Saturday, September 15, 2018

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Danger, James Madison, Danger!

I asked [Jeffrey] Rosen [president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia] to imagine what Madison, the main proponent among the Founders of indirect democracy, would have made of Trump, of Trumpism, and of our coarse and frenzied political age. Rosen’s eloquent answer is contained in his essay, “Madison vs. the Mob,” which is an anchor article in this special issue on democracy in peril.
The American Crisis. The Atlantic.
Democracy is in peril, huh? So what?

I understand that this is considered somewhat sacrilegious in modern American society, but honestly, so what? American representative democracy/republicanism was conceived as a means to an end. And that end was, effectively countering some or all of the many problems that the founders of the nation perceived with the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain. And like many means to an end, representative democracy was a tool. now, some 240+ years later, it's possible that the ends have changed, and so the perception of the best tool to meet the new ends may be changing with them. So be it.

For me, the hand-wringing about "democracy in peril" presupposes that democracy has some sort of right to exist, independent of its fitness for purpose. I'm not sure that people actually understand it that way, and so it's possibly more accurate to be concerned with changes in the ends to which government is being put. But... maybe those ends aren't really changing.

There's an assumption, and one that a number of people are very much invested in, that the goal of the United States has always been to live up to the lofty ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence; the whole "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" deal. But it doesn't take a Ph.D. in political science to understand that what tended to motivate the colonists most was their own material well-being. After all, violations of people's putative rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness were the order of the day right out of the gate. And while most people tend to take that as a reference to slavery, slaveholding was merely one aspect of it; it went far beyond the simple treating of people as property.

Perhaps what's happening, is that there is a class of people (as there has always been) who have understood that the goal of the United States was their personal material well-being. And that lofty goals and high ideals were nice, but good food and fine clothing were better. And the understanding that changes in demographics are going to mean that they cannot count on electoral dominance to privilege their interests forever has lead them to conclude that representative democracy has outlived its usefulness.

As I've noted before, democracy is a poor way of apportioning scarce resources between two mutually antagonistic groups of people. It's even worse for guaranteeing that a minority minority of the population obtains the largest portion, unless they have allies in the scheme. And if democracy is imperiled, it may be due to the fact that it is useful for lending legitimacy to whatever scheme comes after it; one that might do a better job of looking after the interests of those who feel the nation rightfully belongs, and will continue to belong, to them.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Life of Work

A group of us were discussion an old article from The Atlantic, "Rich People Are Great at Spending Money to Make Their Kids Rich, Too." Once we painfully ground past the part where people felt that they were being criticized for disposing of their own money as they saw fit, the debate moved into whether or not money actually made a difference in outcomes. Even while people prided themselves on the money they put into their children, they insisted that society was a meritocracy.

But there's a disconnect there. A society cannot simultaneously be organized around parents being able to purchase or pass along advantages to their children AND the individual merits of those same children.

So, whether there is anything wrong with passing on financial (or merely expensive) benefits or not, I shouldn't claim that "my kid was a harder worker than yours" and therefore deserving of a better outcome when the "work" involved was taking advantages of opportunities that I purchased for them. If life is unfair, then let's own up to the unfairness, or advocate for our own definition of fairness and to deprecate the other. This seems fairly straightforward to me.

But many people in the United States, in their pursuit of "meritocratic fantasies," as one person described them, tend to treat gifted capital as earned capital. And there's nothing wrong with gifting capital. They can gift their money to whomever they want. If they want to give it to their kids, fine. But then they seem reluctant to actually admit that the gift makes a difference.

American society tends to be of two minds about this sort of thing. Parents will work their butts off to provide advantages to their children, and then strenuously deny that those advantages are worth anything, and behave as though if their children had been absolutely deprived, they would have achieved the same things.

And I get it; it seems to me that a lot if it is about protecting parental pride. No one wants to be told that their children had it easy, despite the amount of work they put into making sure their children had it easy.

The United States is not a meritocracy. There is a well-known correlation between the resources a child's parents pass along to them, and where they end up. And that's fine, It's when parents deny that any such correlation exists, so that they can say that their children did it all on their own and that the "extra tutoring, classes, what ever it takes" were all just meaningless expenditures that it becomes ridiculous. People deny that the "head start" they worked so hard to provide actually made a difference, because that breaks the narrative that if one only has the right "values and culture attitude," then literally nothing else matters. And in the end, one winds up with character assassination in the service of a "just world" fallacy.

Or, perhaps one winds up with character assassination in the service of an understanding of one's own character. There's a vestige, I think, of the fabled "Protestant Work Ethic" that despises leisure and idleness, even when it's the reward of years of effort. It can, very easily I think, become a celebration of toil for the sake of toil, even though work is perhaps best understood as a means, rather than and end. And so people don't like to think that they've raised their children to be idle layabouts, even though what's the point of having enough money to last you the rest of your life, if you never take the time to enjoy life? And so people like to see a work ethic reflected in their children, even when it serves little purpose.

Summer's End

Summers in the Puget Sound area seem to come to a very abrupt halt with the end of August. The trees seem to go from brilliant green to losing their leaves very rapidly, some of them, seemingly overnight. Autumn doesn't ease in, in the way I remember it in Chicagoland. Instead, it jumps up out of nowhere.

Friday, September 7, 2018