Wednesday, June 2, 2010

South Park Keynesians

This post is about the March, 2009 episode of South Park called "Margaritaville". In it, Trey Parker and Matt Stone clearly endorse Keynesianism, so in my estimation, they can't be called libertarians anymore.* I suppose the reason I care about this is because Trey and Matt are really funny, and I have felt that humor is proportional to wisdom. I believe funny people just "get it." They "get" the humor in our political system. We do often look to jesters for the truth because humor or ridicule (barring revolution) are the only legitimate responses to the relentless affronts to human dignity coming from the imperial court at Washington. This is why comedians, when they do venture into politics, come down on the liberal side. Therefore, it is good to see that Trey and Matt have endorsed a patented liberal response to our ongoing financial crisis in their episode, "Margaritaville".

I'm not going to summarize the plot, because you should watch it (the full episode is here). I'll just lay out the essentials. Randy Marsh, Stan's dad, is the main object of ridicule in this episode, as he is in every episode in which he is a main character. His response to the financial crisis is to become the town's ascetic cult leader. Randy orders everyone to be frugal and live a Spartan lifestyle in order to appease "The Economy", who he and his followers treat as a deity. To understand the intersection of morality and "The Economy" in conservative politics, I direct you to my favorite book about everything, Nixon Agonistes. Suffice it to say, Randy perfectly symbolizes conservatives' treatment of the economy as a tool of the powerful, able to be wielded against the poor if and when the poor become too profligate (liberals would say "secure" or "comfortable").**  Of course, the less controversial interpretation is that Randy simply represents the Austrian (or Chicago) school, which controlled economic thought before John Maynard Keynes came along and revolutionized liberal economic policy.

The hero of the episode is Kyle, who preaches against Randy's economic theology. Kyle argues that the economy is thoroughly under our control, and we may end recessions with increased spending. But Kyle knows that in order to facilitate increased spending, he must finance the entire towns' debt on a platinum Amex with no spending limit. In other words, Kyle takes on an essential role of government during a recession: economic stimulus.***

But that was just the main plot. The subplot is pretty much one long argument for increased regulation of absurd financial products. Stan has 100 dollars from grandma that he tries to invest. He gives it to a banker who promptly loses it by investing it in a crazy money market fund. At dinner, Stan asks his dad why the economy is in the shitter, so Randy, while enjoying a margarita from a glorified blender called a "Margaritaville", explains that profligate spending angered "The Economy". Stan gets the message, so he goes on a quest to return his dad's offending Margaritaville blender. Lest there are any smartass conservatives reading this going, "But the subplot undermines the main plot! Trey and Matt are condemning profligate spending!" To you, smartass, I would say, "Well, yeah they are having fun with Randy's hypocrisy and with spending money on useless shit. So? Matt and Trey do not take the argument to the next level and claim, as conservatives do, that Margaritavilles and Margaritavilles alone caused the recession. That would be stupid. Again, funny people are not stupid." Anyway, Stan, in his quest to return the Margaritaville, finds that it was purchased on a payment plan. The Margaritaville debts were bundled into a Wall Street investment that went belly-up and had to be transferred to the Fed. But the Fed has no idea how much the toxic Margaritaville debt is worth, so they have built a recession oracle in which a chicken with its head cut off runs around on a gameboard populated with such options as "bailout", "telethon", and "cut education". Needless to say, all of this financial confusion surrounding the Margaritaville debt makes it quite clear that the simple purchasing of Margaritavilles does not a financial crisis make. An entire financial layer cake of confusion and unaccountability enables idiots like Randy Marsh (in other words, the average American) to purchase shit they don't need with money they don't have.

So that's the Margaritaville episode in a nut. It proves that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are not libertarians, as people have been saying for a long time presumably because of underpants gnomes. Now it could be that Trey and Matt would defend Keynesianism, increased regulation, and libertarianism all in the same breath. (Libertarians have also, unlike Rand Paul, defended federal enforcement of civil rights laws.) If so, I would listen to them intently, and I would welcome their argument as a pleasant shift in the political dialog. Then I would tell them that they were liberals.

* The title of this post is a play on a stupid book called "South Park Conservatives", in which some wingnut argues that Trey and Matt are anti-liberal, and that young, "hip" people are revolting against liberal media. The author does this in a shameless attempt to recruit young people, because everyone knows that Republicans are old and dying. I know very little about what Trey and Matt have said publicly about their politics, but people got the impression over time that they were libertarians. The "underpants gnomes" episode is clearly a defense of corporations against hippies, but the gnomes were not exactly convincing carriers of laissez-faire principles. After all, their economic model consisted of theft of underpants followed by an indeterminate path to profitability.

** Also, I can't help but draw parallels between the cult of Ayn Rand and the cult of Randy Marsh. To Randy Marsh and the Republican Party, poor people and poor people alone caused the recession by buying things they could not afford. (The economic tools that facilitated and expanded this profligacy are sacrosanct. Taking advantage of the poor is a God-given right.) To Ayn Rand, poor people were parasites. Their only function was to provide votes for Democrats. (The welfare as "vote-buying" meme.)

*** Here it should be said, because conservatives are hopelessly confused about this, that the Keynesian solution to recessions is not simply to print more money. Keynes realized that people need jobs in order to actually earn money, which is why the New Deal included employment opportunities. The government during the Great Depression invested the increased Treasury output toward useful projects like infrastructure and (eventually) defeating fascism. The money was not wasted, unless of course you like Hitler and you think that promoting the general Welfare is communist.

UPDATE: I was able to find two other critiques of the economics in "Margaritaville". They are both by libertarian authors. This one complains that Trey and Matt lazily set up Randy Marsh as a straw man. Randy, according to this libertarian, should have explained that the reason that people are profligate is government monetary policy (the artificial lowering of interest rates). Ok. Then what? If we went back to the gold standard  then booms and busts would end? Bullshit. Who would determine the price of gold? God damnit, libertarians, the economy is people, the government is people, and soylent green is also people. What is so hard to understand? People set the price of gold, and they set the price of those pieces of paper with dead presidents on them. Elite people, whether they are in government or outside, will set prices. Liberals recognize that it is essential to have these price-fixers in the government. That way, the poor and middle classes have some leverage over them.

This author is much more reasonable. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

A politician flirting with secession is really saying, "Get off my lawn nigger."

Secession is a concept that is now officially part of right-wing rhetoric, as it was in the nineties. This time around, very powerful people like governors and senators have felt it advantageous to throw out secessionist rhetoric as well as other forms of red meat to the rabid Right. Lately, now that Rand Paul is in the news, it is good to think about what happens when nativists, isolationists and libertarians get together to elect candidates. A lot of crazy shit happens, but one of the most intriguing things that happens is that people talk about secession. So let's talk about secession.

Secession, more than most ideas, illustrates the ideological confusion of the Right. First of all, the American right-wing, being racist, has claimed as its own a revolutionary act which is mostly associated with the Confederacy and slavery, but which was never and is not now conservative. Conservatism is simply the political and social philosophy that at any given moment of history, favors tradition and stability over change. Few actions are more alien to conservative governance than secession and aggressive war. The genuine conservative position leading up to the Civil War was the perpetuation of the compromise on slavery that kept the Union together since its founding. Due to circumstances outside everyone's control, that compromise was unraveling and growing more and more untenable as the U.S. expanded westward. Political forces in the North and South worked to break the compromise: In the North, abolitionists railed against slavery to no avail, and in the South, slave owners and their government backers were obsessed with the supposed power of abolitionists within the new Republican Party. The conservative position was becoming unsustainable as the Mason-Dixon line took shape. A new political order was born in the Civil War. Politics was confused before the war, and it was doubly confused after the war. Modern secessionists, however, imagine the Civil War as a failed Second American Revolution: The South tried nobly to defend the intentions of the Founders. Utter bullshit. If the intention of the Founders was to preserve the wretched institution of slavery forever, then I cede all of the intellectual property of the Founders to the secessionists.

Secession perfectly illustrates another aspect of ideological confusion on the Right: the conflict between reactionaries and conservatives. Reactionary politics differs from conservatism because it takes hypocrisy and shamelessness to dizzying heights. Reactionaries will practice revolution or oppression if they feel they are building a better society based on some idealized view of the past. The secession of the South was radical and reactionary; it was not conservative. The road to secession differed for each slave state, along with their arguments. See here and here to decide for yourself if any of these arguments are relevant outside of political/cultural history. I decided that they are not. One will not find the reason for secession contained in the public deliberations or op-eds of the period. That's because the reason was the lucre. The Southern governments were run by agricultural (read: slave) interests, and these interests were spooked by Lincoln and decided to defend their wealth with other peoples' blood. Period. After the war, Southerners would express their longing for a return to their once-proud slaveholding tradition by maintaining apartheid governments. This was also about money: namely, keeping money in white hands. Like secession, Jim Crow was a reactionary response to a new political order. Rich Southerners used the state to enforce white privilege, and ex-slaves remained poor and disenfranchised. 

This leads to the final reason why supposed conservatives who invoke secession as a rallying point are tools at best and racist tools at worst: a strong, repressive state was essential in preserving the "Southern heritage" of slavery, and Southern slaveholders used state governments to start a war in order to defend their profits. Secession is a radical act of government, and conservatives should have no more reverence for it than they do of single-payer healthcare (a much less radical act of government). Needless to say, advocating secession should not only disqualify you from conservative ranks, it should also banish you from civilized society. Of course, nothing short of unambiguous racial epithets (unless they are obscure ones like "makaka") gets anyone on the Right in trouble these days.

The moral of this story is that the right-wing, including the entire Republican Party, is not conservative. They have no ideology. They just really, really hate black people. 

Friday, May 28, 2010

The proper targets of dissent

Regrettably, I watched part of "Michael Moore Hates America" on Hulu. What a trite piece of garbage. Did the filmmaker ever ask, "Would the object of my movie's scorn write a movie title as slanderous as mine?" At one point in the movie, he asks Moore for an interview from the audience of one of Moore's college campus speeches. However, he makes the fatal mistake of telling Moore the title of his documentary. Moore justifiably answers,"why the hell would I interview someone who already has me figured out? You're the one who 'hates America'". But then get this: after making a dick of himself in front of Moore's audience, he talks with some of them after the speech and actually finds some supporters! These fickle liberals basically go on camera and say, "Well, Moore was being impolite. He should have agreed to an interview." WTF!!!

The filmmaker of "Moore hates America" adopts this annoyingly soft voice of faux-concern throughout the whole film -- as if to mitigate the fact that his film is indeed called "Michael Moore Hates America". He also makes a big deal about dissent. He even features Thomas Jefferson's quote about dissent being the highest form of patriotism. But here's a crucial difference between libs and conservatives when it comes to what constitutes dissent: Conservatives feel like dissent constitutes calling people unpatriotic. This is completely fucked to a liberal. To a liberal, you can't ridicule someone like Moore on behalf of the powerful and call it dissent. Dissent must always be directed upward, whether it be the government or big corporations. You can't dissent against the working poor, minorities or Michael Moore. Yes, Moore is rich and influential, but he's not powerful, especially politcally. Among the political class, Moore is the easiest target there is, which makes a film called "Michael Moore Hates America" really lazy, and ultimately illustrative of the GOP attack machine.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The government has power; it does not have rights. Only people have rights.

This post will be short because the title above is self-evident enough for anyone who really understands the Constitution and our social contract. Basically, the title is another way to explain the concept of limited government. "Limited government" is not synonymous with "small government." It's meaning is more precise than that. It means that government can wield power only through public, written laws. In a democracy, government power is granted by free people, people who have inalienable rights. It is therefore deadly serious that our media and our society use the words "power" and "rights" correctly. When a government official uses the term "we reserve the right to do X", lawmakers and the media need to correct that official. Relatedly, when a government official says, "all options are on the table.", we need to know exactly which powers are being referenced by such a statement. What prompted me to write this was this article by Glenn Greenwald. Sometimes government officials "reserve the right" to commit truly monstrous acts, like assassinating people outside a theatre of war and with no due process.

In other news, Tiger Wood's Penis has returned to golf. When pressed for comment about his marriage, Tiger Woods replied, "Get that microphone away from my dick!" There was no word from Tiger on when exactly his famed penis would be allowed back in public.