If one is going to go after sacred cows, one should really go after sacred cows. Most of the people in our society who get credit for "going after sacred cows" are just going after unfashionable ones. At least ones that are unfashionable in the circles they want to appeal to. We live in a world of iconodules posing as iconoclasts.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Governments Have Learned from their Mistakes

It's too easy to satirize the mocking of naive innocents such as Jonah Goldberg, to engage in the fun but unedifying art of tu quoque aimed at the well-meaning gentlemen who note market failure and imply the panacea: Good for what ails you! Got market failure? Government will cure it. Government failure? More government will cure it. Personal problems? Government is here to help you with all your needs.

We live in an era where some fringe cranks focus in an inchoate way on government failure, or the pitfalls of government solutions for perceived market failure.

Sophisticated people focus more on how we acting together in a socially-responsible way can fix the problems that irresponsible private actors have inflicted upon all of us. The enlightened main currents of opinion recognize that it is certainly annoying to clean up after these messes created by private individuals and institutions, but if we don't accept the burden, the costs to us all will be higher.

The trouble is, as sagacious as people like Kevin Drum are when compared to simple-minded people like Jonah Goldberg, these guardians of the main currents of enlightened opinion fail to think beyond stage one: Why is it that bankers won't learn from their mistakes? What incentive structures have been put in place or, as importantly, what has been demolished, so as to discourage them from learning from their mistakes?

Demolished might be too strong a word. Decayed, dissolved, deteriorated might all be better descriptions, as in a building not well maintained, as with much of our public infrastructure (oh, but shovel-ready will fix this as well!)

Here is the question they dislike most, as it reflects a shocking lack of faith in our ability to solve public problems through collective action: Have the institutions they favor demonstrated a better capacity for learning from their mistakes than the ones they mock? If not, why not?

Are California or Michigan or New York &tc doing better learning from their mistakes than Goldman Sachs is? Are they really? We mock the idea that bankers are, but is it a fair mockery? Or the gaunt, chilling laugh of those who are practically undead themselves?

Have the PIIGS learned from their mistakes? Really now, have they? Is there at least as much at stake here as there is in even the biggest "too big to fail" bank or corporation?

Those who think the problem was embedded in a previous Administration or one side of the aisle need to free their minds as well. The reassuring myth that it is all caused by having the wrong sort of people in government, and now we've got the right sort of master-minds involved; those who believe in government and have faith in its capacity to solve all problems, is one they may want to reconsider, and take a more historical view. If they can open their mind to untainted history.

A few points to keep in mind as they open their minds: Firstly, a group that swept into power asserting that they were going to make break with the failed policies of the past often use as one of their cudgels against those who object to their policies the fact that their policies are no different from that of the previous Administration's. This double-think has an old and dishonorable history, dating back at least to the Administration they most admire: FDR's, which has gone down in progressive history as a sharp contrast from the supposedly do-nothing lassez faire Hoover Administration, when the truth was "practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started," as Rex Tugwell admitted.

Why is this ancient history important? Isn't it true that only cranks and nutters, usually on TV or Radio or at some obscure Think Tank, rave on about comparisons between Hoover and FDR? True, but ideological finger-pointing and sneering over this obscures rather than illuminates: It closes the mind you want open to engage in any reconsideration.

Exactly as it is meant to.

In this way, we lose track of the original task: Unravelling the big ball of string that has come down to us, in order to see where it leads us in answering our question: Why our are institutions, private as well as public, apparently no longer capable of learning from experience?

(Btw, how's fixing education working out for you? How has throwing money at the problem worked out for you? Do you retain faith in the same government that has complete and sole responsible for one District's public education system, the District of Columbia's, to solve the problem's of our country's education system? Where does DC rank in per-pupil spending? Has it become the shining jewel which the rest of the country should emulate?. Over the last, pick a time period, lets say 35 years, has government learned from its mistakes when it comes to the provision of education? And yet the wise are confident it will do the best of all possible jobs when it comes to, say, health care...or student loans...or home mortgages...or the auto industry).

Our enlightened, when they speak of society's problems and the need for "society" to address them, they always mean by the later government. <--- Non-sequitur inserted to keep in mind when considering all of this. Is their confident mocking laughter really warranted? From who's knee have the Banker's learned from since 1933 (or before)? Who shields them from the consequences of their own decisions? Who is shielding the rest of us from the consequences of ours? This confidence that we out here, private individuals and institutions, make mistakes, make blunders, but they are wise and will ever nudge us in the Correct Direction, save us from folly, and never lead us all into folly or, like lemmings, off a cliff (such as a cliff of unsustainable unfunded future mandates): Is it justified?

I assume the proper response is: If only we fallible members of the public would ever select the "correct" people to hold public trust, and never the "Right", all would be well: But again, it is our blundering that makes a mess out of their efforts on our behalf. We should not mock this confidence they have in their own ability, good intentions, and their sense that it is only the saboteurs and wreckers that constitute their political opposition who cause failures in government. But we should question this confidence as we untangle the ball of string that they have handed us in the form of opinion-leading Lippmanesque journalism and Schlessingeresque Court Historianism.

We might find that the tu quoque isn't a tu quoque at all, and that indeed it is their mindset that is the source of much of what they decry: That in the evolution of things, the problem is they have created a government that creates problems, then appoints itself to fix them, rinse and repeat ad infinatum, and that after sufficient iterations of this there is an utter displacement of responsibility. Who or what for example is really entirely to blame for the financial crisis? Both and all sides have some merit in the narratives they construct in order to point fingers at their despised boogiemen and hated political opponents. When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible, and this is the political economy we have created, and will deserve until we fix it "as a society."

If you know the solution, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. But if you think you know the solution with the confident mockery that some have, but the solution you have is a sham-solution, one that merely iterates the cycle again rather than breaking and reversing it, then you are not a better man at all, but the worst, however full of passionate intensity you may be.

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