Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 August 2010

An American Allegory


[For a brief comment on Michelle in Spain, click here.]

Once upon a time, a special people lived on an island. They were a very clever people. One of them figured out gravity and planetary motion. Another figured out economics. A third conceived how different species of living things came to be. No single people, even the learned Jews, had ever contributed so much to human understanding.

These islanders were generally happy. They also had discovered the principle of “fairness.” Treat people fairly and they treat you fairly back. It was sort of an islanders’ version of the Golden Rule.

The islanders practiced this fairness among themselves, less so among “savages” that they encountered in their voyages around the world. But they were industrious, and the rest of the world hadn’t yet discovered the principle of “fairness.” So they prospered.

Driven out by religious wars and persecution, some of the islanders went across the sea to live. In time, they developed their own society across the sea, based on the knowledge and fairness that the islanders had discovered.

But the islanders who stayed behind were not so smart or fair in dealing with their cousins in the new land. Eventually there was a war, and the cousins split off to go their own way.

Because the islanders had not dealt with them fairly, the cousins across the sea distrusted the islanders’ society, which they called “government.” When they wrote down the principles of their own new society, they limited government in many ways. They didn’t think to limit the power of people outside of government, no matter how rich or powerful they might become.

Time passed, and the islanders’ cousins across the sea prospered and became mighty. Their society and culture, based on the principles derived from the islanders, came to dominate the world. But they never lost their distrust of government, or their strict rules that limited its power and operation.

As more time passed and industry developed, a few people outside of government began to accumulate great wealth and power. They got control of land and raw materials and factories that made things. They provided work on which the common people depended for their livelihoods. They bought up the new machines that provided transportation and made new products that enriched people’s lives. Control over all these things gave a few people enormous power over common people and society’s affairs.

Despite their distrust of government, the islanders’ cousins in the new land across the sea at first relied on it to curb the power and influence the favored few. They assessed taxes on all income, including their own. They passed laws to prevent the favored few from combining or conspiring to increase their power. And workers banded together to assert their strength of numbers.

These tactics didn’t work very well. The favored few continued to dominate the islanders’ cousins’ society across the sea. That is, they did so until their mistakes drove the whole world into economic collapse. Then the cousins across the sea began to assert themselves even more. They passed laws to regulate the economy. Workers banded together even more closely to demand fair treatment. And the government, run by a popular new leader who couldn’t walk, approved and assisted all these changes.

Just about this time, a great war came. Powerful enemies at the ends of the earth threatened to conquer the globe. They actually did conquer much of it. The brave islanders and their cousins across the sea, along with others, worked together to defeat this menace, in a rare display of worldwide cooperation. The favored few, fearing that the would-be conquerors would take away their wealth and power if they won, joined the effort.

It was a long, hard, disastrous war. Many, many millions died. In the end, the would-be conquerors lost and the rest won. But the long, hard war sobered up the cousins across the sea and even the favored few among them. For a long time, everyone worked together, and the new rules and the old principle of fairness prevailed. The islanders’ cousins across the sea grew prosperous and powerful, and everyone everywhere paid them heed.

But as time went on, the favored few grew dissatisfied. They weren’t content just to live in a society that had the admiration of the entire world and owned most of the wealth in it. They wanted more.

So they conceived a plan to turn the cousins’ inbred fear of government to their advantage. For a long, long time, they taught the people that the government that had formerly curbed their power and had won the great war was the people’s enemy.

For the ones who had fought in the great war and had seen what caused it, this new teaching was hard to understand. But they got old and died, and their children were more amenable to new ideas. Soon the notion grew widespread that government was the enemy of the people and the cause of most of their ills.

As time went on and the people grew to like this new idea, they began to relax their vigilance and control over the favored few. They no longer enforced the laws that kept the favored few from conspiring. Workers stopped banding together to assert their power of numbers. Everyone trusted the favored few to know best and to provide for the rest.

So popular was this notion that it thrived even after the favored few crashed the economy with their money-lending schemes. The crash was not as bad as the first time, before the great war, because hated government stepped in to prevent the worst damage. But this only made the people hate the government even more. They had been well trained.

A new leader promised to make things better using the power of government. But the people did not trust him because he had an unusual family background, and he wanted to work with hated government. So after his early efforts won only partial success, the people gave control of their society back to the ones who hated government, that is, to the favored few. After that, the favored few thrived.

Now the favored few had a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog culture. They did not support the principle of fairness. They believed in winner take all. Each sought to become the biggest fish by eating all the others.

So a long, private economic struggle ensued. In the end, the biggest fish of all bought all the others’ property. Everyone else worked for him, including the favored few whom he had bought out.

Some thought this big fish looked just like J. Pierpont Morgan. Others thought he resembled John D. Rockefeller—the big fish who had cornered the market in oil long, long ago. Some thought his voice sounded tinny, like Bill Gates’.

But in fact, no one really knew. Although the big fish owned everything and employed everyone, he was secretive and private. No one even knew exactly what he looked like. All they knew is that everyone worked for him, and every big project required his personal approval.

If you wanted a job, or if you wanted to keep the one you already had, you dare not cross the big fish. For he controlled everything in the islanders’ cousins’ land across the sea.

After a while, things there began to change. Travel back across the sea became difficult and expensive. Work and life got harder. People began to notice that the old fairness principle no longer seemed to work. But they couldn’t do anything about it, because everything required the big fish’s approval, and everyone worked for him.

The big fish also used a marvelous new communication system, called the Inet, to spy on everyone. He knew everything about everyone, including things they’d rather not have most people know. So if the big fish’s power over your livelihood were not enough, his knowledge of your every move and every life’s mistake helped persuade you to knuckle under.

By this time, of course, government was nowhere to be found. The big fish had taken over all its functions. The people hardly noticed, although a few of them missed the chance of having something so easy to hate.

No one hated the big fish. You might as well hate the weather or the Sun that gives you warmth and light and chills you with its disapproval on cloudy days.

Like the all-powerful Sun, the big fish was a life-giver. Some people loved him, even though they didn’t know what he looked like or his name. The ones who loved him called him Big Brother.

Michelle in Spain

Offering unsolicited advice, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd today castigated the First Lady for taking Sasha to Spain. I submitted the following response as an on-line comment, very early this morning, but Dowd didn’t publish it. Is it “abusive” or just too close to home? You decide.
This column is one of the most wrongheaded and least gracious ever to come from Dowd’s pen.

I don’t know the Obamas personally. But just from reading the news, it’s pretty clear that Michelle made a difficult bargain three years ago, when she and the President decided to run.

She would hold down the home front, educate and raise the kids, give up her high-powered Harvard-Law-School-initiated career, and become First Lady--a commitment of likely eight years. She would do all this, during her kids’ tenderest years, so that her husband could become president and serve the people. What she probably couldn’t imagine then, even with her keen mind, was how vituperative, mean and over the top the political and social opposition to her husband would be.

For any president’s family, the White House is a bubble, a prison and a refuge. While confining, it is probably the only place that they can feel safe and somewhat private. The Secret Service is less obtrusive there, and the press is generally absent. But it’s also a place where the nation’s troubles and passions are always just a few footsteps away.

For this president and his family, there are constant reminders of the virulent savagery that passes for political discourse these days. The White House may be our leader’s residence, but it’s also a building under siege.

Under these circumstances, it would be astounding if Michelle did not want to take the kids away from time to time, especially to foreign venues where racism is just a dull ache, not a stabbing pain. And it bears repeating---again and again---that the Obamas have plenty of honest money, in the form of royalties on the President’s books, to afford these short getaways.

As for the political strategizing, get a grip! The rough one-third of Americans who believe that the President wasn’t born here, that he’s a “socialist,” and that they have to take “their” country back from him are not going to change their minds no matter how many pelicans Michelle and the girls clean. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these folks will never, ever change their minds because their outlooks are based on deeply held prejudices and constant, virulent propaganda, not facts or reason.

So please lighten up on Michelle! Those of us who support the First Family are happy to see her broadening the girls’ horizons and getting them out of the siege fortress, if only for a weekend at a time. The Tea Mob could hardly get any madder (in every sense of that word), so forget about them.


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