Monday, December 31, 2012

Why No Outrage? More on How Economism Works

 Dr. Roy Poses, blogmeister of Health Care Renewal, has been kind enough to mention The Golden Calf and my arguments about economism:

Dr. Poses now asks, in his New Year’s Eve posting, for responses to the question—why, in the face of so much incompetence, greed, and corruption in high corporate places (he’s concerned about health care organizations, but why stop there) is there as yet no organized opposition to what deserves to be called the Second Gilded Age? (

Johnny One Note that I am, I naturally believe the answer to his question is: economism. But the way he asked the question forces me to think harder about just how economism works in seducing all of us. Actually I have a two part answer, one theoretical and one practical.

First let’s start with what it means to say that economism functions as a quasi-religious ideology. When I first started writing The Golden Calf, I had intended to say more about linguist George Lakoff’s idea of frames in political dialogue, such as he analyzes in his Moral Politics. Most of that draft ended up on the cutting room floor, so let me fill in some of the blanks here.

A political frame is what surrounds an argument or statement or question, that is treated as background and accepted as is, without itself giving rise to any further discussion or questions. Lakoff noted that today’s conservative movement in the U.S. started working on frames back in the 1970s, generously funding many conservative think tanks and paying their best minds to do this work. Liberal think tanks, at the same time, avoided this intellectual spadework and tried to find ways to make a real difference in people’s lives. Lakoff stated that this gave the conservatives a huge head start that the progressives have never yet caught up with.

Economism works very well as a frame. Consider the old bumper sticker slogan, “If you like the Post Office, you’ll love national health insurance.” Notice what has to be true for this slogan to work—and it does work, for even people like me who support national health insurance snicker a bit and shake our heads at how effective it is. For this slogan to do its job, it has to be an article of faith that the U.S. Post Office is laughably inefficient. The reason for this faith is that we see the Post Office as a government bureaucracy—two four-letter words in economism’s lexicon. Government bureaucracies are ponderously expensive and inefficient, virtually by definition. (Notice that in America, private enterprise may have layers and layers of managers tripping over each other and messing things up royally, but somehow no corporation ever has a bureaucracy—that hated enemy, government, is the only place such abominations exist.)

People who have studied the matter carefully note that everywhere else in the world that has national health insurance manages to provide health care for their populations at much lower administrative cost than we do in the US, and that government health plans in the US such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA all manage to meet the standards of those other national plans, running at around 3-5 percent administrative costs. We also know that when, under Obamacare, the U.S. private insurance industry was told that they would have to get by on merely 20 percent administrative costs, they hollered and screamed that that was impossible. So there is a lot of evidence that adopting national health insurance would make our system more efficient, not less. But such an argument never gains any traction in the U.S. It’s not worth even talking about because we just know from the get-go that government bureaucracies are inefficient.

I could have attacked that bumper sticker from the other end. On what basis do we make fun of the U.S. Post Office? When was the last time somebody sent you a letter or a package and you didn’t get it? How long does it take you to get the average letter you are mailed? But again, no one even bothers to ask such questions, because we just know the answers beforehand.

An ideology like economism doesn’t win this type of war overnight. If it was only a year or two ago that this ideology had begun to spread, then we might hear serious questions about its assumptions today. The point is that this way of thinking has had nearly 40 years to worm itself into the fabric of our national thinking, and it had on its side excellent right-wing orators such as Ronald Reagan who devoutly believed it—and, perhaps even more important, so-called center-left orators such as Bill Clinton who decided it was a matter of political expediency not to oppose or expose it.

That’s the theoretical answer; now for the practical answer.

From what quarter, in American society, might we expect to hear the call for a political movement to end the Second Gilded Age? The Occupy movement was great for a while but apparently had no staying power. If we look back in time to when we last had some balance, when large corporations did not always get their way, the main countervailing force was labor unions. So my practical answer to the question is that we cannot expect much to happen to derail the Second Gilded Age while unions are held in such disrepute by so much of the American public—which gets back to the theoretical answer in explaining how this disrepute came about.

I was saddened to hear a recent report on NPR that interviewed three generations of residents of Flint, Michigan. The oldest member of the family walked the picket lines during the great auto strike of the 1930s when the UAW was created. The middle generation worked for the auto industry and reaped all the benefits of unionization in higher wages and ample benefits. The youngest generation is now struggling to make it in a town that has shuttered factories and massive unemployment. The grandson works in a non-union shop and sees no reason to join a union or to have anything to do with unions. Within one generation, all the life experiences and memories of the grandmother and the father have simply been erased.

I spent some time in The Golden Calf wondering about the virtual destruction of the American union movement, noting among other things that the union hall was more than a power center for those opposing and exposing corporate power. The union hall was most people’s exposure to practical democracy in action. With so few Americans belonging to unions, it is not surprising that democracy in our nation is at such low ebb—or that we now have such a low bar for what democracy is supposed to consist of (like going to vote every four years, if you can spare the time, and ignoring public events in the interim).

Incidentally, if you wonder about the force behind political frames, consider the incredible power that the American right accumulated when it managed to label state laws that emasculated the unions as “right to work laws.” In a country when Republicans talk about right to work laws, and Democrats answer them back as if the term is completely acceptable and noncontroversial, you know that the political frame is stacked heavily on one side of the power equation.

I wish, obviously, that I had the answer to all this, but at any rate this is what I think a big part of the problem is.

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