September 22, 2009

Confusion in the Ranks: Sheetless Klan Meetings

I've been noodling on various alternative names for the White People's Rallies, and Teabagesque meetings everywhere, and haven't hit on anything completely satisfactory. KooKoo Klan was a possibility; also Koo Klutz Klan. Not quite there, but that's the creative process for you: hit & miss.

Jimmy Carter thinks there is something "racist" in these attacks on Obama. Gee, ya think? Along with Jimmy's usual haul of annual UN humanitarian honors, I think he should be 2009's frontrunner for the Duh Award. I'm wondering: can Kenny Chesney update that awful song of his and call it "No Sheet, No Shoes, No Problems"?

Anyway, Frank Rich inspired Glenn Greenwald to write about the Glenn Beck Perplex, and specifically how this highly histrionic, lachrymose, unstable bundle of nerves manages to "lead" a movement when it's obvious Beck himself has no idea where he's going. You might say the Teabaggers and others marching under his banner cannot get their sheet together.

In the bad old days, between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act, the angry white mobs had a tighter focus: anti-Negro, pro states' rights (which, in the manipulative hands of pols like George Wallace and Orval Faubus, were just the two sides of the same coin). Then as now, the reason these mobs tend to look melanin-deprived and basically confused is because they are drawn from the ranks of the white dispossessed. Economically anxious, debt-ridden, grievance-filled. Thus, they hold up signs that say, "I will protect the Constitution by any means necessary." So, in an unfair, slightly-too-sophisticated way, you might be tempted to ask: which part of the Constitution? Glenn Beck and others, operating at a level you might call superficial if that did not imply more depth than is actually there, have encouraged these mobs to think that "Obamacare" is unconstitutional because the federal government has no proper role in health care. Which is confusing, since Medicare is definitely a federal program, as are the Veteran's Administration hospital system and the Center for Disease Control. The issue was settled a long time ago by the Supreme Court through a generous interpretation of the Commerce Clause: the feds can basically do anything they want, such as tell a motel in Mississippi that they cannot discriminate in renting rooms, because, like it or not, they participate in "interstate commerce."

Or the tax thing, which our typical, well-fed protestor above is worked up about. The top federal marginal rate (35%) was brought down to its lowest level since Ronald Reagan under President George W. Bush. He did this at the behest of the plutocratic buddies who put him in office. Among other factors (such as the abandonment of anti-trust laws and the globalization agreements which encourage the shipping of American jobs out of the country), this shifting of the tax burden down has helped skew the wealth distribution to its present ridiculous imbalance. About two-thirds of the national net worth is controlled by 10% of the population; the bottom 40% own much less than 1%. I'm thinking (though I can't prove) that the political activist pictured above is not in the top 10%, and thus his enlistment in the anti-tax shock troops of Fox News is kind of, you know, nuts.

The Teabag Mobs or Sheetless Klan also encourage a "9/12" mentality, which means that they think we're on the verge of succumbing to the existential threat of an amorphous Islamic force. I suppose we could be; but this paranoiac approach to things doesn't jibe well with another Teabag hobby horse, the new-found concern about the National Debt. That's a legitimate worry, to say the least. So why have so many of the same Teabaggers, in the past, supported George W. Bush and his militaristic budget-busting, adding one-half trillion each year to the debt while in office? Why the support for "nation-building" in Iraq and Afghanistan when we're sinking in an ocean of red ink here at home? Or if they supported bank bailouts when Bush was doing it, why the protest over Obama doing the same thing?

You could call all the politics of the Teabaggers and the Koo Klutz Klans chaotic, but that makes it sound more coherent than it really is. The situation does call to mind one of the fundamental problems with democracy. As society gets more and more complicated, the intelligence and education necessary to grasp, even dimly, the precise way in which you're getting screwed increase beyond the level of the people doing the actual voting.

I read a long piece in the Boston Globe about Hyman Minsky, the iconoclastic economist, and prophet not honored in his time, who predicted the precise economic collapse the United States recently underwent in books and articles he was writing thirty and forty years ago. (Hyman even did a short stint as an Associate Professor at Berkeley in the early Sixties.) Minsky took a skeptical view of capitalism; he considered it inherently unstable (sort of like Glenn Beck, but different). He outlined three stages of capitalist development. In the first, borrowers and investors are pragmatic and conservative: they borrow only at a level where they can repay both the interest and the principal. I think of my parents' generation emerging from the Great Depression as representative of this paradigm. As the economy grows, and assets begin to inflate in value on a predictable basis, borrowers take on some risk: they borrow at a level where they can make the interest payments, but the principal is beyond them. Think Baby Boomers. This, of course, is the basic principle of leverage. This is Speculative Borrowing. At the third level, Minsky wrote, the borrowers throw caution to the wind and engage in "Ponzi borrowing," where they cannot reliably pay either the interest or the principal and depend entirely on inflation to make short-term profits. This exuberance (which was built up during the latter part of the Clinton years and into the Bush regime) lasts until some failure of a key component, maybe just one big company (Bear Stearns?) incites hysteria among over-extended, over-leveraged borrowers and investors and panic selling begins, bringing on rapid deflation and a deep recession/depression.

Minsky thought the government had an important role in mitigating the effects of Capitalist Bipolarity. When the bottom falls out, the government should institute a hiring program of the unemployed, enlisting them to work on roads, trails, railroads, clean-up, etc., in an effort to maintain a basic standard of living and to place a floor under the minimum wage. This was his "bubble-up" theory of recovery. In corporatist America, of course, we went the other way and decided to bail out a specific set of boards of directors and management teams at certain well-connected commercial and investment banks, to nationalize none of them, and to spend all of our money there. The Federal Reserve and Treasury are now tapped out.

Obama, out of fear of being called a Socialist, decided to follow the dubious lead of Bush and use a trickle-down approach to the problem. I was hoping, when GM failed, that Obama would try something audacious and nationalize the company, using its factory base and trained workers to build mass transit (high-speed and light rail). The U.S. paid enough to buy the companies outright based on their capitalization at the time. Instead, Obama "reassured" everyone that GM would stay in private hands; America's ownership would remain limited to holding a bad debt. I am now reconciled, or resigned, to the idea that Barack, unlike FDR (who used something like Minsky's idea in his Work Projects Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps), is simply not an audacious person. He tinkers a little (Cash for Clunkers, etc.) and that's it. If he fails, it will be failure based on tried-and-true modes of failure. It's what makes almost hilarious the cries from the mobs that he's a "revolutionary" or a "Marxist." I don't think Karl Marx would have recruited his economic team from Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase.

You can see, of course, that the Sheetless are not going to hold signs up proclaiming their belief in the alternative approach of Hyman Minsky. For one thing, I suspect there are a lot of anti-Semites lurking in their midst, and the anti-Federal Reserve plank of their "platform" is not so far removed from suspicions about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Teabag people are right that they've been had, and they're lashing out in all directions as a result. Whether what they're for or against has any chance of ameliorating their plight is similar to the probabilities involved in throwing darts at a spinning dart board. Maybe, maybe not. Does anyone represent them? Not really. Is Glenn Beck sincere in his belief in their multi-faceted "cause?" I doubt it. Is their situation going to get better? Uh-uh.