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October 09, 2014

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Luis Enrique

In a mixed economy, we are always going to have governments buying things from private sector suppliers, and in the presence of externalities etc. and other social welfare objectives that are not internalized by the profit motive, we should expect to see some subsidies here and there too.

what is the defining characteristic of "corporate welfare" as opposed to the above?

is Owen any better on this than the deeply muddled Chakraborty?

From Arse To Elbow

Re the media, there isn't a contradiction here. As you have noted (the hyperreality of "the economy"), the aim is to control the language, not to make it coherent or internally consistent. Doublethink (deficit bad, NHS spending good) isn't evidence of brainwashing but of ambient noise that blots out independent thought.

Similarly, the history of the rise of neoliberal think-tanks is best thought of not as an attempt to win an argument but merely as an ongoing strategy of drowning out the opposition. It's about market-share: outspend the other lot and fill the media space with pabulum.

With time, this strategy even folds back in on itself, hence the vogue for evidence-based policy-making a few years ago (why didn't we think of that before?), and the wall-to-wall bewailing that "no one has any better ideas" after 2008/9.

Blissex

«Thirdly, how do we achieve meaningful social change? It took free market think tanks decades to acquire influence: the Mont Pelerin Society was formed in 1947, 40 years before the UK began privatization. This suggests that social change is a long game.»

I have been reading a book titled "Events, dear boy, events" which is a very revealing and sometimes funny collection of quotes from diaries since 1920 and one of the funny aspects is that a lot of ideas and concerns that sound recent have been around a long time (e.g. Hugh Dalton wanted to abolish Clause 4).

I have found another one on my usual topic that house (as well as car and share) ownership turns working class people into petty tories:

http://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2014/03/how-thatcher-sold-council-houses-and-created-a-new-generation-of-property-owners.html
«There were even prophetic council house sales by local Tories in the drive to create voters with a Conservative political mentality. As a Tory councillor in Leeds defiantly told Labour opponents in 1926, ‘it is a good thing for people to buy their own houses. They turn Tory directly. We shall go on making Tories and you will be wiped out.’»

While the study that formalized the notion is from the later 1970s, the houses-for-votes story is much older as the quote shows.

What happens is that there are all sorts of ideas going round and round sometimes for a long time, and eventually some break through when they are in the interests of some powerful political faction that sponsors them.

Blissex

«the rise of neoliberal think-tanks is best thought of not as an attempt to win an argument but merely as an ongoing strategy of drowning out the opposition. It's about market-share: outspend the other lot and fill the media space with pabulum.»

It is a bit like that but not just.

I think that the core idea is that there are well documented cognitive biases, often mentioned by our blogger, one of which is that many people take how frequently something comes to their attention as a proxy for its truth or importance. That is repetition engenders credence. Right-wing think-tanks and their well compensated heralds generate a lot of repetition of the ideas dear to their sponsors.

There is another role for think-tanks: it used to be that the ideological role of supporting incumbency was performed by priests and in general the churches, as most obviously exemplified in the verses:

«The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.»

Now that function of preaching the holiness of incumbency is done by neoclassical Economists and the right-wing think-tanks whose innumerable pamphlets amount to the verses above with "God" replaced by "The Market".

Right-wing think-tanks and their Economists are today's equivalent of the theological colleges of yesteryear, producing streams of "on message" preachers.

Just as for over a thousand years big landlords funded "on message" preachers in parishes and elsewhere with "livings" and other beneficies, which were in their gifts, now they "endow" thinks tanks and foundations. Today's think-tank "fellows" are the contemporary equivalent of yesterday's vicars/abbots. Both of them enjoy plush sinecures as long as they preach the right message.

On the switch from God to The Market as to "made them high and lowly And ordered their estate" this is the classic:

www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/03/the-market-as-god/306397/

but also:

www.psupress.org/books/titles/0-271-02095-4.html
www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/18/brain-food-markets-politics-religion
www.thebaffler.com/salvos/the-god-that-sucked

Blissex

«that function of preaching the holiness of incumbency is done by neoclassical Economists and the right-wing think-tanks»

BTW, while good old Keynes argued that even practical business men often just repeat the theories of long defunct economists, I often add something that I think more important: that most political economy theories are based on the preachings of long dead theologians (a similar argument appears here in there in the pages linked in my previous comment).

Blissex

«Bosses' claim that they deserve huge salaries because of their managerial talent is mostly plain wrong.»

A lot of these claims seem to me to be just figleaves, used as cover rather than justification for certain actions ("ideology"); their truth is not that relevant as long as claims as to their untruth are disputable, or those who claim their untruth are disposed of in one way or another.

They become accepted truthinesses rather than truths, if only to avoid retribution.

Consider for example the doctrine of the divine right of kings, a previous variant of that of the talents right of managers.

Questioning either in their respective time periods was and is a career-limiting move. Sure, some kings and some courtiers, and some managers and their celebrants, had or have a genuine belief in their right to their outsize rewards granted by God or their talents, but the vast majority were just playing along.

Charlie Chalk

As if Jones wasn't bad enough, I see Russell Brand himself has written a
book, "Revolution":

"In this book, Russell Brand hilariously lacerates the straw men and paper tigers of our conformist times and presents, with the help of experts as diverse as Thomas Piketty and George Orwell, a vision for a fairer, sexier society that's fun and inclusive."

And you guy make fun of the right? Leftism just jumped the shark, time to move on.

FromArseToElbow

Bliisex makes a good point that "Today's think-tank 'fellows' are the contemporary equivalent of yesterday's vicars/abbots. Both of them enjoy plush sinecures as long as they preach the right message".

But this obscures an important point, which is that yesterday's chief ideologists weren't vicars and abbots but divines. In other words, the key ideological continuity isn't between theological collegs and think-tanks but rather between academe and academe.

Think tanks proselytise, but they rarely produce original thinking. They are marketeers, not market-makers. The success of the right in the latter part of the 20th century owed a lot to the desertion of the social space by the academic left after 1968 (post-structuralists were just the fall-guys for this cop-out).

chris

@ Luis. Of course, govts will always need to buy stuff from cos. The point is that, in doing so, they often pay over the odds for poor quality - eg PFI, military equipment and many cases of outsourcing:
http://falseeconomy.org.uk/outsourcing
These are subsidies to capitalism.

AllanW

Hopefully any linking of the names Orwell and Owen Jones will disappear as quickly as it raised its noxious head ...

Orwell got the three major issues facing him in his lifetime right; Empire, fascism and state communism. He diagnosed them accurately and in detail before displaying them in the clearest possible terms for everyone to examine. Jones has failed so far to do any of that.

As you have shown (and others have been able to do as well), Jones's own partisan blinkers prevent him from gathering the information cleanly which is the first step towards any possible diagnosis. For this reason as well as his superficial writing style he remains an inconsequential hack.

Trofim

Surely Owen Jones is part of the Establishment? I see his name everywhere. His opinion is highly valued by media outlets. It's not as though he's an outsider - the outsiders are the hated UKIP and the Daily Mail.

Luis Enrique

Chris,

right! so you cannot just observe money spent by government with private suppliers and pronounce "corporate welfare!" and even if you can identify excess profits and shoddy goods, you have a problem because excess profits and shoddy goods exist sometimes when capitalist trade with each other, excess costs and shoddy goods sometimes exist when the public sector trades with itself.

of course I see that corporations are capable of fleecing the public sector, I'd just like to see a little more thought from the likes of Chakraborty about what delineates reasonable from unreasonable transactions, and a bit more about why that might be.

Brian Stobie

"First, how much power do the media have? Owen invites us to believe: a lot. But he also notes that threre's huge support for public ownership, suggesting the media's control isn't that great. So which is it?"

Living in Scotland, we have recently lived through an excellent example of the power of the media to shape opinion and control dialogue through bias, editing to produce omission of not only information but alternative arguments, and downright lies.
Much of their power is in the creation or rather sustaining of an Overton Window that is defined by the Elites. A democracy cannot function correctly when (in the case of the recent referendum) the views of roughly half of the voting population are suppressed by the main-stream media and the views of the other half are promulgated as obvious fact, as most people don't have the time, or more likely the inclination, to investigate political thought and the deep mysteries of economic matters themselves. Many must depend on the data presented to them by trusted media such as the BBC.

So, your punter can see the results himself of private-sector greed in the railways manifesting as the highest train fares in Europe, crappy rolling stock and general under-investment.
However, his data sources inform him There Is No Alternative to the free-market Nirvana that exists, particularly the absurd and dated concept of nationalisation - didn't we get rid of that long ago because it didn't work? Why, even the 'Labour Party' has abandoned such fantasies.

So, the mainstream media can't stop people thinking about obvious problems in their lives, but it can prevent or at least obstruct the public discussion of unbiased solutions to those problems. Works pretty well.

Deviation From The Mean

Thanks for articulating what was in my head.

"The point is that, in doing so, they often pay over the odds for poor quality - eg PFI, military equipment and many cases of outsourcing:"

I have had some experience of working in engineering firms and when they got MOD contracts the champagne bottles opened. Everything sold for double what they did previously!

re Owen Jones - isn't he just a reflection of the Oxbridge bias? Would he even be on TV otherwise?

Icarus Green

Owen Jones book gets to the heart of the matter. While we can talk about hyperreality in the sociological sense as it was first presented by Baudrillard (and thats a very interesting discussion), I think the more pertinent sense of it would be in the Marxist sense of it being used as a tool of exerting class power.

'Controlling the frame' is an essential part of the establishment's toolkit. Whether its dictating who our enemies are or domestically dictating what the central economic issues are. Propagandists like Edward Bernays have always known this. You use the quite academic term of the 'Overton Window' to convey this. I've always noticed the same thing but in less academic terms. The invention of artificial scarcity is a great example. That we "have no money" for healthcare, or social security, or education or infrastructure but all the money in the world for arms spending and private procurement contracts and industrial agriculture and tax breaks for (foreign) companies and the like must strike some people that keep up to date on these issues as profoundly odd.

The contributions of blissex above and of course, Chris to this are quite profound.

The conservative criticisms of Jones book will always be the same - attack his methodology (when actually gathering information about the elite is by its nature very hard), attack his motivations (being of the left disqualifies you from discussing political power obviously, because the right's criticisms of incumbent power are uh, where are they again?!) and ultimately ad hominem attacks, which rather unsurprisingly, the private schoolboy media and conservative priest network/thinktanks always resort to when the argument is getting out of control.

Its quite comical really. As you point out Chris, the media has spent the past 5 years banging on about the deficit and attacking barely existent 'welfare fraud' while actual government policy has been about cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations - which surprise, surprise - never get mentioned as contributing to the sacred deficit. Even putting aside the issue of whether the deficit is even a precondition to cutting unemployment and improving people's incomes.

Finally a book from Thomas Piketty comes out, and with almost no marketing and mass media endorsement challenges the narrative that the central economic issue of our times is not the bloody deficit, or making it easier to fire people, or cutting taxes on 'job creators' but actually inequality... cue the collective explosion of conservative heads.

A thousand conservative thinktanks publishing a million conservative love letters to the 1% get smashed by 1 book.

This gives me hope that good arguments can defeat multi-branding strategies from the right and ultimately the quality and inherent truth of left wing critiques of the establishment will shatter the simulations and smoke and mirrors of the right and reveal them for what they are: Fawning justifications for the interests of a very small group of self centered solopsists so that the people making them can get some scraps from the table.

Andy

I love this blog not only because of Chris Dillow but also because of the excellent comments, observations and discussions from the likes of Luis Enrique, FATE, Blissex, Socialism in one Bedroom and others..Do any of you have your own blogs?

George Carty

Don't know about the others, but FATE's blog is at http://fromarsetoelbow.blogspot.com

c1ue

The so called nexus of politicians, business and media is not new.
The primary difference is a combination of degree and (lack of) willingness to consider overall societal problems vs. short term reactionary policies.
The actions of Thatcher and Reagan were catalysts in this regard: in both cases, ostensibly "conservative" politicians used/were used by their bankster patrons to enact finance friendly legislation and to encourage ever increasing financialization of the economy.
While the think tanks were useful tools in this process - ultimately they are symptoms, not causes.

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