Transition Milwaukee

Rebuilding Community Resilience & Self-Reliance

I am currently working on a book-length manuscript with a  provisional title of Liberal Expectations.  In it I argue that the liberal world-view, and especially the expectations of most  liberals, prevent them (us) from grasping the reality and consequences of global warming, peak oil, and other resource depletion and environmental problems, or from taking significant action to address any of these.  I don’t focus on liberals because I think political conservatives, today, offer any better approach.   Quite the opposite.   I focus on liberals because liberals also maintain other beliefs that can be used to reform our politics and culture so that these energy and environmental issues might be addressed.  With liberals, at least, one can gain a toe-hold.

The presidential campaign offers a great deal of material concerning what liberals believe and expect.  I am especially interested and troubled by the constant focus on the middle class.   By comparing itself only to Romney’s 1% (or whatever), the middle class has developed a self-image of itself as the victims of a great economic heist and oligarchical conspiracy.  Our “leaders” confirm this belief by telling us that we have been “crushed” or “buried” by recent events.  Middle class people thus see themselves as suffering disproportionately, that owing to events that can be entirely blamed on others, they have taken the brunt of our unraveling economy.  The main difference between middle class liberals and conservatives on this point is that liberals will tend to blame it on the super-rich, while conservatives will be more likely to blame it on immigrants or the entitled class of welfare recipients and other “takers.”   Both positions are equally delusional.  I prefer the liberal delusion only to the extent that it doesn’t blame the already weak and desperate for our problems.   As a way of processing reality and preparing for the future it is largely useless.

How is it that the middle class has come to view its current condition and state as being “crushed”?  Part of it comes from a comparison with the super-rich, a comparison encouraged of course by the conservative policy of making sure the top earners and inheritors of our nation’s wealth don’t have to make any sacrifices or changes, under the counter-factual and unconvincing argument that unregulated and untaxed, their riches will grow and trickle down.   It is certainly neither good economics or a just morality to heap more burden on the middle class while upper income people get further tax breaks. 

But when compared to any other people, past, present, and, importantly, future, the American middle class is hardly suffering according to any recognizable measure.  As a people we have more and use more than any other people in the history of the world, including  most of history’s Pharaohs, emperors, kings, and queens.  We have come to expect that we can eat whatever we want, when we want.  Extensive leisure, recreation, and travel is seen as a virtual birthright whose disappearance is considered a hardship.  We believe in large part that we should never be too hot, or too cold, that we should not have to submit ourselves to hard, physical labor.  It is also assumed that a technological buffer should protect us from most of life’s risks and that our lives should be a free and creative expression of our individuality.

These expectations were mainly formed in the post-WWII era, though they received a strong articulation throughout Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.  As Roosevelt declared in 1937, the goal of government should be “to restore a large measure of material prosperity, to give new faith to millions of our citizens who had been traditionally taught to expect that democracy would provide continuously wider opportunities and continuously greater security in a world where science was continuously making material riches more available to man."  In his "Four Freedoms" speech, which has acted almost like a modern appendix to The Constitution, Roosevelt argues that government should guarantee to its citizens, "The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”

Put in historical context, there is much to be admired in Roosevelt’s words.  The Great Depression is often described as want amidst plenty, with people going hungry while food rotted in the fields.  The consensus explanation for the cause of The Depression was a Keynesian one: that unequal distribution of wealth caused a crisis in effective demand, a condition that could be remedied through economic stimulus, taxation, and government programs.  Also necessary to this program of restarting an economy whose distribution system had seized up, was that the middle-class be able to spend and consume, providing the necessary demand to keep our great industrial machinery grinding away.

Unfortunately, despite the assumptions of liberal economists such as Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, this does not describe our current economic conditions.  Because there were at the time of The Great Depression an abundance both of untapped natural resources and markets, the potential for economic growth was significant.  Now, in contrast, it takes about ¼ of the world’s energy and 1/3 of its industrial products to maintain these liberal expectations.  Contrary to the myth of a low-energy, dematerialized, knowledge economy, economic growth depends almost entirely on the flow through the economy of energy and raw materials, both of which are being extracted from the earth at rates that cannot be sustained.   The waste from this process has at the same time pushed our environment to the brink of collapse.

To put it in the context of the current troubles of the middle class, we are living at a point at which resources and the environment have put a cap on economic growth and thus the possibility for a broad-scale constant and ever-rising standard of living.  The expectations of middle class people that if they can’t buy a new car every 3 years, remodel their homes the moment it feels outdated, vacation in the tropics once a year are entirely unrealistic.  Unfortunately, it is not only this sort of expectation—ones that at some level luxuries—but other, more substantial ones, like the ability to afford health care that includes any procedure or treatment that has of yet been devised, the possibility of sending one’s children to any college, the maintenance of a modest mortgage, cannot be guaranteed within a contracting economy.  We can do a better or worse job of sorting our priorities and making sure that your health care is more important than his second home.  But as our surpluses shrink, more and more items we have come to see as normal and beyond question will be difficult for us, as a society, to afford.  There will be awful dilemmas for us to work through.

This will be an exceedingly difficult lesson for people to learn and accept, especially when nearly all public discussion of the economy and a per capita advertising expenditure in the U.S. of around $1000 per year telling us that we should expect new, better, and more, that there are no limits to what we can achieve, that we are the most ingenious and generous people in the world and the only thing that can stand in the way is a failure of nerve and confidence.  My own writing is motivated by the belief that is nevertheless important to try to explain these issues to a wider audience.  Perhaps liberals, who have always been attuned to historical changes and the ever-changing threats to freedom and equality will be able to reform its expectations.

A more likely consequence is to continue a trajectory that we are already on, but have routinely misdiagnosed as a product, simply, of greed or insufficient regulations, or the lack of the necessary political will.  We can outline this trajectory by briefly returning to the political campaigns and their focus on the middle class, at the expense of any discussion of the poor.   Contrary to focus the Great Society, articulated at a moment of rapid economic expansion, the middle class is maintaining its current standard of living, or has been and is trying to, by offering its privileges to fewer and fewer people, as more previously middle-class people are pushed into the voiceless and apparently unmentionable ranks of the poor.  As long as middle-class expectations remain fixed, sharpening into a shrill voice of demand, our economy will be able to fulfill these expectations for a smaller and smaller part of our society, as it bumps along the ceiling of resource depletion and is undermined by the costs of climate change.

In this way, liberal politics are a sort of mirror-image of a conservative politics that privileges a 1% or even 5% or 10%.  What is important, it turns out, is that those most able to live according to their expectations and sense of entitlement make no sacrifices, regardless of the growing inequality that this may cause.  Like conservatives, liberals are now operating according to a sort of trickle-down economics whereby a prosperous middle-class will allegedly lift up the poor.  Like the conservative trickle-down economics, it will only create more division of wealth and a larger number of the truly poor, those who have been truly crushed by the economy.

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