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In the Grip of Dimwits and Paranoids

This time, a Brit warns us of the cost of killing government

It’s not just the anti-Semitic Glen Beck stirring up the fringe. Buffalo-born Richard Hofstadter long ago wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and more recent historian Richard Perlstein estimates that since the Depression about 20 percent of American voters have been moved by wacky conspiracy theories that somehow always revolve around Jews, banks, and secret plans for socialism. Something new has happened: The loonies have taken over the House of Representatives. And the stories that they’re telling the Republicans’ political base are weird.

Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent

by Edward Luce

Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2012

Within a few miles of where readers of this newspaper live, there are voting-age adults who believe the laughable lie that a deceased Chicago Communist named David Canter tutored political consultant David Axelrod, who in turn brainwashed a former Chicago community organizer, now president, Barack Obama. Until I read a July 2012 posting on a conservative website, I couldn’t have imagined that having known David Canter would have ever been relevant to anything but an alcoholic evening of war stories about liberals versus hacks back in the wards. Canter was a funny old dude, one of many colorful chips in the mosaic of ethnic politics in that town. David was an American “red diaper baby,” the son of a Communist who’d been so committed to Lenin’s fantasy that he’d moved his family back to Mother Russia for a few years in the 1930s, only to bolt back to safety in America before Hitler invaded. By the time I met David Canter in the 1970s, he was a neighborhood character, an attorney working in some nondescript government job who spent his free time hanging around with local anti-Daley machine politicians in the University of Chicago neighborhood, which ever sends lakefront liberals to a den of perfidy known as the Chicago City Council. (Corruption is so rampant there that even a lakefront liberal named Larry Bloom went to jail, joining two recent governors.) Canter was a perennial campaign volunteer who was perennially trying to get paid for crunching numbers for candidates in those labor-intensive days before personal computers and spreadsheets. But with his slight speech impediment, his walk that looked like strutting, and his frequent references to political fights of yore that nobody under 70 remembered, he evoked rolled eyes, and some unflattering imitations, too. He once showed up at a campaign I was covering to announce that liberal icon (and former Daley Machine stalwart) Mayor Harold Washington had “released” him to work for a new neverwuzzer candidate. The campaign manager snarled at him in front of all the volunteers in yet another Rodney Dangerfield moment that was quite cruel to this harmless character.

Obama political advisor David Axelrod had by then long since committed the apostasy of joining the Daley organization, thus leaving the lakefront liberals and the old Communists marooned in the powerlessness they more or less enjoyed, being that it made them feel more virtuous to be untainted by actual power.

Yet today in the minds of the folks at, which links up to a sticky web of mutually reinforcing sites, magazines, think tanks, and shout-shows that advance Tea Party and Republican verities, David Canter was a man of great and enduring influence. This imagined David Canter rules our president from the grave, though he was, in fact, at best a spear-carrier in battles the liberals of Chicago mostly lost. He should be left to rest in peace, and be remembered for the inadvertent mirth he caused; instead, he feeds a narrative that is wrecking our national government, and making the United States weak and ridiculous.

Edward Luce of the Financial Times of London has written a book about how the paranoid narrative may already have brought us the day of no return to the power, prosperity, and international relevance that Americans still believe is our birthright. The new anti-science, anti-rational Right that has taken over the Republican Party is destroying the national government, but also undermining state governments as well. Luce’s book, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, is 280 pages of easy-to-read journalism—interviews and data, soberly and clearly presented, without much of any personal opinion—that lets diverse voices say, essentially, that our country’s abandonment of collective action on science, infrastructure, industrial policy, and educational standards means we’re blowing our lead. Probably forever.

Horse, barn door

Luce’s interview with an American-born, Harvard-educated Indian entrepreneur who has moved back to his parents’ homeland is one of many shockers in this book. On a 2010 trip here, the American-Indian business guy tried to inform his classmates that it’s not the 1990s any more, when the rule was that Indians (and Chinese, etc.) came to the US to get their degrees, go home awhile, but return as fast as they could to Silicon Valley, Wall Street, DC, or some other happening US zip code. No more. What he tried to tell his disbelieving Harvard classmates was this: Growth is so real and so fast in India, and in China, and in the other Asian economies, that nobody feels the need to include the US in their business plans, much less in their personal lives. The United States, he says, has entered “an age of denial and narcissism” while the new world is quickly leaving us behind.

We have also entered an age of insanity. This week, again, the University of Chicago surveyed 40 economists from top universities. The result is a Tea Party nightmare, just like the Koch brothers’ investment in a former climate-science denier named Richard Mullen didn’t work out so well. In this latest survey, there is amazing consensus among them that the Obama stimulus spending packages worked as designed, reducing the jobless rate and producing greater benefit than cost. The point is simple: Even mainstream economists, like mainstream climate scientists, and mainstream policy analysts, find ways to agree when the evidence all points to the same conclusion.

That’s the kind of thinking that government once empowered. It was the US government that hired the scientists who put people on the moon; recent cuts in federal government support for NASA have put much more than the Space Shuttle in a dark box. Government until the age of the Bush presidencies fostered the science that transformed medicine, agriculture, and public health, but now US government investment in all areas of basic science research has been eviscerated compared to the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter years. Defense Department scientists and engineers invented the internet by letting scientists Vint Cerf, Larry Roberts, and Robert Kahn work at it, but now anti-science legislators like climate-change denier Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a political invulnerable, openly mock the idea of public investment in research. “Do they think Google would exist without public research?” Luce quotes Cerf as asking.

Government, of course, is not what it used to be. Until Ronald Reagan, government was a great achievement of a difficult compromise between merchants and landowners that at first left women, blacks, and non-property-owners entirely out of the deal. Then government became functional enough to create American global hegemony, until Reagan made government public enemy number one. Less and less of it remains functional, at every level, from school districts to federal agencies, in part because there is simply so much less of it: The Brookings Institution released another report this past week showing that government employment is down sharply, with hundreds of thousands of fewer employees. The Wall Street Journal’s news section reports that some corporate types are quite concerned about the possibility of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that will kill hundreds of thousands of contracts, contractors, and jobs all because of the intransigence of Republican members of the House of Representatives, who rant on amongst themselves about the late Communist David Canter and his alleged ideological progeny Axelrod and Obama, and proclaim their belief in more tax cuts for stock speculators, mergers and acquisitions operators, and dealmakers like Mitt Romney and Chris Collins.

$1 billion plus $200 million

But let us bring this discussion home to where we live. One of the most difficult of Luce’s passages is about the changing nature of venture capital, which just isn’t going into Silicon Valley like it used to—and isn’t being managed by science-savvy people any more, they having been replaced by MBAs who don’t know how to calculate anything more complicated than a net present value. Like the big pension funds that just chase yield and reward fund managers no matter how they get it so long as they get it, venture capital, which used to fuel innovation, no longer adequately does so. Not here, anyway.

Then there are Luce’s interviews with business leaders in Portland, Oregon, a city blessed with a deserved reputation for good policy, and also with good pinot noir, good microbrews, and a surplusage of highly educated young people. They say the same thing said by the senior military leaders with whom Luce starts his book: The anti-government, anti-investment mentality of the Right is killing us community by community, even in Oregon, where there’s a Blue State-Red State split there that is a pretty good replica of Gotham versus Paladino Country. Not even Oregon, a growing community that literally faces Asia, is investing adequately in education or in its crumbling infrastructure, because the anti-tax and anti-spending mentality of resentful Tea Party anti-intellectuals has been formalized in state law. People who could not score a passing grade on an Economics 101 quiz are deciding Oregon’s economic future by insisting that cutting public spending is a guarantee of good times to come. And meanwhile, a dumbed-down electorate is forcing what little public money there actually is to be spent on stuff that won’t help.

We have a case like that right here, do we not? We have a local government, Erie County, that is seriously negotiating to spend more, much more, than $200 million over the next 15 years on a handout to a foreign-owned professional sports franchise that will literally take the money and leave town. Any simple cost-benefit analysis would point to a better destination for those funds than Ralph Wilson and his heirs, and Luce gives example after example of new-technology companies that have left the United States for China, India, and elsewhere because local, state, and national government all have cried poverty while shoveling money into undeserving hands.

Our hope in New York lies with a state government that has just very smartly put another several billion of public money into an Albany nanotechnology complex. It is the state, not the regional or local leadership, that has pledged to spend $1 billion in economic-development support for an as-yet-unidentified target here in Buffalo. One should aspire to smart state money following smart state money. But meanwhile, as municipal bankruptcies loom, and as school districts squeal about the property-tax cap, the structures of government remain as depleters of our industrial-age wealth. Sprawl development is the norm in shrinking Upstate New York, which means that future costs for basic infrastructure and local services are being made higher so that town governments can endlessly filch tax base from one another, as more and more of Buffalo and its first-ring suburbs is abandoned.

Another structural problem that not money but only political courage can fix: The cripplingly low performance of schoolchildren from low-income households grinds on and on, despite 50 years of social science that demonstrates that leaving poor kids clustered dooms them while interspersing them with richer kids helps all and harms none. It goes without saying that hundreds of millions of public dollars have been spent, and will continue to be spent, on transportation infrastructure that is usable only by gasoline-powered personal vehicles. If ever there were a time for a transformative, focused investment of the kind that the Chinese routinely do in both income-generating industry and in cost-avoiding infrastructure, it would be now, and in both areas, and it would be here, in this the sunniest part of New York State, to get us un-stuck from our narcissism and our denial.

Only a smarter, more confident, more decisive collective action (i.e., government) can address woes this woeful. I sympathize with defenders of Barack Obama’s healthcare bill, the best of whom say it was what could have been achieved given the Republican and Tea Party triumph of 2010. I say it’s time to go to the suburbs and help our conspiracy-loving neighbors come to an understanding: that everything they hear on talk radio and read on their websites is going to make them poorer, sicker, and even more hopeless than they feel already.

I don’t think they should read Edward Luce’s book unless they are prepared to feel even worse. It doesn’t even amount to an old-style wake-up call. It’s more like the first of a wave of waves good-bye from the world’s big new players, the ones who have their own heavy-handed government programs for academic rigor, industrial policy, and marginalization of loonies.

Bruce Fisher is former deputy executive for Erie County and currently director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

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