Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lessons of August?

It's a shock to leave reality for "reality."

I spent two weeks in the Morvan countryside with the landscape, small villages and towns, and ancient amazing monuments like the cathedrals at Autun and Vezelay. People built things over centuries and the things - their civilization - are still there. They are too, still building.

And then it's back to the usual crap, political and economic "leadership" as simulated through media coverage. Here's a picture of the one exception - Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, coming to London to offer subsidized oil so the Brits can afford to take the tube. But in general, I've been checking rental car prices again.

A few things we learned in the vacation month:
  • After Tony Blair stepped down in the UK, President Bush needed a new poodle. Le Jogger, aka the president of France, rushed to volunteer. This is a picture of the man's embarrassing joy to be seen with the big boys. It should appear next to "wannabe" in the English dictionary.
  • The one moment of reality in the coverage of le Jogger's American vacation was airbrushed out of Paris-Match's photo spread. Seems like a small lie, but it crossed the line from celebrity worship to perfecting the leader - the core function of propaganda.
  • Le Jogger is not a "rupture" with the previous government - he is the previous government. Surprise! He traded arms for hostages with Libya, closing the deal with the dictator via an old-school French businessman-in-Africa handshake.
  • When Le Jogger departs from Chirac's right-wing politics, it's to become even more right-wing. Le J's speech in Dakar was a model of nineteenth-century white supremacism, what in the US we would call stone racism. (Some English quotes; the official text in French.) Etienne Balibar called it "cultural racism," and that's putting it politely.
  • In the New France, French TV news will be as bad as the American model. Public channel France 2's tireless coverage of fires, child molesters, school clothes prices, campground ice cream parties, and biting dogs is making private, pro-Sarko TF1 look dignified, and its too-tan anchorman PPDA like a French Walter Chronkite. Personally I don't think TV channels have any reporters or correspondents - just a shared pool of college students with digital video equipment following le J - the "rupturer - in his appointed rounds of publicity appearances in strategic anti-crime, anti-pederasty, anti-mugging, anti-kidnapping locales. One of the poodles will eventually climb into his lap. Bow wow wow, Monsieur le President!
You know, I don't hate President "Rupture," not at all. I understand why people would vote for someone who, unlike 95% of politicians, seemed like he wouldn't quit half-way through and sell you out. I just hate the idea that this man is modern, original, or constitutes a, well, rupture with someone like Chirac. I hate the idea he has a clue about how to improve the French economy for the French, as opposed to improving it for his superwealthy pals.

We were talking to a French couple at dinner the other night. They voted for Royal and the Socialists, but one of them, a musician, said how much better le J was as a "showman." It's good to improvise, he said, but you need to practice, practice, practice: he did, she did not, and it showed. You also need to work collectively, our new friend said. Le J did, she did not. Abigail and Avery noted that this was because the Socialist Party male elite, the "elephants," had no intention of letting her win and take the party away from them: they refused the collective work, and would rather lose and lead than follow a female (or more radical, or more popular figure) (sound familiar, Democrats?).

This was all interesting, and made me sadly sympathetic. But it doesn't change the fact that that was a campaign, in Iain Banks' narrator's words, between Tough Shit and Slightly Less Tough Shit. How a majority of the smartest public in the West could go for a brain-dead version of the former is a sad sign of our too-dumb times.

I think they believe deep down that le J will offer some soft Thatcher shock therapy that will fix the French economy. This is a terrible delusion that leads me to my next topic.

August's capitalist "reality." We learned that
  • In the financial markets, numbers don't lie - unless they do. Rating agencies don't misprice debt quality - unless they do. Markets are efficient - unless they aren't.
  • a) risk was wrongly calculated and priced and, even worse, b) due to endless chains of selling and reselling repackaged debt, risk was not actually calculable at all. See the Financial Times's good overview, which tacks on an unconvincing happy market ending for the "real" economy.
  • the enormous profits of the financial sector depend not on "transparency" but on obscurity. If the public understood what they were buying, why would they pay so much more than the seller's cost? Hmm, well actually, we didn't learn this.
  • The markets make "Main Street" mad as hell. Business Week's featured 87-year-old isn't the only older person I've heard call for revolution.
  • Main Street's elected representatives will do nothing to help folks. The Democrats will help private equity moguls and big investors continue to pay half the income tax rate of nurses and teachers. They will also keep the war on. They represent their interests, not yours. Read your Machiavelli, like Bush brains Lee Atwater and Karl Rove always did this time of year.
  • The public doesn't know enough to defend itself. Much or most current economic growth - on the Anglo-American model - depends on a combination of low-price consumption, driven by low-wage manufacuturing abroad, and high-profit finance, driven by an endless supply of "greater fools" who maintain the big markups. The retail investor pays too much in his role as the obliging greater fool, and then pays again through taxes when the central bank bails out the system with a few hundred billion dollars, easing the anxiety of the next round of fools.
-Well there were a few counternotes:
  • Le Monde Diplomatique's editor in chief, Igancio Ramonet, had a nice front page piece in the August issue that explained the achievements of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. When one looks behind the media handwringing about Chavez's rejection of normal business control of the Venezuelan economy, and examine actual economic statistics, one can see that Chavez's social investment policies have reduced poverty while AT THE SAME TIME increasing economic growth. This combination - more public spending, more economic growth, more widely distributed income - is what neoliberal policy advocates prefer to keep off-stage.
  • The economist Robert Pollin published an excellent review-essay that offers a compact history of the rise of neoliberal economics, along with some simple next steps.
  • Another August Diplo writer, Jean Bricmont, argued that the economic disaster underlying purely moral politics (tough on crime on one side, enhance education on the other) is becoming easier to read. The complete absence of the financial crisis from the popular left or liberal media (radio shows like Democracy Now, To the Point, even the business show rue des Entrepreneurs) is undoubtedly already a thing of the past! :)
  • And then John Edwards broke the chains of Dumbocrat slumber and said some true things about rigged politics and corporate governance.

No comments: