Works and Days » From the Unbelievable to the Passé
From time to time I stop and wonder how the unbelievable can become the accepted. Let me list four arbitrary, but still representative, examples of what I mean.
1) Embracing unworkable statism.
Everywhere one looks statism is a failure. Contrast resource-rich Venezuela with Chile. Juxtapose Cuba to Colombia. Of course, compare Dark Age North Korea with the 21st-century South. Look at the UK in 1954 and 1990.
They are rioting in Europe not to embrace socialism, but in petulant fashion to find someone somehow to pay for it — as if “they” and “them” are partying in some remote Aegean island, with vaults of stashed euros.
Whether hard communism or soft socialism, statism does not work. We all know why — it goes against human nature, rewarding mediocrity and punishing merit, professing egalitarianism for the masses, while the operators of the system, whether the old Soviet apparatchiks or the new crony EU Brussels bureaucrats, satisfy their appetites like capitalists. Ultimately, it is simply like coasting on a bike uphill. The last hard peddles are simply not enough to push the bike and rider over the hill: finally the brilliant small manufacturer, the lean contractor, the enterprising farmer, the late-into-the-night engineer — they cannot carry any longer the clerk, the auditor, the regulator, the tax man, and the bureaucrat who wish not merely to piggy-back onto the biker, but to try to stop his peddling even as they demand to get over the crest.
Yet we are finishing a second year of absorbing banks, insurance companies, auto manufacturers, and the health care system, borrowing trillions to redistribute in new entitlements, with more lust for equality of ends notions like cap and trade and immigration amnesty. Any House member who went along with all this and lives outside a blue-gerrymandered district or San Francisco or Chicago cannot run on the Obama agenda.
The entire statist protocol polls well below 50%. Past leftist candidates like Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, George McGovern, or Walter Mondale could not get elected on their visions; those who did (Carter and Clinton) either imploded after a single term or triangulated and so found a way to a two-term presidency despite never getting 50% of the popular vote.
Statism versus free markets is about as easy to understand as the difference between Singapore and Greece, and yet here we go again. This weird suicidal statist impulse seems for Obama to trump almost every other consideration: he may well destroy the Democratic Party for a decade just when it was recovering; he has so terrified private enterprise that trillions of dollars in capital are simply sitting out his first two years, waiting for the end of his congressional majorities, and hence his agenda to implode.
All this goes on as Obama sees the EU running away from precisely what he wishes to implement, while at home a high-tax, high-entitlement, redistributive economy like California has managed to destroy the most richly endowed human and natural landscape — agriculture, tourism, high-tech, oil and gas, Hollywood, Napa Valley, Silicon Valley — in the nation. And yet here we continue down into the abyss.
2) Higher education.
Most of what we are told about universities is untrue. America’s reputation for higher learning excellence (in business, sciences, medicine, engineering, and finance) is despite not because of the humanities and social sciences. Current research in the liberal arts (the portfolio the English or sociology prof is tenured on) increasingly has almost no relevance to the general public or applicability to teaching or even scholarly merit.
Diversity is Orwellian: the university is the most politically intolerant and monolithic institution in the country, even as it demands the continuance of tenure to protect supposedly unpopular expression. Even its emphases on racial diversity is entirely constructed and absurd: Latin Americans add an accent and a trill and they become victimized Chicanos; one-half African-Americans claim they are more people of color than much darker Punjabis; the children of Asian optometrists seek minority and victim status.
Meanwhile on the labor front, liberal faculties prove far more illiberal than K-Mart. Part-time faculties now account for 40% of the units offered at many universities, earning 30-40% of the wages per unit of full professors, and mostly without benefits. There is no outrage from those who customarily damn CEOs from the lounge. Tuition rises faster than both inflation and the cost of health care, and yet the twin promises of a BA degree are no longer kept: today’s graduates are not so likely to get a choice job, and are not certified as literate in English or competent in math.
At some point, all this cannot go on, and we will have the academic version of September 15, 2008 — as parents no longer choose to take on $200,000 in debt to send their children to 4-year liberal arts schools, in which they will be likely indoctrinated that they should oppose the very American institutions that created the wealth and freedom that fuel their colleges and pay their faculties.
We have in a way already reverted to the sociology of the 19th century of an elite and a non-lettered mass, but without its benefits. One-hundred years ago, very few went to college. Only a well-schooled elite did, as the rest learned through the school of hard knocks. (My grandfather never went to college, but used to chant to me when I came home from college his high-school Latin “amo-amas-amat” as he irrigated the vineyard at 82.) Today we try to graduate almost everyone, in the process ensuring that for 4-6 years they are not apprenticing at anything other than Starbucks, “The Poetics of the Low-rider,” and university psycho-dramas over dating and oogling. I wonder whether today’s entering freshman is any better educated than someone in 1890 who was farming at the same age. I note that 50% of incoming freshmen at the CSU system must take remedial math and English. I suppose the new Obama student loan take-over in part is designed to protect the status quo, ossified university that staffs his administration and provides the fire for so many of his agendas.
I remember as a little boy going to the Big Fresno Fair to see the “picto-phone,” huge monstrosities that we were told one day would allow us to phone and simultaneously see the other person on the other end of the line. Then quietly in the 1970s all that disappeared and the idea became Edsel-like.
But wait — suddenly without as much as a whimper one can Skype across the globe for free. Is not that a revolution in the human experience that has transpired without notice?
The current technological revolution is stealthy like that. The advancing pace of change is geometric but not the human reaction to it, which devolves to quiet indifference. So we look at terrorists in Waziristan from Las Vegas and decide in judge/jury/executioner fashion whether the big face on the screen lives or dies that nano-second. And sigh? I fly to an airport, have a minute, and access over 60 million words of the corpus of ancient Greek literature in between flights. Big deal?
The strange thing is that none of this has been quite factored into fossilized metrics that supposedly quantify the standard of living, poverty rates, GDP, etc. In the grocery line not long ago, two teens were chatting in Spanish to relatives by iPhone in distant Mexico. Are they impoverished or enjoying a privilege exclusive to royalty just forty years ago? Today’s Kia is more comfortable and electronically sophisticated than the Rolls and Bentley of just 20 years ago — and available to drive off to anyone with a credit card for the down payment. Surely, our social and political barometers of success and failure have simply not caught up to the technological revolution, more like horse-and-buggy calibrations trying to quantify gasoline engines.
4. The Plutocratic party?
I cannot fathom how the Democratic Party became run by those who live lives nothing remotely similar to what they profess. Yes, I know the Roosevelt-Kennedy tradition of limousine liberals, but today’s chasm between word and deed is stunning — and never remarked on. Are we to believe that prep-schooled and Ivy Leagued millionaire Barack Obama is the blue-collar face of the Democratic Party, while one of twelve children John Boehner is some sort of J.P. Morgan insider rich man? No wonder that Obama must fake his cadences, bowl, and try to eat cabbage instead of arugula.
The Al Gore, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, George Soros phenomenon is baffling. The best I can make of it goes something like this. Once someone makes enough money truly to be exempt from worries over taxation (but even Kerry proved that $1 billion does not quite end the impulse to dodge sales taxes), or is deeply burrowed within government so that almost everything is free or subsidized, then some sort of human desire to help the “other” kicks in as a sort of penance for the enjoyment of privilege.
How could Barack Obama, community organizer par excellence, send his kids to Sidwell Friends? How does Bill Gates, Sr. tour the country, hectoring to re-impose inheritance taxes? Did Al Gore need the extra Montecito home or John Kerry the $7 million yacht (cf. “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money”)? Why did the Clintons shake down corporations for gifts to their DC home and Bill’s library?
Stranger still is this new Democratic emperor/bread-and-circus alliance. The very wealthy promise largess to the poorer on the premise that both despise the culture of the aspiring, the one in condescending disdain, the other in bitter envy. Jimmy Carter laments, near life’s end, the unfairness of it all, as the ignorant never appreciated his godhead. John Kerry wails about how a slogan or two misled us from his message. Obama re-channels the poor clueless clingers trope from the Ground Zero mosque to the upcoming election. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” is the gnashing of the well-off who cannot understand why the less well-off don’t join them in redistributing their far smaller incomes.
The final irony? Lost in all this sanctimonious moralizing by the Bill Maher/Michael Moore/George Soros left is that there is redistribution going on constantly. In every extended family someone has done pretty well. What happens? He loans money to cousins. She puts up a nephew in the extra bedroom, gives a lot to her church, pays for bats at Little League, takes her daughter’s fellow Brownies to pizza, or co-signs the nephew’s car loan.
The upper-middle-class is not greedy, but they do have three reservations about the Obama pie-slicing: they want to have a little say in the distribution; they better than Obama know how much they can afford to give; and they sense that something for nothing is not a neutral act, but a sort of evil in creating dependency and destroying initiative — all for that selfish feeling of benefaction among elites that comes from handing out someone else’s money.
No, I cannot quite believe how quietly and without audit America’s moneyed and cognitive elites became such hectoring populists — with the constant assumption they could still live, school, work, and marry largely among like kind — oh so distant from the objects of their concern.