September 23, 2008

Studies in Conformity, Generating Consensus, and Why You Are Not Adults

The superficiality and triviality of our public debates reveal themselves in many ways. I've discussed the mechanisms involved in numerous essays. The response to the current economic crisis, including the response to the "solutions" proposed, presents one of those mechanisms in stark, unforgiving terms.

Insofar as the economic crisis is concerned, I will remind you of the relevant context in exceedingly brief terms. In my rude post the other day, I emphasized that the fundamental flaw in all the "solutions" offered is that those solutions are offered to "fix" a problem that cannot be fixed. To understand this basic point, you require only three sentences from Mike Whitney's analysis. Here they are:
This cycle [in the market] will persist until the bad debts are accounted for and written off or until the exhausted dollar-system collapses altogether.
In truth, there is no fix for a deleveraging market any more than there is a fix for gravity. The belief that massive debts and insolvency can be erased by increasing liquidity just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of economics.
This is the truth that almost no one will accept.

Denial of the truth envelops our culture like a suffocating fog. People desperately need to understand the consequences of denial of this kind. It is profoundly damaging, and it kills. I have written at length abour our national narcissism, and how that narcissism allows us to deny the immense crime the U.S. government has committed in Iraq. You would think the fact that our government has murdered well in excess of one million innocent people would be front page news every day. Of course, you would be wrong. You might prefer to believe that, since the murder continues as I write this, as it will continue tomorrow and for years to come, there might be one or two decent and humane individuals in Washington who are working ceaselessly to make the slaughter stop. And you might like to think that many Americans would be outraged that our military continues to occupy a nation that we have entirely destroyed, and that Americans would demand that the destruction and death cease immediately.

About all of that, you are terribly, grievously wrong. Most Americans can't be bothered about any of that. Most Americans simply do not care.

The denial extends far beyond the deaths of innocents, although that alone is unbearable to contemplate. Except for stories offered now and then, our media and most Americans similarly cannot be bothered with the lifelong damage caused to American soldiers. Sometimes, that denial leads those soldiers to kill themselves. Most Americans don't care. We don't want to hear about pain of this kind. It upsets us and makes us uncomfortable. I have indicated why you should be prepared to feel upset and uncomfortable about such matters -- see "Let the Victims Speak" -- and why that should be a minimal requirement for a semi-humane society. In a better world, this would not be a difficult test to pass. We fail it miserably.

These are among the reasons for my admonition at the conclusion of an essay I wrote a year and a half ago: "The Elites Who Rule Us." That article discussed in detail why most people are unable to grasp the reality of our ruling class, the makeup of our ruling elite, and the ways in which the ruling class exercises its control. At the end of that lengthy analysis, I wrote:
I suppose I could briefly summarize the argument in the following manner: Grow up. Be adults about this. And for God's sake, be serious.
With very rare exceptions, my plea fell and continues to fall on ears made deaf by choice, on minds that absolutely refuse to consider matters that cause them distress beyond a fleeting moment of slight discomfort. Americans agonize over who will win a ridiculous television show contest, yet they refuse to consider the ways in which they permit the bodies of innocent human beings to be ripped apart every day, just as they refuse to reach out to those whose souls have been damaged beyond repair. Yet I will continue to make my plea, for until we become adults, we will remain mired in the patterns of thought and the immense destructiveness that threaten to rip our world apart once and for all.

The fact that most Americans refuse to grow up and be adults has many results. One of them is critically relevant here: most Americans will not accept that actions have consequences, and that those consequences are sometimes irrevocable. Your prayers will not restore over a million slaughtered Iraqis to life. Your wishes will not instantaneously erase the horrifying memories that make an American soldier unable to sleep, incapable of holding a job, and that make him a stranger to his own family. There are times when our actions lead to results that cannot be undone.

For the moment, I will continue to adopt terms that are commonly used about this phenomenon, although I will refashion them for my own purposes and make them accurate. People often accuse adults who act in the manner I have described as "children." Please note that this is profoundly wrong. It certainly does not describe healthy children. If children are treated with genuine respect and compassion, if they are regarded as full human beings in their own right, they will treat themselves and others with respect and compassion. Almost no parents treat their children in this manner, a subject I have discussed in great detail in my Alice Miller essays, and one I will discuss still further in my new tribalism series.

When people say adults behave and think like children, what they more properly mean is that they behave and think like children who are profoundly damaged -- children who are already made emotionally numb by the typical kind of emotional abuse to which most children are subjected many times a day, children who have been forced to deny their own pain simply to survive, and who are therefore unable to grasp the pain of others. Most adults were once such children; one of the ways the damage reveals itself when they become adults is the denial described above and in many of my articles.

Many children believe that "wishing will make it so," just as they believe that there are no consequences for their actions that cannot be undone. But again, children who believe this are those children who are already damaged. Healthy children do not think in this manner. But most of us were greatly damaged as children, and most of us deny what ought to be unavoidable truths because we learned to do this in our earliest years of life.

Read the three sentences at the beginning about the irrevocable economic consequences now playing out again. These are not difficult ideas. Yet most Americans -- and our entire governing class and almost all commentators and bloggers -- refuse to grasp them. It is as if these ideas are written in a dead language. Certainly, the language is dead to them, for they have made themselves incapable of understanding it. To recognize a truth of this kind threatens the mechanism of denial that lies at the very center of their sense of themselves, at the very center of their identity. So the truth cannot be acknowledged.

To return to the economic crisis in particular, I first repeat the single most important point: the consequences we are now seeing are irrevocable and unavoidable. The bad debts must be accounted for and written off. A problem of massive bad debts and insolvency is not a problem of liquidity. This truth means one thing in terms of the "solutions" proposed: a massive bailout of insolvent financial institutions which includes keeping the bad debts in the system still longer is precisely the wrong action to take. It will not solve the problem, for this problem cannot be solved. But it will accomplish one goal: it will postpone the problem to another day, and it will make the problem worse, and it will cause still greater damage.

Do you know of a single government program that has not exceeded its original estimated cost? It is ridiculous to believe that this proposal will cost $700 billion. When all is said and done, as you will see only a few commentators acknowledge, this program will cost well in excess of one trillion dollars. On top of the national debt that already exists, what do you think this will do to the American economy for decades to come? One of the arguments in my post the other day can be expressed another way. Note how the debate has shifted: we are not debating whether this bailout should occur. We are debating in precisely what manner the bailout should occur. In other words: the only debate that should be occurring has already been consigned to history.

Here are some additional details that confirm the accuracy of arguments I have previously made. Note these passages from the Wall Street Journal:
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration and the Democratic Congress inched closer to agreement on a $700 billion plan to rescue troubled financial firms, with the Treasury making most of the concessions amid an increasing backlash from a range of economists and lawmakers.

The administration agreed to allow tougher oversight over the cleanup and provide fresh assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure, two Democratic priorities. In addition, negotiators neared agreement on allowing the government to take equity stakes in certain companies that participate in the rescue.


One broad area of agreement involves congressional oversight. Rep. Frank said the Treasury agreed to an independent board to monitor the bailout and report on its progress to Congress and the public. The board wouldn't have authority to veto Treasury investment decisions, and the bailout's launch wouldn't be delayed while a board was being put in place.
Compare this to what I wrote the other day:
At this point, does anyone believe "strings" or "oversight" are worth a goddamned thing? Let me remind you of something that no Democrats and none of their defenders wants to be reminded of: the Iraq catastrophe. The Democrats have had the biggest "oversight" mechanism in the world -- or to be precise, in the Constitution -- since early 2007. The Democrats could have cut off all funding for this criminal war and occupation. They will not do it.

They could have impeached Bush, Cheney and several more of the leading criminals. They will not do it.

Add in the pattern the Democrats followed in the FISA debacle, with regard to the Military Commissions Act, and on a host of other questions, and you see what the Democratic opposition is worth. In a word: nothing.

Add in this: everyone, including every Democrat, now agrees that this is a "crisis" requiring action yesterday. Paulson, the Treasury Department, and the other players will have to be able to act immediately, and to act on a massive scale. And they'll get all that -- but with some "oversight." How long will it be until the "oversight" catches up to what these criminals have done, if it ever does? After the fact, will the oversight mechanisms be able to reverse the actions of Paulson and others? What will be the additional costs of having to reverse some/most of those actions after the fact, if it can even be done?

Given the record amassed by this administration -- and given the record amassed by the most pathetic Democratic Congress ever imagined in this or any other world -- "oversight" and "safeguards" aren't worth shit.
You may view this as expressed in an unspeakably rude manner. The fact remains that it is accurate in every detail.

The same fundamental problem will be found in Dodd's proposal. Indeed, the problem is announced at the very beginning: "TITLE I - Authorizing the Treasury Department to Buy Mortgage-Related Assets." Why is Dodd proposing to authorize anyone to buy mortgage-related assets? That is exactly what must not be done, especially in a massive amount and with taxpayers' money.

Dodd's plan is no better with regard to "oversight"; see Section 4 (among other provisions: "The Emergency Oversight Board shall meet 2 weeks after the first exercise of the purchase authority of the Secretary under this Act and monthly thereafter." Yeah, that should do it.). In addition to the fact that the centerpiece of Dodd's proposal is the one action that should not be taken and that will do nothing to "solve" an insoluble problem, is its gross immorality: presenting the bill to American taxpayers who had nothing to do with creating this crisis. And yet, even Paul Krugman claims that Dodd's proposal is "a big improvement over Paulson's plan." Note the language:
The key feature, I believe, is the equity participation: if Treasury buys assets, it gets warrants that can be converted into equity if the price of the purchased assets falls. This both guarantees against a pure bailout of the financial firms, and opens the door to a real infusion of capital, if that becomes necessary — and I think it will.
So it's not "a pure bailout" -- but it's still a bailout, paid for with money extorted from American taxpayers.

In other words, Krugman insists that we solve a problem that cannot be solved -- but that we do it more "efficiently" and "competently." This is precisely the argument that Democrats, liberals and progressives always make -- even with regard to momentous war crimes like the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In still other words: they concede the basic terms of the argument, and argue only over the specific implementation. And then they pretend to wonder why they keep losing the argument. Here's a clue: they keep losing the argument because they never engage it. If Krugman and the many others like him have their way, the immorality and the futility will continue, in economic policy, in foreign policy and in every other area -- but the immorality and futility will be carried out more "efficiently."

It's downright inspiring, that's what it is.

Take a look at a description of the famous Asch experiment in social conformity. Another simple test, as simple as recognizing that certain consequences are unavoidable should be. Yet many people got it wrong. You know perfectly well why they got it wrong:
To Asch's surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed to the majority at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the 12 trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean subject conformed on 4 of the 12 trials. Asch was disturbed by these results: "The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."

Why did the subjects conform so readily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar." A few of them said that they really did believe the group's answers were correct.

Asch conducted a revised version of his experiment to find out whether the subjects truly did not believe their incorrect answers. When they were permitted to write down their answers after hearing the answers of others, their level of conformity declined to about one third what it had been in the original experiment.

Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to be liked by the group and because they believe the group is better informed than they are.
The pathetic truth is that most people fear genuine independence more than they fear death itself. So desperate are they for "acceptance" and so fearful of being thought "peculiar," they will deny the evidence of their own eyes and mindlessly repeat the lies and ignorance of others. When it comes to a subject like economics or foreign policy, they think: "Oh, that's so hard! I can't understand that. I'll just listen to what the 'experts' say. They know best."

If events of the last seven years have demonstrated nothing else at all, they should have made absolutely clear that "experts" are often the very last people you should look to for guidance. The experts are precisely those people most likely to repeat "conventional wisdom," that is, the views accepted by the ruling class -- because, by virtue of the fact that they are regarded as experts, they are part of the ruling class.

And now we see it all again. The bailout will be made. You, your children, your grandchildren and their children will pay for it for endless decades to come -- all because there is no brave child to say the emperor is naked. There is certainly no courageous adult like Robert La Follette. We argue over details, but the only argument that matters was concluded before it was begun.

And so, still one more time, I repeat my plea:
Grow up. Be adults about this. And for God's sake, be serious.