Election reflection: It’s the economy, stupid

Since the 2008 election, I have found myself increasingly disinclined to comment on national politics. Perhaps this is a function of my being a white male — like my demographic peers in the Tea Party, I need anger to get me interested in politics, but my anger points in the other direction. Disappointment doesn’t make for the same fiery rhetoric, and what’s more, I’m retrospectively embarrassed by the degree to which I got caught up in the blogospheric illusion that commenting publicly on politics was a significant political act.

Since I’m posting, though, I want to draw a point out that very few pundits will likely make. The lesson of this election is simple: all things being equal, voters are overwhelmingly concerned with the economy and expect government to manage it well. Many people of course believe that the government manages best by managing least, but still, they are primarily concerned with the government’s role in the economy in their electoral choices.

Short-term crises may temporarily change this calculation, but in the long run, legitimacy and authority in a modern democracy stems from economic management — “economy” is the central category of our political reality and must form the starting point of all critical reflection on our political situation and prospects.

29 thoughts on “Election reflection: It’s the economy, stupid

  1. From the very beginning, the US republic was shaped by economic concerns first and foremost, political ideals always took second place. Hence, no taxation without representation, and that whole 3/5s compromise with the slavery issue.

  2. It’s true, of course, that the economy comprises 100% of the cause of these electoral outcomes. But the impact of the elections will be broad. For example, I predict that within the first five months of next year, the House will hold a high-profile investigation that will attempt to discredit climate science. From that finding, they will try to de-fund the EPA.

  3. I should clarify that I was looking at this from a broader theological/philosophical perspective — meaning that we need to think through what “economy” really is, what its roots are, etc. Obviously strategically politicians should try to make “the economy” in the straightforward sense perform better so they can get reelected (though our institutions aren’t really set up to allow for unambiguous accountability on that front), and obviously there are issues other than “the economy” in real politics, but that’s not really what I intended to be talking about primarily.

  4. The funny part is, the govt doesn’t manage the economy (however defined), never has, never will. The govt can increase suffering a mite, or decrease it same, by actions relating to the economy, but govts are at the mercy of powers greater than they are, always. Politicians may control the rhetoric relating to the economy (however defined), but even that only to a degree …

  5. The very meaning of “managing” the economy is that you work by indirect effects. A manager at work doesn’t sit down in your chair and do the job you’re supposed to do — ideally they try to create the most favorable environment for you to do it. The government obviously has a huge indirect influence on the economy — it creates and manages the currency, it sets tax policies, it writes laws and regulations, etc., etc., etc. Your position makes no sense at all, unless by “manage the economy” you mean “directly run everything.”

  6. The government most certainly does have significant influence on the economy, even in the restrictive sense of the word. The Fed has a dual mandate to set the proper inflation rate and to keep the country at full employment, and sets (overnight) interest rates, sells/buys bonds and prints money to make these things happen. The inflation rate doesn’t hover around 2% just on its own. TARP didn’t just happen. The bailout of AIG was carried out by the Fed setting up dummy corporations to buy AIG paper (several corporations called “Maiden Lane”). If they wanted to, the Fed could set up a corporation that would pay for infrastructure development, put the construction sector to work, and print money to pay for it. We could have full employment tomorrow if we wanted it, but the political will isn’t there. Moreover, the financial sector is (in theory) regulated by the government, and had a certain law not passed in 1999, investment banks would be relatively benign and there would be no market for CDSs. The government also heavily subsidizes homeownership, and skews the economy in the process. Congress subsidizes certain crops, and thus fundamentally alters the agricultural economy. Certain businesses lobby congress to get loopholes, or to skew markets in their favor (you know there is an anti-trust exemption for health insurers, right?) Just a couple of ways that the government creates and shapes markets.

  7. You’re fine, Rod — I don’t remember you ever speaking from a specifically libertarian perspective (i.e., the idea that everything the government touches turns to shit by definition, etc.).

  8. Funny, I didn’t take John’s comments as necessarily libertarian. I guess you could read it that way if you assume that the “powers greater than they are” is the “free market” or something stupid like that. But I just read that phrase as referring to capital.

  9. Rod,

    Surely your a libertarian of the left (ie more anarchist) than a libertarian of the right (anarcho-capitalist Rand lover) of whom there is a ban in place here.

  10. Alex,

    I try to avoid the A-word but for the most part, I am a left-ward leaning libertarian (but quite nuanced). And I am not an “anti-Marxist” for the sake of being “pro-anarch-capitalist ala glenn beck. I’m a libertarian of the anti-imperial variety. The anti-thesis of John Milbank, politically and theologically. :-)

  11. It’s not out of place, but your view as expressed is very simplistic. Obviously the modern state serves “the economy,” but that can mean very different things — industry under Fordism and finance now. And then there’s the differing outcomes synchronically among different countries.

  12. Adam, I noted that govt can worsen/ameliorate the effects of capital, and of course these effects vary worldwide. But. It’s not that complicated, really. Just ask the folks on K St. But I can tell I irritate you, and it’s your house, so perhaps. I should apologize.

  13. And if you don’t think a country can consciously direct its development, how do you explain China? Yes, the Chinese work within constraints and they can’t totally control everything, but it seems like the clearest possible example of a government managing the economy, beyond simply worsening or ameliorating (in fact, those terms don’t seem to me to apply very neatly to what is going on in China) — the state is choosing which industries to develop, etc. And you see the same story in literally every previous stage of capitalist development. There is a lot that happens before we reach the “last instance,” and you seemed to be all but leaping straight to it.

  14. Adam, I wasn’t objecting to your post in the least. I was objecting to voters thinking that electing Republicans instead of Democrats or vice versa, is going to have any major effect on our economy, that was all. Which doesn’t mean that I doubt that economic concerns motivated voters, or anything like that.

    I won’t argue China, because I’m not really arguing anything, except that capital, not government, is the dominator/dominatrix (I don’t know a non-gendered word).

    As for the last instance thing, I don’t really know what that means.

    I’m out, since all you want to do is pick a fight with someone who never intended to fight. I hope you’re a bit mellower in real life.

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