Friday, October 29, 2004

Make It So

By now, people under 30 have heard that Social Security won’t be there for them thousands and thousands of times. It is a popular Republican theme, though one that candidates only utter sotto voce during actual campaigns. Former Senator, current television D.A. Thompson repeated the meme the other day. Don’t kid yourself, the actor/politician warned, the system is headed for inevitable catastrophe. But why is he so sure, especially since, from a strictly actuarial point of view, no such disaster is looming. Well, I figure it’s like the vows exchanged at the altar. From a purely statistical point of view, eternal love may be somewhat unlikely, but we promise it nonetheless. By the same logic, the social security system is not likely to fail on its own, but with sufficient political determination, it can be made to fail. So why are the Republicans confident that Social Security won’t be there for you? The full form of the prophecy would run, “It won’t be there for you if we have anything to say about it!”

There is surely nothing sacred about our particular version of social insurance, and there may well be ways in which the current system could be safeguarded, improved, or even replaced with a better alternative. The Republican dream of a privatized system does not address the real issues with Social Security, however, because it is misidentifies the real problem, which does not concern the financial and distributional arrangements we make to provide income for old people but the economic and demographic problem of providing goods and services for everybody when a smaller proportion of the population is at work. One can bleat like a sheep about compound interest as the solution to this problem, but what’s needed is not compound interest but compound growth, something real, not something notional. In the absence of a more productive economy, the numbers on your account statement, however grand, won’t buy you what you need. On the other hand, granted reasonable economic health, the nation surely has enough wealth to provide a decent condition of life for all its citizens, though it may be that somebody, somewhere, sometime will have to forgo a ski weekend so that old women don’t have to eat dog food.

In a rational world debate about Social Security would be exceedingly wonkish and dull because it would be a discussion about practical and mundane remedies to real but hardly overwhelming problems. Stoking paranoia about the system is hardly helpful unless, as is pretty obviously the case, the warnings about looming disaster convey political and personal benefits on the prophets and their kin. Even more than being the reflex of an ideological fixation, the call for the privatization of Social Security is all about slopping the hogs. What it is not is a response to the logic of history or the arithmetic of pension plans. If it ever occurs, it will be one of those things like the establishment of the Soviet Union that happened because a group of determined people made it happen.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Krokodil Rock

I’m very skeptical of the ability of satire to illuminate politics because the normal effect of ridicule is to reinforce existing prejudices. There’s a bit of a Tory in every commercial wit, even the leftish ones, if only because playing to received ideas flatters and gratifies the audience while conveying something new would require them to think. Anyhow, these days a comic who attempts to say something significant, which necessarily implies subjecting one side of an issue to more grief than the other, is subject to universal criticism. The equal time rule, which no longer applies to serious commentary, is very much in force when it comes to lampoons. Which explains, for example, why Jon Stewart, for all his intelligence, finds it necessary to deploy the same stale jokes about Gore and Kerry as a hack like Jay Leno. Meanwhile, the humor of mainstream shows such as SNL is comprehensively emasculated despite the irrelevant daring of its bad taste. So we get more fart jokes at the same time that satirical content becomes as toothless as the social critique once found in Krokodil, the Soviet humor magazine of the Stalinist era.

Speaking of Jon Stewart. I’ve worried for some time that he was in danger of a fall, and the ambiguous reaction to the Crossfire appearance shows that I may have been right. Stewart told the truth on television, and for that outrage to the cosmic order, he must atone.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Forward to the Past

While I’m only knowledgeable about 18th Century English political history because as the Scrooge McDuck of cultural capital, I’m knowledgeable about everything, a great many Conservatives are buffs on the era of Old Corruption out of sheer nostalgia. They feel a deep affinity for a frankly oligarchic system in which all elections were stage managed by insiders, Parliament spent much of its time expanding the death penalty to cover the theft of silverware, and George III and his minions could control government by paying off their supporters with government contracts. Like the followers of our George, the King’s party benefited from the many rotten boroughs that returned an MP despite their tiny populations—think Wyoming or Alaska. Relatively inexpensive favors could buy a vote in those tiny constituencies just as it is fairly cheap to buy off the cattle and mining interests that dominate the empty pith and frozen rind of the American continent. Meanwhile, general public opinion was also for sale. The English system provided a good living for a large class of flacks and publicists who defended the powers that be with purchased sarcasm.

The Anglophilia of the rightists explains a lot. For example. The administration and its posse is thought to be hostile to things French because of the opposition of France to the Conquest of Iraq, but the pundits never manage a comparable level of anger for the Germans or any of the many other peoples who opposed the war. You might think that the Germans, whose government is officially socialist, would be a more obvious target than the French, who are led by a conservative. Anger at the French, however, is more rewarding to our Conservatives on the level of fantasy because these guys still think of themselves as William Pitt. Over and beyond the normal hostility of Conservatives to the Enlightenment, in denouncing Paris, they are channeling the English beefsteak patriotism of 1796. Somehow it goes with bow ties.

I advise the pundits to be careful with the historical analogies. They’d like to believe that contemporary America is in the situation of late 18th Century England, a nation that eventually triumphed over its great continental enemy despite its diplomatic isolation. It is perfectly true that England did survive the loss of its American colonies and went on to flourish economically despite the hostility of most of Europe. England, however, did several things that we are not doing. While the English were in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, we are busily dismantling our own manufacturing economy. While the English pioneered a sound system of public finance, we are destroying our own national credit. While English patriotism made it possible to increase taxes during wartime, we’re unwilling to pay the price for our aggressive foreign policy. In fact, in our ideological posturing, national vanity, and feckless bravado, we’re acting precisely like cartoon versions of 18th Century Frenchmen. Moreover, as a declining but militarily formidable power, we’re very much in the situation of late Bourbon France. Unlike the English, we don’t have the prospect of lording it over a worldwide power vacuum where obsolete empires and helpless natives await exploitation. This time the heirs to the Moguls and Manchus are coming for us.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Oxycontin of the Masses

According to Marx, the preoccupation of the German intellectuals of his time with religious issues was evidence of their political immaturity. How else explain why grownups were seriously debating the divinity of Christ as late as the year 1848? Similarly impatient sentiments are often enough expressed today about the growing salience of religion in American political affairs. Most outlooks on history view religion as a kind of pedagogy and separate its message, which is more or less endorsed, from the nursery story format in which it is conveyed to the people. In this narrative, the advance of education and enlightenment eventually make it possible to dispense with the crude symbolism and miracle mongering in favor of plain speaking and a respect for the truth. So why does every political candidate have to make a public confession of faith in order to get a hearing at all?

Most conservatives are not surprised by the persistence of irrational styles of faith since they don’t believe in progress of any kind, except perhaps scientific progress. Religion has no intelligible core for them. It is merely a method of crowd control whose content is irrelevant to the clear-eyed elites who in the best case run the world with virtuous cynicism. Religion and reason address different strata of the public, not different ages of history, so one should hardly be surprised that religion neither declines nor becomes more reasonable over time. Indeed, a public that reasons is a great evil so the right subscribes to the Taoist admonition to “fill their bellies and empty their minds,” or at least to the part about emptying their minds.

Although I retain enough of my Left-Hegelian upbringing to think that religion does have a cognitive significance and really does represent a way in which people understand themselves and their world, I have to admit that the Conservative take on religion does provide a useful if partial perspective. But even to the extent that the telos of religion is not truth, it does have a history. It progresses, albeit as a technology progresses, getting better and better at mobilizing the resentments and hopes of people. In my lifetime, for example, television evangelists have pioneered entirely new ways of exploiting a huge audience of vulnerable listeners just as earlier operators colonized the radio waves back in the 30s and their distant ancestors figured out how to exploit moveable type.

Even aspects of religion that appear to be thematic to particular faiths can be understood as technological breakthroughs. Religious entrepreneurship has a history—traditional religious personnel sacrificed cattle, they didn’t propagandize their followers. Once a group discovers how to establish a secret sect, the technique will be copied by other groups just as religious fanaticism, a Persian and Jewish invention, quickly escaped copyright. Indeed, the practice of religious devotion itself, like so much else, seems to have been a Hellenistic invention that got picked up by the Christians and eventually spread to the ends of Asia as bhakti. Whom one adores is less important than the practice of adoration. The original man who was proclaimed the savior (Soter) by his PR department may have been Ptolemy the First, but Christ, Rama, Kannon, Guru Nanak, and various Sufis and Saints have filled the same role since. The absence of truth in religion leaves the field wide open for the advance of technique.

Now it may be that modern man is suffering from an especially bad case of existential anguish and that the religious revivals of the time are a response to a deeply felt need. I’m skeptical. From an objective point of view, the human condition has always been pretty desperate. Perhaps something about contemporary conditions does make the resentful plankton of our kind more aware of its humiliating situation and therefore easier to manipulate. On the other hand, just as the automobile was not introduced to meet the challenge of a worldwide horse shortage, the current obsession with religion may simply be a consequence of a wave of entrepreneurial activity that is exploiting the latest developments in the technology of superstition.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Somewhere Under the Radar

My Dad was convinced to the day he died that the Japanese and Chinese would one day get together and stab us in the back. Where he got this notion I have no idea. It wasn’t that he harbored bad feelings about Asians—he didn’t have any discernable animus towards the many Nisei who lived in our town—and his prophesy was certainly not based on any knowledge of the history of the region or the culture or languages of the peoples involved–he didn’t have any of that either. When he would pronounce on the matter, I tried to suggest that the Chinese had every reason to hate the Japanese, but he waved that off with a smile as if I were being na├»ve. The strangest thing about his conviction on this issue is that he never acted as if the forthcoming reversal of alliances was at all important. It was just something he absolutely, positively could foresee. What was impressive was his perfect assurance that he was right.

Maybe Beijing and Tokyo will get together one of these days, possibly inspired by old Fu Manchu novels. That’s not why I recall this bit. It’s just that I get my own premonitions from time to time and have to remind myself that they may sound—or be—as quirky and unsupported as Dad’s offhanded warnings about the Yellow Peril. For example, I’m quite sure that the Star Wars anti-missile system is a fraud; and my skepticism about it has very little to do with the widely-held opinion in the scientific community that the whole thing is a crock. I mean that’s a good reason not to think the thing will work, but it’s not my reason. After all, from that kind of reasoning one could arrive at the reasonable guess that the system is impractical but never achieve the kind of total confidence that runs in my family. On the other hand, unlike my father, who was as absolute in his oracles as a Priestess of Apollo, I do have some reason for what I think though maybe my syllogisms are only suitable for a Sibyl. Anyhow.

This is the theory that I have and the theory that is mine. If there were any real prospect of an anti-missile missile system really working, we wouldn’t have heard a word about it. Whenever practical and important weapon systems are in the works, they are treated as the darkest of state secrets as in the case of the Manhattan Project and more recently of stealth aircraft, which never appeared on the radar until they didn’t appear on the radar. The technical possibility of atom bombs and undetectable planes was indeed suggested long before the realization of either—my Dad, for example, had heard about the possibility of nuclear weapons from his physics profs at UCLA in the early 30s—but once the technology became something that could be realized in a matter of years, all mention was squelched. Indeed, I understand that the Germans gleaned some inkling of what was up when many topics in atomic physics disappeared from journal articles in the 40s. On the other hand, since we hear a very great deal about Star Wars indeed, it’s obvious that nobody in the military expects it to work. QED.

Next week: news about Knight Templars.