Selling Upward Mobility, Delivering Downward

Jethro Tull fans will remember the line “slowly upstairs/faster down” from Stand Up’s “We Used to Know,” and that’s pretty much what Obama and Democrats are trying to accomplish in their current program.

To use another line from the same album, nothing is easy.

On the one hand, Obama knows that Americans expect their government to deliver (or at least facilitate) upward social mobility, which is why he’s spending time with his stimulus package and this new homeowner’s rescue.  That’s the upward mobility side.

On the other hand, he also knows that axioms of the left include the ideas that Americans consume too large a portion of the world’s resources, that they need to abandon single-family dwellings and live in < 100 m2 apartments in high rises (like I used to see in the old Soviet Union,) that they need abandon their cars and embrace public transportation, that they need to cut down their carbon emissions, that they need to be stop being so ambitious and acquisitive, etc.  That’s the downward mobility side.

What we have here is a fundamental contradiction.  Democrats have dealt with this dilemma in a number of ways.

Jimmy Carter was honest enough to mobilise indoor sweaters and call for petrol rationing.  He was shoved aside in favour of Ronald Reagan and the Democrats lost the driver’s seat in American politics for the next quarter century.

Bill Clinton gave lip service to the left’s pet agendas, but he wouldn’t even submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate, knowing how unpopular it would be.  He turned over the economy to Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin (and later Larry Summers, now on the Obama team) and let the good times roll–until the credit bubble burst under his successor.

Barack Obama seems to be trying a slicker but trickier slight of hand.  Using the grim economy as a background justification for downward mobility, he nevertheless mobilises panic to get things going again, all the while plying the austerity/downward agenda in the background with the connaivance of such luminaries as Henry Waxman.

Make no mistake: the idea of prosperity through “green jobs” is a mirage.  Whether you agree with the whole global warming/environmental business or not, the inevitable result of actualising this agenda will result in people doing and living with less.  That’s downward mobility.  There’s no getting around it, except in the illusions the skilful can create in people’s minds.

If Obama didn’t have the inconvenience of representative government (along with those pesky elections,) he could simply let the economy slide down, accomplishing the downward agenda with little effort.  But American politics as always is a game of bluff.  How his whole convoluted game plan will play out economically or politically remains to be seen.

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