Want to Stop the Protests? Restore the American Dream

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Or, Tired Old Narrative(s) is Fueling the Protests: Change It!

From Pietsch (2020): On Saturday night, a caravan of supporters … traveled through Portland, Ore., and clashed with counterprotesters. A man was shot and killed during the unrest. Image Credit: Mason Trinca for The New York Times

Seeing images of protests, and reading about evidence of provoked violence between people on the extreme Left and people on the extreme Right, and listening to the vitriolic discourse between Democratic Governor(s) and Mayors on the Left and a sitting Republican President on the Right, reminded me of the story told by Lakey (2017), and, also by Wise (2015). Focusing first on Lakey (2017), I am zeroing in here on what specifically happened in Norway, because it is the main source of my gene pool, and experience, so I can identify with it. All of my Norwegian ancestors (and, I had some Swedish ancestors, too, with similar experiences) emigrated from Norway (along with thousands of others) during the period 1890-1920 because of the poverty; lack of economic opportunity; extreme concentration of wealth and power in an elite, all leading up to what happened in the 1920s and 1930s. By that time, any semblance of good capitalism had collapsed in Norway. Political turmoil and protests were both regular occurrences. And, recent event: Norway #1 in the Social Progress Index, just released in early-September ( ) Why is the US 28th, even though the per capita income, on average, is the highest on the Spaceship? Well, it is quite easy to understand, actually.

So, what happened? Why is the US 28th? Well, as Metaeconomics makes clear, it is easy to see why the US keeps slipping, and political economic turmoil is the symptom, which arises whenever the essential balance needed for a good capitalism is lost. With bad capitalism the driver, as economic history makes clear, the extreme Political Left and extreme Political Right always appear on the scene, both bringing forward Zombie propositions and promises that do not work. It happened in Norway; they found a way to fix it. And, now Norway ranks #1.

And, clearly in rank #28, America needs some fixing: Neither extreme currently being considered, as represented in the protests, can restore the American Dream (which is fundamentally what is at stake in said protests). The Dream had real content during the 1930s -1960s period, during which time right&left jointly worked with business and industry, together, to make it real. Unfortunately, progress toward making that Dream a reality ended for most by the late-1960s. Since the early-1970s, realizing the American Dream has been possible only for a very few: It is the reason for the protests, at least that is my story in this Blog. It is a story which we will now try to make further sense of, with the help of the approach suggested by Metaecononmics --- a close relative of Viking Economics, which has helped achieve the Scandinavian Dream (which the US might consider, as argued in Lakey, 2017).

Restoring the American Dream will require a substantively different economic and political narrative from that in vogue since the early-1970s, especially different from the narrative of the last few years. The new narrative is about Making America Think Again, about what actually works. That is the overall theme of my story. So, hang on, here we go.

Lakey (2017) points out:

In the 1920s and ’30s … Norwegian fascists (on the extreme Right) openly paraded and spewed their anti-Semitism, embrace of violence, and hatred of democracy. At the same time, Communists (on the extreme Left) were agitating for dictatorship of the proletariat. Cities and towns—even families—were split (loc 3245-3246).

The Norwegian politician Vidkun Quisling (on the extreme Right), an admirer of Hitler, organized a fascist party in 1933. Its uniformed paramilitary wing sought to provoke violent clashes with leftist students. When fascist violence had occurred in Germany, other German political parties formed paramilitary units of their own, precipitating more injuries and death. The reactivity of the Left and its willingness to unleash counterviolence reduced its ability to win over the Germans sitting on the fence, who were understandably frightened by the nation’s descent into violent chaos.

Norwegians did not follow the Germans’ example of organizing counterviolence. Instead, the progressive movement of farmers and workers, joined by middle-class allies, continued to wage nonviolent direct-action campaigns and to grow their base … . In other words, most Norwegians did not allow Quisling to choose the arena of struggle, nor to define the rules (loc 3305).

Further, the Norwegian Left understood that Quisling was a symptom, not the cause of the mess Norway was in … Rather than obsess about the symptom, progressive Norwegians focused on the cause, which was primarily the dominance of the economic elite. Norwegians challenged that dominance by targeting the elite in nonviolent campaigns for specific, widely shared demands. The campaigns multiplied and the movement gained strength behind a broadly united vision. So many people joined the growing nonviolent direct-action campaigns that Norway became ungovernable by the economic elite. Quisling reportedly held discussions with military officers about measures to crush the campaigns. The stage was set for a fascist “solution.” Instead, Norway broke through to a social democracy… (loc 3315).

Fortunately, a critical mass of people in … Norway chose a creative response to the tension. And that decision ultimately gave rise to (one of ) the world’s most progressive nations. Their creative response had four dimensions: Gaining a rough agreement among the Left on a vision for a new society; using cooperative ownership models to prefigure that vision; practicing inclusivity; and, maintaining a commitment to nonviolent struggle. Nordic organizers and educators achieved majority support for an alternative vision to the one that was failing them. They found that harnessing the positive energy of a paradigm shift (note: read narrative shift) added to the power of their movement (loc 3245-3256).

Lots of disturbing (and encouraging) correlations with what is happening here in the US: Just replace the term Norwegian fascists with US extreme right wing, who appear to be in the main authoritarians with intolerance for racial, political, and moral diversity (the three main features, see Stenner, 2005, with most authoritarians on the Political Right, but there are quite a few on the Political Left, too: Authoritarians tend to be in the extremes); said people on the Right also tend to demonstrate quite extreme ego-centric framing (Wear a mask? Not me!); said individuals also self-identify with a narrow view of what the American Flag stands for, meaning only justice for the favored few; and, apparently believe (or are unaware of what might happen if we move to) an authoritarian capitalism with a fascist twist will somehow be better than the (bad) capitalism we have now.

Also, replace Norwegian communists (in the story) with US extreme left wing, authoritarians with collectivist aspirations, likely to be extremely empathic-centric, who see little in the way of individualism being a good thing. Said group also seems to believe that some kind of authoritarian capitalism on the left (e.g. China is an authoritarian capitalism with communist tendencies) is going to be better than the bad capitalism we have now.

And, I will let you replace Norwegian politician Vidkun Quisling, and who is being admired by Quisling, with whatever US politician(s) you would like to insert, including who you wish to substitute for Hitler, who Quisling admired. And, if you cannot think of anyone --- the US politician(s) and which authoritarian world leader(s) is being admired --- I have a suggestion or two.

One last thing: Most Norwegians did not buy into either the extreme on the Left or the extreme on the Right, in that reasonable Norwegians saw clearly that the real problem was actually economic. The real, deeper problem was extreme inequality in income, wealth, and power: The economic&political (and, I use the “&” here to mean jointly intertwined, each feeding on the other, the ultimate in crony capitalism and oligarchy) elite were running Norway, with the middle class having little wealth or power. Poverty was wide-spread, with the wealth concentrated in the economic and political elite, who the fascist (s) were assembling and concentrating even more. That is why my ancestors left, and, it is a good thing the US Wall had not yet been built!

To provide some empirical content, to help understand the story, using the Portland, OR, protests as a case in point, Pietsch (2020) reports (in italics here):

On Saturday night, a caravan of supporters … traveled through the city, clashing with counterprotesters. A man was shot and killed during the unrest…. Supporters of the president gathered on Saturday at a shopping center a few miles southeast of Portland. The caravan of hundreds of trucks then traveled into the city. Most were flying “T____ 2020” or thin blue line flags, which are commonly associated with support for the police and often seen as antithetical to the Black Lives Matter movement. The caravan clashed with counterprotesters at times. People shot paintball guns from trucks and protesters threw objects at them. Some conflicts devolved into fistfights in the streets. A video showed a small group in the street, where gunfire erupts and a man collapses. …. Medical responders arrived at the scene and determined that the man was dead, the police said…. man’s identity has not been released …. He was wearing a hat with the insignia of … a far-right group based in the Portland area. The group says it seeks to combat “corruption, big government and tyranny, using God for strength and the power of love…” In recent weeks, right- and left-wing groups have clashed. On Aug. 22, a demonstration outside the U.S. courthouse in Portland turned violent as right-wing demonstrators, … , clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters. Objects were thrown, paintballs were fired and shouting turned to shoving and punching. … Last month, camouflaged federal agents were sent to the city, against the wishes of the local authorities… Mr. T____ has not spoken specifically about the shooting death in Portland, but on Sunday morning he retweeted a message that said Portland “needs to be federalized at this point.”

The Portland Mayor retorted, in a news conference later that day (August 30, 2020, “It’s you (that has created hate and division)” and “ … (what is needed is for) T_____ to be stopped.” Perhaps, so. The Norwegians stopped Quisling. So, if you still are having trouble filling in the blank after removing Norwegian Quisling from the story, with some US politician, the “needs to be federalized…” may be a clue: Quisling was planning to send in the federal troops to “fix-it” in Norway, too. It would have been impossible: Peaceful, nonviolent protests involving virtually everyone in the middle of the Norwegian political spectrum stopped it. Quisling backed off. Perhaps there is hope in the US, too, if the focus can be shifted from crushing the protests to fixing the underlying causes of the protests.

Now, admittedly we need to be careful here, as not all the Right wing supporters in that caravan are authoritarian fascists (just like we cannot presume everyone from the Left wing are communists, "anarachists," or any other kind of particular "ist." I have quite a few friends, relatives, and neighbors who are supporters of the Right who clearly are not of that frame of mind, as well as lots of the same kind of people on the Left who just want to deal with the underlying causes. Good reasonable people on the less extreme Right and Left are needed to provide stability: It is essential to avoid the extremes.

Yet, it does seem reasonable to guess that the group from the Right that did participate were quite extreme, in that joining a caravan wearing camouflage; some with weapons, concealed or not; and, also, a young man coming fully armed and actually shooting someone (not the same protest, but the same mindset), perhaps represents authoritarian fascism at work? And, protestors on the Left, concerned with eliminating injustice in the policing and judicial system --- perhaps some are communistsn or other "ists" --- it is not clear.

What is clear that most of the non-violent protestors, nationally, if not in Portland, might be more accurately characterized with what we might say as “woke” in the sense of seeking to reduce racial and social injustice. And, sure, the Left has a broader plan, too, also pushing for more of a helping hand in health care; in education; in housing; in access to adequate food; and, most importantly, in access to higher paying jobs (which is likely the main reason there is also a caravan of those on the Right, too, when you get right down to it: Decent paying jobs, please, which the old narrative cannot produce) that can provide both a decent living and a decent retirement; as well as for attention to sustaining Spaceship systems.

It was said kind of list that drove the Left in Norway, in consort eventually with a large contingent from the moderate Right, to join together in shared community (Metaeconomics refers to it as the shared other-interest) to build a better, a good, capitalism. Socialism, but not communism, perhaps? Well, that might work better, as long as we also introduce Scroogism on the Right to clarify what is at issue, as in Scroogism vs Socialism, and the essential need to find balance, as in Scroogism&Socialism.

So, how do we make sense of it? As you might have suspected by now --- it is a Metaeconomics Blog, afterall --- Metaeconomics can not only make sense of it, but also suggest directions forward. Intriguingly, the Nordic countries provide a great deal of empirical (including ethical) evidence that the path framed with Metaeconomics holds a high probably of success, even in the US. And, why do I say, “even in the US?” Well, it is because the Economic Narrative that has brought the US to the point where citizens are protesting and fighting in the streets will not easily be replaced.

Also, my guess is that while racial justice in the policing and (in)justice system, and racism is still a player in the US, as in a deep and wide systemic racism, my contention is that the more fundamental reason for the protests is economic. And, it may take years to fix it: Sending in the Federal troops, and otherwise implementing an authoritarian style capitalism on the edge of fascism --- extreme law and order coupled with extreme economic oligarchy and cronyism --- which is the current trajectory, is not going to help. What is going to help? Changing both the economic and the political narrative, something more akin to what was done in Norway, and the Nordic Countries in general, could work. And, bottom line, getting a bit ahead of ourselves here: Give everyone the chance for enough income and wealth to live the American Dream --- come on, capitalists and political leaders, elite and otherwise, wake-up and build a Woke Capitalism --- and no one will be in the streets protesting: Look to the Nordic Countries, the Viking Economies, right now (see Lakey, 2017).

The overall context for the bad capitalism leading to the turmoil has come from an Old and Tired Narrative touted by the Neoliberals, and given some supposed “scientific” credence by the Chicago School of Economics, especially the Libertarian branch. It has also been given credence by the Public Choice School of Economics. More specifically, it all starts in the late-1960s to early-1970s --- intriguingly, right after the Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Acts, and, the attempt with more of a helping hand in the Great Society programs of the time --- with an early reference point the Friedman (1970) contention that The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits. The idea was popularized in that magazine article, which went viral, as narratives often do (see Shiller, 2019). It still contributes to all manner of corporate responsibility and governance problems to this day.

The second reference point is in the early-1980s, reflected in the Reagan-Thatcher narrative that the market can do no bad and the government can do no good (the latter reinforced by the “science” of the Public Choice School of Economics, especially after Buchanan, see MacLean, 2017). Combining all three narratives --- business has no social responsibility other than to increase share prices, and the incestuous CEO pay; the market can only do good; and, the government can only do bad --- led to the political reality that both the US and the UK moved, to the Nationalist end of a new Cosmopolitan-Nationalist political spectrum, as represented in the current US President and the current UK Prime Minister.

And, that political shift to Nationalism was in turn driven by the massive resentment of the people (which led to blaming everyone who was different --- racial, political, and moral intolerance, and especially the new immigrants --- for it) arising from a bad capitalism, a capitalism that no reasonable person can go along with.

As Krugman (2018) disparagingly refers to it, said Narrative has led to what we might refer to --- with a bit of tongue in cheek, but it frames the picture well--- that of a Potemkin Economy, built on tax cuts that do not stir real investment (most of the recent massive tax break to corporations went to buying back stocks, driving up stock prices in the Potemkin Stock Market: Shareholders and CEOs are happy!); running on borrowed money, anyone can look wealthy with lots of borrowed money; a huge deficit; and misplaced trade policies and strategies, none of which has led to any long term, sustainable outcomes. It is built using a raft of Zombie economic ideas (again, some tongue-in-cheek, here, after Krugman, 2020) that do not work, especially the supply-side, trickle-down style of economics (also see Stiglitz, 2019), and even an attempt to eliminate the payroll tax (Social Security going down, anyone?).

All the Zombie ideas do one thing: Concentrate wealth and power. As a result, we have just made matters worse, contributing to an unparalleled distortion in the move to an even more extreme level of income and wealth inequality --- and associated distortion in political power --- not seen since the 1920s, right before the 1930s Great Depression: And, the 1930s are not exactly a time to go back to, which is where the Make America Great Again mantra is taking the economy. It seems people from both the Right and Left being in the street suggests as much? Again, sorry to say it again, but it is not an economy that people can go along with. It would be far better to Make America Think Again: That thinking needs to look to finding an optimal inequality --- inequality is inherent and essential in every living system --- staying way from the extremes. Find things that really work, rather than going on blind faith in ideologies.

As Payne ( 2018) makes clear, the America with said level of extreme inequality can never be Great, other than in a Dark and Depressed sort of way. In fact, the narrative of the American Dream was formed during a time when the idea of putting out a helping hand was on both Right and Left, during the 1930s -1960s period. It was the helping hand that made the American Dream possible (GI bill; safety net programs; FHA low-interest loans; low tuition rates due to government funding of trade schools, colleges, and universities; Social Security and Medicare; lots of infrastructure investment, like building the interstate road system; public investment in research, like the agricultural research that filled the supermarkets with high quality and inexpensive food, and the public funded research that gave the basis for the iPhone: Apple, maybe you should pay the taxpayer back?). Starting with the early-1970s, the American Dream was crushed, as the shut-down of government Narrative spread like a nasty coronavirus: It is now possible only for a very few. So, what can be done? Change the Narrative, albeit that is simpler said than done.

Actually, there are two Narratives that need to be changed. We have alluded to the need for a new Economic Narrative, which is the main story. But, as Paul Harvey always pointed out, there often was another important story intertwined with the main story. Metaeconomics helps weave the main story, drawing on Lynne (in press), which is about Tempering Excessive Greed. The rest of the story comes from Wise (2015), which is about how to move away from being Under the Affluence.

The main story --- which suggests the essence of the New Economic Narrative --- rests on the fundamental proposition that a capitalism-based economy must be something that everyone can go along with, a very old story that is still valid, which Adam Smith (1759/1790, loc 1714-1727) made clear, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Though it may be true, therefore, that every individual, in his own breast, naturally prefers himself to all mankind, yet he dares not look mankind in the face, and avow that he acts according to this principle. He feels that in this preference they can never go along with him, … If he would act so as that the impartial spectator may enter into the principles of his conduct, which is what of all things he has the greatest desire to do, he must, upon this, as upon all other occasions, humble the arrogance of his self-love, and bring it down to something which other men can go along with

Unfortunately, economics departments and business schools have produced a managerial and business class that apparently never heard of the fundamental role of the Sentiments (or, rejected the idea in practice) in making a market economy, a capitalism, work for everyone. The impartial spectator is never elicited, the act of going to that station, and applying the conscience, searching for the best thing to do.

Adam Smith saw the Sentiments doing the tempering. Metaeconomics agrees, and makes it clear one must temper that self-interest with an empathy-based (the sentiments) other (shared with others, what everyone can go along with, yet internalized to own-self)-interest. It is then possible to seek an own-interest, which is only possible if one sees the need to provide a helping hand to the other --- as represented in that shared other-interest --- as we are all joint, interdependent, and non-separable. As Adam Smith (1776/1789, loc 239-251) says it:

…man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages )

Notice this is about seeking own-interest, as represented in a self-interest tempered by the shared other-interest, represented in the “almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren” who are not going to help unless it is on the common ground of the shared other-interest. It is about balance in self&other-interest. It is the shared other-interest among the butcher, brewer, baker and the consumer of the meat, beer, and bread that makes it all work, as it is that which everyone can go along with that facilitates each pursuing self-interest, which is possible only through balance in the own-interest.

So, sorry Chicago School and Public Choice Economics Libertarians: Your framework and theory is missing the point. It is not about self-interest only, whether in the market (Chicago) or the government (Public Choice). It is about an empathy-based other-interest, and it is through said empathy we also evolve a moral and ethical dimension that everyone can go along with. And, even more sorry, as McCloskey (2019, p. 93) makes clear, it does not work to be “fiercely opposed to any ethical reflection” as in the Chicago School. As McCloskey (2019) makes clear, ethical reflection is essential to a truly humane liberalism like that envisioned by the Enlightenment thinkers, like Adam Smith, and ethical reflection (and scientific reality) is essential to forming a good capitalism, and, as we stand today, saving capitalism.

So, is there any hope for a New Economic Narrative? Fortunately, it is starting to appear on the horizon in some parts of the business community, and, unfortunately, is currently missing in an anti-science and unethical government. In general, it works to address all stakeholders in business, not just the Friedman et al. focus on the shareholders. And, it plays well in a Metaeconomic sense, as it works to strike a balance in self&other-interest, person&company, company&community, and, ultimately, in market&government, for everyone under the flag, not just a favored few.

Sorkin (2019) points to the Jamie Gamble suggestion for new business rules ---and, I would add good rules for government, too --- a new narrative, all about the shared other-interest:

(corporations, business in general, would) “adopt a binding set of ethical rules, approved by stockholders and addressing the key ethical dimensions of corporate life” including:

■ Their “relationships with employees.”

■ Their “relationships with the communities in which they produce and sell.”

■ Their “relationships with customers.”

■ Their “effects on the environment.”

■ And their “effects on future generations.”

Another way to frame it all is with ESG, from Editors (2020):

… ESG criteria are a set of standards for a corporation’s operations utilized by “socially conscious” investors to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria, for instance, consider how a company performs as a steward of nature in abating climate change. Social criteria look at managing relationships with suppliers, customers, employees, and local communities. Among other things, governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, and shareholder rights.

In Metaeconomic terms --- and consistent with the Adam Smith construct represented in the Sentiments which give context to the market and capitalism in general --- it is about walking-in-the-shoes-of-the-other and asking how-would-I-wish-to-be-treated, with the many kinds of shoes illustrated in the Gamble list and the ESG criteria. It is about forming a shared other-interest with every other group (including all creatures and functions in the Spaceship system), and tempering the primal tendency to self-interest with that which is shared. It is about tempering the primal tendency (and every person has it in varying degrees) to Scroogism. The new Economic Narrative has some variant on the ESG criteria influencing the way the economy evolves. In effect, the Economic Narrative asks for the ethical reflection that is missing from the dominant narrative --- that extreme greed is extremely good, without ethical reflection, without a sense that everyone needs to go along with it --- that has brought people into the streets, much like happened in Norway (and the other Nordic Countries) in the 1920s-1930s.

Now, for the rest of the story: Wise (2015) is important here. The plot thickens when we also address the Narratives characterized as Meritocracy and the Culture of Cruelty, both of which are especially part of the Friedman-Reagan-Thatcher Narrative about minimizing if not eliminating government while claiming the market can fix everything.

The main feature of the old Friedman-Reagan-Thatcher Narrative has been a long standing core ideology in America, that of meritocracy characterized at the core by rugged individualism (Wise, 2015, loc 346):

It is this notion—the idea that anyone can make it in America if they try— (and, it follows that, if) … one believes in this fundamental ideology of Americanism, it becomes easy to look at those who don’t succeed in life and conclude that they have no one but themselves to blame. Likewise, it becomes easy to view the successful as exemplars of hard work and inherent talent.

The meritocracy has even been extended, on both the Right and Left, to include a university education. If one is trained "in the school of hard knocks" or even in a solid, well orchestrated trade, as through a trade school, it is somehow not deemed meritorious (see Sandel, 2020).

Wise (2015, loc 3827) points out that many dimensions of Meritocracy now constitute a kind of cornerstone of a Culture of Cruelty. Horatio Alger characters in his books, are presumed endowed with the capability to be rugged individualists, including in more recent times even obtaining a university education, leading to said character(s) earning the right to be part of the meritocracy; everyone else is to be punished or otherwise discounted, held in disdain, until finding a way --- on their own, everyone for themselves, extreme individualism --- to become like that Alger character. Also, that cruelty frame tends to point to the myth of a culture of poverty --- as though people want to stay poor --- which as Wise (2015, loc 335) points out, is really a culture of predatory affluence, another form of cruelty: So, operating Under the Affluence is not only mythical, but predatory and cruel.

And, there is an education prejudice --- credentials awarded from going off to a university, especially an Ivy League University --- at work here, too. Like Sandel (2020) frames it, looking at the credentials aspect of Meritocracy as one dimension that needs consideration, perhaps we should:

... focus less on arming people for a meritocratic race and more on making life better for those who lack a diploma but who make important contributions to our society — through the work they do, the families they raise and the communities they serve. This requires renewing the dignity of work and putting it at the center of our politics.

And, please, go read Wise (2015) for more of the details: As he documents with plentiful scientific and experiential evidence, empirical reality in general: The Merit Class, everyone from Fox News commentators, who are regularly cruel, to include many politicians on the extreme Right, and even some on the Left who point to the Horatio Alger myth as though it is reality, in not wanting to provide a helping hand for the Horatio character to rise above it all. That Cruelty is displayed in everything from not funding healt