Sunday, July 31, 2011

Politicians tend to target "undeserving" people during a crisis

I really hope Congress finally gets its act together tonight, and, in terms of tactics, makes this discussion less urgent. 

But, as I indicated on July 23, I am very concerned about the “tone” of the way this debate has gone.

There are two “pre-concepts” to recognize.

One of these concepts is “asymmetry”. In any controversial political or social situation, the party with the more novel  position tends to gain some mechanical leverage merely by being an outlier.  That was true of the way I managed my own web presence with respect to several sensitive political issues in the past fifteen years, especially “gays in the military” and how it morphed and evolved into and out of “don’t ask don’t tell”, and how that whole “attitude” shows up in some many other contexts.  By self-publishing a book and by keeping a visible and credible presence on the Web for a decade and a half, to be found passively, I had leverage in the debate out of proportion to my numbers (as a “team of one”, as the former Rev. Don Eastman of MCC Dallas used to say in the 1980s). I did not have to join other people’s causes and “win converts” with shallow, intellectually insufficient  or misleading arguments.  I did not have to “always be closing.”

The other concept is personal autonomy, the ability to follow one’s own chosen goals, even publicly. This determination goes along with an “unbalanced personality”, a concept well known in the Rosenfels polarity theory that I have discussed elsewhere (in Chapter 3 of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book).  In history, most individuals don’t get to go through life without having their “calling” threatened by the needs or power plays of others.

I have felt “threatened” by “political crises” in the past, and they are always the reactive result of underlying problems in “sustainability “of something a major component of society has been doing.  In the 1970s, twice, we had major oil shocks (the most severe in 1973-1974). Mobility at the time was a big issue for me.  In a sense, we produced our way out of this, sort of.  In 1975, when I was living in “the land between the Villages”, New York City experienced its major financial crisis and brush with default. Remember the New York Daily News “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline?  Finally, the teachers’ union blinked (and subway fares were raised).  In the 1980s, while living in Dallas, I was threatened directly (as the reader can understand) by the AIDS epidemic, and (somehow) “escaped” remaining HIV-negative, but the Texas legislature considered very draconian anti-gay laws which would have banned gays from many jobs.  Only energetic lobbying kept it at bay.

I think we can think of others, too. I probably wouldn’t be here today if the Soviet Union hadn’t blinked first during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (when I was a “patient” at NIH).  And I was in Minneapolis, not New York, on 9/11.

So, if we were to default, can I believe “it won’t be so bad”?  I personally think it could get really serious. I’m not concerned about a brief delay in Social Security checks (many people are), or the effect of a delayed federal salary payment, but I am very concerned about the value of an estate, about 75% of which is in securities, most of them bond funds and relatively conservative stock funds.  There is a possibility that the whole economy could collapse into a “purification”.

Is that what the “asymmetric” wing or “Gang of 87” wants? A takeover?  Sometimes they sound like bullies, imposing their will “because they can”.  Sorry, we missed the idea that a faction of the GOP really could block the government’s ability to pay the bills from money Congress had already appropriated and run up (much of it from the Bush years and a lot from TARP and the “bailouts”).

Now, wait a minute. The “Tea Party” (as have some conservative columnists, as in The Washington Times), has warned that even with the debt ceiling lifted, the Nation may soon be unable to borrow money to roll over its debt principal regularly.  Ratings agencies and other finance experts say, no, thus can’t happen now, but it could if we don’t reverse our trends in our deficits.  That would be a real Armageddon that Congress can’t fix with weekend all-nighters.  Is the Tea Party doing us a favor, then?

The New York Times, in fact, has a column today by Louise Story, “Deal May Avert Default, but Some Ask, ‘Is that Good?’” here.  

I guess having “the knowledge of good and evil” is a dangerous thing.  But some radicals say that the U.S. should actually repudiate some of its obligations now, so that future generations get a fair shot without so much debt (let alone warding off a future disaster).   That would wipe a lot of us out, including me, probably.  That’s where the “bullying” comes in.   Some columns, such as a Washington Times editorial, present Medicare and Social Security obligations as “promises” that could be revoked rather than contractual obligations which, in large part (although not entirely) they are.

Radicals often make these kinds of “threats”, and the asymmetry (the crazy side, with nothing to lose if it blows us up, has the leverage) works to their advantage. Back in the early 1970s, when I was “coming of age” as a young adult, the extreme Left made these kinds of “proposals”.  I’ve seen this kind of thing before.

So this comes down to “personal morality”.  In a previous post, I explained my goals; and I need some stability, without constant external “threats”, to settle down and work on them. Some will say, I have no more right to expect this.  After all, I have putatively benefited from the unseen sacrifices of others in the past, so shouldn’t I take my turn on the front lines? 

In fact, such was the tenor of our moral debate back in the 1960s, when we had a male-only draft, Vietnam, with student deferments, so that physically fit but intellectually inept young men wound up as cannon fodder so that others could lead more privileged lives.  It isn’t such a stretch from this sort of thinking to the “cultural revolutions” of Chairman Mao or, later, Pol Pot.

I have come to accept one idea: Asymmetry does confer a certain “power”, and as Peter Parker (“Spiderman”) once said, with power, however you get it, comes responsibility, to be prepared to take care of other people, and sometimes bond to them. To refuse to do so, previously viewed as harmlessness or neutrality, suddenly becomes a kind of existential aggression, because it implies that eventually some vulnerable people must be dumped off the boat.

That’s a hard order to me to meet at this point in my life, after some number of years where people tried to dump some kinds of unwelcome personal challenges into my lap, and then whine when I said “No”.  But I admit, I have been coddled and protected before. I can understand how others think the tables have turned.

But, for me to succeed, I need to live in a world where contracts are honored and debts are paid in an orderly way, and where there is a reasonable amount of time to address sustainability issues.  I need to live in a “web of trust”.  I do fear we could face a sudden breakdown, where life is driven back into filial tribalism, and where one lives for the ability to navigate a world where social manipulation and loyalty is all that matters.   (I suspect that such a world does feed the temperament of much of the old fashioned heterosexual world of soap operas, winding up in “marriage”; if you’re going to wind up responsible for kids anyway, you might as well get what is due to you.) I am not fit to live in or offer any leadership to such a world (and it is not really “your world of ideas” that I would have to “live in”).  I am 68 now, and after such a development, I would not expect to have much time. 

Indeed, the nature of political conflict encourages blame propagation and targeting “undeserving” people.  It’s always possible to invent a reason to go after almost anyone (totalitarian governments do this all the time).  The GOP, if it refused to agree to let the government pay its bills, could enjoy watching the Democrats have to make the “Sophie’s Choice”, leading the Democrats to insist on randomness, making total breakdown even more likely.  Let there be no misunderstanding: when it gets down to an individual person, "sacrifice" means exactly that. It is a loss that is not made up, and can throw the person into dependency on others in the immediate community because of what some more distant did for his own "selfish" (here, ideological) purposes. 

I do get the point about generativity.  I am older, I did not have children; I should perhaps retreat or disappear so that future generations have their chance.  But I have experienced “being it” before, all the politicians (with a lot of asymmetric power) seem to think this is all right now deeply offensive, and threatening. I understand that I was a physical "coward" as a youngster and let others take the risks. So, if I were ever personally taken "hostage" today, it would probably end my life.  I would not give in to anything.

There are many ways that life can end badly because of someone else’s misdeeds: random violence, DWI, terrorism.  Or it can be brought to an end because of natural catastrophes that we did not address in advance because of our political ideological battles.  These can include pandemics, asteroids, unusually strong “coronal mass ejections”, supervolcanos, an East Coast tsunami from Cumbre Vieja, as well as hypercanes that may become prevalent as the world warms – and, again, we have time to prepare for that.  I understand the Christian concept of Grace and Forgiveness. But in a certain sense, I also insist that we remember that consequences to people for things can be final and terminal, and that responsibility for things that end badly need to be born. There is no “Another Earth” to bail us (or me) out.




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