Monday, September 12, 2016

A Eulogy for Our Modern Golden Calf

Has America's 2016 election spelled the demise of the West's Golden Calf? Harrison Stetler, writing in The New Republic, claims this election may have undermined America's, and by extension the West's, compulsive bond to GDP growth.

“These are thy Gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” Such were the words with which the Israelites greeted the Golden Calf furnished by Aaron during Moses’s absence, as the prophet ascended Mount Sinai to converse with God. The proverbial Golden Calf is a fetish, a false idol, an irrational obsession that afflicts a community and blinds its members to more sober and realistic habits of mind. The story is a reminder that, whether or not God himself exists, humans will always create a god to prostrate themselves before.

It just so happens that the 2016 election has ushered in a rejection of a similar Golden Calf, a god that has been imagined as offering a panacea for fundamental social and political problems. That Golden Calf has been the idea that economic growth and a constantly expanding gross domestic product are the ultimate bellwethers for economic and social health. “It’s the economy, stupid.” Just make it grow and the rest will fix itself.

...One of the most important developments of the 2016 cycle has been the challenge by counter-establishment forces against base assumptions of what makes a vibrant and equitable economy. Across left and right, we are witnessing the emergence of a new politics, a revolt against the growth fetish that has been propagated by the political leaders of the preceding decades.

...Despite the fact that the United States’ GDP now exceeds pre-crisis levels by over $2 trillion, and the unemployment rate is at a post-recession low of 4.9 percent, a growing proportion of the American electorate is not impressed. Economic growth has returned, the voters have understood, but that has by no means correlated with an economic system that works for them.

Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign was propelled by different data: gaping income inequality, stagnant wages, the amount of growth siphoned off by the 1 percent, and the underemployment rate. Donald Trump’s campaign has partly been a cri de coeur against a neoliberal consensus that had favored trade deals at the expense of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Both candidates, using new economic criteria, brought new voters into the fold and have helped lay the foundation for an alternative way to determine whether the economy is doing what it should be doing.

The real escape from the stranglehold of growth, however, was achieved on the left of the American political spectrum. Sanders’s discussion of a “rigged economy” was an effort to break free from New Democrat economic orthodoxy. We’ve had periods of “economic growth” over the past three decades, Sanders’s argument ran, but that hasn’t translated at all into a healthy economic life for the majority of Americans. Sanders also argued that this economic growth more often than not ran parallel with a relative decline in the standard of living enjoyed by most Americans.

Sanders’s shattering of the New Democratic model, which came on the heels of Occupy Wall Street and its offshoot movements, came at a fortuitous time for leftist Democratic politics. A deluge of academic research has confirmed that economic growth is not a reliable indicator of broad-based economic health. The greatest contribution to this field in recent years has been Thomas Piketty’s totemic work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century,which argued that over the last four decades the overwhelming majority of the population in the United States has witnessed a relative decline in income and standard of living—all while economic growth has continued apace.

...Sanders has made it excusable to mention the interests of workers, as opposed to that of growth and profit, when it comes to gauging economic health. His egalitarian vision has gone a long way towards expanding our collective vocabulary for considering economic life. And that vocabulary, in significant ways, has become embedded in the platform of the Democrat who defeated him in the primary and will likely occupy the Oval Office come 2017.

Has Sanders sent America's pendulum swinging back? Will this election mark the beginning of a process to change America's economic and political paradigm? What of Canada where we have a prime minister who tenaciously clings to the Golden Calf?


Toby said...

As you suggested elsewhere, Mound, our various leaders may have signed deals that prevent Canada from ever slaying the Golden Calf.

The Mound of Sound said...

What a dreadful thought, Toby, made the more dreadful by the prospect that could be true.

Anonymous said...

World wide we have the prospect of change ; a far cry from actual change.
Read the comments in the National Post and to a lesser extent the Globe and Mail where you will see that the status quo is far from dead.