Lost in Space

“Danger, Will Robinson”.

Like the robot from the 1960s television series, I am tempted to shout the same warning about the 2016 Presidential election. However, the warning may actually be a bit premature. Perhaps 2016 is merely the year we finally shed certain political shibboleths like we abandon iconic cultural symbols that seem permanent while contemporary but amusing in their later irrelevance. It may be more constructive to grapple with the current reality show which seems to have found us lost in space.

It seems that Hillary Clinton may be stuck in a discotheque or relaxing next to her email server while listening to her Fleetwood Mac albums. Yes, her vinyl albums. Ted Cruz is still at the altar of a long-concluded Billy Graham crusade. Archie Bunker, Alex Keaton, Kosmo Kramer and Carrie Bradshaw should be allowed to rest in their respective decades. In 2016, social and economic instability is the issue and we may presently be too messed up to deal with it in this election cycle. At least we would do well to move on from Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Social and economic instability takes multiple forms. One form of such instability flows from our multi-decade flirtation with free trade. Economists used to seriously entertain the ideas of the old left so they spent their time arguing about collectivism until Friedrich Von Hayek, Milton Friedman and others debunked socialism. For a while, economic debate revolved around Keynesian versus supply side economics. Eventually, good capitalists got tired of all that and latched on to the idea of free trade. Most economists support free trade as an engine of economic betterment and, in theory, they are probably right. The problem is, theory is never actually capable of being implemented in reality. In theory, free trade should lead to better overall growth. However, there are two main problems. First, there are never confounders in theory but there are always confounders in the reality. One confounder is governments. Governments are always making rules and fiddling with a variety of circumstances no matter what trade agreements are in place. Another confounder is that there are always cultural, social and economic differences that come into play when trade is engaged in by people who are not similarly situated. Trade among unequals is always a bit messy.

Second, free trade leads to dynamic change and there are always winners and losers when that happens. There may be a clear economic benefit for a company that moves overseas but there are always two concepts of “company” when talking about a single business. One “company” is that which is legally and financially owned. The other “company” consists of the human beings who used to work in the now closed factory. Free trade ignores the losers.

Free trade advocates also assume that economic growth is preferable to stability. Deep down and intuitively, most human beings are wired more in favor of stability than financial gain. Thus, ephemeral promises of economic growth do nothing to help a factory worker whose job is exported. Then, due to the confounders, that factory worker is unlikely to have an imported job which is as good as or better than what was lost. Granted, the factory worker can move or retrain in order to find new and possibly better work. Theoretically. The problem is, that factory worker was fine with the old job and the stability that came with it. That factory worker probably liked the local school, church and baseball team just fine. The factory worker didn’t ask for change.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have both either hit on or stumbled across the same larger issue. Namely, a rising tide doesn’t seem to lift all boats. Gains in the stock market don’t offer any consolation to folks who have no money in the stock market anymore because they no longer have a job that generates enough money to play the game. The political media and the establishment politicians are surprised and clueless about the common theme here. Trump has been called a fascist and Sanders is a self-described socialist. However, neither label animates their voters. Economic disruption and the blind eye cast by Washington does. There are a variety of both liberal and conservative responses to the situation but none of them come into play because the prevailing view in both parties has been unquestioned trade agreements for the last several decades.

It’s not just an issue of free trade versus so-called fair trade. Globalization is probably the larger issue. It’s hard for individual people to try to construct any sort of predictable or reliable future when the relevant parts of the world keep growing. Things are capable of being constructed in finite spaces. The world, however, does not represent a finite place to any given individual who is trying to construct anything. Being lost in space is not just a matter of physical nature. We are also now global in the virtual world as well. The fact that none of us would ever want to go back to pre-internet days does not mean that we have fully adjusted to our new technological world. We humans now have smart phones as permanent appendages but we wield them as an infant wields a spoon. Unfortunately, unlike the infant, we grownups know that we are clumsy and we don’t feel real comfortable with that deep down.

Thus, political discourse has revolved around health care for a while now and health care is certainly a very important thing. However, some think that the Affordable Care Act is a big political deal. The problem is, nobody seems to be voting because of that issue. For a few election cycles, the ACA animated conservatives because it was the constant villain of conservative media. However, it was never all that much of a polarizing issue in the first place–it only polarized in a vacuum because it was really the only issue conservatives and liberals actually agreed to fight about. Republicans would conduct fake outs on opposition to gay marriage and Democrats would talk about racial issues when the cameras were rolling but the ACA was really the only issue from 2010-2014.

Much cable television chatter was devoted to Obamacare or the opposition to it. In reality, however, no one wants folks to go bankrupt because they get sick or old. There are problems with the ACA, to be sure. The ACA is the poster child for a law that predates our Constitution and can never be repealed–namely, the law of unintended consequences. The ACA has had some bad results but medical catastrophes have bad results too. Financial coverage for medical issues is complicated and most people know that, at least intuitively. Thus, the ACA is not really the animating issue it is made out to be. Again, it was animated in a vacuum. Republicans used raw opposition to bad parts of the ACA for three election cycles as virtually the sole motivating issue for election. The problem is that mere opposition to certain legislation that pertains to a very complex set of issues has no end game. Average folks get tired of being burned up as election jet fuel for a plane that won’t fly.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have either figured much of this out or they have stumbled across something while seeking ways to distinguish themselves from opponents who are trying to win the 2004 election. Accrued angst over the economic present and future and the accompanying social instability is the animating issue in American politics. A new dynamic has been unleashed by globalization and the other candidates in both parties either don’t get that or they don’t know how to transition to a new paradigm. Left and right have always been with us and they always will be with us but the solutions favored by the 1990s are as relevant today as Sharon Stone and Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Globally, we are also lost when it comes to foreign affairs and we pay for our lostness with blood and treasure. Gone are the days when we confronted fascism and communism–evil concepts that formulated in nation-states. Nations have identifiable leaders. Nations have armies with specific geographic locations. War can be waged against them, when necessary. With terrorism, we feel newly threatened but we still don’t know what to make of it, fourteen plus years after 9/11. Terrorism is perpetuated in undefined locations by individuals, groups and an ethereal sense of…we don’t know.

Our recent history has taught us that we can still wage war against armies and easily defeat regimes in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Yet, it’s sort of like turning the old adage on its head. We have won the war but we are still seem to be in the battle. To make matters more difficult, even our leaders don’t know what the objective of the endless battle is except to be hailed as liberators as we see democracy magically flourishing around the Middle East. Or not.

Like everything else in the 2016, the old debates on foreign policy are no longer relevant. Neocons of the 2000s were puzzling at that time as they conjured connections between Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot or the Sandinistas, or something like that. Of course, Democrats couldn’t be neocons but they wanted to play the “me too” game on foreign wars so they doubled down on neocon theories without ever officially acknowledging doing so. Now both Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio puzzle over their lack of electoral traction in spite of their hawkish bonafides. Normal, patriotic Americans have left neo-conservatism behind like the marriage of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt. Some things make a lot of sense at first glance but they just don’t last and maybe that’s because Mideast wars were never a dream match in the first place.

There is presently a lot of handwringing over the death of the Republican Party. As for the Democrats, they seem to be struggling as well. Clinton couldn’t even cough out a response to a largely black audience about getting rid of bad teachers in the failing Detroit school system. However, I think Mark Twain would find such talk of party death to be greatly exaggerated. Presently, both parties are out of step with globalization and social instability but it wouldn’t take much at all to engage in discussions that are relevant to the issues that are driving the electorate. I somewhat doubt that either Trump or Sanders has fully grasped what they have tapped into. If either one of them understands the visceral economic disenfranchisement of voters, one would think that the candidates would be doing a better job of addressing women and minorities, two groups who are very familiar with being disenfranchised. But perhaps it’s worth remembering that candidates are always imperfect messengers because they are human beings. Maybe Trump can never stop being a misogynist and Sanders is simply an aging hippie who can’t find his way out of Woodstock. Thus, there are limits to their appeal. So, for now, we remain lost in space.

Copyright March 2016

Daniel Blake

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