Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social 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.

05 June 2019

Responsibility and Foreboding

For an endnote-update on political responsibility, click here. For links to recent and earlier posts, click here.

Responsibility and Foreboding

Maybe it’s my age. I’ve never been almost 74 before. Maybe my outlook, like many geezers’, is getting bleaker as my body slowly breaks down.

But I can’t shake a deep sense of foreboding, and I think it rests on more than that. Our current American culture, it seems, has almost totally wiped out the sense of personal responsibility that once bound us to each other and made our ever-precarious world passably safe.

It’s not just the bankers. Sure, they caused the Crash of 2008 in an orgy of greed and stupidity worthy of a culture having no written language. Sure, not only did none of them go to jail; few of the most responsible even lost position or money. No one got so much as slapped on the wrist for causing a finance quake that condemned tens of millions worldwide to a decade or more of suffering. Just so, no one has yet gotten seriously dinged for spurring our opioid crisis, which lowered American life spans for the first time in our nation’s history.

But that all started over a decade ago. In modern Twitter terms, it’s ancient history. There are more recent and more serious examples of evading personal responsibility for what amounted to social cataclysms.

Take Mark Zuckerberg, for example. We all know how much personal responsibility he bears for the travesty of Trump’s presidency, for Russian penetration of our government and politics, and for the abysmal state of truth in our “news.”

We all know that his motto was “move fast and break things.” We all can see how successfully he did that—how thoroughly he broke our culture, our media, our politics and our government. Yet he remains an untouchable demigod merely because he was shrewd enough to preserve majority stock ownership in a company that he started in his college dorm room. Isn’t something wrong with this picture, fundamentally and seriously wrong?

Then there’s Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of Boeing. You can laugh off Zuckerberg for exploiting multiple flaws in our celebrity-crazed culture and turning a crappy piece of software into billions of dollars and vast, unrecognized political clout. He didn’t invent the Internet or any part of it. He just had an instinct for the jugular of a sick society totally oblivious to the vast potential, for good and for ill, of many-to-many communication.

But Muilenburg is different, or at least he should have been. He represents the kind of engineer responsible for our human species’ most stunning accomplishments: atomic energy (and weapons!), space travel, routine air traffic, and instantaneous global communication. He represents the men and women who invented and built out these things. He runs a company at the apex of our engineering-based industry. He knew, or should have known, how strict and unforgiving Nature is.

Yet when push came to shove, Muilenburg presided over a big company that made the rawest rookie engineering blunder imaginable. He supervised a huge and complex system that reportedly depended on a single point of failure—a single angle-of-attack sensor vulnerable to hail, bird strikes and mechanics’ boots. And he let two planes full of innocent people go down before reluctantly acceding to grounding by governmental authorities, beginning (we must all acknowledge) with China’s.

A Roman soldier would have fallen on his sword. A Edo Samurai would have committed seppuku. A CEO from our early twentieth century would have resigned and retired. Before doing so, he would have fired all the many people who had gone along to get along and promoted those, including test pilots, who had waxed angry and complained. Then he would have recognized his own responsibility as CEO by bowing out.

Not Muilenburg. He mouthed the same sort of PR pabulum that we heard from Dubya after bailing out the bankers, from the bankers themselves in resisting any fundamental change, and incessantly from Zuckerberg in “justifying” his creation’s gross perversion of truth and news in our culture.

Once upon a time, when you fucked up royally in a way that killed people or tore the fabric of our culture, you paid a price. At very least, you got out of the way of the folk who had known better and had told you so. And you did so quickly, expeditiously, and humbly.

No longer. Now position and power seem immutable perks. We are living in a whole nation of Rick Wagoner’s GM. Innocent victims take the hit. Blunderers in high places stumble on, undeterred, undaunted and still highly paid.

Our President is not an aberration; he’s emblematic. How long can a society like this survive, let alone presume to occupy the apex of human civilization?

I have a dark foreboding. It’s very specific. I see Manhattan under ten to twenty feet of water, after the Greenland Ice Sheet or the Ross Ice Shelf collapses into the ocean.

I don’t think there’ll be many deaths. The sea-level rise will probably take at least several hours, if not days. There are many boats in New York Harbor. And New York’s first responders had good practice in 9/11.

But the Island will become useless, overnight, as a center of commerce, power and human habitation. The Masters of the Universe won’t be able to live in their multi-million-dollar off-Central-Park condos with the views that go on forever. They won’t be able to go to work in their skyscrapers. The bottom two floors will be underwater and the elevators won’t work.

Like the tens of millions who will follow them around the world, they will be climate refugees. Something similar will happen to Washington, D.C., also a low-lying city.

It’ll probably take something like this to jolt our oligarchs and our Congress into their inevitable epiphany. Or it might take a war with Iran or North Korea that nobody wants, but that clueless leaders like our current one stumble into. Still, we might blunder without incident for the 18 to 37 years (from now) it will take until the oil begins running out.

Eventually, there will be blood. The longer we wait, the more cataclysmic will be the revolution(s). Ask the Russians. Ask the French. Ask the Chinese about their Long March.

So in the end, I think my vision of Manhattan under water is a dream, not a nightmare. It will take something that dramatic to jar our ruling class out of its responsibility-free lethargy. Better a bloodless cataclysm that leaves a whole city a useless but enduring monument to cultural corruption, than any of the many far more lethal alternatives.

Endnote [added June 7, 2019]: The gravest modern fuckup, for which no one appears to be taking responsibility, has little to do with global warming, social media, or planes falling out of the sky. It’s the current destabilization of Western democracies.

As I noted in a 2017 essay,
“The fact of millions of innocent workers being left behind is real. [Teresa] May, [Nigel] Farage, [Boris] Johnson and [Donald] Trump are real. The prospect of the end of the Enlightenment in the US and Europe is real.”
Today I could add that Trump’s 40% minority support appears increasingly solid, as does support for leaders like Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Their support comes primarily from people who work mostly with their hands, or used to.

All these things are real. They threaten to destabilize the world’s democracies, the so-called “liberal international order,” and perhaps even world peace. Yet few, if any political leaders, oligarchs, or other members of the ruling class are taking responsibility.

Instead, they blame the victims. Few are so insulting or explicit as Hillary Clinton with her “basket of deplorables,” or as Mitt Romney with his (prophetic) “47%” of “takers.” But many Dems tar the victims as racist rubes while touting their own pet projects and ignoring workers’ real angst. Republicans are worse: they eagerly accept the workers’ support while reaching deep into workers’ pockets for money to return to campaign donors.

No one is genuinely trying to make the victims’ lives better. If American pols were, a huge infrastructure bill and a universal health-insurance bill would be zipping through both Houses of Congress with enough votes to override a presidential veto. Good luck with that.

Human history reveals two basic types of societies. In the first, the peasants or serfs take care of the ruling class and are expendable. We call this “feudalism.” In the second, the ruling class looks out for serfs a bit; it gives them a chance to live decent lives and even to move up, or at least to see their children do so. As societies industrialized, the serfs came to include both peasants and workers, but the two basic schemes continued.

During the last half-millennium, democracies seemed to grow the kinder type of society best, at least in the West. But modern China’s authoritarian state capitalism also has had a short, good run, lifting nearly a billion people out of extreme poverty.

The trouble now is that both Western Democracies and China are succumbing to corruption and subsiding into a new kind of modern feudalism. Think of the iPhone assembler at Foxconn, the Wal-Mart or Amazon shelf-stocker, the Uber man or woman driving frantically 70-80 hours a week, ruled utterly by algorithms making his employers rich, or the New York taxi driver working off the impossible indentured servitude of his usurious taxi-medallion loan.

How different are their lives, really, from those of medieval peasants with their huts and small plots of land outside the castle moat? At least the peasants had fresh air and some land. Modern serfs are priced out of land in rich cities and forced to return to renting.

Few in our modern ruling classes seem to know or care. No one, at least in the West, is taking responsibility.

We’ve seen this movie before, in France, Russia and China (in that order). It didn’t end well for the ruling class. It probably won’t end well for the ruling class in the US, Britain and Europe.

Isn’t it about time someone stepped up like FDR? The choice of responsibility now or your head later seems an easy one. But in any event, global warming may have to wait a bit: global Energiewende will be hard to effect amidst globally growing political chaos.

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