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Return of the Tired Men
Published on Friday, December 1, 2000 in the Guardian of London
Return of the Tired Men:
An Old Guard of Businessmen Will Follow Bush Into Power
by Richard Sennett
 
A lot of tired men are about to creep back into power in America. "President" Bush is a local Texas boy; for the big picture he relies on his father's people, in economics as much as in foreign policy. I met quite a few of these yesterday's men (almost all males) when they were out of office in the 1990s, passing the years of idleness at policy conferences on the virtues of private enterprise. They are an unimpressive lot.

They didn't get the new e-economy, neither how it worked nor what its dangers were. When the rich in America were raking money in and the markets booming, Dad's people continued to harp on the need for tax cuts to stimulate investment. When the treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, began to pay down the national debt (with the help of Dad's one distinguished appointee to office, Alan Greenspan), they cried foul; Democrats are supposed to be reckless spenders.

That businessmen, or business-minded people, are efficient and hard-headed in government is an outdated illusion. Compare Gordon Brown to the Conservative chancellors who came before him. He is infinitely more prudent and cunning - and tight-fisted, doling out goodies on social services only after the money had piled up in the Treasury kitty. You might not like the delay (I don't), but you understand it; a finance minister is meant to keep order rather than, like Norman Lamont, cry "I am in pain!" and reel from every economic blow.

Brown's American counterpart, Robert Rubin, was every bit as prudent and tight-fisted - and as clever. Unlike his Republican predecessors, who frequently lost control of the business cycle while steadily piling up a huge national debt, Rubin had no single economic policy; he had lots of policies, for whatever the moment required. There were several moments in the last administration when the economy faced a downturn; Rubin helped prevent them by adroit fiscal manoeuvring.

Why do conservative businessmen make bad politicians? Why, when they gain power, do they suddenly seem to lose their grasp of reality, clinging to simple nostrums like "Cut taxes!", bewildered by how to spend public money?

I kept going to policy seminars with Republican-era businessmen because they were something of an enigma. Get them talking about how to sell soap or insurance and suddenly the years fell away, they were full of energy and interesting ideas; I've the same sense of energy listening to aged doyens of the CBI in Britain. But speak the words "public" or "social" and the metal shutters of the mind come clattering down, shutters on which the graffiti "free market" and "lower taxes" have been sprayed.

The shuttered mind simply refuses to accept the positive side of the public economy. It cannot, in particular, accept the welfare state as a more efficient way to do the public's business, in medicine, transport, and housing, than ways based on selling soap. In the Reagan-Bush years, whenever these businessmen-politicians were confronted by unpalatable facts, they engaged in denial - or, in one egregious instance, tried to pretty-up unemployment figures by changing how the Department of Labour did its sums.

Blinded by their own belief in the superiority of business, guided by simplistic cliches, public servants drawn from the private realm tend to be bad servants of the public. Yet with a wave of the fairy's electoral wand in Florida, Dad's tired men will become the global economy's new masters. Their reappearance is particularly chilling because global capitalism looks set for another hard landing.

The big boom of the 1990s was largely fuelled by the technological revolution and a worldwide demand for consumer goods. Technology is now in a post-revolutionary phase and consumer demand is no longer pent up. In the States, both inflation and labour costs are rising. The bond markets have become credit averse and the stock markets are down, particularly the new-economy Nasdaq market. It is not a pretty picture, but it needn't spell disaster. The landing needs to be managed. For that, however, you need good managers. And good managers, in office, need to believe in government.

British friends assure me that Thatcherism is dead - though at 10 Downing Street there seem surviving signs of it, if not at No 11. But the fact that the British and American economies have become so interlocked is the real issue. During the big boom, British investment poured into America, as it did from the Netherlands and Germany; conversely, American management flowed into Europe.

The return of these blind, tired men to Washington is therefore no foreign spectacle. As diplomats, they aim to "coddle" Europe less; but in their own country, as businessmen in government, their incompetence will soon enough become our problem.

Richard Sennett is professor of sociology at the London School of Economics

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000

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