26 September 2008

Ideologies 101

Most readers of this blog (any good writer should know his audience and this is much easier with an audience in the single digits) would probably already agree with the following thought experiment. If we all took or taught an introductory survey of political ideologies, and in it we went through the fundamental tenets of conservatism, and then we compared the policy positions, legislation passed, party platform, and even the rhetoric of the American Republican party, we would find very, very little in the way of connections between that party and that ideology. Indeed, Bill Clinton is probably the most 'conservative' in terms of political ideology of any US president in the last few decades.

Some might wish to argue that this is because today's Republicans are 'neo-conservatives'. Fair enough, but this doesn't really help their case. Generalizing broadly, the neo-con ideology = crazy Wolfowitz foreign policy + neo-liberal domestic policy. In other words:
  1. there's nothing inherently conservative about Bush foreign policy and that wasn't even the policy of the Republicans during Clinton's presidency
  2. on economic issues neo-conservativism simply IS neo-liberalism, and therefore it's not very conservative
I bring all this up as I think it's related to a couple of political moments from this week. First up is something that Andrew Sullivan said on last week's Real Time. (Talk about a guy that will make your head spin when it comes to the label 'conservative'; Sullivan is a gay, moralizing, libertarian who hates Bush.) In the process of blaming the current economic crisis on stupid people who took out stupid mortgages, thereby perverting the triumphant march of pure capitalism, Sullivan went off on a side-tirade against US tax law for its distortion of economic interests – skewing them toward buying homes rather than renting (the libertarian individual in a capitalist system, says Sullivan, should be completely free to buy her shelter in any form she wishes). But here's the thing: within a genuinely conservative worldview, it makes perfect sense to encourage home ownership. Home owners protect and preserve their property. There's less crime in places where people own their homes. Home ownership encourages individual saving through home equity; it's an act of indvidual responsibility. And one could even go on to argue that home-owners make better parents (though I wouldn't go there myself). Indeed, overall, I like the tax code the way it is, for precisely some of these very much conservative reasons – and this despite the fact that I'm not receiving the benefit of the tax break at the moment.

But the problem isn't with the general preference for home ownership, and this current crisis has nothing to do with that. Conservatism isn't to blame; neo-liberalism is. It was the effort to turn the bursting tech bubble into a newly-emerging housing bubble through deregulation, fancy new investment techniques and schemes, etc. etc., that led to the housing bubble. It has nothing to do with home ownership per se; it has to do with buying 4 homes in 5 years, and all the while remortgaging like mad (the housing bloggers consistently refer to this as treating the house as an ATM). Here I refer to individual behavior, but it's painfully obvious to most people (Sullivan exempted) that the real thieves in this process were the folks generating huge profits on each and every transaction. And let's be honest: there was some serious manipulation and deception going on in the mortgage industry. One potential reader of this blog may recall a 2 hour phone call in which I called on all my powers of persuasion to talk her OUT of that interest-only ARM that she did not in any way need or want, but which the broker swore to her was her best choice. 

Something similar can be said (this was the second example) about the 'who to blame' game vis-a-vis the crisis. There are some great videos and blog posts on these here interwebs trying to lay it all at Carter and Clinton's feet. That's largely rubbish, but there's a shred of truth in it. While the Bush administration surely went way too far, and surely did so more explicitly for corporate profit, the whole thing is the continuation and maximization of neo-liberal logic. Defend Clinton all you wish; he was a much better neo-liberal than Bush, but he was still a neo-liberal. And it's not clear that we wouldn't have ended up here anyway. After all, the UK is very close to the same precipice, and they were led there by just one political party.

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