Bill Clinton, presidential candidate, famously had pinned to his wall by his campaign manager (the glib James Carville) a sign saying “It’s the economy, stupid”. It was shorthand for “all the voters are interested in is their hip pocket so give them what they want, not any high falutin’ stuff about environment, or arts, or foreign affairs, or infrastructure, or health, or education, Dumbo”. It was instantly adopted as the kind of ageless political advice on stone tablets brought down from the Acropolis by Machiavelli after everybody said “gosh darn why didn’t I think of that?”
And away they went. And because it was the preferred political fighting ground of the Right it suited them down to the balance sheet to have progressives always focused on “the economy” and not the hundreds, thousands of other aspects of daily life that the Right don’t have a clue about. While the strengths of progressive politicians were left undiscussed. As time went by this became a self-fulfilling bon mot because progressives were expected to focus on the economy, so only those who were happy to do so, looked the part, and talked the talk, could become political candidates. Game set and match to the corporations and banks. Bravo Mr Carville.
But the ramifications of this ratty little bit of paper with its fortune cookie sentiment went even further. The public began to believe that you only had to utter the phrase “the economy”, and, like a Hogwarts’ spell, demons would be defeated, all put to rights, happy ever after. An answer to a perceived problem which is “the economy” ignores all the other aspects of society and culture that combine to keep the wheels of history turning. Ignores environmental issues, education, health, infrastructure, culture, technology, communication, ethnic relations, population parameters, geography, history itself indeed. To pretend that there is some magic economic lever you can pull and everything comes good is fooling both yourself and the people.
But it has got worse since that golden age when the Clinton-Carville political renaissance was in full bloom, like a hundred flowers. At least then the post-it note’s wisdom for the ages encompassed the whole economy. In more recent times politicians have come to reduce the language of a campaign to three word slogans, and the “policies” to glib single issues. Modern Carvilles I guess pin-up notes saying “It’s the Dummies, Stupid”. Can’t confuse the dumbed-down voters, so politicians wander around, repeating the same mantra endlessly – all will be well if you elect me and I just do this one thing. The one thing might be the removal of a tax, the change in a law, the building of a railroad, the bulldozing of a forest, the cutting of “red tape” (or these days “green tape” or “black tape”), the stopping of immigration, the reduction of minimum wages, fighting terrorism, and so on.
Our very own Tony Abbott, who three word slogans suit just fine because he can’t remember sequences longer than three words (Romney in America the same) has been telling the public, daily for two years that the “Big New Tax” (ie what is actually a price on carbon applicable only to a few hundred big companies) will be removed and the Golden Years of Howard will be restored. Nothing else needed, just keep telling people (ranging from fishermen to antique dealers to coal miners), over and over that the removal of this ‘tax’ will solve all their problems, for ever and ever amen.
Tony Abbott, Opposition Leader and prime minister manque, doesn’t bother explaining to the businesses that, if they do have “problems”, those problems have nothing whatsoever to do with a carbon price. Their businesses are the way they are (for better or worse) because of the exchange rate of the dollar, free trade agreements, global financial crises, lack of funding for education, inadequate infrastructure, the labour market distortion caused by the mining boom, the adequacy of workplace safety regulations, health care for workers, business tax concessions, the wages that potential customers get, the presence of sufficient housing for a workforce, adequate transport and communications, and so on. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a society to support a business.
Similarly the general public, offered, say, a tax cut by a wannabe leader, might want to consider what that wannabe might to do public transport, public schools and hospitals, road maintenance, whether they will ensure the air and water are clean (whether indeed they will help to stop the climate itself changing), whether they will be tempted to take the country to war for some less than adequate reason, whether they will encourage development of the arts, and so on.
It is no good making promises about what you will do about one tiny element of people’s lives. What counts is the entirety of the society in which we all live. And the entirety of the people who ask to lead us.