Thursday, January 18, 2007

Dilbert meets Emerson, or Why I've not been carrying my party card, lately

Our president, pretending to care about the unemployed. A more realistic picture of his performance can be found by clicking on this image.

While this blog is, as I've said, not going to be about national politics in general, sometimes one can't avoid the subject, and we're going to get into that now. I have, at times, been classified as a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, even a socialist, though that one seems to have come out of a confusion between me and a distant relative of mine who shares my preposterously common name. This has lead to any number of charges that I've been "trolling" or "betraying the cause" because, in one way or another, I've failed to stick to the party line.

In truth, I'm not really any of these things, never really have been, and look askance at the concept that one should philosophically tie ones hands in advance by commiting oneself to an "ism", and then sticking to that -ism no matter how horrible the things one may end up having to support for the sake of consistency may be. Was it Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote "Consistency is the bugaboo of small minds"? Sophomore high school English was a long time ago. I grew up cringing when I heard that line, as I usually heard it pop out as a soundbite offered in defense of poorly thought out positions, but there is a truth it points toward that maturity should help one accept.

One's picture of the world is always incomplete, and so a sensible man will see a disconnect between the theoretical models of the world he plays around with, which must be consistent to be meaningful at all, and what one might call one's working philosophy, that which guides one's actions and probably should include a logical inconsistency or two, because unless one has closed one's own mind, one is constantly updating that working philosophy, and those updates have implications that have to be worked through. "Aha! Got you! A doesn't fit with B" is the cry of an 18 year old college freshman git who has claimed (or thinks he has claimed) all of the privileges of adulthood, but has yet to shoulder most of the responsibilities, and thinks of learning as being that spoon feeding and regurgitation he got back in high school, maybe kicked up a notch in sophistication. Real learning in all things is more of a groping through a dark that one dispels a little bit at a time, the very activity that such a childish oneupsmanship stigmatizes, which is why adults have little patience with that reaction.

The sad news is that adults are becoming remarkably scarce these days, no matter what the age bracket one is looking at, with the result that satire and serious politics are beginning to greatly resemble each other. If one of us were to board a time machine, go back to the early 1980s, and tell a story about an American president who would trumpet the virtues of shipping American jobs and American industry overseas, telling the American people that this was in their best interests, ending with the American people believing this, one would have had trouble holding onto one's audience because the story would have seemed so far fetched. Let's consider a little history and the implications of the act. Remember the Rosenbergs, back from History class?

Remember what they were executed for, with the approval of the vast majority of conservatives to this very day? They gave information about a dangerous technology (nuclear weaponry) to a hostile government (that of the Soviet Union), helping that government with its possible future war effort against the United States. One might, after the fact, dismiss the complaint by observing that the feared nuclear war never came, but that would be like defending one's decision to high dive off the state street bridge on the basis that one had missed the passenger boat passing below at the time; history did not have to take the course that it did.

A more interesting line of criticism of the neocon party line is to compare the condemnation of the Rosenberg's with the acceptance of more recent actions, and note that while one's approach to life must carry a few inconsistencies, in this case no honest effort is being made to work out an inconsistency so glaring as to be impossible to ignore. The Rosenbergs were killed for giving the enemy some information - and nothing else. But let's take a good, long look at what American corporations are now doing, with the encouragement of an American president. Think about the practice of relocating industry from America to China, and then think about the likely progress of a war between a deindustrialized America and a mainland China to which the very industries on which a war effort would depend, had been relocated. The Rosenbergs merely sent information about the creation of weapons that could be used to destroy their countrymen. Try out this search, on the other hand, and think long and hard about what you're reading. Some of it, no doubt, is fabrication, but what clearly is not a fabrication is what our own president's position has been on the issue: if the work can be done more cheaply in location B, then the work should be done in location B. Period. No exceptions, no disclaimers, so if that means that cruise missles are being built in Canton instead of Seattle, so be it, and why not?

Tell me, if we end up going to war with Beijing, do you suppose that the Communist Chinese will feel so concerned with the honoring of contractual obligations that they will do as no state has done before them, and ship its own enemy war materiel that its enemy will have given up the ability to produce for itself? Which, really, is worse - just giving somebody some information about a technology, or shipping all of the information about that technology, along with the equipment needed to implement the technology, then going on to train the enemy in the using of that equipment while denying that same technology to one's own country? To follow this argument to its logical conclusion, then, one would have to conclude that the real crime of the Rosenbergs wasn't the propogation of classified information, but the insufficient presence of an entrepeneurial spirit; if only they had started a few factories in which the Soviets could construct those nuclear weapons, then they wouldn't have been traitors, they merely would have been engaging in free trade, and God bless America, from sea to glowing sea!

Either that, or that the standards applied are absurdly inconsistent, and that our own president and a goodly portion of the leadership of the allegedly American corporate community would have to reasonably be said to be more traitorous than the Rosenbergs. America and the West were able to survive the Soviet acquisition of a thermonuclear capability; neither can survive the complete disappearance of all local industry, and realistically speaking, how can Western personnel hope to bid lower in their salary demands, than can people who are being paid and paying their daily bills in soft currency? Free trade, pre-Bush the elder, was relatively free trade between developed nations with hard, stable currencies. While America might, overall, be a little ahead of Denmark technologically, the gap isn't so yawning that the Americans and the Danes aren't basically dealing with each other as equals. An American firm that opened a factory near Aalborg with the thought that it would be paying its Danish employees the equivalent of starvation level wages in the United States, when currency exchange rates were factored in, and that any labor organizers might be swiftly and horribly dispatched, would be in for a bit of a disappointment. In China and throughout much of the third world, however, these are realistic hopes for an employer to hold, and so common sense should tell one that on the terms that the president lays out, the process won't and can't even out, no matter how bad life here will get.

Consider who the American worker is bidding against. There are countries locked in Malthusian spirals, in which the population is growing geometrically and people are literally dying of starvation in the streets. No matter how little a foreign employer is willing to pay them, in currency that in Western terms is worthless, and no matter how badly that employers will treat them, they have to say yes. Worse still, the poorer these countries get, the more rapidly their populations grow, because children become the only form of social security that exists, the only hope for support in one's old age - meaning that the market response to an oversupply of labor will be to increase the oversupply, not to diminish it; one can not escape the fact that should one try to treat the overabundant labor as a commodity and predict what the price of that commodity will be (ie. what level of pay will the starving masses be left to survive on), that the overcited and oversimplified supply and demand curve equilibrium argument we all saw in Introductory Microeconomics (back when we were taking our Undergraduate common core courses) can not apply to this situation because the specific predictions it makes are at glaring odds with reality. The slow trickle down of employment is not going to keep pace with the exploding sizes of those workforces, meaning that from a starvation level low, the market price for wages can only drop in the rigid pursuit of lassez faire.

History gives us solutions to these problems, tarriffs to slow the migration of industry to soft currency countries and (gasp!) government initiatives to support the development of depressed regions (remember the Marshall plan, anybody). The old party line of "let the market take care of it" isn't working, with notorious results; getting American students to study technical subjects is getting to border on the impossible, and has been doing so ever since the word "bangalored" entered the vernacular. When, to take a case very familiar to me, graduate work in BOTH Mathematics and Electrical Engineering isn't enough to get an interview for an entry level job, and one is being told to start a third graduate degree program just to get that first "permanent" job, we've entered the realm of the deeply absurd. The unmotivated students at the beginning of their academic careers are literally unmotivated, or one might perhaps go so far as to coin a word and say that they've been de-motivated. They're being asked to work unreasonably, brutally hard at a time when they can see those who've gone before them being punished mercilessly in the job market for having done just that; we all know what "overqualification" is, right? Common sense should tell people that this isn't going to work itself out on its own, that things already are bad, positively nightmarish in places, and only promise to get worse if a different path isn't chosen.

Somebody reasonably pragmatic will look upon the damage done by taking an idea he once supported to an insane extreme, reexamine whether or not his support was prudent, and certainly not endorse such a destructive exaggeration of his old notions. But pragmatism is not in style; instead, in a way that brings to mind the Emerson quote mentioned above, we get to witness a notion that there is something virtuous in being irrationally stubborn, in clinging to one's abstract ideas no matter how much harm they work on real, flesh and blood human beings, and doing so to the bitter end, those doing so thinking of their callous egotism as being somehow a measure of their righteousness.

I find myself even more amazed that many will act thusly, and call themselves Christians or Jews. Judaism certainly does not smile on the willful ruination of one's fellow man; consider the law of the Jubilee year, something not at all in keeping with the spirit of "every man for himself". As for Christians who endorse the notion that one ought to say "to H*** with the consequences, let's just stick with our ideals", do they remember this one: "the Law was made for Man, not Man for the Law"? One always has to think of the consequences, but lately, people don't.

I've been watching the progress of these trends from a real world vantage point, and I am amazed at how willfully blind and deaf people have been willing to be. The allegedly low unemployment figure will be trumpeted as a triumph of unregulated markets. Somebody will then point out the statistical book cooking that goes into computing that official figure. For example, in Illinois we have something called "Project Chance", officially claimed to be a jobs program. I got to experience that "jobs program" firsthand; it's actually nothing more than an excuse to throw people off of public support. This is how it works: You're handed a sheet of paper and told to fill it with the names and telephone numbers of thirty new firms at which you have left off a resume or filled out an application, being required to do so within a few weeks. The vast majority of the places you visit will refuse to let you do so, so the question becomes, just how quickly can you move? Some of those who entered the program with me were a little stiff with arthritis, or missing a limb, or otherwise unable to run footraces. Too bad for them. Their public aid was cut, and they were tossed out on the street and left to die. Yes, really - and some of them did.

I was more fortunate, in having long legs that let me move quickly, if remarkably clumsily (mild case of cerebral palsy). I got my thirty names, no thanks to any governmental body since I didn't get so much as a recommendation of a place to apply, and was "graduated" from the program. I was no longer legally unemployed. I also hadn't been called for even a single job interview, which really wasn't a complete surprise, because I had been looking for a long time before being put in the project.

Others, a lot less persistent and in some ways, probably a little more sensible than I am, gave up on an impossible job market after a few years of looking - and were declared no longer unemployed. The computation of that figure is openly fraudulent, the fraud has been debunked repeatedly, and all that happens is that the true believers continue to play the broken record game, citing the statistic again as if the methodology used in computing it had never been critiqued. The word for somebody willing to do that, in earlier times, wouldn't have been "liberal", "conservative", "moderate" or even "libertarian". He would have been called a nut.

Shipping prisoners to Eastern Europe so that they can be tortured without any laws being broken, and then waxing indignant because somebody exposed that state secret? Holding people in prison for years without charge? Torturing confessions out of prisoners, and then refusing to overturn convictions based on those confessions when the awkward little detail of torture comes out (eg. Burges)? I can't defend things like that, nor can I bring myself to turn a tolerant ear to latter day apologists for domestic atrocities who will tell the standard lie "it has always been that way". No, life hasn't always been this way, and anybody appreciably above the age of 18 knows that full well, unless he's really gone. It's a cowardly cop-out, a feeble excuse for a citizen to accept what he shouldn't, when he really does know better.

Homeless San Franciscan enjoying the good life in the land of opportunity. Image links to a little more reality regarding the engineering job market.

If you read the comments at the top of my old homepage, you might be left with a misleading impression, however unintentionally I might have mislead you. You might semi-jokingly talk about being left with a picture of my walking off into the sunset, like the sheriff at the happy end of a Western, with a girl on his arm and the peaceful townsfolk safe. That's not really how things have been. In Chicago, overall, the world is probably a much darker place than it was ten years ago, it has just gotten brighter for me, meaning that any sunset I'm walking into is shining for me alone. What might throw people a little is the name - they're picturing a very white fellow, probably looking a little like Conan O' Brien. In reality, I'm a multiethnic Jew with more than a little Latin ancestry, and some of the diminished offline nastiness is probably a result of the browning of America; a few Anglo-Saxons look at the Guatemalan who moved into the apartment upstairs, and all of a sudden I'm looking like the All-American boy next door to them. All in all, a step upward from where I found myself ten years ago, when people openly talked about what "those people" were like, in reference to anybody whose ancestors spoke a Romance or a Semitic language (or some of each), and the fad for radical feminism meant that paranoid racial attitudes translated into some uncomfortably confrontational moments, because every complaint, no matter how meritless, was taken seriously.

I'm thinking that when people ask you, quite seriously, whether or not you're white, because they really can't tell just by looking, that the meaninglessness of "race" as a construct has been put on display for all to see, but that meaningless construct was, in years not so long past, used as a cover. When some of us would be targeted for just plain, raw hatred by little blond haired and blue eyed girls who'd say things like "you know what those Spanish guys are like", they'd be shielded from any criticism on the basis that "white" people can't be on the receiving end of racism, "whiteness" being so loosely defined that had Anwar Sadat's family moved to America before he was born, he would have legally qualified as being white himself.

OK, for reasons I'll get into later, I'm breaking off this post right now. Something just happened at this end that changed my mood greatly, and I can't continue writing in the same spirit I started in, so let's accept that this article is done, even though it obviously isn't.