Natural allies

I should like to consider the folk song, and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people.” — Tom Lehrer

I too have a theory that I’ve held for some time, that I’d also like to expound briefly on.

It is this: that economic conservatives and social liberals are natural allies, despite usually appearing in the platforms of the two main opposing parties, as are economic liberals with social conservatives.

Why is this?

Because more than anything else, social liberalism correlates with societal wealth, in the sense of cheapness of goods relative to your income.  In the fulsome, fatuous old Victorian phrase, if you can take care of the basics– food, warmth, shelter, entertainment– your mind “turns to higher things”.  Or if you’re like me and prefer more modern formulations (and mixed metaphors, which are goofy fun), it would be that a rising tide lifts all boats higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

That, of course, is only half of it.  The other half is that economic liberalism in large quantities– the ability and inclination of voters to vote themselves someone else’s money– kills economies.  Always.  Like strychnine or nitroglycerin, which in small amounts are useful (as appetite inducer and heart stimulant, respectively), that which is fine in small amounts is fatal in large quantities.  (Sola dosis facit venenum, as Paracelsus said.)  The most isolated such economies offer the most vivid examples, such as Venezuela, where the societal wealth, the cheapness of goods, has vanished.

Thus it is that unrestrained economic liberalism kills the societal wealth that allows social liberalism to flourish.  Venezuela has never been anyone’s idea of Berkeley, but surely it must be an even more socially conservative place right now.  Single-minded social conservatives should therefore want less societal wealth.  None are that single-minded, of course, but for the reason that is at the core of my theory, and which is at the core of many political problems:  economic desires frequently conflict with social desires.  In this case, the strong support of conservatives for economic freedom hinders their desire for social conservatism, by creating the wealth that enables people to be more socially liberal.

Choking on success

I want to talk today about a major problem with idealism and activism.  This is not partisan.  It’s true about human beings in general, both on the Left and on the Right, and between.  It’s about causes, and powers.

Causes adopt whatever tools, whatever powers, they think are necessary to succeed– which also must be available, of course, and which the cause has no qualms about using.   This is a pretty straightforward and non-controversial statement, right?

Now, it’s a curious way of looking at it, but causes, and powers, have an odd symbiotic relationship.  Power for its own sake is an actor too.  It wants to continue to get to act and to be powerful.  Causes use the powers to try to win, of course.   But powers, in turn, use the causes to justify themselves.  People who enjoy exercising powers use the causes, the idealism, to defend themselves from rational attacks upon the use of the power for its own sake.

What happens, though, when the causes succeed?  An imbalance.  A cause is an argument, a push, for a different “normal”.  When causes succeed, they commit suicide.  Or, if you prefer, pupate.  A successful cause is no longer a cause.  Revolutions metamorphose into institutions.  The new institution is now reality, for other causes—including, in activist revanchism, the cause of the old reality—to push against.

Where, then, does that leave the powers which were so codependent with the cause?  The powers, reluctant to find a new rationalizing cause unless absolutely forced to, push the idea that the cause has not actually succeeded.  Communism has not actually been vanquished.  Satan’s wiles are eternal.  The enemies of Peace, Justice and Freedom (TM) are neverending.  Sound familiar?  There’s always some new way people can argue that the cause’s goals haven’t actually been achieved, so that they continue to get to exercise the powers despite opposition both from the outside and in their own consciences.  They redefine the goals.  They redefine the words.  They demonize questioners.  And over time, the tail wags the dog.  Power for its own sake becomes the driving force, with a veneer of idealism as combined camouflage and shield.

This risk is age-old and perennial.  Charities, especially those publicized and popularized by the media in some form, become brands, and brands get put to use to become major businesses.  The CEOs of major charities get paid six figures.

Here’s an example.  The cause founded by Father Flanagan, in Omaha in 1917– Boys Town, to care for orphans– was popularized by a 1938 movie with Spencer Tracy.  By the 1960s it had become a major charity hog, with far more money coming in than was necessary to care for the pretty small number of orphans under its care.

The Monsignor was asked why they were constantly fundraising.

“We’re so deep in debt all the time,” he said.

Which was, needless to say, untrue to a shocking degree.  Its net worth was in fact over two hundred million dollars.  It took Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism by the Omaha Sun to break this major scandal in 1973, forcing the power to stop feeding itself so much and to return the focus to the cause.

Here’s a second example.

Not long before the Sun won its Pulitzer, one Morris Dees, whose marketing genius had made him a millionaire, founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was a good cause which did good work, such as supplying lawyers to poor Southern people on Death Row, and integrating all-white institutions.  The Ku Klux Klan was its main ostensible opponent– and main moneymaker.  Before long, though, the tail began to wag the dog, just like with Boys Town.

An article by Ken Silverstein in Harper’s Magazine in 2000 explained how this all worked.  The SPLC went after the Klan, two of whose members had lynched a black boy, and they sued it for everything it had.  News stories gushed about the great victory and $7 million judgment– but the only asset the KKK had was a warehouse worth about $50,000, so it seems pretty likely the rest of the judgment was never paid.  No word on what the lawyers were paid, but the SPLC got about $9 million in donations.

Nor did it stop.  “One pitch, sent out in 1995– when the Center had more than $60 million in reserves– informed would-be donors that the ‘strain on our current operating budget is the greatest in our 25-year history’.”  The priest in charge of Boys Town thirty years earlier couldn’t have put it any better.  Spin and pitiability were the name of the game.

This is a major form of the corruption of rationality.  Hollywood indulges (wallows?  revels?) in what has become known as “Hollywood Accounting”– the practice of using accounting rules to make it seem as though a movie has made very little actual profit.  (Suckers are willing to take a portion of net profits; those in the know demand a portion of gross receipts, which puts them at the top of the cash flow statement and avoids the bullshit further down.)  In a similar way, major, unionized, labor-intensive companies, back in the day when there were many, were owned in truth far more by the workers than by the theoretical owners.  How’s that?   Well, the true owners of an asset are those that control it, that get the profits from it.  Unions were able to keep voting themselves more and more of the profits in the form of what were supposedly increases to salary and benefits– an added portion of gross receipts.  They were far more the true owners than the nominal owners, the shareholders, who got whatever was left after unions were done, and their “raises” were in fact de facto dividends that were called wage increases by Hollywood-style accounting. 

Major charities, like Boys Town or the SPLC, are no different.  Nominally, they’re non-profit.  In truth, what that often means is that the profits have been Hollywood-accounted away.  They’ve been channeled into extra salaries and benefits, bloated leases on trophy headquarters, and the like.  They are, in essence, powers camouflaged with ideology that isn’t permitted to fade away or adapt to deal with changing problems.

So as you can see, causes and powers have an uneasy relationship.  Political power frequently steers idealists toward the politically profitable potential solutions to the problems they’re idealistic about, and away from the politically unprofitable ones.  By degrees, sadly, the idealists come up with their own Just-So Stories about it and cease to realize that they’re being managed.

Innumeracy-as-National-Epidemic, climate edition

The Left’s answer to Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has released a deeply stupid document she refers to as a “Green New Deal”, in which she sets forth various pie-in-the-sky schemes.  Megan McArdle describes them: “replacing air travel with high-speed rail; junking every automobile with an internal-combustion engine; making affordable public transportation available to every single American (presumably including those who live hours from the nearest town?); replacing the electric grid with something smarter; meeting “100% of power demand through clean and renewable energy sources”; and — I swear I’m not making this up — providing economic security to people who are “unwilling to work.” This, too, is supposed to happen within only a decade, or thereabouts.”

“But,” McArdle remarks, “arguably Ocasio-Cortez’s team wasn’t really trying to put together a practical document. Rather, it articulates an ideal, one that we may never reach but should at least strive for. And there’s something appealing about that argument, because climate change is a pressing concern, and even if it weren’t, there would be ample reasons to want to obtain as much energy as possible from renewable sources.”

There’s actually nothing appealing about that argument, simply because we shouldn’t encourage its ocean-wide disconnect from various aspects of reality.  Electric cars and high-speed rail (also electric) still have to produce the energy somewhere.  (My arguments for nuclear power will be a different post; suffice it to say here that there’s no rationality to any carbon-reduction plan that does not begin with a massive expansion of nuclear power.)  With regard to home energy efficiency, It would save only a little of the fraction of U.S. energy consumed by heating, of the fraction of U.S. energy consumed by domestic use, of the 14% of worldwide carbon emissions produced by the U.S., which is in turn only thought to be responsible for about one-quarter of climate change.  All of it together can only be done once and is probably going to save only the equivalent of a year or two of the carbon increase produced by population growth in China and India.

And that’s before the minor matter of its cost. If you could wave a wand and get all these things tomorrow at a zero cost in financial and/or political terms, the logic would be, “Sure, why not? Every little bit helps.”  Instead, this smidgen would cost massively in all respects and be deeply unpopular with the public, with the result that it’s a political nonstarter.  Trying to do it anyway would waste enormous amounts of the one thing the claimers of climate Armageddon argue we have far less of than we think: time.

So, no, in my view, not appealing.

The zero-sum game of unity

Unity is a zero-sum game.

Civilized policy relies on society, which is a group of people bound together by a common bond or bonds.  But when policy’s aim is essentially to force people together to achieve some political prize offered to an interest group in the name of civilization, it might have the short-term effect of a benefit to the politician and the group, but it has the long-term effect of eviscerating any affection that the forced people might have otherwise had with the interest group.  This is one of the greatest criticisms of government: mandatory, artificial relationships squeeze out the possibility of healthy, organically created, voluntary relationships.

Think about marriage back when divorce was difficult.  Did it result in healthier marriages?  Probably not.  It resulted in more transactional marriages, and more stable households, and maybe some percentage of couples forced to remain together fell in love over time, which they might not have done if free to abandon the union earlier.  Mostly, though, I suspect that it resulted in a whole lot of resentment and bitterness that soured relationships which shouldn’t have been maintained but which for sociopolitical and religious reasons they couldn’t get out of.

The more politicians, pushed by special-interest or extremist groups, grab something for a particular racial, sexual or economic group, the more the memory of that taking poisons the relationship of that group with the grabbed-from.  The more this happens, the more society becomes like an unhappy marriage no one can escape.