Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kindness, the Social Contract and Gilliam

(Great Depression-era photo.)

The Republican Party has blocked an essential jobs bill, and as usual the media has struggled to report these events accurately. The aim of the G20 seems to be figuring out how to make average people pay for the screw-ups of the rich. Peter G. Peterson and his pals have spent over one billion dollars trying to destroy Social Security and any sort of social safety net. Alan Simpson and other Beltway insiders are pushing the same thing. There's been some pushback, but not enough. Paul Krugman has been sounding the alarm for months now about a dangerous conventional wisdom on economics that defies all logic and could stall any recovery - or even create a full-fledged depression. (Brad DeLong and Robert Reich have been making the case, too.) And closer to home, too many good people are getting screwed.

You'd have to be pretty cloistered at this point not to know someone who's been hit by economic insecurity or who's faced unemployment recently. I think in general, the liberal blogosphere knows it all too well, and is trying to do something about it. The teabaggers may feel the pinch too, but they're mainly interested in scapegoating, and are backing the very same people who both got us into this mess and are trying to exacerbate it. (In contrast, liberals may swear a lot, but most are working so that even the obnoxious opposition gets health care, a decent education and a fair wage. Hey, it comes with the territory.) I'm concerned that not only is America a plutocracy, but it's getting worse. I don't see any average folks looking for a handout – just a fair deal. Investing in basic prosperity and other public goods – jobs, education, training, public transportation, public libraries and parks, pure research, the arts – not only makes life much richer, it stimulates the economy. The feudal model being pushed by many members of our ruling class isn't just immoral and a major step backward, it's a bad way to run a country. (Some smarter scumbags and more competent Machiavellis, please.)

Things aren't hopeless, and there are always specific actions to take locally, to support good work. There's working for worthy candidates, calling one's congresscritters and pushing specific bills. There's writing an insightful or cathartic piece, or doing any small act of kindness for a fellow human being. Hard work and talent are important, but luck and support play a larger role in "success" than the Randians will ever acknowledge. Good programs can help close the gap and provide a baseline of opportunity and prosperity. Individual gestures can aid a great deal. Driftglass and Blue Gal's most recent podcast discussed the concept of the Social Contract nicely. (I've been working on some posts on the same theme, actually.) Call it enlightened self-interest or common sense or basic fairness, but the Social Contract is a great idea that's been under attack since at least Nixon and Reagan. Saying it's worth fighting for is an understatement. It's absolutely essential. To quote from a 2006 article I've cited before, "Live at Your Own Risk":

[Jacob] Hacker observes that “Social Security, Medicare, private health insurance, traditional guaranteed pensions—all sent the same reassuring message: someone is watching out for you, all of us are watching out for you, when things go bad. Today, the message is starkly different: You are on your own.”...

Two other new books hit on similar themes from different angles. In All Together Now, Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, offers a trenchant critique of the economic, political and moral shortcomings of conservative social and economic policy that he dubs YOYO, or “you’re on your own.” He wittily contrasts them a progressive strategy that recognizes that “we’re in this together,”: WITT.

These ideas aren't foreign to the Obama administration, either, since Bernstein now works there. But certainly not everyone there, or in Congress, feels the same way. And Peterson and others will eagerly spend billions more to push their reigning mantras: "You're on your own" and "Screw you, I've got mine." They're never going to stop, and they won't be defeated without serious, sustained pressure.

That fight remains crucial, but the arts often capture the madness the best, so let's finish with Gilliam. Here's Tom Waits' great - and timely - monologue from The Fisher King:

Of course, sometimes even those eager to pucker will get laid off. And it's not in the nature of some to pucker.

It's not a coincidence, either, that Gilliam follows that scene with this magical one:

Moving over to Brazil, some types view basic competence as dangerous, and meritocracy may still be the most revolutionary ethos the world has ever seen:

Karma is a funny thing:

Like the man said, We're all in it together.

(Billboard from the film Brazil.)



libhom said...

There is a lot of legitimate anger out there. The left should be leading efforts to act against the individuals and institutions that are causing the pain that generates the anger. Instead, too many liberals and progressives are playing partisan Democratic politics despite the Democratic politicians governing like Republicans on matters of policy.

Arbitrista said...

I hadn't seen the Fisher King in years and had entirely forgotten that scene. Thanks for reminding me of it. Powerful stuff. I think the frustration for me and a lot of other liberal types is that the right road is so obvious (or at least which roads are the wrong ones) but our purported leaders can't be bothered to take it out of some mixture of cowardice and corruption. So what to do we do?

Cirze said...

Thanks for these reminders, Bat.

Dennis Kucinich is all over these guys (see his latest video about the billions of taxpayer dollars sent to Kabul that "disappeared" under Bush/Cheney's tutelage) and what I can't figure out is why the line isn't forming behind him - and quickly!

Imagine if every day one more major politician said, "Dennis is right about the massive fraud that is going on, and we've got to move to remedy this situation fairly and to expose those who are being paid to continue this charade."

In my dreams.


Love ya,