Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Backside to the Future

(Being A Mere Diversion, And a Personal Rumination on The State of the Nation and the Upcoming Election Year)

With the ludicrous Ames Iowa "straw poll" it appears that the 2012 campaign season has officially begin...15 months before the actual election.I can't begin to express how this irritates me.

Glenn Greenwald explains better than I can how the combination of endless "election" coverage combined with the rapacious cable news 24/7/365 cycle hammered down into the simpleminded "tell the masses what they want not what they need" paradigm of the corporate news (and, of course, sprinkled with some commercial gottasellsomeads! pixie dust) goes in one end and emerges a Möbius band of idiocy that ties misinformation into disinformation with plain, good old fatuousness for a sort of fractal stupidity; refracted infinitely to where any hope of extracting simple, sane understanding of the people and their ideas has vanished.

But at least on one hand the tale told by one of the idiots - while set about with sound and fury signifying nothing (that is, the usual folderol involving gays, guns, and God - fodder for the gossip columns and the prayer breakfasts but nothing more than a magnetic sticker on the bumper of the People Who Matter in our electoral "process") - is simple enough.

No new taxes. In fact, no taxes at all, or as close as possible.

Small government. Teeny, tiny, eensy-weensy leetle government (except the part that blows up Scary Brown People, but that's the cool part, anyway).

Freedom for the Job Creators! Deregulate everything regulatable!

Free Markets! (meaning; deregulate even MORE stuff!)

Plus some other truly crazy shit; abolishing the Fed, returning to the gold standard, protection for precious rapist-babies...but you know the drill - that's just to give the loonies a shiny pretty to play with.

Here's the thing; this is nothing new. Nothing. We've already been there, done that, and got the crinoline and the Arrow t-shirt.

Low taxes? Freedom for the magnates? Utter deregulation and a complete lack of federal anything?The Gilded Age.


And, if I have to be scrupulously honest, if I was in Forbes 400, if I was one of the rich and the powerful...why not?Hell, the pre-Depression United States was a paradise for a rich man (woman? enh...not quite so much). Mansions? Servants? Senators appointed at your whim? Entire federal administrations in your pocket? Ask the Doles how that Hawaii thing worked out for them, the Rockefellers how the Standard Oil gig payed off before those meddlesome Progressive trustbusters elbowed in.

And let me be honest about this, too; the United States works perfectly well as an open oligarchy. It did from about 1870 to 1930, and don't kid yourself; some pigs are still more equal than others and always have been. Tell me that you get the same meal ticket emerging from the Oregon Episcopal School versus Jefferson High School here in Portland.

Henh. Right.

But I'm not here to argue equality of outcomes.

I'm here to talk about next year.

It's becoming painfully clear that the GOP is going to nominate someone whose positions on things like federal regulations and spending are closer to those of John D. Rockefeller than his grandson. And if they win - and the continuing Great Recession makes such a win highly plausible - they will do their very best to return this country to the Gilded Age they by their words and deeds so seem to yearn for.

I consider this a very Bad Thing, largely because me and mine are unlikely to be among those included in the Four Hundred. We will not be robber barons; more likely we will be among the robbed. Mojo and I had a lovely saunter about our graceful Pittock Mansion this sunny Sunday, and I observed that had we been alive then our only glimpse of the beautiful appointments and spectacular vistas would have been as we carried the dirty linen down the stairs or brought master his cigars.But I have to accept that it would not necessarily be a Bad Thing for the nation. More nations have thrived and grown in wealth and power as oligarchies than as democracies, simply because of the late arrival of popular democracy on the historical scene. The nation as a nation might do quite well.

And it is unlikely that even the most teabaggiest Republican government would be able to go full public-be-damned on us. The welfare state is deeply ingrained in U.S. society, and there would come a point where even the most Galtian overlord would draw back from reintroducing a world of match girls and breaker boys even if it helped bring back the Gibson Girl and the Arrow Shirt guy.Make no mistake; "reforming" the entitlement systems now in place mean simply throwing people out of them. Some of those people will find ways to live without their dole money; the American people had all sorts of ways of coping with poor, sick, old parents and injured relatives before 1933 and they can reinvent those ways again. Families will return to the multigenerational homes of the past, where retired grandma cares for the grandkids while mom and dad work, in return for food and a bed. There are ways, there are ways.But.

And this is a big "but"...

Two things have changed enormously since the last time we tried to live this way, assuming that the GOP experiment goes forward. And I'm not sure whether they've really thought this out.

First, in 1911 the U.S. was a burgeoning industrial power; work was there - not always good work, often dirty, hard, low-paying, dangerous work - but it was there. And it was work that needed people; vastly manual, even when skilled. The factories of the Gilded Age needed lots of poor people to work them.Second, there was still a hell of a lot of "open" land, and "open" places, for people to go to try and start again. The frontier only officially closed in 1890, and even in the Fifties there were lots of places that were still booming and enjoyed a boomtown's need for people.And both of of those "safety valves" are gone.

If the Great Recession and the thirty years of deregulation, outsourcing, offshoring, downsizing, and deunionization have proved anything to the people Who Matter in business and politics, it's that Henry Ford's old paradigm - pay the workers better so they will buy more stuff - has been broken. The "old economy" here in the U.S. - the economy that depended on American working people working to make stuff that other American working people bought - is tanking, HAS tanked, and I don't think anyone knows how to put all those people back to work in any sort of work that pays a living wage.And there's nowhere to "go". The frontier really IS closed, and there's no hope for people to take up forty acres and try and make a go of it. Oh, sure, you can try an start-up a little company, make cute glass cups or design webpages or invent a new application for a cell phone...but working for yourself is a backbreaking task, and especially in the corporatist U.S. of 2011 there are so many ways that a bigger, more powerful competitor can dry-gulch you. My wife is a "contractor" and I've seen the sausage-making up close. They're right - it's not pretty. And it's not going to get you into the parlor at Pittock Mansion, either.

So assuming that the Gilded Age Project largely succeeds, we can assume that it will result in a fairly large group - larger than we have dealt with in living history - of relatively permanently unemployed or under-employed people, people who not only don't have work but for whom the IS no work, no work that can't and won't be done by someone in Bangladesh or Uruguay for a fraction of what that American would need to make to live even at poverty levels in this country. That among this group will be many old, sick, and old sick people. And that if there IS a way out of that throwback to the future it is something that not only is unapparent to us now, but even potential precursors are not apparent.

The old economy is failing. The new economy - whatever that may be - has not yet emerged, if it ever will emerge in any form that will help those knocked down by the fall of the old economy to their feet again.

And one major political group in U.S. politics believes that the best response to this is to return as closely to the conditions of 1889 as possible.


I'm not sure what is in store for me, for my family, for you and yours. But I suspect that even if we don't end up turning back down the road towards the past we're in for some hard years ahead.

And if we do...well...

If the U.S. Army taught me one thing, I learned how to mop a fucking floor.Hopefully when I get laid off I won't be too old to get a job cleaning up at the Big House.


  1. A powerful post, Chief.

    I can put some numbers on your fears. Right now the Unemployment and Underemployment number (U-6 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) is hovering around 16%. I will be pleasantly surprised if the number is less than 25% by the end of 2013. There's a decent chance that number will reach 40% by 2020.

    While I understand and emotionally agree with your statement that welfare state is too deeply engrained in the US psyche to be cancelled, I fear that you're not thinking creatively enough about the matter. There's lots of ways to wreck the welfare system that seem sensible on the surface.

    For example, what really high inflation (15%+) rears its ugly head again and the government announces that it can't afford cost of living increases. The system would be effectively crippled as a way of supporting people in less than five years.

    Medicare patients already have a difficult time getting into medical clinics because the clinics don't like their reimbursement rates and don't have to take Medicare patients. Extend that to hospitals and even emergency rooms and you've essentially denied medical care to a large but quiet percentage of the population.

    But in spite of the statistical evidence, I'm done with hopelessness. There are ways out of this mess, mostly by starting on a very local level and working your way up, and I'm going in search of them. For example, the mayor of my community is a bit of a jerk and likes the office far more than I'm comfortable with but does a very good job of being mayor.

    The titans of industry are doing a fantastic job of destroying the middle layer of companies (the ones that are most likely to supersede them some day) but there is an ever-increasing number of smaller employee-owned companies that are successfully competing on a local level because those titans of industry, quite frankly, aren't all that competitive when you look closely at them (which is why the titans are so profitable to begin with).

    I'm not going the Global Guerrilla route either. JR has stared into the abyss too long and I doubt the accuracy of his vision for the future. There's still a lot of power in human potential (you can dress up my optimism as potential for future profits if you like) and the global trade and information sharing platforms that have destroyed so many jobs can also save lives and make for a brighter future at virtually no cost to the corporations.

  2. Great post Chief! The 400 (and the rest of the .1% who want to be in the 400) will not stop until we are Bangladesh. The media, which starts the next campaign on the second Wednesday of every November will be no help because they survive on the vast billions of dollars campaigns bring in. Grifter politicians won't help because they are so completely narcissistic and dependent upon the plutocrats to maintain a standard of living that exceeds the one 99% of their constituents lead.

    No, it's nothing but a train wreck of historic proportions - and we're on it. And since the wheels are already off the tracks, there's nothing to do but hang on for the ride. And when the time comes, remember who caused the wreck, hold them accountable and perhaps show some charity (instead of a head on a pike a lifetime of servitude in a veteran's home).

    In the meantime, we may not have the 40acres or the burgeoning job market, but we do have each other - locally and regionally - and we need to start building the civic institutions outside the existing structures. I think at this point, more value comes of that energy than all that is directed towards influencing the corrupt, but formal political process we have today.


  3. Nice post Chief, but I can't help but consider the distinctions between 1933 and today . . .

    In 1933, trying to re-sell the gilded age would have flown like a lead balloon and probably have ushered in a real rebellion. The moneybags knew that, so they kept their self-serving ideas to themselves and watched as the New Deal - actually a revamped version of TR's Square Deal - took off.

    As Rexford Tugwell, one of FDR's Brain Trust wrote in March 1933, "I do not think it too much to say that on March 4 we were confronted with a choice between an orderly revolution - a peaceful and rapid departure from the past concepts - and a violent and disorderly overthrow of the whole capitalist structure."

    Also FDR's whole approach of patiently explaining his programs in his radio addresses, of appealing for solidarity, of warning citizens not to trust everything they read in the newspapers due to their vested interests in attacking his policies . . .

    In retrospect, 1933 looks like a golden age of US democracy in action, rather than a time of broad economic crisis, although it was that as well.

    Compare that with today.

  4. And don't forget, George Carlin always knew this to be true.


  5. FD Chief makes a good point when he writes that globalization put the end to Ford's realization that producers are also consumers. Global trade works in both directions to out-source workers and customers. You don't need Americans to buy automobiles if, for example, the Brazilian middle class is as numerous and as affluent as the middle class in Europe. Which it is. At least for now.
    Add global warming, peak oil, land depletion, contamination of the oceans, and the increasingly poor returns from scientific research, and things look pretty grim.
    In MHO, we should take Retired Patriot's advice seriously and set about set about constructing "civil institutions outside of existing structures." Engaging in conventional politics is a waste of time, especially now when the elites have immunized themselves against argument and reason. As their budget priorities show, they put their trust in weaponry.
    Elements of the Left have, I think, have come to a similar conclusion. No more milling about, preaching to ourselves in “free-speech zones” while cops, costumed like Darth Vader, glower and fondle their billy clubs. Instead, plant an urban garden or teach some kid how to be a plumber or a mechanic who can keep an old tractor running on home-brewed ethanol. The real confrontation will be between those who strive to build upon what remains and those who respond in the traditional American way, that is, with violence.

  6. Of course now, who would argue that it came ever soooo close to rebellion in 1933? If you've got real skin in this game . . . which means at least $1 million. Half that and you're still bait . . . that's their measure, so why not use it?

    As to who among the current US elite would like to consider the real history of the US in 1933? Nobody, nor their dog.

    Just like back in the bad ole days, it never would have happened, them Russians were ever so peaceloving . . . and them Germans ever so bad back in the 1940s . . .

    Just don't figure out that it might actually come down to state power in the hands of an unaccountable and corrupt elite . . . that would be bad for business . . .

  7. And to add amusement to the misery...there are former millionaires who are flat ass broke because of the last recession...I know, I cried a river too.

    But with the latest shenanigans in our world economy it looks more and more like we're heading for a second recession...booyahh!!!

    I am seriously thinking of turning my yard into a garden next spring.

  8. Chief,
    In military terms our leaders have sacrificed the initiative. They admit that we have been over run and have no idea how to restore the line of contact. It's like the German Army/44, we've lost our ability to maneuver and our equivalent solution is to make cuts b/c we can't resume the strategic offensive.We lack the ability in space/time/resources.
    Everything that our leaders from both sides offer is limited mobile defense and we call it otherwise. Budget cuts are the same as throwing platoons to stop en div penetrations.
    Nobody has any plan that will bring us back offensively. Every move of both sides only fortifies the fact that our ideas today are as unreal as the Hitler concepts of 44. We propose budget cuts(Stalingrad tactics) when what we really need are deep strategic penetrations of enemy forces.
    Nobody has ever won a modern war by defensive posturing, and that's all we are being fed. Budget cuts are Stalingrad tactics that will lead to complete encirclement.
    Neither side has a clue as to what will work in the new world that our policies have wrought. You enumerate these very clearly.
    I'm starting to realize/believe that it takes 30 years for our federal/ state/local laws to mature into true butt fucks into our lives.
    I have no idea as to the solution

  9. Chief,

    Very well said. What is to keep either the privileged or the proles from changing course, and the course is a deeper rift? Richard Florida's "Creative Class" is pretty to envision, but not all can arrive there.