What is the essence of parody? The dictionary defines it as,
an imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect
But definitions aside, I think that everyone knows a parody when they see one… right? Parodies are usually undertaken to mock those you disagree with. But what about when something looks like a parody, feels like a parody but actually might not be a parody at all? Well, that’s usually referred to as an ‘accidental self-parody’.
I came across one such accidental self-parody today in the field of economics. Last year John Carney — a strange conservative supporter of MMT that works at CNBC — published a piece called A Modest Job Guarantee Proposal: Domestic Servant Subsidies.
The title, of course, mimics one of the most famous political-economic satires of all time — namely Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick which is more typically known as A Modest Proposal. The famous work is a parody of some of the tracts that mean-spirited ‘reformers’ of the day were publishing and in it Swift suggested that poor Irish children should be taken from their parents, because they cost too much to feed, and be prepared as food for the well-off.
Carney’s title seems to echo this. As Wikipedia states,
In English writing, the phrase “a modest proposal” is now conventionally an allusion to this style of straight-faced satire.
But if you read Carney’s article it is clear that it is not a satire at all. Indeed, he is absolutely serious about trying to get the unemployed to clean his dishes for him as part of government policy. He is not joking — he is not mocking the insular, selfish conservative who lacks empathy and thinks that others are only there as a convenience for themselves — no he really thinks that this is a viable idea. He thinks that it would avoid the problems of centralisation inherent in the Job Guarantee — although one wonders why domestic service came to Carney’s mind, why not give tax breaks to people to donate to the arts, for example… is it because Carney had to put on the washing before sitting down to write his piece?
Carney also engages in that same conservative trope that is often wheeled out to justify nonsense,
No doubt some will object to using domestic service as a buffer stock economic stabilizer, on the grounds that it would be demeaning to workers. But this only displays a prejudice against domestic service on the part of those raising the objection. In reality, there is a long and dignified history of domestic service that demonstrates such positions need not be demeaning.
This is a funny argument and you can replace “domestic servant” with all sorts of different jobs to achieve the same rhetorical effect — “sex worker”, “pornographer” and so on. The point is not that we are judging those who choose to do these jobs, rather we are judging whether the government should have a mandate to encourage employment in this particular sector.
The question raised by a program that is being put in place by a democratically elected government is this: since we are providing a massive incentive for unemployed people to do a given job is the best we can do to get them to clean Carney’s dishes for him? Is the US government really just an entity that exists to ensure that Carney doesn’t have to do his own washing?
And now we’re back to the question of parody. Is Carney’s piece a parody? If we assume some education and literacy on the part of the author the title indicates that it is — i.e. if Carney was self-conscious in his use of the term ‘modest proposal’ and did not just think the phrase vaguely literary so he threw it in to lend writerly weight to his piece. The content seems to me rather satirical too. But I fear that it is not, in fact, a parody at all. It is, as I intimated earlier, an accidental self-parody.
My sympathy here, I suppose, falls with the American satirists. They must have a terribly hard time. Perhaps it is these hard-working people, starved of material by the likes of Carney, that deserve to be compensated with our tax credits. And with that, I redirect the reader once again to a non-satirical program which uses tax-credits to get the unemployed back to work.