Mon Mar 5th, 2007 at 05:15:22 AM EST
From the diaries. Geonomist's introduction to ET and most of the text posted below the fold. -- Jérôme
The neo-liberal, so-called "free market " philosophy utterly permeates, and dominates, the U.S. political-economic discourse. To listen to almost any U.S. news or current events show, particularly dealing with economic issues is to engage with a specially created language designed to force the listener to reach certain conclusions. In this corrupted language (and accompanying world-view) several stock truths just always present themselves as obvious.
1) Government in service to ordinary people is evil and incompetent.
2) "Lower taxes", or lower wages, or possibly both can solve all economic problems.
3) "Investment" is a magic elixir and must always have first priority for public policy.
4) The poor are to blame for systematic poverty and nothing can really be done about poverty.
5) Everything would be fine if government would just leave "industry" alone.
6) "Private Property" is so obviously sacred that even asking for a definition makes the asker deeply suspect.
7) People who don't accept 1-6 might be well intended, but they are really just stupid and making things worse.
The corruption of our language is no accident.
This is my first posting on the European Tribune. My post comes at Jerome's request regarding comments I made to one of his diaries on Daily Kos. It will require a series of several diaries to cover my subject completely so this one will be the first of several that will build on each other. I believe that most what I write is applicable to Europe, although I admit to writing from the perspective of being an American and so it is possible that some examples I use may not apply in quite the same degree in Europe as in the USA. I will cross-post this on Daily Kos but without this opening paragraph.
Those interested in how this happened can find an excellent read in Mason Gaffney's The Corruption of Economics.
Gaffney takes you back to the original sources, in their own sick words. There is no need for "conspiracy theories" here just go read what these maniacs said and wrote. John D. Rockefeller led the "deep lobbying" effort by founding the University of Chicago with the explicit purpose of creating a language of economics guaranteed to make it almost impossible to think certain thoughts. What follows is an exploration of those thoughts, which according to "free market" theorists you aren't supposed to be having.
As progressive/left activists we must create a counter narrative to the prevailing "free market" religion. To be powerful our new narrative must be morally compelling, consistent, and do-able. I believe that the first step to creating our narrative lies with one very special word: Privilege.
It is a telling detail that in the English language today the word privilege has lost its clear original meaning with no other word providing a clear alternative. People speak casually about how "It's a privilege to be here" or some other vague notion of something they like or enjoy while they might not even be able to provide the original meaning of the word. The word privilege comes from the Latin words for "Private Law." The Romans were very clear about what "Private Laws" meant. Laws were passed that allowed one person, or group of persons rights not granted to everyone else. Privileges didn't stop existing just because we stopped thinking clearly about them. We must resurrect the concept of privilege and own its re-born definition.
Economic privileges include "ownership" of broadcast spectrum, corporate immunity, land, minerals, tax favors, patents, aircraft landing rights, fishing rights, access to courts, and many others. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the main activity of governments is to create, regulate, and maintain privileges. What do all of these privileges have in common?
- They are created by government and are thus their treatment is a matter of public policy, not any "natural" or "inevitable" condition. Every privilege created represents a loss of freedom for everyone not included in the privilege.
- They alter the distribution wealth in a manner that enriches those holding the privileges, without their having to actually produce anything to enjoy their riches. That is, privileges are not wealth directly, but create a legally enforceable claim on wealth that someone else produces. Through privileges governments force some people to work for others and also force workers to work for less than they might otherwise.
- Privileges can be taxed annually up to their full rentable value without interfering, even in the slightest, with the net production of wealth. This non-shift-ability of taxes on privileges is probably the most important truth in economics yet you will never hear it even whispered on a news show dealing with taxes or economic issues. And oddly, no competent economist from the left or the right would even dispute the truth of the statement although almost all will vigorously ignore it. (This single point is so important that it will be the subject of a future diary by itself.)
- The combination of taxing privileges more while abolishing taxes on labor would bring about a natural buoyancy to wages, while greatly leveling incomes generally. (Ricardo was right.) Conversely, the combination of taxes on labor with little (or no) charges for privilege creates a downward pressure on wages. It is a perverse fact that people are so accustomed to this downward pressure that they think it is normal, when in fact, it is the result of brutal policy choices.
We on the left desperately need to categorize and value all privileges in a systematic way. We need to know how much each privilege is worth and be able to put the quantitative smackdown to glib right-wing sophistry dominating the media. To speak of "freedom" when privileged people are stomping all over labor is absurd in the extreme. We need to architect a grand "tax-shift" ideology. The theme might be summarized by something like: "Abolish taxation on labor, and charge the full value of privileges as compensation for the harm done."
Consider the power and truth of the following statements and how they might form the beginning of a powerful new narrative.
- Charges for privilege are compensation for the loss of freedom inflicted on others by the creation of privilege in the first place. Revenue structured around privileges increases everyone's economic freedom while furthermore the absence of charges on privileges simply uses government power to help a privilege "owner" levy taxes on labor while giving nothing in return. When the Republicans say they favor "tax relief" what they are really saying is that they want to privatize for themselves the right to levy taxes on labor. Without charges that neutralize the power of privilege labor will never benefit from "tax reductions".
- Charges on privileges are necessary for a freely functioning economy, not a "burden" to be reluctantly borne.
- Charges for privileges can provide all the revenue we need for public services. They might even provide an excess over necessities, which could be rebated to the citizens as a dividend representing their ownership in their own countries.
No Progressive/Left politician should ever be bashful about demanding payment for the full value of privileges. In fact they are remiss for not demanding payment for privileges. But as soon as our Liberal/Left politician agrees to talk within the right-wing frame of "tax relief" without consideration of privileges he/she has pretty much conceded defeat. Let's force the right-wingers to talk about privileges, where they come from, who owns them, and what effect they have on everyone else. Forcing the economic conversation to center on privileges will always be sound strategy for us but we must be prepared to have that conversation.
I have been writing here of privileges in the sense of legal/economic privileges but I am also drawn to the idea because of its broader philosophical coherency and consistency. The idea of privilege provides a framework for thinking about a wide range of issues. In all circumstances we can envision some form of reciprocity attached to a privilege, even in personal situations. We allow elected officials in a democracy to wield exceptional powers but we demand a quid pro quo in the form of elections in which we can (theoretically) remove them. We give police exceptional powers but demand certain reciprocal control over them. On more personal levels, if we are in a conversation only one person can talk at any one moment. A small "local privilege" is created when one person speaks. What is required in return? In normal polite conversation we might reasonably expect a more or less equal sharing and we might expect the speaker to pay us the respect of saying something worth listening to. When the privileges of conversation are not respected we recognize the imbalance and probably end the conversation. Inter-generational justice issues also fit within the framework of privilege. In the span of a little more than one century the humans alive at this time will consume all of the petroleum contained in the earth for billions of years, thus denying all future generations of people the possibility of using these resources. What do we owe them for this privilege of denying them use of this amazing resource? (I find the question to be staggering in its implications.) There are still privileges in America associated with being white. I am not sure just what reciprocity is required to restore justice but at least we have a way to frame the question. The concept of privilege bears on the relationships between the sexes. My wife and I have children and the process of bearing children does not fall evenly on the sexes. What do we owe each other?
I don't bring up these last issues just for philosophical amusement. If we are to create a compelling new Liberal/Left narrative we will serve ourselves well strategically if our new narrative comprehends a large chunk of the human experience. A powerful narrative will allow the user to think through a wide range of issues with a small number of key concepts. The particular features of any given situation may require a great deal of nuance but the broad contour of the situation should be quickly recognizable. I submit to you the concept of privilege as the first key idea for building a new narrative.