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The US on suicide watch: Death by 'moderation'

How rational problem-solving has ceased to be "serious" among US elites.

Last Modified: 22 Mar 2013 09:18
Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
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Newt Gingrich, upon becoming Speaker of the House in 1995, spent time disabling "reality checks", says author [AFP]

The United States is on the verge of committing suicide. Slow suicide, perhaps, which may take decades to fully play out, but suicide nonetheless. The proximate event is the sequester - deep across-the-board cuts to military and discretionary domestic spending, originally conceived as a Sword of Damocles, but which Tea Party-dominated Republicans now see as just the perfect budget axe. And that's just one of several successive and mostly recurring crisis points at which Republicans are obstinantly demanding deep budget cuts that will inevitably slow, if not cripple the already weak economy - as well as debilitating or destroying vital government functions in the long run.

This comes at a time when there's actually a staggering need to vastly expand the scope of government action to deal with multiple looming threats of environmental catastrophe - not to mention previously intolerable levels of unemployment, and a crumbling infrastructure. Climate change is just the most prominent of such environmental threats - not just to the United States, but to the continued existence of advanced industrial civilisation as a whole - which the US can't even begin to rationally grapple with as long as anti-government ideology blocks even the most common sense actions on well-understood problems. A super-power whose highways are cracking and bridges are falling down, and which then responds by slashing spending cannot be long for this world. If it staggers on for a few more decades, that's nothing compared to the centuries that the Roman Empire endured, much less the millenia of dynastic Egypt's glory.

If markets actually worked in practice the way that they do in the simplest of textbook examples, GOP plans to radically slash government spending might not be so problematic. But realworld markets not only go into crippling crises, like the Great Depression or its still-enduring younger brother, they also fail to meet important human needs. Indeed, as conservative German economist Adolph Wagner noted in the late 19th century, the wealthier a nation becomes, the more it turns to non-market governmnet spending to meet needs that markets simply fail to meet. This observation was made well before the widespread rise of mass democratic government in the 20th century which underlay the rise of the modern welfare throuhgout the Western world. Thus, the practice of state spending to enhance the general welfare has deep historical and empirical foundations, and the sort of endless cutting that GOP now demands is nothing short of a suicidal policy for any would-be modern nation-state. The US already spends far less in the way of government social spending than most other advanced industrial nations - 16 percent of GDP compared to 20 percent for Norway, Britain and the Netherlands, 25 percent for Germany and Finland, 26 percent for Austria, Belgium and Denmark, 27 percent for Sweden and 28 percent for France, according to the OECD - and GOP plans would slash current spending significantly below where we are today.

'Sequestration' : A term unclear to many in US

Centrist enablers

The culprit here, however, is not just GOP extremism - which is, after all, wildly unpopular - but rather the morally feckless elite centrists who enable them by obscuring what they're up to, and by painting the Democrats are equally to blame, no matter what the Democrats do, short of capitulating completely.

Slates's Matthew Yglesias has recently captured the essenial cognitive trick by which centrist ideology rationalises itself by blaming the (relatively, at least) blameless:

[S]eriousness can refer both to the merits of an initiative or to its political viability. So scrapping the minimum wage in favor of a Guaranteed Basic Income isn't a serious proposal, since obviously it stands zero chance of passing Congress.

Once you embrace the Principle of Seriousness, the way is clear for rigorous BipartisanThink. If the parties fail to agree because one party is being unreasonable and the other party is failing to cater to their unreasonable demands, then the apparently reasonable party is in fact failing to be serious. After all, a serious proposal is one that stands a chance of passing. Reasonable proposals will not pass a Congress in which one party is being unreasonable, so by definition the Principle of Seriousness allocates the blame equally to both sides. Balance is restored to the Force.

This passage captures the essence of "seriousness" perfectly. But it says nothing about how or why we got here, or where it will lead - all vitally important topics to consider, but impossible to focus on accurately as long as we're subjected to the rule of "serious" discourse. For now, we need to tease out a few more points from Yglesias's insight.

Serious and viable

Let's begin by noting that what he's described is a form of fallacious reasoning, specifically, the fallacy of equivocation, in which one word is used with two different meanings. In its most basic form, one meaning is replaced by another: "Feathers are light; black is dark; therefore no feathers are black". Or "Nothing is better than eternal salvation. A ham sandwich is better than nothing. Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than eternal salvation". You don't have to observe a dietary law against eating pork to see something fishy about such "logic". But what Yglesias is describing is a less patently ridiculous form, in which the two different meanings are essentially welded together - without, of course, acknowledging what has been done.

Yet, the fundamental fact remains: the basis of what's going on here is a commonplace logical fallacy. That alone is reason enough to reject it out of hand - but not to understand how and why it works. And so we continue with three more points teased out from Yglesias's insight:

  1. If unreasonable positions ensure that the other side gets equal blame in the centrist's scorekeeping and resulting media coverage, then they are inherently "can't lose" positions. This provides a basic floor which biases the entire process against being reasonable.
  2. If some sort of action is eventually necessary (as it is with budget issues, and most other governmental questions as well), then the unreasonable side - which by definition cares less (perhaps not at all) about real-world consequences - has an increasing advantage the longer that the issue remains unresolved, thus further motivating them to remain unreasonable. If they start at 50 percent (equal blame), things only get better for them over time, as the blame burdern remains constant, but the cost pressure to do something rises much more accurately on the reasonable side.
  3. The realm of conceivable alternatives is heavily skewed to the unreasonable side, for at least two main reasons identifiable as distinct forms of bias. First off, there's an enormous gap between what sounds reasonable initially and what can actually work - as any inventor, engineer, or even songsmith knows. If there's no workability test, then the fantasy-based side can crank out alternatives far faster and more easily than the reality-based side can ever dream of. Secondly, because of the bias against "politically unviable" ideas, there is a prohibitive bias against reasonable alternatives that might respond to claims, complaints or positions of the unreasonable side, and thus exert pressure on them to respond, change, or even yield. 

A classic example of this second bias against reasonable alternatives is the Progressive Caucus's repeated offerings (2011, 2012) of a budget that would balance in ten years - unlike Ryan's - provide pro-growth investments for the future, preserve popular welfare state programmes, and include a diverse mix of tax increases that still leave tax burderns well below historic highs. The Progressive Caucus budgets have been routinely ignored, despite having significant support (read about their most recent offering, an alternative to the sequester here - when people were polled on it, it swamped the competition, even edging out the GOP plan among Republicans). The obvious "reason" is that they have no chance of being passed by intransigent Republicans - ie, "they are not serious" in the "politically viable" sense. But, of course, they are serious in the "solves the budget deficit" sense - which the Republican's Ryan budgets never have been before now (his 2011 version balanced the budget in 2063 and his 2012 version balanced it in 2040 - despite deceptive claims to the contrary, neither accomplished any significant deficit reduction in the first ten years). If the Beltway media had initially decided that actually solving problems ought to be given a high priority, then the Progressive Caucus budgets would have gotten vastly more coverage, Ryan's would have been laughed off-stage and - voila! - the Progressive Caucus budgets would magically become "serious" in the "politically viable" sense as well.

Disallowing frivolity

So why is the discussion dominated by a non-solution while a real solution can't even be discussed? It's because the "politically viable" sense of serious totally dominates over the "pragmatically effective" sense of the word, and because what is politically viable is circularly defined: extremist Republican non-solutions are politically viable because Republicans adamantly insist that they are, no matter how laughable they may be - and centrist bipartisan ideologues routinely and reliably endorse their false claims as matters of fact when they do so. The fact that they aren't even remotely serious, in the problem-solving sense, never even enters the picture.

Inside Story Americas
America's fiscal turbulence

One further point. There is a dynamic, deceptive cross-over effect, in which one meaning of serious - politically viable - masquerades as the other, providing a pragmatic real-world solution. Indeed, this is very essense of the deception involved. After all, the game could not even get started if, from the beginning, we disallowed ideas that don't solve the problem at hand. Historically, the US used to do a decent job of screening out such ideas, up until 1995, when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. On taking power, Gingrich devoted a great deal of energy and attention to resructuring the House to disable reality checks, as independent conservative Bruce Bartlett has explained, including downsizing or eliminating centres of staff expertise and abolishing the Office of Technology Assessment. That's how Gingrich helped create the world in which Paul Ryan thrives.

Code talkers

There is another way to understand the confusion of meaning about "serious" policy aside from seeing it as a fallacy, and that is to see it as involving a form of "code-switching". Code-switching refers to a linguistic practice of bilingual speakers switching from one language to another. There are various different schools of thought about the what, why and how of code-switching, but nobody doubts that it's a widespread phenomenon among bilingual speakers. And linguists don't only use it to refer to switching between different languages. Code-switching is also used to describe how African-Americans may switch from an informal, "down-home" to a more formal, professionalised mode of speech.

Given this sense of code-switching, it doesn't seem to be much of stretch to consider wonkish economic policy talk, for example, as one mode of speech, and sports-metaphor-driven conflictual power-politics talk - extensively critiqued in James Fallows' 1996 Breaking The News, for example - as another. From this perspective, what I've described above as a logical fallacy appears instead as a switching point, from one mode to the other. But, of course, there's a sense in which both modes are conginually operative, just as bilingual speakers are continually able to understand one another and to respond in either language. Because both understandings remain operative throughout - at least potentially - one cannot pretend that the fallacy "goes away" somehow, it merely gets submerged. This example of code-switching has an inherently deceptive quality and purpose to it, but it can be examined in terms that allow study and comparison with other examples, other situations where this need not be the case.

For example, in one theory, Wikipedia explains:

The Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT), developed by Howard Giles, professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seeks to explain the cognitive reasons for code-switching, and other changes in speech, as a person seeks either to emphasize or to minimize the social differences between him- or herself and the other person(s) in conversation. Prof. Giles posits that when speakers seek approval in a social situation they are likely to converge their speech with that of the other person speaking. This can include, but is not limited to, the language of choice, accent, dialect, and para-linguistic features used in the conversation. In contrast to convergence, speakers might also engage in divergent speech, with which an individual person emphasizes the social distance between him- or herself and other speakers by using speech with linguistic features characteristic of his or her own group.

This might be seen in the situation described above like this: divergent speech that emphasises social distance is the language of conflict - specifically, in this case, class conflict: upper vs all the rest (but portrayed as middle vs under). This is what's used the moment any talk of raising taxes is involved. Convergant speech is dispassionate wonk talk, relatively drained of emotion - as well as inconvenient facts. The perversity of the situation is that conflictual language is used to exclude the interests and priorities of the large majority of the American people, while the dispassionate wonk talk is used to create a bipartisan elite concensus that fundamentally excludes just those interests and priorities. That's how you create an "expert" discourse of very serious people who are utterly out of touch with the world they are guiding to catastrophe.

Which is, of course, exactly how the financial crises was created in the first place. Not to mention the Iraq War. This is how US elites operate nowadays - not just in one field of politics, but all across the board. Problem-solving and argument-winning have become two entirely antagonistic activities, and "moderate" "centrist" "bipartisanship" has become the creation of such profound confusion that the voting public won't catch on until it's far, far too late.

This is how empires die. It is the exact opposite of how republics thrive.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weeklyand Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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