|Neuschwanstein from the valley|
Unfortunately, Finland is currently facing some nasty economic choices. Because she is a member of the Euro, she finds herself being put on the hook for the crazy lending practices of the big European banks. In this, she is like Germany which is also being told it must lower its living standards to pay for problems in other parts of the Euro zone. The Real Finns, the party that has come out of nowhere because it will address this issue, are like the kid who must point out that emperor has no clothes because all the respectable folks are too busy admiring the wardrobe that doesn't exist. My guest, who once was a Marxist and knows Marxist scholarship in minutest detail, has become a thoroughgoing neoliberal because it is the respectable thing to be. So he is quite horrified that the Real Finns may be right. And of course, the Real Finns are right about the threat of being forced to pay debts they never incurred—no matter how goofy they may be on other matters.
And so a guy who is so curious he will takes classes just to go to an opera finds himself with a death-of-God crises (again) because he is discovering that neoliberalism is at least as full of shit as Marxism ever was and he has been drinking the Kool-Aid again. A man in his position cannot join the Real Finns, but between Marxism and neoliberalism, he doesn't have the conceptual tools to figure out how to even explain what is happening as economics threatens to sink the European dream.
For example, he seemed to believe that the Finnish Central Bank had been part of the government because it exercised government-like power. Since central banks tend to have very similar organizations and missions, I found this highly unlikely but because I didn't actually know the facts, I acted as if it was possible until I could check it out. So I Googled it and discovered Finland's Central Bank had been formed in 1812, which meant it predated the existence of the Finland, the country, by 105 years. Pretty hard to be a part of a government in a country that doesn't yet exist. And I am certain that the privately-owned Finnish Central Bank has paid hack intellectuals to write essays praising the bank's political “independence” at regular intervals over the years.
The problem here is pretty basic. If you only understand the press-release version of central banking, you are about 90% blocked from understanding why a central bank has very little interest in the well-being of the general public and a whole lot of interest in the well-being of the banking system. Now it could be argued that without generalized prosperity, the banking system is doomed to fail. (In fact, this is precisely what is happening right now—the failure of borrowers leading to the failure of lenders.) But this little nugget of wisdom is one of those facts the neoliberals buried in their march to meaningless power.
The question here is, "What happens when a country's finest minds have been deliberately misled into believing unbelievable bullshit?" And a related one, "How does someone so smart fall into two ideological dead-ends in one lifetime?" I keep returning to the matter of respectability—by understanding the boundaries of fashionable thought, my guest had managed to obtain one of the cushiest lifestyles I have ever heard of or can imagine. This is one hell of an accomplishment for a poor boy from a small city in central Finland. The downside of this ordinarily virtuous behavior is that he and his colleagues in their ivory towers don't understand an economic catastrophe that is clearly apparent to the peasants who make up the Real Finns Party.
This is not a good thing. After all, our intellectuals are accorded that cushy lifestyle so that they will generate cultural wisdom. When the culture is threatened by economic chaos, the intelligentsia should be more organized and have more and better conceptual tools than a political party of peasants—it's what they are being paid to do, after all.
Veblen, who spent his working life in academe, offered a clue to this seeming “paradox” when he suggested that no group devoted a larger fraction of their incomes in the service of Leisure Class respectability than professors. My guest indicated that Veblen might have been on to something when he told of the five-day drunk his department organized last spring to honor the 18 people who were getting their doctorates. This party was so complex they needed to rehearse (mostly because someone suggested it would be fun if they did old dances like the minuet.) It was dress-up time with sashes and swords and medallions. But five days of organized merriment does not hide the fact that these folks who are glorying in their Leisure Class respectability have through great effort become incapable of understanding an economic threat seen clearly by the folks who have to clean up the mess they left behind.
Veblen had a term for folks whose fancy educations are mostly a pursuit of Leisure Class respectability to the point where a reality like paying for someone else's debts can no longer be really understood. He called it trained incapacity.
On my way to the steam show in Edgar, I stopped in a small town to eat a bratwurst served up by the local Lion's Club at a roadside stand. It was a perfect late-summer day in north-central Wisconsin—warm, sunny, breezy, blue skies, puffy clouds. The brats were even better than the setting suggested. I sat down at a picnic table and discovered I was sitting across from the 76-year-old birthday boy who had been grilling the brats.
What a treat he was! We chatted about the corn crop, commodity prices, the value of agricultural land, the invasion of the Mennonites, and other matters important to his life. I was obviously a city slicker sitting 100 feet from my Lexus but my new buddy didn't seem to hold any of that against me—especially when I decided to take on the persona of that giant of Wisconsin politics—Robert LaFollette. Got to try out many of Fighting Bob's best lines.
I wound up staying about an hour and I had to leave my business card behind. This man proved pretty conclusively to me that a true Producer Class Progressivism would be a real vote-getter even in someplace like rural Catholic conservative Wisconsin. I was still smiling about my brat experience the next morning—it almost made me think a revolution was possible. A least it seemed like a USA version of the Real Finns could become strong enough to have a real impact on the economic direction of the country.
Sounds like fun. At least it would be a lot more fun than trying to attack the Leisure Class stranglehold on “respectable” thought in the corridors of academic and other power. Besides, I am pretty sure I can never compete with a drunken five-day costume party as a certification of my credentials in the economic debates that must surely be held—and soon.