Miscellany: Paradoxes, deficits and the poor

Paradoxes, deficits and the poor

Two of the great paradoxes of our neo-liberal world are the tendency of the poorest voters to support right-wing parties and the Panglossian equanimity with which right wing governments’ economic problems are greeted.

Poor people have always supported conservative parties. In the 19th century British workers, as they got the vote, often used it in favor of the Tories. Many economists and media commentators have always supported conservative governments, even for sins for which they would demand the dismissal of social democratic governments. But some things about the current state of the modern paradoxes are still interesting.

The second paradox was highlighted by this week’s media coverage of Australia’s record current account deficit and record deficit. The pile of reasons, excuses and rationales were as high as the deficit and debt numbers, and as thin in substance as Australian savings. We owe twice as much as we did; our exports (particularly high value-added manufacturing export) are in decline; we are up to our neck in debt; our savings are at record lows; and the Reserve Bank Governor is warning against poor  lending practices by financial institutions.

With some honorable exceptions – Colebatch and Gittins primarily – we are always told there is nothing to worry about really. Dick Cheney has said: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter”. Presumably, if LBJ had been a Republican, Cheney would also have claimed that spending on wars without raising the taxes to finance them also didn’t matter. And Costello and Republicans agree – it’s just the level of the currency and anyway, the rest of the world admires us so much they’ll just keep on financing us.

Going further back we can see how it was imperative that we never leave the gold standard; that we can’t recognize China; that money supply is the key to economic management; and, that the only way to fix the Great Depression was severe cutbacks in government spending. Each and every one of the assertions defended until the day before they were reversed, and each and every one ammunition for ridiculing and marginalizing opponents.

Part of the paradox is explained by modern right wingers’ determination never to admit a mistake and to pillory anyone who disagrees; and, part by old-fashioned hubris. But all in all, it’s a paradox which will be resolved by time and circumstances, however it’s currently explained.

On the other hand the first paradox is a bit more problematic.

The conventional explanations as to why poorer people vote conservative are normally based on fear and/or values. Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas: How conservatives won the hear of America looked at how Kansas voted more and more solidly for the Republicans as the citizens of the State got poorer and poorer and Kansans became more religious and socially conservative.

Now the simple response is that this was in the expectation that with good Republican (or Liberal in Australia) management they would actually get richer, although this argument is undermined by the data. They got richer under Democrats and poorer under Republicans. Left liberals take the soft option and assert that it’s because they are as dumb as Dubya or frozen by fear created by right wing propaganda.

The AFR, in the November 27-28 Perspective Review carried a piece about the forthcoming visit to Australia by Robert Reich author and former US secretary of labor. The article pointed out that polls showed that “75% of those who voted for Bush thought weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; 65% thought Saddam Hussein had worked with al-Qaeda on 9/11; a majority believed ending the estate tax would help the working class, even though it applies only to the top 2 per cent income bracket”.

Reich suggests that the crisis in media performance partly explains our first paradox and then suggests another paradox- social conservatives are most upset about things (from pornography to work-life balance) which are fundamentally products of market economies. Of course, without being conspiratorial, it is just as easy to say that those who benefit from neo-liberalism (eg the media) find it easy to divert attention from its downsides by getting people to focus on immigrants, religion, “values” and so on. It may ever be thus you may say, as white planters persuaded poor rednecks in the south to hate black sharecroppers just as debt-ridden Australians were persuaded to fear refugees

Anyway, Reich’s speaking (thanks to the US Embassy, ACTU, Australian Fabian Society, Centre for Public Policy and NSW Trades and Labour Council) at the National Press Club in Canberra and in the Seymour Centre in Sydney on December 7. In Melbourne he’ll be at the Centre for Public Policy on December 9. Call (03) 95553 8442 for more details.

Jefferson, the right and religion

Thinking about the coalition between the religious right and the neo-liberals my good friend in Manhattan wrote again the other day. Still recovering from the US election result he said: “Sitting in NYC three blocks from Ground Zero, and still a prime target for the Jihadists, it is so annoying to hear some hayseed from Montana or some such place in Jesus-land say they voted for ‘security” because Bush would save them from terrorists.”

On the other hand he offered Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts as a bit more encouraging. “A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people discovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of war and long oppressions of public debt…If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake”

(Jefferson July 4 1798 letter to John Taylor regarding the 1798 Us Alien & Sedition Acts)

…and meantime for us, go along and listen to Reich on exactly the same subject 206 years later.

Thucydides (again)

The University of Chicago Press is soon to publish a new book by Marshall Sahlins called Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa. Sahlins is the US anthropologist who engaged in the very strong debates with Ganath Obeyesekere about Captain Cook following Sahlin’s earlier book How Natives Think about whether Cook was mistaken for a god or not.

One hopes that the new book generates as much controversy as the last one.

Since my last mention of Thucydides I have had an email (and a copy of her paper) from Shifra Sharlin at the University of Wisconsin at Madison about the fabricated Powell Thucydides quote. Sharlin confirms that the quote is a fabrication and, in her paper, cites Donald Kagan, among others. But she did ask that we not describe her as a classicist (she studied classics) but now works in another field. Her wide-ranging paper, by the way, includes a fascinating discussion of how you can track down Thucydides online; uses and abuses of Thucydides in quotes, history, politics etc; and, the ironies of the US comparing itself with Athens.

Incidentally, she also remarks that she hasn’t bothered to correct the version in the source from which Miscellany got its information (the Times Literary Supplement) because it was only print media but crikey – being on-line – was different and more important.

….and on the subject of quotes

Also from the TLS, this time the November 5 issue, is a letter from Norman Stone. Stone has been involved in a lengthy correspondence with Peter Balakian about Balakian’s book on the “Armenian massacres” (Stone’s usage so please don’t write about the long-running debate as to whether it was massacre or genocide).

In passing Stone weighs the evidence another correspondent introduced about the very famous Hitler quote ( “who remembers the Armenians?”) inscribed on the Holocaust Memorial in Washington.

Stone suggests that his research indicates that Hitler may never have actually said it and the museum directors “might consider examining the matter in greater depth, because their monument should of course not be defaced by a false ascription”.

Given the nature of the debate –  possibly disingenuous but probably inflammatory.

Customers and citizens

Recently an AFR leader criticised Labor State Governments saying that Carr and Bracks failed to treat the people of their States like customers.

During the 1980s,and the excesses of those Australian Labor Governments obsessed with managerialism in the public sector, it was common to insist on calling people who dealt with the public sector  “customers”. Thankfully the concept got killed off in the face of a concerted campaign by those who believe people are citizens first and don’t have their relationship with the State defined by material and commercial considerations.

But the emphasis on customers and consumption also influenced historians. During the 19th and 20th century economic history focused on production rather than consumption but in recent decades consumption is getting its run.

T.H.Breen has recently written a book The Marketplace of Revolution about consumption in the pre-Revolutionary US. Actually he has trouble tracking down usages of the word “consumer” in the days of boycotts of British goods and the Boston Tea Party.

But the one usage he does find, is in a context which shows that a “consumer” was an unpatriotic type who put their interests before those of freedom, liberty etc. Two and a  bit centuries later the usage is totally reversed with the pursuit of happiness through consumption – even at the cost of debt – the most patriotic thing anyone in the US and Australia can apparently do.

The Veep and succession

Miscellany’s precise knowledge of all the constitutional succession permutations in the case of the death/s of various US officers is about as vague as Alexander Haig demonstrated his was when Reagan was shot.

But while the focus is usually on who succeeds the President (there was a very long Allen Drury book about what happens when half the elected officialdom get wiped out in some incident), a very perplexing succession problem arises if the US Vice President, Dick Cheney, succumbs to another heart attack in the next few years. As the spate of memoirs of the first term make clear, Cheney is more than a sort of Prime Minister and might be more accurately described as the effective President.

Who would appoint the new Veep, who would it be and how on earth would George Dubya get along if he was forced to be President in fact as well as title?

Perhaps the Democrats should have made more of it during the campaign?