Public Health, Public Good

There is rarely genuine public debate about almost any important issue in American society. Listening to healthcare reform on the corporate media, I was reminded of this. It didn’t slip past my notice that the entire frame of discussion is seeking corporatist solutions to corporatist problems in a corporatist political and economic system. The fact of the matter is that there is no way to provide better and cheaper healthcare to more citizens, as other countries do, through the capitalist system. In particular, the last thing in the world we need is further aligning big business with big government.

Here is what is rarely brought up. Consider the simple fact that 40% of the deaths worldwide are caused by pollution. And that is one small part of externalized costs, externalized often by corporations that make immense profits from that externalization that goes hand in hand with internalizing benefits. Most of the people harmed by these externalized costs are the lower classes who are the least able to seek healthcare to treat health conditions caused by wealthy and powerful interests. First of all, we should stop these corporations from externalizing costs. But to the extent that isn’t always possible, we should tax these corporations to pay for those externalized costs, which is to say those who benefit the most from the system should pay the most to offset the costs of the system.

This is common sense. Only a sociopath could argue against it, but sadly we have a system that promotes the sociopathic mindset and gives a platform to the sociopathic rhetoric that justifies it. The plutocrats who are harming others for their own self-interest have the morally depraved sense of privilege to complain that taxes are theft. These are the same plutocrats who have spent their lives stealing from the commons, stealing from the public good. They internalize  and privatize the benefit from resources taken from public lands, from their dominant use of the public infrastructure, from highly profitable government contracts (often crony no bid contracts), from control of the government (through lobbying, revolving door, regulatory capture, legalized bribery, etc), from free trade agreements written in their favor to help them dominate global markets, from a military that serves to protect their interests (maintaining international relations, keeping open trade routes, ensuring access to natural resources on foreign public lands, etc), and on and on. All paid for with public wealth and resources. This gives the appearance of legitimacy to the illegitimate.

There is an important point that gets lost here. The plutocrats are half right about one thing. We shouldn’t rely on taxes of plutocrats to fund the public good. Rather, we simply shouldn’t allow plutocrats to steal from the public good in the first place, such that taxation becomes necessary. Once that theft has happened, the plutocrats will treat this theft as their right and privilege. As they see it, everything that is public is theirs to take, even the government itself. It’s all theirs and so if we don’t let them rape and pillage freely across the world, we are stealing from them just as the starving peasant was stealing from the lord when he gathered some food for his family from what once was feudal commons. They accuse others of theft out of bad conscience, knowing that their entire way of life is theft.

The reality is that the US is the wealthiest country in the world. In global capitalism, the public wealth and resources regularly given away and wasted for private interests is easily in the trillions of dollars on a yearly basis. It might be trillions in just considering the direct benefits corporations have on US land and waters. The precise amount has never been calculated because the corporatist don’t want to know or rather don’t want the rest of us to know, although I’m sure they have a good sense of the approximate amount of what is being sucked out of the system. Whatever the exact amount, it’s guaranteed that it could pay for healthcare for every US citizen, along with so much else.

There is the basic problem that healthcare can’t operate as a free market for many reasons, the most basic of which is that sick and injured people aren’t in the mindset to be able to make rational choices, even if we had a system that offered real choices. The problem goes so much deeper than that, though. It’s the entire system that has failed and so no solution can be found within the system. In fact, this system is designed to fail according to the standard of public good for the simple reason that the interests it is designed to serve are not we the people.

This is what is never stated in a straightforward manner. There is no lack of public wealth and resources. The question is where is it going, when it is redirected away from the public good and siphoned off into the private sector. This question is not allowed to be fairly and fully discussed in the corporate media and corporatist politics that the plutocracy controls. The final proof that we live in a banana republic is that we the public are effectively silenced in public debate about our own public good, such that the majority has yet to realize it is a majority. The public majority demanding public healthcare reform that benefits most Americans should be heeded by the political system claiming to represent we the people.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
~ President Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Every time they raise your tuition you are paying for the cost of empire. Every time they cut funds to the state of Wisconsin you have to make up the difference. Everywhere I go… and, when I pick up the local newspapers, it often seems like the same paper and every paper has the same story for a while, factoring when the fiscal year was ending, it would say: ‘State facing huge deficits’, ‘City council voting cuts in budget’…
“That is the cost of empire. What happens then is our economic democracy is under attack.
“Not everyone, as they say, pays the costs. Some people profit immensely.”
~ Michael Parenti, Ph.D.

* * *

An Invisible Debt Made Visible
True Costs are ‘Punitive
Losses Outweighing Gains
Costs Must Be Paid: Social Darwinism As Public Good
Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
Athens is starved so that Sparta can be fed.
On Infrastructure and Injustice
Investing in Violence and Death
Government Efficiency: Public’s Lack of Knowledge
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Democracy and Propaganda
Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties
Corporate Bias of ‘Mainstream’ Media
What Does Liberal Bias Mean?
The Golden Rule and Reality
Homelessness and Mental Illness
A Sense of Urgency
A System of Unhappiness
Capitalism as Social Control
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Not Funny At All
Protecting Elections From Democracy
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
By What Right?
But Then It Was Too Late
Then What?

Self-Care of Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

There is the issue of self-care. It’s something never far from my mind, as I deal with severe depression. Self-care is the only way I’ve lasted this long in life. But I also know that high rates of such things as depression are only found in high inequality societies. The ultimate self-care would mean undoing the cause of the problem, not just treating the symptoms, case by case. As social creatures, self-care is never about mere individual concern. As Thomas Paine explains above, that cheapens what should most matter.

The importance of self-care came up in an article that argued that hatred is self-harming, even if the other side deserves your hatred. That is fair and I’d agree to an extent. Still, the emphasis seems wrong. What matters is that we come from a place of honesty, integrity, and authenticity. Only from that position of strength can we envision something radically better and move toward it. We should always give voice to the truth, especially when uncomfortable, even to ourselves. Speaking from a place of truth is always a compassionate act, whether or not it makes us feel warm and fuzzy with idealized notions of how we should feel. First we should be honest with ourselves about what we actually feel, not what we are told we are supposed to feel. Political correctness certainly shouldn’t be applied to our feelings, for that would be the opposite of self-care.

Besides, no large-scale positive change ever happened in the world without a whole lot of angry people. Societies (or rather the ruling elite and comfortable classes) tend to resist change and the more they resist the more frustrated so many people become. Sadly, that is how it tends to go, until a breaking point is reached.

Those who are already being harmed by the status quo are usually less concerned about mere self-harm, as the greater harm is what others are doing to them. Whereas those talking about self-care tend to be individuals in a privileged position to not be victimized by the even greater harms. The comfortable tend to only become overly motivated toward change when comfort is no longer an option. But for the most victimized, comfort was never an option. Yet many others find themselves somewhere in between these two extremes. That is a tough place to find oneself. Slowly, over time, more and more people will fall further and further out of what little comfort (and security) they might have. As the harm grows, the number of harmed will also grow. Admonitions about self-care will sound ever more empty, pointless, and irrelevant.

Self-care in a narrow individualistic sense becomes increasingly difficult and, at some point, moot. This is even more true when personal problems are inseparable from societal and political problems. What if the only possibility of self-care is to fight those doing harm to you, to your loved ones, and to the majority of others in your society? When the American colonists started a revolution, they did so out of self-care. It was difficult and many paid the ultimate sacrifice. But what other option was there, besides accepting increasing harm from authoritarian oppression, growing corporatism, an impoverishing economic system, and demoralizing loss of power over their own lives?

Consider Thomas Paine. When still in England, he joined other excise officers in bringing a petition for better pay and working conditions to Parliament and consequently lost his job, sending him into poverty and barely avoiding debtors’ prison. Later in America, after the revolution started, he gave all of the proceeds from his publications to the war effort. He also risked his life numerous times, giving everything for making a better world. And after all of that, he died in humble obscurity with few caring enough to attend his funeral. But that was irrelevant, since what he had sought was freedom and justice, not fame and wealth. As he explained it, “I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” These words were spoken by someone who had seen his own child die, along with the child’s mother. So, he was really speaking of other people’s children.

Was Paine and those like him committing self-harm? Or were they seeking a greater good beyond themselves, the greater good for all of society, the greater good for their neighbors and fellow citizens, the greater good for their children and grandchildren? In response to those soldiers who abandoned the revolutionary cause for self-care, Paine called them summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. They were those who only fought when it was easy, when no great sacrifice was required of them. Paine’s point is that we can never separate care for ourselves from care for others. The point he was making wasn’t philosophical but practical. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Or even more powerfully articulated in a different context, there are the oft-quoted words of Martin Niemöller… the danger of narrow self-care until there is no one left to care about you:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

On Infrastructure and Injustice

There is the issue of public infrastructure and who pays for it. My dad brought it up to me and it led to an argument. He couldn’t understand why there was a national discussion about fixing infrastructure. And he seemed to assume that it was citizens and local leaders demanding this. But I’m not sure why he made that assumption.

First, this ignores that it is being talked about because the Republican president made it a main point of his proclaimed agenda. Trump campaigned on progressive-sounding rhetoric, including a promise for a New New Deal program for rebuilding infrastructure. He and those representing him repeated this promise many times. So, considering Trump is now president, all of this is coming from a federal level. The kind of infrastructure being discussed is such things as bridges, the kind of thing that politicians like to focus on. But most people don’t sit around thinking about bridges.

That brings me to a second point. The kind of infrastructure that concerns people is much more basic. They want a paved road so that they can more easily get to work and more quickly get back home after work to take care of their family. They worry about affording basic healthcare for easily treatable diseases and having clean water so that their children don’t get brain damage from lead toxicity. They would like reliable access to electricity, phone lines, etc. These were the priorities of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. These are fairly basic things that we expect in a modern industrialized society, the prerequisite for a functioning social democracy for all citizens.

The people most effected with infrastructure problems are the poor. This leads to multiple problems in solving these problems. Many poor people live in poor communities, oftentimes because of a history of racial segregation. Poor communities have poorly funded governments. But more importantly, it’s not just poverty. It is how that poverty is created.

The government regularly gives away trillions of dollars of public wealth to corporations, not just subsidies and bailouts but even more through cheap access to natural resources on public lands, which is to say from the commons that belongs as much to future generations (not to mention the money spent help corporations on the international market, including using military force to ensure they also have cheap access to natural resources on foreign public lands). By the way, the infrastructure to access those publicly-owned natural resources is typically built by government for free, for the sole purpose of the benefit of wealthy private interests who just so happen to donate lots of money to key campaigns and political organizations. The poverty we have in the US is enforced by those in power, not natural or God-given.

People don’t have a right to demand that their government serves their interests, that is the argument my dad makes. It’s obviously an insincere argument. What he means is that he doesn’t believe a government should serve anyone’s interests but the privileged, the worthy and deserving, ya know, people like him. Everyone else should solve their own  problems or else suffer. But that is mind-boggling ignorance. Civil Rights leaders attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but were met with resistance and oppression. Residents in poor communities dealing with lead toxicity have attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but officials and governments have ignored them. It usually takes decades or generations of local struggle before higher levels of government ever take notice, assuming their is a large enough protest movement or legal case to force them to take notice.

The thing is my dad acts like we have a functioning democracy, even as he knows we don’t. Besides, the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t want a functioning democracy. His argument against federal government being involved in local affairs is an argument that the federal government should not be democratic, should not represent the public nor serve the public good, should not be of the people, by the people, for the people. But he can’t admit it, not even to himself, because his actual beliefs are so morally horrendous.

It isn’t just about federal government. The same argument applies at the state level and even further down. Why should state taxpayers help with the problems at the level of communities? As far as that goes, why should the taxpayers in urban areas of a county pay for the infrastructure of rural areas of the same county? Heck, why should the wealthy people in one neighborhood help the poor people in the same city have access to basic utilities? Why have public goods at all? Why not make every all infrastructure privately owned? Why have any government at all since, as the right-wingers claim, taxation is theft and government isn’t possible without such supposed theft? Why not instead have a world of individuals where it is a constant war of one against all? As Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society.”

If you don’t have the money, then you shouldn’t be allowed to drive anywhere, drink clean water, or go on living — who is paying for that air you’re breathing, you pneumatic welfare queen! That is the principled libertarian solution. How dare those who suffer and struggle demand a basic response of human decency and compassion! It’s not the privileged controlling the government and the economy who are authoritarians. No, it’s the poor people crying out in desperation who are the real oppressors.

My dad (and people like him) don’t understand and don’t want to understand the very system he benefits from. But on some level, I know he understands. That is the thing that bothers me. My dad is not ignorant, even when he pretends to not know something. I know what he knows because of past discussions we’ve had. Yet each new discussion begins from a point of feigned ignorance, with a denial of what had been previously discussed. It’s frustrating.

If my dad didn’t have his privilege, if he and his family were being racially oppressed, economically segregated, and slowly poisoned by the only water they have access to, if he and his neighbors were politically suppressed and if the government refused to even acknowledge his existence other than to hire more police to keep him in his place, if there had been a long history of political failure at the local level, if wealthy and powerful interests almost always got their way no matter the harm to local residents, would my dad honestly resign himself with libertarian moral righteousness that it was all his fault and that he must be punished for his suffering because his poverty is proof of his inferiority? Would he watch his loved ones suffer and do nothing? Would he just lay down and die? No, he wouldn’t.

It’s not just conservatives such as my dad. I see the same thing with disconnected liberals, in their attitude toward poor people when they vote the wrong way or when a homeless camp appears in a nearby park, and then all the good liberal intentions quickly disappear. I see how easy people are turned against each other, no matter their ideology. And I see how easy ideology becomes rationalization. It reminds one of how quickly an authoritarian government can emerge.

As the desperate unsurprisingly act desperate, the upper classes will demand a response and it won’t be to help alleviate that desperation. It will be a demand for law and order, by violent force if necessary. Put them down and put them in their place. Put them in prisons, ghettos, internment camps, or maybe even concentration camps. Just make them go away or somehow make them invisible and silenced.

The line of thought my dad is following down can only lead to one place, increasing authoritarianism. Without a functioning democracy, there is nowhere else for our society to go. Either that or eventually revolution. So, apparently my dad is hoping for an authoritarian government so oppressive that it effectively stops both democracy and revolution, forcing local people to deal with their own problems in misery and despair. That is the world that good citizens and good Christians, the good people like my dad, are helping to create.

What happens when those who could have done something to stop the horror finally see the world they have chosen, their beliefs and values made manifest?

But Then It Was Too Late

They Thought They Were Free
by Milton Mayer
ch. 13

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.

* * *

Later on, I was able to have a more fruitful conversation with my dad. That emphasizes what was so frustrating in that argument earlier. I know he is capable of understanding the point I was making. But something about it so often triggers him. It’s so easy for social conservatives to fall back on such things as Social Darwinism, as almost a default mode.

It’s not like I’m a great defender of big government. Most people aren’t for big government on principle. Few would turn to a government any larger than is necessary. The first response the average person has is to seek what solutions might be had nearby. They only turn elsewhere when all immediate possibilities are frustrated or denied. This isn’t about big versus small government. It’s simply about government that functions democratically, on any and all levels.

So, I finally found a way to communicate this to my dad. But it is always a struggle. If I don’t frame it in the exact right way, he reacts with right-wing ideology. I have to put it into conservative terms of community and social fabric.

I find that a shame because the framing I’d prefer is simple honest concern for other humans, as if they mattered. I don’t want to live in a society where I have to carefully frame every argument in order to not accidentally elicit knee-jerk prejudices. I wish we were beyond that point. I wish we could have discussions that went straight to the problems themselves, instead having to first somehow prove that those suffering are worthy of our compassion.

I did apologize to my dad for getting so upset with him and lashing out at him. It’s not what I want. But these debates aren’t academic. It’s real people suffering, millions of Americans. These people don’t care if it is local or national government that helps them solve problems. They just want a better life for themselves and their children. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. I have no apology for caring.

Interestingly, one way I got my dad’s mind onto a new track of thinking is by sharing a passage from a book. It was something I had read yesterday, about old school progressives. For some reason, maybe because of the framing of religious moral reform, the following passage was able to shift our dialogue.

American Character
by Colin Woodard
pp. 134-135

When another terrible depression shook the country in 1893, reform movements sprang up across its northern tiers. Like the Massachusetts Brahmins, these turn-of-the-century Progressives weren’t opposed to free-market capitalism or Lockean individualism, but they did believe that laissez-faire was destroying both. Their philosophical mentor was the sociologist Lester Ward, the son of old New Englanders who had settled in the Yankee north of Illinois, and who became the greatest foe of Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists. “How can . . . true individualism be secured and complete freedom of individual action be vouchsafed?” Ward asked in 1893. “Herein lies a social paradox . . . that individual freedom can only come through social regulation.” He elaborated a theory of collective action to maintain the conditions required to keep individuals free:

Such a powerful weapon as reason is unsafe in the hands of one individual when wielded against another. It is still more dangerous in the hands of corporations, which proverbially have no souls. It is most baneful of all in the hands of compound corporations which seek to control the wealth of the world. It is only safe when employed by the social ego, emanating from the collective brain of society, and directed toward securing the common interests of the social organism.

It was in essence the approach Massachusetts had been taking for decades, which would now be adopted by insurgents in other parts of Yankeedom (Jane Addams in northern Illinois, Charles Evans Hughes in upstate New York, and Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin), the Midlands (William Jennings Bryan in eastern Nebraska), and New Netherland (where Herbert Croly helped found the New Republic in 1914 and from whence came the movement’s greatest figures, Al Smith and Theodore Roosevelt).

Teddy Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909, broke up Standard Oil, Northern Securities (which controlled both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways), the American Tobacco Company, and other great corporate trusts; intervened in a major mining strike to secure a solution beneficial to workers; and founded the National Park Service, national wildlife refuges, and the U.S. Forest Service. He presided over the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, and the Hepburn Act, which regulated railroad fares. His goal, he told a rapt audience at the laying of the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1907, was to restore the spirit of the early Puritans, who yoked the individualistic Protestant work ethic to communitarian goals and institutions. “The Puritan owed his extraordinary success in subduing this continent and making it the foundation for a social life of ordered liberty primarily to the fact that he combined in a very remarkable degree both the power of individual initiative, of individual self-help, and the power of acting in combination with his fellows,” he said. “He could combine with others whenever it became necessary to do a job which could not be as well done by any one man individually. . . . The spirit of the Puritan . . . never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal; and it is this spirit which we must show today whenever it is necessary.”


Parasitism vs Public Good

Here is a theory of mine. The US is an immigrant country founded on the populations and territories of multiple empires. The US doesn’t have it’s own stable traditional culture, although a few small sub-populations do.

Because of this, the US has developed a society and economy that is dependent on a constant influx of immigrants and hence a constant infusion of social capital that these immigrants bring. The American Dream is most strongly believed in by immigrants because that is what it is designed for, as advertising to sell a product.

There is a dysfunction at the heart of it all. The US depends on and devours the social capital that other stable societies produce, but doesn’t seem able to produce enough of its own. The US is in many ways a parasitic society.

If the US suddenly stopped immigration or immigrants stopped coming, there would be no more replacement social capital. Could the US survive that for long? Would Americans find a way to transform their society into something more stable and self-sustainable? Or would the whole thing collapse?

The US is a young country. It’s dynamic culture is its strength and weakness. It’s normal for a young country, like a young person, to be unstable and dependent on others. But for long-term survival, a young country has to eventually grow up and gain maturity, if only for the reason other countries will lose tolerance and patience with the immaturity.

Ready or not, the US has to enter adulthood. What kind of society will we grow up to be? Assuming we don’t kill ourselves first, as the young sometimes do.

* * *

As a comparison, what comes to mind are the other countries based on former colonies of the British Empire. Such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. All of them seem more mature and stable, compared to the US.

Maybe this relates to several factors. The main one is these other countries didn’t have as much good farmland to attract, employ, and feed such massive waves of immigrants. They also didn’t have such vast amounts of other natural resources that allowed the economic boom in the US.

Without such things, they were able avoid the misfortune of having their ruling elite tempted by imperialist aspirations. Instead, they were forced to develop more internal stability and national self-reliance.

Canada particularly stands out, as it is quite a bit younger than the US and yet shares the same continent along with much of the same history. When Canada was founded as a country, it had a population about the same as when the US was founded. A similar starting point that went in a different direction.

For whatever reason, Canada never had large waves of immigrants and I’m not sure they were ever interested in following the immigration example at their southern border. Canadians seem to have had more of an immigrant policy of quality, rather than quantity. As far as I know, they don’t have a gigantic statue with resounding words about inviting huddled masses to their shores.

Is a country like Canada somehow more stable and mature than the US? If so, what might be the reason for this? Is it just because of what I mentioned? Or is there more going on? What makes possible, within a country, the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of social capital and culture of trust?

* * *

Anu Partanen, in The Nordic Theory of Everything, has got me thinking about what countries both create within their own society and how they impact other societies.

One example is education. The US has low ratings for primary education, while the Nordic countries rate more highly. On the other hand, the US has a higher education system that ranks high on some measures, although this is quite misleading.

The major rankings of national higher education only look at the best schools from each country which creates an inherent bias against smaller countries with fewer college students and fewer schools. If including all students in all higher education within the US and Nordic countries, the latter actually ranks higher. So, per capita, the Nordic countries are better educating their populations at the primary and higher levels.

Still, it remains true that the US ivy league schools are among the best in the world. There is an important factor to be considered. A large part of ivy league professors, graduate teaching assistants, and students were born, raised, and received primary education in other countries. The US benefits from the brain drain of other countries, but the US doesn’t have to pay for creating this benefit. The most brilliant people in the world will usually want to work in the best schools in the world and this constantly stacks the deck in favor of particular countries.

As such, the US doesn’t have to improve its own primary education. It can simply rely upon other countries with awesome primary education to keep producing high quality students to attend the US ivy league schools. Even wealthy Americans who go to ivy leagues typically got their primary education from high quality schools in other countries or else private schools in the US that avoid the problems of the US education system, as they certainly weren’t going to be sent to crappy public schools in the US.

The US benefits in many other ways as well. Partanen offered some great examples in how well functioning social democracies help to create an atmosphere of public good that isn’t limited to a single country. A welfare state, what the author calls a well-being state, allows for experimentation and innovation without fear of the consequences of failure. It can be easier to try new things, when there is social capital and a culture of trust to support your endeavors.

Below is the relevant passage from The Nordic Theory of Everything (Kindle Locations 4278-4301):

“We’ve seen how successful Nordic businesses are, and to be sure, in the Nordic private sector, the desire to make money is a powerful motivator. But Nordic societies are also leading innovators in the public and nonprofit arena, which has contributed to their dynamic competitiveness and prosperity as well. The creativity and ambition of Nordic government and nonprofit sectors are living proof that people in a capitalist democracy can be motivated by much more than simple greed.

“Consider Denmark again, a country that is pursuing the world’s most ambitious engineering solution to address climate change. Copenhagen has set a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by as early as 2025, and has been installing an ultra-high-tech wireless network of smart streetlamps and traffic lights that themselves save energy and also help traffic move more efficiently, reducing fuel consumption. All this is good for the environment, the nonprofit public sector, and the private sector. By aiming to wean itself as a nation off fossil fuels before 2050, for example, Denmark has become a world leader in the wind-power industry.

“Sweden, meanwhile, has set itself the ambitious goal of completely eliminating deaths from traffic accidents, and in the process is reinventing city planning, road building, traffic rules, and the use of technology to make transport safer. The country established the goal in 1997, and since then has reduced road deaths by half. Today only three out of every one hundred thousand Swedes die on the roads each year, compared to almost eleven in the United States. Consequently transportation officials from around the world have started to seek Sweden’s advice on traffic safety, and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has based his street safety plan on Sweden’s approach.

“Of course one could also argue that the biggest Nordic innovation of all is the whole concept and execution of the well-being state.

“Americans might be surprised, too, by the ways that some of the key building blocks of the global technology sector have been the result of nonprofit innovation. The core programming code of Linux, for example— the leading computer operating system running on the world’s servers, mainframe computers, and supercomputers— was developed in Finland by a student at Helsinki University, Linus Torvalds, who released it free of charge as an open-source application. When Torvalds later received some valuable stock options, they were a gift of gratitude from some software developers. In addition Finns have made other significant contributions to the global open-source software movement, a community of coders who volunteer their time and skills to create free software for anyone to use. One of the world’s most popular open-source databases, MySQL, was created by a Finn named Monty Widenius and his Swedish partners. Today just about all American corporate giants— including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Walmart— rely on MySQL. Widenius and his team have, in the years since, nevertheless made good money, but they did so by providing support and other services, while the software itself remains free to the world.”


Basic Income: Basic Solutions for Basic Problems

The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

A basic income is an interesting proposition. For one, it is a fundamentally American idea.

In the form of a citizen’s dividend, it goes back to Thomas Paine through his recognition of the significance of the loss of the Commons to the average person. The founders understood the value of land and having access to it, and they realized it was upon land that economies and lives were built. The early government lacked an income tax for the reason the federal government was able to gain so much money from the sale and taxation of land. Paine’s insight was that financial gain from public resources, especially when given away and privatized, should be shared to some minimal degree with the citizens that the government constitutionally represents.

Later American thinkers such as the 19th century Henry George had related ideas. Like Paine, he supported free markets and the private use of land. Also, like Paine, he saw land taxes as a way of dealing with the social problems related to the loss of access to land and its value.

All wealth originates from land. The reason for this is because everything procured and made comes from natural resources, including human lives and communities (a close, entangled relationship existing between natural capital, economic capital, and social capital). All natural resources were public before they were private. All private gains made from natural resources is at least in part wealth removed not just from the public domain but also from future generations. This a touchy issue for Americans, as our country was founded on the notion of consent of the governed, which was understood by the founders to mean that one generation of citizens shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions for and force costs upon future generations of citizens. It’s the worst form of externalization, for those future generations don’t necessarily even get any of the benefits for what they end up paying.

Americans, in particular, have ignored these realities. We could do so, for in the early centuries of our country, Americans could fool themselves into thinking that land and natural resources were practically infinite. The government’s giving away of the Commons for free or below-market value seemed like a necessary incentive for growth, not a theft from the public good. In recent generations, this privatization of gains and externalization or rather socialization of costs has become more difficult to ignore.

The implementation of a basic income is a way of evening out of the playing field that has, through past political policies (along with plutocratic maneuverings), been intentionally or unintentionally made uneven. A basic income doesn’t eliminate the faux meritocracy and rigid socioeconomic hierarchy, but it does lessen the sting of the harshest consequences. The challenge posed becomes an ever more present problem as increases are seen with the mechanization of jobs and the related rates of unemployment and underemployment. Average wages have been stagnating, median wages have been decreasing, buying power for basic goods has taken a hit, economic mobility has fallen, the middle class is shrinking, economic inequality is growing, and on and on. An entire permanent underclass is forming in this new economy.

One solution made popular came from the Progressive Era. Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed everyone had the right to work, with government as the employer of last resort. This was understandable during a time of growing industrialization. It makes less sense under present conditions. Neither the job market or welfare is keeping up with the economic problems facing so many Americans. If real work isn’t available, creating pointless busy work doesn’t seem all that productive or inspiring of a solution, not to argue that public service can’t be a worthy form of work.

The point is: What end is work supposed to serve, if and when it no longer serves a market purpose? Real work or not, the government as an employer of last could end up being more expensive than present welfare and almost certainly would be more expensive than a basic income. How much would be willing to pay for employment for its own sake?

This line of thought could explain why a basic income has gained support from across the political spectrum. Even many libertarians are getting on board, as they see it as an attractive and viable alternative to a growing welfare state and the bureaucracy that goes along with it. Also, many people in general see as a failure such things as the call for raising the minimum wage, either a failure on practical grounds or a failure of imagination. A minimum wage just shifts the costs around, but it doesn’t alter the fundamental conditions and solve the fundamental problem. Sometimes shifting costs around is a necessary evil, as someone has to pay the costs (both financial and social), and at least the minimum wage is an acknowledgement of the problem itself, but maybe we should look to the systemic causes that go beyond any particular segment of the economy, even if one thinks raising the minimum wage is a partial or temporary solution. Basic income can exist with or without a minimum wage, for if the basic income is high enough a minimum wage simply becomes irrelevant and so would become useless as a political football.

A basic income obviously goes much further than present mainstream solutions. It turns a probing eye toward how public resources get allocated in the first place. It pushes the debate back to first principles and it questions upon what basis should our economy be built (not just the basis of politics and markets, but also that of the social values and moral vision). Also, it puts public costs and benefits squarely in the realm of public decisions to be made, not shifting the responsibility to private employers. A basic income could be designed in many ways, but it doesn’t even require an increase of taxes or any other form of altering the cost equation in the private sphere. It could be fully financed either through a redirecting of present welfare funds or through ensuring the economic value of natural resources is used toward this public good (or a combination of the two). I’m sure that diverse other funding possibilities are available as well.

As many realize, our present economic situation isn’t stable or necessarily even sustainable. We too often forget that this arrangement of capitalist employment is only a few centuries old, feudalism having had just come to an end as the US was being founded (and slavery extending feudal-like conditions well into the capitalist era). Traditional forms of economics existed for millennia prior to modern economics. Even within recent centuries, capitalism has changed drastically. Further changes are inevitable. We will have to deal with this, one way or another. The loss of jobs through better technology and more efficient markets could be seen as a sad fate, but it could also be seen as an opportunity to build a new kind of society.

Anyway, there is never a lack of work that could be done. Most of the work people already do is unofficial and unpaid, from raising children to community-building, from church activities to volunteerism, along with endless other wanted and unwanted activities that whittle away one’s time. Having more freedom and leisure could mean more time spent with family, community, and church; more time growing fresh fruits and vegetables and cooking healthy meals; more time building social capital, participating in democracy, and implementing social innovations; even more time to seek education and training to find better and more satisfying employment.

The problem for Americans has never been laziness. If anything, we’ve been obsessed with work to an unhealthy degree. America is the land of the Protestant work ethic. The question is how do we turn this drive to work toward ends that are economically sustainable, socially beneficial, personally satisfying, and politically liberating. How do we increase opportunities and access for people to have better lives, for themselves, their families, and their communities? Even during this time of increasing unemployment/underemployment and economic inequality, the economy is growing. The problem is obviously not a lack of resources and productivity. Rather, it is an issue of what kind of society we want to live in, not just for some of us but for all of us.

Don’t forget the alternative. We could always choose to live in a society with a mass population of a permanent underclass. Instead of something like a basic income, we could have increasing rates of poverty, welfare, ghettoization, crime, gangs, black markets, and imprisonment. That is the choice we are making at present by default. There is no indication that these problems are going to inevitably lessen through natural forces, market mechanisms, or somehow otherwise solve themselves.

Whether or not we do so consciously and intentionally, we are always making choices. Changing conditions means both new problems and new opportunities, and hence new potential choices.

* * * *

Related previous posts:

Bullshit Jobs

Governing Under the Influence

Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration

Worthless Non-Workers

Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

Working Hard, But For What?

Work Ethic: Denomination, Region, Ethnicity

No, The Poor Aren’t Undeserving Moral Reprobates

Structural Racism and Personal Responsibility

To Be Poor, To Be Black, To Be Poor and Black

Where Liberty and Freedom Converge

Every Freedom Comes At A Cost of Freedom

The Cultural Determinants of a Voluntary Society

Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

A Sign of Decline?

Morality-Punishment Link

Earthbound Capitalism and the Frontiers of Space

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

The Desperate Acting Desperately

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

* * * *

Relevant articles:

Mincome: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans

However, in his book, author Charles Murray concedes that a mincome-like plan may not be realistic… yet. “I began this thought experiment by asking you to ignore that the Plan was politically impossible today,” he wrote. “I end proposing that something like the Plan is politically inevitable — not next year, but sometime.”

Guaranteed Annual Income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Guaranteed minimum income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mincome – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Basic income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Global basic income – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

List of basic income models – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Category:Basic income by country and region – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Citizen’s dividend – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Asset-based egalitarianism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Agrarian Justice – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Geolibertarianism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Georgism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Land value tax – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rent-seeking – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Value capture – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reserve army of labour – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Economic democracy – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Four Freedoms – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Right to an adequate standard of living – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Second Bill of Rights – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Why We Need Movement Of Free People

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Thomas Spence (1750-1814) on land ownership, land taxes and the provision of citizens’ dividend

Debate Argument: Georgism Should be Implemented in the United States |

Martin Luther King Jr. Where do we go from here

Martin Luther King’s Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

Martin Luther King’s Economic Dream: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Solution to Poverty

MLK’s Other Dream: Economic Justice and a Guaranteed Annual Income

Four ways Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to battle inequality

Guaranteed income’s moment in the sun | Remapping Debate

Should the government pay you to be alive? – The Boston Globe

A Brief History of Basic Income Ideas

15 quotes that show Basic Income is the way forward

Wealth and Want: Citizen Dividends

EmbraceUnity » The Basic Income is Dead

Negative Income Tax: How does it differ from basic income?

Universal Basic Income versus Unemployment Insurance- Working Papers – St. Louis Fed

Unconditional basic income + flat income tax = effectively progressive income tax

Universal Basic Income as the Social Vaccine of the 21st Century

The Basic Affordability of Basic Income

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » The Economic Case for a Universal Basic Income (Part 1 of a series)

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » Could We Afford a Universal Basic Income? (Part 2 of a Series)

EconoMonitor : Ed Dolan’s Econ Blog » A Universal Basic Income: Conservative, Progressive, and Libertarian Perspectives (Part 3 of a Series)

Funding Universal Basic Income by Creating Money, Not Taxes

The Pragmatic Case for a Universal Basic Income

Ten Reasons to Support Basic Income

Three Trends That Will Create Demand for an Unconditional Basic Income

If We No Longer Force People to Work to Meet Their Basic Needs, Won’t They Stop Working?

it’s all one thing: Four problems with work requirements for Basic Income

The Case For A Basic Income Guarantee

Krugman’s Argument In Favor Of A Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income gets mentioned to John Stossel on Fox News

Why the Tech Elite Is Getting Behind Universal Basic Income | VICE | United States

Vice on Universal Basic Income: A Response

Interview: Neil Jacobstein Discusses Future of Jobs, Universal Basic Income and the Ethical Dangers of AI – Singularity HUB

Afraid of Robots Taking Your Job? You Should Be

How to pay for such an outlandish idea? Tax the rich, particularly the truly rich. Our current tax brackets often fail to distinguish between someone who makes, say, $500,000 and $5 million. But this difference matters, as does the difference between $5 million and $50 million. To simplify things, let the Google and Nike and Narrative Sciences executives eliminate all the jobs they please, as long as their taxes support a guaranteed minimum income.

The Future Threat to Middle America No One Is Talking About

Why trucking matters: The country was built on transportation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.6 million long-haul truckers and 2.8 million truckers are in the workforce. The American Trucking Association estimates an additional 5.2 million people are employed by the trucking industry who aren’t drivers. That includes operations managers, sales personnel, repair staff and instructors.

Trucking creates an ecosystem of towns and businesses fed by the steady flow of human drivers who stop along their route for basic necessities. Scott Santens, a blogger about basic income and automation, wrote on Medium:

“Those working in these restaurants and motels along truck-driving routes are also consumers within their own local economies. Think about what a server spends her paycheck and tips on in her own community, and what a motel maid spends from her earnings into the same community. That spending creates other paychecks in turn. So now we’re not only talking about millions more who depend on those who depend on truck drivers, but we’re also talking about entire small town communities full of people who depend on all of the above in more rural areas. With any amount of reduced consumer spending, these local economies will shrink.”

Those truckers are like nutrients moving along the roots and outer branches of the middle American tree — and when robots don’t need to pull over to spend their money at rest stops, each of those secondary services loses its viability. According to independent research reports as recent as May, the truck stop and convenience store business alone is a $450 billion industry.

If self-driving trucks take over the roads, that puts 70% of the nation’s freight shipping in the hands of capable robots. That is, if the trucks of the future are all they’re cracked up to be.

Will self-driving trucks actually take over the industry? Detractors say the change toward automation will happen so gradually that the industry won’t be irreparably disrupted. Bloomberg economy columnist Megan McArdle argues:

“Overall, I think Santens is right that eventually, we’ll solve the problems and self-driving trucks will displace a lot of drivers. That will be good news, because truck accidents are extremely deadly. But I expect the number of jobs lost will be smaller than he thinks, and the change will be slower. So while eventually a set of former drivers will have to figure out what to do with their freed time, that’s likely to be a problem for the next generation of truckers, not this one.”

Martin Ford, author of a recent book on automation called Rise of the Robots, told Mic a number of other factors will prevent self-driving trucks from taking over. To start: They’re extraordinarily heavy objects to be moving around populated roads without drivers, and that any computer system is likely to have its security issues. “The technology might be there, but it’s going to take some time,” he said.

Another argument against the rapid loss of jobs is the concept that, like dozens of industrial transformations in human history, this change will create other kinds of jobs, like maintaining the automated trucks.

But Santens disagrees. “When we mechanized farming, we transitioned to services — but now we’ve hit this part where instead of automating muscle power, we’re automating brain power,” Santens told Mic. “Suddenly, all this work we’ve been shifted to is automatable. There’s a belief there will be all these new jobs. And yes, there will be some, but not the millions on millions that will be lost.”

Trucking in the U.S. was a stable, reliable source of income for millions of Americans. But now, as the sector explodes with new job opportunities in the short term, driver pay is also at a decadelong low.

But self-driving trucks are arriving soon. Even if, as McArdle argues, this is far enough off in the future that only the next generation of truckers will be affected, we’ll need to find many of those drivers new job opportunities. Jobs that can’t be immediately automated — a classification of career that’s becoming smaller and smaller in scope.

Basic income paid to the poor can transform lives

The main conclusion is that a basic income can be transformative. It had four effects, most accentuated by the presence of the collective body.

First, it had strong welfare, or “capability”, effects. There were improvements in child nutrition, child and adult health, schooling attendance and performance, sanitation, economic activity and earned incomes, and the socio-economic status of women, the elderly and the disabled.

Second, it had strong equity effects. It resulted in bigger improvements for scheduled caste and tribal households, and for all vulnerable groups, notably those with disabilities and frailties. This was partly because the basic income was paid to each individual, strengthening their bargaining position in the household and community.

Third, it had growth effects. Contrary to what sceptics predicted (including Sonia Gandhi), the basic incomes resulted in more economic activity and work.

Conventional labour statistics would have picked that up inadequately. There was a big increase in secondary economic activities, as well as a shift from casual wage labour to own-account farming and small-scale business. Growth in village economies is often ignored. It should not be.

Fourth, it had emancipatory effects. These are unappreciated by orthodox development thinkers. The poor’s liberty has no value. But the basic income resulted in some families buying themselves out of debt bondage, others paying down exorbitant debts incurring horrendous interest rates. For many, it provided liquidity with which to respond to shocks and hazards. In effect, the basic income responded to the fact that in such villages money is a scarce commodity, and as such that has driven up its price, locking most in a perpetual cycle of debt and deprivation.

A bipartisan proposal to make a universal basic income a reality in America

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

A Universal Basic Income Is The Bipartisan Solution To Poverty We’ve Been Waiting For

But would it actually work? The evidence from actual experiments is limited, though it’s more positive than not. A pilot in the 1970s in Manitoba, Canada, showed that a “Mincome” not only ended poverty but also reduced hospital visits and raised high-school completion rates. There seemed to be a community-affirming effect, which showed itself in people making use of free public services more responsibly.

Meanwhile, there were eight “negative income tax” trials in the U.S. in the ’70s, where people received payments and the government clawed back most of it in taxes based on your other income. The results for those trials was more mixed. They reduced poverty, but people also worked slightly less than normal. To some, this is the major drawback of basic income: it could make people lazier than they would otherwise be. That would certainly be a problem, though it’s questionable whether, in the future, there will be as much employment anyway. The age of robots and artificial intelligence seems likely to hollow out many jobs, perhaps changing how we view notions of laziness and productivity altogether.

Experiments outside the U.S. have been more encouraging. One in Namibia cut poverty from 76% to 37%, increased non-subsidized incomes, raised education and health standards, and cut crime levels. Another involving 6,000 people in India paid people $7 month—about a third of subsistence levels. It, too, proved successful.

“The important thing is to create a floor on which people can start building some security. If the economic situation allows, you can gradually increase the income to where it meets subsistence,” says Guy Standing, a professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, who was involved with the pilot. “Even that modest amount had incredible effects on people’s savings, economic status, health, in children going to school, in the acquisition of items like school shoes, so people felt in control of their lives. The amount of work people were doing increased as well.”

Given the gridlock in Congress, it’s unlikely we’ll see basic income here for a while. Though the idea has supporters in both left and right-leaning think-tanks, it’s doubtful actual politicians could agree to redesign much of the federal government if they can’t agree on much else. But the idea could take off in poorer countries that have more of a blank slate and suffer from less polarization. Perhaps we’ll re-import the concept one day once the developing world has perfected it?

From basic income to social dividends: sharing the value of common resources

Rethinking basic income in a sharing society

This model of economic sharing recognizes that all citizens have a right to income from the commons—such as land and other resources that are either inherited or co-created by society. Although this approach is rarely part of the popular discourse on implementing a citizen’s income scheme, the idea can be traced back to the work of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, who stated that “the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.”

As explained by Peter Barnes in his book With Liberty and Dividends for All, the majority of the wealth that’s inherited or created in society is captured and extracted by the rich, rather than distributed fairly among citizens. Meanwhile, the damaging social and environmental costs of this process are largely borne by the public or the biosphere. The simple idea at the heart of most proposals for a social dividend is therefore to charge user fees on shared resources, which can then be distributed to all citizens as a basic right.

Although an agency would initially have to be set up by governments to administer the program, it would operate independently of the private and public sector as a ‘commons trust’ that could conceivably manage a range of shared resources—from land, fossil fuels and atmospheric carbon storage, to the electromagnetic spectrum and intellectual property. According to calculations by Barnes based only on a specific selection of shared assets, the program could provide every American citizen with as much as $5,000 a year.

The real advantage of a social dividend from resource rents is that it would facilitate, rather than impede, the creation of a more equal society that embodies the ethic and practice of sharing. Unlike the standard basic income proposal, this alternative approach would not compete with existing welfare budgets, and it would therefore complement solidarity-based systems of social protection.

The social dividend also acknowledges that all citizens are entitled to a fair share of co-owned wealth and resources, which is a commonsense proposal with the potential to dramatically reform economic systems and enhance social cohesion. Since the value of common resources would be shared more equitably, social dividends present an important systemic solution to poverty that can counterbalance the injustice of a global economic model in which wealth predominantly flows to the richest one per cent of the world’s population.

In line with some of the common arguments made in favor of a basic income, social dividends would also increase our sense of personal freedom, since people would no longer feel forced to do menial or difficult jobs that they would otherwise undertake reluctantly or for reasons of survival. This would leave them free to devote more time to creative, cultural and caring pursuits, sparking a much-needed debate on the nature and purpose of work at a time when the escalating environmental crisis necessitates a radically new economic model that is no longer predicated on consumption-driven economic growth.

Furthermore, social dividends could have a transformative impact on individuals and communities, which could pave the way for more extensive changes across society. The additional income received by individuals could help sustain the indispensable unpaid activities that take place in the core economy by giving people the freedom to act on their inner desires to give or be of real service to others. This includes raising children and caring for the elderly, maintaining community relationships and mutual support networks, and participating in voluntary action and civil society organizations.

According to Edgar Cahn, the core economy produces “love and caring, coming to each other’s rescue, democracy and social justice”, which is why there is a clear imperative to rebuild and strengthen this fundamental aspect of society that is increasingly under assault. The profound relationship between genuine compassion and the creation of a more equal world was also vividly expressed by Martin Luther King, who once declared that “Standing beside love is always justice.”

Embodied in these insights is the hope that strengthening the bonds of love, empathy and reciprocity within communities could spark a cultural shift in favor of social justice, and that this could eventually find expression in democratic institutions and policy debates. By helping to resuscitate a rapidly diminishing core economy, a basic income derived from the value of collectively owned resources could therefore empower citizens to take a crucial first step in the co-creation of a truly sharing society.

The Aquarian Agrarian: Conservatives for Georgism and a Social Market Economy

The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income

Why reform conservatives should embrace a universal basic income

While Ryan’s expansion of the EITC is a good idea, it can’t address the bargaining power issue because getting the EITC is dependent on getting a job. So, like much of the rest of America’s social safety net, it can’t be used as leverage against an employer. Only a non-market wage of some sort can. By providing a little financial breathing room, a UBI would combat labor market slack and let more workers say “no” to jobs that don’t come with decent pay and sane schedules.

Unfortunately, this is also what makes reformocons nervous about a UBI, since they rightly recognize the profound human damage that’s done — to both individuals and communities — when people detach from the work force. Jim Manzi and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry have pointed to U.S. experiments with a negative income tax (NTI) — a close policy cousin to the UBI — that showed a drop in work effort of roughly 13 percent. However, the reduction wasn’t from people giving up on finding work entirely, but from people simply waiting longer during spells before taking another job — a crucial distinction. Most of them were mothers who chose to spend more time caring for their children, or young people who spent more time accumulating an education. A similar experiment in Canada around the same time found the same result. People weren’t “listing away in socially destructive idleness” as Gobry put it; they were simply contributing to the social fabric in ways not recognized by the market.

And even when it’s not parents or teenagers waiting longer to get a job, these would-be workers could very well be holding out because they’re waiting for a better deal — enforcing exactly the kind of market discipline on employers that results in better wages and treatment. All unemployment is not created equal, and reformocons should not fear the UBI on this score.

In fact, reform conservatives should embrace the UBI’s modest reductions of work effort. One of the reformocons’ primary concerns is for the “mediating institutions” of civil society; the families, neighborhoods, churches, community groups, charities and so on that make up the fabric of American social life. Perceptive conservatives like Patrick Deneen have long realized that it’s not just the state — reformocons’ typical bête noire — that threatens civil society, but the market as well. Ross Douthat, another reformocon, recently worried that “both capitalism and the welfare state tend to weaken forms of solidarity that give meaning to life for many people, while offering nothing but money in their place.”

When we are dependent solely on the job market for our income, a tyranny of need sets in: We must go where the job market dictates, when it dictates, and do as its vagaries determine. That’s why the closing of a factory can decimate a town, and why a layoff can ruin a marriage. The time and energy we pour into work is time and energy we cannot give to our children, our spouses, our community gardens, our church bible studies, our hobbies and talents, or to our bowling leagues. The job market can poison and rend the social fabric as easily as bolster it. But by rolling back the ubiquity of the market, while minimizing the government’s bureaucratic footprint (it requires minimal administrative overhead to send people checks), a UBI would thread the needle between the market and the state.

Pethokoukis has also worried that we’re headed toward a future where automation really does begin reducing the supply of jobs, or where the economy’s ability to deliver more corporate profits while employing fewer people becomes permanent. In that case, a UBI would also shift us away from the current situation, where total dependency on the job market means the most vulnerable Americans are the last to enjoy the benefits of increased productivity, but the first ones to be squeezed out of the labor force when another threshold of efficiency is reached. If the economy is learning to do more with less, then the ideal would be a world where attachment to the labor force remains high, but everyone just works fewer hours — essentially the opposite of what we have now. By equitably distributing some of those productivity gains, a UBI would make such a world a bit more likely.

By giving all Americans at least a little income that is not dependent on the whims of the market, a UBI would allow workers more pro-active control over when and why they do or do not engage with the job market. It would open up more time and space for people to participate in those mediating institutions, becoming a de facto investment in the health of America’s civil society. In fact, the investment could very well be literal; any UBI — but especially one financed by tax deduction closures and military spending cuts — would be a massive distribution of income down the income ladder, and most social data suggests the poor and working class contribute more of their income to their churches, communities, and local charities than do the rich.

Poverty: The argument for a basic income (Opinion) –

This tidy, egalitarian concept isn’t new, and its support isn’t limited to the radical political left. Dig through the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s little discussed book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community,” published in 1967, the year before his assassination, and you’ll find an endorsement: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective. The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” Milton Friedman, the Nobel-prize winning economist who was an adviser to conservatives Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, also supported a variation of the idea.

The basic income continues to have a diverse set of supporters — left, right and libertarian. They like the concept for different reasons, said Matt Bruenig, a writer and policy analyst for Demos. Those on the left tend to like it because it’s egalitarian. It helps give everyone an equal (or more equal) shot at success in our capitalist society. Some libertarians and right-wingers support the concept, meanwhile, because they see it as a way to whittle away at government bureaucracy. Some would have the basic income replace many existing social safety net programs. There’s also a conservative philosophy underlying all of this: Give people money and they, not the government, know best how to spend it. They know what they need. The feds do not.

Basic Income: From Paine to MLK; a solution to Welfare and Poverty?

Three Problems for Libertarian Supporters of a Basic Income

August 2014: The Basic Income and the Welfare State

Libertarians Debate Basic Income Guarantee

It might not be ideal—certainly “no libertarian would wish for a BIG as an addition to the currently existing welfare state,” writes Zwolinski. “But what about as a replacement for it?” He argues that the BIG would amount to less bureaucracy, less expense, “less rent-seeking”, and less paternalism.

Will a guaranteed basic income replace welfare? | Deseret News National

One of the strangest aspects of basic income proposals, which Matthews handles at length, is that there is substantial support for it from both ideological extremes.

On the conservative side, for example, libertarian political philosopher Matt Zwolinski joined the likes of economists Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith when he argued last year that such a policy could potentially simplify the current federal bureaucracy, lower costs and provide greater protections to individual privacy.

“In Libertarian Utopia, we might not have any welfare state all, no matter how limited or efficient,” he argued. But, he continued, “the question is not whether a GBI is a perfectly libertarian policy in every way, but whether it is more libertarian than the other realistically available policy alternatives.”

On the liberal side, many have noted that Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for similar measures, as did philosopher Bertrand Russell. “In a GBI (guaranteed basic income) world, an employer has to make work somehow appealing enough to get employees even though everyone’s guaranteed a basic minimum whether they work or not,” Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate in 2013 (Yglesias is now an editor at Vox).

“But that ‘appealing’ factor could be high wages, could be valuable skills and training, could just be a pleasant work atmosphere,” Yglesias added. “Or (it) could be some combination of the three.”

Though there have been proposals in the past for some form of a basic income, most notably from the Nixon administration, most pundits, including Matthews, aren’t optimistic that such a major change to the American welfare system could come any time soon. Still, they argue, it’s at least worth a look.

Basic minimum income is a BRILLIANT idea. Small problem: it doesn’t work as planned

It should be fairly obvious that the other group of people who support this idea, us over on the very free market right, don’t necessarily support it for the same reasons. Yet it is true that this is where the other focus of support is. My own support comes from the incentives problem.

I’m pretty much convinced that incentives matter to people – there would be little to be said about economics if this were not true. What you get, after tax and benefits withdrawal for your labour, is obviously an incentive that affects your willingness to labour. As the Budget points out every year (it’s one of those things it is supposed to detail each year) there’s several million people who face marginal tax and benefit rates of 70 per cent or more. There’s even a couple of hundred thousand over 100 per cent.

By earning an extra pound or ten in a week they actually end up with less money in their pockets and have also had to work more to get less. You don’t have to entirely buy into a strict reading of Art Laffer’s famous Curve to believe that this is going to reduce the amount of extra work that these people are going to be willing to do. They’re thus stuck in a poverty trap; they work more and get less, therefore they won’t work harder and get over that hump into better territory.

Please note the implication of this: yes, us free market right w(h)ingers really do think that hugely high marginal tax rates affect the poor just as they do the rich and that therefore we shouldn’t have them.

So, from this point of view, just give everyone some amount of money per week, untaxed and not withdrawn as incomes rise and those poor will face hugely lower marginal tax rates. It’ll thus leave room for the incentives for people to slowly improve their situations through extra work, better work, experience, education and so on. We have, we hope, solved the poverty trap caused by the current tax and welfare system.

This is largely the argument that Charles Murray (yes, he of the Bell Curve) used in his book on the subject, “In Our Hands”. The collision between tax rates and benefit withdrawal rates is such that we’d be better off just giving everyone some cash and letting them get on with it. If that means they go to the beach all their lives so what? It’ll be a minority that do and we’ll all still be better off.

The problem really boils down to us asking, what is the definition of “basic” that we’re using here? There’s some who want to call for a universal income: something like the UK’s living wage of £15,000 a year or so. Without taxing the economy into oblivion, that’s just not going to happen. Murray’s worked out that the US, a much richer place, could afford about $10,000 a year per adult. But do note that that replaces everything else: the entire welfare state, including old age pensions (or Social Security as the colonials call it) disappears into that one $10,000 per adult payment.

The Green Party is talking about £75 a week or so, which is pretty minimalist for even the word “basic”. The assumption seems to be that we’ll all eat off our own potato patches. Despite how that they’re not very good at explaining where the money will come from, the answer is obvious: it’s folding large pieces of that welfare state into making that payment.

Dillow and I seem to think that something around the level of the pension guarantee could be done: £130 a week. But at that point you really have stripped absolutely everything out of the welfare state to pay for it. Pensions, tax credits, personal allowances for tax and so on all disappear into the gaping financial maw of said universal basic income. And we think that all would be better off in such a system.

Money for nothing: Mincome experiment could pay dividends 40 years on | Al Jazeera America

For those on the left, basic income represents a chance to strengthen the social safety net and more evenly redistribute wealth, while some American libertarians view it as a way to cut back on bureaucracy and provide individuals with greater personal choice. There’s disagreement, however, on whether there would be accompanying tax hikes and whether other social programs would remain in place.

Karl Widerquist, an academic and vocal supporter of basic income, suggested its rising popularity in the U.S. springs from concern over income inequality spurred by the Great Recession. “It’s really incredible how much it’s grown so fast, and there’s no telling where it will go,” he said.

The Dauphin experiment, like four others in the United States around the same time, was an attempt to measure if providing extra money directly to residents below a certain household income would be effective social policy.

Dauphin was unique among those studies in that all residents of the municipality and surrounding area, with a population of about 10,000, were eligible to participate if they met the criteria.

For those who didn’t qualify for support under traditional welfare schemes, such as those for the elderly and the working poor, Mincome meant a significant increase in income. Low-wage earners had their incomes topped up.

Richardson, for instance, recalls collecting about 30 Canadian dollars some months. That’s the equivalent of about CA$145 today (US$133).

The experiment produced a trove of data, but the results were never released. After changes at the federal and provincial government levels, the program was shut down without a final report or any analysis.

Decades after the program ended, sociology professor Evelyn Forget dug up records from the period and found there were far-reaching benefits in the education and health sectors.

In a 2011 study she reported an 8.5 percent drop in hospital visits, a decrease in emergency room visits from car accidents and fewer recorded instances of domestic abuse. There was also a reduction in the number of people who sought treatment for mental health issues. And a greater proportion of high school students continued to the 12th grade.

As with U.S. experiments during the same period, there was no evidence that it led people to withdraw from the labor market, according to her research. “It’s surprising to find that it actually works, that people don’t quit their jobs,” said Forget, a University of Manitoba professor. “There’s this fear that if we have too much freedom, we might misuse it.”

What happens to kids when you give families a universal basic income? | JSTOR Daily

In a 2010 paper, a team of researchers looked at how the payments, which started in 1997, affected children. They determined that the payments increased the likelihood that kids would graduate from high school and reduced the chances that they would get involved in criminal activity. That was particularly true for the town’s poorest children. For those kids, an extra $4,000 in annual household income added up to an additional year of education and a 22 percent reduction in the chance of committing a minor crime at ages 16 or 17.

How does giving families money help kids? The researchers found at least part of the explanation seems to be that adults who received the payments were able to be more effective parents. They were less likely to commit crimes and more likely to know where their kids were and what they were doing. Children in families receiving the payments also reported a higher number of positive interactions with their mothers (though there was no statistically significant effect here when it came to fathers).

The authors suggest that getting a bit more money reduces stress and other mental health problems related to poverty. (Parents receiving the payments didn’t work any less, so the change was not about simply spending more time with their kids.) The fact that a simple transfer of money could produce this kind of change provides an interesting corrective to the frequent focus on supposedly deep-seated cultural differences to explain class differences among children.

Lessons from Mincome: How a Basic Income Would Improve Health

A Canadian City Once Eliminated Poverty And Nearly Everyone Forgot

Two years before the Harper government shut down its operations, the National Council of Welfare released a damning report criticizing how welfare rules are trapping people in poverty.

“Canada’s welfare system is a box with a tight lid. Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance,” said TD Bank’s former chief economist Don Drummond after the social agency’s report was released in 2010.

“But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You have no means to absorb setbacks in income or unexpected costs. You can’t afford to move to where jobs might be or upgrade your skills.”

Former Conservative senator Hugh Segal is a longtime proponent of a guaranteed annual income policy. He believes the program could save provinces millions in social assistance spending on programs like welfare.

Instead of being forced through the welfare system, people’s eligibility would be assessed and reassessed with every income tax filing. Those who don’t make above the low-income cut-off in their area would be automatically topped up, similar to Mincome in Dauphin.

[ . . . ]

“I would think it’s fair to say ideologically, the present government would eye the notion that this is some ‘kooky left-wing scheme’ without addressing the fact that really strong social and economic conservatives like Milton Friedman argued in favour of a negative income tax,” he said.

In Canada, the idea of an universal basic income was first presented at a Progressive Conservative policy convention in October of 1969. Then-leader Robert Stanfield argued the idea would consolidate overlapping security programs and reduce bureaucracy.

A Sign of Decline?

Considering the fall of early civilizations, decentralization and privatization come into focus as important for understanding. They have, in at least some major examples, been closely associated with periods of decline. That doesn’t necessarily imply they are the cause. Instead, it may simply be a sign. Decline just means change. An old order changing will always be perceived of as a decline.

The creation of centralized government is at the heart of the civilization project. Prior to the city-states and empires of ‘civilization’, people governed themselves in many ways without any need of centralization for most everything had been local. It required the centralization (i.e., concentration) of growing populations to create the possibility and necessity of centralized governance. A public had to be formed in opposition to a private in order for a public good to be spoken of. Privacy becomes more valued in crowded cities.

Early hunter-gatherers seemed to have thought a lot less about privacy, if they had any concept of it at all, certainly not in terms of sound-dampening walls and locked doors. In that simpler lifestyle, most everything was held in common. There was no place that was the Commons for all of the world was considered the commons, for the specific people in question. Personal items would have been the exception, rather than the rule. Before the modern condition of extreme scarcity and overpopulation, there would have been less motivation to fight over private property.

It should be no surprise that periods of decentralization and privatization coincided with periods of population dispersal and loss. The decline of civilizations often meant mass death or migration.

We live in different times, of course. But is it really any different now?

When people today advocate decentralization and privatization, what does that mean in the larger sense? When some fantasize about the decline of our present social order, what do they hope will result? What is motivating all this talk?

If it is a sign, what is a sign of? What changes are in the air?

* * * *

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
Eric H. Cline
pp. 152-4

DECENTRALIZATION AND THE RISE OF THE PRIVATE MERCHANT There is one other point to be considered, which has been suggested relatively recently and may well be a reflection of current thinking about the role of decentralization in today’s world.

In an article published in 1998, Susan Sherratt, now at the University of Sheffield, concluded that the Sea Peoples represent the final step in the replacement of the old centralized politico-economic systems present in the Bronze Age with the new decentralized economic systems of the Iron Age— that is, the change from kingdoms and empires that controlled the international trade to smaller city-states and individual entrepreneurs who were in business for themselves. She suggested that the Sea Peoples can “usefully be seen as a structural phenomenon, a product of the natural evolution and expansion of international trade in the 3rd and early 2nd millennium, which carried within it the seeds of the subversion of the palace-based command economies which had initiated such trade in the first place.” 57

Thus, while she concedes that the international trade routes might have collapsed, and that at least some of the Sea Peoples may have been migratory invaders, she ultimately concludes that it does not really matter where the Sea Peoples came from, or even who they were or what they did. Far more important is the sociopolitical and economic change that they represent, from a predominantly palatial-controlled economy to one in which private merchants and smaller entities had considerably more economic freedom. 58

Although Sherratt’s argument is elegantly stated, other scholars had earlier made similar suggestions. For example, Klaus Kilian, excavator of Tiryns, once wrote: “After the fall of the Mycenaean palaces, when ‘private’ economy had been established in Greece, contacts continued with foreign countries. The well-organized palatial system was succeeded by smaller local reigns, certainly less powerful in their economic expansion.” 59

Michal Artzy, of the University of Haifa, even gave a name to some of the private merchants envisioned by Sherratt, dubbing them “Nomads of the Sea.” She suggested that they had been active as intermediaries who carried out much of the maritime trade during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC. 60

However, more recent studies have taken issue with the type of transitional worldview proposed by Sherratt. Carol Bell, for instance, respectfully disagrees, saying: “It is simplistic … to view the change between the LBA and the Iron Age as the replacement of palace administered exchange with entrepreneurial trade. A wholesale replacement of one paradigm for another is not a good explanation for this change and restructuring.” 61

While there is no question that privatization may have begun as a by-product of palatial trade, it is not at all clear that this privatization then ultimately undermined the very economy from which it had come. 62 At Ugarit, for example, scholars have pointed out that even though the city was clearly burned and abandoned, there is no evidence either in the texts found at the site or in the remains themselves that the destruction and collapse had been caused by decentralized entrepreneurs undermining the state and its control of international trade. 63

In fact, combining textual observations with the fact that Ugarit was clearly destroyed by fire, and that there are weapons in the debris, we may safely reiterate that although there may have been the seeds of decentralization at Ugarit, warfare and fighting almost certainly caused the final destruction, with external invaders as the likely culprits. This is a far different scenario from that envisioned by Sherratt and her like-minded colleagues. Whether these invaders were the Sea Peoples is uncertain, however, although it is intriguing that one of the texts at Ugarit specifically mentions the Shikila/ Shekelesh, known from the Sea Peoples inscriptions of Merneptah and Ramses III.

In any event, even if decentralization and private individual merchants were an issue, it seems unlikely that they caused the collapse of the Late Bronze Age, at least on their own. Instead of accepting the idea that private merchants and their enterprises undermined the Bronze Age economy, perhaps we should consider the alternative suggestion that they simply emerged out of the chaos of the collapse, as was suggested by James Muhly of the University of Pennsylvania twenty years ago. He saw the twelfth century BC not as a world dominated by “sea raiders, pirates, and freebooting mercenaries,” but rather as a world of “enterprising merchants and traders, exploiting new economic opportunities, new markets, and new sources of raw materials.” 64 Out of chaos comes opportunity, at least for a lucky few, as always.

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government (pt 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post which can be found here. Read that post first in order to understand the background to this post. I’m writing this post with the assumption someone already knows what I’m talking about.

* * *

I first noticed outsourcing in Iowa City government when I began working a seasonal job for Parks & Recreation, the job I had immediately prior to being hired by the Parking Department. I worked in the Central Business District (CBD) at that time. Our job was to clean the downtown area, mow some grass, and occasionally do a bit of gardening. Their were garbage cans that needed to be changed regularly and it was part of the work that was the responsibility of Parks & Rec, but it had been contracted out. I’m not sure the reasoning for it being outsourced. All the work I did in Parks & Rec could have been outsourced. There was no obvious logic for why some jobs are outsourced and others not.

The same goes for Parking. They are trying to outsource some of the janitorial work, although the City Council supposedly denied the request earlier and Parking management is planning to make a second request. I know neither the ultimate reasons of management in making the request or the reasons of the City Council in their initially denying the request. I also don’t know why management is making a second request. I did go to a meeting where management explained their basic reasons, but I still don’t know what is motivating their choices. I see no rhyme or reason it beyond saving money. However, why not outsource all of parking? Instead of just taking part of the work away from city maintenance workers, why not just outsource all of their work and eliminate their positions entirely? These are questions I have no answers for.

A maintenance worker told me that management wasn’t entirely sure how to keep the maintenance workers busy if and when the outsourced workers take over the janitorial part of their work. This maintenance worker was wondering why they had outsourced the work of maintenance workers when it was that work that partly justified the very existence of maintenance. They still have other work to do. There is always equipment to be fixed, painting to be done, and other maintenance type work. However, in the past, maintenance workers in Parking did more janitorial than they ever did maintenance. So, it makes one wonder about the future of maintenance positions. Once a part of the job has been outsourced, it logically follows all parts of the job can and should be outsourced if saving money is the priority.

The City government combined the Parking Department with the Transit Department, and so the work and some of the positions of the two is now combined. The building where the buses are housed and where the offices are located was partly funded by federal money. From what a bus driver explained to me, they can’t outsource the work done in a federally funded building. Management has dealt with this challenge by having Parking maintenance workers take over some of the janitorial work in that Transit building. So, some of the work is being shifted around while some positions are being entirely eliminated in Transit.

This outsourcing seems like a possible trend. Even before recent problems in the national economy, Parking management had already contracted out some of the work: window cleaning, ramp washing, etc. As far as I can tell, outsourcing has increased over time, at least in the departments I’m familiar with. However, not all work is being outsourced which is what I find curious.

Some office work, for various reasons, has increased in the Parking Department. So, even as they’ve been eliminating the lower jobs, they’ve been increasing the office jobs which includes an increase in management positions since I began working. Why do they need more managers if they are outsourcing more? They could outsource much of the management as well and just have a head of the department to oversee it. They could even eliminate both Parking and Transit as an independent department and put it under the management of some other department. Or they could contract the entire ramps to be run by a private company while the city would maintain ownership and certain control of standards and pricing. Certainly, they could at least outsource most of the office work, especially that which deals with secretarial work. And they could have the entire fiscal side of parking taken over by the department that deals with the city’s other areas of fiscal management.

Parking management, by going down this path of increasing outsourcing, might be making it inevitable that their own jobs will eventually become obsolete, assuming the reasons they have given are followed to their logical conclusion. Ignoring logical conclusions, let us just consider it from a moral angle. Why do managers who eliminate other people’s jobs feel so safe that their own jobs won’t be outsourced? This relates to a similar conundrum: Who watches the watchers? I remember when management put in cameras to watch cashiers, but they conveniently didn’t put cameras in their own offices. Managers handle money as well and have many more opportunities for illegal activities than cashiers do. It’s similar to congressmen having publicly funded health care while refusing to cooperate with health care reform that would create single payer or public option. Obviously, there is a moral hypocrisy involved in this. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just people acting like people, and it is simply difficult for people to take as seriously what effect others as they take what effects themselves. It’s not a matter of management or politicians being bad people, but only a fair system can ensure fair results. If the system isn’t democratically operated with public transparency and public responsibility, then unfair results are inevitable no matter how good the people or how good the intentions.

The point I’m trying to make isn’t about the moral intent or moral self-awareness of management. They are just normal people doing their best in a challenging situation where a lot is expected of them in terms of finding solutions. Everyone’s motives and biases can be questioned. My intentions can be questioned for I’m certainly not a neutral observer, both as a city employee and as a union member along with being a longtime resident of this city who feels a part of the community. The intentions of the union can be questioned since union members are specifically being targeted. The intentions of private businesses seeking government contract work can be questioned, especially if there were any personal or professional ties to government officials (crony capitalism) and maybe even more especially if there was any lobbying that happened about this issue (a slippery slope toward possible corporatism). Anyway, everyone’s intentions are potentially suspect because these are decisions that affect everyone in this community, even random citizens who are completely unaware of what is going on. Everyone has skin in the game for the future of Iowa City is at stake.

It’s precisely because everyone has skin in the game that I hold the position I’m advocating here. Government decision-making, especially at the local level should be as public, as transparent, and as democratic as possible. What I’m advocating, however, isn’t how the decision-making has been done so far. In particular, issues involving local government increasing outsourcing and/or privatization of public services are obviously publicly important and should therefore be publicly discussed. I only learned of management’s decisions long after they were made, although I should be fair in pointing out that management has made some efforts in being transparent such as eventually telling about what they are trying to do. Still, it is obvious that transparency hasn’t been the priority of Parking management (along with city manager and city council). That is the main issue that the recent article pointed out:

“In an email to the City Council, Steven Miller, president of A[F]SCME Local 183, took city administrators to task for notifying workers of the layoffs a week before the holidays and days after the union and city had reached a tentative five-year contract deal that included union concessions.”

This kind of dealings creates mistrust. The union made concessions in good faith. Having learned of this afterwards, it is impossible for the union to not feel deceived and betrayed. The management knew about this when asking for concessions from the union. It is conveniently self-serving that management decided to withhold this information until after the conclusion of a five-year contract discussion. That is not democracy. In fact, that is anti-democratic or at least undermining of democracy which amounts to the same difference.

This isn’t about pitting employees against management or unions against union bashers. That is part of the problem. We are all part of the same community. What harms any of us harms all of us. And what helps any of us helps all of us. I doubt management was intending to attack or undermine democracy, but intentions aren’t the point. Rather, the point is about results, intended or unintended.

If democracy is harmed, then it should be seen as undesirable by all involved, including management. To be democratically fair, management should go back to the discussion table with the union. They essentially lied to the union in order to manipulate them or that is how it appears from the outside. In essence, that seems like union bashing in that it has the seemingly intentional result of targeting the union in an unfair way (without such an intention, such actions make no sense). I realize management wouldn’t think of it that way. That is what I keep coming back to. It doesn’t matter how any of us perceive ourselves or how we rationalize our own actions. The main thing that matters in a democratic society is democracy itself. Everything else should follow from democracy and everything should reinforce rather than weaken democracy. That is what we should aspire toward in all of our dealings, even when it isn’t to our personal advantage. If we give up on democracy for short term personal gain (or even just for bureaucratic efficiency and cost-savings), then we don’t deserve democracy. When the government acts contrary to democracy, the consent of the ruled becomes invalidated.

From my perspective, this keeps coming back to clarifying the purpose and meaning of democracy. Our government, in theory, is based on the consent of the ruled, i.e., “We the People” (note how “People” is capitalized and directly referred to with the plural “We”). According to the Constitution, what exactly is it that We the People do? We the People establish the government, not the other way around. As later clarified throughout the 19th century, this is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (the wording of which was probably based on the similar wording of previous Americans, specifically the abolitionist Theodore Parker and the Senator Daniel Webster; but the idea behind the wording probably was most compellingly expressed by Thomas Paine). Despite the imperfections and failings of Democracy and the American Dream, it is this ideal of self-government that has continued to inspire generation after generation of Americans.

It’s easy to forget this in the messy details of running a government bureaucracy. That is understandable. People are just trying to do their jobs. Democracy and bureaucracy don’t always mesh well together, not without a lot of self-sacrificing effort and seeking of consensus. Democracy is not easy. If you want easy, then try dictatorship or monarchy, try theocracy or fascism. But democracy is purposely designed to be difficult, at least in the short term. It is the long term that democracy most clearly proves its worth. Because of this, many people feel uncertain about democracy. Do we really want to put all that effort into protecting our freedom and rights? Why not just be lazy by going for for the quick and easy answers? The democratic process of transparency and consensus is messy, tiresome and often irritating.

It’s something Americans have struggled with from the beginning. Even early colonists, founding fathers and otherwise, were of mixed opinion about democracy. Many wanted democracy, especially the majority of Americans who were being oppressed and disenfranchised (non-whites, non-protestants, indentured servants, slaves, women, those without property, etc). If it was up to the majority, we would now have a democracy where all were treated equally. But among the elite, opinions were more conflicting. Some of those with influence (Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, etc) were more egalitarian in their vision of a democratic society while others opposed democracy because they correctly understood that democracy undermined their elite status and power over everyone else. It was class war right from the beginning. The Revolutionary War wouldn’t have been a success if the majority hadn’t fought for democracy, but the moment independence was won the democratic majority was legally and militarily put back in their place.

This class war continues to this day in every decision made by every government, local and national. Recently, this has been seen with the Occupy movement. The legal question has been raised about who owns public lands, i.e., “The Commons”. In a democracy, “We the People” own “The Commons”. So, to ask who owns “The Commons” is to ask whether this is or isn’t a democracy. If the government owns “The Commons”, then such public property is no longer “The Commons”. Either the government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” or it isn’t. Either the people own and control the government or otherwise the opposite becomes inevitable. The consent of the ruled necessitates that there is actual consent. If decisions are made undemocratically by Parking management or anyone else, then there is no opportunity for consent of the ruled. It simply is rule that seeks to force consent or else to disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t consent.

I’m trying to be very clear that this isn’t just some small, insignificant issue of local politics. It’s symbolic of everything going on in the country right now. And it is symbolic of the conflicts that have existed for longer than this country has existed. In every decision our government makes, in every government decision “We the People” do or don’t accept, the future of our communities and our society is being formed. This isn’t ultimately about outsourcing. It is about a collective vision of who we aspire to be. We become what we do. We become what we allow to be done to us, what we allow to be done in our name.

Iowa City: Public Good & Democratic Government

Here is a local issue that effects me personally, but it’s very similar to local issues all across the country.

Union calls city layoffs ‘deplorable’
Proposal would eliminate five full-time positions

“Miller says the union wants the city to explore other cost-cutting options before laying off workers, and he points to “extras” such as city vehicles driven by the city manager and police and fire chiefs, and the temporary specialists hired during the flood recovery process as areas that could be axed. Miller also questioned the immediate need for capital improvement projects like the $30 million parking facility slated for downtown and the multimillion dollar pedestrian ramp recently built over Interstate 80 on North Dodge Street.

““Not all avenues have been explored that we need to explore yet before we start laying people off,” Miller said Thursday. “That’s my opinion. We’d like to sit down with the city, get in touch with employees and see if we can find any cost-saving measures and suggestions they may have to avoid layoffs.”

“Vic Zender, the transit worker whose job is on the chopping block, has worked for the city for 15 years and said he is the city’s lone transit body mechanic. His job includes repairing not only the city buses but maintaining other vehicles, such as police cars.

““Since it’s a one-man operation, I cover everything for the city,” Zender said. “It doesn’t seem logical for the budget cut to come from that one area, since it’s a one-person area and it serves the whole city.”

 * * *

I have an insider’s view. I’ve worked for Iowa City Parking for more than a decade, and so I’ve been there longer than some of the people in the department’s management and longer than many people in the local government. I’m not even surprised by the changes that are happening. I saw it all coming. Some of the changes are even things I talked about with a supervisor years ago before I even knew the city officials were considering such changes. It was just inevitable that changes would come. These changes involve factors beyond mere economic challenges.

Let me explain where I’m coming from.

In attitude, I’m more or less a typical Midwesterner. And it is as a Midwesterner that I care about what happens in this Midwestern town.

In terms of politics, I’m liberal-minded and a union member, although I don’t vote for Democrats (actually, I’m supporting Ron Paul at the moment, not that such things should matter). Despite being on the left, I often have discussions with right-libertarians and fiscal conservatives, and so I know that perspective.

My ‘liberalism’ is of the moderate variety that seeks compromise and agreement, win/win instead of win/lose. Also, my ‘liberalism’ crosses over with libertarianism, especially with issues of civil liberties but I’m also suspicious of big government when it comes to collusion between the public and private sectors (hence the Ron Paul support). If I had been alive when the GOP was a moderate party, I would have voted for Eisenhower (corporatism and military-industrial complex being of the same cloth).

Even as a union member, the union angle isn’t my primary concern here. I am glad to see the union speak out, but I’m not writing this post from the perspective of a union member. Besides, it’s not as if I’m a union representative or anything. I’m not even an active member of the union. The union is small and very few employees belong to it. The union doesn’t even have the power to strike. Mostly the union just negotiates contracts. This is a rare moment when the union makes an offical criticism of the city government. And the reason the union spoke up is because they felt decieved and betrayed.

Even as a city employee, I’m not thinking about this in personal terms. It is true that the changes the city government is making threatens my job. My position will be eliminated in the near future and it’s not yet clear if I’ll be offered another position or if it will be a position I will want. My particular job isn’t being outsourced but is instead being eliminated because human cashiers are being replaced by self-pay stations (the future is here and the machines are taking over). My department is Parking which a while ago was combined with Transit, the former runs the parking ramps and the latter the buses. It is personal to me, of course, but my concern here is more as a citizen who happens to have an inside view of the situation.

It is, however, the personal angle that causes me to write this as a blog instead of as a letter-to-the-editor. As a city employee who still has a job at the moment, I have absolutely no desire to draw too much attention to myself and I for damn sure don’t want to be the center of attention. I made some comments to the article in the local newspaper, but that is as far as I wanted to take it. This post is a continuation of and an expansion on what I said in those comments.

 * * *

I’m skeptical of big government (as I’m skeptical of big business) and I’m strongly critical of our present corrupt political system on the national level, but I think about local government very differently than federal government. If democracy is possible (something I occasionally doubt), it is most likely to function well on the local level. I’m very Midwestern in my faith in community and grassroots democracy. I don’t hate government, but I do want a democratic government that is responsible to the local community and serves the public good.

I know the people who manage parking/transit. They are good people dealing with a difficult problem. Everyone is struggling with the economy in its present state, but that is all the more reason we should be careful about the decisions we make in duress. It’s true we must solve the short-term problem of saving tax-payer money. However, if we don’t use enough foresight, we might find that short-term solutions could lead to unintended long-term problems. The public good is a very precarious thing, difficult to create and maintain while easy to destroy and corrupt.

Iowa City, like many communities, is in a tight spot. But such difficult times can be opportunities when great improvements are made because people become aware of the need for change. In the past, this led to great public good such as the use of government funds to renovate downtown and build the ped-mall. We should be wary of wasting tax-payer money, but we should be also careful about slowly picking away at the government services that produce public good for our community.

Outsoucring easily becomes a step toward privatization. I don’t know if outsourcing is always bad, but we should consider the potential results of the choices we make, esepecially when those choices become permanent. Do we want to move in the direction of privatizing public services? It’s quite likely true that a private company could operate parking ramps, buses and even libraries cheaper than the government. But that doesn’t mean that a private company would necessarily charge less (might even charge more) to customers who use those services. And they might not even offer a better service (might even offer a worse service).

I take these issues seriously. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why the city operates parking ramps when private companies could do so. The reason the government does so is because the government has been able to offer a high quality service at a low cost to the public, something that a private company probably couldn’t accomplish. The government can do this because the government isn’t concerned about profit. So, do we or do we not value this service provided by the city? Oursourcing suggests private companies can do a better job in terms of offering cheaper services even if not a better service. If saving money is what the local government cares about, they could entirely privatize these departments and they would never have to worry about costs again. Why not?

I don’t mean this just or even primarily as a criticism of outsourcing. I mean this as a serious set of issues that should be publicly debated by the community rather than decided in private by non-elected government officials. We are at this moment experiencing changes that will determine the future of Iowa City. This is something everyone should be concerned about and so everyone should be involved in. I offer my opinions on this matter as both a public servant and as a concerned citizen.

* * *

The following is actually the first comment I made. Although I stand by the truth of what I wrote, I felt like I was being too harsh or too absolutist or else just no showing my full perspective. This led me to writing the above thoughts for balance. So, here is my initial gut-level response:

This is what I don’t understand. If something is done for the public good and can’t be done well by the private sector, then it should be publicly operated entirely. If something isn’t being done for the public good or can be done well by the private sector, then it should be privately operated entirely.

The city has sought to outsource work for both parking and transit (i.e., buses). If the city keeps outsourcing these jobs, obviously the city is saying that they think the private sector can do a better job than the city can do. The only rational reason why the city doesn’t simply privatize the entire departments by letting them be made into private businesses is that the city wants to keep the profit while using cheap outsourced labor.

The city likes outsourced labor because it isn’t unionized and the labor is cheap because such jobs rarely have good pay or good benefits. But mere profit isn’t a good reason for the city to continue operating these departments. Fiscal conservatism has caused a warping of the very purpose of public services run by the government.

Either privatize these departments or keep the jobs in the city. It is the mixing of private and public that has led to corporatism on the national level (especially with contractors in the military). Once businesses develop a dependency on government contract work, a cozy relationship develops between certain sectors of business and the government. Once money starts flowing back and forth between politicians and business owners, it is unlikely to lead to positive results in the long run. Do we really want our local government copying the bad habits of our federal government? Do we really want to risk the possibility of increasing corporatism in Iowa City?

* * *

More than anything, what is on my mind is the issue of community. As a liberal-minded left-winger (or as socialist-leaning left-liberal), I realize community isn’t something that happens by accident. This goes way beyond this or any other recent issue. For many years (much of this past decade), I’ve been thinking about the importance of community and what it means on the local level. I’ve even written about it before on a number of occasions (for example: Public Good vs Splintered Society).

The issue of community, however, has become particularly important with recent problems of economic downturn and political divisiveness. Add to that the risk to our very democracy, especially of the local grassroots variety, from rabid fiscal conservatism and corrupt neoliberalism. On the local level, there have been many things that have come up.

Most recently, for example, there is the plans to build yet another multi-use apartment building (Red Avocado, Defunct Books to make way for new multi-use building: Iowa City bookstore, restaurant ordered to leave). This is about the endless conflict between community and capitalism. There are already many multi-use apartment buildings and many aren’t even filled to capacity, specifically the ground-level storefronts. There is a boom in student numbers at the moment which has promoted growth, but this boom isn’t likely to last. More importantly, most of these new apartment buildings aren’t being built to last as long at the houses that they are replacing. It’s quite likely that these apartment buildings will not be maintained once a profit is made out of them which means they almost inevitably will fall into disrepair and get bought up by slumlords. Neighborhoods, like communities, are hard to rebuild after they have been destroyed. Besides, who wants a future city filled with decrepit apartment buildings where once beautiful old buildings used to be.

Many people have a nonchalant attitude about community. They just don’t understnad its value or they don’t appreciate how difficult it is to create and maintain. This is particularly true among fiscal conservatives which is a distinction between them and more traditional conservatives.

I spoke to a fiscal conservative who is a Christian (a combination I’ve always found odd, at times verging on the hypocritical with some views) and he demonstrated this difference. The church he attended had reached capacity and would require a new building for the church to grow. As a fiscal conservative, he assumed growth was better than maintaining the past. This fiscal conservative also had moved around a lot because of career and so had little investment in the community. He didn’t understand why many church members didn’t want to move. It took my liberal mindset (or, rather, my Midwestern liberal mindset) to explain it to him. The church wasn’t simply a physical structure. It was part of people’s sense of community and home. It was where people grew up, got married, and raised their kids.

Fiscal conservatives, however, just see the economic and the physical aspects, and so they can’t see the difference between one building and another, between an old church and a new church, between a thriving neighborhood of beautiful old houses and a multi-use apartment building with no character. I understand what might be gained by building something new. I’m not against economic improvements if they are done with foresight and done with a goal of long-term benefits for the entire community. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand or value such faith in improvements through entrepreneurial investments. Rather, the problem is that fiscal conservatives and many capitalists don’t understand the view of those living in a community who want to defend their community. They often don’t understand why laissez-faire capitalism shouldn’t always or usually trump local grassroots democracy, why individual decisions shouldn’t necessarily trump community decisions. They have faith in laissez-faire capitalism and it can take a lot to shake that faith.

There is a trade-off that should be acknowledged and taken seriously. It isn’t just a decision to be made by individuals. The impact of these decisions will be communal and will last a very long time, for generations in fact; the direction we choose to take as a community might even be felt a century from now by the future residents of this community. For this reason, these decisions should be made by the community. If the community doesn’t want a neighborhood destroyed, why should they allow it be destroyed?

It’s not even about being for or against free markets. What is about is how one chooses to define free markets. To me, a market isn’t free if the people involved in and impacted by the market aren’t equally free; this means feedom in terms of real impact on real people instead of just theoretical ideals of ‘freedom’; if some people are more ‘free’ than others in their influence over the future of the community, then it ‘freedom’ becomes a facade of power. Community is about everyone being involved, not just wealthy capitalists or well-connected politicians. It relates to a confusion many people have about socialism. Socialists are against laissez-faire capitalism but, despite what many think, not necessarily against free markets. Many socialists, in fact, are for free markets as an antidote to laissez-faire capitalism. For this reason, socialism has its deepest roots in the Midwest, a region that has always valued both community cooperation and a hardworking entrepreneurial spirit, both being seen as in alignment rather than in conflict. It was the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists who cleaned up the corruption of crony capitalism and built a thriving economy and community by working with small, local businesses.

In the Midwest, there is a history of small, local business owners who care about community. This culture of community still influences Midwestern business owners to this day, but it is a value system under threat. Capitalism has led to big businesses taking over family farms and thus destroying the once thriving communities that were built around those family farms. Having grown up and lived in this particular Midwestern town for most of my life, I have a good sense of and appreciation for the Midwestern business sensibility. When I was a kid, there were still many corner grocery stores, but they went out of business for various reasons such as licensing fees being put in place that favored big businesses. For most of the time I’ve worked for the city, I’ve rented from the Alberhasky family who have run a number of businesses for generations in this town. Doug Alberhasky operates the rental part of the family business is a perfect example of the Midwestern businessman. I’ve interacted with him a lot over the years. You can tell that he cares about the buildings he owns, many of them historic, and that he cares about this community he lives in and is a part of. Being responsible to his business isn’t separate from being responsible to his community.

Iowa City is lucky, unlike many other towns in Iowa (and the rest of the rural Midwest) that are facing far more severe problems. It’s people like the Alberhaskys who help maintain what is still good about this town, even during these economic hard times. Just because there are economic challenges, it doesn’t follow that we should stop prioritizing community. If anything, we should prioritize community and all aspects of public good even more during economic hard times. That is what made the Midwest so successful in the first place, what made it into what we now know of as the ‘Heartland’. As explained in The Middle West – Its Meaning in American Culture by James R. Shortridge (p. 19), the Midwestern conflict with laissez-faire capitalism goes back to the first generations who settled here:

“The economic depression helped to foster a sense of regional identity and independence for the Middle West, in part by bringing people together and forcing cooperation to temper frontier individualism,. The experience also broke many of the financial ties that bound the region to the East. Much Eastern capital had been invested in Kansas and Nebraska prior to 1887. Some of it had come as loans from family, some as support from the Free State movements prior to the Civil War, but most had been pure business investments. The money encouraged large-scale speculation in land, town sites, railroads, and nearly every other aspect of life that accompanied the settlement of the praire in the two postwar decades. Some fortunes were made from this speculation, but when hard times in the early 1890s produced defaults on loans, the two regions blamed each other for the troubles. Prairie farmers were irresponsible spendthrifts in Eastern eyes; Easterners were selfish, unfeeling exploiters from the Western perspetive. The financial troubles quickly became a regional political issue, spawning debates over free silver, protective tariffs, and populist reforms in general. They even created the first hero for the Middle West, Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan.

“The financial crisis affected familial as well as financial ties, dividing peoples who had already begun to drift apart. Kansans and Nebraskans who had been Eastern born and thus were “full of Eastern thought, energy, method, and sympathies” were replaced by a generation who had known only the prairies. “To such people the West was home,” wrote a Kansan; “Western ways and Western ideas are inbred.””

In the past, economic hardship strengthened local communities. But now economic hardships are so much larger than in the past. And sadly it seems more likely that community will be weakened in the process.

* * *

This hard-earned community spirit is easily lost if we aren’t careful. This brings me back to the original topic that I began with. The city government, for good or ill, is often the last defense of local community. Citizens can’t protect their commuity if their government doesn’t represent them.

The challenge of modern government is that so many decisions are complex. I can understand why the management of city departments would rather not involve the public in their decisoin-making. Democracy is messy, difficult, and time-consuming. But that is also the strength and advantage of democracy. It disallows decisions to be made too quickly that might end up having very bad results. Careful decision-making is particularly important when considering issues that will have long-term impact on the community.

Working in government, it could be easy to lose sight of the community aspect of one’s job even if one grew up in the community. It could begin to feel as if it were a job like any other job and one might forget that it in reality isn’t a job like any other job. Running a government isn’t just about cutting costs and increasing efficiency. If government isn’t about the community, then it is worse than useless. This should never be forgotten.

In recent decades, however, fiscal conservatism has become dominant in politics. A major element of fiscal conservatism is either privatizing government services or else outsourcing them. That such fiscally conservative strategies have even been introduced into a liberal college town like Iowa City shows how much power social conservatives have over our society. Even conservatives in Iowa tend not to be radical right-wing fiscal conservatives. The Republican-voting Western Iowa gets more federal welfare through farm subsidies than does Democratic-voting Eastern Iowa. Iowans, whether on the left or right, tend to be very moderate.

I see this connected with community for moderation is necessary in maintaining communities where people sometimes disagree. Cooperation isn’t possible without a willingess to compromise when it benefits the public good.

I feel like those making the decisions to outsource maybe don’t fully appreciate what they are doing. Too many decisions are made without enough foresight. I don’t know if that is the case in this situation, but I would advise that we follow the precautionary principle in considering massive changes. The city hasn’t even offered any evidence that outsourcing would either save money or create better results for the public. That is their argument, but as far as I know they’ve offered no data to back it up. Yes, outsourcing is an easy answer for providing a quick fix of cost-saving. But is it the best solution for all involved?

All I want is public discussion, just the good ol’ fashioned grassroots and community-oriented democracy that the Midwest is known for. If the community decides it is in favor of outsourcing, then I’ll support it as part of this community.

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 3)

I’ve been in a mood of retreat recently, less spiritual retreat and more battle retreat. I’m fed up with the whole shebang. Even NPR is pissing me off (NPR: Liberal Bias?“This is the type of issue I’m tired of posting about. But I’m posting it because the lying pundits and deceiving political strategists never tire… and, more annoying to my everyday interactions, because the un-/mis-/disinformed followers never tire.”).

It’s not just about disagreeing. It’s more fundamental. I want truth, authenticity. I want to know what is real, feel it in my gut. All the spin and rhetoric is getting to me. I’ve hit breaking points before, but this one is different. I’ve been studying history and politics in great detail for a number of years now. I’m not entirely giving up on that, but I can feel a part of me beginning to back off from it all.

Various things clarified this for me recently. What really pushed me over the edge was actually reading something inspiring, something that felt authentically real. The book in question is Homegrown Democrat by Garrison Keillor, the inspiration then led to sadness when I watched and listened to some mainstream media and politics. A while back, I was similarly inspired and saddened by reading Harvey J. Kaye’s Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Thomas Paine was a classical liberal I could respect).

Inspiration and depression have always gone hand in hand for me. I’ve always thought that if modern society doesn’t make you feel suicidally depressed, then there is something seriously wrong with you. I say that only half humorously.

“From a certain point onward, there is a no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
 ~ Franz Kafka 

– – – 

Here is a long comment from a recent post where I expressed my feelings:

What Paine and many others realized is that civilization is built on and dependent on violence. All the good of our modern lives is inseparable form horrible violence. It’s a conundrum, but one that must be faced. The worst violence doesn’t come from a gun or not in a direct sense. There is no choice between violence or no violence in this world. A completely peaceful world is a nice utopia, but for right now we have to deal with the reality in front of us.

As for guns democratically controlled, this happened because they were controlled undemocratically in the past. The world is violent. That is just the way reality is, like it or not (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t aspire toward peace). It’s just that a gun controlled democratically is better than a gun controlled by a tyrant or a gang or a corporation. I’m not a fan of choosing between the lesser of two evils, but in this case there is no other choice… except by either fundamentally altering human nature or fundamentally altering all of human civilization (both being very long term projects that certainly won’t see fruition in our lifetimes, if ever).

Freedom from violence is an abstract ideal. The land you live on is made of the corpses of Native Americans who unwillingly sacrificed their freedom for yours. The products you buy are made through an oppressively violent global economy. If you own property, you are participating in the continuation of a history of colonial genocide and oppression. The land you own is theft from the indigenous and theft from the commons. The landless peasants, many who are homeless, still suffer because of an ownership class that defends it’s stolen land by use of violence, both public and private. How many more people have to die and how much longer does oppression have to last for the sake of these abstract ideals?

“I might disagree, for example if you were asserting that the label “socialism” can be interpreted to mean MERELY valuing the collective good, and fairness.”

I’m not asserting anything in describing what socialism is. I didn’t invent socialism. What I was doing is pointing out the fact that many people are misinformed about socialism. Many of the criticisms of socialism are against views that many socialists don’t advocate. ‘Socialism’ is a favorite straw man of American society, In response to this sad state of affairs, I was offering accurate definitions of socialism.

It’s just a fact that socialists care more about the common good than any other group. It’s the very heart of socialism: social good, social concerns, social-ism. Socialists merely point out that in an interconnected world as we live in it’s literally impossible to separate individual good from collective good, private good from public good. The distinctions between these things only exist in the human mind and in human language, but they don’t exist in the actual lived reality of the world we all share. I know many Americans don’t want to accept these facts. Still, the facts remain.

The distinction I put forth is that anyone who cares will always put people before ideology, including the ideology of ‘freedom’. The question is: Freedom from what and towards what? Whose freedom at whose cost? Too many people want to defend their own freedom while trampling on the freedom of others and then rationalizing that it isn’t their fault that their freedom is built on violence and oppression. People suffer, there are winners and losers, some are just inferior and deserve the horrible fate an oppressive society forced on them. In my heart of hearts, I hope such people one day experience the suffering of those they look down upon or simply ignore. The distinction I put forth is between those who know suffering in the marrow of their bones and those who live comfortable, contented lives.

I’m tired of ideology. I really don’t know how to communicate what I feel other than to say I feel frustrated. The freedom to be poor and oppressed isn’t a freedom I want. The freedom to live in a dog eat dog world is a freedom that makes me want to commit suicide, not joking. If that is freedom, then I’m with Derrick Jensen and I want to see civilization be demolished.

I’m tired of people who, while seemingly meaning well, promote an ugly view of society and of human nature. I’m tired of people who act patriotic about ‘America’ when it’s obvious they have little faith in what America stands for. To them, America just means an attitude of ‘me and my own’ (“Real Americans”).

And I’m tired of people who righteously defend freedom while not acknowledging that most people still live without basic rights and opportunities, that the freedom they defend is in reality just the denial of the freedom of others. Freedom can’t be taken away when it has yet to exist in our society (yes there is some freedom for some people, but even that limited freedom is mostly held by a minority… when freedom means wealth and power, then freedom no longer has any valid meaning).

I’m just plain tired. The worldview that America has come to stand for is something I feel compelled to stand against. Freedom has become a choice between Coke or Pepsi, between Republican or Democrat, between America or the Commies. It’s a simpleminded, black/white conception of freedom. It’s an empty, superficial freedom… just propaganda for mass control.

What inspires me is very simple: people caring about people. Not people caring about people because they think it will boost their own self-interest. Just people caring about people because it’s the right thing to do. We can worry about abstract ideals later… after the starving are fed, the freezing are housed, the sick and dying are cared for. Jesus didn’t ask for money before healing someone, didn’t wonder if such actions conformed to some abstract ideal of liberty. Jesus just helped people.

Basically, what I’m proposing is Midwestern liberalism which partly originates from the early settlers who brought along with them a pragmatic socialism (from Northern Europe). Midwestern liberalism/socialism is just basic Heartland values. The Milwaukee socialists were known as the Sewer Socialists because they were concerned about very practical issues of community life such as making sure there was clean air and water so that people didn’t get sick (which was a major problem with the rise of industrialization). The Sewer Socialists were proud of having a sewer system that actually worked (quite an achievement at the time), to have public services that actually served the public. They didn’t give a damn about ideology. They just wanted people in their community to be healthy and cared for.

Such simple pride in having a healthy community seems almost odd today, but such Midwestern liberalism/socialism still exists… at least in some parts of the Midwest. I was just reminded of this tonight while reading Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat:

“The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have—a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. I grew up in the pure democracy of a public grade school where everybody brought a valentine for everybody on Valentine’s Day so we should feel equally loved though of course some valentines are more equal than others, some have lace and little flaps under which special endearments are written, and others are generic, printed six to a page with bumpy edges where they were torn on the dotted line. But you should be happy with what you get and Don’t Think You’re Special Because You’re Not. (Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that’s why they shot them—those are not Minnesotans. Nor are the people who go to court to win their children the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or not be in the room when other children are saying it.) We take pains to not be Special. If there is one meatball left on the platter, you do not take it, you take half of it, and someone else takes half of that and so it is endlessly divided down to the last crumb. Not a state of showboats or motor-mouths.

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is the first person I’ve come across in a long while who captures that down-to-earth sense of the common good. It’s very Midwestern thing and so I’m not sure people from other parts of the country can fully understand it. In the Midwest, community has more centrality than individuality. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, it’s farming country. When it was first settled, farmers were fairly isolated and were dependent on their neighbors. They shared their resources to have schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, etc. They truly had a government for and by the people.

Second, it’s partly the religion of the first settlers. They were largely Catholics and Quakers who are very community-oriented. Catholics and Quakers built public schools, orphanages and hospitals where ever they settled. They put collective action and collective benefit above individual freedom and self-interest. It’s why the Catholic Church has often had an uneasy relationship to unbridled capitalism and it’s why the areas of the US with the highest rates of Catholic membership are also the same areas with the highest rates of union membership.

– – –

In case you didn’t notice from that comment, let me state it obviously: I’M TIRED! Lordy Lordy!

But, more importantly, I was impressed by Garrison Keillor. He is what is known as ‘good people’. I just finished reading his book. It made me so happy… well, while reading it. Paine made me proud to be an American. And Keillor makes me proud to be a Midwestern liberal. Keillor is so down-to-earth and easygoing. Reading Keillor’s words, I felt a genuine attitude of emotional honesty, an open-hearted sense of humanity. Whatever it is, it’s a rare thing. Some people thought Bush jr was the type of guy you could have a beer with by which I assume they were referring to his past as an alcoholic frat boy. Well, Keillor is the kind of guy you imagine having breakfast with in a cheap diner while discussing important issues such as weather, town gossip and last Sunday’s sermon.

However, it’s more than just that friendly, down-to-earth midwestern sensibility that values people over ideology and community over politics, that emphasizes the enjoyment of the simple things in life, that looks for the good in others while emphasizing that one is no better than anyone else. All of that is there in Keillor, but he also comes off as having great self-awareness and social insight. You can tell he has thought deeply and carefully. He isn’t expressing his opinions for the sake of proving that he is right and that those who disagree with him are wrong.

In thinking about Keillor, I was thinking of others of a similar authentic, easygoing bent. Some obvious examples are Jim Wallis, Noam Chomsky and Thom Hartmann. I might also add people like Henry David Thoreau, Philip K. Dick and Terrence McKenna. The common theme among all of these is a basic quality of humanness rather than ideology or ulterior motive. All of these people seem to genuinely like people, something I admire for the reason I too often fail at it. I realize I would be a better person if I was able to feel and express such empathy and compassion.

  – – – 

There is one part of Keillor’s attitude that is most relevant to my own recent focus. I described it somewhat in the above blog comment when I mentioned community as a traditional Midwestern value.

Community is such a simple thing, but these days it can seem like a strange alien artifact. Some American citizens are so messed up in the head that they think hating the American government is patriotic. Instead of being about people and community, patriotism has been made into self-righteous folk religiosity. Instead of being about democracy and public service, patriotism has become about partisan self-interest and xenophobic fear-mongering.

All of this got me thinking about individualism, specifically the American variety of hyper-individualism that became increasingly popular in recent decades. Although clearly popular among conservatives, it isn’t limited to conservatives. It’s not unusual for me to come across liberals who promote their own kind of hyper-individualism. There is a type of person who is so concerned about individual liberty and rights that everything else, at best, becomes of secondary value or, at worst, becomes entirely occluded from their vision of reality.

Basically, such a person can’t see the forest for the trees. You can point at the trees and they will see the trees and they might go on about the value of each and every tree. They might be sad as tree after tree is cut down or infested by insects or strangled by kudzu or becomes sickly from pollution, but they won’t put it all together, won’t see an entire ecosystem dying, won’t understand that when this particular ecosystem dies the entire life-supporting biosphere is further weakened. A rainforest, for example, can take hundreds of thousands or even millions of years to form. But once destroyed they can’t be replanted. They’re just gone, a major source of the very oxygen we breathe gone forever (or at least gone forever as far as the human species is concerned).

 – – – 

I had an insight about where hyper-individualism came from in American history. I see two major factors.

Right from the beginning America has been a favorite destination of people escaping oppression, violence and various other kinds of suffering and horror. Many first generation immigrants were psychologically traumatized which led to a rootlessness. These people had a mentality of escape and Americans are always getting away and moving on, always planning escape routes. The Native Americans also were traumatized, but we hid their trauma by sending them off to places we didn’t have to see them.

The history of America has been trauma, victim becoming victimizer creating new victims. It’s our founding mythology, told and retold: slavery, religious persecution, indigenous genocide, revolution, etc. After independence was declared, there soon followed the Civil War which was in many ways just re-opening old wounds of revolutionary era conflicts. The Civil War ripped America apart and we’ve never really healed from it. We are still a divided people.

This is where the second factor comes in. The symbol of American (hyper-)individualism is the lone cowboy, sometimes fighting the good fight but reluctantly, always escaping a haunted past. Have you ever wondered what the haunted past was that caused movie cowboys to often be silent and at other times violent. In reality, many Wild West gunslingers (such as Jesse James) were Civil War veterans, quite a few Southerners. They saw many friends die in the war. A lot of them lost their homes and their livelihood. For a few, the entire town they left behind was burned to the ground. Some lost family members or even whole families (My dad was telling me about one of our neighbors in South Carolina who told him about how on one side of his family every male had been killed in the Civil War; and he explained to my dad that, after losing a war of that magnitude, such personal losses aren’t forgotten even generations later).

These were severely traumatized veterans and they didn’t go to therapy to heal their trauma. They were real men, and as real men they turned to booze and prostitutes, guns and adventure. Many went West because of their haunted pasts that were driving them to get as far away as possible. As the first immigrants escaped the horrors of other countries, the Civil War veterans were escaping the horrors of America.

Here is a clear description of the horrors, both collective and personal, of the Civil War and its aftermath (from Rebirth of a Nation by Jackson Lears):

“EARLY AS April 1862 Americans had a sense of what happened when massive assaults provoked massive counterassaults. Near Shiloh Church in Tennessee, Generals Beauregard and Grant threw armies at each other for thirty-six hours. As reports of the battle filtered back to the home front, the staggering losses mounted, eventually up to 24,500 killed, wounded, or missing on both sides. The numbers were numbing; in any case there was little popular protest, North or South. A few Democratic newspaper editors in the North, never too keen on the war in the first place, deplored the losses and demanded Grant’s scalp. No one knew that they had seen the future. Shiloh was only the first of many bloodbaths—the first of many indications that the most successful Union commanders would be the ones most willing to sacrifice unprecedented numbers of men. The West Point Code was on the way out.

“Neither side sought to avoid bloodbaths; both seemed addicted to frontal assaults (preferably uphill) on entrenched fortifications. The casualties were fearful, in the mass and in detail. The failed assault on Fort Wagner in July 1863 by the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, the black regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, left an eyewitness aghast: “The ditch was literally choked up with dead bodies and it was possible to walk upon them for fifty yards without touching ground.” Those who survived often faced their own protracted horrors, as Walt Whitman reported from a Washington hospital: a Union soldier shot through the bladder, marinating in his own piss; a Confederate soldier the top of whose head had been blown off and whose brains were suppurating in the sun, surviving for three days while he dug a hole in the ground with his heel. These scenes were repeated by the hundreds of thousands. And there were many witnesses.

“Looking back on the war in Specimen Days, Whitman strained to capture the enormity of the evil unleashed by raw rage. After describing John Mosby’s Confederate guerrillas gunning down the Union wounded they had captured near Upperville, Virginia, Whitman then recalled the Union cavalry’s counterattack, capture, and summary execution of seventeen guerrillas in the Upperville town square, where they left the bodies to rot. “Multiply [this scene] by scores, aye hundreds,” Whitman wrote, “light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.”

“Whitman’s recollection of “the light of burning farms” underlined the other major feature of total war: the treatment of civilians as belligerents. Early in the war, Confederates fantasized about bombarding Northern cities, and Stonewall Jackson was always champing at the bit to bring the war to the Northern people. But despite Jackson’s murderous ferocity, the Confederates did not have the resources to sustain an aggressive war. Apart from the two abortive invasions that ended at Antietam and Gettysburg, the main damage done by the Confederate Army to the Yankee population was the tactically pointless burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1864. The chief Southern war on civilians was conducted in Missouri, by guerrillas and other irregulars who resisted the Union army of occupation and terrorized its civilian sympathizers, torching their property and gunning them down at random. William Quantrell and his guerrilla band in Missouri, along with John Mosby and his raiders in Virginia, led what might today be characterized as the terrorist wing of the Confederate insurgency.

“Confederate guerrillas practiced insurgent terrorism, the Union Army gradually embraced a policy that can accurately be characterized as state terrorism. By 1865, fifty thousand Southern civilians had been killed as a direct result of Northern combat operations. The policy was embodied in Lincoln’s General Order #100, authored by Francis Lieber, a German émigré, romantic nationalist, and erstwhile professor at the University of South Carolina. The first part of the order aimed to restrict “savage” behavior, such as the bombardment of civilian areas in cities or the pillage of farms; the second part eviscerated those restrictions by stating that any of them could be ignored in the event of “military necessity.” In a counterinsurgency campaign, the phrase justified shelling cities and torching farms. Like other insurgencies, the secessionist movement depended for its support on the local population. The recognition of that fact was behind Grant’s famous order to Philip Sheridan: “turn the Shenandoah into a barren waste so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender.” Other rationales for treating civilians as belligerents foreshadowed contemporary excuses for “collateral damage.” Sherman bombarded Atlanta neighborhoods, he said, because the Confederates were using civilians as human shields. The mass of the Southern population was neither armed nor dangerous. But they were in the war, whether they wanted to be or not. Total war swept all before it.

“Conventional accounts of Appomattox and its aftermath have everyone rolling up his sleeves and getting ready to pitch into an expansive economy. But given the ravages of total war, North and South, one could just as easily describe a postwar landscape littered with lost souls. Consider, for example, how the war shaped the lives of two James boys: Garth Wilkinson James and Jesse James.

“James was the younger brother of William and Henry James, one of the two less favored sons in a talented, ambitious family. Plump, good-natured, and fervently antislavery, Wilky enlisted in the Forty-fourth Massachusetts regiment in September 1862. Both his older brothers managed to avoid the army, with their father’s approval and connivance. Henry James Sr. showed no such solicitude for his younger boys. But war would be Wilky’s one chance to step out of his brothers’ shadow. Transferred to Shaw’s Fifty-fourth, Wilky became one of the white officers who led the black regiment’s doomed charge on Fort Wagner. He was seriously wounded, hit by a shell in the side and a canister ball in the foot. After months of convalescence he returned to the Fifty-fourth, but he never really recovered from his wounds. He survived for eighteen years after Appomattox, in nearly constant pain from rheumatism in his wounded foot. He bumped from one bad business venture to another, beginning with the failure of his idealistic plan to provide recently freed black families an economic foothold by employing them on his farm in Florida. Having run through many thousands of his father’s dollars, he was finally disinherited and died in poverty in Milwaukee, where he and his family had been scraping by after several failed business ventures. For Wilky the war brought not regeneration but ruin. He was one of many men whose physical and emotional wounds never healed.

“James, in contrast, was not physically wounded but psychologically brutalized by the war. Coming of age amid the white-hot hatreds of wartime Missouri, he grew up in a world where casual murder was a manly sport and a rite of passage, the only conclusive proof that you had become (and remained) a man. He proved himself many times during the war, when he rode with Quantrell’s raiders. After Appomattox new opportunities presented themselves. In Missouri, ten years of blood feuds had bred widespread longings for retribution. Many returning veterans could not give up the habit of violence and helped to swell a postwar crime wave. Gunslinging became a way of life.

“Much of the violence was rooted in Reconstruction politics. Bushwhackers wanted revenge against Radical Republicans and money from the companies the Republicans financed. That was enough, among embittered Confederates, to make the James gang seem more than mere bandits and killers. But that is what they were. For fifteen years, they took money at gunpoint from banks and later from express companies, whose monies were being transported on the expanding network of railroads. They also killed a lot of innocent people. Throughout his short life, Jesse remained irresistibly attracted to arbitrary violence.

“Wilkinson James and Jesse James were both permanently scarred by the war, though in profoundly different ways. Wilky limped through the postwar period, failing at everything he tried, knowing that nothing he did would ever match the heroism of storming Fort Wagner. Jesse was filled with partisan rage and vicious notions of manhood that transformed him into a driven killer. The war ravaged lives in unpredictable ways and left a wounded nation.”

In the years following the Civil War, some gunslingers became idolized as heroic lawmen and others became idolized as anti-heroic lawless gunslingers. Jesse James, mentioned above, is a good example of the latter. And Virgil Earp is a good example of the former:

“Private Virgil Earp was still a teenager when marched off to war in 1862 leaving his wife with a baby girl just two weeks old. He would not see his wife or daughter again for thirty-seven years because in the summer of 1863, Ellen was told that Virgil had been killed in Tennessee. Heartbroken, Ellen took her daughter and headed west with her parents. Unaware of the reports of his death, Virgil served throughout the Civil War seeing action in Tennessee and Kentucky. His regiment was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland commanded by Major General George H. Thomas. By the end of the war, the 83rd Illinois had lost one hundred twenty-one men and officers. Private Earp was not among those who died. He returned home in the summer of 1865, three years after he left, to find his wife and baby gone and no way to contact them.

“Like tens of thousands of Civil War veterans, the Earp brothers headed west for a fresh start and new opportunities. For the next ten years, Virgil Earp moved around the country holding various jobs such as farming, railroad construction, and stagecoach driver. He married, divorced, and married again.”

Whether lawman or lawless, it was a popular romantic myth of violent justice where the individual determined his own sense of justice. There was not much if any government in the Wild West. Both heroic lawmen and anti-heroic lawless gunslingers were uneasy of the encroachment of civilization with a new brand of lawmen who were a privatized law and military force, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. There were more Pinkerton agents than there were US soldiers, and probably quite a few Civil War veterans were hired as Pinkerton agents. The lawless gunslingers were seen as heroes because they were fighting big businesses that used violence and oppression to get their way. This was an era that was fomenting the public unrest eventually leading to the Populist Era.

At the same time, this was the era of the Indian Wars which continued into the early 20th century. The Native Americans were fighting their last battles as the unions were fighting their first battles. Between Indians and Pinkertons, the Wild West cowboy was in the middle of enemies. It was a time of violence that created a culture of violence.

 – – –

Furthermore, this violence became the mythology which was permanently emblazoned on the collective psyche through early publications of the exploits of gunfighters and later on with movies.

After those earliest cowboy movies, the lone cowboy myth was being modernized during the Reagan Era when hyper-individualism took on new meaning. Reagan was the actor pretending to be a cowboy who pretended to be a corporate spokesperson and then a president. The romanticized myth of the lone cowboy helped get Reagan elected. It was at that time when macho hyper-individualism fully became the new American mythos: the lone cowboy, the lone rogue cop, the lone businessman. And I suppose it was no accident that the rise of hyper-individualism came at the high point of communist paranoia, communism after all being the antithesis of hyper-individualism.

It was the death knell of liberalism. Rambo was one of the first modernized versions of the lone cowboy. There is the book The Spitting Image by Jerry Lembcke which analyzes how a legend formed around the claim that many Vietnam vets were spit upon by protesters (Damn hippies!) when they came home. In that book, he attributes the origins of this legend to movies such as Rambo: First Blood where there is a scene of Rambo raging about the injustices he met upon his return:

Colonel Trautman: It’s over Johnny. It’s over!

Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!

Of course, this ignores that the anti-war protesters directed their anger and criticism at the political leaders and not the soldiers. It also ignores the fact that a fair number of Vietnam vets became anti-war protesters. But facts never get in the way of a good story.

Obviously, the Vietnam War was traumatizing to the American psyche similar to the Civil War. Both wars created a generation of physically and psychologically battered veterans many of whom felt victimized and resentful. And out of that trauma was born a sense of isolation and a sense of the individual being against the world. Rambo describes this in his words directly following the above speech about “all those maggots”:

Colonel Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone Rambo. It’s all in the past now.

Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothin’! In the field without a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Col. Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group. Don’t end it like this. Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! (Throws M-60 at wall and then slight emotional pause. He drops to the ground in a crouched position out of breath and very upset) Wha…I can’t…oh, I jus–omigod. Where is everybody? Oh God…I…I had a friend, who was Danforth. Wha–I had all these guys man. Back there I had all these fucking guys. Who were my friends. Cause back here there’s nothin’. Remember Danforth? He wore this black head band and I took one of those magic markers and I said to Feron, ‘Hey mail us to Las Vegas cause we were always talkin’ about Vegas, and this fucking car. This uh red ’58 Chevy convertible, he was talkin’ about this car, he said we were gonna cruise till the tires fall off. (upset pause) We were in this bar in Saigon. And this kid comes up, this kid carryin’ a shoe shine box, and eh he says uh ‘shine please, shine.’ I said no, eh an’ uh, he kept askin’ yeah and Joey said ‘yeah,’ and I went to get a couple beers and the ki–the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fuckin’ blew his body all over the place. And he’s layin’ there and he’s fuckin’ screamin’, there’s pieces of him all over me, jus like–! (frustrated he grabs at his bullet chain strapped around his chest and yanks it off) like this. And I’m tryin’ to pull em off you know? And ehe.. MY FRIEND IT’S ALL OVER ME! IT’S GOT BLOOD AND EVERYTHING! And I’m tryin’ to hold him together I put him together his fucking insides keep coming out, AND NOBODY WOULD HELP!! Nobody help me. He sayin’ plea I wanna go home I wanna go home. He keeps callin’ my name, I wanna go home Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy. I said well (upset and breaking down) WHY I can’t find your fucking legs. I can’t find you legs. (softly now) I can’t get it out of my head. I fuc..I dream of seven years. Everyday I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I dunno where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day–a week. (Almost inaudible) I can’t put it out of my mind…fucking…I can’t…….(totally sobbing now)

For the Rambo at the heart of our culture, the past is never past. The violence is continually relived.

Rambo, of course, was overly simplistic melodramatic violence porn. Maybe for that reason it had such an impact on the American psyche. Rambo expressed something that Americans felt, something that Americans wanted to believe. It gave all of the conflicts and doubts an emodied form. It put it all into the context of a story. And stories have a way of informing our perceived reality, our shared sense of identity.

 – – – 

I touched upon these issues in my book review of David Sirota’s Back to the Future. Here is the relevant section:

First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.

Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence.

In that same post, I gave an example that resonates with my having been a child in the 80s, a child who watched all of those 80s shows and absorbed their lessons. The 80s didn’t make me into a conservative, but the scars of cynical hyper-individualism are upon me.

Reagan considered Family Ties one of his favorite shows and offered to be in an episode. Sirota considers that show to have been central. Many young conservatives took inspiration from the Alex P. Keaton’s rebellion against his liberal former hippie parents. Alex stated a classic line when he complained about his parents being arrested for protesting nuclear weapons:

“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”

Many Republican and Tea Party conservatives still feel that way today. It’s something like a Calvinist sense of fatalism combined with the self-assurance of a car salesman. Nothing good can be accomplished collectively and so you might as well narrowly focus on your own self-interest. Rambo’s despicable spitting protesters became Alex’s naive yuppie parents.

As I recall, in that episode Alex’s parents were protesting nucler weapons in an attempt to revive the memories of their past activism. Even if well intentioned, these old former hippies are almost pitiful. Alex maybe correctly perceives them as having sold out for careers and a middle class lifestyle. And so maybe he reasons that it would save time by going straight to the selling out.

What is the point of trying to make the world a better place? What did the hippies accomplish? The answer from conservatives is that at best hippies accomplished nothing and at worst they helped destroy everything that was good about America. Specifically, the 60s hippies are the archetypal enemy of the idyllic 50s. It was all going so well until the hippies came along. Never mind the fact that the 50s was the era when liberalism reigned unchallenged. Never mind the fact that what ended the idyllic liberal 50s was the rising neo-conservatism of the 60s. Never mind inconvenient facts.

To me, facts matter. But in the culture wars, story matters even more. It saddens me that there is such a dark and ugly story at the heart of American culture. It’s a festering wound that needs to be opened in order to let out the puss and be cleansed. There is a conflict of narratives, a conflict that I feel like a knot in my chest. It’s scary to believe in something as great as the collective good. It’s so much easier to be cynical or merely focused one’s own individual life, one’s own private concerns. Why stick one’s head out onto what might turn out to be a chopping block? The veterans who fought the wars know that there is rarely much reward offered for their sacrifices. Most homeless people are veterans, forgotten and uncared for. The conservative politicians campaign on sending young men to war and upon their return they seek to cut benefits for veterans.

It’s hard to blame anyone in feeling cynical after such treatment. And it’s not just veterans. Recent decades have been an endless parade of lies and deceit, an endless betrayal by politicians who serve their corporate masters and their ideological bases. As I write, Washington elites are discussing how far they can get away with balancing the budget on the backs of the average Americans. Tax cuts for the rich and bailouts to the banks received less discussion than this.

 – – – 

Nonetheless, I refuse to believe that it has to be this way.

I know in my heart of hearts that humanity has such great potential. I want to believe in what America stands for. I want to believe in it in the way Thomas Paine believed in it. Yes, to believe so passionately is foolhardy. Even so, if there were no fools, there would never have been an American Revolution in the first place. If the founding generation didn’t foolishly believe in the common good they shared with their countrymen, they wouldn’t have fought for and won their independence. And none of us would be here to argue about the potential of the American Dream.

But I realize that my cynicism too often wins out. My cynicism is constantly confirmed and what little hope I have is constantly dashed. Still, I want to believe. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to fear of losing my job and becoming homeless, of going bankrupt because of health problems, of one day becoming yet another forgotten and lonely elderly person who barely gets by eating God knows what. I’m tired of it all. It’s so depressing because there is no practical reason it has to be this way.

It reminds me of how there is enough food in the world to feed every single person and yet hunger, starvation and malnutrition are widespread. If we spent even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of our military budget on medical research, we probably could have found cures or improvements for all of the major illnesses. If instead of spending money on fighting over oil we spent that money investing in R&D, we would already have viable, cost effective alternative energies. Rather than helping the poor, we build prisons to house the poor. Rather than funding public education, we fund the military-industrial complex.

In heartfelt despair and bewilderment, Derrick Jensen writes (The Culture of Make Believe, pp. 140-1),

“As this dawning dissonance began to tear at my insides, again and again I considered that the confusion must come from within, that I must be missing some simple point: No one could be so stupid as to kill their own planet, all the while chatting breezily about golf, “reality-based TV” (whatever that means), bulging stock portfolios, and How ’bout them Cubbies? What seemed profoundly important to me seemed of no importance whatsoever to most people, and what seemed important to so many people seemed trivial to me. I couldn’t wrap my my mind aroundit. Lawrence Summers promotes the poisoning of poor people, and is elevated to secretary of the treasury. People profess concern over child prostitution as they continue to promulgate the economic and familial conditions that lead to it. The United states bombs Vietnam to save the Vietnamese people, it arms death squads through Latin America to save the people there, it bombs Iraq to save the people there. I kept thinking: Is there something I’m missing?”

Endless violence. Endless stupidity.

I sympathize with those who seek to escape into stories detached from reality. But I also understand that stories have the capacity touch upon deeper truths.

“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of the earth, and it is the language of our bodies. It is the language of dreams, and of action. It is the language of meaning, and of metaphor. This language is not safe, as Jim Nollman said of metaphor, and to believe in its safety is to diminish the importance of the embodied. Metaphors are dangerous because id true they open us to our bodies, and thus to action, and because they slip – sometimes wordlessly, sometimes articulated – between the seen and unseen. This language of symbol is the umbilical cord that binds us to the beginning, to whatever is the source of who we are, where we come from, and where we return. To follow this language of metaphor is to trace words back to our bodies, back to the earth.”
~ A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen, p. 311

In the end, maybe I’m just hoping to find a story I can believe in.

Public Good vs Splintered Society (pt 2)

This is a continuation of my thoughts from my previous post. I won’t summarize my thoughts from that post. So you probably should read it first to understand the context of what I’m writing about below.

 – – – 

I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t directly speaking of racism. There is something more fundamental that can manifest as racism but not necessarily. It’s related to xenophobia. More generally, it’s related to the conservative predisposition of fearing that which is different or new.

This type of fear doesn’t inevitably manifest in negative ways. Sometimes there are good reasons to be mistrusting or cautious… and sometimes not. Also, everyone including liberals are prone to extreme wariness and even fear at times, but research shows that conservatives are even more prone and that right-wingers are so prone they live in almost constant state of mistrust and suspicion.

This is important because it goes beyond fear. If you’re afraid of something, you probably won’t deal with it well because fear constricts your options of how to respond. A conservative who is afraid of the strange and new probably won’t respond constructively to the strange and new. Is it any surprise that right-wingers who mistrust the government also are very bad at governing? Is it any surprise that research shows that those who believe in conspiracy theories admit that they would conspire if given the opportunity? Is it any surprise that conservatives who dislike compromise seek to attack anyone who wants compromise and then blame the other party for their failure to submit to the conservatives’ position?

Liberals are the only demographic that has a majority support for compromise. This is very problematic for a democracy where compromise is absolutely necessary in order for the government to function and for different groups to be fairly represented by the supposedly representative government. In an increasingly diverse society, this is increasingly problematic. Conservatives will only ever agree to policies when those policies are in their favor which means when they have the power to enforce policies in their favor.

Well off white conservatives have always become anxious whenever new groups asserted their right to be fairly represented.

It happened when the second wave of Scots-Irish immigrants arrived. It happened with the Chinese and German immigrants later on. It happened when slaves were freed and when women got the vote. It happened with the Catholics and Jews who sought political positions. It happened with the Japanese during WWII. And now it’s happening with Hispanics and Arabs.

It doesn’t matter how many generations these people lived here. All that matters is that they were and in some cases still are perceived as being different.

Racism is often the end result of this xenophobia, but it is’t the fundamental issue. In America, there is this ideal of diverse people working together. Not just conforming. Some conservatives and right-wingers say other groups should conform to the WASP culture. It’s fine to be a Catholic or Muslim just as long as y0u keep it to yourself. It’s fine to be gay or an atheist as long as you don’t speak about it openly.

The WASPs will claim that their culture is and should be the dominant culture.

They will rationalize this in saying that this should be so because they are the majority. Well, once upon a time Native Americans were the majority before European diseases and genocide wiped out most of their population. In Texas, Spanish-speaking Hispanics are the majority. Should all Texans conform to that majority? Why not? Shouldn’t Hispanics be fairly represented?

When their majority argument is challenged, WASPs will simply say their culture should be dominant because it’s always been dominant. So what this dominance was created and maintained for centuries through horrific violence and oppression. Might makes right, after all.

In the end, as a good liberal, I don’t want to blame anyone, not even WASPs. I’m tired of the blame game entirely, no matter who it’s directed at. If you’re a genuine conservative, sure feel free be cautious about the changes happening in society. But enough with the fear-mongering and race-baiting. Don’t use bigotry as an excuse to hate the democratic government. Don’t promote class war to push away the ladder once you’ve made it to the top. Don’t distort Jesus’ message of love to defend a system of injustice and suffering. Conservatism has a healthy role to play, but radical conservatism is unhelpful, dangerous even.

Americans have proven to be able to do great things when we all work together. Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Partiers, I ask this of you: Please quit attacking what makes America great simply for reasons of your personal agenda. America isn’t just about the upper classes or whites or Christians. It never was and never will be.

During the Populist Era, Northerners and Southerners worked together to fight those seeking to take over the government and oppress the lower classes. In some of the first labor unions, blacks and whites worked together.

Earlier last century, conservatives didn’t hate the government but actually sought to create a government that was truly for and by the people. The Republican Party used to be the party of progressivism and moderation, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Republican Party helped create the infrastructure (the interstate highway system, the national parks system, etc) of America through progressive taxation including high taxes on the rich. The Republicans, instead of fighting their own dark fantasies about ‘welfare queens’, used to fight the KKK.

The Progressive Era was also a time when liberalism reigned. Liberalism reigned all the way through Nixon’s early political career. Some of the greatest progressives were Republicans. Eisenhower used the military to enforce desegregation. Nixon campaigned on helping blacks and later helped pass the EPA. It was a time when people believed that America was a great nation and that it was the responsibility of the government along with the support of the public to do great things. The government used to send men into space and used to build great technology such as the internet. The Progressive Era created high-paying jobs that were secure and had pensions. Manufacturing jobs were kept in America and Americans were proud of our growing economy. Everyone benefited. It was a good society where literally everyone’s boat was lifted. Progressives gave a generation affordable higher education and created the middle class.

This isn’t patriotic propaganda. This isn’t just history. We are still benefiting from the sacrifices our grandparents and great grandparents made to build this great society. For decades, we’ve been living off the work of past generations while allowing the infrastructure crumble around us. It’s become an age of hyper-individualism and endless wars, in fact wars that are often against the American people. Instead of wars on drugs, why don’t we have a war on political corruption? Instead of tough on crime against the poor and minorities, why don’t we have tough on crime against the corporatists and bankers who nearly destroyed our economy?

It’s not too late. We can take responsibility as generations past did. We could create a great society once again.

At times, it seems so simple. Maybe it is as simple as our collectively creating what we collectively hope for or what we colletively fear. However, when digging deeper, there are all kinds of factors.

I was reading the book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State by Andrew Gelman. The following passage caught my attention last night while I was thinking about why conservatives seem to trust less or value less the ideal of a shared community, i.e., community beyond their own in-group.

Looking at people who moved from red (strongly Republican) states: those who move to other red states are poorer, those who move to purple states are slightly richer (on average), and those who move to blue states are richest. Among those who moved from purple (battleground) states, we see the same pattern: the poorer go to red states, the richer go to blue states. Looking at those who moved from blue (strongly Democratic) states, we again see that the poorest went to red states and the richest went to other blue states. In fact, people who moved from one blue state to another are in the richest category, on average. This does not demonstrate that people move to states or regions that are more culturally compatible to them, but the data are consistent with that possibility. A related idea is that higher earners are moving to richer states because of the economic opportunities available for educated professionals in these places.

One link between economics, voting, and social attitudes has been noticed by journalist Steve Sailer, who hypothesizes that rich, coastal states now favor the Democrats because of increasing house prices, which reduces affordable family formation (marriage and childbearing), in turn limiting the electoral appeal of Republican candidates running on family values. Sailer attributes some of this home price difference to what he calls the Dirt Gap—coastal and Great Lakes cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are bounded by water, which limits their potential for growth, as compared to inland cities such as Dallas or Atlanta: “The supply of suburban land available for development is larger in Red State cities, so the price is lower.” The Republicans do better among married voters, who are more likely to end up in more affordable states that also happen to be more culturally conservative.

This reminded me of the distinction I noticed between more conservative Southern states where people value family as community (Scots-Irish fundamentalism and kinship ties) and more liberal Midwestern states where people value community as family (Catholic and Quaker focus on community-building: schools, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, etc).

As the above passage describes, working class and lower middle class conservatives who vote Republican tend to live in or move to Republican states for a simple reason. Unlike poor social conservatives who vote Democratic, these slightly more well off conservatives have enough money to move and yet not enough money to move to the more wealthy communities. So they go to places where there are suburbs which means places with vast open land to build suburbs. The Midwest doesn’t have such vast unused space and maybe that is why the value of community has survived in the Midwest whereas it hasn’t survived as much in Republican strongholds.

The thing about suburbs is that they’ve tended to be very lacking in traditional community structure. People tend to work far away from where they live. Suburbs often aren’t designed for walking and often don’t have parks or neighborhood schools. They are the antithesis of community and at the same time they are the destination of socially conservative Republicans, especially those who are white (which is most socially conservative Republicans). Suburbs tend to lack multiculturalism and racial diversity which might be another thing that attracts socially conservative Republicans.

This cuts to the core.

Research has found that those who grow up with multiculturalism and racial diversity will as adults be more socially liberal. It’s probably also relates to the research that shows liberals tended to have many friends in their childhoods.

As such, the type of communities we create (rural farming, cities, metropolises, suburbia, etc) creates a particular mindset that allows certain ways of seeing community and disallows others. Community doesn’t just happen. It is created. And if we don’t create it consciously, it might not take very positive forms. We’ve destroyed the natural order (i.e., hunter-gatherer communities) upon which human nature evolved. Our society has become dysfunctional because it’s gone so far beyond our origins as a species. Returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle isn’t possible without the complete destruction of civilization and a mass die-off of most of the world’s population. A ‘natural’ (i.e., unplanned) community isn’t a choice that we have at this point. Even conservatives in refusing to invest in the larger community are creating a particular type of community.

From an anecdotal perspective, Garrison Keillor describes (in his book Homegrown Democrat) the difference between liberal city-dwellers and conservative suburbanites:

“[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

Keillor is basically what has in the past been called a Sewer Socialist. In an earlier time in Milwaukee, there were socialists in political positions. They were of the pragmatic (i.e., non-ideological) sort that is common in the Midwest. Like Keillor, they were proud to have some of the best public services around at that time. On a practical level, socialism just means that you care about your neighbor rather than seeing community as merely a collection of self-focused individuals.

Many Americans have so completely forgotten what community is. When they see community, they have a fearful knee-jerk response: Socialism! Communism! Oh no, those who care about the public good are going to destroy our society!

 – – –

There is one factor that explains the impossibility of discussing all of this fairly and openly. I recently came across research about the backfire effect.

Basically, the backfire effect is when someone becomes stronger in their beliefs (more unquestioningly dogmatic) when they are confronted by facts that contradict or disprove or bring doubt to their beliefs. It intuitively makes sense, although I’m sure there are complex psychological mechanisms behind it.

What is relevant to my discussion is the demographic most prone to the backfire effect. Do I even need to say it? Unsurprisingly, conservatives are more likely to become more dogmatic when challenged even when or especially when the facts are against them. Liberals, on the other hand, don’t necessarily change their beliefs with new facts; it’s just that they’re less likely to become even stronger in their beliefs which seems to imply that liberals perceive facts as being less threatening.

This puts liberals in an almost impossible situation. Is it any wonder that no matter how much liberals seek to compromise they rarely ever get any compromise in return from conservatives. Liberals love compromise, a weakness and a strength. It’s because liberals love to compromise that they are able to live in multicultural, multi-racial cities. Study after study shows liberals love anything new and different, including ‘foreigners’. But the typical conservative response to anything unusual, even rotting fruit as shown in one study, is to respond with disgust.

Love of compromise is one ‘failing’ of liberalism. The other ‘failing’ is love of knowledge. Even when a fact disagrees with a liberal position, a liberal is more likely to welcome the new info, even if just for reasons of intellectual curiosity. Most (by which I mean the vast majority of) academics, scientists, writers and journalists are self-identified liberals. It’s a combination of liberals loving knowledge and the love of knowledge inducing a liberal mindset. Sadly, the more conservative someone is the less they probably love knowledge, and studies have shown right-wingers are prone to outright anti-intellectualism.

So, what is a poor liberal to do?

The answer isn’t to give up on compromise and knowledge. The real problem is that many liberals don’t understand the conservative mindset. The dogmatic tendency of conservatives and right-wingers correlates to their religiosity. I suspect that religiosity explains one other thing. A fact by itself is less convincing to a conservative. What convinces a conservative the most is anecdotal evidence and stories. Essentially, the Bible is just a bunch of anecdotes and stories, an anecdote being a story is considered real. Also, the evangelical tradition is all about personal experience of God or Holy Spirit which is the ultimate anecdotal evidence.

Everyone loves stories, but I think conservatives put a special importance on stories in a way liberals don’t. To a liberal, a story is a story. To a conservative, a story is reality. The story of Jesus is real, despite the lack of historical fact and even despite the internal contradictions of the New Testament. The most powerful story is the story that is seen as fact. Such a story is especially powerful if it actually is based on fact. It’s not that conservatives hate knowledge, but between a fact and a story conservatives will prefer the latter.

This is why conspiracy theories and global warming denialism are so convincing to conservatives and right-wingers. A conspiracy theory is a story and global warming denialism is often couched in terms of conspiracy theory. It just doesn’t matter to many conservatives that it’s a fact that most climatologists agree that human-caused global warming is real. It doesn’t matter because climatologists aren’t trained, as preachers are trained, in telling a good story.

Liberals love story as well. I do think stories are more powerful than anything else. Stories are what cultures are built upon. Liberals fail when they forget this. As George Lakoff explained:

“Progressives too often fail to clearly state the moral principles behind the American tradition. Our arguments often sound like an abstract defense of distant “government” rather than a celebration of our people, our public, and the moral views that have defined our tradition and the real human beings who work every day to carry them out.”

The root word for ‘science’ means to split or dissect. The root word for ‘art’ means to put together or join. This might be why knowledge and story so often conflict, but they don’t have to. Knowledge and story can work together. Old stories can be taken apart so as to create new stories that bring together. In a multicultural society as we live in, we can take the pieces of our cultural heritage and form something greater than the sum of the parts.

Story can be the bridge that brings liberals and conservatives together. In the past, America had a story about a shared society and that story inspired many generations of people in the first half or so of the 20th century. The greatest story is that which is lived through collective enactment. I’ve often wondered what story (i.e., myth) we are collectively enacting.

The dangerous part is unconsciously enacting a story. When that happens, a society is controlled by the story, trapped in a narrative. We can be mere characters in someone else’s story, such as an ancient story from an ancient book, or we can be storytellers. As William Blake said,

“Invent your own mythology or be slave to another man’s.”

To translate that into the terms of this discussion: Invent our own cultural narrative or be slave to the narrative of another culture. Invent our collective sense of community or be slave to the broken remnants of the past.

If we react out of fear, we will create a society driven by fear. Such a fearful society will result in dysfunctional communities, isolated communities set against one another, broken communities where past traumas are never healed. Only an act of creation can heal. Only retelling the story of community can heal a community.

 – – – 

George Lakoff summarized well the situation we collectively face:

Democracy, in the American tradition, has been defined by a simple morality: We Americans care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, our friends and our neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never met and never will meet.

“American democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the American Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

“Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

“Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The American Dream is built upon mutual care and trust. 

“Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

“What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for what we all have given you.

“We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party. It says democracy means that nobody should care about anybody else, that democracy means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust. If America accepts this radical view of democracy, then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost: all that we have called public. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. Everything that made America America, the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility and trust is the democracy of the American Dream. The democracy of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the American Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.