[I'm stickying this post, if a bit late, since it seems to tie together a lot of what we've been talking about since the lame duck session. --lambert]
The question is not whether one party is better than another, it is whether either is equal to the times. The accomplishment is not on the weight of the bills passed, but the force of the ideas. It is not enough to oppose a movement of empty minds, with a party of empty gestures. The party of the banks, will not, in the end, defeat a party of the people, even if those people have become an armed mob seeking emoluments undeserved and unearned.
Obama, an odious and small man, of small mind and narrow energies, was defeated by a party even more odious and smaller minded, but of devoted energies. They could feel and see where the money would come from to pay themselves. Last night, the old half of the poor, voted to kill the younger half of the poor. The next targets on the list, are the public service unions, social security for younger people, and jobs. It is tempting to focus on the personalities: nazi re-enactors, avowed racists, and a collection of pols who seemed to think that once they had backed into power, there was no way to back out. It is tempting to focus on the naked racism of the far right, or the soft racism of the center left, which even this morning continues to try and spin this as a rejection of a move to the left.
But these ignore the deeper truths, and it is those deeper truths, and not the slogans or shallow attachments of partisan pandering, which will drive the future.
The first is inner contradiction. That inner contradiction can be phrases simply: there is no way to continue the red queen's race of the wealthy of the developed world against the wealthy of the developing and resource world, and still have a long term electable coalition. Too much must be cut from too many people. The second inner contradiction is that the era of monetary neo-liberal policy has reached a contradiction. In a free market, to be efficient, there must be one price for everything. It's required mathematically. However, in the neo-liberal era, monetary policy replaces fiscal policy as the preferred way of slowing down a hot economy, or speeding up a slow one. What happens when the interest required to keep both government and corporate world's solvent, let alone producing enough growth and employment, is below that which is required to be attractive to savers to bring parked money into circulation? What happens when the banks are leaking money so fast, that no sane person will put money into them?
Why then, there must be two prices for money. Which means that the global economy will be inefficient by definition, and since those two prices diverge by a great deal, almost all economic activity will, in the end, be about finding a way to arbitrage those two prices, at whatever bandwidth is available. The neo-liberal paradox is not new, it was reached in the mid 1980's, in the late 1990's, and in the 2000's. What happens is a Minskian collapse: everyone rushes into the arbitrage channel. Since it is logically impossible for everyone to buy the free dollars, and sell the expensive dollars, eventually the government must by the waste, and close down the old hole, only to open a new one.
The neo-liberal game is to give banks a free price for money, and then have them charge more than this to others. However, once America could no longer exploit other countries, and had to start packaging its own income and selling it, the game was over: there was no way to keep ahead, because Americans were borrowing against, not their ability to manage others growth, but their own.
What this means is that the fundamental policy assumptions: that the mandate of government is to create paper wealth that developing countries buy, faster than we leak deficit to them for resources and manufactured goods, and that the government's monetary role is to maintain the two tier price for money, are broken. There is no way, long term, to fix even the paper assumptions. This leaves aside the physical problems we face: the twin towers of global warming and oil depletion.
The present has two parties who act in a representative plutocracy: they take money from entrenched interests, and sell the policies of those entrenched interests, in return they make the value proposition of purchasing the loyalties of enough of the poor. This is why politics has become more divided: because each party represents ins and outs. It is also why there is perpetual minmaxing of benefits: each party wants as small and inexpensive an entourage to pay for as possible. The Democratic value proposition to donors, is that it is better and cheaper to buy urban voters, and the young, and the Republican value proposition is that it is cheaper to buy exurban resource extractors, and those with a white identity. But the benefits offered are completely marginal, compared to the implied promise of continuing the red queen's race upwards of money.
Note the important tension: the more benefits offered, the more imports, the more imports, the more important it is to move money upwards to match the money from imports. The Republican Party's contradiction is that its economy is completely unproductive, the Democratic Party's contradiction, is that its economy is not productive enough to make up for the increased demand it creates. The Republican Party dominates, because an unproductive poor economy, is easier to keep afloat, than a not very productive richer economy.
These tensions produce a poisoned politics. Both parties must simultaneously pander to, and push down, their own populist wings. The Republicans accepted some loss of net seats because of their populists, but over all, that number is probably only 2: Nevada and Delaware. In return, they get a much more energized base, and that gained them many more House seats. The Democrats who are wringing their hands over the costs of the Tea Party, are really already getting ahead of the game of kicking their own populists. The Democratic Party needed Obama himself to come out and kick his own base, repeatedly. That base, once kicked, stayed down. With the results seen in the election. The old voted, and largely as they have voted for the last 10 years: in favor of gray fascism. The young did not vote. In only two years, Obama had lost them
But this is mirrored across the developed world: in the UK, the budget will be balanced on the backs of the young, including in University fees. In France, retirement age increases were pushed through by a government with less than 30% approval. In Germany a right wing coalition imposes austerity on all of Europe, to keep the currency reigned in. The global old, are in firm control of the future, and since they do not have much future, they are voting to strip it bare.
The conversation within the narrow range of what is possible in rearranging an inefficient market to a least loss configuration has an answer: if there is a zero sum resource game, then the market will best allocate the resources. However, the market cannot define the game, nor does it expand the size of resources. A politics of scarcity now, and scarcity forever, is a conservative politics, a politics of plenty, even in the future, is a liberal politics. The present has no desire to move beyond the petroleum economy, nor beyond the land casino, in America, or the benefit society, in Europe.
But these are paper claims, and they are enforced by paper tigers, leading down a paper trail.
What is important to realize is that there is no paper solution. No grand reform bill, or compromise. Instead there is only the relentless focus on the real: shifting effort from where it is useless, and directed only at gaining paper profits, to where it useful. If in 1933, the only thing we had to fear, was fear itself, in 2011, the only thing we need, is need itself.
From this we have learned, that it is not from the ballot box, which is, after all, a thing of paper, that change will come. It must come from a social consensus, as the devotion to corporations became a consensus in the late 1970's, and has manifested itself no matter which party was in power, nor which President was in the office. Since our problems are real, they must come from real actions, and from firmly rooted beliefs. It's theory is that the public is not a cost to be managed, but the only source of energy from which all activity flows.
The theory of the present Democratic Party is that if stupid people are managed better by smart people, then there is an excess that can be applied to social projects. It is the theory of middle managers. The theory of the Republican Party is that stupid managers prevent smart engineers from doing smart things. This is a religion, its gospel is written by Rand and Heinlein, and it is no more true than the idea that the world is filled with little wastes. In truth, engineers are no more efficient than any other group of knowledge workers, and less efficient than many: witness the lack of productivity gains from a generation of computers.
These theories are not the theory of the progressive movement, which instead asserts, that it is the weight of rents, and claims made in ignorance, and adjudicated by corruption, that weigh down the energy of the world. It asserts that there are two, and only two, futures. One is to engage in continued dumping of pollution forward, until it boils over, the other is to change the shape of the societies of humankind, until they do not reward as profit in the present, pollution to be paid for for all posterity.
It is a simple choice: destruction, or creation. Last night, Americans did not have that choice, and so they chose an appetite for destruction, which matched their hunger for change. Expect less than nothing from this Congress, and this President, their vision is still firmly planted backwards, across conflicts that are long over, and upon slogans that are shards that rip the body politic. Expect nothing from discourse of the moment, since it is woven by people who protect their petty positions, and are merely searching for absolution from their last failure, to find failure again.
Because of this, do not accept the false choice between bad and worse, between wrong and wrongheaded. Simply because two sides are arguing, does not mean either of them are right. Simply because someone is anointed a leader, does not mean he can lead.
Instead with a clarity that history now affords, the there is a simple ruler against which every party can be measured: do nothing for those, who do not promise to do enough. If you vote out of fear, then you will live in fear. A coward not only dies a thousand deaths, he loses a thousand elections. The future will have great contempt for this age, whatever future that may be, and which ever language it is written in. But we are not inhabitants of some distant future, fury and contempt are luxuries we do not have, because they are bought with the currency of distance, which we do not have.