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I read Hunter's diary, "The Failure of Austerity", but I think he is missing something.  Some people support Austerity measures because they are fools, but others do it because it helps them, either financially, psychologically, or even (sadly) spiritually.

Hunter wrote:

Any rational person would now discard those ideas [of Austerity economics]. We, however, are not governed by rational people. We are governed by ideologues, grifters and children.

I'll come back to the idea of an idealogue later, but I want to start out with the idea that many conservatives are simply fools.  Hunter's observation is likely correct, to a point.  I taught at a community college for a few years and had a student, a nice enough guy, who was completely and tragically enamored with right-wing pundits.  It was so bad that he, a US Military Veteran whose parents were immigrants, asked me if I thought he should take spring break and go down to the border to help the minutemen (after recoiling in horror, I took a deep breath and suggested that the minutemen would be around over the summer break and that it was more important for him to study over spring break-- thankfully he bought that, and even more thankfully, the minutemen were off the news by summer).  

More importantly, this guy, this generally good hearted guy was just missing some kind of rationality gene.  He was incapable of understanding the scientific method.  When I attempted to teach him the scientific method in class he didn't get it, so I agreed to share a beer with him (don't worry, he was 21) so I could explain it to him.  I spent over an hour giving him examples of hypotheses and correcting his errors, but he never got it.  All of his hypotheses were right wing hypotheses, they were all heavily laden with ideological terminology, and they were all untestable.  Here was one example: "If I spend my time studying instead of spending too much time looking at facebook, I'll be much better than those other lazy people." Needless to say, after two hours of this back and forth, the limits of my patience had been reached and I gave up.  I concluded that without some sort of massive reeducation campaign, this guy would never understand the scientific method.

So I think that Hunter is right that the right-wing ideology is, for the wide variety of adherents, nothing but a religious belief in "the way things are."  But I don't think that explains the entire problem.  

I think that there are truly intelligent people who understand that austerity impoverishes society but nonetheless support austerity for other reasons.   In fact, I suspect that there are some surprisingly creative thinkers among the wealthiest classes who have good reasons for promoting austerity measures.

But it does appear to be a puzzle.  If we destroy the middle class, If we impoverish the poor and make the upper middle class little more than a fantasy to most of society, doesn't that ultimately hurt even the super-rich?  Doesn't that mean that the super-rich are stupid or that they're short-sighted?  On the other hand, maybe the super rich recognize that they won't be able to sell as much in an impoverished nation but don't care, because their slightly lower wealth will give them more power.  

In other words, maybe billionaires are looking at the world and see two choices.  Behind door number one they can set into motion events that in 20 years will create a vibrant middle class, social justice, fair regulations and a personal net worth of $50 billion. Behind door number two they can set into motion events that in 20 years will eliminate the middle class, increase injustice, destroy government oversight and result in a personal net worth of only $40 billion.  But maybe the billionaires have figured out that behind door number two, they are able to control every lever of power in our society.  They will own all three branches of government, they will be able to amend the constitution to their benefit, and they will be able to employ so many people with so little oversight that there will be no functional difference between their power and that of slaveowners.

Thing is, my analysis works even with certain members of the upper middle class.  Lets say your family's net worth is 250,000, which puts you roughly in the top 1/5 of wealth.  Behind door number one you can vote for a policy that supports the less fortunate,  civil rights, and more government regulation. After 20 years you will be worth $500,000.  Behind door number two, you can cut unemployment benefits, build more jails, and eliminate government regulation. These policies will, in 20 years, cause your net worth to remain at $250,000.  The thing is, with everyone else doing well behind door number one, your family is no longer in the top 1/5 but instead you're only in the top 1/3.  But behind door number two, if you manage to maintain your wealth, you have now moved up to the top 1/10 of wealth.  Behind door number one, you can buy a Porche but so can a third of your neighbors.  Behind door number two you can only afford a BMW, but your car will be the nicest on your block.

Maybe this is the real reason why austerity has taken hold so firmly around the world.  Ultimately, I have a hard time believing that stupid people are really running the show.  Stupid people aren't generally smart enough to truly run anything, and they're definitely not smart enough to develop an ideology.  Stupid peole follow ideologies, smart people create them.

The Occupy movement provides a strong counterpoint to Austerity economics. Occupiers are less concerned about the number of jobs and the level of unemployment benefits than they care about inequality or fairness.  For so long our national discourse has been dominated by a pure numbers approach to policy.  If one person in society gets a raise and everyone else's income stays the same, our "logical" approach to the situation says that society benefits.  Maybe that's an overly simplistic view.  If the richest person in society gets a raise, even if no one else loses money, that is probably a bad thing because it grants the powerful more power.  But if the poorest person in society gets a raise, that may be a good thing because it grants the powerless more power.  Of course, many on the right feel that the wealthy should get the raise because they are "most deserving."

Hunter is right, Austerity measures are about ideology, but our opposition to Austerity measures is also ideological.  People like us believe that governments should minimize human suffering. Thus, the fact that austerity creates more suffering seems terrible.  Now, some foolish people may honestly believe that austerity reduces human suffering.  But I suspect that more of its supporters don't even care.  

Many people on the right see government not as a source for the elimination of human suffering but as a mechanism for assigning punishment.  To them, the unemployed, the single parents, and even the people who studied poetry in college are wrong, and they deserve to be punished.  To them, suffering is appropriate for persons that "spend too much time on facebook."  To them, Austerity is the answer because it metes out suffering.  Just like a vengeful god.

Mon Dec 19, 2011 at 1:21 AM PT: I'm so honored to be selected for the community spotlight.  Thanks spotlighters!  I also wanted to say something about the poll.  My desire was to create a moralistic choice and an economic choice. If you chose B, it means that you were mostly concerned with getting your money back.  If you chose A, it means that you were mostly concerned with what you perceive as "fairness."  It has been a complete surprise to me that the majority chose A.  If you chose A it means that you felt it was more important to punish a wrongdoer than to get your money back.  If you chose A hopefully you can understand why people would choose an economic policy that hurts people-- they choose it because they believe that certain people in society deserve to be hurt economically.  At the very least, they believe that certain people do not deserve our help.

Mon Dec 19, 2011 at 10:13 AM PT: I just noticed I made the Rec list!  My first time! Thank you so much everyone.  For a guy who's been reading this blog since 2002, it's truly an honor.

Originally posted to John Chapman on Sun Dec 18, 2011 at 01:27 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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