Monday, November 17, 2014

The Different Between Burning Down The Forest

and Settin' The Woods on Fire.*

But first, a little bit of one of the greatest science fiction epics ever.
Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt leaves as legal tender, we have, of course all become immensely rich.

No really? Really?

Yes, very good move…

But, we have also run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability. Which means that I gather the current going rate has something like three major deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut. So, um, in order to obviate this problem and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on an extensive defoliation campaign, and um, burn down all the forests. I think that’s a sensible move don’t you?
-- Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
As most of your clever dogs know, "Settin' The Woods on Fire" is the title of a PBS documentary about how George Corley Wallace, Jr. came to hold and exercise political power

It is also the title of a Hank Williams Sr.** song about having one hella raucus good time
Comb your hair and paint and powder you act proud and I'll act prouder
You sing loud and I'll sing louder tonight we're settin' the woods on fire
You're my gal and I'm your feller dress up in my frock and yeller
I'll look swell but you'll look sweller settin' the woods on fire
We'll take in all the honky tonks tonight we're having fun
We'll show the folks a brand new dance that never has been done
I don't care who thinks we're silly you'll be daffy I'll be dilly
We'll order up two bowls of chili settin' the woods on fire
It's a real thing, this kind of infectious charisma.  I don't have it, but I recognize it when I see it. Traditionally it's what moves people out of the pews and into the aisle at church and off of the couch and out the polls in politics, but we don't see a lot of it anymore now that microphones have made everyone equally loud, teevee has made everyone the same height, and every political event is calibrated for the benefit of the cameras rather than stem-winding speeches to wow the crowds.

"Burning the forest down" -- a phrase from the Dark Knight

 (and "The Hitchhiker's Guide...") -- is a different animal entirely.

It means to change the terms of an engagement by radically altering the environment of the battlespace.  Think Hannibal crossing the Alps.  Or the Romans building an artificial mountain to get at the rebels holed up on top of otherwise-impregnable Masada. Or Alexander's Siege of Tyre.

And this is where I think Michael Lewis' review of Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust misses the burning forest for the burning trees.
It’s an obvious point: people’s behavior can be changed. But it’s largely absent from the growing and increasingly heated discussion about the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else. The grotesque inequality between the haves and the have-nots is seldom framed as a problem that the haves might privately help to resolve. Instead, it is a problem the have-nots must persuade their elected officials to do something about, presumably against the wishes of the haves. The latest contribution to the discussion comes from Darrell West, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Wealth—its uses and abuses—is a subject that has intrigued me since my youth in the rural Midwest,” West writes in the introduction to his study of billionaires. From his seat in Washington, D.C., he has grown concerned about the effects on democracy of a handful of citizens controlling more and more wealth.

Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, West notes that the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of American citizens has returned to levels not seen in a century. One percent of the population controls a third of its wealth, and the problem is only getting worse: from 1979 to 2009 after-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by 155 percent while not changing all that much for everyone else. By another measure of inequality, which compares the income controlled by the top 10 percent with that of the bottom 40 percent, the United States is judged to come forty-fourth out of the eighty-six nations in the race, and last among developed nations. But the object of West’s interest is not the top 10 percent or even the top 1 percent, but the handful of the richest people on the planet—the 1,645 (according to Forbes) or 1,682 (the Knight Frank group) or 1,867 (China’s Start Property Group) or 2,170 (UBS Financial Services) people on the planet worth a billion dollars or more. (The inability to identify even the number of billionaires hints at a bigger problem: how little even those who claim an expertise about this class of people actually know about them.)

Billionaires seems to have been sparked by West’s belief that rich people, newly empowered to use their money in politics, are now more likely than usual to determine political outcomes. This may be true, but so far the evidence—and evidence here is really just a handful of anecdotes—suggests that rich people, when they seek to influence political outcomes, often are wasting their money. Michael Bloomberg was able to use his billions to make himself mayor of New York City (which seems to have worked out pretty well for New York City), but Meg Whitman piled $144 million of her own money in the streets of California and set it on fire in her failed attempt to become governor. Mitt Romney might actually have been a stronger candidate if he had less money, or at least had been less completely defined by his money. For all the angst caused by the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson and their efforts to unseat Barack Obama, they only demonstrated how much money could be spent on a political campaign while exerting no meaningful effect upon it.
Yes, billionaires have a hard time buying up politicians or running for office themselves...which is why this direct approach is often the least effective.  Although the idea that lobbing giant bales of money into political races has no effect on the race just because your candidate in a given race lost is ludicrous. I mean, sure, Romney lost despite being made of money, but so what?   Yes, big Republican donors spent hundreds of millions on Romney...and they lost.  

But big Democratic donors spent an assload of money on Obama...and he won.

Because somebody always wins.

However the collective effect of making access to fabulous riches a barrier entry to politics is that Big Money dramatically narrows the range of issues that anyone will feel comfortable discussing.  But ever more important than the effect of wealth during an election cycle is the power of great wealth to alter the course of our national conversation about everything, every day leading up to election day.

Like a great river, reshaping the topography of a continent, Rupert Murdoch doesn't win bend public policy to his will by coaching Herman Cain how to talk on camera.   He does it by hammering together the fears and bigotries and grievances of tens of millions of ignorant peons -- night after night, year after year -- until they are forged into a mighty electoral sword.

The Koch Brothers don't win elections by stuffing more money into Mitt Romney's campaign coffers. They win by patiently investing decades of time and billions of dollars in an army of publications, think tanks, front organizations and fake grassroots movements...gradually altering the basic American political and economic vocabulary so that "debating" anything outside of the very slender aperture of their interests becomes nearly impossible.

Finally, this area -- working the refs and working over time to change the political gravitational constant to favor Liberal positions -- is something the Left really sucks at.  This needn't be true, but the big dollar donors on the Left have chosen to investing virtually nothing in changing the rule of the game and the language of the rules.  And this, more than anything else, is why we lose.

*(Graphic is from my original Boehner as Trashcan Man post here)

** Thanks for the correction, Anon!


Anonymous said...

Settin' the Woods on Fire is an old Hank Williams Sr song (though I'm sure Hank Jr has covered it at some point

waldo said...

I wrote to Margaret Somebody from the NY Times Public desk, challenging her to suggest a debate between you and David Brooks. Of course, I received no answer and it's never going to happen but geez, wouldn't it be fun.
Anyhoo, I sorta like it that we've got you all to ourselves. Ta.

Neo Tuxedo said...

Finally, this area -- working the refs and working over time to change the political gravitational constant to favor Liberal positions -- is something the Left really sucks at.

I will go to my grave maintaining that this is because we, as a nation, spent the period from 1945-1989 doing our best to marginalize anyone on the Left who didn't suck at it -- calling them Communists, blacklisting them for Jesus, and in extreme cases shooting them through the forehead from behind.

pdore said...

Well I'm just gonna try to post this here cuz you rule & who else would maybe listen? I think that one of the main reasons that the left often loses is because we have a few serious blind spots. To wit:

A. The national debt is rising. Many on the left point out that the DEFICIT is shrinking - often as if they’re the same thing. But people see the debt going up up up. This makes the left look not only foolish, but somewhat duplicitous as well.

B. Considering point A, the left seems not only OK with spending lots of money - on social services, infrastructure, environmental issues, etc. but also desirous of spending even more money – on the ACA in particular, but also on education, drug treatment, etc.

C. We have an employment problem (yes I know the numbers are down, but wages are stagnant, etc), and yet we want to let a large number of undocumented people stay in our country. Also, consider that these people would require social services - see point one above.

Does anybody have good, clear, concise answers to these issues? Politicians on the left sure don’t, and until they do, we’re in trouble.

P.S. Another one of our blind spots is that we don’t have blind spots.

Neo Tuxedo said...

Well, pdore, before we can provide "good, clear, concise answers to these issues", we need to clear away the bullshit that the right has heaped around them, bullshit you do a truly magnificent job of regurgitating. I won't be able to do that in a serious way until I stop thinking of you as a concern troll, though.

Dave said...

this is misleading. I don't think you mean to be, but it is.

I understand what you're trying to say. Big rich progressive people should be funding money to the grassroots libs. That should even the playing field between the fake grassroots with lib grassroots.

But the problem is, rich libs can't simply match dollars for dollars with dems.. they also have to give republicans money and give enough money not to be ignored. And also, the republican donors not only spend money, but through policy they enforce they make that money back.

So let's a Soros match the Koch Brothers. .. the kochs are richer, so they can't beat them, and the Koch will still give a significant amount to the people Soros bought. Even if the people Soros pick win, they will still be in debt to the koch and rely on their consistency.

Because these rich donors aren't that rich compare to the crazy right wing, they have to use their money smarter.. and unless there's a way to also get that money back through democrat more than oil get from both sides, there's no point playing that game.

For the grassroots.. they give money to control and lie to those people and point them to a single direction, like pro life (nevermind pro life is pro death). It's hard to lie to libs and they can think for themselves.

Republicans and the right are a tribe, the left only connection is we don't like the right. If our rich people give us normal people any kind of influence, we're going to try to bite the hand that feed us in one way or another.. by being fair.

Dave said...


The answers to your questions..

A b and c) As a left or dem politician, run on the fact my party have decreased the deficit with obamacare an anyone who says anything different are lying to you. Do this a year before the election and keep pounding that message until everyone knows it. Just run on a policy that people would like and push it

But then donors won't give me money to run and will give money to someone republican like

Regardless of would have won, this is what woulldn't.. social services would be cut, there will be tax breaks, and have republican policies.

pdore said...

Neo Tuxedo - I assure you that I'm not any kind of troll - although if I had to be, then a concern troll at least sounds kind of sweet. I love this site and would happily spit on a copy of David Brooks' latest column if that would convince you. I just feel like these are real questions that we are not very good at answering - along with one that I forgot - "Why should I pay more in taxes for this stuff?"
And no offense to Dave, but if that's the best we got, then I'm even more worried than I was.

pdore said...

Neo Tuxedo - I assure you that I'm not any kind of troll - although if I had to be, then a concern troll at least sounds kind of sweet. I love this site and would happily spit on a copy of David Brooks' latest column if that would convince you. I just feel like these are real questions that we are not very good at answering - along with one that I forgot - "Why should I pay more in taxes for this stuff?"
And no offense to Dave, but if that's the best we got, then I'm even more worried than I was.

new_damage said...

pdore - To respond to the nubs of your gist:

As to point A): The US has a currency created by fiat. This means that it is not possible for the US government to run out of money. Sadly, the Federal Reserve system has done much to shift the balance of power in this regard back to the banks. Seriously, why should the government (i.e., the people) pay interest to banks merely for them to serve as outlets for cash that they do not even own?

As to point B): Once point A is resolved, point B falls into place.

As to point C): Once point B is resolved, with the addition of something along the lines of a 21st-century WPA being established, point C falls into place.

The standard rebuttal to this is the word "inflation," to which I say, bring it on. A little inflation (accompanied by corresponding wage increases) will make corporations think twice about sitting on their mountains of dough and instead persuade them to reinvest the money back into their companies' businesses. A jacked up and rigorously enforced corporate profit tax rate would help even more.

pdore said...

new_damage - That's much better - thanks for taking that seriously!