Political Realism

Categories: Personal
Tags: PoliticsEconomics
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes, 45 seconds

This is not a political web site. Nor do I want it to be. But the things that are happening in the country right now certainly have me thinking about politics. As a result of that thinking, I have some observations that I want to get off my chest.

I don't really care where you fall on the political spectrum, and this isn't about that. I'm not here to try to convince you that I have the better political ideas, or that you're wrong or whatever. I'm more into passing along some political realism. So, I don't really have an overarching theme for this article other than to just talk about some things that I think are true.

Taking a Knee

This weekend, a lot of NFL teams participated in a protest to either kneel, or just not show up on the field, during the playing of the National Anthem. Personally, I think it's kind of an asshole move to bring politics onto the playing field of any sport. I mean, can we have any single place we can go to escape politics? Can't we just have some fun, relaxing, fuck-off time on the weekend without having arguments about whether you're an America-hating Commie or a neo-Nazi Trumpkin? Can you just give me three hours without bashing me with any of that stuff?

Now, look, I spent 9 years, 2 months, and 14 days on active duty protecting the right of assholes to act like assholes. So, if you want to take a knee during the National Anthem, you knock yourself out. It's your right, and I'm the last guy who will try to stop you, or demand that you be fired for "disrespecting this great country". Your right to protest is precisely what I wanted to ensure you had by running around in the hills with rifle for almost a decade. So, you do you.

Still, if you don't realize that a) other people have the right not to watch you play your game, or b) that alienating half of your audience might not be the best way to ensure that your $500,000+ salary keeps coming, then you aren't thinking very deeply about things. Maybe an on-field protest isn't the best way to get your message across. Maybe you should look around for other options.

I mean, who knows? Maybe there's an option that shows respect to, and opens a dialog with, your fans rather than alienating them. We sure could use a lot more of that.

Politics shouldn't be your religion

Supporting a political party or ideology doesn't make you a good person. It won't get you into heaven. When you arrive at the Pearly Gates, you know what God won't ask you? "Did you support increasing the income tax rate to 46% on incomes over $350,000?" In fact, if you don't treat people with kindness, I'm pretty sure that God won't be the supernatural entity you talk to at all. What makes you a good person is how you personally treat people, even people who disagree with you. If you can't be decent to people who disagree with you politically, then you're an awful human being.

Sure, there is a small percentage of people who have truly odious political beliefs. In a country of 320 million people there are extremists of almost every imaginable type. We have two ways of dealing with these loons. First, we can show in open debate that they are unhinged, and get our fellow citizens to agree with us--which almost all will. Second, we can ensure that, while they are allowed to believe anything they want to believe, the second that they physically harm the person or property of a fellow citizen, we prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.

But, outside of the extremists, 95% of the people who disagree with you politically are fundamentally decent people. They love their families and communities, they help their neighbors, they treat people with courtesy, but they simply don't agree with you over some of your ideas about what government should do. Somewhere in the last 30 or 40 years, we moved from "You disagree with me, and here's why you're wrong" to "You disagree with me, so you must have sex with goats". Dehumanizing your political opposition is the first step to destroying a functioning polity, and turning opponents into enemies.

And it's not good for you either. Dehumanizing your opponents makes it easier for you to treat them badly, because, after all, they are awful people who deserve what they get, right? In wartime, we call our enemies Gooks, Krauts, and Towelheads because it makes them less human, thus easier to kill. After all, if they're not really people, then it's not really wrong to shoot them. Similarly, if you think your fellow citizens are indecent humans, then it becomes a lot easier to start looking for ways to strip them of their rights, as if the Constitution only applies to your tribe, who are, after all, the only decent people. If you find yourself thinking that, then you are part of the problem.

I was on active duty during the Kosovo campaign, which was ultimately required because the former nation of Yugoslavia was populated by traditional ethnic enemies that couldn't agree on the basic humanity of their opponents, and the second the nation was no longer a totalitarian police state, it came apart at the seams, and they started killing each other in job lots.

When you attack the motives rather than the arguments of your opponents, you create enemies. How often have you heard something like this:

"I think the government should stop illegal immigration."

"You're a racist!"

Congratulations, you've just attacked the humanity of a political opponent. Moreover, you've shown that you give no credence to even the possibility that someone who wants to stop illegal immigration may have rational reasons, unrelated to racism, for doing so. You've just notified the world that you are completely uninterested in a debate on the matter. Your mind is made up, and anyone who disagrees with you is an awful person.

But in a civil society, you reach a consensus by debate, and by convincing your fellow citizens that you have an effective policy answer so that they will vote for it. If you replace debates with ad hominem attacks, civil society breaks down. We're already watching it happen right in front of us. Hell, California is about to put a secession measure on the ballot for a public vote.

Do you want the United States to become Yugoslavia? Because that's how you become Yugoslavia. And we have a lot of guns, so we could be a really good Yugoslavia. By which, I mean "really bad."

Neither Capitalism nor Socialism is a cure-all

I think there's a lot of confusion about what capitalism and socialism actually are.

Capitalism isn't a managed system, first of all. Capitalism is two guys saying, "Hey, you wanna sell that?" "Sure. What'll you give me for it?" There's no state authority in capitalism that prescribes prices, determines who gets to buy or sell, or how much money you're allowed to make. Capitalism is just what happens when everybody is free to trade whatever they want with whoever they want. It arises in spontaneous order when human beings decide that they want to trade goods and services with each other. It's a purely voluntary system.

Similarly, socialism isn't having police, fire departments, and other public services. Pointing at the fire department and yelling, "See?! Socialism!" is really dumb. Instead, socialism is a managed system "that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole," with the ultimate aim of enforcing more or less equalized income among the citizenry. In every socialist system ever created by humans, the government has become the proxy for "the community".

Each system does some things well, and other things poorly.

Capitalism ensures that every scarce resource--and all resources are scarce--flows to it's highest-valued use. It's a remarkably efficient system. It does not, however, do a good job of ensuring that people who fail, economically, don't live as beggars.

Socialism does work to equalize incomes and prevent extreme income disparities, but, because it requires control over prices and trade, and it is humanly impossible for top-down decision-making to allocate resources efficiently, it generally results in poorer economic results for the country as a whole. Incomes are more equal, but everyone is relatively poorer.

You can look that up, by the way. Nations that have a socialist economic system are almost universally poorer than nations with more capitalist systems, and the more socialist they are, the poorer they are overall. Sweden, for example, is usually regarded as a successful socialist country, and the Swedes have two ingrained cultural concepts, lagom and jantelagen (I'll let you Google those yourself), that make them very culturally well-disposed for accepting socialism. Yet, per-capita income in Sweden is lower than any of the 50 American states. Indeed, it's lower than the per-capita income for African-Americans, the poorest demographic group in the United States. You know why Ikea does such a great job of furnishing an 1,100 sq. ft. living space? Because that's what Swedes can afford.

If you want to have a capitalist country, then you need to figure out some sort of social system that keeps people from falling through the cracks economically so that you don't have to step over the bodies of dirty, poor people when you go to the movies. If you want to have a socialist system then you need to be prepared to accept significantly higher rates of taxation than anyone in America has ever paid--and commensurately lower income.

I lived in the Netherlands for 3 years. They have three income tax rates: 40%, 50%, and 60%. The average worker in the Netherlands pays 50% of his income to the government in income taxes. Oh, and on top of that, there's an 18% VAT on everything except clothes and groceries. Maybe you're a blue-collar guy who pays 10% of your income in federal income tax each year, and bitches about it. OK, now quadruple that and add an 18% sales tax. That's what you'd pay in the Netherlands.

Oh, you think that you can tax the rich and pay for your free health care and social welfare system? Think again. The United States has the largest government that has ever existed in human history. It spends $4 trillion per year, two-thirds of which goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest payments on our $20 trillion national debt. Also, none of these things can be cut by law, so two-thirds of the Federal budget is essentially untouchable.

If you took 100% of the wealth of the top 1%--I mean, cleaned them out totally, you'd fund the US government from January 1st through around October 20th. And, of course, now that you've taken everything from the rich, how are you going to fund the government through the end of December? Even worse, how are you going to fund it the next year? I mean, we're already $20 trillion in debt. It's not like there's a lot of borrowing room left.

No, if you want an expansive socialist state, then you need to pay for it, too. There are no magical fairies tending the money trees to supply that cash. Or more precisely, you're the magical fairy, and your wallet is the money tree.

The funny thing is that, in some ways, America is already a fairly socialist country. After all, we provide a pension and free medical care to everyone over 65. Millions of Americans receive food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, or other benefits every year. And we have, by almost any measure, the most steeply progressive income taxes of any developed nation, and the highest corporate tax rates by every measure.

We did all of those things because in the 20th century, we decided we didn't want old people to eat Alpo, or the poor to freeze to death in cardboard boxes in the winter. And still, even with the fairly light socialism we already have, our refusal to pay for it via higher taxes has put us $20 trillion in debt.

But don't think that going to pure capitalism lets you off the money hook either. Let's say we swept away the social welfare state, and cut taxes drastically--after paying off that $20 trillion in debt still outstanding, of course. The economy would boom. Most people would, over time, be significantly better off. But, you'll still need to pony up for the poor. Because there will be poor people. Perhaps a large number of them, even if the nation was significantly richer as a whole. And those poor people, without any social safety net, would be living in abject poverty, like Americans have only seen when visiting heathen foreign lands.

You would have a moral duty to use a significant amount of your income and/or time for charitable purposes. Many of your fellow citizens would still need help, and you would have a personal responsibility to provide it. Socialism transfers that responsibility to an impersonal government. Capitalism places that responsibility squarely on you. A purely capitalist society without a cultural ethos of charity would be a bleak place indeed for many of its citizens, and would most likely be very politically unstable.

Either way, capitalism or socialism, no one gets a free ride. Resources are still scarce, benefits have to be paid for, and there are no magical money trees.

Economics can't tell us which of these systems to choose, or which system is "better". All economics can tell us is the costs and benefits of each system. It's our job to respectfully and civilly debate with and convince our fellow citizens which system might be best for us.

So, now what?

We really do need to decide what kind of country we want. But, unless we start treating each other with more understanding and kindness, that's not going to happen. In fact, it's the perfect way to end up with the kind of country no one wants.

So, we better figure out this shit quick.

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