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Why The Right Loves A Disaster--Including the Current Economic Recession

Moody's, the credit-rating agency, claims the key to solving the United States' economic woes is slashing spending on Social Security. The National Assn. of Manufacturers says the fix is for the federal government to adopt the organization's wish-list of new tax cuts. For Investor's Business Daily, it is oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, "perhaps the most important stimulus of all."

But of all the cynical scrambles to package pro-business cash grabs as "economic stimulus," the prize has to go to Lawrence B. Lindsey, formerly President Bush's assistant for economic policy and his advisor during the 2001 recession. Lindsey's plan is to solve a crisis set off by bad lending by extending lots more questionable credit. "One of the easiest things to do would be to allow manufacturers and retailers" -- notably Wal-Mart -- "to open their own financial institutions, through which they could borrow and lend money," he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal.

Never mind that that an increasing number of Americans are defaulting on their credit card payments, raiding their 401(k) accounts and losing their homes. If Lindsey had his way, Wal-Mart, rather than lose sales, could just loan out money to keep its customers shopping, effectively turning the big-box chain into an old-style company store to which Americans can owe their souls.

If this kind of crisis opportunism feels familiar, it's because it is. Over the last four years, I have been researching a little-explored area of economic history: the way that crises have paved the way for the march of the right-wing economic revolution across the globe. A crisis hits, panic spreads and the ideologues fill the breach, rapidly reengineering societies in the interests of large corporate players. It's a maneuver I call "disaster capitalism."

Sometimes the enabling national disasters have been physical blows to countries: wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters. More often they have been economic crises: debt spirals, hyperinflation, currency shocks, recessions.

More than a decade ago, economist Dani Rodrik, then at Columbia University, studied the circumstances in which governments adopted free-trade policies. His findings were striking: "No significant case of trade reform in a developing country in the 1980s took place outside the context of a serious economic crisis." The 1990s proved him right in dramatic fashion. In Russia, an economic meltdown set the stage for fire-sale privatizations. Next, the Asian crisis in 1997-98 cracked open the "Asian tigers" to a frenzy of foreign takeovers, a process the New York Times dubbed "the world's biggest going-out-of-business sale."

To be sure, desperate countries will generally do what it takes to get a bailout. An atmosphere of panic also frees the hands of politicians to quickly push through radical changes that would otherwise be too unpopular, such as privatization of essential services, weakening of worker protections and free-trade deals. In a crisis, debate and democratic process can be handily dismissed as unaffordable luxuries.

Do the free-market policies packaged as emergency cures actually fix the crises at hand? For the ideologues involved, that has mattered little. What matters is that, as a political tactic, disaster capitalism works. It was the late free-market economist Milton Friedman, writing in the preface to the 1982 reissue of his manifesto, "Capitalism and Freedom," who articulated the strategy most succinctly. "Only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable."

A decade later, John Williamson, a key advisor to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (and who coined the phrase "the Washington consensus"), went even further. He asked a conference of top-level policymakers "whether it could conceivably make sense to think of deliberately provoking a crisis so as to remove the political logjam to reform."

Again and again, the Bush administration has seized on crises to break logjams blocking the more radical pieces of its economic agenda. First, a recession provided the excuse for sweeping tax cuts. Next, the "war on terror" ushered in an era of unprecedented military and homeland security privatization. After Hurricane Katrina, the administration handed out tax holidays, rolled back labor standards, closed public housing projects and helped turn New Orleans into a laboratory for charter schools -- all in the name of disaster "reconstruction."

Given this track record, Washington lobbyists had every reason to believe that the current recession fears would provoke a new round of corporate gift-giving. Yet it seems that the public is getting wise to the tactics of disaster capitalism. Sure, the proposed $150-billion economic stimulus package is little more than a dressed-up tax cut, including a new batch of "incentives" to business. But the Democrats nixed the more ambitious GOP attempt to leverage the crisis to lock in the Bush tax cuts and go after Social Security. For the time being, it seems that a crisis created by a dogged refusal to regulate markets will not be "fixed" by giving Wall Street more public money with which to gamble.

Yet while managing (barely) to hold the line, the House Democrats appear to have given up on extending unemployment benefits and increasing funding for food stamps and Medicaid as part of the stimulus package. More important, they are failing utterly to use the crisis to propose alternative solutions to a status quo marked by serial crises, whether environmental, social or economic.

The problem is not a lack of ideas "alive and available" -- to borrow Friedman's phrase. There are plenty available, from single-payer healthcare to legislating a living wage. Hundreds of thousands of jobs can be created by rebuilding the ailing public infrastructure and making it more friendly to public transit and renewable energy. Need start-up funds? Close the loophole that lets billionaire hedge fund managers pay 15% capital gains instead of 35% income tax, and adopt a long-proposed tax on international currency trading. The bonus? A less volatile, crisis-prone market.

The way we respond to crises is always highly political, a lesson progressives appear to have forgotten. There's a historical irony to that: Crises have ushered in some of America's great progressive policies. Most notably, after the dramatic market failure of 1929, the left was ready and waiting with its ideas -- full employment, huge public works, mass union drives. The Social Security system that Moody's is so eager to dismantle was a direct response to the Depression.

Every crisis is an opportunity; someone will exploit it. The question we face is this: Will the current turmoil become an excuse to transfer yet more public wealth into private hands, to wipe out the last vestiges of the welfare state, all in the name of economic growth? Or will this latest failure of unfettered markets be the catalyst that is needed to revive a spirit of public interest, to get serious about the pressing crises of our time, from gaping inequality to global warming to failing infrastructure?

The disaster capitalists have held the reins for three decades. The time has come, once again, for disaster populism.

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kparcell
post Jan 28 2008, 05:46 PM



The flipside of the problem of "crisis opportunism" ushering in special interest agendas is that it also tends to exclude real solutions. Imo, the best approach to crisis is preparedness, and the best strategy for that is metasystems - redundancy of vital systems. This might seem to be off-topic, but not so. The reason the global marketplace is eating the world alive is that it's the only game in town. Imagine a world where instead of having to compete in a monolithic marketplace that compels you into unsustainable paths there are alternative marketplaces that are local, regional, and national, allowing for different levels of accountability. That's the way to keep crisis from the door. Specifically, today you ususally have a hard time knowing if products you consume are produced accountably - that's the global marketplace. True local marketplaces, which have almost dissapeared from the face of the planet, are an intrinsic solution, and are making a comeback. But everything has always been produced locally somewhere. So the key isn't local production or even local consumption. The key is to empower the local marketplace so that it nurtures local marketing, building semi-autonomous local marketplaces that can compete with the global marketplace at the bottom line.

For more on this visit my website at the link below.

Kevin Parcell
http://homepage.mac.com/forever.net

diana
post Jan 29 2008, 12:04 AM


We need to remember that Milton Friedman and his Chicago School cronies have always measured "success" differently than non-megalomaniacs: if I take all your money and it happens to kill you, it's still great that I'm rich! No human with any heart could hold such callous disregard for others; the key for the Friedmanites was to distance themselves -- what you don't see makes your actions OK.

We also need to remember the level of double-speak that disaster capitalists have used. While working to instill "democracy" in other countries, which is criminal by itself, Friedmanites set up brutal dictators who massacred their own people, while their Chicago School tutors nodded approvingly in the background. There is no "free" to their version of the market; it's unfettered greed via privatizing, unemploying the native labor force, and setting up US corporations to rake in the profits ... most of which end up coming from American taxes.

QUOTE
The way we respond to crises is always highly political, a lesson progressives appear to have forgotten. There's a historical irony to that: Crises have ushered in some of America's great progressive policies. Most notably, after the dramatic market failure of 1929, the left was ready and waiting with its ideas -- full employment, huge public works, mass union drives. The Social Security system that Moody's is so eager to dismantle was a direct response to the Depression.

It's time we get ready with ideas for positive social change, because disaster capitalism is poised and ready to strike, whether it's a real disaster or manufactured one ... and the distinctions between the two are blurring more and more. A good start? Read Naomi Klein's excellent book, The Shock Doctrine. --diana