February 11, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner

February 5, 2008

The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne says that with Obama many Democrats are seeking salvation. There's a serious integration of religion and politics for you. I understand the desire but I'm too old to believe in it. Salvation is not going to come from the state or from worship of a politician. For many it won't come at all but they at least can hope for a more secure social network, diminished control by the American plutocracy, and fewer armies sent round the world to blow up people.  These are political goals, not soulful ones.

I suspect Obama knows this as well as any one. And you certainly can't blame him for using the arrows in his quiver. But it's the horrible thought that he has been taken in by his own rhetoric that's causing sensible liberals like Paul Krugman to oppose him. What we need is a Machiavellian Obama, not a sincere one.

The irony, of course, is that Obama's strategy is the old Republican patriotic bombast stood on its head. I read a very liberal columnist a couple days ago say he wanted a candidate that would make him feel like Reagan made the Republicans feel. This, you might say, is genuine liberalism and the main reason I've never been able to sign on to that doctrine.

Perhaps simple good government is too prosaic for the American temperament. Maybe the average person can't imagine it. If that's the case, I hope Obama has sufficient guile to delude us into it.

Automotive Psychology
February 7, 2008

Driving from Vermont to Florida, I decided to pay close attention to see if observation would confirm a suspicion I’ve had for some time now. I watched as carefully as I could and I am now convinced that, north and south, on interstates and back roads, the drivers of pickup trucks are more reckless, aggressive, obnoxious and stupid than the drivers of other vehicles. Obviously, there are exceptions. Not every pickup truck driver is a jerk. But taken as a group, pickup truck drivers are a threat to public safety.

So, the question arises: why should this be the case?

We have in this country the myth of the down-home, heartland, middle American as the bulwark of national morality. It may be the biggest lie ever perpetrated upon a people. What’s moral about behaving murderously every day when you go out on the road?

On Interstate 95 yesterday, on the stretch of highway approaching the turnoff to Interstate 4, I saw numerous pickup trucks going more than ninety miles an hour, weaving in and out of lanes, cutting off other vehicles, and causing some to have to swerve to avoid being hit. As far as I could tell from the faces of the pickup truck drivers under their baseball caps, they were immensely pleased with themselves.

I wonder if any of those guys ever stopped to reflect that the Dukes of Hazard was a TV show and not real life. Come to think of it, even Bo and Luke didn’t drive a pickup truck. Also, they drove round on roads that didn’t have anyone else on them except dumb cops.

It’s probably the case that the pickup truck mentality is just one more aspect of the problem Americans have with maturity. But it’s also one that’s more lethal than most.

February 9, 2008

If you were to ask the average man on the street where common sense comes from, I wonder what he would say. He would probably look at you suspiciously and mumble something about its just being there, as though it comes from the same place as ears, noses and thumbs do.

He would be mistaken, of course. Common sense is a cultural production, and though it’s not always consciously created, it is engineered into place more often than you might imagine.

David Harvey, in his wonderful little book, A Short History of Neoliberalism, has a succinct explanation of how current common sense about economic matters came to dominate standard attitudes in the United States. It was built by a specific set of thinkers whose motivation was to restore class power, the class in this case being the relatively small number of people who have managed to accumulate vast wealth. Starting right after the Second World War a group of theorists, with Friedrich von Hayek at its center, began to push the argument that government is inherently less efficient than private enterprise, and that the only freedom worth having is based on the ability of wealthy people to move capital wherever and however they want regardless of the social consequences. It is more important, they said, that capital be free to move than that people be free to eat.

If you want to consider how successful they have been, reflect on the truth that the ratio of  the compensation of CEOs to the median salary of employees moved from 30:1 in 1970 to 500:1 in 2000. Changes of that scope don’t happen by accident, and they don’t happen without consequences. We have a far different country now than we would have had if that ratio had remained steady over the past three decades. This is the sort of thing that happens when former crackpot ideas become common sense.

So the next time you hear someone popping off about the enduring truths of economics, step back a moment and ask yourself who gets helped by those truths and who gets hurt. If you do, the sense of them can become a little less common, which would be a good thing for all of us.


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