Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Octopi can be cuddly too

The Right Links Up

I got this from Atrios, but its not really news.  Its only news to the extent that people tend to have narrow parochial perspectives on local politics and avoid reading other sources - and I don't mean that pejoratively, because the whole trend of modern media, some would say point, is narrowcasting.  Cat people can read cat blogs all day long and get only cat-related news on their RSS feeds, and dog people the same, and neither would be aware of the end of the world, such as evidence cats and dogs may actually be the same species with just differently-shaped heads!  (Seriously, I ran across something like that last week, but I can't remember the link.)

(I'm just kidding about that: its so totally implausible it couldn't be true.)

(No, really, I wish I could remember where I saw it.)

In any event, there's an epistemological problem here, and Donald Rumsfeld has made a mockery - as is his wont - of those of us who actually worry about these things, and knew the phrase before it was cool.  To wit, there are known knowns, and known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and its the latter that get you even when you're paying attention.  Because if you're paying attention, you know that what Canadians do for a living is rip stuff out of their ground and sell it to other people.  You notice say that the Conservative party of Canada has a large and deep austerity program planned to create a permanent conservative majority - something which sounds eerily familiar - but the collapse of 2008 forced them to throw $50 billion or so at the Canadian economy to prop up spending for a while so the Americans could recover and buy more Canadian stuff.  And you also notice, if you read Canadian papers, that Canada seems to be doing pretty well amongst the G8 - low national debt, low social-service costs, low incidence of legalized theft by bankers, seemingly no mortgage problems.  And certainly a significant part of the reason the PCs finally got a majority in the last federal election was because they were perceived as solid and dependable (y'know, conservative) defenders of the sensible Canadian regulatory status quo.  Those are the known knowns.

Now reading the Canadian papers for insight into the difference between the US and Canada, or Canada and the rest of the developed world for that matter, is a mug's game.  The general view is: Pretty much everyone but the UK is a bunch of blighters (except maybe the Australians) and wogs who won't stop talking and listen to the sensible provincial wisdom of us sensible colonials, who know its all about land, and who controls it, and how difficult it is to wrest it from the living earth.  Sure New York is good for shopping, and LA is good for stuff to watch on the weekends, but we've got everything you need right here in {Toronto|Calgary|Regina|Brandon|Kelowna|...}.  Those are the known unknowns.

But this is where unknown unknowns come in.  Because while the PCs have been telling Canadians what they already think they know, namely that the Canadian economy is the envy of the world, things have worked out differently.  Try telling a Canadian that and both the left and the right will present you with baffled looks of condescension - surely you're not saying, they flutter, that our sensible regulatory regime might get us into trouble?  But yes, there it is, and for the same broad reasons the US and Spain got into trouble.  Its not that the Canadian banks did a lot of subprime lending, because they weren't allowed to do that.  What they did do was a lot of what in the US is called prime lending (I have my suspicions that everyone in Canada is prime but I'll leave that aside for now, because the mechanisms I suspect to be at work are still murky to me).  And they did it to a mass of people who are now overextended as bad or worse than Americans were when they were at their worst.  And while maybe the Canadian banks didn't engage in lots of that risky domestic derivative love we see so much of on Wall Street, they probably did do some of that elsewhere, where it was allowed.  Large masses of overextended Canadian consumers who can't make payments on credit card bills become a big problem for Canadian banks.  But you won't hear that in Canada, because the known knowns all relate to subprime mortgages and overextended countries, not prime mortgages and overextended consumers, which is the Canadian way.  Same tune, see, but Canadians put a different beat on it, which makes it fresh and original.  Never mind those countries - especially the conservative ones - got overextended because they bailed out their banks.  That would never happen here.  Its the guiding principle of modern conservativism: Causation for thee, correlation for me.

And why do I suspect that Canadian bankers made risky bets?  Because these people are bankers for the love of god.  They risk.  If they couldn't risk on Bay Street they'd move to Wall Street.  Mark Carney used to work for Goldman Sachs, for christ's sake.  The only reason to suspect that the Canadian bankers are not like the American bankers is because one group lives in Toronto and the other in New York, which is a little like looking at a species of tree and saying you've got your American douglas fir ten miles south of the 49th, and your Canadian fir ten miles north of the 49th, and they behave differently.

And so we return to the Atrios/Charlie Pierce story about the wingnut octopus.  We know Capital is global - the Koch brothers are local assholes, but they're also international.  And reading the Guardian doesn't give you enough data about their reach; you'd need to read the Australian and Indonesian papers, the South African and Dubai papers, the Indian and Argentine papers, and you'd need to read them all because they don't connect the fucking dots across the planet.  Maybe a Lexis/Nexis search would connect those dots, but you'd still need to read through a lot of results.

And so while the drivers for various events around the world are pretty obvious - Cameron and Harper and many shadowy members of the US Right have many shared contacts - they are typically in the realm of unknown unknowns.  We don't know that we don't know who's driving this stuff, because the entire machinery of the modern spectacle is devoted to keeping it obscure.

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