Saturday, October 19, 2013

Things Imagined and Unimagined

"Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil."

~Frédéric Bastiat, What is Seen and What is Not Seen

 Imagine, for a moment, the Death Star. 

Something like this is going to come to mind.  A big, metal sphere of destruction with a weird inverted nipple towards the top (nobody ever imagines it upside down).  Not a particularly difficult exercise so far, right?  We see replays of the movie where it travels in space and blows up a planet.  We can all imagine the Death Star functioning.  

Now, imagine how the Death Star works. 

That's right, you can't.  The details of the corridors alone would boggle your mind; it would be easier to imagine every single road and subway on planet Earth.  Never mind trying to wire and power this thing; how will you feed everyone?  How will society function on such a station? 

It is easy to imagine something working, even something as stupidly complex as the Death Star.  But just because we can picture something happening doesn't make it practical or even possible.  

This is a huge problem in the healthcare debate of our day.  People, even among the more intelligent voters, are easily mislead into thinking their imaginations have any more connection with reality than the Death Star.  They imagine poor and sick people who have been denied coverage all of a sudden being able to log onto a computer, buy coverage, and then be healthy.  Everyone lived happily ever after, The End. 

That daydream is the equivalent of the picture above.  It is the outer shell and nothing more.  The devil lies in the details, and I have noticed not a single Obamacare supporter I know can discuss the details of the law they support any better than they can the heating system of the Emperor's sadistic toy above.  In any discussion about Obamacare, what generally happens is the equivalent of asking me whether I want a Death Star of my own or not. 

Hell yes, I want my own Death Star.  But am I willing to risk my future on actually attempting such a ludicrous project?   Absolutely not.  Great health care for all would be fantastic, but that doesn't make it possible. 

My opponents in this argument have catastrophically failed to understand the distinction between wanting things and those things being feasible.  The debate was never about whether everyone having health care insurance is a good thing in and of itself.  Of course that would be wonderful.  But granting that statement does not mean one must support Obamacare.  One can support Obamacare as a substitute term for universal and less expensive health care if and only if it actually functionally delivers on universal and less expensive health care. This requires supporters to look into the equivalent of the Death Star's pathways, heating ducts, placement of cafeterias, security systems, electrical systems, structural integrity, bathrooms, communication networks, navigation tools, command and control, propulsion, and every other system in detail, lest any one of them fail and the entire station be nothing more than a tomb for those on board.  

I do not know a single person who did this for Obamacare.  Every single opponent of mine relied on replacing their want for universal health care in place of any deep understanding of the law that would supposedly implement it. 

If pressed at all, supporters of this law ultimately had to place their trust in politicians and government bureaucrats to see that all of the moving parts meshed together seamlessly.  What is most frustrating about this faith is that in any other context, the same supporter would give an unequivocal "no" if asked whether we should trust politicians and government bureaucrats. 

They believe this with good reason.  One does not have to read Hayek to know the fundamental limits of what government can do, though it helps.  And yet, in following this Holy Grail of theirs, they lose sight of truths as obvious as the rising of the Sun. 

In order to achieve their idea of a great goal, supporters of this law have required the entire nation board a dysfunctional Death Star.  It is so poorly designed that most of the people who need to get on board cannot do so.  It has come at incredible cost to working class people like myself in terms of less full-time jobs, hours cut, and losing health care plans we like. 

It is time to scrap this plan. The imagined "Good" still floats before the eyes of my opponents in this issue, but I beg them, if they actually care about the good of other human beings impacted by this law, to actually examine what is happening rather than seeing what they want to happen.  Please take into account the harm done to real human beings.  

If nothing else, please admit to yourselves how little you knew about the law you gave support to and those you gave power to that it may be implemented.    The time has come to ask whether you value the well being of people or the survival of this law.  They are not identical. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

On Walden Two

January 21, 2013

Mr. Skinner,

Accept my deepest appreciation for sending me a copy of your account of Walden Two.  It has been a while since I have read a truly fascinating book, but that fast has thankfully been broken.  Please take no offense at this, but I opened this work dead set on finding flaws, and while I certainly found some, I both thoroughly enjoyed your work and found it instructive on a variety of issues.  As much as I wished it otherwise at first, your community is certainly plausible, even if not compellingly so. 

Education today is a sad sham.  Whatever driving force it may have possessed is long vanished and its current movement is more a matter of inertia than intent.  We do it because that is what is done; the act has become its own justification.  Our curriculum is not designed to provide useful skills for life, or to create independent learners, but rather is imposed from a far away capitol uniformly across all youth to discover who is following the curriculum best.  But that is not a justification of what we teach, merely a sad bureaucratic tool used to measure "success."  But again, higher numbers are pointless until the curriculum is justified.  Teaching them more useless trivia is no better than less useless trivia.

As you have heard, I am currently outside of the professional education industry right now and working in a meat cutting shop.  The folks I work with are not only proud of their job and financially secure, they achieved it without a college degree and in some cases without finishing high school.  Within the school walls, such a career is not only not presented as a useful trade, but is often deployed as a specter to those not involved enough in the book learning.  I yield to nobody in my love of academics, but such a snobbish attitude is not only detrimental to less academic youths (being treated as second class) but is detrimental to society at large.  Jobs are sent overseas for a reason; often the skills are over there but not here. 

If this tide of centralization could be rolled back, it would be nice to see local education flex to the interests and talents of students rather than make futile attempts to bend students to a set way of teaching.  Provide the basics of math and reading, but there is no justification for demanding every youth learn Shakespeare.  None.  If a student is interested in mechanics or butchering, don't deride them; encourage them, and hook them up with those possessing the skills and willingness to teach them!  Let them learn not only the trade but the habits of reliability!  We may not be able to recreate your utopia here, but that alone would greatly improve our culture and society.  So many youths spend 12 years in school hearing they are inferior to the book worm and having their own talents trampled down and despised.  How can anyone be surprised that this recipe brews social disorder?

While being praised, the academically superior are equally done a disservice.  As you rightly notice, not everyone can learn any particular skill, but our quantified system requires teachers to do just that.  Their emphasis naturally falls on the struggling to get them to pass the state tests, which increasingly is the measure of the teacher's worth.  The gifted students are ignored and their potential atrophies.  I envy both your youths and teachers in Walden Two. 

I have but a minor quibble on education.  History does serve a purpose.  We cannot perform experiments in history, as you note, but we can apply inductive reasoning to past events to notice repeating patterns.  I do not know how Frazier could tackle societal problems until he first identified them.  That said, we short change philosophy in our current system, which may in fact be its worst flaw. 

As with Mr. More, I cannot tell how serious you are about implementing your own utopia.  I have not received any word of your actually attempting such a community or even having serious designs in motion.  It seems I owe you an answer as to whether or not I believe Walden Two would work and, if it is really a separate question at all, whether it ought to.  The first response is a clear no.  Though it feels convincing enough as read (especially with Frazier's constant insistence), I cannot help but believe this society is over engineered.  This is not a normative criticism, but rather a practical one.  Society is composed of too many moving parts to remain perfectly tuned.  Your society reminds me of tanks in WWII.  Allied vehicles were not as impressive individually as those of Nazi Germany, but they were mechanically reliable, whereas the Axis vehicles were amazing if and only if they were not waiting for some rare and expensive part to move.  Society as it stands is not necessarily pretty, but it has survived for 10,000 years.  One shock from the outside world would severely test the strength of such behavioral engineering, especially as so much relies on a herd mentality. 

You wisely begin your book a decade after the founding of Walden Two.  The ball is already rolling and the inertia of current human behavior has already been overcome, but how that can be done is exactly the hard question essential to the benevolent use of behavioral science.  Frazier rightly describes people as sheep wanting to be lead, but you were equally right in pointing to the string barrier the sheep would not cross.  Only the Fraziers of the world will be there at first, and a functioning society of such people is unthinkable, much less a utopia!

Some method would be required to fairly assign credit values to community work.  This has been the bane of socialist societies and cannot be dismissed. 

Regarding the pitiful state of democracy, I could hardly agree more.  Mr. Madison has summed up the problem of politics better than anyone: we need a government with sufficient power to impose rules that benefit all, but that same government thereby becomes a threat to us.  While I heartily agree with Mr. Thoreau that the government that governs least governs best, it is "best" in a general sense, and a government that rules absolutely is best for the rulers.  Frankly, I have no idea how to keep the Leviathan at bay, and all thought into a better life in liberty comes to nought as we are chased by this increasingly inscrutable dragon.  The men who respect the rights of others will arrive at about the same time as Plato's Noble King and Marx's New Man.  Economics may be the dismal science, but politics is truly the depressing one. 

I thank you again for your outstanding book.  Walden Two falls short of utopia, but I can hardly think of a lighter criticism.  Any student hungry for tough questions and decent social commentary will find a satisfactory meal here. 

With greatest appreciation, I am humbly yours,

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

To Mr. James Fenimore Cooper, Jan 7

January 7, 2013

Mr. Cooper, 

Thank you for the copy of The Pathfinder.  Sadly, it accurately reflects the stubborn ignorance of mankind, the pride taken in false knowledge and the tendency of people to persist in falsehoods rather than own up to an obvious mistake.  Your take on the ship of state allegory is both enjoyable within the story and instructional in the weaknesses of a democratic society. 

Jasper Western's predicament crossed my mind while discussing the recent debacle over the so called "fiscal cliff."  Those bent on following this irresponsible course will never change and admit error, while the vast majority of people will not even know there is a danger until the wheels fall off the bus.  They resemble Mabel aboard the Scud.  Our citizens no more recognize the nature or nearness of our danger than they would be able to recognize breakers; they no more know the tools of government than they would identify leeward from windward, a spar from a topgallant or a halyard.  The destination, the tools to get there, or even our present position are beyond the understanding of the people, yet in a democracy it is their whim and random yanking on ropes that determines our course. 

Were I not aboard this vessel, I wouldn't care what point of the compass the bow would be directed in.  Yet my fate is tied to theirs.  I detest going out in the rain to keep others from getting wet, seeing as it usually only results in me catching a cold alongside them, and in their personal lives I no longer make any attempt to interfere.  The urge grows to act like Jasper and let the fools have the helm unhindered by me; it is my intention to turn to philosophy and religion for a while, though I know myself too well to believe I will long abandon care of the course of our ship of state. 


Friday, January 4, 2013

Response to Mr. Gibbon on the Emperor Julian

Jan 2, 2013

Mr. Gibbon, 

I have just received your account of the life and death of Rome's noble Emperor Julian and quite agree that the man was a worthy prince.  The philosopher ends his life by declaring "I have considered the happiness of the people as the end of government."  Nobly said!  I shall have to borrow any extant works of this wise ruler. 

My time is short today, but I must pose this question: how can any gov't know the happiness of 300,000,000 individual souls? If their happiness is created by different pleasures, can any government fulfill such an end? Poor Julian's dying words are but an empty shell if we fail to fill out the meaning of happiness and truly discern the capabilities of government in its various forms. 

Respectfully yours, 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Response to Mr. Madison of Feb 1792

Jan 1, 2013

Mr. Madison, 

I have just read through your article in the National Gazette of Feb 6, 1792 and quite agree with your analysis.  Regretfully, I must inform you that, while consolidation of the state governments has not occurred, the states have lost any meaningful check on the Federal government, which has become monstrous indeed.  It has grown to such a size and intrudes upon so many subjects that even the wisest and best connected know but a fraction of its doings, while the common voter is often so completely in the dark as to know only the name of the chief Executive.  Your article is exactly right in declaring that the people are the guardians of their own liberty and happiness.  The people are their own constitution, and the rights of all people, the prosperity of all, will only be maintained if the people actively choose it.  

It is with a nearly unbearable sadness that I must report the vast majority of guardians have fallen asleep at their post, and no few are so groggy as to aid their own foes in storming their own keep.  Most sleep until struck personally; then only do they strike, but having slept through the approach of the villain, our poor citizen does not know friend from foe, but rather strikes at innocent fancies of the imagination.  

Flatterers destroy the civic virtue of our nation.  Every man is convinced he is worth more than the truth actually warrants, which is inflamed by a faction of fools (some out of mistaken convictions, while others are of a more sinister mind) that exploit this situation by promises to raise people to their "correct" value in exchange for the power to accomplish this goal.  Those who have been successful in life are castigated as criminals who have unfairly exploited the wealth of others.  Of course, this is not so, and the entire income of the wealthy could not raise everyone up to his opinion of himself, but that is irrelevant.  Even if all of that wealth were redistributed, those receiving such gifts would always know in his heart that the wealth is not of his creation, that he is the beneficiary of another; an intolerable position for most to live in, in particular if one despises the benefactor.  It is not the theft but the lie that is important, that so many with so much disappointment in themselves may pretend they are equal to those who have done better in this lifetime.  It is the politics of Envy. 

Civic virtue is the soul of republican government, but is no longer the soul of the United States.  Envy and apathy have filled its place.  Our government is now tasked primarily to provide services for which it is not designed, and to maintain this we have plunged deeper in debt than most can understand.  Our gargantuan state is not only incomprehensible to the average voter, but even to the elected officials, who conveniently use that ignorance as a shield from public reproach on the oft chance some public folly catches the public's attention.  Accountability is impossible.  Politics for most consists of attacking a scapegoat, providing no facts, and calling it a day.  

My dear Madison, it is with great shame that I admit this, but I do believe the time has come to abandon the experiment you so nobly advanced so long ago.  The problem lies not in the politicians but, as you pointed out, in the people, all three hundred million ignorant souls.  They must learn if liberty is to be preserved and insolvency avoided, but they are as receptive to instruction as the denizens of Plato's Cave (or even, in most cases, as the Cave itself).  I grow weary of playing the role of Laocoon, but if Troy is consumed by flames, Laocoon's fate is tied to Troy's.  Our time is short in which a remedy may be applied before the disease terminates the organism.  

I am, sir, your obedient servant,