Friday, December 24, 2004

Depressing reading

Blue state reading for me these last few days. First, Tom Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, the false-consciousness account of the far right revolution in the red states. Since, in my legal academic circles, economics-based thinking and ideas such as free trade are widely accepted on the left and right alike, it is a bit peculiar to read something viewing them as so obviously false that (a) no arguments need be made against them, and (b) they can only be held by deliberate stooges or the nearly insane. Frank seems to think that if, for example, you see a US factory closing somewhere because the multinational owner opens a plant in Indonesia instead, it is blind free market ideology to think that the net long term effect on US jobs might be zero [wages admittedly are a more complex matter], yet that it is simple down-home common sense to assume that NO jobs are gained elsewhere in the US. In other words, Frank thinks he does not have or need a theoretical view about how the overall labor market operates, whereas in fact he both needs one and has one that is likely to be wrong in key respects.
The basic false consciousness theory is of greater interest, however. That is, his view that the people being harmed by Bush-style economic policies (which of course in many cases are not free market at all) are being duped by "social issues" red meat, designed to lead nowhere but to an endless cycle of grievance, into favoring their oppressors and deflecting all blame to a powerless bunch of fall guys who are basically the heirs to the centuries-old anti-Semitic Christian stereotype of Jews (updated to apply to the likes of John Kerry). What gives this argument some credibility is the fact that it has happened so many times before, centuries of European anti-Semitism being one example and red state Bush Republicanism's twin and covert ally (since the two are good for each other in home politics), Bin Ladenism in the Islamic world, being another.
I am now in the middle of Imperial Hubris, by Anonymous (aka Michael Scheuer), which is if anything even more disconcerting, especially if one lives in one of the places that might actually be attacked again by Al Qaeda. (The Bush argument in the 2004 election that only he could protect us from terrorism was pitched 100% to people in states who knew with utter certainty that the places where they live will never be attacked. These people are having fun endorsing what they think is general butt-kicking, including torture, because they know full well that they are playing with the house money, since only their hated blue state brethren will pay for their spree.)
The basic point of this book, written by a leading CIA official who I believe was recently purged, is that we have already lost in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and are mostly losing everywhere else as well, due to the grotesque ignorance of our policymakers about known facts on the public record concerning the places where we are enmeshing ourselves and the people we are fighting, relying on, bribing, trying to bully, etc. This goes back before the current President Bush, however; e.g., the Clinton Administration should have had a plan in place to decapitate Al Qaeda in Afghanistan on September 12. The book suggests, though not expressly arguing in what I have read so far, that neither instituionally nor politically and ideologically in the US is there any potential to do a better job of realistically advancing our undoubted long-term interests in peace and prosperity.

23 comments:

PCTAX said...
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PCTAX said...

This blog rocks! Wanted to see some more fireworks, though, so here goes nothing:

I should think that the fact that Tom Frank's work is so completely dogmatic and superficial regarding central issues of trade and distribution would indicate to our blogger that similar infirmities permeate the hastily published diatribe. I can only assume that our blogger WOULD respect the Kansas folks' choice of Crest over Colgate (even though the blogger might think that only serious tooth brusher’s use Colgate) for purposes of public policy choice. It seems therefore a bit strained that our blogger would even buy a book premised on the denial of preferences explicitly stating policy choices. In any event, so-called "false-consciousness" is a pernicious canard. Its metaphysics are completely untenable (presumably, our blogger is NOT a neo-Marxist (he's at NYU, right, not the New School!?)) and its application is the crudest form power politics.

The stark reality is (and as the book The Right Nation demonstrates) that this country is deeply conservative. This fact, however, has taken at least this commentator many years to come to terms with.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Yes, I am uncomfortable with false consciousness theories, and take your point that the crudity of Frank's trade and distribution analysis may indicate broader problems with his thesis. I read the book because I am distressed by the turn in US politics, which I see less in Frank's terms than as reflecting Islamist-style xenophobia out of the heartland that is directed both at foreigners and at NYers et al. But this makes it more a tribal impulse than an example of manipulation by Frank's corporate masterminds.

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