Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Sin of Wages

A news article caught my eye a few weeks ago, but I've held off commenting on it until I had what I call some “mental elbow room”. Fortunately, the political events of the past few weeks, in their gray, bland, inane sameness and predictability, have provided such – the Obama administration more than earning its stripes as the third term of George W. Bush. The economy recalls the satirical line of poetry, “under the spreading atrophy”... and our suicidal dedication to hopeless wars reminds me of nothing so much as moths streaming toward a bug light of a summer evening. It really does seem, at times, that the “American system” will indeed end with a whimper, not a bang – with plenty of contenders waiting in the wings to take up the slack. We are faced, across a remarkably narrow ocean, by many lean and hungry peoples and nations – China, India, a Russia that is busily trying to reinvent itself... not to mention all of the countless Islamic hordes that have already made Western Europe their home... and the Hispanic hordes that have laid claim to vast tracts of the southwestern U.S., and have penetrated as far as the northern plains and New England. What little is left of “the America we knew and grew up in” is starting to seem more and more like that bedraggled band of survivors clinging to a flimsy raft in the old shipwreck paintings... or to an isolated rock in renditions of the Deluge.

But as I've said before, those who search for “the heart of America” search in vain – because that heart is a heart of darkness, for all of the false light of the “Enlightenment” and the (more apparent than genuine) triumph of “ideas” like “democracy”. People – like Pat Buchanan, for instance – who believe that the United States is only now being battered against the rocks of collectivism and humanism haven't taken a serious look at American history... or if they have, they haven't absorbed its lessons. We are, as many have pointed out, an “ideational” society – but those ideas, and ideals, have, from the very start, run up against human nature in all of its perversity and concupiscence. To begin with, much of this country -- or, more precisely, the American colonies -- were founded by religious fanatics -- Protestant ones at that, who made the Taliban look like a group of jaded Frenchmen sitting around a cafe table sipping on pastis. But that was before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, so we no longer have to make excuses for those folks, right? But then the country was founded -- by landed gentry, by and large (and Freemasons to boot) -- and already before the Civil War we had a populist of sorts – Andrew Jackson – ascend to power as a counterforce to the ruling elite who had been in charge up to that point. Why did a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people” need a populist? Simply because the rich and powerful tend to hold on to their wealth and their power – that's just elementary human nature. The “elite” can almost be defined by their distrust of “the people” -- and, frankly, that distrust is oftentimes well-justified. Think of populism, and popular movements – not only on the national level, but on the provincial and local levels as well. How often do they represent the result of philosophical consideration, healthy debate, and enlightened discourse (even on the “town hall meeting” level)? Hardly ever, is my conclusion. Lest we forget, the lynchings of the post-Civil War era were populist acts, on the local level – as were the anti-Catholic riots of the pre-Civil War era. In both cases, “the people” spoke – but it was a tale told by an idiot. And what would most of our wars have been without mass hysteria and “the delusion of crowds”? Politicians have always taken advantage of the worst, most primitive human impulses – both of individuals and groups. And the only reason politicians are higher on the evolutionary scale than their victims is that they have some degree of insight – they see opportunities and take them, whereas the “booboisie”, as Mencken called them, only see what is in front of their noses. In fact, they don't even see that in this age of TV and the Internet; they only see what others show them, and only “know” what others tell them about what they see. So they are living life second- or third-hand, and vicariously at best. It's a sad state of affairs, truly.

But, unlike Pat Buchanan and so many of the other “paleocons”, I don't see any of this as a contradiction of the true essence of America and American society – I see it, rather, as a logical consequence... as a reductio ad absurdum of things that have been going on since the beginning... because the problem with an “ideational” society is that if its ideas are wrong, or flawed in some way, or based on faulty premises, this tends to, over time, to become amplified and exaggerated to such a degree that said society would be barely recognizable to its founders – and yet, in a sense, it is the end result of distortions in their thinking, and errors in their implementation of their ideas.

Take one simple and obvious example, which has been pointed out any number of times, beginning (?) with de Tocqueville – that any society in which people are able to vote money out of their neighbors' pockets and into their own is bound to fail in the long run. Well – it took a while, maybe much longer than de Tocqueville envisioned – but sure enough, our time of economic failure is here, and the primary reason is exactly that – involuntary redistribution of wealth, mainly income, on the part of the government. But this is nothing new, since there were plenty of “Daddy Warbucks” types prowling the landscape at least as far back as the Civil War... and the golden age of welfare had its precursors in the populist movement, got greatly accelerated during the New Deal, and reached a fever pitch in the postwar era. None of this would have been possible without the government's power to tax – anyone, at any time, for any amount, for any reason. And the mealy-mouthing about how it's, after all, “our own elected representatives” who approved most of these taxes – that, again, is to ignore human nature. It takes a person of heroic virtue to go to Washington to serve in Congress without become part of the machine – and most people, politicians in particular, simply aren't up to it. This is, in fact, one of the major systemic flaws with big government – that even if it “works” on some level, it is far too corrupting to ever be done in a legitimate, detached, principled way. We always associate the saying “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” with characters like Louis XIV, but any U.S. president, or Congress, is also far above that threshold – the point at which corruption is almost inevitable, given the, again, weakness of human nature even in normal people, to say nothing of politicians, who tend to be morally and ethically marginal to begin with. So when we start to get indignant about “corruption in high places”, we should remember that the cure is not to “throw the rascals out”, but to get rid of the “high places”. Nothing else is going to work. The problem, of course, is that the size of government tends to be driven by the number of people governed, and the geographical area in question. And this is why the concepts of distributism and subsidiarity are so vital as a counterforce – to keep governments from becoming “too big to succeed”. But those concepts have an innate moral and philosophical basis; they are not just “good ideas” that might work, or that would inevitably enhance the general level of comfort and convenience. In fact, their implementation would, without a doubt, greatly _reduce_ the level of what most people – in their hermetically-sealed cubicles – would consider to be comfort and convenience... and the virtues obtained would, I fear, be of little interest or reward value to most. And this is, I suppose, the ultimate basis for the American (and world) tragedy – that losing sight of what is “natural to man” has completely upended our value system and rendered us vulnerable to any and all forms of despotism, demagoguery, and tyranny. We have, if you will, lost our moral and spiritual resistance, and are now lying helpless, like someone with a severe immune disorder, while those who would change the world by crushing the human spirit and defying human nature run amok. But it is no excuse for the controllers' actions that few, if any, of their victims care, or even perceive what is happening to them. They are still responsible for each spirit crushed, each soul perverted – the way the Soviet authorities were responsible for the lost generations that suffered under their rule. The mentality of the ghetto gang-banger who contends (in court!) that his victims were just “chumps” and “they had it coming to them”... that is just not going to go over too well before the Throne of Judgment, it seems to me. And yes, it has even been pointed out that much of what we call victimization or exploitation is done “with the consent of the victim”. Well, fine – a lot of things happen to creatures in confinement or under some other kind of stress. We have the “Stockholm syndrome”, for example – and armies of women proposing marriage to serial killers on death row. But that doesn't make it OK.

But to return, however unwillingly, to the present, or almost present, day – the article that caught my eye was headlined “Private wages at lowest in history”, and the subhead was “In major U.S. shift, government-provided benefits at record high.” Well... given the economic news of late, it's hardly a shock to see private wages down and “government-provided benefits” up. But what strikes me is that this only tells part of the story. If you drive around Washington, D.C. on the Beltway, you'll notice any number of tall, gleaming office buildings owned by various corporations (mostly with ambiguous names so you can't tell precisely what they do – if anything)... and the aggregate population of those buildings runs in the hundreds of thousands, at least. And they are all what would be termed “private industry”, but guess what – they are all “government contractors”, so their income, and the livelihood of their employees, is based entirely on government money, the same as what the article calls “government-provided benefits”. So really, the situation is even worse than the article implies... and, needless to say, this phenomenon is not limited to Washington, D.C. but is also found at the state and local level. Every state capital is surrounded by a glorified tent city of squatters, parasites, and bloodsuckers who are engaged in the same scam as their more glamorous brethren along the Beltway... and when it comes to large cities, like New York, Chicago, and, yes, even Pittsburgh -- “forget about it” -- you can't get anywhere near the mayor's office without stepping over a few hundred rent seekers who are sprawled in the corridors waiting for a “grant”.

Now... here's another point. The article (from USA Today, which tells you something right there) was a bit equivocal about this finding. They quoted an economist who said “the trend is not sustainable”... and another who said “the shift... shows that the federal government's stimulus programs have been effective.” Another economist said “the riots in Greece over cutting benefits to close a huge budget deficit are a warning about unsustainable income programs.” (But that's about those crazy Greeks, right? Not about us sober Americans.) And still another says that “people are paid for being, rather than producing.” OK, that's a vote of, I guess, 3 to 1 in favor of more “private” and less “government” -- but obviously it's the pro-government types who are in charge, and, by their logic, it would make even more sense for the government to take on even more of the task of distributing salaries and benefits. In fact, why not have a “single-payer” system like Cuba's, where the government is the only source of income, and writes all the paychecks? I mean, if that's the answer to our economic woes, why not go all out, and stabilize (or paralyze) the economy in perpetuity? We already have the government writing checks to automotive, bank, and real estate executives, and that hasn't hurt anyone, right? In fact, those guys are happier than pigs in stuff, because they're getting the same rewards with greatly-reduced (or nonexistent) responsibilities. And this is, of course, the essence of the collectivist ideal – the government gathers everything in in one great harvest, then redistributes it based on “need” (you know, like the way those AIG guys “need” $10 million bonuses). So any trend that brings us closer to that glorious day should be welcome – which, in fact, it is, by liberal economists and anyone with any connection to the Obama administration. And all of my quibbling about so much “private” money really being government money – well, that would please them even more.

And if you accept the premise that the system has, at this point, evolved into one where government and business are virtually indistinguishable – well then, there's not a whole lot of difference between getting a paycheck from Big Pharma, or Big Agriculture, or Big Banking, or any other “Big”, and from the government itself. Right? If government “regulates” business and industry, but business and industry control the government, any differences between them are a mere technicality. So in that sense, the line between “government workers” and “private industry workers” has become, basically, meaningless – as has the line between private wages and government benefits. I will, as usual, make an exception for small business – which is, as we know, being slowly annihilated by government regulations. That and “family farms”, which are, likewise, being plowed under by agribusiness. Our entire economy – and society – is being overwhelmed by “bigness” -- which is precisely the opposite of the ideal, as represented by Catholic social teaching. How any form of morality can survive under these conditions is a mystery – and one that the collectivists are only to happy to revel in.

As an aside, I should point out how excessive regulation naturally favors large businesses and disfavors small ones. Large businesses can afford to hire numerous staff members whose only job it is to provide guidance on, and oversee, government regulations. Small businesses can't do this – even though they come under all the same regulations and have to fill out just as many forms as the large businesses. This is not unlike the situation in the agency where I worked when I was with the “feds” -- an extremely small place as agencies go, but we had to comply with the same regulations and “reporting requirements” as the big boys. As a result, we had, I would say, about 10% of our total staff (both technical and support) dedicated to little else than regulatory compliance, programmatic work (i.e., explaining the program to anyone who had any interest in it for any reason – even if it was to justify pillaging it of funding and/or personnel slots in order to support their own program), and answering inquiries and “data calls” (mostly from other agencies, not the public). Now, 10% is a huge, expensive bite out of an organization that doesn't employ many more than 100 people... whereas the big agencies, with personnel rosters in the tens of thousands, could afford 10, or 20, or however many you like, to take care of matters like these. So in the long run, the smaller agencies are increasingly hobbled and rendered anemic, and the larger ones continue to prosper; same with large and small business in the face of government regulation.

But to return to the original point about private vs. government sources of income – a distinction which, as I said, is becoming fuzzier with each passing day – there is another, related phenomenon which comes into play. Right offhand, I would be willing to bet that the United States has – right now today – the lowest percentage of its citizenry engaged in producing marketable goods and services than any other nation in history – up to the present day. And I say this fully aware of cases like the Soviet Union – but even there, most people were engaged in some minimalistic, rudimentary form of production, even though it was woefully inefficient and mismanaged; in other words, there were far fewer true parasites, percentage-wise, than we have. But now, if our “producer quotient” is at a record low level, “production” is still fairly respectable. And this seems like a paradox, at least – if not an impossibility. How can a country continue to be a “producer” when the majority of its citizenry are, bottom line-wise, dependents and wards of the state (as argued above)? Well, part of the answer to this – maybe the biggest piece of the answer – is technology. We need fewer people working in the agricultural sector than ever before in order to feed the populace, and in fact generate a surplus – and the basis for this is, clearly, technology, not just that those few are working harder than anyone has ever worked in all of human history. (And a similar idea applies when we're talking about other basic necessities.) So in this sense, I'm afraid to admit, “agribusiness” and the technology that made it possible has arguable advantages, since a greater percentage of the citizenry than ever can be freed up to do other things... and they will still get fed. The problem is that most of those “other things” do not provide goods and services that enhance quality of life; what they mostly do is accelerate consumerism into a perpetual spin cycle. And many citizens opt, as their answer to being thrown off the family farm, to do nothing – to be overt, and unabashed, wards of the state. Others opt to be wards of the state by getting a government job, or going to work for a government contractor. And this is not to say that those people do not “work” in the literal sense of expending energy; you ask them, and they'll tell you, damn right they work! They commute back and forth five days a week in heavy traffic in all kinds of weather... arrive at their jobs wild-eyed, panting, and dripping with road rage... spend the day in a Dilbert-esque cube breathing fake air... endure the blessings of the “company cafeteria” or fast-food joints... then, at the end of the day, they drag themselves, exhausted and even more demoralized than they were that morning, back to their cars to make the long trek home, where they can look forward to spending the evening in a state of autistic stupor in front of the TV. And these are people, mind you, who have “good jobs” -- people whom the unemployed envy – people who fancy that they are “making a contribution” -- and so on. Washington, D.C., is known for being “recession-proof” for good reason; in fact, the worse off the rest of the country is, the better off Washington is – which kind of gives you a hint as to why Congress and the administration seem so apathetic, at times, about the economic plight of “flyover country”. And yet, Washington has some of the worst traffic of any urban area in the country... the weather is atrocious much of the time... it's expensive... and the people there are completely taken up with power games, from international intrigue down to the most petty sorts imaginable. So yes, there is some poetic justice in all of this. For their delusions of grandeur they pay a heavy price. But lest the rest of us get too smug, we should remember that Washington has turned into a gigantic black hole whose force of gravity is rapidly sucking all the resources of the rest of the country towards annihilation. The process is accelerating, and is, I fear, too late to stop – despite all the exertions of the “tea partiers” and the scattered remnants of true conservatism (and/or libertarianism). So this shift the article talks about – yes, it's a milestone of sorts, but no more of one than the point at which a tidal wave hits 100 feet in height; it's still a tidal wave, and it's still growing, and it's still headed our way.

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