Check All That Apply: Artifice, Suppression, Deceit, Denial, Delusion
Why does the phrase "bread and circuses" keep coming to mind?
In my previous post, I asked Can We Reverse America's Distemper?, starting from the historical perspective of 50-year cycles of socio-economic cooperation and discord, a cycle documented by Peter Turchin.
I referenced a January 1974 essay (America Agonistes)--50 years ago--in which the author identified three key sources of decay and collapse: rigidity (resistance to change / adaption), deep alienation and the erosion of crucial institutions.
In his recent book End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration, Turchin identified America's perverse wealth pump that transfers wealth from the working / middle classes to the wealthy elites as a core source of systemic risk, a source fueled by the time-honored dynamic of entrenched elites and incumbents rigging the economy and key institutions to serve their interests above the interests of the general public, i.e. the common good.
These entrenched interests resist any adaptation that might diminish their wealth and power, and this is a source of systemic rigidity. Any attempt to reverse the perverse wealth pump meets with fierce resistance: reforms are watered down, new tax breaks are secreted into legislation to replace those lost to reforms, and so on.
What's different now compared to 50 years ago is the substitution of narratives for reality. Rather than honestly address the sources of risk and decay, the elites of 2023 America seek to persuade the restive populace that everything is going great, and their sense that things are unraveling is false.
The purpose of the misdirection and obfuscation is to obscure the rot within crucial institutions and the resulting deep alienation generated by the elites protecting their reverse wealth pump. In other words, facing the sources of systemic risk would reveal a power structure in which the only possible outcome is the perverse wealth pump eating away at the nation's economy and social fabric.
Apologists and pundits shout that the public's sense that things are going wrong is delusional because GDP is rising and inflation has been tamed. But these metrics are not measures of social or economic well-being; borrowing and squandering trillions of dollars boosts GDP even as it undermines the economy, and inflation is blatantly gamed to understate reality.
The tools of this effort to paper over real issues with happy-story narratives are Artifice, Suppression, Deceit, Denial and Delusion. As in the surveys that ask "Check all that apply," if we examine the status quo response to any consequential issue, we find one or more of these being pressed into service.
Any conflicting evidence is suppressed or denied, delusions are hyped as reality ("we're all getting richer!", etc.), fabrications and artifice are deployed to misdirect and obfuscate, and when all else fails, deceit and subterfuge are rolled out in force.
Fifty years ago, the nation's power elites still had the capacity to admit that the nation's problems were systemic and demanded honest appraisals. Yes, there were the usual fumbling attempts to substitute PR for real solutions--for example, WIN, Whip Inflation Now--a PR ploy that was widely mocked at the time, but on the whole, leaders faced issues directly and serious, honest debates over the correct policy responses were open to public scrutiny and feedback.
Now we have self-serving virtue-signaling, posturing, narrative control, hearings and spectacles in which the objective is to provide cover for all that is taboo because it threatens to reveal corruption and deceit or the self-interested skims and scams of the elites benefiting from the reverse wealth pump.
The fatal rigidity unraveling the nation's ability to adapt is the need to reassure the public with bogus statistics and narratives. Consider this chart, courtesy of the Federal Reserve, that displays the collapse of the bottom 50% households' share of financial assets--the assets that generate income and build wealth.
In comparison, the top 1%--1.3 million households--saw their share of financial wealth soar to 35.3%--15 times the financial assets of the bottom 50%, 65.5 million households. Perverse wealth pump, indeed. But for the punditry tasked with spewing the PR, it boils down to this: since I'm doing great, everyone must be doing great. We can be relatively confident that the economists and pundits spewing the happy PR aren't living in self-storage units. They're jetting off to a conference in Singapore and enjoying the high life.
But what about total assets--you know, used vehicles and TVs and houses? The bottom 50% households' share of total assets has declined, too. Quick, jury-rig some obscure metric to create the illusion that "we're all getting richer," something to mask the reality that "a few are getting much richer than everyone else."
The status quo refuses to understand the problem because that would demand changing the system that rewards them so richly. And so the "solution" is to twist the narratives and metrics to make it appear that all is well, and marginalize any skepticism of the cover story.
We're constantly assured the problems are being dealt with and resolved, yet these solutions don't actually seem to be addressing what's unraveling: public trust, transparency, public health and an affordable cost of living, to name a few.
If we can no longer discuss consequential issues openly and directly, the odds that real solutions that require trade-offs and sacrifices can emerge are vanishingly low. Yet that is the path we're on: rigidly stick to the script and act as if that fixes what's broken.
Why does the phrase bread and circuses keep coming to mind?
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Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World
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