Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Strategy for Republicans

Various “psychological” “studies” – that is, experiments run by left-wing pyschology professors on their students – purport to show that Republicans have a pronounced bias toward obedience to authority. This is untrue, of course, as even a slight acquaintance with the climate-change debate should demonstrate. In fact, even the Huffington Post is willing to admit this.

Nevertheless, there may be something to it…

What is our first experience with authority outside the family? Why, school, of course. And most of us go to public schools, which means that those authorities are, by definition, government authorities.

And what is our experience of those authorities? That they are, one and all, without exception, unbelievably stupid, power-mad tinpot dictators.

Some might accuse me of hyberbole. You are invited to provide counterexamples in the comments: School administrators who are smarter, more knowledgeable, and more competent than I, a lowly B.A. in English.

The thing about government is that nearly all government workers are precisely like those we first met in elementary school: power-mad morons. And the further up the organizational chart we go, the more true that is. Teachers, for instance, are noticeably more sane and less arbitrary than their principals and other administrators (and, sometimes, even smarter and more knowledgeable). In fact, it is their interaction with those power-mad morons that is most responsible for driving competent teachers out of the profession.

But Republicans are unwilling to point this out, apparently in the belief that is is important for children to show respect to their teachers and principals. This Republican, however, didn’t do that. Respect is to be earned, not given: and if teachers, principals, and administrators show themselves to be stupid, ignorant, and dictatorial, then they should not be given any.

My children learned early on that they should assume that their teachers are idiots; in their (mercifully brief) public-school careers, they encountered one intelligent, competent teacher. All the others were clearly uneducated, lamentably stupid, and ferociously incompetent. This is apparently normal in New Jersey, for our school district (Hamilton Township) consistently places right in the middle of various ratings: Not quite so bad as Newark and Camden and not quite so good as Princeton and Montclair.

“But what does this have to do with Republican strategy?” you might ask.

Two new things have arrived to afflict public education: Common Core and its amazingly incompetent implementation, especially in mathematics; and Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is bankrupting schools and starving children all over the country.

Aside on Common Core math: I've always liked math and am reasonably good at it (I was, as I like to say, the only English major in my class on partial differential equations). I understand what they’re trying to do to encourage an understanding of the structure of mathematics. But even I can be completely baffled by the poorly-posed problems petulant parents periodically post.

Both are perfect encapsulations of Progressive ideology and practice (or praxis, as good Progressives say). Both begin with laudable objectives – All children should be educated! All children should be fed! – and immediately deteriorate into ineptitude. All children are not alike: they have neither the same educational nor the same nutritional needs. I, for instance, was under 100 lbs for most of my high-school career (I hit 105 in my senior year). It is senseless to feed the same lunch both to me and to the offensive line of the football team. Yet that is what Progressives do: it’s one-size-fits-all for everyone, everywhere, except the Progressive elite themselves, who exempt themselves from the strictures they place, or wish to place, on hoi polloi. See, for instance, Al Gore and Robert Kennedy’s carbon footprints, the meals the Obama children get at Sidwell Friends School (and at the White House), the health care members of Congress get, etc., etc., etc.

No Progressive ever lived, lives, or will live in the fashion he wants to force on you.

And that should be the constant refrain of the Republicans, along with a promise that they will ensure that every law and regulation that applies to the citizenry will be applied with equal or greater force to members – whether elected, appointed, hired, or contracted – of the government.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Serving, Protecting, and the Duty to Die

Growing up, I was told the story of Mike McCoy, an Air Force pilot who died in 1957 in a crash near my eventual home in the Orlando suburb of College Park. The story, which ― alas! ― may not be completely true, was that he stayed with the plane to ensure that it would miss Robert E. Lee Junior High School at the cost of his life and the lives of his three crewmen. The only loss of life on the ground was a single cow. This is why Orlando’s airport was long known as McCoy International and still carries the airport abbreviation MCO.

I was thinking about the events in Ferguson, the tremendous changes in American policing, and the heroism of the police and firemen nearly 13 years ago on September 11th. And this called to mind an essay of John Ciardi’s from 1962.

If our police forces must be militarized, then let them be militarized like the pilots Ciardi describes. We should honor those who serve us; and we honor our policemen, firemen, soldiers, sailors, and marines because we believe that they are willing to die for us. When they put their own safety above that of the civilians they serve, they lose all claim to honor ― and should also lose such emoluments as salary and pension.

Ciardi is known today, if at all, as a translator of Dante. In the sixties, however, he was one of our pre-eminent men of letters. Among other things, he was the poetry editor and a columnist for the Saturday Review.

Here is his essay from October 6th, 1962 entitled “Ride a Hot Horse” (from Manner of Speaking, 1972, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ). I call this fair use, fwiw.

Note that Ciardi was a gunner on B-29s during WWII and flew 20 or so missions over Japan.

* * *

The opening of the Seattle World’s Fair was marred by an incident in which a disabled jet crashed into a row of houses, killing an elderly man and woman under their own roof while the pilot parachuted to safety miles away. A sad accident and one that is becoming sadly common as the jets fill the sky above and the housing developments fill the ground below.

But was it entirely an accident? It is possible, to be sure, that the plane was hopelessly out of control. But it is just as possible that the pilot, had he stayed with it all the way, could have managed to crash into an empty field rather than into those houses. I am asking if a pilot has the right to bail out of a disabled plane over thickly settled country, and I am moved to argue that he has not.

Nobody wants to splash the boys over the landscape. If a pilot runs into trouble and bails out over a desert, who could blame him for that, even if his jet happens by freak chance to come down on the one house within range or on a passing automobile? But to bail out over an urban or a suburban area is another case, and there, I must insist, the pilot clearly funks if he fails to ride it all the way down. There is always that chance that he can at the last instant avoid visiting his disaster on those below. And even if he cannot, even if his death goes for nothing, it is his job to try.

It is his job for the simple reason that he asked for it. No one gets drafted into flying jets. The boys have to want to, they have to fight for the chance to try, and they have to buck hard to get through their training. How can a would-be pilot ask for the job ― and ask for it that hard ― without understanding that he has a moral contract to spend everything, including his own life, to avoid dumping his disabled buzzer on the people below? Suppose, to select a horrendous example, that house with the elderly couple in it had been a school building. How does the pilot walk away from his parachute after that?

It may be that we have entered the age of the final moral funk, wherein sentiment can justify all. The government certainly went a long way toward justifying the funk of pilot Powers in the U-2 incident. Our government, to be sure, is now imitating the Communists in handing out only that information it wants the people to have, and perhaps, therefore, the whole truth will never be known. It is on record, however, that Powers was drawing $30,000 a year [note: the equivalent of about $236,000 in 2013] for occasional flights over Russia, and that his equipment included a destruction button and a poisoned pin. What can one conclude but that the button and the pin were meant for use and that the $30,000 salary was jeopardy pay? And what can one then conclude but that Powers took the cash and then funked it?

The boys know what they are asking for when they buck for wings. They like the flying pay, they like the badges, and they like the glamour the badges bring. Perhaps, above all, they like the feel of the hot horse under them. The hottest horse of all is, of course, death, and so long as there are boys in this world, some of them will fall in love with the sensation of riding him. As Melville wrote, “All wars are boyish and are fought by boys.” That love affair with the hot horse is of the boyhood of the race. But once a boy is on that horse, then it is his man’s job to ride it all the way.

T. E. Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) was such a boy-man. He lived with his itch to ride the hottest horse. He died, foolishly enough (if I recall correctly what I read years ago and have since forgotten where), of his passion for riding a motorcycle too fast. The motorcycle happened to be his hot horse of the moment. But if he was still boy enough to have to open it up all the way, he was man enough to know it was not a free ride. He died of a choice he had made within himself long before. Gunning his crazy machine down the road, he came to that instant when he must kill either an innocent pedestrian or himself. He swerved off the road and killed himself.

There is no need to grow romantic about the splendor of his choice. What was splendid about the man, finally, was his talent. What sent the boy hightailing down the road was no splendor but a problem for the psychiatrist’s couch. What remains is the fact that, between man and boy, Shaw made his choice clean.

The boys that fly the hot ones have the same choice to make. And like Shaw they have to make that choice in their own minds long before the moment of truth. It has to be made firmly beforehand, or their reflexes will make the wrong choice too late.

It may be a crazy choice to have forced upon oneself. Maybe they have to be a bit crazy to want to fly the hot ones. Maybe we are all crazy for having made a world in which we need a sky full of hot horses. But no boy ― and he has to be a boy, whatever bar, leaf, eagle, or star he wears on his collar ― can be allowed to go for crazy up to the time his buzzer runs into trouble, and then to dump his trouble on a row of houses while he floats sanely down in his parachute.

As the best, and least printable, of World War II’s flying songs starts off:

I wanted wings,
Now I’ve got the goddamn things.
Hell, I don’t want them anymore.

A lot of the hotshot boys, who had a high stateside fling flashing their wings for the girls, discovered in combat that they didn’t really want them anymore. But the fact remains that few of them broke and funked out. They had signed a contract with themselves. They had accepted the glamour, the flight pay, and the gravy-train freedom from all the nasty chores an ingrate army can dream up for noncrew members. They had asked for it and they had taken it. That adds up to a contract, and, like it or not, you keep that contract come flak, fighters, fire, or the heebie-jeebies. You may not want those wings anymore, but you’ve got them: they are tattooed on you. If you get killed flying, that’s tough, buddy, but nobody wrote out any special dispensation for your special skin. The contract itself was written on skin, on skin that was always of the most special kind ― the only kind there is.

If the boys in those jet cockpits do not have their contract clearly enough understood as a moral decision, it may be time to make it a court-martial decision. The gentle among us may cry out in horror against such a decision. It is no way to treat our dear boys, they will cry; the boys risk enough just in flying those ships to protect us.

But what we have to realize is that we cannot be protected by boys who risk enough. Nothing will cover us sufficiently until they risk everything. And, remember, the boys have not been forced. They asked for it. Every one of those bright badges has a piece of skin under it, and if the civilians insist on funking that fact, the boys had better get it clear, or clear out and go back to being civilians.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Inequality – A Screed

As “inequality” has become the premier buzzword among the progressive cognoscenti, I have proposed the obvious solution: That the government should take money from everyone who has more than median wealth and give it to those who have less – and do the same for income as well. Then garbagemen will have the same assets and income as CEOs, rock stars, and senators. What’s not to like? This is, after all, the goal of Elizabeth Warren and the Occupy movement she (claims she) engendered: A state where no one ever has to do anything he doesn’t want to do and never has to go without anything he wants.

But those who protest inequality also protest that this is not at all what they mean: The problem is not that inequality exists, but that there is “too much” of it. Yet it seems obvious to me that if inequality is the problem, then equality is the solution and, contrariwise, if equality is not the solution, then inequality cannot be the problem.

So what is the problem? Everyone outside the Obama administration can see that the American middle class is dying, that poverty is rising, and the rich – especially those with close political and/or family ties to the Obama administration – are getting richer. The Democrats’ answer is to demonize the Koch brothers and to ignore George Soros, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Immelts, Robert Rubin, &c., &c., &c. The odd fact is that the richer one is, the more likely one is to be a Democrat.

(To prevent criticism, I should say that I’m not accusing Obama of not caring about poor people. Far from it! It’s because he loves them so much that he’s made so many more of them.)

But the Democrats are the party of the little guy ... does this mean that rich folks (other than the Kochs, of course) are finally seeing the error of their ways?

Well, no.

When one is at or near the top of the heap, one’s first priority is to ensure that one and one’s family stay at the top. There are two ways to do this: to make even more money and acquire even more power or to use one’s existing power and influence to ensure that no upstart is able to challenge one’s position.

The first method is hard work and is subject to the risk that some poorer person could outhink and outwork the existing elite. The second method is foolproof – and given that the children of the wealthy tend to be fools (have I mentioned the Kennedys already?), that’s obviously the best choice.

What we are seeing is the death of capitalism and the birth of a patronage-based society. Every successful large business has many government contracts, from defense contractors to school textbook publishers. These businesses are motivated to ensure that they keep their contracts; if this means lobbying Congress to restrict competition, then they will do that. If it means hiring the dimwitted scion of a political family (say, Chelsea Clinton), then they will do that. The Federal government is now so huge that no new fortune can be made except with its explicit permission.

Nanotechnology? Better get the EPA and FDA on your side. Information technology? Better work with the NSA. Automotive technology? Back to the EPA, but also the Deparment of Transportation. Financial innovations? Better buy yourself some SEC commissioners.

But it takes large amounts of money to hire the lobbyists, ex-politicians, ex-regulators, lawyers, and other flacks you need successfully to bend the government to your will. Only the largest and wealthiest can compete in that arena.

If anyone tried today to build computers in their garage, the EPA would be on them immediately to require that they first build a multi-million dollar plant with all the safety features the most paranoid fantasist can dream up. (Cost-benefit analysis routinely goes out the window when one is working “for the children.”) Messrs Hewlett, Packard, Jobs, Wozniak, and Dell could not have survived such an inquisition.

If anyone has a truly new and transformative idea – the kind that makes jobs for some people, destroys jobs for others, and causes general prosperity to increase – then those with interests already vested in the status quo will turn to the government to squelch the parvenus. See what’s happening with Uber, Airbnb, and food trucks.

Other strategies that would help keep the elite in their rightful place would be to, say, restrict education to the elites, or artificially depress the wages of the poor so they cannot hope to acquire capital. One could do this by, for instance, encouraging the development of an organization of teachers so devoted to milking local governments for wages, benefits, and pensions that they have no time to concern themselves with the education of children – something like the NEA and AFT. Or one could open America’s borders so that there will be an endless stream of workers eager to make even a few bucks an hour – something like “comprehensive immigration reform.”

The middle class is dying at the hands of government and its cronies. Only when the government is too small to affect the economy will the middle class have a hope of recovering. And only the Tea Partiers have any hope of accomplishing this – all the proposals by Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, and Progressives have the ineluctable effect of further cementing the position of the current power elite.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

How to fix the problem of income inequality

What if the Republican party in the House took income inequality seriously? (Don't laugh.)

Why, they would pass the Harrison Bergeron Equality Act of 2014, giving the government unlimited power to ensure that every citizen of the United States have exactly the same income and exactly the same wealth as every other.

There. Problem solved. And how could anyone object to something so manifestly fair and just? It would fly through the Democratic Senate and surely be signed by President Obama – even though every Senator and the President would personally lose lots of money under the law, because they’re just that dedicated to the American dream of equality. Aren’t they?