Friday, August 28, 2009

The Bottom Line

As management and labor tussle over dividing the pie, costs keep going up.  Each party in a capitalist transaction tries to make the best deal for itself, but everyone can't be a winner.  Participants toss the shit end of the stick at each other.  Dropping it outright is not an option.

During all of human development, some people have prospered more than others.  Sometimes the privileged have won their status by actual merit.  Often the favored position has been formalized so that a class of society gets it without a fraction of the original winner's effort.

In modern societies, certain job descriptions come with cushier perks than others.

All this adds up to a staggering imbalance in the use of the planet's resources.

We use economics to justify the imbalance, but our very own cherished system of competition could eventually lead us back to the natural model of subsistence farming.  At some point, executive talent will have to win a bidding competition to get a razor's edge of privilege in leadership positions rather than companies courting them with lavish inducements.  Life will be that cheap.

In the middle class, in small business, and down in the sweat-stained places where the real work gets done, people already understand subsistence.  It hasn't spread enough to be widely recognized.  We have a distance to go before it becomes obvious.  You have to use your imagination when you look at how products and services are offered on slimmer and slimmer margins.  Is profit an illusion? Has it always been? Is it just a loan against the future?

Everything in nature breaks even.  We are no exception.  If we're uneven, we can expect to be evened up.

When taxpayers insist that their children go to the cheapest possible schools, with the fewest possible amenities, they sense, even if they do not acknowledge, that no one has a right to do more than subsist.  They're asking their employees to do little better than break even.  It is most visible there, but many in the private sector feel the pinch as well.  Small business owners try to match the bidding power of large corporations.  Large corporations trim their expenses, often by ruthlessly shedding personnel.  The unemployed look for whatever they can find, often fetching up in small business or among the self employed.

Being your own boss doesn't mean you can always get the day off whenever you want.  The farm needs to be tended.

Monday, August 24, 2009

States' Rights in a Mobile Society

The United States was settled on more or less of a free market model. As settlers/invaders fanned out across the middle of North America, they set up shop wherever they could, often united on common philosophical ground. Restless souls kept moving while more settled settlers stuck around to set the tone for those who arrived later. In many cases, especially among religiously-based settlements, they became a known brand that attracted like minds.

As transportation and communication improved, people and ideas could come and go more easily. In a country that considered itself a great and unified nation, this movement of citizens and thoughts seemed like one of its better aspects. But it also diluted the unity of communities that might have lived in happy isolation.

Divisive issues have always stirred up debate in this country. It's only human nature. But now, modern technology gives us the ability to break free of traditional political boundaries.

Say you like the philosophies behind the laws and conventions of one state, but can't live there for any number of valid reasons. You should be able to claim citizenship there anyway, just as you shop for certain brands of product, patronize chain stores, follow a religion or otherwise link your identity to a larger one. Just as a global corporation will have a corporate headquarters somewhere, branded states will continue to hold the territory they now have, at least at first. More popular states will get more tax revenue and may buy land from less popular states that are strapped for cash. We could go from 50 states to 37, but they'd be proven performers with a solid customer base. We could even get down to five, or three, or two. Given people's love of their differences, though, that seems unlikely. We may go the other way, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned, and have a patchwork of numerous, tiny states.

We might even get to the point of individual statehood. Each citizen of majority age would BE a state. The sovereign state of Fred. The sovereign state of Angela. The sovereign state of Cletus. Each would levy taxes and pay for services and infrastructure within arm's reach.

Each state having a population of one, everyone would have to go to Washington (or wherever we'd voted to put the capital by then) or, more likely, vote on line on all major issues. If you didn't like your representative you'd know where to find him.

Okay, individual statehood seems unlikely. But absentee citizenship in branded states has its merits. Form your constituencies from like-minded individuals wherever they may be. We try to do it now with political parties, but that just mucks up the operation of government at state and national levels. Make the states themselves an intellectual construct instead of a physical space. It can't be much more fouled up than what we have. It might be jolly fun.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Panic and Anger Breed Panic and Anger

How many of the people joining the rage fest against health care reform are doing it just because they see other people getting upset? Whoever started the panic knows that these things take on a life of their own. Something spooks the herd. Once they're running, it takes a lot less to keep them running. Rumors flash among them. Bystanders start to run, too. They're driven by whip cracks and shouts, by imagined attackers in the dust cloud kicked up by their own feet.

Democracy in action. Voting with their feet against their wallets.

Everything is going to be all right. Individuals will suffer. You will be one of them sooner or later. In general, however, life will go on for somebody.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Partisan Pissing Contest Threatens to Drown Health Care Reform

An election is like a mountain climbing expedition. Funding comes from people who will never see the peak. Equipment is carried and messages are relayed by climbers who know they will never go high enough to be spotted with a telescope, let alone photographed in a triumphant pose beside a flag.

Many porters will labor just for a paycheck to ease their poverty, their lives barely improved by the success of the summit team.

On some of these expeditions, the team members don't even like each other that much. They do what they do so that their team will win. They lift their designated winner as high as they can and hope it's close enough for strength and skill to bridge the last gap. And then they all celebrate.

Most of politics takes place in the lowlands. The summits are metaphorical. The swamp is never far away. Whoever is king of the hill becomes a target for mudballs slung from the weeds where the losers dwell.

The opponents of health care reform have already succeeded in turning it into health insurance reform. The insurance companies know they can't provide quality care to a significant majority of citizens, let alone all of them, and still make a profit. Administrative costs alone must account for a large portion of the double-digit annual inflation of premiums. The paltry few percentage points of profit hardly seem worth it. So reforming that is like trying to wash a turd.

The saddest part is that the losing team in the last presidential election doesn't care one way or the other about health care. They only care about making Barack Obama lose at something. It might as well be this, because the issue is complicated enough to provide lots of entry points for scare tactics. If they can turn a constructive search for the best options into a contentious debate over ridiculous assertions they can befuddle and bore the American public into giving up the pursuit entirely. And then they can claim a Great Victory for their party against that young whippersnapper who managed to get elected strictly on the basis of grand-sounding, empty oratory.

Even if the effort to construct usable legislation continues, the partisans who play politics for points will need to gut it so the resulting product satisfies nearly no one. We've seen it before. We're seeing it now.

Before you get all wound up over this sort of thing, remember that opportunity only comes at a price. A lot of people have to lose for one person to win. If you want a chance to be that winner, you have to accept the possibility of losing. You have to extend that acceptance to your own health and life. Get rich or die trying.

In order for the American culture of opportunity to be truly fair, no one should get a hereditary advantage. Inherited assets not only should be taxed, they should be illegal. Everyone should start at square one. But then how would we maintain any great institutions? If we give a corporate entity a measure of immortality, how do we give it continuity of leadership without making it or another institution more powerful than any accomplished citizen? Whether anyone wanted to tackle that question or not, we have chosen instead to let fortunes pass and an elite tier of society wield power. Parents who bear children in the lower tiers must tell them that they have to take their chances. Get rich or die trying.

Because humans seem to have trouble grasping any value except monetary value, everything gets measured by that standard. Even something aesthetically or spiritually beautiful gets linked to money eventually. A starving artist's works may command far more in the years after the artist's death than their creator ever saw in life. Preachers of various spiritual disciplines receive financial contributions. Some of those preachers spawn institutions that outlive them. These institutions have a financial life. Great musicians hope to pull down a ton of money for gigs. Every thing of beauty or power has a price tag that can be manipulated.

Money can't keep you alive forever, but it can certainly help you put up a good fight. The struggle for money can destroy nature, love and whole societies, but we've made it the fundamental aim of our species.

Get rich or die trying. Give lip service to the value of the common folk, but what you're really grateful for is the fact that they're down there and not you. So the political fight for a victory on points doesn't really matter when we had no intention of doing anything benevolent in the first place. It's not a matter of nuance and detail. It's a fundamental acknowledgment that losers have to suffer. If you happen to be sick and you happen to fall short of a fairly high financial hurdle, something is so basically wrong with you that you will not be missed. Any one of you cheap dirt bags can be easily replaced. So suck it up.

I say this as a cheap dirt bag who has so far been fortunate enough to wiggle through any of the perils presented to me. I don't look forward to the one that does get me, but there's nothing I can do about it. Maybe I'll figure out how to get rich. Then I can live in my hilltop castle and empty my chamberpots down on the filthy dregs crawling up to seek my mercy.

E Pluribus Unum: out of all you dirt bags, ME. I got mine. Go get your own. If I feel nice I can give a little something to charity. Either way, you have to kiss my ass.

Isn't it about time we admitted that?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

Everyone complains about government spending, but the recent performance by auto dealers and the driving public when given a billion dollars to play with demonstrates what happens when we get to take part in it.

The government offered dealers a chance to give a big boost to drivers trading in gas guzzling junk. This would stimulate auto sales and remove wasteful vehicles from the road.

A billion dollars seems huge to most of us. It seems as big as a million used to. It's so vast you shouldn't be able to see the other side of it. So write those checks. Make those deals. Happy days are here.

The idea behind the program was no better or worse than any idea concocted by our citizen government. The original proposal called for four billion dollars. The senate whacked it back to one billion in an admirable move to conserve taxpayer funds. It was still a billion dollars. How often does the business person on the street get to dip directly into a billion in federal money?

So the auto vendors made deals, deals, deals! Free billion, folks! A billion! A THOUSAND MILLION! Wow! A bi--! Shit! It's almost gone!

In this case the program seems benign. I'd rather see the money go into circulation than into intricate killing machinery we hope we never have to use. It's just an interesting study in the citizen expenditure of public funds.