Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Do You Mean 'We' White Man?

I've been beating up on the discipline of economics for a while now, and I think for good reason.  The doctrine of austerity is a classic example of an economic idea that has caused a great deal of human suffering all over the world that seems very hard to get rid of.  Lots of people have looked at this problem in technical terms, hence trying to lay the blame at the feet of a excel coding error.  But I've always thought that while this example is important, it hardly explains everything.

Paul Krugman has been arguing for a while that psychology is a big factor in the continuation of the cult of austerity.  Particularly the idea that recessions and unemployment are a form punishment for a collective "us" that we deserve for our past transgressions.  In fact, the other day in The New Republic Michael Kinslay came out and said just this:
I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be.
When I read that, I was immediately struck by the old Mad Magazine joke, "What do you mean 'we' white man?"

This use of the "Royal We" to describe how "we" need to sacrifice is both incredible arrogant and incredibly misinformed.  It is arrogant because it of course doesn't call for sacrifices for everyone in society, just those unlucky enough not to wield clout on Capitol Hill.   Cuts to unemployment and food stamps caused by the sequester resulted in nary a peep out of austerians, but when the same sequester caused a potential increase in flight delays at airports in New York and Washington everyone was outraged, and we of course acted without delay to keep that foul scourge from the land.  It is also misinformed because it assumes that no one is already paying the price for a sluggish recovery made much worse by austerity over the last few years.  While unemployed people see their job prospects and potential life time earning power diminish every day, we are told we need more sacrifice, as if no one is sacrificing already.

Kinslay's moralizing helps nobody, least of all the people who are already suffering the effects of the ideology he is promoting.  Sure he calls for raising taxes on the rich, but in that same paragraph says, "The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians."  Despite it's shrinking nature, despite it's stagnant or falling incomes (in a time of a record stock market and an all time high of corporate profits) and despite the fact that the middle class is increasingly unable to reproduce itself, it is still to blame.  A coddled child in need of a good beating to teach it a lesson.  The idea that the debate austerity going on right now is about economics or "Economics" is increasingly looking absurd, if it ever wasn't. 

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