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Politics and horse racing

[I wrote this post in September 2011. Given the strange Republican primary debacle I thought it was worth revisiting.]

I know that's a strange post title coming from someone who spends his time contemplating brand and interactive strategy, but as I attempt to weave those two seemingly disparate strands together you should know that the idea for this post came from a serendipitous moment; sleepless, I rose around 2 in the morning and in my attempt to at least provide a hint of tiredness I picked up a book I've just started reading - 

Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Sullivan is an amazing observer and has written a compelling book. From the sleeve notes we learn that in Sullivan's youth his father disappeared every year without fail to attend the Kentucky Derby. The mystery surrounding his annual retreat spurred Sullivan to educate himself well beyond mere horse racing; "he tracked the animal's evolution in history and art, from the ponies that appeared on the walls of European caves thirty thousand years ago, to the mounts that carried the Indo-European language to the edges of the Old World, to the finely tuned but fragile yearlings that are auctioned off for millions of dollars apiece every spring and fall."

"It's a horse race" is a phrase that's often used to describe the art of politics and the idioms run deep - "jockeying for position," "neck and neck at the polls," "a one-horse race," "she fell at the first fence" - I'm certain you can come up with your own. 

For the horse racing ignoramus (me,) Sullivan's book unfolds in a magical way and to use the cliché, it's a page-turner. But it was a footnote that caught my eye and got me thinking about the link between Kentucky, its ever-present Bluegrass, the derby and our recent political climate. Here it is:

It was Hegel who noticed that when people accept something as true, the thing often functions in the world precisely as a fact would, and eventually - as the world weaves itself around assumption - it becomes indistinguishable from fact. Racing is full of tacitly agreed-upon fancies. The English horse writer Arthur Vernon said of the Kentucky derby that it is "extraordinary chiefly because there is nothing sufficiently extraordinary to have raised it to the importance that it has since held." Just so. It became important because people wanted to win it; now people want to win it because it is important.

Which brings me to the Tea Party and the radical Right. To set the record straight I always voted Labour when I lived in England and Democrat since moving here 22 years ago. In those 22 years my immersion into North American politics has been one of fascination but I won't get into that here as I would have to go deep and it would become off-topic. What I am writing about here is how the Tea Party, and certain members of the Republican party, have cast aside sensible political discourse in favor of making untruths into facts and how that has ramifications for the country.

Sullivan's footnote re Hegel focussed me on how, since at least the Clinton presidency, the Right has moved its opposition to one beyond politics and toward delegitimizing Democratic presidents. As Paul Krugman puts it:

First of all, the modern G.O.P. fundamentally does not accept the legitimacy of a Democratic presidency — any Democratic presidency. We saw that under Bill Clinton, and we saw it again as soon as Mr. Obama took office.
As a result, Republicans are automatically against anything the president wants, even if they have supported similar proposals in the past. Mitt Romney’s health care plan became a tyrannical assault on American freedom when put in place by that man in the White House. And the same logic applies to the proposed debt deals.

This a great example of Hegel's insistence that when people believe something to be true, the thing functions in the world precisely as a fact; Obama created improvements to the national healthcare system that were identical to the system that Gov. Mitt Romney put in place in Massachusetts. Romney's plan was hailed by those on the Right as a success, but when Obama does the same thing on a grand scale he's tarred and feathered as a Socialist! 

The untruth here is that Obama's plan is not the same as Romney's so that has become fact in certain circles. 

Here's Krugman again:

Beyond that, voodoo economics has taken over the G.O.P.

Supply-side voodoo — which claims that tax cuts pay for themselves and/or that any rise in taxes would lead to economic collapse — has been a powerful force within the G.O.P. ever since Ronald Reagan embraced the concept of the Laffer curve. But the voodoo used to be contained. Reagan himself enacted significant tax increases, offsetting to a considerable extent his initial cuts.

And even the administration of former President George W. Bush refrained from making extravagant claims about tax-cut magic, at least in part for fear that making such claims would raise questions about the administration’s seriousness.

Recently, however, all restraint has vanished — indeed, it has been driven out of the party. Last year Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, asserted that the Bush tax cuts actually increased revenue — a claim completely at odds with the evidence — and also declared that this was “the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.” And it’s true: even Mr. Romney, widely regarded as the most sensible of the contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination, has endorsed the view that tax cuts can actually reduce the deficit.

Regardless of which side of the fence you are on politically one must understand that this lack of serious political debate will end in even more ruinous unemployment, poverty and a further lengthy period of a weakened economy in this country.

I'll end with this footnote regarding another thorny issue - regulating Wall St. I could never have imagined that there would be an open philosophical debate around Hegel's views on how markets function - "the primary topic of his practical philosophy was analyzing the exact point where modern individualism and the essential institutions of modern life meet..." vis-à-vis the Wall St. crash.

Hegel, of course, never directly wrote about Wall Street, but he was philosophically invested in the logic of market relations. Near the middle of the “Phenomenology of Spirit” (1807), he presents an argument that says, in effect: if Wall Street brokers and bankers understood themselves and their institutional world aright, they would not only accede to firm regulatory controls to govern their actions, but would enthusiastically welcome regulation. Hegel’s emphatic but paradoxical way of stating this is to say that if the free market individualist acts “in [his] own self-interest, [he] simply does not know what [he] is doing, and if [he] affirms that all men act in their own self-interest, [he] merely asserts that all men are not really aware of what acting really amounts to.” For Hegel, the idea of unconditioned rational self-interest — of, say, acting solely on the motive of making a maximal profit — simply mistakes what human action is or could be, and is thus rationally unintelligible. Self-interested action, in the sense it used by contemporary brokers and bankers, is impossible. If Hegel is right, there may be deeper and more basic reasons for strong market regulation than we have imagined.

Much is at stake. It's time for leaders on both sides of the political spectrum to deliver a strategy that works for the USA and its citizens and not pursue their own personal agendas. That would be seen as leadership.

[Update] By the way, for those of you who may be worrying about the current debt ceiling and also how much debt has been run up, here's an answer - "we’ve only developed large deficits in response to the crisis, which happens to be exactly when we should be running large deficits." - Paul Krugman (See Greek debt vs USA debt)

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