Monday, August 11, 2008

Limbaugh’s China-Envy, the Wrecking Crew, and Economic Growth

If China’s leaders took note of it, which they probably didn’t because they are too busy presenting themselves as “the Middle Kingdom” (the “middle” between Heaven and Earth) to the rest of the world, they would doubtless have been amused by Rush Limbaugh’s case of China-envy:
See, the ChiComs need their economy growing. They need people driving around, moving around. They need people to be able to afford fuel, so they're subsidizing fuel. They're not bailing people out of stupid home mortgage messes. They're buying their gasoline for them, because they need an economy. Know what energy means to this, the whole subject of economic growth. So meanwhile, the ChiComs, a country certainly growing, certainly on the rise, but it ain't the United States of America.
Presumably, what Rush would like is for the U.S. to subsidize gas so that people in the U.S. could live large like the Chinese leaders and fuel our economic growth.
How does it make you feel that Zhang Linsen has a big Hummer with nine speakers blaring as he pulls out into a four-lane road with so much smog he basically can't see the car in front of him, and you are trading in all of your cars and trying to go out and find basically a lawn mower.
Thanks to Andrew Leonard on Salon I discovered that Rush’s rant was too much even for some conservatives. Clark Stooksbury on The American Conservative responded:
It’s amazing what passes for conservatism these days. The market is currently dictating that Americans become more fuel efficient, which Limbaugh apparently disapproves of. Imagine the uproar if Obama or Clinton said that the U.S. should become more like China.

If rightwingers should ever wonder how they got into their current predicament, they should start by looking at their AM radio dials.
Daniel Larison concurred with Stooksbury:
Actually, it makes me feel relieved that I don’t live in smog-infested cities where marathoners collapse and die because of the pollution. Limbaugh offers here the absurd spectacle of “conservatism” as the embrace of endless consumption and degradation of nature, and really what this reveals is a desire to belong to something like a pink subsidy state (a modified version of what James has called the pink police state). The implication here seems to be that if the market can no longer accommodate sufficient levels of consumption, the state should come in to subsidize that consumption and over-consumption, but above all it is a declaration that egregiously conspicuous consumption has something to do with national status and power. Of course, if you were to suggest to a mainstream conservative that support for consumerism is a common or accepted view among them, you would be immediately denounced as a closet socialist who wants to impoverish everyone, unlike all those high-minded economic conservatives who just happen to defend all forms of consumption out of respect for freedom.
I was reluctant to give Rush Limbaugh this much attention because, more than anything else, he is an entertainer. But in our time the line between entertainment and responsible political commentary has been blurred beyond recognition. I believe that Entertainer Rush is not an insignificant contributor to sentiments expressed in the polls made public Sunday showing that 63% of the public favor oil drilling in U.S. coastal waters; most also favor drilling in wilderness areas (ANWR); and, 44% support nuclear power, still not a majority but ten percent higher than three years ago, higher than at any time since the 1980s. (Let it also be said that the same poll also found that a majority reports personal conservation efforts, support for stricter fuel efficiency standards and new taxes on oil company profits.)

In my view, two other voices need be heard in this conversation. Unfortunately, I fear that you won’t hear their names much in the mainstream media because they are not sufficiently entertaining and both come from a left perspective. I commend them to you because if you have read this far you might also be willing to look at what they have to say.

The first is Thomas Frank and his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, published on August 5th. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve read his lengthy essay adapted from the book in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine. What Frank adds to this conversation is perspective on how we got to where we are now. In his previous book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004) Thomas Frank explained why working America votes for politicians who reserve their favors for the rich. In The Wrecking Crew, Frank examines the blundering and corrupt Washington those politicians have given us.
Journalistic coverage of the Abramoff affair has clung reliably to the "bad apple" thesis, in which the lobbyist's sins are carefully separated from the movement of which he was once a prominent part…

The correct diagnosis is the "bad apple" thesis turned upside down. There are plenty of good conservative individuals, honorable folks who would never participate in the sort of corruption we have watched unfold over the past few years. Hang around with grassroots conservative voters in Kansas, and in the main you will find them to be honest, hardworking people.

But put conservatism in charge of the state, and it behaves very differently. Now the "values" that rightist politicians eulogize on the stump disappear, and in their place we can discern an entirely different set of priorities—priorities that reveal more about the unchanging historical essence of American conservatism than do its fleeting campaigns against gay marriage or secular humanism. The conservatism that speaks to us through its actions in Washington is institutionally opposed to those baseline good intentions we learned about in elementary school. Its leaders laugh off the idea of the public interest as airy-fairy nonsense; they caution against bringing topnotch talent into government service; they declare war on public workers. They have made a cult of outsourcing and privatizing, they have wrecked established federal operations because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job. Repairing it will require years of political action.
Even in the Harper’s fourteen page essay, Frank meticulously details the rise of this movement with attention to names and events: the “Regan Revolution,” College Republicans, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, Pat Buchanan, Tom DeLay, Oliver North, Jack Kemp, Karl Rove, and many other names you may not know but should. This is Frank’s conclusion:
Canny career moves are just about all we can expect from conservative government these days: tax breaks for wealthy benefactors, wars started and maintained for the benefit of American industry, fat contracts granted to the clients of the right consultant. Like Bush and Reagan before him, John McCain is a self-proclaimed outsider, but should he win in November he will merely bring us more of the same: an executive branch fed by, if not actually made up of, lobbyists and other angry, righteous profiteers. Washington itself will remain what it has been—not a Babylon that corrupts our pure-hearted right-wingers but the very seat of their Industry Conservatism, constantly seething and effervescing, with tens of thousands of individuals coming and going, each avidly piling up his own tidy pile but between them engaged in an awesome common project.

Take a step back, reader, and see what they have wrought.
The other voice I hope will be heard in this discussion is that of Joseph Stiglitz, who brings impecable credentials to any discussion of economic growth. He was the recipient of the 2001 Nobel prize in economics. His most recent book, co-authored with Linda Bilmes, is The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict (2008), the only serious critiques of which have been that he and Bilmes may have underestimated the cost of the war.

Last Wednesday, Stiglitz wrote a column in the Guardian titled “Turn Left for Growth.” I find it significant that it was not published in the U.S. “left” in the title is enough to insure its being ignored in the mainstream U.S. media. If that were not enough, his low-key non-polemic tone will probably insure silence about it. All of which is unfortunate because its clarity and brevity are enough to make it a basic primer for anyone who wants to cast their vote for a presidential candidate most likely to insure economic growth.

Stiglitz says that there are three major differences in growth strategies between today’s left and right. The first difference is how growth itself is conceived.
Growth is not just a matter of increasing GDP. It must be sustainable: growth based on environmental degradation, a debt-financed consumption binge, or the exploitation of scarce natural resources, without reinvesting the proceeds, is not sustainable.

Growth also must be inclusive; at least a majority of citizens must benefit. Trickle-down economics does not work: an increase in GDP can actually leave most citizens worse off. America's recent growth was neither economically sustainable nor inclusive. Most Americans are worse off today than they were seven years ago.
The second major difference is the role of the state in promoting development.
The left understands that the government's role in providing infrastructure and education, developing technology, and even acting as an entrepreneur is vital. Government laid the foundations of the internet and the modern biotechnology revolutions. In the 19th century, research at America's government-supported universities provided the basis for the agricultural revolution. Government then brought these advances to millions of American farmers. Small business loans have been pivotal in creating not only new businesses, but whole new industries.
The third difference in economic growth strategies is that the left now understands the role markets can and should play in the economy, while the right doesn’t.
The new right, typified by the Bush-Cheney administration, is really old corporatism in a new guise…

By contrast, the new left is trying to make markets work. Unfettered markets do not operate well on their own – a conclusion reinforced by the current financial debacle. Defenders of markets sometimes admit that they do fail, even disastrously, but they claim that markets are "self-correcting." During the Great Depression, similar arguments were heard: the government need not do anything, because markets would restore the economy to full employment in the long run. But, as John Maynard Keynes famously put it, in the long run we are all dead.
Stiglitz concludes:
Today, in contrast to the right, the left has a coherent agenda, one that offers not only higher growth, but also social justice. For voters, the choice should be easy.
With the near universal dismay with where the Bush administration and the years of Republican majorities in Congress have taken us, it would seem that Stiglitz’s argument is a no-brainer. It would also seem that the public is willing to listen to the story Thomas Frank is telling about why we are where we are now.

Still, American historic distrust of anything with a “leftist” scent, an even greater lack of confidence in Congress than in the Bush administration, and Russia flexing its growing military muscles, will continue to give openings to the right and its entertainers like Limbaugh, even when he becomes hysterical with China-envy. That’s why we need to be telling Frank’s story and making Stiglitz’s arument to our friends and whoever else will listen.
- Milo

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