Thursday, January 17, 2013

Democracy in an age of "unhappy capitalism": signal and noise

David Seaton's News Links
They say that only the good die young.  In the short time he lived, it was given to Aaron Swartz to define the principal problem facing public life in the United States of America:
If it was conventional wisdom that a bunch of unelected bankers looking out for rich people were the reason everyone was out of work, politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it. The late Aaron Swartz
This post is entitled, "democracy in an age of 'unhappy capitalism'". What do I mean by that, and what, if anything, does "happy capitalism" mean?
To explain how it works, here is a graph straight from the great vampire squid itself:

Corporate Profits versus Wages

As you can see in the squid's graph between 1960 and 1990, wages were up, while at the same time America's corporations were making good money: I call that "happy capitalism", because most of the working citizenry were reasonably content and investors were too.
After 1990 (neatly coinciding with the collapse of the USSR?) the relationship wages/profit becomes erratic and in the last two years corporate profits have shot up and wages have fallen dramatically.
What does this mean?
It means that you can make a lot of money without paying even skilled people very much. People are no longer used to make you rich, only to serve you in low paying jobs once you are rich. Most of the jobs being created now are low-paying service jobs.
That could be a problem because in a democracy "unused" and underpaid people can still vote and if they understood the mechanisms impoverishing them, this could cause problems for the "users" because as Aaron Swartz said, "politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it".
"Unhappy capitalism" then, is when articulate, educated, middle class people like Aaron Swartz, begin to question the system. In this way the "conventional wisdom" that Swartz talks about is created: in a national "conversation" of a great number of articulate, educated voters. Topic of the day: something has gone wrong, let's all get together and fix it.
Making that conversation difficult, hopefully impossible, is a major objective of the users facing the formerly used.
Signal and noise
Über forecaster, Nate Silver's success in predicting everything from baseball games to presidential elections is based on his methodical ability to separate the significant datum known as the "signal", from the masses of meaningless, confusing, data known as "noise".  If we take the rising of profits and the lowering of wages as the signal, then the way to distract attention from that signal and prevent a calm and intelligent conversation about the problem leading to practical, actionable solutions, is to create increasing quantities of noise that drowns out the signal.
The strategy couldn't be simpler: the money is out to activate, empower, monetize and mobilize every paranoiac, son of the wild jackass, that they can flush from America's ample underbrush. Here is a tiny sample of what is crawling out of the woodwork, taken at random from Matt Drudge's zoo:
The United States of America is a very complex country with many diverging interests and points of view; never has serene, constructive, result-oriented dialog been more necessary and probably since the Civil War itself has it been so conspicuously missing. Until this is changed the country is drifting toward disaster. More than going off a cliff, it is like going over a waterfall. This is something that must be addressed.... immediately.
When you organize your day's activities, you might make a "to do" list and put the items in order of importance.  It seems obvious to me that keeping the serious and serene political conversation audible above the insane noise produced and paid for by the extreme right, for the express purpose of paralyzing the political system, should be the primary objective of every sensible, politically aware person, whatever their location on the political spectrum from moderate conservative to the left. There are many problems to be solved and it isn't getting done.
Therefore, if America's domestic "primary contradiction", number one on the national "to do list", is cleaning corporate money from the channels of America's national "conversation" thereby making it possible to identify and solve the real problems that the American people are facing, then all elements who are willing to engage in that conversation, looking for actionable solutions, from centrist and moderates to the hard left should put away their difference for the time being and concentrate on reversing the "Citizen's United" verdict and supporting strict campaign finance reform, upending gerrymandering and ending voter suppression.
Once all that calm has been achieved, the merits of each faction's case can be assayed and allowed to stand or fall on its own merits in a free and civilized environment and we could reasonably hope, again quoting Swartz, that "politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it." DS

1 comment:

walt said...

I talk to a friend about this problem (call it the chances of our republic surviving the next ten years). We both agree the situation is dire but I tell him it's also beyond reform. That is, there is no path forward that doesn't run aground of a committed cadre of nihilists. They are the "noise" producers, of course, and their aim is, as expressed in this post, to subvert the political process to their own imaginary interests. Imaginary because it's virtually insane to think that anarcho-capitalism can guide a 21st century superpower.

The House, it's agreed, has been securely gerrymandered to produce not only a Republican majority, but a radical one at that. The Senate is less radical but just as dysfunctional, with the filibuster all but immune to real reform. The Supreme Court, which gave us Citizens United, might shift to the left if Scalia or Thomas retires. But that's a thin reed to base any hopes on. The next retirees appear to be liberals.

Beyond that, the cultural panic on the right is a high-pitched primal scream that absorbs the national conversation in its fury so completely that nothing serious can be heard let alone discussed. The "noise" now is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The conservative pragmatists realize this and assiduously try to ascribe blame to Obama as a way of recognizing the issue without wrestling with its meaning. This is why David Brooks and Matthew Gerson exist: to acknowledge the reality of an insane Republican Party while ultimately deciding it's liberalism's fault that this situation is so toxic.

This is why there is no path forward. The sane conservatives are, for the most part, co-opted by their need to maintain stature as truth-tellers on the right. Their credibility/marketability derive from their willingness to tell pretty lies. It's not really the fault of conservatives! Barack Obama doesn't schmooze! He radiates superiority! Liberalism is elitist! People love guns and Jesus and so should the rest of us!

By the time the political balance of power shifts with the passing of the GOP's strongest cohort (old, white people), there may not be a functional political system capable of settling our core argument: the nature of reality itself. The deepening income inequality and economic stagnation coupled with a sclerotic political system point to outcomes that are necessarily intractable.

I have not seen a scenario that points the way out of the wilderness. The return to some status quo ante where Republicans choose Ikes is a fantasy. There is no return because the future has already been hijacked to a passion play that relentlessly enchains millions with an enticing explanation: the enemy is within. Democracy has an auto-immune disease and only some hero on a white horse can save us. Who is he? Probably a US Army captain in Afghanistan or possibly a cadet at West Point.