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Government by Platitude

C. Wright Mills

Paul Krugman has been asking why austerity politics has any place in public discourse about the economy; see here, here, and here for examples. He and a few others said from the beginning of what he calls the Lesser Depression that the problem is lack of demand, caused by the intense need of households to get out from under their overwhelming burdens of debt, and that the solution we learned from the Depression and from John Maynard Keynes is sustained government spending. The rest of the economics experts touted the benefits of austerity. They got the big media microphone, and drowned out opposing views with silly moral platitudes about the evils of debt and debtors.

Economic and political conservatives loathe Keynes with a passion that is hard to understand until you realize that Keynes loathed them as financial sadists. Keynes knew that the rich are perfectly willing to inflict enormous pain on millions of others to achieve their own goals of wealth accumulation and wealth protection, and a government too weak to oppose them but strong enough to put down the 99%. Now Krugman has begun to argue that Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine theory may explain this financial sadism.

When the Obama Administration proposed its weak stimulus bill, a bill even its chief proponent, the courtier Larry Summers knew was certain to fail, the austerity hawks were screaming that Obama was a horrible human even for thinking about stimulus, “How can you cure debt with more debt?”. When it finally passed, it was barely enough to halt the decline in the economy, giving the austerity freaks ammunition for their anti-Keynes and pro-austerity lobbying. The feral rich and their representatives like @FixTheDebt loved the economists who spouted their line, like the thoroughly discredited Rogoff-Reinhart paper, the less well known Alesina-Ardagna paper, and the early work of the IMF. They shouted those papers to the world, and rewarded Rogoff and Reinhart with speaking engagements and fluffy news coverage.

If Obama had read C. Wright Mills, he would have predicted this outcome. Here is the conclusion of Mills’ 1955 essay On Knowledge and Power, published in Dissent Magazine and kindly made available to me by that magazine:

…[T]wo things [are] needed in a democracy: articulate and knowledgeable publics, and political leaders who if not men of reason are at least reasonably responsible to such knowledgeable publics as exist. Only where publics and leaders are responsive and responsible, are human affairs in democratic order, and only when knowledge has public relevance is this order possible. Only when mind has an autonomous basis, independent of power, but powerfully related to it, can it exert its force in the shaping of human affairs. Such a position is democratically possible only when there exists a free and knowledgeable public, to which men of knowledge may address themselves, and to which men of power are truly responsible. Such a public and such men—either of power or of knowledge, do not now prevail, and accordingly, knowledge does not now have democratic relevance in America.

Mills uses the word “public” in the sense John Dewey used it, as a description of a group of people who try to solve a specific problem within the bounds of a functioning society, and who have the knowledge and the intellectual ability to generate and evaluate possible solutions. It isn’t hard to find publics in this sense on the internet, loose groups of writers on various topics of public interest and their commenters. Look at Marcy Wheeler and colleagues and commenters at Emptywheel, a group which carefully parses the bits and pieces of leakage from the administration, piecing together an account of the National Security State and its Domestic Spy Wing, and putting them in a societal and constitutional context.

Publics may exist, but politicians are not held accountable. The Administration says it plans to continue killing people around the world for the next 10 to 20 years, and there is no discussion of why this is a better idea than any other idea. In fact, there is no mention of any alternatives. The Administration and its representatives are simply not accountable to anyone for their decisions, not even to the point of facing the publics that exist and explaining why theirs is the best choice, answering their objections, and discussing alternatives.

Mills says that the people running the government aren’t interested in knowledge. They make their way with sunny assurance and a cloud of unexamined but widely shared platitudes. He could say the same thing about businesses and the military, where failure is rewarded with golden parachutes, fat pensions, corporate directorships and consulting contracts. None of these people are answerable to any knowledgeable public. They act with no input from the knowledge sector, and when they fail, they fling up their hands and ask whocoodanode?

They won’t be held accountable, either. Just check out the comments section on any mainstream media site on an economics post. People repeat lines learned from economics commercials, in the same way they shouted “Where’s the beef” just a few years ago.

A society where knowledge is irrelevant, replaced by focus-group tested slogans and canned talking points created by and for oligarchs isn’t a democracy.

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I read a lot of books.