Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Politics of Possible Worlds

Talking Business - It’s Not the Bonus Money. It’s the Principle. -

Most people still don’t fully understand what, exactly, Wall Street did that caused so much trouble for the country and the financial system....[W]ords like “off-balance-sheet vehicles” and “mortgage-backed securities” don’t have much meaning for most of us. What we understand is greed — which, ultimately, is what Mr. Smick was talking about as well. For most Americans, big bonuses and corporate jets and office remodelings become a kind of stand-in for the real sins of the bankers. They signify what people hate about Wall Street.

But why didn't we figure this out sooner? For 30 years we loved Wall Street and applauded corporate greed. And the biggest boosters were the proles who became the Republican base. When Democrats proposed programs to help "working families" Republicans rallied the troops by accusing them of instigating "class warfare"--and the peasants came out with their pitchforks to defend the interests of corporate fat cats. Even in the wake of economic collapse, when banks were foreclosing on their trailers, the trash rallied behind Joe the Plumber, who was outraged by Democrats' proposal to raise taxes on the $250,000 a year he expected to clear from a plumbing business he imagined buying.

Of course Joe was no plumber. He was an unlicensed handyman, just scraping by, who would never be in a position to buy a lucrative plumbing business or earn $250,000 a year and likely knew it. But like his supporters, he was besotted by the vision of another possible world where he was on top of the heap and rushed to the defense of his other-worldly counterpart.

Fed on "The Lives of the Rich and Famous," soap operas, romances and tabloid accounts of celebrity affairs, the lower class junk people live counterfactually. Like the fat housewives who worshipped Princess Di, they don't resent elites whose lives are immeasurably better than theirs in virtue of plain dumb luck because they imagine that those are lives they could have lived, and defend to the death the right of others to live those lives--even at their own expense.

During the campaign, Democrats of the reality-based persuasion pointed out that the program they proposed would actually benefit Joe--not realizing that actuality was completely beside the point. Living counterfactually, wannabe plumbers, Diana worshippers and the rest of the lot, lost in logical space, were delighted that corporate CEOs, entertainers, professional athletes and princesses, whose counterparts they shared at remote possible worlds, enjoyed vast wealth and privilege.

Even Americans whose transworld aspirations were modest were modally confused. They imagined an America of family farms and small towns where neighborly druggists, insurance agents and grocers ran friendly Main Street businesses and family doctors made house calls. When Bush campaigned against an inheritance tax that would not affect the majority of Americans, cashiers and truck drivers living in suburban subdivisions rushed to his defense, fearing that this "Death Tax" would make it impossible for them to pass family farms to their children.

There is however just so much satisfaction we can get out of our counterparts' lives because possible worlds are causally isolated. What happens at those worlds of small towns and family farms, and at worlds where our counterparts are plumbing moghuls or princesses, doesn't affect us. What happens here does and now we feel the pain. Now we resent the greed of actual Wall Street money-jugglers who wiped out our actual 401Ks

Why did it take so long?