The Limits of Democracy and Populism

Avatar

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

182 Responses

  1. Avatar Max
    Ignored
    says:

    “Whatever legitimate gripe sparked the movement, the occupations began devolving into a frothy mixture of crime and partying within the last few weeks”

    That’s a pretty sweeping statement to make about 100+ cities. Care to back it up?Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Max
      Ignored
      says:

      Does it matter? Does it honestly matter if it’s happening in all 100 cities? Everything in politics is a war of perception and meaning. If Oakland and New York, two of the strongest bastions of the movement, have devolved this way, does it matter if Iowa City is still pretty peaceful?

      I say no, all that matters is how the movement is perceived. I don’t need to back that up with anything. Popular support has been dwindling due to the very things I’m describing, regardless of how calm everything is in Occupy Fill-in-the-blank-ville.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        Plus denying that anything’s wrong only adds to the negative perception. It seems to me that sincere protesters would want to confront the negative aspects up front and head on in order to manage the evolution. This reactionary insistence that a few fringe element types are acting up doesn’t address the reality. There are so many voices, so many directions taken, so many incidents of crime and violence that what bubbles up is confusion and chaos. The puny defense that the apparent chaos has  beautiful purpose and meaning is not convincing the public. There’s a lack of intelligent direction and communication that dooms the movement to babble and emotional chaos.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to MFarmer
          Ignored
          says:

          It’s telling that the first thing the Occupy Oakland people told the cops when the guy got shot was that he totally wasn’t part of Occupy Oakland.  (Then they beat up the reporters trying to cover the event.)Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck
            Ignored
            says:

            And–thinking about this further–it’s not like the Tea Party didn’t engage in the same kind of behavior.

            I do think it’s worth remembering, when someone points it out, that the Tea Party was talking about people with ridiculous signs who didn’t intend to be a serious part of the movement, whereas the OWS people are generally talking about people who’d just turned up and (up until getting shot or raping someone) were considered brothers-in-arms.Report

      • Avatar Max in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        That may be true, but it’s a surprisingly lazy perspective coming from you, Erik. I thought the point of blogging independently was to cut through perception to the truth of the matter. If this is just another place to read about popular misconceptions I’m not sure what I’m doing here.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Max
          Ignored
          says:

          The truth of the matter? The truth is woven into the perception, of course. The movement is flagging, succumbing to its own inertia, laziness, and disrepair. It was never well thought out. Many of the perceptions are indeed truth even if they don’t apply to every spot OWS has taken up across the country. No, OWS needs to grow up as Ethan has argued if it ever hopes to do something meaningful. Right now I’m annoyed at what it has become.Report

          • Avatar Max in reply to E.D. Kain
            Ignored
            says:

            I’m bewildered by these characterizations and even more so by the cavalier way you’re deploying them. It seems like you’re feeling personally frustrated and allowing that to bleed into your feelings about OWS. That doesn’t seem like responsible writing to me.

            I have been to my local occupation (one of the largest, and at this point last) multiple times each week since its inception. I have never witnessed any partying or any violence. Does that not count because ‘perception’ (read: YOUR perception) insists otherwise?

            I’m not going to pretend that you have the same duties as a reporter, but you should know your own limits. If you’re not willing to base these observations off of anything more than the media’s current narrative, you should say so. And perhaps better yet you should reserve judgment. It’s really dismaying to see you pop off in such a splenetic way.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Max
              Ignored
              says:

              So there hasn’t been shootings, theft, sexual assaults and rapes, and a bunch of people camped out for weeks on end with absolutely no coherent goal stated yet?Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to E.D. Kain
                Ignored
                says:

                not here there haven’t. and their in the shadow of the biggest bank by deposits. on its property. says something, don’t it?Report

              • Avatar Max in reply to E.D. Kain
                Ignored
                says:

                Of course there have, as there are in any large gatherings of people. Add to that the many of these camps have become de facto shelters for under-served homeless populations – including many with mental problems – and I’m not sure what’s supposed to be so persuasive about this. Last I heard, people get into drunken fights at sports events. Have those also been discredited?

                I note that you are avoiding answering whether or not this is about the protests or about you being in a foul or frustrated mood. I won’t push you on it but it is coming through loud and clear to me, and I say that as someone who has read you for years now and wouldn’t say it lightly.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Max
                Ignored
                says:

                “Of course there have, as there are in any large gatherings of people.”

                Just like all those people who got raped and robbed at the Tea Party rallies.

                “Last I heard, people get into drunken fights at sports events. Have those also been discredited?”

                Nobody’s taking sporting events seriously as a call for political action (unless it’s El Salvador in 1969.)Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to DensityDuck
                Ignored
                says:

                In fairness, DD, I don’t know how much violence can be laid at the feet of #OWS rather than the hangers-on.  Some, sure, but after sorting it out, I’d be surprised if the hangers-on weren’t responsible for a large majority of it.

                I do think the flower children and Gen-Zeroes lacked the will or gumption to do anything about them, though, except hide in their tents and hope they go away.  They were there to protest against The Man, not become him.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Tom Van Dyke
                Ignored
                says:

                The issue is, with a leaderless and message-less situation like the Occupy demonstrations, how can you say that there are “hangers-on”?  If the whole point of the movement is “just show up” then anyone who shows up is part of the movement.

                I mean, you’re right that there’s no “leadership” of the movement that can own these guys.  But on the other hand, it’s not as though they’d have been where they were if the movement weren’t happening.Report

              • Avatar Webster in reply to E.D. Kain
                Ignored
                says:

                I have yet to see a “news” report of anything of the sort that didn’t eventually, once you traced the sources, wind up back at either Breitbart or somewere equally disreputable known for making up stories with no proof.

                So I’m going to need to see some sources out of you.

                It’s no secret that the right wingers have been looking for ways to delegitimize OWS since it began. For instance: http://current.com/community/93483930_we-have-to-be-careful-not-to-allow-occupy-wall-street-to-gain-legitimacy-rep-peter-king.htm

                Gauging from the local talk radio circuit, they are doing everything in their power to delegitimize it. The talk show hosts utter the worst sorts of nonsense, throw out wild accusations without attribution, and on more than one occasion have veered into clear fantasyland delusions that the inbred right-wing sorts in my town gleefully lap up.

                It’s just sad to see you coming around and parroting this bullshit as if it had any relation to reality.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to E.D. Kain
            Ignored
            says:

            I’d have been surprised if this Children’s Crusade would have turned out any other way.  First of all, human nature being what it is: we pull together for awhile, but not forever.

            That #OWS saw its incoherence as some sort of virtue prevented it from developing into anything more.  And its inherent anti-authoritarianism meant that there would be less internal policing of its crankier cranks [like the handful of anti-Semites]—or even being able to deal with the external problem of invasion by the homeless, etc., the street people, whether it be mooching the chow or actual criminality.

            Plus, children tend not to pick up after themselves, and that’s more than a small factor in them getting the boot.

            ;-}Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Max
      Ignored
      says:

      Remember the tea parties? Good times.Report

    • Avatar Mike in reply to Max
      Ignored
      says:

      I’ll sum it up: those saying so are lying, slanderous assholes.

      “I say no, all that matters is how the movement is perceived.” – and that’s why right wing Hate Radio assholes have been doing their level best to smear the movement, up to and including having their blogosphere counterparts file fake stories alleging things that haven’t gone on. Get one story out there, no matter how false, and the hate machine will spin it around and spew it at their drones until it’s an article of faith on the part of the right wing which no evidence to the contrary can dislodge.

      This is how “barack obama is a muslim negro born in kenya” got ingrained into the minds of over 80% of the Tea Party retards, never to be stopped.

      George Orwell called it in 1949. It’s scary how well the right wing hate machine applies what he was trying to WARN us against.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mike
        Ignored
        says:

        Pity about the crime, though. You’ve gotta admit, the people who committed it were not helping.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Mike
        Ignored
        says:

        I disagree. Obama did nothing to create that perception. It is the fault entirely of lying assholes. (His true flaws and shortcomings are usually more under-the-radar.) There is a huge difference between something being perceived as such because of lies and propaganda, and something being perceived a certain way because it really is starting to falter and lose focus. I think OWS is the latter. Obama’s supposed Kenyan anti-colonialism or whatever – that’s the former. Different beasts entirely.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Mike
        Ignored
        says:

        “having their blogosphere counterparts file fake stories alleging things that haven’t gone on.”

        Links please.Report

  2. Avatar Roger
    Ignored
    says:

    What if they (the OWS) are right?

    What if the decentralized brain of global capitalism has gone mad?

    Can we ever be sure it hasn’t?

    (Just thinking out loud.)Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Roger
      Ignored
      says:

      Well I’m not really commenting on whether or not they’re right. I’ve said innumerable times that I’m sympathetic to their cause. The problem is execution, and I think part of that is the inability of a leaderless, hyper-democratic movement to take shape into something more powerful.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Roger
      Ignored
      says:

      Capitalism was driven mad by the State. When a dynamic market emerged in the late 19th century, the State started tyring to guide it according to political motives, and when the market was misdirected by government interventions, government started the process of interventions to fix interventions in a crazy downward spiralling circle, until now the convoluted tax code and mountain of regulations have screwed everyone but the interveners and their cronies who made sure they were protected at each stage. We should all be pissed, but, so far, OWS isn’t the answer — it’s just another crazy symptom.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Roger
      Ignored
      says:

      “What if the decentralized brain of global capitalism has gone mad?”

      Is that actually what OWS is saying? Because it looks like a lot of them are just saying “y’all bein’ too rich, gimme some dollar”.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Roger
      Ignored
      says:

      The Occupiers are protesting about income distribution not failures of the pricing system.  There’s nothing in the Welfare Theorems (the mathematical models describing the functioning of markets in ideal conditions) that specifies what the distribution of income will be.

      From what I’m seeing the Occupiers aren’t talking about market failure at all.Report

  3. Avatar North
    Ignored
    says:

    Expect the worst that way all your surprises are pleasant ones. I’m not surprised.Report

  4. Avatar Steve S.
    Ignored
    says:

    “I hate to be so pessimistic”

    Anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, women’s rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and on and on, are all things that began as aspirations, then disorderly movements.  None of them accomplished their goals in the first couple of months,  None of them were broadly popular in their nascent stages.  All of them took decades or even centuries to realize significant gains.  This is a long game, E.D., and if you’re going to follow its progress in a daily tracking poll you’ve already lost it.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Steve S.
      Ignored
      says:

      Sure, and so was prohibition, and free silver, and countless others. Who knows how this will pan out? I’m saying it needs to change and grow or it’s going to die. I’m saying that the disorderly movement thing usually needs to evolve.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        And here I had to be all clever and use a pretend Godwin to punk people with a link to the WCTU, and Kain beats me to the punch.Report

      • Avatar Steve S. in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        It will either evolve in a positive direction or it won’t.  This battle started long before you were born and will still be raging long after you’re gone, better get used to the idea of a lifetime of disappointments.  To me, optimism and pessimism don’t enter into it.  Our task as human beings, other than drinking beer and consuming midget porn, is to advocate for a decent society.

        Instead of pleading with an abstract, superorganic entity to stop disappointing you I suggest you advance concrete proposals of your own.  They’ll either gain widespread currency or they won’t.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Steve S.
      Ignored
      says:

      Right, and all of the movements you cite didn’t get anywhere until they had actual organization.  Collective bargaining does not mean that every worker at a factory spontaneously and simultaneously decided to stop working.

      And you know what else started as an aspiration, then a disorderly movement, and took decades or even centuries to realise significant gains? That’s right.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Steve S.
      Ignored
      says:

      Anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, women’s rights, worker’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and on and on, are all things that began as aspirations, then disorderly movements.

      Yes, but those all had pretty clear objectives from the get go, and were pretty clear about those objectives.  That’s a far cry from, “we’re not about solutions, we’re just pointing out the problem.”  That lack of coherence has been their fatal weakness from day one.Report

  5. Avatar Elias Isquith
    Ignored
    says:

    I’m not really on-board with the victim-blaming when it comes to Greeks in this post… but that’s hardly your central argument so I should probably ignore it.

    Your basic argument about the real problems of anarcho-syndicalism, on the other hand, is one to which I’m very, very sympathetic. So, where it counts, I’ll +1.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Elias Isquith
      Ignored
      says:

      Victim-blaming is a real stretch. If we want a functional welfare state and strong middle class, then the middle class and the people handing out goodies from the state need to be responsible. Greece was such a bloody disaster of corruption and tax evasion and I’ve-got-minism it’s just appalling. It should teach us that for an efficient welfare state to work, we need more than just wishes. We need growth and transparency.Report

      • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        My understanding is that it was the wealthy in Greece who didn’t pay their taxes, not so much the middle and lower classes. Going by memory and this Michael Lewis piece.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Elias Isquith
          Ignored
          says:

          The wealthy are very much to blame as well, but large swaths of the middle class benefited from over-generous benefits, pensions, etc. It was an unsustainable system and just as in America, it is not the 1% only that is culpable. We are all participants.Report

        • Avatar James K in reply to Elias Isquith
          Ignored
          says:

          The bulk of the tax revenue in any country comes from the middle class.  Individual rich people have a lot of money, but there aren’t enough of them to sustain a tax base.

          And I agree with Erik, this isn’t victim-blaming.  The Greeks weren’t screwed over by a cabal of rich people, they voted themselves government largesse without wanting to pay for it.Report

          • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to James K
            Ignored
            says:

            No, I’m pretty sure the financial crisis and the European Union were the products of rich people/elites. Still don’t see how the welfare state matters in this context.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Elias Isquith
              Ignored
              says:

              It’s quite a lot more complicated than that, and various European nations are suffering various maladies. We can just say “blame the elites!” and wash our hands of it, and we’d be half right but half wrong as well. We also have to blame bureaucrats, regulators, and people who participated in the various problems that led to the crash, including the Greek public sector, buyers and sellers in the US housing market, etc. Yes, many of these people didn’t know better, but I think many did. And even if they didn’t know better, that doesn’t make their role in it squeaky clean.

              But that’s beside the point. What I’m trying to say is that people are self-interested and so unfettered democracy leads to a lot of people who don’t know better making bad collective decisions.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to E.D. Kain
                Ignored
                says:

                Well, I don’t know if you’d rather not tease this out further but I still don’t see what a public union in Greece has to do with a Greek bank’s decision to borrow enormous sums of money from a German bank and invest them in CDOs.

                I totally agree with your post’s central point.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                It’s not just Greek banks. We’re talking about sovereign debt here, money borrowed by the state from foreign banks and investors used to bankroll lavish pensions and wages for public sector workers. Maybe the wealthy should have paid more in taxes, but the whole system was just a huge mess from start to finish and I have trouble only holding the wealthy accountable for this one.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to E.D. Kain
                Ignored
                says:

                This seems fair — but I’d want to zoom out further than you are, actually, if we’re going to look at systemic guilt. The entire economy of the eurozone was largely constructed this way: “southern” countries were encouraged by “northern” countries to amass lots of debt with which they’d buy lots of goods from the north. It’s not entirely different from the American middle class and Wall St, really.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                “southern” countries were encouraged by “northern” countries to amass lots of debt with which they’d buy lots of goods from the north.

                So, insolvent government pension plans in Greece were “bought” from the northern Europeans? I do wish you’d post links so I could follow your meanderings here.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                Again, we would not be in a crisis point right now if not for the crash of 2008. There’s a chasm between needing to change long-term fiscal projections and having to resort to hyper-austerity.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                We wouldn’t have crashed in 2008 if we had been allowed to crash in 2001.

                On the bright side, the 2015 crash would have been *MUCH* worse than the 2008 crash had the 2008 crash been successfully kicked down the road the way the 2001 crash was.Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                Again, we would not be in a crisis point right now if not for the crash of 2008.

                For this to be true, it has to be the case that the Eurozone’s public debt grew in order to support the same securities bubble that cultivated the subprime mortgage bubble.  I can sort of see how that could be true, but it seems like a simpler explanation is just “When it entered the Euro, Greece discovered that it could borrow as if it had Germany’s credit rating, so it borrowed a lot”.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                There is blame enough to go around Elias, certainly Germany reaped a lot of plump benefits to its economy during the heyday years of the Euro expansion, so did the Greeks. Now the party is over and alas both of them are having to pay. The Germans are ponying (ever so reluctantly) up the bailout money to keep the southern states solvent and keep the whole system from imploding. The Greeks similarily are having to (very reluctantly) accept that their system of mass tax evasion, their nationalized railroad that spends out four times what it takes in and other such public trough numnums will similarily have to go.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                Though to be fair Elias I’d say your position would be much more accurate if you were talking about the Irish. In that case they very literally volonteered to cover their banks losses (when they were not forced to) and essentially turned their country insolvent. If I’d have been an Irish citizen at the time it would have been pitchforks, torches and lamp posts time for me.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                You guys are right — what I’m talking about is more relevant w/r/t Ireland than Greece. I was mixing up Ireland and Greece and thought the Greek gov’t had assumed all of the debt of Greek banks and that was what turned their debt situation into a disaster.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                It’s a very easy mistake to make, they both had their meltdowns at near the same exact time but their fundamental problems were very close to polar opposites.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                Again, we would not be in a crisis point right now if not for the crash of 2008.

                OK, so we’d be reach the crisis point a little later.  Woohoo! Crisis averted postponed!

                I think perhaps you’re not engaging the little detail that the fiscal unsoundness of the Greek government limited its ability to respond to this crisis.Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                The Greek banks’ current problems stem from the fact that they hold a lot of Greek public debt, and Greek public debt is about as valuable as a random page from a Tom Clancy novel.  The credit crisis didn’t help at all, but it’s not the only problem in play — possibly not even the biggest problem.Report

              • Avatar Steve S. in reply to E.D. Kain
                Ignored
                says:

                Isn’t it the job of elites to know if their country is borrowing too much money?  And isn’t it the job of elites to know if they’re lending unsustainable amounts of money to their clients?

                As far as the Greek people knew they were part of one, big, happy Europe, and Europe has generous welfare states, including ones that don’t appear to be in any financial trouble.  If the elites who are tasked with keeping an eye on these things didn’t notice (or averted their eyes) until it was too late I don’t see how you can blame the average Greek voter.

                 Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Steve S.
                Ignored
                says:

                That’s a pretty low opinion of the average Greek voter (which perhaps gets us back to Erik’s point about the limits of democracy).  My read on the situation in Greece is that, a couple years ago, the elites finally realized that they’d borrowed way too much money — five or ten years too late — and a few million average Greek voters rioted when the elites they’d elected started to close the spigots.

                I wouldn’t claim that all — or even most — responsibility devolves to the average Greek (or Spanish, or German) voter, though.  The story of the European Union in general, and the Eurozone in particular, is mostly one of elected or appointed elites trying to “fix” Europe over the objections of a strong minority, if not a plurality, of their countries’ citizens.  This in particular is how Euro-bonds came to be so heavily traded among European banks, which is one reason why the Eurozone’s going to go ‘splodey if Greece (or Italy, or France, or…) defaults.Report

              • Avatar Steve S. in reply to bluntobject
                Ignored
                says:

                “That’s a pretty low opinion of the average Greek voter”

                I don’t think so.  Again, modern societies educate entire classes of people, give them advanced degrees and everything, with the sole task of keeping an eye on these things.  I don’t think that’s got anything to do with democracy, failing to see the financial writing on the wall can happen in places like the Soviet Union as well as European social democracies.

                I don’t know how old you are, but I’m in my 50s and it was taken for granted for most of my adult life that a bank wasn’t going to loan me money unless they had good reason to think I was good for it.  I’m a reasonably intelligent, well-educated person, this wasn’t stupidty on my part or democracy letting me down, it was a cultural meme that we all accepted.  Well, then the worldwide orgy of easy credit started a few years ago and the rest is history.  What the Greek people were is told is essentially, “don’t worry, you can afford this mortgage!”  Then ten years later they knocked on the door, “sorry, we lied to you, now we’re foreclosing your home and giving it to a German bank.”  That would tend to piss folks off.  And again, I don’t see that as a limit of democracy, I see that as a limit of modern societies.Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Steve S.
                Ignored
                says:

                modern societies educate entire classes of people, give them advanced degrees and everything, with the sole task of keeping an eye on these things.  I don’t think that’s got anything to do with democracy, failing to see the financial writing on the wall can happen in places like the Soviet Union as well as European social democracies.

                Okay, let’s say it’s a failing of democracy to be better than the alternatives.  In a democratic country, at least in theory, those educated elites are supposed to be responsible to the voters — either because they’re elected officials themselves, or they’re appointed (and can be fired) by elected officials.  In practice, of course, that’s far from the truth: I doubt Obama’s going to lose many votes for appointing Geithner as SecTreas, for example.

                this wasn’t stupidty on my part or democracy letting me down, it was a cultural meme that we all accepted.

                This ties back into what Karl Smith wrote about invisible technocrats: Is it even possible to run a society where an elite group of technocrats arranges things behind the scenes and most of the population can be rationally uncritical of these prevailing memes?  Personally, I find the concept horrifying.

                Follow-up questions: if it is possible for invisible technocrats to run a sustainable society, how does one check their power to prevent abuse?  On the other hand, if it isn’t possible, what responsibilities do “regular people” have to reconsider the unspoken rules with a critical eye?Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Steve S.
                Ignored
                says:

                and it was taken for granted for most of my adult life that a bank wasn’t going to loan me money unless they had good reason to think I was good for it. 

                 

                It did seem like an axiom that there’s no money to be made by making bad loans. But never underestimate the ability of the job-creating class to screw everyone in sight including their future selves. (Or to feel self-righteous about doing so.)Report

              • Avatar Steve S. in reply to Steve S.
                Ignored
                says:

                “Is it even possible to run a society where an elite group of technocrats arranges things behind the scenes and most of the population can be rationally uncritical of these prevailing memes?”

                I’m not sure how to answer this question.  I think it’s inarguable that a modern society can’t be run without technocrats (or maybe “specialists” is a better term).  As you suggest above, ideally they should be as transparent and accountable as possible.  Sorry if that’s vague, but going back to E.D.’s original complaint, the protesters are indeed somewhat unfocused but what they do know is that the technocrats who have failed us still seem to be in their positions.  Like the protesters I’m a little hazy on what to do about it.  Raising a stink and giving them something to worry about is a start.

                “how does one check their power to prevent abuse?”

                This is where the role of governmental power comes in.  A powerful central government is a distasteful idea, but then so is an unregulated swaps market.  I’m open to suggestions, but I’ll warn you up front that I’m one of these raging communists who think that our little experiment in financial deregulation was a bit of a failure.

                “what responsibilities do ‘regular people’ have to reconsider the unspoken rules with a critical eye?”

                Don’t have a precise answer for that one.  We should raise a stink when things go wrong, and like the protesters I’m fuzzy on what the exact steps should be.   Reminding our technolords that we exist is a start.Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Steve S.
                Ignored
                says:

                Steve, I’ve replied downthread since we’re running out of margin but I’m not running out of verbiage.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to bluntobject
                Ignored
                says:

                That’s a pretty low opinion of the average Greek voter

                Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the Greeks INVENT democracy?Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to wardsmith
                Ignored
                says:

                They also invented being bad at it (as any student of Thucydides can tell you.)Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to wardsmith
                Ignored
                says:

                I think Thucydides approved of democracy, but not mob ruled democracy.

                Our own founding fathers were rightly concerned with mob ruled democracy, hence you could only vote if you were a land holding freeman. Even then they needed checks and balances.

                Of course once the panis et circenses crowd starts running things, all bets are off. We’re almost there, maybe a decade?Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        “If we want a functional welfare state and strong middle class, then the middle class and the people handing out goodies from the state need to be responsible.”

        The closest thing I’ve heard to a consistent message from OWS is that the middle class has been responsible, and it’s gotten them nowhere. Which I kind of agree with–but then, I’d also ask whether it’s such a bad thing to start in a good place and stay there.Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to DensityDuck
          Ignored
          says:

          Another off the hook is that the middle class has less power directly/individually to change the rules of the game.  Once certain powerful people set up a system propelling itself on consumer debt, it’s hard to turn around and tell middle class families, on an individual basis, that they should have picked up the ball and taken it home.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to DensityDuck
          Ignored
          says:

          The closest thing I’ve heard to a consistent message from OWS is that the middle class has been responsible

          Which, of course, is a ridiculous falsehood.  When the size of homes has doubled in less than 50 years while people are having fewer kids, and when consumer debt has skyrocketed, one should begin to suspect that a whole lot of middle class folks are not being responsible at all.Report

          • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to James Hanley
            Ignored
            says:

            Now this I’m comfortable calling victim-blaming. Specifically the debt point. As if the middle class demanded debt, for no real reason (not because their wages were stagnating while health care and transpo costs were increasing), while banks and politicians grudgingly agreed.Report

          • Avatar North in reply to James Hanley
            Ignored
            says:

            I’m going to object to the kids thing. People are not being irresponsible if they choose not to have children or to have only one. In fact I’d say that carefully considering and controlling the number of children one has is the height of responsability.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley
            Ignored
            says:

            Elias,

            There’s no value in absolving people of responsibility for their own actions. For the vast majority of middle class Americans consumer debt had nothing to do with stagnating wages (particularly as the prices of many goods declined) or with health care costs, and everything to do with rising expectations.

            There’s always a tendency to treat the ordinary person as entirely a victim of circumstances.  It’s a tendency driven by humane sympathy, but within it lurks an inhumane condescension (or, to quote a recent troll, condensation), a vision of non-elites as children or imbeciles, incompetent to be make any decisions on their own, taken advantage of by one set of elites and helpless unless aided by another set of elites.

            I know I’m laying it on strong there, and that’s not what you intend to say.  But if you don’t put a substantial amount of responsibility at the feet of the middle class then that’s really the logical sequence of thought.

             

            North,

            I think you misunderstood me.  There’s nothing irresponsible about having fewer kids.  But if you’re only going to have half the kids your grandparents did, you should think twice before buying twice as much house as your grandparents did.Report

            • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to James Hanley
              Ignored
              says:

              There’s no value in absolving people of responsibility for their own actions. For the vast majority of middle class Americans consumer debt had nothing to do with stagnating wages (particularly as the prices of many goods declined) or with health care costs, and everything to do with rising expectations. source?Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                That’s a broad enough claim that I don’t think you’ll find a single authoritative source (though if James surprises me I’ll be delighted).  One story that supports it (and ties in with Steve S.’s claim above) is the proliferation of second mortgages, re-fis, and other such forms of property-backed debt during the securities bubble between 2001 and 2007.  It’s hard to sell a debt-backed security if you don’t actually have any debt to back it with, so the huge demand for debt by the securities market led to an increase in dubious loan offers by the primary banking sector.  Throw in the meme Steve referenced that banks are cautious about lending and won’t do it unless they think it’ll be paid off, and I can imagine a lot of middle-class homeowners who, when presented with an offer for a second mortgage, think “Well, hey, if the bank says it’s okay, why not?  I can buy a boat!”Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                Living below your means: a forgotten art.  And my mother used to say about our scuffling days as a family that “we were poor but happy.”

                Haven’t heard that turn of phrase in many a year.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Elias Isquith
                Ignored
                says:

                Elias,

                Well, hell, you made the first claim, so where’s your source?  I’m basing mine on the reality that most middle class Americans don’t have medical costs-caused bankruptcies.  Not that none did, but I don’t think there’s any way you can find a source that suggests that’s the major cause of middle class debt.

                But the rising expectations business is for real.  Even as everyone’s been complaining about middle class wage stagnation (although there’s some dispute about that among economists), one undeniable reality is that middle class Americans today have far more “stuff” than ever before.  Part of it is decreases in the cost of stuff, both as a consequence of technological innovation and as consequence of imports.  But much of it is straightforward credit card debt. Despite having more stuff, everyone thinks the middle class has been becoming worse off. Objectively it’s not, but the expectations of what middle class means in material terms are wildly different than what those expectations were 30 and 50 years ago.

                As to home sizes, here’s one source that claims that living space per family member has tripled in the past 50 years. Obviously it normally costs more to buy more house.

                These choices matter, and I think we’re really hamstrung in talking meaningfully about these problems if we don’t include consumer choices in our consideration of the factors that led to our current problems. Heck, consumer credit card debt was an issue of debate years before the financial meltdown, and now suddenly it’s not part of the issue? I think not.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to James Hanley
              Ignored
              says:

              Ah I see, it’s not a replacement arguement, it’s a living space use arguement. Well I don’t have much to argue with about that though I wouldn’t go so far as to agree.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman in reply to James Hanley
            Ignored
            says:

            James,

            I think your analysis as it pertains to housing overlooks something significant. It’s not just a matter of plucking down more money to get a bigger house. A part of it is doing so in order to continue to live with the Joneses. If the Joneses are buying twice the house, you need to as well if you want to continue to be surrounded by Joneses.

            This may sound frivolous, but it’s not. Living with the Joneses means that your kids go to the same (better) schools as theirs. It means that people you would prefer not live around can’t afford to live next to you and bring with them the things you don’t want to live around.

            Moving into a nicer neighborhood often requires moving into a bigger house than it used to. And you sometimes have to take one with the other. So this is not only an example of paying more to get more (in terms of size), but also an example paying more to get the same thing (in terms of neighborhood niceness).

            (It is worth pointing out, though, that the actions of bankers and the government to help get people into bigger houses they can afford contributes heavily to this arms race. It raises the price to price people out of your neighborhood.)Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman
              Ignored
              says:

              Will – thanks for this.  While clearly buyers have control over what house they buy, it seems highly intuitive to me that the overall trend toward larger house sizes must be driven by dynamics beyond simply changing individual consumer preferences.

              Also, to what extent has the ‘doubling in the sizes of homes’ been driven by top-end (i.e. not middle-class) decisions?  I’ve never lived in a house or apartment building less than 40 years old – more often closer to 70 or 80.  Those don’t double in size over the relevant period.  It is a very nontransparent statistic that James cites, at least as he cites it.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew
                Ignored
                says:

                Michael,

                It’s middle class housing that has increased dramatically in size.  And I think it’s a bit rich to say it’s driven by forces outside consumers control, given that consumers select among houses when they buy, and in almost all cases the range of choices includes smaller older homes and larger newer homes.

                The real estate market is a competitive market, and builders try to meet consumer demand.  They don’t force consumers to buy anything.

                I believe you that apartments haven’t increased in size in the same way.  That’s a different market, though, and I’m sure if we thought it through we could explain what factors cause it to be different.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                I didn’t mean to dismiss individual choices, I merely meant to suggest that other forces may be at play.  It’s reductive to say that no forces played into this trend other than simple family preferences for greater house size.  Supply can create demand.  Is it your view that if something happens in a market somewhere, it is only and completely explained by consumer choices alone?

                As to what housing this has occurred in, now you’re just throwing out claims. Housing sizes have doubled!  It’s middle class housing! (As if upper-class housing hasn’t?)  It’s a complicated not a simple picture. of necessity.  Numbers would be appreciated, James.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew
                Ignored
                says:

                Michael,

                And nothing in my original post said consumer choice was the only factor, but that was quickly assumed wasn’t it?

                As to middle class vs. upper class housing, we just have to think mathematically.  The number of middle class homes vastly dwarfs the number of upper class homes.  Any change in the size of upper class homes will be dwarfed by any changes in the size of middle class homes.

                A quick source (before I go to bed): average size of new homes was 1525 sq. ft. in 1973, 2,000 sq. ft. in 2000, and 2,277 sq. ft in 2007 (then has dropped slightly the last few years).Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Then why did you say what I said was rich?  I said “forces beyond simply consumer preferences.”  And you had a problem with that, but apparently we agreed all along.  I didn’t assume you were suggesting a single cause – not until you gave me no other possible interpretation of your view by calling my suggestion of multiple causes beyond consumer choice “rich.”

                 Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                On the numbers: the size of new homes reflects the housing preferences of those in the market for new homes.  That’s why I brought up 20, 40, or 70 year old homes.  That’s what I live in.  That’s what most people I know live in.  (These, I grant, are not valid statistics, but they are facts that help direct my curiosity.) The behavior of purchasers of new homes is not necessarily a good proxy for the housing decisions of of the middle class as a class.  What percentage of housing decisions made by the middle class legitimately involve the choice between a building new home and purchasing an existing home?  Keep in mind, the doubling of new home sizes reflects a trend driven only by those who choose the former (or were always going to build a new home, only choosing what size to build it).Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Here’s a graph that shows that existing home sales run almost exactly five times the scale of new home sales:

                http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2007/03/new-vs-existing-home-data.html

                Note that this does not include middle class (or other) households making a decision between purchasing a house in a given year and not doing so in that year.  This just shows those who ended up making the decision to do so.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Michael,

                the overall trend… must be driven by dynamics beyond simply changing individual consumer preferences

                I interpreted this as emphasizing the “dynamics beyond,” and dismissing the “preferences.”  Apparently I interpreted it incorrectly.  Mea culpa.

                I think your graph pretty much makes the point that there’s a real choice between buying a new home and buying an existing home.  Keep in mind that the lower-end of homebuyers is most likely to buy existing homes due to inability to afford new homes.  But if 80% of home purchases are existing homes, then clearly most new home buyers have a real option to buy an older smaller home rather than a newer larger home.

                Preferences are subjective, so there’s nothing wrong with preferring a newer and bigger home.*  But I’d watched the increasing size of houses for years with concern.  The increase includes a steady increase in starter home sizes, too, although I can’t find my old source on that at the moment.

                But I should mention another factor here, which is changes in zoning laws. A lot of cities have expanded minimum lot sizes, and some places even mandate minimum home sizes that are larger than the average home was 50 years ago.  I met someone a few years ago who had a rural piece of property that she couldn’t build a home on because she could only afford, and only needed, an 800 square foot home, but county regulations mandated a minimum of, iirc, 1500.  That kind of rule helps keep communities looking upscale, but doesn’t actually help out people who are trying to live within their means.

                *I’d like a bigger basement, a fourth bedroom, and a rec-room, but more important to us was the quirky charm of a century+ old house that gives me an excuse to play Mr. Fix-it.

                 

                 

                 Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Aye, Prawf.  Same page now.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Okey, dokey.  I may have been a bit irritated about other matters when I wrote last night, leading me to be less charitable than I ought.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Michael Drew
                Ignored
                says:

                It is a very nontransparent statistic that James cites, at least as he cites

                The stat is legit (or a reasonable approximation). In 1950, the average household size was roughly 1,000 feet. By 1974, it was 1,500. As of 2004, it’s roughly 2,400. Some numbers from an NPR article suggest the same. The wording seems to clearly suggest that we are talking about average home size and not the size of the average new house being built. (I wasn’t sure about that, actually, which is why I fished the links.) That suggests, to me, that new houses are being build way larger than 2,400 square feet.

                And I believe it. Because…

                Also, to what extent has the ‘doubling in the sizes of homes’ been driven by top-end (i.e. not middle-class) decisions?

                I come at this from the perspective of a southerner from a booming city. In my old part of town, every new subdivision has bigger houses than the last. The result is a lot of interior migration (my wealthier neighborhoods moving to bigger houses) and new people who move in look at the NICE BIG NEW houses and the aging, smaller house that I grew up in. There’s no doubt where they want to live.

                Meanwhile, the new neighborhoods going up start populating so well that they get their own school. Then they populate even more that they take up the high school I went to. So what do they do? They redistrict everything and suddenly my neighborhood goes to a school not nearly so well regarded with the kids in Mechanicsburg and Fishertown, and suddenly that school has a reputation. And when the county needs to set up a new wastewater center (harmless, but unsightly), they don’t put it in the fields near the big houses. They demolish a park and put it near where I grew up. Truth be told, there were plenty of parks, so losing one didn’t matter all that much, but the decision-making process was rather transparent.

                I’m not saying the neighborhood I grew up in is a slum or anything. But rather than being where engineers live, it’s a place of starter homes, teachers, retirees, and people escaping Fishertown and Mechanicsburg and the city. I’d personally be happy to raise my kids there. My brothers, though, bought nice big houses in new neighborhoods. Living right nearby people we grew up with.

                So anyway, yeah, I think a lot of this is spearheaded by the affluent. That’s who builders want to sell houses to, after all. But it has a cascading effect on down the chain. But that’s my perspective from anecdotal dispatches from a single region.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Will Truman
                Ignored
                says:

                Truth be told, my parents didn’t care about this and actually thought it would be good for me.

                That was part of the decision-making process for my wife and me, too.  We wanted to keep our kids down to earth.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Sorry. I deleted that as soon as I saw it, but not before you did. I wasn’t trying to hide it or anything. It was a point on an asterisk that I deleted up ahead. It’s true, though.

                But since that’s a part that interested you…

                Their main objection to my going to the “other” high school was logistical. And by most accounts, I think I would have been fine going to the other school. My friends that went there seemed.. happier. They weren’t going to a school where “What kind of car did you get?” and where girls complain that their parents won’t by them the exact model they want to replace the car they totaled.

                At the same time, I went to a good school with top-notch facilities. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I got to college. Would it have been the same at the other school? Or the new school they ship the neighborhood off to now? I really don’t know. But I do understand parents not wanting to take that chance.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Will Truman
                Ignored
                says:

                But I do understand parents not wanting to take that chance.

                Oh, I agree with that.  When I say it’s a choice I don’t mean there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

                In Michigan, we mostly have school of choice, which does away with some of that pressure on parents.  The districts are drawn, as is usual, so that whatever district you live in is the default school for your kids, but you can choose to put them in another school.  You mentioned logistics, and that can be logistically challenging for parents since it means driving your kid out of the way to school, but lots of parents find that worthwhile.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Will Truman
                Ignored
                says:

                Actually, one of the reasons I favor school choice is to separate schools from real estate. Perhaps due to outsizing the significance of my own observations, I am convinced that part of the housing price ramp-up is driven by the connection between the two. If you’re looking at paying an extra $100k on your house or paying $10k a year per kid for private schooling in the house that you want with a lousy school district, the extra $100k starts to seem like a bargain.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Will Truman
                Ignored
                says:

                Will,  I almost added that I also favor vouchers for the same reason, but I was afraid that might stir up a battle royale.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Will Truman
              Ignored
              says:

              Will,  that’s all true, but those things are choices.  You make it sound as though this is something people have no choice about.  I’d like to see some evidence that if you don’t buy a huge house you can’t get into a decent school district.

              In my case my wife and I bought a house at the same time our friends did, in the same town (well, they moved into a subdivision just outside of town).  We bought an old house that needed a lot of renovation in a non-ideal neighborhood.  They bought a brand new home that was 1/3 larger and cost three times as much.  Guess which one of us is losing their home right now?  I don’t mean that to boast about my own choices–just to note that the choice I made is possible, and the choice they made was not necessity.

              Seriously, once you start down the path of “they had to do it so their kids could to suburbia high,” you’re starting down a path of real serious elitism.  As though there’s something wrong with bringing your kids up in anything less than an upper middle-class neighborhood.  When we start defining things like that as needs–and you don’t say that explicitly, but you sure do seem to imply it–we’ve lost all touch with objective reality.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                James, I may have more to say in a bit, but I’m not saying that there aren’t choices involved. What I am saying, though, is that it’s not just about having a bigger home than your parents had. Not (entirely) about having *more* than they had. It’s at least partially about having the same things that your parents had. It just costing more. And with more space thrown in as part of the deal. To use my example above, getting a house the same size as our parents meant living in a neighborhood with a worse school than we went to. You present it (or I am reading your presentation) as “Well, it costs more because you get more.” That’s not entirely accurate, when you look at dynamics beyond home size.

                As far as “elitism” goes, I’ve already copped to that elsewhere, so it’s no threat to me. Though truthfully, as I say above, I personally wouldn’t care if my kids went to the lesser high school if I still lived back home. But it remains the case that it costs more to go to the same five-star high school I did.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Will Truman
                Ignored
                says:

                To use my example above, getting a house the same size as our parents meant living in a neighborhood with a worse school than we went to. You present it (or I am reading your presentation) as “Well, it costs more because you get more.” That’s not entirely accurate, when you look at dynamics beyond home size.

                Eh, maybe some places, but I doubt that’s a general rule.  As for “good schools,” they’re not half as important as good parents.  My kid’s high school does not do well overall in the state rankings and standardized tests.  But most of our friends’ kids have gone on to college, often with scholarships, with some going on to graduate and medical schools.  Not that there aren’t truly bad schools, but even with those the parents matter more.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Substitute teaching changed my perspective on this.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Hanley
            Ignored
            says:

            It’s like some kind of parody ultra-Randian Libertarianism.  Bad things happened to people. Therefore the things those people did must have been the cause.  The reasons why those people did those things are irrelevant.

            “How were we supposed to know what to do?  We were told that we should own our own house, own our own car, send our kids to the best colleges!  All of that took money, and we had to borrow to do it!”

            “Well, you should have listened to the experts and taken their advice.”

            “But it was the experts who told us to do those things!”

            “Well, obviously you listened to the wrong experts.”Report

            • Avatar MFarmer in reply to DensityDuck
              Ignored
              says:

              Listening to experts is good for gathering information, but it’s no substitute for reason, prudence and discerning between the different advice from different experts. No one is saying it’s all the fault of the middle class — the causes are many — unrealistic expectations, keeping up with the Joneses, manipulation by salespeople, manipulation by government, lack of ongoing education in an increasingly complex world, the denigratioon of reason and the deification of wishful thinking, rational choices due to perverse incentives, failure to take responsibility, on and on — the key is to study this crisis and everyone involved to learn from it — it’s hard to learn when everyone’s pointing at someone else as the culpritReport

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to DensityDuck
              Ignored
              says:

              Duck, did I ever say it was all those people’s fault?  No, I only said they bear some responsibility, too.

              You, on the other hand, bear sole responsibility for reading carelessly and responding with a boneheaded comment.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                Sorry, but that’s not all you said, James.  Here is what you said:

                The closest thing I’ve heard to a consistent message from OWS is that the middle class has been responsible

                Which, of course, is a ridiculous falsehood.  When the size of homes has doubled in less than 50 years while people are having fewer kids, and when consumer debt has skyrocketed, one should begin to suspect that a whole lot of middle class folks are not being responsible at all.

                 

                So.  You first say that suggesting the middle class has been responsible is not just flatly false, but ridiculous.  Nowhere was it stipulated that saying that the middle class acted responsibly as a class was meant to deny that there was any irresponsibility, but either you decided it must mean that, or you claim that they acted broadly irresponsibly enough to be charaterized as irresponsible.  (You can’t claim that saying it is rifdculous to say they were responsible can be read in any other way than to say they were irresponsible.  Had you left it at “falsehood” rather than “ridiculous falsehood” perhaps you could wiggle out of it, but you didn’t.)  So clearly you made a big claim about their level of irresponsibility.

                That is already inconsistent with a claim that you only claimed that they bear “some responsibility” for what ended up nefalling them. (Who disagrees with that?)  .  But you then go on to bury the nailhead when you say, “one should begin to suspect that a whole lot of middle class folks are not being responsible at all.” (Emphasis added.)  “A whole lot”?  Well, if you’re trying to cram them in your living room, then a hundred families are “a whole lot,” so who knows what percentage you could have meant by that.  Score one for leaving yourself some wiggle room there.  But then it’s “not being responsible at all.”

                Is this still technically compatible with not saying that it was “all” their fault?  Yes, though certainly at some point emphasis comes into play here.  But yes, it is.  Is it consistent with saying they bear “some responsibility”?  Yes again.  But is it consistent with claiming you “only said they bear some responsibility” (again, emphasis added)?   Nope.  Not even close.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew
                Ignored
                says:

                Well, maybe we’re pushing at opposite ends of the rope.  But my take on the OWS view on the middle class is that the middle class is totally innocent.  I honestly do think that’s what they mean.  And by a “whole lot,” I mean all those folks who were living beyond their means all along.  I don’t mean those who got a degree in Romance Lit, or those who bought a nicer house when their income went up only to have that job disappear on them.

                I think it is “wildly ridiculous” to suggest–as I interpret OWS–that the middle class is innocent.  But I honestly don’t think my statement implies that either all middle class people are guilty or that the middle class is solely guilty.  I’m not sure we disagree on the issues, so much as what adjectives are appropriate in describing them.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley
                Ignored
                says:

                I mean, no one is innocent, anywhere.  I don’t know where OWS claims the middle class is innocent, but then I don’t claim to follow their pronouncements all that closely.  the issue is what conditions they face, and whether institutions are addessing those if they need addressing.  It’s pretty simple: people agitating for policy they want from the government.  People do that occasionally.   I’m not really even sure where claims of innocence or responsibility come into that.  You can claim the middle class is broadly responsible for the trends that OWS is protesting about, but I honestly don’t see where they strongly deny that any poorly considered decisions have been made by anyone in the 99%.  That doesn’t really bear on whether there have been structural changes abetted by policy that has broken the upward  trajectory of middle class living standards, or in any case that the most recent events combined with inadequate response have put it in doubt for the younger generation.  You say that income stagnation has nothing to do with the problems of the middle class, rather increasing  expectations are the problem.  Since when would stagnating income and a sudden darkening of economic prospects not be enough to get people out in the streets in the midst of cascading financial failures, skyrocketing top incomes and runaway corporate welfare?  Since when wouldn’t it justify it?  You can argue that the middle class has bought too much house over the last forty years, but do you really think that most of the people in Zuccotti Park have the problem that they bought too much house?

                If the problem that animates OWS is that the profligacy of one generation of the middle class has clouded the prospects for the next generation to be able to achieve that lifestyle, then I hardly see how they are claiming that the middle class is broadly innocent.  On the other hand, even if the middle class did act irresponsibly, it doesn’t follow that that actually caused the problems which now afflict the generation trying to make its way.  I believe that is what OWS claims: that it was financial elites who primarily caused the destruction that left a significant part of a generation stuck in neutral in terms of career and earnings.  A claim one way or another about the level of responsibility shown by the earlier generation of the middle class really isn’t necessary for them to sustain their animating claims, and I’m not sure where the Occupy movement has broadly defended nor condemned the financial and consumption decisions of the middle class.  From what I can see, the claim would likely be that the middle class more or less went on being the middle class, which is to say they were not without flaws and follies, not an immaculate, innocent mass of saints without sin, and that what changed was a combination of a transformed governmental approach to financial and economic governance, and an explosion of irresponsible though individually protected elite private financial decisions that were unleashed by that change in governance environment.  All of which was enough to cause our financial system to grind to halt, issuing a shock of epic proportions to the real economy from which it has not yet recovered. Just off the top of my head.

                Even if we lay the lion’s share of the blame for the state of the economy at the feet of middle-class home buyers’ decisions in the 2000-2007 period, how does that delegitimize the protests of OWS, which is rather clearly just a movement of young people whose prospects for employment have been dimmed if not devastated by the folly, malfeasance and fraud of a slightly older cohort?  I don’t even know where claims of innocence on behalf of an economic class fit into a straightforward cry for decent jobs.  Whoever is at fault for the situation we are, the only real issue OWS is really concerned with is the issue of where they’ll be able to jobs that might allow them to lead a life something like those of the generation before them, and whether those jobs’ wages will begin to grow again relative those of the top tier of jobs in this country, or whether stagnation is what they can expect for the long term.  First, though, we just have to find/create the jobs.  How is this not a worthwhile thing to protest about?  Who’s claiming anyone is particularly responsible?  If 70-80 percent of us are irresponsible, we still need jobs, and if those jobs’ salaries are stagnant, then we’ll still have relatively dim prospects.  What’s responsibility got to do with that?Report

  6. I’ll just make a couple of random observations here:

    – The best hing for this kind of populism would be for Romney to get elected. If he does, the electorate is going to see someone who is soo similar to Obama that the small differences will be hard to perceive. Perhaps then the public will understand that the idea of conservative and liberal in the Presidency is a fantasy.

    – Wouldn’t the best outlet for all of this populist angst be a real third party? Of course, that will take organization and more importantly, concrete ideas. If someone figures out how to harness this – well, that would be fun to watch.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
      Ignored
      says:

      Romney’s a conservative? Coulda fooled me.Report

    • Avatar mfarmer in reply to Mike at The Big Stick
      Ignored
      says:

      Yes, the idea of a third party is gradually sinking in and becoming more comfortable for a lot of people who want something different than the centrist, slow waltz to the left, or the periodic feint to the right — the two party system is mainly a mechanism to slowly expand State power, or least not lose any power and maintain the status quo. For me, regarding Obama, it hasn’t been that I think he’s a flaming radical socialist, but just a hardcore statist who sees all problems as things government can fix. There are no big ideas like Communism and Capitalism in DC anymore, just  power and statist manipulation. A third party that stands for something, like limited government, non-intervention in foreign affairs, a free market, innovative solutions to education and welfare, would be uplifting.Report

      • Avatar bluntobject in reply to mfarmer
        Ignored
        says:

        Even a third party doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get any candidates worth voting for.  Witness Canadian politics, for example, where we have right-centre statists, centre-right statists, and left-centre statists as national parties.  I haven’t seen a candidate worth voting for who’ll actually get elected in over a decade of looking.

        On the other hand, it’s not all doom and gloom: three major parties (and one major regional party) gave us nearly seven years of minority government, which was pretty great while it lasted.Report

        • Avatar MFarmer in reply to bluntobject
          Ignored
          says:

          Yes, there are no guarantees, but it might be worth a shot. A lot depends on how much the American people get involved and how diligent they are going forward. This is not going to be one of those recessions from which we bounce back and go back into happy, conservative denial — we’ve got a long slog ahead to create economic growth, and it will require extreme changes in government — either that or we have decline and collapse ahead.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to mfarmer
        Ignored
        says:

        Mr. Farmer, I think the American people want exactly that: “the centrist, slow waltz to the left, or the periodic feint to the right.”  We have always been a conservative country, since our Founding.  Unlike every other revolutionary regime since, we didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—we remained quite within the English/British sensibility, and remain a center-right country.  Not because of whatever the tenets of “conservatism” might be, but because we’re Burkeans and oppose radical change.

        This is why, along with the UK, America remains the longest-running political show on earth.

        I’m a conservative, and don’t mind saying so.  But our slow waltz toward the left, FDRism, even LBJism, has been in toto a good thing, and few 2011 conservatives want to roll back Social Security or Medicare.

        Some say that the test of the greatness or morality of a society is how they treat their poor, weak, racially discriminated-against, whathaveyou until the list includes almost everybody.  But looking at human civilization from scratch and the plight of man, I’ll simply go with our decency toward our elderly, after they’re no longer productive and frankly a drain on society—liabilities, not assets.

        Per Dickens’ Scrooge, the poor aren’t our “surplus population” as much as the elderly empirically are.  You can exploit the poor; all you can do with the elderly is let them die.

        Must be because I’m getting older, but FDR doesn’t seem like a monster to me…

         Report

        • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Tom Van Dyke
          Ignored
          says:

          “Some say that the test of the greatness or morality of a society is how they treat their poor, weak, racially discriminated-against, whathaveyou until the list includes almost everybody.”

          So you think it’s great and moral how America has treated the poor? The type of conservatism you describe is not something I can embrace. And while many Americans might have been satisfied with the statist quo before, I don’t think that’s the case presently. How you can be pleased with the evolution of our system from FDR to LBJ to Bush to Obama is a mystery. I suggest you study the reality of the welfare state, because it’s nothing to be pleased with, unless your idea of “treating the poor” is handing them over to the State and pretending they’re well-cared for.Report

          • Avatar MFarmer in reply to MFarmer
            Ignored
            says:

            And as long as Americans think, if they do think such, that limited government, non-interventionism, innovation to better serve the needy and educate our kids, and free markets are “extrmeme”, then there’s little hope.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to MFarmer
            Ignored
            says:

            Are you douchebagging me from the right, Mr. Farmer?  Those here gathered would find that a source of great amusement, turnaround is fair play and a 100 other cliches.

            Have at it, then.  Yes, I’ll make a Burkean defense of FDRism and even some of the Great Society here in 2011, starting with “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

            I love liberals; my mother was one.  It’s only leftism I can’t stand.  I’ll stand up for liberalism, hell yeah.Report

            • Avatar MFarmer in reply to Tom Van Dyke
              Ignored
              says:

              “I love liberals; my mother was one. It’s only leftism I can’t stand. I’ll stand up for liberalism, hell yeah.”

              If you think what I wrote is anti-liberal, then you’re more confused than I thought. I don’t think many people today really understand the meaning of liberal. But, no, I’m not a knuckle-dragging right-winger hatin’ on those damn libruls. As a matter of fact, I’d venture to say I’m more liberal than most people who participate here. I started out in the 60s in line with Hoffman and Rubin, but then I started studying history, economics and political philosophy.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke
          Ignored
          says:

          @ Mr Van Dyke
          Unlike every other revolutionary regime since, we didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—we remained quite within the English/British sensibility, and remain a center-right…

          I don’t think that that is strictly true.

          1. You wrote down your constitution whereas Britain’s remains unwritten. You created something for people fight over when leaving it unwritten would have allowed it to remain as a matter of custom, slowly changing over time to meet the needs and to keep pace with slowly moving institutions. Now youve got something that is static until it lurches in some direction. Very un-burkean

          2. You abandoned common law in most places and instituted yourselves as a civl law jurisdiction. To show this, in common law jurisdictions, the question always is what have we been doing, what are the precedents. In the american system (Except for tort law) you ask, where is it written down? What did the founders really intend?

          3. You separated the legislative from the executive more completely. In the british system, the executive is drawn from the legislature.

          4. You changed the procedures to introduce, modify and vote on bills. In the UK (I might be wrong on this) only the cabinet can introduce and modify legislation. Everybody just argues about what is already there.

          5. You separated the judiciary other branches and gave the judiciary more power (this might have been a good move)

          There’s probably more, but I dont think that the american founding fathers were good burkeans. They were hot headed revolutionaries and it is probably due to its considerable size that it has not collapsed till now. From a purely Burkean stand point (even though Burke uncharacteristically supported the american revolution, but then Burke was part of the Whig party.) There was plenty of questionable stuff going on. No, I think that in the fullness of time, we will find out that the americans threw out less bathwater and more baby.

           

          Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali
            Ignored
            says:

            Murali,

            Some riffing off your thoughts.  Not really arguing.

            1.  The U.S. actually has a substantial amount of unwritten constitution, we just tend not to realize it.  The presidential primary system, the use of district representation in the House, the annual State of the Union address, and some other things like that are constitutional in the true meaning of the term as things that constitute our system and are seen as fundamental.  I’ve only begun thinking about this in the past few months, so my thoughts are still inchoate, but I suspect unwritten constitutionalism may be nearly impossible to avoid because of how humans tend to entrench traditions.  But the overwhelming presence of the written Constitution in Americans’ conception of our system obscures the unwritten elements.

            2.  Generally true but a little bit overstated.  All constitutional issues involve a hefty dose of common law style with a focus on precedents and tradition.  Even when someone like Scalia focuses on original meaning or textualism he’s purposefully referring to a tradition of meaning rather than reading the text in a civil law way.

            3, I have a friend who says that our system is based on Montesequieu’s misunderstanding of the British system.  I think he’s right.

            4. This may be our most serious problem.

            5. This was our best move. Even though the ability of the judiciary to successfully buck democracy is overstated, an independent judiciary is a more secure protector of liberty than is a democratic legislature.Report

  7. Avatar E.C. Gach
    Ignored
    says:

    The 99% Tumblr was great…it’s been all down hill from there.

    I’ve yet to hear one voice, or meet one person associated with OWS that didn’t make me cringe and lead to multiple subsequent face palms.Report

  8. Avatar Mark Thompson
    Ignored
    says:

    Am I the only one who spit out his drink chuckling at this line:

    “as Ethan-the-libertarian said below”?

    Anywho, I repeat: Mr. Kain, you’ve been hitting on all cylinders of late.Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Mark Thompson
      Ignored
      says:

      I felt certain I’d missed an inside joke. 🙁Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Mark Thompson
      Ignored
      says:

      Thanks, Mark. This is one of those posts that’s been building for some time. My early enthusiasm over the movement has slowly tapered and now I just feel deflated by the whole thing.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        First the knock was that they’d never last.  Now the problem seems to be that they hung on too long and things got a little ripe.  I would counsel patience, Erik (if you are inclined – if you once thought there was potential here).  I think you simply do not know the extent to which evolution is or isn’t taking place (and neither do I).  I understand your reaction here, but I do think it’s fair to say that your observational-analytic metabolism is running at a high speed where this movement is concerned.  If the early criticisms were that it would not last the winter and that would be a pitifully short life for an insurgent political movement, then how can we say that failing to evolve and grow up before the middle of November shows fatal sluggishness, sloth, and disrepair?  It seems to me that phase one has run its course, and now assessment and change are the order of the day.  But perhaps you are simply done.  If so, you seem to be embracing your deflation pretty willingly and soaking up your expected praise from comfortable quarters for it…Report

      • Avatar wardsmith in reply to E.D. Kain
        Ignored
        says:

        Maybe a little humor to liven things up?

        Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to wardsmith
          Ignored
          says:

          ws,

          I actually meant that response to Erik to be a bit tongue-in-cheek.  To me the shortcomings of this group have been obvious from the start, but at the same time since the start I’ve also found many of the main criticisms to be laughably maladroit (“They must distill a list of concrete demands!”  “It’s the job of people who find themselves ill-served by the governance of an economic and technocratic elite to determine the precise way forward for a system they didn’t create – NOT merely demonstrate to register their discontent!”).  And it seems odd to me to now become disillusioned with this movement’s flaws after declaring oneself broadly sympathetic to their message, when the flaws have been so apparent from the start, and to arrive at despair over the movement’s capacity for change and maturation only as the first real inflection point in its trajectory is being reached.

          None of this is to say I’m much more optimistic than Erik about the movement’s future, (though I think he completely fails to note the very real points the movement has already put on the scoreboard in terms of changing the conversation, which might be durable), but it is to say that I don’t see the reason to change my fundamental approach to this group that Erik apparently sees to change his.  But I suppose that is partly because my approach all along has been merely to watch and listen, not identify with them or evaluate them.  It seems to me this story is only just now getting truly interesting.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to wardsmith
          Ignored
          says:

          Does he always put that much effort into nipples?Report

  9. Avatar bluntobject
    Ignored
    says:

    This reminds me of a Karl Smith post from a couple days ago:

    As a bloodless technocrat I am always unnerved when the people take to the streets.

    As I recently told a correspondent: if we are doing our jobs right then people shouldn’t even know that technocrats exist. They should never think about us. They should think about the things they care about; their children, their friends, their love interests, their dreams. If they know about the technocracy then the technocracy has failed.

    There is no doubt that these movements – OWS and the Tea Party – are a glaring sign of technocratic failure. We shouldn’t forget that as long as these movements exist. Any moment that a citizen spends thinking about taxes, the economy, lobbyists, the capitalist system, etc is a moment of their lives that we have wasted and that they will never get back.

    Time is all that they have, to burn it is to burn their lives away. It is to destroy the very thing we are supposed to protect. If you keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to induce a rational blissful ignorance in your citizens then you I think your ship will always be straight.

    The “rational blissful ignorance” model of technocracy seems to be utterly at odds with the Greek sovereign debt crisis.  I suppose one can fix that by taking a very long view of what it means to be rationally blissfully ignorant: that if one’s blissful ignorance in times of cheap credit leads to unsustainable levels of public debt, one’s not being truly rational.Report

  10. Avatar Pierre Corneille
    Ignored
    says:

    A couple points:

    1.  I have some sympathy for the Greek people because even though they collectively got themselves into the mess they’re in, they’re still in a mess, and messes aren’t easy things to be in.  In a similar way, I have sympathy for the spendthrift who is facing his comeuppance as he approaches retirement age and has no funds.  He’s responsible for his situation, but it sure is a hard place to be.

    2.  I am not particularly sympathetic to what I understand to be the goals of the OWS and especially to what I understand to be their main narratives–the “99%” slogan, the “we never get any handouts” mantra even though in the same breath many admit to receiving taxpayer subsidized loans, and the “we just did what we were supposed to” meme.  Still, I think there might be potential at the local level that Mr. Kain’s very good points about national-level perception politics tends to elide.  I’m being deliberately vague, and perhaps I’m dead wrong.  To use a very imperfect analogy for the possibilities:  look at the various instantiations of Knights of Labor politics in the 1880s, as examined by Leon Fink in “Workingmen’s Democracy.”Report

  11. Avatar bluntobject
    Ignored
    says:

    (In reply to Steve S. upthread)

    “how does one check their power to prevent abuse?”

    This is where the role of governmental power comes in.  A powerful central government is a distasteful idea, but then so is an unregulated swaps market.  I’m open to suggestions, but I’ll warn you up front that I’m one of these raging communists who think that our little experiment in financial deregulation was a bit of a failure.

    And I’m one of those raging libertarians who thinks that calling stuff like the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act “deregulation” is an outrageous piece of crony-corporatist propaganda.  Not that I’m accusing you of such; it just gets under my skin when a thoroughly captured public regulator can tilt the playing field towards the big established players, crow about how they’ve “freed” the markets, and have people believe them on both sides of the ideological fence.  Selective deregulation does not a freed market make.

    In any case, my conception of the “technocratic elite” puts them as much in government as in the private sector — or in the grey area where the Federal Reserve banks live — so the idea that we need more government to keep the technocrats in line reads like setting a coyote to guard the henhouse against foxes.

    This is coming into line with the Platonic form of my fears of regulatory capture: a technocratic elite that’s thoroughly in the pocket of (in this case) Big Finance, and shapes both public policy and public discourse to encourage (in this case) massive amounts of private debt to feed a securities bubble.  If we take Karl Smith at his word, and assume that the technocrats are supposed to operate invisibly in order to enable the general public to act obliviously to them, then the only defences I can see against this sort of cronyist corruption are (a) a well-informed and actively suspicious citizenry willing to vote against what the technocrats are telling them are their best interests (for example, Greek citizens circa 2003 agitating to lower public debt and public entitlement commitments), or (b) less power for the technocratic state.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to bluntobject
      Ignored
      says:

      Your a) and b) lead us right back to representative democracy, with all its warts and unsightly unsophisticatedness.Report

      • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Stillwater
        Ignored
        says:

        Funny how that works.  Now that I think about it, perhaps most of my libertarian-ish complaints can be generalized to “there are too many technocrats, and they have too much power”.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to bluntobject
          Ignored
          says:

          Bluntobject, I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on this. Especially as they pertain to the following.

          Here’s my contention: radical libertarianism fails to include a mechanism to prevent the very types of governmental actions which form the grounds of the political theory. It’s easy enough to argue – as Murali and some others do here at the League – that a technocratic elite would determine policy better than democratically elected legislators and executives. But the justification for that move would be to prevent corruption and inefficiencies in policy. But what mechanism would prevent the elite from becoming corrupted (which you rightly worry about in your comment)? Well, historical evidence says that nothing would prevent the ensuing corruption – except (as you again point out) democracy. (The idea that limiting government would eliminate the corruption is conceptually unsound, tho the claim that limiting government may limit the corruption might follow.)

          Given those considerations, the only practical check on technocratic power in the imagined scenario is democracy. But – and here’s the thing – this results in a system functionally indistinguishable from the one we currently have, where policy makers ride a fine line between a) answering to their constituencies, b) enacting policy derived from wonkish technocratic arguments (at least in theory) and c) funneling favors into the pockets of their private sector friends.

          So this type of radical libertatianism, where current political institutions have to be dismantled, is inherently incoherent in my view. Soft libertarianism, on the other hand – which may be thought of as the mere advocacy for different policy set – isn’t very distinguishable from progressivism in that it isn’t revolutionary (since institutional structures are left intact). So soft libertarianism is actually amenable to democracy. Even more, it assumes that democracy is the best check on government and the purpose of libertarianism is to a) shine a light on corruption and systematic inefficiencies  and b) influence the electorate to take these issues seriously in order to change them.

          Or shorter: radical libertarianism views democracy as unnecessary but the view is self-refuting, while soft libertartianism views democracy as necessary so it reduces to mere political advocacy.

          Thoughts?

           Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
            Ignored
            says:

            You weren’t talking to me, but I was eavesdropping and couldn’t resist chiming in.

            Re: Soft libertarianism.  I’m in general agreement, but I wouldn’t say it’s limited to changing the policy set and not the institutions.  Soft libertarians (like me, I suppose) don’t necessarily want a radical overthrow of the institutions, but can favor substantial institutional change.  That’s just a quibble about line drawing, though. I think your distinction draws too sharp a line.  I suspect, but correct me if I’m wrong, that we won’t really be in substantial disagreement on that.

            As to technocracy vs. democracy, I’d also point out that while technocrats have superior performance in designing policies to achieve particular goals (something our Congress implicitly recognizes each time it passes a law stating a goal and telling an exec. branch agency to fill in the details with rules), what type of goals we should be trying to achieve remains a necessary democratic function.  Where things really go on is when the technocrats start determining what our collective values should be.

            JamesK has just about convinced me that the New Zealand approach of having technocrats write laws at the request of the cabinet is about as good a governing system as you can get.  That way the goals are still set democratically, but the design of the methods by which we try to achieve them is done by people who have specialized technical skills and aren’t beholden to every damned organized interest in the country.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
              Ignored
              says:

              James, Thanks for chiming in!

              So the distinction I’m missing here is that democratically elected legislatures would determine an overall policy-goal set which they turn over to the executive to design and implement?  Is that right? If so, then I think I’ve been confused on the whole Technocratic Elite thing. I was thinking that the TE would replace the Legislature, or comprise yet another layer within government with unilateral power to set policy.

              The way you’ve described it, I can see it’s merits. I’ll have to look into it a bit more. But what constrains the executive from becoming just as corrupt as the legisature currently is? Why wouldn’t protections, favors, cronyism reappear in the halls of an institution which has even less light shown on it than Congress?

               Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
                Ignored
                says:

                So the distinction I’m missing here is that democratically elected legislatures would determine an overall policy-goal set which they turn over to the executive to design and implement [as opposed to]  TE …replac[ing] the Legislature, or compris[ing] yet another layer within government with unilateral power to set policy.

                That’s the standard approach in the public policy and public administration literature.  Which isn’t to say your vision isn’t possible or hasn’t ever been advocated.

                But I should also note that the distinction between setting goals and devising goal-oriented policies isn’t as sharp as it appears on paper.  By being technically more savvy than the legislators TEs are in a position to shape the actual outcome in ways more preferable to their own vision than to the legislators’ vision.  So while they would not technically be authorized to set policy goals, they have the means to play a role in the actual determination of goals, as distinct from the legislature’s nominal determination of goals.  And that’s what makes democratic theorists uncomfortable with TEs.  They will, of course, be driven by their own motivations, not the motivations of the legislature, so there’s an agency problem that at least potentially undermines democratic accountability.

                I’m not opposed to TEs.  God knows we need people with expertise as public policy gets ever more technically complex*.  But I can’t be totally sanguine about TEs, either.  I’d like to think they’d be more satisfactory to me, as an educated elite, than populist politicians, but TE’s by virtue of their training and positions are overwhelmingly pro-regulation, whereas I’m much more dubious about the effective regulatory capacity of government in general.

                ________________________
                * In the early days the question was whether it was constitutionally legitimate for the federal government to build a national road; now the issues include determining safe limits for umpteen thousand chemicals. And as I learned at a conference recently, nobody is yet looking at the safe limits for those chemicals in combination (and when you think about the number of combinations of umpteen thousand chemicals that are mathematically possible…)Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley
              Ignored
              says:

              To clarify the question somewhat: I get that an institutional structure which separates the action of creating policy from the action of determining policy goals will eliminate retail corruption and purely-politically motivated inefficiencies on the legislative end. But what constitutes the check on the back end policy writers?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater
                Ignored
                says:

                Oops, I meant to answer the corruption question.  My stone cold solid answer is….I don’t know.  But I’ve been re-reading Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path for a class (fortunate timing!), and he makes it clear that in Peru the bureaucratic class was not immune to corruption–in fact 99% of the country’s laws came from the bureaucracy rather than the legislature, and a large number of them were created to benefit particular elite interests.

                Our U.S.  bureaucracies, fortunately, tend to have less problem with that because of higher levels of professionalization, by which I don’t mean they’re just somehow superior but that professionalization is a value repeatedly trained into bureaucrats, both in their education and their working careers, so that it becomes a standard part of bureaucratic culture.  We’re more surprised when we find serious unprofessionalism (see Minerals Management Service) whereas many countries are more surprised when they observe actual professionalism.  So we’re fortunate in that.

                But ending the ease of corrupting public officials?  Very difficult.  Going to purely publicly funded campaigns might help, but that’s an incumbency protection act, which creates its own kind of corruption.Report

          • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Stillwater
            Ignored
            says:

            Good questions, Stillwater.

            I’m not entirely clear on what you mean by “radical libertarianism”.  I don’t think you mean anarchocapitalism, because your argument assumes the presence of a state, so I’m going to assume you mean a sort of minarchist night-watchman state.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.

            The idea that limiting government would eliminate the corruption is conceptually unsound, tho the claim that limiting government may limit the corruption might follow.

            I think the strongest argument for limiting government isn’t that it might limit corruption, but more that it would limit the effects of corruption.  If the state has less power, it follows that corrupt officials the state have fewer tools to use in a corrupt manner — and that there are fewer state offices to house the potentially corrupt.  Get rid of eminent domain, for example, and local governments lose an opportunity to gift prime real estate to corporate cronies.  Which leads us to:

            Given those considerations, the only practical check on technocratic power in the imagined scenario is democracy. But – and here’s the thing – this results in a system functionally indistinguishable from the one we currently have […]

            The structure of the imagined radical-libertarian system might be functionally indistinguishable from the one we currently have, but the scope of that system is radically diminished.  Reducing the scope of the state might make it less broken — we can imagine that a smaller state would require fewer vast and unaccountable bureaucracies, would be less enabling of insiders whose only expertise is being able to navigate the system, and would be easier for voters to understand.  However, reducing the scope of the state would make it less relevant — replace many of the functions of the state with private concerns, and people would spend more of their time dealing with other private concerns and less of their time dealing with the state.  Essentially this replaces voting rights with exit rights: if your local police force is corrupt, you can try to elect a city council that will reform it (good luck with that!); if your local private security contractor is corrupt, you stop doing business with them and hire a new one.  (I do recognize that it’s not that simple; I’m just outlining my view of the minarchist position in very broad strokes.)

            radical libertarianism views democracy as unnecessary but the view is self-refuting

            I’m not sure I accept that construction of “radical libertarianism”.  I think the usual libertarian complaints about democracy are a combination of:

            1. skepticism of the idea that democratic elections form a sufficient check on the power of the state,
            2. the argument that voting rights are weaker than exit rights, and
            3. concern that a plurality of voters can capture the machinery of the state to advance their own interests (for example).

            Again, please correct me if I’m not speaking to the “radical libertarianism” you intended.

            In general, I see two prongs to the libertarian agenda: first, to improve processes and institutions in order to enable better outcomes (“soft” libertarianism); and second, to reduce the power and scope of the state in order to minimize the damage from (inevitable) bad outcomes (“hard” libertarianism).  That is, libertarians want to make government less dangerous by making it both less wrong and less relevant.Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to bluntobject
              Ignored
              says:

              Just to clarify my interpretation of “exit rights” in Blunt’s #2 above. I believe he is using it similarly to such libertarians as Arnold Kling. Meaning that having more voluntary choices and options can be more powerful than expressing preferences via the vote. I’s say both are more powerful then one.

              Stillwater, this points to a part of the libertarian answer to the “war of intolerance” between liberals and conservatives that we discussed.

              Blunt please correct me if I misunderstand.Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                having more voluntary choices and options can be more powerful than expressing preferences via the vote

                That’s pretty much how I mean it, yeah.  Basically, I think it’s hard to reshape institutions to accommodate one’s preferences.  Not impossible, though, especially when one’s preferences extend to the behaviour of enough other people:

                Psychic Externalities (Eric Crampton)

                I’m reminded of Jennifer Roback’s work showing how southern racists were able to achieve at the ballot box segregation outcomes they were unable to achieve in the market. To recap: racist southern whites wanted segregated streetcars. But it was too expensive for the streetcar companies to run segregated cars: the increased ticket revenues from white racists didn’t compensate sufficiently for lost black custom and, especially, increased running costs. White racists effectively weren’t willing to pay enough for tickets to segregated streetcars, so the market didn’t provide them. But casting a racist ballot is individually costless. And so streetcar segregation was mandated through regulation.

                Voting rights seem to be stronger than exit rights when it comes to enforcing meddlesome preferences.  Whether this is a good thing (carbon tax) or a bad thing (segregated streetcars) is an independent question.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to bluntobject
                Ignored
                says:

                Hmmm, maybe we don’t mean the exactly same thing. I need to think more on it  before responding.

                As an aside every time I see THAT name all I can think of is graffiti “Eric Crampton is GOD!”Report

              • Avatar bluntobject in reply to Roger
                Ignored
                says:

                I think we’re coming at the same point from different directions.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to bluntobject
              Ignored
              says:

              The structure of the imagined radical-libertarian system might be functionally indistinguishable from the one we currently have, but the scope of that system is radically diminished. 

              That’s an important point.  I’d like to see a constitutional amendment that effectively prevents government from creating regulations that rig the market in favor of any particular interest–only truly general regulations that don’t have either the intent or purpose of creating barriers to entry for potential competitors would pass muster.  Such an amendment would leave the structure of our government unchanged, but would dramatically limit its scope.

              Of course I could be pedantic and say it would be “functionally” distinguishable from our current system because a major function of our current system is rigging the system to benefit favored interests.  But I don’t think he was meaning to use the term “functional” in that way, so I’ll just throw that out there as snark about our current system.Report

  12. Avatar E.D. Kain
    Ignored
    says:

    This is another one of those remarkable comment threads that becomes daunting once you step away from it for a while. Kudos all around.Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *