Reform, Change, Deregulation, and Other Post-Cognitive Political Memes
By Michael I. Niman
ArtVoice (and syndication) 10/28/10
You know the memes. We’re assaulted with them when we open our mail, listen to our radios, turn on our TVs, or have the misfortune to be in the vicinity of a hyperkinetic “dittohead.” We need “less government,” “less taxes,” “reform,” and “change.” The Kenyan is “redistributing” your hard-earned income to ne’er-do-wells. Tax cuts and free trade will save the economy. We need less “government regulation.” Obama is a “big government” socialist.
The 2010 election cycle has come down to a handful of Republican memes, dutifully repeated ad nauseam by a compliant news media kept alive by mainlining political attack ad dollars and easily regurgitated PR scripts.
Political discourse in America today essentially means parroting these sound burps over and over, louder and louder, and finally, when reaching your highest crescendo, unilaterally declaring yourself intellectually and politically pure, and ending the “conversation.”
So let’s launch our own meme here and term this political discourse “post-cognitive.” And to understand post-cognitive politics, let’s examine these memes one by one.
First off we can just take “reform” and “change” off the table. They’ve become vapid terms floating around the political ether with no real meaning. Seldom are these words accompanied by any clarification as to what is being reformed or changed, how it will be done, and what kind of new monster we’re creating in the process. Let’s not forget that the current economic mess was the result of so called “free market reform,” which, like swapping clean underwear for soiled boxers, represents change.
And let’s not forget how the Democrats took this moniker for a joyride in 2008, essentially blowing the engine and leaving a smoldering wreck by the side of the same old road we’ve always been on.
Obama’s redistribution of wealth
Unlike reform and change, “redistribution of wealth” is real—but this class war isn’t the one described by corporate propagandists walking the streets in their tea party skimpies. Commencing with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, we’ve seen a historically unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth. During the George W. Bush presidency, the richest one percent of the country took home two thirds of the bounties of our economic growth, while income for the bottom 80 percent of the population basically stagnated, with many middle-class households slipping into poverty. The time period from 1992 to 2007, essentially covering the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, saw the median income of the richest 400 families in America jump by 407 percent. This American oligarchy also saw their taxes slashed by a third, yielding a take-home income increase of 476 percent. The rest of us enjoyed a relatively anemic income growth of just 13 percent spread over this 15-year period, despite the fact that it was our increased productivity that underwrote this economic growth.
I can throw more numbers at you, but the skinny is that wealth inequality in the US has surpassed the levels of both the robber baron era and the Roaring ’20s. The middle class is disappearing, and along with it our pretenses of being a democratic society. The Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush tax cuts lined the pockets of the rich and spawned a plethora of offshore tax havens into which they could stash their wealth. The rest of us are fully aware of what we got.
As for the meme of a “socialist” Obama “redistributing the wealth” from the rich to the poor, keep dreaming. The mediated image of a jackbooted Obama stealing Joe the Plumber’s hard-earned cash and handing it over to a bunch of slothful welfare recipients lounging about in luxury homeless shelters eating filet mignon and drinking Chivas Regal in their pimped-out Yugos is a cruel joke played on the post-cognitive psyche. The reality is something quite different, as we all work longer and harder hours, enriching an ever-shrinking elite whose taxes are cut while we’re nickel-and-dimed to death with higher tuitions, higher medical insurance premiums, higher sales and property taxes, and a plethora of increased fees, copays, and penalties.
The myth of a “socialist” Obama is just the warm-up act for the big lie our corporate culture masters would like us to imbibe—that government regulations are hurting us common folk and strangling the economy. This is the main message of both the Republican Party and its Tea Party progeny. So let’s look at exactly what government regulates.
Government regulations primarily cover three areas: environmental protection, labor and consumer protection, and the financial industry. Among the most onerous edicts making American industry less competitive with China and India are our environmental regulations. Industries in the US simply cannot easily foist their toxic wastes upon the public commons. They can’t easily dump their poisons into our water and our air. They are bound by a woefully inadequate but nonetheless annoying set of environmental regulations to which they must adhere—and incidentally, that they’ve fought against at every step of our social-evolutionary struggle.
Rather than do away with the government regulations that protect us, why not instead do away with the “free trade” pacts that deregulated trade and opened our markets to these dirty products?
Let’s be clear here. When politicians attack government regulations, it’s the laws making our tap water somewhat potable and our air somewhat breathable that are on the top of their list. The image on Fox News might be the spotted owl, but the endangered species is us. Do you really want your food and water even more tainted with pesticides? Do you want a whole new generation of chemicals to be field-tested on your children? Do you really want to defund the EPA, clear-cut our state and national parks, and revoke the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act?
Foreign sweatshops also have a leg up on us because, well, they’re sweatshops. Their owners are not hampered by child labor laws, occupational work and safety regulations, or any pretense of an eight-hour workday or a 40-hour workweek. Protective clothing and masks, ventilation systems, and ergonomic accommodations for workers are all some of the gains we struggled for during the last century. Industry has opposed them too, at every step, and would like to roll these big government regulations right back to the 1800s, as Nike effectively did when they moved their production to places like Indonesia.
The same holds true for consumer protections and financial regulations, weak as they might be. Remember how hard the Big Three automakers fought against laws requiring them to spend a few bucks per car to install seat belts and, later, emissions controls? Remember how hard the oil companies fought against laws requiring them to remove lead and, later, sulfur from auto and truck fuel? Guess what? They’re still fighting—against, for example, ruthless government regulations ordering them to build more fuel-efficient cars. Damn that Big Brother.
We’ve seen how the financial deregulation of the Reagan and Bush administrations ultimately played out in the real world, transforming financial markets into casinos and staid old banking institutions into blackjack dealers, con artists, and loan sharks. Today’s memes target the few relatively impotent financial regulations set in place over the last year in response to the wholesale Clinton-Bush era looting that crashed our economy. In actuality, we need more powerful regulations to protect homeowners, college students, and credit card users from predatory lenders, and to protect financial institutions from themselves.
The average American is more likely saddled with 25 percent yearly interest on their credit card debt than they are to be endowed with a fat portfolio of financial industry stocks. Popular memes tell us debtors deserve their fate because of their overindulgence. But many folks are now accruing their debt at the supermarket, trying to feed their families on meager salaries or during prolonged periods of unemployment. Either way, if they have jobs, debtors now work primarily to fatten the portfolios of finance industry investors, and will likely never pay off their debts. Are financial regulations criminalizing biblically condemned usury really our enemy? Do any of us benefit from executives looting and bankrupting their own companies?
The master meme centers on big government. Big government is an all-encompassing concept. It’s huge. Think Big Brother looking over your shoulder, looking into your bedroom or into your dope stash. This anarcho-libertarian meme has salience across the political spectrum.
Government, when functioning properly, however, allows all of us ordinary folks to pool together our measly little sparks of power, and to create something bigger and mightier than even the wealthiest tycoon or corporation. Anarchy is a nice utopian ideal, but as long as you have corporations and tycoons, eliminating government will not give you anarchy or libertarianism. It will only give us domination under unchecked, uncontrolled, unregulated corporate masters. Hence, we have government, which in its ideal form, should represent our collective will to stand up and resist such tyranny.
As corporations get bigger and fiercer, government needs to more be more aggressive in representing the common folk. The problem with our government is that it represents corporations and tycoons more than it represents us. This is because our campaign funding model essentially places politicians on the auction block. Put simply, unlike corporations, we might have souls, but we don’t have their money. The question here is this: Do we want to eliminate government and let corporations completely run wild, destroying our environment, our economy, our freedom, and our lives? Or do we want to retake, rather than destroy, government?
Big government also picks up our garbage, paves our highways, runs our busses, controls our air traffic, inspects our food, polices our streets, educates our children (more or less), gives us drinking water, protects our environment, builds our bridges, delivers our mail, puts out our fires (except maybe in Tennessee), runs our emergency rooms, helps us go to college, protects our Social Security funds, patrols our borders, provides us with parks, protects our forests, supports our arts, funds scientific research, oversees transportation safety, and so on. This is big government. It’s also technically socialism. We have a mixed economy. Live with it. I don’t think we can live without it.
What we need, however, is more oversight to keep government honest and in service to “we the people,” rather than the corporations and tycoons who fund our elections. This is the uphill struggle we face. Corporations want to eliminate government, essentially eliminating the middleman and making their total control of our society official. We’ve got to stop them, because to them we are only cheap labor and marks to be conned.
There is one area where government truly seems obscenely large, however—that’s the military, which consumes roughly half of what we pay in taxes. Curiously, the anti-big-government crowd seems silent on this most obvious example of unaccountable runaway government spending. It’s curious, however, until you follow this military money right back to the corporate interests that are out there bidding on elected officials and sponsoring the meme machine. The hypocrisy is glaring.
We need better memes than the ones NPR, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and whole damn media industrial complex are feeding us.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at artvoice.com, archived at mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.