The Moment of Truth — August 9, 2003

Sure, Believe in the Magic Beans

Hi, welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thing society is trying to dislodge from its throat but which is actually an endotracheal tube that is the only thing allowing it to breath.

It’s been a mantra of the right wing that the Great Depression fixed itself and laws protecting the interests of labor somehow emerged from nowhere. I wish I were setting up a straw man here, but it’s the sad, sickening truth that this is the prevailing ideological wisdom of the day: all the New Deal did was nurture the anti-American notions that people should help and rely on each other and that a society that provides nothing but the freedom for some to accumulate wealth is destined to starve a great many of its people; all unions did was form unruly groups of ungrateful workers who sought to artificially increase their market value above that of a commodity in oversupply.

In short, despite the experiences of millions of people during that great generation, the pervasive ideology of today in the US is that any course other than relying on profit motive as the way to cure all societal ills is just a meaningless detour sapping the moral strength of the common class while it wastes precious time that could be occupied making the rich richer.

But let’s be clear: no serious historian, economist, or political scientist puts any stock in either the policies now being implemented according to the above ideology or in the ideology itself. There isn’t a single serious observer of US economics who believes a society aspiring to be democratic will achieve its goal by allowing wealth to be accumulated by a few without compensation for the community as a whole that contributes to making “wealth creation” possible.

Nevertheless, the right drives on, driving down our wages, downsizing and relocating, impoverishing our communities, schools, public infrastructures – starving our democracy – while pushing greed to its logical extreme. Under normal circumstances, the worship of the dollar can be viewed as a sad misspending of the opportunity a human being inherits by becoming manifest alive in this beautiful and enigmatic universe. Under extreme conditions, however, such as in the 1920s and 30s and today, for example, dollar worship resembles nothing so much as a suicide cult operating on a larger scale and in slow motion.

I know there are those who will view that last sentence as hyperbole, but just for a moment I ask them to entertain the idea and playfully view the US – just as a thought-game, mind you – as if it were a big, slow-motion Jonestown People’s Temple. My request assumes, of course, that someone who’s been paying so little attention to the scope of the corporate threat to our social fabric as to take serious issue with my analogy has the requisite equipment to participate in a thought-game of any kind. That alone should convince him or her of my generosity toward my critics. Hence the conclusion so often arrived at that I am very very nice. This is what makes my arguments so irresistible. This, and the fact that they are simply correct.

Now, if you find you are unable to see what I mean when I say the US under demagogic corporate rule is like a big, slow-motion suicide cult, do not fret. You may still be able to get a job at Fox News Channel. You probably already work there. If not, perhaps your brain is actually a tiny nucleus, and you are a one-celled organism. In which case you probably work at the American Enterprise Institute, and God bless you.

The question is, when policy is based on such mangled yet pervasive premises, what exactly does a policy-maker do? To illustrate the paradox of our present situation, let me compare policy making under the prevailing economic logic to riding a bicycle based on the theory that a bicycle will take you anywhere you want to go if you just put a bag of magic beans on the seat.

First you need a motley collection of gullible fools. We’ll call them The Markets. The Markets believe in the magic bean theory. So when someone puts the magic beans on the seat, The Markets get all excited and start saying, “The bicycle’s getting ready to go!” They tell everyone who will listen that the bicycle is on its way. And so for a while the theory is convincing.

But what about when the bicycle doesn’t go? Then it’s up to the Bicycle Rider to convince The Markets that there aren’t enough beans in the bicycle-seat beanbag. Or the person putting the bag on the seat isn’t the right kind of person. Or the bag itself isn’t pretty enough and needs new decorations. And so policy-making becomes an exercise in manipulating the parameters of the bicycle-seat-beanbag theory.

So, for example, if we just make Arnold Schwarzenegger the Governor of California, then for a while The Markets will believe and get everyone else to believe that the California bicycle will go. That euphoria will last a little while. Then maybe a big corporation will fire a bunch of people, and The Markets will get excited again. But again, the bicycle will not have moved, and eventually another dazzling spectacle, another publicity stunt, will have to be arranged. Or maybe a new technology will be developed, and The Markets will resume jabbering happily. But still the bicycle will not move, and as the confetti settles and the party balloons sag and wrinkle, the sobering image of a motionless bicycle with a bag of magic beans on its seat will again come into focus

Yet there’s really no finite supply of publicity stunts. In fact, the art of governing has become the art of producing publicity stunts. And a really good policy maker is a guy who can come up with an engine for producing a long chain of publicity stunts that seem to follow logically from one to the next, based on some kind of principle or other. Like “family values” or “the strong, independent American.” Or “Jesus is Lord.” Or “poor people just don’t have what it takes.” Or “War on Terrorism.”

Now go back to FDR. I don’t know why, I just see his policy-making as more authentic. I’m no historian, obviously. But I just I don’t see the New Deal as a series of publicity stunts. Certainly FDR’s attempt to manipulate the makeup of the Supreme Court was fascistic. But was it a publicity stunt? Maybe I’m wrong, but the jobs programs seem like a genuine attempt to get money, food and housing to people who didn’t have any by creating jobs the corporate sector was unable or unwilling to provide.

Oh, and that’s a little historical mini-mystery in itself. Why was capitalism doing such a piss-poor job of creating a decent standard of living back then? Was the corporate sector suffering from an inability to monopolize resources? To concentrate power? Is that why they couldn’t give 30% of Americans jobs? What exactly was hampering them from getting that bicycle moving? Was there a magic bean shortage? Did the Dust Bowl wipe out the magic bean crop? Were there too many regulations on the production and use of magic beans? Was Big Government hoarding all the magic beans or giving them to welfare queens with eight Cadillacs?

Whatever the answer, we’re stuck with being governed by publicity stunt organizers until someone has the guts to take some genuine action. Or, hey … maybe re-electing Bush will make that magic-bean bicycle thing work. Yeah, sure. That’s the ticket.

Don’t put those beans in your nose, America.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day.