Are We There Yet?

In the last post (Limited Time Blue Light Special On Aisle 5) news reports of current local business occurrences were analyzed. These (both the news making as well as the reporting) occurred, ostensibly, because they were good for the economy. Analysis also glimpsed Nick Hanauer’s use of “the economy” which differs from that of Paul Ryan’s, or Rand Paul’s, or Donald Trump’s. All of which begs the question, what is “the economy”? An essay by Timothy Mitchell (“Economentality: How the Future Entered Government”) from the Summer 2014 Critical Inquiry is insightful:

“Around 1948, it became common in American political debate to talk about the economy. References to this object in government and newspapers were starting to appear in a routine, repetitive way that made the economy appear for the first time as a matter of fact. It was no longer always necessary to explain what the term meant or to qualify it in some way.
The idea of the economy itself had been around for at least a dozen years. But in the period before the Second World War the word still often carried echoes of an older sense when economy described a process, not a thing. In everyday usage, the term referred to the act of economizing, of making prudent use of limited resources.” (pg. 481)
“By around 1948, a decade after the introduction of national income accounting into the calculations of the federal budget, it was becoming more commonplace to refer to the economy. How should we understand the emergence of this new way of referring to collective life? Was the economy a new object or just an old name for things that already existed? Ultimately, neither option is satisfactory.” (pg. 483)
“It is easier to talk about the economy as an effect.”
“The effect of the economy provided not just a new object of government policy, in the way that governments had also become concerned with, for example, public health, or urban renewal, or social welfare. The economy provided a more pervasive effect, one that has since then escaped attention: a way to bring the future into government.” (pg. 484)
“First, the CEA [Council of Economic Advisers] was set up [1946] not to allow economists into government but to keep them out.”
“Congress created the CEA in reaction against postwar proposals for a Full Employment Act, which would have established full employment as a collective right. Opponents of the right to employment inserted the plan for the council into the employment bill in order to weaken the influence of wartime economists in government and the mechanisms they had developed during the war for maximizing employment and controlling prices.” (pg. 490)
“The CEA was to be a device for this making things public, for an “economic education” (starting with the education of the president). Its regular reports would help bring the economy into effect.
Second, economic expertise had often been concerned with problems of growth: the increase in population, the expansion of trade, a surfeit or shortage of natural resources, or inflation in the money supply. What was new in 1947-48 was not growthmanship but the object that would grow – not population, trade, resources, or wealth, but something less material and therefore more effective: the economy. The growth of the economy was not a question of the governance over resources or the management of national finance. It was a means of bringing the future into government – of governing populations through their futures.” (pg. 491)
“Through such material inscriptions [representations not of actual increases/decreases but of the rates of increase/decrease], the economy emerged as a nonmaterial object, a set of calculations that converted the accelerating growth of modernity into an apparently stable future. In ways like this and many others, the economy, perhaps just for two or three decades, made the future an instrument of government.” (pg. 497)
“Governing people through their future also became a device for managing populations in the formerly colonized world.” (pg. 498)
“One of the most significant of these possibilities [political possibilities] was that industrialized states could attempt to govern not only their own populations but also relations with the rest of the world through their futures.” (pg. 499)
“The economy worked effectively as a mode of government-through-the-future for only a couple of decades. By the late 1960s, the forms of productive growth, energy use, cheap oil, and Middle Eastern politics on which it depended were all under pressure.” (pg. 507)

Analysis finds that projections on “the future” (as found with “the economy”) are something in which if you follow the directives or “governance” (of the future), then certain expectations will be met. It is not necessarily material expectations for then it would be a “plan”, something Mitchell’s essay clearly shows “the economy” not to be. A plan is something limited within an envelope of a beginning (projected outcome), middle (execution), and end (verifiable achievement or failure). Today the use and meaning of “the economy” is more like that of “technology” – continuously evolving, in flux, with built in anticipation as well as obsolescence, all not contained within a definable certainty, much like a short or long term weather forecast. In 1948 President Truman deployed the army to run the railroads while less than 15 years later President Kennedy muscled the steel producing corporations, both for the sake of governance. After the 2008 financial meltdown no criminal indictments of the individuals involved within the culpable “too big to fail” financial institutions were pursued. The ostensible reason given by the chief prosecutor of the justice department was that such action would be detrimental to “the economy”. When “the economy” is used by political or corporate leaders, the press or political groups, one should automatically question who is being governed? By whom? For what kind of future? For whom? Mitchell’s description of how “the economy” came to be used and what its meaning has become creates an imaginary Looney Tunes cartoon image of a carrot dangling in front of an overworked donkey pulling an overloaded cart asking “Are we there yet?”



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