Sunday, January 25, 2009

The World's Second League

Here are some words from Matthew Parris, British Conservative, in yesterday’s The Times (UK) on the present financial crisis:

“This recession is not a failure of market economics. It is a reassertion of market economics after a decade in which we paid ourselves more than we were producing, and funded it precariously and temporarily by complicated credit instruments that it took a while for the market to rumble. Now a prosperity that always baffled ordinary citizens has collapsed. The collapse of confidence is not irrational; it's the correction to a long run of irrational confidence. All that stuff about the emerging Asian giants wasn't just phrasemaking for party conference speeches. It was true. We're falling behind. We face a mountain of debt: the difference between the life we are able to sustain and the life we were enjoying.

“Politicians cannot do much to jack up the first. So it falls to them to arrange and explain a reduction in the second. The great task facing the next British government is to help the country to recognise and embrace its fate: that we should get poorer, and slip with as good a grace as possible into the world's second league. Yes, there is a rebalancing required: a rebalancing of popular expectation.”

Parris’s penchant for bile and outright hatefulness aside, and not so evident here besides, the column raises some pertinent points. The United States and the nations of Europe have not relied on productivity for some time. The idea of actually producing a product has been in decline since World War II. And, Parris points out elsewhere, it’s probably too late to turn back to industrialism and so, needless to say, much too late to return to agrarianism.

I suppose the reason we can not return to an economy based on productivity is that technology today has advanced to the point that inhuman technology can mass produce things more consistently and efficiently than human workers can—a circumstance that has relegated us humans to the role of consumers of what the machines produce for us (sometimes useful and wholesome, sometimes not).

Parris applauds India and China for thrusting ahead of the West in recent decades. In a world divided between venture capitalists with hedge funds and unskilled labor with desperate growling bellies, India with its rigid caste system and China with its totalitarian form of Confucianism have proved to have the traits evolutionarily favorable to survival. The Western democracies, with their quaint embrace of Enlightenment values like education, liberty, and equality and their Romantic obsession with individualism, humanism, and pleasure, have taken a serious fall on the course and can expect to be put out of their misery soon.

I suspect that Parris belongs to the set that blames the laziness of poor people and union members for the present decline. Lord knows, the upper classes have worn themselves out struggling to pull us up on our feet. And all we’ve done in return is clamor for even more liberties, decent health care, affordable living conditions, and equality for everyone. It must be awful for them. And when disaster strikes, they allow us 30 months to pull ourselves up to some measure of prosperity—and then the “free ride” of welfare and charity dries up. And, honestly, what more can they do? There are limits.

Responding to Parris’s column, Andrew Sullivan, British-born American little-c conservative, states on his blog this morning:

“I don't understand why, after two decades of bubbling our way to phony prosperity through the dotcom chimera and the housing boom, it is somehow a ‘crisis’ that our standard of living is falling. It is surely a good thing that the standard of living is falling. It means that reality is beginning to return. A hangover may be painful but its cure is not a bout of more binging. My fundamental concern with the stimulus is that its spending be focused directly on real investment and immediate demand and that it be swiftly followed by a brutal assault on long-term entitlement and defense spending.

“We need to take a machete to social security and Medicare and a very sharp scalpel to all domestic discretionary spending. And we need to think very hard about big withdrawals of troops in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and about the foreign aid we give Egypt and Israel. Between the boomers at home and the expanding, unending empire abroad, the next generation will have no sane fiscal future unless something is done very very soon.”

I agree. The standard of living should fall—though I might add that it’s in society’s interest to ensure a reasonable bottom. Unless we want cities of slums and even more burgeoning criminal networks and gangs, not to speak of the current “Mad Max” scenarios the American bourgeoisie is currently envisioning, we need to protect, as much as possible, those who have not yet achieved what we regard as an average standard of living.

To the extent that constraints on the poor and the wealthy ought to be fair, if not entirely equitable, I support what some (including Sullivan) demonize as “class warfare.” The prosperous should not continue to go unchecked in their pursuit of even greater prosperity.

I suspect there’s enough blubber on the thighs of CEOs of most mega-gigantic corporations to feed every assembly-line worker. If we can limit welfare moms to 30 months of benefits, we can probably afford to limit Presidential candidates to no more than two residences. Outcries against government restraints on liberties almost never extend to the benefit of poor workers.

It just seems more reasonable to me, if restraint is needed at all, and I would always insist on no unneeded restraints whatsoever, to restrain the powerful, rather than the powerless. To burden further the already powerless is, de facto, to give undeserved, unjust, and unconscionable immunity and privilege to the powerful.

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