Conflicting Goals & Common Fate

In the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are prisoners on a southern chain gang. They escape, but can’t break the chain that holds them together. Two men who hate each other and have conflicting goals suddenly learn they share a common fate.

 

 

The two men learn to cooperate, and even to respect each other. And even for those of us who never expect to be running from bloodhounds through a Georgia swamp, there may be a lesson here.

I’m reading Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin. The book argues that the “ruling generation,” meaning the Boomers, is mismanaging America’s resources in a way that diminishes the future to the detriment of the rising generation, meaning the millennials. He says:

The rising generation must question, confront, and civilly resist the real authoritarianism that endangers its future and the quality of life of those not yet born, whether preached in the classroom, popularized through entertainment, or idealized by demagogic politicians.

 

I completely agree with Levin’s premise.

But like the two escaping prisoners in the movie, I find it hard to move in step with Levin. He’s a hardline conservative and he uses the rhetoric that appeals to today’s wingnuts. Every page — almost every paragraph — pokes, pokes, pokes at government as the cause of every problem.

In a few places, he plays fast and loose with his data and his explanations. In the chapter on education, Levin harps on the rising cost of college, noting correctly that tuition has risen faster than inflation for many years. But he fails to acknowledge that the main reason for this is state governments failing for many of those years to support public universities as well as they did in the past.

(Yes, its true that many universities have lavish residence halls. They are there for the students who want that and can afford it. But those universities — at least Purdue University where I work — also offer cheaper  residences with smaller rooms and no air conditioning. Yes it is true that many universities have built climbing wall in their recreation centers. So what? Climbing walls are cheap and durable. Find something else to fuss about, critics! And yes, it is true that university employment has grown, and that faculty account for a smaller share of all campus jobs than they did decades ago. some of those jobs are genuine fluff and ought to be eliminated. But most of the added higher education workers are serious people working hard a meaningful jobs.)

Levin has a lot of footnotes in his book. But the source that he cites the most is Mark R. Levin and his own earlier books and articles. He cites two other kinds of courses. On one hand, he cites government sources such as the Census Bureau and Congressional Budget Office for detailed facts. On the other, he cites the libertarian Cato Institute and conservative Heritage Foundation for interpretation. From the CBO he gets a dollar amount being spent on something. From  Cato and Heritage, he gets the opinion that the amount spent is too much. This creates an illusion that credible, neutral sources are supporting his claims of out of control government spending.

This is a problem because most Americans have no idea how much we should be spending on anything. Quick: what is the population of the US? what is the Gross Domestic Product? What is our current trade balance with Canada? What share of total private wealth is held by the richest 50 people, and by the poorest 50 percent of the population? What is the poverty rate? Do the people in the state where you live pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits, or the reverse?

How can you even begin to form an opinion on spending when you don’t know these answers? (Yes, I know the answer. Numbers in the billion, or tens of billions, or hundreds of billions always sound scary big, regardless of context.) But many of those scary big numbers are just the right size when you think about the number of people affected. To me, “big” is never going to be a persuasive argument against the federal government. I think the government ought to do big things. There are a lot of things the federal government oughtn’t to meddle with at all. But the things it does, it ought to do well.

I’ve got a few bones to pick with Levin. But my point is that I think he’s an ally. He’s right about his major premise and he’s right about many of his details. I like that he begins his book with a quote from Edmund Burke, the original and true conservative thinker, before going on to quote many lesser, latter-day, erzatz, so-called, soi-disant, bogus conservatives.

I want to learn to be better at finding common ground with everyone who thinks even partly what I think. I want to learn to be better about learning from people who know thinks I don’t know — without giving up my ability to recognize stupid when I hear it.

So carry on, Mr. Levin. I’m with you.

 

 

 

 

 

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