What’s Wrong with the World

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Category Error

Reihan Salam, of the American Scene, a blog I consider essential reading, on account of the eclecticism and erudition of the contributors, is interested in what might be termed 'applied neoconservatism'. Someone else, though I cannot recall who, has employed that term, and though Salam would understandably wish to distance himself from much of contemporary neoconservatism, it is probably not too far wide of the mark. Salam, after all, does count David Brooks as a mentor. In any event, Salam and Ross Douthat have been collaborating on the development of a policy programme, initially termed Sam's Club Republicanism, and since elaborated into a forthcoming book, Grand New Party, the burden of which is to articulate a vision by which the Republican party can recapture the allegiances of the working middle class. I look forward to reading the book, though I've no inclination towards neoconservatism, inasmuch as it behooves one to ponder how the present 'adminstrative state' - which, alas, will be with us for a while - could be made more hospitable to ordinary folks.

Nevertheless, in the comments section of Salam's discussion of the divergence of Republican and Democratic populisms, with the optimism/pessimism divide being a critical psychological factor, there is enacted a confusion of categories with great bearing on some of the pressing political and economic issues of the moment.

A commenter responded to Salam's piece with the following:

Reihan — you miss the main point.
Republicans are likely to offer the wage earner wage protection by limiting the endless supply of cheap Mexican labor coming over the border and lowering wages. That has real income gains.
Democrats want open border and that means lower wages for most workers, who remain blue/‘dirty-white’ collar such as salesman, office people, etc.
Neither party addresses outsourcing and the role of the internet on IT, Legal, Accounting, and other work. That is skilled American workers being replaced by cheap Indian workers via the internet. Though Romney has flirted with the issue.
Ownership society is irrelevant. Optimism/pessimism is irrelevant. America was founded on the principles of “cheap land, expensive labor” and that has been reversed creating electoral instability.
To the extent that one party recognizes the problem and offers realistic solutions it will become the dominant party.

The comment, among other things which may or may not be questionable, makes two reasonable - and incontestable - observations. First, the outsourcing - and, by implication, insourcing - is extending its reach into the comfortable middle-class realms of technological services; second, that the historical genesis of American economic optimism lies in the openness of the frontier, which created the very dynamic of "cheap land, costly labour". The reversal of the latter factor, creating a dynamic of expensive land and cheap labour, is a slowly-unfolding sociological and political earthquake that the parties have scarcely begun to address; and they would have to address it by attending to the dislocations created by the phenomenon that has added the cheap labour to the costly land brought about by the closure of the frontier, namely, globalization.

Salam, however responded thusly:

Jim — if you think declaring offshoring illegal, my guess it that you would have favored banning such newfangled contraptions as the spinning jenny and the ENIAC, both of which caused massive job losses and dislocation.

And this is a massive category error, conflating as it does the development of new technologies, which, of themselves, dictate nothing regarding the manner, scope, or geography of their deployment, and the fundamentally geopolitical phenomenon of globalization, itself the product of policies and regulatory and financial regimes patiently crafted by legislators, cadres of bureaucrats, the financial establishment, business interests, the odd dictatorial government, and elected heads of state. In other words, the spinning jenny and ENIAC may have occasioned their dislocations, but those dislocations occurred within local and national communities, that, presumably, could have deliberated about the manner in which new technologies were introduced. Under globalization, however, new technologies are introduced, and their possibilities exploited, in such a manner as to bypass altogether the possibility of such rational deliberation, because it is presupposed that these technologies, and the "innovations" (in labour arbitrage) they make possible, already transpire in a magical realm beyond the nation state. Except, of course, when the nation-state remains necessary to their facilitation. Such developments, that is, are imagined to be autonomous from politics, even though globalization itself is nothing if not a massive political artifact.

Technological development and the manner of its employment can only be conflated, assumed to be identical, if we suppose that what technology makes possible will, and must be, actualized. Which is to state that the category error in all of this is simply that of either a tacit technological determinism, or an implicit notion of human liberation - as it is for some libertarians. Regardless, technology is not identical with its social context, and no amount of gesticulation in the direction of their "mutually contextualizing" relationship can make it so.

Comments (2)

Add the disappearance of cheap energy to the reversal of the cheap land - expensive labor formulation and you have the necessary ingredients for a profound upheaval in our current living arrangements.

The first Presidential candidate to articulate an awareness of the coming storm, propose plausible solutions and utter the dreaded S word (sacrifice) will either win the White House or later be remembered as a prophet wrongly dismissed. Something tells me the latter scenario is more likely.

Barring a major spiritual rejuvenation (and adversity can do that for a people) we will be hearing about the moral necessity for resource wars and the wonderful opportunities that exist for those willing to fight so as to keep the home lights on.

Give our free-trade ideologues credit for their consistency. As they say, "The market always works." Even if means selling-off to foreign interests;

"NEW YORK (Reuters) - Citigroup Inc. (C.N) and Merrill Lynch & Co Inc. (MER.N) are in discussions to receive more capital from investors, primarily foreign governments, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

Citigroup could get as much as $10 billion, likely all from foreign governments, while Merrill is expected to get $3 billion to $4 billion, much of it from a Middle Eastern government investment fund, the report said."

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