Empire of Boondoggles

In American Theocracy, Kevin Phillips reviewed the fact that all decrepit empires become increasingly sclerotic and psychotic  in the last days of their hegemony.

Conservative true believers will scoff: the United States is sue generis, they say, a unique and chosen nation.  What did or did not happen to Rome, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Britain is irrelevant.  The catch here, alas, is that these nations also thought they were unique and that God was on their side.  The revelation that He was apparently not added a further debilitating note to the later stages of each national decline.

Dmitry Orlov adds to Phillips’ observations by pointing out that, in their senescence, failing empires, being ruled by narrow, long-pampered overclasses that have lost the interest and capacity for self-criticism and institutional innovation, always try to solve their problems by redoubling, rather than altering, established practices.  High on their own fumes, late-imperial bigwigs try harder and harder to get different results from the same old practices.  Nothing else is permitted serious consideration:

Economic collapse has a way of turning economic negatives into positives. It is not necessary for the United States to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning to match the Soviet lackluster performance in this area. We have our own methods that are working almost as well. I call them “boondoggles.” They are solutions to problems that result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve.

Just look around and you will see boondoggles sprouting up everywhere, in every field of endeavor: we have military boondoggles like Iraq, financial boondoggles like the doomed retirement system, medical boondoggles like private health insurance and legal boondoggles like the intellectual property system. At some point, creating another boondoggle becomes the preferred course of action: since the outcome can be predicted with complete accuracy, there is little risk.

So why not, as a matter of policy, only propose solutions that are guaranteed to simply create more problems, for which further solutions can then be proposed?

I would suggest that this is precisely the proper context in which to view yesterday’s multiply amazing Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Orwellianly-named front-group plaintiff in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In the short run, the further heightening of the power of money in elections will probably matter very, very little.  It’s not like there has been anybody other than money-grubbing corporate stooge-whores within a country mile of power in this society since the FDR epoch, if then.

But, in the long run, you have to wonder about the fate of a society facing so many immense negative consequences of market totalitarianism, which permits its ruling class to keep granting itself more and more privileges.  As another blogger writes:

maybe i’m just in a leftist mood or something. but if money is speech according to the conservative court, then constitutional rights vary directly with income. now they do anyway, always one sort of argument for programs to redistribute wealth etc. but what i’m saying is that conservatives need to think about where explicitly endorsing this idea will take them. and then let’s add the premise that corporations are persons – a kind of legal commonplace, but fearsomely radical if the idea is that corporations possess inherent rights in the declaration-of-independence sense, and hence if the first amendment and others apply to them.

alright start off with the idea that i and goldman sachs both have free speech. now throw in the premise that this right varies with, ranges over, or actually is money. then my right is shockingly negligible and circumscribed. we might say that goldman sachs has ten million times as much right to free speech as i have, approximately. in part, i admit, this is simply a statement of antecedent fact rather than some sort of normative program. but these things cannot all be true at once: a corporation is a man. all men are created equal, that is, they have certain inalienable rights. money is speech.

i would like to do an excursus, for one thing on individualism and the relation of corporatism to communism, but instead i will say: the decision makes the most basic ideas on which the american republic is founded entirely incoherent. it makes the basic american political vision inyourface absurd. that, one would think, should have given the court some pause.

231 Days: That’s How Long it Took Obama to Finish Jumping the Shark


Obama: “That’s how the market works.”

Congress: (Applause.)

Behold, humble citizens:  The Obarfma Bridge has been fully crossed.

fonzshark“Universal” has now become “available” (as if that’s new).

Blatant diversions and boondoggles have now become perfectly reasonable “other ideas”, which it is perfectly reasonable to treat as equivalents to public (a.k.a. real) medical insurance.

I hereby admit my shame and embarrassment at the modicum of credulity I expressed here. I should have puked that night, not choked up.

Mea culpa.  I’m sorry to have misled anybody.

Word of the Day: Fuffle

The inimitable Dmitry Orlov posts another clarifying gem of a concept for our times: fuffles.

A fuffle is an artful fake, an artifact specifically made to fool, beguile, seduce, or intimidate people into paying for it. Ideally, the initial transaction serves as the basis of a permanent arrangement, with the victim roped into an installment plan, which keeps the payments flowing even after the fuffle itself has crumbled into a pile of dust. An even better fuffle is one that grows over time. Since a fuffle is, in essence, a fake, its useful properties, should it have any, are largely irrelevant, and so its abstract (which is to say, financial) properties come forth as being the essential ones. The most important such property is, quite obviously, size, and indeed fuffles tend to get bigger and bigger over time. This is a telltale feature of fuffles that makes them easier to identify: if something gets bigger and bigger over time while delivering the same or lesser value, then it is quite likely to be a fuffle. Also, fuffles breed: as a fuffle gets larger and larger, it produces offspring of other fuffles, which also grow. Examples come from many realms.

Automobiles, which started out as mere historically, economically, and ecologically naive boondoggles, have long since passed over into blunt, planned corporate capitalist fuffledom, as Orlov suggests.

Read his full post here.

As in the case of private-sector medical “care” and financial “investing”, President Obama is making the extension of the automotive fuffle, to which corporate capitalists are quite literally addicted, a central project of his increasingly disastrous, ideology-driven Administration.

Quote of the Day: Truth for the Animals

Dmitry Orlov says it’s boondoggles chasing boondoggles.  The late, great Marvin Harris simply labeled it “intensification.”

Either way, the point is that overclasses do one thing and one thing only — pursue the tactics and strategies that carried them to the top of the societies to which they dictate the terms of life.

Alas, as both Orlov and Harris argue, this reliance on doing the same-old-same-old only gets stronger after class decrepitude arrives and the underlying conditions for further exploitation (and further life for the proles) begin to erode themselves.  Just when they most need fresh ideas, established overclasses instead only redouble the old ones.

Any brush with the news of the day provides ample proof of this thesis.

My task for today is to pass along the sub-news that the point applies to big business marketing as well as to macro-economic policy and geo-politics.

Consider this comment from Douglas Brooks, Senior Vice President of the Aegis Group’s Media Marketing Assessment unit:

When the fish get finicky, it makes you a better fisherman.  The presentation of the bait and how it’s delivered — getting it in the right spot at the right time — becomes critical.

This quote comes in a February 23, 2009 Advertising Age column reporting on how television marketers are seeing the effectiveness of their profit-seeking behavior-modification efforts increase, despite the times.  [Article title: “Guess Which Medium is as Effective as Ever: TV”]

Notice the reduction of the supposedly holy and wholly sovereign “consumer” here.  In this case, it’s to “fish” swimming past baited hooks.  Just as often, it’s to dogs, frogs, pigs, or chickens.

Them’s the terms of the trade inside the leading institution of cultural planning in America, folks…

Of Boondoggles and the Memory Hole

Remember way back in 2008, when the federal government had to rescue the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, both of which had ruined themselves by making too many mortgage loans during the inflation phase of the housing bubble?  Remember how, way back in 2008, there were campaign promises that the lax lending would be restricted, in order to prevent a recurrence of the implosion?

Guess what.  That’s right:

Seeking to stabilize the foundering housing market, President Obama is offering a plan to help as many as nine million families refinance their mortgages or avoid foreclosure, according to a summary released by the White House on Wednesday morning.

Included in the package is a move to ease some restrictions on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — which guarantee millions of home loans. Generally Fannie and Freddie cannot guarantee refinancing on mortgages valued at more than 80 percent of the home’s worth.

But the president’s plan would remove that restriction on mortgages the lending giants already own or guarantee.  [The New York Times, February 18, 2009]

Dmitry Orlov is right:  The USA’s ultra-decrepit overclass is completely out of real answers.  All it can do is throw new capitalist boondoggles on top of the craters left by the collapse of the old ones.

And, as they do this, they are displaying a truly Orwellian capacity for forgetting yesterday’s ancient history.

Meanwhile, the cravenness and market-totalitarian stupidity of the Obama Administration, which starts right where the buck supposedly stops, is yet more solid proof that, as the great Noam Chomsky says, we live in a one-party state.  There is the Business Party, which has two wings, called “Republicans” and “Democrats.”

Batten down the hatches, folks.  The worst is yet to come, and the flood will be very deep…

Why (Most) Movies Suck

The market totalitarians who call themselves “conservatives” are messing their drawers over the very idea of adding $50 million to the laughably puny $145-million annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Conservatives,” you see, say they think the NEA is a boondoggle.

Contrast this sense of where boondoggles come from with the excellent recent reportage of New Yorker critic Tad Friend on the workings of the corporate capitalist movie studios — where $50 million, by the way, is less than half of what gets spent there on a single movie, a.k.a. “property,” according to Friend.

As Friend reports:

“Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,” one studio’s president of production says. “So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross.

This, of course, means that:

Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make but who’s in them—gone are lavish adult dramas with no stars, like the 1982 “Gandhi.”

Even within this situation, which is well-known to industry insiders, if not the general public, there is no doubt what corporate capitalist movies are:

Marketers and filmmakers are often quietly at war. “The most common comment you hear from filmmakers after we’ve done our work is ‘This is not my movie,’ ” Terry Press, a consultant who used to run marketing at Dreamworks SKG, says. “I’d always say, ‘You’re right—this is the movie America wants to see.’ ”

Friend finds the resulting imperatives “unexpected,” but nonetheless does a great job listing them.

Read more