A question for the “realists”:

Published online 11 February 2010.

Why not aim for disaster?

It’s the most “realistic” possibility, after all.

Or, more specifically:

How minimal are your aspirations?

How static is your picture of the future?

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Here’s an example:

Some of that species which we may call “realists” just want the House to pass the Senate bill.  Since it’s not “realistic” (according to this doctrine) to get the Senate to improve its bill, the progressives should compromise, they reason, and get Congress to deliver a less appealing, less useful bill to the public because it’s “better than nothing.”

Never mind that the mandates are unpopular and the public option is popular — they will take a bill with the former but without the latter, regardless of the consequences for Democrats running for office this year.  And certainly never mind the problems with the excise tax and the difficulty of enforcing the insurer regulations.  Thus the disaster predicted by dissenters in light of a “health insurance reform” bill which attempts to make the public scrimp on health care while failing to contain costs.

The “pass the damn bill” people envision that the Dems would be unpopular were they to pass “nothing” (the only alternative option they can see).  Never mind that Massachusetts, a state with 12% Republican registration and already-existing Romneycare, decided against a Democrat who promised to “pass the Senate bill” in a recent special election for Ted Kennedy’s seat.  You’d think that, already knowing something about Romneycare, they’d have elected Coakley and kept the 60-vote majority in Congress if they were at all enthusiastic about its nationwide spread.

Perhaps our next “realistic” expectation, given the passage of the Senate bill, is that the public can vote the Democrats out of office and, come 2013 after the Band-Aid Period when the major provisions become law, the Republicans (who might very well have control of Congress again by that point) can “fix” the bill.  Then this particular group of “realists” can actually achieve the nothing they accuse the non-“realists” of wanting.  In short, disaster.  Or maybe we can expect the bill to be dead, and the issue to disappear.  Again, disaster.

The for-profit insurers, of course, are the main reason why the US is paying more and getting less for health care than practically all other industrialized nations.  In ten years we will all be asking this question: “who could have imagined that placing them under permanent, guaranteed subsidy wouldn’t solve our health care finance problems?”

And then there’s the “realist” show-stopper argument for “pass the damn bill” these “realists” have.  “We’d better take what we can get because Congress won’t revisit health care for another fifteen years.”  As if 2010 were like 1994!  (In fact 2010 is a much more high-pressure situation than 1994.  What this means for this year’s elections is uncertain.)

Of course, there is in fact a “realist” counter-argument to the “pass the damn bill” people, and it goes as follows: “there aren’t enough votes in the House to pass the Senate bill.”  I don’t buy into that premise, either.  People change their minds.  It’s in fact possible that the House could pass the Senate bill.

And, fortunately for the “pass the damn bill” people, there is an anti-“realist” argument in their favor.  See below, between the asterisks.

Look, this is just the problem with “realism” as it applies to the health care reform debate.  You can see the general pattern: the current, corporate-dominated political reality is misconceived as something stable, and so “realistic” political action is predicated upon that assumption of stability.  But reality isn’t stable!


The diaries I’ve been writing since, more or less, my second and third ones here, published at the end of 2006, do not accept any portion of this version of “realism.”  You see, 2010 is not like 1994 in a very important way: the system-as-a-whole is significantly less stable than it was, and is still morphing from more-stable to less-stable forms.

The bailouts, for instance, are an attempt to protect capital (i.e. investible funds, and the property and labor they’re invested in) from its own obsolescence.  Business is “too big to fail,” and so it leans increasingly, from decade to decade, upon the enlistment of government to protect its “right” to profit.  As business increasingly adopts the role of social vampire, the lifeblood is sucked out of the economy, and the average global growth rate declines from decade to decade.

As Harry Shutt described back in 1998, feeding the surplus of capital only causes it to produce more capital, thus compounding the problem of too much capital.  If you have a copy of Harry Shutt’s The Trouble With Capitalism handy, you can turn to p. 111 to see the fundamental analysis:

in terms of the proliferating symptoms of an oversupply of capital and the efforts of the corporate sector (with the full support of governments) to take remedial action.  In the light of the discussion in the last chapter it is clear that such action is needed, from the perspective of capitalists, to avert an effective devaluation of capital within the market economy.  This task is, of course, a twofold one in that it requires

  • the identification of profitable new outlets for investment to absorb the growing supply of capital, and
  • the maintenance of an acceptable rate of return on the stock of capital already invested as well as on new investments.

It will be readily apparent that, as long as the growth in real demand for investment capital is tending to weaken while the rate of return sought by investors remains high, the fulfilment of these mutually interdependent objectives is bound to prove ultimately self-defeating.  This is because the inevitable consequence of maintaining a high return on the capital stock as a whole is that yet more investible funds will be generated for which outlets must be found. (111)

Thus capital plays the role of the broomstick in the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice:

Just as the broomstick accumulates water, so also capital accumulates profits.  And Congress, for its part, is composed of a bunch of Sorcerer’s Apprentices, trying to “solve the problem” of capital (in this case through “health insurance reform”) by placating its demands, while in fact just compounding the problem of too much capital.  In reality, moreover, there is no Sorcerer to save the Sorcerer’s Apprentices in Congress, like there was in the movie “Fantasia.”  The brooms will keep multiplying, the water level will keep rising, and corporate domination will continue to strengthen itself ad infinitum unless it is stopped.  Ask anyone who’s paying a premium.

Harry Shutt’s concise description of what is going on with the economy has been true for thirty years now.  As capital gets ever-bigger, its profit motives become ever more malignant.  To expect this trend to continue, and thus the economy to worsen as the states to move further into bankruptcy, is the “realistic” thing to do.  As capital becomes more and more malignant, there will be less and less for anyone who is not in the owning class.  At what point, then, do we attempt a wholesale change of our reality, so that it no longer conforms to “realism”?

We can see from the various sell-outs in the history of “health insurance reform,” then, that we are being set up for neoliberal reform, reform which accommodates the dominant forces of capital.  This fits the economic history of the past thirty years, of which Harry Shutt is merely a concise expositor.  Ultimately we will have to insure that such reform is not our only option.


So the above is my perspective on “health insurance reform.”  I’m not really against the “pass the damn bill now” thing so much as I’m against the philosophy of “realism” which underpins so much of its argument.  Go ahead, “pass the damn bill now” — just stop telling us that this was the “realistic” thing to do.  The current political, economic, social reality is not really all that stable.  Everything will be revisited.  Perhaps if the Senate bill is passed it will be fixed later — that would be a valid, if not necessarily important, argument for urging the House to pass the Senate bill.  Do keep in mind, though, that reality is in part what you try to make of it, and that if you set your sights super-low, then reality will doubtless oblige.


The point at which I see the real disaster for “realism” as a philosophy is at that point when the “realists” apply their realism to the problem of abrupt climate change.  Let’s go back to Petit et al., from the June 3, 1999 issue of Nature magazine.  Here is the critical graph:

Now, the lines on the graph represent average temperatures and average CO2 levels for the past 420,000 years.  Please note that the average temperature we confront today corresponds to a global atmospheric carbon dioxide level of 290 or 300 parts per million.  We are now at 390 parts per million, and increasing 2 parts per million per year.  If the scale (and Arrhenius’ century-old calculations of the measurable relation between CO2 level and average temperature) are correct, we can imagine a five to six degree (Celsius) increase in average global temperature from carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.

The scientists who understand global climate think this would be catastrophic.  Take a look at the distillation of their research in Mark Lynas’ book “Six Degrees,” in which five to six degrees is equated with the collapse of global civilization.  This, then, is why James Hansen is calling for a retreat to 350 parts per million.  It’s also why Joseph Romm, two years ago, suggested that the IPCC was lowballing climate change because it was based on “scientific consensus,” whereas reality is based upon a determination of the facts of the matter.

Now the “realists” can be expected to push everyone to ask Congress to sign some sort of loophole-ridden bill.  It will be based upon proven-ineffective “cap-and-trade” schemes, and subsidies to “clean coal” and other projects of the future.  It will not achieve James Hansen’s notion of a global retreat on carbon dioxide levels.  If it is all that is passed, our luck will at some point run out.

In contrast to the “realists,” we need to organize for something which will actually deal with the climate change problem, as with the health care problem, and we need to devise a strategy (probably involving several steps) to get what we want.  Because, in contrast to the “realist” version of reality, the future is likely to be quite scary,


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