Tag Archives: Rutger Bregman

How The World Really Works…

A few days ago, a reader sent me a link to this article by Rutger Bregman from the now-defunct publication, Correspondent. It’s important.

His premise is that the world is in the midst of the biggest social shakeup since the second world war–one that will mark the end of neoliberalism, and see the emergence of far more  robust government.

As evidence of this impending change, the article quoted a 2020 editorial from the British-based Financial Times.

The Financial Times is the world’s leading business daily and, let’s be honest, not exactly a progressive publication. It’s read by the richest and most powerful players in global politics and finance. Every month, it puts out a magazine supplement unabashedly titled “How to Spend It” about yachts and mansions and watches and cars.

But on this memorable Saturday morning in April, that paper published this:

“Radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

Bregman points out that economic changes don’t emerge “out of the blue,” noting that there had been a time – some 70 years ago – that defenders of free market capitalism  were the radicals. The system we have now (if you can dignify it by calling it a system) began as a small think-tank established in the Swiss village of Mont Pèlerin by self-proclaimed “neoliberals” like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Friedman memorably wrote that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

The thesis of the article is that economic crises of the 1970s ushered in neoliberalism (the ideas that were “lying around”) and a series of current crises–beginning with the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and extending through COVID-19– will trigger changes based on the very different ideas that are now “lying around.”

Unlike the 2008 crash, the coronavirus crisis has a clear cause. Where most of us had no clue what “collateralised debt obligations” or “credit default swaps” were, we all know what a virus is. And whereas after 2008 reckless bankers tended to shift the blame to debtors, that trick won’t wash today.

But the most important distinction between 2008 and now? The intellectual groundwork. The ideas that are lying around. If Friedman was right and a crisis makes the unthinkable inevitable, then this time around history may well take a very different turn.

The new ideas have been planted by economists like Piketty and Zucman (example:Zucman and Saez’s “How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay”). And then there’s Mariana Mazzucato, who wroteThe Entrepreneurial State.

Mazzucato demonstrates that not only education and healthcare and garbage collection and mail delivery start with the government, but also real, bankable innovations. Take the iPhone. Every sliver of technology that makes the iPhone a smartphone instead of a stupidphone (internet, GPS, touchscreen, battery, hard drive, voice recognition) was developed by researchers on a government payroll.

And what applies to Apple applies equally to other tech giants. Google? Received a fat government grant to develop a search engine. Tesla? Was scrambling for investors until the US Department of Energy handed over $465m. (Elon Musk has been a grant guzzler from the start, with three of his companies – Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity – having received a combined total of almost $5bn in taxpayer money.) ….

But maybe the example that best makes Mazzucato’s case is the pharmaceutical industry. Almost every medical breakthrough starts in publicly funded laboratories. Pharmaceutical giants like Roche and Pfizer mostly just buy up patents and market old medicines under new brands, and then use the profits to pay dividends and buy back shares (great for driving up stock prices). All of which has enabled annual shareholder payments by the 27 biggest pharmaceutical companies to multiply fourfold since 2000.

The article ends with an explanation of the Overton Window–and how it has shifted.

If there was one dogma that defined neoliberalism, it’s that most people are selfish. And it’s from that cynical view of human nature that all the rest followed – the privatisation, the growing inequality, and the erosion of the public sphere.

Now a space has opened up for a different, more realistic view of human nature: that humankind has evolved to cooperate. It’s from that conviction that all the rest can follow – a government based on trust, a tax system rooted in solidarity, and the sustainable investments needed to secure our future. And all this just in time to be prepared for the biggest test of this century, our pandemic in slow motion – climate change.

You really need to read the entire article.

 

 

Their War Is With Modernity

The Guardian recently reviewed David Frum’s forthcoming book, “Trumpocalypse.” Frum, as most of you will recall, was the speechwriter who penned George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” accusation; whatever lingering concerns I may have had about his judgment, however, have waned, thanks to his work as a “Never Trumper.”

In “Trumpocalypse,” Frum makes the case that Trump has gutted the rule of law and institutionalized “white ethnic chauvinism.” The article notes that Frum’s journey is emblematic of an ongoing political realignment, in which the GOP has increasingly embraced white rural voters and steadily lost college graduates and suburbanites.

One of the points Frum emphasizes has reinforced my own belief that America–and for that matter, the rest of the world to varying degrees–is undergoing a paradigm shift.

The concept of paradigm shift originated with Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher, to explain why people working within a particular worldview or scientific framework cannot understand explanations of works produced under a preceding or different framework. Fundamental changes in basic concepts make genuine communication impossible.

Frum’s book quotes the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the proposition that it is “culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” and he identifies specific aspects of the culture Trump’s base believes it is defending–especially, as he says,  the belief that by supporting Trump, they are defending a “distinct way of life”, one challenged by modernity.

I think this is the key to understanding what is otherwise inexplicable: how any rational individual could look at the operation of Trump’s administration, with its massive corruption and overwhelming incompetence, and still support him.

Support for Trump is how people who are profoundly threatened by modernity say “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

That reaction against modernity, which is characterized by increasing secularism, explains why religious fundamentalists make up so large a part of Trump’s base. Secularism, in this sense, isn’t necessarily the absence of religious belief, but it is the absence of a certain type of religious belief. It refers to the ability of science to explain phenomena that biblical literalists attribute to God (remember when Bill O’Reilly defended religious belief by saying “the tide goes in, the tide goes out–who knows why?” We do know why.)

In my 2007 book “God and Country: America in Red and Blue,” I examined differences between religious folks I dubbed “Puritans” and those I identified as “modernist.” Among other things, Puritans tended to believe that Christianity requires capitalism–that in a sense, God was Adam Smith’s “Hidden Hand”– and that poverty was evidence of moral defect.

Modernity is also undermining economic fundamentalism. Rutger Bregman was the  historian who told the zillionaires at Davos a couple of years ago that they would be more effective at fighting poverty if they paid their taxes. Time had an interview with him, focused on his new book, “Humankind.” Bregman argues that the core beliefs about human nature that justify exploitative capitalism are simply wrong, and that we are coming to recognize that fact.

The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals.

Bregman disagrees, asserting that, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be far more collaborative and kind. He also points out a central lesson of the pandemic: as governments make lists of so-called vital professions, those lists don’t include hedge fund managers or captains of industry. It’s the (underpaid) garbage collectors and the teachers and the nurses who turn out to be people we can’t live without.

Our assumptions about human nature matter, because those assumptions guide the design of our institutions, and the design of our institutions encourages behavior that is consistent with the assumptions.

One of the big differences between religious and economic fundamentalists on the one hand, and modernists on the other, is the inability of the fundamentalists to tolerate ambiguity. As both Frum and Bregman make clear, however, modernity absolutely requires the ability to reject “either/or” “black/white” versions of reality.

As Bregman says,

I don’t live in that binary world. Sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution. During the Enlightenment, there were brilliant thinkers who realized that, if you assume most people are naturally selfish and you construct the market around that, sometimes it can actually work for the common good. I just think that in many cases, it went too far. What many economists forget is that this view of humanity, the so-called “homo economicus,” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Or, as Frum notes, “politics can change a culture and save it from itself”.

That’s the politics of change–the politics that Trump’s base hysterically rejects.