Archives for category: Ideological currents

spoiler alert!

In the movie Black Panther, we are introduced to a superheroic country hidden in the snowy mountains of Africa — this is very much an H. Rider Haggard/Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of utopia. The country, called Wakanda, is technologically advanced and has been for eons, but has kept out of world affairs on the grounds that its treasure, a philosopher’s lode of a supermetal, if transported out of the region, would destabilize the world and ruin the country. So it is isolationist. Yet technocratic.

Now, much has been made of the movie’s racial politics, and it has been lauded — and prodded into the limelight — for its social justice-y elements. But what struck me about the movie was that the baseline mythos could best be described as “Wakandan exceptionalism” of an almost Trumpian sort. The antagonist of the film is a bitter, resentful African-American criminal bent on world revolution (with a special attention paid on killing “oppressors”). In fact, he talks like a “Black Panther” of days of yore (racial solidarity, revolution) and it is he who must be destroyed so the country can grow into its new role as world benefactor. So the moral arc of the story is from isolationist exceptionalism to globalist benefactor — essentially moving from Trumpism back to standard-brand 20th century American globalism, where foreign aid is parlayed as the prime diplomatic value, above revolution, militarism and trade — the latter not even getting any mention. The real-world “Black Panther” type must be put down so the mythic “Black Panther” may triumph.

There is nothing radical here. It is essentially a JFK “liberal” movie.

It also contains a quite a bit of tribalistic mysticism, and rituals of a primitive, ooga-booga type. Rather embarrassing. We are really not far from Hollywood Tarzan tropes here.

As a Marvel movie, it is of course expertly made, a technical marvel; and if, like me, you enjoy watching scantily clad bald black women kicking ass, you will find some thrills. Andy Serkis has a fun role as a mad Russian criminal mastermind.

I saw it in Astoria, Oregon, in a theater half-filled with white Americans … and no one else. (Astoria has a sizable Mexican population, but is otherwise lily-white.) I did not feel a whole lot of excitement coming from the audience — not like in the Iron Man and Captain America flicks — but no hatred, either. I have no idea how it fares elsewhere, but in this neck of the woods it does not appear to be a hit.

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N.B. The popular meme of Wakandan exceptionalism being “alt-right” is accurate, for the most part, insofar as the country is portrayed at the beginning of the movie. It is 4C6A88CB-B755-4E6B-815C-786D49F5BA10also not inaccurate to describe the country at the end of the movie, though the kingdom’s new “black man’s burden” policy would surely undermine the stalwart atavisms of its traditionalist nationalism. As with most comic-book world-building scenarios, it does not bear close examination — just as the amazon-warrior theme does not. And alt-right dreamers might note that American exceptionalism came from open borders and trade — not anything like Wakandan autarky. There is a disturbing cargo cult element to much current political fantasizing. The wealth redistributed by any real or fantasied State entity has to come from somewhere. In Black Panther, it came from outer space and lies in the ground in the form of a metal that the Wakandans mine.

I forget the name of the metal, but it is really just a McGuffin, as in the goofy, embarrassing “unobtainium” of the horrible science fiction film Atavism, I mean Avatar. I could look up the name of this fantasy material, but memory tells me that it starts with a “v,” so I just think of it as “virkkalanium.”

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It is apparent that dark-skinned Africans have no especial gift for government. Governments headed by blacks in America as well as in the “Dark Continent” are almost (but not quite) universally corrupt, violent, tyrannical or just plain crazy.

And their people are the poorer for it.

And, sadly, nastier — it has gotten quite bad even in the once-rich South Africa:

Racist whites extrapolate a lot of very racist conclusions from all this. But perhaps we should draw a very different kind of conclusion. It seems clear to me that folks of African descent thrive best on limits, sure — but what if those limits were to become the limits that liberty provides . . . that is, real freedom and individual responsibility? Instead of tyranny, authoritarianism, and cruel exploitation, swap the harsh limits set by common forms of outrageous force with the civilized use of defensive force, rigorously limited by the limits that liberty itself prescribes.

Might not it be from Africa that the libertarian future shall proceed?

After all, a gift for government is not a univocally good trait. It implies both soft tyranny and chilling servility, an irrational willingness to accept deep hierarchies and jury-rigged ideologies. So if Africans seem ill-adapted to modern society, maybe they are telling us something about our own institutions. Perhaps they corrupt modern “democratic” forms of governance so completely not merely because they themselves are so susceptible to violence, corruption and tyranny, but because our forms of governance are so readily corruptible.

Blacks are ill-served by modern government because it is so statist.

The Molinarian vision of contract-based government, with its competing institutions of protection, insurance and adjudication, might find its most fertile ground in black-majority societies. And from there the ideas and institutions might spread.

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The more diverse a people are — the greater the variety of ethnicities, languages, cultures, folkways — the less extensive a government they can peacefully share. Real diversity requires limited government. Only in monocultural societies can robust, Leviathan government remain sustainable for long.

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. The chief of these is the tragedy of the commons.

A government in the form of a republican State (a “liberal democracy” as it is sometimes called) is conceived of by most of its proponents as a shared resource, established for the good of all — a “commonwealth.” But common resources require regulation to prevent individuals and groups from abusing and over-using the resources — that is, adapting to the common resource opportunities by gobbling up more for themselves than for others. And by “adaptation” I mean altering their behavior and their way of life to enable them to secure more common resources. And, as anyone with a lick of sense knows, self-regulation would be ideal. It’s the least expensive way to maintain the institutions, secure their long-term viability. Hence the importance of a monoculture.

enjoy-capitalismAristotle wrote about this. But I haven’t read Politics in 40 years, so I forget if the great philosopher applied the commons problem idea to the form of government itself. (I will let someone else look it up, or just tell me.) Economist W.F. Lloyd wrote about this in the 1830s, and ecologist Garrett Hardin made it famous in the “tragedy of commons” phrasing in our time. Hardin applied it to environmental resources, but it also applies to State-marshaled resources of any kind, including wealth obtained from taxes. Public Choice economists have been working on these problems for about the period of my lifetime, though Vilfredo Pareto clearly understood it in his critique of socialism at the beginning of the 20th century.

It was this idea that helped lead me to prefer limited government as a general policy in the first place. It should be easy to see that the more similar people are, the more likely they are to forgo overusing public resources. Why? Out of kinship altruism. But this sort of forbearance is harder to generally maintain in diverse populations, so there is a tendency for welfare states to turn into “churning states,” where the web of “everybody trying to live at the expense of everybody else” becomes so complicated that no one really knows who the net benefactors and net beneficiaries are. This leads to poltical strife, and … our present situation.

IMG_2027The Scandinavian states have been moderately successful with a robust redistributive state in large part because they have been so genetically and culturally uniform. And yet, over time, the moral probity that prevented overuse of common resources has waned, and permanent dependent classes have formed. Oddly, these countries have been importing these dependent classes, too, mainly from Muslim countries, so I expect these states to fall or undergo some significant kind of revolution in a generation or two.

Note, then, how wrong today’s progressives are. Driven by liberal piety, they insist upon diversity. And yet their politics is one of class division combined with socialistic government growth, which undermines sustainability. It is inherently contradictory.

More contradictory yet is their internationalism. Nationalism — indeed, ethnonationalism — is the surest sustainable way to keep welfare states going in the long run. So progressives are wrong and the so-called “alt-right” is definitely correct. If you want extensive state action, you need to draw boundaries along ethnic or “racial” lines. And indeed we find that alt-right maven Richard Spencer, after scratching the surface of his poses, has proven to be an ardent supporter of the welfare state.

Now, there are several other ways (serving as alternatives to ethnonationalism) to counter-act this commons-overuse problem. The chief method, in our time, has been consumerism. Consumer culture has broken down ethnic divisions, and can indeed make populationsmore uniform the better to be ruled by — and encourage support for — an extensive “welfare state.” And once again we find progressives utterly on the wrong side, for they pretend to be against consumerism, and their hatred for big business works against the only cultural factor that could possibly make the politics of social democracy work in a diverse population.

For my part, I prefer actual diversity, and believe that a rule-of-law-based polity is the way to go, so I oppose both the pathetic alt-right and the contradictory mishmash philosophy of progressivism.

Yes, I’m a real liberal. I do not just spout liberal pieties, as does today’s left, but I embrace the liberal spirit of tolerance of diversity, which the left, today, does not (their class warfare version is faux-diverse, and in fact promotes commons overuse). And I also wish to establish long-term social institutions, not institutions subject to takeover by special interests and run along exploitation lines. Democracy in a welfare state is as contradictory as a welfare state in a diverse society.

So, you may have guessed it: diminishing the scope of democratic action is another way to control overuse of common resources. On the left this is done by seeking to limit lobbying of government (a basic right under our Constitution) and setting up of complex bureaucracies and guilds of power, immune to electoral shock. On the right we have . . .

Donald Trump.

IMG_1929Trump sure seems anti-democratic, and that is a possible solution to save the welfare state from its most hysterical advocates and its abuse from group interests at the public trough. And, let us admit, that is precisely what modern conservatism is all about: saving the welfare state from the progressives and their insane prodigality. (Conservatives do talk about building down the welfare state, but that’s just their piety; it does not seem to be a real goal. Demonstrated preference tells us this.)

Since I’m not a conservative, you see why I dislike both political parties and the major factions within them. And why I don’t get on board with Trumpism.

I can find Trumpism funny, however. Why? Because modern ideologies are so incoherent that Trump serves as the cutter of Gordian Knots; he’s the Mule (as I’ve said any times); he’s the Loki figure. Whether this will save the welfare state, or bring it down faster, I do not know. While we wait to see what happens, Trump’s bizarre antics entertain.

He and we fiddle as the Empire burns.

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Philip K. Dick’s 1952 short story “Human Is” is clever. Not great. Just clever. (You can find it in the collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.) It is not unlike, say, a Fredric Brown story, but not as well written.* It does not present an elegiac mood, or aim for anything like the sublime. It is a rather cynical sf tale about marital discord and unhappiness. And betrayal.

But it was taken as the inspiration for Amazon Prime’s new series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, appearing as the third episode. And was it changed! Only the ending of the short story remained untampered with, quoting (adopting) about two lines verbatim.

Yes, friends, there are spoiler ahead. . . .

The short story’s basic premise — of a mean, cold bastard of a husband (Lester) going off to an alien planet, Rexor IV, and coming back changed, turned into a nice, easy-to-live with loving man — that is the same. But instead of a literalist, a scientific researcher, the show features a callous warrior (renamed Silas, played by Bryan Cranston), bent on exploiting and killing an alien race for the good of “Terra.”

The short story’s subplot about the wife’s brother and nephew, that is gone. And all the dreck of everyday life? Gone too. The change of scenery and alteration of tone from the original make the show different. Very. Instead of reading about an unloved wife whose uncharitable husband will not help an inlaw out, we see an unfulfilled and tyrannized wife — emotionally abused and domestically oppressed despite her elevation to a major official role in the futuristic sealed-off society.

Yes, in the TV show she has been turned into a professional — a government official, even. And instead of suffering neglect from the man who won’t serve as foster father, we see our heroine suffer from coldness, indifference, and even envy from her husband. Actually, he is much worse, because minatory. Yes, he threatens violence.

The show’s penultimate scene takes place in a court room, in a trial that spells the issues out very clearly, cleverly. The written story is nowhere nearly so thematically tight.

But the big change? The whole story has become politicized. The husband in the show is portrayed almost exactly as leftists see “right wingers” — eager to kill and exploit foreigners (aliens), and as being emotionally withdrawn and cruel. And since the woman is now a career woman, a leader, this makes her a feminist heroine rather than the pathetic character that Dick imagined. With the child gone, it is just the microsocial antagonism of a childless couple, not a family drama — and the show carefully evades any issue of parental feeling from her husband to his brother-in-law’s son. This excision allows our feminist heroine to be portrayed as romantically and sexually unfulfilled. The very model of a modern Ms. obsession.

Indeed, in the show, because of her husband’s lack of interest in intimacy, early on she seeks out some sad satisfaction in a far-flung-future orgy in the sterile city’s underground (yes, the teleplay writers made sure to hit every possible mythic beat). When her husband comes back transformed, changed into a cheerful, sympathetic, and very sensual sexual partner (we “get” to see Cranston’s full-rear view nude form in a lovemaking session), she defends him — chooses him — even though it has been proved that he is not her husband.

Who is he? Well, her husband’s body, possessed by an alien metamorph. Invasion of the body snatcher!

The alien is from Rexor IV — as in the original PKD story. But where in the original the husband had been a careless innocent, his soul stolen by surprise while on a solo vacation, in the show there is war, and he was the aggressor and he became a casualty. At the beginning of the show, our heroine had politically opposed her husband’s plan to kill Rexorians and steal their atmosphere (or something like that). At the end of the show, she lets the enemy, the Rexorian, not only into her society but also into her bed, ostensibly because her human husband had not been nice enough to her. Not appreciative enough.

And was a bad guy anyway.

All this is standard left-right archetypes and stock figures and bigotries. Let me spell it out:

  • The husband? The very cliché of a left winger’s idea of a conservative.
  • The wife? The leftist self-image of a feminist heroine, ill-treated by her conservative partner.
  • The Rexorian? An exploited alien (foreigner) just “fighting for its life” and perhaps justifiably attacking our military and Silas, the Cranston character.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer allegory to today’s conflict with the Muslim world. The feminist women betray conservative men because those evil conservatives are bent on defending their nation by exploiting and killing foreigners (Muslims/Rexorians); further, those feminists replace the murderous conservatives with the foreigners, going so far to bedding them . . . because the frustrated, unfulfilled feminist women will be more sexually fulfilled by the foreigners/aliens than by their fellow nationalists/Terrans.

Also present is the “right wing” fear that the enemy will infiltrate and pretend to be “one of us” but then betray us completely, taking our place — this “paranoid” fear is exactly mirrored in the television story. And, going another step even further, the right wing suspicion that the leftists will betray us, preferring the other to their own, and making cuckolds of the West’s men . . . that is very close, too — for the woman does betray Terra, and just because the alien treats her better as wife and lover.

So, the fantasies and fears of both rightists and leftists are played to. Both sides could view the story with a kind of . . . indecent? . . . pleasure. And, because the Amazon version is so artfully done, it turns out to be a beautiful, sublime story, too. Much more powerful than the original.

It is now a philosophical horror story, not just a clever little domestic drama with a cynical sci-fi surprise ending.

The wonder of it is how brazen it is, how timely. The perpetrators — I mean, writers and actors and producers — of the new drama surely know what they are up to. But why? Why do it this way? I assume that these are all left-leaning Hollywood types. The story, though with all the biases of your standard-brand Hollywood Left Coast cosmopolitan written deep into the story’s premise, and played out as the drama unfolds, in the end gives away much of the game to the right wingers. What could be worse than the Left shown as the betrayer and the enemy shown as capable of using elaborate deception? And all because the leftist woman demands love she is not getting at home.

First world problems leading to the conquest of that world by the Third.

She even goes as far as cuckolding the Right in the end. In a sort of Gertrude-and-Claudius way.

A cautionary tale — an apocalypse! — indeed.

Ah, the culture wars. All-too-human, is.

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* Dick’s science fiction short stories, at least the early ones, are not very artful on the sentence level — his realistic novels were far more carefully crafted. The short stories are also rather tawdry, as are many of the science fiction novels, filled with the dreck of everyday domestic conflict.

N.B. I wrote the above before reading anyone else’s criticism. And now, as I clean this up, I flit around the net and find appraisals that do not go very far. And not a few just show the insipid shallowness of modern feminism.

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Written for but not published on Facebook*:

I just learned that a few years ago Germany’s Merkel had asked Facebook’s Zuckerberg how he was working on suppressing dissent from her immigration policies.

This is the nature of government, and of “the left” today. Center-leftists are the new conservatives, suppressing and molding thought and discussion to bolster their policies in the name of their values, not the values of an open society, much less the principles of free speech.

F9A994CB-3822-4302-8BAB-32A6D15A8D4AAnd I know, I listen to my left-leaning friends here* on Facebook: on the whole, you folks (oh, ye of much faith … in government) don’t dissent from the suppression of free thought and the expression of ideas and values and policies you do not like. Indeed, you cannot imagine someone having a different thought from you on obviously controversial policies (such as what you think of as the obviously correct and quite simple implementation of anti-racist and anti-sexist agendas) and that they could possibly be valid.

This doesn’t make you “edgy,” it makes you conservative. Retro. Reactionary. Sure, your policies are not associated with “conservative” “principles,” but your methods are conservative. You are shoring up Progressive Era institutions, and trying to extend them. But you do not want to upset the establishment. You are the establishment.

4CD881E5-1B34-412D-9FB1-0E412F3C2E3BAnd believe me: you are just as overbearing as conservatives seemed when I was young.

For the record, I find your ideas, analyses and regular outbursts of moral umbrage to be, for the most part, ridiculous.

Sure, the nominal conservatives “on the right” are ridiculous, too. But they are obvious goofballs and cretins. You folks still pretend to yourselves — and manage to pull off in public — a farded-up public face that still almost passes for sophistication.

But your mascara is running, and your imperial clothing is being pointed out to be non-existent. Soon, three-quarters of the world will be laughing at you.

No wonder you are desperate. And no wonder your desperation is showing.

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* I chickened out. I did not see the point in insulting half of my friends and family. Though they deserve it, sure.

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Three decades ago, I was briefly involved in a campaign in Jefferson County, Washington State, to prevent nuclear warheads from being stored within its borders. I knew it was a hopeless endeavor — there seemed zero chance for local government, spurred by idealistic citizens, to prevent the U.S. Navy from using nearby Indian Island as a maximum security repository for missiles and warheads taken from submarines scheduled for maintenance at Bangor Trident Base — but it did introduce me to the leftist activists in the northern parts of the Olympic Peninsula.

The fit was not always comfortable. Among many interesting moments with these people, I remember most clearly my first encounter with an angry feminist. And with clueless feminists.

FD110687-98A7-4289-95AC-B972EE0200C6But the biggest difference may have regarded our different ethical approaches. I was not prone to the same sort of moralism that they were, for one thing. Or Utopianism. I also had become convinced that MAD was a successful policy, on the whole, and that the traitorous Rosenbergs may have inadvertently served as the saviors not only of America but also of humanity. So I occasionally said things more than a tad out of place amongst the activists.

One of the odder moments of mutual incomprehension concerned the reasons to oppose the bomb storage. I offered a NIMBY argument, and mention the threat of terrorism. “Indian Island is a target.” The activists looked at me blankly. They were uninterested in terrorism. Terrorism was not on their radar, except, I suppose, as a tactic that they could imagine themselves using, push come to shove.

I remember Bob the bookseller looking at me, puzzled, having caught the implication of my logic. “Where do you want the bombs stored?” he asked. “And how many do you think we need?”

“How many nuclear bombs would you like?” That last question was rather pointed.

I had no idea, of course, so I shrugged. I am generally not good at prescribing for an institution I am not in any way responsible for.

C431E517-A2BF-4990-A419-D3BF9FF48CFCHonestly, I thought terrorism was the wave of the future. A few years later, after Bush’s invasions of Panama and Iraq, I was more confident yet. Sure enough, my suspicion proved increasingly savvy over the years, constituting one of two sets of prophecies that showed me not a complete nutball. I felt satisfied, I confess: I understood some things about the way the world worked that most people did not seem to. At all.

Yup, terrorism and the price of gold. I was right, way back then.

Now, I have no idea what is going to happen next. My hunches are all over the place, between financial Armageddon and the Singularity!

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N.B. Pictured are three Google maps of the area in Jefferson County where I lived at the time. Circled in red are where the offices of Liberty magazine were listed with the Post Office (the Polk Street apartment building I lived in) and (at bottom) they were actually located, on top of the hill. One of my first jobs for Bill Bradford, Liberty’s publisher, in my first year or two working for him, was Community Plenipotentiary. That is, I would get involved in community activism so he would not have to! Yes, he paid me to do this sort of thing. Thankfully, it did not take up much of my time, and arguably I did it on my own time. I was not being paid by the hour.

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It has become commonplace: the hallmark of today’s self-identified Left is to play encomiast* to diversity while brooking scant diversity of opinion. Indeed, difference of opinion now fills them with scorn and rage.

What do we call their error here?

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against others on the basis of race or sex: racism and sexism, respectively.

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against gays, trans people or foreigners: homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

So, what do we call their hatred for people with different philosophies, who diverge on matters of facts and values?

Shall we dub them with an “ism” or a “phobia”?

If it is to be the latter, may I suggest xenologophobia?**

I have many ideas for the ism variant, but I suspect I should merely ask others for the exact term that has been fixed upon by professionals. (Call this a bleg.)

Nevertheless, I proceed. And I note that it would be especially satisfactory to base the epithet on the philosophical nature of the error.

How? Well . . . racism and sexism, for example, are not just about hatred or “discrimination.” The error in these attitudes, if we drill down to principle, limns the nature of the prejudice: racism is the “making too much of race” by imputing some generalizations about a race to individuals of that race regardless of merit.

Even were the modal Swede socialist-minded, it would be an error to assume that every Swede you meet is a socialist, no matter how statistically relevant the identification with Swedes and socialism. This would be racism, were Swedes considered a race. (Otherwise we could call the error Swedism? I mean, ethnism?)

Similarly with sexism. “Sexism is judging people by their sex,” wrote the coiner of the term, “when sex doesn’t matter.”

Leftist ideologues who will not debate their opponents respectfully, who exclude non-leftists from the community of scholars on criterion of lockstep ideological agreement, put too much stock in their ideas, and have abandoned liberality, tolerance. We could simply and rightly call them illiberals. But that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter.

They negatively judge people by their ideas when ideas don’t really matter . . . by ideologies when ideologies shouldn’t matter. But we can’t call these illiberals “ideaists” (“idealism” already having been nabbed for other purposes). Too clumsy.

But hey: we do not need the -ism or -ist, really; there are other suffix options: think of Christianity. Isn’t there an -ity suffix, or something similar?

How about idiots?

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* Encomiast, remember, was defined by Ambrose Bierce as “a special, but not particular kind of liar.”

** If they fear even going halfway to meet people they disagree with, for fear of endlessly parsing disagreement, we could call them Zenologophobes.

A Conjecture

Maybe because my aesthetic tastes are so resolutely minority (or ultra-minority), I have never been inclined — even before I developed any political opinions to speak of — to seek to prohibit the publication, exhibition or performance of any work of art on “community standards” or even moral grounds. Could it be that those people with more standard, popular tastes, are precisely those most likely to leap to censorship or even boycott pressure to squelch art or ideas they do not like, simply because the commonality of their tastes suggests to them the power of majority opinion, and thus the likelihood of success?

IMG_2025And could we be witnessing the loudest crowing for abridgements of free speech (“hate speech is not free speech!”) from college campuses and media enclaves for reasons of this very principle? Universities and Hollywood and major media are de facto intellectual bubbles, self-selected (as well as pressure-driven by intranigent minorities) to enforce ideological ideologial uniformity . . . and thus the perception of majority taste. Leading, in turn, to the current anti-free speech mania.

Well, it’s a theory. A conjecture.

I advance it, in part, to explain why illiberal ideas take form and grow. Perhaps they crystallize when there is too much cultural homogeneity.

Which, if true, would be the cream of the jest, since the current batch of illiberals are those progressives who yammer the most about “diversity.”

But, as is now widely known, they are not really interested in value diversity. They are interested in racial and sexual (OK: “gender”) diversity only. By sharing a value-dependent moral vision — not a transaction-based principled vision — they have developed a surprisingly strong sense of community, and use their commonality to enforce strong pressure to out-groups to conform to their in-group.

Even while, yes, preaching the doctrine of “inclusion.”

There is nothing about progressivism which does not give cause for sardonic laughter.

In this context, it has been a hoot to watch major media figures fall from grace over the issue of sexual harassment . . . and graver sexual misconduct. Call it Schadenfreude on my part. It is truly rich. Mainly, what we are seeing here is the purging from the Sanctimonious Classes eminent figures who, it turns out (and to only feigned surprise), had no good reason for self-righteousness, or any standing for righteousness at all.

I may be disturbed by the witch-huntery of mass boycott and social censure that sends the Weinsteins and Lauers and the like into the Outer Darkness — without trial or rules of evidence or much nuance about the acts actually mentioned — but to witness the celerity of the “punishment,” and its apparent extremity (no livelihood left for any of these? Really?), directed at people who have been so smugly censorious of others on these very grounds? Priceless.

When Patrick J. Buchanan declared a culture war, decades ago, I confess: I was not impressed. But he was right. (I know: “far right”! Ha ha.) We are now in full-out culture war on largely political grounds, and I have been thrown in with conservatives whose general approach to life (“there is no kill like overkill”) I have some basic difficulties with. But, though the conservative temper may be fear-based about cultural cohesion, and far too prone to the vices of rage and vindictiveness, progressive vices now seem more dangerous. I can live peacefully among conservatives. But would I be given any peace from progressives? I think not. They would love to tax and regulate me and those I know into conformity with their values. They would never cease to hector me for my disagreements with their dogmas. And their vices? Envy alone could destroy civilization, if it be entirely unleashed. Rage leads to warfare; envy to totalitarianism.

But of course, as I’ve said many times before, progressives in politics are the new conservatives in temper. It is they who rage against differences of opinion. It is they who scream at their ideological opponents and refuse to use reason in debate. It is they who join hands and use the social controls of boycott, shunning, shaming, and moralistic opprobrium to marginalize others.

So, how to attack them? Perhaps reason will not cut it — not to begin with, any way. They must learn that their basic values are not universally shared. That their tastes are not universal, and not written into the warp and woof of the universe.

Maybe, chastened, shown not to be as “open” to diversity as they had pretended, they will then listen to reason, and learn that the way to accommodate diversity is with the easy yoke of liberty and not the dead hand of the totalitarian state.

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I try to read the MoveOn emails I receive several times a week. Yes, I try. But they are very trying.

Just this morning I got an email from “Bernie Sanders” . . . which began “Hi Timothy — I just wanted to make sure you saw my message from the other day.”

Must be important.

So what does “Bernie Sanders” say?

Well, he pushes what he (or his copywriter) call “the progressive agenda,” which is dead set against the “corporate giveaway” in the new tax reform bill. Here is how he begins:

Throughout my political career, I have asked us all to imagine what our nation’s future could be: a country with a minimum wage that is a living wage; with students graduating college without crushing debt that stifles their ability to pursue their dreams; where health care is recognized as a right for every man, woman, and child; and where we lead other nations in the fight against climate change.

I have asked us to believe that we could level the playing field and create a vibrant democracy where the billionaire class would no longer be able to buy and sell our candidates and elections.

I will always believe in that vision of America — even as I watch Republicans try to pass a tax scam that is literally the opposite agenda of what you and I have championed over the years.

A tax scam. I wonder: does it increase taxes on the poor and the proverbial “middle class”? I doubt it, but I honestly do not know. The only “fact” about the tax bill given is that it decreases taxes on the wealthy.

I assume by that he means decreases tax rates on the wealthy. There is a difference between rate and revenue. The difference should affect the way we talk about taxes. Somehow, it almost never does.

Bernie, if you could help me on this, please explain. Comments are open below.

Lacking many specifics from this pitch letter (and, after all, that is what most MoveOn emails are, pleas for funds — the only other regular pitch being calls for action, usually to complain to my congressperson), I wander back up to the top. Bernie Sanders imagines an America with “a minimum wage that is a living wage”; with college students not starting their remunerative careers buried in debt; “health care” treated “as a right” for all; and the country leading the world “in the fight against climate change.” Each point is worth thinking about. But I am going to avoid the “climate change” issue entirely, focusing, instead, on the climate-of-opinion change regarding matters nearer at hand.*

The Ass Ceiling

Minimum wage laws were one of the two big issues regarding economic policy that turned me away, forever, from Bernie’s brand of politics. The first time I heard someone assert that minimum wage laws hurt some low-skilled workers while helping competing workers with higher perceived skills, I got really interested in economics. As a science. I wanted to see how this could be the case, if it could at all.

I learned two things right away: one must move beyond slogans and look at what laws are at base, and then what their effects are beyond the policy’s immediate targets.

At base, minimum wage laws proscribe hiring people at a rate lower than set by the “minimum.” A minimum wage regulation does not require businesses to hire anybody at that rate. Such regulations prohibit businesses from hiring anybody below that rate. So, by their very nature, minimum wage laws are employment-limiting laws.

That puts the burden of proof on the proponent of the “minimum wage” to explain how it could increase the ranks of the employed, or, at the very least, not decrease those ranks. If employment decreases — either immediately or in the future — then minimum wage laws are not boons to the poor, lifting poor workers out of poverty. Instead, they would constitute mere redistribution-of-wealth schemes: in effect taking from some poor and giving to others, making them less poor.

The import of this idea has yet to hit at least half of the population.

The working out of the wider and long-term effects of wage-rate floors (as economists tend to characterize the regulation) gets complicated. It comes down to productivity — the marginal product, actually — and interesting scientific study can work out the complexities. There are debates to be had.† But what is interesting about political discussion, particularly from Bernie Sanders and his cadres, is that such discussion is never forthcoming. The usual defenses of minimum wage regulations that I hear point to the bizarre Card and Krueger studies, and not as economic explanations, but as excuses, as authority to dismiss economic reasoning entirely — with no more intellectual integrity than nyah-nyah taunting. “My study is better than your study”!

The popular use of these contrarian studies (and yes, most studies of minimum wage law effects disconfirm the stated utility of the regulations) is not to advance knowledge, much less explore how any particular study is constructed, but because it gives an excuse to hold to a policy endorsed for non-scientific reasons.

imageI know this because I felt their pull. The love of “minimum wage” regulations is part of a belief in the efficacy not merely of government but of activists who propound simple nostrums. It is a very religious commitment, and when I looked into the issue, nearly four decades ago, and studied my own psychology as well as economic theory, I concluded that my motives in promoting the wage floor were not pristine.

As always in such issues, it comes back to the Seen and Not Seen. What we “see” is a minimum wage law, and people employed above the prohibited low rates. We do not — and cannot — see the people that would have been employed had such regulations not existed. The counter-factual world is closed to us. And yet the reality of our experience is entirely encompassed precisely by such counter-factuals, since, when we choose either a job or a policy (or a career or a spouse or a philosophy) we are forecasting two or more possible worlds of effects that would result from a choice one way or the other, and those forecasts are not illusions, but guesses as to possible realities that, after the choice is made and the action (or policy) instantiated, only one of which becomes factual, actual.

By sticking to the Seen effects of minimum wage regulations, the enforced floor’s proponents allow themselves a smug sense of “sticking to the facts” while denying a basic part of reality. Meanwhile, they become acolytes to a particular religious view of life, wherein the State is savior and activism is ritual and prayer.

And, all the while they go about promoting one of their favored nostrums, they ignore the reality: wage floors are worse than the proverbial “glass ceilings” of feminist lore. The floor is raised, hiking the productivity requirements of workers, placing those unable to perform at the set level below the floor, looking up at the . . . feet and asses of those who remain employed. The People Under the Floor have been condemned by the regulation, with no more hope for them other than subsidy.

Oh, sure, they could get more skills, and that is indeed one thing progressives have always insisted upon: that people who want to work go to progressive-run schools where productivity is allegedly taught (it isn’t, for the most part) and the bills are paid from taxpayers. Indeed, unable to work because prohibited from doing so, the likelihood of skill acquisition is diminished for the low-skilled, since actual work is the single most important source for acquiring skills. And, indeed, most of those trapped under the floor are there in no small part because our society’s prescribed basic training ground, the public school, has proved to be ineffective (for a variety of reasons). No wonder, then, that The People Under the Floor turn to black markets and government handouts. That is pretty much all that is left them.

That is what Bernie Sanders and his kind have left them.

I shudder when I think about the People Under the Floor. And I try (often not successfully) not to be angered at the progressives most intent on policies that keep them there.

The takeaway that is so rarely taken, is this: the wage floor is an ass ceiling for the forcibly unemployed.

But Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

The interesting thing about progressivism is its relentless moralism. The subject line of Bernie’s email is “Stop this immoral disaster.” Calling something “immoral” often excuses one from thinking about it in any practical way. Bernie was talking about the tax issue, but his lack of any specifics is just indicative of this sort of mindset.

When I call something “immoral” or “evil,” that means that I have stopped careful consideration of it, too. Them’s fighting words, words of action.

One just hopes that there is some thought upon which that judgment of immorality can be based.

In his earnest (if under-thought) wishes for a debt-free beginning to careers (Bernie himself was a slacker, and then entered Congress in a great binge of living off the system) and for automatic, care-free medical assistance for all, Bernie seems driven by a utopian vision, an Edenic myth, backed only by

  1. activism and
  2. subsidy from the rich

IMG_4679Indeed, this email sums up his whole approach. It is an appeal to activists to support more activism that would (the scheme runs) lead to government action that would take from the rich and give to the not-rich. So no wonder, in all this, it is important to mention the awful spectacle of billionaires “buying and selling” — no talk of renting, interestingly enough — “our candidates and elections.” The big money game in politics is there, of course, because big money is what it is all about. Bernie S. and his fellow B.S.ers demand that “the rich” subsidize them more. Which is about money. Lots of it. The mere presence of the B.S. agenda ensures that those whom B.S.ers wish to plunder will lobby government to keep a bit more of what they have.

This is simply the nature of politics. When it is not about offense, it is about defense. And the more hits in offense a group takes, the more the group will spend in defense.

And by complaining about the rich defending themselves, the B.S.ers are trying to stack the game in their favor. Not only do they think it would be “nice” if other people paid for their college educations and their health care, they think it would be especially nice if those people who pay do not have a say in the “deal.”

How convenient.

Yet they are the ones always talking about “greed”!

This whole approach that they push seems a huge grab from a few to give to the many.

Quite a scheme they got, there.

None of This Is New

Nothing I have written here should strike anyone as in any way novel — except perhaps for a few quips and phrasings. After all, this is a very old debate. As soon as “socialism” became a word on the lips of reformers and revolutionaries, these debates became ubiquitous.

When I was young, the people who pushed the B.S. line were often called “liberals,” but with the rise of Reaganite conservatism, the l-word because a term of opprobrium. The word “progressive” became more popular. When I was younger, I read The Progressive magazine. I have been following this sort of thing all my adult life. But not close enough, apparently, for that magazine still exists. I have not seen it in years.

IMG_4680Indeed, I dropped the rag about the time I helped found Liberty magazine, which was published from Port Townsend until the death of its publisher in 2005. The third issue of Liberty appeared about 30 years ago exactly; the first had hit the mails in July (I think it was) of 1987. Liberty was a libertarian zine, and I had considered myself some sort of a libertarian for less than a decade at the time of its founding. But I had read a great deal of literature in both the individualist and collectivist movements. I had made an informed choice.

Perhaps I was destined to become a libertarian, for my individualism was built into the warp and woof of my psyche. Thinking in terms of groups seemed nuts to me. Indeed, I had interpreted my anti-racism and anti-sexism so big in the decades of my youth as anti-groupthink ethical philosophies. The error of sexism was to judge a person primarily in sex role terms, “by his or her sex” not his or her personhood. What an affront to civility, it seemed to me. And racism? Even less justifiable, for while the differences between men and women, boys and girls, were quite obvious and pronounced on the biological level, and even in psychological terms, the differences among the races were not that large, and from one person to another in any racial category could easily stretch the whole of human diversity.

And yet now the B.S. folks talk relentlessly of groups, of group identity, of one’s personal identity in terms of groups, and of victim groups and groups to be victimized (I mean, “oppressor” groups to be brought down and made “to pay”). Collectivism is alive and well. I have no sympathy for it any more. The whole “thinking in group terms” groupthink strikes me as pure madness.

And why “madness”? Why not use a nicer term? Well, madness is a word we usually use to describe the passionate people who are in some important way unhinged from reality.

The reality I see is that, right now, there are two federal governments: the constitutional government funded by income taxes, corporate taxes, other taxes, tariffs and “fees”; and the extra-constitutional government (consisting of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, mainly) funded by FICA and SECA and similar taxes. Interestingly, the unconstitutional government (which I designate as unconstitutional simply because, uh, none of its functions are listed in the Constitution) is basically run on a rough parity, mimic-insurance-contracts “public utility” basis, and what one gets out of the system does indeed depend on what one puts into it. The constitutional part is paid for mostly by the wealthy.

The nature of this tax situation is indeed quite amazing. The B.S.ers often yammer about “making the rich pay their fair share,” but the constitutional government is paid for almost entirely by the rich. This video explains this pretty well:

So when Bernie writes me to warn that current moves by the Republicans are designed to benefit the rich at the expense of “working families,” I am a bit skeptical:

And I’m going on the road again because we have to defeat this bill, too — a tax bill that will slash taxes for the rich, raise taxes on working families, and lay the groundwork for a massive attack on the most vulnerable people in our country.

This bill is an immoral disaster. If it passes, 13 million fewer Americans will be insured, and health care premiums will surge for tens of millions more. Further, the Republican budget cuts Medicaid by $1 trillion over 10 years and Medicare by over $400 billion. In order to give huge tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations, the Republican budget also makes enormous cuts to education, nutrition, affordable housing, and transportation — and will crush college students and college graduates struggling with debt.

In short: This budget will do incalculable harm to tens of millions of working families, women, kids, the sick, the elderly, and the poor. We have to fight this budget and stop it. That’s why I’m hitting the road with MoveOn, and why I’m asking you to support the work that we’re doing.

Then he asks for $3.

Thanks, but no thanks. I will spend $3 on a Coke. Or two. Or three.

Bernie makes no mention of how “rickety” is the current unconstitutional government sector, the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid division. That is where most of his complaints about cuts are. But if it be unstable, financially unsound, we (if there is a “we” at all here . . . I know I have no power of choice in the matter) have basically two things to do: cut services and/or raise revenues. A normal person would probably suggest doing both, though one could see problems associated with doing either. The consequences of doing nothing? Almost unthinkable, for most people.

The fact that Bernie makes no mention of the problem, just focuses, instead, on the problem he sees with one solution, strikes me as irresponsible. If you want to know why there is such a strong divide, these day, look not merely the rhetoric on both sides, but on what they do not say. Bernie is mum about the secular disorder of the federal government, in which he serves as a prominent leader.

And his solution — make the rich pay more, not less — is even less responsible. He wishes to bail out the unconstitutional system that he himself helped strain (by voting for more benefits in the past) from the constitutional half of government, which already is paid for mainly by the very people he wants to soak further in his bailout.

I just shake my head.

I realize, this rambling blog entry is of little value. I am not really writing to convince anyone of any particular thing. Do I have any hope of convincing the progressives? No. They live in their reality, and its irreality they hope to impose on the rest of us. Meanwhile, we watch the Republicans speak only in half truths, and attempt only half-responsible reforms. I am just venting between jobs. (I have a video project to get to.)

I have never been less hopeful about the political future of the United States than I am right now. And I ascribe most of this to the unwillingness of partisans to deal with reality. Two sides and the middle are caught in a game where not seeing the whole is the most obvious feature.

It looks like the worst sort of game: not win-win; not win-lose; but lose-lose.

twv

 



* The willingness of people to become convinced of governments’ ability to manage the planetary climate while our federal government cannot even balance a budget is so astounding to me that I am, right now, at a loss for words. On that goofy subject.

† One of my readers made an astounding caveat to an earlier expression of mine about the marginal productivity theory of wages, which depended upon what seemed to me like a bizarre misreading of equilibrium theory, and a complete elision of knowledge problems —  but I confess, many of these are beyond my ken.)

IMG_3895

a question asked on Quora; my answer:

The level of incredulity about political and bureaucratic governance would almost certainly be astoundingly high. Mockery of those in government, and their major supporters, would make Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Samantha Bee blanch — and these denunciation “comedians” would act in earnest as what they truly are, conservatives in temper if not institutional preference.

Also, before a majority were reached, a tax revolt would likely usher in a crisis on a constitutional level. The federal government would be apt to undergo spasms of an amazing nature, something like we have not witnessed in our lifetimes.

And yet, the power of a squeaky wheel, an intransigent minority, is worth remembering.

If the libertarian majority remains culturally laid back and tolerant of the boorishness and rudeness and sheer crazed monomania of the statist minority, that seemingly likely revolt might not happen.

Right now, for example, less than a quarter of the population is progressive, and yet progressive institutions dominate. Indeed, they are seemingly impregnable. Even political conservatives, who ostensibly oppose progressives, contemplate thoroughgoing attacks upon progressive institutions only in the realm of wish and fantasy: they accomplish next to nothing. This makes their limited-government values mere velleities. Indeed, it seems clear to me: all conservatives really want is conscientious and responsible maintenance of society’s basic institutions, which just happen to be FDR/LBJ progressive in nature. Note that conservatives cannot now manage to muster the energy and intelligence to repeal the recently enacted Obama/Pelosi medical regulatory/subsidy institutions.

And yet the left freaks out over this — progressives have even called the Tea Party “anarchists.” The egregious Elizabeth Warren is the ninny, here, and a more absurd judgment could hardly be imagined. Leftists are so far out on whatever limb they have crawled onto that they see responsible maintenance of basic institutions as a threat to those institutions. It’s quite astounding.

But even more importantly, our conversation is still being driven by the cultural left, obsessed with issues regarding racism, sexism, and the like. Indeed, much of the current angst is the result of the popular revolt against “political correctness,” which most Americans think has gone way too far down the road to groupthink bullying.

So, who knows what would happen? It depends upon what form the ideas and proclivities a libertarian majority would take, and how they would relate to other habits of thought and action. If libertarians remain as quelled and squeamish as conservatives have been, and allow themselves to be serially betrayed by their spokespeople and representatives, as social conservatives have, then, well, progressives will continue to dominate.

There is no automatic unfolding of policy and constitutional order from an ideology. There is always that niggly matter of the difference between fantasy and reality.

I just hope, whatever libertarian ideas come to dominate, and whatever mores the new libertarian majority possesses, those future libertarians will not allow themselves to become as delusional as social conservatives and intersectional progressives have become.

twv