What is Transformational Change?
by ManfromMiddletown, Mon May 07, 2007 at 11:11:53 PM EDT
What is transformational change?
Few phrases are so widely used and more poorly defined in the lexicon of the progressive blogosphere than "tranformational change." It's a good thing (apparently), but no one seems to be able to say exactly what the hell it's supposed to mean.
I'd like to put forward an idea about what I think that it means, and why I think that John Edwards is the transformational candidate.
Sometimes the best way to undestand a concept is to first understand its antithesis.
We know the what the Devil is because it's the opposite of God.
In a certain sense particular words and phrases are essentially dichotomous. Take the example of democracy, for the most part we know what is democratic, because we know what is not.
Life's a complex thing, and the truth of the matter is that most of us reduce the complexity of life through the creation of cognitive frameworks. We routinize life. Rather than drawing up a grocery list, and going to each store in the area, and locating the best value for the best price, we simplify our life through routinizing the thing.
We all have our favorite stores and restaurants, and even though if we take the time to try other options we may find that other businesses are better we don't. Why? Because most people satisfice, we get something acceptable, and once we found something that works we stick with it. My father has a favorite restaturant, he eats there at least 4 times a week. There are other restaurants in town, but he will always go to this particular restaurant. Why? Because he know with a reasonable degree of certainty that he will get what he's always gotten before. He has his acceptable set of dishes, and he knows that he'll get his money's worth. Now from time to time he may get overcooked chicken, but he knows with a reasonable degree of certainty based upon previous experience how often that will happen. And as a consequence, he can discount his expectations for it.
This is a stable system, I can assure you that the chance of it changing is minimal. I've actually seen him get mail delivered to him at the restaurant. This is an enduring comittment. So if this is certainty, where our understanding of the world gives us the power to estimate with some certainty the consequences of decisions. i.e. Don't get the chicken tenders on Thursday, the cook doesn't wash his hands. Economists call this type of stability equilibrium.
Now what does it take to bring change? What would have to happen to make my father stop going to his favorite restaurant?
It would take effort, if he consistently received raw chicken for a few weeks, that might do the trick. What happened? Economists would call this an equilibrium punctuation. My father had an understanding about what the balance of risks and rewards is, that particular set of expectations has been popped. Hell, he doesn't know if they're going to bring him out a live chicken the next time he comes. Not only is there an element of random chance. It's random chance that can't be interpreted through the set of expectations that previous experience has provided him. He doesn't understand why this happened.
So let's say that my father talks to guy in line at the grocery. This guy owns another restaurant and he tells my father that the problem is that his old restaurant (the one that brought out the raw chicken) was bought up by an evil multinational corporation. But this guy in the checkout line owns a family restaurant and invites my father to come on down for a meal.
He goes. The meal was good. My father now understands that the problem was that corporate food is crap. He now has a new 4 time a week place. His certainty about the way that restaurants work has been restored. Economist would say that we've got a new equilibrium here. It's not only restaurants that work this way, it's also politics.
One of the best books that I have ever read is Mark Blyth's Great Transformations:Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century.
Blyth starts the book of by telling the story of talking to his father after Thatcher was relected PM, and not understanding how a butcher like his father who did not benefit from Thatcherite policies, supported the Tories. In the end, Blyth chalked it up to the power of ideas. The Winter of Discontent in the late 1970's and the severe economic dislocation caused by the economic downturn brought on by the energy crisis, puncutated the postwar understanding that the state should intervene in the economy to protect the little guy. Because of something totally unrelated to British politics, the energy crisis, the existing set of expectations was puncuated. The Brits (like all of us) craved certainity, Thatcher offered new ideas about how to understand the world.
The state went from being a champion of the working man, to the robber of his wages through taxes. Social democracy was said to have make the British economy weak. Thacherism, cutting taxes, was a new idea about how to create certainty. The earlier equilibrium of social democracy shifted to neo-liberalism. The same thing happened in the United States.
The conservatives never really rose until the 1970's, when conservative thinktanks offered up new ideas about the way the economy worked. Taxes were no longer to be seen as the price of civilization, they were a theft of hard earned money. The idea that we live in a society where people are interconnected, gave way to a pathological individualism that said that greed is good.
Whether it's union density which has declined from nearly a third the workforce in 1964 to less than 1/8th in 2005. The death of the middle class neighborhood as we increasingly divide into rich and poor (and never the twain shall meet.) Or just the disconnect between productivity growth and wage growth, as Americans work more for lower real wages. There's a full load of statistics that show what most working Americans know because they're living it. We live in a country in which there is a massive redistribution of income, from those who live by work to those who live by wealth.
In the words of Mr. Blyth, there's been an equilibrium punctuation. The old ideas that the Republicans and the Rubinite wing of the Democratic party have been pushing have been showing to be horribly wrong. Deregulation brought us rolling blackouts, and the accounting frauds at Enron, Worldcom, and the others. Free trade without safety standards has led to the deaths of hundreds of pets, and a the solemn realization that it could have been hundreds of people poisoned by tainted Chinese imports. The Bush tax cuts have shifted the burden of paying for government services onto a work, empowering the wealthy to live of the efforts of others. And Grover Norquist's desire to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub, made possible the drowing of thousands of American citizens in an American city, because the ability of the government to deal with crisis was crippled.
The old ideas of the Republicans and their neo-liberal collabrators have been shown to be miserable failures. The time has come for change. The question is what they nature of that change will be transitional or transformational.
For me transformational change is defined most powerfully by what it is not. Transformational change is not transitional change. Transitional change aims to restore certainty in the set of existing ideas about the economy. To make minor tactical changes to preserve the status quo. It does not address the failures of deregulation, free trade, the shift of taxation onto those who can least afford it, and the evisceration of emergency management. Transformational change uses these failings to argue for fundamental change, for the creation of new ideas that alter our understanding of the way the world works. Like taxes are the price of civilization, the regulation of the market is neccesary to prevent people from being killed or injured by companies trying to make a quick buck, and that the government exists to ensure the common welfare.
Transitional change can occur at any time. Transformational change can only occur when the existing set of ideas that create order and stability no longer work. In this President Bush's greatest failure will not be Iraq, but rather Katrina. Americans are accustomed to seeing soldiers die in foreign lands. They don't like it, but it's expected. The utter horror, shame, and anger of watching American citizens made refugees in our own country popped the bubble. And Bush went down with New Orleans. I was working in a medical call center at the time. There was something surreal about sending out medical supply packages to tent cities with long weird delivery instructions. I have never felt more ashamed of my government than I did at that time. We failed them. It was a shame on all of us.
America isn't 300 million personal islands where the costs and benefits can be divided up like pieces of cake. It's one big country. We're all connected. If we failed those folks in New Orleans, we failed ourselves. Injustice anywhere. But it doesn't have to be this way. What infuriates me about so much of the debate on 2008 here on MyDD and in the media, is the failure to recognize this time for what it is. A limited period in which a strong leader can bring transformational change. A time for an FDR, a social democrat, not an Al Smith, a status quo politican banking on the novelty of being a "first."
I think that a recent piece in The Nation said it better than I can. There is a limited opportunity for change. Those who argue for moderation and bipartisanship betray the chance change we have in our time. Rubinomics is transitional change, a marginal shift to ensure that the basic premises of the neo-liberal economic ideas underlying so much failed economic policy are not put to the knife.
Rubinomics is not only bad economics but also bad politics. First, by arguing that the problem is a shortage of savings, Rubinomics promotes a conservative tax agenda privileging saving and profits, which primarily benefits the rich. Second, by placing budget deficits at the center of the saving problem, it sets government up as a problem and makes a case for shrinking it. Furthermore, by promising to lock Democrats into a path of fiscal austerity, it exposes future Democratic Administrations to the charge of "flip-flopping." This is because fiscal stimulus will inevitably be needed when the current unbalanced boom ends.
The greatest tragedy of all concerns the potentially disastrous consequences for Social Security and Medicare. These programs are more vital than ever, given America's aging population and retirement wealth inequality. Yet Rubinomics establishes the premise for dismantling them. By claiming the budget must be balanced to increase saving, it sets up a political deal whereby Republicans suspend their unjustifiable tax cuts in return for Democrats putting Social Security and Medicare on the table. This would be the ultimate conservative triumph, the evisceration of the crown jewels of FDR's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society.
The cruel irony is that Democrats would be the agent of this destruction at the very moment when history is proffering the opportunity for a great reversal of market fundamentalism. At a time of extraordinary productivity growth, due to the maturation of the Internet and other technologies, Rubinomics establishes the premise that America cannot afford these great programs. Most bitter of all, once institutions like Social Security are dismantled, they are hard to resurrect, whereas tax cuts can easily be restored. This means that dealing Social Security benefit cuts in return for a repeal of the Bush tax cuts is both unjustified and a political trap--and Hank Paulson knows it.
Only one of the presidential hopefuls recognizes the potential of 2008 and is arguing for transformational change. Only John Edwards has had the courage to say that he will raise taxes of that's what it take to get Americans health insurance, and that working people are prioritized over the pet projects of policy wonks. We have a choice in 2008, and I don't think it's a hard one to make.
Ask yourself which politician you trust more.
On the one side, a president who campaigned on a balanced-budget pledge, then dug the country hundreds of billions of dollars deeper into debt with huge tax cuts and an unpaid-for war, and now promises a balanced budget four years after he leaves office.
On the other side, a former senator who says that while he wants to contain the deficit, he has higher priorities than a perfectly balanced budget, specifically universal health insurance coverage and substantial investments in alternative energy.
That is the choice offered by George W. Bush and John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat whose left-of-center presidential candidacy will have the salutary effect of challenging Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to respond with specifics of their own.
I'm going to end with some inspiration from Marshall Mathers. We only got one shot, one opportunity.