Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Why You Shouldn't Become Politically Aware

"Federal court injunctions became one of the standard tools of management...[F]or Taft, the growth of unions was not synonymous with progress, was perhaps antithetical to it...This change [in standard of living near the turn of the century] had been produced by a wondrous growth of industry and commerce, nurtured by a small but energetic government and made possible the freedoms, political and economic, that seemed at the heart of the definition of being American. Interfering with these freedoms or vastly changing the size and role of government might be attractive in some momentary crisis, Taft understood, or might commend itself to believers in some radical theory; but to a man who had seen the system work over time, to tamper with it was the height of folly, and the duty of men like himself was to preserve and strengthen the framework which had made this progress possible."

One of the worst passages in the book, right there on page six. I'll review the thing before very long (to the unfettered delight of all), but the short version is that Michael Barone would have been better off if he didn't try and pepper in these observations as if they were occasional theses. (Here, he's only channeling William Howard Taft, but those interjections are a running theme.) The basic issues with the quote shouldn't be hard to spot: (1) government's emphatic union busting obviously meddled with freedoms (2) standard of living may well have improved (especially by measure of consumption), but industrialization also brought new forms of pollution, workplace hazards, indebtedness, required specialization at the expense of other skills, and it mucked up family life and settlement patterns--it's a mixed bag even now, and in those days, the failures of the system vis a vis personal freedom were pretty stark; (3) interference in worker demonstrations isn't really the action of a "small government," the obvious fact of which isn't much relieved by his use of the word "energetic". A better sense of the passage might come from the phrase, "men like himself."

I suppose I remain a technological optimist. I subscribe to the idea that technological progress does increase the standard of living, and it's exciting for me to imagine the hypothetical limits of what progress can accomplish (and why I'm so pleased with novels like Steel Beach or Player Piano, which seem to get at some truths of it). I'd add that my starry-eyed vision isn't so rapinous as the early technological models, and next-generation solutions, in the unlikely event we are lucky enough to develop them, would require some harmonious development under the constraints of biodiversity, available energy, population, space, and, perhaps even, human spirit. But that's all happy-talk, and a tangent. In the case of industrialization, we have a few important leaps in medical science (that I wouldn't throw away), physical mobility and communications drastically eased (likewise), an immense increase in firepower, and a slew of innovations ultimately became labor-savors, but it took some hundred years for that set of benefits to seep in the direction of the many (thanks in part to the unions Taft mistrusted), and doing more with a bunch of souped-up waldoes hasn't freed us much, and the glorious convenience is overplayed. Since most of the population still has to work to live, the labor saving (and labor trading) has made Americans more than a little frantic. As it is, I don't know how I, with nine years of science education, can possibly afford to get the kids through college, and it's a shame they'll never afford a house, even if they have a relatively cheap tv.

(You can find a good discussion at the site of the incomparable IOZ, here.)

Does economic growth require innovation? I am disinclined to use the word when it comes to new financial, managerial or political developments (the recent unpleasantness looks less like real innovation and more like rediscovering ways to cheat, and I've had too many managers, followed too much politics), but there appears to be a correlation even there, one we wouldn't deny given enough historical perspective. Over on Sadly, No!, D. Aristophanes scored a good point regarding medical innovation: the "delivery of health care to more people at less cost" is a medical innovation. Certainly it improves the standard of living for more people, which, at the end of the day, is the exact same argument for capitalism. Why does the fact that it has such a good chance of being better piss off the alleged capitalists off so much?

You can correctly complain about means, but it's the ends that are a measurement of a system's worth, not that they are so easy to tell apart. Is a fair chance in a given economic framework the same as liberty when the "free market" systematically produces drastic inequality? Of course no market is free: usually, the capitalist political argument tends to ignore the tendency of power to accumulate by economic means, and ignores the reality that an economic/political advantage, once gained, is damnably difficult to dispel. That rising tide has tended to lift some boats a lot higher than others. If the failure to deliver meaningful freedom is intrinsic, then what the hell do we want that system for? I am by no means suggesting going full Commie here either, with an undisputed political/economic mandate as a non-rebuttal to the economic/political one. The point is, what the hell is the difference when the government and the titans of industry intermarry so fully anyway? As someone just trying to get by, unless you're on top of it, you're pretty damn frantic.

The advocate of conservatism considers that hey, the system works for me, sometimes with considerable effort, and it shouldn't be changed. I can be sympathetic with the desire to not give up even that much ground. Libertarians, best I can tell, think that hey, the system works for me because I'm just that fucking great. Thinking in terms of "men like yourself" is one thing when you're young, your future looks bright, and you don't really know anyone outside your social circle, but I'm finding the whole business tiresome these days. (Too much time on the internet. I didn't need to know what my old friends think about stuff.) It would be nice if personal success correlated better with effort and aptitude, maybe a little less egregiously with connections. It'd be nice too, if in this affluent country at least, there was enough embedded security that hitting the bottom didn't knock you right out of the game. In those markets models, the glib ones that have been irritating me anyway, it's generally a matter of assumption that we are working with roughly equal odds in life, but that's not really true. That condition could be considered the ends as much as the means.

Let me know if you figure out how to get to it.

(Update: also this.)

No comments: