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From The New Criterion

The Hammer of “Austerity”

The best line about the recent elections in Italy, France and Greece came from the excellent Daniel Finkelstein of The Times of London, who wrote that “voters went to the polls to see if they agreed that two plus two equals four and decided that they did not. Simple arithmetic ran for office, and lost.” This is only true, however, if you assume that people in apparently democratic countries continue to be, according to the classic assumptions of democracy, self-governing. Looked at another way, the real meaning of those elections is that majorities in these three countries — and growing numbers in other countries, including the United States — have become weary of the burdens and responsibilities of self-government. It wasn’t for such hardship and self-discipline that the Greeks joined the EU! They joined for the sake of the allowance they have been getting from rich uncle Fritz in Berlin. Threatened, on account of their profligacy, with being cut off, these and other dependants of the Germans have simply called their bluff. What have they got to lose, after all? The romantic and guilt-ridden Germans may cave again, and even if they don’t Europe’s bankrupts are no worse off than they would have been if they had marched willingly onto the grim and narrow pathways of economy.

It is much more the case in Britain and, increasingly, the US that unforgiving arithmetic is getting a bad name, and that name is “austerity.” Without any Grecian hopes of a Sugar-Daddy of our own but accustomed to living in a political culture which treats reality as optional, we look to the seductive message of intellectuals like Paul Krugman, who reassures us on an almost daily basis that those who are as clever as himself and the defunct economist J.M. Keynes have ways of making two plus two equal five. The Obama administration, most if not all of the Democratic party and even some Republicans have listened to that siren song, though they have not yet summoned up the nerve to “stimulate” the money-wells to the extent that Professor Krugman would like, so it may well be that we can expect future elections in which fantasy is as triumphant here as Mr Finkelstein imagines it to be in Europe — particularly as reality is likely to present an ever more unappetizing appearance as the only alternative to it.

Already, the evolution of the Obama campaign appears to be in the direction of a more or less avowed invitation to vote for the President’s re-election on the basis that he has kept us out of the European austerity. In doing so, he implicitly claims to have abolished, or to be on his way to abolishing, not only arithmetic but all kinds of other unpleasantnesses that people would prefer not to think about. Hence his campaign theme of “Forward,” and its implied imperative not to look back at what has already been done by his administration, much of which is not very popular or likely to inspire confidence in his ability to bring back the good times. As part of his appeal to the young — a voting bloc which, along with blacks, Hispanics, gays and single women, he is relying on for much of the energy his campaign will need — such encouragement of the impulse, always strong in youth in any case, to forget the past is obviously necessary, as it will have to be in any case in order to take away the hint of Chinese communism and Third World peasant movements from a slogan like “Forward.”

Likewise, the fantasy figure of “Julia” — a composite female like the composite girlfriend we now learn he described in his memoir Dreams from My Father — is all the more fantastical for deriving nothing but benefits throughout her whole life from the ever bigger government that Mr Obama wants us to put him in charge of for another four years. “Who the hell is ‘Julia’ and why am I paying for her whole life,” asked David Harsanyi amusingly but irrelevantly. Julia, who appears to have such a high-paying job as a web designer that she can “choose to have a child” without bothering to marry, may even pay for some significant portion of her own life — along with the government’s very considerable but unmentioned overheads. If you’re going to fantasize anyway, you might as well make her decently well-to-do. As a fantasy figure, however, she is not designed to seduce those, like Mr Harsanyi, who expect and even prefer to pay for their own lives but those who, like the European electors this spring and others in the emerging leftist consensus against “austerity,” believe in the fantasy of voting themselves to be prosperous.

Even the evolution of the President’s views with respect to gay marriage, now at last so happily concluded in favor — as everyone surely expected it would be — should be seen as yet another ringing endorsement for fantasy. Thus, Charles M. Blow of The New York Times hailed Mr Obama’s much feted conversion from the antis to the pros by averring that “it is a natural impulse of all people to live freely in their own truth. President Obama yesterday lent his voice to affirming the basic humanity of gay and lesbian communities.” Mr Blow was living freely in his own truth too, by implying that the reservation of the institution of marriage to members of opposite sexes according to millennia-old custom amounted to a denial of the humanity of anyone who preferred instead to cleave to his or her own sex. It’s his truth, after all, and those accused of denying other people’s humanity can have nothing to say about it.

As for the evolving President, Politico reported that

In the end, people close to the president say, it wasn’t a close call: The core of their argument against Mitt Romney is that he is an untrustworthy politician with no real core of conviction. Obama’s advisers — who are acutely conscious of the media’s criticism despite their professed contempt for the news cycle — simply couldn’t afford to have the president appear like a coward on the front and editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, according to senior Democrats.

It’s hardly any surprise that these unnamed advisers should have been so clearly deficient in any sense of self-irony. In American politics as practiced today that would appear to be a minimum requirement for any high-level practitioner. But in happier times for the media, at least, someone at an intelligent and rhetorically sophisticated publication like Politico would surely have found cause for comment — and amusement — in a politician’s careful calculation as to what might be the most advantageous conviction for him to adopt in order to heighten the contrast with an opponent supposed to have “no real core of conviction.”

Perhaps the contradiction was obscured by the reverence paid on the left to evolution generally and not just the obviously self-interested and predetermined evolution of President Obama’s convictions. In acknowledging in the first place that they were evolving, he must have known — and we must have known that he knew — what they were evolving towards. Since he was ostensibly against gay marriage, the direction of evolution could only be in the direction of favoring it, which means that he effectively held the pro-gay marriage position already but found it inexpedient to admit to it until his gaffe-prone Vice President forced him to do so. I suppose that most voters, educated by the media, are now so cynical about political life that they expect no better of politicians than to self-evolve in the direction of the popular — even though at the same time they are assumed to treasure the fantasy of a “real core of conviction” in their favorites.

In any case, there could be little doubt that what was really “evolving” was, and is, public opinion, which now shows bare majorities in much of the country and larger ones among younger voters in favor of redefining marriage to encompass gay couples. That truth was what the President wished to bring his mobile convictions into line with but didn’t want to be too far out in front of. It is also one of those old-fashioned truths that are true for everybody and so transcend the will of dollar-store Nietzscheans like Charles Blow to claim a proprietary interest in them. Such truths are now so rare that people are inclined to treat them as inevitable — like evolution, I guess, but entirely unlike austerity. That would now appear to belong to the lamentable history of right-wing error, along with slavery, opposition to federalized health insurance (according to Senator Harry Reid) and the now-scandalous belief that there is something inherently “disordered” about homosexuality.

Even Shepard Smith of the allegedly “right wing” Fox News Network was prepared to insist, in response to President Obama’s announcement, that for Republicans to oppose the legalization of gay marriage now amounted to their “sitting very firmly, without much question, on the wrong side of history.” To him there may be some question, perhaps, but not to most of today’s historicists. Where have we heard their sort of language before? The greatest of all political fantasies must be that of Karl Marx, who pioneered this idea of “history” as something which had a right and a wrong side and who bequeathed it, if he bequeathed nothing else, to today’s political culture — often, as in Mr Smith’s case, to the right as well as the left. As I noticed in this space a couple of years ago (see “Unhappy is the Land” in The New Criterion of February, 2010), however, this variety of moral historicism has become a favorite formulation of the left in seeking to justify measures, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that might otherwise seem to have little to justify them. At least we know that they put us on the right side of history. We have Harry Reid’s word for it.

That similar language should now be taken up by the right as well is just one indication of the utility of the idea in influencing public opinion — in spite of the natural bias towards the left, ever marching “Forward,” that it entails. Just as Marx invented his fantastical version of “history” as an antidote to the charge of feckless utopianism leveled against his many socialist predecessors and progenitors in the 19th century, so he handed to his successors the most powerful of all weapons against traditional sorts of politics by converting political life from a contest between rival sorts of realism to one between rival versions of reality. A century and half later, the utopianism of the left is beginning to seem like the only game in town. That’s what I always think, anyway, and marvel at whenever I hear those with whom I am otherwise politically in sympathy extolling the virtues of “capitalism” — a term which, according to John Lanchester in The London Review of Books, does not occur in Das Kapital — as if Marxist-style utopianism were right about everything except for the end stage of history.

For once we have accepted the socialist’s utopian premises so far as to argue only for an alternative route to human perfection, we have handed him a huge rhetorical advantage, particularly in an age of fantasy like our own where, given the choice between strenuous and non-strenuous utopias, we are all too likely to emulate the Greeks in choosing the latter. The anti-austerity left relies on this rhetorical advantage every time it purports to show, along with Professor Krugman, that austerity doesn’t “work” — as if its champions supposed it to be a sufficient as well as a necessary condition of economic growth. Probably, nowadays, some of them do. As a result, the anti-austerity rhetoricians are rarely if ever challenged in the media for their assumption that the right claims for austerity what they themselves claim for a program of incurring ever-higher levels of indebtedness without regard to the ability or the likelihood of repaying it: namely that it will “work” by producing (eventually) a state of ideal economic and social perfection where no one need be poor or unemployed — or even in debt.

Yet if very often the right does mean that, or at least seems to mean it, it is not entirely the fault of the right, which is locked into a media and political culture that has become structurally almost incapable of accommodating the sort of old-fashioned realism for which austerity was once a self-evident necessity rather than the high-road to the same utopia the left is forever promising us. As a result, the electoral fantasy which ends up being put to the vote is not only of, or not even primarily of, that ultimate state of perfection — about which it would seem to be in everybody’s interest to be as vague as possible, lest its fantastical element should become too apparent. The operational fantasy is rather one of a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil to claim the imprimatur of “history,” each for itself, when on any moderately realistic reckoning there is hardly any difference between them.

For example, in coalition-governed and non-Eurozone Britain, uneasily watching the electoral upheavals on the Continent from the sidelines, the debate over “austerity” has already grown as heated as it promises to do Stateside in this election year. Yet, as Janet Daley wrote in the (London) Sunday Telegraph,

The difference between the Centre Right and the Centre Left (for they are all that remains of the two sides of that old titanic struggle) is now almost entirely rhetorical. The CR wants a free-market economy with an entitlements programme attached to guard against social unrest. The CL wants an entitlement society with free-market activity attached to provide the necessary funds. The argument about the mix is very much confined to the margins — and about how you describe it. The actual differences being so slight (and there being so much flexibility needed to cope with fluctuating reality) that it is necessary to lard the descriptions with emotive, absolutist language to generate some faux passion.

It is also necessary to pick out other rhetorical and largely symbolic issues like the advocacy of gay marriage — as did the Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently until he was forced into retreat by his Conservative back-benchers — in order to heighten differences that might otherwise be obscure.

“Austerity” itself, as Ms Daley points out, is more symbolic than real in much of Europe, where it has become the burning issue it promises to be in America once Congressman Paul Ryan is officially installed as the bogeyman of the anti-austerity party. As Dominic Lawson wrote in The Sunday Times [pay wall],

Essentially, Labour’s economic alternative is to cut the public sector deficit — but a tiny bit more slowly. The biggest single difference appears to be that it would temporarily rescind the coalition’s two-and-a-half point increase in VAT, making up for part of the revenue shortfall with an equally temporary levy on banks — neatly meeting Labour’s principal political objective of being seen to be on the side of the masses against the discredited former masters of the universe. Similarly, although the French Socialist candidate François Hollande declared “war on finance” — a stance symbolised by his campaign pledge to tax the very few earning more than €1m a year at a marginal rate of 75 per cent — the more salient point about his manifesto is that the much vaunted “alternative to austerity” is a promise to take a year longer to balance the books than the debt- reduction schedule proposed by President Sarkozy.

At least the French appear to have retained enough of the rational faculty for which they are so justly famous that M. Hollande felt constrained to have an alternative to austerity. President Obama’s alternative to the comparatively mild austerity of Congressman Ryan’s budget, which takes thirty years to balance the books, has been and continues to be stout denial that the books ever need to be balanced, at least not by any sort of fiscal discipline on his part — presumably on the grounds that Keynesian (or Krugmanian) fairy-dust will eventually do the job for him.

Understandably, he prefers not to make such an expectation explicit, instead appealing to his most loyal constituencies by equally fantastical claims about “the Buffet rule” — the budgetary need to end the alleged unfairness which has allowed some people to grow too rich — or a Republican “war on women,” or by successfully completing his “evolution” into a champion of gay marriage just in time to fly to Hollywood for a $15 million fund-raiser among the Olympian artists who have made the American movie industry the most lucrative fantasy-factory in the history of the world. As it happened, his visit there coincided with the latest efforts by Governor Jerry Brown of California to find some alternative to austerity to plug a budgetary hole 74 per cent deeper than it was projected to be only four months ago. Like the President, Governor Brown has painted himself into a political corner where the only option available to him lies in raising taxes. As a result, Californians living further down the slopes of Mt Olympus from the Hollywoodians may be among the first Americans to have the burdens of austerity transferred from their leaders to themselves. At least they’ll have the satisfaction of knowing they’re on the right side of history.


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