Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Terminal Freedom

You know America's collective bad trip has taken a turn for the surreal when it dawns on you that a sizable gaggle of your compatriots have taken that decisive, "one-too-many" pull from the Big Brother bong and are now convinced that the delusional crackpot in the front yard--that guy in the sandwich boards, standing on the violets and muttering insults at the host--is the most enlightened soul at the party. Our political system here is now so broken, so polarized and so ethically bankrupt that, for a large and growing chunk of our electorate, even extreme and alarmingly simplistic libertarian ideas have begun increasingly to seem like a welcome improvement.

Of all of the bizarre characters that have held our attention during this Republican primary season, libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul is perhaps the most peculiar. Reedy and resolute, "Dr. No" maintained the same positions he's held throughout his entire political career in every debate. In a sea of makeovers, pandering and closely-supervised molding of public identity, this personage stands alone as a singular island of unyielding public consistency. The man is immutable. In the interests of his personal vision of "Freedom," his stated aims never vary: slash taxes at every opportunity; return to the gold standard; kill any market regulation that still breathes; physically secure all borders and coastlines; dramatically reduce defense spending (a lovely idea if he'd agree to use that vital revenue to create new jobs, but alas...); end the Fed and the IRS--in fact, eliminate any federal agency big enough to draw a bead on (Education, Interior, Commerce, Energy, FEMA, and HUD, to name a few disfavorites). His idea of freeing America is to balkanize it: in short, to give states maximal sovereignty while stripping away the overwhelming majority of the already fraught connective tissue of defining national institutions and oversight that permits us to cohere as as a "united" entity. In Ron Paul's America, the federal government has no business being anywhere near your life, not even to set minimal standards for your health care,  your safety, or your education--and certainly not to maintain the stability of our national economy. The man is honestly trying to work himself out of a job.

While I've always been impressed with Mr. Paul's ability to hold the same views on an astonishing range of issues year after year, and to vote accordingly, I'm not at all impressed with the actual views themselves. The fact that he hasn't bothered to update these opinions in light of all the new data and exceptionally cogent analysis that has emerged in the interim is shamefully tragic. As Emerson once noted, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." If Paul could legitimately plead ignorance, I'd be inclined to view him more charitably. The fact is, he made up his mind forty years ago about how the world works, and he hasn't considered a single compelling counterargument since. During that time, his spartan economic ideology has not merely been disputed, it has been roundly and irretrievably refuted. From a few simplistic notions of narrowly-defined responsibility, individual liberty and minimal government, he has fashioned a single tool--one that does few things at all well, and breaks far more meaningful freedoms than it builds. This is a classic example of Maslow's "Golden Hammer" ("I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."). Building and maintaining a complex, modern society is a bit more sophisticated than just banging the lumber together. That kind of constructive work wants all the tools you can get your paws on. But you won't get far with any single one of them--especially not one designed for demolition.

The libertarians' concept of freedom--both their popular rallying cry and their intellectual albatross--is hopelessly impoverished. It is impossible to sustain even a minimally coherent contention of equal freedom in a country where (1) every option to exercise this putative endowment, from the minimal necessities of subsistence to the most absurd extremes of extravagance, is mediated by money; and (2) both the allocation of this medium and the disposition of opportunity for its acquisition are vastly and increasingly unequal among individuals at the outset. Without the means to exercise a claim of freedom in any given situation, or even the viable opportunity to acquire the means, that claim is a cruel lie. Yet whenever anybody publicly disapproves of the extreme inequality in America they are immediately set upon by these faux freedom fighters, who dutifully remind them that it's not the job of government to ensure equality of outcome, only equality of opportunity. But this assertion takes as its implicit premise the assumption that equality of opportunity is actually a current feature of American life. This popular misconception is not only laughably preposterous, it's also deeply insulting. Opportunity is an empty word without the means to use it, and true equality of opportunity requires that such necessary means be equally shared. But "education isn't a right," Dr. No insists, "medical care isn't a right--these are things you have to earn!" Indeed. Presumably the children of affluence "earn" their enviable privileges by the simple, repetitive act of continually hoisting their hands to accept the proffered bounty.

While simply increasing government funding for the poor won't meet the challenge alone, that's not an argument against it; in fact, it's a point in favor of much more than mere dollars. There is some legitimacy to the claim that merely providing financial assistance can create dependence on the part of recipients over time, though this objection should apply with equal validity to the much more substantial assistance supplied by the wealthy to their own dreamy little write-offs. If you want to see what real "entitlement" looks like, have a quick peek at that end of the financial spectrum. (You're gonna want to tip your head back all the way--that's right--and use this spotting scope. No worries bruv, just doin our job...) See, we don't simply need a more refined sense of noblesse oblige. Quality education must be a right enjoyed by every citizen if the process of democracy is to move beyond the mere servicing of moneyed interests, punctuated by shallow seasonal pageants. Without a decent baseline of both knowledge and opportunity, a little sympathy bump in spending once in awhile provides little more than a dollop of salve on the festering wound of social injustice and a cheap analgesic to dull that brief prick of vestigial conscience in our elected representation while they leg it out of the projects to collect their gold star. It preserves the existing structures that created the problem while permitting a hollow claim of remedial effort. The deferential affirmation of privilege is woven into the fabric of our institutions and our identities. Without a dramatic increase in both the quantity and quality of available jobs, and a matching increase in educational investment, our democracy will run aground on its own insecurity, ignorance and paranoia.

We've done better in the past. The time of this country's longest longest interval of broadly-based prosperity, from the end of WWII into the Seventies, was also the time when it was most deeply regulated economically and most vigorously taxed at the top end--a libertarian's gooseflesh nightmare. Since the seventies, our economy has become increasingly libertarian and deregulated, and also insanely unequal. In fact, the graph of household income for each percentile of our population increases fairly gradually until the last decile, then approximates a freakishly climbing power law distribution that approaches vertical near the top end. The wealth distribution curve is even more extreme, and at both ends: a full quarter of us have zero or negative net worth This isn't because anybody in those last fractional percentiles is working correspondingly harder or doing anything significantly better; it's simply an artifact of the way our economy and our financial system is set up. Those who are already ahead get further ahead, and faster, than those behind them--even the nearest lagging players whose wealth is increasing in the same way.

Of course, the wizards of Wall Street have crafted instruments to insure canny investors against downside risk. But the rollback of the meaningful regulations (in the name of "Freedom!") that served to prevent broader systemic risk created a situation in which even those devices were not sufficient to prevent disaster. And as we recently discovered, at that level of play the scale of the conflagration was so great, the potential fallout so dire, that the very government that let them write their own rules had to summon every lowly, unwashed, tax-paying hand in the country to man the fire brigade.

So what did we do then, change the building codes? Oh go on! No self-respecting believer in the sanctity of markets could ever agree to such an abridgment of "Freedom"--and organized money was spot on point to make sure no seriously relevant or binding changes occurred. We let them rebuild everything pretty much just like it was. Moral hazard? Check... Perverse incentive? Check... Systemic risk? Check...

Blank check? Check.

They're flush again now (in truth they were never not) and they can afford all of the shrewd political machinations and the brilliant campaigns of disinformation that may be required to defeat you should you disagree with the wisdom of their regime. When life gave them lemons, they promptly had them bronzed and stitched them into their scrotums. Yet even these luminous beings are not the most exalted spirits in the heavens; they are mere avatars of ethereal powers beyond accounting in the transcendent logos of logo. The names and potent sigils of these ineffable effers adorn every available surface of their earthly places of worship, every official letterhead, and every object fashioned in their interest. And praise be to their holy names, they're more efficient now than ever!

But no, you protest, these are just names and symbols that identify, you know, like, official sources of goods and services. T'yeah, no--not after the Citizens United decision entered holy writ. In conferring personhood on these branded interests, the stunted souls of SCOTUS have deprecated the very meaning of that term beyond recognition, robbing it of its last essential breath of empathic entailment. Gone is the element of sentience as sine qua non; gone is the assumption of discrete and uniquely experienced identity; gone is the implied responsibility of a living agent among living peers--the conscience of consciousness--or even the merest presumption of sane fellow-feeling. These newly-naturalized, titanic toddlers exist in a domain beyond feeling, and know only one overriding directive: the infinitive of grow. We've even given them voices--the loudest ones in the country, by all accounts--in the only language they know.

That wage-slave job you humped at week in and week out for ten years to prop them up? Silly camel, that was never your job--it was theirs all along! And they gave it to some other poor sod even worse off than your luckless self, in a country that won't complain if it kills them, for an annual salary you couldn't live on for a fortnight. Only the misplaced loyalty and confidence you brought to that work was your own--an overvalued product of marginal futility. It'll happen to your successor too if the numbers look right--this isn't a popularity contest. And your struggle isn't special; it's just another used-to-work-a-day externality for this freshly-minted being, on the path to some optimal market nirvana. They're the very Gods of job genesis--don't you dream of causing them to knit their figurative brows at the prospect of an insulting increase in tax responsibility, or a more respectful relationship with the labor that allows them to persist. It was your staggering good fortune to have them smile upon you for that enchanted, sweat-filled decade--you're so welcome!--but, mercifully, your services are no longer required. Just don't let's think they've "terminated your employment" or "fired you"--that kind of frankness is for defeatists and disgruntled former associates. No, they've simply "let you go." Did'ja catch that?--the script, she is flipped! You've lost nothing, poor thing; they did you a solid. You've been liberated from the cruel shackles of your meager means. The discarded world is now your oyster. Henceforward you can arise proudly each morning from your gifted blankets, bedizened with still-moist pearls bestowed by generous pigeons and perfumed with the invigorating redolence of rat spoor, secure in the knowledge that you are now officially, utterly and deliriously free. Welcome to WTF-istan. Don't take any wooden nickels...

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