Fearless Reason

Fearless reason in an age of frightened absurdity.

Month: December, 2011

Quality Living

Since industrialization American culture has been defined by a drive towards efficiency and productivity. Since that time efficiency, standardization, and volume of production have been the aspirational goals of every business and product, and have come to be the defining characteristics of American culture. For many years now Americans have not only evaluated their businesses by these industrial values, but also their lifestyles.

It is the values of the assembly line that gave us Walmart, McDonalds, and the other national chains that litter every exit ramp across America. This has lead many to lament the death of the small town idiosyncrasies that once made American culture so diverse and rich. However, most have gladly traded diversity for the certainty of a hamburger that tastes the same in every state, and large quantities of cheap products located at a store near you.

Over the past 20 years or so, however, America has been undergoing yet another transformation, as the service sector has displaced the industrial as the engine of economic growth and prosperity. The service sector currently consist of 76.8% of America’s GDP, compared to 22.1% for the industrial sector. This means the majority of Americans make their living by providing services of a menial, professional or technical nature rather than making products.

Though I do not believe this transition is either wise or sustainable, I must admit its impact on American culture is proving to be quite interesting. Just as the industrial age gave us national chains, the service age has created a backlash against them. Sometimes referred to as the “new American localism” many young professionals and others at the forefront of the service economy have expressed a renewed interest in buying locally and investing in their communities.

In many ways this shift can be attributed to the nature of the service economy and the decentralizing effect of technology. For the most part industrial workers are cogs in a machine. Their tasks are often repetitive, isolated, and require low to moderate skill. Free thought is neither valued nor cultivated in this worker, whose greatest virtue is that he is replaceable. The service economy worker must have a very different skill set. Even the most menial of service economy workers has some degree of ongoing interaction with other people, whether they be customers or fellow workers. As one moves up the ladder of the service economy to the higher skill jobs it also becomes apparent that creativity and knowledge are also highly valued traits.

As people are increasingly free to live and work where they want, in jobs that require knowledge and imagination, it is not surprising these people are willing to invest in the communities they have chosen and seek out things that reflect their own individuality. It is similarly not surprising that the cities that best reflect these values are seeing the most robust growth in their moderate to high skill service sectors. Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston are all consistently ranked as having the best quality of life, as well as being the best places for young professionals. It is important to note that the criteria these surveys use to rank quality of life usually includes things like quality local cuisine (non-chains), and vibrant creative communities. In this way McDonalds is being replaced as the symbol of American culture and civilization by the locally owned coffee shop.

I am optimistic about this new trend in American culture. While living in Europe I was always impressed by the richness of people’s everyday lives. I found that people their seemed to know a secret that Americans did not, which is that while work may be a science, living should be an art. There are many great and wonderful things that came out of the industrial age. America has experienced tremendous economic prosperity because we fully embraced the ideas of efficiency and productivity in the workplace. However, these values should stay in the workplace. Transferred to everyday life these ideas strip life of all its beauty and dignity, causing us to sacrifice quality for quantity and alienating us from our communities.

Whatever happens to the service economy into the future I hope the American people retain this renewed interest in quality living. Let work be science, but make living art.

Blinded by Humanity

The word “humanity” is widely used to describe the noblest and most uniquely human qualities one can possess. One with great humanity is often admired for their charity, compassion and empathy. Those who best exemplify these characteristics are sometimes held out as saints, while those deficient in them are derided as inhuman. Though personal humanity is admirable, too much charity, empathy and compassion on the part of governments leads to inhuman results.

Unemployment in the United States is at 8.6%, with real unemployment thought to be much higher. Though this number is lower than the previous 9% unemployment, this slight drop is largely credited to the fact that many people have simply stopped looking for work. Of the 13.3 million American’s out of work, 5.7 million are classified as long-term unemployed, accounting for 43% of all unemployed persons. In addition to the 7.6 million Americans unemployed, 1.1 million people are classified as “discouraged workers,” which means they have not looked for work in 4 weeks of more, because they believe there is no work for them.

These startling numbers lead one to wonder how these people are supporting themselves if they are not working. The long and short answer seems to be government assistance. One in six Americans is receiving some kind of assistance from the government. Enrollment in Medicaid and food stamp programs are at record highs, while unemployment insurance rolls remain at elevated levels. With many people depending on more than one program.

Approximately 46 million people receive food stamps, and in 2010 a record 18.3% of the nation’s total personal income was a payment from the government for Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits and other programs. Also, in 2010, wages accounted for the lowest share of income – 51% – since the government began keeping track in 1929. With Americans recieving an average of $7,427 in benefits each, up from an inflation-adjusted $4,763 in 2000 and $3,686 in 1990. In 2009 American dependence on government grew by 13.6%, with American dependence on government being 14 times greater than it was in 1962.

In a very real sense the Federal government has insulated the American people from the worst of the “Great Recession.” But at what cost? The United States’ debt currently stands at $15 trillion, and is expected to increase an average of $3.96 billion per day. In May of 2010 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked the United States second among the countries that must reduce their structural deficit or risk financial calamity. The IMF predicts that U.S. public sector debt will equal 100% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2015 unless immediate action is taken to cut the deficits by an amount equal to 12% of GDP. Even Greece needs to cute its deficits only by 9% of its national output.

As you can see there is a very strong correlation between unemployment, government assistance and the national deficit. When people do not work they become dependent on the government, and as more people collect benefits instead of paying taxes the government must go in ever more debt to pay the benefits. The result is a very real and dangerous disconnect between the real economy and people’s everyday lives, which postpones economic hardship for the present only to face exponentially greater hardship in the future.

Our modern sensibilities have lead many to believe that it is the government’s duty to protect us from economic hardship, pain, and suffering. So it is with sympathy and understanding that the Democrats assume their traditional role of supporting the “working man,” and advocate the extension of long-term unemployment benefits and other government assistance, while Republicans grudgingly give into these demands – fearing the political fallout if they do not. Our general sense of humanity causes us to prompt the government to intervene and protect us from hardship, but this humanity also blinds us to what must be done.

Social safety nets like long term unemployment benefits give people a luxury they previously did not have; which is to wait for work they want rather than take the jobs available. The liberal inclination is to say this is a good thing. That it allows people to spend their time looking for a job suited to their skill set, rather than work short term in a job they are ill suited for. However, I would argue this seeming act of humanity engenders dependence, is fiscally irresponsible, and obstructs economic recovery.

Ironically, in this time of economic stagnation news stories abound of employers with jobs but no employees to fill them. Though it is true many of these jobs are difficult, dirty or in undesirable locations, they nevertheless are good jobs at which one can make a decent living. However, the fact that these jobs are difficult and dirty is a deterrence for many, who grew up in a service economy with the belief that manual labor is somehow beneath them. So, rather than take one of these jobs that they are “unsuited for,” many sustain themselves with unemployment benefits and other government assistance while searching for that clean and easy office job that their college degree or upbringing has caused them to expect.

There is something to be said for the motivating power of desperation. Being faced with the possibility of an empty stomach and no way to keep a roof over your head tends to make people willing to take any job, no matter how “ill suited” they may be for it, or how undesirable the location. As seen in books like Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” during the Great Depression people were willing to do whatever was necessary to survive. They went to where the work was, no matter how menial or how far away.

Providing people with the luxury of foregoing available jobs in order to wait for their ideal job adversely effects the larger economy in several ways. For one, it allows people’s expectations of what the economy should be dictate their vocation rather than economic demand. That means rather than work at what is needed, people are inclined to forgo available work in order to search for a job in their desired field. Simple logic and economics will tell you that without demand for a product or service there can be no economic return. Another adverse consequence of people letting their expectations get out of touch with demand is that the parts of the economy that would normally recover first after a recession will be unable to do so for lack of sufficient workers. Only stagnation can result when a society allows expectations to trump actual supply and demand.

A better use for the money being spent on long-term unemployment benefits and other social safety nets would be economic policies that encourage people to take the jobs available, either through training or a tax credit to businesses that would encourage them to pay the relocation costs for new employees. In this way, rather than paying people not to work, we would be paying people to move to where the jobs are.

We are blinded by our humanity, and it is our collective good intentions that will pave the road to economic hell. European countries have had high unemployment rates and robust social safety nets for decades – a trend that is now causing economic calamity amongst their governments. The path to economic recovery lies in the American traditions of self-reliance, entrepreneurship and innovation – not dependence and debt. We must show that we have the stomach to bear the short term pain of our current economic hardship if we are to achieve long term prosperity. It is a delusion to believe you can insulate people from the real economy through government spending. This leads only to crippling national debt and stagnant economies. Human suffering is a tragedy, but governments cannot and should not be the guarantors of every individual’s happiness and prosperity.

The State of Things

What kind of America do you prefer, one of diversity or homogeneity?  Though debates over the proper relationship between states and the federal government are a staple of American politics, substantive discourse is often lacking. The opposing positions of the two parties are clear, but only as slogans and soundbites. Republicans deride big government as being invasive and inefficient, while Democrats cast the argument in terms of universal principals and rights that all are entitled to. What goes unnoticed is that these two things are not mutually exclusive.

For me, the strongest argument for states’ rights is the idea that state governments are a marketplace for ideas. When states are allowed to make their own decisions, we have an opportunity to see how that decision plays out in practice, and whether it is a good or bad idea. If a way of dealing with a problem is particularly effective, it will be adopted by other states and may eventually achieve universal acceptance. Though people may never universally agree, at least the other ideas will have had the opportunity to fail.

Another neglected merit of state autonomy is that a defeated minority can vote with their feet. If an individual finds a state’s laws oppressive or incongruous with their values, they can move to a state that better reflects those views. Under a system where most decisions are made at the federal level, short of ex expatriation, there is no escape from an oppressive or incompetent government.

For too long the Federal government has tried to be everything to everyone. As the guarantor of national morality and steward of the national economy and personal well being of every man woman and child, the Federal government is intimately involved with every aspect of our daily lives. The federal system we currently have puts our collective fates in the hands of a small number of people. Now gridlocked, their failure to solve the nation’s problems will be everyone’s failure.

There is something to be said for the survivability of diversity. Where power and decision making is spread out, the bad decisions of a handful of people are less likely to have catastrophic consequences for everyone. Moreover, when power is dispersed, a minority is less likely to capture the government and force everyone to accept their values.

I’m not proposing abolition of the federal system. There are many things that only the Federal government can do. However, most things can and should be left to the states. The Tenth Amendment envisions a limited Federal government. It is only through strained interpretations of the commerce and spending clauses that the Federal government has gained almost plenary authority. The result being political disengagement by the American people, a bankrupt nation, and a political system that has ceased to function.

A New Paradigm

American politics has become a shouting match between the competing political ideologies. In the last twenty years we have witnessed a progressive radicalization of American politics that has reached its apex in the “Occupy” and “Tea Party” movements. Both groups have legitimate concerns and grievances that most reasonable people can can identify with. However, both groups typically react to these legitimate grievances in  radical and unreasonable ways. What follows is a reasonable man’s critique of popular absurdity.

The Tea Party invokes some of the oldest and most enduring American paradigms. They appeal to the rugged libertarian frontiersman, who survives by self reliance, hard work, and perseverance. This American Pioneer has little tolerance for government intrusion, and is generally opposed to taxes and invasive regulations. More importantly, the Pioneer is uncompromising and implacable. But these latter traits are better suited for the frontier than to the messy business of governing.

Democracy is compromise. Governance is achieved by building coalitions of different peoples with different ideas. Ideological purity quickly becomes ideological dogma, at which point ideas become more important than the issues.

As Issac Newton observed, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Politics is no exception.

The Occupy movement has become the left’s response to the Tea Party, embodying another, newer aspect of American culture. This movement consists of the progressive and liberal impulses found in F.D.R.’s New Deal. Occupy is greatly concerned with what it considers the many injustices in our society. Its chief enemies being suffering and inequality. Though the movement has not proposed any concrete solutions to these problems, generally the Occupy movement seems to believe that the government can and should fix society’s woes.

At its best Occupy has brought awareness to many of the problems facing the country. At its worse, the movement has been an unruly mob, demanding change, but unable to identify solutions. If the Tea Party knows what it wants, and is uncompromising in how it seeks to achieve it, Occupy knows what it wants, but is clueless as to making its desires a reality.

If this country is to solve its problems the silent majority must find its voice. Most Americans identify as moderates, and care more about addressing the issues than ideological purity. The average American is pragmatic,  because daily life requires compromise. But reasonable people are hesitant to take to the streets. We do not march on capitals and wave signs. Because reasonable people believe life should be a dialogue, not a shouting match.

However, we must not allow our reasonableness to allow us to become irrelevant. The country’s problems will not be solved by shouting, but with serious dialogue and compromise. The silent majority must speak. We must find our voice, and make it heard.

So long as both sides define themselves in opposition to one another, there can be no compromise. So long as both sides believe that the other is incapable of good ideas, there can be no discussions.