A Critique of the SocioPoliticalEconomic World (SPEW) in the USA or the Absence of the “common good” from our political and economic discourse
The phrase “the general welfare” appears in. 2 sections of the Constitution yet as a citizen who follows what passes for political discourse I have rarely heard the phrase used:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout
I am interested in its absence from our political discourse. This absence suggests to me that it is important that the phrase and what it might mean is too politically dangerous or disruptive to allow its expression or consideration. I suggest that it remains dormant because it runs counter to many current US cultural narratives. Those narratives now emphasize for starters the following themes: individual autonomy; individual choice as the total meaning of freedom; the sacredness of private property; the idolization of the “market”; the economy (money, efficiency) as final arbiter of social and political choices; progress as an increasing. GDP regardless of the output ; the nonexistence of class distinctions that entail different interests; and the abolition of racial distinctions as relevant in considering public policy. The term “public policy” has been drained of any meaning as policies are now so geared to appease private interests that “public” is a meaningless, obsfucating term. The “public good” which might be seen as equivalent to the “general welfare” has also disappeared from“public discourse”. which makes clear the meaninglessness of these phrases.
Also missing is any discussion of “welfare” (other than its. perjorative. use). General Welfare would indicate the state of all individuals would be considered in all policies. And in an unequal democratic society like USA this would require policy makers to look outside their circle of companions and outside their favored ideologies and opinions to see the “other”. This would require compassion and empathy combined with facts about. life as it is lived.
If there are then conscious or more likely unconscious forces that keep these concepts from open features of debate, what might they be? Two I wish to address are from different interpretive angles. The first is economic, the second psychological. The economic is about how an academic discipline has been used as pseudo- science to bolster an ideology that is based on the current cultural narratives mentioned above and that predominantly emphasize individualism, autonomy, and “freedom”. The psychological is how this ideology supports our deep wish that we be in fact what the ideology postulates, self- created and independent, which in fact we are not.
I. How economics and its impoverishment and its distortions of reality deflect the public good/general welfare concepts from consideration.
I am not an economist but I think I have pretty clear the current state of knowledge and ignorance in the field. I became interested through a college reading of the Worldly Philosophers by Heilbroner and its introduction to the field of political economy. From A. Smith and its origiins, to the present the field has disintegrated from its origins as Heilbroner put it in a 1996 iinterview:
“ The worldly philosophers thought their task was to model all the complexities of an economic system — the political, the sociological, the psychological, the moral, the historical. And modern economists, au contraire, do not want so complex a vision. They favor two-dimensional models that in trying to be scientific leave out too much and leave modern economists without a true understanding of how the system works.”
This description of the field of economics is the root of its current use to obsfucate in the service of those who wish to consider only the welfare of privileged individuals at the expense of the public good or the good of those who are “other”.By leaving out the reality of economic life which exists embedded in a social and political milieu and by reducing it to mathematical formulas that do not and cannot incorporate this milieu, the field serves the interest of the few.
I am not interested at this point in adjudicating the best way to organize our material affairs (e.g. as between socialism and capitalism, as both words are now debased as descriptions of the realities of economic life). This ideology promotes the false understanding that the economy is coextensive with private business and corporations and the government is extraneous to the economy. That understanding effectively excludes from discussion the only force capable of addressing the public good. To broach the idea of the public good or general welfare is to immediately be sidelined from serious consideration in political, social , even legal discourse and be labeled “naïve” or “socialist” or “collectivist”.
But of course reality intrudes and it is clear that the almighty GDP in fact places government at the center. As in this accountiing realiity: GDP = C + I + G + NX, where (GDP) is Gross Domestic Product or the value of all final goods and services provided in the economy, (C) is private consumption, (I) is private investment, (G) is government and (NX) is the net of exports minus imports.
The denial of this reality is what allows our discourse to leave the public good, general welfare out of consideration. We are left with a closed circle of chatter. When the government is actively excluded from our thinking there is no point of entry for the public. Private money concerns become the standard by which all policies are debated and judged. Private material interests are seen as the driving force for the economy and the only legitimate actor. In a market capitalist system then the only criteria for measurement is “what’s good for GM is good for the country (public)”. There is no role for the government.
What is the government? The Constitution suggests it is the people as a whole. Our particular expression of that is representative democracy. Slaves and women were excluded by the constitution. But as that inequity has been rectified, corporations have played an increasing role. It has been increasingly accepted that the business of government is business enhancement and protection not the promotion of the general welfare. There is a knot here that is hard to untangle. The knot protects the threads of corporate interests that thwart consideration of issues of general welfare. All subjects that may fall under general welfare, among others, health care/infrastructure/education/transportation/criminal justice/full employment/housing for all/adequate nutrition. are. treated as if they are fair game for the market. The market will resolve the needs in these areas if left alone or will be subsidized by government on private interest’s terms. But once that paradigm is put into motion the only good that is considered is that of the private interest expressed most notably by the need for profit or yield or return.
The conceptual link I wish to establish is between the ideological position that the government is not a central part of the economy and the inability of our political and social discourse to consider the public good. This ideology relies on its misrepresentation of the reality of the government’s role in the economy to promote its agenda that the government is “alien” to the real economy, always and everywhere a drag on it. There is no space for consideration of the public good as it is assumed the natural result of an unfettered market economy will produce the maximum public good via the woefully misused “invisible hand”.
What precisely is the reality of the government and the economy as opposed to the nonsense that is now thoroughly internalized into all discussions of what is possible. (This nonsense precludes the constructive discussion as to what the government should do. It fits perfectly with small goverment ideology.The discussion will be examined more fully in the next section on the psychological issues behind fear of the public good concept.):
-The US government is a sovereign money issuer. It cannot become insolvent. In this it is radically different from a business or household. It cannot run out of money
- Its limits are those imposed by the availability or lack thereof of real resources.
- - It does not need taxes to spend. Taxes are only used to drain the economy of money to assure inflation resulting from too much money chasing too few resources does not become a problem. Or to address agreed upon public good needs (e.g. taxes on tobacco due to its cost to health care system).
- -Money is created by keystrokes, not by printing.
- -Banks create money by lending which creates deposits which are then used for consumption or investment.
- -The GDP formula above by definition demonstrates that demand can come only from consumption, net exports or government spending. Government spending is intrinsic not extraneous in the economy. And if the private sector wishes to save then only government spending or net exports can supply the demand to sustain or increase GDP.
- - Thus government spending is not constrained by any force other than a lack of real resources. The deficit is only a constraint if there are no resources to purchase. If there is true full employment, there is less space for government spending.
- -By fully digesting these facts, those favoring public efforts on the part of government can become less self-constrained. Opponents of addressing the public good drop their protest that government cannot afford something if the issue is defense (just say “homeland security”) or prison construction or tax loopholes for large donors especially when the money can go to private interests (the drive to privatize) with the notion that these interests are better performers. But these parties are in the forefront promoting hysteria re deficits and federal debt.
- The economic fallacies about the role and power of the government in the economy serve the purpose as I indicated above to thwart discussion about the role of government in fostering the public good by purporting to show the government is constrained economically unless it wants to intercede where it is harmful, that is into the economy. They further the ideology that small govenment is the goal of political liife rather than the gemeral welfare.
Random examples of how this dynamic interferes with discussion of the public good:
- - Today we have persistent and deep unemployment which saps individuals and communities. There is much anguish about the slow recovery from 2008 in the job market. There is much haggling about how the government and uncertainties about its policies are retarding the growth. There is much effort to establish that the problem lies with workers, not skilled enough or too dependent on welfare programs. These supply side assertions simply are efforts to deflect attention from what is obvious, the lack of aggregate demand. The money piling up in Fed accounts from QE operations and in corporate profits (now at their highest relative to wages) is not being used to produce because there is no demand. Wages are stagnant and have been now for decades for most workers. Increased wealth at the top does not result in increased demand outside luxury markets. Going back to the GDP formula, a change in US trade from importer to exporter or increased government spending will supply the demand. But the debate is not even joined as to which of these 2 should be addressed because the deficit hysteria lurks beneath the surface and no one has the balls to raise the issue of direct government creation of jobs and the trade imbalance serves major corporate players. And as with all this essay “journalism” in broadest sense both promulgates nonsense and fails to call it out.
- - The current logjam over infrastructure needs founders on the issue of federal spending. In this case federal. fundung could. either create jobs in the private sector or directly establish entities to rebuild. But of course the debate turns into how to pay for it which debate ignores that the government can pay for public good demands as long as there are available resources, material and manpower and doesnt iin fact need taxes. The water supply systems that continue with high lead issues would be a place. to start.
- - The current debate about how much military and humanitarian aid to deliver in Iraq is a reverse example of this. There is no economic dispute here. The money will be forthcoming if there is an identified public good in aiding desperate refugees. Why is there no debate? Because the people who will support this effort or even more of an effort know there is no money constraint yet they will persist to deplore any and all deficit spending. There were no taxes raised to pursue the harebrained Iraq war and there was no need to do so because the US had plenty of resources to sell itself. These were wasted on an issue that clearly was not a public good but the lesson for us is that the US government has all the money it can use for whatever we as a people want if we decide it is in the public good. War bonds did not finance WW2. They prevented rampant inflation by taking money out of circulation that then was used when war ended to shift resource use from military to civilian projects.
II. The denial of the factual understanding of the role of government in the economy is an attempt to take the public good off the table because to leave it on the table to is open up discussions about what government can and should do. The need to present government as alien is rooted in social and psychological issues. It is rooted in another type of denial.
There is no fiscal constraint per se on government examining and promoting the public good. There are real constraints however. They are constraints of empathy and imagination. They preclude us from asking what is best for all of us. Politics are about the ends that matter most to every person rather than what each person finds matters most to him or her. Compassion and empathy would allow us to see what a wasteland many of our fellow citizens inhabit and by extension the often infinitely greater suffering experienced by those in other nations. Imagination would free us from the artificial chains of an economic system misunderstanding and associated fears about losing out in this world of jobs of which there are chronically not enough to go around nor to pay enough to live on. Imagination is necessary to answer the TINA (to market capitalism) excuse given for the status quo. (Yes, Margaret, there is a “ society” just as there is a “market” and a. “family”, all “concepts” which encompass the all the “individuals” you extoll, idealize, and chastise.)
The empathy constraint combined with the false notion of what could be done for the public good doesn’t allow us to fully appreciate that the US is overflowing with abundance. We are locked into our privatized worlds only able to see our own precarious position in a dehumanized system of acquisition and distribution that provides niches for us as replaceable cogs rather than roles which provide a status of respect. For most Americans and for even larger portions of the world’s population the current wage labor system leaves room for many being cogs but increasing numbers extruded as “waste”. Current economic arrangements are said to be the only alternative. Thus we have abundance, a resource system (the economy) that leaves large segments of the population in anxiety re their place in the system, and a substantial segment with no place. Empathy is hard to generate on a large scale if one is not secure. Of course these SPEW (social political economic world) arrangements are ones defended by the groups who actually are experiencing and enjoying the abundance but who are unable to free themselves from comfort sufficiently to allow empathy for others suffering. Ideology (government is bad) and opinion (based on false self-serving economic fantasies) drive policy and are taken as dogma by corporate controlled “journalism”.
The empathy constraint completely blinds us to Ignazio Silone’s observation “Only loss is universal, and true cosmopolitanism in this world must be based on suffering “. We become so fearful of losing our own role that we are unable to absorb the truth of this observation. This fear has paralyzed us so we are unable to see that our collective abundance gives us an opportunity to address both our own anxiety re our role and the suffering of others. This paralysis is enhanced by those whose self-interest leads them to hobble our collective (oops that bad word) capacity to address those needs by us, i.e. the government.
The link I wish to make is between our existential fears and our inability to recognize or address the “public good”. The fact is that each individual will die and en route to that destiny will be vulnerable to many contingent and structural threats to both life and well-being. Many if not most of these threats will arise from situations out of our control. We are born with a hard wired system in place, genetically determined. into an environment not of our choosing and will be directed, protected, exposed in all sorts of circumstances not of our choosing. The dreaded Karl Marx says it well:” humans make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” To face the harshness of the reality that we are not self-created and our subjected to this perilous existential state is very difficult and only rarely do we ever do so. Mainly we deny. Ernest Becker summarized it as the denial of death. He saw that this denial seeps into the SPEW we create. It manifests itself in the structures we create, in the mores we practice, in the culture in which we are embedded, in the roles we have elaborated for our social lives.
This denial is the empathy constraint which prevents us from looking closely at the issue of the public good and the imagination constraint which keeps us from recognizing there is no fiscal constraint to the government’s capacity to address the public good. . Without empathy and imagination we are unable truly to do politics which is aimed at the public good, to do economics which is aimed at resourcing all of us not just a few, to do social structures which are aimed to the flourishing of all and the exclusion of none. The failure of empathy and imagination is rooted in the fear that there is not enough which fear strikes us at our deepest level of self-interest. This fear is so deep it fosters models of the world which make it seem as if in fact there is not enough even when it is clear there could be.
The fear that there is not enough is rooted in our awareness of our vulnerability to loss, to death. The denial of that fear and its awareness blocks empathy because empathy would require us to recognize the other’s vulnerability as a feature of their nature not as a result of their being responsible for their situation. But given our denial of our own basic dependence we become blind to that of others. This denial of our universal dependence upon our genetic material, our family history, and our formative and current environments limits are ability to “stand under” the other. And beyond the failure to see the other, this empathy constraint hinders our looking at the role the construction of the SPEW plays in human failures.
A major way modern capital society has constructed itself to protect individuals from the clarity of the human condition of mortality, finitude, contingency, and precarious financial survival is to sort individuals into those who are productive, the highest state of the capitalist wage labor society and all the rest. Note that 2 of the most important and fethisized measurements are growth and productivity. Productive citizens are not only the only group rewarded (and obviously on different scales for each class) but a particular subset are the lionized, the heroes of the society, the creators no less. But at least the role of producer leaves one with one role that is valorized, a chance to be a hero. However the gates to a respected status are barred for all the others. In any system, and the SPEW is a system of human processing like all systems, there is desired output but also inherently there is waste, now often referred to as pollution. And the SPEW is no different. There is a WASTE system to “handle” our human waste. (cf. see Pope Francis)
When the general welfare or the public good is offered as a rationale for action an immediate blockage occurs based on the rush to consider who will benefit. The fear is that those who are not productive will benefit at the expense of the productive. It adds another layer to our inability to consider the public good. We don’t want people who are not producing to share in the fruits of our labor. Government activity for the public good necessarily implies a broader category of recipients for the most vital public goods, roads, schools, health care, safe environments. And it is hard to make sure only the most deserving obtain these goods so it may be better to not supply them as a public good but rather as a private market accessible to those who are productive and thus deserving. If we layer judgements of worth onto considerations of government action already seen as limited by fiscal constraints, we are even farther from allowing these considerations.
Those who are not productive, those not working for wages or not receiving rent or earning dividends, are pollutants or waste, the “takers” or recent campaign fame. What roles consign one to the. waste system? They include disabled, unemployed, aged especially those requiring care, all children no matter how lionized but especially those who are academically failing, the mentally ill (the “crazy”), the developmentally delayed (the old “retarded”), criminals (“the evil”), undocumented immigrants. (“illegals”, no matter whether working or not, undesirable), the substance abusers (“druggies and drunks”, often mixed in with the criminal and mentally ill). Now one cannot be in both the productive and the waste systems. Where they intersect e.g. the sociopathic financier, the alcoholic physician, the early demented President, the productive establish their own means of processing, usually by buying out of the waste system whether legal help, or private medical help, or sycophants. The waste system is by definition “public”. Therefore it would be in the purview of general welfare or the public good. And therefore not able to be discussed especially in respect to common or government action as the people in the system are not deserving, they are there by choice or by circumstances that we can do nothing about as there is no alternative to the current SPEW.
Empathy is precluded from a role and imagination is sidelined as judgement intervenes, ideology takes over, and denial overwhelms.
So we are back to the failure to allow for discussion of alternative SPEW arrangements. Critique and analysis of the vicious circle I have traced above is needed. The goal would be to identify an entry into that circle to foster its breaking. If we grant that for various reasons the public good, the general welfare cannot be allowed for a discussion in our political life, the link needs to be broken between the unconscious forces that retard each individual’s resistance to change in the SPEW and the overt economic misinformation on capitalism and government. There is simply no compelling secular reason for any individual citizen who is not in the waste system to push for a basic change in the way we organize ourselves. I say secular because there are clearly religious reasons to question the grounds of our SPEW (cf. Pope Francis again).
But the most significant social revolution of last half of 20th century, civil rights, was fueled by spiritual leadership. That movement showed reason alone will be ineffective when opposed by strong psychosocial forces especially ones that are often unconscious. But lacking that level of leadership today, I think the only way to break into this circle is through a relentless educational effort from the campaign trail to the web to print to local presentations. The focus of this effort would be to eradicate the idea of the government’s fiscal constraint. It would not be to suggest what the government could do or should do. But only that the limits on the government funding are the citizens’ wishes and the real resources available to meet them. The dismantling of the “government budget is like a family budget” metaphor would be the target.
If successful this effort would then allow space to examine the abundance of our wealth in the context of the public good. No current status and security would be threatened, no “undeserving” would necessarily benefit, no intrusions on liberty would be forthcoming. The simple knowledge that there could be available funds for whatever was deemed worthwhile and necessary by the citizens would allow a freedom of political discourse now totally shut off by this mistaken notion of the limits on the fiscal capacity of a soverign government. The Gordian knot between fiscal constraints on government spending and individual fears could be cut.
If cut, we would assume the requirement that we act as citizens of a democracy, responsible for what is done and not done. There would be need for real debate about what constitutes the public good once false fiscal constraints were unshackled. There would be an urgency to seeing what the government, that is citizens, could do. Empathy and compassion could be allowed a place in policy discussions and not shunted to the Features sections of journalism. How would this alter the death grip expressed as TINA?
This death grip is paralyzing when we try to look clearly at the world and the suffering that is in front of our faces. Clearly not all suffering. is the result of our poliitical economy.. But the political economy dominated. by capitalist neoliberal. “free” market mythology thwarts efforts to make the suffering, either that caused by our political economy or that caused by our fallible human condition, a target for action. As noted earlier this suffering is universal and in toto it is staggering and inescapable. It is personal, familial, local, national, and international. No public policies. will change our natural human condition but they should neither make our prediicament worse nor fail to alleviate it when possible. The current political season offers little hope. We need to unravel the web we have created by myths, historical amnesia, false cultural assumptions, psychological mechanisms of denial, and yes, spiritual emptiness. I would love to offer some ideas to address the issues I raise in this critique. I can only offer the suggestion we recognize. and promulgate the fallacy of the “fiscal constraint” of the govenment. And address the “empathy” constraint imposed by the denial of the fact of our dependency manifested by our need of each other and our being subject to contingencies not of our own creation.