Way way back in 2010 Tom Junod wrote a fascinating piece for Esquire about Barack Obama's political style. The gist of the piece was that Obama, as a firm believer in the parenting movement called Positive Discipline, was applying the rules he and his wife used to raise their daughters, to the government of the United States.
My spouse and I have used something like the Positive Discipline approach on our own two kids - at least when we've had the patience - and I learned it from watching an aunt and uncle years ago do something similar. Its really a very effective approach to dealing with your kids, and its significantly less stressful for everyone involved, a much better approach than yelling, guilt, coercion of various sorts, and the sorts of things people of my generation grew up on. Its less like growing up in the Roseanne household and more like The Brady Bunch, though it requires, as I mentioned, a comparatively preternatural level of patience. Much like the software development process called "Agile," however, its not so much something one needs to learn in school as it is a set of obvious and rational principles about how you get outcomes you want.
Junod's piece set off a whole range of opinion. I personally thought it captured what Obama was trying to do for the country in the wake of eight years of Bush Administration wishful delusion. I was led to that belief in part via Charles Pierce's piece a couple of years earlier on then Senator Obama's run for the Presidency: Pierce pointed out that those of us who were grownups weren't hoping that Obama was a transformative figure who'd walk on water; we just wanted someone who'd do the right thing or, failing do, at least try. We wanted someone who didn't see in Government an opportunity for looting and patronage, who'd cynically push buttons while triangulating for power on the backs of the poor. It seemed in early 2008 that the choice, if you'll recall, was between John McCain, who's entire career consisted of hot-headed ill-considered reactive decisions - starting with flight school - and the technocratic-but-ill-considered Clinton machine. When Clinton went after Krugman she lost many of us; when Clinton started using dog whistles she lost the more influential voices in the smart liberal blogosphere. And Obama became the best option, not least because he promised a different approach. That's the Hope he inspired: Not the caricature of "free stuff!" the right-wing tarred us all with, but the hope that we could actually break the negative feedback loops of sucking up to the loudest voices on the Right that started with Reagan and continued all the way up to Ms. Clinton's meltdown in the home stretch. And that Clintonian triangulation continues today: Clinton won't criticize Obama publicly, we're told, for "Don't do stupid stuff," but it appears that her former boss's unwillingness to just blow shit up and see what happens next is an unwillingness she doesn't share. (The link goes into much detail about what that entails and how the President himself has often failed to follow through.)
Others thought Junod's piece was reductionist, that you couldn't take something like a Presidency and someone as complex as a former constitutional law professor with an extraordinary background and reduce his thought process to something as basic and simple as "Positive Discipline."
Now that we know Obama does in fact take very common-sense and straightforward and simple positions on many issues - all of which are refreshingly honest break from cynical manipulations designed to look high-minded - it looks as though the anti-reductionists were wrong. Hah! So much for that.
But I think the course of the Obama presidency and, for many of us, the battles we've fought at our employers with people who took the lessons of the Bush administration to heart have demonstrated that, in fact, the approach many of us had with positive operational discipline, to expecting people would act like grownups at work, to letting people work out for themselves how things should go, to expecting adult behavior and adult responses: that approach has failed utterly. It hasn't worked. It works when you use it to guide your parenting, which is a significantly smaller feedback loop from a national project. Positive discipline doesn't work in the context of a company or a country.
In short, the hope we all had that we could go back to working with the people who appeared to see the Bush years as a vindication of their delusions - their desire for easy answers, their fear of doing hard work, their petulance in the face of inevitable change - has turned out to be false hope. Those people won't accept that change in necessary, that its in their best interests. They will not give up their delusions of grandeur and superiority. They won't stop believing that the selfish short-term answer is the best one, or that their racism, sexism and classism are arbitrary and harmful prejudices that are moreover counterproductive to their own good.
Consider income inequality: Its a virtual truism among second-year history majors to observe that income inequality runs in cycles. The American history majors amongst them will note that FDR saved Capitalism, as an institution; in much the same way that Lincoln saved an earlier incarnation of American Capitalism from itself. And yet, with income inequality at literally unheard of levels in the US, especially in comparison with other OECD countries, the conversation in the US is not about how to save the polity from the violent disruption that is inevitable should that level of inequality continue, its about how that inequality is earned, natural, moral and correct.
Consider for a moment the thinking around this. Suppose we grant something which is not so, that the current inequality is as things should be - that its natural, or normal, or preferrable in some way. We don't need to go all Rawls about it and debate the threshold of a justifiable Difference Principle, we could just say "it looks bad but its actually good." Assume the current levels of income inequality are the way things should be: Is it sustainable? Is it possible, despite the fact that we've decided that things are as they should be with respect to income inequality, that this level of inequality entails a stable and healthy society? Let's be conservative and thoughtful about the future and ask: Do the lessons of history bode well for the future?
The answer to that is no. Its no because there's actually a fair amount of research about the impacts of inequality, going a long way back - and despite modern statements to the effect that "oh hey we just discovered inequality and no one knows what it does" - and inequality does not produce free independent-minded citizens. That is in fact a feature of inequality, not a bug: The tendency to cow independent thinkers, to make them ideally willing servants but who really cares as long they're servants, is the primary point of inequality for its own sake. John Rawls may have believed that a certain amount of inequality - more than a soupcon, less than today - was necessary to drive competitive instincts to heights of achievement and development, but the levels we're at today are about inequality for inequality's sake. The 1% have lapped the rest of us a few thousand times as well as finding time to score a bunch of gratuitous touchdowns; we're not even playing the same game, but they seem determined to prove how much better and smarter than us they are and, as Piketty more or less demonstrated, they've rigged the game to make sure they get the outcome they want.
But there is also a fair amount of real-world experience with what high levels of economic inequality actually entail for the wealthy. And not just the people who rub the salt of morality in the wounds of inequality, but anyone who happens to be within a few percentage points of the 1%. Here's 1000 words on the effects of income inequality:
When Lipset says that FDR saved US Capitalism from itself in the link above, what he means is that when capitalism went bust in 1929 - the last time levels of income inequality were this high - there were alternative social schemes at the time that people were trying out. Those schemes were not, in the end, sustainable or even viable alternatives, but that didn't stop people from killing tens of millions of human beings and expending untold quantities of resources in the pursuit of ridiculous aims. It may be that it was Capitalism that saved the world from Stalinism and Nazism. But it was not the Financial Capitalism of 1929, it was the New Deal Capitalism of FDR. Had Americans not been re-bound to their country by FDR's demonstration that the national project was as much about giving people a fair shake as it was about glittering and glorious success, it is doubtful the US would have entered the war and saved democracy. There is as much likelihood the US would have sat the whole thing out and turned its armies on its own, or (what amounts to the same thing anyway) joined the Axis. It may be that in the end the racial identification of many Americans with the British Empire saved that Empire, but it was a close call for all involved.
So I think I've established here that income inequality, at our current levels, is something we need to be wary of, that we need to fix. If we don't then something bad will happen. You could say that something bad might happen - that past episodes of income inequality have just been correlated with spasms of violent class hatred - and ok, if you're going to be dumb, I can grant you that. The correlation is 100% but maybe its not causal. But do you want to gamble that this time is different?
Well, apparently so. Because people are saying that "this time is different." In much the same way the Dotcom implosion was different, or the Housing bubble was different, or the Invasion of Iraq was different: This time its different.
Similar things are said about climate change.
But what, in the end, are we supposed to do about people who got their respite during the Reagan era and have been led to believe they don't have to work hard, that the future is their's by birthright? The United States is awash in entitlement right now, and its not the "entitlement" of the poor, who get barely anything. Honestly, the amount of fraud perpetrated in the US under the guise of national defense makes anything that happens in the social-service bureaucracy look like the Superbowl compared to a half-drunk game of pre-dinner Thanksgiving front-yard flag football. Go ahead and take a look at those links: $6 billion in Medicare fraud since 2007 versus a trillion in military boondoggles. If you complain about Medicare fraud while excusing or ignoring Defense fraud then you are telling the world that you're fine with the rich stealing $10 from you because they scared you, but we shouldn't give any money to the poor if there's a chance someone might pretend to be poor and get a dime.
No, the entitlement I'm talking about is the view of many on the right (and in the unreflective liberal middle) that they're just owed prosperity and opportunity and respect, that everything will be fine for them because that's just the way it is.
So where, in all of that, has Positive Discipline actually worked? If it works at all with so-called "spoiled" kids it works because the parents forcibly set limits. That creates conflict, obviously, but because its parents against kids the parents are, at least theoretically, in a position to enforce the limits.
But we're not talking about "parents" and "kids" here. We're talking about adults, ostensibly, who are full citizens of a democracy, who have, we've been told, the agency and rational faculties to make the right decisions if they're left to do so.
Charles Pierce is fond of referring to the project of self-government, of what Obama himself calls "..the hard and frustrating and necessary work of self-government." That means you have to let people make their own decisions; its their country, they're your fellow citizens - even when they're not legally citizens, they live with you, around you, and you are stuck in a basic existential stew with them. I am personally disgusted with the self-absorbed so-called conservatives around me, people who cloak their surpassingly chauvinistic perspective in a murky mix of Christianity and Burkean conservativism that rarely rises in sophistication past the level of support for a hometown sports team: They are Evangelical Republicans because that is their Team, and if the other side wins then they must have lost and that's unacceptable. But I have to live with those people because they are all around me; they own the property, run the companies, make the legislative and judicial decisions, and invest my money for me so that one day I might hope to retire. Those people in turn have to learn to live with the 12 or 15 million people who are here in the US illegally, who cook their food, pick their lettuce, take care of their kids and their homes, and fight their wars. There is no earthly feasible way to just remove all 12 million illegal immigrants, even if you turned the US into East Germany, and anyone who thinks you can or even should do something along those lines is a childish moron. (Yes, I said "moron.") Many people will shout that they think it can be done and should, but there are very few of those people who aren't just taking extreme positions because that's what happens to be cool in their peer group. Almost none of them want an America where that sort of thing can happen.
And so we come back full circle: These people have been granted their self-government, the respect of the rest of us, in order that they might do the Right Thing. And they've failed. They've failed economically, militarily, politically, socially. They haven't responded to Positive Discipline. They need limits. We have not been able to count on them to behave rationally.
So what do we do?