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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why Are Americans Pessimistic These Days about Our Country?

                                 INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS

Self-Tangling Psychoanalytical  Turgidity

Prof bug is grappling mightily still with two cumbersome books on psychoanalysis and its varieties, the struggle a good 10 days old now --- contrary to what he had expected: not least, because he knew a fair amount about the subject from earlier research and writing.  Alas, as with almost everything written by psychoanalysts or their insight-oriented spin-offs --- the latter conducted by Ph.D. or M.A. holders in clinical psychology, and not the graduates of psychoanalytical institutes --- the writing is chock-a-block with endless abstract neologisms that serve as theoretical concepts and that then, in turn, sub-divide the arguments into endless classificatory sections.  All of it very long on claims and assertations, with little or no concern for empirical evidence above and beyond some clinical observations by the writers of their own patients or, no better, the countless footnotes to writers who share their opinions and theoretical orientation. 

Any Exceptions?  Only One Comes to Mind

Much of what's called object-oriented psychotherapy --- now really merged with the broader relational-therapy (which looks mainly at the interaction of a patient with the therapist or with initimate persons in his or her life) --- was based on observations by clincians at the Tavistock Institute in London of infants and young children.  (Objects, a concept coined by Freud himself, means in effect other people: in orthodox Freudianism, including the British Melanie Klein offshoot of the interwar period, objects (other people like mom and dad) are supposedly understood by the infant and young child as valuable only insofar as they gratified certain biological drives and instincts, all egocentric and without any particular concern for attachment, acceptance, and nurturing needs.)

What the better Tavistock psychologists and psychoanalysts found found was revealing: contrary to Freud and his followers --- including his daughter, Anna and especially Melanie Klein --- infants and children have basic, irreducible "drives" to be accepted, loved, and nurtured, rather than ego-centric drives of dominance, pleasure-seeking (erotic or otherwise), and a sense of self-centeredness in general, all of which, in Freudian terms, had to be blunted and repressed if the child, as it passed through pre- Oedipal, Oedipal, and post-Oedipal dynamic stages of personality development, were to fit into the world of the family and society, however much it might cost the child in neurotic symptoms.  And so relational therapy as it evolved shifted the thrust of much psychoanalytical therapy from intra-psychic phenomena toward inter-personal relations . . . with later schools of that sort adding their own theoretical approaches to it. 

Whatever core empirical work existed in the early Tavistock group got buried under more and more neologisms and the disputes among this school or that school . . . all matters to be discused when prof bug's splattered brain recovers from its immersion in the self-punishing morass of psychoanalytical psycho-babble.  But note.  At the same time, ego-psychology --- the more orthodox sort worked out by Freud and his gifted daughter Anna: along with the structural theory of the mind (the ego, the unconscious, the punishing super-ego) --- continue to reject the new object-oriented and relational psychoanalysis as a dangerous diversion . . . the key problems of a distraught and demoralized patient a direct outcome of a compulsive and reiterating intra-psychic dominance of the conscious ego-parts of the patient's mind by early childhood traumas and negative fantasies that bring the patient into constant conflict with the real world.

From that viewpoint, all sorts of relational psychoanalysis are escapist and overly subjective distractions in therapy from the core problems of the analysts' patients.

Bad Reputation in Academic Psychology

For the time being, no matter.  Simply note how academic psychology became suspicious early on of psychoanalysis and, later, non-analytical insight-therapy . . . endorsing, instead, cognitive-behavioral approaches that concentrate on learning-theory and efforts to change the harmful thoughts that are closely linked to emotional distress.  Feelings, after all, are very difficult to change.  Thoughts are easier to recognize and deal with.  Anyway, more of this for later buggy articles.  And cognitive-behavioral therapists seeks to find ways to pin down measurement-data that will allow them to gauge and generalize about the success-rate of their therapies.  (How successful they happen to be will be discussed in subsequent buggy aritcles).

In the meantime, on to . . .

                              TODAY'S BUGGY ARGUMENT

Instead, for today, here's a post the buggy prof left at one of the best economic web-sites around, Mark Perry's Carpe Diem, a liberatrian site.

No Bugged-Out Libertarianism 

Prof bug, remember, is no libertarian.  He has criticized its atomistic reductionism of social life into distinct independent individuals, its inability to distinguish among different kinds of democratic governments --- all politicians are regarded as equally suspect, dishonest, wasteful, or corrupt --- and above all its failures to understand the institutional and power-base of both domestic economies and the global system of exchange: flows of goods, services, investments, multinationals, and technologies.  Still, what distinguishes Perry's site is his impressive daily efforts at providing his readers with commendable empirical data to back up his libertarian arguments.  You might not agree with each of them, but you then know why you disagree and can offer both theoretical and empricial counters. 

(A brief clarifying remark or two about the libertarian approach to diverse democratic governments.  The core assumption remain active in all libertarian theoretical work and goes without questioning: all politicians are equally suspect, dishonest, wasteful or outright corrupt, and if there are any differences across democratic countries --- say, the USA compared to the Continental welfare-state systems --- it's in the degree of statist interference with the spontaneous operations of the capitalist market-system.  At bottom, you see, libertarians are convinced that markets will --- if left alone, protected by property rights and a legal system --- they will always produce optimal economic outcomes: the most technological innovation, the most entrepreneurship, the most growth in GDP, the most job-creation, and the only efficient ways to respond to consumers' given preferences . . . taken for granted as the basis for business firms to satisfy wiithout restriction. 

What follows?

Well, to put the answer in a nutshell, the US government may be run as much by incompetent, wasteful, and venal politicians (and bureaucrats) as the EU governments or those even in Latin America or Pacific Asia, but at least government regulations of the market, subsidies, trade-protection, distributive and redistributive policies, and ambitious social policies --- and above all, government spending as a percentage of GDP --- are lower or less intrusive here than abroad.  And that is more or less the only difference that matters.

Today's Subject

It's Mark Perry's endorsement of a Wall Street Journal op-ed that bemoans the widespread pessimism plumbed in recent public opinion surveys regarding the state of the US economy and the thrust or drift of the Bush administration (as well as the Democratic Congress).  As prof bug notes, such pessimism has been found off and on for decades now in studies by political scientists, and the attitudes they uncover are --- well, just that: attitudes, not deep beliefs.  And they are definitely subject to a variety of changing infuences. 

Please note that though prof bug is no libertarian, he does admire Perry's web site --- always crammed, daily, by data-filled posts.  Whether you agree with Perry or not, you know exactly why and can either nod yes or reply rigorously. Click here for Carpe Diem, the name of the site. 

                                   MARK PERRY'S VIEW

              "What a difference a century makes:
'1888: America excites an admiration which must be felt upon the spot to be understood. The hopefulness of her people communicates itself to one who moves among them, and makes him perceive that the graver faults of politics may be far less dangerous there than they would be in Europe. A hundred times in writing this book have I been disheartened by the facts I was stating; a hundred times has the recollection of the abounding strength and vitality of the nation chased away these tremors.
---"The American Commonwealth" by Britain's Lord Bryce' "

"2008: There is something both startling and disturbing about the gloom that has settled over Wall Street and the country in general. In fact, looking back over the past century, it would be a stretch to rank the current problems as especially notable or dramatic. Something else is going on - namely a cultural rut of pessimism that is draining our collective energy, blinding us to possibilities, and eroding our position in the world." --- Mark Perry  Click here.  The WSJ article he is referring to is the following:

~Who Stole the American Spirit? by Zachary Karabell, WSJ

                                   WHY SUCH PESSIMISM?

The buggy response to his query: Is such pessimism really a surprise?  Hardly: it surges every time there is a recession near-by, and the US is led by a weak president. Survey data have brought this out clearly for decades in American opinion, with especially the decline in respect for politicians, including Congress and the Presidency, back in the 1960s.

The nadir was in the Carter period. Under Reagan, the country bounced back, and opinion surveys showed a clear upsurge in optimism, even though it never approached the 1950s period.

Same cycle in the early 90s. Germany and Japan supposedly won the cold war, the economy was rotten, employment turnover was at an all time high in public opinion (funnily, economists couldn't find this in the stats), and Bush Sr couldn't have cared less except for the presidential race.

Then it changed in 1996. Until then, the US economy was supposed to still be tanking, Made-in-Japan (like Made-in-China) was on the verge of controlling the US economy, etc etc. By 1999, all that had changed in opinion surveys again --- though still short of the 1950s.

So What's Going On?

Essentially, several influences are at work here, none of them new --- other than the discouragement caused by the Bush administration's policies at home and abroad, with the president nearing an all-time low in public opinion support. 

1)A decline in respect for traditional authority, now documented for decades.

2) Suspicion of politicians and business elites (partly anchored in American populism).

3) Oppositely --- as surveys still show -- people believe that their own personal fortunes are looking bright (end of 2007)

4) Exaggerated groupthink in the media, with its sensationalist coverage . . . almost always of the bad sort.

5) TV in general: what flourishes create a darker image of life than is the case: aliens among us, horror murderers everywhere, superstition (the devil sends his son to fight the aliens!!) etc.

6) Economic upheavals as the US economy struggles, better than others, to move from an industrial to a postindustrial information-based economy, with globalizing tendencies reinforcing the pace of change.

7) And RELATIVE deprivation: an old social science concept, which was made scientifically respectable and well documented in the 1940s.

Meaning?  Simply this: as people's lives improves, their standards of judging deprivation are upgraded, and so they resent more and more any setbacks that would have been easily absorbed by previous generations. This is a key point.  Peoples' standards by which they judge their troubles and any setbacks from the status-quo --- as well as their expectations about the future beyond it --- will always be upgraded.  Such setbacks --- trivial by comparison with the 1930s's (or for that matter, as you'll see, the 1880s when Lord Bryce wrote his book) --- will be judged then by internalized expectations that have changed drastically from those earlier periods.

What's more, the concept of relation deprivation --- pioneered by a great social psychologist (Samuel Stoffer) in WWII and after --- have been found to be empiriically sound in repeated social psychological work under the heading of "frame theory" . . . itself the biggest challenge to libertarian and standard neo-classical economics in general. 

The latter theoretical work always postulates rational economic actors: business firms of all size, workers, consumers, and financial investors.  Frame-theory has repeatedly found that such rational-behavior does not exist.  People's behavior can be understood and roughly predicted (in limited ways) only by probing how each person defines the existing situation --- his or her status-quo.  That probe requires psychological understanding.  In turn, a certain magnitude of losses from the status quo are regarded as far more serious and harmful than a similar magnitude of serious and beneficial gains . . . the basis of cost-benefit analysis in standard-model neo-classical economics. 

The ways in which such frame-theory underpins the notion of relative deprivation should be self-evident.  And note the importance of understanding the worries and fears about setbacks from a given status-quo for diplomacy of all sorts between state-actors.

Real Problems Too 

8) Add to alll this some real problems, all contemporary and all downplayed by libertarians: above all,

  *People's genuine worries about losing a job without portable medical coverage;

  *The high price of gasoline (which takes time to adjust to);

   *Growing realistic worries about illegal Hispanic immigration and the tearing effects on our social fabric;

  The list of real problems runs on, though only two more will be singled out . . . all highly politicized in this presidential campaign year.

  *In some states too, especially in the Mid-West, the continued decline of manufacturing employment --- from 40% of the US work force in 1950 to around 12% in the mid-1990s to slightly under 10% today.  This real worry reinforces the wrong and exaggerated fear that the existing US economy is being buffetted by forces that are injurious to the interests not just of those who's lost jobs in the manufacturing sector recently, but to the US economy.

   *And, like it or not, the real impression of growing economic inequality --- which is complex in nature (no, not just mainly technological, but a matter of the decline of the two-parent family among blacks above all as well as globalizing forces that are themselves largely a result of new technologies and speeded-up economic change).  This surge in inequality underscores the belief that the existing financial, business, and political elites don't give a damn about them.


The Poltical Spillovers for Republicans and Democrats 

To the extent that the liberal-left intellectual elites have also been preoccupied with identity-politics and seem indifferent to the interests of the white working class (unless its female), the neo-populism excoriates the media too . . . those liberal-left intellectuals dominating the TV networks and the major cable channel news programs except for Fox News.  Is it surprising that nearly 50% of the Democratic voters who voted for Hillary Clinton recently in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and West Virginia said they wouldn't vote for Obama if he were the Democratic candidate.  (In effect, 35% said they wouldn't vote for him at all.  15% said they would stay home rather than vote for him in the presidential run-off.)

Will Republicans be the beneficiary? 

Not if McCain and Republican Congressional candidates don't show more responsivness to these problems, especially the reality-based ones, and show that they are more concerned than the existing hands-off Bush administration --- and not just more concerned, but willing to deal with them in thoughtful, cost-benefit ways.  As for libertarians, it might seem enough to invoke this or that Austrian economist, or cite Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, or --- as Mark (whom I respect a great deal) has done here --- wonder why there's so much pessimism around; but I doubt whether that will win many devotees to the libertarian cause, let alone win the White House and Congress for the Republicans.

                                BACK TO LORD BRYCE'S BOOK ...

Totally Ignored the Populist Movement of the Day

Just had a chance --- 9:30 PM in Santa Barbara right now  --- to run a google search and verify that at the very moment Lord Bryce was writing his tome, the Populist revolt was in full-swing throughout the South and the Mid-West and western plains.

An agrarian based movement at a time the country was rapidly industrializing, farmers were feeling all the negative effects of the agrarian price collapse of the 1870s and 1880s. Much of the protest was aimed at the big bankers, big finance, corporations, and the government .. . all seen in cahoots to strangle the little guy farmer.

The movement also went beyond legitimate economic grievances: it was xenophobic, anti-Semitic (Jews the universal scapegoat whenever anything goes bad --- say, a sour sex life for you), and anti-elitist. Eventually the Populist Party was headed by William Jennings Bryan, a stunning stump-speaker whose Cross-of-Gold speech rallied a near majority of the electorate when Bryan ran against William McKinley in 1896; he lost only by a narrow vote --- 600,000 behind.

William Jennings Bryan, as some of you undoubtedly know, later joined the Woodrow Wilson administrations after 1912 and was, of course, the main lawyer opposed to evolutionary teachings in the school system in the Scopes trial of the 1920s. The Populist Party declined sharply after 1896, overtaken by the Democrats --- especially in the South. Its powerful legacy though --- back to Jeffersonian democratic roots --- remains: a suspicion of elites, whether business, financial, bureaucratic, political, or intellectuals --- when they look arrogant or out of touch with average people.

All Ignored

Lord Bryce, of course, missed all this in his eulogy of American optimism. Such optimism was real enough --- otherwise 40 million immigrants wouldn't have poured into the US from abroad between 1840 and 1890, not to mention all the hardships they and earlier US immigrants and pioneers along the frontier incurred --- but it hardly encompassed the declining agrarian sectors of small farmers in the late 19th century.

The Transitional Upheavals of Industrialization

You can get an idea of the anger and frustrations that raged throughout the Mid-West, the plains states, and the southern agrarian states at the time if you look at the percentage of the labor force that farmers constituted in the latter four decades of the 19th century.

     In 1860, on the eve of the civil war, the population of the US was 31.5 million.  Farm families added up to 15.1 million, and farm labor was 58% of total US labor.

     In 1910, fifty years later, the US population had risen to 92 million.  Farm families, taking advantage of the homestead acts until the end of the 1880s, numbered 32 million, and farm labor was down to 32% of all the labor force.  From the 1880s on, small farmers were buffetted by numerous vargaries in farm prices and high interest rates.

Soon afterwards, price-support polilcies were initiated, but the continued decline of farm families as a percentage of the labor force continued, with the absolute number of family farmers  falling swiftly.  The biggest beneficiaries of the price-supports and agricultural subsidies after 1930 were increasingly large, high-productive farms and ranches --- many, since the end of WWII, owned by corporations. 

     Today, the farm population is less than 5 million, and the percentage of farms is under 2 million . . . with the farming labor force less than 2.0% of our country's total labor force.

                                         LESSONS FOR TODAY

The New Post-Industrial Upheaval 

In effect, between 1860 and roughly the end of WWII, the United States shifted in those 85 years --- the lifetime of one farmer essentially --- from a largely agrarian society to a highly industrialized and urbanized one.  And howeverr volatile and dislocating that transition was, speeded up by the 1930s Great Depression in the plains states, it pales in comparison to the speed with which the US has moved from an industrial manufacturing economy, where (at the start of 1946) the average American had only 8-9 years of schooling, to a post-industrial, service-oriented economy that is increasingly knowledge-based and makes its way in the world as the richest country in GDP and GDP per capita (in purchasing power parity terms) by creating knowledge-rich products. 

Small wonder that even 12 years of high school --- admittedly watered down in standards over the last 50-60 years --- no longer guarantees a good job.  The premium incomes go to college-educated grads.

Which means what in terms of public policy to help those who are poorly educated? 

Or is this largely a matter of ethnic/racial divisions and, most disheartening of all, practically the collapse of the two-parent black family . . . with 70% or so of African-American babies born into a single mother-headed family. As for the continued influx of poorly educated Hispanic immigrants, what is going to be its effects, educationally speaking, in the next three or four decades?

What Can We Conclude?
Hardly need, do I, to generalize from this to the widepread sentiments in the US today, against the background of both exaggerated and real problems . . . understood in relative deprivation terms?
Libertarians, of course, can't understand any of this, thinking that progress in GDP and per capita income --- maybe with lower taxes to boot --- is the hallmark of a successful economy and with little or no need for governmental action in social policy areas. Agreed: they are indispensable to a productive and ever wealthier economy, along with solid job growth.  They are not, however, the be-all and end-all of a good economy or social policy. 

                                  WANT A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE?

Liberal and Libertarian Elitism and the Social Strains of Illegal and Illegal Immigration

In Santa Barbara, there are now Hispanic teen-age gangs operating that never existed before.  In the last year alone, they have resulted in five or six killings, along with repeated attacks on others.

In Southern California generally, social services are being strained by illegal immigrants: they now account for 70% of patients at all public clinics and emergency rooms.

But of course the NY Times and Washington Post on the left and libertarians on the right will tell us that it is all either racism or xenophobia or (Obama: guns, cars, and religion) or on libertarian sites and among columnists Americans just don't get how economically beneficial such illegal immigration happens to be. Not to mention poorly educated legal immigrants whose children will end up doing badly in our school systems, creating the basis for a future ethnic-based underclass. 

Lessons for Libertarians? 

Libertarian indifference to this --- which is grounded in a refusal to consider communities as real (only self-seeking, self-interested, rationally behaving individuals have an ontological reality in libertarian thought) --- reinforces the impression that it is mainly the theoretical hobbyhorse of often gifted academics, cut off and dissociated from the real problems of men and women in a rapidly changing domestic economy . . . swept up and buffetted by radical technological forces, globalizing economies, massive inflows of legal and illegal immigrants, and big shifts in the nature of community-based life.