On Duopoly and Gov't Investment

This is a response to an excellent rant by libertarian blogger Rob@ShallNotPerish:
It's often said that Third Party parties never have a chance at big offices because they don't have a significant grass-roots base like the Big Two. While some parties challenge this, like the Libertarians and Greens and do get candidates elected at the local level, all of them have failed at the national level, at least to date. They are referred to, even by other bloggers and political pundits as spoilers. Even these individuals push the notion, correct or not, that only two big parties can survive and you either fit your beliefs somewhere under their tent or your just hurting your own and helping those you don't agree with.

[ . . . ]

. . . this is what you get from the pollsters. Simpleton questions, questions with no depth such as these mean nothing except to the partisan hacks in the press who want to show "their guys" are the best. Be realistic, that's what the numbers are for. And this is why all the Third Parties take it up the tail pipe from the media, because the media doesn't want to have the join in and play their little reindeer games. Until Libertarians, Greens, Constitutionalists, and the like get recognition from the media king-makers, there will be no hope that the people of the US will be exposed in general to more than the most basic He said/She said political garbage that the MSM spews and none of this country's problems will actually get solved, except perhaps by accident.
Rob hits the nail on the head. These polls are ridiculous because they reflect the "us versus them" mentality of our politics today. Polls have generally become little more than intel-gathering for the two major parties, to help them decide what the people want to hear so they can dutifully spout it back at them. On Iraq, for example, a poll response indicating that people think Dems would handle it better than Reeps means only that people aren't happy about the course of the war, not that the Dems actually have suggestions that people like better. Essentially, the two parties get to define themselves by their opposition to the other. It's a perfect one-party setup, where public dissatisfaction with the ruling establishment is diffused by a shift of power from one corporate-socialist party to the other, and no genuine outside voices can be heard. I'll take this opportunity to cite my favorite statement on the Duopoly, Peter Camejo's Avocado Declaration:
Since the Civil War a peculiar two-party political system has dominated the United States. Prior to the Civil War a two-party system existed which reflected opposing economic platforms. Since the Civil War a shift occurred. A two-party system remained in place but no longer had differing economic orientation. Since the Civil War the two parties show differences in their image, role, social base and some policies but in the last analysis, they both support essentially similar economic platforms.

This development can be clearly dated to the split in the Republican Party of 1872 where one wing merged with the "New Departure" Democrats that had already shifted towards the Republican platform, which was pro-finance and industrial business. Prior to the Civil War, the Democratic Party, controlled by the slaveocracy, favored agricultural business interests and developed an alliance with small farmers in conflict with industrial and some commercial interests. That division ended with the Civil War. Both parties supported financial and industrial business as the core of their programmatic outlook.

For over 130 years the two major parties have been extremely effective in preventing the emergence of any mass political formations that could challenge their political monopoly. Most attempts to build political alternatives have been efforts to represent the interests of the average person, the working people. These efforts have been unable to develop. Both major parties have been dominated by moneyed interests and today reflect the historic period of corporate rule.

In this sense United States history has been different from that of any other advanced industrial nation. In all other countries multi-party systems have appeared and to one degree or another these countries have more democratic electoral laws and better political representation. In most other countries, there exist political parties ostensibly based on or promoting the interest of non-corporate sectors such as working people.
Last year, I inquired of some third-party types what the chances were that we could create a broad political coalition on the single issue of fixing the electoral process and breaking the Duopoly. What I got back was a bunch of "no way am I going to cooperate with those hippie socialist Greens" and "Libertarians are lunatics, they'll drag us down" and the like. As someone who identifies strongly with both green and libertarian principles, I was quite dismayed by this, because people don't seem to realize that this is what it's going to take to ever gain a voice in this system.

Fundamentally, the problem I see isn't a lack of grass-roots support -- it's a lack of big dollar backing. All the volunteers and activists on Earth can't overcome a half-billion dollar advertising blitz -- all right, maybe all the volunteers and activists on Earth could, but we sure as heck don't have that.

Now, to change subject abruptly:

As to the level of government involvement in the state of the economy -- see Rob's post -- there's a lot of popular misconception about it both ways. Liberals argue that the prosperity of the '90s means that Clinton was good. This is patently absurd, for reasons I probably don't need to go into here. On the other hand, it's also ridiculous to say that the government had nothing to do with it. The boom wasn't a result of entitlement programs or tax incentives, but direct government investment in infrastructure. The government doesn't need to plan the economy to participate in it.

The Internet started as a military program. The space race started as a military program. The national highway system started as a military program. As I've argued previously, the industrial revolution has significant ties to government investment. The National Institutes of Health are driving research into pharmaceuticals. The place for public-sector investment is on the long-term projects (the type of research and development that the private sector won't touch because the returns won't come for a generation or more) and on the infrastructure that keeps the economy moving. This is how we create a balance between our destructive capacity and our humanitarian capacity -- that balance being severely out of whack at the present time.

Highways and airports are the obvious features. I'd throw a minimum baseline of universal health coverage in as well -- which wouldn't prevent anybody who could afford it from buying better care. Energy development is a big one -- considering that energy companies' profits go up as their product gets scarcer, leaving it in their hands to develop post-petroleum technology is a recipe for disaster. Keeping urban infrastructure functional and secure. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.


Rob Beck said...

This is true, the government doesn't need to plan the economy to participate in it. My original statement was a little overreaching in that regard. Our government has always tried to balance just how much fiddling will produce results and not trash the whole system. It's a balance they haven't always been able to maintain.

Although these major infrastructure improvements have been utilized by industry to thrive, they are in my opinion flukes. DARPANet was a fluke. It was never intended by the government to be used as a platform for commercial ventures, just as a way to decentralize info nodes in the event of a nuclear attack. It took independent creative thinkers to come up with ways to make money off it. Remember, Al Gore didn't invent the internet (I think that's going to go down with 'Only Nixon could go to China' as a 20th Century truism. :)

Anything the federal government has done directly as a way to improve the economy or the lot of individuals like the Great Society or the New Deal has fallen flat on its face.

Government is a large, lumbering bureaucracy and frankly anything it does that works is an accident or exploited by people who made something of it. This goes for highways, the internet, you name it. A large lumbering behemoth like the federal government can't respond to market forces in time to make a sustainable difference or useful contribution. It can provide the incentives that others can use, but that's about it, and that's why I say that most projects it participates in aren't worth our money.

Great post, btw, and I liked the Avocado Declaration reference.

catastrophile said...

"DARPANet was a fluke. It was never intended by the government to be used as a platform for commercial ventures . . ."

This is an excellent point. Most of the impact of the space program was tangential as well, but I think that bolsters my point. When the government sets out to push the envelope of what can be done, the benefits that flow from it go beyond the immediate project and push us into the future.

Computers themselves saw massive amounts of taxpayer funding as governments fought the crypto war. The highway system was supposed to facilitate quick deployment of troops and equipment. Where would we be without these government programs? Is it a coincidence that our mix of public research and private enterprise -- and a massive safety-net-protected consumer class -- has come to dominate the global economy?

At some point, these developments stop being flukes and become a pattern. The proper role of government is not to plan the economy, but to push the limits of what is possible and affordable in the interests of making things better. And to keep the players in the game.

As long as we're taxing people, it does little harm to establish minimum standards as far as health care and retirement. People with money to spend contribute to the economy, contribute to entrepreneurism by their mere existence.