Beginning next week I will be posting a set of thoughts on the economy: Growth; Debt; Work; and, I hope, a concluding post with "Another Way." This post is something of a promissory note and a prolegomena. I have been waiting and thinking, trying with some effort to get beyond the din of voices at a time when everyone is an economist and no one has a very good "answer." It is difficult to gain perspective amid the avalanche of expert views.
I am not by training nor inclination an economist. Still, as a political theorist, the economy is an area of deep concern - it is one of the major forces that is shaped by our deepest political assumptions, and in turn shapes our politics. I can claim no special expertise about what sorts of policies are needed, but I can point to a considerable "public" record of deep concern over the direction of our economy that dates back to the very inception of this "blawg." At a time when so many of our professional economists are wondering what happened and why the crisis wasn't widely anticipated by the purportedly most scientific of the social sciences, there were some - and I would include myself - who foresaw a painful and wrenching reckoning. I wrote here nearly two years ago of a "global ponzi scheme," of the excessive indebtedness of our fellow citizens born of deep irresponsibility, of the general narrowness of our temporal horizon, of our generational neglect.
I sought out the views of experts who were inclined to see and understand our economy as due for a fall - people like James Grant and Jeremy Grantham, viewed by many (for a time at least) as doomsayers in the wilderness (and now, perhaps, as Cassandras). I began writing about the implications of peak oil before the atmospheric rise in the price of oil, thinking especially about the implications of an energy constrained and growth-challenged future in ways that the field of political theory almost entirely neglected (indeed, my fears and concerns about oil depletion was the reason I considered first starting this "blawg"). I suggested that it would be wise to consider shorting the market (and lamented that my retirement fund only allowed the default assumption of permanent growth) and suggested that gold was something worth acquiring.
I note my apparent precocity not to crow, but to stress that my general accuracy bore no relationship to my economic acumen. I was drawn to read the "bears" and pessimists not because I had special insight into their correctness, but because of a pre-existing set of assumptions that drew me to their conclusions. I would submit that it was that same existence of a very different set of pre-existing assumptions about the permanence of growth that attracted most Americans to the predominant views of most of our economist class.
In short, my interest in, and fears for, the state of our economy was born of a set of moral concerns. It arose from the belief that our economy was built on a set of deeper behaviors that were ultimately self-destructive. I believed that our impending crisis - and believe our current crisis - is moral, not merely economic. And, to the extent that most of our chattering classes suggest that the "problem" can be fixed by this or that policy - example number 1, a "stimulus package" - we remain in deep self-denial about the source of this crisis and the true path to its resolution.
Indeed, our self-delusion commits us to further self-destruction. The dominant "debate" in this country is about the best means of restoring our economic "health," whether through tax cuts or government spending. Both major parties fundamentally agree that what is desired is the resumption of our "normal" economy, unwilling to face the fact of the matter that our economy is not, and has not, been "healthy." Our economy - premised upon permanent growth within a closed system - is based on profound falsehood. The implicit belief that unleashed appetite and consumption represent "health" is a stunning faith commitment among our elders. The claims that we can square the values of social justice (among the Democrats) or family values (among the Republicans) and a rapacious and presentist economic order is deeply self-delusional. We still refuse to see the moral dimension of our crisis, and to that extent will only deepen and prolong it. The "stimulus package" continues the basic bad habits we have developed, premised upon the belief that deeper debt produces greater growth. If it weren't so colossally tragic it would be risible.
Our deepest problem perhaps lies in our compartmentalization of the nature of this moment. In viewing it as "economic," we obscure from ourselves the deeper connections between our economic collapse, the ravaging of the natural world, the lack of self-discipline of our "personal" moral behavior, the daily growing illegitimacy of our republican government. All of these phenomena - and many others, more wide to be expressed in one post or by one person - are deeply connected to, and ultimately derive from, the deepest presuppositions of our modern age - namely, the unleashing of the human appetite in the belief that it constitutes a positive good. Our incapacity and inability to exercise self-government lies most deeply across the spectrum of our current crises. All around us we face a denouement of our deepest philosophical convictions, a perfect storm of the logic of the age. To think for a moment we require the some perfect "fix" for the discrete problem in our economic system is a self-delusive luxury we can ill afford to believe and act upon any longer.
More, much more needs to be said. I will try, in coming days.