For nearly two centuries, literature, from Marx and Dickens to Thomas Picketty and Barbara Ehrenreich, has dissected and exposed the machinations of the greedy wealthy. Turn their pockets, make them pay their fair share, and a fairer society may be possible.
No one is tied to a chair and forced to watch nonsense like Fox News. Perhaps the most insidious propaganda is deliberately self-administered.
This feeling is not wrong. If someone like Elon Musk has a higher net worth than the gross domestic product of a country like Ukraine, with over 40 million people, something is wrong. But what if the analysis is incomplete? Suppose there is more collusion with the rich and powerful, and not just from their public relations people, lawyers and financial advisers, but from tens of millions of people who get no benefit from it?
Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, wrote about a conservative acquaintance. Years ago this person, a British immigrant, admitted that he didn’t like guns and didn’t want them near his children. But he agreed with the NRA’s position on guns as a matter of ideological solidarity. Lately, he bought a gun and sees himself protecting his home and family from the hordes of crazed criminals on Night of the Living Dead.
Marshall then discussed the police stance on gun control. Traditionally, they were in favor of it; it made sense, since they were the people authorized and paid by the citizens to confront the armed killers. Hence their campaigns against armour-piercing (“cop killer”) bullets, high-capacity automatic rifles, etc.
Although the conservative guy and the police see the problem from different existential situations, they have both taken positions contrary to their rational self-interest. The Tory is far less likely to save his family in a fantasy shooting than to see his children endangered by a gunman at their school or other public place. And the attitude of the cops is crazy that literally anyone can carry a concealed weapon under any circumstance, anywhere, without a permit, as several state legislatures contemplate.
These are examples of irrational thinking, an aberration whereby our picture of the world does not correspond to our own enlightened self-interest. Those affected reduce their chances of biological survival in favor of a vague and thoughtless “ideal”.
Progressives wonder why this happens in economics. At one time in our history, this was rarely the case. Farmers in the late 19th century knew exactly how the railroads, grain wholesalers and banks fucked them. Likewise, organized workers from the Homestead Strike to the Battle of the Viaduct fought and died in shocking numbers for the simple dignity of working as freemen rather than wage slaves.
Not anymore. In 2016, the farm vote went 70-80% to a candidate who made it clear to them that he would start a tariff war with the farmers’ biggest foreign customer for soybeans and pork. For good measure, it would cut off the source of labor they needed for harvesting and downstream processing. Farm incomes have fallen and rural suicides have increased. No matter; they voted for that same candidate in 2020 in even greater numbers.
In 2019, a vote on whether to unionize was held at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant. VW, which actually has union members on its board in Germany, said it was union neutral so no heavy-handed Amazon-like tactics were used against employees. factory hours. The workers voted against.
Why? It is easy to say that people are insidiously driven to act against their own interests on behalf of the rich and powerful. Sure, pro-business propaganda permeates the national realm, but that was the case in the Golden Age, when laissez-faire anthems like Acres of Diamonds flooded the presses. And no one is tied to a chair and forced to watch nonsense like Fox News. Perhaps the most insidious propaganda is deliberately self-administered.
There is a tradition as old as this republic, a republic whose colonization was started by reckless English nobility in search of gold in the malarious swamps of Jamestown. John Steinbeck described it: “The poor do not see themselves as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Normally this attitude was not dominant, but perhaps the seemingly effortless prosperity of the post-World War II years caused self-preservation reflexes to atrophy.
Combine that with the rise of fundamentalist religion. Many sects push the gospel of prosperity: riches are a sign of God’s favor; poverty is a mark of divine disfavour. Along with the pervasive scam in evangelical circles (a gift to the church – i.e. the pastor – is a “love offering” that will bring good fortune to the giver), as well as the Religion’s aversion to critical thinking in general, the parishioners play the role of sheep waiting to be sheared. Yet fundamentalism combines this obsession with money, oddly, with the notion that the material world is an illusion and the “real” world is an invisible realm of the mind.
Critical thinking is not very popular these days. In 2017 (the last year on record and before COVID curtailed people’s visits to stores), Americans spent $71 billion on lottery tickets nationwide, an average of over $1,000 a year. and per consumer. With the odds of winning the Mega Millions at one in 302 million, there are good reasons why mathematicians don’t play the lottery. There’s also a good reason why the Texas Republican Party platform contains a clause opposing the teaching of critical thinking in public schools.
This irrationality applies even when life itself is at stake. Why would a disabled Kentucky retiree, finally receiving medical treatment through Obamacare, vote for Matt Bevin, whose signature campaign theme was abolishing the program? Kentucky’s Obamacare? There are countless cases in which people willingly died in pain to prove COVID was a hoax; admittedly, some were cases that looked so much like poetic justice that you had to have a heart of stone NOT to laugh.
These conclusions are not the result of a theoretical study. I remember a longtime colleague on Capitol Hill when I worked there. I’ll call him Roger, because that was his name. Like a surprising number of people in Washington, he hated the government while making a career out of it. His passion was proposing pay and benefit cuts for federal employment. As you can imagine, this caused some consternation among colleagues.
Eventually he had to leave the government with a terminal illness. Another ex-employee told me how Roger complained to him when he visited him in the hospital where his life was going to end, that he had somehow been screwed out of his pension and his benefits medical. Irony was perhaps not his forte.
Current political science, sociology and economics are all based to some extent on the rational actor model; that people make choices based on rational interests. Likewise, representative government incorporates the separation of powers: somehow, as if by magic, optimal solutions and “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” will emerge from the free play of interests. opposites and rationally explainable.
This theory is overdue for review. If people are wasting money, opportunities and their very lives chasing destructive illusions, then they might as well go back to the divine right of kings or the selection of rulers by lottery.