We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense.
And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world — most recently at last weekend’s deeply discouraging G-20 meeting — governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending.
In 2008 and 2009, it seemed as if we might have learned from history. Unlike their predecessors, who raised interest rates in the face of financial crisis, the current leaders of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank slashed rates and moved to support credit markets. Unlike governments of the past, which tried to balance budgets in the face of a plunging economy, today’s governments allowed deficits to rise. And better policies helped the world avoid complete collapse: the recession brought on by the financial crisis arguably ended last summer.
But future historians will tell us that this wasn’t the end of the third depression, just as the business upturn that began in 1933 wasn’t the end of the Great Depression. After all, unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and shows no sign of coming down rapidly. And both the United States and Europe are well on their way toward Japan-style deflationary traps.
In the face of this grim picture, you might have expected policy makers to realize that they haven’t yet done enough to promote recovery. But no: over the last few months there has been a stunning resurgence of hard-money and balanced-budget orthodoxy.
As far as rhetoric is concerned, the revival of the old-time religion is most evident in Europe, where officials seem to be getting their talking points from the collected speeches of Herbert Hoover, up to and including the claim that raising taxes and cutting spending will actually expand the economy, by improving business confidence. As a practical matter, however, America isn’t doing much better. The Fed seems aware of the deflationary risks — but what it proposes to do about these risks is, well, nothing. The Obama administration understands the dangers of premature fiscal austerity — but because Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress won’t authorize additional aid to state governments, that austerity is coming anyway, in the form of budget cuts at the state and local levels.
Why the wrong turn in policy? The hard-liners often invoke the troubles facing Greece and other nations around the edges of Europe to justify their actions. And it’s true that bond investors have turned on governments with intractable deficits. But there is no evidence that short-run fiscal austerity in the face of a depressed economy reassures investors. On the contrary: Greece has agreed to harsh austerity, only to find its risk spreads growing ever wider; Ireland has imposed savage cuts in public spending, only to be treated by the markets as a worse risk than Spain, which has been far more reluctant to take the hard-liners’ medicine.
It’s almost as if the financial markets understand what policy makers seemingly don’t: that while long-term fiscal responsibility is important, slashing spending in the midst of a depression, which deepens that depression and paves the way for deflation, is actually self-defeating.
So I don’t think this is really about Greece, or indeed about any realistic appreciation of the tradeoffs between deficits and jobs. It is, instead, the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times.
And who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again.
Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different response — like Democrats do. I followed some links back to this 2007 article in the Progressive, written by Adolph L. Reed Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania:
Unfortunately, like the Democrats, our side fails to learn from experience. Despite a mountain range of evidence to the contrary, we—the labor, anti-war, women’s, environmental, and racial justice movements—all continue to craft political strategy based on the assumption that the problem is that the Democrats simply don’t understand what we want and how important those things are to us. They know; they just have different priorities.
That’s why the endless cycle of unofficial hearings and tribunals and rallies and demonstrations and Internet petitions never has any effect on anything. They’re all directed to bearing witness before an officialdom that doesn’t care and feels no compulsion to take our demands into account. To that extent, this form of activism has become little more than a combination of theater—a pageantry of protest—and therapy for the activists.
Then at the apex of every election cycle, after having marched around in the same pointless circle, chanting the same slogans in the interim, we look feverishly to one of the Democrats or some Quixote to do our organizing work for us, magically, all at once.
We need to think about politics in a different way, one that doesn’t assume that the task is to lobby the Democrats or give them good ideas, and correct their misconceptions.
It’s a mistake to focus so much on the election cycle; we didn’t vote ourselves into this mess, and we’re not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort. Not only can that process not be compressed to fit the election cycle; it also doesn’t happen through mass actions. It happens through cultivating one-on-one relationships with people who have standing and influence in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and organizations. It happens through struggling with people over time for things they’re concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program. This is how the populist movement grew in the late nineteenth century, the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement after World War II. It is how we’ve won all our victories. And it is also how the right came to power.
The anti-war movement isn’t coherent or popularly grounded enough to exert the pressure necessary to improve the electoral options; only the labor movement has the capacity to do so, but it doesn’t have the will. None of the other progressive tendencies has the capacity to do anything more than lobby or exhort. Effective lobbying requires being able to deliver or withhold crucial resources, and none but labor has that capacity. Exhortation works only with people who share your larger goals and objectives; other than that it’s useless except as catharsis.
We also need to think more carefully about what our demonstrations and protest marches can and can’t do. Here we could take a lesson from Martin Luther King. His 1962 Albany, Georgia, campaign failed because the local authorities figured out that the success of King’s mass marches depended on meeting brutal resistance from local officials. When they didn’t forcibly stop the marches, the movement fizzled.
Our approach to mass mobilization is like the Albany campaign. Our actions don’t raise public consciousness because they’re treated dismissively, if at all, in the mainstream media. They don’t even connect with the residents of the cities where we hold them because we agree to strict march routes and rally sites that make certain we don’t engage with anyone other than ourselves. And we agree not to disrupt routine daily life more than a homecoming parade would in exchange for having a designated place to gather and talk to ourselves. Even the civil disobedience is carefully choreographed and designed to be minimally disruptive.
Whether or not we admit it, these are features of a politics that is focused mainly inward, on shoring up the spirits of the participants in the actions themselves. They don’t send a message that those in power can’t simply ignore, and they don’t inform, excite, or win over anyone who’s not already on board with the movement’s agenda. It’s telling in this sense that our movement culture has evolved elaborately clever techniques for keeping participants entertained through the stale, all-too-predictable cavalcade of speeches and chants and puppets on stilts.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that people don’t need to engage in rallies and protests. It is self-defeating, however, to collapse the difference between the activities that make us feel good and the work that is necessary to build the movement. There are no shortcuts or magic bullets. And, if we don’t confront that fact and act accordingly, we’ll be back in this same position, but most likely with options a little worse than these, in 2012, and again and again.
Oh, and he doesn’t like Obama, either.
Sheryl Crow with the wonderful old Cat Stevens song:
I totally stole this from Lambert. Lucinda Williams puts music to Hank Williams’ lyrics:
The heat wave’s back. Back to the hermetically sealed rooms…
Kind of funny when the GOP is so extreme, they’re pushing Chris Christie to be more of a right-winger!
Gov. Christie says he has not decided whether to sign on to a 20-state lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the health-care law signed in March by President Obama. That makes New Jersey one of seven Republican-led states that have not joined the largely partisan fight.
Interest groups on both sides of the debate are lobbying the governor, but some of his advisers say he should not join the suit. Capping property taxes and managing a difficult budget have rightly been his top priorities, they say, and New Jersey residents are more open than people in other parts of the country to health-care regulation.
With 16 of 23 states led by GOP governors fighting the new law, at least one national expert said Christie faced the risk of becoming an “outlier through inaction.”
“He’s going to have to explain why he has stood out among his colleagues in his own party by not doing something they’ve all done,” said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group in Washington.
Why don’t these guys go fuck themselves with a rusty chainsaw, and leave the rest of us alone?