Friday, January 16, 2009

Any good Kassandra

With the deepening financial crisis and the ascenscion of Barack Obama, there has been a lot of talk about a return to Keynesianism, a "New New Deal". I have my doubts that any likely program will have enough impact, especially given the persistence of the hugely expensive wars the U.S. is waging in Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama's apparent intention to get tough with Iran and Pakistan. But there are other concerns, as well. I've chided myself in the past for my tendencies towards "catastrophism" (what a co-worker unhelpfully calls "fatalism"), but sometimes the sky is falling, and it's important to try to figure out where one should be when that happens.

Stan Goff has been writing about this kind of thing for a while. Here is what he had to say recently:
In keeping with the duties of any good Kassandra, let me say that we are far, far, far worse off than in 1930; so Keynesian pump-priming isn’t going to work. Moreover, there is no World War II Redux in the wings to act as the US deux ex machina to build us up on the corpses of 60 million people… yet.
And, anyway, we've already been in a war economy as things have fallen apart, and there is less room for "growth" than there was back then. We already have the appliances, the cars, we have massive consumer debt, and so on. There are numerous other differences between now and 1930, some listed by Goff. Then he says:

But here is a big intangible: In 1930, the majority of the population in the US was not as utterly dependent and helpless as it is now. Consumerism has created a nation of cyborgs who will go mad when the grid begins to shut down. They are epistemologically disabled; and they are psychologically fragile. They are self-centered and avaricious, with extremely low frustration tolerance levels.

Now, with this crisis in mind, how do we think about something as nessesary by one measure and insane by another as propping up the automobile industry? Automobiles are essential to support our existence such as it is… halt them today, and many will literally die. But they are also a key part of our problem with greenhouse gases, habitat destruction for roads and the attendant sprawl, transportation of food, etc. etc. At the same time, they will stop one day, as sure as the sun rises.

When the bailout of the big three automakers was being discussed, analyzed, and ridiculed to death, I despaired at the notion that, in part because of union jobs, the proper thing to do was to support the bailout. Because the automobile industry is one of the most irresponsible industries in history. Not only because of their utter stupidity as business, but also because of the simple fact of its existence, that new cars get made and sold and bought, continuously. (Don't get me started on "housing starts".) But Goff is right: in the short-term, if Americans' cars are taken away, most of us are fucked. Given the long-term unviability of oil as an energy source, and the prospects of environmental catastrophe, it seems obvious to me that we should be trying to find ways to lessen our reliance on cars. I don't see such a thing happening. We'll continue as we are, until forced to go without, and then where will we be?

I don't have time to say more about this right now, but I expect I will be returning to this topic often in the future (lucky you) . . .

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