Tuesday, November 27, 2012

After Patronage Politics Fails

Conservatives are full of foreboding these days.  The debt isn't $16 trillion; it's much, much worse.  The student debt problem is yet another case (after mortgage subsidies) of good intentions screwing the people it was meant to help.  Ditto Affirmative Action at the university.

The basic divide in this country is between two ideas of the individual.  There is the "responsible self," a notion that Robert Bellah attributes to the Axial Age when all modern religions got their start.  And there is the client self, the powerless peasant that attaches himself to a powerful patron.

Thus it makes sense that the average Republican thinks of himself as a "typical American" and the average Democrat thinks of himself as a hyphenated American.  If you adhere to the notion of the "responsible self" then you don't need and don't want to think of yourself as an embattled class.  But if you adhere to the idea of yourself as powerless, then you need to group together and identify a powerful patron, someone that will protect you and your group from a cruel and heartless world.

What I wonder is what happens when this breaks down, when the powerful patron can't or won't deliver.  In our terms, what happens when the entitlements run out.  What do the people do, and what do the leaders do?

The simple answer, from David Hackett Fischer in The Great Wave, is that you get default, revolution, and war.  The end game of the patronage/client business, when there is no more money, provokes people to seek an answer in the street.

Of course, the war and the revolution don't really solve anything.  Their contribution is to focus and concentrate the rage of the disappointed in a great battle.  After it's over the rage subsides, people accept the result, and life goes on.  The glorious principles to which people vowed solemn oaths lie trampled in the mud and blood, and people make do with what remains.

As the endgame unfolds in the near future we can expect that the client groups of the Democratic Party will lunge to grab more loot with tax increases.  And they will partially succeed.  The responsible selves of the Republican Party will try to tame the entitlements, and they will partially succeed.

Then we will come to the real default and the real disappointment.  All predictions and prophesies will disappear into the fog of war.

That's the whole point of war and revolution.  When you are brutally disappointed, you make one last violent gesture, to mix it all up and hope that after the confusion you come out on top at the end.

Medium term, you can see what is coming.  Barack Obama has set federal spending at about 25 percent of GDP.  Federal revenue has never really got about 19 percent of GDP.  When the current effort to make the rich pay a little more raises federal revenue to about 19.5 percent of GDP then the Democrats will call for a Value Added Tax.  Guess what.  That will fall on the middle class and the Democratic voters.

And what will the clients and the victims do then, poor things?

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