Tag Archives: Communitarian

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.

 

 

 

 

 

An Old Solution to a Modern Problem

Two articles this week in news magazines explain problems in our American, global-market economy and society. Neither suggests a solution to those problems. So I’ll do that here.

 

 

The first article was in Slate and was titled, This is the Perfect Tomato. It describes the efforts of researchers to develop a variety of tomato that is both shelf-stable and tasty. In general, tomatoes that taste good are too soft to be handled from the grower to the grocery, while tomatoes firm enough for shipping are tasteless. But a scientist named Harry Klee managed to develop a tomato with all the desirable qualities.

He was aiming for a compromise—a tomato that grew well and tasted good. What he got shocked him. Like its commercial parent, Klee’s new tomato boasted excellent shelf life, disease resistance, and productivity. But by some miracle, it tasted so good that its flavor scores were statistically identical to its heirloom parent. Klee dubbed his miracle fruit the Garden Gem.

 

But the next chapter of the story is that no major grocery chain will buy the delicious Garden Gem tomato because it is smaller than other varieties. Here’s a second write-up about the Garden Gem, from Genetic Literacy  Project.  It says, “Big Tomato doesn’t care about flavor. Tomato farmers don’t care. Tomato packers don’t care. And supermarkets don’t care. When it comes to flavor, the tomato industry is broken.”

Smaller means having to handle more fruits to make a given quantity, and that adds to cost. And the grocery chains are not willing to bear more costs. They know Americans who get their food from grocery stores will eat what they are given. So they simply insist on providing only those varieties that ensure their profit. There is no real market where supply meets demand. People willing to pay extra for better quality can not do so. There is only profit maximization by the company. It is very much the same situation as was described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle in 1906.

What they wanted from a hog was all the profit that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working man, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of meat.

 

The second issue comes from Huffington Post, which usually just clips reports from other publications but occasionally does its own reporting. The article is titled, The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. And it argues that the global garment industry is so utterly dominated by unregulated sweatshop labor than no amount of conscientious comparison shopping can make a difference for the workers. It doesn’t matter which company is rated as a fair trade source or what the CEO says. The industry is segmented and too flexible to be regulated. Target can have as benevolent a policy as you’d wish, and Target can ask the clothing labels is sells to abide by those policies. But the clothing will still be made by contractors in distant places where the rules don’t apply:

In Delhi’s garment cluster, “children start learning the job at the age of 8,” writes the University of London’s Alessandra Mezzadri. “They master it by the age of 12.” She calls the area a “composite sweatshop”: For every tailor working in a factory, there are several employed in homes, workshops or backyards. Around 80 percent of the workers are informal — mostly migrants, some of them trafficked, hired and fired as orders are commissioned and completed, divvied out by brokers, paid a few cents for each piece of clothing they deliver. The children get paid half as much as the adults. During her fieldwork, she found kids sitting on apartment floors, sewing and cutting, often under the supervision of their parents.

 

At this point I hear people say that most people just want cheap goods and don’t really care who suffered to make it. But that may not be true: at least not for younger adults shown in this recent social experiment filmed in Germany:

 

Just as the Slate article suggest there’s no hope for a tasty tomato, the HuffPost article says consumers have no power to prefer ethically made clothing.

I promised a solution at the top of this article, and that solution is a shift to products made by local guilds. Guilds dominated manufacturing during the Middle Ages, and were replaced by industrialized mass manufacturing. Big industry was a step forward in the 18th century. It ended the problem of the scarcity.  But today in the US few are troubled by not enough clothing to wear or not enough food to eat. Our problems are too few well-paying jobs, inferioir quality products and the depletion of fossil fuels.

 

The case for guilds is made here in The Distributist Review.

The overall result of monopolistic capitalism has been less competition, less variety, lower quality, the loss of local jobs and less power for the people to do anything about it. When big business leaders lead an economy to the brink of economic disaster, the government deems them “too big to fail” and bails them out at the expense of the general public. Monopolistic capitalism has resulted in the shift of economic power and influence away from the average citizen and big businesses use that power to gain advantages not available to citizens or smaller businesses. How exactly has this protected the consumer? . . . The guilds envisioned by distributists consist of small local businesses. Distributist guilds would provide more competition, more variety, better quality, and more true economic power for the people.

 

I asked my family how many merchants and vendors we have a real human relationship with. And we came up with a handful. We buy eggs from a neighbor. We get hardware from Charlie Riggle at Roachdale Hardware. We buy an occasional cup of coffee from Jack at the Parthenon in Crawfordsville. Moody Meats in Ladoga. My wife listed several other regular contacts she has for soap, yarn, honey – people she sees once or twice a year at festivals. All of these people know what we like, and see us as return customers. And, we see them as people who need to make a buck doing what they do. Do they charge more that the chain stores? The egg neighbor doesn’t, but most of the others do. But we don’t mind because we are close enough to these merchants that we see how they work. We’ve had conversations about ingredients and processes – we know what we are buying.

You might be saying, “But none of those small local sellers are guilds!” And that’s right. They have some of the characteristics of a guild — probably the most important ones. Forming real guilds would retain those advantages and add more.

Now you are saying, “Sure, I’ll just trot down down to my local smithy and have him hammer me out a new car on his anvil.”  And it is true that machinery would have to stay capital intensive. Perishable goods (food, clothing, and furniture) would be better candidates for local guilds.

Guilds need not be Luddite. A local tailor would use the best available sewing machines. A local community-supported vegetable producer would plan the best cultivars. They just wouldn’t be motivated by greed.

 

“The Pope is Wrong” is Wrong

Imagine a basketball coach explaining the game to a group of young students. Summarizing the rules, the coach might say, “You can’t move both your feet without dribbling the ball.” Now imagine one eager student declaring, “Yes I can! Watch me!,” then proceeding to walk around the gym while holding the ball in his hands.

It is obvious that the student has made a mistake. He has interpreted the instructor’s use of the word “can’t” to mean “You are incapable” rather than “The rules of the game forbid.” True, the coach didn’t stipulate, “While playing the game of basketball according to the rules, you can’t move both your feet without dribbling the ball.” But he’s the coach, and almost everything the coach says pertains to playing the game of basketball according to the rules. The student’s precocious rebuttal begins to look silly.

It seems to me that several writers recently have made the same error in their criticisms of Pope Francis. On Friday, while traveling to the Philippines, the Pope held an airborne press conference. Among his several comments, he said, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said. “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”

 

pope-francis
Pope Francis

 

Several news and opinion writers responded, declaring the Pope wrong. One was Heidi Schlumpf, writing for CNN:

 I think most American Catholics agree that while blasphemy — offensive speech against God or religion — is not particularly nice, it does not follow that it can or should be regulated or outlawed. In the United States, the Supreme Court outlawed blasphemy laws in 1952.

Another, quite vicious, response comes from Raw Story:

Even here we have the pope calling for a general stifling, with violence, of criticisms of all religions. But he, being the pope, just by existing is declaring that some religions are false religions. So why on earth should the rest of us be restrained from pointing out the same of his religion and other religions? It makes no sense at all.

Raw Story asks, “[W]hy on earth should the rest of us be restrained..?” Schlumpf declares, “[I]t does not follow that it can or should be regulated or outlawed.”

They are both making wrong assumptions, like the kid with the basketball. Two wrong assumptions, in fact. They suppose the pope’s comments are addressed to them or intended to affect them. But the pope’s comments are aimed at believers, as nearly all his words of advice are. Like the coach who assumes his listeners want to play basketball well, the pope assumes people want to live like Christ. If not, why ask the pope anything?

The critics again err by assuming the pope wants stiffer laws against free speech. They assume that if he wants something to happen, he wants big government to shove it down our throats.

But Pope Francis operates within different communities – the Christian faith generally and the Catholic Church in particular – that also influence people’s behavior. Religious affiliation is voluntary, but nevertheless powerful and important.

When the pope says, “You can’t…” he means you can’t do something and conform to the image of Christ.  He’s saying nothing about what government ought to do.

Edmund Burke, the great 18th century philosopher and political theorist, would agree with Francis that there are limits to free speech, and agree with him again that self-regulation is the preferred way to impose those limits. Communitarians, too, espouse shared values rather than either big government laws or brazen individualism (as exemplified by both the French cartoonists and the terrorists who killed them). Burke said, “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

Burke’s goal in all his writings was civil liberty and individual rights, as Pope Francis’ goals are Christ-like goodness. So when the “great minds” of today elevate the right to blaspheme, tear down, and offend to the top priority, I am driven back to Burke for a second helping:

 “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves.”

And for good measure, a second helping of the Christian message:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

 

If Christian self-restraint such as the pope calls for were more widely practiced, what would be the result? Both less offense given and less offense taken. If Burkean “soundness and sobriety” were more widely practiced, what would be the result? Less government imposed because less government would be needed.

Sounds good to me.