Bill Grigsby: Who Owns The Ownership Society?
Who Owns The Ownership Society?
By Bill Grigsby
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt once commented that '' one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it.''
This may be true on an interpersonal level. Institutional bullshit is another matter entirely. What happens when your government becomes a public relations machine for its own political agenda? And while half the journalists point this out in relative non-profit obscurity, the commercial half who might actually reach a mass audience with a story about it seems busy shilling for direct payments, career favors, job security, ego gratification, enlightened self-interest, or some deep-seeded need to believe in an ideology of inequality, privilege and moral superiority.
Welcome to the NeoCon. Before proceeding, you might want to put on hip waders if you have them. But how does one go about bullshitting at the societal level? How to re-package for mass consumption an ideology that historically leads to greater income and wealth disparities, a government that represents monied interests, and in the current variant corporate predation and a trend toward turning public assets and resources into private property, mostly on the backs of the movement’s victims? How much buff does an aspiring middle class need on the supply-side turd to make it look like—from a distance and at the right angle—one of those bisque porcelain, commemorative limited edition collectors’ plaques from the Franklin Mint, Danbury Mint, Bradford Exchange, or the Dollar Store?
Not much, it turns out. In economic and political terms, Americans are a cheap date. A catchy title helps, too. To paraphrase Shakespeare, bullshit by any other name smells the same.
That name is the Ownership Society. The NeoCon battle cry for the 2006 midterm elections. A beacon of hope for our children and grandchildren (insert sappy image here in lieu of policy). A slice of the American Dream Pie for heterosexual families of faith from all of the important electoral demographics (insert feel-good anthem here). Focus groups don’t lie.
You see, anyone can own a home. Your retirement. Your health care account. Kids’ college. Private school vouchers. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for minimum wage, with no benefits, no insurance, no stable housing and an uncertain supply of food. The government wants you to have stuff, like tax-free savings opportunities, some place to put all that disposable income. So start skipping lunches! We can all own lots of stuff and show our gratitude by voting republican.
Wait a second, you wonder. Wages and salaries among the lower and middle classes are increasing at a glacial pace relative to the costs of housing, health care, fuel, national debt, etc. This coincides with a shift in the tax revenue burden toward the working class. Should we worry? Not in the ownership society. Worrying is what liberals do, when they’re not attending Hollywood-bankrolled Che Guevara Lookalike Pageants.
The NeoCon is set up to allow most people to own their own debt and risk. Investors will own the mortgages, the private accounts (the entitlement program formerly known as social security), and the financial industry will work tirelessly to make sure the risks of lending rest squarely on the shoulders of the borrowers who can’t afford lawyers and accountants (Grover Norquist is working on state pension reform for you). Throw in the bottom feeders—the collection agencies, the detritivores (oil and gas companies feeding on dead plant material), and you have a complete ecosystem!
Hold on to your hip waders for a moment. Even if people don’t appreciate the irony of not only voting for politicians who work against their self-interests, but paying for their marketing campaigns as well, you would think the public would demand a few non-scripted answers and a morsel of accountability from elected officials. You would be wrong. Why is a policy that hands over old-growth timber to the forest products industry called ‘healthy forests?’ Why are regulations that hand over air quality to industrial polluters called ‘clear skies?’ Why isn’t an education policy designed to dissemble public education called ‘no private school left behind?’ Why are leases on millions of acres of roadless public forestland being auctioned off at below-market prices to oil and gas speculators? Why are large Christian Churches with TV networks and Lobbying wings receiving multi-million dollar grants to provide public services to groups they’re allowed to discriminate against in hiring?
It’s the ownership society. Just make sure you’re clear about who owns what. And how it’s sold. As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton note in their well-researched book Banana Republicans, the sales strategies are ruthless. While progressives decry the neoconservative movement and declare victory on debate points, neoconservatives draw up battle plans and declare ideological warfare. Demonize the enemy. What sleep they lose isn’t the result of a crisis of conscience—it’s because the work of shooting deserters to the cause (you know . . . cabinet members, national security advisors, former generals, moderate republicans, public servants) requires constant vigilance.
The war metaphor is useful for understanding the NeoCon Propaganda Machine. The BushCo White House has for the moment turned whole sections of government once devoted to public policy debate or formulation, or protection of the public interest, into industry-sponsored centers of Psychological Operations. Psy ops. The NeoCon, while celebrating free market capitalism, is taxpayer-subsidized. Corporate news media have an important role to play, of course. After all, they have CEOs and advertisers to please, arrangements with ‘content providers’ to furnish pre-packaged ‘news,’ and shareholders to massage. That leaves little time to investigate widespread election fraud and voter intimidation, state-sponsored torture (with the blessing of the attorney general), the non-Pentagon body counts from an illegitimate war, and—back to the ownership society—the privatization of vote counting and democracy, at least at the national level.
The permanence of the NeoCon could depend on the success of the ownership society campaign in reducing the size of non-military public spending, drowning government in the bathtub as NeoCon Field Marshall Grover Norquist freely admits, and crippling its ability to reverse course.
They’re off to a good start. Georges Clemenceau once said ‘war is a series of catastrophes that ends in victory.’ Or, war could be a series of victories that ends in catastrophe. Let’s apply the White House logic to a typical neighborhood. Imagine collecting money from every family in the neighborhood, giving the wealthiest households back 75% of their contributions, financing a huge recall campaign of the high school principal in another state, and investing what’s left in an abstinence-only sex education program. When the money runs out, you borrow. Borrowing is good because otherwise teachers might hoard the money and use it to develop an evolution curriculum. After several balance transfers and campaign donations, your credit ceiling is raised to $100,000. You buy $10,000 worth of lottery tickets on credit and win $1,000, and instead of making an extra debt payment, decide to put it down on an inboard jet boat with nitroburners, and a Humvee II to haul it around. There’s no lake for the boat, so you dig a deep trench where the streets used to be and fill it with sewer water. Your neighbors are displeased with the arrangements, and you respond by putting up a large American flag in your front yard and threatening to bomb your creditors’ business establishments for oppressing their account holders. You offer to reduce neighbors’ monthly payments to you if they’ll set up private accounts in your own bank. When one of the neighbors complains publicly, you threaten to accuse him of pedophilia, and you have hard evidence, ready to leak: a picture of him once holding a child’s hand while crossing the street. You also give a list of the dissenters to the local minister, recent recipient of a $50,000 contribution—courtesy of your neighbors’ generosity—to open a creation science camp for the neighbor kids. He sends his congregation to pray for the sinners in front of their houses. Four of them fall in the open sewer and contract typhoid, but recent ‘lawsuit abuse’ legislation protects you and your contractor from any legal liability.
You can see that the psychological operations required to keep this system running smoothly and the neighbors in line will eventually consume large chunks of resources. Few people notice, though, and the ones that do are easily dismissed as conspiracy kooks and partisan demagogues, the more persistent labeled ‘enemies to the neighborhood’ and kicked out of the Homeowners’ Association. To avoid higher payments, your family members will have to show more ‘spending discipline’ or the abstinence-only program might not reach its goal of curbing the scourge of illegitimacy that plagues the community and causes poverty and bloated, wasteful welfare programs upon which suckle the lazy and unmotivated masses.
Hopefully you see how the ownership society works. If you’re still having difficulty, you might want to check out the NeoCon Owners’ Manual, graciously provided by the NeoCon Psy op director Frank Luntz. Sure, there are a few holes to plug, like bankruptcy law, but the financial industry has its top men working on that one, and the PR and lobbying industries are handling the malpractice problem.
A clever slogan, a crooked policy, sold as a boon to the masses, who are financing the whole campaign. If the NeoCon were the greatest thing since indoor plumbing, why the need for the PR industry to sell it? Of course, the stakes are so high, they’d likely provide their services for free.
Welcome to the ownership society. Hip waders not included.