Radio commentary, March 13, 2010

Recovery watch

In a business cycle update, the grinding slog of a recovery continues. Last week, we learned that the job market looked got a little less bad in February than it was getting for most of 2009. On Friday, we learned that the retail sector had a not-bad February. Broad composite measures of the state of the U.S. economy, like the Conference Board’s Coincident Index and the Chicago Fed’s National Activity Index (CFNAI), are basically getting back to the zero line after deep collapses. Most measures, however, are behaving rather weakly by historical standards. The recovery is far less robust than the strong bounces seen in the mid-1970s and early 1980s; it’s looking much more like the anemic upturns we saw in the early 1990s and early 2000s. This is entirely consistent with the pattern of post-financial crises economies, which I’ve personally analyzed based on some taxonomies provided by the IMF.

We may start seeing some job growth any month now, but the numbers are likely to be small—which is why the sort of stimulus plan (“18 Million Jobs by 2012”) that Bob Pollin discusses later in this show is so important. If we were to achieve something like normal recovery/expansion job growth, it would take five or six years to recover all the jobs we’ve lost since 2007—and even mounting an average-speed recovery looks like a stretch. Political reality—meaning what political hacks, orthodox pundits, big capital, and the portion of public opinion bamboozled by these powerful sorts want—is aligned against a new jobs plan. But it doesn’t hurt to make noise, or as much noise as people like us can make.

Attacking “entitlements”

Actually, as I’ve been pointing out here for a while, elite opinion is rapidly lining up in favor of austerity, not stimulus. In a dreadful “news” piece in the Friday New York Times, correspondent Landon Thomas Jr. pivots off the Greek crisis to make some utterly bogus points about U.S. entitlement programs. The piece opens with a vignette of a Greek hairdresser who’s entitled to retire at 50 because of her daily exposure to noxious chemicals. The lesson drawn from this is that Greece will have to renounce this sort of thing if it wants to recover from its economic crisis. I don’t want to demean hairdressers or the risk of chemicals—I admire the former and worry about the latter—but there’s no doubt that the reporter and/or his editors decided to lead with this anecdote to bias the readers against generous social programs of any kind.

Sinister enough, but Thomas goes on to draw broader conclusions about retirement burdens facing the rest of Europe and the U.S. How many people are allowed to retire at 50 in the U.S.? Not many, except maybe except cops—but we’re supposed to revere cops, so they get a pass. To promote a bitter pill for Europe, Thomas quotes the work of Jagdish Gokhale for the Cato Institute, allegedly showing that a proper accounting for Greece’s future retirement burden would show that its debt burden is 875% of GDP, nearly eight times the present official accounting. Cato is a right-wing think tank that’s had it out for our Social Security system for years; almost nothing they say on this topic should be taken at face value. And Gokhale is a proponent of something called generational accounting, which tries to assign today’s debts to tomorrow children in the most sensationalistic ways. His 875% number is essentially an expression of how much Greece would have to set aside today to meet its pension obligations into an infinite future. No one has to do that. Tomorrow’s pensions can be paid by tomorrow’s taxpayers; they don’t have to be accounted for by today’s. But this technique can be used to scare people into submission.

Turning to the U.S., the Times corresondent compounds his sins by lumping together Social Security and Medicare into a single entitlements problem, a favorite trick of the austerity party. These are two entirely separate issues. Social Security has at worst a soluble problem, and may not have a problem at all. As I’ve been arguing for more than a decade, projections of the system’s purported bankruptcy assume depression levels of economic growth over the next 75 years, and also make preposterously gloomy demographic assumptions. No one ever questions these inputs, but almost everyone accepts the outputs. And the Medicare problem is a reflection of our insane health care financing system—a problem that Obamacare isn’t likely to fix. But all this worrywarting has the effect, deliberate or not, of trying to prepare the population for deep cuts in both programs. A Republican couldn’t get away with such cuts; it’s quite possible that a Democrat could. During the Clinton years, Monica Lewinsky saved us from Social Security privatization; Obama sadly doesn’t look like that kind of guy.

Disillusion report

Gallup reports that the share of Americans who are satisfied with the way things are going in this country—a standard polling question with a long history—is now at 19%. Readings below 20% are rare in this putatively happy country, and occur mainly during periods of hard economic times.

When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, satisfaction stood at 13%. In the heady early days of his presidency, this measure rose steadily into the mid-30s last spring and summer. It’s not given back almost all that gain—with the decline mostly the result of a 30-point drop among Democrats. Independents are off by 14 points, and Republicans, who never joined in with Obamania, are off by just 4.

So it looks like serious disillusion is setting in. In the run-up to the election, I’d hoped that this inevitable disillusion—the product of the loopy hopes of the Obamamaniacs colliding with the president’s fundamentally centrist politics—might be productive. Productive of insight into the nature of the capital-s System—that inequality, insecurity, and imperial violence aren’t the result of particular personalities or parties, but are deeply embedded in the structures of American life. But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way so far.

Devolution on the left

It’s come clear to me that the sequence of Bush and Obama has been very bad for the left side of the political spectrum. I’m not talking about hardcore types like me, who find the whole setup to be rotten. But I’m thinking of what we might call left-liberals—people who’d really like a more egalitarian and less violent world, and who don’t embrace market solutions to social problems and invading small countries in the name of human rights. During the Bush years, it got too easy to make fun of his illiteracy and idiot religiosity, too easy to make jokes about Dick Cheney’s aim with a shotgun or the man-sized safe in his office, too easy to blame plutocracy and bombing runs on a gang of Republican troglodytes. God knows they are troglodytes. But in a lot of ways, Obama is a more sinister leader. He’s charming, smooth, literate, and sophisticated, the opposite of a dope given the outbursts of rage like Bush. Yet he’s doing as much as Bush to coddle Wall Street and prosecute imperial wars. But do we see the kind of opposition to that agenda coming from the more respectable left that we saw in the Bush years? No. We see apologetics. We see The Nation magazine publishing the inanities of Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who urges us to give Obama a chance. A chance to do what? To continue to do pretty much what he campaigned for. And to make space for Harris-Lacewell’s new column, the editors of the liberal weekly cut back the space allotted to Alexander Cockburn. Though I’ve had my disagreements with Cockburn over the years, particularly with his doubts on climate change, he’s a real radical who writes with style and wit. Reading him in the 1970s and 1980s was a major influence on me, and I still admire him a lot. This editorial decision is a symptom of the kind of devolution going on on the liberal left.

So what’s going to be left of the left? A toxic mix of Obama apologists and 9/11 truthers? I hope we can do better than that.

8 Comments on “Radio commentary, March 13, 2010

  1. What about the TARPers, Henwood? And the P-PIPers? And the TALFers?

    People like yourself.

    The biggest problem of the self-styled left in Babylon, beyond its own lack of imagination, is its own capacity for SELF-delusion.

    And the suggestion that any cohesive movement can be launched while SUPPORTING free money for Goldman and AIG is the height of such madness.

  2. Shawn Redden, I’ve read your contributions to Lou Proyect’s list. They’re a disgrace. I’m actually surprised that Lou tolerates your presence.

  3. Very nice pieces. Same with the LBO #125 front page, back page and money page. You’re a roll these days.

  4. On the “Devolution of the Left”:

    I agree with you about Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who wrote a column recently waxing nostalgic about seeing Obama in his flipflops in Chicago (celebrities: they’re just like us!), but what about the increasing number of leftist intellectuals and journalists who are asserting their independence from such sentimental, personality-based politics?

    Here’s a list I’ve compiled of interesting, independent voices sort of from the left (or non-apologists for Obama):

    Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher, Alexander Cockburn, Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, Adolph Reed, Robert Scheer, Doug Henwood, Chris Hayes, Laura Flanders, Cenk Uygur, Cornel West, the folks at FAIR, Bill Moyers, Matt Taibi, Arianna Huffington (I know, but there it is), Raj Patel, Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman (and almost everyone invited on Democracy Now), Seymour Hersch, John MacArthur (and the crowd at Harper’s, including Scott Horton), Simon Johnson and many other economists (at least a couple of etc here if not ‘ad infinitum’)

    Now, you might not agree with these people on everything. I don’t know why you have a bee in your bonnet, for example, about Naomi Klein and Ralph Nader . . . I don’t agree with these people about everything either, but they’ve shown independence.

    Sometimes you make it sound like you’re the lone voice on the left making these arguments, but I would suggest that the above list is at least proof that there’s a foundation of strong voices to build on if we can stop the hair-splitting in-fighting. Let the Obamabot liberals like the political crowd at the New Yorker (especially Hendrik Hertzberg), some at The Nation, etc., go ahead and have their puny hearts broken by a brand.

    Just my two cents (which is about all I have these days)

  5. Weird you should include my name on a list of people I should pay more attention to! And later in the post I single out Alex Cockburn for praise. I admire Noam Chomsky, Adolph Reed, Matt Taibbi, Seymour Hersh, among others on the list, and have had the first three on the show multiple times.

    As for the “bee in my bonnet” about Klein and Nader – I’ve written about both of them at some length, and made clear what my problems with them are. They’re detailed, serious criticisms, made with argument and evidence and not bile. And also had good things to say about them too.

  6. Time just had an article from a Nation editor about the public mistrust of ‘elites’. And smooth talking reactionary David Brooks wrote a piece about a breakdown of ruling class consensus , called ‘the Power Elite’. Alienation by almost all measurements is higher than it’s ever been in our lifetimes. But without alternatives people can latch onto, we will just go down the road of barbarism.

  7. I would not lament Alexander Cockburn’s reduced role at the Nation.
    1) The Nation, under Katrina van den Heuvel, now is more aligned in its political culture by having a religious non-entity like M-HL opining.
    2) Alexander Cockburn went off the rails. His pro-climate denialism is not a small matter, but an egregious symptom of a terminal intellectual condition. Early left radicalism morphs into late libertarian conservatism. The pro-Palin, pro-militia, and now pro-Unz stuff is and was beyond appalling, yet most of his fans let it go because he was a proud warrior, and his other writing is so first-rate. However, to be so inflexible in defense of such rancid conservative hogwash is to end the story, for me ( I promise).
    3) The list of allegedly “independent” left journalists/politicians is sad. There are odd bedfellows there, and a whole lot of ascetic gurus, none of whom gather an ounce of social power.
    We are now the micrometer Left. There is nothing left to that once-proud name – time to start anew. This time, let’s shelve all the sitting-at-the-feet of “leaders.” Unfortunately, all we will do is tear each other down for having the gall to stand up. Witness any stupid comments section.

  8. Obama is the Tiger Woods of politics. He is setting progressive politics and the fight for racial justice back a generation. Because of this vacous fraud, it will very difficult for the next real progressive to be taken seriously. Also, by representing this essentially Eisenhower Republican as a radical, the extreme right continues to move the centre of American politcs their way. Speaking of elite opinion, look at the New Yorker piece on Geithner in the current issue. Keep up the good work.

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