Out with the old, in with the new

I'm now at Everyday Performance. Different angle, less political, more writing and living.


You Can’t Tell Me What to Think

Or, The American Autocratic Experiment.

We like to think of it as the “democratic” experiment. After all, we elect representatives to run our government. We don’t have any royalty. Winston Churchill, apparently quoting someone else noted, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

I had it stuck in my head that Alexis de Tocqueville had said this, and looking through his lines on BrainyQuote, found all kinds of observations that are still remarkably accurate in the 21st century. I assumed it was him because of his book, Democracy in America. This is going back on my reading list.

In addition to whatever organized religion we do (or do not) ascribe to in this country, we also share in the secular religion of democracy, and our sacred texts are, of course, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Sure, some smart person might bring up the separation of powers, or more particularly “checks and balances,” when arguing for or against the idea of an imperial presidency. But then someone else counters that the Constitution says nothing about checks and balances and that you have to go to personal letters of the framers, and those are practically apocrypha.

I digress. The bit that I’ve been stuck on is the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, plus the purely proverbial “a man’s home is his castle.” Taken together, sacrament and proverb, they push toward an interpretation of “you can’t tell me what to do.” The Roberts Court, our current Supreme Court, continues the Rehnquist trend of pushing back federal rights in favor of states’ rights. The Bill of Rights continues a line toward the individual and away from the federal government.

I can practice any religion, or none. I can carry a gun. I don’t have to incriminate myself (the “fifth,” your honor). The extension of this is that while I elect someone to govern my country, I don’t elect anyone to govern me. It’s not that I’m not necessarily responsible for my actions, but I’m not necessarily responsible to anyone for them.

I’m bringing this up because at the moment, culturally, we seem to be on a collision course between these impulses, fostered, I would argue, by scaremongers like Glenn Beck. YOU are threatened, yes, YOU. What are YOU going to do? Because it’s within YOUR power. YOU are responsible to NO ONE. We do have royalty, it turns out. It's Us. The Constitution says so, and it’s our most holy document.


The Impediment of Infrastructure

When I was in grad school, Alan Burdette, for whom I was a TA, joked about the radial Catholic E.F. Schumacher and recommended his book, Small is Beautiful (note there are three hyperlinks here). I haven’t read it, I’m sorry to say, even though it’s been on my reading list since then.

There’s a popular meme regarding governments and lemonade stands, many in reference to shutting down kids’ entrepreneurial spirit, some in reference to “I wouldn’t trust X to run Y.” The scorn that I hear when I read this statement makes me wonder what it is about government that suddenly drives people toward incompetence. It’s not like our first MBA president did a bang-up job at regulating or nurturing the economy.

John Steele Gordon summarizes the problem succinctly as: Politicians need headlines. He spends more time on it broadly (that’s just item #2) in this article.

I’m adding a second category of problem, because I think Mr. Gordon is a dyed-in-the-wool ideologue of the “free market is everything” school, and myself, I rather like Jonathan Tasini’s turn of phrase: “the ‘free market’ is just a marketing term.”

It’s not that business is inherently good and government is inherently bad, respectively, at running businesses. Part of their problem is size. We trumpet the idea of “economy of scale,” because it means that we can make expensive things more cheaply. It makes things more accessible. To make this work, we have to develop infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the reason we can all drive cars and trucks all over the country – all over almost any country for that matter. In this case, infrastructure includes roads, bridges, gas stations, not to mention the folks who manufacture those vehicles, the smaller companies that create the widgets that go inside them, that fix them, that exist to counter known problems.

Infrastructure is the reason why developing a non-gas-powered car is going to be a nightmare. Every related interest group is going to line up against new fuel types under all kinds of logic – it’s too expensive, it’ll put gas station owners out of business, it’s impractical.

The bigger the business, the greater the infrastructure – as a rule. There are ways to be flexible, such as sourcing out your R&D. But just to be clear – when we’re talking about how great the market is, we’re talking about how successful a big company is and how nimble a small company is. The problem is that we tend to think those companies are the same thing.


Common sense, Tea Parties, and Taxes

There’s a photo series running around on Facebook right now, and presumably elsewhere on the ‘net, “Morons holding signs.” It shows hand-made signs with things like “Obama half-breed muslin,” “No Amensty,” and “Descent: the highest form of Patriotic.” As a former grader of student papers, I like my correct spelling and grammar as much or more than most folks I know, but there’s a certain amount of point-missing going on here.

Instead of looking at the substance of the complaints, the comments and forwarding focuses on the fact that some people can’t spell (although it is hard to argue with the slams on the dude holding the sign that says “Get a brain! Morans”). Laughing at someone for calling Obama a half-breed muslin (what’s the other half – tweed?) ignores the birther angle. Maybe that deserves ignoring, but ignore it for what it is, not for n over m. Don't be distracted. Don't be arrogant - it's too easy. It's the wrong argument. It wins you no friends.

So today, Frank Rich wrote a thoughtful and not GOP-bashing piece in the New York Times (I know, no way). He’s talking about Glenn Beck, the 9/12 Project, and the general populist rage going on. Fair enough. Glenn Beck rails against corporate corruption (even though many call him a corporate stooge), against government corruption (even though his fans want to draft him into government), and against wasteful spending. The thing that I really liked about reading this piece by Rich was getting a broader sense of Beck without having to suffer through him personally.

Incidentally, Beck is trying to position himself as a latter day Thomas Paine, with his own version of Common Sense (two links here, by the way). Boy, those old-timers really had an angle on good behavior, didn’t they?

What’s been nagging at me for a couple of days is the combination of left and right wing anger.

Last autumn, I had the pleasure and good fortune to meet Jonathan Tasini, former head of the National Writer’s Union, blogger, state senate candidate (vote!), and all-around tilter-at-windmills with whom I do not always agree. Jonathan thinks everyone should be in a union. He thinks so because he believes in the power of collective bargaining, and he believes that corporations need a counterweight. He’s a got a minutely detailed argument about how U.S. worker productivity has been rising consistently (if not steadily) since at least the 1970s, while wages have remained stagnant (it might be in this book, but I’m not sure).

One of the arguments against the teabaggers’ railing “no more taxes” is that a) we’re paying less taxes now than we were under Reagan. Lots less. And b) more than 90% of us got a tax cut under Obama’s stimulus plan (as represented in less money being taken out of our paychecks). But they’re REALLY angry about something.

What if those arguments were both right? Less taxes but less income? Our paychecks don’t go as far not because the government is taking out more, but because we’re still arguing about the negative effect of, say, raising the minimum wage?

Is this just misplaced anger? Why is it so much more palatable to hate the government than to hate the corporations? What if it wasn't just the government that was the problem?


On Social Priorities

Or, let the market decide.

About a week ago, Paul Krugman wrote an interesting (and rather lengthy) article about what economists got wrong regarding pretty much everything over the past twenty years, and why they still argue about it. On a side note, one of the reasons I liked reading Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics is their assertion that economics is great at measuring – notably, they do not say at predicting.)

This morning Howard Kurtz has a column initially about Glenn Beck and Van Jones, and by the time he gets to the rambling end, about the Obama administration’s attempts to crowdsource policy initiatives. “The people rule – sometimes badly.”

We’re okay accepting that people make mistakes, but there remains a strong and vital belief particularly in the U.S. in the power of the market economy to work itself and everything else out. The theory is that collectively we’re pretty good at figuring things out, even if we’re bad at it individually (RadioLab also did a good piece on this, but I can’t remember which one. Just listen, it’s a good show).

This summer I worked for 6 weeks as the construction coordinator on an independent feature film using a low-budget union agreement, even though we began as a non-union film. I had no “qualifications” per se, in terms of a degree or anything, but I have years of experience in theater and carpentry, and a shop, and between one and the other, plus an experienced boss who figured I’d be a good bet, I got the job.

For four and a half I taught university classes. Last spring I was adjuncting again, but for the two years previous to that, I was salaried. I spent six years getting my Ph.D., so I’m qualified (minimally) to do that.

I made more money on an indie film in a comparable period of time than I did teaching full time at the university. Taking my benefits into account, I probably made about the same amount of money. When I taught adjunct last spring, I calculated that I was making a little above minimum wage, in the 7.50/hour range.

The “market” may have determined what my wages were within each job scheme, i.e. how much I make as a university instructor, but it doesn’t weight that job against another, say construction coordinator.

“Society” has made that determination. Just like the market, society is us, of course.

Sometimes I feel like watching democracy in action is simply an exercise in watching an id-driven puberty-wracked teen trying to curb his worst impulses. Only the worst ones, though. The bad ones are too much fun.