Friday, November 14, 2008

Bailout Spin:On Government, Economy and Freedom

My Yahoo headlines are infected. Every time I look at them, there's the term "bailout" somehow working its viral way into yet another banner. The latest: "Senate to take up auto bailout on Monday"

Turns out Bush is asking Congress for $25 billion more. I get the feeling that I'm watching an Austin Powers film (if only this were as funny).
Austin Powers - 100 Billion Dollars

This came a little over a month after Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to bailout the banks.

Even so, the day before an international summit on the financial crisis, Bush delivered his party's time-honored harangue about the evils of "big government" and the wonderful virtues of the free market and "growth"in a speech at the Manhattan Institute. It sounds slightly contradictory and hypocritical. Or maybe the man and his party likenesses live in parallel universes, from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. No big government to bailout the poor, the sick, or to guarantee equal educational opportunity; or to protect the environment and insure the existence of a planet for our children. Just big government for giant corporations and banks. What we need, Bush said, is not more government, but "smarter government." Mr. President, the people have spoken: pack your bags.

But these are the marketing-cognitive traps his communications wizards have set for us, and they may trap us well after Bush has retired to his ranch. More government (i.e. laws and oversight)=stupid government. Of course the rhetorically savvy respond, "But sometimes we may need more AND smarter government," at which time the Bush team robot burns a fuse and smoke plumes rise from his ears. The talking points culture has been served the notice: giving billions of government (i.e. taxpayers') dollars to banks and corporations is simply smart government, while giving billions to to social problems puts the social in "socialist."

Compare these bailout numbers to what goes to citizens with their own troubles. In 2007, the budget for welfare and unemployment was $294 billion; for education $89.9 billion; $243 billion went to interest on the federal debt; Medicaid $246 billion; while the Iraq war 2003-present has cost over $3 trillion! Here we see the odd priorities of the outgoing administration, quite happy to spend lots of money, run up lots of debt on some matters and people deemed worthier than others.

What the outgoing administration and their supporters are most afraid of now is that these contradictions will result in a considerable shift in mainstream political discourse, spending priorities, and political economic structure--imposing more regulations on business than the country has seen in a long time. They should be scared, since while the current crises (plural) do not prove the complete bankruptcy of market economies, they show the bankruptcy of simplistic anti-government, pro-free market rhetoric. They want to scare vulnerable Americans into accepting a manichean dichotomy about government and economy a bit like Bush's simplisitic post-9/11 foreign policy: with us or against us. You can have "Big Government," a clever rhetorical evocation of "Big Brother," and totalitarianism, where the government steps in and controls every last detail of your life; or you can have the "free market," supposedly free of dangerous government meddling with and control of your work, buying, and exchanging of goods (though there's an implication that the meddling will be on multiple or all levels of life).

There is no such thing as the "free market," and never has been, if by which one means all production, distribution, and consumption is outside the government purview and all economic acts are by rational self-interested individuals. Big businesses depend on government (federal, state and local in the U.S.) to give them tax breaks, protect contracts, set work hours and safety standards, and not force them to give benefits to their employees,etc. Thus, they spend billions of dollars each year with professional lobbyists maneuvering to keep laws that favor them and prevent new ones from disfavoring them.

The problem is the age-old glitteringly ambiguous but emotionally powerful term"free." If market exchange were really free of third party mediation in the name of common laws applied to all (that is to civilized life), we would have the economic life of Locke's mythical state of nature, a war of all against all, where the strongest prevails, with no other restraint in the name of community. Government through law and enforcement can shape what kind of economy we practice, so that small businesses, for example, are privileged and rewarded while big ones are penalized and taxxed more, or vice-versa. Either way, government allows some behavior and discourages other kinds. 'Twas ever thus. And 'twill ever be.

The question is what kind of freedom do people want, what are the potential threats to it, and who benefits from persuading people that another form of freedom/security favors one party less or more than another? Since political debate in the U.S. rarely gets that deep, we get slogans repeated over and over, which are associated with parties, politicians, and people. Big Government! Socialist!

Franklin Roosevelt, dealing with a nasty bunch of money lenders and speculators of his own day, negotiated the situation by talking of different kinds of freedom (freedom from want, from fear, of speech, and of religion), and to the socialist slurs of his day, he responded that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear itself. Freedom of speech and religion are easily and traditionally understood as having the greatest potential threat in overbearing government. But freedom from want and fear, can be more easily understood in the caprices of modern economic cycles and the values of powerful players in the economy. The people as sovereign can save themselves from the dangers of excessive government controls of all individuals. But who would save the people from the economy, completely unelected and by nature full of power imbalances that can ruin a person's life in every other sense. "Necessitous men are not free men," FDR contended. The ousted Bush alliance will suggest any regulation in the name of freedom and security in the form of a false dilemma: either evil all-controlling socialist state or the individual-freedom-loving market.

The Reagan Revolution shrewdly read the FDR complication of freedom and power as a threat to their own pro-big business ideology, so they declared rhetorical war on it and won. They already had the help of The Cold War association of government control with Communism and Socialism (which were the same thing in everyday media culture). Their rhetoric, like Coolidge and Hoover's in the roaring 1920s, was honeysuckle until economic bad times hit. The problem is they have done a disservice to Americans who are trying to understand the complexities of POWER in a globalized world, which will in turn affect their understandings of freedom.

"I hope we shall crush... in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare
already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the
laws of our country," founding father Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to George Logan in 1816. As much as I like Jefferson's staunch rejection of the perilously un-free condition of citizens in a "manufacturing economy" opting instead for a quaint agrarian economy where every (politically free) citizen was also economically free, his vision lost out. But some have revived his language about freedom and minimal government, while taking it out of its historical context of an agrarian economy (unlike the post-industrial mess we live in today).

Jefferson's concerns with government and freedom were/are valid. But the new structures of power (largely unelected) in a very different economy create new obstacles for comprehending threats to freedom. Anti-government but pro-individual freedom visions can not account for the changes in society that have created huge corporate bureaucracies and made millions of people dependent on inscrutable market dynamics invisibly shaped by actors who care very little about their fellow citizen's security in the end.  Government should respond in a sociologically informed way to the historically changing threats to freedom in different forms, about which there should be serious and careful public discussion before government takes action (though crises put constraints on deliberation).

Now, with the historic economic woes in the U.S., people are looking for answers, and that means some of them will pay attention to the way causes of the crisis are framed, too. Some individuals and groups stand to lose a lot with economic reforms, and so it is not surprising their well-paid spokespeople are trying to transfer their own fear of Obama onto less powerful citizens with totally different objective economic interests. They have much less "freedom" in the "free" market, and more oversight/less freedom of the banks and major corporations can equal more freedom economically and otherwise for them. But their belief is the object of a fiercely fought PR war. Look for the "Obama is a socialist" rumor bombs to be dropped onto more and more media targets in the near future. Will he build more rumor bomb shelters? Will he be able to counterattack, and by what means in this debate-deprived political culture?

"The selfish spirit of commerce knows no country, and feels no
passion or principle but that of gain." --Thomas Jefferson to
Larkin Smith, 1809.

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1 comment:

Steve H said...

Jayson, I am so glad to see you have resumed writing on this blog. It has been missed, and the return is very welcome.