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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Real or Incremental Change?

On October 13, 2010, Fox News reported a poll that found that women are turning on Obama.  The reason cited was that they feel there has been too much change—that it has been “jarring.”  I was stunned—wondering if I was listening to a broadcast from another planet. I remembered that when I had been sampling a food item in a grocery store and the old woman who gave me the sample, said, “We have lots of devils here.”  She was referring to the array of food samples in the store that day.  My reaction, which I charitably did not share with her, was to wonder what century she was from (probably Calvin's, I concluded privately as I downed a “devilish” olive). At the time, I wondered, moreover, why some people can’t seem to let go of what is to the rest of us so utterly antiquated and get with it. That is, why are some people so resistant to change? Why do they perceive small, incremental changes as somehow momentous—even jarring?
In a preface to one of his books, Milton Friedman wrote, "Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When the crisis occurs[,] the action taken depends on the ideas that are lying around.” That is to say, human nature is not exactly designed in favor of substantial change—being more inclined to the incremental variety. When a culture says that real change is to be feared and people don’t bother to come up with a broad array of ideas, even a crisis may not result in real change. Such can be said of modern American society, even as “change” shows up consistently in American political campaigns.

In terms of the jarring change being reported on Fox News, the journalist pointed to the health-insurance reform law as a case in point.  In spite of its purported “socialism,” the law relies on private health-insurance companies, whose lobby pressured Obama into dropping his “public option” requirement and adding a mandate that requires Americans to become customers of those companies.  If relying on extant private companies—giving them a guaranteed and vastly enlarged customer base—is somehow “jarring” change, I have to start wondering about whether some people have a pathological issue with change itself.

One need only point to the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law of 2010, which subjects banks deemed too big to fail to additional capital requirements and requires the banks to develop liquidation contingency plans. This “change” pales in comparison to breaking up the banks having $1 or more trillion in assets so they do not pose a danger while extant. That some people might find increasing capital requirements as jarring boggles the mind. Are such people familiar with real change—even if they voted for it in 2008? I suspect they would not recognize it if it jumped up and bite them on their asses, and yet political campaigns are ostensively all about change—or the illusion thereof—but just enough to tell people what they want to hear.

Not surprisingly, much of the campaigning in the 2010 midterm elections was oriented to incremental change on a variety of issues, rather than to real change, even though the latter would have been more fitting given the systemic negative effects of the financial crisis of 2008. Even in states bordering on bankruptcy, like California, Florida and Illinois, campaigning as usual belied any purported crisis. 

For example, I watched a candidate forum that was being held in Illinois and one of the main questions was why a candidate’s business was so successful.  Meanwhile, the last governor had been impeached and removed from office by a nearly-unanimous vote in the legislature, and the government was borrowing $18 billion in 2010 alone.  The forum struck me as an exercise in “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” as if the ship of state was not on the verge of sinking.  In other words, it was business as usual in a context that demanded substantial change. Clearly, the candidates knew of Illinois’s fiscal (and corrupt) condition. It occurred to me that they were either bereft of ideas or too accustomed to going along on the track of status quo to proffer any real alternatives. Lest one heap all the blame on the candidates at the forum, it is important to note that it was a citizen of Illinois who asked about the candidate’s business. Perhaps the society in Illinois is too entranced by custom and thus insufficiently equipped for real change—ironically even as one of Illinois’ former U.S. senators was serving as the “real change” president of the United States.

Lest the pallid phenomenon be presumed to be limited to the heartland, the California Governor’s race between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman also evinced politics as usual. The two candidates had a chance in their debates to persuade a California-wide audience that they could turn around the economically-troubled republic. Instead, they resorted—at least in their third debate—“to many of the personal attacks that have dominated the last few weeks of the campaign,” according to MSNBC, whose verdict can be said to apply to American politics even in the wake of a crisis: “Neither candidate presented any new ideas.”

Source:

Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011).