Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Opinions That Men Hold

Two years ago Lehman imploded. I was in Alaska on that fateful week of September 15. It took a trip to Alaska for me to see What’s the Matter with Kansas.

That, as you may know, is the title of Tom Frank's 2005 book, in which he argues that through “push button” issues such as gay marriage and abortion, blue collar Kansans are systematically fooled into voting for rich Republicans and against their own interests.

That sort of manipulation is not new. European writers and historians have traced its wholesale adaptation to the outbreak of WWI which saw young men forced to march to the slaughter fields of Europe. John Berger argues that the abrupt end of Cubism had to do with the end of the optimism that the new century had generated but which WWI crushed.

Frank’s general thesis is not incorrect. Propaganda does play a role in shaping men's opinions even against their interests. But what happened to the observation that people in general vote with their pocketbooks? I doubt that the poor cannot see their own interests, no matter how incessant the brainwashing. I think something else, something more material, is at work there that I noticed during my Alaska trip.

Alaska is a desolate place. Living conditions are hard. Except for a few transplanted New Yorkers with “liberal” views, the native Alaskan generally believes that if “it” cannot be hunted, drilled or mined, it is not worth having around. Concern for the environment, wild life protection and the like take a back seat to the daily challenges of survival. Self preservation trumps such concerns, as it perhaps should.

The immediate concern for survival is the instinct of primitive species and savages. As man learns to exploit nature and his material conditions improve, day-to-day survival ceases to be of immediate concern. He then has the luxury of turning his attention to broader issues and longer horizons. That luxury is a defining characteristic of civilization, what separates the civilized man from the savage.

In the U.S., tens of millions of people live under such “primitive” conditions. In places like Alaska, the extreme weather exacerbates the situation. But the commonality of distress in all 50 states that transcends the natural conditions alerts us that the root cause is economic. The daily struggle for survival is not less intense in Kansas and Virginia than in Alaska.

The existence of these “pockets” of poverty in rich, industrial countries is the evidence of the failure of the social system, plain and simple. It is the failure to raise the living standards and therefore, the concerns, of citizenry beyond those of the savages.

In Anchorage, Alaska, Wichita, Kansas or Olympia, Washington, everybody is strongly pro business — unbridled, no strings attached, any kind of business – because it offers the promise of a meal ticket. Hence, the poor’s support for the pro-business, millionaires’ agenda. The “push button” issues are generally a side show, never more than of secondary importance. The relatively affluent bi-coastal states, meanwhile, can afford to be environmentally and socially conscious. That’s the story behind “Two America” and “red” and “blue” America.

But the poor are not the only victims of their own self-defeating actions. The rich are in that trap too, only in their case, the estimated time to destruction is longer; it takes relatively longer time for them to be hit with the consequences of their own actions. Let me explain this through three recent news stories.

The first one pertains to one Sydney Morris, an up and coming young teacher as covered by The Wall Street Journal, Monday, September 13, page 1 of the Greater New York Section. The story’s heading is Teachers Break Union Rank:
As a teacher, Sydney Morris wants to be rewarded if she can show she helps students make progress in her classroom. She also wants to make job protections such as tenure more difficult to get, and in the event that layoffs have to happen she wants the worst teacher to be let go first, no matter how long they've been teaching.

Those are radically different positions than those espoused by the union that represents her.
A self-centered, selfish brat, you say, caring only about herself?

Then, listen to a business captain in the person of Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel. He was being interviewed the other day on CNN:
The way Otellini sees it, Washington must decide what the industries of the future are. “We still subsidize trains and agriculture – industries of the 19th century. We should decide what’s important to us going forward and make sure we’ve got the education system in place and the capital incentive system in place to do the investment here.”
The man who runs the crown jewel of the world’s technological infrastructure has this view on the U.S. infra-structure: he thinks trains are passé and the government is spending too much money on the embarrassment that is Amtrak.

Has he not traveled at all, one wonders? Is he not aware of modern trains and their role in the economies of Europe, Japan and increasingly, China? It is difficult to say. Throw in his bizarre comment about agriculture being a “19th century industry” and one begins to wonder if he is insane.

He is not, strictly speaking. The “madness” that comes across is made of the same stuff that makes a poor Kansan voting Republican seem mad. It is the pressure of the immediate for which the future is being sacrificed against common sense. Our protagonists, however, are not aware of that, having been forced into a particular “angle of vision to reality” which dictates a certain way of thinking and, from there, a certain conduct.

Look at this excerpt from Mortimer Zuckerman to see what I mean. The man had written an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal to explain the country’s current problems and offer a solution:
The most obvious source of distress right now is lack of payroll growth, and it’s likely to get worse.
Look at his description of unemployment. He calls it a “lack of payroll growth”. He is not trying to tone down a negative word with a bland and neutered expression, like collateral damage for killing bystanders or energetic disassembly for explosion. He is in earnest. For him, unemployment is lack of payroll growth. That is the only way he sees the problem.

I have written about this phenomenon of humans assuming the point of view of speculative capital. See, for example here and here

To prove that the point of view of this cutting edge low life is the point of view of speculative capital, let me quote his “solution” to the “lack of payroll growth” problem from the same article:
To improve our performance will involve massive increase in scholarship support for higher education, and an increase in H-1B visas for foreign students who get M.B.As and Ph.D.s in the hard sciences.
To fight unemployment, he wants more foreign programmers in the country so they could push down the wages of skilled, technical workers even further.

If you do not know Mortimer Zuckerman, you will be happy to know that his views play a critical role in shaping U.S. economic and foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

Speculative capital is self-destructive. As it expands to permeate the different aspects of social life, it imparts its traits onto its human agents. They, too, become self-destructive. A few mountaineers showed this phenomenon better than I could ever explain.