30 January 2009

Bringing numbers to a culture war

Brad De Long, generally smart guy, is having trouble understanding why various solved problems are rising from their graves in the American debate over the stimulus package.

Brad knows way, way more economics than I ever will, but I have a knack for system and process design, and I think this one is obvious.

The purpose of a system is what the system does. The post-Regan American polity existed to secure and increase existing wealth, and the patterns of trade and resource access which underlay that wealth, by more or less any means. If it increased wealth, it was good, and laws designed to maintain the common weal were explicitly targeted as barriers to wealth maximization, and mostly removed.

Given that the result has been a fiscal disaster, a banking system that requires wholesale replacement, and a media totally captured by the aristocracy, the question of "is this the right thing for the American polity to do?" is being asked.

Which is all well and good; from a sane technocratic point of view, it's obvious that something different should be done, that whatever that thing is, it should promote the general prosperity, and that a resumption of regulation is a necessary part of that change. The debate should be about ways and means and optimization of results for resources committed.

From the point of view of the people in that aristocracy, the people who deeply and sincerely believe that other people exist to serve them, that they are in some inherent sense just better, and thereby deserve to have everything they want, it may be more obvious that a sort of in-between state can't exist. (I am sure Brad could rapidly explain why not if it ever occurred to him that this was a question anyone needed to be concerned with.)

Your country can have a well-run mixed economy, with stringent and effective regulation of the capitalist parts, a free and honest press, and fair elections which naturally give the most weight to the concerns of working people who are after all the greater fraction of the population, or it can be run to secure the wealth of an elite, in the American case a robber-baronial elite. Half way in between isn't just unstable, it's not functional. Since the robber-baronial aristocracy case is obviously also economically wildly sub-optimal, sane economic technocrats don't consider either the half-way or the aristocratic case very much; they're obviously dumb things to want.

Unless, of course, your self image is incredibly tightly bound up in a belief in your inherent superiority, as demonstrated by wealth. Then you want the aristocratic model for reasons entirely disconnected from any rational analysis. (If all you wanted was power, the relatively smaller share of an absolutely much greater amount would be the goal, not the relatively greater share of an absolutely diminished amount, and you would be pushing the general prosperity, scientific research and education, and innovation just as hard as you could.)

So the real long term policy question is, always, between a mixed economy that works for everybody, obliterating the aristocracy in the process, and an economy run for the benefit and purposes of the aristocracy.

The US has historically had serious problems with half measures when it comes to aristocratic suppression; neither the Civil War nor the New Deal did a thorough job. The aristocracy knows this, and is doubtless afraid of a political consensus that decides that this time, the thing to do is to set up guillotines on the National Mall and run them round the clock for a year. It is also clearly afraid of anyone, ever, believing that government action can make them better off, lest taxes and regulation and the mixed economy develop a constituency. Preventing ideas of the utility of government and public policy from taking hold consumes enormous resources. That effort does not consume any intellectual integrity, because that isn't the point; the point is to say something vaguely plausible over and over again, because what is repeated often enough becomes true. (This is a basic wetware bug in humans.)

So whether or not the question is properly settled in a scientific sense has nothing to do with its utility to the aristocracy. Never has. The question is whether or not it has utility in preventing an effectively administered mixed economy for the purposes of securing the general welfare. Preventing that is the first, core, and inescapable priority, because if that happens, it necessarily removes the aristocracy.

The awareness that the corresponding priority is to remove the aristocracy, because otherwise the general prosperity and common weal cannot be achieved, is not getting the kind of air time and mind share I could wish it had.

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