Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Republican Pincer Machine

William E. Connolly

Johns Hopkins University

The basic situation is clear. Despite campaigning during a period when the opposing Party was saddled with an unfunded, irrational war and soaring inequality, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign did not climb over the hump until a week after the September 15th meltdown. At that point McCain faltered, and many voters took another look around. Obama was cool and competent during this crisis. And the consummate campaigner soon became the front runner, if not by the margin you would expect under such dire circumstances.

Coming into office, Obama faced a huge debt assembled over the Bush years, amplified by the bail outs of banks. Unemployment soared and the economy was frozen. He concluded that it was necessary to stimulate the economy in the Keynesian tradition. Homeowners, consumers, banks and corporations were no longer active, so the government had to provide a stimulus of last resort.

Left Keynesians, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, insisted from the start that the Obama stimulus was neither big enough nor focused properly. It contained too many tax cuts for upper income people and insufficient job creation through projects to rebuild the economic infrastructure: fast rail, new electrical conveyor systems, green energy projects, highway construction, urban housing, and school construction. Obama argued that his modest program was needed to avoid a Republican filibuster. Many others thought--I was among this group--that this was precisely the time to incite such a filibuster from the radical right. If Republicans enacted one at this stage they could be seen, accurately, as an obstacle to recovery from the meltdown they had created; if they caved, the economy would be stimulated along tracks that were favorable to the future of everyday people and America in the world.

This is when the Republican Party set its trap. Meeting in closed sessions at the beginning of the Obama regime, the party of tax cuts for the rich, unfunded wars, and the largest deficit in the history of the country redefined itself. It suddenly became the party of deficit reduction through lean government joined to supreme confidence in unregulated financial and corporate markets. It even opposed the bail out of General Motors and Chrysler, though these actions stopped unemployment from reaching a dangerous tipping point, allowed the two companies time to reconstruct themselves, and enabled them to pay back the loans within two years–-creating one of the most successful bailouts in the history of Euro-American economic life.

Now the pincers machine was in full motion. The first pincer was systematic refusal to support programs that would pull the economy out of the dangerous recession within a year or two. That refusal would create failure for which the President and Keynesianism could be blamed. The second, one that surprised many with its quick success, was to redefine the issues until the problem with the economy became the stimulus itself rather than too small a stimulus.

Obama aided both strategies by presenting his small, unbalanced stimulus as sufficient to the task. But, still, the Republicans had to construct a deft strategy. They had to convince a large section of the electorate that the party of profligate military spending, economic meltdown, and tax cuts for the rich when in power was actually, now that it was out of power, the guardian of a self-sustaining market economy that only needed the state to get out of the way. This vision was attached to a simple idea of entrepreneurial, consumer and worker freedom in an unfettered market economy, a vision that deflects attention from the draconian disciplines they are actually willing to impose on regular people in the name of a small state. If you want a sense of what the latter measures are check out the policies of recently elected Republican governors and legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. If you need more check out the repressive worker policies of Walmart, recently vindicated by the gang of five Republicans on the Supreme Court.

So the trap sucked Obama into a small stimulus in an attempt to gain Republican support; then Republicans voted against it; then they treated the stimulus as THE source of the problem; then they insisted that a return to unregulated markets and tax reductions for the rich would cure all evils. Why did such a strategy work as well as it has?

The answer is that some sections of the populace were already primed to accept such a simple conception of freedom and vision of market self-sufficiency, even if acceptance required it to forget how the Bush regime of unfunded wars, low taxes, and deregulation had created the crisis and even if it was often against their economic interest to support such a story line. But, again, why accept such fantasies so quickly?

The reasons vary from constituency to constituency. First, many young people of relative affluence were pushed in this direction by the pressure to believe in the stability of the system in which they seek to forge professional and entrepreneural careers. Second, there is a distinctive sense of special entitlement among the rich and super-rich in America, a sense that encourages them to support the myth of a self-sustaining market economy whose main problem is large state expenditures and regulation of banks, derivatives, Wall Street and corporations. Call it American exceptionalism. Moreover, their wariness of “entitlement programs”–-those self funded programs of Social Security and medicare upon which so many Americans depend---provide ideological cover for the more fundamental sense of class entitlement they feel. They feel entitled to a corporate economy that allows them to wrangle an ever increasing share of the income and wealth from it, even while other classes tread water, or worse.

That covers two constituencies. But what about others? I have contended in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style that many anxious white males in the working and middle classes seek alpha models of masculinity with which to identify in a world of declining manufacturing jobs, perceived pressure from multiple minorities, and growing economic uncertainty. Given such a preliminary disposition, many are drawn to corporate elites, sports heroes, financial wizards and military leaders who project alpha images of freedom as independence, mastery and virility. That sense of freedom can then be nudged toward idealizing unregulated markets within which virile masters work their miracles.

On the other hand state welfare programs, market regulations, state retirement schemes, and state protected health care, while essential to life, remind too many of the very fragilities, vulnerabilities, susceptibilities and dependencies they strive to forget. So they are tempted by the idea of freedom as mastery. Many, certainly, resist succumbing to such pressures, out of concern for their children and the future. But others succumb, simplifying the experience of freedom until it is dissociated from the quality of work life, social interdependency, collective action, union organization, local associational life, and the like.

So the Right becomes the bearer of “freedom”, while the Left becomes the bearer of “welfare” disconnected from it. A dangerous combination.

There is a double bind at work here. First, masculinization of the market and feminization of state welfare draws many in the white working class toward the myth of unregulated markets. Second, attempts to draw attention to how the first bind works intensifies resentment among these very constituencies against the Democratic Party, the welfare state, and state regulation. The account seems to challenge the image of freedom they express. Obama found that out in 2008 when, in a fundraising speech leaked to the media, he noted the resentment felt by many members of the white working class. To point to the bind and the pressures to stifle enunciation of it is to risk deepening the bind. That is the second bind in the double bind.

The political formula of the radical right is thus effective while dangerous to the country. On the other hand, to ignore the double bind is to forget the suffering of the working class, to court the loss of an urgently needed constituency, and to risk allowing the rightward drive of the country to continue.

Neoliberal heroes, Fox Talking Heads, and evangelical publicists help to incite the vulnerabilities in question; they then feed upon the struggle of many white males to conceal them from their families. This pincers movement helps to explain the Tea Party, which, by the way, is not “new” but merely the latest incarnation of an “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” that has helped to define the public philosophy of America since 1980. Clinton and Obama swim in these waters, even if they sometimes make faint efforts to climb out of them.

Yes, the Republican pincers movement works in part because a Fox News/think tank/ publicist machine reiterates its assumptions every day. But it also works because many anxious male members of the white middle and working classes are predisposed to its message.

The probability, then, is that the next election will be close. It could also be fateful. Not because it is apt to enable the kind of electoral transformation the country urgently needs. But the Republican Party already has a majority on the Supreme Court, which increasingly attacks the rights of workers and consumers. If it captures the White House and both houses of Congress it will pass Draconian measures and deploy repressive tactics to stifle public dissent. All in the name of freedom. What to do?

Of course new and surprising events could shuffle things again, as they have at times in the past. The politics of the event does periodically erupt. But it is not wise to count in advance on those events breaking the best way. To me, the first thing to do is to explain in sympathetic ways what kind of pressures the white working class faces today, without caving in to tendencies within a segment of this class to demonize minorities.

The second is to remind people forcefully how many times tax cuts for the rich and market deregulation have generated economic crises, starting with the Great Depression.

The third, and most fundamental, is to challenge head on Republican definitions of freedom through anti-labor and anti-consumer policies of the state joined to a vision of market self-sufficiency, elaborating a richer story of how freedom works and how deregulated markets demean it.

The fourth, which can only work if the third is under way, is to propose an ambitious jobs program that, if passed, would simultaneously rebuild the infrastructure to meet the needs of the twenty-first century, provide meaningful jobs for high school graduates, stimulate the economy, and promote real freedom for families, workers and consumers.

The fifth is to insist, against the grain of the Republican story, that tax increases for the rich and a regulated economy are desperately needed to avoid a new version of the most recent meltdown.

To me, the third element provides the lynch pin.

Such a counter formula is insufficient to our troubled time. But it may provide a needed start. It might create sufficient momentum to attract a larger minority of white working class voters to join a vibrant assemblage of the young, gays, Hispanics, African Americans, many women and a growing constellation of Jews, Muslims and Christians who are ashamed of the way their faiths have been represented by the religious right.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Two, No, Make that One Cheer for Golf

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

Patriotism is always on the lookout for new sources of support. Consider the United States in the late twentieth century. From the Vietnam War to the space shuttle Challenger, there’s no war patriotism can’t adopt or rehabilitate, no traumatic event it can’t use and convert into a heroic narrative or mawkish monument or memorial. This creativity is its genius. Don’t underestimate it. It’s even gotten its affective hooks into the otherwise staid game of golf. No resistance has been offered; if anything, golf has welcomed this usurpation.
On Father’s Day the United States Golf Association conducted the 111th version of the United States Open. NBC opened its Sunday coverage with some patriotic hoopla: children reciting the pledge of allegiance. Thanks to NBC’s editing, both “under God” and “indivisible” were cut. The reaction on social media was fast and furious and NBC prostrated itself on air. “We began our coverage of this final round just about three hours ago, and when we did it was our intent to begin the coverage of this U.S. Open championship with a feature that captured the patriotism of our national championship being held in our nation’s capital for the third time. Regrettably, a portion of the Pledge of Allegiance that was in that feature was edited out. It was not done to upset anyone, and we’d like to apologize to those of you who were offended by it.”
Apparently someone forgot to inform NBC of its broadcast location: Bethesda, Maryland. The Washington D.C. border and the nation’s capital are several miles away. More importantly, what does patriotism have to do with an individual pursuit like golf, even when it’s the United States Open? The eventual winner, Rory McIlroy, treated victory as the individual accomplishment it represents, pleased to be in the company of other great athletes and previous winners such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Hogan. It was all about “history and prestige” in the sport. McIlroy hails from Northern Ireland, but the national flag someone offered him shortly after he won did not interest him and he declined to wrap it around himself as he walked off the course.

NBC’s U.S. Open effort to affix patriotism to golf followed its coverage of last year’s Ryder Cup, a golf competition between teams from the United States and Europe. Despite boasting the best professionals and the most competitive weekly tour, the United States has won only four of the last thirteen competitions. This generates great biannual concern in golfing and sporting circles in the United States. The game may not have been invented here, but the United States has made golf its own sporting property.
The huge popularity of the Ryder Cup (one of the world’s most watched athletic events) represents not just a remarkable sporting and media reversal but a downright triumph. Starting in the mid-nineteen twenties, the United Sates and Great Britain staged the biannual competition for fifty years and no one really noticed. The United States won each contest, usually handily, save one, 1969, which was deemed an aberration, even an act of charity. For the 1979 competition, Europe replaced Great Britain and by 1983 golf had a genuinely competitive international sporting spectacle, with political passion and hard feelings to match.

Triggered by competition, more specifically, a potent foreign enemy bent on acquiring global dominance, the Ryder Cup became a patriotic phenomenon. Professional in the United States rose to meet the threat. Players now covet a spot on the team. Despite the rivalries on the PGA Tour, where players such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Ryder Cup stalwarts, openly disdain one another, American players express solidarity: they dress alike, practice together, socialize, and talk endlessly about the incomparable thrill of playing for their country, which, of course, they love. They never knew playing in the Ryder Cup could elicit such feeling. Remarkably, they are nothing if not sincere. Team uniforms (yes, golf uniforms) often involve red, white, and blue. Fans wave American flags en masse (at least when the event is held in the United States). Chants of USA! USA! USA! Or Europe! Europe! accompany victory. European patriotism may be in its infancy, but defeating a hated enemy, however artificially produced, resonates.

This is the stunning achievement of the Ryder Cup, for golf is an inherently individual pursuit. That is its attraction. It may be thought the sport of aristocrats, but it is played by many tens of millions of people around the world and its distance from the chauvinism of the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and other exercises in controlled national aggression recommend it. Golf was and is wonderfully isolating, even narcissistic, an exercise in self-overcoming. If you hate groups, this is the sport for you. Unlike team sports, your eventual success does not depend on teammates who may not be nearly as skilled as are you. It’s even anti-humanist. It’s you against a golf course.
The Ryder Cup makes professional golfers forget that they are, well, professional golfers, that is, selfish, pampered, overpaid, entitled, capitalist practitioners of a silly but fascinating game. Golf has no wider significance and this is its beauty. No more, perhaps, thanks to the Ryder Cup. Think of it as the pod-like power of patriotism. Golf still has a long way to go before it attains the cult status of football (what Americans call soccer). For one thing, golf measures success individually, by tournaments won (especially on the American tour), major championships in particular. Tiger Woods is chasing what was once thought to be (cliché alert) an unbreakable record: Jack Nicklaus’s total of eighteen major championships (a combination of the Masters, the United States Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship). This has been Woods’s goal since he was a small child, shorter than a golf club in fact. He may or may not surpass Nicklaus, but at the end of his career, talk will center on how many tournaments and how many majors he won. His Ryder Cup record will be irrelevant. The same is true for Nicklaus. No one knows his Ryder Cup record. What’s more, no one cares—not yet anyway. Golf is simply not a team sport let alone a national team sport, despite the existence of organized competition in high school and college. A few may know that Tiger Woods won the NCAA individual men’s championship in 1996, but no one knows (or cares) how Stanford, his alma mater, fared. Golf, moreover, is rightly known for its sportsmanship and integrity. Players do not root against one another and they self-report rules violations that no one else could possibly detect. This can cost them both victories and huge sums of money, but self-policing is part and parcel of the game.
The contrast with football is dramatic. Football players will do anything to win, whether it’s within the rules or not. The most recent World Cup demonstrated this, much to the outrage and national heartbreak of Ireland and Ghana. The rules of football encourage cheating. What do you have to lose, after all, if you can score or stop a game-winning goal by deflecting it with your hands? You give your team a chance to keep playing and become a national hero for ingenuity. You are a patriot. Just ask Thierry Henry of France and Luis Suarez of Uruguay. Football fans, likewise, are apparently capable of anything should their team not win. Andrés Escobar of Colombia was murdered after his own goal resulted in Colombia’s elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

Can golf survive the Ryder Cup’s appropriation? Will a sport defined by agonism become informed by antagonism? The signs are troubling. In the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, the United States won a close match thanks in part to poor sportsmanship otherwise unheard of in golf. Justin Leonard sealed, ultimately, the Cup for the United States by sinking a long putt on the 17th hole of his match with José Maria Olazábal, after which players, their wives, and fans rushed the putting green and staged a wild celebration. The only problem is that the celebration depended on, even presumed, Olazábal missing his putt, not yet attempted and rendered virtually impossible following the disruptive celebration. You’d think they had just won a war. Imagine people storming an Olympic basketball court before a player had to make a free throw to tie the championship game with one second remaining and you get something of the point.
The United States, Europe, and much of the world may be facing grave economic and political threats, but let’s not abandon golf to the flag-waving know-nothings without a fight. We should respect what it represents: a generalized disdain for everything but its own self-obsessive excellence and the drive to turn our backs on life, in the name of fun and torment, for a little while. Pace Mark Twain, do not let patriotism spoil the joy of a good walk. It’s done enough already.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Fire Next Time?

John Buell
John Buell ( is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book, Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age, will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in August.

As the financial crisis deepened in 2008, the world's economic gurus were caught off guard. Political leaders, academics, and the mainstream media had converged on a new consensus. The era of volatility in financial markets had ended. Free markets, sophisticated technologies, and computer models had given us a new world. Risk could be modeled and quantified and banks, always eager to pursue their own financial interests, could be counted on to continually refine risk models and converge on prices that would reflect real underlying value.

When Lehman Brothers failed, setting off the cascade of bankruptcies that brought the banking system to its knees, Alan Greenspan blamed a once in a hundred years storm. Though on one level Greenspan's remark seemed to be an admission of a major flaw in conventional wisdom, it is better seen as the claim that, however dire current events were, political leaders should not draw long- term policy conclusions from the crash. Recent events also suggest that policy elites prefer to return to business as usual and, more surprisingly, that they are going to get away with it a mere two years after the near collapse of the system.

It has become almost an article of faith, not only in the US but in most of the other G-20 nations, that fiscal profligacy caused the Great Recession, that the stimulus did not work, and that austerity is the only way to restore growth. Mark Blyth, professor of international political economy at Brown University, points to the irony in this state of affairs" "Investment houses that two years ago demanded costly bailouts from government now criticize those same governments for excessive debt." Yet as Blyth, as well as Paul Krugman, Mark Weisbrot, and Dean Baker, point out, many of the governments now blamed for fiscal excess (Greece being the exception) were in sound shape before the crisis. The collapse of the speculative bubble in housing took down highly leveraged banking systems. Government revenues declined and government expenditures for both bailouts and for automatic stabilizers like unemployment compensation rose. As for the failure of the stimulus package, Blyth reminds us that several Eastern European nations failed to adopt stimulus packages and have seen their economies endure extraordinary hardships. Latvian GDP fell 17% in the fourth quarter of 2009.

Austerity proponents base their case on several related notions. Austerity leaves business with less concern about future tax increases and thus willing to invest more. Government spending will no longer crowd out private investment. By historic standards, however, interest rates are already low. In addition, Baker points out that if business feared future tax increases, they would jump to invest and earn money now while taxes are low. Many major corporations are sitting on large piles of cash. They are reluctant to invest not because of fear of government policy but because demand is absent.

Despite sluggish domestic demand, US based multinational corporations have done well. They continually squeeze more productivity out of a diminished workforce and move operations to foreign markets that continue to expand. Nonetheless, there is a physical limit to what management can get out of workers, and inflation has become an increasing concern in the so- called emerging markets. International capitalism's business model may be fundamentally flawed.

The most likely scenario for the US economy is slow growth and persistently high unemployment. Nonetheless, one cannot rule out a more dire double dip. Such a scenario might be provoked if the major G-20 nations do manage substantial simultaneous reductions in government budgets and or if default by a core EU nation like Spain triggers a run on the Euro, thereby putting pressure on holders of its bonds. The breakup of the European Union, a concern of even such mainstream commentators as Nouriel Roubini and Martin Wolf, would have complex and especially hard to predict legal, political, and economic consequences.

Furthermore, as Blyth points out, the major economic powers have learned all too little from 2008. They continue to treat finance as a realm where risks can be modeled and quantified. Government at most only need to demand that derivatives be traded on open markets and to develop its own risk models to assess any possible future problems.

Financial markets, however, do not perform with the orderliness and predictability of billiard balls on a pool table. It is not surprising that the era of financial deregulation has been accompanied by increasingly frequent and ever more severe financial crises. Once in a hundred year storms in the financial markets are now occurring almost as often as the "historic" draughts and floods that have filled our weather casts for several years now. Failure to recognize and acknowledge both phenomena is as much rooted in confidence in linear, predictive models of social and natural science as in economic interests.

Blyth argues that
financial markets are social phenomena... economic performance is as much determined by market participants' beliefs as it is by fundamental indicators... prices can move on momentum whereby disequilibrating price movements compound one another, further driving market prices away from their true worth. Imagine... a case in which a number of creditors believe that a certain state is likely to become insolvent in the next few months. The state's creditors would demand... higher yield for holding the debt...Eventually the pressure from speculators would cause the state to run out of cash thereby creating the very situation that investors feared.but from which they would also profit through the short selling of bonds.
Government risk models might ironically compound such problems. If public authorities and private forecasters converge on a scenario, traders may embark all the more confidently on that path. This is the stuff of which immense bubbles are made. And major investment banks, often using cheap cash from the government, have once again embarked on risky and complex derivative trading. And when the next bubble bursts, governments asked to bail us out will be in far worse shape than last time.


Blyth points out that complex systems need simple rules. Automobile traffic is a complex, nonlinear system, but one simple rule, that everyone drive on the right, prevents 90 percent of possible accidents. Blyth advocates countercyclical capital charges tied to growth in particular asset classes. He also argues that attempts to crush all volatility are futile. Allowing some banks to fail, wiping out stockholders and management while protecting only small depositors, is therapeutic. It exposes defects in the system and prevents larger turmoil. Allowing small forest fires often reduces the likelihood of major events.

Unfortunately neither of these proposals is likely to receive attention. The very sluggishness of the economy gives banks ammunition to argue that "now is not the time" to make it harder for banks to invest and make loans etc. And bank profits have been recycled to buy political leaders. Mainstream media remain in awe of finance capital as they are also increasingly funded by it. Much of the electorate still scapegoats ethnic minorities. Many also extrapolate from their own debt position to the conclusion that more deficit spending by government to stimulate job growth is dangerous. Krugman points out that investment banks and the wealthy in general hold much of their assets in bonds and benefit from deflation or at least low rates of inflation. This may be a dangerous game on their part. If debtors are squeezed to the point of default, how valuable will these bonds be?

In a more long- term sense, Krugman has pointed out that many of today's economists, whom he labels freshwater economists (based at such Midwestern powerhouses as the University of Chicago) have never even read Keynes. They practice a kind of "epistemological closure."

Economic crisis and intellectual and political stagnation are enfolded with each other. Politics, however, is as nonlinear and momentum driven as markets. New hopes, fears, and coalitions may yet help us extricate ourselves from the conventional wisdom that imperils us.