Something Ain’t Workin’

 

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor, and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society…. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won…

What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition, 1958)

In the last few posts, we have been looking at the stalemate created by the Divided America complex. We have seen that narratives have emerged to appease the masses, narratives that must become more volatile and confrontational through time, as they do not lead to the actual bettering of economic conditions for regular citizens. As things deteriorate, scapegoating and finger-pointing intensify, and the total political annihilation of the other side is held out as the only hope for a return to American greatness. But since total and enduring political and cultural victory is impossible, and because the offered conservative and liberal utopias are so grand in their scope, fulfillment is always deferred, conveniently delayed until that point when only the ideologically pure have their thumbs on the levers of power.

This endless deferment of fulfillment is fundamentally rooted in the shared project of both liberals and conservatives: the restoration of full employment. Jobs, jobs, jobs – who could want anything else, right? Politicians and economists from across the spectrum all want roughly the same thing: well-paid, secure, meaningful, and productive work. The details differ, certainly. From the right, jobs are seen as flowing from private investment; and if government would just step out of the way (stop rewarding freeloaders, mostly), then the entrepreneurially driven jobs of yore would come back with gusto. From the left, jobs also come primarily from the private sector. But there is an additional requirement that government construct a robust supporting infrastructure: anti-discriminations laws, equal pay laws, minimum wage laws, pro-union laws, job training programs, etc. Despite these different points of emphasis between the right and left, all roads for social improvement still lead back to the main thoroughfare of paid employment for all.

But there is a problem here, a big one, and it is one that we have just not been willing to face. Plainly stated, the problem is that the economic value of human labor is declining, and will continue to do so, inexorably. Depending on how we respond to this iron clad axiom, we could be looking at the most disastrous development in modern industrial history, or we could be opening the door to a dazzling reshaping of individual daily life and of the entire socioeconomic infrastructure.

Politically, it will become increasingly impossible to run party platforms through the lens of full employment, because no amount of job re-training programs, corporate tax cuts, minimum wage hikes, or union rejuvenation efforts can change the deep, underlying algorithms of declining labor value vis-à-vis economic production. These trends are long-term, widespread, global, and irreversible; and if we keep swimming against these currents, we are consigning our future to continued economic inertia and the resulting cultural volatility. But if we can somehow lean into the skid, there is still some hope.

The End of Work

What are we talking about when we observe that there is a decline in labor value? Simply put, it means that the monetary worth of the human skills component of the economic pie is shrinking, for a variety of reasons, mostly driven by technology. But technological unemployment (a robot will get my job) is not the only manifestation of declining labor value.

I won’t belabor (sorry) the issue of the decline of work here, as there are other pieces of the puzzle I want to get to, and there are many others who have made the case far better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, there are a whole range of long-term trends that prove the point of declining labor value: stagnant wages, declining labor share of GDP, declining labor force participation, increased inequality in wealth, declining job creation rates, increased long-term unemployment, increased underemployment (people working part-time who want full-time), increased temp and contingent labor (think ‘gig’ jobs), job polarization, lower wages for recent college grads, and so on. Martin Ford calls these developments the “Seven Deadly Trends,” and there are certainly a few more. I would encourage everyone to read the works listed at the end of this post, as they are crucial in understanding what is driving the global labor landscape. For our purposes here, it is enough to note that these trends are long developing, global, and irreversible.

So if this is the case, if labor value is truly on a downward slope with no end in sight, why is “jobs, jobs, jobs” the only political lyric we hear? Why are we still satisfied with the endless deferment of dreams served up by our main conservative and liberal narratives? Why are we content to wait for job retraining, or wider college availability, or better pre-school, or rejuvenated labor unions, or trickle-down job creation, or tariffs that bring back beloved heavy industry, or tax haven magic that re-shores billions and restores US jobs? All of these hoped-for dreams push help for regular people out many years, perhaps generations.

Well, the short answer is that most people are really not content to wait for these developments, and that is why we see so much political disgust and disillusionment. And even beyond that, I firmly believe that much of our free-floating rage, especially the male variety that is so frequently on display in mass and chronic murders, is traceable to the collapse of stable, reliable employment, which is then filtered through failed households, decimated communities, and the ballooning drug/crime/addiction landscape.

But in a more abstract sense, we have been somewhat able to ignore the decline of labor value by hiding it, mostly via the expansion of the state, the addition of breadwinners inside the household (i.e., women entering the workforce), and by the growth of personal debt. As James Livingston notes, ‘entitlements’ now make up 20% of all household income, supplementing a squishy core of regular wage compensation. Declining individual wages have been obscured by putting more emphasis on ‘household income,’ even though those households now have to include a lot more overall labor time just to keep afloat. And while household debt is lower than it was during the 2008 recession, it is still at an uncomfortably high level, especially considering that student loan debt is now larger than credit card debt, just as salaries are cratering for recent college grads.

The Labor Market

To get a little more abstract still, we need to think about jobs in their wider economic setting: the labor market. And we need to look at what the labor market is supposed to do, historically, versus what it is actually doing now. Following Livingston again, what we see today is a labor market that is either totally broken, or absolutely perfect, depending on how you frame the question.

For background, we need to go back to 1919. As Livingston notes, before 1919, economic growth in the United States required ever more capital investment and more labor. But thanks to technological innovation, the 1920s saw massive productivity improvements, robust business profits, but declining employment. The result was surplus capital, which then went in search of speculative outlets, creating the stock market collapse and the Great Depression. Since that pivotal period, the main economic story of the United States revolves around two trends: the growth of the financial sector to handle the surplus capital generated by victory over the ‘production problem,’ and the growth of the government sector to deal with those rendered economically superfluous by that same victory.

Essentially, after 1919, capital owners had the upper hand on labor, economically speaking, since business growth could be sustained without having to increase the labor share of production. If businesses can maintain healthy profit levels without hiring more people or increasing wages for those already employed, then they have no other moral obligation to pursue anything like full employment for society as a whole. The fact that fewer people will have enough money to buy a particular business’s product is not really that business’s problem. As long as they are turning a profit, and their internal logic is telling them to avoid declining returns on investment in labor, those business owners will just take their surplus capital and look for other, more speculative ways to invest, instead of plowing more money into worker wages and capital equipment.

But as the Great Depression showed, declining labor value is a problem for the government, as destitution and desperation are not the best faces for a great nation. FDR and WW2 ushered in an era of government intervention in this labor-capital relationship, and the federal spending spigot was opened up. After the war, we hit a goldilocks period, where government fiscal activism was still robust, and the rest of the industrialized world was in tatters. In that unusual interim, wages climbed and the good life was available, catalyzed by the GI bill, cheap mortgages and real estate, and the continental construction of happy motoring suburbia (nod to Jim Kunstler).

But by the end of the 1970s, these unusual conditions had receded, and the logic of capital’s shedding of labor input resumed its relentless march. Surplus profits were in play again, and they went in search of an impressive neoliberal suite of goodies: deregulation, marginalization of labor unions, privatization of public utilities, loosened campaign finance laws, lower corporate and top-earner income taxes, expanded opportunities in financial securities, and the construction of a sprawling spread of laissez-faire cultural organs (think tanks, research institutes, publishing houses, etc.).

Since the peak of real wages in the late 1970s, these neoliberal trends, combined with the growing sophistication of globalized corporate management techniques and structures, have strip-mined the labor market, squeezing every last bit of surplus value from the lives of regular workers. The result is a populace that is beleaguered, underpaid, stressed, anxious, overworked-yet-underworked, and generally enraged at the rickety economic scaffolding that is splintering under its feet.

Work and Morality

Despite the complexity of current economic conditions, the morality that underlies the American work ethic is really quite simple: people should work hard, because it builds character, keeps them out of trouble, and grows the economy. People who don’t work (when they are able to do so) are lazy and morally suspect, a drain on society and on the hard-working taxpayers who pay the bills. This is an idea that goes back further than the founding of our country. It is rooted in Luther’s concept of a calling, a worldly vocation by which one improves self and society at once. As Livingston puts it: “Before the Reformation, almost no one believed that socially necessary labor was an ennobling activity. After the Reformation, almost everyone did.”

Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of this concept. The Protestant work ethic is still the most powerful moral idea in America, more durable and widespread than any sectarian manifestation of religion, patriotism, family, or ethnicity. These other things multiply and diversify, while the work ethic is a nearly universal unifier. Indeed, the American Dream itself is nothing but the work ethic in a quasi-sacred shroud. As we are a young people, a dizzying diversity set in a massive physical expanse, the work ethic is our history, purpose, and destiny, all in one.

Unfortunately, the deterioration of labor value has rendered this work ethic a cruel joke. We should all know, by now, that labor, effort, skill, and dedication are no longer linked to monetary compensation, social worth, and economic security. Consider this: does anyone really believe that Mark Zuckerberg works 150,000 times harder than the average American household (he takes a $1 annual salary, but makes $9 billion a year just on stock appreciation)? Do Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett have more social and moral worth than the bottom half of the US population? Or less dramatically, does a hedge fund manager making hundreds of millions dollars a year have more personal character than an elementary school teacher or a janitor?

So even though we know, deep down, that the labor market is now totally irrational, with no justifiable relationship between effort, character, reward, money, and security, the power of the work ethic prevents us from admitting it. We just feel, in our hearts, that something can and must be done to bring the jobs back and fix the labor market. We reserve our most intense outrage for those people and entities that limit our career opportunities, and (especially) those of our children. We may have other social and political concerns, like guns, abortion, campaign finance, gerrymandering, and the like. But when it comes to the actual mechanism for creating a better future, once some other barriers are eliminated, it is still Work that takes center stage. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

This is a profound misreading of the times. Work cannot carry the load any more, and the work ethic itself must be scrapped, at least in its current form. But in order for this to happen, we need to put something substantial and practical in its place. And any alternative has to be attractive, persuasive, simple, and achievable. Libraries are filled with fantastic and alluring schemes to achieve noble ends. But in today’s socioeconomic situation, the tools of control are highly developed. Power is amazingly concentrated and entrenched, and any plan for the future must be appealing to those who are already in charge.

What we need is a Trojan Horse. We’ll get to that next time.

Key Works on Employment:

Brybjolfsson, Erik & Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age (WW Norton: 2014)

Dunlop, Tim, Why the Future Is Workless (Newsouth, 2016)

Ford, Martin, Rise of the Robots (Basic Books, 2015)

Livingston, James.

  • Against Thrift (Basic Books, 2011)
  • No More Work (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)
  • “Why Work?” (The Baffler, No. 35, 2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Setting the Table

In the last couple posts (here and here), we established this general framework: our country is being artificially split into two warring factions, mainly due to our electoral machinery (winner-take-all) and the partisan media that feasts on the resulting confrontational style of politics. As economic conditions on the ground deteriorate for regular people, narrative theodicies arise to explain why things are so screwed up, and who is to blame. These stories, which I described as Dreams Dashed (the conservative variant) and Dreams Derailed (liberal version), have several common characteristics: they are emotionally charged, with compelling heroes and villains; they are both anti-establishment, albeit with different interpretations of who actually makes up the elite; they have built-in excuses for inertia, because total victory over a dehumanized Other is necessary to fulfill their vast and ideologically pure goals; and finally, at bottom, both stories are economic, offering explanations for the pecuniary collapse of the American Dream.

How can we break this logjam? What could possibly reduce the intensity of this Divided America battleground, so that we might approach our fellow citizens with respect and dignity, instead of shouting past each other and walling ourselves into enclaves of like-mindedness?

The popular approach to this impasse is the appeal for a sensible return to “The Middle.” In this interpretation, both sides have become too ‘extreme,’ and the antidote is the common sense of regular, hard-working folks. If we could just get some more ‘moderates’ into the government, then we could right the ship. And not surprisingly, the popular refrain for this return to The Middle is economic: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The problem here is that the economic status of labor value has fundamentally changed over the last few decades, and that change is permanent (more on that later). There is no magical job-creating elixir sloshing around in the hallowed Middle. This is the very reason that our conservative and liberal stories have had to become more intense and combative through time. The agreed-upon economic status quo has absolutely stalled in creating ‘full employment,’ even while the overall financial condition of The Establishment is just fine.

The election of Donald Trump and the efforts of Steve Bannon to topple traditional Republicans are perfect illustrations of the emptiness of the wisdom of The Middle. They are now waging, on separate fronts, scorched-earth campaigns not only to destroy everything even remotely left of center, but to also blow up the establishment GOP structure as well. As many have noted, traditional Republicans are now reaping what they have sown, as their intensifying anti-government rhetoric has come home to roost.

But as we have noted on this blog, this intensification of rhetoric is not exclusive to conservatives. Indeed, our political duopoly and companion partisan media must, by necessity, become more combative through time, because economic conditions on the ground continue to erode. People cannot be placated forever with the same old stories. As they become more desperate, their need for scapegoats intensifies, and the bleats for a return to the happy Middle become more quaint and more faint.

So what to do? The first step is to recognize the nature of stories, and how they relate to economic conditions. There is a temptation, especially as we have been looking at the Conservative and Liberal narratives for the last couple posts, to think that the psychological persuasiveness of stories for individuals and communities translates to historical and social causation. Ideas can only do so much heavy lifting. As historical materialism suggests, economic conditions on the ground (how we work, where we live, how we physically move around, how we make things, the arrangements surrounding property, etc.) always constrain and condition the range of possible ideational responses. (Say what you will about Marx’s fanciful historical predictions and political proclivities, his observations on basic social and historical causation are still spot on.)

What that means for our task here is that we should resist the urge to simply create a new narrative as an alternative to the ones that now drive the Divided America battles. We can’t just storytell our way to a better situation. Instead, we should jump directly into our current economic realities, and craft some immediate solutions to the most pressing problems. Once that is under way, then maybe some better stories can grow out of the improved conditions on the ground.

 

 

 

 

Stories of Dreams

Last time, we looked at the three-part structure of the Divided America complex: Winner-Take-All electoral machinery creating the two-party political landscape; partisan media using that duopolistic scaffolding to inflate their culture war balloons; and an economically desperate public willing to imbibe this us-versus-them story because it makes some narrative sense of why things have gone so horribly wrong. At the end of that piece, I suggested that before we could even think about changing the underlying electoral apparatus, we need to get some immediate economic relief to regular people, to turn down the heat on the simmering (boiling?) partisan rage that is sloshing around our country.

Eventually, we will get to an examination of Universal Basic Income as the best option for this immediate relief. But before that discussion, I want to look at the general cultural narratives of the Right and Left, the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of why things have gone so awry. Our two basic theodicy tales.

But wait a minute, you might say, why are you only talking about things with a negative lean? Don’t most people have a generally positive view of American past and possibility, just with differing interpretations of the particular roadblocks and missteps? Well, perhaps that could have been the case, once upon a time. But as my last post suggested, the Divided America theme has become stubbornly entrenched, mainly because it is finding a receptive audience with people who are getting hammered by economic conditions on the ground. Despite the health of the inspiring social media meme business, people are not generally optimistic about the trajectory of the country, and our story-telling brains want someone to blame for that. That is why the tales we tell about our nation have recently morphed from triumph tropes into theodicies, with the dual functions of providing specific scapegoats for failure and explaining the deferred deliverance from despair.

Eventually, we’ll need a different story to make sense of recent decades, one less mired in divisiveness and blame. But first, let’s look closer at those Conservative and Liberal Theodicies themselves, to understand their anatomies and see why they carry so much psychological resonance. I will, of necessity, engage in some broad generalizations. I am not trying to do a full sociological survey of American history and political culture (I’m not equipped for that anyway). I am just trying to get at what I think is the intuitive deep-brain picture that most people have of how their individual lives fit into a bigger, grander scheme.

Dreams Dashed: The Conservative Story

After World War Two, the US was riding high. Our muscular involvement in the war had saved the world from tyranny and fascism, and we had shown dysfunctional Europe how to get things done, New World style. And how did we do it? Brave men steeled themselves for combat, industrial machinery churned out muscular miracles, and women rolled up their sleeves back home to provide critical economic support. After the war, the good times kept rolling. The wartime industrial apparatus was turned back towards the creation of transcontinental suburbia. Men worked good jobs for good wages in factories, or went to college on the GI bill. Women happily returned to their domestic enclaves, enjoying the amazing bounty that the newish consumer economy was producing. The suburban house, linked to its commercial support infrastructure by a robust highway system, became the new focus of the ideal life. And all across the land, Americans prospered by applying a time-tested formula: work hard, play by the rules, be loyal to your God and country, and honor the heroic men who made the world safe for democracy.

This pattern seemed to work for a bit, roughly until the first wave of baby boomers hit their teen years in the mid-60s. That’s when the counterculture, fueled by drugs, sex, communism, and atheism, started to take America off the rails, steering it towards the cliffs of depravity, license, and godlessness. These children of the Greatest Generation turned their backs on the patriotic heroes who had given them everything, and stomped their petulant feet against all of the traditional values that had so recently proven their worth. This was the birth of modern American liberalism: an immature teenage temper tantrum against the responsible, breadwinning father.

All of our problems today, in this conservative interpretation, trace back to this post-war hippie rebellion. Liberals are still trying to live out adolescent fantasies of free love, self-indulgence, and limitless experimentation, only now they are writ large in the huge and futile social projects of political correctness, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and transgenderism.

Liberalism might have been relatively harmless, had it stayed in the confines of universities and outdoor summer music festivals. But it didn’t. Liberals infiltrated the highest spheres of government and corporate power, turning the entire country into an adolescent pipe dream. America is now a vast liberal project, force-feeding its citizens the flower power values of permissiveness, sexual license, and back-patting snowflakism. Gone are the days of selfless hard work, loyalty, piety, sacrifice, and earned equality. Now we have spoiled children running the show, with predictably disastrous results (note how often President Trump refers to liberal projects as “disasters”).

One last metaphor will help to flesh out this conservative story a bit, and it comes from Arlie Russell Hochschild’s excellent book, “Strangers in Their Own Land” (The New Press, 2016). She too was determined to capture the essence of the conservative “Deep Story,” which she described as:

… a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (pg. 135)

Hochschild tried out her interpretation of the conservative Deep Story on her many interview subjects, and it seemed to capture the broad range of their experiences. The metaphor is one of a line of people, waiting patiently on a hill. Just over the top of the hill, out of view, is the American Dream, a life of prosperity and security. The line used to move in an orderly fashion, and those who had waited patiently and played by the rules had slowly moved up the hill. But in the last few decades, the line has come to a standstill, and many people (mostly white men) have started moving backwards, even though they are still patient, loyal, and hard-working. Why are they moving backwards? Because liberal government do-gooders are helping other people cheat and cut in line ahead of them (women, minorities, immigrants, even endangered friggin’ animals). People who have not paid their dues are getting a leg up and a free ride, as regular Joes and Joannes are shoved into the ditch.

Dreams Derailed: The Liberal Story

The liberal theodicy tale goes back a little bit further than the aftermath of WW2. We start with the Great Depression, which was an episode of greed and inequality run amok. Gilded Age plutocrats had swollen to unimaginable girths, gobbling up the lion’s share of national wealth. With nothing better to do with their mountains of cash, these monopolists and robber barons inflated the granddaddy of speculative bubbles, the stock market. When it came crashing down, American society was brought to its knees, a tragic and humbling example of the Invisible Hand choking the necks of the common man.

It took war and the amazingly bold leadership of FDR to bring America back to its triumphant posture, and the overriding motif of these rebound decades was of an activist federal government subduing the plutocratic tendencies of the marketplace. The US government had its hands in everything, from banking regulations to highway building to arts projects to scientific funding. And then, as the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements blossomed, the federal government stepped in with landmark legislation, to even the playing field and give voice to the voiceless.

What the middle decades of the 20th century exhibited was the full flowering of the original American ideas of equality, dignity, and opportunity, with the federal government acting as catalyst for this sea change. Now of course, it was certainly the people themselves who drove the Civil Rights, Women’s, and Workers’ movements. Many sacrificed their lives and livelihoods to create change. But in this liberal story, the government itself was often a powerful ally in the fights. The New Deal and its aftermath had demonstrated that the government really could accomplish amazing things, provided that there was strong and devoted leadership. The 60s and the 70s thus saw substantial surges in opportunity and achievement for regular folks, with the late 70s being the high water mark for US income equality.

But then, the rich and powerful put their feet down. They had had enough. After decades of being brought to heel, both economically and rhetorically, by FDR and his successors, Big Business struck back. Armed with the new economic theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, the plutocrats got themselves some compellingly dramatic politicians (Reagan and Thatcher) and took back the government, with a new animating project: expanding market-based freedom.

This conservative revolution of the 80s is, somewhat paradoxically, called Neoliberalism. The central idea of neoliberalism is that government’s only job, beyond military defense, is to create the conditions necessary for the functioning of free markets. This doesn’t mean small government per se, despite the usual conservative rhetoric. There is actually a fairly large role for government in the neoliberal (conservative) project: e.g., guaranteeing property rights, defending overseas markets, ensuring a working court system for claims and disputes, securing patents and copyrights, etc.

But the key pivot point in the 80s is that the federal government halted its overall effort to facilitate the completion of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements, and instead turned to viewing all social improvements through the prism of the market, which meant that all policy planks were first and foremost pro-business. With this change, the energy for purely social endeavors was lost, and the expansion of the American Dream was prematurely halted. The equality that came in the late 70s was reversed, as the plutocrats took hold of every level of government, slashing corporate taxes, undermining unions, flooding the electoral process with cash, and generally shutting down any programs that would help the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. We have thus entered a new Gilded Age, back where we started before the Great Depression.

Coda

Next time, we’ll start looking at the possibility of telling a different story about our recent past, and we’ll explore the question of whether or not a story is even the right thing to be pursuing. After all, stories are nice because they have the tidiness of a compact narrative structure. But reality seldom cooperates so neatly.

To wrap up this post, I want to point out a few things about the Conservative and Liberal stories detailed above. (I know they’re not perfect or exhaustive, but hopefully they resonate as somewhat recognizable)

First, they are effective psychologically, because they satisfy deep parts of our primate brains. They give us a reasonable temporal span (a few decades to roughly a century); they provide clear villains and heroes (hippies and plutocrats, patriots and progressives); and they pack enough emotional punch to mobilize certain types of behavior (activism, predictable voting patterns, social media sorting, etc.). In looking at any new way of framing our condition, we should keep these practical points in mind. Psychological effectiveness matters.

Secondly, and interestingly, both stories pit the protagonists against the evil Establishment. In the Conservative story, the Establishment is obviously Liberal, populated by abortionists, evolutionists, and coastal snobs. In the Liberal story, the Establishment is definitely Conservative, in that it is made up of mustache-twirling plutocrats and aloof Wall Street sociopaths. Given that the wealthy and powerful are certainly not exclusively liberal or conservative, it is clear that this Us-Against-The-Machine trope is really a dramatic technique, and not a guide to the complex realities in which we’re immersed. We will circle back to this idea of struggle as a dramatic linchpin in the next post, but it is important to keep in mind just how strange it is that both sides of our Divided America see themselves as battling against the Establishment.

Thirdly, both of these stories have built-in excuses for inertia, with the result that deliverance is always deferred. Because each story so emphatically demonizes the other side, complete and total ideological victory is the de facto pre-requisite for success. The hoped-for ending to the Conservative story requires the massive dismantling of decades of liberal ‘entitlement’ programs, many of which are hugely popular and operationally necessary for basic economic functioning. Additionally, getting the line to start moving back up the hill towards the American Dream necessitates getting rid of the freeloaders who have been cutting in line, by booting them out of the country or by drying up the domestic teets of welfare and unearned preference. Basically, the Conservative fulfillment scenario involves the disappearance of millions of actual people and the magical “maturing” of millions more who are deemed to be childish, undisciplined liberals. A tall order.

But similarly, the Liberal story itself requires Herculean tasks for full fruition, and these are even more far-flung than the Conservative shopping list. These various liberal goals include: reestablishing labor unions, eliminating corporate personhood, ending racism and sexism, getting the plutocrat-controlled Congress to massively tax the rich, drastically increasing funding for education and job re-training, taxing carbon emissions, raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay for women, etc. Now, most of these are worthy goals, to be sure, considered in a vacuum. But the tides of economic reality are turning against many of these grand projects, with the result that the life of the liberal seems fated to be that of the eternally beleaguered activist, forever chasing receding mirages.

The ideological purity of these stories, combined with the vastness of their requirements for fulfillment, builds in excuses for inertia. The other side can always be blamed for obstructing progress. This is the genius of the three-part structure of Divided America that we discussed last time. The political duopoly, in conjunction with the partisan media, use these stories to sustain the infuriating-but-comfortable bubble of the status quo, where popular confidence in government is always low, but those in power stay put, election after election, year after year. The whole structure deflects pressure away from the “Establishment” itself, and shunts it back onto increasingly-enraged individuals, a brilliant act of political jujitsu.

Finally, and most (sneakily) crucial, our Conservative and Liberal Theodicies are, at bottom, economic. Specifically, they are about work, wages, and the future of economic life in America. Despite the plethora of culture conflict trappings (abortion, guns, religion, racism, sexism, transgender stuff, neo-Nazis, wars on Christmas, etc.), what everyone is really pissed-off about is that economic success, the signature purpose of America, is now out of reach. White men have outdated skills that aren’t as central in the contemporary landscape of labor. African Americans and Latinos are still forcibly and systematically shut off from economic opportunity, undergirded by a savage prison system to house the economically superfluous. Women are still underpaid and belittled in the workplace, in seemingly endless new variations of discrimination and abuse. “Unskilled” and “underskilled” workers are still paid dogshit. Millions of children still grow up hungry, deprived, and trapped in crappy schools and neighborhoods for their wonder years.

In short: the economic landscape in America is a horror show, and this is manifesting itself in increased levels of vitriol, hatred, and scapegoating. Our two main narratives for making sense of our situation are creaking and groaning under the pressure of economic reality. They cannot handle the load, and the longer things go without change for the better, the more intense and divisive these stories will become. The standard Conservative and Liberal prescriptions for fixing things will not work, because their diagnosis of the problem is not correct, or is at best incomplete. They describe ways to get to a place that doesn’t exist any more, and actually never was.

Next time, we’ll start tinkering with a new roadmap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

America Divided

The recent events in Charlottesville, and President Trump’s seesawing responses to them, have once again thrown the issue of a divided country into high relief. As the usual tale goes, there is a Liberal America that yearns for an expanding sphere of acceptance, empowerment, and opportunity, with a full embrace of a diverse, multi-voiced future. On the other side, Conservative America desires a rebirth of the abandoned values that used to make the United States a stable, prosperous, and knowable place: faith, common language, loyalty, patriotism, and traditional roles (gender and otherwise).

But is it really possible for a huge, sprawling nation like the United States to have just two basic sides, or just two types of people? The US is the third largest country in the world, by both population and geographical area. There are more than 325 million people in our great nation, an enormous stew of ethnicities, national origins, races, religions, and language groups. We have a dizzying mix of towns, rural stretches, cities, mega-cities, suburbs, and exurbs, each with their own histories, climates, patterns of daily life, and value-systems. How can all of that variety be boiled down to right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative, or any other two-sided description that lines us all up on one side or the other?

This polarization happens via three factors: an interlocking set of tiers that have evolved over the last few decades, and then ossified to such a degree that there appears to be no wiggle room left for change, let alone an escape route. At the base of this set of interlocked tiers is our electoral machinery. Specifically, our winner-take-all method of electing US House representatives and apportioning Electoral College votes sustains a two-party duopoly that plagues our federal government. Across the world, democratic countries that use winner-take-all systems to staff their governments have similar two-party stranglehold situations, with the same resulting acrimony and scorched-earth style of politics that we see in the US. Winner-take-all systems cannot support multiple or even third parties, as the machinery itself will not provide the oxygen for their survival. The winner gets 100% of the representation, and the loser gets nothing. These systems inevitably settle into comfortable (for the politicians) us-versus-them patterns, a never-ending and familiarly-scripted battle between petrified establishment iterations.

The alternative to winner-take-all electoral machinery is proportional representation, where multiple parties can gain actual footholds in government, usually via large super-districts, where several top candidates can all be elected. Countries that have proportional representation systems usually develop into coalition governments, where multiple parties frequently cooperate to get things done, as no single party can consistently command a majority. The result, almost universally, is that the political culture of proportional representation countries is less acrimonious, less ideological, and more pragmatic. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that proportional representation countries are more fiscally and financially stable, because there is a more continuous legacy of cooperative strategizing, which is relatively free of the wild swings of policy that come from political duopolies endlessly swapping places (think of President Trump’s relentless desire to undo all of Obama’s achievements).

Less central than house elections (for this discussion), but very important in its own right, is the presidential election machinery. In the Electoral College, Nebraska and Maine have already moved to proportional allocation of their votes. If more states did this, political disillusionment and disengagement would likely diminish, as there would be less ‘wasted’ votes in states considered safe under the current scheme. Candidates would be forced to campaign in many more states, which would likely temper and modify the hyper-partisan rhetoric.

Sitting atop this electoral machinery, and thus heavily dependent on it, is the second reason for our Divided America story: partisan media. The endless battles between Democrats and Republicans are worth big money, and election season has expanded to engulf every last corner of our waking lives. As there are now virtually no limits on how much money can slosh into our electoral system, the themes of contest and conflict leak into every nook and cranny of our political culture. For the media, the horserace is much easier to cover than complex issues of economics, international relations, the future of work, the state of infrastructure, etc. So news and information organizations load up on the us-versus-them motif, and partisan media organs evolve and emerge to feed off of the energy coming from the combative and acrimonious political landscape. It becomes more difficult for media outlets to remain objective, because partisan conflict attracts more eyeballs and earballs than that stuffy old boring news. Also, doing thorough and detailed reporting is expensive, so there is a huge temptation to embrace the cheaper option of opinion-laced commentary. The overall result here is a massive sorting of people into the partisan media outlets with which they feel most comfortable. As many observers have noted, liberals and conservatives increasingly tend to occupy completely different informational universes. Each ‘side’ has its own TV networks, websites, news aggregators, magazines, and books (yes, books are still a thing), to the effect that millions of people interact in just two ways: talking past each other, and yelling at one another.

But why does this work? Why are so many people content with being fundamentally opposed to, and angry at, a huge subset of their fellow citizens? Why are so many ‘tolerant’ liberals so intolerant of people who have what they consider to be the wrong opinions? And why are so many conservatives, who were traditionally and broadly laissez-faire (basically, live and let live), so riled up about anyone who has a different heritage or lifestyle?

Well, the short answer is that people are not content with this, not really. Most people don’t enjoy constantly lunging for the throats of their compatriots; and that brings us to the third interlocked tier of our problem: conditions on the ground for most Americans are dire. If people were doing better economically, there simply would not be enough negative energy to sustain the high level of cultural combativeness we are currently experiencing. People who are comfortable and secure in their present and their future are not usually obsessed with fighting some domestic enemy within. They are generally happy to let things be, and to let others, no matter how different, pursue their lives however they want.

But when circumstances are grim, as they are now, people are looking for any explanation they can get for what the hell’s going on. And because of the nature of our social primate brains, the best explanations are stories, and the best stories have villains. Narratives that make sense of hardship and calamity are absolutely essential for our day-to-day survival. They are often the only way to turn despair into hope and action. Into this area of need comes the American political duopoly, and the horsemen of the partisan media are close behind. Each side has created its own universal theodicy story, grand tales of why things have gone wrong and who is to blame. And as with all great myths, there are persecuted heroes who strive to do the right thing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Sometimes, the heroes win. But unfortunately, our problem is that these stories are currently, by necessity, tragedies. While the general tales of the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’ each have some elements of truth, at bottom they are simply part of a broken system of electoral machinery, partisan media, and eroding economic conditions for regular Americans. And as currently constituted, the solutions that these stories propose are not fully relevant to the very different circumstances that now confront us. At some point, we are going to need to change our electoral machinery, so that a different cultural superstructure can be built on top of it, one less wedded to the us-versus-them trope. But even more immediately, the economic conditions of the masses need to be improved right away, by any means necessary (Universal Basic Income would be the best bet, in my estimation), because the ultimate fuel for a Divided America is basic material deprivation and the resulting personal desperation of millions of people. If that deprivation is not addressed as soon as possible, then division and partisan rage will continue their intensifying boil.