Liberalism 5.0

(This post draws upon Professor Mead’s excellent series of essays on the adaptation of liberalism in America.  For background, see here, here, and here.)

Everything’s amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.

Like in my lifetime the changes in the world have been incredible. When I was a kid we had a rotary phone. We had a phone you had to stand next to and you had to dial it, (yes) you know. You know, you ever realize how primitive, you’re making sparks in a phone and you actually would hate people with zeros in their numbers ’cause it was more (right) oh, this guy’s got two zeros, screw that guy, why do I wanna, ugh… and then if, if they called and you weren’t home the phone would just ring lonely by itself. And then when, if you wanted money you had to go in the bank for (yes) when it was open for like three hours. You had to stand in line, write yourself a check like an idiot, and then when you ran outta money you just go, well I can’t do any more things now (yeah, right) I can’t do any more things (that’s it, yeah) that was it. And, and, and even if you had a credit card they, the guy’d go ugh and he’d bring out this whole shunk, shunk and he’d write and he’d have to call the president to see if you had any money…..

There’s a lot of confusion and rancor going on as employment remains in the toilet and Washington DC resembles a WWI battleground.  Some of it is about plain old economics, but a lot of it revolves around deeper questions about who calls the shots, and why.  Our society has grown, but politics and institutions haven’t kept up.  We haven’t even figured out how to really use the Internet yet.  

…and he stil uses a pen! Ohh, how embarrassing!

As Walter Russell Mead puts it:

Politically speaking, America may be the most confused country in the world.  Millions of people in this country are conservatives and even reactionaries who think they are liberals; we have millions more liberals and radicals who call themselves conservative…..

But today the words have been hijacked.  They’ve been turned into their opposites: a liberal today is somebody who wants to defend and restore the Blue Social Model from the last century; a progressive is now somebody who thinks history has gone horribly wrong and that we must turn the clock back to make things better.

Does this really make sense?

In America today, while “liberals” and “progressives” still are sometimes out there on the barricades for some truly liberal and important values, most of what passes for liberal and progressive politics is a conservative reaction against economic and social changes that the left doesn’t like.

The Blue Social Model isn’t doing very well any more, as anybody who pays attention to headlines knows.  California, New York, Illinois, and Michigan have become synonymous with “badly-run economic basketcases.”  California has a rich, well-educated, largely self-segregated elite that doesn’t particularly seem to care that the rest of the state is teetering on fiscal and governance collapse.  Illinois is a budget basketcase, New York is teetering in the same direction as the result of bad budget decisions, its flagship city run by a man of questionable morals and unquestionable patrician disdain for the concerns of those who live there. Michigan is a great place to buy a house for less than a thousand dollars, if you don’t mind that it’s probably been strip-mined for its copper wiring.

Lest the folks on the right be too tempted to crow (which we at Chez Happycrow reserve for our fellow gatherers-of-eyeballs, thank you very much), there’s legitimate argument about how well rural “red America” would be doing without the heavy Ag subsidies that have come to be taken for granted, too.  While Texas’ fiscal discipline and diversification away from dependence on the hydrocarbon boom/bust cycle is clearly paying off, for instance, it’s not all rugged indepence in RedLand, either.

The appetite of red states for federal subsidies mocks the tirades of their politicians against the federal government.  In March 2008, on the verge of the Great Recession, 22 Republican states were net recipients of federal subsidies, while only 10 Democratic-leaning states were. Sixteen blue states were net payers of federal taxes, compared to only one red state, Texas.

While I don’t share the knee-jerk blue-state bigotry which the author contemptibly and casually tosses off, it would equally be a mistake to dismiss the legitimate arguments — Red Model triumphalism isn’t helpful, particularly because many issues in state governance have less to do with partisan politics than with differences in local culture.

Yes, it’s true. Yankees do know better than anybody else. Just ask one.

Now, lest anybody who’s new to the scene be tempted to engage in ad-hominem regarding Professor Mead, let it be said that the man has impeccable credentials as a mainstream, centrist liberal, and his work is regularly recognized as one of the best of contemporary scholars’ voices.  This is not a guy you’re going to hear on AM radio anytime soon.  On the food-chain of deep thinkers, by comparison to Mr. Mead, Yours Truly Happycrow, with only a handful of obscure academic papers to his credit, is plankton.

That said, the plankton is rebelling.

While many ask whether the blue social model has a future, it may be more interesting to ask what kind of future the blue social model offers. Blue opinion leaders and thinkers are serious people who run many of the leading institutions and companies in American life; they are steering these institutions in ways that fit their ideas about where the country is going and what it needs. Those ideas are pretty conventional and mainstream, but the direction toward which they point is disquieting….The people who work in the cutting edge firms, directly or as contractors, will do extremely well and live fascinating lives. But the rest of the country will be cut off from wealth creation.

Mead sees a future dominated by two groups:  the highly-educated, productive elite….and everybody else, who are good only for second-rate artwork and menial tasks, who have been made obsolete by automation and robots.

Those wealthy coastal elites sure look happy,
but it’s getting hard to identify with them.

After a while, this vision of the future starts to look creepy.  But what can you do in the face of an ongoing revolution in technology that says “ANY repetitive task can be automated?”  It’s not just hapless factory workers, either.  Lawyers and white-collar workers are just as vulnerable.

Mead won’t come out and give a solution.  He’s playing it cagey, mostly because he knows that as soon as he even hints at slaughtering the sacred cows, he’ll simply wind up in the middle of mindless partisan football.  So what will Liberalism 5.0, the cooler next version, actually look like?

Well, that’s actually not so hard to describe as Prof. Mead suggests it is.  While many of the specifics will vary, we’re talking about systems.  And human beings are very good at understanding systems.

The entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium—the state of maximum entropy. Equivalently, perpetual motion machines of the second kind are impossible.

Or, for those of you whose eyes glaze over at wikipedia quotes and discussions of Malthus, here, talk to the evil dubstep robot.  The current methods are failing:  central banks are pushing on thread trying to spur exports and domestic consumption by printing ever-greater quantities of their currency in a game of “beggar thy neighbor.”  It doesn’t work:  it’s never worked, and the results are predictable:   “as history has shown that without fail what follows hyperinflation, is war.”  It’s a global problem, and one that helped cause the Arab Spring – if you think that Egypt is a mess now, what happens when a largely-illiterate nation plagued with violent radicals can’t afford bread?

Thank God, in the US, we’re nowhere near that.  We’re currently in the step before hyperinflation, which is called “financial repression” — artificially low interest rates to prop up the banks and stock market.  We’ve seen that before, too, and this time isn’t different.  Whether it’s pension spending, Central Bank printing, or various forms of “stimulus” to try to create an economy which can handle the Blue Model Imperative of using the creative and successful to fund those who aren’t… it’s failing, because it’s all a game of make-believe — saying “let’s pretend there’s more available energy in the system, and it’ll be all right.”  But those in governance have got to do something, because the class issue Mead describes is understood in even more dire terms than Mead discusses:

As a wealthy liberal journalist in lower Manhattan once complained to me, “Don’t the conservatives understand that if we cut welfare those people in Harlem will march down here and slit our throats?”

Fortunately for Manhattanite throats, the siege mentality isn’t warranted.  There are ways around the problem.

So is humankind, when it’s at its best.

The first, of course, is to correct the assumption: we’re not in a limited system.  We can expand, and expanding, while it has its own issues, will provide opportunities that beggar the imagination.

TELL me that’s not sexy enough for you to go into space.

But, what about the mean time?  Well.  Progressives take heart, because the revolution is here, and it’s your game:  the game of efficiency.

The Agricultural and Industrial revolutions didn’t enhance the quality of life of millions (while allowing for the survival of billions) by farming space-lettuce.  It did it by reducing the cost of getting things done.  You can do much more, with much less, if you’re efficient, and if you use advanced, clean technologies to do the job (clean is profitable — waste is made of saleable products).  The huge bureacracies of the Blue Social Model are already eroding into something significantly more dynamic:

  • Cities are outsourcing their infrastructure-maintenance needs, including one town that outsourced everything.  It’s not a panacea, but when it’s done right, it makes more services available for less money – a clear win for people who want their government, and want it effective.
  • Outsourced bureacracies, when well-run, will be transparent bureacracies — easier to deal with, and much less prone to systemic corruption.
  • One man and a server can now provide educational material that used to require thousands of people.  And it gets results, too.
  • Individual choice is becoming more widespread, and not surprisingly, is increasingly the choice of the with it and stylish. (Though homeschooling, obviously, assumes that somebody can actually stay home to do it — part of what drives it is that it’s more readily-adoptible as an upscale choice.)
  • Civil bureacracies will be smaller, leaner, and more powerful, just as 21st-century manufacturing is.  Our bureacracies will gradually slim down from the “20th-century brickphone” model to something which is lighter, easier to use, and vastly more powerful.
  • As a sheer matter of political survival, politicians are going to be doing everything they can to “get out of the way” of job creators.  There’s only so long that Blue Land will tolerate Texan derision before they decide that fracking and lower business taxes aren’t that bad, after all.  It will come to places like coastal California dead last, but this is already beginning to occur in Michigan.
  • The “crisis” phase to implement these changes will endure until the vast majority of current civil servants and government-union types have retired, as they have too much invested in the system and have no choice but to fight these changes lock, stock, and barrel.    Removing the “government overhead” that prevents people from hiring will be difficult, especially in places where there’s a lot of it.  If I want to hire a guy who I pay $100 a day, and it costs me $50 a day just having him around, then at rock bottom I have to make 175-200 a day from giving that guy a job, or else it’s not worth going through all the hassle of putting him on the payroll.  This isn’t a Blue Model or Red Model affair — this is math.

The meaningful changes will come from the fringes (especially the libertarian fringe, which takes wild experimentation as a given), but become publicly accepted only once they’re adopted by Team Blue.  Who knew that homeschooling, once the domain of “scary religious people,” would become a hipster win?  And that’s already going on, in what Professor Mead refers to as the Blue Civil War, as various parts of Liberalism 4.0 shake out what has to change along with society, and what can remain.  It will be bitterly-contested, but the writing is already on the wall.

They’re open-minded about it, though.

 But the actual truth is that libertarian types are often Blue Model allies.  While a distinct percentage of small-government types are actually anarcho-capitalists who believe that ALL adult interaction should be voluntary, rather than legislated, many of these folks are simply garden-variety Americans who want to sell whole milk at the farmer’s market, and don’t mind the government at all, if it would just be less intrusive.  They will happily aid in innovations in cases where government assists in protecting and improving personal freedoms and human potential.

The writing is on the wall, and a lot of this is going to come to pass — institutions change to keep up with the societies that use them, period.  The good news, if you’re a Liberalism 4.0 kind of guy is that systemic thinking comes naturally to you guys — you’re good at this.  Once the generational shift in perception happens, most of this will be adopted as a matter of course.  The public at large may bemoan California’s woes, but the Pacific Northwest is every bit as liberal as California is, but doing quite well.

These are amazing times, and really important things are happening.  Liberalism 5.0 is going to be an awesome place, and to paraphrase an old Choctaw lady I know… “screw the good old days: I like my internet.”

Leave a comment

6 Comments

    • Thanks, I’ll go comment. I think that like a lot of people who are fundamentally 4.1 boosters, he’s focused on control, rather than “big-ness.” What I see occurring takes that head-on, and that’s what technology is achieving (for example, Khan Academy — ONE man has effectively revolutionized education and built up a posse to help him do it).

      Reply
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