Lynn Parramore

 

Recent Posts by Lynn Parramore

  • Japanophobia: Economic Myths in the American Media

    Oct 20, 2010Lynn Parramore

    lynn-parramore-web-headshot-1If fiscal hawks have their way, we'll learn the wrong lessons from an ailing Godzilla.

    lynn-parramore-web-headshot-1If fiscal hawks have their way, we'll learn the wrong lessons from an ailing Godzilla.

    I'm turning Japanese
    I think I'm turning Japanese
    I really think so
    ~~The Vapors

    The American obsession with the Japanese is nothing new. We marvel at their meteoric trains and mouth-watering cuisine. We once spoke of their economic prowess in hushed awe. But reading the New York Times last Sunday, I realized that our fixation was taking a new, dangerous turn. Japanophilia is morphing into Japanophobia --  a fear that the U.S. economic outlook will somehow mimic the Land of the Rising Sun if we don't heed the fiscal hawks. In truth, we are in danger of learning all the wrong lessons from the Japanese. A shame, because they have much of value to teach us.

    Martin Fackler's "Japan Goes From Dynamic to Disheartened" presented a fear-inspiring narrative that does little more than perpetuate myths that benefit the rich. His story: the Japanese economy is in the shitter because of too much "wasteful spending" by the government. Fackler breezily suggests a consensus on this point among economists:

    "Japanese leaders at first denied the severity of their nation's problems and then spent heavily on job-creating public works projects that only postponed painful but necessary structural changes, economists say."

    Oh, really? Creating jobs that put people back to work is about denial? Funny, but I know some economists who say otherwise. My Roosevelt Institute colleague Thomas Ferguson dismisses the false choice implied by the author. "You don't have to choose between working to keep full employment and making structural changes," Ferguson wrote to me in an email. "The issue is whether you just let unemployment go up, which drives people to desperation and widens the gulf between the rich and the rest of us, or whether you keep people employed while you make the structural changes you think are needed. The latter way is much easier to do and far more productive for society."

    Fackler draws his analogy between the U.S. and Japan beginning with the Japanese bubbles that burst in the 80s and 90s. According to him, the country "fell into a slow but relentless decline" that could not be reversed, alas, even by "enormous budget deficits" or "a flood of easy money". Then comes the ominous warning:

    "Now as the United States and other Western nations struggle to recover from a debt and property bubble of their own, a growing number of economists are pointing to Japan as a dark vision of the future."

    Memo to Fackler: If you look closely at the history of the Japanese economy, it provides precisely the opposite illustration. Government spending didn't cause the Japanese economy to stagnate. It was the fitful confusion of stop-start fiscal spending that seesawed the economy between hopeful improvement on the one hand, and wrenching cut-backs and consumption taxes urged by austerity-preaching deficit hawks on the other. Bipolar fiscal policy during a time when the private sector is trying to pay down debts and repair balance sheets is a recipe for disaster. The "flood of easy money" Fackler references, also known by the wonky term "quantitative easing", was the wrong approach by the Japanese government, which should have maintained the focus on jump-starting a weak economy by putting people back to work. That's the smart, productive way to get things moving. Unfortunately, a failure of nerve and political will crippled Godzilla. And the dismal vision Fackler outlines will emerge in the U.S. if we buy into his false narrative. Ironically, reports like Fackler's are creating the very reality they purport to warn against.

    My colleague Marshall Auerback provides some facts that Fackler-the-Feckless would do well to master. In a mini-history of the Japanese response to economic crisis, he observes:

    "In 1997, just as Japan was beginning to emerge from recession, the government introduced a 40% increase in the consumption tax, which promptly threw the country back into the throes of recession. Then you had the Asian financial crisis, which obliterated the export sector. Then you had the Koizumi Administration attempting "fiscal consolidation" throughout the early 2000s, which actually caused economic growth to slow and the budget deficit to rise. This, despite the fact that the Bank of Japan started to do "quantitative easing" in March 2001. It wasn't until September 2003, when the Koizumi government finally stopped the crazy fiscal austerity fetishism, when, lo and behold, the economy began to grow steadily again and the budget deficits began to go down. That's what was happening until the financial crisis of 2008."(Also see Auerback's "What Ever Happened to Japan?").

    Contrary to Fackler's story, Japan's deficits show the dangers of what happens when you stop spending proactively and productively during a crisis: you get larger deficits as automatic stabilizers kick in and tax revenues decline. To avoid this fate, we have to deploy our fiscal resources to generate greater economic activity. Put plainly, we need to create jobs. It would be great if the private sector were creating all the jobs we need. But it isn't. And that's where government can step in.

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    But meanwhile, we have to combat the Facklers who whip up Japanophobia and freeze our political will. As Rebecca Wilder points out at the News N Economics blog, cherry picking anecdotes about down-and-out Japanese people crushed by deflation as Fackler does is not a substitute for responsible analysis. Contrary to what he implies, the Japanese standard of living has actually grown over the last two decades. And as for the country's unemployment numbers, they ought to make Americans blush: They're around 5%. The Japanese may be wary of the future after the bubble-fueled economic euphoria of past decades. But most of them have jobs. And as to what they enjoy in the public sphere, well, let's just say that if you take a train out of Tokyo and compare that to a train ride from New York City, you will quickly discover just how well our fiscal austerity is working for us. Go ahead. Use the toilet if you dare.

    But the big question is this: Why does America continue to put up with high unemployment when we can directly create jobs, just as FDR did through the Works Progress Administration? Is it because big corporate interests want to keep wages down by keeping large numbers of Americans out of work? Is it because the rich become more powerful when ordinary people have less? These are the dark visions we should be worried about. History shows that when times are tough, the government can create jobs and find plenty of useful things for laid-off folks to do. Like repairing roads and rebuilding decrepit schools. Where there's a will, there's a way. Political will is what stands between millions Americans and a more prosperous future. That, and reporters who don't do their homework.

    Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, Co-founder of Recessionwire and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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  • Jonathan Schell: The Nuclear Paradox

    Oct 18, 2010Lynn Parramore

    jonathan-schellThis is the fifth installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore is conducting in partnership with Salon.

    jonathan-schellThis is the fifth installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore is conducting in partnership with Salon. She sat down with Jonathan Schell, author of "The Fate of the Earth," Fellow at the Nation Institute and Distinguished Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, to talk about nuclear disarmament. They discussed America's conflicted stance, the obstacles to nonproliferation and the connection with global warming.

    Lynn Parramore: Where are we today in terms of nuclear nonproliferation?

    Jonathan Schell: I think you have two contending waves. On the one side you have President Obama's new commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons, although he says that's not going to happen in his lifetime. He's framed that very much as a kind of weapon to use against proliferation -- most specifically against proliferation by Iran and North Korea. But on the other side you have a kind of counter-movement against that commitment within the U.S. government. And there are people in the woodwork of the bureaucracies who have struck back. The vehicle for doing that was the Nuclear Posture Review (a process that determines U.S. nuclear weapons strategy), and, to a certain extent, the new agreement with Russia.

    Each has good things in it. I'm glad the numbers are coming down. I'm glad they've promised not to make any new nuclear weapons or have any new nuclear missions. But on the other hand, there are some things which are very disappointing and which do not really reflect at all Obama's commitment. In the Nuclear Posture Review there was a refusal to have a thorough-going renunciation of what's called "first use" -- in other words, refusing to have a no-first-use policy. What that means is that the United States still reserves the right in certain circumstances to use nuclear weapons -- even when nuclear weapons are not used or threatened against it.

    If this country, with all its conventional superiority and so on, thinks that it can't be safe in the world without a threat to use nuclear weapons -- even against conventionally armed countries -- then what country in the world could say to itself, by that standard, "well, we're safe without nuclear weapons?" And most particularly, if you're a North Korean, or if you're an Iranian, and you're facing a very hostile and angry United States, you might well decide, "we need these things, too." So there's a kind of contradiction that's built in there. On the one hand, the United States is saying: "we're ready to do without nuclear weapons over some long term." But on the other hand, "we need them now, and we even need them against countries that don't have nuclear weapons." So in the contention between those two points of view, some direction will eventually emerge. But in my opinion, it hasn't really emerged yet.

    Of course, I should have said, there are really three waves, because you also have proliferation itself. You have countries who are looking a little bit more interested in nuclear weapons. It takes the form of an interest in nuclear power. There are almost a dozen countries in the Middle East who are suddenly saying, "we're really interested in nuclear power." That's a way of keeping your options open for nuclear weapons. And so whether Obama's commitment to disarmament is going to be enough to bring to the table with the countries that are potential proliferators is very much open to doubt at this point.

    What is your earliest recollection of nuclear danger?

    I began my life as a writer as a reporter in the Vietnam War. That was way back in 1966. And the experience of being in Vietnam certainly set me on the path that eventually led me to thinking about nuclear weapons. When I arrived in Vietnam I really didn't know anything about the war. I didn't know the history and so on. But just from what I saw with my own two eyes it became apparent in the first day that this was a massive governmental enterprise that was absolutely making no sense of its own terms. It was radically and 100% mistaken. Shockingly so. It was self-defeat, which you could see every day, every hour of that war.

    So it was the fallibility of government that struck you?

    Precisely. It opened my mind to the idea that there could be vast governmental enterprises that most people were saying were sensible but were actually chaotic and made no sense whatever. I still believe that about the presence of nuclear weapons in our world. That was one way that I arrived at it. The other way was that when you looked into the reasons that the United States had got into the war in Vietnam, and, more particularly, the reasons why it couldn't get out -- the whole arena of nuclear strategy began to loom large. The way that worked, to say it very quickly, is that Vietnam was conceived as a so-called limited war. There was actually a "Bureau of Limited War" in the Kennedy White House before there was ever any major intervention in Vietnam. Well, what was limited war? What was the opposite of limited war? General war? That was nuclear war. So in a certain way, the fighting in Vietnam was an escape from the paralysis of the unfightability of the general war, which meant a nuclear war. Now these two things were joined at the hip in a paradoxical way, so it led me to think about it. That was a pathway into thinking about it.

    How does attitude towards nuclear weapons reflect our evolution as human beings?

    I now think that the nuclear dilemma is the first in an array of dilemmas that have arisen in which we discover the self-destructive potential of human life is unlimited. We've seen that most notably through global warming, but also through a whole other array of ecological threats including the incredible acceleration in the extinction of species in the rain forest and elsewhere around the world, and in the depletion of fish stocks and the whole multi-dimensional ecological crisis. So what we are finding is -- and again it goes back to my experience in Vietnam -- that many of the activities that seem to be our salvation or that seem to be positive turn out to have an unlimited dark side to them. They have their positive side, too, industrialization being an example, or the use of fossil fuels. It's great: We can sit here and have this conversation because we have a tape recorder that's fueled by fossil fuels, and so on -- your computer and all the rest. But to state what's now becoming clearer in an array of fields -- these sources of hope and betterment have turned out to have a dark side that really is without limit.

    A nuclear holocaust is often described as "unthinkable." How do the limits of our imagination impact our ability to prevent such a catastrophe?

    Well, it's a problem with many levels. I don't think that we have succeeded yet, collectively, to apprehend what is at stake here. After all, in some ultimate sense, it is the survival of the species that is at stake. That was put on the table in 1945; it became very acute during the Cold War. Now it's receded quite a bit, although the technical means are still in place. One problem -- and the whole arena is full of paradoxes -- is that with nuclear weapons present, you can't really fight a major power war. Well, that's a great thing -- not to fight a great power war. But one result of it is that you have no experience of nuclear destruction since Nagasaki. And so thought is given little to chew on. We're left with a lot of theory, and all nuclear strategizing is pure theory. Military strategizing used to be based on actual experience -- millennia of experience of war. But nuclear strategy is quite otherwise because there's never been a nuclear war. The Japanese didn't have nuclear weapons, so that wasn't a nuclear war.

    So nuclear holocausts are relegated to science fiction movies?

    Well, that's right. And now, we don't even have the Cold War. And yet the dilemma is there. These things are deeply embedded in our world. And we can see from the resistance that Obama gets -- or anyone gets -- who actually talks about eliminating nuclear weapons. They've become part of the furniture of the world. They've become domesticated and deeply lodged in our institutions and our thinking, and so on. And yet, they rarely are brought into consciousness.

    On the flip side of that domestication is the romance of the idea of this world-destroying weapon. Do you think that's part of our attachment?

    When the H-bomb was invented, they called it "The Super," and I think it was this use of "super" that put the word "super" in "superpower." So, the weapon is associated very deeply and primally with holding immense power. And that's of course a legacy of war itself traditionally throughout the millennia. The countries that had the best weapons and the best militaries and so forth were the most powerful. They could fight these wars and win them. It's no longer true with nuclear weapons. They turn out in actual practice to be rather a paralyzing influence than an enabling one. But I think that that deep association that's left over inappropriately from the whole tradition of warfare. Psychologically, it means that people still hold tight to these instruments of seeming supreme power even though they are nothing of the kind in reality or in experience.

    What is the most dangerous illusion that we cling to with regard to nuclear weapons?

    The idea that we can hold onto nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world. And that's why I think that Obama's pledge, or his commitment, that the United States is ready to surrender its nuclear weapons has to become something that's active and real in our world now. It's the only way we're going to be able to stop proliferation, including proliferation conceivably to a terrorist group.

    Can human beings create policies big enough to deal with a threat as huge as nuclear weapons?

    I think that in a whole array of areas, there really are new stakes on the table in politics. And the essence of it is the threat to the natural world. Only a part of it is the threat of the extinction or mutilation of our own species. So, really there's a new framework in which you have to consider political actions and political thinking -- and the nuclear weapon really was the first expression of that, the first manifestation of this new crisis, which is a crisis of the natural order, as I say. But now others have appeared. And so I don't know whether we'll find out whether we're able to act on that scale -- whether we're able to step up to the level of danger that we now live with.

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  • Eli Pariser: The Future of the Internet

    Oct 13, 2010Lynn Parramore

    eli-pariserThis is the fourth installment of “The Influencers,” a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore is conducting in partnership with Salon.

    eli-pariserThis is the fourth installment of “The Influencers,” a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore is conducting in partnership with Salon. She recently talked to Internet activist and guru Eli Pariser, board president of MoveOn.org, a Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow currently writing a book exploring an invisible feedback loop he calls "the filter bubble." They discussed the dangers of this sinister trend, along with net neutrality and the future of the Web.

    Lynn Parramore: What is the filter bubble and why is it significant?

    Eli Pariser: Increasingly on the Internet, websites are personalizing themselves to suit our interests. We all see this happening at Amazon, where if you order a book, Amazon will send you the next book. We see it happening in Netflix, but it's also happening in a bunch of places where it's much less visible.

    For example, on Google, most people assume that if you search for BP, you'll get one set of results that are the consensus set of results in Google. Actually, that isn't true anymore. Since Dec. 4, 2009, Google has been personalized for everyone. So when I had two friends this spring Google "BP," one of them got a set of links that was about investment opportunities in BP. The other one got information about the oil spill. Presumably that was based on the kinds of searches that they had done in the past. If you have Google doing that, and you have Yahoo doing that, and you have Facebook doing that, and you have all of the top sites on the Web customizing themselves to you, then your information environment starts to look very different from anyone else's. And that's what I'm calling the "filter bubble": that personal ecosystem of information that's been catered by these algorithms to who they think you are.

    Why is this dangerous?

    We thought that the Internet was going to connect us all together. As a young geek in rural Maine, I got excited about the Internet because it seemed that I could be connected to the world. What it's looking like increasingly is that the Web is connecting us back to ourselves. There's a looping going on where if you have an interest, you're going to learn a lot about that interest. But you're not going to learn about the very next thing over. And you certainly won't learn about the opposite view. If you have a political position, you're not going to learn about the other one. If you Google some sites about the link between vaccines and autism, you can very quickly find that Google is repeating back to you your view about whether that link exists and not what scientists know, which is that there isn't a link between vaccines and autism. It's a feedback loop that's invisible. You can't witness it happening because it's baked into the fabric of the information environment.

    Is this the new narcissism?

    Yeah, and you know, these filters are coming out for totally legitimate reasons. There's a mass of information that we all have to deal with every day, way more than we can grapple with, and we need help. The Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, likes to tell people this statistic: From the beginning of civilization to 2003, if you took all of human intellectual output, every single conversation that ever happened, it's about two exabytes of data, about a billion gigabytes. And now two exabytes of data is created every five days.

    So there's this enormous flood of bits, and we need help trying to sort through it. We turn to these personalization agents to sift through it for us automatically and try to pick out the useful bits. And that's fine as far as it goes. But the technology is invisible. We don't know who it thinks we are, what it thinks we're actually interested in. At the end, it's a set of code, it's not a person, and it locks us into a specific kind of pixelated versions of ourselves. It locks us into a set of check boxes of interest rather than the full kind of human experience. I don't think with this information explosion that you can go back to an unfiltered and unpersonalized world. But I think you can bake into the code a sense of civic importance. You can have a sense that there are some things that we all need to be paying attention to, that we all need to be worried about, where you do want to see the top link on BP for everyone, not just investment information if you're interested in investments.

    How can we ensure that certain kinds of public information will be readily available to all users?

    I think the change happens on a bunch of levels, and the first is on an individual level. You can make sure that you're constantly seeking out new and interesting and provocative sources of information. Think of this as your information diet. The narcissistic stuff that makes you feel like you have all the right ideas and all the right opinions -- our brains are calibrated to love that stuff because in nature, in normal life, it's very rare. Now we have this thing that's feeding us lots of calories of that stuff. It takes some discipline to forgo the information junk food and seek out stuff that's a little more challenging.

    So that's one piece of it. I think the second piece is we've had institutions that have been mediating what we get to know for a long time. For most of the last century they were newspapers that produced about 85 percent of the news in that model. They were always commercial entities. But because they were making so much money, they were able to afford a sense of civics, a sense that the New York Times was going to put Afghanistan on the front page, even if it doesn't get the most clicks.

    So newspapers found this kind of happy medium that didn't always work perfectly, but it worked better than the alternative. I think now the baton is passing to Google, to Facebook, to the new filters to develop the same kind of sense of ethics about what they do. If you talk to the engineers, they're very resistant because they feel like this is just code, it doesn't have values, it's not a human thing. But of course they're writing code, and every human-made system has a sense of values. And so, I think calling them to their civic responsibility is an important part of the puzzle.

    There are some places where we need regulation. There's the idea that people should be able to control how the information that they're giving to websites is used and monetized in a more clear and powerful way. That's something that probably will need government action. It could be something as simple as this: Instead of requiring sites to have privacy policies that customers agree to, you could pass a law that says, "Here's a standard format by which customers can have their own policy for how they want their data used," and sites essentially have to read that code and abide by it. That would change a lot of things, as opposed to having the hundred-page Apple terms of service agreement that I just got on my iPhone that nobody probably has ever read in its entirety.

    Let's turn to net neutrality. You've been at the forefront of harnessing the Internet in a way that allows ordinary people to participate in the political arena. Why is net neutrality important to a democracy?

    It's extremely important because the Internet was built on the principle that it would carry all different types of data. And it didn't really care what kind of data it was carrying. It was going to make sure that it got from Point A to Point B. That's the Internet: There's kind of a social contract between all the machines on the Internet that says, "I'll carry your data if you carry my data, and we'll leave it to the people on the edges of the network -- to your home PC or the PC that you're sending something to -- to figure out what the data means." That's the net neutrality principle. It's really at the core of the founding idea of the Internet.

    Now, big companies like Verizon and Comcast are looking at how the Internet is eroding their profit margins. They're saying to themselves, what can we do to get a piece of this growing pie? They want a tiered Internet where you can pay them to go to the front of the line with your data. That will really erode that amazing thing we all know the Internet facilitates: that anyone with an idea can reach the world. You talk to venture capitalists and they're scared. They say a new start-up is just never going to be able to buy the speed that a Google or a Microsoft will be able to. Incumbent industries will be able to get their data to you quickly and new start-ups won't have a chance. And as a result, you'll have a drying up of the entrepreneurialism that's happened on the Internet. And you'll have a drying up of the Wikipedias, the nonprofit projects. Wikipedia works because it's just as fast as Google. When Wikipedia starts to slow way down relative to Google, you're more likely to just go to Google. So that's a problem.

    If you have the filter bubble and a non-neutral Internet, doesn't it become even harder to find alternative points of view and for the dissident voice to be heard?

    Yeah, and you know, I think this isn't pessimism. This is realism. Tim Wu wrote a new book called "The Master Switch," which talks about how every new medium in telecommunications history has had a period just like what we've seen with the Internet. There was democratization and openness, and people have dreamed these really big dreams -- about the telegraph, about the telephone, about the fax machine. They dreamed it was going to connect us all together and transform everything, and that it could never be owned. Everybody has been saying the exact same thing about the Internet. This is like the eighth time we've been through this. The likelihood is that the Internet will be owned by a few large media companies. The question is, can we rally around this brief moment of incredible efflorescence of creativity and innovation, and say, "No, thank you very much, we want to keep it like this"? That's the project of the next couple of years.

    Have we learned any lessons along the way about what remedies and antidotes are actually effective?

    We're not learning. It's like every time it happens people sort of think it's totally different. The important thing to remember with the Internet is that there are large companies that have an interest in controlling how information flows in it. They're very effective at lobbying Congress, and that pattern has locked down other communication media in the past. And it will happen again unless we do something about it.

    Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, a Roosevelt Institute fellow and the author of Reading the Sphinx.

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  • Eliot Spitzer: The Crisis of Accountability

    Oct 4, 2010Lynn Parramore

    eliot_spitzer-100This is the third installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore, the editor of New Deal 2.0 and a media fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, is conducting in partnership with

    eliot_spitzer-100This is the third installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore, the editor of New Deal 2.0 and a media fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, is conducting in partnership with Salon. She recently caught up with former New York Gov. and ND20 contributor Eliot Spitzer, whose new TV show, "ParkerSpitzer," will launch TONIGHT on CNN, and they talked about the crisis of accountability in American institutions. According to Spitzer, the failures of Wall Street are the symptom of an epidemic that his new show will explore.

    Lynn Parramore: As attorney general, you brought a series of high-profile prosecutions to Wall Street. How do you compare their range and results to those following the financial crisis?

    Eliot Spitzer: The paramount difference is that we tried to bring prosecutions that led to structural reforms. That was the idea behind the suit against AIG for using deception and fraud to elevate stock price, or the case against Merrill Lynch, where we charged analysts of offering investment advice influenced by gross conflicts of interest. It was important to challenge the whole structure of the banking and financial-services industry and argue for greater accountability. After the economic collapse, what I've seen so far are one-off prosecutions where you catch somebody for insider trading, for example. Given the systemic nature of the problems on Wall Street, the effort should be less on how to address violations in a particular case, but rather the ongoing structural issues.

    You've noted that accountability is still a problem on Wall Street. Does the problem extend to other American institutions?

    Absolutely. Disaffection of the public has passed from Wall Street to governance and beyond. There is a tremendous sense of failure in accountability in everything from nonprofits to for-profit entities to the whole spectrum of American institutions.

    The scholar Viktor Frankl once suggested that the Statue of Liberty should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility. Are we striking the right balance between freedom and responsibility?

    There is a second half of the equation that we tend sometimes to forget. And when that happens, there's a problem. There's the issue of communitarianism -- we need a sense of community and responsibility to each other that rises in parallel with a sense of the freedom of the individual.

    How does accountability impact the legitimacy of our institutions?

    This is hugely important. If accountability suffers, then institutions become highly suspect. This happens everywhere from Wall Street to Congress. When people feel no accountability, they are more hesitant to presume that the system is functioning. This affects the entire structure of our democracy.

    Do you see anything on the horizon that makes you more optimistic about government's role in regulation that will impact the accountability crisis?

    We're at a moment where the regulatory bodies are appreciating what they need to do. Elizabeth Warren, for example, will set a high bar in that regard. On the other side of the equation, you have the public's complete fury at government intervention in any way and the prospect that Republican takeover of Congress will eliminate whatever impetus there may have been.

    How do you assess the role journalism has played in demanding accountability?

    Journalism cuts both ways. Journalists have certainly shined light on major problems. But you also find examples of journalism that are less noble, that tend to diminish pubic understanding. Journalism really mirrors the rest of society. Its failures and triumphs come in waves.

    Is this something you hope to address on your new show on CNN?

    We're hoping to put a lot of energy in looking closely at institutions. Whether it is Wall Street or government entities, we want to ask the right questions so we can understand who is doing what. We also want to have guests who can help us understand what is happening to the middle class. And we want to understand the response of the middle class to real frustrations and the ongoing economic crisis. A lot of people say that given what the history is, the response of the Tea Party should not hold -- that they are learning the wrong lessons. The idea is that they shouldn't be blaming government, for example, when many would say that a failure of regulation is what caused the collapse. People wonder, Why haven't we learned the lesson that the enforcement of accountability in the private sector is a positive and critical role that government can play?

    What are you most looking forward to in your new role as television host?

    I'm looking forward to creating something that hopefully a couple of people will watch that is interesting, fun and informative. I've got a very long reading list to prepare for it -- more intense than anything I've had in my recent stint of teaching!

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  • Lewis Lapham: The End of Capitalism?

    Sep 24, 2010Lynn Parramore

    lewis_laphamThis is the second installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore, the editor of New Deal 2.0 and Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, is conducting in partnership with Salon. She talked to Lewis Lapham, the former longtime editor of Harp

    lewis_laphamThis is the second installment of "The Influencers," a six-part interview series that Lynn Parramore, the editor of New Deal 2.0 and Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, is conducting in partnership with Salon. She talked to Lewis Lapham, the former longtime editor of Harper's and the founder of Lapham's Quarterly, about the nature of American-style capitalism -- its beginning, its historical manifestation and, possibly, its end.

    Lynn Parramore: Historically, what do you see as the dominant characteristics of America?

    Lewis Lapham: It's faith in the spirit and mechanics and moral value of capitalism. It is a country of expectant millionaires. You have the notions of risk, of labor put to a productive use, deferred pleasure - ideas that come out of our Puritan ancestry. And Puritans, by the way, were also venture capitalists. The plantation in Plymouth, and then in Massachusetts Bay, was intended to bring money to its investors in London.

    Capitalism is the promise - it's the bet on the future. It's the hope of a new beginning over the next ridge of mountains, around the next bend in the river. It gives the common man a chance. That's in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The original wording was: life, liberty and property. But happiness and property were almost synonymous in the Calvinist mind!

    Capitalism, as you mention, is future-oriented. Do you think it relies on historical amnesia?

    Well, there's a new book called "Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism," by the eminent historian Joyce Appleby. And her argument - and I think it's probably true - is that capitalism is an historical phenomenon. It's not a given. It's not human nature. It arises at the end of the 16th century in Holland, but then is developed over the next four centuries for the most part in England and America. It's had a life span of four centuries.

    Prior to, let's say, the 16th century, you had warrior kings who disdained commerce. Commerce existed from the very beginning - you have trading going on in Islam, in the Indian Ocean, in China ... this goes back thousands of years. But the hope of the government is stability, hierarchy, order, degree. People knew the stations to which they belonged, to which they were born. Until 1600, 80 percent of the people in England lived on farms, and there was no question of improving their stature. There was no place for their surplus labor to go until you begin to develop commercial venture, trade and so on.

    But 18th- and 19th-century European imperialism is a dynamic of private enterprise rather than state enterprise. The Roman legions are in the service of the Roman so-called Republic, or Empire. But the East India Company is acting on behalf of its principal owners and stockholders and, to a certain extent, of the sailors. It's evolving toward our present sense of venture capital. The capitalist idea is to turn loot to a productive purpose - to yoke it to the wheels of industry. And this, of course, comes along, during the four centuries [17th century to present] with a steeply rising curve of scientific discovery and technological advance, so you get to the steam engine, the railroad, the iron smelter, the telephone, the radio, the TV, the Internet. We shape our tools, and our tools shape us. And by that shaping us, they shape our attitudes, our moral sense, our sense of self-interest. Competition is the spirit elixir of capitalism. This is not true in the more traditional society where the emphasis is on community, hierarchy, order, where people are terrified of starvation.

    Do you think history makes us uncomfortable because it diminishes our sense of our own individual importance? Or the potency of our individual will?

    I think the opposite. I think history is comforting because it reminds us that our situation, our circumstance, is not new. Other people have experienced far worse sets of circumstance than we confront at the moment. The world has, for all intents and purposes, come to an end many, many times. But people carry on.

    People are always terrified of change. The idea was to try to keep everything just the way it was ... not to let the strings become untuned. Capitalism untunes all the strings. Capitalism is, as Appleby says, a relentless revolution. Joseph Schumpeter, the economist, in 1942 defined capitalism as creative annihilation - it wipes out entire industries. There's always a momentum for something new. A new way of doing something, a new way of making something. Again the tools shaping and reshaping us, which is what's happening today with communications, with the Internet.

    So the American temperament -the capitalist temperament - is suited to that kind of change. Capitalism is based on friction, movement - the notion that every 20 years the matinee idols will be changed and the leadership will be removed and replaced, and that is the way it works. That, of course, when it begins to come into the world in the 17th century, is truly terrifying to people. This is largely the story of the English Civil War. ‘Behead the king' - that would have been unthinkable a hundred years before. But suddenly even divine right can be challenged. Constant questions. Constant new inventions. Improvements in navigation, machinery, chemical compounds and so on. And the characteristics - I keep getting back to your original question - the American temperament is made in that mold. For good or for ill. There's a very dark side to this.

    Would you say that a chronic dissatisfaction is part of that dark side?

    It's the impertinent dynamism of ‘more'. It is a voracious, devouring appetite for more. And if we're not careful, unless we get control of it, it will devour the earth. Capitalism had a particularly fertile soil in America because there was so much land available. People could just go west. Take land from the Indians by force. The same thing in Mexico. Call it Manifest Destiny, but it essentially was the seizure of property. There was an abundance of resources. Every man can become king for the day or make the Forbes 500. And it's the individual as opposed to the community.

    Do you think it's any accident that an emphasis on romantic love has grown up alongside capitalism?

    [Laughs.] Oh, wow. Yeah, the idea of the perfection of humankind ... to expect that romance and marriage and sensuous pleasure and good monetary terms can all be encompassed within marriage is an improbable proposition. But it's related to the romantic movement, which again is part of capitalism, which is within the 400 years of the capitalist emporium, and that goes along with the idea of sublime self-improvement and true love waiting with a rainbow just over the next hill at Aspen...

    Hope springs eternal.

    True!

    You've spoken of using history as a weapon. How is it a weapon and against what forces would you like to deploy it?

    Well, you deploy it against the dealers in fascist politics and quack religion. You deploy it against people promising miracles. It teaches you to rely on the blessings of experience, which is the great teacher, I think, as opposed to abstract outcome.

    Is Lapham's Quarterly part of the arsenal?

    Yes, Lapham's Quarterly is a small part of the arsenal. It simply means to foster an acquaintance with, and an interest in, the historical turn of mind. Not to know Cicero, not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child ... to put yourself at the mercy of charlatans whether dealing in real estate or world conquest. It's gives you a sense that what your own story is - where you come from.

    I spend a lot of time reading into the history of Elizabethan England in the first half of the 17th century, both in Europe and in America, and I can see where my politics are coming from. I can see my own fear of modernity - and by that I mean the devouring appetite of capitalist overturning - nothing lasts, everything is made to be obsolete. Everything is made to become a disposable, profit-bearing product.

    The older hierarchal vision rendered beautifully in Shakespeare's plays and in Sir Philip Sidney's "Arcadia" - that political argument was lost in the Civil War in 1640. So I can see that my own politics are about 350 years out of date. But on the other hand, there may be a return to it, because capitalism was not inevitable. And if it is a historical phenomenon, that is to say, if it has a beginning, as with all other things historical, it will also have an end. With the population moving from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050, and the continuing depletion of the world's resources - primarily water, but also oil and minerals of all kinds - to feed the capitalist notion of an endless feast constantly renewing itself is not in the cards.

    Are we getting close to the last supper?

    Yeah, I could see us getting close to the last supper. Unless we figure out a new set of ideas and new forms of behavior and new forms of value.

    Appleby would say that reforming the system is what we should hope for. That's what a lot of the environmentalists say when they start talking about taxing carbons and treating the environment as a commodity in which you can trade as one would trade in other capitalist markets. I don't think that's true. Jared Diamond wrote a book a couple of years ago called "Collapse," in which he says that ideas, civilizations, in a state of decay cling desperately to the systems that are no longer functioning. And it's also probably true to say that capitalism in its stronger forms went out the window in the United States in the 1930s, because now, once you get the combination of government and business - I mean, speaking to Diamond's point - propping up a system that is essentially dead in the water is what we've done with the government takeover, the stimulus bill, the TARP. I suspect we're attempting to rescue a corpse.

    And it might be best to let it die?

    Let it die and hope that it will be replaced by something that we know not yet.

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