Tuesday, June 29, 2010

To serve, protect, and/or scare the hell out of

Birchibald T. Barlow: But suppose for a second that your house was ransacked by thugs, your family tied up in the basement with socks in their mouths, you try to open the door but there's too much blood on the knob-

Mayor Quimby: Ah, er, what is your question?

Barlow: My question is about the budget, sir.

The Simpsons, "Sideshow Bob Roberts"

The government of Sacramento County, California (Hat tip to Hit and Run), like many government bodies in that state, needs to cut spending somewhere. When it was suggested, in light of the fact that Sacramento's murder rate is the lowest it's been in decades, that part of the cuts needed to make up the county's $180 million might come out of law enforcement spending, the sheriff's deputies union decided to skip any attempt at anything even vaguely resembling rational discourse and responded with an ad campaign that included, well, this:

The ad, put out by the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriff's Association, shows a terrified-looking young girl with a large, burly arm and hand wrapping around her and clamping over her mouth. Below the image in large text are the words "Your child's safety is at risk!", followed by a few sentences in smaller print about an ominous upcoming budget meeting.

While the image as a whole is about as subtle as a shotgun blast in the face, when looked at in parts it's also a model of the use of subtly reinforcing details that create an aura of fear, helplessness, despair, and corruption. The girl's panicked eyes are tilted so far back in her head that's she seems to be looking almost straight up, suggesting the towering size of her attacker. Her own hands are partially visible, pitifully small , pushing against the hand and arm of her attacker in a clearly futile attempt at resistance. His index finger is just below her nostrils, and his thumb is poised pincer-like just above them, moments away from stopping her breath.

The assailant's hand and arm is the only part of him visible on camera, and the dark material of his shirt sleeve against the dark background makes the hand look almost disembodied. His evil is intangible, sourceless, omnipresent, and literally faceless, seemingly striking from nowhere. At the same time, the hair on the back of his hand is dark and fairly dense, his veins and knuckles bulge, his skin is rough, and his fingernails are dirty-looking; he is crude, animalistic, and brutishly masculine, especially when juxtaposed with the girl's pristine fragility.

Even the letters of the ad's dire warning, white text on a black background, look gritty, damaged, stained, and besieged. The white is irregularly speckled with little black dots that get more common the closer you get to the letter's edge, and at the outer borders of some of the letters are larger black marks and splotches that seem to be in the opening stages of invading or consuming the words.

I'm quite accustomed to public employee unions treating their budget as some sort of inalienable patrimony that ought to exist independently of the community's actual needs, and of responding to the prospect of budget cuts with hysterical threats about the catastrophe that will ensue if they are no longer kept in the manner to which they are accustomed. Similarly, images of children in peril or vulnerable-looking females being sexually menaced is hardly unknown in political propaganda. Nevertheless, this is the first time I've seen an argument over personnel cuts reach the point of "Here's a photo of what it will look like when your daughter is kidnapped, raped, and probably murdered because you reduced our budget." The centrality of hysterical fear in politics is something I've become pretty inured to over the years, so it comes as a surprise to discover that I can still be surprised by this sort of thing.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Paul Craig Roberts has a nice article at Counterpunch on the Left and gun control. This is something that has had me shaking my head for years. I find myself baffled by the mentality of someone who believes that:

1. The government is controlled by a malevolent cabal of greedy corporate plutocrats who seek to exploit and oppress us, and

2. Only police and the military should have guns. Police and military personnel who work for the government. The one that's controlled by a malevolent cabal of greedy corporate plutocrats who seek to exploit and oppress us.

Then again, these are largely the same people who think that the only thing that can save us us from the malevolent cabal of etc. etc. is giving greater power over society in general to the government. It truly is bizarre, when you think about it- there's generally a strong positive correlation in America between the belief that the government is controlled by some despicable cabal that has pulled the wool over most of the country's eyes and the belief that that same government should have more power than it currently does, because that will somehow solve the problem.

My guess is that this is what happens when the standard-issue public school civics textbook view of politics- we are the government, modern managerial liberalism is the best of all possible worlds, powerful government is inherently antithetical to powerful moneyed interests who would otherwise eat us all alive, and so on- collides with reality hard enough to be bent, but not hard enough to be broken. The evidence that the government is not what good-government liberalism advertises it to be becomes too much to deny. Too much happens that, according to this worldview, doesn't or can't happen, and it's too pervasive to write off as minor glitches and imperfections in a good system.

And yet at the same time, the belief that interventionism and the institutions of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and so on protect people from rapacious businessmen is too deeply rooted to challenge; it is the core of almost all mainstream politic. "Hostile to big business" is implicitly treated as part of the definition of economic interventionism. Thus, the idea that the government institutions beloved of progressives actually help rather than hinder the wealthy and powerful, or that owners and managers of big corporations could actually want more regulation rather than less, seems to strike many people as not merely untrue or unbelievable but nonsensical, if they're exposed to it at all.

Put the two together, and the result is an incoherent worldview in which the existing government can change from good to evil and back again in an instant. My favorite example is probably campaign finance "reform": Things are bad because the government is controlled by evil, greedy special interests, so we should solve the problem by passing laws giving the government greater power to control who can contribute money to political efforts and what can be said during elections, thereby driving out the special interests... and this will work because the government that enacts, enforces, and interprets those laws is controlled by We the People and exists to promote the common good. It only makes sense if America has two effectively indistinguishable federal governments that somehow exist side by side simultaneously, one good and one evil.

(Or if reform is so powerful that its effects can actually travel back in time, and thereby prevent the special interests pulling the government's strings from using campaign reform's powers for evil by destroying them in the past, before the reform's own creation. Our current understanding of physics does not rule out the theoretical possibility of time travel, so this arguably has a better chance of success than most liberal projects.)

It's quite a testament to how powerful the myth of the democratic interventionist state as defender of the common man has become. How many kings, oligarchs, and despots of past ages could boast that even most of the people who hated them were passionately dedicated to pushing more power into their hands?

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Not actual opposition to plutocracy, but an incredible simulation

America's political culture and national self-image romanticizes the underdog, the rebel, the Common Man, the Little Guy, the bold voice speaking against the powerful. Thus, in any endeavor to use the force of government in the pursuit of wealth, privilege, and power, it helps to have some sympathetic people who fit or at least resemble that description in the vicinity. It always makes me chuckle when some earnest statist claims that libertarians are the dupes or tools of greedy businessmen, and part of the reason for that is nicely illustrated by this story from my home state of Illinois.

MUNDELEIN, Ill.—Robert Brownson long believed that his proposed development here, with its 200,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter, was being held hostage by nearby homeowners.

He had seen them protesting at city hall, and they had filed a lawsuit to stop the project. What he didn't know was that the locals were getting a lot of help. A grocery chain with nine stores in the area had hired Saint Consulting Group to secretly run the antidevelopment campaign...

P. Michael Saint... is founder of Saint Consulting Group, which specializes in using political-campaign tactics to build support for or against developments. Many of its efforts to block projects are clandestine.

As Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has grown into the largest grocery seller in the U.S., similar battles have played out in hundreds of towns like Mundelein. Local activists and union groups have been the public face of much of the resistance. But in scores of cases, large supermarket chains including Supervalu Inc., Safeway Inc. and Ahold NV have retained Saint Consulting to block Wal-Mart...

Supermarkets that have funded campaigns to stop Wal-Mart are concerned about having to match the retailing giant's low prices lest they lose market share...
In Mundelein, a town of 35,000 about 20 miles northwest of Chicago, it was Supervalu, a national grocer based in Eden Prairie, Minn., that hired Saint to work behind the scenes, according to Saint documents. Supervalu's objective was to block Wal-Mart from competing with its nine Jewel-Osco supermarkets located within three to ten miles of the proposed shopping center...

Mr. Saint... founded his firm 26 years ago. It specializes in using political-campaign tactics—petition drives, phone banks, websites—to build support for or against controversial projects...

For the typical anti-Wal-Mart assignment, a Saint manager will drop into town using an assumed name to create or take control of local opposition, according to former Saint employees...

Safeway, a national chain based in Pleasanton, Calif., retained Saint to thwart Wal-Mart Supercenters in more than 30 towns in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii in recent years...
The article goes on to discuss the methods used by Saint's company to delay or block the construction of stores that would compete with the company's clients, frequently revolving around the creation, funding, and control of ostensibly grassroots organizations whose rank-and-file members are ignorant of where their leadership and funding is actually coming from. It also describes some specific examples, including a darkly humorous, Peter Sellers-esque account of Saint's company creating a front group of local citizens in Pennsylvania to block a proposed Wal-Mart on behalf of competitor Giant Food Stores, and then having to suddenly destroy it's own creation when Giant's parent company decided to build its own enormous store on a site directly opposite the lot where the Wal-Mart would have gone.

Arguing ad hominem is a logical fallacy, and the fact that a political cause is supported by and serves the financial interests of a national retail giant with over $40 billion in yearly revenue that wants to use government power to block competition doesn't prove that the cause is wrong. This stiory does, however, nicely illustrate the nature of the lie on which so much of modern politics is built.

One of our great cultural myths in America is that of heroic, public-spirited struggle waged by plucky grassroots bands of We the People against the depredations and greed of some Heartless Corporation. The reality is much less romantic: The heroic struggles between Concerned Citizens and Greedy Plutocrats lionized in our civic mythology and in mainstream accounts of history are in fact usually, at best, battles between Greedy Plutocrat A and Greedy Plutocrat B, in which one side or the other is just better at finding frontmen and dupes. Frequently it doesn't even rise to that level, where the Concerned Citizens are at least actually hurting the target of their ire, and instead serves the purpose of aiding the very companies or industry being righteously railed against at the expense of the general public. (Kevin Carson's work is a valuable resource on this sort of thing.)

My favorite recent example of this principle at work is the controversy over net neutrality, and the way that controversy is usually framed. Opposed to net neutrality, we are told, are the big, greedy telecommunications companies like Comcast, who will choke off the free flow of information unless the government saves us from them. They are opposed by a plucky band of grassroots freedom fighters... Well, a plucky band of grassroots freedom fighters and various multibillion dollar corporations that stand to benefit financially from net neutrality, like Google (revenue of $23.6 billion in 2009), Amazon.com ($24.5 billion in 2009), eBay ($8.7 billion) and Sony ($78 billion). Again, the fact that various business interests are on your side for their own self-interested reasons doesn't mean that you're wrong, but it does mean that the story is more complicated than what many people like to believe.

There are good criticisms to be made of internet service providers, which are frequently the beneficiaries of government-granted monopolies or other governmental barriers to competition. If ISPs really are in a position to harm consumers by controlling what their customers can access online and are likely to take advantage of that, as neutrality advocates claim, freeing the market for internet services would break these monopolies and deal with the problem.

But the fact that current ISPs are the creatures of state intervention is seldom discussed, and it's not hard to see why. Government-enforced uniformity of bandwidth pricing would benefit big players like Google and Amazon.com, who would be natural targets if ISPs started to engage in price discrimination and don't want to see telecommunications companies taking a slice of their pie. Deregulation of ISPs, on the other hand, would benefit (aside from consumers) small internet firms currently being blocked from trying to compete with the big monopolies in many markets, and companies that do not currently exist but would if regulations were not hostile to entrepreneurs entering the market- in other words, it would benefit people who don't have deep pockets or political muscle or executives who get invited to Presidential galas in return for big donations.

Combine that with many people's kneejerk "The government must fix it" response to any potential problems and the prejudices and self-interest pervasive among politicians, intellectuals, and the media, and it's not surprising that few if any of the people and organizations oh-so-concerned about the possible depredations of companies like Comcast show interest in actually going after the source of their power, and that only "solutions" that increase government power are proposed and agitated for.

Similarly, there are certainly good criticisms to be made of Wal-Mart, such as the company's use of eminent domain and the fact that it's market share has probably been inflated by the way many government regulations disproportionately hurt smaller firms, but the vast majority of the store's critics never use arguments like that. They can't, since their ideology is based around the belief that the interventionist state is a good thing and simply can't process the idea that it might be the problem and not the solution, or that it could be the ally of powerful business interests and not their enemy. Instead we get a relentless torrent of economic ignorance, elitism, xenophobia, and class snobbery.

The story of "progressive" and populist politics in the United States is, at its core, a story of fake rebellion, dressing up the strengthening and enrichment of privileged interests as a battle to protect the weak and vulnerable from the strong. The central delusion of modern statism- that the concentrated coercive power of the state can be trusted to protect the weak and restrain the strong- ensures that it will remain so.

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