The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Are zombie movies a sign that progressive ideals are coming back?

Each generation gravitates towards a particular apocalypse because it captures what we really fear.  The popularity of zombies suggests that we may be working back towards a realization that our outcomes are better when we work together - which is different from trusting the government to handle it.

I just got back from seeing World War Z. 

The movie bears little resemblance to the book; its primary message might be paraphrased as "Gerry Lang loves his family."  He sets out to save the world, not because he feels inclined to do so, but because he is told in no uncertain terms that, if he does not, he and they will be put on a helicopter and dumped back in overrun Philadelphia to fend for themselves.

That, I concede, is not a particularly progressive message.

Keep in mind, however, that "progressive" is not merely a synonym for "liberal."  America's progressive era goes back to the start of the twentieth century, and I think it's safe to say that it was over by the start of the Reagan administration in 1980.

I make the point not to confuse "progressive" with "liberal" because, while the latter is primarily concerned with individuals -- a trait that it shares with conservatism, even though its preferred way for catering to individuals is through government programs while conservatism prefers to deregulate and let the powerful dominate the world -- progressivism is focused on the good of society.  Many progressive achievements, from the Food and Drug Administration to Social Security to Medicare, were established as government programs, but so were the means to pay for them: both the FICA tax and the income tax were established under progressive administrations. 

Additionally, progressives sought to leverage the market through limited intervention, accepting that it could deliver wealth but looking for ways to ensure a meritocracy; "trustbusting" and increasing true competition were hallmarks of the progressive era.

Skeptical readers should not be surprised by these claims.  Consider what was happening at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Wealth was heavily concentrated.  Life was very hard.  And against that backdrop, there was a drumbeat for something profoundly different.  Many who took to the streets called for the seizure of power, by force if necessary, and the nationalization of industries.  The progressive argument was a counterpoint to this perspective, an argument that capitalism could be improved rather than abolished. 

The progressives were certainly opposed to the conservative robber-barons, but the outcome of that fight was no surprise.  They were also the opponents of the socialists -- and that fight was not so easily predictable.

In contrast to today's liberal views, which generally focus on what one should be given or deserves, progressives tended to focus on what was earned.  They argued first and foremost for a level playing field.  Within that argument, they looked for what could be done together to make people in general better off.  They did not shy away from imposing regulations or taxes, but they just as likely imposed them on themselves (like FICA and the income tax) as they did on "the rich." 

They also abandoned ideas that did not work, something that today's liberals seem to have a very difficult time doing.  From looking at programs like Head Start, one can derive that liberals believe that a failed program is "better than nothing," where progressives would more likely have viewed a failed program as a diversion of resources that could have been used to make a successful program.  (They generally did not have to address the conservative perspective that the goal itself was unworthy; fear of socialism kept that attitude in greater check back then.)


AMC's The Walking Dead
This "we're all in it together" attitude, more focused on outcomes than approaches, and not
particularly given to belief in the government but very much about belief in ourselves as a society, is what I see reflected in today's zombie movies and television shows.  The government, clearly, cannot protect us -- but things hardly go well for the gun-toting individualist who thinks he's going to wait it out in his apartment or on his farm.  The zombies themselves are, in effect, individualistic, betraying those around them for their immediate and personal desire for flesh, and they do not tire or lose interest.  The loner runs out of bullets, out of food, or out of time, and he or she is finished. 

But the group goes on.  Facing hardship, facing losses, they pull together, back from the brink.  They keep moving.  Despite it all, they find a way.

That we see this message played out time and again in zombie movies is significant because the zombie movie for this generation is what the nuclear-war movies were for the last generation, an unlikely but peripherally believable path to the end of the world.  We are being told that the end of the world is the result of individual desire, and that the ultimate folly is to believe in individual strength.  Judging by the ticket sales and the ratings, it is a message that we find favorable.

Again, we should perhaps not be surprised.  American politics is a pendulum, swinging left and right.  In recent decades, we have encountered perhaps the worst of both worlds, deregulation at the hands of a generation who were the last to enjoy the full spectrum of progressive achievements and who kept pulling the ladder up behind them so that those who came after could not follow them to prosperity, combined with a rampant drive towards individualized values.  As a result, we are more segregated according to ideals and incomes today than we were by the laws that existed before the Civil Rights marches.

There is a lot wrong with our society, and younger people are chafing at the news from their elders that they can expect neither living wages nor healthcare but must be expected, under a mountain of crippling debt, to toil away indefinitely so that those who dismantled their opportunities in exchange for short-term gains can be taken care of "in their golden years."  (Perhaps we are also starting to wonder why, if pension plans "just don't work," the same math would be expected to deliver suitable earnings in the form of a 401(k) plan?)

Really, it's almost as if we are being overrun by a wave of zombies, each representing a different focus and chomping its teeth while chanting "Me! Me! Me!"  But the movies and shows show us the way out. 

Give it a try.  Are you angry that the Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act because you're worried that voter ID laws will disenfranchise minorities?  Forget about the ruling and organize an ID drive in your town or city.  Everyone needs an ID anyway, and, if you start now, you can help a lot of people get them before the next election.

Upset that American Express just got a ruling that will make it virtually impossible to take credit card companies to court instead of relying on the arbitration mechanisms that those same companies already control?  Forget about the ruling and move away from using their cards; don't be bought so cheaply by "rewards" that are really paid for using your own money anyway (in the form of interest).  Live within your means whenever possible, and look to bank loans and peer-to-peer lending for special purpose borrowing.  When you have to justify why you need the money, you'll find you don't need it as often anyway.

We really are all in this together, and we really can do things by working with each other.  We just need to do it.

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