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The Three Types of Radicalism

2015 April 20
by Ian Welsh
Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware

Painting: Washington Crossing the Delaware

The term radical is used, often, without a clear understanding of what it means.  A radical is:

someone who believes the system can no longer change itself

That’s all.

Note that a one can be a radical for one’s self or own group while admitting that others can create change. For example, you could believe that America is an oligarchy with a mere democratic gloss. That admits that people who are rich enough can create change thru the system, but that almost no one else can. If you aren’t rich enough, you’re a radical; if you are, you probably regard yourself as a realist.

Radicals come in degrees. You might believe that voting in elections can’t change anything, but that it is possible to take over a party thru primaries and make change that way. You might believe that the best way to make change is to offer politicians good jobs and lots of money after their careers are over, so they take care of you while in power (and to make sure their family members are rich during their careers).  Since bribing politicians is, if not illegal, at least not supposed to be part of the system, this is radical as a matter of degree. (The size of bribes matters).

There are three basic types of radicals.

Passive Radicals

If, in a democratic society, you don’t vote, protest, run, or lobby because you figure the system is rigged, and you don’t do anything else to make a change, then you’re a passive radical. The passive radical has “opted out.” You can be a passive radical about various part of a society. For example, if you refuse to call the police or use the justice system, you are a radical about that part of the system.

Active Radicals

You’ve decided change isn’t possible thru the system and you’re doing something about it. Maybe you’re schooling your own kids, maybe you’ve set up an alternate justice system (common in many countries that suffer from anarchy or government failure), maybe you’ve gone off the grid and grow your own food.

Here, there are degrees as well. Say you create your own political party and it takes off (the Pirate Party in Sweden, for example). That indicates some faith that the change is possible thru the system, but you’ve chosen to create a new part of the system. In America, if you really believe in third parties, that’s fairly radical, given how long it’s been since any third party did more than act as a spoiler.

The key feature of an active radical is that they are trying to create change, but are trying to do it either outside the system, or by taking control of part of the system and then changing it. (The takeover of the Republican party, for example. The Netroots tried to take over Democrats in the 2000s and failed.)

Violent Radicals

A violent radical has decided that change will only come thru violence and has decided to apply that violence themselves or actively support those who do. Most readers’ minds will leap to Muslim radicals of various stripes, but much of union history is full of violent radicals: willing to fight the police or even the army toe-to-toe. Maidan protestors in Ukraine who engaged in violence qualify, and if the Bundy ranch protesters were serious about fighting, so did they. The Black Bloc members who aren’t police plants are another example.

So, for that matter, were the Founding Fathers of America, Parliament in the English revolution, and all who fought to overthrow the monarchy in England and elsewhere.

Radicalism is neither good nor bad, all it is is a belief that you can’t make change thru the existing power structures. Almost always, it is accompanied with a belief that a different type of system is required: Republicanism for American revolutionaries; the caliphate for ISIL; parliamentary democracy for the British or; communism for the Bolsheviks.

The job of the radical or revolutionary, peaceful or not, is to convince people that the system cannot fix itself; then to convince them to take action, whether that action is peaceful or violent. There have been many peaceful revolutions: FDR issued one in in America, for example, and so did both Reagan and George W. Bush, capped during the Obama presidency both by Obama actions such as continuing the vast destruction of civil liberties and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United to allow unlimited money into the system.

The change from a patronage system to a professional bureaucracy was another radical idea, by the way, and changed American government hugely, not always for the better. It was the start of the decline in electoral participation and it reduced the ability of politicians to make significant change, as well, since they were no longer as firmly in control of all levels of the bureaucracy.

This speaks to the fact that revolutions can come from the left or the right, from elites or populists. To be against Keynesian economics, redistribution, and for oligarchy in the 1970s was to be a radical. Nixon believed in Keynesian politics, wanted universal healthcare, and started the Environmental Protection Agency.

The radicals on the right won: They broke the unions, concentrated wealth and power in the hands of people who would continue to support their policies, and eventually changed the effective interpretation of law and the constitution to gut the first and fourth amendments, the presumption of innocence, and the safeguards put in place to make sure that money was not the deciding factor in elections or policy making.

To be a radical is neither innately good nor innately bad. As with all other human endeavours, it depends on what the radicals are trying to accomplish (their ends) and how they do it (their means). We celebrate a great number of violent radicals every year in various national holidays, and daily revile radicals, peaceful or violent, with whom we disagree.


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The Role of the Intellectual

2015 April 20
by Ian Welsh

Edward Said,  (h/t Adam Johnson):

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so, to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship. For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralise, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life, it is these considerations, internalised and so to speak in the driver’s seat.

Exactly.  And if you do this, you become a “serious person.” You’re wrong about everything that matters, if when your advice is followed, it causes disaster, but you are well taken care of.

John Edwards

2015 April 17
by Ian Welsh
Picture of John Edward

Picture of John Edwards

(Back to the top because people still don’t understand this.)

His trial has been declared a mistrial.

The personal is not the political. His wife seemed like a good person, but I could care less. FDR cheated on his wife. JFK screwed hookers in the White House pool while married.

The facts about John Edwards that I care about are these:

1) He was the only major politician who made a big issue of poverty.

2) He was the only major politician to say he didn’t believe in the war on terror.

3) The reason the affair came to light is because he stopped paying her off, which he did because he was no longer in the race.

The children who thought that having a black president, despite the fact that he was, on domestic policy, worse than EVERY other democratic nominee, are why the US is so fucked right now. (And yes, he was worse on domestic policy than even Hillary Clinton. Don’t believe me, believe Paul Krugman.)

Edwards trial was a politically motivated show trial. The goal was to make sure that everyone thinks that there was no left wing candidate in the election and that Obama is the best you could ever do. Well, that and a personal hatred, as best I can tell. Obama refused to cut a deal with Edwards for support. What did Edwards ask for in exchange for support? Help for the poor.

Obama did cut a deal with Clinton, of course. He let her have State, so she could influence foreign policy, the ONE policy area where she was to his right.

(Originally published May 31, 2012)


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Identity Markers Do Not Make You Left Wing

2015 April 17

In Ontario, Canada, Premier Kathleen Wynne has announced that she will privatize Ontario Hydro. This will (I guarantee) result in higher prices for power and a worse safety record, because private investors require more profits than public ones. Because Ontario Hydro does make some money, it will also result in the Ontario government having less income going forward.

Wynne is also allowing beer to be sold in grocery stores, breaking the previous oligopoly held by one private company (for beer only) and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. This will mean less money for the government as well. This is something for which the right has campaigned for ages.

These are both right wing policy initiatives and the Hydro privatization, in particular, is terrible.

Kathleen Wynne belongs to the Liberal party and she is a lesbian.

At the time of the campaign to replace the previous Liberal leader and Premier of Ontario, I pointed out that Wynne was a neoliberal.  She is, in fact, a more extreme neoliberal than the previous leader, McGuinty, who was also terrible.

But, because she is a lesbian, people on the left would not heed my warning.

This is similar to what happened in 2008 in America. Barack Obama is African American. Too many people could not wrap their head around the idea that he was also very right wing, despite how much he praised Ronald Reagan. The guilty white liberals who self-identify with the civil rights movement particularly felt the need for the symbolic victory of a black man in the White House, no matter how bad his policies would be.

The results are in. Obama:

  • Vastly increased drone assassination;
  • Surged in Afghanistan;
  • Attacked Libya;
  • Prosecuted and persecuted whistle blowers more than the last ten Presidencies put together;
  • Oversaw an expansion in which only the top 5% saw any improvement in their income;
  • Oversaw an economy which was more unequal than any since the Gilded Age and worse than Bush Jr’s;
  • And far, far more.

But hey, he’s African American. Who cares about all the people he killed overseas and all the people in America who are in poverty as a result of his venal economic policies?

Now we’re about to repeat this with Hillary Clinton, who wants to be the first woman President. A woman president would be a good thing, symbolically, and so on, but how about having a good president instead?

Simply belonging to a discriminated against minority does not guarantee that a candidate will personally pursue policies which help everyone and which don’t favor the wealthy. The first people to break out of discriminated groups and gain real power are almost always collaborators.

As long as we continue using sexual orientation, skin color, or other identity markers as proxies for solid, left wing policy, we can continue to expect having our livelihoods destroyed.


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Learned Hopelessness About Using Government for Good

2015 April 16
by Ian Welsh

Seems that some of my commenters think that using government for good would be hard to do. Going with the theory that every comment indicates some number of readers who believe the same, let’s explore this notion in further depth. This kind of doubt is more important than it seems, because it speaks to the weird, modern idea that governments are powerless to control how money is spent by individuals or corporations, when, in fact, it’s dead easy.

The tax system is also set up to catch stuff like this. No income declared from your property? Hmmm… do you have family members living there for free? Go inspect.

You can also supplement this with things like checking meters, checking mail delivery, and checking IR maps to see if the heat or air conditioning is on. (All this before we even get to the government’s real surveillance abilities). I guarantee the salaries of the people doing the inspections will be far exceeded by the fines and the money earned from auctions of seized properties.

This sort of thing is not only dirt easy, actually enforcing it is profitable for government, just as auditing corporations and rich people is VERY profitable. So every time your government reduces auditors your tax service you should ask why.

No, as usual, this is an easily solved problem that people refuse to solve either because of learned helplessness or because it is profitable for them (and politicians) for the problem to remain unsolved.


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It’s Not Your Money

2015 April 15
by Ian Welsh

You also didn’t earn most of it.

It seems like every time I discuss taxation, some libertarian will waltz in and say: “It’s my money and I don’t see why the government should be able to take it.”

So let’s run through why, no, it isn’t your money. We’ll start with two numbers. The income per capita for the US in 2005 was $43,740. The income per capita for Bangladesh was $470.

Now I want you to ask yourself the following question: Are Bangladeshis genetically inferior to Americans? Since not too many of my readers think white sheets look great at a lynching, I’ll assume everyone answered no.

Right then, being American is worth $43,270 more than being Bangladeshi and it’s not due to Americans being superior human beings. If it isn’t because Americans are superior, then what is it?

The answer is that if it isn’t individual, it must be social. On the individual but still social level, Americans are in fact smarter than Bangladeshis because as children they are far less likely to suffer from malnutrition. However not suffering from malnutrition when you’re a baby, toddler or young child has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the society you live in and your family–two things over which you have zero influence (perhaps you chose your mother, I didn’t!).

Bangladeshis won’t, on average, get as good an education. They won’t get as much education either, since every child is needed to help earn a living as soon as possible. For most Bangladeshis, there’s no room for the extended childhood and adolescence to which westerners have grown accustomed, which often stretches into the late twenties or even early thirties, amongst those seeking Ph.Ds or becoming doctors or lawyers.

When a Bangladeshi grows up, the jobs available aren’t as good. If he or she starts a business, it will earn much less money than the equivalent American business. If he or she speculates in land and is very successful, the speculation will generate much less wealth than in America.

One could go on and on. I trust the point is obvious—the vast majority of money that an American earns is due to being born an American. Certainly the qualities that make America a good place to live and a good place to make money are things that were created by Americans, but mostly they were created by Americans long dead or they are created by all Americans working together and are not located in the individual.

The same is true of the really rich. Forbes keeps track of the world’s billionaires and almost half of them are in the US. This is because US society and the US government in particular, is set up to create billionaires. Your odds of being a billionaire take a massive jump if you’re born in the US. Your odds of being a billionaire if you’re born in Bangladesh? Essentially zero. Now one could point out that billionaires are still so rare that the odds are always essentially zero; how many billionaires in your circle of friends? Nonetheless, in 2005, the US had 371. Coming in second, Germany had 55.

Bangladesh, you won’t be surprised to hear, had zero.

If you’re a billionaire in the US, you’re a billionaire in large part because you live in the US.

So, if you’re American, a large chunk of the reason you make a lot of money (relative to the rest of the world) is that you are American. The main cause of your relative wealth is not that you work hard or that you’re innately smarter than members of other nations (though you may be since you weren’t starved as a child). It’s because you were afforded opportunities that most people never had and those opportunities existed due to the pure accident of your birth or because you or your family chose to come to the US. The same is true of most first world nations.

Immigrants understand this very well. There’s a reason why Mexicans, for example, are willing to risk death to cross the border. Their average income is $7,310, compared to the US average income of $43,740. They won’t make up all the difference just by crossing the border, but they’ll make up enough that it’s more than worth it. They haven’t personally changed, they don’t suddenly work harder now that they’re across the border. They don’t suddenly become smarter or stronger. They just change where they live and suddenly the opportunities open to them are so much better, their income goes up.

So let’s bring this back to our typical libertarian with his whine that he earned his money and the government shouldn’t be allowed to take it away. He didn’t earn most of it. Most of it is because, in global terms, he was born on third and thinks he hit a triple. This doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to work for it, but it does mean that most of the value of his work has nothing to do with him (and Ayn Rand aside, it’s almost always a him).

Now, in a democratic society, a government is the vehicle through which the population, as a whole, chooses to organize collective action. Government, imperfect as it is, is the closest approximation to the “will of society” that we’ve got.

Because the majority of the money any American earns is a function of being American, and the result of their own individual virtues, the government has the moral right to tax. And because those who are rich get more from being American than those who are poor, it also has the moral right to take more money from them.

More importantly than the moral right, government has the pragmatic duty to do so. The roads and bridges that government builds and maintains, the schools that it funds, the police and courts that keep the peace, the investment in R&D that produced the internet, the sewage systems that make real estate speculation possible, and on and on, are a huge chunk of what makes being American worth so much more than being a Bangladeshi. Failure to reinvest in both human and inanimate infrastructure is like killing the golden goose, and America, for decades now, has not been properly maintaining its infrastructure, let alone building it up.

And money itself is something that government provides for its people. It’s not your money, it’s America’s money and it’s a damn good thing too. If you don’t believe me, try issuing your own money and see how many people accept it. Some will, because when an individual issues money, it’s an IOU (which is essentially what money is). I’ve written a few in my life. In every case, the person I gave it to was less happy to receive it than he would have been to get some nice crisp dollars. And I rested my IOUs on dollars, that is, I promised to repay in my country’s currency. Barring the use of accepted currencies, you’d have to issue an IOU saying: “I will repay you with a bundle of rice.” Or gold or a service. This raises the question of enforcement (one thing even libertarians admit the government should do): What if I suddenly refuse to meet the conditions of the IOU? Even an IOU is based on the sanction of the government–if it isn’t, it’s worth only as much as the good will of the person issuing it or the strong arm of the person holding it.

So no, it isn’t your money and it’s a good thing it isn’t. And while you may have worked your butt off for it, you also didn’t earn most of it. The value you impute to yourself (“I’m worth my 80K salary”) is mostly a function of where you live, where you were born, and of who your parents are.

Originally published Feb 9, 2008.


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The Solution to Ghost Apartments Is Obvious and Predictably Overlooked

2015 April 14
by Ian Welsh

So, one of the reasons we have resurgent housing bubbles in world cities like New York, London, Hong Kong, and Toronto is because of foreigners who buy apartments and then leave them empty. Newsweek has a good article on ghost apartments, but I want to focus on this because it’s symptomatic of why we can’t fix almost anything:

In Singapore and Hong Kong, officials tried to slow the spread of absentee-owned luxury housing by limiting mortgages.

….

To encourage owners to occupy their units or sell, New York state legislation has been drafted to impose a progressive tax on vacant luxury apartments worth $5 million or more. The proposed levy would start at one-half of 1 percent and rise to 4 percent on values above $20 million.

People who can afford luxury apartments can afford that fee. Make it simple: Put in a residency requirement. Someone must live in the apartment six months a year. If they don’t, the tax rate is 50% of the ostensible value of the apartment. If that doesn’t work (and it might not, given how rich they are), well, then just make it illegal to own apartments that aren’t used and have the government seize the apartment and use it for social housing, or sell it. And if the next owner doesn’t use it, seize it again.

Lest you think this isn’t a serious problem, understand this: Every unused apartment raises the rent of every other apartment in the city and increases the cost of every other condo in the city. This is supply that is artificially off the market. Because people don’t live in these apartments, local businesses don’t have as many customers. Meanwhile, the high prices of luxury apartments for which there is no actual local demand drives up real-estate prices, which drives up taxation. Everyone pays more in taxes, rent, or mortgages to subsidize foreigners who aren’t even using the condos.

The same is true for houses.

Rich people who want to visit world cities can suck it up and pay for a hotel. There are plenty of hotels that cost thousands of dollars a day (tens of thousands aren’t uncommon, but ordinary people will never even see these listed), which are suitable for their “needs.”

The are many problems like this which are easy enough to fix by either extremely punitive taxation and fines or by just forbidding these destructive actions.


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The Sheer Idiocy of Helicopter Parenting

2015 April 13
by Ian Welsh

So, we have another case of children not being under constant supervision, some idiot reporting it, and cops treating it seriously:

Last month, the two [parents] were found responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect for allowing their kids, 10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora, to walk home alone in December. …

The kids had been playing at a park about a mile away and the Meitivs, both scientists, encouraged them to walk home on their own as a lesson in self-reliance.

Oooh. A mile. I used to spend all day wandering around by myself. I went to the downtown YMCA in Vancouver, far more than a mile away, by myself. My school was about a mile away and I walked there and home by myself. I went out and played street hockey and my parents had no idea where I was; it was usually at least half a mile away.

It’s true that the world has changed, mind you: Stranger-crime afflicting children is way down. This might be because of all the helicopter parenting, I grant you, but there’s no credible argument that America or Canada is now more dangerous for children than it was 30 or 40  years ago.

In fact, if something bad is going to happen to your child, a few over-reported cases aside, it will almost certainly be done to them by a family member, a friend of the family, or another trusted adult. The people who are goddamn scary to children, dangerous to children, are the people you trust, not strangers.

Meanwhile, absent unsupervised playtime, absent learning how to handle themselves around strangers, the children don’t properly develop independence or creativity. (Measures of creativity are now in multi-generational decline, coinciding with the rise of helicopter parenting.)

Keeping children so safe they never learn how to be independent, creative adults who are able to take care of themselves is no favor to them. It’s an indulgence in fear. I was going to school by myself in grade two. I was walking Calcutta slums by myself in my early teens. I was traveling by myself in my teens as well.

And yeah, the bad things that happened to me, I can tell you, all happened at the hands of trusted adults and the bad things I suffered at the hands of other children ALL happened at school, supposedly a supervised place.

Binding children hand and foot doesn’t teach them safety, it teaches them fear and dependence.


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A Clintonian Coronation?

2015 April 12
by Ian Welsh
Hilary Clinton Secretary of State Portrait

Hilary Clinton Secretary of State Portrait

So, Hilary has made it official. Last time she was the front-runner and lost, but this time there are no particularly strong presumptive nominees: no Obama, nobody even as strong as Edwards was.

Clinton’s negatives are terrible and she has a lot of baggage. The right will hammer her on Bengazi, but more serious to left-wingers is Iraq and the larger picture of foreign policy when she was Secretary of State. Libya’s a complete mess, the Arab Spring failed and gave way to more repressive states, ISIS rose (albeit its spectacular breakout was after her resignation), and so on.

Back in 2008, I read the three major campaigns’ policy documents and releases carefully–it was my job. Edwards was the most left-wing candidate, the other two weren’t even close. Not a lot separated Clinton and Obama on substantive issues, but, generally speaking, she was slightly to his left on domestic bread and butter issues and slightly to his right on foreign affairs. It is instructive that her post was at State.

When Lincoln Chafee declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination last week, he was very explicit about Iraq; Chafee was the only Republican to vote against the war. Say what one will, that took integrity and guts. Clinton likes to say she makes “hard choices,” but it’s not clear to me what those choices are. Her “hard choices” are generally of the “make your bones” variety: Do what the elites want and shove it down the throats of ordinary people.

The main exceptions would be in terms of women’s rights, in which she genuinely believes and for which she has fought.

Can Clinton beat the Republican candidate–most likely Jeb Bush? Well, her negatives are high and she’s trying to extend a Democratic presidency which has been pretty awful on the economy (many people will try to pretend otherwise, they are either stupid, in the top 5% or so who have done well, or on the payroll). On the other hand, identification with the Democratic party is significantly higher (almost 10%) than with the Republican party. That’s a significant advantage.

This far out, I don’t know. There are weaknesses in a Clinton candidacy. This is not 2008, where the election was the Democratic nominee’s to lose. The real election in 2008 was the Democratic primary, everyone knew it, and that’s why the fight was so vicious.

Personally, of the people who have put themselves forward so far I like Chafee the best. He seems to have some actual integrity and is at least saying most of the right things. He doesn’t appear to have much of a chance; like every other Democratic nominee so far he’s about waiting for Clinton to stumble.

I think coronating Clinton is most likely a mistake, though, and not just because I don’t like her politics. She needs to be tested properly in competitive primaries. The Clinton of the late 2008 campaign was a fierce campaigner, but she’s bungled a great deal before and since then.

May the best candidate for America, and the world, win.


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The Decline and Fall of Post War Liberalism and the Rise of the Right (Reprint: The Reagan Legacy)

2015 April 11
tags:
by Ian Welsh

strikes-involving-more-than-1k-workers In the Anglo-US world, post-War liberalism has been on the defensive since the 1970s.  This is normally shown through various wage or wealth graphs, but I’m going to show two graphs of a different nature. The first, to the right, is the number of strikes involving more than 1K workers. Fascinating, eh?

The second, below and to your left, is the incarceration rate. It isn’t adjusted for population increases, but even if it was, the picture wouldn’t change significantly.

This is the change in America caused by the Reagan revolution, which, as is the case with most revolutions, started before its flagship personality.

Graph of incarceration in the US over time

From Wikipedia

 

I was born in 1968.  I remember the 70s, albeit from a child’s perspective.  They were very different from today. My overwhelming impression is that people were more relaxed and having a lot more fun. They were also far more open. The omnipresent security personnel, the constant ID checks, and so forth, did not exist. Those came in to force, in Canada, in the early 1990s. As a bike courier in Ottawa, I would regularly walk around government offices to deliver packages. A few, like the Department of National Defense and Foreign Affairs, would make us call up or make us deliver to the mail room, but in most cases I’d just go up to the recipient’s office. Virtually all corporate offices were open, gated only by a receptionist.

Even the higher security places were freer. I used to walk through Defense headquarters virtually every day, as they connected two bridges with a heated pedestrian walkway. That walkway closed in the Gulf War and has never, so far as I know, re-opened.

I also walked freely through Parliament Hill, unescorted, with no ID check to get in.

This may seem like a sidelight, but it isn’t. The post-war liberal state was fundamentally different from the one we have today. It was open. The bureaucrats and the politicians and even the important private citizens were not nearly as cut off from ordinary people as they are today. As a bike courier, I interrupted senior meetings of Assistant Deputy Ministers with deliveries. I walked right in. (They were very gracious in every case.)

The post-war liberal state involved multiple sectors, in conflict, but in agreement about that conflict. Strikes were allowed, they were expected, and unions were considered to have their part to play. It was understood that workers had a right to fight for their part of the pie. Capitalism, liberal capitalism, meant collective action because only groups of ordinary workers can win their share of productivity increases.

productivity and wages

productivity and wages

Which leads us to our second chart. The moment you lock up everyone who causes trouble (usually for non-violent, non-compliance with drug laws), the moment you crack down on strikes, ordinary people don’t get their share of productivity increases. It’s really just that simple.

This is all of a piece. The closing off of politicians and bureaucrats from public contact, the soaring CEO and executive salaries which allow them to live without seeing anyone who isn’t part of their class or a servitor, the locking up of people who don’t obey laws that make no sense (and drug laws are almost always stupid laws), the crushing of unions, which are a way to give unfettered feedback to politicians and our corporate masters, are all about allowing them to take the lion’s share of the meat of economic gains and leave the scraps for everyone else.

But why did the liberal state fail? Why did this come about? Let’s highlight three reasons: the rise of the disconnected technocrat; the failure to handle the oil crisis, and; the aging of the liberal generations.

The rise of the disconnected technocrat has been discussed often, generally with respect to the Vietnam war. The “best and the brightest” had all the numbers, managed the war, and lost it. They did so because they mistook the numbers for reality and lost control. The numbers they had were managed up, by the people on the ground. They were fake. The kill counts coming out of Vietnam, for example, were completely fake and inflated. Having never worked on the ground, having not “worked their way up from the mail room,” having not served in the military themselves, disconnected technocrats didn’t realize how badly they were being played. They could not call bullshit. This is a version of the same problem which saw the Soviet Politburo lose control over production in the USSR.

The second, specific failure was the inability to manage the oil shocks and the rise of OPEC. As a child in the 1970s, I saw the price of chocolate bars go from 25c to a dollar in a few years. The same thing happened to comic books. The same thing happened to everything. The postwar liberal state was built on cheap oil and the loss of it cascaded through the economy. This is related to the Vietnam war. As with the Iraq war in the 2000s, there was an opportunity cost to war. Attention was on an essentially meaningless war in SE Asia while the important events were occurring in the Middle East. The cost, the financial cost of the war, should have been spent instead on transitioning the economy to a more efficient one–to a “super-analog” world. All the techs were not in place, but enough were there, so that, with temporizing and research starting in the late 1960s, the transition could have been made.

Instead the attempt was left too late, at which point the liberal state had lost most of its legitimacy.  Carter tried, but was a bad politician and not trusted sufficiently. Nor did he truly believe in, or understand, liberalism, which is why Kennedy ran against him in 1980.

But Kennedy didn’t win and neither did Carter. Reagan did. And what Reagan bet was that new oil resources would come online soon enough to bail him out.  He was right. They did and the moment faded. Paul Volcker, as Fed Chairman, appointed by Carter, crushed inflation by crushing wages, but once inflation was crushed and he wanted to give workers their share of the new economy, he was purged and “the Maestro,” Alan Greenspan, was put in charge. Under Greenspan, the Fed treated so-called wage push inflation as the most important form of inflation.

Greenspan’s tenure as Fed chairman can be summed up as follows: Crush wage gains that are faster than inflation and make sure the stock market keeps rising no matter what (the Greenspan Put). Any time the market would falter, Greenspan would be there with cheap money. Any time workers looked like they might get their share of productivity gains, Greenspan would crush the economy. This wasn’t just so the rich could get richer, it was to keep commodity inflation under control, since workers would spend their wages on activities and items which increased oil consumption.

The third reason for the failure of liberalism was the aging of the liberal generation. Last year I read Chief Justice Robert Jackson’s brief biography of FDR (which you should read). At the end of the book are brief biographies of main New Deal figures other than Roosevelt. Reading them, I was struck by how many were dying in the 1970s. The great lions who created modern liberalism, who created the New Deal, who understood the moving parts were dead or old. They had not created successors who understood their system, who understood how the economy and the politics of the economy worked, or even who understood how to do rationing properly during a changeover to the new economy.

The hard-core of the liberal coalition, the people who were adults in the Great Depression, who felt in their bones that you had to be fair to the poor, because without the grace of God there go you, were old and dying.  The suburban part of the GI Generation was willing to betray liberalism to keep suburbia; it was their version of the good life,  for which everything else must be sacrificed. And sacrificed it was, and has been, because suburbia, as it is currently constituted, cannot survive high oil prices without draining the rest of society dry.

Reagan offered a way out, a way that didn’t involve obvious sacrifice. He attacked a liberal establishment which had not handled high oil prices, which had lost the Vietnam war, and which had alienated its core southern supporters by giving Blacks rights.

And he delivered, after a fashion. The economy did improve, many people did well, and inflation was brought under control (granted, it would have been if Carter had his second term, but people don’t think like that).  The people who already had good jobs were generally okay, especially if they were older. If you were in your 40s or 50s when Reagan took charge in 1980, it was a good bet that you’d be dead before the bill really came due. You would win the death bet.

Liberalism failed because it couldn’t handle the war and crisis of the late 60s and 70s. The people who could have helped were dead or too old. They had not properly trained successors; those successors were paying attention to the wrong problem and had become disconnected from the reality on the ground. And the New Deal coalition was fracturing, more interested in hating blacks or keeping the “good” suburban lifestyle than in making sure that a rising tide lifted all boats (a prescriptive, not descriptive, statement).

There are those who say liberalism is dying now. That’s true, sort of, in Europe ex-Britain. The social-democratic European state is being dismantled. The EU is turning frankly tyrannical and the Euro is being used as a tool to extract value from peripheral nations by the core nations. But in the Angl0-American world, liberalism was already dead, with the few great spars like Glass-Steagall, defined benefit pensions, SS, Medicare, welfare, and so on, under constant assault.

Europe was cushioned from what happened to the US by high density and a different political culture. The oil shocks hit them hard, but without significant suburbia, without sprawl, tolerably. They were able to maintain the social-democratic state. They are now losing it, not because they must, but because their elites want it. Every part of the social-democratic state is something which could be privatized to make money for your lords and masters, or it can be gotten rid of if no money can be made from it and the money once spent on it can be redirected towards their priorities.

Liberalism died and is dying because liberals aren’t really liberal, and when they are, they can’t do anything about it.

None of this means that modern conservatism (which is far different from the conservatism of my childhood) is a success if one cares about mass well-being. It isn’t. But it is a success in the sense that it has done what its lords and masters wanted—it has transferred wealth, income and, power to them. It is self-sustaining, in the sense that it transfers power to those who want it to continue. It builds and strengthens its own coalition.

Any political coalition, any ideology behind a political coalition, must do this: It must build and strengthen support. It must have people who know that if it continues they will do well, and that if it doesn’t, they won’t.  Liberalism failed to make that case to Southerners, who doubled down on cheap factory jobs and racism, and to suburbanite GI Generation types, who wanted to keep the value of their homes and knew they couldn’t if oil prices and inflation weren’t controlled. Their perceived interests no longer aligned with liberalism and so they left the coalition.

We can have a new form of liberalism (or whatever we wish to call it), when we understand why the old form failed and can articulate the conditions for our new form’s success. Maybe more on that another time.

(A version of this history will appear in my upcoming Book.)


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