Things We Read Today, 8
Still Tough to Talk About the Big Things
Appropriately, Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” just came on the mp3 player shuffle.
September 11. It’s still a rough day, even (I imagine) for people who didn’t grow up with the World Trade Center towering in the near distance of their childhood as a reminder that all history is human and it’s close enough to see from the second floor window.
That was the theme of a poem that I wrote soon after that day, “Safe at Home, September 11, 2001.” It underlay my blog post on the evening I discovered that one of the Flight 93 heroes, Jeremy Glick, had attended my New Jersey judo dojo around the same time I did. And it provided the conclusion of an earlier essay about the proximity of my high school experience to history:
Todd and Scott’s memorial ought not be placed with the Vietnam one by the “official” entrance, near the auditorium and administrative offices, but by the common entrance, near the gym and the cafeteria. The two ought to be a reminder that the world is not separate from our lives. Every student at River Dell High School will play a part in history. It is unavoidable. They don’t have to go in search of it; they don’t even have to be drafted into it. History will come to them, and the implication should be that they ought to live their daily lives heroically and triumphantly, no matter how profound or mundane the sacrifices that they are called upon to make.
This spring, I walked into the building for the first time in nineteen years and was reminded that the person tasked with developing a memorial had come across my essay and took my suggestion to heart:
And reflected in the glass, a middle-aged man surprised how much has changed and how little.
The World’s Circumstances Change, Too
Odd, isn’t it, how the rest of the world recedes in consciousness during back-to-school days and election seasons? How huge the challenges seem, stacked up on each other! Raising children, maintaining a house, struggling to motivate a volunteer PTO, striving to right local governance, battling the established forces of the status quo in the state, debating the issues of the day at the federal level, and then there’s this, about which Mark Steyn offers the service of an ice-water-in-the-face reminder:
In an American election year, the Middle East is a side issue in a nation ever broker and, in large part, weary of global responsibilities it never sought. But, to modify Trotsky, you may not be interested in Islam, but Islam is interested in you. Would Morsi have moved so far so fast against a military bankrolled by U.S. taxpayers if he had thought Washington would push back? Probably not. But he read the Obama administration and correctly concluded he could do what he wanted and pay no price — as did Erdogan, a nominal NATO ally, when he all but formally broke off relations with Israel. As do the mullahs, daily. All three look at Washington and see a late Ottoman sultan: soft, pampered, decadent, weak, lounging on his cushions, puffing his hookah, but unable to rouse himself to impose his will. After Qaddafi, Hillary Clinton offered the following clunker of a sound bite: “We came, we saw, he died.” In reality, we’re gone, they saw, and the post-American world is being born.
Evolution and Economics Are Circumstantial, Not Linear
All this talk of change brings me to an intriguing paragraph from Sam Howard, which he posted with profound appropriateness on the progressive RIFuture:
I used to believe in Dollo’s Law, which states that once an organism has evolved past a specific stage, it can never revert to that stage. I thought that the law could apply to society as well: once we’ve stepped away from something idiotic (like the gold standard or having state legislators select our senators based on which candidate gives them the most money). But I’m beginning to see the complete callousness of people.
What a spectacular example of the error of the progressive idea and the angry, mean arrogance that it imparts, like a burst of felt-invincibility from some hallucinatory stimulant!
Evolution is a process of responding to stimuli in the environment over generations. It may be exceedingly unlikely that circumstances will change in such a way as to effect a precise reversal, but if a quality that we’ve defined as a new “stage” turns out to be an impediment to survival, there’s nothing in the process of evolution to prevent its disappearance.
Likewise, civic and economic policies are creatures of their circumstances, and I’d propose that those circumstances are more subject to change than, say, the evolutionary value of opposable thumbs. As his parenthetical note indicates, Howard’s beef is with people who are critical of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which transferred selection of U.S. Senators from state governments to the people of the state, and who wish to return to the gold standard for our currency.
A response could easily turn into a remedial lesson on arguments that could be gathered pretty rapidly through an Internet search. And not only is neither topic particularly pressing, just now, but Howard’s essay makes clear that he’s not interested in understanding them. But a couple of quick points serve my theme with this post.
The 17th Amendment and the Master-Servant Relationship
On the topic of the 17th Amendment, here’s the one trifle that I’ve written. The important point, for my immediate purposes, is that Howard misconstrues his opposition’s argument. It isn’t that contemporary federalists believe that “it’s impossible for the people of the state to collectively elect someone who will represent their interests.”
It appears that he makes this mistake because he conflates “liberty and democracy.” The project of our nation’s founders was to contrive a system of governance that makes the most of the fact that human nature (and therefore democracy) doesn’t always tend toward liberty — or rather, that it tends toward liberty for me at the expense of thee. The structure of overlapping governments is essentially a machine intended to be fueled by human activity and directed by social interaction (that’s the democracy), built with the intention of keeping us upright.
As any child will tell you who’s ever flipped himself from his bicycle by too dramatically turning the front wheel (guilty), some limitations on the machine are critical. Left or right may be a necessary direction, and the necessity to turn may be an emergency, but momentum can thwart the best intentions.
In this context, the appointment of Senators as originally designed can be seen as a structural element of the bicycle, keeping the handle bars from collapsing toward the pedals. It is in the nature of self-interest for politicians to claim credit and disperse blame, and making a critical branch of the federal government directly accountable to the state governments is not a check against the democratic will of the people, but on the federal government’s ability to satisfy that will by handing an impossible mandate to its elected counterparts within the state. In short, it checks the illusion that we can have something for nothing, governmentally.
It’s a testament to the American character that we’ve kept our balance these long years since the amendment’s passage a century ago. But that experience by no means suggests that it is “idiotic” to wonder whether our Constitutional bolts need tightening.
Gold Is Valuable Because It Has No Value
Being an economic subject, the gold standard is even more subject to the vicissitudes of reality. Not only can the occupational makeup of the economy change quite rapidly, but the global context in which a nation operates can completely shift the significance of the various economic markers, from inflation to productivity.
Howard makes much of the fact that fiat currency (e.g., the dollar) is founded on faith that other people will treat it as valuable. And he seems to think it a basic illustration of others’ idiocy that they fail to comprehend that the value of gold is similarly by mutual agreement.
But here’s the thing: the fact that gold is relatively useless as a material (emphasis on “relatively,” of course), while being malleable and durable, is critical to its usefulness as a foundation for currency. A drought won’t make gold disappear, and it won’t be snatched up as a building material for other things. But the most valuable thing about gold is that there’s a limited supply of it.
All of these factors make gold a reasonably good stand-in for the abstract-but-real limited supply of wealth in the economy. By wealth, I mean the balance of all goods, services, assets, desires, willingnesses, talents, and so on that would constitute the total economy if it were possible to measure such things.
What Howard and progressive economists, themselves, seem not to understand is that there is an actual amount of wealth, so defined, and that manipulations of currency and debt will ultimately reach equilibrium. Having a tangible standard, like gold, at least gives policy makers a marker to help them conceptualize the effects of what they’re doing.
I haven’t made up my own mind on the gold-standard issue, but I am reasonably certain that it’s kinda idiotic to dismiss the question as idiotic.
The Manipulated Electorate (Defining the Conservative Perspective)
The bottom line to all of the above, I suppose, is that being human is messy business. Our incentives — hopes, dreams, base lusts, and all the rest — pull us in a number of conflicting directions. Civilization is the evolutionary “stage” at which we make some advancement in figuring out how to use our social interconnectedness to bring those incentives into alignment in order to achieve higher goals.
Each milestone in achieving those goals is more like an elevation than a level in the ease with which it is possible to fall backwards.
Such were my thoughts while reading David French’s reaction to a post by John Hinderaker. Writes the latter:
On paper, given Obama’s record, this election should be a cakewalk for the Republicans. Why isn’t it? I am afraid the answer may be that the country is closer to the point of no return than most of us believed. With over 100 million Americans receiving federal welfare benefits, millions more going on Social Security disability, and many millions on top of that living on entitlement programs–not to mention enormous numbers of public employees–we may have gotten to the point where the government economy is more important, in the short term, than the real economy. My father, the least cynical of men, used to quote a political philosopher to the effect that democracy will work until people figure out they can vote themselves money. I fear that time may have come.
To which the former adds:
Big government is attractive not merely to those receiving benefits, but also to idealists on the other end of the economic spectrum. For them, big government represents delegated virtue — it’s a way to take care of the poor, the elderly, the disabled without, you know, actually doing anything yourself. During my total-immersion days in the heart of the liberal establishment (Ivy League law schools, Manhattan law firm, Center City Philadelphia non-profit), I encountered hundreds of liberal idealists with a bulletproof sense of moral superiority even as they did nothing of consequence to actually serve their fellow man. For them, “advocacy” was service, higher tax rates were charity, and the actual poor and sick were rarely in their proximity.
One needn’t indulge in the political labels to make the point. “The poor you will always have with you,” says Jesus, and in characteristic New Testament profundity, that’s both a warning that there will always be work to do and a promise that there will always be opportunity to do good works. The worry of many of us on the right side of the election equation is that our animal incentives have mixed with our evolved intellects to contrive the illusion that we can do good works without having to do any unpleasant or difficult work.
And that is an illusion, which makes me think (retrograde theist that I am) that the same force is behind it as was behind the impulse to destroy those twin glass-and-steel symbols of humanity’s progress on a beautiful day much like today, at a time when you were younger and the circumstances of your life were different.