I have been resisting the temptation to write more about the debt ceiling debate as a discrete event, in part because it has been covered well by a lot of people, and in part because I think the debate was only the most recent (and most extreme) evidence of a larger pattern that can be obscured by focusing too closely on any one event. Obama et al. are clearly central to our current impasse, but in the longer view their most important role may turn out to have been to crystallize a set of changes that have been taking place for some time.
The metaphor of decoupling is as good a point of entry as any in attempting to put those changes into at least a loose framework. The concept of decoupling has been floating around over the past few years, in contexts ranging from stock market correlations to the relationship between GDP and income. I think it applies in a much broader socio-political-economic sense, and goes pretty far toward articulating the multiple levels of dislocation that tend to be treated separately.
I define decoupling here in four senses, more for the sake of clarity than completeness.
The first is the most obvious, in the sense of the separation of a subset of society. This is what I was referring to in my earlier post with this chart:
The emergence of this new class is both related to work (generally in finance) and completely alien to the experience of work for 99.95% of the population. Its members seem to have resolved this paradox by interpreting it as a sign of their own distinctive virtue, as documented by Chrystia Freeland’s article on The Rise of the New Global Elite, and as can be seen amidst the shouting on CNBC.
The second is the decoupling of power and wealth from accountability, or of risk from reward. The most obvious example here is the financial sector, which created much of the extreme increase in wealth concentration evidenced in the chart above. As has been documented at great length, the same people who collapsed the world economy have been the greatest beneficiaries of both the run-up and the aftermath, while completely avoiding any accountability for rampant fraud and mismanagement. The same can be said of the current administration’s refusal to prosecute anyone from the prior administration for what were clear crimes in the lead-up and execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The third sense of decoupling incorporates the prior two. The concept of decoupling in new institutional organizational theory examines the gaps that arise between an organization’s institutionally defined rules and its actual internal practices.* More plainly, it looks at the fact that organizations can function internally in ways that conflict with what they present to the outside world. I apply that concept more broadly here to entire institutions (Congress, the press, etc.) as the decoupling (often hidden) of system behavior and objectives from the externally sanctioned rules that give them their power in the first place. The Perrow quote from this earlier post relates directly to this idea.
By this definition, calling the events of the past few weeks a failure of the political system risks missing the point entirely — it is at least as likely that the system itself is working quite well, and that what has failed is our ability to see that its underlying mechanisms have changed, or worse still were never what we imagined them to be.
The fourth and final sense is the decoupling of meaning, and incorporates all of the prior three through the interaction of the mediating role of a profit-motivated press, radically conflicting information from different segments of the political system, and the insistence of voters on maintaining their internal models in spite of clear conflicting evidence. I still have some work to do in articulating this idea, but for the moment it’s the closest I can get to explaining the simultaneous existence of:
- A Democratic president whose insistence on cutting New Deal programs puts him to the right of the majority of voters, while being portrayed in the press (and thus understood by many voters) as “compromising”
- The radical nihilism of the Tea Party’s willingness to default, contrasted with their common description in the press as being fiscally conservative
- The complete absence of Democratic opposition, contrasted with the insistent repetition in the press of the “both sides refuse to compromise” narrative (in spite of the Obama-as-compromiser narrative)
It strikes me that the outrage and disorientation many are feeling are a response to the interactions of all four types of decoupling. Those of us who are the most frustrated may well be those who have been rendered extraneous to the ongoing functioning of the political and economic systems as currently defined, and who are having difficulty reconciling that reality to the myths (of participation, of the link between work and reward, of the nature of the social contract, among others) that we have taken for granted.
At its extreme, this form of decoupling leads to a collapse in the shared meaning of what it is to be part of a society. The near-term result is cynicism and looting by those in power, while the longer-term result appears to be Tottenham (or Tel Aviv, or Athens, or Madrid). We seem to be somewhere between the two extremes. For the moment.
More to come as I think this through.