Sunday, July 17, 2011

An astonishingly long-winded post on silence (and Walter Russell Mead)

(Ed. note: We haven't heard from non sequitur in quite some time. Welcome back to the world of blogging! This post is long, but well worth it. -- MJWS)

This recent post by Walter Russell Mead was interesting, I thought, but much of its argument about the United States rests on this earlier post, which seemed to me more interesting still. As is so often the case in the world of punditry, both posts contain lots of conventional wisdom masquerading as fearless heterodoxy. But both really are interesting, and even though the focus of my post is going to be critical, I really do encourage you to read both (in fact, you'll pretty much have to read the second, "blue government" post to understand what follows here).

What struck me the most about the posts, and especially the second, earlier (and, given the overall focus of both on the United States, much more fundamental) post, was a certain blindness. It's not the (largely predictable) dismissal of "green scare propaganda" in the newer post -- though this probably isn't the best time to be sneering at the idea that climate change is having very real adverse effects already. It's not the strange silences in Mead's account of how "blue government" has become unsustainable -- the silence about corporate welfare, for instance, or about untramelled defense spending, or about the way that Bush-era policies -- not the intrinsic nature of twentieth-century "blue" government -- creating so much of our current budget debacle. Nor was I most impressed by his silence about the economic disaster foisted on us all by for-profit health care, though all of these things seem to be crucial, and perfectly evitable, parts of the budget crisis he presents as the inevitable consequence of clinging to an obsolete form of social and political organization.

Incidentally, Mead's criticism of economists -- that they're too dogmatic in their views about a global economy that's far too complicated for anyone to understand -- is far too gentle, though he does quote a funny line about economics from Bernard Lewis ("I’m reminded of what Peter Berger tells us was the first paragraph of Bernard Lewis' still unfinished book on economics: 'In the history of human thought science has often come out of superstition. Astronomy came out of astrology. Chemistry came out of alchemy. What will come out of economics?'”). Much better is this characterization of the situation from a very biting review of David Brooks's new book:

IT IS a commonplace that the economics profession failed to foresee the crisis that definitively ushered in the end of American primacy. What may be more pertinent is that with a few honorable exceptions, so many economists refused to accept that such a crisis was possible—captivated as they were by the belief that quantitative models could predict the future, sheltering the field from messy reality. Economists were thus incapable of perceiving the dangers that were mounting around them. The attempt to domesticate the uncertainties of the future by turning them into calculable risks was discredited by the crash. A mode of thinking that was supposed to be supremely rational has proved in practice to be little more than an exercise in harebrained cleverness.

(Yikes! What is that, three links to The American Interest? What have I become... though I suppose self-referential humor works better if you write more than one blog post every three years.)

But be all of that as it may... what really struck me about Mead's piece was its more fundamental assumptions. At the end of his (older) post he sums up the "ugly truths" that face us in the decade ahead. "First, voters simply will not be taxed to cover the costs of blue government. Voters with insecure job tenure and, at best, defined-contribution rather than defined-benefit pensions will simply not pay higher taxes so that bureaucrats can enjoy lifetime tenure and secure pensions." But, as the second paragraph of my post shows, it's not nearly that simple, is it?

But the more interesting part comes with the second "ugly truth":

Second, voters will not accept the shoddy services that blue government provides. Government is going to have to respond to growing ‘consumer’ demand for more user-friendly, customer-oriented approaches. The arrogant lifetime bureaucrat at the Department of Motor Vehicles is going to have to turn into the Starbucks barista offering service with a smile.

Obviously, it's a problem for Mead's argument that he can't come up with any actual evidence for this claim, just a lazy stereotype... and, in my experience, an inaccurate one. I first got a driver's license much later in life than most people, so maybe I just don't have enough experience with this sort of thing. But honestly, I've never found a "lifetime bureaucrat" at a DMV to be anything other than friendly and efficient. What I have noticed, of course, is the same thing you notice anywhere you have to deal with lines (banks, airports, the DMV): while the service reps are usually equally efficient, some customers take a very long (and some, of course, are needlessly truculent). One person may take five or ten minutes, but once they're gone, that particular line speeds up again.

This may seem like a trivial observation, but the point is more about the strange and largely unjustified hostility towards government institutions to which Mead's post give voice (without really thinking about it). Mead provides no real evidence that government bureaucracies are especially inefficient -- he just assumes its truth, and assumes that his readers will accept his unargued caricature.

A few months ago, Amy Chau wrote a controversial book extolling the virtues of "Chinese" parenting. I wasn't much impressed by the short extract I read, but I did think this passage, detailing how "Western" parents react when their children don't do well in school, was actually quite perceptive:

Privately, the Western parents may worry that their child does not test well or have aptitude in the subject or that there is something wrong with the curriculum and possibly the whole school. If the child's grades do not improve, they may eventually schedule a meeting with the school principal to challenge the way the subject is being taught or to call into question the teacher's credentials.

When faced with a choice between demanding more of their children or attacking the legitimacy of the institution that doesn't just give them what they want, "Western" parents will choose the latter.

This is, of course, a familiar lament in discussions of contemporary education -- many students and parents now regard education as a customer-service industry. But this attitude is hardly unique to education. Don't like the grade you've gotten? Assume it was unfair and that the teacher and/or school is at fault. Don't like the way the news pointed out the egregious and continual factual errors of Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann, or whatever absurdly retrograde and unprincipled cretinous goon the Republican Party has vomited up this election cycle (or, more accurately, this week)? Just refudiate it all as a biased hatchet job. Don't like evolution or climate change? They're just socialist agendas of the liberal scientific elite. Don't like Roe v. Wade... or the Fourteenth Amendment? Just denounce decades of precedent (also know as "the rule of law") as the pretensions of "activist judges." Don't like the outcome of the election? Say that the president isn't really a citizen... somehow, even this shit will stick.

In other words, we seem to suffering from a genuine legitimation crisis, but the crisis stems more from a sustained, highly ideological assault on the legitimacy of our institutions than it does from the actual failure of those institutions. To be sure, this assault is not purely ideological, and it comprises different strands originating in different sources, and those strands are not always brought together or otherwise coordinated. But the most incessant hammering on our political institutions is obviously being done by the Southern Strategy wing of the Republican Party and their media allies. Why would they be so reckless? Could it be that for all their Tea Party crisis-mongering, they don't actually believe that "our way of life" can possibly threatened by their partisan bomb-throwing? Or could it be that, for all their professed love of what the Constitution says, they can't begin to grasp the basic concept of democratic institutions, let alone the meaning and purpose of America's democratic institutions?

This instinct to erode the legitimacy of public institutions is surely a part of the "crisis of blue government" that Mead discusses, probably a much deeper one than resentment of government pensions. But he seems to treat this attitude or instinct as a simple and clear perception of reality, most likely because he is strangely blind to the consumerist mentality that shapes his entire criticism of the "blue model" of social and political organization.

The main problem with that model, according to Mead, was that consumers didn't have enough choices. Today we're instantly bent out of shape if our Internet is running slow, or if a package doesn't arrive as quickly as we'd like, or if there's "nothing on" TV, or if some pointless gadget/empty status-symbol/electronic narcotic isn't working properly. And it never seems to occur to Mead that this may actually be a bad thing, that a world in which we're all gripped by a relentless, uncontrollable consumerist sense of entitlement may actually distort us and make us worse people. This is presumably how Mead would answer the objection that Germany's considerable recent economic success is largely attributable to "blue" economic policies. It turns out that the problem isn't that these policies simply don't or can't work today--it's that they fail to optimize our consumer experience.

To be fair to Mead, he does point out that one of the problems with the blue system was its exclusion of women and minorities from most blue-collar jobs. He later returns to this point and makes a joke about how white men like him have the most reason to mourn the blue system, since they were its greatest beneficiaries. This is the occasion for another strange silence in his account, the way that the Republican Party and media outlets like Fox News have seized upon the resulting sense of resentment -- and, indeed, have done everything they can to ratchet it up -- for political and commercial gain.

And yet, the limitations on Mead's vision are much more severe than that (and, again, Mead's analysis can stand as a representative of conventional wisdom, his iconoclast posturing notwithstanding). This is the closest he gets in his analysis of "blue government" to any discussion of justice, or indeed to the very idea that human beings might craft institutions to achieve certain ends.

Part of this is because Mead is pushing the "no one can ride this tiger" shtick, but part of it is because of the deepest assumption shaping Mead's outlook. For there is, after all, one institution the remains triumphant and even untouched in Mead's prognostications, one institution whose existence he takes as given and even absolute: the multi-national corporation. So much of what he describes (e.g., the transfer of jobs and capital) is the working of the multi-national corporation, and Mead presents the actions of the corporation as if they were as fundamental and exorable as death itself. And this silence points us to the deepest assumption, or perhaps commitment, forcing Mead to adopt this willful blindness: that we must all simply acquiesce in the blind obedience demanded by the corporation.

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