Tacking against the country’s rightward course

Naked Capitalism is a great financial/economics blog written by Yves Smith. I consider it a must-read for anyone who is suspicious of the directions that the various financial system bailouts are taking.

But up until a post today, I didn’t realize that I shared her feelings on and take on recent American political history. I’m going to quote liberally (of course!) from it:

One of the things I find truly remarkable is the degree to which Americans (or at least commentary in pretty much all American media) have bought into certain ideological constructs as if they were gospel truth.

Now in fact, most of us operate from ideologies of various sorts. For instance, reasonable people can differ on the tradeoff between individual liberty versus greater social good, on efficiency versus fairness. But casting them as some sort of objective truth dulls thinking and impedes coming up with solutions.

It is also important to recognize how far the country has moved to the right in the last generation plus (when I was a kid, I considered myself to be pretty indifferent to politics, and middle of the road on most issues save civil liberties, where I was left leaning. My views have not changed, but the rest of the country has). Joe Klein (via Brad DeLong) is more pointed:

We are at the end of a 30-year period of radical conservatism, a period so right-wing that many of those now considered “liberals”–like, say, Barack Obama–would be seen as moderate pantywaists in the great sweep of modern political history. The past 30 years have… [seen] such a profound destruction of the basic functions of government that a major rectification is called for now–in rebalancing the system of taxation toward progressivity, in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, not just physically, but also socially and intellectually.

Again, reasonable people can differ on how much of a reversal is needed, but the sorry record of the Bush push even further right (and his big business corpocracy is a form of conservatism, even if it betrayed small government Republicans) means a retreat is in the cards.

Back to the beat of this blog. One of the canards that has become instilled over the last 20 plus years is “government is every and always awful, the private sector is every and always better.” There are some compelling illustrations of the former (the postal service versus Federal Express. But gee, we made the Post Office private, sort of, to fix that problem. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t made things better). There are also examples of competence, indeed high skill levels, in government. Would you want air traffic control in the hands of the private sector? I’m belatedly reading Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s The Black Swan, and he goes to great lengths to describe how defense analysts have a far greater appreciation of risk and the “unknown unknowns” that can create true disasters, than their vastly better paid counterparts in finance.

Recall that the “if you are in government, you must be no good” myth is based on the idea that government pay scales are no good, and everyone in America is motivated solely by money. The latter is clearly not true, and the inefficiency of the education and labor markets in the US mean that plenty of good people (in terms of native intelligence, work habits, and personality) may nevertheless not wind up on the social/educational tracks that could land them in big ticket jobs (of course, now that the economy is tanking, those less lucrative but more stable government tracks don’t look as shabby as they once did). I have run into way way too many people who had every bit as much to offer as the Ivy League types but for reasons of family background (where they went to high school, most often, since you need to go to a strong secondary school to have a shot at a top drawer private college) were unlikely to be accepted. And I have met plenty of people who went to fancy schools who are idiots.

In addition, I have had the pleasure of dealing with the occasional well run government department. New York City has a great housing office (phones answered quickly, information detailed, with reference to the statues and procedures, courteous manner) as well as the New York State Insurance Department (prompt action on correspondence, even agents making multiple calls to find answers and getting back to me in less than 24 hours. I seldom get that in the private sector). Admittedly, this is anecdotal, but the prejudice of the reverse sort is not based on much more. And that’s before we get into the considerable graft and waste involved in outsourcing.

I can identify with much of what she expresses:

  • That all of us have ideologies. What matters is whether we can transcend them from time to time.
  • That the country has shifted right, while my basic outlook didn’t shift too much. Three to four decades ago, I would have been one of those “pantywaist” liberals that Klein describes and that were lampooned by Phil Ochs on the Left. (Of course, the country didn’t just “shift” right. It was “shoved” by a radical, unrelenting conservative movement that demonized all of the beliefs I hold dear, until ultimately, it was too much for me to remain as I had been – “pretty indifferent to politics,” as Smith describes it.)
  • That not everyone is motivated by crass materialism and the status competition of those who strive for the ever-bigger paycheck. It just so happens – given the system we have – that the rest of us somehow end up being in the thrall of these Type A nitwits. Sometimes things are worth doing for their own sake. Engaging in the project of democratic government is a noble and worthy enterprise all of its own that can and should attract bright, capable people – regardless of the pay. (I’ve often thought that military personnel and veterans could identify with this sentiment. The military doesn’t exactly pay Wall Street wages. And let’s not forget stay-at-home spouses. They work for nothing, but their work ensures the future of the world.)

Again, a great post of hers. Read this blog regularly.

Also, read the rest of the post I’m featuring as she goes on to connect these thoughts to the cries against “nationalization” of the banks and the Obama administration’s lackluster response to disciplining the financial services industry so far.

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