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Archive for August, 2011

Those Who Can’t

with 14 comments

It is Sunday, and I have, on the CD player behind me, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  This is not my usual thing on Sunday mornings, but today it kind of fits. Maybe that’s because we’re in our fourth day of storms, sort of storms, almost storms, it’ll be a storm in a minute, it’s a storm if there’s lightening even if there isn’t rain…

And that kind of thing.

In the meantime, however, I want to go back to the question of what we do about people who “can’t” help themselves, who can’t survive on their own or with their families.

And on one level, that question is very simple.  For people who truly and unambiguously can’t–parapelegics, the mentally handicapped, people dying of debilitating catastrophic illnesses without family resources–we of course provide aid, both financial and (if necessary) professional.

Whether we do that through federal, state or local initiatives is a policy question, and unimportant for our purposes here. 

The real question is: where on the continuum between “absolutely can’t” and “absolutely can” should we be providing “help.”

I put the “help” in square quotes for a reason.

If there is one thing I’m sure of in this, it is that help isn’t help if the person who gets it doesn’t want it.

For me, the fact that Ayn Rand may have been “better off” in some way for having been forced to pay into Social Security does not justify coercing her into doing it. 

There may be other reasons for wanting Social Security–in fact, FDR’s reasons had nothing to do with seeing to retiree’s “own good,” they were based on the hope that such old age pensions would convince older workers to retire and open job places for younger ones–but it is never acceptible to me to pass a law coercing private behavior because they WOULD want it if they only had any sense.

One of the reasons why I oppose regulations issued by unelected bureaucracies that have the force of law is that they have, over the years, all too often had this character:  we could never get this past an elected legislature, because the people don’t want it, so we’ll do it by regulation, because IT’S FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.

Here’s the thing:  even if it is factually true that you will be in some sense “better off” for having been so coerced, you STILL suffer harm when you’re forced in this manner. You lose the very essence of your humanity, the right to make your own choices about your own life. 

And if you are not allowed to make the “wrong” choice, then you’re not allowed to choose at all.  You are not free unless you are free to make the wrong decision.

And take the consequences.

The courts have been maddeningly squiffy about this.  When the coercion gets obvious and egregious enough, they tend to come down on it with both feet.  That’s why we can’t get the mentally ill homeless off the streets and into mental institutions.  Decades of allowing doctors and family members to lock up people they’d decided were “mentally ill”–including women who wanted a divorce–finally made the whole process of involuntary commitment look suspect.  New rules were handed down.    The housewives who didn’t want to be housewives were now safe.  Some mentally ill people who really would be “better off” on a mental ward could no longer be coerced to go there if they didn’t want to.

Short of such egregious situations, however, the courts have tended to refuse to allow coercion “for your own good” if the “you” in that sentence is competent to make decisions. 

Smoking is definitely bad for you, but the courts have stopped all efforts to outlaw it outright because, well, you’re all grown up, you get to go to hell in your own handbasket. 

This restriction on the power of government, elected or otherwise, to make personal decisions for citizens is very important, because the foundational assumption of democracy is that adults are competent to make their own decisions not only about their own lives, but about the conduct of their government.

People who want to help always start by assuming that the people they want TO help will welcome their efforts.  After all, being a drug addict or an alcoholic is a lousy way to live.  And, hey–ergonomic chairs are better for you if you’re working on a computer.  If you’re not using one–if you’re not using one, it must be because some evil, greedy employer is trying to save money at the expense of your health.

The problem comes when the people to be helped reject the help, and a lot of them do. 

The quintessential case of this was, I think, the psychological services offered by both federal and state agencies in the aftermath of 9/11.   Hundreds of mental health workers were hired,  only to find themselves with virtually nothing to do.  The vast majority of the first responders–police, fire departments, EMTS–wanted nothing to do with therapy, thank you very much. 

The workers then started going door to door, knocking on apartments, offering their services–and, in the vast majority of cases, getting turned down.

And this is where the trouble starts.  MMjust got angry at Mique’s contempt for the “helping” professions, but I get it–and one of the things I think those professions could use is some insight into why so many people respond that way.

Historically, the first response of the helping professions when their help has been refused is NOT to go “oh, hmm.  Well, obviously, I’m not wanted here.  He must have his reasons.”

It has been, rather, to assume that the person in question is “in denial” in some way, that he doesn’t know his own mind, that he can’t be taken seriously–he DOES need help, even if he thinks he doesn’t, and it’s in his own best interests if we force him to get it.

The courts, though, as I’ve said, have been wary of this kind of thing, and not only when it is being wielded against the choices of adults.  Courts have affirmed the rights even of schoolchildren to refuse the “help” of “grief counselors” after school shootings and other tragedies. 

Which is interesting in and of itself, because usually the best way to install a regulation of private life by government fiat is to declare that it is “for the children.”  Children are, in most cases, considered to be by definition unable to know their own interests or make their own decisions.

But if you are a helping professional who wants to help people who do not want your help, your best bet is to find a way to redefine them as mentally incomptent to refuse. 

And the best way to do this is to find a rationale that will allow you to declare more and more kinds of behavior as outside the willful control of human beings.  Habits become “addictions.”   Human temperamental variations outside a small proscribed area of “good function” become ‘disorders.”

A citizen has free will and can make up his own  mind–and his mistakes are his own, and none of your business.  A patient is sick, unable to make his own decisions, and in need of professional care and expert advice.  It’s nice if he understands why all this treatment is good for him, but it isn’t surprising if he doesn’t.  That’s part of his illness.

It’s that attitude, right there, that makes Mique angry and contemptuous of the helping professions, and that makes me want to insure that regulations with the force of law be required to pass AS laws in an elected legislature. 

But I think I leave the rest of this until tomorrow, at the earliest.  It is Sunday. I have tea.

But I do want to say one last thing–I think the people who evade attempts to help them quit their addictions “even though they want to quit”–don’t actually want to quit.  I think they say what they know what they’re supposed to say.  After all, in terms of what can happen to you if you continue using and admit that it’s your choice–like say, going to jail–being treated as a patient may be the lesser evil.

More tomorrow.

Written by janeh

August 7th, 2011 at 8:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

90% Perspiration

with 10 comments

Before I start, I have to say this:

Blasting Gustav Leonhardt playing The Goldberg Variations first thing in the morning before you’ve had your caffeine…does very strange things to the mind.

Anyway.  I’ve got tea now, and Gustav is still blaring away.  It’s a good thing I like harpsichords at any time.

Yesterday I talked about differences in the environment that might cause differences in the outcomes of people’s lives.

Today I want to look at the genetic and innate, the fact that some of us are born talented in ways that others of us are not, and that some of us are not born talented at all.

I think most of us think that this is the easiest case, if the most recalcitrant one.   There is a very real sense in which it is “not fair” that some of us are simply born better equipped than others of us are.  Some of us are born smarter. Some of us are born prettier.  Some of us are born with more athletic ability.

There’s a reason why every Olympic gold medalist in certain track events has been, for decades now, not only of African descent, but of East African descent.  These are people the muscles of whose legs are literally different than yours and mine–and so much better at making you run fast that people who lack that particular muscle structure might as well give up before they try.  No amount of training and hard work will compensate.

The same is true of the genes that go to make a face like Gene Tierney’s at twenty.  Plastic surgery can help some, but it is limited.  It will not take a lumpy, pie-faced girl and turn her into a supermodel.

The first thing that is obvious here is that inheriting talent, or not inheriting it, is a lot like inheriting money.  The person who so inherits did nothing to deserve his good fortune. 

What’s more, inheriting talent is much  more strongly correlated with later success in life than inheriting money.  For one thing, lots of people who do not inherit money go on to make smashing successes of themselves in many different fields, international and national and local.  Nobody who does not inherit a good voice goes on to success as an opera singer.  Nobody who does not inherit athletic talent makes the NBA.  Or, hell, even most high school teams.

Interestingly enough, although the people of the 18th century–and the 19th, and the early 20th–knew about this, it did not, at the time, appear to be an instance of “unfairness.”    This may have had something to do with religion.  God gave each of us our unique talents, and the only “unfairness” was in a society where rank and wealth prevented the naturall talented from exercising those talents. 

It was “unfair” if the King’s daughter got to sing the lead in Carmen because she was the King’s daughter, when the butcher’s daughter had a much better voice.  It was not “unfair” that the King’s daughter had been born unable to achieve the vocal quality of the butcher’s.

This was Jefferson’s idea of a “natural aristocracy.”  The country would open up opportunities to all its citizens, rich and poor.  The cream would rise to the top.

In more recent times, though, the idea that there’s nothing “unfair” about the unequal distribution of talent has been less and less in favor, and I think that’s for two reasons.

For one thing there is the continual problem of people born so completely without talents–mentally handicapped, I think we say now–that they will never be in a position even to make their own livings without help. 

This is, as I said, nothing new, and the idea that society should take care of such people is not particularly controversial.   Anybody short of a doctrinaire Randian sees nothing problematic about taxing the populace to make sure there is some provision for such people.

The other concern is more interesting, although I think it is misplaced.

It’s the idea that we are developing a world in which such differences in inherited talent will be fixed by heredity in certain classes.  Smart people will marry smart people while stupid people will marry stupid people.  Their smart children will marry other smart children while the stupid children will marry other stupid children.   In five or nine or fifteen generations, there will be a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the two sets of people, never to be bridged.  If  you are born to the stupid people, there’s no chance that you will be able to compensate for your lack of inborn smarts.  Welcome to the world of the “cognitive elite.”

I think that what most people find so frightening and repellant about this scenario is that it sounds so plausible.  It is, after all, nothing but evolution in action.

It is also something about which we seem to be able to do little or nothing, at least in our present state of technology.

And imagining a world in which we can do something about it doesn’t make us any happier.  We imagine rich and smart people running off to get their children’s genes “fixed” while poor and stupid people have no access to gene therapy, therefore making their children further and further behind in intelligence and talent.

But to anyone who looks at the actual historical record of what has happened over the last century, or even just the last 30 years, there is no shortage of evidence that cream is still rising out of the bottom of the barrel.

And that cream is not all made up of people with special innate talents.  Some people are simply born without the ability to be Michael Jordan.  Nobody–except the mentally or severely physically handicapped–is born without the ability to be Sonny Bono, or my immigrant Chinese family with their ever-more numerous local businesses.

It is, in fact, not the case that everybody who is born with a special talent is successful because of that talent, or successful at all.  Even exceptionally talented people have to work at it, or they will be bested by people with less talent but more drive. That’s how Michael Jordan ended up not making his high school basketball team one year. 

There are thousands of geniuses out there who have done nothing in particular with their lives, because they just wouldn’t work at it.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what a brilliant literary talent you are if you never finish a book.  It doesn’t matter what a brilliant actor you are if you never prepare for auditions.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Michael Jordan if you won’t practice and spend all your time on the court hot dogging as if you’re the only one there.

You’re far more likely to fail through no fault of your own than you are to succeed that way.

But although lack of inborn natural talent will prevent you from doing certain things, it won’t prevent you from doing everything.  My Chinese family is not made up of Einsteins and Rudolph Nureyevs.  It is simply willing to do what it takes to put themselves on a safe financial and social footing–and that, I think, is open to almost everyone.

The question then becomes:  what does it mean that somebody “can’t” take care of himself, and what should we do about it?

I’ll get there tomorrow.

I need to go back to the harpsichords.

Written by janeh

August 6th, 2011 at 9:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And Not Really All That Balanced

with 15 comments

Okay, I’m sorry–I couldn’t help it.

Reading the comments this morning was amazing–mm is quite right.  She never said anything about equalizing outcomes, and neither did I.

What I DID say was that most of us are comfortable with the idea that people should be rewarded differently for making different choices.

We think hierarchy is “fair” if people acquire their places in it through their own effort, work, and decisions.

It is only when winning and losing are based on something outside our control that most of us have a problem with different outcomes for different people.

I tried to point out some of the problems with the “it’s okay as long as it’s based on our own effort and decisions” position last post, let me try to say something about “environment” in this post.

The first thing I want to do is to remove from the discussion something that is “environmental,” but that actually functions more like what is genetic:  problems that are the result of permanent damaged caused by something experienced in the womb. 

For better or worse, things like fetal alcohol syndrome, birth defects due to exposure to toxins and that kind of thing tend to be grouped, in ordinary conversation, as things people are “born with.”   So I’m going to leave the discussion of those things to part about what we’re born with.

Differences due to environment are actually what we usually mean when we complain that outcomes are “not fair.” 

And we don’t usually discuss the fairness or the unfairness of the adults in the household.  It’s not the adults for whom poverty is “unfair,” but the children–to the extent to which children are born with more or fewer material advantages, we believe that the outcomes of their lives are affected.  And if some people will have better outcomes merely by having the luck to be born to better parents, the entire system begins to look corrupt.

In some ways, the reason why we feel this way is fairly clear-cut.  I call it the Paris Hilton Syndrome.

The woman has done little or nothing to earn the money she spends.  She barely bothered to finish high school.  She’s not talented, accomplished or hard working–or at least that’s the perception.  Even so, she spends on a single handbag an amount of money that would save some family’s home from foreclosure for months. 

One of the things I find interesting is that Hilton herself doesn’t actually quite fit this description, but that’s another story for another day.

At the most basic level, environmental unfairness begins with things like nutrition–can the family afford all the food it needs, and the right kinds of food?  do the parents know what the right kinds of food are?  do they care?

This is a matter of money, and the money issue goes a long way.  Wealthier families can afford good private schools if the local public ones are inadequate.  Those private schools have more resources than most public schools do.  The parents can afford private tutors if Johnny is failing, expensive academic enrichment summer activities (think space camp), extensive travel and other amenities that we think will give a child an edge in school. 

What’s more, some parents, even though they’re not necessarily all that well off, are more capable of giving their children advantages in other ways–because the parents read books, there are books around the house; because the parents are concerned with politics, there are discussions of current issues at the dinner table.

A few months ago a story broke about a principal in, I think, Georgia, who had required all students in AP classes in his high school to sign a pledge not to do any homework at home or to discuss the AP coursework with their parents.   This was, he said, because some students might have access to more resources at home than other students,  and if they were allowed to use those resources the competition for grades on AP courses would not be “fair.”

I spent a fair amount of time this morning trying to find one of the articles about this and couldn’t.  I remember the story, though, becaues Matt and Greg and I discussed it at the time.

And also because, of course, its premise is true–if you have me as a parent, you’re going to have at least some scholastic advantages over a kid with a parent like, say, my cousin Chris.

When my sons were small, I used to make them earn the right to watch television during summer vacations by passing quizzes.  One year, Greg’s right to play video games during the summer required him to be able to recite the entire Bill of Rights, verbatim, and to explain each one.

When Greg got to American history in eighth grade, he not only already knew most of the material, he could argue positions on issues using Supreme Court rulings, and cite those rulings by title and date.

This did, inevitably, give him a head start on the rest of the class.  In a public school where levels of parental support for education would have been wider, it would have given him a HUGE head start on some people.

For most people, though, those kinds of inequalities are acceptable–after all, somebody worked for them, even if it was the parents instead of the children.  We also tend to find the actions of parents who do this kind of thing admirable.  They are taking care of their children.  They want what’s best for them and they work hard to get it.

Still, we can’t help but be aware of the fact that some children have more than others, and we’re fairly convinced that when this is the case, the children who grow up with more are automatically advantaged on the road to “success” over those who grow up with less.

We support this belief by pointing to statistics that show that children from more affluent families have higher academic and career achievements that children from poor ones.  A school that is 95% white and middle class will produce higher scores on standardized tests than a school that is 95% black and Hispanic and on welfare. 

In point of fact, the issue is even more complicated than it seems, because not only do poor schools have fewer resources–crowded classrooms, not even textbooks, no science labs–but they also tend to have teachers that are not only from the bottom of the barrel of the applicant pool (mixed metaphor alert!), but who think that the children they teach aren’t really smart enough to learn.

Yes, that’s what I said.  Go back and read it again.  That’s the secret behind the cheating scandals in Atlanta, Pennsylvania and now at least one school in Connecticut.   These are schools whose teachers and administrators are convinced that their students are incapable of meeting basic academic standards. 

And if you don’t think it matters if teachers think their students are capable of learning–well, you’ve got more faith in native talent than I do.

I think most of us would agree without too much argument that all schools should have the necessary textbooks and other equipment required to teach.

Beyond that, though, what’s going on here is not as clear as it looks.

For one thing, there are plenty of successful people–often very successful people (think Bill Clinton and Barack Obama)–who came from families who were poor, dysfunctional and on welfare.  One of the more interesting things about reading Too Big To Fail was noticing that a big chunk of the most powerful CEOs in America had come from families that were no better than working class, and often less, and from schools that were–well, inadequate.   Poor-kids-made-good were grossly overrepresented in the land of the eight figure bonus. 

And that means, of course, that rich kids with all the advantages were underrepresented, which brings me to another point:

It is not the case at all that kids from rich or quasi-rich families, who get to go to expensive private schools and who won’t need to take much in the way of loans for college–it is not the case at all that all of those kids, or even a majority of them, “make good” in the sense of going on to high paying and prestigious careers.

One of the great secrets of American upper middle class life is the way in which it must be reearned in every generation, and the way in which bringing a kid up with “all the advantages” often makes that goal difficult to attain.

In the highest performing public high schools–the Wiltons, the New Triers–a solid core of overachieving workaholics gets into the Ivies and their equivalents, while most of their just-as-advantaged peers scrape by and settle for second, third and fourth tier.  Their parents write the checks that mean they can go to the University of Denver or Colby-Sawyer or wherever, but they don’t end up at white shoe wall street law firms or with the presidencies of banks.

Maybe what’s really going on here is this:  all things being equal, differences in environmental advantages will have a big impact on eventual outcomes.

But all things are almost never equal. 

And I’ll get to genetics, and natural talent, tomorrow.

But, in the meantime: to the poster who said that the dramatic unities were thought up by the French and produced only mediocre drama–

The dramatic unities are from Aristotle’s Poetics, and they describe perfectly that actual dramatic plan of all the plas of Sophocles, including Oedipus Tyrranus. 

Shakespeare may never have written a play like that, but many dramatists of the Classical period in Athens did, and they wrote good ones.   Not only the Oedipus cycle of Socrates, but the Oresteia of Aeschylus and many more were written according to the unities.

Aristotle was not laying down rules, but describing what the greatest playwrights of his day actually did.

Those plays remain, to this day, among the greatest ever written–and yes, at least as great as Shakespeare.

Written by janeh

August 5th, 2011 at 7:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 7 comments

I have been thinking about the way one poster formulated the–ack, I don’t have a word for it.  Maybe instead of “formulated” I should have said “described.”

The poster said that the students in our classes show varying degrees of ability and achievement, and that those varying degrees of ability and achievement are sometimes genetic, sometimes environmental, and sometimes behavioral, and always some combination of the three.

What interested me was not so much the formulation itself as the unstated but clear assumption that we need to “do” something about this situation.  It’s an interesting idea, on a number of levels, not the least of it being the fact that it is thoroughly modern.  The world existed for millennia without doing anything about what most of its inhabitants would have considered the obvious state of things.

The assumption exists because of another assumption, also unstated but very widely held:  that if differences exist in the material well being of individuals and families, then those differences need to be justified.  If there is no justification for them–if the individuals who get the most haven’t “earned” it–then the situation is not fair, and should be either eliminated or alleviated.

The unstated assumption goes farther than this, I think.  It assumes that “earning” it means that you have obtained whatever advantage you have from a deliberate act of your will–from working hard, and not from advantages you were born with and did nothing to acquire on your own.

Gene Tierney was born looking like that.  She did nothing to earn it, and yet it made it possible for her to be rich and famous in a way most other women could not.   There was no level playing field between Tierney and the girl who worked at the drugstore in her town.  One of them was born beautiful and the other was not.  Therefore, Tierney’s relative wealth and happiness was not fair and should not be tolerated without some attempt to allieve the lesser fortune of the drug store clerk.

I am, of course, simplifying this enormously.  I do not, however, think I’m misstating the position.

And the position is so common–the idea that there can be no justification for differences in outcome that are not caused entirely by “merit”–that most of us spend little time thinking about it, never mind examining it. 

And yet it is, really, a new thing under the sun.  It would not have been considered obvious to most people even 50 years ago.  It didn’t exist as an idea when Shakesepeare wrote his plays.

Let’s look, for a minute, at the three possible reasons for unequal outcomes:

1) genetic–some people just are born prettier, smarter, more talented than other people.

2) environmental–some people have better families, live in places with better schools, come from countries or family background that just have access to more resources. 

3) behavioral–some people work hard and perservere.  Some people spend their time drinking Smirnoff out of the bottle and buying scratch tickets.

Of the three categories above, I think we tend to think of the third as the least problematic.  Of course people who work hard and behave themselves should do better than people who slack off or indulge in mind-altering substances to the exclusion of all else.

The fact is that category (3) is very problematic, and in numerous ways.

Let’s take, for instance, the case of firefighters, police officers and soldiers–and, for that matter, stray civilians who take the responsibility of helping their fellows in a crisis of some kind.

The guy who leaps into the street and pushes the three year old out of the path of the oncoming truck, only to get hit himself, may have behaved admirably only to be rewarded by a lifelong disability.  That disability will almost certainly make him less materially successful than he would have been without it–or at least the percentages run that way. 

And his single act of heroism may impact not only himself, but his family–may make it impossible for him to put his kids through college or to take care of his mother in her old age.  His marriage may  not survive the years of care he’ll  need.  His mental health may not survive it, either.

I think we all respond instinctively to this scenario–that it is “not fair,’  and that something should be done to alleviate the afteraffects of the man’s decision.

And underneath the confusion of “fair” talk–and talk about what is “fair” is always confused–there is something real and important:  the reason we feel that category (3) outcomes should be accepted as merited lies at least as much in the fact that we want to encourage good behavior and discourage bad.

What we want is to ensure that more people take responsibility for their lives and contribute to society and fewer contribute nothing and become destructive to themselves and the world around them.

But the first responders–the people who take responsibity even when they don’t have to, especially–are the most important contributors to any society.  The more of them we have, the less will be the damage from any crisis, large or small.

Think about those nursing home residents left to drown as the staff at their facility fled the waters of Katrina.  The staff members were condemned and investigated even though doing what we wanted them to do–staying with the patients and putting their needs first–was not in their immediate or long-term self interest.

Doing what we wanted them to do, however, might have made the destructive effect of that storm just a little less awful than it was. 

It would have done so even if the staff had been able to do nothing but calm the fears and panic among the elderly patients before they all died anyway.

What also makes the third category problematic, however, is that it makes another assumption that doesn’t quite work out in the real world–that the harder you work, the more successful you’ll be, and you’ll definitely be more successful than somebody who does not work as hard.

In some areas of life, this is pretty near absolutely true.  In my town there is a family who has recently come over here from China.  The children, who are in local schools, are beginning to speak halfway decent English.  The parents and grandparents do not, and probably never will.

What they do do–all of them–is work like slaves.  They began working in local Chinese restaurants.  They lived in cheap rental apartments, often sleeping six or seven to a room, buying their clothes from thrift shops, socking away every cent.  Then they opened their own small restaurant, and worked that too. Then they opened a laundry next door. 

Give them another ten or fifteen years, and they’re going to be very well off.  Give them another 25, and you’ll probably going to be able to call them rich.

When I bring up instances like this, I often get told that “everybody can’t do that.”  And I think I’ll hold with Larry Block’s old proverb–everybody can’t, but anybody can.

Chance can certainly intervene–accidents, sickness–but in general, my father was right:  anybody can get rich if that’s all he wants.

The squiffy thing about “work hard and you’ll get ahead,” though, is that in some fields, how hard you have to work will be determined at least in part by factors outside your conscious control (inborn talent, say). 

A naturally gifted actor who works hard will definitely have more success than a naturally gifted actor who coasts, at least in the long run–but both of them will have more success than an actor with no talent, no matter how hard he works.

It is the recognition of this that accounts for so many actors and actresses being so determinedly lefty.  If we only deserve what we have worked for, then the fact that we only manage to get where we are through inherited advantages like good looks, charisma and natural acting ability means we don’t deserve what we have.

It’s difficult to find anybody, anywhere, who becomes successful “by merit alone.”   Or, as Thomas Sowell insists–and I think he’s right–performance.  It’s how we perform that makes the difference, not some innate quality of “merit.”

The question then becomes whether it is possible for anyone to fail entirely “by merit [performance] alone.”

And that I think I’ll leave until tomorrow, along with the other two categories.

It’s going to be a wretchedly hot and humid day.

Written by janeh

August 4th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My Beautiful Balloon

with 21 comments

So, over the last several days, I have been trying very, very hard not to comment on the debt ceiling, or the debt ceiling debates, or the whole crisis-mode 24-hour news cycle that has been making finding out what happened locally–like whether they’ve caught the runaway leaping cow–nearly impossible.

Now that it’s all over, though, I find myself absolutely flabbergasted.  And mostly I’m absolutely flabbergasted because, in fact, nothing actually happened.

Here’s where we are, as of this morning:

The Tea Party did not get any actual cuts in the funding of government programs.  The government will spend more money next year than it did this year, on practically everything.

The “cuts” supposedly in the deal are only cuts to possible projected expenditure.

And that’s the first way nothing changed–we do this all the time.  If government spends $100 on Head Start today and wants to spend $200 on Head Start tomorrow, but we only let them spend $150, we call this a “cut.”   In fact, we call it a drastic cut.  We come up with some ridiculously extreme sounding percentage (Head Start funding cut by 25%!), even though in fact the budget increased by an even larger percentage. 

If what the Tea Party wanted to do was to roll back government expenditure, it failed.

I’m not actually sure that that’s what the Tea Party wants to do, but we can get to that another time.

On the other side of the aisle, Progressives also failed to raise taxes on the “wealthy”–and yes, at the standard that $250,000 a year is “wealthy,” that deserves scare quotes.

In a way, Progressives lost less heavily than the Tea Party did.  The Tea Party failed utterly.  The Progessives got at least some growth in government.

And, in fact, they were never interested in taxing the wealthy anyway.  If you want to tax the wealthy, you don’t raise income tax rates on people making more than $250,000 a year, or even $1,000,000 a year.   You go after specific provisions in the tax law and target them narrowly, you hit the estate tax rates–and then you recognize that even when you do that, you’re in danger of catching ordinary, non-wealthy people in the web.  

In case you wonder why we never get a raise in the capital gains rates: it may have less to do with fat cat Wall Street lobbyists and more on the senior citizens’ lobbies.  Why?  Because, for most Americans, the only time they’ll come into contact with the capital gains tax is when they sell their big family house for one in order to buy a cheaper one and live on the difference during their retirement.  Every time you raise the capital gains rates, you’re in danger of making it impossible for Grandpa to retire.  Every time you provide a loophole for him to get through, a lot of richer people will find a way to use it to shield their own money.

I am not, for my part, much interested in the level of taxation.  Maybe I would be if income tax rates were higher than they are, or much higher than they are.  But my primary concern is with the areas into which government is allowed to intrude.

The core functions of government are the military, the police, and the courts, and the legal structures that go to maintain them–Congress, for instance, and the Department of Defense.

The secondary functions of government are those things that must be done if society is going to function at all–building and maintaining roads and bridges, establishing currency, and that kind of thing.

After that we get into lots of things that we may want to do, and that we may even have good practical arguments in favor of doing, but that are not strictly necessary to a functioning society.  We know they’re not strictly necessary, because society has functioned without them before, and societies in the world today function without them. 

Any sane approach to the budget would cut those things in the third category first, and would start with cutting those things in the third category that don’t seem to be much more than busybodying for the sake of busybodying.

I mean, I’m sorry, but I don’t care how fat the children of America are getting.  It’s none of Washington’s business.  How will be cure the “epidemic of obesity?” you ask.  We won’t.  Just because there’s a problem doesn’t mean government is supposed to solve it.

The same for the literally thousands of little programs meant to “address” problems like school bullying, self-esteem, body image, drug and alcohol abuse awareness (note the last word), and on and on and on–literally thousands of them, all of them small, all of them eating up money in the form of salaries, pensions and benefits for staff and administrators.

Just above those are the programs that are bigger and have a constituency, but are just as expendible in a time when we don’t really have enough money to fund things that matter:  The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, NPR and PBS.

Of course, I’d  do more than that, if it was left up to me–I’d get rid of the entire Department of Education, for instance, because education in this country is supposed to be a local (or at best state) concern, not a federal one.  I’d get rid of the Department of Homeland Security and put its necessary functions into the Defense Department and get rid of the duplications.  And there are lots.  I’d abolish the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor, elminate about three-quarters of what they do and put the rest in a single smaller department. 

And while I was at it, I’d get rid of the right of departments to issue regulations with the force of law.  If it’s going to be a law, it will have to be voted on by elected representatives who can be held accountable for what they do and how they do it. 

But now I’m past the budget and on to other things.

But it doesn’t matter, really, because we’re just back to the same old same old.  Budget “cuts” that aren’t really cuts, taxing the rich who aren’t really rich.

It’s what we do.

Written by janeh

August 3rd, 2011 at 7:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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