Independence Day Thoughts: From Richard Rorty to Andy Grove

I was just reading Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope, which is by turns entertaining, enlightening, and frustrating. But I thought these words were spot on for today:

Many of us, despite the outrage we may feel about governmental cowardice or corruption, and despite our despair about what is being done to the weakest and poorest among us, still identify with our country. We take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self-reforming, enduring constitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having glorious—if tarnished—national traditions. . . . Like every country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself—unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it. Such pride . . . often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation’s professed ideals. (253)

The book also has a nice little essay on Love and Money, which reflects on the work of Forster to talk about the material foundations of noble action. Readers of Forster’s Howard’s End know full well the value of an independent income, and the disaster that can set in when work is taken away. Rorty worries that such disaster will not merely affect the unemployed, but society generally. In the fantastical essay Looking Backwards from the Year 2096 (written in 1996), Rorty darkly “predicts” a social collapse in 2014, as a well-armed populace refuses to accept the austerity measures planned by elites.

Though that last vision may seem like the paranoid ravings of a pomo professor, Yale School of Management senior faculty fellow Bruce Judson’s book, It Could Happen Here, suggests similar possibilities. Famous economists and historians have also taken to playing the “disaster” card, as Paul Krugman claims a “Third Great Depression” is in the offing, and Niall Ferguson predicts an inflationary spiral if policymakers follow Krugman’s advice. Apocalypse chic may break through the clutter of a saturated media, but ultimately threatens the credibility of anyone who cries wolf twice.

What is clear this July 4th is that, in too many ways, the U.S. is a dependent nation—dependent on imported goods, foreign oil, and capital flows unguided by any semblance of morality, efficiency, or long-term thinking. In dealing with such massive problems, Rorty suggests that “the only thing we know of which might help are top-down techno-bureaucratic initiatives” (227). For exhibit A in that category, take a look at former Intel chairman Andy Grove’s article How America Can Create Jobs, in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek. A taste:

You could say, as many do, that shipping jobs overseas is no big deal because the high-value work—and much of the profits—remain in the U.S. That may well be so. But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work—and masses of unemployed? . . . .

The first task is to rebuild our industrial commons. We should develop a system of financial incentives: Levy an extra tax on the product of offshored labor. (If the result is a trade war, treat it like other wars—fight to win.) Keep that money separate. Deposit it in the coffers of what we might call the Scaling Bank of the U.S. and make these sums available to companies that will scale their American operations. Such a system would be a daily reminder that while pursuing our company goals, all of us in business have a responsibility to maintain the industrial base on which we depend and the society whose adaptability—and stability—we may have taken for granted. . . .

Most Americans probably aren’t aware that there was a time in this country when tanks and cavalry were massed on Pennsylvania Avenue to chase away the unemployed. It was 1932; thousands of jobless veterans were demonstrating outside the White House. Soldiers with fixed bayonets and live ammunition moved in on them, and herded them away from the White House. In America! Unemployment is corrosive. If what I’m suggesting sounds protectionist, so be it.

There may be howls of protest from even progressive economists at these ideas; as Robert Kuttner noted in 1996, even Paul “Krugman is contemptuous of advocates of industrial policy and ‘strategic trade.'” But that’s only because, as Grove puts it, “we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism . . . that the free market is the best of all economic systems.” We can celebrate a 21st century independence if we move to a sustainable economy that reduces our oil imports, closes the trade gap, and provides jobs and security for all Americans.

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