Monday, January 28, 2013

Free-Floating Angst

It's amazing, when you start to think about it, how much of our current political dysfunction is predicated on fears that don't seem to be based in any sort of observable reality.  On the right, there is this constant fear that we stand on the precipice of Socialism, and that at any moment the "Liberals" in Washington will confiscate the guns in civilian hands.  On the other side of the aisle, there is a constant refrain that everybody is trying to cut social insurance programs.  And everybody is convinced that the deficit is the primary challenge to American governance.

Of course, everyone actually knows that regulated free-market capitalism with some social insurance programs is not anything like Socialism, but the unfocused trepidation the generally misunderstood word creates is useful to the proponents of theory.  As long as there have been communities, the political leaders have understood that if their policy goals were popular, they would be cheerfully implemented, but if they were unpopular it was necessary to frame them in terms of something even worse.  Thus, the messaging goes, we must accept the sickness and death of millions of uninsured Americans because the alternative is the complete destruction of America as we know it.  Is this logical?  Does it pass even the most careless empirical test?  Of course not - but therein lies the true power of ideology - play on people's fears, hatred, bigotry and resentments, and they will willingly believe whatever outrageous story you choose to tell them, because they understand that the outcome will harm those they hate and fear.

And then there is the ridiculous panic that swells up from the fever dreams of the American Political Right every time someone tries to have a common sense conversation about reducing gun violence in America.  The uncharitable interpretation would be that conservatives don't care about the thousands of deaths caused by the easy availability of deadly weapons, but that can't be right, can it?  After all, they have rushed to spend trillions and abrogate whole swaths of the Constitution and basic American values in the aftermath of the 3000 lives lost over a decade ago in the 9/11 attacks.  So why, then, do so many on the Right conflate basic regulation with outright bans and even confiscation?  There are several reasons, but they are so tightly bundled and tangled it has become impossible to tell where one stops and the next begins.  First there is the rise of apocalyptic rhetoric.  In American politics, with a near-perfect parallel in entertainment, it has come to be viewed as necessary that every problem be an existential one.  The conclusion seems to be that only by increasing the stakes to an unacceptable level can they expect to persuade people to accept their ideologically favored "solution", whatever it might be.  There is also undeniably an essential American-ness about guns, from John Wayne and Audie Murphy to Arnold Swartzeneger and Sylvester Stalone.  To many, guns are part of their identity and they actually do fear any reduction in their access to them.  And there is the evolution of the NRA from an organization representing gun owners to one representing gun manufacturers and sellers, with the attendant rise in highly professional marketing communications that enlist their customers in the protection of their profits.  And they are very, very good at it.

Every bit as calculated and disingenuous is the insistence by so many on the left that just about everybody in Washington is working to reduce social insurance programs, primarily Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  This is taken as an article of faith and repeated endlessly, alongside breathless predictions of the impending end to the any government safety net expenditures.  The problem, of course, is it's pretty hard to find any actual evidence of this position.

In the ACA, legislators agreed to cut almost a trillion dollars out of Medicare, but it was entirely on the provider side - no cuts to benefits whatsoever.  And considering how much more Americans pay for health care services than any other nation, cuts to the providers are quite reasonable.  It's also true that President Obama offered a proposal during budget negotiations to reduce Social Security benefits, but everyone knew it was a red herring, an offer tied to a trillion dollars in tax increases that the Republicans would never accept, and so was nothing but a negotiating tactic.  For people to refuse to acknowledge that the proposal could never pass the House and therefore would never arrive on the President's desk for signature is to be intentionally obtuse, and that tends to signify an ideological agenda rather than an honest evaluation of the political environment.  Then there was the foul GW Bush, who unhesitatingly proposed a privatization scheme for Social Security.  Right Wing think tanks and pundits applauded loudly, but elected officials were notably less sanguine.  In fact, even with the President's cheerleading, no legislative proposal ever even went to committee.  It was President Bush's worst political defeat.  Even now, Republicans demand something they vaguely call "entitlement reform", but they are pathologically unwilling to present specific proposals.  That's because, if you'll recall, they used even the ACA's cuts to Medicare providers as a way to attack the President for "cutting Medicare".  Legislators know that to support specific cuts to social programs leaves them exposed to highly effective political attacks, because outside of Washington DC, social insurance programs are quite popular.   It is telling that even the noxious "Ryan Budget" has backed away from a strict voucherization approach to Medicare, and even so Republicans have suffered repeatedly at the polls for their budgetary fantasies.

And, of course, everybody reaches for that ready-made budgetary cudgel, deficit spending, to beat the other side about the head and shoulders in support of whatever political agenda they wish to demand on any given day.  Deficit financing, of course, is a perfectly normal and sound method of government funding, and is often even the preferred method.  But after decades of using the deficit as a boogie man, no one in Washington has the political courage to say that for fear of looking, quite rightly, like a disingenuous hypocrite.  By now, conventional wisdom has taken hold - people simply KNOW that the deficit is a huge problem that must be "solved", and if and when it is, there will be economic bliss and budgetary peace now and forever amen.  Meanwhile, all the talk of deficit reduction has hurt the economy and prolonged very high unemployment without addressing a single real issue.

It is true that the American system of governance is obsolete, deeply corrupt and dysfunctional, while the electoral system is antiquated and subject to all manner of manipulation and warped incentives.  But even so, there are problems we could be addressing, progress we could be making, people and communities we could be helping if only we were arguing about REAL problems instead of imaginary ones.  The problems we create in our paranoid fantasies and ideological manipulation can never be solved, because we can never imagine a world without them.  And so we occupy all the narrow ground our system allows us to govern ourselves screaming lies and slogans back and forth across the intellectual wasteland of our stunted discourse.


  1. I'm sticking with fixed.decimal.angst.


    1. Can you still use a proportional font with that?

  2. But even so, there are problems we could be addressing, progress we could be making, people and communities we could be helping if only we were arguing about REAL problems instead of imaginary ones.

    It really is remarkable. The chief product of America is suckers who have to ignore every fucking thing they see to keep their world-view.

  3. We must realize that the problem w/ those people is psychological, not merely political/ideological.

    They're obviously nuts, let's put them away somewhere. Worked for the Soviet Union.