« Why Didn't He Just Quit? | Main | links for 2007-07-17 »

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"Government Will Have To Be Rebuilt"

Jamie Galbraith is not taking any prisoners in his review of two books, Consumed by political theorist Benjamin Barber and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by environmentalist Bill McKibben:

The Sins of Affluence, by James K. Galbraith, Washington Monthly: Overwritten does not begin to describe Consumed, in which Benjamin Barber takes aim at kid culture, mass market juvenilia, and the infantilization of just about everything in American life. A political theorist ... at the University of Maryland, ...[Barger is the] author of sixteen books, including the best-selling Jihad vs. McWorld.... Barber is determined that Paradise has been Lost. ...

Consumed is..., to some degree, an instance of the problem it describes. Barber serves up some of the longest sentences since Proust, yet underneath is largely a simple moral tale, an allegory not more complicated than, say, social Darwinism or Horatio Alger.

Infantilization exists, of course. Dumbing down is big business. In a rare moment of syntactic simplicity, Barber gives the basic contours of the culture: “EASY over HARD, SIMPLE over COMPLEX, and FAST over SLOW.” The stages of capitalism reproduce the stages of physical and psychological development, except in reverse. We are trapped in a world dominated by the reduction of physical and cultural artifacts to the tastes and capacities of children. Fast food, fast sports, cheap love, shout-fest politics. No one with cable television could disagree.

And there are pleasures to be found in this relentless, one-message book. ... But you have to search for these gems, buried as they are in a vast bog of pop sociology and commonplace erudition.... One gets the picture very quickly: Standards have fallen. Yes! We know!

The question is, what are we going to do about it? ... Almost fifty years ago, in The Affluent Society, my father wrote about this problem, which he defined as “private affluence and public squalor.” His solution was “social balance”: public goods, including schools and parks and libraries and higher culture. Liberalism stood ... against corporate dominance, business thinking, and commercial culture. And it was backed by the power of trade unions, of churches, and of the educational and scientific estate.

Barber offers no similar recourse. Everything he would do, he would do through markets, not against them or by bringing them under control. He speaks mainly of the “slow food” movement, of Hernando de Soto’s property-rights-for-the-poor and of the Grameen Bank’s micro-lending programs, each of these ... presupposing that markets can be as much a force for good in principle as they are presently a force for ill in practice. ... The New Deal and the Great Society are not Barber’s antecedents. He seeks merely the willed capacity to conduct one’s own life beyond the reach of mass culture, and offers the wishful thought that sensible people, each acting alone, will somehow manage to do just that. Good luck. ...

Environmentalist Bill McKibben is a better, shorter writer, and in Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future he shows himself to be an adept critic of capitalism writ large. That is because McKibben, unlike Barber, drills into the fundamental question of the planet’s physical limits. (The term “climate change” does not appear in Consumed...) For as McKibben points out, the carbon blanket—a “mirror image in the sky” of every drop of oil, every ton of coal ever burned—will change everything, and quite soon.

So what comes next?

Climate change and peak oil ... are inevitable; we will have to scale back. But McKibben has hope, founded improbably on an emerging field within—of all subjects—economics: happiness studies. Here researchers have found (and McKibben accepts) that happiness does not depend on economic growth, after the first $10,000 per capita in GDP. So McKibben sets out to find happiness in simpler, less eco-destructive lives. ...

[A] sphere that both McKibben and Barber largely ignore ...[is] public policy. The function of the government, in principle, is to foresee these dangers, and avert them. The powers of the government exist to permit the mobilization of resources required. And only government can hope to do the job.

This is bleak news not only in the present climate of thought, but also given the decay of the public sphere since at least 1981. Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bush’s FEMA, is no one’s idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of government—the turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanatics—has been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.

Therefore: government will have to be rebuilt. The competencies necessary will have to be learned. The necessary powers will have to be legislated. Safeguards—against corruption, against abuse, against predation, against regulatory capture—will have to be designed. The corporate consumer culture will have to be brought to heel...

At the same time, a new project of physical, technological, and urban social engineering will have to get under way. I’d rather it didn’t. But, to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, “There is no alternative.”...

    Posted by on Tuesday, July 17, 2007 at 01:08 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (32)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Government Will Have To Be Rebuilt":


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.