My own, I mean. I sort of thought I’d settled into a mid-life Canadian-mainstream political rut, but events have been battering me sideways.

A recent political trauma occurred in January at the Churchill Club WikiLeaks event. The featured speaker was Daniel Ellsberg, a an old lion of the left, and boy was he ever convincing. I realized that I was listening to someone apparently positioned several leagues left of where I see myself, and admiring every word. Just one example: his pointing out, in terms that made anger unavoidable, the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute anyone for the widespread torture conducted by its predecessors (both direct and via extraordinary rendition, which is what they call it when you hand your political prisoners over to Arab autocracies for them to do the dirty); and simultaneous willingness to unleash the Justice Department against whistleblowers and leakers.

Sources · I could go on and on; but in the spirit of the Web, I’ll offer a set of links stretching back over the last year or so that have made me wonder if the “middle of the road” isn’t actually veering into some awful chasm to the right. These are long-form, but the issues are big and require it, so I recommend pulling up a comfy chair with a big screen on your lap. (If I may dip into geek-speak, the tl;dr version is “You haven’t thought enough about these issues to be taken seriously.” Sorry.)

  • John Quiggin, Aussie Economics professor and blogger: After the dead horses. Excerpt: “The unifying feature of the right in the 21st century is not so much ideology as an embrace of ignorance...”

  • Martin Wolf, Financial Times columnist: The political genius of supply-side economics. Excerpt: “Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets.”

  • Matthew Yglesias, political blogger: The Very Big Picture. Excerpt: “...people are step-by-step liberating themselves not from market capitalism as a means of obtaining consumer goods but from wage slavery in the worker-capitalist relationship.”

  • Robert H. Frank, Economics professor at Cornell: A Remedy Worse than the Disease: Why Higher Taxes Are Better than Pay Caps (PDF). Excerpt: “Top earners would also experience no decline in life satisfaction if a change in tax policy curtailed the rate of growth of their absolute consumption.”

  • John Hempton, Aussie fund manager & blogger: Lessons in my laundry — part 1. Excerpt: “A large low-wage group make the (very rich) lifestyles of the American elite possible.”

  • Economist blogger “J.M.”: Class Consciousness Comes to Davos. Excerpt: “There is a growing realisation that the pain is disproportionately hitting the bottom of society, an acknowledgement that it is not going to change soon—and, perhaps more selfishly, a worry that it will result in a backlash of some sort.”

  • Matt Stoller, US political operative/writer: The Corroded Corruption at the Heart of Moving to the Center. Excerpt: “It's a sick, perverted, corroded system ... it's bipartisan and flows through the leadership of both parties.”

Conclusions? · Don’t have one. When I look at the “official” left, as represented here in Canada by the NDP, and in the US by California Democrats, I find it kind of boring and old-fashioned.

I certainly don’t believe that increased public spending is the cure for all problems, and anyone who doesn’t believe in the power of free markets in promoting general well-being is just wilfully ignorant of history. And given the chance to make buckets of money without breaking any laws or having to do boring work, I’d jump as fast as the next person.

Free-market ideas suffer under the handicap that their promoters are so often fat cats who’ve thereby grown rich. And you don’t have to be all that paranoid to believe that there’s a cosy network of incestuous back-scratching that includes senior politicians, businesspeople, and media voices.

There are grounds for optimism. For my first few decades on this planet, it was assumed that that Curtain really was Iron and those stuck behind it were doomed to grey Soviet impoverishment forever. Wrong. For several further decades, the assumption has remained that being an Arab meant that you suffered under a corrupt immoveable autocracy. Maybe wrong again.

Ideologies matter. We need one that respects the market and isn’t afraid of talking about class interests and is fiercely intolerant of all forms of civic corruption.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: David Van Couvering (Feb 05 2011, at 23:16)

Well, well, Tim, join the club! I've been getting more and more convinced that we're in the midst of a massive Ponzi scheme at a global scale, with the super-rich slurping up tons of money while people starve.

Not clear what to do about it, but I am definitely getting more and more concerned...


From: Preston L. Bannister (Feb 05 2011, at 23:51)

The definition of "free market" is perhaps the foggiest point.

Reading the Wall Street press, you would think the definition of "free market" precludes any sort of government intervention.

One of the gifts to European-derived societies is the notion - earned in the "Dark Ages" - that society (economic) is not strictly dependent on the state (political).

Thinking back to the (relatively anarchic) "Dark Ages" ... if a buyer and seller were to meet in the woods (far from "government" intervention), and not agree on a price, the buyer (or seller), could simply kill the other party, and take all the goods. Fairly quickly, both buyers and sellers would learn it is more efficient to perform transactions in a "regulated" marketplace.

Of course you want a marketplace that is not excessively burdensome, but the fundamental basis of an efficient "free market" is a <i>sufficient</i> amount of regulation.

The fact that a "free market" is essentially a three-legged stool - with <i>sufficient</i> regulation an essential leg - was somehow lost.


From: JulesLt (Feb 06 2011, at 04:59)

1) The centre has definitely moved rightwards over the last 3 decades, and a significant factor in that is 'over-bombing' - deliberately promoting ridiculous and unacceptable ideas via the media, which then makes the real objective look moderate.

2) The fact that not even the President is willing to deal with illegal torture by the secret service, or sign up to a global agreement that would allow US military personnel to be tried for war crimes is very telling about the political structure of the United States.

I don't think it necessarily means that the US is a military state, but that there is a huge strain of popular nationalism that no one dares confront.

3) Free markets. Yes, it's interesting to confront people on both sides of the political spectrum with the fact that the early on, free markets were actually a 'progressive'/leftist cause - if most strongly backed by merchants.

On the other hand, if you just take the free market bit, then you have a situation where goods and capital are free to move, but people aren't - which creates structural inequalities.

A skilled Chinese manufacturing worker cannot decide that conditions and rewards for their labour look a lot better in Germany, nor can a less skilled worker in the US migrate to the factories of China.

Equally, even if globalisation is good, globally (i.e. it has lifted more people into relative prosperity) it was never sold on that to the electorate. Instead, it was sold on a theory of trickle-down economics - which has proven, statistically, to be untrue.

That was evident by the mid-90s - but criticism was easy to dismiss or ignore, until the recent financial crisis. It's difficult to argue with a successful orthodoxy, even when it is wrong, until it fails.

(Worse still, I think in many cases it wasn't a lie, but something that was believed to be true, even in contradiction of the growing evidence. 'The world is not behaving like our economic model predicts').

On the other hand, I think it is positive that the issues are being discussed at Davos. At the end of the day, they have to convince nations of the legitimacy of their ideas, and the thing about rising inequality is that eventually what the elite wants becomes irrelevant to the electorate.

(And anyone with a long term view of history knows that ruling elites has literally lost their heads for less).


From: dr2chase (Feb 06 2011, at 17:04)

Anything written by Robert Frank, is worth reading.

See, also,

(aka, Keynes, one smart guy).

And I've recently realized that not only are conservatives usually wrong, that many of my own "conservative","moderate" impulses, are often also wrong. Unfortunately, how that gets translated into change at the larger scale, I do not know.


From: Robert Young (Feb 06 2011, at 17:37)

What's generally ignored in the "free market" vs. "socialism" debates is the Achilles Heel of laissez faire economics (i.e. neo-con anything): the latter's absolute demand to squander resources. It's no accident that the USofA, where 1% consume 25% of national income, in toto consumes about 25% of global resources. The end game can't be far off.

The apologists like the jargon "creative destruction", but that's just an excuse for lots o dumb folks to do stupid things with capital. Like it or not, "free market" capitalists *are not*, by definition, smarter than anyone else simply be virtue of being capitalists. Most squander capital to no good purpose.

The US cell phone debacle is case in point. Billions of wasted capital on incompatible nets. If a city allowed multiple water companies to run own lines down each street, it would be accepted as supremely stupid, or corrupt. Same thing with cell nets. One is enough. Pick the technically superior, set that as standard, and build enough to meet demand. If that's socialism, then so be it. It's smarter.


From: Tony Fisk (Feb 07 2011, at 05:03)

One of Obama's problems has been a willingness to negotiate with people who are intent on pushing the 'Overton Window'. It's rather like playing tug of war with a ratchet. That is why the middle has slipped to the right in recent times (were all left wing philosophies bought low by the Soviet collapse?).

Hearing racketeering critters like Cheney speak of 'Waterboarding' with unrepentant pride shows you how much further right there is to go

(Cue in Pink Floyds's 'Dogs of War': "They will take, and you will give, and you will die, so that they may live")

I don't give Obama brownie points for allowing the harassment of Wikileaks to proceed (even though the leaked cables are pretty banal, and reflect badly on foreign powers, rather than the US)


From: Brian (Feb 07 2011, at 13:30)

"Pick the technically superior, set that as standard, and build enough to meet demand. If that's socialism, then so be it. "

That's how South Korea got themselves locked into IE6.


From: Eric Johnson (Feb 07 2011, at 15:32)

What I find most troubling these days, and what gets me cursing at the radio, is the insipid undermining of the language. So many vested interests work to undermine what used to be common understandings. For example the notion of "free markets" has been so badly distorted with the notion that "free" implies no regulation. In fact, the right-wing has turned the notion of "free markets" into a bludgeon for ensuring no disliked regulations by a very specific business segment - the large & rich players. "Free" markets should be those free for all comers to participate in, instead of the bizarro-land interpretation we've got now.

Those supposedly "free" markets work only with massive militaries that keep trade open, massive supports for cheap energy, and a willingness to externalize some pretty serious long-term costs (global warming and climate change). Hardly a space of "no regulation."

"Free market" is just one of many terminology battles. "Fair use", "net neutrality", "open", "taxes", "liberal", all come to mind, but I suspect you could go on too.

I observe that a side-effect (or is it a purpose?) of this terminology struggle is to make it virtually impossible to hold a position in the middle, because the middle no longer seems defined. And there are precious few to help us re-establish it.


From: Robert Young (Feb 07 2011, at 20:15)

-- That's how South Korea got themselves locked into IE6.

Doing only one half of the exercise is no contradiction to the exercise. Nor does it mean that the exercise is never done again. The original AT&T was allowed to do that. No.

Would one want multiple versions of, say, HTML?????


From: len (Feb 10 2011, at 21:34)

I just want to be rich enough not to worry as much as I did when I was poor enough not to care. Too many people are thinking too much about the economy to fix it while too few are working hard enough to improve it.

Off to play guitar at Starbucks. May as well grind with the barristas.

BTW: the hard core far left is in upstate Massachusetts and New York. The Californians are political posers looking to the government to pass regulations that entrench their media wealth in the south and their urge to screw with foreign governments in the north.


From: Jason Osgood (Feb 14 2011, at 02:28)

"anyone who doesn’t believe in the power of free markets in promoting general well-being is just wilfully ignorant of history"

Um, no.

There are open markets, grey markets, and black markets. Whereas "free markets" number the same as unicorns.

I will concede, however, that the "power" of "free markets" and unicorns are comparable. Both are fictional, after all. And what narrative is more powerful that a fairy tale?

The role of markets is to set prices. Open markets, the most efficient, work because of market rules (aka regulation) enforced by some authority (aka government).

Sadly, the well being of our democracy(s) and economy(s) is harmed by conservative economic dogma (aka magical thinking) conflating corporatism, capitalism, entrepreneurialism, and markets.

A small example. Corporations hate competition and strive to become monopolies. So corporations are hostile to any notions of a healthy, functioning open market, taking steps to sabotage transparency, oversight, regulation, and accountability.

Which pretty much sums up the situation in the USA as it stands today.


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