The ongoing, quite painful and confusing political standoff in Washington is a dual cliffhanger. There’s the slow motion game of Democrat and Republican behemoths playing chicken over continuing regular Federal government funding. And there’s the simultaneous slo-mo race toward the edge over raising the Federal borrowing limit. All of this is a big deal. It’s political drama. It’s also a sometimes genuinely tragic and sometimes melodramatic confrontation with the fact that many of us either need or take for granted certain government services. And it’s definitely a spectacular bare-it-all moment, when it becomes clear that the American voting population is BOTH split AND ambivalent in their beliefs about how money and debt work across private-public and local-global boundaries.
This post addresses this last issue: the ambivalence we have about money and debt.
This ambivalence may be gleaned from survey data published by the Pew Center, in an opinion poll report that I addressed in my previous post on the government shutdown. In the top right panel, it is clear that most people polled state that if the debt ceiling isn’t raised, it’s cause for worry. In fact, the Pew Center report notes that the aggregate opinion favoring raising the debt ceiling has actually improved since the last Washington standoff over this issue, from 40% in 2011 to 47% earlier this week. Yet, the political partisan divide in opinion about how serious the debt ceiling persists. And it’s, well, really conspicuous. For non-Tea Party Republicans, the opinion pattern is almost precisely flipped, when compared to the overall population. 47% of “mainstream” Republicans don’t think it’s a problem if the Federal government cannot borrow enough money to pay existing bills and debt obligations. 40% see raising the debt ceiling as important. The opinion that the debt ceiling should not be raised is by far most common, though, among Tea Party Republicans, where a large majority (64%) are not worried about any consequences of going past next week’s deadline (after which the Federal government will have insufficient funds without the ability to borrow more).
Now, this is clearly a situation in which large groups of adults within a single cultural system simply have developed incompatibly divergent beliefs about how reality works–and is going to work in the near future.
Or … Normalizing Anthropology’s Engagement with the Centers of Power
When you think “Anthropology,” you probably don’t immediately think, “Yes, those are the academic types that get tapped as regular op-ed writers for major newspapers, write engaging books about broadly relevant topics that large audiences want to read, and get access to the corridors of political and corporate power to advise on big, mainstream political and elite media topics like tax policy, effective institutional organization, and international affairs.” More power to Paul Krugman, but anthropologists are like most other academics; the detailed, specialized concepts and observations we scrutinize and discuss are really comfortable for us to deal with, day in, day out … but as we inhabit this specialized world of work and thought, we have a hard time building and maintaining paths of relevance with communities other than those we study. Moreover, the communities we study tend to be on the margins of contemporary economic and political power. I’ve already discussed Keith Hart’s important ethnographic and activist work on the project of humanizing economic networks, something he addresses and references extensively on the website The Memory Bank. He is particular interested in how grass-roots open currency systems can exist alongside national and supranational ones, facilitating inclusion, empowerment, and resilience of individuals and small networks who are constituted by complex lives and identities … and perhaps most importantly, who have economic connections that fray quickly when larger monetary dynamics–inflation or deflation driven by employment cycles, global credit cycles, industrial commodity prices, or national or international politics–suddenly make everything a greater hardship, throwing into tumult any future plans or hopes. Hart’s vision may aim to reach the global scale, but his ethnographic engagement remains not only local, but with better connecting the politically and economically marginal. (Daniel Lende has a nice discussion of this issue at the Neuroanthropology Blog, showing the importance of such seemingly marginal small projects, which can have really high local impact, in growing the relevance of Anthropology.) The marginality of the communities I study is incomparably greater. Not only am I dealing with prehistoric communities, marginal to written history; I’m dealing with groups whose constituents will always be anonymous … and about whom there are legitimate scientific questions about whether they were actually different from us in some fundamental biological ways. And I mainly have just their garbage and the dirt they tracked around to go by. So, like most anthropologists, I have to admit that my research isn’t going to offer direct suggestions about how to humanize contemporary, massive economies all the way to their centers.
Still, anthropologists can offer relevant, constructive ideas for changing the cultural status quo around the centers of power, where big money and mass media tend to distort our interests and how we use dramatic, mythologized or ritualized narratives to resolve our conflicts of interest in emotional but all-too-often shortsighted ways.
Something really struck me about an interview that former Reagan Administration budget chief (and remarkably forthright internal critic) David Stockman gave to Yahoo! Finance on Friday. In this interview Stockman claims that the Affordable Care Act–that is, Obamacare–is “the worst law ever passed in the last four decades by the federal government.” Stockman continues, describing it as “a massive entitlement to end all entitlements,” asserting:
It is going to cause a fiscal hemorrhage that is not even yet anticipated. It will tie up one-sixth of GDP in the most monstrous, massive, bureaucratic snarl that you can’t imagine. So therefore this needs to be stopped before it becomes operational.
This is one of those moments where the basic classroom exercise of delineating what is fact and what is opinion is quite necessary and useful.
I am prepared to accept the part about 1/6 of US gross domestic product being encompassed–in the not so distant future–by Medicare, Medicaid, and Federal or state-run exchanges for buying private insurance policies. Currently, private and public healthcare costs are already more than 1/6 of US GDP, which is one of the biggest reasons why making insurance more affordable and providing technology, organization, and education concerning preventive healthcare is in every American resident’s long-term interest. Add to that the growing demographic momentum of Baby Boomers entering the ranks of the aging–and thus, bringing with them more costly long-term healthcare needs–and it should be clear that it’s no simple task to get healthcare technology, product, and service supply to meet growing aggregate and per capita demand. Here, Stockman is reasonably boiling a very complicated phenomenon down to a simple fact. Aggregate healthcare costs in the United States will continue to rise in the coming years, likely taking on an even greater proportion of national GDP.
It’s Stockman’s bit about an unimaginably “monstrous bureaucratic snarl” that cannot reach escape velocity from the category opinion’s gravitational pull. There are some very good reasons to hold the opinion that Stockman’s “bureaucratic snarl” characterization is itself really opinion. Not fact.
I’m not making a cheap joke here. There is actually a deeper irony about a core aspect of European Enlightenment thought and the contemporary American political drive to undermine democratic government in the name of individual freedom. The Enlightenment–and especially the political economic philosophy of Adam Smith–can really get Americans’ attention and emotional focus. Smith’s notion of the invisible hand mythically evokes a mysterious but wonderful harmony that free trade and profit-seeking are believed to offer–if only we get enough individual liberty, free from the yoke of government, that is. Yet, the Enlightenment’s fundamental focus is actually different. It is on liberty as especially important for protecting the right to question, apply reason, and act on novel conclusions based on carefully recorded evidence. This certainly isn’t the kind of liberty that gets evoked in most American political discourse.
Of course, this is on my mind because, as of this writing, the US Federal Government has been shut down except for “essential functions” for about 48 hours. In the name of non-partisan critique, I openly acknowledge that there is plenty unenlightened about Democratic Party rhetoric and leadership, but my anthropological focus is on the uncritical, intensely visceral Tea Party Republican appeal that less government results in more liberty, which is seen as always a good thing. This political rhetoric brings our attention straight back to the issue of symbolic violence in American contemporary culture. Here, the Enlightenment-associated symbolic construction of Individual Liberty=Good becomes a rhetorical smokescreen for emotionally mobilizing and exercising raw power: arbitrarily deciding what is non-essential to the function of government in order to make a dramatic, ritualized show of who’s in (hardworking job creators and aspiring, loyal workers and their families) and who’s out (those out to fraudulently take advantage of taxpayer-funded programs) in order to produce a form of domestic sovereign power. The power to decide arbitrarily that whole categories of people risk not being able to pay their bills. Or worse, that they and their children go hungry.
If Anthropology can offer any insight into the history of Western thought (from which Anthropology as a discipline sprang, of course) and how prestige symbols from Western history influence our political thoughts and actions, it is to take the all-important comparative step back–taking the view from afar, seeing Western thought in a broader cultural context. Otherwise, the Enlightenment’s evocative, usually high symbolic value–based as it is on general, often far-too-vague associations with abstract existential conditions we’d usually like to have more of, now and forever, including liberty, improvement, progress, and a real shot at successfully pursuing happiness–becomes symbolic collateral for emotionally investing in positions or desires that hardly invite reason, careful consideration of evidence, logical articulation of your claims or political aims, and committed self-critical examination of your own assumptions, social judgments and goals.
It is encouraging that the 50-year celebration of the 1963 March on Washington has unmistakably gotten the message out–that crime, violence, illegal immigration, and squalid poverty in the United States are not only all too prevalent, but are systemically tied to growing income inequality, which is driven in large part by a dominant ideology that having money genuinely launders how you earned that money, as long as the sovereign legislative, executive, and judicial apparatuses (the political leanings of which may well have been influenced by some of your money, however earned, that you have used to amplify your free speech, in the form of political advertising and other political mass communication forms, such as “robo-calling”) have given you the stamp of approval that your money was earned legally, no matter how exploitative or otherwise unethically you acted.
What is not so encouraging is this. The 50-year celebration of the 1963 March on Washington has not gotten a critical corollary message out–that this ideology of wealth encourages and even celebrates unlimited private comfort, consumption, and continuous entertainment, diverting our attention from simultaneously seeing both sides of contemporary American conservatism. It is a conservative position that possessing legally sanctioned monetary wealth is itself proof of proper morality and personal responsibility. But the other side of this conservative political ideology is that there is a moral inverse: the poor are irresponsible and immoral because they tend to be parasitic violent criminals, illegal immigrants, those who fraudulently receive welfare benefits or perhaps fraudulently vote, or some combination of these.