Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Nothing will do that

This is a very good Tom Frank article. Like everything Frank has put out this year, including his newest book, it calls necessary attention to the corrupt relationship between the Democratic political establishment and economic elites on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.
And so President Barack Obama did an interview with Business Week in which he was congratulated for his stewardship of the economy and asked “what industries” he might choose to join upon his retirement from the White House. The president replied as follows:
… what I will say is that – just to bring things full circle about innovation – the conversations I have with Silicon Valley and with venture capital pull together my interests in science and organization in a way I find really satisfying.
In relating this anecdote, I am not aiming to infuriate because the man we elected in 2008 to get tough with high finance and shut the revolving door was now talking about taking his own walk through that door and getting a job in finance. No. My object here is to describe the confident, complacent mood of the country’s ruling class in the middle of last month. So let us continue.

On the morning after British voters chose to leave the European Union, Obama was in California addressing an audience at Stanford University, a school often celebrated these days as the pre-eminent educational institution of Silicon Valley. The occasion of the president’s remarks was the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and the substance of his speech was the purest globaloney, flavored with a whiff of vintage dotcom ebullience. Obama marveled at the smart young creative people who start tech businesses. He deplored bigotry as an impediment that sometimes keeps these smart creative people from succeeding. He demanded that more power be given to the smart young creatives who are transforming the world. Keywords included “innovation”, “interconnection”, and of course “Zuckerberg”, the Facebook CEO, who has appeared with Obama on so many occasions and whose company is often used as shorthand by Democrats to signify everything that is wonderful about our era.
This is the key to understanding what's broken about American politics. It works only to promote the interests of the wealthiest class of elites to the greater detriment of just about everyone else.  But, as always, this core crisis of western democracy gets pushed further and further toward the back pages the closer we get to the election which is now at the part of the cycle where everything is about stagecraft criticism and Pokemon memes. At least Frank is still writing about things that matter.

At the same time, though, I find it strange that he hasn't yet figured out how the crisis ends.. or that he assumes it can end at all. 
It’s easy to see the problems presented by a cliquish elite when they happen elsewhere. In the countries of Old Europe, maybe, powerful politicians sell out grotesquely to Goldman Sachs; but when an idealistic American president announces that he wants to seek a career in venture capital, we have trouble saying much of anything. In Britain, maybe, they have an “establishment”; but what we have in America, we think, are talented people who deserve to be on top. One wonders what kind of a shock it will take to shake us out of this meritocratic complacency once and for all.
Frank has been writing about these issues for most of his career. So why is he still waiting for an event that will "shake us out of this meritocratic complacency once and for all"? One would think he'd figured out by now that nothing will do that.  Pundits like to impose long, well threaded narratives onto descriptions of news and politics but real life events don't fit together so neatly. The news isn't part of some grand novel. It's just a bunch of things that happen.

All of which is to say there is no "once and for all." There is only muddling through and trudging on according to whatever path best suits the people with the power to influence decisions. The Brexit vote may be, as Frank says, "a blunt and ugly rejection of some of (Hillary's) cohort’s most cherished ideas," but what does that matter? That fit has already begun to be put down.  Brexit may not even end up happening. And if and when it does, who will be hurt most? Probably not bankers and venture capitalists.

None of this is to say that Frank's analysis is wrong. It's spot on. Nor do we mean to say that it doesn't matter.  Quite the contrary.  Public policy implemented for and by elites has profound negative impacts on us all. But invariably the costs of every "shock" produced, be it a war, a financial collapse, or an ecological disaster are borne by the rest of us. The foundational power relationships that allow the ruling classes to go on ruling are never put right by any of it. So goes the history of pretty much everything.

Can that change? Who knows?  Does it mean there's nothing to be done at all? I hope it doesn't mean that. But as long as we keep lying to ourselves about an impending resolution via magical judgment "shock" imposed by the universe, we're probably barking up the wrong tree. Because what progress ever comes of fetishizing an apocalypse anyway? There are enough every day disasters to worry about as it is.

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