Thursday, July 28, 2011

US budget issues predicted in the 1970s

This post contains no business advice and is only tangentially related to China. You have been warned. :-)

Having recently read Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, I am reminded of how, back in the 1970s, Bell predicted the budget issues we are now enduring in the United States.
The fundamental political fact in the second half of the twentieth century has been the extension of state-directed economies. These developed first because of the need to rescue the system from depression, later because of the demands of a war economy and the enlargement of military commitments, and finally because of the strategic role of fiscal policy in affecting levels of spending and patterns of investment...

The new “class struggles” of the post-industrial society are less a matter of conflict between management and worker in the economic enterprise than the pull and tug of various organized segments to influence the state budget. Where state expenditure approximates 40 percent of Gross National Product, as it almost does in the United States … the chief political issues become the allocation of monies and the incidence of taxation.

… it is also likely that in the United States a state-directed economy and a state-managed society will please no one... Radicals are becoming increasingly suspicious of government … even though their first reaction to any issue is to call for more “government,” … And the state management that will emerge will be a cumbersome, bureaucratic monstrosity, wrenched in all directions by the clamor for subsidies and entitlements by various corporate and communal groups, yet gorging itself on increased governmental appropriations to become a Leviathan in its own right.
Oh, and did I mention that Bell was an admitted "socialist"? (If you watch Fox News, please don't let that word put you off just yet.)

By way of background, the most significant "contradiction of capitalism" that Bell identified was one between asceticism and acquisitiveness. The Protestant work ethic that Max Weber credited for turning work into a “calling” for Americans and implanting within us the idea that the work itself and the associated accumulation of capital were honorable pursuits, became (sometime during the 20th century) conflicted with the rise of consumer culture encouraged by the introduction of installment credit.

The resulting conflict has shifted the focus of American society 180 degrees from a focus on production to a focus on consumption. Whereas, according to Weber, Americans were all previously motivated by hard work and savings as the ultimate service to God and country, according to Bell, not only have God and country been supplanted by the individual, but we now all measure ourselves by how much we are able to consume.

In other words, employers demand of their workers a traditionally puritan level of commitment to work while urging their customers toward a hedonistic, anything goes, make-yourself-happy-and-screw-everyone-else lifestyle. The obvious problem here is that the workers and the consumers are the same group of people.

But I digress...

Back to Bell's quote above, if Bell was right, then we haven't even begun to see the worst of impending budget fights. Even if the two sides in Washington are able to reach a last minute deal this time, nothing will be done to solve the fundamental issues that have placed the budget front and center of American politics.

Think about it. Seemingly all discussions in Washington now revolve around spending and taxation. Rarely does the debate have anything to do with what sort of society we want to be.

I said above that this post would have little to do with China, but having written this far, I cannot help but wonder whether China's form of state capitalism might not also lead to similar contradictions.

Again quoting Bell:
In a modern [i.e. capitalist] society, the engine of appetite is the increased standard of living and the diversity of products that make up so much of the splendid color of life. But it is also, in its emphasis on display, a reckless squandering of resources... [If you're a China watcher, and this doesn't sound familiar, perhaps you haven't been to China in awhile.]

Where resources are prodigal, or individuals accept a high degree of inequality as normal or just, this consumption can be accommodated. But when everyone in society joins in the demand for more, expecting this as a matter of right, and resources are limited, ... then one begins to see the basis for the tension between the demands in the polity and the limitations set by the economy.
Bell says this results in five elements that are "structurally transforming the old market system":
  1. institutionalized expectations of economic growth and a rising standard of living.
  2. the incompatibility of various wants and diverse values
  3. enormous spillover effects from economic growth (e.g. environmental effects)
  4. a worldwide inflation -- "the largely inescapable consequence of a commitment to economic growth and full employment"
  5. crucial decisions about the economy are no longer left to the market, but become political questions.
When Bell wrote all of this in the mid-1970s, he wasn't really thinking of China (how could anyone have predicted what China would become?), but his descriptions of problems that would soon afflict the US now also seem to apply to China.

While conventional wisdom tells us that China's leaders are probably patting themselves on the back for rejecting democracy and its besetting partisan difficulties, does Bell's warning indicate that China may also be running headlong into a similar set of problems?