…most Americans disagree with me about politics. I don’t have any good empirical evidence that demonstrates that, so I guess it’s an opinion? I don’t think most Americans disagree with me because I’m somehow smarter or more in touch with reality or whatever. I think I’m a sort of peculiar guy with an unusual set of experiences, and that gives me occasionally interesting perspectives.
Yesterday’s blog post got a whole bunch of reads (by which I mean, more than 5 views in a 24 hour period). I did some back and forth arguing, and that was quite gratifying for me. The positions I take, however much I may try to base them on evidence and reason, are not popular positions. I watched the GOP debate for a little while, and heard Rubio say something about the Federal budget being overwhelmed within the next four to eight years by a debt crisis. He said that soon, 83% of the Federal budget will be spent on social welfare programs and interest payments. Regardless of whether or not that is true, it’s not far from what most people assume about the Federal budget. Most people look at government and see waste, fraud, and abuse. The way I interpret this rhetoric is that people do not trust the government. And that’s true on both the left and the right – many of my friends on the left will say that the US government is an oligarchy of business interests. And the majority of people on the right seem to operate under the explicit assumption that the Federal government is a criminal institution.
It’s really hard to be pro-democracy, because most people feel betrayed by democracy these days. They get an idea of what the world is supposed to be like, and think democracy is supposed to produce that world, and when it doesn’t they feel betrayed. So they decide that something must be wrong with democracy. Maybe its been corrupted by too much money in politics. Or maybe its being run by criminals. Or maybe it was just a bad idea to begin with, and we’d be better off making political decisions some other way – like through the market.
The idea of balance fascinates me. There was a time in China when the Emperor was the only male with testicles permitted to exist in the Forbidden City. All the other men were eunuchs, and they took care of the day to day business of governing. The Emperor lived in one gigantic palace directly across from another gigantic palace packed with concubines, where the Empress lived. And every night the Emperor would get together in a little palace between the two gigantic palaces with one of the ladies from across the way to have sex while the eunuchs took notes. When I learned that, watching a program from the Smithsonian channel, I wondered why nobody ever stopped in the middle of the whole thing and asked “Hey, isn’t this fucking insane?” Maybe someone did, but the good folks over at the Smithsonian channel didn’t mention it. Anyways, the whole idea behind this practice was harmony. It was super important to the folks running China that there be balance, and that took the form of the Emperor and Empress making babies at the center of the universe. Whenever the Emperor wasn’t having sex with his wife, he was not supposed to ejaculate inside of his partner, because she might get pregnant, and it would throw the whole court into chaos. And when that eventuality did happen, chaos ensued, and the country fell apart.
Balance. Harmony. Equilibrium. These are really popular ideas. In economics, supply and demand is all about how prices adjust to an equilibrium at the intersection of those two inexorable forces. We are constantly hearing about the importance of balanced budgets. Conservatives have pushed the argument for years that tax rate cuts can always be paid for by increased revenues from economic growth. When that growth doesn’t materialize instantaneously, suddenly its time to balance the budget by cutting social welfare and other public services. It sort of blows my mind that people don’t seem especially aware of this phenomenon, because its been happening in the US and other countries for decades. And its that appeal to the idea of balance that seems to really drive it.
Lets imagine a world in perfect balance for a moment. Perfect, self-sustaining balance. Everything just humming along in harmony, every occurrence offset by its inverse. Nothing happens in a perfectly balanced world. This is key to my understanding of the appeal to balance. Heck, its how I understand the rise of Trump, and the Tea Party, and movement conservatism. Its a really useful idea. But let me try to build a little analogy around it.
Imagine you live in a small village in the mountains. You and everyone you know are related to the people living in the village, and you’ve all been living there for as long as anyone can remember. You produce everything you need within the village. You know about the outside world, and you’ve seen people from it, and even occasionally done business with them, but for the most part, the world is contained within the village. People, of course, come and go, being born, living, and dying. But everything basically stays the same, year after year, decade after decade, and so on. Nothing happens. The village is a cipher. Then, imagine that something does happen – lets say a super highway gets built going right past the village, and developers show up with money and connections, and suddenly everything is different. The people in the village will not be happy about the expansion of available goods and services and the potential increase of productivity, even thought Economics 101 will tell them they all ought to rejoice. On the contrary, the villagers will likely become terribly depressed, and eventually they will cease to exist altogether. Perhaps some of them will go out into the world, and the village will live on in their memories. They will create a story about a place where they were happy, because nothing ever happened. They knew just who they were, and what they were doing, and knew no anxiety or fear, because what is there to fear if nothing happens?
In the post-modern world, where we live, a great many people are very anxious, and they want to believe in a place like the village where nothing happens. A place where there is harmony with nature, where balance and equilibrium rein. Because when something happens, something they don’t expect, it can be terribly upsetting. It would be much easier to live peacefully in a place where nothing happens.
Think about the election of Obama, for example. Back in the 1990s, Tupac Shakur said that the country wasn’t ready to see a black president, and I have a feeling a great many folks were on the same page at the time. But somehow Barack Obama became President of the United States of America in 2009. And he won two elections. Many conservatives did not see this coming, they didn’t expect it. And they’re upset because it disrupts the idea of America they had grown up with. What those folks want is to settle a vendetta, to bring balance, so they can go back to living as if nothing ever happens. Most Americans live a kind of waking dream. You grow up in the suburbs, you go to school, you have a job mowing lawns or scooping ice cream in the summer as teenager, and then you get a real job, and get married, and get a house and a big automobile, have a couple of kids and everyone is just like you, and you all know what to expect and how to act and what to do, because nothing ever really happens. And when something does happen that punctures that world, it is a disruption, a betrayal – the worst possible kind of crime against society.
Alright, well, it’s past my bed time now. Good night.