The Very Angry Tea Party (Part 5)

Dear Julian,

You make much more sense when you speak for yourself rather than deferring to Rand. 🙂 Just a personal opinion, and intended as a compliment.

There is a nihilistic tendency in your writings, and in what you have related regarding the Tea Party. The focus is on how terrible the current system is, not on where things should go. What little is said about the future is also backward-looking: you and the Tea Party want to “restore” a limited constitutional government, which presumes we ever had such a thing. I’d question that presumption by asking exactly when the Federal Government went off the rails. It was surely before the 1860’s, because the Civil War was primarily about the South believing the Feds had already become too big for their britches. Since the Constitution was written around 1790, our “limited government,” if we had one, lasted a little over half a century, and during that entire period, supported slavery — which is hardly in keeping with ideals of human freedom, dignity, and independence. What, exactly, are you trying to “restore?”

I think it makes more sense for you to say you are trying the create the limited constitutional government we never achieved. But now you can’t just wave your hands and say “Oh, you know,” when asked what this is supposed to look like.

I’d like to reframe the whole issue by pointing out that the problem is not really “big” government — which is a vague, unquantifiable assertion — but is instead “bad” government, which fails in a number of specific ways. Small governments can be quite as bad as big governments. My sister tells me interesting things all the time about New Mexico, where she lives, and of course the government corruption in New York, Wyoming, Alaska, and Texas is legendary. City councilmen regularly run off with the till. Homeowners’ associations can be quite ugly, and their powers are virtually nil. Bad government is visible and brings misery; good government is largely invisible, but promotes stability and well-being for its people. Mere size is secondary, if not irrelevant.

Before considering what good government might look like, I think we need to have some common idea of what government is for in the first place. Historically, it has (at least) three necessary functions:

  • Regulating individual behavior. This includes all the “Thou shalt nots,” such as murder, theft, rape, and so forth, as well as some “Thou shalts,” such as paying taxes and military/civil/community service. Different cultures have different lists.
  • Regulating trade. This includes weights and measures, a common currency (or established and regulated rates of exchange), security of the marketplace, contract law and its adjudication and enforcement, plugging holes in the system that allow clever individuals and groups to commit systematic fraud and/or tilt the playing field.
  • Providing hedges against national risk. In ancient times, for example, this consisted of grain storage as a hedge against bad harvests, and a standing defensive military.

These functions are not “altruistic” or “nice.” They are established and maintained for practical reasons: to ensure that the group — the tribe, the village, the state, the nation — does not tear itself apart, stagnate, or collapse in hard times.

If you (or the Tea Party) want to cut fat out of government, well and good — but if you cut more than peripherally into these essential functions, you destroy the viability of government, and might as well promote anarchy. There won’t be much difference in the end.

I’m going to add a fourth function, which may not belong in government, but I don’t see where else it could be (peacefully) accomplished — equitable redistribution of wealth.

In the idealized labor capitalism you seem to be espousing, this should theoretically take care of itself. If I pedal harder, I get more — if I stop pedaling, I fall behind. The accumulation of wealth is limited by the bounds of the 24-hour day and the span of the human lifetime, especially if inheritance is also prohibited or limited to a fixed and relatively trivial amount.

This is a pipe dream (as in opium pipe). Waiting for the Return of Jesus is more realistic.

What actually happens is that we create legal definitions of ownership that allow wealth to be accumulated without labor — without which you cannot accumulate significant wealth. We create hierarchies of divine rule, and so a fraction of everyone’s labor automatically belongs to the king (or emperor). We create definitions of private property that allow small investments of labor to be leveraged into vast amounts of wealth, or allow one individual (the owner) to appropriate some fraction of many other individuals’ (the workers’) labor. We create the pyramid scheme of monetary interest so that, once wealth is accumulated, it automatically continues to exponentially accrue more wealth without additional labor. We allow vast inheritances that create dynasties of “old money” that bear no current relation to labor or contribution of any sort.

All of these mechanisms of “wealth building” are designed to concentrate wealth, creating an increasingly vertical hierarchy of rich and poor. Unless there is some mechanism of equitable redistribution, this increasing concentration eventually causes instability and collapse, which automatically redistributes wealth, mostly by making everyone poor.

This — not government size — is what Will and Ariel Durant drew from their lifelong study of Western civilization as the most consistent correlate with civilization collapse. They referred to the concentration and redistribution of wealth as the systole and diastole of a living civilization, endlessly alternating. Redistributing all the wealth is a terrible idea — allowing it to concentrate endlessly is equally bad.

A good government should have a peaceful mechanism of redistribution built in, just as the US constitutional system resolved the bloody and disruptive issue of succession by making it frequent, customary, and competitive. Taxing wealth on a progressive scale and redistributing it through social programs is one way of doing this. The von Misean strategy of demurrage on currency is another, presuming it applies to investment money as well as cash. A limitation on inheritance — personal trust-busting — is another. In Biblical times, they had the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were canceled and everyone went back to zero.

Let’s look at these four functions briefly. And heads up: be patient, I’ll get to the Democrats.

Regulation of individual behavior. We’ve traditionally been very lightly regulated as individuals in the US. This freedom has decayed alarmingly since the Reagan years, and the cause is not “big government,” but social conservatism that wants more and more constraints on “objectionable” behavior, much of which is religiously defined. We’ve already discussed this at length. The only new thing I’d add is that, during our visit to Colombia, Marta’s cousin brought up how “safe” he feels traveling in the United States compared to Colombia. I also felt this. Our “lax and permissive” society has never been perceived as anything like “lawless” by those who live in places that have actually experienced lawlessness, so the social conservatives’ fears about the “damn hippies” are clearly overstated. Conversely, as much as I curse the Republicans for their decades-long assault on the Bill of Rights, they haven’t yet pushed us over the edge in the other direction. Though Bush/Cheney, may they both rot in Hell, came far too close for my comfort.

Regulating trade. I think we both agree on most points of necessary government involvement in the marketplace. What I feel you (and the Tea Party) don’t properly appreciate is the role of corporations — and individual wealth acting through corporate fronts — in distorting the marketplace. You can’t simply remove “government interference” to good effect. A large part of that interference is intended to protect the marketplace. We can argue about whether any specific interference actually gets the job done, but what seems pellucidly clear is that the “deregulation” and “supply side” rhetoric that has disguised itself as homage to the “free market” in the last thirty years is more correctly viewed as abrogation of government responsibility to protect the marketplace. It doesn’t take a lot of insight to see that the Republican Party has been as disingenuous on this subject as it has been on the subject of individual rights. The Republican Party, as a whole, is corporatist, technically fascist — this is not a value-judgment, it is an analytical classification. This has been the case during my entire lifetime, and probably for a long time before. If it were not the case, there would be no need for a Tea Party movement.

Providing hedges. In part, I agree with you — every government hedge has grown monstrously. The military grew far beyond a hedge against attack a long time ago, and became a machine for taking on incredible risk in the form of foreign adventurism and conquest. “From the halls of Montezuma…..” to simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while supporting a viable career path with lifelong benefits for military desk jockeys all around the world. Social Security was originally a hedge to get people through hard times, and has become a potential welfare career path. Medicare is morphing into socialized medicine. I have no argument with any of these statements.

Where I part with Libertarians is in going so far as to say we don’t need hedges. Perhaps they don’t go that far, either, though it certainly doesn’t come through the Tea Party rhetoric.

One thing to point out about hedges is that they are inherently socialistic: from each according to ability, to each according to need. The purpose is to preserve the nation, and distribution must be as rigorously equitable as rationed food being doled out during a famine. If the Tea Party wants to replace a socialist defensive military with private mercenary forces procured on the open market, I will conclude they are simply fools who are unclear on the concept, and stop paying any attention to them. But this applies to any government hedge. It is funded by confiscation from all (taxes) — it is distributed to any citizen in need. Otherwise, it isn’t a hedge, it’s a hedgehog (as in pork).

Redistribution of wealth. Give me a real alternative to taxing the shit out of the rich, and giving it back to the poor and middle class.

Your description of the Tea Party as being above average in income and education does not surprise me, upon reflection. They are from what used to be the middle class, and the reason they are pissed off is because they are getting screwed by the endless concentration of wealth — away from them. It’s wrecking their dreams and hopes. It doesn’t matter to them whether the government is taking their income, or the corporations are squeezing their benefits to nothing, or both. Either way, they work hard, then get screwed.

They are the class that the rich and the government need to be worried about, because they are where true social instability starts. Not among the poor. Even if times become desperate, the poor are usually content to riot, loot, and go home. The middle class wants their opportunity back, their country back, and they will eventually organize and go to war to get it. In this respect, the Republicans, by exclusively representing the wealthy and corporate interests, are idiots. Unless they actually want a revolution, which I would put in the category of truly Miltonesque — better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven — and a step or two beyond idiotic toward the insane.

You say the rank and file of the Tea Party are full of rage, but that few can articulate the causes. This is by definition irrational rage. They are angry, but they can’t tell you why. What you meant to say is that it is justified rage, but that’s your opinion, not theirs. They’re just inarticulately pissed — and looking for a scapegoat.

The Tea Party leadership is harnessing that rage by providing the scapegoat of “big government.” I could equally well say the problem is “low wages” and set them against the corporations. Someone else could say the problem is the Jews and we could put them to work building concentration camps. The Tea Party rank and file isn’t thinking, it is just an angry mob, and those who lead it are saying, “Ready, Inflame, Fire!” I find that very disturbing.

Let’s turn to the Democrats.

Regulation of individual behavior. You have a big uphill battle to argue that Democrats are deliberately undermining the Bill of Rights the way the Republicans have done over the last thirty years, with the exception of handgun control — which has been grossly misrepresented by the NRA and the Republicans, much like the “Death Panels” nonsense. You might argue that a lot of Democrats are quietly complicit in the Republican assault on the Bill of Rights, and you might be right. But they aren’t proudly leading the way, they’re slinking along in the shadows — they at least know what they are doing is wrong.

Regulation of trade. I don’t think the Democrats have a clue, because they’ve absorbed too much of the Reagan rhetoric about deregulation and “government is the problem.” They have traditional touchy-feely “nice” things they do for “people,” which (as you point out) simply drive up costs. They do NOT go after the the market distorters like a rabid pit-bull, which they should do — that’s their job, and they are the only ones who can do it. Businesses are currently very cozy with Federal regulators — they should be scared spitless when a Regulator steps into the lobby and exposes his badge and his six-gun. Regulation should be straightforward, clear, and relevant — confirmed violations should require a really good reason to not revoke the corporate charter, sell the company assets (or nationalize the company), and put the leadership in prison. Lesser, slap-on-the-wrist kinds of regulation should go away entirely — if it isn’t worth a prison term, it isn’t worth regulating at the federal level.

I’m deliberately overstating the case for effect. But I always find it peculiar that lawmakers (particularly “tough on crime” conservatives) love to talk about capital punishment to deter crimes of passion, like murder — where it’s obvious that the perpetrator is not thinking about consequences, rendering “deterrence” totally ineffective — but they are completely unwilling to unleash capital punishment on a corporation, when the crime is committed in cold blood with precise calculation and would, in fact, be very effectively deterred. In many cases — I’m cynically tempted to speculate in all cases — the actual fines and penalties and scoldings from regulators are only a small fraction of the profits obtained through the violation, and are simply folded in as a cost of doing business. Wink wink, nudge nudge. Consider Big Pharma and off-label marketing that turns fatal, which runs around 10 parts additional profit to 1 part in fines and penalties. We had a situation here a number of years ago where the county commissioners were talking about a Big Hairy Fine of $10K/day, and I asked the awkward question of how that fine compared to the cost savings of going ahead with the illegal activity. The dumb f-cks didn’t even know. Or maybe they knew and the answer was … awkward. I never got an answer.

Providing hedges. I do think Democrats have lost sight of the difference between hedge and handout. It’s a pretty clearly case of bread and circuses at this point.

On the other hand, it isn’t always easy to determine where benefit becomes boondoggle.

Here’s an example from England in the late 1800’s. Syphilis was effectively destroying the British Army, contracted from prostitutes who set up shop around the barracks. Education of the troops did nothing. Harsh penalties and curtailing leave damaged morale and accomplished nothing. Running off the prostitutes was a full-time job, and the soldiers on leave merely sought them out in other locations. In the end, the government did something smart and creative: they licensed the prostitutes, and required medical exams and treatment to obtain a license: exams and treatment were free to the prostitutes, paid by the government. The men liked it, since a license meant the prostitute was more likely “clean.” The prostitutes liked it, because they got free medical care, and it cut down on competition from unlicensed hookers, while simultaneously increasing business from a less-fearful clientele. And the Army saw a substantial decrease in incidence of syphilis among the troops. Win/Win/Win, and for a pittance in cost. There’s a whole essay in how and why this licensing was eventually abolished on “moral” grounds. It’s reminiscent of clean needle programs in this country, and the idiots (primarily Republicans) who oppose them.

Similar issues arise with things like DPT panels, as well as mass inoculations for polio or other diseases. You need a high percentage of prophylaxis to prevent epidemics. If the drugs are too expensive to be affordable by everyone, the free market doesn’t work — those who can’t afford don’t get, so you don’t get the necessary prophylaxis coverage, and you get epidemics even with the vaccine. Since vaccines generally only provide partial immunity, those who could afford and got the shot don’t always get benefit when the epidemic breaks out. It is to everyone’s benefit for the government to subsidize the cost to make it universally affordable — even free.

This also raises the issue of government jump-starting industries. Let’s pick NASA, which you called a boondoggle. Space travel was unaffordable to private industry in the 1960’s, and there was no conceivable reason for private industry to even be interested. It wasn’t until NASA “wasted” all that taxpayer money to put different payloads in orbit that we eventually got things like GPS, international phone calls, satellite television (of questionable value), and all of the things that now are just starting to provide an economic incentive for private firms to provide launch services. You can say that the government overregulated space activities — I’m not interested in arguing — but there is little question that without NASA and the space program, there would be no private enterprise in space — there would be no use for satellites, and no business opportunity.

The same thing is true of the Internet. Without Senator Al Gore’s “wasteful” bill to fund the first high-speed Internet backbone in the US — what a boondoggle! — there would never have been an Internet. We’d still be paying premium dollars to use the antiquated telephone network with modems, as I did through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Now there’s all kinds of private money in the Internet infrastructure, but it would never have been invested unless someone (the government) first wasted substantial sums to provide a free infrastructure.

This is currently relevant in the energy sector. Low oil prices stifle alternate energy research and development. There’s no short-term profit in developing alternatives, and while everyone knows that oil prices will rise essentially without limit, no one knows when. In particular, no one knows if the government is going to subsidize oil prices to keep the economy running, which will continue to make alternatives unprofitable, for perhaps a very long time. So investment in alternative energy is seen as very risky, and few people are doing all that much yet. Especially in the current economic climate. The problem is that by the time oil prices rise enough to make the alternatives initially profitable, the economy is going to be in flames from the high price of oil. The government could jump-start alternate energy development, as it did spaceflight and the Internet — if it weren’t a fascist corporatocracy in bed with the oil business, which does NOT want to see substantial competition right now. This is exactly what Obama seemed to be talking about in his national address regarding the BP crisis in the Gulf. We really need the government to jump-start new energy, or we’re going to hit a speed bump in a few years that will take out the transmission, regardless of what else is going on.

Redistribution of wealth. The Democrats’ general answer of taxing the rich is reasonably direct and impartial. FDR’s progressive tax rate of 90% on ultra-high income was perhaps too much for steady-state. Ronald Reagan’s 28% was certainly too low. Rich people and Libertarians want to see even less than 28%, which is … ok, let’s not mince words, it’s self-serving bullshit. Wealth is never “reinvested” in anything, unless there is a promise of exponential growth for no additional labor. The whole “reinvestment” argument is simply part of the concentration-of-wealth game, not the redistribution game. It’s putting $10 into circulation with the expectation of taking $20 back out tomorrow — and the extra $10 came from someone else’s labor. Though with the stock market, that $10 is more likely to be taken from some other gambler speculating on the market. Either way, the goal is exponential growth of wealth without significant labor, and it results in further concentration of wealth, not redistribution.

I’m open to hearing other ways to do the redistribution, but please note that the purpose is to reduce the relative wealth of the wealthy, and yes, it most likely must be done (implicitly) at the point of a gun.

The point here, Julian, is that if this is not done by systematic and uniform means, it will happen anyway, but far more violently. There is no question that Presidents do not serve long enough in office to get anything really significant done. This is by design, because if they stay too long, it becomes very difficult to pry them out of office, and often involves bloodshed. Our system of replacing our President every four or eight years is insane — but it has successfully prevented wars of succession for over 200 years. Similarly, the idea of taking excess wealth from the ultra-wealthy may seem objectionable — but it rebalances a perennially growing inequity that is screwing the middle class and creating the Tea Party right now.

A few closing comments:

I don’t know what you are talking about when you say the “the modern U.S. government is so far reaching and all encompassing that no king or emperor or sultan has ever achieved so much power or control over his subjects as the U.S. government now exercises over its citizens.” That doesn’t make any sense at all. Ancient Egypt reportedly had a religious system that governed the daily life of its citizens down to trivial details, as did the Aztecs. The US has been following the former Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union down the road into totalitarianism, and took Big Steps in that direction under Bush/Cheney, but we aren’t there yet. What are you talking about?

The statement “all scholars agree” is certainly false.

The 40-50% figure you cite is of concern to me, but for a different reason.

I think we are running out of work.

Our food production and fabrication has become so efficient and so automated that it takes only a fraction of our population to supply all of us with more stuff than we can possibly handle. We recently had a spike of up to 20% unemployment. The biggest problem that caused was that, since they didn’t have income, they could no longer consume all the stuff we could still produce. Production sat idle, not because there was a labor shortage, but because there was a demand shortage.

Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that our work is increasingly make-work. This was an ironic part of the old Jetsons cartoon on television. Do you remember George Jetson’s job? He sat at a desk, and his job was to push the big red button once a day. The rest of the day he had his feet up on his desk, because everything was automated.

This leads to the question of what we do with 20% chronic unemployment. Or 30%. Or eventually 90%. The entire Calvinist idea of virtue through work breaks down, and our economic system…. Well, it’s too late tonight to speculate. But I can easily see us moving into a future where we never recover work for a significant fraction of the population. What happens then?

— Themon

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