Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Joe Says it a’int so: Biden’s debate performance stops the bleeding

In Class and Social Stratification, Development, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 12, 2012 at 9:23 am

Nothing serves to pull a writer into the public conversation like a campaign cage match. This is precisely what brings me back to the blogosphere, because that is what we saw last night when Joe Biden won the sole Vice Presidential debate the way  Mitt Romney did, by simply being himself and not the caricature of himself that he plays on our TVs.

Biden was last night what he always has been, the elder statesman with a heart, not the bufoon his critics make him out to be. What you learn in watching Joe Biden perform is that some people come off better in long sittings than in soundbites. Biden is a high mean, high variance performer and it simply isn’t helpful to pillory him for verbal slips. It is the central tendency of the sentiment that carries with him and this was on display in this debate in a way that has been missing to this point in the campaign and perhaps in the President’s whole term. Last night, Joe showed up to say it a’int so and if you had the ears to hear, you heard something that will matter for your life for quite some time.

Here is the key moment:

And I’ve never met two guys who’re more down on America across the board. We’re told everything’s going bad. There are 5.2 million new jobs, private-sector jobs. We need more, but 5.2 million – if they’d get out of the way, if they’d get out of the way and let us pass the tax cut for the middle class, make it permanent, if they get out of the way and pass the – pass the jobs bill, if they get out of the way and let us allow 14 million people who are struggling to stay in their homes because their mortgages are upside down, but they never missed a mortgage payment, just get out of the way. Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility…And now, all of a sudden, these guys are so seized with the concern about the debt that they created.

This sounds like the same old Democratic strory, but it is the moment that Biden demonstrated outrage at the injustice he perceived at the heart of the Old Deal politics the Republicans are pushing. You see, we are living in interesting times. Many of the old public goods concessions that characterized the America that even our grandparents remember are subject to renegotiation.

You may feel that in America you have a right to expect an education, a fair shot at success on the job, protection from preventable diseases, limited exposure to poison and toxicity as you walk about, and a little plot of land on which to store your stuff. The problem is that all of these things are the product of protection from instrumental actors who may find themselves in position to deny you the “right” to enjoy your little piece of the pursuit of happiness: they are in varying degrees public goods. Because this problem of the commons has, like the poor, always been with us, the various advanced industrial economies developed a approach through which to promote the general welfare that was thereafter demeaned as the welfare state.

You might lift the scales from your eyes for a second to consider that just like it is not such a bad thing to form a more perfect union, there is nothing wrong with promoting the general welfare. The problem for us is that certain organized strategic actors in the business world after World War II found that many of these public goods that underwrote the most prosperous middle class that the world had ever seen were difficult to monetize.

If you are healthy, I can’t make money on that. Likewise if you are blessed with an opportunity to become educated, to develop a critical perspective on your world and to aspire to understand the course of human events in a way that provides some kind of meaning to the evolving mosaic of human aspirations, it doesn’t help my bottom line one bit. This is the problem we face in Facebook: its value is immeasurable, but its “owners” need to measure its value so that they can pocket it and keep it from you. That why the neo-classical economist, Paul Samuelson, invented the concept of public goods–goods and services that will tend to be underprovided in a freely competitive market–in an era when government got into the deal so that we the people might enjoy the fruits of economic development. Having forgotten this, we try to monetize everything, making cynics of us all, who see the price of everything and the value of nothing as Oscar Wilde once quipped. Consider it this way, you never have to wonder about how to monetize that used car you’ve got: it’s called selling it.

What Joe Biden did last night was to show outrage at the outrageous. Obama flopped in a Dukakis moment stretched out over ninety minutes. He demonstrated an intellectual understanding of the problem of casino capitalism, but he seemed nonplussed by it just as Michael Dukakis did about the prospect of his wife becoming the target of sexual violence back in 1988. People need to know you get mad about the right stuff and Biden was just that where the unflappable President was not.

Most Americans don’t want a class society that confounds corporations with people. That’s little better than confounding government with Hobbes’ Leviathan. Institutions are our to design and ours to control and when we forget that, they take the saddle and ride mankind. The people don’t know how to express these intuitions with conviction and persuasive appeal, but they know that concentrated economic power is as much a threat to modern America as it was to ancient Athens when it was condemned by Aristotle. Biden can tap that vein and he has always helped the President to do it as well.

What a moderate like Joe Biden understands is that government power is a real threat to human freedom, but so too is private power aggregated to oligarchic proportions. In this Biden is quite conservative. he wants to preserve the America that made him, and he’s a guy unafraid to say that to the fresh face of an authentic and rising neo-liberal star like Paul Ryan.


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