Capitalism vs. Democracy

Gather ’round, y’all — it’s the fight of our times…

How much decision-making should be privately made, vs. collectively? Arguably, decisions that affect most of us ought, in some way, to incorporate input from the public.

But as Elizabeth Warren 2020 (!!) notes — it’s getting harder and harder to do that, even as economic opportunities dry up and the wealthy capture more and more of the political class.

With Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders all exploring bids too, it’s shaping up to be a very interesting 2020 indeed. With so many all-star Democrats in this mix, it’s hard to imagine we won’t come out of this with an interesting campaign season — beginning approximately now, with Warren’s semi-official entry into the arena and owning the airwaves as Trump comes unhinged at “Pocahontas.”

She dressed him down easily, gracefully, and quickly — before moving on into substantive economic issues most Americans are going to want to hear a lot more about. Trump cannot speak this way about the economy, which means his ruse on the Hillbilly Elegies of the world is about to come to an abrupt end, with many of their rude awakening.

For some it will never dawn on them that the man of the golden toilets (and golden showers!) who inherited hundreds of millions of dollars from his New York real estate mogul father before bankrupting himself 4 times in the casino business, in point of fact can in no way understand their experience living in a motor home or ramshackle apartment complex in some run-down suburb in the rust belt. But many may finally see that he’s just been pretending, like all the other rich people who still rule their damn lives despite all the promises to “drain the swamp” of corruption.

Let’s hope.

Here’s to 2020! 🥂

Happy 2019, United States and world!

We have endured much together these past 2-3 years, Team America. Thankfully our civil society is incredibly robust — and time is accelerating demographic gains in an inexorably democratic direction. As Boomers give way to Millennials — slated to happen as early as this year — we are experiencing a seismic shift in the national consciousness.

Look out, Boomers!

Our values as a nation-state have always been evolving as the political consciousness and cultural landscapes shift, but in recent political times the changes have been radical, seemingly sudden, and jarring in a way that collective memory does not easily recall. I believe we are witnessing the swan song of a generation — the largest post-WWII generation dominant demo for decades, now facing only the long decline.

Much is said of the Hillbilly Elegies of our country, but to be fair these elders are legitimately terrified: of the U.S. they see around them today — bearing little resemblance to the nation of their boomingly patriarchal childhoods; of the world outside our borders and the immigrants (theoretically; allegedly) streaming into them illegally; of long disused portions of America drying up and economically (and in some cases literally) tumbleweeding away; of their own impending mortality.

We go high

Michelle Obama was right. Is right. We should make ourselves aware of the kinds of games the other side is willing to employ, but endeavor not to play them ourselves as much as we can. But beyond a moral reason to love thy neighbor, there’s the practical matter that we may find common cause in surprising territories. Non-wealthy elder whites and young Millennials who struggled through the 2008 housing and banking crash both have reason to want a robust safety net, for example. This is the essence of democratic politics done well: coalition-building — not among special interests, but among elected leaders representing their constituents in good faith.

The arc of justice

…goes at its own pace, or something like that. Fascism has a creep (or at the moment, more of an open stride), and justice has a methodical process of evidence-gathering and weighing; we can have some solid faith in the latter to do its work. Regardless of the levels of bitter partisanship in the air, we have an enormous cadre of professional civil servants who do their often thankless jobs tirelessly for years and decades out of the limelight, for sub-private sector pay and little recognition. This cohort works tirelessly for us now, investigating the many tentacles of the Trump corruption operation stretching back years and decades into American life and foreign investment.

Mr Mueller, do your worst. By which I mean your best. We understand each other, I think. 👍🏽⚖️

Inequality and the Creep of Fascism

Some people like to argue that more economic inequality is a good thing, because it is a “natural” byproduct of capitalism in a world of “makers and takers,” “winners and losers,” “wolves and sheep,” [insert your favorite Manichaean metaphor here]. However, too much inequality is deleterious for both economics and politics — for reasons that are intertwined.

Those who amass exorbitant wealth often increasingly use a portion of their gains to capture politics. While the mythological promise of trickle-down economics is that we must not have progressive taxation, because giving more money to the already wealthy is the only way to spur economic investment and innovation and create jobs — in actual fact the majority of tax cut windfalls go to stock buybacks, offshore tax havens, regulatory capture, political lobbying, and campaign donations. All this is a runaway amplifying feedback loop that tilts the playing field further away from equal opportunity, social mobility, and democratic process.

Wealthy elites seek to preserve the power structures that have benefitted them, and keep them (and their descendants) in the ruling class. It is a slow recreation of the aristocratic societies of old Europe that we fought a bloody war of independence to separate ourselves from. Yet the erosion of civil values, public engagement, and collective will — largely as fomented by the conservative elite over the past 50 years in America — and the ascendancy of the myth of “rugged individualism” have conspired to create a perilous condition in which corruption operates so openly in today’s White House and Wall Street that democracy itself is in great danger.

Moreover, we have learned these lessons once, not quite a century ago, yet have forgotten them:

“Where there is a crisis, the ruling classes take refuge in fascism as a safeguard against the revolution of the proletariat… The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of decision.”

— Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind

Putin’s Greatest Weakness: The Russian Economy

Dictatorships generally do not foster, or even tolerate, the kind of creative disruption of the status quo necessary to the existence of a dynamic free market. Plus, the economy of the Russian state can best be described as a kleptocracy. Thus Vladimir Putin needs to find other ways to shore up both the national finances and the support of his cronies (much less so, of his people, who are primarily afterthoughts in the Russian power structure).

Here is a granular look at major indicators of the economy of the Russian Federation.

OECD Country Dashboard: Russia

The Mafia State: Russia Since the “End” of the Cold War

We Americans thought it ended, anyhow — but we were wrong. The revanchism that in some sense was of high potential after the fall of the former Soviet Union indeed came to pass — and later to be accelerated by the rise of Vladimir Putin to power.

Along with that trajectory, a curious development path for the former Soviet state: mostly, a descent into organized crime at the highest echelons of government. In some sense, organized crime is the government.

Here’s a great #longread from the Guardian about the history of a modern-day mafia state.

Putin’s Playbook: Pull factions apart from center; exacerbate democratic crisis

While we wring our hands in the United States over whether or not such a strategy is even conceivable, the erstwhile President of Russia has been running this playbook out in the open in Ukraine and Eastern Europe for some time. With help from Propagandist-in-Chief Vladislav Surkov, Putin has leveraged the open secrets about the psychology of crowds we learned in the late 19th and early 20th century to stir up emotional antagonisms within the political spectrum — to predictable results.

It’s no accident that fascism is on the march in America. The conditions have been brewing for some time, predominantly since the Conservative movement began breaking away more militantly from democratic principles and towards authoritarian philosophy (elite rule by force: preferably invisible force via economic hegemony for the middle and upper classes, and violent force / the carceral state for The Undesirables) in the late 1970s and 1980s. All Putin had to do was make use of available prevailing conditions and tools — the rise of social media in the 2000s counterintuitively blew a gaping wide security hole in the American persuasion landscape that Cold War Soviet operatives of the 1960s would scarcely have believed.

Today, as in parts of Europe between the world wars, the U.S. has partisan gridlock within The Establishment sector of politics; this exacerbates the impatience with and contempt for the status quo (aka the Liberal world order) that in some sense naturally congeals at the far right and far left margins of the political spectrum as a simple consequence of the Normal Distribution (the Median Voter Theorem captures this tendency quite succinctly). Under such conditions, an influence campaign like the one Russia wielded against the United States during the 2016 election season was tasked merely with tilting the playing field a little further — a task that platforms like Facebook and Twitter were in some sense fundamentally engineered to accomplish, in exchange for ad revenue.

New World Order? Be careful what we wish for

“Both Italian and German fascists had done their best to make democracy work badly. But the deadlock of liberal constitutions was not something the fascists alone had brought about. ‘The collapse of the Liberal state,’ says Roberto Vivarelli, ‘occurred independently of fascism.’ At the time it was tempting to see the malfunction of democratic government after 1918 as a systemic crisis marking the historic terminus of liberalism. Since the revival of constitutional democracy since World War II, it has seemed more plausible to see it as a circumstantial crisis growing out of the strains of World War I, a sudden enlargement of democracy, and the Bolshevik Revolution. However we interpret the deadlock of democratic government, no fascist movement is likely to reach office without it.”

— Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism

100 years on, it feels like we’re back at the start.