Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, November 08, 2010

A Survey of Unlikely Voters

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (November 02 2010)

It is election season in the United States, and if you tune in to any of the local news programs/comedy shows you are likely to get an earful of commentary, opinion, conjecture and wild speculation on what the "likely voters" are likely to do. Allow me to save you the trouble: they are likely to go and vote. Who they are going to vote for doesn't matter: without exception they are going to vote for an American politician: a lawyer or a businessman, someone belongs to one of a few available political categories, all of them misnomers designed to confuse the public. There are those who call themselves conservatives, and who are in fact not conservatives at all but free market liberals. There are those who call themselves libertarians, but who either are not libertarians at all, or have somehow forgotten their anarchist-socialist roots, and who are in fact also free market liberals. Then there are the "liberals", who are also free market liberals but aspire to being nice, whereas the rest of the free market liberals are nasty. But nobody here wants to be called a "liberal", because in this topsy-turvy political universe it has become little more than a term of abuse. It takes a long time to explain this nonsense to visitors from abroad, and when you round out the explanation by saying that these distinctions don't actually matter - because no matter what these politicians call themselves they are all state-capitalists who have been exhibiting quite a few fascist tendencies of late - the visitors inevitably feel that you have wasted their time.

But if you try to explain this nonsense to a domestic audience, it will be you who will feel that your time has been wasted. US voters are easy marks for political tricksters, and it is probably something that just can't be helped. The neatest trick is getting them to vote against their class interest. A few generations ago we had the "Reagan democrats": working class people who voted - not once but twice! - for someone who was anti-union and generally anti-labor. And now, a few decades of political progress later, we have the "Teabaggers": middle-aged obese and sickly white people who are about to cast their vote for someone who will take away their government-provided electrifc scooters and their very expensive medical care. When the political tricksters fail and the voting public actually gets a little bit upset, it is time to send in the clowns, and so most recently a couple of late-night TV comedians have joined the fray, holding a massive rally to "restore sanity". This new sanity is epitomized by the following family portrait: daddy is a "Conservative Republican" mommy is an "Obama Liberal", the son is a "Libertarian", the daughter is a "Green", and the dog (the only one of them who is sane) is trying to run away. Meet the Losers: they are the ones who have no idea what class their family is in, or what their class interest is, and as far as their chances of making successful use of democratic politics to collectively defend and advance their class interest, well ... they are the Losers - that says it all, doesn't it? All that blood spilled in the name of liberty and democracy, and to show for it we have a country of insane Losers and the odd sane stray dog, free to a good home.

But it is all a waste of time: the Losers may vote or not vote, they may flap their gums at the breakfast table or twinkle their toes up and down the street holding signs, where they may take part in peaceful protest or get teargassed and shot with rubber bullets - the result will be exactly the same. No matter who US politicians claim to be, all of them exhibit two powerful but conflicting tendencies: to bureaucratize and to privatize. The bureaucratizers among them wants to grow public bureaucracies, creating political machines and systems of patronage, and providing ample scope for pork barrel politics. The privatizers among them want to dismantle public institutions and privatize everything under the sun in order to shrink the public realm and to enhance the concentration of private wealth. These two imperatives are at odds, not for any ideological reason, but simply because there is an inevitable tug of war between them: big public bureaucracies expand the public realm, but privatizing the public realm shrinks it. All American politicians find it in their interest to both expand government and to privatize its functions. When the US economy is growing nicely, the two factions find that their wishes are granted, and they go merrily along enlarging federal and local bureaucracies while assisting in the concentration of wealth, making everyone they care about happy - everyone except the the population, which is being steadily driven into bankruptcy and destitution, but that's just a problem of perception, easily remedied by an army of political consultants come election time.

This public-private feeding frenzy is called "bipartisanship". When the economy isn't growing, the two factions are forced to square off against each other in what amounts to a zero-sum game. This is called "gridlock". Currently the US economy is growing at such an anemic rate that unemployment (defined as "percentage of working-age able-bodied people without a job" - not the fake "official" number) is continuing to increase. Even this anemic growth is likely to be corrected down in the coming months. The future glows even dimmer: a good leading indicator of economic growth happens to be "discretionary consumer durable goods spending", and the good people who have had their eye on it tell us that it has been trending downward for a few months now, and portends a GDP growth rate of around negative six percent, which, if it holds at that level and does not deteriorate further, gives the US economy a half-life of just under a dozen years. A continuously shrinking economy assures continuous gridlock.

Although most if not all political commentators are on record saying that gridlock a bad thing, it is hard to find a reason to agree with them. Given the country's predicament, which of the two fruits would we wish this putatively beneficial bipartisanship to yield: the gift of more federal and local bureaucracy or the gift of more privatization and concentration of private wealth in fewer and fewer hands? Let us suppose that you are a big fan of government bureaucracy; how, then, do you expect the country to be able to afford to feed all these bureaucrats when the economy - and therefore the tax base - is shrinking? And supposing that you idolize the ultra-rich and expect to become one yourself as soon as you win the lottery; how, then, do you expect your riches to amount to anything, seeing as the vast majority of this private wealth is positioned "long paper" - currency, stocks, bonds, intellectual property or some more exotic or even toxic pieces of paper with letters and numbers printed on them. All of these financial instruments are bets on the future good performance of the US economy, which, by the way, is shrinking. A continuously shrinking economy is a large incinerator of paper wealth, and all these paper instruments are in the end just ephemera or memorabilia, like tickets to a show that's been cancelled. The bureaucratic contingent and the wealthy-on-paper contingent have enough paper between the two of them to feed the fire for a little while longer, but does the country really need a bipartisan effort [to] increase this rate of combustion? If you enjoy being part of this system, and want to show your appreciation for it by casting a vote, you might as well vote for gridlock, because doing so is more likely to prolong your pleasure.

Cast your vote for gridlock, if you wish; your time is yours to waste. But what of all those who aren't particularly interested in voting? My informal survey of unlikely voters indicates that a surprisingly large number of them is thinking of leaving the country. Some days it seems like anybody who has a brainwave is thinking about running away. This is especially true of dual citizens who hold a US passport as a passport of convenience (it is one of the easiest in the world to get). For them it is more a question of "When?" It is also true of those born elsewhere, or have a foreign-born parent, or some other tenuous connection with another country. But there are many among those who are thinking of leaving who have lived in the US their entire lives, have barely ever ventured abroad, and are not proficient in a single foreign language! They don't know how to fit in anywhere but here, but they do know that they can't stay where they are. Finding these people a good new home seems like a bit of a challenge.

It seems that many of those who are clever enough to realize that voting here is a fool's errand also want to leave this country. But how many of them are actually successfully leaving? The answer (again, based on my decidedly informal and limited survey of unlikely voters) is that the vast majority of those who are thinking of leaving are failing to do so. This is rather unfortunate, because the planet can absorb only so many US expatriates. Should you decide to become one yourself, it would make sense for you to try to find yourself a chair to sit down on before the music stops. Even now the mood in many countries is turning anti-immigrant. The longer you wait, the higher your risk of becoming stranded in what remains of the US.

I will certainly have more to say on this topic - once the election fever has abated, Washington is safely gridlocked, and the bonfires of bureaucratic grandiosity and paper wealth are burning bright.

Bill Totten


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