[Paleopsych] Hermenaut: Whatever Works, Sucks

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Whatever Works, Sucks

Rational Exuberance: The Influence of Generation X on the New Economy by
Meredith Bagby (Dutton, 1998)

If, as A.S. Hamrah and Chris Fujiwara claim in their online Club
Havana film review series, "Things That Don't Suck" is the new
aesthetic category of the '90s--they explain that "the advertising and
publicist types who employ this as a category of worth want you to
believe that just because whatever it is they're offering isn't 100
percent offensive or repellent means it's somehow great" --then
"Whatever Works" is the corresponding ethical category of the era.
These are the debased formulae of people who not only don't have any
standards of truth, beauty, or morality, but to whom the whole concept
of standards is suspect. Of course we should be skeptical of received
notions of truth, beauty, and morality, but skepticism isn't cynicism
and even cynicism isn't as grass-eatingly low as the kind of slickly
hip will-to-power-passing-as-pragmatism expressed in these phrases.
Yet, now that the End of Ideology and What is Art? debates have
finally trickled down (up?) from the academy to the street, these
aggressively anti-standard standards have become cant in the mouths of
would-be Gen X (no room to go into, for the nth time, how misleading
and pointless this term is) spokespeople who should know better.
Meredith Bagby is one of these--she's of the "Whatever Works"
school--and this review is of her recently-published and
highly-praised book Rational Exuberance: The Influence of Generation X
on the New American Economy.

Rational Exuberance was, I imagine, sold to Dutton as a happy-smiley
slap in the face to all those whiny twentysomethings still bitching
about how they couldn't afford to go to college and have to live with
their parents. As such, it contains a bewildering onslaught of
sidebars profiling "key Gen X players": fund managers, speechwriters,
political activists, entrepreneurs, hacks at such Gen X media ghettoes
as Swing magazine (which, ironically, just bit the dust) and CNN's
Financial Network: experts all, one is led to believe, in the science
of Gen X-ology. "We" anti-slackers, it seems, are "taking on the
economic challenges inherited from older generations" and influencing
the American economy through "greater savings plans, successful
entrepreneurship, education reform, and bottom-line politics" --I
quote from the press release. But as annoying a book as that in itself
would have been, Rational Exuberance is worse than that, much worse.

Americans born after 1964, "economist [and] renowned Gen X'er Bagby"
(press release again) suggests in her introduction, have been unfairly
characterized as depressed, directionless losers. But in fact, she
counters, what look to "our" (I can't go on putting "we" and "our" in
quotes, so I'll just stop here) elders like weaknesses--our deep
suspicion regarding the idea of a "steady job," our inborn mistrust of
Republicans and Democrats alike, our "No Future" certainty that Social
Security will be bankrupt by the time we're 65, even though we're
paying into it now--are actually strengths. Scorning the idea of
climbing the corporate ladder, we're a generation of risk-taking
entrepreneurs! The non-voting apathy of our older brothers and sisters
has obscured our own grassroots activism! And as for the Social
Security thing, well, some of us are lobbying for entitlement reform,
while others re-learn the lost art of planning for the future!
"Compound interest" sound familiar? But I don't really have a problem
with any of this. (OK, I do have a problem with the idea that any
intelligent person could possibly imagine that what the Sex Pistols
were talking about in "No Future" had anything to do with vanishing
welfare for the elderly.) What bugs me is the whole "Whatever Works"

According to Bagby, who brandishes charts, graphs, and public opinion
polls (the first profile she offers is of a hip Republican pollster,
already proving her book is a work of fiction) to prove her various
points, "We [Gen X'ers] are not worried about staying within the
guidelines of any particular [moral, political, philosophical] system;
rather, we seek the avenue that produces the greatest results. We
adjust, maneuver, manipulate our choices around what seems to work in
today's complex world." "Results" is the red flag here: The holy grail
of a certain kind of economist, results by definition justify the
means used to achieve them. In fact, Bagby takes great pains to
dismiss those dangerously idealistic types (she includes lawyers!) for
whom means cannot be separated from ends.

In Chapter 2, "A New Moral Order: The Age of Economics," Bagby
forcefully insists that religious, philosophical, aesthetic, and even
political lenses for viewing social issues may have been fine for past
generations, but they just don't make the cut today. On the abortion
question, she scoffs, "a philosopher might begin the debate with
questions" (a word I imagine her saying with a sour expression on her
face) about when life begins, moral responsibility and choice, and so
forth; and a lawyer would waste everybody's time mucking around with
issues of legal precedent. An economist, however, would cut through
all the mumbo-jumbo by seeking "what is common among differing
factions and build[ing] a solution." Moralists and politicians take
their lumps, too, for being so wishy-washy over the death penalty.
When it comes down to a choice between execution and life
imprisonment, Bagby airily concludes, whichever one costs society less
money is the right answer.

Economists like herself, Bagby boasts, seek results, results, results.
Unlike those querulous old fogies who'd hold us all to one universal
ideal or another, economics is about the greatest benefit for the
greatest number, and it's not afraid to write everyone who isn't part
of the greatest number off as a loss. To Bagby, this is what the world
needs now. With the end of the Cold War, she suggests, came the
long-heralded End of Ideology. Democracy and capitalism have won, and
the only challenge that remains is making the system work, dammit.
"Our role in American history seems clear: If our parents' generation
was about dismantling the status quo, our generation will be about
building new institutions, moral codes, families, churches,
corporations If our parents were the revolutionaries, then let us be
the rebuilders." To this exalted end, Bagby (or should that be
Carpetbagby?) offers pat, sketchy advice on everything from rebuilding
our schools to rebuilding our communities, our families, and the
economy. Of course, much of what passes for advice--on, for example,
not being manipulated in the workplace, or by wily advertisers--is
actually how-to advice for the book's real audience: those seeking
advice on exploiting and manipulating Gen X'ers. But that's obvious,

I could go on and on (and on) about what's wrong with the methods and
conclusions of Rational Exuberance. All I want to accomplish here is a
criticism of this "Whatever Works" shit, but it's hard not to get
sidetracked. So let's take a leaf from Bagby's book and compromise:
I'll complain about something off-topic just one more time, and then
get back to criticizing her philosophy. Not happy with this solution?
Apparently, in the new
roll-up-your-shirtsleeves-and-lose-those-pesky-opinions age, we'd all
better get used to feeling that way.

"Fact: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people aged 24 to 35 work
4.6 percent longer each week than the national average." This
context-free statistic is a typical example of Bagby's misuse of the
tools of social science to make a seemingly objective point. This
particular nugget of data is supposed to disprove the media myth that
all Gen X'ers are slackers. I question whether this statistic actually
means "we" (sorry, couldn't resist) are hard workers: Doesn't it most
likely mean, instead, that twentysomething temp-slave types are more
exploited than your average non-Gen X worker? And, while we're on the
subject, what's wrong with not wanting to work hard? Is there no
middle ground between couch potato and millionaire-in-the-making?
("The 'X' in Generation X is the symbol for multiplication," Bagby
sound-bites. "For us the symbol strikes a chord because the most
successful entrepreneurs don't win by adding dollars--they win by
multiplying dollars.")

Unafraid to contradict herself, Bagby goes on to pay lip service to
the idea that Gen X'ers just seem lazy because we refuse to sacrifice
our "lifestyles" to our careers, that in fact we work less than our
elders. As anyone who has worked for the kind of hotshot entrepreneur
Bagby admiringly profiles knows, however, pulling insanely long work
days is a lifestyle for them and that goes for everyone at their
companies, like it or not. (I should confess here that I have worked
for one of the entrepreneurs Bagby profiles!) This irresolvable
contradiction hints at the special problem Bagby faced in assembling
this book: Her real audience and her pretend audience want to hear
different things, and while the latter will just get pissed at her,
the former is the one buying the book. OK, let's move on.

All social problems-- "the overextension of our government, growing
economic inequality, increasing ethnic rumblings, deteriorating
education systems, apathy from our citizenry [this kind of phrasing
makes me worry that the author is planning to run for office], and an
oversimplification of our problems by media and politicians" --can be
solved by applying the economist's way of thinking, according to
Bagby. "We have entered upon a new era of logic and numbers," she
trumpets: "To give us the answers, we have elevated a new breed of
experts. Other ages had prophets, witch doctors, soothsayers, and
voodoo gods [you might know them as social scientists, political
analysts, philosophers]. We have economists." Quoting Francis
Fukuyama, Bagby argues that with the worldwide triumph of liberal
democracy and free-market capitalism, we have arrived at not just the
end of ideology, but the much-anticipated end of history--so the Big
Questions of the past (freedom of speech, liberty, equality) just
don't matter any more. Americans want "a government that W-O-R-K-S,"
Bagby argues, and Gen X is the generation that's uniquely qualified,
precisely because it lacks any faith in ideals or standards, to give
these Americans the government they deserve. "It is not about
ideology. It is about practicality."

In 1933, a twentysomething Marxist sympathizer named Simone Weil
shocked her comrades by announcing her fear that the actual outcome of
the much-anticipated proletarian revolution would not be the
replacement of capitalism by socialism, but something much worse: the
replacement of capitalism and socialism alike with a post-ideological
society run by "technicians" [i.e. experts for whom the ends justify
the means], particularly economists. After all, Weil pointed out, the
only thing worse than oppression exercised in the name of some
philosophical or religious or even political ideal is "oppression
exercised in the name of function." Bagby's central obsession,
entitlement reform--that political tar baby which at least serves as a
sort of flypaper for annoying trust-funders like the ones who started
the "twentysomething think-tank" Third Millennium--is precisely the
kind of technocratic "issue" guaranteed to alienate and depress anyone
still possessing a shred of political passion.

Although Weil was deeply suspicious of all ideologies, she was an
unapologetic idealist. If Weil's vision of a society without
oppression has yet to materialize, her writing at least continues to
inspire; it's hard to imagine anyone re-reading Bagby in, say, 1999.
In fact, Weil's self-imposed alienation from all causes and
communities is precisely what the original prophet of the End of
Ideology, sociologist Daniel Bell, advocated: Detachment and idealism
are not, after all, mutually exclusive. Bagby's "Whatever Works," on
the other hand, though surrounded by weakly worded expressions of
idealism, is in fact subversive of same. And whenever someone starts
subverting idealism, we need to ask: To whose profit? The answer, I
think, was expressed by Lewis Mumford, one of those "witch doctors" or
"soothsayers" of a past generation, when he wrote (in Technics and
Civilization) that "the idea that values could be dispensed with and
replaced by mechanical or mathematical solutions is just another
ideology" --a utilitarian one, whose only truly hoped-for result is
the "clean victory" of capitalism over previous traditions, loyalties,
and sentiments.

Like every single carpetbagger who's ever descended upon a war-torn
landscape, preaching about new brooms sweeping clean, Bagby is not to
be trusted. Whenever she starts spelling W-O-R-K-S, she means
M-O-N-E-Y. Beneath her shopworn Gen X insouciance lies an age-old
cynical utilitarianism which knows the price of everything and the
value of nothing--and that really sucks.

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