29 May 2007

We are all hikikomori now

Jonathan Freedland, reviewing Nemesis by Chalmers Johnson, in the 'New York Review of Books', dated 14 June 2007:

Johnson provides an anatomy of one particularly egregious example, the expansion into space weaponry represented by the so-called National Missile Defense program (NMD). Patiently he demonstrates why a system aimed at intercepting nuclear bombs before they can land on America does not and could not work. For one thing, no one has yet worked out how to identify a hostile launch and no interceptor has yet been designed that can tell the difference between an incoming warhead and a decoy. The result is that NMD is nothing more than a boondoggle in the sky, at last count pulling in $130 billion of American taxpayers' money, a figure which on current plans would reach $1.2 trillion by 2015.

But the NMD pork-in-space project is far from exceptional. Seeking fat contracts, the big defense companies give donations to those politicians who will pay them back by commissioning expensive defense projects; the contractors then reward the politicians by locating their firms in their districts; finally the voters, glad of the jobs, reward the politicians by reelecting them. Johnson offers dozens of examples, including Florida's Democratic senator Bill Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, who in the 2006 federal budget "obtained $916 million for defense projects, about two-thirds of which went to the Florida-based plants of Boeing, Honeywell, General Dynamics, Armor Holdings, and other munitions makers." Since 2003, Nelson has received $108,750 in campaign contributions from thirteen companies for which he arranged contracts. It's a cycle perpetuated by everyone involved: contractors, politicians, voters. Everyone benefits from this untamed form of military Keynesianism—except the next generations of Americans who can be expected to drown in a debt that now measures $9 trillion and grows daily. (My emphasis.)
This is classic policy as if outcomes are irrelevant. It's as if a broad body of taxpayers' money were meandering slowly across a dry plain, forming runnels and rivulets and making a pattern that was almost random to begin with, but over the years has deepened into channels and rivers within steep banks, ever more distinct from the surrounding parched landscape. The flow of spending creates its own interest groups who lobby to keep it going in the established grooves. What about the barren land in between the channels? As far as policymakers and the beneficiaries of their largesse are concerned it doesn't matter. The problem for the rest of us is that this way of allocating resources has gone beyond enriching a few at the expense of the many; gone beyond even entrenching an underclass and reducing the quality of vital public services such as policing, housing and education. Worse is that the favoured sectors are big and powerful enough to set the conditions for much of the rest of our economy and society as well. Look at agriculture where the history of government intervention and subsidy is one of the longest: what has been the result of decades of 'support for the family farm' in the US and Europe? A social and environmental catastrophe: intense specialization, an empty, barren, overcapitalized countryside, and a dangerous level of industry concentration. My previous post mentioned the dependence of industrial agriculture on oil. Another disastrous side-effect is that the very large companies that produce much food in most rich countries have also become potential vectors for mass infection. A single lot of hamburger meat at one US processing plant was once found to contain parts from 443 different cows (Cheap chow, the 'Economist', 8 March 2003, pages 77-8).

The externalities resulting from the way in which government not only picks losers but backs them with gigantic quantities of taxpayer funds are catching up with us all. Subsidized agriculture, subsidized oil consumption and extraction, subsidized construction and maintenance of an infrastructure that consistently favours the large over the small, the global over the local: the externalities go beyond the environmental quagmire in which we find ourselves and beyond even the lunatic weapons programmes. They extend beyond even the social collapse that makes the centre of the pretty historical town in England, where I am shortly headed, a no-go area after 7pm even in the long summer evenings. Perhaps the most insidious externality of all is the widening gap between ordinary people and the political system that determines so much of our lives. Policymaking is remote and unresponsive to the needs of natural persons. We become justifiably skeptical about our ability to change the system. Why bother? What chance have we got? Policymaking is shaped mainly by the interests of big business and its friends in government. It has little to do with the individual and nothing to do with the individual that stands out against the system. We respond by withdrawing from it, into a world of blogs and distraction, emerging briefly, maybe, once every few years to put a cross on a piece of paper. When it comes to influencing policy, unless we are chief executives of large corporations or at the very top of the government machine, we are all hikikomori now.

No comments: