Baseline Propositions

Stay with me on this…  Government does, or can do the following:
  1. Establish and maintain national defense – intelligence gathering, war fighting, maintaining a fighting force, supporting that fighting force after the fact.
  2. Serve as a counterweight to the forces of paleocapitalism – where the people with the most money want to consolidate and build empires no matter the cost to society as a whole, government is theoretically the bully to bully the bullies back.
  3. maintain social order, which facilitates regular, predictable interactions in the public sphere, whether they be financial transactions, establishes a mechanism to protect people from grievous harm…  really, this is another way of looking at the bully to out-bully the bullies argument, except this time applied to black markets and criminal enterprises.
  4. organize large projects for the common good that could not be accomplished by individuals acting alone: infrastructure, public parks, and the like.
Each of these roles plays up against the other – sometimes the fourth and the second inform each other, in the case of preventing oil companies from pouring their toxic byproducts directly into a river, for example.
Some of these functions can only be accomplished by a federal government: you wouldn’t necessarily want North and South Dakota to develop intelligence capabilities against each other, or to develop their own armies in case of resource scarcity or invasion.  And what is South Dakota going to do against a Russian hacking incident?  The efficiencies of scale dictate that, in this application, we’re best to have this function organized for everyone vs. having 50 different methodologies for providing national defense.  Similarly, when corporations operate across all 50 states, it helps to have a single bully to counteract the less noble tendencies of ever-man-for-himself capitalism.
But for the most part, the arguments between conservatives and liberals used to be about what the right balance was between order and chaos.  The conservative faction has argued for greater chaos in the public sphere (commerce, environment, trade) and more order in the private sphere (sexuality/identity, personal responsibility, recreational drug use, protecting belief-based discrimination, so long as the belief is Christian).
An interjection of inconvenient evidence: the argument for personal order and public chaos is largely ideological rather than pragmatic – the historical record is pretty clear that chaos in the public sphere brings us greater income inequality, more social unrest, and poor economic outcomes.  Both the Great Depression and the Great Recession are tied to Republican sweeps of the Senate, the House, and the White House.  States where the leaders have had great faith in the notion of public-sphere chaos bringing prosperity have tangible evidence to suggest that this article of faith is baseless.  Check Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Kansas.
On the other hand, the liberal position is for greater order in the public sphere (regulation of banks, regulation for environmental impact, more investment in projects that benefit everyone) and greater chaos in the personal sphere (bodily integrity for women, collective responsibility, a live-and-let-live approach to sexuality and identity, deregulation of some recreational substances coupled with science-based support to individuals with addictions).
These originating propositions have long-since been obscured by emotional manipulation. But who cares what you believe and which political proposition you align yourself with?  Let’s start with a true or false proposition: money is the major driver behind society’s big gears – policy, politics, etc.
The next true/false proposition: Companies have a vested interest in individuals’ political and commercial behavior.
If you think companies (as a whole) are enlightened entities out to serve the common good, I’m not sure we can have this conversation.
If you believe that commercial concerns – Exxon, Walmart, McDonalds – are primarily driven by the desire to generate profit…  then do those companies have incentive to support political behavior that furthers their ability to generate profit?  How is that best accomplished? I would propose that fear is one of the most effective sales tools imaginable.
Which brings us to this: what are you afraid of, and who is profiting from that fear?
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Baseline Propositions

Life and Liberty

Apparently, the Libertarians are getting attention this election cycle from the Republicans who can’t get behind Trump.  There are a lot of things I like about the Libertarians.  I like the consistency to a principle.  The official party platform is equally about getting the government out of regulating guns and drugs.  They aren’t big on starting wars.  They don’t think the government should have a say in who marries who, or legislating sex, or interfering with a body’s dominion over itself.  This is vastly preferable to people who want to pick and choose: no government in my gun safe, but please go police that lady’s panties.  I don’t think you can have it both ways.  

But there are flaws in the reasoning.  For example, the desire to de-regulate everything and let the market decide about everything.  Laissez Faire capitalism.  Well, the truth is that we tried that and it didn’t work out so well.  Without regulation, we ended up with monopolies that could charge whatever the hell they wanted because there was no market left to check them.  The industrial age was perfectly content with child labor, no safety precautions for workers, and impossibly low living standards for most people.  De-regulation brought us the Great Depression of 1929 and the housing crash of 2008.  Because society can’t trust a few guys behind the curtain pulling levers and belching out smoke not to sacrifice the well-being of millions in favor of adding a few more zeros to the back of their bank accounts.  Every time we’ve trusted corporations to do the right thing without demanding it of them and verifying that they are following the rules, they’ve run amok.  Every. Time.  

Still, the economic libertarians insist that fewer regulations would be better.  Just like you never hear of anyone doing a past life regression finding out that they were a minor peasant who died of influenza after a illiterate life of picking up the leftover straw from some Lord’s field, it seems like everyone advocating for true economic liberty seems to think that they’d somehow end up on the top of the dogpile.  Other people’s suffering is rarely as motivating to us as our own is, so it is fine that the people on the bottom get crushed.  Because in this fantasy, no one ever thinks that they’ll fall to the bottom.  Still, history is pretty clear that, in the absence of government intervention – basically out-bullying the bullies – you have a handful of people on the top for whom life is very good, and everyone else is on the bottom being miserable.  Government basically knocks the top off the highs and the bottom off the lows, bringing the two a little closer together.  Sure, government is still a bit of a bully.  It’s King Kong with clumsy fists and thoughtless, crushing missteps, at least sometimes.  

The thing is, you don’t get to choose between perfect and imperfect.  You get to choose between imperfect systems.  Would you rather have companies monopolizing you with the market as an unreliable counterbalance?  Or would you rather have the Government overseeing things, sometimes clumsily, and at the mercy of people you and your countrymen elect, where no one gets 100% of what they want, and fewer people get left behind entirely?  

Meanwhile, when government knocks off the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs, society as a whole is better off for it.  So maybe the wine cellars of the rich have ten fewer bottles of priceless Brut.  Infant mortality goes down for everyone.  All these people squawking about abortion should be in favor of policies that bring down infant mortality, no?

Anyway, measuring what is important in terms of dollars amassed isn’t justified in terms of the research.  After about $70k in salary/year, more money doesn’t make for more happiness.  (Interject a little Biggie here: I don’t know what they want from me.  Seems like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.)  Read Daniel Pink’s Drive.  After people can take care of their lives, money doesn’t motivate anymore.  It’s purpose and connection that matters.  

So all of these people who want the rich to pay less taxes because they might win the lottery one day and they don’t want the government to get their hard-won money…  they are prioritizing money they don’t have and may never see over quality of life that is independent of a few million in the bank.  

In short, libertarian economic philosophy reeks of bullshit to me.  It rests on the fantasy that there is a clean answer, an ideal answer, and one that won’t come with its own costs.  The truth is that you have $100 and you’re going to have to pay $50 of that one way or another.  It’s just the price of doing business.  So who are you going to pay that $50 to?  The government, for building and maintaining the roads for everyone?  Or the troll taking a toll at the bridge?

Everything costs something.  Don’t believe anyone who doesn’t openly acknowledge that fact.  

Life and Liberty

The End of the World

My dad used to say that every generation thinks it is living at the end of the world.  The Romans complained that civilization was going to be destroyed by gossip.*  Growing up, we were afraid that the apocalypse was going to be ushered in by a new world order run by the UN.  There is nuclear holocaust, World War III, North Korea, climate change, flood, asteroid, plague, water shortage, or some combination of the above.  Never mind the breakdown of civil discourse, celebrity worship, willful ignorance, the breakdown of social fabric, the robot takeover, government overreach, unwashed hordes of immigrants come to undermine all the good work of the enlightenment…  Pick your poison.  

I live there too.  After the latest round of catastrophic news, whatever the catastrophe of the day is, I find myself thinking about having children.  About thrusting an unsuspecting soul into this madness, and I wonder why you’d do that.  Why would you bring something into the world in order to suffer the end of potable water, a world without polar bears or mercy or antibiotics that work…  

But the last bit of sunshine we saw here in DC included an evening walk in a quaint part of the city.  Ice cream and sunshine and good company and pizza for dinner.  After the ice cream.  There are stories and connections and affection and jokes and joy.  

Everything costs something.  Nothing comes for free.  So maybe it isn’t selfish to bring an innocent soul into this mess after all.  There is still beauty in the mess.  Curiosity.  Discovery.  Humor.  Meaning.  Connection.  Purpose.  If I’d never been conceived, I can’t imagine that absence of self even being an absence.  It wouldn’t have mattered, there wouldn’t have been any disappointment in an unplanned pregnancy that never occurred in the first place.  There would have been no perspective to feel the loss of rainbows and cuddle-monster nephews.  I’m not sad that I live in an age of anxiety.  Maybe humanity has always lived in an age of anxiety.  Maybe that’s just the price.  For access to simple pleasures and a little joy here and there, maybe it’s not that bad of a deal.  

*I read it somewhere, but google can’t find it.  I didn’t make it up, but perhaps someone did.

The End of the World

Politically Correct: Part Six

Don’t be an asshole.

It wasn’t that long ago that some Bernie supporters showed up to protest at a Clinton rally.  Sorry people, kind of an asshole thing to do.  You want to protest something specific like her voting for the Iraq war?  Or her hawkish approach to being Secretary of State?  Or taking wall street money?  Go for it.  All of those things are fair game for protesters.  But don’t show up to ruin the party just because you like the other guy better.  If you like Bernie, vote for him.  Call.  Talk to people in a way that they might actually listen to you.  But don’t be an ass about it.

Protesters at Trump rallies.  How can you make the argument that Trump and his supporters are assholes if you’re an asshole too?  Protest.  By all means.  Show up and disagree.  But let *them* be the assholes.  You can’t make someone else look bad by behaving badly yourself.

Again, I don’t think there was a golden age of American discourse when people weren’t assholes.  Congressmen have been known to beat each other with walking sticks.  The asshole has been with us for a very long time.  But other people are beyond our control.  All we can do is not be the asshole.  Being an asshole doesn’t win the argument.  It doesn’t change anyone’s mind.  It doesn’t make you look smart.  It solves nothing, moves nothing forward, creates no value.

And maybe we could talk less about how awful the PC police are and how it stifles dialogue if everyone could stop being an asshole.  And I mean everyone.  The world is made up of people who don’t agree with you.  People who hold beliefs and opinions that aren’t terribly considered or intelligent.  They have as much right to air and bodily integrity as you have.  Disagree.  Talk about the pros and cons.  Think about the other guy’s perspective.  Bring a little respect to the table.   Not everyone has to agree with you: the world will keep spinning.

And then don’t be an asshole.

Politically Correct: Part Six

Politically Correct: Part Three

When the first Shrek was out in theaters, my family and I went to see it.  About 2/3rds of the way through, Donkey mutters “what’s the point of being able to talk if you’ve got to keep secrets?”  Or something like that.  No one in the theater laughed except my family.  My whole damn family.  And they laughed hard.

Because I’m not known for my secret-keeping.  I do better (by far) now than I did as a child, but there is something in me that can’t compute the idea that there are things that can’t be discussed.  As a teenager in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, this got me into a lot of trouble.  The list of things we couldn’t talk about there went on for days.  The list of things we didn’t do was nearly as long, but one doesn’t really *do* secular humanism.  It is a concept, a philosophy, a thing you talk about.  And it, among other ideas, were verboten.

This never sat well with me.  I had questions and I wanted answers and that was unacceptable.  So I stopped being Adventist and ideas stopped being off-limits.

Except there are new rules for things that can’t be thought.  Ideas that can’t be said.  Discomforts that can’t be owned.  Recently, there was an internet meltdown over Louis CK’s fictional grappling with the concept of having maybe slept with a post-op transsexual woman.  In my perspective, addressing this subject honestly–up to and including ambivalence and not knowing what you feel–is better than putting a Brady Bunch happy ending on the subject.  Too many transsexual individuals end up dead because there is no room in our culture for muddling through the grey area of not knowing exactly how to react to this phenomenon, for being conflicted and confused.  And to put that confusion into the cultural discourse is a *good* thing.

Confusion, conflict, and ambivalence are far more true to the human experience than sitcom resolutions which take exactly 18 minutes to complete, with the minutes in-between brought to you by our overlord sponsors.

To say that confusion, conflict, and ambivalence are unacceptable forces us back into a different kind of binary, which isn’t helpful either.  Because real life happens in grey.  I personally have never felt particularly chafed by the idea that there are some conversations that I can have in private that are not for me to have in public.  I don’t feel particularly constrained by the PC police.  But I read about professors who cross Mark Twain off of their reading list because someone might be offended…  I wonder what of the unspeakables is worse: the one that comes from religious hegemony or the one that comes from a fear of discomfort.

I think I might take the religious exile of certain subjects over the secular exile of a different set of subjects.  But I’d rather not have either governing my intellectual life.  The truth is that we all think ugly things from time to time.  We all make tasteless jokes here and there.  We try out words to see if they fit before we agree with them.  Silencing racists with our censure doesn’t make them less racist, it only drives them underground.  Stifling a fictional conversation about the awkward that would ensue as you wrapped your head around the idea that you’d just woken up with someone who was born an xy and was now presenting like an xx…  Why wouldn’t that take a minute to get used to?  I’d need a minute to wrap my head around the realization that I’d just woken up with a Republican, regardless of the intellectual certainty that being a Republican doesn’t automatically make you a soulless, golf-playing, boat-shoe-wearing frat boy.  I’d still need a minute.

Ideas are just ideas.  You can’t bomb them.  You can’t shame them into oblivion.  It is never the stuff that we talk about openly that returns to haunt us, it is always the things that we’ve decided can’t be discussed.  If you really want to kill an idea, let it be spoken, let it be tested against reason, give the idea-holder the opportunity to figure out exactly how bad the idea really is.  Hell, let them live with the bad idea if they want.  So long as that bad idea doesn’t turn into someone else’s reality.

Besides, couldn’t we spend all that outrage energy on something useful, like driving voters to polling places or volunteering or writing petitions to save bees or something that has some tangible impact in the world one way or another?

Politically Correct: Part Three

Politically Correct, Part One

It starts with George Carlin.  I’m late to the party, but I’m here now, and the man was admirable.  As a writer, his insistence on words that have concrete meaning resonates.  At the end of the day, they are just words, but they preform an essential function.  We could debate the reasons for this, but it seems like the more visceral the words, the more they convey meaning that can’t be misunderstood.

Once upon a time, I was a contractor with a large organization and the lead for our company was trying to boost morale.  After everyone at the table had talked in circles around the issues, I finally said “look.  We get it.  The company is our pimp and we’re the hookers.  You aren’t going to make the situation better by telling us that we’re in a relationship, but you can stop beating us.”  I made the project manager deeply uncomfortable, but he knew exactly what I meant.  Was it a PC way to go about conveying my point?  Probably not.  But it was effective.

I don’t like mushy language.  Hallmark, while an interesting company, chafes my hide.  Company mission and values statements are probably the worst possible example of mushy language taking over the word.  They string these words together like excellence, integrity, and value, but what does that tell you about the company?  Only that they say the same shit every other company in the world says.  My whole professional life is about puzzling through dense prose to find the meaning and its simplest expression.  Words matter to me.

Bill Maher is one of my favorite social/political commentators.  Thoroughly liberal – I’m not even sure what that word means anymore – he seems to say what he thinks, whether that thing might offend someone or not.  I don’t want to put any words in his mouth, but he seems to think that post-enlightenment western culture, with its rationalism and scientific method and liberal values (taken from wikipedia, because I had to look it up: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, and international cooperation) is superior to cultures where women are mutilated, homosexuals are killed, and changing your mind about God is a death-penalty kind of crime.

He wouldn’t be wrong.  In pretty basic measures like infant mortality and longevity, you’re just going to do better in a country that is operated along principles common to Western culture.  Yeah, we had a rough time getting here: dark ages, witch burning, the Inquisition, etc.  But we’re here now and it is a place that was worth getting to.

Bad ideas are bad ideas.  And we should call them bad ideas, even if suggesting there is some kind of an equivalency is the more PC approach.

Now, you can argue about means to an end and what you want out of the exchange.  Most confrontations don’t end with someone having a fundamental change of mind.

So am I politically correct?  Probably not, at least when it comes to talking about and challenging ideas.  I’m George Carlin politically incorrect.  I’m not Donald Trump politically incorrect, which I’ll get to in my next post.

Politically Correct, Part One

Book Review: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

See, this is why self-help books frustrate me.  You start with a concept that can be explained in a paragraph and a list, maybe two at most, and then you turn it into 200+ pages.  Nowhere is this more ironic than in a book preaching the gospel of paring your life and activities down to the bare minimum.  So there is your paragraph.  Let’s try a list.

  • Don’t do anything you know is a waste of time.
  • Take the time to think through your options so when you say yes, you mean it.  Be willing to say no to bs.  Make informed choices.
  • Start with the important stuff.  Don’t get more done, get the right stuff done.
  • Be self-critical about what you’re spending your time on.  If it is a waste, stop.
  • Have one priority at a time.  You can’t have everything.
  • Know what matters and do that.
  • Set aside time to think.  You need it.
  • Sleep.  You can’t think clearly without it.

Okay, so maybe some of the examples he gives on how you do these things could be helpful.  Techniques for saying no, for example.  But it comes down to this: take the time to know what matters most and then let everything else go.  If it isn’t love, let it go.

Two-hundred and sixty pages full of words talking about the essentials.  I guess because no one is going to give the guy $16.99 for a book with one page in it.

Book Review: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less