Where I Am Somewhat OK Being Called an Elitist Compared to the Alternative…

by pdxblake

“The Democratic political advisers who went from working on behalf of the president or his party to advising the San Francisco billionaire Thomas F. Steyer on his campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline provide a telling example. Twenty years ago, they might have gone to work for the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy or run for public office themselves. Today, they are helping to build a pop-up political movement for a plutocrat.” —Chrystia Freeland in the NY Times

I will admit that this is a bit out of my normal subject of economics that I write about, but it ties into economics because the economic situation of the country and specifically the distribution of the gains from the economy are driving the development of public policy in a very different way than they used to. As someone who often experiences the feeling of “it would be easy to fix this if people weren’t so ignorant” (which I suppose makes me a bit of an elitist), I have to admit that the technocratic type approach should get my support; but the way it is described in the quote above, it has the opposite effect.

The way it is designed now is that the ability to get the technocrats to pay attention to an idea is in direct correlation with the wealth backing the think tank employing the technocrats now and employing the policymakers when they leave government. Policy under this type of model is a struggle between billionaires to decide which of their vanity projects and visions of society is imposed on the country. Frankly, if you want to call me an elitist, I think more technocrats should be running policy and it should be removed from political processes, but I don’t want to see it turned into a billionaire’s sport, and even more than that I worry about the blowback to this type of governance.

The link I think Freeland is drawing is between the billionaire-funded technocratic people making the policies and the rise of populist movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. The problem with each of these movements is they typically start from a disdain for the status quo (rightly or wrongly) and first want to up-end the current system.  I am quite strongly an anti-revolutionary and (except for the times when I get worked up) I greatly prefer working within the system rather than overturning it for a return to some quaint time when all banks were small and local (OWS) or when the Constitution (TM) was respected (Tea Party).  Nevermind that these things were never really true (remember Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life for the lovable local banker or, um, segregation and slavery?).

They are more expressions of populist rage against the system that seems to have gone after them and ‘put them down’. This typically leads to, speaking modestly, TERRIBLE POLICY. It usually looks for scapegoats and often is driven more by anger than by thoughful discussion.

I don’t like the status quo and I don’t like the main groups trying to dramatically change it. I don’t think there is a “middle ground” because OWS doesn’t carry much sway within the Democrats and the Tea Party has taken over the policy of the Republican Party, so it is not symmetric (both sides are not at fault). But there’s not enough within the Democratic party that is focused on the underlying economic issues of the plutocracy. There is more working on the edges.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I worry about the end-game between the plutocrats and the populists and particularly the probability (whether in the US or abroad) the populists will get enough power to make some really ugly decisions (not just the US–remember the EDL in the UK, Marine Le Pen in France and others of similar affiliation around Europe).