Memo to Frank Underwood

hoc-text[1]Memo to Frank Underwood

Your plan to cut entitlements by $500 billion and use the money to ‘create’ jobs won’t work.

Why not use it to cut payroll taxes across the board instead?

By Peter Lewin


The consensus verdict on season 3 of Netflix’s House of Cards will arrive in due course. I will leave it to the literary critics to do their thing. Is it art? Is it commentary? Did it hit the target? I am not sure it matters what they say. What matters most to Netflix is how many people watched it and what the prospects are for season 4.

If Frank Underwood is all about getting votes and the power that comes with it, the Netflix writers are about gaining viewers and all that that implies. Think about it. These motivations are not all that different. The viewers are the voters in another guise – or at least they share the same concerns. And more important they share the same presumptions about how to address those concerns.

So it’s a fair bet that the writers are aiming at the concerns and presumptions of the viewers, who are voters in the real world. In other words, what we see in the script acted out on the screen, is a reflection of what the writers think are the concerns of the American public and the presumptions that underlie them. The writers may be wrong or they may be right. And even if they are wrong, if many of the viewers do not identify with the highlighted issues and/or the suggested solutions, it may still make for good entertainment – indeed that is why I continued to watch, even though I was pretty irritated not only by the moral depravity of that world, but also by the grossly false assumptions that its characters hold. I am not sure, however, that I will stay the course for another season. I came away thinking that the script revealed more about the writers than about their intended audience.

For starters consider the central strategic project that runs through season 3, Frank’s inspired America-Works program (AW). AW serves a number of interesting purposes and it plugs into a number of current issues. It serves to separate the protagonist from his fellow politicians and to fine-tune the tension between them. And it provides him the weapon to outflank his rivals as he appeals for votes. To work, it has to be something that the viewers, and the voters, in the story and in reality, will understand. So it must be connected to the issues they actually face in the real world.

At the top of that list of current issues is unemployment, prominent on the current political agenda as we in America struggle haltingly to escape from the lingering recession. The notion of “ten million jobs” needing to be created is very familiar. Then there is the question of “presidential prerogative” and the “separation of powers” of the different branches of government – as in the president decides to do something with money Congress has appropriated for something else – sound familiar? Is this a criticism or a backslap for President Obama’s wild and independent agenda? Take your pick. Certainly, there is the hint of admiration for Frank Underwood’s energetic initiative in working around a pathetically ossified Congress. He is a man of action able to “get things done” when no one else can.

And then, when the hurricane hits (literally), the program falters (though it still serves Frank’s purpose) and the money goes away. What a pity, if only he could have gotten away with it, all those people would have had jobs. And now they are stuck again without work and pay!

Really? Who believes this? Have we really thrown out an appreciation of the necessity for the Congress to check the power of the president to act independently? And, more important, do we really believe that it is government, and government alone, that creates jobs? There is a name for this kind of thinking. It’s called crude Keynesian economics and it was discredited back in the 1970’s and 1980’s before Obama and company decided to recycle it.

Yet, somehow, nobody in Frank Underwood’s world questions his presumptions, not his Democratic political opponents nor anyone from the other side of the aisle, no-one. The writers see no need to have anyone question the presumptions underlying the AW initiative. Nobody points out that the diverted money was going to be spent somewhere else and would no doubt have ‘created’ jobs there. Nobody wonders how AW managers know what jobs to create and whether these are in any way ‘sustainable’. Nobody wonders how the FEMA money was raised in the first place – by taxes that reduce private incomes and private expenditures. Nobody suggests to Frank Underwood that a tax-cut of that magnitude might lead to enough private spending to create jobs where they are most needed in the private sector. No of course not. We all know that these ideas are so yesterday.

Newsflash, there are some Americans, maybe a few, maybe not so few, and certainly some in Congress, who still believe them. So why are they not in the script? I think I know why. Keep reading.

Consider the hurricane. Playing off of Katrina, right? AW gets derailed because in the absence of the FEMA money hundreds (or more) lives will be lost. Really? Don’t the writers know that this is an unintended cruel joke, that the performance of FEMA in the actual Katrina event was worse than miserable, and actually counterproductive, that, plausibly, FEMA’s bungling may actually have caused more casualties than it prevented? And clearly they don’t know that the most effective efforts at relief and revival came from the private heroic efforts of the local communities themselves and, incredibly significantly, from the likes of private companies like Walmart, Home Depot, and others. How inconvenient a truth this is as Heather Dunbar dramatically excoriates Walmart for the low wages it pays its workers. Yet, again, nobody points any of this out. Nobody in the show challenges these presumptions.

And herein lies the explanation. The show is shot-through with what we may call the “accepted assumptions” that set of assumptions that define the current left-liberal way of thinking to the exclusion of any other. Thinking differently is simply impossible for those whose thinking is constrained this way – it never occurs to them to ask what to others seem obvious questions. It is acceptable to hate Walmart and not acceptable to suggest that Walmart is actually a hero. It is natural for them to identify salvation with well-intentioned government programs (even at the hands of the morally bankrupt Frank Underwood) and unthinkable to imagine that better results may occur spontaneously if only we allowed people to go about the business of making as much money as they can. Terms like John Kenneth Galbraith’s “conventional wisdom” or what Conservatives call “political correctness” come to mind. It is an all-pervasive feature of season 3 and, in the end, serves to corrupt the entire structure of the series. The shark is jumped with the writers’ decision to make this season about gender-inequality, the depravity of masculinity and the nobility of femininity. The whole season is really a build-up to Claire’s dramatic, courageous, empowering, and ennobling grand exit – her decision to leave Frank and his depraved male-dominated world, and, in so doing, reinvent herself to become a moral human being, re-born. And this is something the perceptive soulful writer Tom Gates knew all along about Claire.

Even the sub-plot of the Russian-American conflict, with the men needlessly and stupidly confronting each other while pushing soldiers around the world’s chess board, serves to channel Claire’s unlikely conversion. When she finally sees a target that serves her own particular ambitions (UN ambassador) she finds it impossible to act without the manipulating heavy hand of her husband, who helps her in this only as long as it serves his agenda. The nature of their relationship is, to be sure, ambiguous. They serve each other’s needs. Mutual respect and mutual reliance, a hint of real love. Now she suddenly comes to the realization that she is married to a monster? “We are murderers Frank.” Oh dear I have been a bad girl. If only I had not let this nasty man dominate me to serve his wicked ambition. Do you buy this?

Forgive my cynicism. We know from previous seasons that Claire Underwood is a relentlessly driven narcissist who is an accomplice to more than one murder and a slew of other nefarious acts. Prior to this season she displays only dispensable empathy and can be relied on to do what is necessary to advance her and her husband’s agenda.

What drives this is the issue of gender equality – which fits nicely into the accepted assumptions. The writers push it beyond any reasonable bounds. Heather Dunbar, the feminist role model, declares “all aspects of sexism should be illegal.” The presidential debate scene is maybe the most effective scene in season 3. What is it ultimately about? Sexism and the betrayal of Jackie Sharp (a woman) by Frank (a man, the man). Heather Dunbar is a noble woman, who offers Jackie nothing save integrity and authenticity. Meanwhile Jackie, this egotistical, self-serving politico has been getting in touch with her feminine side – discovering the virtues of family and love. So naturally she comes to the realization that the right thing to do is to unite with her “sister” against the man. And Remy Danton? Who would have thought that he would find his conscience. Did it help that he got to connect with the plight of some of the less fortunate? Accepted assumptions wherever you look. The West Wing wins out against Frank Underwood.

And then there is Doug Stamper, perhaps the most interesting character in the story. There is no redemption for him, but at least he is believable.

In short, there is an implicit narrative running throughout season 3 that embodies the writers’ vision and pretty much reflects the narrow presumptions of the Washington elite and the ideological intellectuals who inform them. And like all popular art, it serves not only to reflect but also to inform.

Peter Lewin is Clinical Professor of Managerial Economics in the Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, is the author of Capital in Disequilibrium: The Role of Capital in the Modern Word (Routledge, 1999) and numerous scholarly articles.


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