Feeding the Hand that Bites You

Economists and game theorists define rationality as playing to win. They assume that a political system, like an economy, consists of players who try to maximize their own advantage. Altruism and cooperation are considered strategies in this competition. Capitalism and individualism are assumed. In such a context, it is difficult to grasp why people in a lower economic bracket (the exploited) seem irrationally eager to support politics advocated by those in a higher income bracket who exploit them. I am thinking of the working poor in the United States, though there have been parallels and precedents elsewhere. Has Trump had such support among the nearly dispossessed simply because of public ignorance and media propaganda? Or are there deeper reasons that make gullibility somehow willful?


Vaunting individualism, America has long been suspicious of any form of collectivism, including social initiatives that could best be administered by a strong federal government. Hence, the ongoing resistance to “socialized” medicine, for example. Maybe it goes back to colonial experience under British rule. Certainly, the New World offered freedom from the stultifying feudalism of Europe, with its fixed class structure, where violent revolution seemed the only way to improve life. By comparison, America was the land of opportunity—for individuals to make their way without banding into associations that might limit their freedom.


Though Americans call their war of independence a revolution, it was in no wise a social revolution like the French or Russian ones. On the contrary, the American revolution was a land-grab, mostly from indigenous peoples, by an already propertied class. It would also have been evident to the colonists that England was about to abolish slavery. The slave economy of the South could carry on only with separation from Britain. Hence, the spirit of independence that fired the Constitutional Convention served very particular interests, which needed the common man to fire the actual bullets. Even then, backwoodsmen and small farmers were co-opted into the sabre-rattling schemes of the propertied class.


A century or two later, in the full swing of industrialization, this willingness of the common man to support the elite would come back to bite workers, as they continued to embrace the values of their employers. Collective bargaining was always stronger in Europe than in the U.S, where unionism went against the engrained horror of collectivism. At their peak in the 1940s, unions eventually succumbed to an anti-revolutionary spirit manifested in the Red Scare. In the wake of the Taft-Hartley act, they obligingly purged their memberships of communists and socialists, emasculating their own power. The corporate barons had every right to fear collectivism and social revolution. Amazingly, the mass of poor bought into the hysteria.


But then, flag waving is a national sport in America, bordering on hysteria. The national anthem is a song about a flag, and every school day begins with a pledge of allegiance—not to the national government or to the land—but to a symbolic bit of cloth. (Significantly, some religious groups protested this as idolatry.) Huge flags hang inside the stock exchange and within some churches. They blazon at car dealerships. They are embroidered onto the uniforms of security guards. In many neighborhoods, every other porch boasts the Stars-and-Stripes. The flag is a symbol, of course—but of what, exactly? Often the most ardent flag wavers are ironically opposed to central government, collectivist social policies, or federal control versus states’ rights.


There is an ironic bit of history behind the flag too, whose ubiquitous popularity dates from an advertising stunt: the campaign of a youth magazine in the 1890s to increase circulation by selling flags to schools. The Pledge of Allegiance was composed for this campaign by a socialist minister who preached against the evils of capitalism and advocated strong government to administer social justice. He also advocated separation of church and state, so it deliberately excluded reference to God. (That reference, of “one nation under God,” was added by Congress in 1954, the year after Eisenhower was baptized as a Presbyterian. He wanted American school children to daily proclaim their dedication to the Almighty as well as to the flag, clearly distinguishing the U.S from its godless Cold-War rivals.) The original pledge was devised for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, to be celebrated in schools as part of the flag-raising ceremony. State after state then adopted it as a daily indoctrination in schools to encourage patriotism, especially among immigrant children. Now it is a universal ritual before public events. Until 1942, it was accompanied by a gesture we recognize as the Nazi salute.


Some Americans are opposed to initiatives that would benefit them because these have to be paid for through taxation. Instead, they vote for initiatives that reduce corporate taxes because such policies seem to support a free market economy—as though this cliché promises to benefit them personally. In fact, many people with modest incomes do own stocks and shares, if only through their retirement fund. However, I doubt that working-class conservatism rationally reflects their holdings as investors, so much as a magical belief in “the free enterprise system.” That is the wild-west lottery in which the lucky winner takes all, carrying away the pot collected from an anonymous mass of contributors. It’s the mythic gamble in which all have a theoretically equal chance to strike it rich or become president, whatever their beginnings. Trump and Putin are ironic living proof that some people do in fact get rich… and then become president… and then become even richer!


It is no mystery that corporations and interest groups control the American government, especially through lobbies. This reflects more than simple cronyism. It takes a lot of money to get onto a ballot in the first place, which means the candidate is likely to be wealthy and from the business sector, and/or has moneyed supporters. But once elected, there is a long-standing trend in American government to delegate responsibility for governing to private interest groups, especially to the group from which one came or one’s supporters. It would make sense to draw on the expertise of such groups—among which are many think tanks—provided they are dedicated to the well-being of the country as a whole. Being special-interest groups, however, they are often dedicated instead to the well-being of a particular class or sector, and have a highly biased viewpoint. The mandate of government to achieve fairness and balance in decision making is left to the competition of these voices, which tend to cancel each other out. This tendency simply mirrors laissez faire in the marketplace and reflects the engrained suspicion of government.


Responsibility to govern is thus abdicated, ceded instead to organisations outside government or which have been specially brought within the government bureaucracy. The flip side of the suspicion of government is a tacit understanding that elections are not about government at all. If the de facto regime is not the elected one, why bother to find candidates who can do the best job? Those who can win a popularity contest will do just as well. Perhaps the poor are so willing to vote for the rich to represent them because they believe the success of the latter will magically rub off on them. It’s naturally more attractive to identify with winners than with losers, despite the slim odds of the lottery. It seems easier to believe the myth of upward mobility than to recognize the fact of increasing general poverty.


Standard of living is the total wealth of a country divided by the number of citizens. It is a figure that hides the extreme inequality of the rich and the poor by the trick of averaging their assets, masking the economic reality for most people. The social mobility Americans prize has morphed into a game in which there are ever-greater winnings for ever-fewer few winners. The jackpot grows exponentially along with the number of losers. The overwhelming amount of any rise in GNP these days goes into very few, already deep pockets. (On the other hand, any drop will likely come out of the wage-earner’s ever-emptying pockets.) While trickle-down of the Reagan-Thatcher era is still the mantra, the reality is that wealth in the laissez-faire economy “naturally” trickles up—until, if ever, it is deliberately redistributed by government or charity.


A citizen may take pride in the nation’s economic growth, or take heart when the Dow Jones is up; but the gains celebrated rarely go to the conservative poor. This does not seem to matter when they can bask in the glitzy success stories of celebrities—whether from the entertainment world, the financial world, or the political world (which now considerably overlap). In Britain, where there was traditionally little social mobility, such sentimental adulation was reserved for the monarchy (and the Beatles). Wouldn’t it be ironic if its counterpart in the U.S. turned out to be a transplant from the Old-World class system, where downtrodden domestic servants cheerfully identified with the household of their aristocratic masters? I guess we will see at election time whether that is the American way after all.