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Talton: The winter of our discontent

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Rogue Columnist

Talton: The winter of our discontent

  • 'Washington Crossing the Delaware,' Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1851)
    'Washington Crossing the Delaware,' Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1851)

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. — Thomas Paine, Dec. 23, 1776

We've made it through the first year of the presidency of Donald Trump (let that name attached to that title sink in) without a nuclear war with North Korea. But there's next year.

Meanwhile, despite all the speculation and hope for a Democratic wave in the fall, great damage has been done to the republic. Total Republican control of the federal government resulted in the passage of a ruinous tax bill. Among its worst consequences will be the opportunity costs — no nice things for us, such as high-speed rail or rail transit for our metropolitan areas — because $1.5 trillion will be looted from the Treasury for the very rich. The resulting deficit will embolden Paul Ryan and the GOP-controlled Congress to come after our "entitlements" (read earned benefits). The cabinet is largely staffed by billionaire stooges committed to wrecking from the inside. The administration is rolling back laws to protect the environment and financial system. The people's lands, intended as a sacred trust for future generations, is under assault.

One of the biggest impediments to a Blue wave is the normalization of this norm-breaking, authoritarian-wanna-be president even by the respected press. This situation doesn't have "both sides" — only one. Then there's the lie machine of right-wing media. Beyond that, it must contend with vote suppression, gerrymandering, and no doubt new Russian interference.

I've had an extended discussion of our new abnormality with a journalist. He's a very smart guy but unable to publish his insights without losing his job. So I thought I would offer a few here to get your reaction:

I think the tax cuts issue needs to first, "break the frame," and then people on the left end need to "name it and frame it."  Frame-breaking is replacing the assertion-rebuttal trope of media communication with a counter-assertion in place of a rebuttal. You don't even have to attack the offense; pointing to and criticizing the transmitters (journalists) is fair game. How can the rich looting the treasury (note the counterassertion; I didn't mention the legislation that GOP passed and Trump signed, to help delegitimize the position) be "named and framed"? Rename the GOP policy ... wait for it ... Tax Dowry.

The theory: Tax cuts and dowry work the same way, and for the same underlying reason. In the U.S., Republicans since Reagan believe workers must be marriageable (worker = wife) before they can share in the bounty of their provider and protector (employer = husband). It's also baked into progressive taxation that when taxes are cut, mathematically the biggest beneficiaries of lower tax burdens are those who paid most into it. Theoretically, the wealthy would experience the most onerous tax burdens, but you need to remember that taxes are levied marginally. Also, the moneyed aren't as stupid — unless they got their earnings through lottery or gambling — as to let their income be exposed to the full rate. There are numerous tax-advantaged workarounds to protect present-value income from present tax rates. These are only available to high net wealth individuals to begin with.

So why does the GOP insist upon reducing the tax burdens of the rich when their claims of job creation and economic stimulus not only never materialize — on  but also follows a pattern of asset bubbles, overheated investments, asset crashes and recessions? For the same reason husbands can command dowries. As an instrument of control. Conservatives really hate the culture of dependency, but not for its own sake. They fear that the dependents' affections lie elsewhere — and they are envious. I don't know about you, but I think there's a human reaction in all of us to not have a boot on our throats.

Trump, the GOP and the Deplorables are three points of an unholy trinity. If they find any success, like they did with tax cuts, they will crystallize around it to remain a coherent political entity. Success creates a positive feedback loop that can only be stopped by a negative feedback loop. Just wait for the recession. Past performance shows that tax cuts push the economy over the edge into one. The 1986 Reagan cuts led to the 1987 stock market crash, the S&L crisis and the Cold War defense sector becoming untenable in the face of our mortal enemy dying in its sleep. The Bush tax cuts led to overextending the real estate market, American investment in offshoring particularly to China and India (China in turn recycled the money by financing the Afghanistan and Iraq wars) and overheating the energy markets. The money arrived just in time for the real estate market to top, gasoline prices being pushed to a psychological breaking point, and the financing system for both being exposed for its flimflam.

My prediction for the Trump tax cuts: American investors will "make great" by parking their assets overseas out of the hands of an unstable autocrat or worse, a capable reformer who may emerge following his implosion, throw their lucre into whatever is bringing the highest return (cryptocurrencies, I am looking at you), or finance the phase-change of a more intensely automated economy. 

What will be the point of failure for the coming economic downturn? I see it from cryptocurrencies (a computer simulacrum of currency flows in theory and practice, then using the simulacrum to lay claim to real goods — gee, what can go wrong?), the GOP effort to sabotage Obamacare (it'll play out like the real estate bubble, where a point of failure spreads like wildfire to an industry, a sector and the economy as a whole), as well as the general recession that comes about from overheating the amount of available capital. 

The cryptocurrency threat repeats the devastation caused to the Warsaw Pact nations following the collapse of the Soviet Union — a sudden inflow of foreign capital bid up the prices of real goods for ordinary folks laboring under the stagnant-but-stable communist economy. causing crippling inflation. This is what largely explains the astronomical housing costs of the U.S. coasts — homeowners have to compete with domestic investors (REITS or flippers) as well as nouveaux riches of Asia and Latin America looking to park assets away from their own governments — driving up the price of housing, now an asset in and of itself and not just shelter. People looking for housing now have to rent, thereby bidding up rental units for actual shelter. Cryptocurrency would be the coastal real estate market writ large. 

As for the Obamacare repeal, remember that the motive of the GOP is not to get rid of a failing law, but to prevent a successful law from taking root. Obamacare itself is a snarl word, with the stress being on the Obama part. In other words, a majority-white party wants to remind whites that Obamacare is a black man telling them what to do. That framing is potent because it forecloses the possibility of thinking about it rationally. Only thing is, we have a policy that is doing mostly what it set out to do and even its consequences were foreseen, and managed accordingly. You break Obamacare, you deny health care coverage to Americans and encourage those Americans who bought exchange policies and lost them to declare bankruptcy or shirk their debts. Insurers will be unable to recover their debts, fail to make payments, and the health system relying on insurers for their payments will also fail to collect payments.

With so many people dependent on the health system for income, it's enough to drag the economy down. If we have a situation like the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies, we're going to need to bail out the health sector. The good news: We will get universal health care. The bad news: It will look like Amtrak, not the post office.

Everything happens for a reason. Here's my reasons for why: Republicans can and do get away with murder because they have an intimate, almost innate sense (or telos) of power. I like Corey Robin's thesis of why conservatism is inherently a reactionary ideology: "it's a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back." How does it help the left and center? Robin's thesis represents grand strategy and provides an orientation for political mobilization and action.

It's how to recognize conservatism from not-conservatism. The GOP represents the heir to European male settler culture, and the triumphant victory in the insurrection against the British serves as the pinnacle of the settler culture. The Revolutionary War serves as the norm to which all culture is judged against. I chose "European male settler culture" as a phrase intentionally. It set the basis of in- and out-group legitimacy. The European male settlers were informed by Enlightenment frames of race theory, which begat slavery and colonialism. Race was used as the basis of social organization for this new social arrangement. 

African slaves and indigenous nations were excluded, and not entirely by accident. Slaves were livestock, and indigenous people were vermin. One group was treated like a beast of burden, the other would be victims of what about 150 years later would be known as genocide. Women were also not included, because of prevailing attitudes about women that date back to prehistoric Homo sapiens organization. There are three (modern) races, and a little more than half of the mating population, that were willfully excluded from meeting legal standards of humanity. Those came later, and won through direct confrontation. 

This creates two incompatible and irreconcilable frames on how to analyze society with the progression of time. If you are liberal, you see the broadening definition of individualism to non-white non-males as justice, the righting of a historical wrong. If you are a conservative, you see justice as a personal affront and a humiliating defeat. You see equality as a degradation in cultural status and a devaluation of self-worth; taking of half of everything you have or half of your self worth to give to a nobody and then meeting that nobody halfway. So, yeah, the "good old days" were really good for certain folk, but that's because they yearn for a return to a position of power and status that has been lost and gone forever.

The thing is, it's effective because that exclusive power is a "felt experience" that has been transmitted across generations in a way that liberals stopped transmitting right about the time of the Vietnam war and Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. Since then, the prevailing attitude toward power is that it is an inherently corrupting and corruptible phenomenon that is to be categorically renounced. It's very idealistic and hopeful at a time of violent conflict at home and abroad. The problem was that the sentiment was shared only by a population whose only encounter with power was being on the receiving end of it. A similar renunciation of power did not occur on the right, who began gathering up the power neglected by the left.

In 50 years since then, the left has only grown only more estranged from power while the right has only grown more enamored of it. The right is legitimizing authoritarianism through the capture of legitimate institutions and the testing of cultural boundaries that go unchallenged. The left, on the other hand, developed an elaborate vocabulary of victimhood and meditated too deeply on oppression as the basis of social relationships. This represents the collective effort of the left experience: You have to consult that website, not because you want to internalize some or all of its ideology, but if you ever see a young person — say on Twitter, a college campus or a protest — and wonder why they speak a language that sounds like English but carries an emotional connotation not explained by an objective definition of the term, you'll get some idea of their outrage.

The piece was first published on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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