The “Austerity” Folly as Sacrificial Ritual

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    ( – promoted by lowkell)

    In the following, I’m building on a well-developed foundation built, stone by stone, by Paul Krugman. In the following, I’m also disregarding what political people have told me is the appropriate kind of communication to come from someone running for Congress. I want to say it because it is interesting, because it may illuminate something deep, and because trying to understand such things is part of who I am.

    Krugman has been watching with a combination of outrage and bewilderment the triumph of a policy of “austerity” not only in the United States but also in Europe (including the budget of the Cameron government in the U.K., and the policy decisions of the European Central Bank) in the face of this economic crisis.

    Austerity is precisely the wrong thing to be doing. It makes the crisis worse. Witness how Cameron’s policies are damaging the British economy. It’s pouring water onto the fire that needs to be built.

    Yet the austerity regime lives on, supported by what Krugman calls “zombie” ideas that somehow will not die despite all the evidence and theoretical models that show that they are counter-productive, and that they don’t make sense. Extremely low interest rates are just one clear sign that inflation is not the danger, but lack of demand and even the specter of deflation.

    Krugman eventually came to see this persistence of the austerity folly as a matter of economic analysis being overwhelmed by some psychological impulse:  instead of looking at the economics, he says, these policy-making elites are perceiving some sort of moral drama. There has been sin, and now people must pay the price in pain and suffering.  

    Strangely, or not so strangely, in this morality play it is always OTHER people –not the decision-makers– upon whom the pain must be inflicted to pay for the collective misdeeds of the past.

    Here’s where my own small contribution comes in.

    Now and then, over the past 45 years, I’ve wondered about the meaning of “sacrifice” in the history of religions. I studied it first, when I was 20, when I wrote a thesis on the PSYCHOLOGY OF HEROIC TRAGEDY. The question has arisen a number of times since then: why is it that in so many religions, through the millennia, from entirely different cultural traditions, the idea of sacrifice has played so central a role?

    I am not fully satisfied with any answer I’ve found. I’m still wondering what it is in human beings, or in such a large subset of them, that generates this feeling of a need, when things go awry (or in order to keep things from going awry), in order to make or keep things right, to perform a sacrifice.

    But here is what I do feel ready to say, without certainty but with an intuitive feeling that it is true: I believe that this insistence on austerity that Krugman notes is a manifestation in our own civilization of the same impulse that led Greeks to slay bulls upon the altar and that led the Aztecs to sacrifice living human beings to their gods.

    I am persuaded, with Krugman, that these policies are irrational, for they make things worse. And for otherwise intelligent people to ignore the economic evidence of their errors and pursue such a policy, the impulse to sacrifice (often someone else) when times are insecure must be very powerful.

    In the U.S., this sacrificial austerity has been combined with other forms of scapegoating of the vulnerable– like going after women dealing with unwanted pregnancies, and fostering hatred and fear toward religious or ethnic minorities.

    But that’s because, unlike the other democracies, our political system is infected with additional dark impulses close to the heart of power– impulses like rage and sadism, going after those least able to defend themselves.

    But this austerity folly is not at all limited to the United States. And indeed, under President Obama, the United States has responded to the economic crisis more constructively than many of the Europeans.

    It feels important to note, once again, that “modern civilization” has not transcended the irrational, the unconscious, and the cruel.

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    Andy Schmookler is running for Congress in the 6th Congressional District of Virginia, challenging the incumbent Congressman, Bob Goodlatte.  An award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, Andy moved with his family to Shenandoah County in 1992.  He is a graduate of Harvard University and holds a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.  

    To learn more about Andy, please go to his website. You may also follow Andy on Facebook and on Twitter.