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The problem, I think, is that I can’t really get myself into the mood to do anything serious.  Even real work didn’t get very far today. 

For one thing, as soon as it gets light out, I can see out the windows of my office–which is really a kind of sun room–into my back yard.  That’s usually a good thing.  I’m not one of those writers who has to face a blank wall in order not to be distracted from writing things.  I write very naturally.

At the moment, however, what I see when I look out back is a lot of pieces of trees all over the  yard.  The storm was hell on trees.  For a while, I thought that the big one had come down on the house, but it hadn’t exactly.  It had just been bowed down under the weight of the snow, and when the snow melted it went back up again. 

One other piece of that same tree did fall down on the roof, but so far I haven’t been able to find any damage, and it was only a branch.  But lots of pieces of that tree have gone everywhere, and one smaller bush-like thing actually split in half. 

So I spend a lot of time sitting here going, “hmmm, I wonder how long it’s going to take to clean that up.”

Part of it is that, as I said yesterday, I’m just exhausted.  I met all my classes and did all the things I was obligated to do right through that endless outage.  And that is, of course, exactly what I should have done.  But–sheesh.

So let me weigh in on a couple of things that went on here while I was in the blackout, and see where they go.  I’ll try to get back to the Liberal Arts tradition on the week-end.

1) I think it’s interesting that Cathy F and I had such different reactions to that article by the “last psychologist.”  Or psychiatrist.  I can’t remember.

My first reaction on reading that thing was to go:  well, if that’s what’s going on, we’d better put a stop to it right this minute.

And if what we get is rioting in the streets and a lot more crime, then we arrest people and put them in jail.

But I don’t see how it can ever be a good idea to encourage an entire subclass of people that the world owes them a living, and that if they don’t get it their proper response is to take violent revenge in one way or the other.

That’s a kind of blackmail I’m not willing to put up with, although I am willing to let my tax money go to people who are genuinely unable to fend for themselves.

Some of the problem might be alleviated by requiring people with the vaguer sort of psyochological diagnoses to be committed to psychiatric facilities, or group homes, in order to get benefits.  I think it would put an end to people falsely making those particular claims.

But I do know that in a world where psychological “disorders” and “disabilities” are invented on almost a daily basis, the system as the last psychologist describes it is not sustainable on a long term basis.

It’s not all that sustainable in the short term.

2) As to Elf’s question about what the difference is between someone on welfare and a trust fund baby–it’s not the difference between the recipients that matters.

If I set my children up with trust funds, I may ruin their characters, or not–but I do nothing at all to my fellow citizens. 

It’s not just that I don’t take their money against their will.  It’s that providing welfare from government departments fundamentally changes the relationship between a government and its citizens in ways that are very disturbing.

It’s not just that such a system requires not just that we give people money, but that we hire and maintain armies of administrators, case workers, and other personnel. 

And in establishing this system we tend to–we have–subtly shift the boundaries of what is allowable government interference into private life. 

We get “social policy”–why, exactly, is the government allowed to have any such thing as “social policy”? 

What starts with “some people are just not capable of coping on their own” becomes “we have the right to police your behavior and decide whether you’re competent to run your own life or not.”

And then we get not just the war on drugs or compaigns against obesity and smoking, but Hillary’s infamous suggestion that every parent who takes home a newborn should be visited several times by social workers to make sure there’s no abuse or neglect going on in the home.

I think there are ways in which we could avoid this–but one of those ways is not to start with the assumption that a significant proportion of our population is incapable of taking care of itself, or of learning anything useful, and instead must be accommodated or attended to by a theoretically benevolent state.

The fundamental assumption of the American revolution was, after all, just the opposite:  that ordinary citizens are fully capable of running their own lives and running their own government.

3)  As for the thing about how automation, etc, is steadily climbing the skills pole and there will soon be just a little group of people at the very top who “own everything” and have all the jobs while the rest of us have nothing–

The thing that bothers me about that argument is that it assumes that people stand still. 

It assumes that what we see today is all we will ever see, that what amounts to a job today is what will be a job tomorrow if it isn’t just eliminated, that we will never invent new things, new industries, new ways of living.

And I suppose it’s possible that American society is so culturally exhausted that that is indeed what will happen, but I don’t see it.  People living in 1911 couldn’t imagine most of the things we make money working at today.  I expect that we cannot imagine most of the things people will make their livings at in 2111.

I will point out a couple of things here.

First, innovation tends to take place in areas that are not yet regulated. 

Or not yet very regulated.

The problem here is entry costs:  how much money and how many resources does it take for you to get into the business?

It would be virtually impossible for somebody to start a car manufacturing company in the US today unless they already had significant resources.  They could not do what the early car manufacturers did and start building machines in their back yards and work up from there. 

This is not to say that there should be no regulations, only to point out the obvious:  the more expensive it is for new people to start up, the less innovation there will be.

And the less competition there will be.

And the more the regulatory system will be coopted by existing large firms as a method of fending off competition. 

So I’d say you can’t look to any large existing industry to tell you what’s going to come next. 

Second, we might want to reconsider the last century’s worth of local regulations that prevent people from making a living outside the formal system of “employment.”

And, for that matter, some of the federal ones.

We talk a lot of bilge in this country about “the immigrant experience,” but we don’t like to get into particulars.

My Greek grandparents, arriving on these shores, probably couldn’t get “a job.”  There were often no jobs to be had, and when there were, lots of employers wanted only “real Americans.”

So what did the immigrants do? 

They got themselves pushcarts and sold everything from household goods to shoes and clothing, they did a hundred other things on their own to get by.

And most of their descendants are now at least middle class.

Some of them are George Stephanopolous.

If you want to operate a pushcart these days, you need a license, after which you will be given a deisgnated place on the street.  You need health inspections if you’re selling food, and you’re forbidden altogether from selling certain kinds of products.  Then you’ve got (in NYC) city, state and federal income taxes, plusy social security taxes (you’re self employed, so you’re paying both halves on your own), and a host of other legal requirements that will force you to hire legal and accounting help.

In other words, if you want to operate a pushcart these days–you can’t.  There are still pushcarts in NY, but they’re owned by corporations that have the resources to pay for all that legal and accounting help.  They guys who run them have “a job.’

Well, that is, as long as the pushcarts are operating legally.  There are plenty of independent operators out there operating illegally, and not just with pushcarts.  It’s virtually impossible to find household help in Manhattan these days unless you’re willing to pay in cash, because most of the housecleaners are working off the books.

The simple fact is that they don’t make enough money to pay all the taxes and the registrations and the licenses.  They can no longer legally make a living in the way their grandmothers could.

We might try to fix some of that.

And don’t tell me that all those regulations were put in place to protect the health and safety of consumers.

They were put in place at the urging of the owners of brick and mortar stores who didn’t want the “unfair competition” (meaning any competition at all) from all those nonAmericans willing to work for less and sell for less.

Finally,  I’d like to point out what nobody else seems to.

Everybody making the jobs argument points back to the Fifties and Sixties and says–see?  Prosperity!  That’s when we had lots of regulations and higher taxes on the rich!

But what we actually had in the Fifties and Sixties was a completely anomalous situation. 

For most of that period, we were the only game in town.  WWII had decimated the industrial capacities of Europe and Japan both.

We could have run this country by ouija board and still done very well. 

But there was never a chance in hell that that was going to last.

What’s happened to American incomes and American jobs is not the result of Republican policies or Democratic policies.

It’s the result of a world that got competitive again.

I’m going to go do something.

Written by janeh

November 8th, 2011 at 9:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Trees'

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  1. I was sorry to hear about your mess in CT. (And even more glad that my parents are now only in central CT during the summer.) We had a large, gorgeous tree break in half and fall on the porch, and we were without electricity for a little more than a day–but we had a kerosene heater and so forth, so it was just annoying rather than dangerous.

    Cathy F


    8 Nov 11 at 12:48 pm

  2. Anyway, the issue isn’t people deliberately faking these diagnoses–not that there aren’t any, but that’s not the real problem. The real problem is the creeping diagnoses into what we used to call personality, character, individual differences, whatever. The psychiatric manual is a huge problem, yes, but also the growing number of mental health workers who think they need to get insurance reimbursement to make a living helping people, and you only get insurance reimbursement for a diagnosis, not a personality or a life problem.

    And when the therapist says “you can only get this covered if you have a diagnosis,” people say OK–why shouldn’t they? How many of them really know the difference between an “adjustment disorder,” which isn’t covered, and “dysthymia,” which is–all they know is they feel like crap because something bad happened and they want help.

    I won’t code people unnecessarily, but 1) I don’t depend on my private practice for a living, and 2) most of what I specialize in isn’t covered anyway so I don’t take insurance. So I’d like to say that I’m just totally more ethical than all those other folks, but I’m not sure that’s true.

    Of course, we do the same things to get services in schools, and I won’t do that either. So maybe I am just that damn ethical.

    The same creep happens in schools–if the only real help you can get is through being identified as having a disability, there is a real push for the system to include anybody who needs any help whatsoever as disabled. So the categories get broader and more meaningless, until everybody’s disabled.

    It’s a classic Type I/Type II error dilemma. Do you want to err in the direction of not helping someone who really needs it, or helping someone who doesn’t need it? Most teachers/therapists/liberals mostly want to avoid not helping someone who really needs it, and don’t notice or count the costs of helping those who don’t need it (monetary costs, but also the social costs of teaching people they are helpless). Most business people/conservatives mostly want to avoid helping those who don’t need it, and don’t notice or count the costs of not helping those who do need it.

    Cathy F


    8 Nov 11 at 1:03 pm

  3. Gosh ! I have been reading Ms.Haddam’s blog ever since I discovered Gregor this past summer while recovering from open heart surgery.

    I am 65 years old , mother of four , grandmother of four, a retired nurse of twenty-five years.

    As I read Ms. Haddam’s essays and responses from people , I notice a certain lack of compassion toward those less fortunate … the meaning of less fortunate can be debated from now til the cows come home. And I must ask a question of ya’ll : should we as humans be our brother’s keeper ?

    One point I would like to make regarding laws and people … seems to me that some laws are just plain ol’ common sense laws … which really shouldn’t be legislated but due to people disregarding safety issues ie lack of parenting skills for newborns, riding motorcycles sans helmets …I can list more lack of common sense issues ad nauseum … maybe Mom and Dad were just too tired to from working to incorporate safety and common sense measures in toddlers ??

    Anyway , I thoroughly enjoy everyone’s opinion but am mystified at lack of compassion.

    Ya’ll have a tolerable day !


    8 Nov 11 at 1:11 pm

  4. Tex, I don’t have any compassion for these people because I’ve known lots of them. Also, mind what you say about helmets, unless you’re willing to have someone with a gun come to your house and tell you what and how much you can eat.


    8 Nov 11 at 5:49 pm

  5. Almost completely in agreement. We work fairly hard at not letting the military decide who the enemy is, and making them go back to civilians to explain why exactly they need this weapon and that band, because we know that to do otherwise would result in a military which sees enemies everywhere and needs lots of people and money to do something about them. But I don’t think we’re applying the same reasoning to the caring professions who seem to have analogous bureaucratic incentives. (I say again: not poverty, not crime, not drugs. Never again should we go to war on amything without a uniformed army and a capital we can march through afterward.)

    Everybody wants parts of 1953-1964, but only parts. Conservatives want the social cohesion, low crime, patriotism and sex roles. Liberals want the lessened economic inequality, higher marginal taxes and regulation. No one seems to want segregation, “third degree” police methods, truly astonishing telephone bills and air fares, many of the young men of Asia and Europe dead, and economic rivals with even higher marginal tax rates and more regulation. At least no one says they do.

    I think going back to 1953 laws–including taxes and regulations–would work in practice just about as well as taking away all the cars and giving everyone a shiny new 1953 Chevy. (look up the fuel efficiency and failrue reates some day.) Not that we haven’t made some serious mistakes, we need to correct, but we won’t fix them by going back.

    Texas, I am VERY compassionate. I think working is good for people, and when I see healthy people in their late teens who’ve never done a day’s work in their lives, I feel sorry for them and want to do something about it. I also feel sorry for the poor working people who have to support those who don’t. And my religious obligation to look after people is my own. It’s not something I mean to use a government to enforce any more than I’d force people into church on Sunday. You see, I try to be my brother’s keeper without being my brother’s jailer.

    Have a nice day.


    8 Nov 11 at 5:57 pm

  6. I don’t think I have anything to add to the discussion of stretching ‘psychiatric’ or other diagnoses. Well, except that I read somewhere recently that the guy who actually started the DSM -whatever number it’s up to now didn’t intend it to be used as it is. It was just supposed to be a help to the doctor, with the description used in the context of the patient’s condition – not a check-list ‘Hey!I’ve got three out of five of those! I’m sick!’

    Compassion. I’m rather with Robert on this one. Like everyone, I suppose, I’ve known people whose situations tear out your heart – and in some cases, I’ve had to realize there’s nothing, particularly the obvious (just hand out money, and they won’t be poor and they won’t do X, Y, Z) not only doesn’t work but is often actively damaging, enabling the victim of the largesse to continue on a very destructive path.

    I tend to think most people should be able to judge risk for themselves – I’d abandon the uninvited home visits to newborns, but I do rather think that helmet and seatbelt laws are reasonable. Perhaps I should say wearing them is, like driving under a certain speed and sticking to the right side of the road.

    Of course, people die. We’ve had someone else go off a cliff and die, a local teenaged boy this time. He went off the marked trail, can’t have taken the warning signs seriously. It happens a couple times a year, that sort of thing. But we can’t fence off all the cliffs (not that that ever stopped an adventurous boy).

    Some people seem to think that there must be some way to prevent boys from dying because of a misjudgement, if you just have the right rules. There isn’t. Bu on the other hand, I do like having ‘best before’ rules and rules about the composition of food and traffic rules (I’d like that one even better if people always followed them). We need a proper balance between freedom and restrictions.


    8 Nov 11 at 7:07 pm

  7. Ought to have mentioned one aspect of the 50’s I wouldn’t mind bringing back: politicians who didn’t spend their entire careers in politics–Truman and Ike, for example–and who lived on their salaries without five-figure speaking fees or seven-figure book deals. Truman had to go to a bank and ask for a loan to move back to Missouri. That’s not a problem our retiring politicians have had lately, and we might find it more useful in promoting equality even than high taxes and voluminous regulation.


    8 Nov 11 at 7:52 pm

  8. I see “compassion” as just another feel good piece of jargon developed by people who like to feel they are holier than everyone else. It has a traditional meaning which has nothing to do with showering benefits or assistance on demand. The Good Samaritan showed compassion. Christ showed compassion to those whom he cured of disease. His active defence of the woman caught in adultery was compassionate. Helping people who are genuinely in need may well be compassionate for some, but enlightened self-interest is an even more apt descriptor, at least to those with eyes to see, ears to hear and a brain to think.

    Showering taxpayer-funded benefits on a basis of greasing squeaky wheels is an act of political expedience, not compassion, and the two should never be confused.


    8 Nov 11 at 10:30 pm

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