Why Elections Don’t Bring Progress: Buttigieg, Biden and the Iron Law of Oligarchy

Everything you need to know about the next Democratic Administration, and the last one, was summed up in an interview this month on MSNBC. On the Maddow show, Pete Buttigieg explained his approach to health care reform. Along the way, he accidentally explained why deep blue California leads the nation in homelessness, why the Obama Administration failed to deliver meaningful structural reforms, and why any real progress is unlikely through the electoral process.

On Maddow’s show, Buttigieg volunteered his logic for opposing Warren’s single payer health plan. According to Buttigieg, the problem with her plan is that it will “eliminate the job of every single American working at every single insurance company in the country.” 

Leaving aside for a moment the relative merits of Warren’s proposal, Buttigieg has placed a finger on the most powerful obstacle to progress in any political system. Every system, no matter how broken or oppressive, creates relative winners all up and down its hierarchy. In time, people become so invested in the crumbs they receive from a broken system that they won’t release their grip on those crumbs to grab a cake. With very few exceptions, progress emerges from wars or financial disasters, not from elections.

German sociologist, Robert Michels, first described in 1911 what he called an “iron law” that democratic institutions must inevitably harden into oligarchies. His core observation wasn’t so novel. It was an obsession of the architects of our American revolution, filling volume after volume of the Federalist Papers. When Jefferson somewhat rashly explained in 1797 that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” he was describing the institutional rot our founders thought was inevitable in any social system.

Michels’ described the organizational dynamics behind this tendency toward oligarchy. In order to accomplish anything once in power, a new order must embrace a degree of specialization and hierarchy. People carve out places for themselves all up and down that hierarchy, developing an attachment to the existing order stronger than their other interests. Even those relatively low in the order develop a pathetically sad stake in its preservation. Whatever policy or ideological goals may have inspired the system at its birth, the urge toward institutional survival eventually gains primacy.

Once an oligarchy has taken hold, an individual within it is faced with a choice between the ideals that benefit people like them generally (what Marxists would call “class consciousness”), or a chance to gain some tiny advancement by collusion with an established institution. Faced with this choice, people will almost always choose their own modest, relative advancement, even if it harms their interests in absolute terms, over any potential disruption of the oligarchy. That’s how the Iron Law of Oligarchy operates.

A white man earning $15/hour at an Amazon fulfillment center in Alabama, struggling to put food on the table, in danger of financial annihilation from a serious medical emergency, unable to imagine any path to a comfortable retirement or any financial security, will vote for Republicans because he’s worried about mythical immigrants who might “take his job.” His Facebook feed is chock full of stories of black crime in Chicago and welfare freeloaders.

His political twin is a sergeant in the North Korean army who perhaps enjoys an extra weekly ration of rice compared to a lowly private. That sergeant will lay down his life to protect that system from being replaced with something freer, happier, and more prosperous in which his relative advantage over those lower down the hierarchy would be lost.

Buttigieg’s comments about insurance company employees explains how the Iron Law of Oligarchy works to preserve concentrations of power. We can’t have nice things, because we’d first have to let go of a few of the things we already have. As Marx once said, you have nothing to lose but your chains. But what if I have premium chains, ordered in a custom color, featuring a comfort coating and embossed with the logo of my favorite college football team?

These oligarchies are not, in fact, either unstoppable or unbreakable, but they are very persistent. Under conditions of vibrant political competition with independent law enforcement, with a population strengthened by high levels of education and broad prosperity, these oligarchies struggle to harden into place. However, in any human system insulated for a time from competition, free flow of information, or from the regenerating influence of failure and creative destruction, the Iron Law of Oligarchy takes hold. Any system that loses its capacity to adapt will develop horrifying rot.

Why would a sexual assault victim like Kellyanne Conway agree to work for a predator, helping him harass and intimidate prey like herself? It’s a simple calculus. How much do I have to gain personally from cooperating with the machine against my own larger class or identity interests? It’s the Iron Law at work, and it operates equally across the political spectrum.

Why do Democrats in Illinois, who are supposedly attached to a “progressive” political cause, refuse to confront their very conservative leader, Mike Madigan, whose corruption is openly acknowledged? They do it because each of them is gaining some dribbles of milk from that cow. Democrats in Illinois are more concerned with preserving what they have than with delivering the “progress” they tout on their campaign websites.

Visit Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional District, ostensibly one of the politically progressive corners of America, to witness this the Iron Law of Oligarchy operate at peak cruelty. Drive past small, dumpy homes worth deep seven-figures, dotted with heartwarming “Hate Has No Home Here” window signs. Those homes belong to voters who manufactured the nation’s most appalling homelessness crisis in order to earn a slightly higher return on their housing investment.

It’s easy to spot the foolishness of political opponents who place their relative advantage over the greater good. Our own compromises with an established oligarchy are invisible, obscured by the logic of pragmatism. Don’t ever ask “why do people vote against their interests” without addressing that question to “progressive” California homeowners.

Biden and Buttigieg are politicians of a type common across both parties. They offer a veneer of “change” without the uncomfortable risks that accompany real progress. Everyone gets to keep their crumbs, with perhaps a shiny bonus morsel thrown in, while the steady concentration of power and wealth continues unabated.

Genuine progress almost never emerges from a process as biased toward stability as an election. That doesn’t mean progress can’t be achieved through peaceful political agitation, it just means that would be a rare historical anomaly. Real structural progress emerges from catastrophes. Those catastrophes are occasionally financial disasters, but in most cases, progress comes from wars.

War is disruptive and unpredictable, destroying accumulations of wealth in ways that no other force ever does. Though almost all real social progress emerges in the wake of war, few wars produce social progress. Most are merely exercises in destruction, after which the old order reasserts itself. War opens a window for change because, in order to survive a war, people are forced to concentrate political power relatively few hands with little oversight. Mostly this leads to abuse, but in some cases that combination of emergency and hyper-concentrated power grants a political innovator enough leverage to fix a few broken processes.

Between crises, a civilization generally plods along, experiencing ever growing concentrations of power and a gradual sclerosis of political institutions. However, on rare occasions a less dangerous threat can be enough to inspire some reforms.

Americans in the 1960’s delivered overwhelming political power to a Democratic Party determined to unwind Jim Crow, fight poverty, liberate women, and roll back a dangerous tide of environmental pollution. They carried out these reforms under pressure from a global Communist threat, but they did it without a war (Vietnam deserves an asterisk). Their efforts stuttered, halted, and were largely rolled back over the decades that followed because that threat wasn’t enough to cement progress against an entrenched elite. But their efforts still produced some meaningful gains. Progress through electoral politics is possible, but it is rare and fragile, and still usually depends on some external threat for its impetus.

Progress is essential to our survival. Political systems that fail to evolve to meet emerging demands will break, in one manner or another, and be replaced. Though democracy was supposed to create the flexibility necessary for a system to evolve, a voting public almost never embraces change until inaction has spawned a disaster. Figures like Biden and Buttigieg, who dominate the ranks of both parties, symbolize our aversion to the risks of change, even when change is our last hope.

55 Comments

  1. Nice piece. The thesis being argued is: “With few exceptions progress emerges from wars or financial disasters, not from elections”. But I find some problems with both the supporting argument and the thesis itself.

    For starters, Buttigieg’s assertion that Warren’s plan “will eliminate the job of every single American working at every single insurance company in the country” is not true. Most of the insurance company labor involved in providing private insurance would still be needed in an expanded Medicare program, so most of these jobs will still be there. Also, the government tends to contract out such work, so some private insurance company employees could find themselves at the same job, just the source of their paycheck would change. Then too, under the Warren plan the transition from private to public insurance would take place over several years. I would guess that there is sufficient ordinary turn-over in these jobs to cushion some “I lost my job”, scenarios.

    But Warren’s plan is just fantasy. Even with a Democratic landslide in 2020 it would probably be politically impossible to eliminate private health care insurance in the US. And politics aside, the American economy seems to work best (for society at large) as a never-ending tug-of-war between private and public initiatives.

    General support for Chris’ thesis comes from the assertion that “faced with this choice [go along with the current system or oppose it], people will almost always choose their own … advancement [within the current system] over any … disruption”. The writings of the German socialist Robert Miichels (circa 19110) is offered as support for this thesis.

    Further support is offered by citing:
    a) two made-up stories about an Alabama Amazon stock clerk and a North Korean sergeant.
    b) Kellyanne Conway working for Trump
    c) Illinois Democrats supporting Mike Madigan
    d) California Democrats’ opposition to homeless encampments
    Chris asserts that “genuine progress almost never emerges from a process as biased toward stability as an election”. He does not describe what he means by his concept of “progress”, but from context presumably his concept includes:
    a) uniform civil liberties
    b) adequate compensation for labor
    c) equal opportunity
    d) sustainable environments
    With this in mind, how true are the assertions that support Chris’ claim that autocracy results in more progress than democracy?

    To support the authoritarian side, Chris asserts that “almost all real social progress emerges in the wake of war” because war forces a concentration of political power which provides the wherewithal for making change. Within this piece, one evidence Chris offers to support this assertion is the Democratic election wins in1960. He asserts that these wins occurred “under pressure from a global communist threat. In general, Chris asserts that “progress through electoral politics is possible, but it is rare and fragile”.

    To fully validate Chris’ thesis one first needs a rough definition of “progress”. Then one needs to carefully examine history. This is a complex task with no absolutely certain conclusion, as illustrated by the little exchange above between Dinsdale and Chris. And what does one do if the result of this analysis supports Chris’ thesis? Advocate for “war and financial crisis” as a means of achieving progress?

    In my opinion is Chris’ thesis is an interesting perspective for viewing the ebb and flow of “progress”, but it certainly needs to be used with care. Aren’t Trump supporters using this thesis to push the US toward fascism? They just have a there own view of what constitutes “progress”.

  2. The dates you mentioned are given in the Government of Canada link that you provided, but they were for doctor’s care and diagnostic services for in hospital treatment only. In other words, Universal Hospital Care. The next paragraph down from where you quoted says that Saskatchewan brought in Universal Health Care to provide doctor care for all residents in 1962 as did the Federal Government with the Medical Care Act in 1966.

    A truely universal health care system provides for primary care at a family doctor right up to and including complex treatment in an institution. The roots of that system started in the 1940’s but the evolution wasn’t complete until the 1960’s.

    Sadly, the priciples that Canada’s Universal Health Care System are based on (accessibility, portability and affordability) are being eroded by creeping privatization among other things.

    1. Back in 2002, I accepted the rationale for invading Afghanistan, but was skeptical about Iraq, and ultimately decided that Bush did not have a valid case to justify invasion. We all know how that turned out, and my skepticism over beating war drums only increased. I remember a post on the old GOP-Lifer blog back in August 2013 about should the US intervene in Syria, and pretty much all us regulars said no, not without regrets for the situation, but we couldn’t see how we avoided a quagmire. Now we have reports that the war in Afghanistan was run like Robert-MacNamara-&-his-best-and-brightest-2.0; no plan, just keep tossing in $ and American troops. So now this current administration, which lies about everything, constantly, says this targeted killing was necessary to prevent an imminent attack on Americans. I say “prove it.” Show me and the rest of America the evidence.

    2. This New Yorker piece, written in 2013, is a valuable read to better understand the complexity of Middle East politics – both internally, there, and in US policy and actions, and how the man Suleinami rose to power. I found it helpful. FWIW, the author, Dexter Filkins, penned a response on 1/3/20 stating that this decision to kill Suleinami is on record stating that he believes this was a mistake. This man understands the Middle East; he knows his history; and his opinion is one that should be respected.

      https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander

  3. While on ‘Liberal Twitter’, argument is going on over whether Warren is too far to the right of Bernie to be the candidate for the Democrats because she still believes in Capitalism. The guy supporting Warren said the most interesting thing, “‘Capitalism,’ ‘socialism,’ look around you: The biggest and only successful ‘communist’ country on the planet is basically a giant company. China doesn’t want to be America – it wants to be Disney+Alphabet with an army the paradigms that the Marxist etc frameworks existed to critique are morphing into totally new things, to the point that you might as well be trying to run Linux on a Borg Cube or something – we’re on the edge of the new now.”

    1. There is a large difference between the Iranian and American regimes. Both are evil. But only one is rational.

      Iran will not get into a wholesale war with the U.S., because it would be madness. They know the tyrant would just as likely drop a nuke on Tehran as not. No, they will play the long game, with some penny ante “terrorist” attacks against minor U.S. interests, and plan the next “big one”, to occur some years from now.

      Tehran has recognized that shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, which they are quite capable of doing, hurts so many other countries, and actually helps the domestic U.S. oil industry. That would lead to a global effort against Iran.

      Further, attacking any U.S. military assets head on is equally insane, as the Iranian military is no match for the American military…no nation is.

      When dealing with a madman who controls the world’s most potent nuclear and conventional forces, head on confrontation is simply not on the table.

      1. Dins, no one’s making the argument that Iran would opt for direct confrontation. As you noted, they’re strong, but not *that* strong.

        Then again, they don’t need to be. Iranian proxies all across the Middle East (in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan etc, etc.) could be mobilized to launch attacks on US forces and allies. Israel itself, while capable of its own defense, is now at risk of being involved. And, of course, don’t forget the network of cyber attacks, terrorist attacks, potential counter assassinations and all other manner of indirect confrontation that would likely be brought to bear.

        Yes, in terms of sheer power, the United States is superior – but the incalculable level of destabilization and harm to the global economy as a result is nothing to scoff at. If Iran wants to make us pay and they’ve the resolve to see it through, they can do it.

      2. We don’t need to look further back than 9/11, which claimed 3000 lives but shocked our nation.
        I believe Iranian attacks will be designed extremely selectively, both in method and targeted individuals.

        Cabinet members and family and personal associates of trump are especially vulnerable. His international travel has just become infinitely more dangerous for himself and staff who accompany him. His prized family properties and important national buildings are not safe.

        The most concerning problem is lack of confidence that trump will listen to intelligence advisers regarding safety strategy. The boast by Pompeo that “Iran has oil tanks critical to their economy”, is a threat Iran will expect. Drones and bombs are not proprietary to America.

        The real bottom line for me is this: the Iran Nuclear Treaty was working. Iran was in compliance. It was never a guarantee but what we have now has placed the United States in a far more dangerous position than we were in with a monitored nuclear treaty.

        One last point: regardless which party is in power, any presidential action with major dangerous national and international consequences should require the president to get approval from the Gang of Eight. We know he did not. Did Obama for the far smaller Bin Laden raid? I don’t know but he should have. Further, American allies in proximity need to he protected and advised.

      3. “Cabinet members and family and personal associates of trump are especially vulnerable. His international travel has just become infinitely more dangerous for himself and staff who accompany him. His prized family properties and important national buildings are not safe.”

        One can hope.

    2. I have no love lost for Soleimani, just like there was no love lost for Safdam Hussein. The issue of how you choose to deal with them and how you deal with the fallout still applies now as it did then. And as bad as W, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc., botched the Iraq aftermath, they’re rocket scientists compared to the current clown show.

      We are living in interesting and ugly times.

  4. Thanks for that link. I read Mayor Pete’s transcript, and crossed him off my list. My ideal team was Warren for Pres and maybe Pete for VP but not anymore.

    I love how guys like Buttigieg (and Obama, who said almost exactly the same thing when pressed about Medicare for all) have so much concern for all those poor souls losing their jobs in the insurance industry who never lifted a finger when blue collar workers were lamenting the loss of their manufacturing jobs in the 80s/90s. And Buttigieg is from Indiana, for chrissakes, ground zero of the hollowing out Rust Belt. It’s even worse than that: healthcare is largely a domestic industry. So saving money by eliminating inefficient insurance company overhead leaves money within our country to be spent on other activities, which leads to more productive employment in other industries. This is, after all, what the creative destruction of capitalism is supposed to be about. Outsourcing manufacturing to other countries takes money out of our system unless compensated for by reciprocal exports, which, in the 80s/90s, it wasn’t.

    All these crocodile tears shed for those poor insurance company workers dedicated to denying you care betrays the real imperative, which you accurately point out is maintaining the oligarchical power structures already in place. This is why Obama bargained away the public option with insurance companies before even introducing his plan to the public.

    Your observation that people prefer being shackled with chains as long as theirs is shinier than their neighbors is spot on. I saw this in 2007 during the financial crisis, when people supported bailing out Wall St. because they saw the value of their IRA drop. I mean: the govt was proposing to give $3-5k for every man, woman and child in direct cash (to say nothing of indirect subsidies like monetary policy that transferred trillions of dollars from savers to Wall St), and you support it because the $10k in your IRA went down by a thousand bucks??? (Not to mention there was no guarantee the stock market would go up just because Goldman Sachs gets a $20bil…)

    But we see this played out in the current healthcare debate as well. In that same transcript, Buttigieg mentions union workers who grumble that Medicare for all would take away their gold-plated insurance plans that they fought for. What they don’t realize is that all their organizing energy, including negotiations, strikes, etc. had to be spent on health insurance coverage in the face of ever-rising premiums, which is why they couldn’t bargain for better salaries. By accepting Medicare for all, they can focus their future negotiations on better salaries / work conditions / etc instead of striking just to maintain the same level of insurance coverage. But the fact that they have better insurance than their non-unionized brethren means they’d rather keep fighting every year to just maintain their inefficient insurance than accept equal insurance and focus their fights on other workplace issues.

    Regarding your assertion that only massive crises, like war or financial catastrophe, can bring about real change rings true. To your examples, I’d add FDR and the Great Depression. Which is why I’m doubly mad at Obama, for wasting the greatest crisis since WWII, where he spent most of his time fighting like mad to preserve the oligarchy rather than use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (with filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and 60% of the House) to correct the imbalances that had accrued since the New Deal.

    Compare these two quotes:
    FDR, 1936, Madison Square Garden Speech:
    “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace–business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

    “They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

    “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me–and I welcome their hatred.”

    Obama, 2009, private meeting with Wall St CEOs:
    “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

    1. “I saw this in 2007 during the financial crisis, when people supported bailing out Wall St. because they saw the value of their IRA drop.”

      I wouldn’t have shed any tears over Wall St. going over the financial cliff, but I was concerned about who’s getting dragged over with them. As satisfying as stigginit may have been in that context, it wasn’t worth the risk of global depression. But I agree 1000% about wasted opportunities for reforms.

      1. Chris has suggested that corporations are often leading the way to responsible change. While I doubt they are doing so for altruistic reasons, it is interesting to read Warren Buffett’s thoughts on corporate social responsibility. While I believe corporations should be able to achieve both goals, I do agree that social responsibility is most appropriately managed by government…. Of course, that implies that government is willing (it is not under current ideological leadership) and enabled (it is not funded or policy- protected). Regardless, here’s the unvarnished opinion of one of the world’s richest men.

        https://apple.news/A_lz5JBwcQpC4k5iQ3Kg7mg

  5. Not germane to this particular post, but I’m finding some of the absolutely diametric views on Trump mind-blowing. I think I understand how some of the evangelical leaders can continue to support Trump, but when an apparently rational person like George Gilder (https://www.forbes.com/sites/richkarlgaard/2018/02/09/why-technology-prophet-george-gilder-predicts-big-techs-disruption/#447d4222d213 ) supports him I’m in cognitive distress. Can anyone here help me out?

    1. I skimmed through the article, but my impression is that he’s in the “regulation BAD!” crowd. Also he doesn’t seem to take climate change all that seriously. So I’m not that shocked he’s willingly to make the Devil’s bargain here. Disgusted, but not shocked.

  6. Chris, again a wonderful, thought-provoking post. It’s nice to go to places like this and Naked Capitalism that strip out party labels as much as possible and dive deeper into policies themselves. Especially after slumming in cesspools like Breitbart and (to an extent) The Hill.

    I wonder though if we can afford to act as if war or financial disaster is the only way to make lasting change. The 2020 elections are one of the tools we have right in front of us. I used to tell people in the disability advocacy training programs my agency ran that voting is important. But it’s only a start. Still, we have to participate in elections, as campaigners knocking on doors as well as by voting.

    Here’s a case that may or may not prove your point. Norwegians marched in the streets and ran a low scale armed conflict against reactionary armed forces, for more than a decade, to get the social democracy they have today. https://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/01/how-swedes-and-norwegians-broke-the-power-of-the-1-percent/

    I find that right wingers typically don’t understand their own ideologies well enough to offer meaningful criticisms of left wing policies; I routinely have swatted away two dozen of them at a time at places like Breitbart, of course changing no one’s mind. Right wingers will say cities are s-holes without offering anything that makes sense as to why.

    OTOH left wingers often have a shallow understanding of Democratic failings as well. They’re too blinded by the incredible damage the last two Republican administrations have done to set aside partisanship and focus on what can help people. Mostly they can only respond with the same insults that the right throws at them.

    Anyway — looking forward to future posts.

    1. EJ

      The “cities are shitholes” line is actually very interesting from the point of view of how propaganda works. You’re right that it is not supported, and is not convincing to you. That’s not what it’s for.

      Firstly, if enough people with whom you identify repeat a phrase then you will come to internalise that phrase and eventually believe it, even if you were never convinced of it logically. This is how religions and sports fandoms work: if you feel that you’re part of the group and you see the group saying a thing, you will find yourself saying it too. It may not convince a hostile intruder, but it will convince the uncertain newbie watching the veterans battling the hostile intruder.

      Secondly, if someone confronts you with a statement and you exhaustively rebut it, you may feel that you have won; but this is often not how it seems to onlookers. By forcing you to expend significant energy responding to a short point, they effectively steer your conversation onto the ground they want to talk about, and make you seem as though you’re on the defensive. As the saying goes, if you’re explaining then you’re losing. This is why a lot of internet people, rather than respond point-by-point to something you’ve said, will leap on one weak point and ignore the rest. They aren’t trying to convince you: they’re trying to convince onlookers, and are using you as a convenient prop.

      Movements which act in bad faith (that is to say, movements which prioritise winning) will tend to toss around openly-absurd statements among themselves for these reasons. “Cities are shitholes” is one such statement. Left spaces and centrists do it too.

      I try to resist doing it, but by doing so I consciously opt out of an effective tactic.

      1. This idea that a point by point explanation of policy is a loser is depressing. I’ve always said I do that for the lurkers. Doing it that way in those forums has been helpful to me in thinking on my feet when I’m knocking on doors. I think I got one voter’s support by pulling Medicaid expansion out of my butt, onlg half believing it would happen. That candidate won, and it ended up happening.

        Anyway. Who are the onlookers, do you think?

  7. Part of this points to the myth of “Job creators”, one of those good concepts turned bumper-sticker level meme that then became a short-circuit to rational thinking. Politicians love those concepts the best. Want to rationalize away a vast bureaucracy of middle managers whose sole purpose is to raise drug prices to pay for their own jobs’ existence? We must keep insurance private for “job creation.”

    I can, literally, this morning, create hundreds of thousands of jobs. They all involve servile nonsense, and pay a penny per day or trade in basic food staples.* The job is, move a stone from my gravel driveway from one end to the other.

    These hundreds of thousands of jobs are unnecessary. Nobody would take them because the pay is too low. But maybe if I word it right, call it construction or something, point out the major numbers of pure employment I am providing, I can get the government to subsidize my labor costs to bring the wage per head to at least minimum wage. Even if I don’t make it work in the legal market, the Craigslist offer is still there: if any of you ever “need a job”, just come by my place and move stones from one end of the driveway to another. There, you have a job.

    But that’s not what you actually need, isn’t it? What you’re looking for is income. People need income. Income can come from quite a few things, other than jobs. And many jobs don’t provide a living income. And many jobs that do, don’t produce value to society. I am going to be straightforward and say my job is probably one that could disappear and the only single negative impact would be to my personal income. Society wouldn’t lose shit.

    Jobs are quite often and honestly in this modern era mostly completely useless. We need only one single person to operate an entire McDonalds, and that person would largely be there to help the people who can’t figure out the machines, and report back to McDonald’s machine design team what issues they were having. The UX design team has a meaningful job. The cashiers at McDonald’s don’t, and they don’t want to be there, and they don’t get paid enough to deal with people’s bullshit, and there is zero reason whatsoever to protect their jobs. What they need is income. That’s a different thing than a job.

    Businesses lay off jobs all the time when the labor costs don’t match the profit. One of the most profitable things the US government could do is lay off the private insurance industry. That would immediately reduce the costs of healthcare by about a third, and would raise the amount of data and information the federal government would be provided by healthcare companies, pharmaceuticals, and hospitals. Provided the government did the right thing (big if) and also actually negotiated drug prices rather than pharmaceuticals just set them at wherever, drug costs would plummet and healthcare costs for the American people would have or more.

    The economy would just lose a few dozen thousand jobs. So the question is, how do we provide those dozen thousand people income? Can we create better, more meaningful jobs for them to do? Or is there another way.

    * Fun fact, when I wrote “staples” it auto-corrected to capitalize the S because phones assume I would be talking about a corporation rather than a basic necessity.

    1. First, Aaron, I applaud your honesty and loved the autocorrect example. our corporate programmers win again!

      America is being duped by the Republican Party. They are masters at this. Again and again, the spin is perpetrated with mind numbing success, refined over decades? sucking in good people, the gullible, and the selfish in their wake. This week, Gallup reported that trump has tied with Obama as the greatest president in public opinion. Now, I’m not going to assign credibility for a Gallup poll in place of hard facts, but it’s still a shocking report. I’m not one who believes obama is the greatest American President, but the fact that millions of Americans equate trump and Obama as equals is fathomable.

      We are living in a hollowed-out dream of Democracy as it aspired to be. It has been corrupted and co-opted. One can argue that both parties are flawed, but the difference in scale of corruption and lack of principle of the Republican Party cannot be supported if one observes history. At this point, blame hardly resonates.

      I have always believed in the principle that fairness matters and ultimately will prevail. That evil and selfishness will not be able to overwhelm what is inherently right. Watching what is happening to our country is painful because I have begun to lose hope in my fellow man (including family) to discern the destruction of our democratic institutions, the rule of law, and a shared commitment for common good. Truth matters.

      I don’t believe I am wrong in my criticism and judgement of this president and the republican party who support him and his agenda. What has changed is my confidence that enough Americans share my concerns, fears, and awareness to defeat what I perceive as the single greatest threat in my lifetime to our democracy.

      How did we get to this point? Have the power of information and independent thought been so thoroughly distorted that the urgent need for change is not understood or even accepted? Can anyone grasp how much worse our country will be should this man and this Republican Party prevail in the looming election?

      Fingers of blame May point in many directions, but in assignment of blame, there is really no comparison of responsibility.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/30/opinion/deficits-economy.html

      1. “Un” fathomable. (Phone keyboard challenges.)

        One additional point about consequences of this irresponsible president and his republican herd. America has lost a great deal on domestic policy basis and world standing, but the guardrails and dumb luck have helped avert major disaster thus far.
        We are on the cusp, I believe, of willfully creating such chaos and unbalance in our domestic and international relationships that our string of luck may have finally run out.
        https://apple.news/AQxyNBnZqRECQvIFDiFZ6lA

      2. The takeover is happening right in front of us.
        Lt Col Vindman has just been removed from the National Security Council by the new NSC Director O’Brien along with other members. Wholesale replacement within the DOJ, FBI, NSC, EPA and other critical government agencies foreshadow the internal makeover that removes anyone who dares oppose trump or tell the truth.

        https://www.dailykos.com/story/2019/11/10/1898525/-Lt-Col-Alexander-Vindman-to-be-removed-from-National-Security-Council

    2. Nice observation, Aaron. This guy Anthony Flaccavento https://www.anthonyflaccavento.com/

      who wrote this book https://www.amazon.com/Building-Healthy-Economy-Bottom-Transformative/dp/0813167590

      says that we should ask one question and one question only about economic projects and public policy in general.

      Not how many jobs we can create. It’s, “What work needs to be done?”

      Not asking the question in this way leads to all sorts of boondoggles. In my state alone billions are being spent on two destructive natural gas pipeline projects because they are purported to create hundreds of jobs. A $300 million bond is proposed to be floated in Richmond for a new Coliseum that will “leverage” $1.2B in additional investment and “create” 2300 jobs. But our schools (or something else) will lose up to $10M per year, unless our property taxes go up. All the revenue we’re supposed to get and then some will go toward paying off the bond.

      The cases Chris mentions are the same idea.

      1. “What work needs to be done?”

        Right, exactly. There is no end of amazingly productive work available for anyone to undertake to improve the human condition. Most of the work is not very monetizable, as it involves giving rather than selling, and most of the rest of the work isn’t very highly paid.

        This can change so that work of social benefit provides higher income, or the concept of income itself can be reconsidered so that existential needs and social obligations are met as the work is undertaken, but for the most part very little political conversation anywhere at all on any level actually even takes the time to hash out what sort of work needs to be done. Even the people who daily post on Facebook the evil awfulness of homelessness complain about it without really satisfactorily hashing into what it means to build and apportion out shelter equitably, and I don’t blame the individual because it’s a very tough issue involving a wide variety of interconnected issues, but I do blame everyone for short circuiting the discussion at its very base by debating unimportant ideological nonsense that refers to absolutely nothing real.

        I pretty much don’t care whether you consider yourself a capitalist, communist, socialist, libertarian, futurist, progressive, conservative, anything. I do not give a flat flying fuck what you “are” or “identify with.” I want to hear solutions or I want people to shut the fuck up. If you’re a “true conservative”, you’re a terrible problem solver. If you’re concerned with electing a “real progressive,” you’re an idiot.

        But I can’t claim to be much better if a problem solver or resolution thinker when I am currently selling my labor to useless production, a situation I am considering personally and also trying to figure out how to build out an argument for from a positive, productive position. I pretty much lack the words or ideas and am finding the public discourse also so lacking. So I am still on listening and research mode, and fear paralysis from it.

        Anyway here’s to 2020, another accursed election year in the now neverending “election cycle” where the Democrats will A/B test bumper sticker meme level messaging while Trump bullies them from Twitter, and the election will be decided on whether suburban white people get their SALT deduction back or the economy crashes by November.

  8. Margaret Thatcher initiated sweeping changes, which I think were necessary at the time, but they did not constitute any kind of progress, any advancement in the human condition. Reagan falls into a similar category. Those leaders were merely dismantling something broken and malfunctioning

    Balls
    Both of them SMASHED a working system and removed the limitations to the power of their cronys

      1. The system WAS working – it had hit a road bump in the form of the oil shock – but was over that with unemployment dropping when the Loony Thatcher blew the UK economy away

        She saved pennies by cutting subsidies – and COST thousands by putting people on the dole instead
        She SPENT the entire North Sea Oil revenue and sold off most of the states assets to support her “Not Working” economy

        It did have ONE good effect
        Ireland
        There was NO WAY that a rich minority in the North would have signed up with a poor majority in the South

        But as a direct result of Thatchers economy the “Rich North” became poorer than the “Poor South”
        And a Rich majority WILL sign up with a Poor minority

        By destroying the British economy she made peace in Ireland possible

        And before you start on about Unions – we lost a week to managerial incompetence to every day lost to the unions – although the right wing press made it seem the other way around

      2. The Poor South became the richest economy in Europe through the most aggressive embrace of neo-liberalism on the continent, including the second lowest corporate tax rate in the EU. Ireland out-Thatchered Thatcher.

  9. Greetings! This is my first comment on this blog. I have been looking about for a place on the web that attempts to rationally elucidate conservative positions. Although I’m basically a liberal, as a product of the University of Chicago College, I find that my understanding only evolves when I try to truly understand different points of view.

    As part of my journey in trying to understand what-is and what-should-be-done I welcome the give-and-take of opposing views, as is well exemplified by some of the comments on this particular post.

    I found this blog via a reference in a comment on http://www.weeklysift.com where Doug Murder each week posts thoughtful (but perhaps a bit rabid) liberal social commentary. Intellectually I would find it helpful if Chris (and Doug) would occasionally comment on each other’s posts.

    Also, if any readers here know of other places on the web that are honestly trying to understand and dialogue about the US social/political situation, I would appreciate their comment.

    1. To be honest, I’m no longer sure if Chris qualifies as a “conservative” in the true policy sense. I have read everything he posted since 2013 and the trump years seem to have turned him into what I am just going to call with my own words “revolutionary progressive free market economist”.

      Chris, have you come up with a better label yet? Do you still consider yourself a conservative?

      If you want to read some more traditional conservative policy authors you are best served by the current never trumpers of the Gop. I respect them for sticking to policy and recognizing the hypocritical cult the Gop has become, while I disagree with some of their policies.

      Here are some:
      Bill Kristol on his Twitter Kristol talks videos and the bulwark
      Most authors on the bulwark
      David Frum at the Atlantic
      Some authors on national review but you also run into a bunch of gop cultists there

      I follow these people on Twitter since they point out interesting articles by others as well.

      And I follow George Conway just because it gives me some hope that trump will go down in flames. But that’s mostly for my own sanity. Kind of a safe space for my mind 🙂

  10. Chris, you are wrong, wrong, and wrong. Stop looking at the U.S. as some nation that is unique in the history of the world.

    You are the history guy.

    Canada kicked in Medicare in 1964. I don’t remember Canada having a civil war 55 years ago.
    German Universal Healthcare are introduced in 1883, by a conservative, Bismarck, in a period of relative peace.
    France started their system up in 1902, after decades of political headwinds as you describe for the U.S.
    England started moving towards universal health care in 1911, but yes, after the war, in 1946 did it really get formalized.
    Japan, from Wikipedia: “The beginning of the Japanese Health care system happened in 1927 when the first Employee Health Insurance plan was created. In 1961, Japan achieved universal health insurance coverage, and almost everyone became insured.”
    Italy: Look at the link. The Roman Empire started it, and it was essentially formalized in 1923-1927 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_healthcare_in_Italy

    I could go on, but clearly, a war or revolution was not the driving force in many of the civilized nations’ creation of universal health care. Now, you fully know that I think a revolution is needed for a lot of other reasons, but having the U.S. catch up to the civilized world wrt to healthcare is not one of them.

    BTW, it is pretty clear that the U.S. is very close to “failed nation” status. Every day it inches closer. If the U.S. did not have such a massive military, the U.N. would be treating the U.S. as a nuclear state with its control in the hands of a madman.

    1. Let me correct a few things.

      Bismark instituted his social welfare system starting in the mid-1870’s. He was an autocrat who pushed the program over the objections of the aristocracy because 1) a failed communist revolt in France was threatening to spread across Europe, 2) his experience from the Franco-Prussian War demonstrated the need for more able-bodied men, both on the battlefield and in the factory. Nobody voted to make that happen. If they’d been allowed to vote, they probably would have rejected it.

      France, England and the rest of western Europe finally adopted their universal health care systems in the wake of WW2, as a response to the looming Soviet threat. Same with Japan. These systems emerged from a ruined and occupied Europe with very limited room for democratic expression. Likewise, Canada launched their system in 1947 and it covered most of the country by 1950.

      Italy’s system was installed by the Fascists after democracy ended.

      What all of these systems have in common is that those countries were still living under military mobilization. The experience of total war was still at the front of mind, a world in which every basic need was delivered by government, from clothing to food to (of course) health care.

      Democracy very rarely produces comprehensive reforms of any kind. And even autocratic regimes seldom engage in such bold actions except when facing an existential threat.

      1. Uh…no….. Taking a line used when dealing with cultists of the far right in the U.S., it is impossible to discuss anything when one can not even agree on facts.

        Your fundamental system of “facts” are wrong.

        But we can agree on this much. The U.S. has fallen into the a state of autocracy. And yes, there are enormous political (aka economic) headwinds against the U.S. joining the rest of the civilized world. In that world, being poor is not being considered a crime and sociopaths (a subset being leaders of the health insurance industry) are not allowed to profit from the misfortune of others, as middlemen.

      2. Hi Chris,

        Another great article, but your dates for universal health care in Canada are a bit off. Universal Health Care was adopted in Saskatchewan in 1962 by the CCF Party and in the rest of Canada in 1966 by a minority Liberal government. The same Liberal government also brought in the Canada Pension Plan, which is similar to your Social Sercurity system in 1965.

        Other than the politics of maintaining power with a minority government, I’m not sure of what, if any, upheaval caused the creation of these two major components of our social safety net.

      3. Canada’s universal health care plan began in 1947, as part of a wave of similar programs rolled out across the western democracies in the post-war period. In fact, our mutant health care system was also part of this wave, locked into place in 1953 after an effort to adopt universal care failed in the late 40’s. Saskatchewan led the way with a universal hospital plan in ’47, with other western provinces following in 1950. After that it was just a question of how the rest of the details would be worked out. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/health-care-system/reports-publications/health-care-system/canada.html

  11. And Chris is CONTRIBUTING to this

    By his – “both parties are the same” diatribes he makes any CHANGE much much more DIFFICULT

    It was that “Both Parties are the Same” – that elected Bush 2

    And anybody who thinks that Gore would have been one tenth as bad needs their head examining!!

    And the same “Both Parties are the Same” – that elected the Orange Cockwomble

    STOP ALREADY!!

    Are those two not enough!!!

      1. Make sure to distinguish “change” from “progress.” Certain kinds of change, which sometimes are necessary and valuable, but are not exactly progressive, have been initiated by leaders in democracies. As long as a change is not opposed by powerful people it can pass in a democracy under regular order. Margaret Thatcher initiated sweeping changes, which I think were necessary at the time, but they did not constitute any kind of progress, any advancement in the human condition. Reagan falls into a similar category. Those leaders were merely dismantling something broken and malfunctioning, not creating a new order that advanced our condition.

        Obama initiated some changes, like the ACA, which have had a very small positive impact on a few people’s lives. Given the scale of the crisis from which the ACA emerged, much more should have been possible. But Obama was a far more conservative figure than anyone is quite ready to acknowledge yet.

        Change isn’t as difficult as progress.

      2. Not a criticism, just an observation. Thought about it a lot while I was putting this piece together. Seems like the kinds of change that can most easily be accomplished absent a crisis are the ones that further reinforce oligarchy.

    1. If you think Chris thinks both parties are equally bad, then you are not reading what he has been writing.

      The Gop has become a dangerous cult. Democrats are better than that. They still believe in facts and science and some ideas to improve the lives of Americans. BUT they don’t mind if while attempting to do that they make some good money, stay in power, keep their donors happy, etc. You know. The stuff most politicians do.

      Just a reminder : dems had the house, senate and presidency in 2009. They could have done much more. But like Chris correctly points out you can’t make progress without hurting regular people who found a way to work in established systems. And dems were not willing to pay the electoral price. Even if some may have believed it was the right move, they feared voters would vote them out. (which they then did anyway)

  12. As an unabashed lover of progress, the $1,000,000,000,000 question’s when America faces its next crisis. Certainly, no one can say for certain what form it’ll take, but there’s a compelling argument that it’ll be economic – and that underlying, compounding problems could augment even a modest downturn significantly.

    Amidst historically low interest rates, Corporate America’s debt has bloated to an all-time record of nearly $10 trillion. Compounding this problem is the more than 50% of the market being held by high-risk debt that’s usually the most likely to face credit downgrades in the case of a recession.

    https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/us-corporate-debt-10-trillion-record-percentage-economy-expert-warnings-2019-12-1028731031#blackrock2

    Household debt is even larger.

    https://www.marketwatch.com/story/us-consumer-debt-is-now-breaching-levels-last-reached-during-the-2008-financial-crisis-2019-06-19

    The Federal Reserve’s desperate to boost markets with an increasingly small bag of tricks. How long until this house of cards finally comes crashing down?

    https://www.ccn.com/fed-desperately-fighting-off-recession/

    Are markets riding high until a Democrat is elected?

    https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-12-26/beware-when-democrats-spend-as-recklessly-as-republicans?cmpid%3D=socialflow-twitter-view&utm_campaign=socialflow-organic&utm_source=twitter&utm_content=view&utm_medium=social

    1. Depends upon who you ask….If you ask trump supporters and former economic luminaries like Gary Cohn, all the wage increases for working class people are a direct result of trump’s tax cuts….

      Will this man be re-elected on the “economy stupid?”

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/01/02/minimum-wage-increases-fueling-faster-wage-growth-those-bottom/?utm_campaign=evening_edition&utm_medium=Email&utm_source=Newsletter&wpisrc=nl_evening&wpmm=1

  13. EJ

    Chris, you continue to impress me with both how insightful and how radical your writing is. I guess there’s no revolutionary like a jilted defender of the status quo. I am torn between recommending some theorists to you, or just sitting back and seeing where you end up.

    Either way, happy new year. Angels of bread and all that.

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