A Tinkerer’s Damnation

Originally appeared as a comment on Autonomy for All. Reposted here with minor changes.

Tinkering…. As good a word as any for a dearth of political will. I hate to bash Brad DeLong, who’s one of the good guys, and doesn’t really deserve a snarking, but he’s a classic case of the technocrat who believes in all the seemingly correct policy solutions, yet is left as helpless as the rest of us by the madness of Realpolitik, not to mention the madness of people who wouldn’t recognize realism if it bit them in the ass.

Here’s Professor DeLong, who’s as smart as we make them these days, waxing ironic:

And here we reach the limits of my mental horizons as a neoliberal, as a technocrat, as a mainstream neoclassical economist. Right now the global market economy is suffering a grand mal seizure of high unemployment and slack demand. We know the cures–fiscal stimulus via more government spending, monetary stimulus via provision by central banks of the financial assets the private sector wants to hold, institutional reform to try once gain to curb the bankers’ tendency to indulge in speculative excess under control. Yet we are not doing any of them. Instead, we are calling for “austerity.”

It may make for decent theater, but irony is hardly the best defense against the limitations of the intellect in situations like the one we all find ourselves facing today. Neither is cognitive dissonance, as in the governor of Wisconsin — Wisconsin, for Christ’s sake — threatening to use the National Guard to shoot public employees who object to being beggared by a nasty right-wing ideologue. Or, if you’d rather read about the problems of furriners, this: The Arab World’s Triple Crisis.

If Professors DeLong and Krugman can’t handle the political implications of our manifold current crises, who can? My answer is that no one can, not and remain unscathed. Our future is no longer strictly a mattter of policies good or bad, and no matter how much we might wish it to be otherwise, the outcome has become unpredictable.

5 Comments

  1. bystander says:

    Sometimes when a fragile heirloom falls from the table, the best you can hope to do is deflect its fall so it hits the carpet/rug instead of the hardwood floor/linoleum. You have a moment of suspended hope that it hits the softer surface and that’s enough to keep it from shattering. If you’re lucky, your hope is realized. If not, nothing was lost for the attempt.

    I do think you are correct. The outcome now is fully unpredictable. But, we might yet deflect it onto a slightly different path than it might otherwise take. And, I’m not sure that as jarring as the future might be, we couldn’t still make it a tad less so. Enough for a few more of us to survive, anyway.

    If only some of our better thinkers would step up their game and risk the “scathing.” Particularly, in the field of economics, a public scathing as a prelude to lauded insight has a well-honored history. It’s not like they don’t know how to do it, and haven’t seen evidence of the survival of those who were willing to take the risk.

    • William Timberman says:

      Yes, it’s a good analogy, and one that I’m sure that good guys like DeLong and Krugman would agree with. I’m a great believer in telling it like it is on policy matters, as they do, and I also believe that a focus on the facts, and a persistence in repeating them is helpful.

      Nor am I terribly worried about the hysteria represented by the Becks and Limbaughs, the Malkins and the Palins and the Coulters. Hysteria waxes and wanes, but it’s as hard to maintain over the long term as revolutionary fervor is. Frank Rich has an insightful editorial in the NYT today about this — the drop in Beck’s ratings, the backlash in conservative circles against Palin, etc. — which makes approximately the same point.

      My worry is that the policies and the politics are misaligned. The yahoo demagogues are one thing, the people who are happy with a banana republic, no matter what the ultimate consequences may be, are another thing altogether. And I don’t just mean the brothers Koch, or the Colorado beer barons. In fact, I’m a lot more concerned about the supposedly non-ideological captains of free enterprise like Andy Grove, Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, or Bill Gates, and the guys running not only Goldman Sachs, Citicorp, and B of A, or Blackwater, Halliburton and KBR, but also Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto.

      They don’t get it, they’re determined not to let us get it, and they own our government. They’ve turned democracy into a shadow play at best or — as I said in an earlier essay here — a War of Assassins at worst. If you’ll allow me another analogy, what really, REALLY worries me is that sitting all together on one end of the seesaw, as they are, they’re blithely unconcerned with the fulcrum, or what might wind up on the other end. It might be Gandhi, but it might also be Lenin or Juan Perón. We really have no idea, and neither do they.

  2. Daniel says:

    What’s weird to me is how they even accept this over the climate file. I mean, sure their odds of dying or suffering any real harm from climate related causes or the longer term sociological fall out are lower than everyone else’s, but hurricanes and floods can still affect them. Food riots can affect them. Wars can affect them. They have the most but also the most to lose, yet they’re so blase about it.

    • William Timberman says:

      It was ever thus. Beware the Ides of March, and all that. Is it ignorance, arrogance, or fatalism? Paul Rosenberg spent a lot of time and effort trying to tease out the threads of this seemingly self-destructive behavior, but even he was hard-put to come up with a clear answer.