Searching for Villains

There’s always that problem in times of change – something really new is going on, it makes you uncomfortable, and you want to explain why you think it, whatever it is, is bad. But of course, since it’s new to you, the only way you can talk about it is in terms you already know.


For jazz fans, the late forties must have presented that problem – what was coming out of New York was strange and new. It was that bop stuff – fast as hell and based on chord structures that were beyond complex, and the improvisations were not melodic but modal, and sometimes floated a whole step above the key everyone else seemed to be playing in, adding strange harmonic dissonances that were the stuff of nightmares. It wasn’t just the flatted fifths, but those ninths, elevenths and thirteenths. Louis Armstrong, the popular grand old man of jazz at the time – the kind of vital but supremely non-threatening jazz even white folks liked – hated the bop stuff. He said the only fifths he flatted were fifths of gin, but had little else to say. He couldn’t explain what was wrong with the new stuff. He didn’t have the words. No one had the words.


Of course Gillespie, Parker and Miles Davis weren’t doing any explaining either. They were just playing, and if you didn’t get it, that was your problem. They didn’t care – they were cool. So the song How High the Moon became Ornithology – well, it was the same chord progression. But you couldn’t dance to it. No doubt someone at the time muttered that bop was, well, communist, or at least socialist. When you just don’t get it – and especially when you feel others are laughing at you for not getting it – you lash out. You use the all-purpose label you know always works. I don’t get it, and I really don’t like it, so it must be… communist, or socialist, or somehow Marxist. And that settles things.


But then, after less than a decade, it all sounded fine. By the mid-fifties Hugh Hefner was down with it in his new magazine, Playboy – presenting the new male you had better become if there was to be any hope for you at all. For many men Playboy became a checklist – yeah, the topless women were nice and all that, but you noted the display ads, the cars, the suits and slim ties. You took mental notes. And bop was on the checklist – stereo LP’s you had to have. Bop became conformist. Go figure.


Of course this plays out again and again – Obama chatting with Joe the Plumber on the matter of tax policy mentions that middleclass folks should get a break for a change, not just the rich folks, just to spread the wealth around. This was just the standard stuff about progressive tax rates – the stuff Teddy Roosevelt, McCain’s hero, had long ago argued was fair and right. But Obama became a socialist. Joe Lieberman said William Kristol was right, that Obama seemed to be a Marxist. As things worked out, Lieberman has since decided to walk that back a bit. But he was just at a loss for words. He clearly had no use for Obama, but unable, or, more likely, unwilling to say what he disliked about the guy, he pulled a Louis Armstrong. It happens.


That’s now over. Obama won. But things keep happening to upset the way we think about things, like, on Friday, November 28, this:


The British government will take over Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC with a majority stake of almost 60 percent after the shareholders of the nation’s second-largest bank shunned an emergency share issue.


The 20 billion pound ($31 billion) rescue takeover, the result of a plan announced last month, means that dividends on common shares will be scrapped and top executives’ bonuses will be canceled. Chief Executive Fred Goodwin has resigned and Chairman Tom McKillop, who last week personally apologized to shareholders for the 85 percent fall in the bank’s share value, has said he will retire next year.


The government’s shares will be held by a company called UK Financial Investments LTD. Its charge is to maximize value for taxpayers and prevent politicians from making business decisions about the bank. “The investment will be managed at an arm’s length from government,” the Treasury spokesman said.


Is this the wave of the future, and what are we to think of such things? We seem to be nationalizing our banks, even if we are going about it differently.


Josh Marshall wonders about all this:


It’s still not clear to me why we’re not doing this bank bailout thing more like the Brits. The UK is ‘bailing out’ the Royal Bank of Scotland, which operates Citizens Bank here in the US. But it works a little differently over there. The government ended up buying almost 60% of the company, after the bank’s existing shareholders bought only a tiny percentage of a new offering. So the government owns 60% of the bank and the government’s shares are held by something called UK Financial Investments LTD, which has a charge to “protect and create value for the taxpayer as shareholder, with due regard to financial stability and acting in a way that promotes competition.”


Marshall notes that we don’t do it that way:


I had a conversation with a friend a few days ago, in which I agreed that I shared his concerns about direct government ownership of major stakes in these institutions. But as long as that voting power (based on the ownership stake) is insulated from political appointees at Treasury or wherever else – as they seem to have done in the UK – by creating a separate chartered entity, I really don’t see the problem.


Not that this is an ideal situation. Clearly you’d want some orderly plan for the government to divest itself of this stake over time, as economic conditions warrant. But here you actually have some decent chance for taxpayers to recoup their investment. And you have people with a charter to maximize taxpayer value and stabilize the economy on the bank’s boards. It’s really pretty demoralizing, after all, to see the taxpayers pony up all this money and then have the banks tell us to go screw ourselves when we complain that they’re not using any of the money for making loans.


Yes, there are many layers of complexity. But at the end of the day I still get a pretty strong “something for nothing'” feel about most of these bailout deals.


The reason Marshall doesn’t see the problem is that his friend had no words for the problem – beyond, one assumes, that nationalizing a bank, and the government in effect running it, is well… communist, or socialist, or somehow Marxist. And that settles things.


Or it settles things for some people. But the warning that more of this is coming come from the Financial Times of London, from Philip Stevens:


Something big is happening. What started out as a series of pragmatic ad hoc responses by governments and central banks is moving the boundary between state and market. Politicians are now overlaying expediency with ideology. Government is no longer a term of abuse.


Things could move still faster in the months ahead. With their myriad rescue schemes and loan guarantees, the US and British governments have nationalized their respective banking systems in all but name. The banks pretend they are still answerable to their shareholders, but it is a charade. They survive only with the explicit financial guarantee of the state.


Still, the markets remain frozen, starving business of the oxygen of credit. Unless things change soon, the politicians will have little choice but to take direct control, and quite possibly, ownership, of the banks. Nationalization could be the first act of an Obama presidency. That at least would put some substance into all those loose analogies with FDR.


And that would drive the inarticulate up the wall.


Forget London, read the Arkansas News Gazette:


So, on election night, the couple – owners of the historic Faubus Motel in downtown Huntsville – walked outside, lowered Old Glory and raised the Confederate battle flag in its place.


It’s remained there ever since, flying high in silent protest of election to the nation’s highest office a politician the pair says is a “Marxist.”


The Vandivers said they didn’t raise the Rebel flag to protest a black man moving into the White House, as many of their neighbors assume. Instead, they did it because they believe the country has abandoned the principles of its founders by electing Obama.


There are the details:


Linda Vandiver said the Democrat is a Marxist who wants to turn America into a socialist country.


Obama wants to redistribute wealth by raising taxes on the rich, create a universal healthcare system and institute a global tax aimed at eliminating worldwide poverty, she said.


“We think socialism is deeply rooted in him, and we’ll see it manifest in all areas,” Linda Vandiver said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with despising Mr. Obama’s color. We’d like to celebrate the fact that for the first time we have a black president. But we can’t.” Obama is also a friend to terrorists, James Vandiver said, referring to Obama’s association with William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground. The group bombed public buildings during the 1970 s.


“If Obama was just a regular Joe Citizen, he would not be able to get security clearance to get in the White House,” James Vandiver asserted. “This is the only way I know to send a message to the people of our country that we are in protest of someone like this being in the position of president.” But like all symbols, the Confederate flag carries different meanings to different people.


There is much that is puzzling in all this. The Confederate battle flag never had anything much to do with race and had always been, really, the symbol of the free market principles of Adam Smith? Who knew? Of course it also stands for Jesus:


Steven Fowler, an accountant from nearby Alpena, which sits on the Boone-Carroll county line, called Vandiver to tell him that he supports what he’s doing after he read about it in the Record. The Battle Flag of the Confederacy, with a version of St. Andrew’s cross emblazoned across it, is a symbol of Christianity first and foremost, Fowler said.


Who knew? But it gets even more complex:


But it also represents the supremacy of the states over the federal government. By flying it, Fowler said, the Vandivers are warning against an Obama presidency that he believes will expand the federal government by nationalizing health care, redistributing wealth and broadening the welfare system.


All that too? It seems some of us completely misunderstood the Civil War.


See Digby on this matter:


Notice what’s missing from this bill of indictment? Nobody called Obama a Muslim. Maybe they just forgot, but it seems that they are really homing in on the Joe-the-plumber lines from latter McCain campaign. They clearly don’t know what socialism really means, but it sounds political and I guess it still carries with it some traditional wingnut anti-communist resonance. There’s certainly nothing new in accusing mainstream black political leaders of being Marxists…


Of course when you cannot put your finger on what bothers you, or know you shouldn’t say it, you deal with it in the only terms you know. Digby pulls up some history, October 4, 1983, Helen Dewar reporting in the Washington Post, front page, with Helms Stalls King’s Day In Senate:


Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), charging that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused “action-oriented Marxism” and other “radical political” views, yesterday temporarily blocked Senate action on a House-passed bill to create a new national holiday in memory of the slain civil rights leader.


Helms’ assault on King, which prompted a scathing denunciation from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), came as the White House was putting out word that President Reagan intends to sign the measure, even though the administration once had opposed it.


Helms sees something really new is going on, it makes him uncomfortable, and he wants to explain it, if only to himself:


He asserted that there were Marxists in King’s movement and that King had been warned against them by the president at the time, apparently meaning President Kennedy.


Added Helms: “I think most Americans would feel that the participation of Marxists in the planning and direction of any movement taints that movement at the outset. … Others may argue that Dr. King’s thought may have been merely Marxist in its orientation. But the trouble with that is that Marxism-Leninism, the official philosophy of communism, is an action-oriented revolutionary doctrine. And Dr. King’s action-oriented Marxism, about which he was cautioned by the leaders of this country, including the president at that time, is not compatible with the concepts of this country.”


Jesse tied himself up in some odd knots there – if (a) Marxism proposed action, and (b) King proposed action, then (c) King is a Marxist. That puts the silly back in syllogism.


Digby adds this:


Socialism may be just another word for the boogeyman, but it’s one that’s been embedded in the DNA of rightwingers everywhere and it seems to have particular meaning to racists. Which is, of course, what’s really going on here. They may not have read Marx, but they sure as hell know what raising the confederate flag on the occasion of the election of the first African American president means.


And it sure must warm the Republican Big Money Boyz’s [sic] hearts to see these small town motel owners and their friends out there fighting the good fight against taxing the rich and universal health care. It’s so sweet, it probably almost makes up for the 50% hit they’ve taken in the market.


One goes back to Louis Armstrong – don’t like it, can’t explain why, so I’ll say something authentic and angry and a bit sarcastic, and that will settle matters. But as with Helms in 1983 and the curiously re-purposed Confederate battle flag now, some just look on, puzzled.


But of course, the Great Depression may actually be here:


You know times are tough when the rich start cutting costs on their mistresses. According to a new survey by Prince & Assoc., more than 80% of multimillionaires who had extra-marital lovers planned to cut back on their gifts and allowances. Still, only 12% of the multimillionaire cheaters said they plan to give up on their lovers altogether for financial reasons.


No one wants to look at the real problem, although Megan McArdle does just that:


It is safe to say that almost everyone involved in this mess, from the borrowers to the bankers, thought that they were getting away with something – at the very least, that they had found a way to get rich without working. It is an old saw that no one can be conned unless they are willing to believe in something for nothing, and the best cons generally get the victim to believe that he is putting one over on the con man.


And there’s this:


So while yes, part of this story has been simple greed, a willingness to believe that we could and should massively increase consumption no matter what, I tend to take this desire as a given.


So is it a given that we can and should massively increase consumption no matter what? Andrew Sullivan says not exactly:


I see a simple desire to enrich oneself as a given. What I think is culturally influenced is the imperative to “massively increase consumption no matter what.”


We have lived in a culture which is unwilling to say enough. When Christian churches are celebrating wealth Jesus called an absolute impediment to salvation, when the president sets an example of borrowing at insane levels with nary a word of caution, when thrift is deemed stupidity and gluttony becomes the norm, we are reminded that no institution, however robust, exists in a vacuum where human virtue and character are irrelevant.


Our freedom rests on our personal responsibility. Which is why it has become so shaky, and why the government seems posed for a massive power-grab.


You always fall back on the terms you know. If you’re a traditional but secular conservative, for whom race isn’t really an issue, it’s always personal responsibility.


From the other side, Paul Krugman sees it this way:


The quintessential economic sentence is supposed to be “There is no free lunch”; it says that there are limited resources, that to have more of one thing you must accept less of another, that there is no gain without pain. Depression economics, however, is the study of situations where there is a free lunch, if we can only figure out how to get our hands on it, because there are unemployed resources that could be put to work. The true scarcity in Keynes’s world -and ours – was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.


We will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead. Some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men.


He sees the clutter – everyone falls back on the tried and true bromides. That leads nowhere, or to the Washington Post and Charles Krauthammer with this answer to folks like Krugman:


The ruling Democrats have a choice: Rescue this economy to return it to market control. Or use this crisis to seize the commanding heights of the economy for the greater social good. Note: The latter has already been tried. The results are filed under “History, ash heap of.”


Ah yes, the economic conservatives, the Invisible Hand that is all good, where individual greed creates common good at the lowest cost and greatest efficiency. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. See Kevin Drum’s comment:


I read Charles Krauthammer’s column this morning – yet more proof, if more were needed, that people with very high IQs can also be very, very stupid – and I got to wondering. A developing meme on the right suggests that our recent economic meltdown isn’t really the fault of the free market having a heart attack at all, but rather the fault of the government performing triple bypass surgery in response to what was really no more than some free market heartburn.


And so I wonder: Is this really going to be the National Review/WSJ editorial page/Grover Norquist line going forward? And if it is, what’s the right response? Sober op-eds explaining why they’re wrong? Or dismissive laughter?


I’m thinking the latter.


And see Pat Garofalo at the Wonk Room with this on the new wage and inequality data:


The ILO [International Labor office] found that between 1995 and 2007, real wage growth in the United States was essentially 0 percent, and in 2009 wages will “decline by 0.5 percent in industrial countries and grow by no more than 1.1 per cent globally.” The Center for American Progress Action Fund has found that weekly wages were actually 0.3 percent lower in June 2008 than they were in March 2001.


This stagnation – which occurred at the same time that CEO pay steadily increased – has led to severe income inequality. The ILO found that the U.S. is one of the countries in which “the gap between top and bottom wages has increased most rapidly.” Indeed, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported recently that “in the United States, the richest 10 percent earn an average of US $93,000 – the highest level in the OECD. The poorest 10 percent earn an average of US $5,800 – about 20 percent lower than the OECD average.”


See Matthew Yglesias:


Needless to say, conservatives’ big idea about how to turn this around is to (a) pretend it’s not happening, (b) cut the capital gains tax rate so the rich can get richer, and (c) struggle mightily to block the Employee Free Choice Act lest we slip back into the dystopian universe in which unionization rates were higher and the fruits of economic growth were more broadly shared.


Hey – everyone deals with things in the framework they know. But then, no one liked bop. Now it’s just fine. There’s a lesson there.



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Conservative Framing Devices, Empty Arguments, Financial Meltdown, Inability to Deal with the New, Nationalizing the Banks, Obama as FDR, Obama the Socialist, Searching for Villains, Stuck With Old Arguments, The Confederate Battle Flag. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Searching for Villains

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    From Digby:

    “Socialism may be just another word for the boogeyman, but it’s one that’s been embedded in the DNA of rightwingers everywhere and it seems to have particular meaning to racists. Which is, of course, what’s really going on here. They may not have read Marx, but they sure as hell know what raising the confederate flag on the occasion of the election of the first African American president means.”

    Well put!

    But other ironies are hidden in plain site. While those Arkansas motel owners may or may not be aware of what Marxism is all about, I suspect they might just see it as some vaguely “anti-American” creed. Where their symbolic protest goes awry is in lowering the actual flag representing America to replace it with one that was carried into battle by enemy troops intent on killing soldiers fighting for the United States.

    So am I missing their point here?

    But it’s also interesting to know that this motel used to be owned by Governor Orval Faubus, who in 1957 famously sent the Arkansas National Guard to Central High School in Little Rock to keep nine black students from entering. (Faubus’ first wife sold the place in the ’80s.) Before we find some racial overtone in this, it should be noted that the governor’s granddaughters are quoted as saying they “do not agree with the Vandivers’ political views or the flying of the Confederate flag at the motel.”

    Now there’s historical change we can believe in, even if it’s mostly just symbolic.


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