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt


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Saturday, April 4, 2009

"Time" Lauds a Bold New Course to Failure

Ah yes... Let us analyze Kurt Andersen's essay "The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good for America?" found in this issue of Time. Please, read it in its entirety. It's difficult I know...

The first words of this piece: "Don't pretend we didn't see this coming for a long, long time." Oh, I don't doubt that Andersen has seen this coming. He's been down on his knees begging, pleading, cajoling, wanting, and waiting... waiting... waiting... An apocalyptic spectre, not in the shadows where he belongs, but rather in the front lines chanting entreaties of doom and wagging his pampered and manicured finger at American excess. Now he has the gleeful chance to dance his condescending rhetoric across the pages of Time, proudly declare his insightful intelligence and prophetic powers for all the world to see. Now in our "darkest hour" he has the chance to shine. The opportunism of the press seems absolutely intent to both annoy and revolt me.

Oh, the "Great Recession" he cries, so desperately trying to coin a phrase. Change is here! The failure of free market economies... greed... Popular culture saw it coming... The fat American Homer Simpson (after what...? twenty years on the air?), the fat couch potatoes of WALL-E... all warnings from that oh, so accurate clarion of Hollywood. Nuclear devastation... (The Day After, The Road Warrior inspired movies too numerous to count) global starvation... (Seven Beauties, The Three Days of the Condor, etc.) global cooling... (Quintet, The Day After Tomorrow [one of the worst titles ever], etc.) unfettered reconciliation and cooperation between communism and the free... (2010, The Day the Earth Stood Still, etc.) are but a sampling of Hollywood's freakish prescience.

After wagging his finger for far too long, Andersen finally gets to the meat of his article: the brave new world to come. Political left and right lose their meaning, falling into something new (progressive socialism and conservatism perhaps?-- how different). Andersen writes, "We haven't come to the end of ideology, as Daniel Bell asserted in 1960 and Francis Fukuyama restated in 1992, but the familiar polarities of right and left are losing their salience. For a while, America will be in a state of ideological flux — which means we'll be unusually free to improvise a fresh course forward. We can have universal health coverage and public schools unbound from the stultifying grip of teachers' unions. We can tax fossil fuels so that solar and wind become more economical and commit seriously to nuclear power. We can impose sensible regulatory mechanisms and enthusiastically promote free markets and free trade. We can grow the armed forces to fight all necessary wars but also forgo pork-barrel weapons systems."

Utter nonsense. Political reality, more often then not, dictates political ideology. Politics is not only the art of the possible, but the art of the pragmatic--- what will work in the short term, what will work in the long term, what will work under these sets of circumstances, what are people willing to believe in. The reality that defines and limits political theory does not evaporate simply because of desire or political circumstance. Reality does not adapt to politician's wishes, rather it is warped to fulfill politician's desires-- and such ignorant warpings have catastrophic results when reality reasserts itself. This basic mechanism has resulted in some of the great genocides of the 20th century. The Great Leap Forward, Pol Pot's killing fields, Stalin's unspeakably cruel collectivisation of farms... it would not be unfair, though a bit of an oversimplification, to say that all were responses to ideologies that failed to address political and economic reality.

"We can have universal health coverage and public schools unbound from the stultifying grip of teachers' unions." No, we can't. Universal health care is a costly boondoggle (I will cover in more depth in tomorrow's posting), that has resulted in horrific care for the majority of those under its benevolence. Britain is a prime example of such a poorly thought out system. Despite being in place since 1948 (WWII being a necessary component for its implementation) and despite the relative low population of Britain (compared to the US), Britain's health care lags far behind that of other nations. Despite these political and social changes Andersen assures us is happening, universal health care, a system which has not worked in other countries, will not, suddenly and magically, work here.

Why education is mentioned in the same sentence as universal health care is beyond me. And how government will divest itself of teacher's unions is also beyond me. Andersen offers no details, merely reassurances of the "truth" of his words (somewhat like Obama and Geithner but more on that later). While teachers' unions are a popular target for both the left and right, our actual education system is much like a free market system. It offers the opportunity to excel. It does not, nor should it, force students to learn. Yes, there are inner-city drug supermarkets masquerading as schools and tremendous misuse of funds along with outright graft, but issues such as these need to be seriously addressed for solutions to be found (most often such discussions merely devolve into agenda driven finger pointing and race-baiting), and not merely have money and academically restrictive legislation thrown at them. Our actual system is fundamentally sound. Yes, improvements and attention are long overdue (some geographic areas more than others). Discipline and academic control should be reasserted and local involvement must increase. But the idea of changing public education fundamentally, of devolving our schools into Japanese-style cram-schools is foolish.

Andersen says "We can tax fossil fuels so that solar and wind become more economical and commit seriously to nuclear power." We can tax pretty much anything-- and we do. But raising taxes does not alter the fact that solar and wind power running our country is a pipe dream. Any serious study (not those done by the companies that are scrambling for government largess of tax [your] money) shows that wind and solar power cannot even come close to fulfilling the energy needs of our society. I've previously posted a few brief blurbs about the ugly truth of green energy-- links here and here. William Tucker analyzes the implementation and shortcomings of "green" energy here, and newscientist.com has an article here about "Why sustainable power is unsustainable." Shell has abandoned solar, wind and hydrogen for reality (h/t to Jacobson at Legal Insurrection who has some good follow-up). Again, cold reality does not care about what people want, and does not change to fit political will or ideology. Nuclear power is viable, but I don't see the political will to even address it, let alone to change people's negative attitudes about it.

"We can impose sensible regulatory mechanisms and enthusiastically promote free markets and free trade." Can we? And who is this "we" Andersen keeps reasserting? I would argue that it was attempts at "sensible regulatory mechanisms" that caused and intensified this financial readjustment in the first place. The government created a de facto guarantee to lenders through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, encouraged high-risk sub-prime loans (loans that would never have been made otherwise) ignored warnings and denied indications that this was an inherently unsustainable policy, then blamed the greed of Wall Street for the eventual collapse. I think the US could do without such "sensible regulatory mechanisms" in the future.

But then I guess I'm not part of this "we" Andersen keeps mentioning. You see I don't buy into this whole new style of "greed" excuse. I ask the inconvenient question as to how banks and Wall Street avarice caused this financial downturn and I hear convoluted answers liberally sprinkled with words like "reckless" and "speculating" and "bonuses" but very little to connect the dots. Are we to believe that the greed of Wall Street has multiplied since the "good ol' days" of child labor, ruthless monopolies, sweat shops, and industrial trusts? It makes no sense. That's because of the gaping hole that is left when you leave out the government's active encouragement of these reckless, speculative practices. When there's a guarantee, why would you not try high-risk but high-yield policies? If your parents guarantee any of your losses, are you going to put your money in a savings account or play the blackjack tables at Las Vegas?

Andersen states, "We can grow the armed forces to fight all necessary wars but also forgo pork-barrel weapons systems." Grow the military force? Yes, that will indeed need to be the case, grown through a draft perhaps, if we change military policies now. Our military has been built upon the premise that technology (these "pork barrel weapons systems" as Andersen calls them-- funny and telling how pork gets mentioned with the military and not with anything domestic) trumps numbers, that highly trained military personnel with cutting edge weaponry defeats more numerous adversaries armed with lower or more moderate tech. By and large this has proven to be the case. Although the Soviets never put the question to a serious test, the US's performance in both Iraqi wars offers a degree of support to the theory. What is irrefutable is that a smaller and technologically superior army suffers less casualties. Compare the casualties suffered by the Soviets' waves of poorly trained and poorly armed fighters in WWII, or the Chinese' overwhelming horde tactics practiced during the Korean War, with the US casualties suffered in both Iraqi wars. The Chinese and Soviet dead were too numerous to accurately count, American dead in Iraq currently hovers around 3500.

Does Andersen seriously advocate creating a vast military of cannon fodder soldiers? Is this what he wants the military grown into? For that matter, does he actually want or possess any more than the slightest knowledge of any of the issues he brings up? It's likely he has no clue as to what he wants. It's not his job to (he is an uninspired novelist and radio host), and he demonstrates absolutely no understanding of any of the subjects he broaches. He offers no evidence, only careless and thoughtless words contained in a rhetorical device (we can have A without B, and we can have C without D).

Brevity forces me to not address the rest of Andersen's article line by line. Again, I encourage you to read it (hopefully you already have before reading this post). There is a certain hopefulness toward the end of his article, a hope that millennials prove to be more than self-indulgent and spoiled iPod listeners (I hope so too), a hope that America will emerge stronger than before (again a hope I echo-- though our vision of what stronger means seems starkly different).

Yet, Andersen's positives seem somehow predicated on Obama being a savior (or at least his election being one) and free markets being controlled. Several times Andersen mentions the African-Americaness (as though some sort of magic tonic) of the president, and Andersen certainly seems to echo both Obama's cocky ignorance and his enthusiasm for unrealistically controlled change.

Pervading his article, are two ideas that Andersen seems to hold true and underpins many of his arguments-- namely that (a) free markets are an ideology and not reality, (b) that it was invented or significantly changed under Reagan. The first idea is a common claim by many on the left. Since the left's idea of economics is ideologically informed, based on Marx's erroneous and politically driven economic theories, there seems to be the belief that free markets are likewise an ideology. This is not true. The free market theories of economics were developed to describe the reality of economic rules, to attempt to understand and label how value, worth, and trade are determined in human society. It was not, as in the case of Marx, an arbitrary theory imposed upon reality for political gain and to provide self-manufactured "evidence."

Free markets are a fact, authenticated by the manner in which free market theories accurately describe the behavior of the economy. While I myself, as a writer, would prefer that a product's value be determined in some way by the amount of effort I put into it-- as Marx proclaims-- it is not. I work hard on a book and then it doesn't sell, maybe doesn't even get published. Who do I blame? The answer of no one, except perhaps myself, is not a popular one. How much easier it is to claim the value of my work tied intrinsically into my efforts, how seductive. But it's wishful thinking. It is a sham. In art, much like virtue, the act is its own reward. Economic value is determined by the market, by how many people are willing to pay what price for it. This simple truth, no matter how it's twisted and attacked, rethought or redefined, is intractable.

And, of course, such definitions were neither invented nor significantly altered by Reagan. Reaganomics was a matter of policy rather than economics, a bid to outspend the Soviets and to block Congressional calls for increases in taxes. While taking advantage of free market theories, and not imposing much of its own perceived truth, it largely succeeded in its aims. It was not an ideological shift in economics, but rather a shift of political policy.

In this impermanent world, change happens. It is not always a good thing, but the world doesn't care about what is good or bad for us. While economic reality can be seen as cruel and merciless, utterly devoid of pity, it is actually completely innocent and lacks any malice. To impose morality on economics is as meaningless as to impose it on the ocean. It is indifferent and merely, but unquestionably, exists. It moves according to its own rules irregardless of what you wish or want, irregardless of what would be best for everybody. Flexibility is the true mark of economic resiliency-- an ability and willingness to adapt to unexpected conditions, to accept losses that are imposed, to cushion falls when possible, to cut losses when one must.

Andersen's gleefulness is a little hard for me to take, personally. It reminds of an H.G. Wells wish list. Wells, in a typically socialist and elitist fashion, takes the viewpoint that the world would be a lot better off if there were a lot less people-- especially the wrong type of people. People who spread discontent, people who are too ignorant or unwilling to accept the basic Marxist truths underpinning socialism, people who are a burden on society, and people he just plain doesn't like need to be swept away to create his envisioned utopias. Whether it's invaders from Mars (War of the Worlds) cleansing away the riff-raff, or a comet striking the earth to free humanity to create a utopia (In the Days of the Comet) or an ignorant and colossal war, killing many, but freeing the rest to great progress (The Shape of Things to Come), Wells revels in the destruction of the majority. Like a Marat, a Lenin, a Stalin, a Mao, a Pol Pot, H.G. Wells urges destruction and death to create "better" societies. Utopia is just around the corner-- it'll all work if we just kill this many more people, and when society doesn't work the way it should, when problems don't simply vanish with the slaughter, then the answer is invariably more eradication, the utter destruction of real and imagined enemies.

Andersen seems to have this same mentality with political ideologies and inconvenient facts. Eliminate them, deny them. Like Obama's selective history lessons (the New Deal Worked, the Japanese didn't spend enough to battle their recession, economies need massive stimulus, etc.), Andersen shoots down political theories without expending ammo. He doesn't offer evidence, doesn't even erect the straw men to tear down. Instead he uses rhetoric and words to simply soothe and reassure, but mostly to proclaim. Equal parts condescension and arrogance mixes into simple statement of "truths," truths based on wishful thinking and agenda.

Andersen imposes great potential on the future, would like us all to believe that we are sailing into uncharted waters with a president like no other before us. Ideologies will be abandoned and reformed, adapted to the great and inevitable socialist plan that the world naturally enacts on us. He offers no evidence of this, of course. He merely proclaims such between his finger wagging.

The truth is that the future is always uncharted and mysterious, and the president, despite media fawning and his personal arrogance, currently offers little new, instead opting for tried and failed policies of the past-- Carter chief among his influences. Ideologies necessarily adapt to circumstance, but future circumstances are unlikely to be predictable. The world around us, China flexing economic muscle but burdened with the inverse pyramid of its one child policies, significant portions of South America falling, once again, into the cyclical dichotomy of establishing socialist dictatorships and brutal right-wing dictators, Africa both emerging and failing, India establishing itself as an economic powerhouse but bordering a bellicose and unstable nuclear power, does not offer us the luxuries of ignorance nor predictability. What the future demands (and will dispassionately impose) is truthful observation, as untainted by ambitions and ideologies as possible, and a governmental system flexible enough to handle unforeseen crises. Andersen seems to not realize this, and instead offers only rose-colored predictions firmly established in ideology.

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