What You Should Think About Theodore Roosevelt

June 1, 2011

“This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Imagine a former President, currently campaigning for a return to the White House, is shot in the chest.  Horrified aides prepare to transport him to the hospital.  An adviser begins to compose an apology for the candidate’s absence at a nearby rally.  The wounded man will have none of it.  An experienced hunter and soldier, he reasons that he would be coughing up blood if the bullet had penetrated his lungs.  Each of the fifty pages of his prepared remarks now sports a prominent bullet hole.  With blood seeping into his clothing, he goes on to address the crowd for a full hour and a half.

There is much more to Theodore Roosevelt than pure grit.  Yet this quality must be understood to make a start of understanding the man.  Almost all of his adult life was dedicated to identifying serious problems and charging headlong into the struggle to solve them.  Considered a frail child and subject to home schooling, he embraced the opportunity of Harvard life to reinvent himself.  So began a lifelong love of boxing as well as a deep interest in military history.  By graduation, he had established himself as physically formidable.  At the same time, he made a solid start on The Naval War of 1812, a historical book of uncommon detail and rigor for the times.

He went on to law school, though soon he gave up that pursuit to run for and win a seat in the New York State Assembly.  He was a prolific legislator, but it would not be long before he would face a challenge not at all of his choosing.  On February 14, 1884, both his mother and his first wife died, the latter unexpectedly.  Writing in his diary, “the light has gone out of my life;” even his spirit was not impervious to such a loss.  Unable to find further satisfaction in political wrangling, a few weeks later he sought a change of scenery by heading for the Badlands of the Dakotas.

Embarking on a new course, he became a cattle rancher, frontier lawman, and magazine correspondent.  His tales of life in what was then the “Wild West” proved popular among readers in New England.  His keen sense of ethics and relentless determination made him a threat to any outlaw in the region.  Though he befriended the legendary gunfighter Seth Bullock, Theodore Roosevelt remained a firm believer in the rule of law.  In an instance when no one would have faulted him for the exercise of vigilante justice, he instead transported a trio of thieves to a distant venue where a proper trial could be conducted.  Only after a severe winter wiped out his cattle herd did life in the Badlands no longer seem suited to this future President.

With his return to political life he embodied the spirit of a new progressive movement.  After an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, he took work as a federal bureaucrat determined to stamp out corruption and patronage at all levels of government.  His unyielding and sometimes downright pugnacious pursuit of fairness earned him a favorable public reputation.  He was later able to build on this reputation as president of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners.  There he faced tasks that anyone with less determination and force of personality could not hope to have accomplished.  Yet he left the department transformed in a myriad of constructive ways.

He would next return to federal service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, using a brief absence of his superior (in conjunction with battleship Maine sinking) to prepare the nation for the pending Spanish-American War.  Yet planning and management were not enough for a man of action like Theodore Roosevelt.  He soon resigned his post, recruited over a thousand volunteers, and set out for Cuba as leader of a regiment that would become known as the Rough Riders.  His boldness and perseverance in that conflict was recognized with a nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor, though an initial rejection meant that the award would not actually be bestowed until a posthumous ceremony held in 2001.

Now a bona fide war hero, his return to politics involved a quick rise to the very top.  As governor of New York, he continued to fight corruption while taking measures to address the problems of the poor and downtrodden.  William McKinley ran with Theodore Roosevelt as his Vice Presidential nominee in 1900.  At that time, the red-blue polarity of almost every state was inverted from what we see in the 21st century.  Republicans truly were the party of Lincoln.  Democrats continued to openly support candidates sympathetic to the de facto apartheid in place throughout many of the southern states.  The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket earned a solid victory against William Jennings Bryan’s appeals to archaic traditions and unscientific beliefs.

Still in his first year as President, William McKinley was assassinated.  At 42 years of age, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the youngest President in the history of the United States.  Yet this youth did not prevent him from achieving greatness.  He immediately spoke out to promote more aggressive regulation of large corporations and to condemn corrupt dealings between government and business.  He answered John Muir’s call to conserve and protect many of America’s greatest natural treasures.  President Roosevelt even used federal power to resolve strikes by demanding fair treatment for the exploited working class.

After winning an easy landslide in the 1904 election, he continued to champion populist causes and govern in the public interest.  He pushed for regulations that dramatically improved the safety of the American food supply.  He opened the White House to reporters and provided regular briefings so as to better inform the public about the inner workings of government.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize — a Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.  He was also the first President to call for universal health care to become the policy of the United States federal government.

Though he did not run for reelection in 1908, he found the policies and practices of his successor intolerable.  William Howard Taft talked a good game when it came to promoting free and fair trade while regulating the excesses of big business.  Yet he was a new force in Republican politics — a dissembler closely allied with the tycoons of his time.  Even as he spoke of championing the causes of consumers and laborers, his actions served the interests of industrialists and speculators.  Initially supportive of Taft, Roosevelt belatedly came to understand that the sitting President embodied everything the progressive movement was dedicated to purging from political life.

So it was that Theodore Roosevelt set out to win a third term as President of the United States.  With primary elections a relatively new phenomenon, the contest for the Republican nomination was a complex and messy business.  Aware of imminent defeat at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt pulled his supporters away from that gathering and formed the Progressive Party.  Declaring intent to oppose the “unholy alliance” between government and big business, Roosevelt generated enormous popular support.  After the failed assassination attempt, his movement became known as the Bull Moose Party in reference to his quip, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”  Though he was ultimately defeated, Theodore Roosevelt earned the distinction of being the only third party candidate ever to finish second in a U.S. Presidential race.

Looking back at these events roughly a century ago, it is hard to imagine how much brighter history would have been if the Republican Party remained true to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt instead of allowing itself to be bought by the fortunes of the corporate elite.  While the Democratic Party became more and more principled, eventually supporting causes like social justice and civil rights, the Republican Party embraced those constituencies that no honorable public figure should ever service.  There is no legitimate place for corruption, sexism, racism, or homophobia in the political life of an enlightened people.  With prevarication supported by the deepest of pockets and the shallowest of scruples, they have provided a political platform on which voters driven by those motivations can continue to make a stand.

So the next time you hear someone refer to the Republican Party as “the party of Lincoln,” keep in mind that this assessment was not always wrong.  Once upon a time, they were champions of what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “square deal.”  Once upon a time, they believed in the value of scientific thought, the importance of environmental conservation, and the Constitutional directive to promote the general welfare.  Could such a transformation occur again?  Could the party of Palin and Gingrich ever hope to recover integrity and usefulness?  Stranger things have transpired in the history of American politics.


What You Should Think About Balance

October 18, 2008

“The new integrity of the world, in our view, can only be built upon the principles of freedom of choice and balance of interests.”

–Mikhail Gorbachev

It is fair to characterize the Fox News Channel as a partisan house organ and a degenerate propaganda mill.  However, as a full-fledged cable network, it is too complex a phenomenon to be understood from a perspective that lacks all nuance and subtlety.  For example, the “fair and balanced” slogan plays into a method frequently utilized to create the perception of legitimacy.  From segments passed off as hard news to the most unapologetic of opinion programming, simply presenting some sort of clash between pundits of differing views causes many viewers to believe they have seen a balanced presentation.

In some cases, this perception is completely unjustified.  Across the continuum from subtle to blatant, there are many ways to manipulate a debate through framing the issue, limiting responses, manipulating tone, etc.  Yet there are also instances when debate both lively and legitimate occurs on that channel.  Perhaps the most impressive effort to legitimize the entire venture is a program titled Fox News Watch.  More often than not, this program approaches media analysis from a perspective that is thoughtful or even scholarly.

It was in viewing an episode of that show that I first encountered the phrase “distortion of balance.”  It is a term Neil Gabler of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting coined in order to describe the trickery involved in legitimizing a bogus position by presenting it as the equivalent of a legitimate position.  The perception of evenhandedness obscures crucial underlying reality.

Imagine if a televised debate were conducted between one advocate for the position that the Moon is is chiefly composed of minerals while another advocate contended the Moon is an enormous mass of cheese.  The second position is unsupported by anything resembling conclusive evidence, but a sufficiently earnest pundit could well cloud the issues and leave ignorant viewers uncertain about the truth (or convinced of a falsehood.)  From Iraqi weapons programs to global climate change — areas where technical ignorance is entirely understandable among those who are not trained experts — many media outlets legitimize an entirely bogus viewpoint in the name of presenting “balanced” content.

This is not always the result of the desire to push a particular agenda.  For example, fact checking after major political debates has become a widespread practice in the media.  Yet few outlets ever dare to critique a larger number of questionable statements from one candidate than the other.  In pursuit of “balance” that comes from presented equal quantity, readers are given the false impression that an equal number of misleading statements were made by each speaker.  Unless the underlying reality actually involves equality on that plane, the end result is coverage that leaves the audience misinformed.

All this involves issues where opinions fit neatly into two mutually exclusive categories.  Especially when it comes to political issues, covering “both sides of the story” tends to be an especially clumsy oversimplification.  Popular rhetoric often falls back on extremism if for no other reason than that moderation tends to be less inspiring.  Nowhere is this more evident than resistance to economic reforms.  While filled with self-delusions of being reasonable, passionate extremists decry every little push toward moderation as a surefire way to transform the U.S.A. into a new incarnation of the U.S.S.R.

Even if one grants the dubious premise that economic planning is an anethema to civil liberties, those extremists deliberately steer discussion away from positions between capitalist and communist extremes.  Few of them could begin to articulate the technical distinctions between communism and socialism.  With that deficit of knowledge, they are able to remain earnest while spouting falsehoods that characterize socialism as an extreme position.  Being loudly mistaken is not as sinister as being loudly dishonest, but civic duty demands any loudness be preceded by a greater degree of thoughtfulness than can be seen among such extremists.

All of this feeds into the disastrous reality that America’s economic titans enjoy ample reward with no real risk.  The same system forces working families to face real risk without appropriate reward.  The structure of the ongoing bailout makes this abundantly clear, though similar public largess has been a fixture of American political history from our nation’s inception.  One of the few sound observations to emerge from popular punditry related to the economic crisis is that we live in a society that practices a very generous variety of socialism for the rich while leaving everyone else to struggle in a particularly harsh capitalist environment.

Because the wealth of this nation is made to flow uphill through systematic corruption on a scale that would make the most nefarious Politburo power broker blush, honest American citizens playing by the rules must compete for pieces of an economic pie that is already largely devoured before the competition begins.  As horrible as that sounds, its modern manifestation could be anticipated from the theories that prop up the status quo.  Trickle down economics is very much a call for the overwhelming majority of this nation’s workforce to content themselves with the scraps that fall from the tables of tycoons.  Never mind that same workforce gathered the ingredients, composed the menus, set the tables, and prepared the feasts.

Perhaps Versailles toward the end of the French monarchy is a soundcomparison.  Under Louis XVI, at times it seemed that no luxury was too excessive.  Nobles competed with one another in increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth.  Today’s gold-infused cheeseburgers and Hummer limousines showcase impractical concentrations of resources with all the enthusiasm of decadent aristocracies past.  It is true that our government does not bestow hereditary titles conveying special privileges, but the absence of those does little to distinguish our economic realities from the sort of aristocratic exploitation that sparked the American revolution.

Modern militant rabble-rousers are do not condemn the growing concentration of wealth.  Though the original American patriots stirred up trouble to undermine a power structure that took from the many too enrich the few, the undercurrent of anger in today’s political dialogue actually perpetuates blatant plutocracy.  Government conceived “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” has become government of the people, by the rich, for the rich.  Apart from predictable vehement slander against reformers, proposed reforms are denounced by deliberately muddling humanitarian social spending with authoritarian tyranny.

There is no reason the United States of America cannot find a true balance.  Of invisible pink unicorns, an economic middle ground, and Saddam Hussein’s 21st century nuclear weapons program, there is one entity that is no myth.  Giving working families a fair deal, pursuing poverty harm reduction, promoting education, and stimulating scientific innovation are all pursuits that have been proven sustainable by many governments, including our own.  U.S. policy has always been a compromise between civic minimalism and policies promoted by those with other aspirations for our nation.

Perhaps a better tomorrow could also come from a new order that ceased funneling astronomical sums of public money into private hands.  Yet no politician has come forth with a credible proposal for a reform that would actually eliminate corruption in big business subsidy.  For that matter, thirty years of Republican promises to reduce government spending have only produced a record of huge spending increases, none greater than those undertaken with the full support of the sitting President.  Yet it is not too late for our nation to address decades of social neglect with bold action to move toward a healthy economic balance.


What You Should Think About Fairness

July 28, 2008

“Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration, and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace.”

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Do men like Bill Gates make this country great?  Does this country make men like Bill Gates great?  Is Bill Gates a great man?  Hopefully even the Microsoft founder himself has matured to the point of understanding these are not at all simple questions.  Yet for many Americans, the analysis is painfully simple, “Bill Gates received a tremendous amount of personal income.  He has not been convicted of a major crime or implicated in a breach of traditional values.  Therefore, Bill Gates is a great man.”

The self-made tycoon is a popular American archetype.  It is so deeply woven into our culture that The Pursuit of Happiness was never questioned as the title for a biographical tale about the pursuit of riches.  It is so deeply woven into our public policy that few debates are not clouded by the assumption that investors are the alpha and omega of American economic activity.  The consequences for entrepreneurs and shareholders are weighed carefully in all matters, while the consequences for working families with no substantial investments are often dismissed as a distraction from the vital business of lowering taxes, promoting trade, subsidizing industry, etc.

It is fair to argue that the United States has experienced generally good economic progress in the last thirty years.  It is also fair to argue that a position of such eminence could have and should have been parleyed into much greater national gains.  However, the immensity of the global economy prevents any of these opinions from rising above the level of pontification.  I suppose the most honest assertion that approaches the level of fact would be to look at our history of growth and conclude, “it could have been worse, and it could have been better.”

Yet it does not seem at all fair to argue that entrepreneurs and investors were exclusively responsible for these gains.  Even with contemporary Wall Street flimflam — the argument that widespread participation in mutual funds imparts universal status on the special interests of investors — it remains the case that many hard-working Americans carry debts far larger than the value of any investment portfolio they may have accumulated.  Of those prepared for a comfortable retirement, many still find the best decades of their lives shaped much more by levels of earned income than by investment outcomes.

Thus it is that, for more than thirty years, four out of five Americans have been effectively shut out from participation in economic growth.  The theory of trickle down economics is soundly repudiated by the profound failure of any real wealth to actually trickle down.  Some might argue that this is because corrupt public officials have not really put these ideals to a true test.  How is that any different from the argument that human beings are “too greedy” to sustain an economic commune the size of a large nation?*  I dispute the idea that trickle down economics was a good thing in principle.  Yet even those who romanticize it must face the cold hard fact that it does not produce the intended results in practice.

Of course, this assumes the intended results did not involve confining economic growth so narrowly as to promote the emergence of a new American aristocracy.  Hereditary titles, uselessly large personal fortunes, social climbers jockeying for appointments — only a feudal tradition is lacking.  Perhaps that is actually a bad thing, considering the role noblesse oblige played in feudal life.  Our economic elites can purchase a different standard of justice, exert extraordinary political influence, and still have time to accumulate vast amounts of real estate for personal use while the nation’s homeless rate continues along an alarming increase.

If only 20% of our citizenry were actually involved in pushing the economy forward, the fact that the other 80% are prevented from enjoying the progress might be fair.  Yet that conclusion can only be reached by starting with the absurd assumption that labor, training, management, research, art, and so much more are irrelevant.  It credits executive leaders, financiers, and the idle rich with exclusive participation in the economic achievements of the past three decades.  Personal incomes in those areas have ballooned to a downright insane extent.

Rational evaluation forbids any conclusion about a failure of industry on the part of the American worker.  Employees are laboring more hours and making larger sacrifices for the very same economic rewards analogous jobs would provide a generation earlier.  The reality of the working American has changed for the worse.  Degradation of opportunity is ongoing.  The labor force continues to become more and more productive, yet it is the corporate elite and old money that continue to receive more and more rewards.

An optimist might view this through the lens of Twain.  Wall Street institutions play the part of Tom Sawyer, reaping the rewards of hard work that others are induced to perform for a pittance.  A darker perspective might be seen through Orwell’s eyes.  There the metaphor of the working class as Boxer remains apt.  Had the President’s plan to significantly privatize Social Security been implemented promptly after it was proposed, would the surge of geriatric poverty suggest the approach of the knacker’s wagon?  Perhaps being frozen out of an entire generation of economic progress is not that dramatic, but surely it is no joke either.

Most ironic in all of this is presence of low points where pinnacles were thought to be built up by trickle down policies.  With decades of growth concentrated in the hands of an economic elite, amazing achievements ought to have emerged from those beneficiaries.  Instead of solutions to energy problems clearly understood in the 1970s, we find parasitism Enron-style.  Philanthropy to promote science, education, and general welfare was expected to blossom from the fortunes supply-side tax cuts would create.  Statistically, this mechanism has also failed to ameliorate the ongoing concentration of American wealth.

Of couse, symbolically it has done much more.  Rare confluences of vision and kindess create a false impression regarding the extent to which this nation’s most fortunate citizens actually give back to the society that facilitated their success.  Just as the self-made tycoon archetype promotes the blatant misconception that America enjoys greater socioeconomic mobility than the societies of Western Europe (some of which actually have feudal traditions,) the high profile philanthropy of Microsoft’s tycoons whitewashes over both the destructive business practices that forged said enterprise and the relatively rare nature of non-token generosity amongst living American tycoons.

Perhaps Bill Gates is a great man.  Perhaps the chef who prepared his dinner the last time he ate out is a great man.  Perhaps the dishwasher who cleaned his plate after the meal is a great man.  Perhaps all three are great.  Whether your definition of greatness involves hard work or loyalty or ambition or talent, who would presume to judge the character, or foretell the destiny, of the dishwasher?  Yet one thing is for sure — decades economic dialogue dominated by supply-side thinking recognize only the worthiness of men like Bill Gates.  Those who work hard without either being born into great wealth or thriving in a cutthroat business environment have labored for thousands upon thousands of days without earning any real gains.

The premise that proposed reforms like universal health care or expanded educational grant programs are somehow unfair to people already able to pay their own way is absurd.  This absurdity comes from the childlike assumption that present conditions were the product of a fair process.  We can continue to practice politics like children, crossing our fingers and hoping that, starting now, there will be no more significant corruption in political life.  Alternatively, we can face the reality we inhabit like adults.  We can recognize what has been unfair in the past.  We can take action to shape a future that brings us closer to fairness.

Of course, progressive economic reforms are not just about promoting the fairness of social justice.  Millions upon millions of Americans would enjoy a real improvement to the quality of their lives as a result of policies that duly consider the merits of demand-side interests.  Everyone would be able to wake up in a society with improved public health and improved public morale.  Even investments would be uplifted as a heavily strained labor force is given greater opportunity for financial security and professional development.  The fundamental fairness of correcting for decades in which four out of five Americans were excluded from any real reward for their part in achieving real growth — consider that icing on the proverbial cake.

*For clarity’s sake, I continue to believe the “communism has never been given a fair shake” argument is legitimate.  The crucial difference between the chance trickle down actually had and any historical regimes employing the term “communism” is the matter of open vs. closed societies.  With free speech, a free press, and a political system that has at times been the envy of the world, our nation still was unable to make supply-side economics work for anyone without personal control over an abundant supply of capital.  When a similarly open society attempts true communism, then it can be said to have been put to a test comparable to the one trickle down economics has clearly failed.

What You Should Think About Greed

December 1, 2007

“Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”

–Erich Fromm

Roaming the blogosphere provides observers with no shortage of comedic sights. People just making their first efforts at articulating political thought may give off that adorable vibe one senses in little children trying to get their hands around an adult tool. Then again, if the message is sufficiently hateful, they may instead give off that disturbing vibe one senses in little children trying to get their hands around a loaded firearm.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the vast array of instances in which the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” speech is cited as a compelling defense of cutthroat capitalism. Anyone of sound mind who actually watched Oliver Stone’s Wall Street couldn’t come away seeing Gecko as a hero. No doubt he was a complex and charismatic character. Also, in the context of the dramatic moment, his speech was an appeal to idealize cutthroat capitalism. Yet in the broader context of the film, the character was clearly a villain willing to inflict enormous pain and suffering on others simply to add even more money to his own uselessly vast personal fortune.

As a character, Gordon Gecko was an exceptional man. For example, he referenced Sun Tzu in a business context without completely mangling the application of that ancient wisdom. Ordinarily, when an executive or manager invokes that sagacious general, it is just before pulling a monumentally stupid move. The Art of War has much to teach about abstract strategy. Yet it also has much to teach about overseeing armies of slave-conscripts in the midst of deadly struggle. Since that text became fashionable with the MBA crowd, it has done far more to promote the view that free workers engaged in constructive endeavors should be treated like slave-conscripts than it has done to refine the abstract strategic thinking of business leaders.

Likewise, if his words are to be believed, Gordon Gecko was right to call for sweeping reform of management at Teldar Paper. When a private enterprise is taking huge losses while continuing to pay out large salaries to an unproductive legion of executives, change is warranted. Yet his actions represent the exception that proves the rule — not the rule in action. In reality there are plenty of bloated Teldar-style corporate bureaucracies and very little pressure to link pay with performance. Insofar as reality’s Wall Street drives business trends, it promotes the search for cheap labor abroad rather than real restraint in the realm of executive compensation packages.

If popular beliefs about the benefits of cutthroat capitalism were remotely true, then bloated executive payrolls at unprofitable companies would be rare and short-lived. Instead of the tight correlation between productivity and executive compensation that capitalism is thought to promote, year after year in the U.S., executive pay raises consistently outpace overall economic growth, sometimes by a substantial multiple!

Architects of modern capitalism often spoke of “enlightened self-interest.” In a world where capital market activity involves long-term investors taking an active interest in the management practices of companies they partially own, there is at least the theoretical possibility that greed will tend to promote good business practices. We do not live in such a world.

Much of the activity in capital markets today is short term speculation. Investors seek to cash in on growing trends or public reaction to world events rather than build wealth by supporting wise executive stewardship. Even institutional investors, like mutual fund managers, are no longer likely to hold long term positions of any consequence. Though he is held in much esteem amongst financiers and tycoons, virtually no one today emulates Warren Buffet’s practice of actively monitoring the management practices of companies supported by his investments. He has become a living relic of a bygone era.

The end result is an economic dystopia alluded to in Oliver Stone’s film. Corporate raiders gain control of a business, loot it for saleable assets, trim workforces, further cut payrolls by replacing experience and skill with untrained novices, declare an impressive short term profit, then laugh all the way to the bank. It is a strong driving force in the “race to the bottom” — a steady decline in the quality of goods and services. While financial insiders get new piles of money to place alongside the piles of money they already possessed, thriving businesses are gutted and abandoned.

Depending upon economic elites to be consistently enlightened in their pursuit of self-interest makes no more sense than depending upon hereditary aristocrats to be consistently enlightened in the exercise of despotic power. The core idea behind the establishment of the United States was that exploitation of the many by the few could be disrupted through periodic redistribution of power according to the results of a nationwide public process. While this approach to political power is widely embraced, it is hard to imagine many Americans endorsing a similar approach in which wealth would be periodically redistributed.

In fairness, there are some good consequences to economic inequality. Then again, there is a vast range of possibilities between absolute economic equality and cutthroat capitalism. Right now, only the empty promises of trickle down economics answer any demand for social justice. Just imagine the outrage if a group of hereditary political aristocrats answered calls for democratization with flimflam about how their immense personal privilege will eventually spill over to empower ordinary citizens.

Wealth and power are not the same things, but no society that has accommodated extreme concentrations of wealth has found ways to prevent them from also serving as extreme concentrations of power. Some would defend a greed-based competitive paradigm with assertions about human nature. “Communism didn’t work because people are too greedy” goes the propaganda point woven deeply into the fabric of American culture.

If we actually governed ourselves with total deference to human nature, then we might also argue that medicine doesn’t work because people are too vulnerable to sickness or police do not work because people do not possess a natural tendency to comply with statutes. Government is not about shrugging and letting the worst of human nature determine the course of human events. Government is about taking collective action to restrain the worst of human nature and promote the advance of civilization. In short, it is a means to transcend “the law of the jungle.”

Because of the strong connection between wealth and power, a system that is dedicated to rewarding the effective actualization of personal greed is a system that empowers the selfish, the dishonest, the shortsighted, and even the larcenous among us. It should come as no surprise that the end result is a tendency for public officials to wallow in the spoils of legalized bribery while looting the public treasury to subsidize their coconspirators in the military-industrial complex.

I do not contend that an absolute equality of wealth is either attainable or desirable as a matter of public policy. Yet I do contend wholeheartedly that anarcho-capitalist ideology is an immensely harmful set of ideas rooted in falsehoods. These falsehoods are sustained by popular personalities who manage to combine shoddy analytical skills with an excellent ability to manipulate the emotions of their gullible admirers. Even as American civil rights, environmental conditions, economic vitality, public morale, and global prestige are being devoured by the politics of selfishness, millions of voting citizens will perpetuate their habit of endorsing a candidate based chiefly on false promises of fiscal restraint.

I have no trouble agreeing with the consensus of religious teachings that greed, far from being good, should be regarded as an anathema. Yet I also acknowledge that, in specific contexts, subject to reasonable restraints, greed can be useful. We do not need to take “self-interest” entirely out of the American way of life, but it is long past time to restore “enlightened” so as to strike a optimal balance. This balance permits collective action to solve real problems facing real people in our own times while also permitting individual action to produce individual rewards. Decades of policy from dozens of prosperous nations prove that this balance can be achieved. All we need in our own society is the will to make it happen.


What You Should Think About Communism

November 7, 2007

“I am not a Marxist.”

–Karl Marx

Like many, if not most, Americans, I was assigned a reading of George Orwell’s Animal Farm in high school. Like most Americans familiar with the book, I was instructed that it was a condemnation of communism. My teacher failed to make a significant distinction. Animal Farm is actually a condemnation of Stalinism. The Red Scare left America with deep psychological scars, including an inability to make that crucial distinction between communism — an economic ideology that emphasizes egalitarianism — and Stalinism — among the most murderous approaches to politics history has ever known.

Still, as Marx himself observed in private correspondence, his contributions to the philosophy of social justice spawned a movement vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Violence and even terrorism had already become tools of anarchists. Yet all their fury was directed toward incoherent, almost senseless, idealism. Communism does not transcend all practical concerns, but it is a more sensible form of idealism than simply annihilating all civic institutions. Thus whatever promise it might have offered in terms of overturning stagnant outdated economic paradigms was tempered with the potential to motivate acts of violence.

The fall of the Romanov dynasty was a much more complicated confluence of events than common knowledge would suggest. Some scholars prefer to think of the transition as two distinct revolutions. Regardless of how the process is labeled, it was the case that the ultimate architects of the Soviet state were only one faction of many working to break czarist control over the peoples of the old Russian Empire. Democrats and communists fought side by side in a struggle for liberation that was much more bloody, but no less idealistic, than the war that gave birth to American democracy.

As it happened, a Russian patriot by the name of Alexander Kerensky led the most organized provisional government in the chaos that followed the fall of the Romanov dynasty. At that point, Bolshevik communists were radicals widely regarded as part of a political fringe. In fact, the term “Bolshevik” is merely Russian for “party of the smaller part” as contrasted with “Menshevik” meaning “party of the larger part.” Taken less literally, they may be thought of as ways of saying “minority” and “majority.” Because they advocated violent methods of political action while calling for more radical and immediate changes than most communists supported, a rift separated the Bolsheviks from the Mensheviks.

Yet 1917 was a year of wild-eyed hope for all Russian populists. Just as democratic reformers sympathetic to capitalism were happy to share power with Menshevik activists, imprisoned Bolsheviks were set free and welcomed into the revolutionary coalition. The incendiary rhetoric of these radicals had an especially strong effect on masses of urban workers still struggling with extreme poverty even after the detention of the Romanovs. Before the year was over, Kerensky would be deposed and Vladimir Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, would rise to power.

Chaos continued, with counterrevolutionary forces deploying assassins against many leaders of the emerging Soviet regime. Lenin would dodge bullets before they found him, but find him they did. In the mean time, actually being hunted by enemies fueled any paranoia that might have existed in the Soviet leadership. To Lenin this meant the need for a ruthless secret police force. To Stalin this meant the need to impose autocracy, eliminate rivals, and conduct a nationwide political purge that would ultimately lead to the deaths of millions upon millions of citizens.

It is hard to say what would have happened to the creatures in Animal Farm if Old Major had lived or if Snowball had become his successor instead of Napoleon. It is also hard to say what would have happened if Lenin had lived or Leon Trotsky had become the second head of the Soviet regime. The veil of Orwell’s allegory was deliberately thin. It is only a lack of historical perspective that enables many Americans to twist the work into a McCarthy-style diatribe against communism. More astute reading reveals that it is a very specific lamentation about quirks of fate that ultimately placed the full power of the U.S.S.R. under the control of a malicious paranoid little man literally afflicted with a Napoleon complex.

Thus it is that people from the President of the United States to high school sophomores being assigned Animal Farm readings this year all come away with the misconception that communism is incompatible with democracy, civil rights, governmental accountability, etc. For some of my fellow Americans, the term “communism” invokes a primal hostility along with a sense of superiority that comes from the misconception that capitalism is uniquely capable of fostering free speech, free travel, fair elections, etc. Literary and historical misinformation is systematically passed from one generation to the next because these crucial misunderstandings are so widely accepted as ironclad fact.

I would never contend that one should be sympathetic to Stalin or Stalinism. Even the heroism and sacrifice of Soviet military personnel turning back the forces of Nazi Germany is mitigated by the way in which Stalinist purges compare to the Holocaust in terms of both death tolls and institutionalized cruelty. Yet the thing to keep in mind in all of this is that Soviet oppression and mass murder was not a function of the desire of revolutionaries to live in a more equitable society than czarist Russia. It was a function of an extreme bunker mentality made manifest through the personal failings of an arrogant yet insecure world leader.

Of course communism is not the alpha and omega of wisdom about distribution of wealth. It is a perspective that has limited utility. The madness born of the Cold War and maintained even today in the United States is a belief that capitalism is the alpha and omega of wisdom about the distribution of wealth. In fact, it too is merely a perspective with limitations on its usefulness. Being able to see things from a Marxist or communist perspective is not at all a personal failure or a source of danger. Adopting a taboo mentality about this realm of philosophy only degrades the discourse emergent from people practicing this form of willful blindness.

Part of what makes Karl Marx’s insights worthy of consideration in modern times is that they had tremendous predictive value, by philosophical standards. He foresaw the rise of automation, pressures to increase the economic gaps between investors and workers, and even the danger of a new aristocracy. Corporate titles have replaced hereditary nobility, but the inherited fortunes and the extent of cradle to grave privilege remain much the same. It seems as if some capitalist societies have come to be dominated dominated by hereditary aristocrats lacking any sense of noblesse oblige.

Likewise, today’s working poor may have cable television and used cars, but that does not mean the power imbalance is without drawbacks. Much to the puzzlement of other civilized peoples, in America the debate today is about whether or not the working poor are worthy of access to medical care. Even more than with educational opportunity, the existing national compromise in that area is an anti-growth policy that perpetuates hardship based on some bizarre notion that an easier life for laborers will reduce the level of interest working folks have in pursuing professional advancement.

Ultimately this rests on a profound misunderstanding of human nature. Other nations pursuing downright generous welfare policies, never mind merely implementing universal health care, have not been brought to their knees by an epidemic of idleness or a lack of ambition. Such claims may be popular talking points for conservative political campaigns in places like France or Sweden, but the underlying reality reveals stable growth. Then there is the matter of fiscal solvency, but surely that is a “glass houses and stones” issue considering how our cutthroat economy continues to break new ground in the field of deficit financing.

Personally, I believe in a sort of selective socialism. “Privatize everything” is surely as counterproductive, not to mention stupid, as “nationalize everything.” Yet there is a wonderful and vast middle ground where a range of practical concerns can be brought to bear. In that moderate zone, decisions about profit vs. public interest can be made based on relevant realities.

This requires nuance and attention to detail, but those things are obtainable if one has the good sense to try and evaluate the world from multiple perspectives. Just as being blind in one eye eliminates depth perception, constantly deferring to a single economic ideology leaves one much less informed about contemporary realities.

Of course, in an ideal world everyone would treat every ideology as a frame of reference. There, everyone would engage in something deeper than pure ideology when it comes to analyzing the great issues of our times. Hope alone cannot transform Earth into an ideal world, but it may guide us as we seek to become closer to useful ideals in our individual approaches to civic life.