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Things never get better by getting worse

Matthew Yglesias has an important piece in the Washington Post that explains why politics are so horrible right now. He answers why people are so fearful and angry:

This hostility is not about the midterms; it is a consequence of the economic downturn, every bit as much as foreclosures and layoffs. When personal incomes stop growing, people become less broad-minded, and suspicion of foreigners and other ethnic groups grows. We have seen this time and again, in this country and in others.

Fear, in essence, begets fear. The loss of a job, or the worry that one might be lost, raises anxiety. This often plays out as increased suspicion of people who look different or come from different places. While times of robust growth and shared prosperity inspire feelings of interconnectedness and mutual gain, in times of worry, the picture quickly reverses. Views of the world turn zero-sum: If he wins, what do I lose? Any kind of change looks like decline — the end of a “way of life.”

And here’s his prescription:

The lesson is simple: The current controversies are ultimately byproducts of our economic morass. To really dispel the atmosphere of suspicion, what’s needed are ideas about how to boost the economy to bring unemployment down and earnings up. Finding policies that do all this will not be easy, but it is the only way to turn the national mood around.

Yglesias focuses on the xenophobia that’s been on display this year, but you can see exactly the same pattern when it comes to environmental policy. People are unwilling to confront or even acknowledge the long term consequences of global warming when they face potential deprivation in the short term.

This has been the great lesson of my adult life. Things never have to get worse before they can get better. Disasters can sometimes bring out the best in people for short periods of time, but sustained hardship always pushes people down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

5 Comments

  1. Yglesias is insightful, but has no sense of history. (I have said this to him and can therefore say it to you.) Accordingly, what he writes tends to have grains of truth but to be fundamentally misconceived.

    The problems that he identifies are not the real problem. His superficial problems cannot and will not be addressed, because some segments of society are benefiting from them. That’s one step closer to the real problem.

    The “benefit” is more emotional than material — there’s one of his grains of truth, stood on its head, and it finally leads us to the real problem: no one is today motivated by gain, but only by sadism.

  2. “sustained hardship always pushes people down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

    Very, very, well put.

    If I consider it a bit – I think I’ve experienced this concretely in my own story.

  3. Changing the 14th amendment has to be one of the dumbest political plays I’ve heard in my lifetime.

    I think the lesson in this is that if you take from one group to give to another group, people get mad. Duh.

  4. That’s kind of a simple formula, though, isn’t it? Pretty much every aspect of government is about taking from one group and giving to another group, hopefully with the goal of increasing shared prosperity and success. I mean, public schools are the biggest program of redistribution in the country. They take money from the childless and use it to educate children. Rich people could certainly afford to educate their kids in the absence of public education, but poor people could not. Public education is an attempt to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be educated, and that goal is achieved by taxing people.

    I realize some people hate public education, but I can’t think of too any government programs that have done more to promote the general welfare than offering an education to everyone.

    The list, of course, goes on.

  5. Of course it’s simplistic. Perhaps I should have narrowed it down to taking from the responsible and giving it to the irresponsible. I would also argue that the more specific the taking and the more specific the giving, the more angry folks get. We both know some groups are benefiting more from the current Administration than others. Would you think this would make folks happy? I guess if you are in the group getting bailed out it would.

    Re: Education, I don’t really see folks getting mad at the idea of public education, though plenty of folks (on all sides) get spit fire mad at the implementation. It’s easy to agree that every child should have a quality education, it’s not so easy to have everyone agree on how that should be delivered or how much resources should be spent trying to accomplish that goal.

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