Tuesday, May 12, 2009

To What End?

[I wrote this two or three weeks ago, but never got around to posting it.]

Where's the balance point?

As we witness the consequences of unfettered greed, of the idea that the accumulation of wealth is the essential goal, of a system built on facilitating the achievement thereof by setting aside -- deferring endlessly -- the needs of the very people who swallow the inequities which allowed the enormous accumulation of wealth at the top, at some point you have to wonder.

Traveling in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, I saw clearly that their form of socialism wasn't working (and that true communism existed only on a few колхозов.) Capitalism, with its incentives and rewards for personal achievement, is a better system; of that I had (and have) no doubt. But I think we've gone overboard, and it threatens to destroy us as surely as the USSR destroyed itself. They in horse-carts, we in Escalades, it's the same cliff, ironically, over which they went and we're going. Neglecting the basics.

My wife is president of the local school board, one of the most successful and responsible in the state. Lowest administrative costs; among the highest achievement scores; enormously diverse, with over forty languages spoken by its students, its schools are a bustling broth. Unlike most, it has managed its finances cautiously and wisely, maintaining reserves. And yet, because of state budget deficits, through no fault of its own, the district faces the possibility of very hurtful cuts in services and personnel. It's a perfect showcase of what's wrong. That, and the fact that in the state budget, health services are also being cut, along with drug programs, correctional facilities, housing assistance, public transportation, and various other necessities of a functioning society.

Question: Why aren't there people teabagging over THAT???

Answer: Because we've lost our way. Because we were led -- most willingly -- down a garden path strewn with false promises. Because of years of being told that government is the problem, that eliminating taxes and services will make us all thrive, that worrying about the basics is socialistic, European, liberal wussiness. Don't look under the rug, we were told; and, since there was nice furniture on top of the rug, and because we preferred to believe it was just fine even as the floorboards got rot, we didn't. And here we are.

Too bad the collapse didn't happen AFTER we fixed some of the stuff, because now we're impossibly screwed. It was so much easier when we were told, by Reagan, then Bush, that we could have it all without paying.

Time to find a new balance point. Which, if the party of family values has anything to say about it, will never happen. Yet, it seems to me, we are at a point of unavoidable choice, between preserving our country, or riding the wave of unfettered greed until it drowns us. If the choice in the long run is -- as I think -- between collapse and retooling, isn't the latter preferable, even if it means everyone has to give a little more? If, to maintain current levels of taxation, we need to let our schools go, ignore climate change, give up on helping the less fortunate, let our health care system become more and more dysfunctional, isn't it a better choice to bite the bullet and pay up? I never agreed with the Obama tax cuts; and I share with the right wing a sense that it's not fair (if it's true) that up to 45% of people pay no taxes at all. When the economy regains its footing, it has to change, to my way of thinking.

I don't claim a crystal ball, nor even a firm grasp on economics; but looking around and adding things up, it's not a stretch to think we really are at -- or well beyond -- the crisis point. To me it's clear the era of tax cuts and ignoring infrastructure and other societal necessities is over, unless we want to take as policy the idea that we'll take what we can get for ourselves and let the country die a slow death. It's a policy. Maybe even a sensible one, if it's true that it's too late to save ourselves. Or if you expect the rapture next week. But if not, we need to sit down and pencil some things out.

It's a really fundamental question, a serious question, which means that in the halls of Congress it will not get useful or honest debate. The party of no to everything but torture (Republicans want all their talking heads to begin referring to Democrats as "The Democrat Socialist Party." Seriously. So that's my counter suggestion: "The Republican Party of No To Everything But Torture.") will never step up with seriousness. When Barack Obama proposes what are in fact modest and likely inadequate tax increases, the RWS™ simply can't discuss it seriously.

Ignorance, after all, is bliss. And the next election is more important than the next generation.


  1. Capitalism, with its incentives and rewards for personal achievement, is a better system; of that I had (and have) no doubt. But I think we've gone overboard, and it threatens to destroy us as surely as the USSR destroyed itself. -

    Capitalism rewards only those achievements which lead directly to the crisis we're having now. Other achievements are rewarded only as an afterthought or accident.

    Physicians, for example, are skilled, (mostly) well-meaning people who give great value. But they have traditionally been paid well not because they deliver value, but because their numbers have been artificially limited, creating and maintaining a relative shortage. A shortage that leads now to tens of millions of people in the United States without adequate medical care.

    It is a sad fact that one of the parties resisting socialized medicine has been the AMA and other physicians' lobbies. I don't blame physicians themselves from employing the methods of capitalism to their own advantage, but I do blame capitalism.

    (Contrawise, to praise capitalism leaves physicians no excuse for their own greed.)

    Furthermore the USSR did not destroy itself, at least not entirely: the West with the nakedly imperialist WW-I, support of the Russian Civil War against the legitimate communist government, the Nazi invasion of Russia and trillions of dollars spent on the Cold War, surely helped the the destruction along.

    When you drive a man or a nation to desperate measures, any flaw, small or large, will be magnified.

    The ineluctable consequences of the capitalist system are staring you in the face, and you still refuse to see. But you're a smart guy, and fundamentally honest and sincere; I have hope for you yet.

  2. I think the separating of those who (in theory) would support socialism or not, is based on whether that person would gain or falter in the new system. This is why the prosperous right are against socialism, and the poor left are all for it.


  3. TBB: I take your point, but you are not entirely correct regarding physicians: in fact, it was the government that tried limiting the number of docs, as a way to control costs; thinking more competition would lead to lower fees.

    Nor am I sure (no economist, I) that health care delivery entirely fits the capitalist model, anyway. At least to me, I think of factories, widgets, entrepreneurship, public offerings, etc.

    In the Soviet Union, I saw old factories making crappy products with bored workers, who lived in small and very spare and antiquated apartments, whose main incentives were the ever-present posters proclaiming the dangers of capitalism and the US. My impression (college age, science major) was of a system with no real reason for people to make an effort, and it showed.

    Capitalism has its many faults, and a long history of exploited workers; and now, of course, the obvious effects of too little regulation. But in my view the ideal is somewhere in between, which is where most of Europe is, and is what I've been saying.

  4. I said that physicians themselves were one of the parties, not the sole cause.

    You're right: health care does not at all fit the capitalist model, but a capitalist society inexorably forces every endeavor into the capitalist model, however Procrustean that adjustment may be.

    As to the USSR, you're comparing apples and oranges: your own life in the professional middle-class in a country resting on centuries of relatively unhindered capitalist development with the working class of a country only decades out of feudalism, brutalized by three hot wars and a cold war.

    But my point is this: capitalism overall rewards greed and exploitation, and calls it "personal achievement", just as Christianity rewards sanctimony and calls it virtue. Attempts at reform can at best only delay what we are seeing today: the triumph of the true heart of capitalism: greed.

  5. Events, such as our current crisis (which is purely political and social) don't "just happen", they happen for reasons. And not just because GW Bush or the Republican party just magically happened to be evil bastards. There are deep social and material forces at work here.


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