Over the years, as I’ve watched the unfolding of the financial crisis and bailouts, followed by the resumed consolidation of the banking industry, a dismal observation has kept recurring to me: that you know a system has become terminally dysfunctional when the only way it can respond to problems is by actually rewarding the elements that caused the problem. Looking out over the American landscape today, this hypothesis seems to show more and more widespread applicability.
“Terminally dysfunctional” is different from just “corrupt”. As long as the people and philosophies primarily responsible for a crisis can be identified and are held accountable afterwards–such as by being fired or put on trial–there is a chance that the system will provide its own remedy to corruption, and emerge stronger, at least for at time. This is the “virtuous cycle”, the ideal of rule of law and democratic accountability. On the other hand, if the guilty parties are known, but actually emerge unscathed and more powerful still, then a vicious cycle has begun that is very hard to break. It’s like paying the fox to guard the henhouse–and then paying him more as more hens disappear. Let’s call them conditions of inverse reform: reform that does the opposite of what it’s needed to do.
The complement of inverse reform, one might add, is perverse neglect, whereby the system marginalizes its most educated, talented and creative members in favor of the well-connected and already established. I’ve lamented this development in prior posts, for instance in the difficulties faced by the wage-earning classes, in the struggles of younger generations to enter the professions without crippling debt, and in the declining fortunes of those getting advanced degrees. It is, I’m certain, a major force driving the extraordinary election of 2016.
But if the financial crisis was a triumph of irrationality in the guise of rationality and respect, and the lack of new careers (other than the part-time Walmart kind) is a sign that cronyism is becoming a stand-in for knowledge, ability and even ambition, it now seems like such ersatz reasonableness has stepped forward in another guise, this time the 2016 political circus, to “save the day”… in the form of Michael Bloomberg, lord of the eponymous media empire.
Yes, in an election that has achieved levels of polarization and demagoguery more redolent of the fevers and apoplexies of early 20th-century Europe than the relatively tepid squabbles of late 20th-century America, the remedy is somehow supposed to be a technocratic Wall-Streeter with several times more money than Donald Trump–about $37 billion to his name.
Incredibly, as popular rage brews over gross economic inequality, stagnation and corruption, the American power system’s reaction appears to be… drumroll please… to have billionaires better represented among the presidential candidates. While I’d never claim Bloomberg was himself directly responsible for the financial crisis or triumphant return of Too Big To Fail, he is clearly a product of the same system that produced them, and as such it would be hard to imagine a clearer demonstration of inverse reform were he to enter the race.
Bloomberg claims not to want to run except as a “last resort”, solely if Sanders and Trump both get their respective nominations. In that event, some strange combination of power-hunger and noblesse oblige would compel him to step forth as the one blessedly cool head in a roomful of seething ideological maniacs. But imagine if he were to jump in anyway against Hillary Clinton, perhaps in a fit of pique over her increasingly bald attempts to co-opt Sanders’ positions! We would then for all intents and pupose have the spectacle of an all-billionaire ticket. Hope and Change would have nothing on this.
Of course, technically Hillary and Bill fall far short of the billionaire club, with a joint net worth estimated at a cozy $50 million. But Hillary’s departure from the Iowa campaign trail at a pivotal moment just before the caucuses–as if summoned back to home base by some hidden homing device–in order to address a select and secretive crowd of hedge-fund investors in Philly is just one more sign that, though technically a non-billionaire, she will be as good as one if not better in office: a high-profile retainer of the plutocracy, kept in high style, leveraging expertise and connections in government in order to win their favor and do their bidding, with a small sop to the 99% every now and then in the name of heading off social uprisings. More of the same, in other words.
I don’t doubt Bloomberg is a smart guy, and he appears to have been a capable mayor and administrator. But it is a grievous mistake to assume that more than a splinter of the voting population in the U.S. today is really looking for just those two things; in fact, those are likely among the last things on their minds. Sure enough, current polls have suggested Bloomberg would have underwhelming support in a third-party run. (The good news for him is that even with a loss, Bloomberg could still afford about 36 more presidential runs, given it takes about $1 billion a pop in our post-Citizens United campaign scene.)
Yet regardless of his sheer intelligence or procedural skill, the fact that Bloomberg can seriously countenance himself as the elixir for the radicalization of 2016, without realizing his own involvement in the very engine of that radicalization, suggests either a willfully skin-deep and paternalistic understanding of the political situation, or an incredibly fanciful self-image–both delusions that are, not incidentally, quite characteristic of systems in the grip of inverse reform.
There is a deep resentment brewing among the non-political classes in this nation, among people generally dismissed by those classes as irrelevant or at best as pawns of public relations and campaigning efforts. Conversely, the complete failure of the American political class and punditry to see this coming suggests they inhabit a reality that is not simply at variance with the real world, but deliberately arranged against it. If the principle of inverse reform holds sway in November, installing a leader even further detached than hitherto from the aspirations and sufferings afoot in this country, then we may face far greater surprises ahead than a reality-star presidential candidate.