Monday, February 24, 2014

Wonked to death

Thomas Frank:
Actually, let me offer a correction to Obama’s formula. What really defines our time is the simultaneous soaring of inequality and the maddening inability of most progressives (there are exceptions, of course) to talk about it in a way that might actually inspire anyone to get off their ass. Start with the word itself: Like “neoliberalism,” another favorite lefty term for many of these same developments, “inequality” is confusing. It is euphemistic and aloof. It gets easily muddled with other, similar-sounding issues like marriage equality, gender equality and equal housing opportunity. Its tone is also needlessly clinical, giving the whole debate a technical and bloodless air.

Still, to read around on the subject is to get the feeling that certain liberals like it that way. “Needlessly clinical” is exactly their style. The subject, for them, must be positively cloaked in wonkery. They don’t talk much about “class,” like some troublemaker from the ’30s; they talk about “inequality,” which is a delicate and intricate signifier. Oh, it is extremely complex. It requires so many charts.
There are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon.  Sure, some of our so-called liberal politicians and pundits are just kind of spineless.  But still more of them really do just identify too closely with the people who created the problem in the first place to challenge them directly.

One often wonders whose side Mary Landrieu is even on, for example.
“I’m a die-hard Republican, but I love Mary Landrieu,” said Lafayette resident Mark Miller, who owns and runs multiple Louisiana-based companies that drill and offer support services to other energy firms. “You can’t overstate what it means for this state to have her experience and influence, especially with the energy chairmanship.”

Among other things, Miller cites Landrieu’s support for the Keystone Pipeline extension, her opposition to cap-and-trade legislation, her defense of offshore drilling after the Gulf oil spill and her support for the industry’s tax advantages. Landrieu has also garnered support from shipbuilding magnate Donald “Boysie” Bollinger, noteworthy because Bollinger helped bankroll the GOP’s takeover of the Louisiana Legislature.

But, more to Frank's point, too often arguments over substantial crises involving real life villains are sanitized as the passive consequence of circumstance rather than the deliberate product of policy choices.
The rich got so goddamn rich, in other words, because the signature policies of the Great Right Turn were designed to make them rich. And, as the world knows, these policies weren’t limited to Republicans; Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—plus, of course, their resident economists and cabinet members—all more or less endorsed the basic tenets of the free-market faith. They are all implicated.

So inequality, now that we’re having a “conversation” about it, must of course turn out to be massively complicated, something no one could possibly have seen coming — sort of like the 2008 financial crisis, come to think of it. Furthermore, it must be seen as another technical problem, a matter for the experts to solve, like the budget deficit or entitlement spending.
Which brings me back to Tulane academic and Preservation In Print contributor Richard Campanella's carefully chosen words describing the "green dot" plan in this NYT piece.
Decision makers may see a disaster as “an opportunity to finally get things right,” said Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University, but during those times, “everyone else craves normalcy.”
Of course it isn't Campanella's job to say "Decision makers Plutocrats may see a disaster as an opportunity to finally get things right take advantage of tragedy in order to improve their position, but during those times, everyone else craves normalcy victims may push back." But his phrasing does paint the parties more likely to help him get his work published in a forgiving light.  And keeping those types happy actually is a big part of his job. 

Not that academia is all about flattery to power.  It has other uses. But those who would seek to represent  us on the short end of the inequality debate aren't doing us any favors by adopting its often hedged and passive rhetoric.

No comments: