Monday, August 09, 2010

21st century liberals

There's a common thread that runs through politicians as varied as Paul Martin, Jean Chretien, Dalton McGuinty, and yes Barack Obama. Maybe as far as liberalism is concerned, we should start the clock of the 21st century a bit early--the way historians talk about a "long 19th century" that started in 1789 and ends in 1914. That way we could integrate Bill Clinton, by far the most important liberal leader of the 21st century--both because he was the American President, and because he set the path that we seem to be following.

The common thread that runs from Clinton to Chretien to McGuinty to Obama, is basically an inverse Leninism: if the early Soviets believed that the state needed to control the "commanding heights" of the economy, your modern liberals seem to believe the commanding heights of the economy need to control the state. One implication from this is that they basically reject the idea of a serious political argument, in the original sense of the word: the idea that there are serious disputes between parties of different levels of power and autonomy is basically dismissed. Instead, there are just problems that need to be managed. The capital-c Correct solution is one in which the needs of everyone can be satisfied.

Except that, of course, no solution actually satisfies everyone, so you get some really bizarre redefinitions of "satisfaction". You end up with emergency actions to rescue bankers but a sense of resignation, and even apathy, at tens of millions of people unnecessarily out of work.
Obama may have entered the White House with the intention of assembling a Lincolnesque “team of rivals,” but Summers subverted that notion by making himself chief packager and gatekeeper for any dissenting arguments about economic policy—all, he claimed, to spare the President from meeting with “long-winded people.” Lincoln’s “team of rivals” reported directly to Lincoln, but, as one source told Alter, Summers so skewed the process in this White House that it was like “a team of rivals reporting to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s prideful secretary of war.” Even Warren Buffett, a supporter who had spoken to Obama weekly during the fall of 2008, “found himself mysteriously out of touch with the new president” once he took office.

Obama was now imprisoned within the cozy Summers-Geithner group “and it would be increasingly difficult for him to see beyond its borders.” This “disconnection from the world,” Alter concludes, was not due to ideology or the clout of special interests but was instead “the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved from a mere culture to something approaching a cult.” For all Obama’s skepticism of cant, he was “in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a ‘right answer’ to everything. But a right answer for whom?”
Of course, you've got to love how Alter tries to reassure us that the extraordinarily wealthy people in the Obama administration mobilized truly massive amounts of capital to rescue their extraordinarily wealthy comrades--but not because of ideology, you understand.

There's a similar thing happening in Ontario right now, as the McGuinty government introduces any number of changes -- tax shifts from business to individuals, changes to post-secondary education funding, and now changes to labour law: if your boss has screwed you out of wages you're owed, you now have to prove to the government you've confronted your boss before they'll intervene on your behalf.

Leave aside the question of fairness--lord knows if I steal from my employer, the law doesn't require them to confront me before they call the police--is the law of the Province of Ontario going to say, in effect, that unless a taxpayer has tried to resolve a problem themselves, they don't want to hear about it? That the government doesn't consider it a crime to leave your workers unpaid, so long as you get around to it eventually?

It's worth noting that the Liberals in Ontario have managed to be so incompetent and malicious lately that even the Toronto Star editorial board has managed to timidly, gently tip toe towards actually criticizing the Liberals on this. But the larger problems is that basically the leftmost span of the political spectrum--leftmost acceptable span, of course--is basically still lemon socialism.

Christ almight, Paul bleedin' Krugman--a neoliberal deity, or at least a major saint--is considered the outer fringe of acceptable American leftism. Not that I don't think he's great, especially lately, but there's got to be more than this, right?

1 comment:

Chet Scoville said...

The strangest thing about all of this, at least to me, is that there was never any good reason to think that broad prosperity would ever have come from the model that the post-Clinton liberals have followed. It certainly wasn't the model that had brought the huge economic expansion of the mid-20th century, and over the past 25 years it's just led to crisis after crisis. So what is the fascination with it?