Translating Nietzsche’s Notebooks

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
Though they’re disapprovin’,
Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide!
Don’t try to understand ’em,
Just rope and throw and grab ’em,
Soon we’ll be living high and wide.
Boy my heart’s calculatin’
My true love will be waitin’, be waiting at the end of my ride.

Move ’em on, head ’em up,
Head ’em up, move ’em out,
Move ’em on, head ’em out Rawhide!
Set ’em out, ride ’em in
Ride ’em in, let ’em out,
Cut ’em out, ride ’em in Rawhide.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Rawhide!

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
Though the streams are swollen
Keep them dogies rollin’
Rawhide!
Rain and wind and weather
Hell-bent for leather
Wishin’ my gal was by my side.
All the things I’m missin’,
Good vittles, love, and kissin’,
Are waiting at the end of my ride

CHORUS
Move ’em on, head ’em up
Head ’em up, move ’em on
Move ’em on, head ’em up
Rawhide
Count ’em out, ride ’em in,
Ride ’em in, count ’em out,
Count ’em out, ride ’em in
Rawhide!

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’
Though they’re disapprovin’
Keep them dogies movin’
Rawhide!
Don’t try to understand ’em
Just rope, throw, and brand ’em
Soon we’ll be living high and wide.
My hearts calculatin’
My true love will be waitin’,
Be waitin’ at the end of my ride.

Rawhide!
Rawhide!

— Ned Washington

[hat tip Samantha X. Johnston]

Separation

The executive branch of our federal government announced yesterday that it would no longer defend legal challenges to its enforcement of a statute duly enacted by the political branches (I say political branches because the president possesses some legislative authority as well, by virtue of the veto). Here’s what happened: a Democratic Congress passed a bill amending the Clean Air Act, classifying carbon dioxide as a pollutant and setting a timetable for reduction of it as a means of combatting global warming, and this was duly signed into law by a previous Democratic president. Oil companies, supported by conservative think tanks’ amicus briefs, challenged the law in court, claiming that it was unconstitutional (not within the scope of the Commerce power), and a federal district judge in Louisiana known to be angling for an appointment to the appellate bench agreed. To the delight of global warming skeptics everywhere, President Palin announced that her administration was now agreeing that the statute was unconstitutional, and that it would abdicate its responsibility to defend the law in court by even appealing the Louisiana judge’s historic ruling. At almost the same time, contrary rulings emerged from district judges in California and Vermont, and legal experts declared that the state of global warming reduction law would be in a state of confusion for years as a result. A handful of moderate conservatives criticized the decision as “a new form of executive activism circumventing democracy”, but were quickly silenced by cable television and talk radio pundits as “tree-hugging socialists.”

Oh, wait. That’s not what happened yesterday. That’s what happens five years from now.

Prioritize

I have nothing to add to this other than to say that it is clearly true, and an inchoate intuition of mine along these lines has been coloring my perception of politics for awhile now. This also, by the way, should induce a rethinking of the Nolan Chart, if it implied that “wants you to have an additional 25 cents of purchasing power” and “wants you to not be subjected to a Chekhist’s handshake” ended up being represented as comparable distances from a point on the chart. If we started to think seriously about the implications of Kuznicki’s point, the question “how much do you care about human freedom” might start to be answered very very differently than it did when we simply partitioned the logical space into which kind of freedom do you care about. Also: I would like to caution Mr. Kuznicki, as I don’t think he quite appreciates the perilous, Wilkinsonian path he is treading, or where it leads.

Act II?

This morning I’m mulling this. The explosive expansion of human freedom in 1989 at the close of the Long War may have only been a first act, for what we have been seeing since the Iranian protests of 2009, and especially in recent weeks in the Arab world, may be something much bigger than we think. I wish I could read the history books of the future, but the crazy-hopeful side of me is thinking: you who mistake luck and the fruits of brutality as a license to dominate and silence, your days are numbered.

Wisconsin A-Go-Go

The following in no way purports to be definitive; it is more a matter of ventilating some ambivalences and raising some questions.

My attitude toward unions themselves is an uneasy cross between what I learned from Austrian economics (for novices, this is not the economics of Austria, but a school of thought) and what I learned from law school. Austrian economics: in an economically perfect world, an employer would pay the lowest wage the market would bear. In such a world, collective bargaining would be unlikely because it would serve little purpose other than saving negotiation time, because as soon as the union asked for a higher-than-scab wage, the employer would reject it (unless the reduction of transaction costs offered by collective bargaining made up for it). This also means that the union’s primary leverage that we know from the real world, the strike, would be pretty ineffectual. But that aside, there is no reason in principle why a fan of laissez-faire would be opposed to unions and collective bargaining, as, in said perfect world, they would be creatures of agency law and contract or something very like.

So why do we have them at all, public or private? Because they are, ultimately, creatures of the state, just like corporations are. A vast, complex network of laws I don’t even pretend to understand give unions a status and various powers and privileges beyond anything that agency and contract law would confer. This means that your intuition, if you have it, that unions in some fashion must have employers over a barrel to some degree, is essentially correct. But gaze up at that italicized phrase again. Corporations too are creatures of the state and confer all sorts of interesting benefits on shareholders, the principal one being limited liability (when the corporation goes belly up, they don’t come after the shareholder’s assets). We have collectively decided to do this because, though it gives a class of business enterprises a great deal of power, it’s worth it, we judge, in terms of the friendlier environment toward enterprise, innovation and risk. This greater social power makes it easier for corporations to dominate employment negotiations, and since everyone more or less is an employee, to dominate society. So we counterbalance that by conferring on unions special privileges and forcing corporations to deal with them.

This has various predictable effects. It to some degree slows the very things we want corporations for (enterprise, risk, innovation), but bear in mind that the corporation exposes its workers to these risks too (admittedly less than if they went into business for themselves, though). It raises the overall compensation package and working conditions, but by reducing the funds the employer has available per employee, it drives down employment in exactly the same way that rent control famously creates housing scarcity. It creates a competitive disadvantage in relation to labor markets beyond our political control which lack unions. Ultimately, unions represent the rent-seeking of the laborer, and as with all rent-seeking, those who collect no economic rents tend to be annoyed when they view this from the outside. Nonetheless, union members are still engaged in productive activity, and if they weren’t, there would be no employment for them at all because the employer would be unable to market their non-existent product. The question is, what sort of society do we want to live in? And that question is answered, as always in a democratic society, by the political process. We have decided we don’t want a feudal world in which no one dares invest their money by lending it, in which no one dares risk their own assets by borrowing, in which technology and prosperity stagnate, and where all large enterprises will have to be initiated by the state or church (as in the Middle Ages). But we also don’t want a world of company towns, company stores, hazardous and oppressive working conditions, a kind of serfdom by another name. And while we want there to be unions, we don’t want there to be too many of them, which is why less than 15% of our economy is unionized. In short, in trying to find a balance between a post-Deng China and a pre-Thatcher England, we have decided that the world we want is this one. If you don’t like this, here is your ballot, there’s the ballot box, knock yourself out.

In such a world, there are all sorts of nifty goods and services, and some of us can’t afford the ones we would like (schooling, for example). As a result, the People in their wisdom have decided to tax those who can afford these things on their own, to get them for those who cannot. When we turn our attention to Wisconsin, do not forget that before there were economic rent-seeking public unions, there was an economic rent-seeking public which voted themselves goodies at the expense of the well-to-do, largely, their own private sector employers. This is the bed the public makes for itself. And yes, the people who comprise the public unions engage in productive activity. A schoolteacher does not suddenly become transformed from a vital participant in our dynamic economy to a parasitical zombie simply by having the owner of the account that writes her paychecks shift from private to public. The principal effects are, members of the public get easier access to certain goods and services, and the labor market gets distorted accordingly (for example, I was originally trained as a title insurance examiner, and the existence of public universities has caused us to be shy one title insurance examiner).

The upside and the downside of unionizing these public sector workers seems to be roughly the same as with the private sector.* Without unions, these employees would be serfs of the state. With unions, they become economic rent-seekers. Now in a regime of progressive taxation, there is one person this should really really piss off: the high-income taxpayer who can afford to purchase these goods and services privately, for they get hit twice, first by the voters who tax them to get the goodies (one can assume that asset distribution is pyramidal, so the high-income taxpayers can’t just band together and constitute a democratic majority) and then by the workers who make the goodies demanding higher compensation. In a democracy, it sucks to be rich, which is why, as Plato brilliantly explained over two thousand years ago, for the rich it is really not the political system of choice.

What to do? Well, to limit your taxes as much as possible, you need to win over a democratic majority of people whose interests really aren’t served by the elimination of the public goods and services (remember, they can’t afford them if they are privatized, that’s why they created the mechanism for their public production in the first place). How do you do that? Through propaganda and bribery. You demonize the people who build their roads while they drive on them, teach in their schools while they depend on them, and call them thieves, when really, its the voters who are the ‘thieves’ and the only ‘victim’ here is yourself. You appeal to their moral sense by expressing solidarity with their hostility to thievery and promise to tax them less. Then they vote for your agents, and you tax them, and yourself, less. But you don’t close the schools, end the road and sewer repair, shut off the public lights and stop putting out fires. You are not an idiot. You simply borrow money to pay for it all, money to be paid back by them. That way the public comes to believe that the services appear by magic, disengaged from their taxes, and political competition comes to seem to be simply between those who would tax you more and those who would tax you less. It’s a win-win-win, for the rich, for the regular folks, and for the people who serve them. Until someone discovers that there is no money for any of it. And when that happens, you can always tell the people that the servants stole the silverware. Because we all know that the solution to a systemic crisis is misdirection and hysteria. At least, that has always worked for me when my bank account is overdrawn.

So: you want to know who are the heroes and who are the villains in Wisconsin? Democrats? Republicans? There aren’t any. Wisconsin did this to itself. And all that the rest of us can do is stand by in dumb-founded amazement, relieved to know that It Can’t Happen Here. Because Here, fires really do put themselves out, roads really do repair themselves, classes really do teach themselves, etc. etc. etc.: money flows like a river and self-righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

*Perhaps not. See comments below for the labor-captures-management-and-negotiates-with-itself phenomenon, which would tend to be peculiar to the public sector

Great Moments in Cinema, VII

LANDSCAPES: An opening voice-over plays against dissolving Texas landscapes—broad, bare, and lifeless.

VOICE-OVER: The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year—something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help—watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else—that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas…

CUT TO ROAD, NIGHT: We are rushing down a rain-swept country road, listening to the rhythmic swish of tires on wet asphalt.

VOICE-OVER: And down here… you’re on your own.

— Blood Simple

Twenty-Four Hours On Facebook

Facebook, like FarmVille, is basically pornography. If you look at hunter-gatherers from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, here’s what you see: pack hunting mammals who engage in light gardening for additional sustenance, with a short list of things they cannot help but be interested in.

Food

Sex

Chasing things

Gardening

Childcare

Gossiping, boasting and blaming

The Internet, apart from being a useful tool, is bloated with opportunities to experience effortless ersatz gratification of all these needs, though I think the pleasures of chasing game by proxy, also known as “sports” are probably better enjoyed through television than through the Internet. Sex by proxy is not new to the Internet; it’s older than the hills. What’s really surprising, however, is the illusion of gardening (FarmVille) and the illusion of having a tribe (Facebook).

I remember when I first started using Facebook. It posed something of a dilemma for me, because most of my real-world social networks were defined by various sorts of bitter antagonisms toward each other. As an academic, most of my professional friends were dogmatic atheists and political progressives. As a Baha’i, my “church” network consisted of theological liberals (non-literalists) and disengaged progressives (the Baha’i Faith sternly prohibits political involvement, but as I read the signals most of my Baha’i friends would’ve been progressives if they had been allowed to be anything). As a Republican, my political network consisted of both religious conservatives and atheist libertarians, most of whom would’ve agreed if asked that academics are, on the whole, elitist devils. Before the Internet, I Zeliged my way through these contexts and kept my own counsel (which, given these influences, was usually complex and deeply ambivalent). After the Internet but before Facebook, I took to the “on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog” phenomenon with enormous gusto, constructing fictitious identities for myself that for once allowed me to say what I really thought about things without creating conflict or risking rejection: I simply partitioned my discussions so that whatever the topic, I was always among friends. The first sign of trouble came when an academic colleague who I think it is fair to say is significantly further to the Left than most academics, discovered one of my identities in which I expressed anger about some Islamofascist outrage to conservative friends and confronted me. This began a process of reflection, both about how identity-partitioning and in-group high-fiving could lead, not to the freedom to be yourself, but many selves, each of them on steroids, shouting in an echo chamber. Chastened and troubled, I withdrew from those sorts of fora.

Then came Facebook. Now I do not wish to be overly critical of Facebook, for it proved to be an important learning experience as well. The first issue was dealing with the identity-partitioning. Fictitious persona seem to not fly on Facebook the way they used to on Usenet, so tentatively, I started to come out of the closet in which I hid my complexity. I chose my “friends” very very carefully, with an eye to who I could trust the most to tolerate the extent to which these complexities would deviate from the norms of my various mini-communities. Academics started to discover my libertarian and religious sides. Conservatives started to discover my moments of aesthetic elitism, sympathy for gay rights, and intellectual reservations about oversimple and self-righteous political understandings. Co-religionists started to discover, well, everything. Though I tried to craft my friends list (I called it “social ichibana”) to maximize both freedom and disclosure, I started to have to make choices; one of them was that the Bahai’s would have to go, since they managed to disapprove of the greatest number of my passions and commitments, including the one indispensable one: philosophy. So I give Facebook some credit for helping with this integration/disclosure process. I probably no longer fit in anywhere, but I know who I am.

I also give Facebook credit for giving me the experience of what it is like to feel oneself an accepted member of a tribe. As a terrible introvert, I had experienced a fair amount of social isolation in my life, and I had not fully grasped the magnitude of the distorting effect isolation has on one until it was gone. This, however, was what I am calling Facebook’s pornographic effect, akin to an illusion of sexual satisfaction. Still, it was nice to discover that what I had thought were shortcomings in myself were nothing but symptoms of not getting out much, and it taught me how very important it is to have friends and make time for them.

But like Usenet, Facebook has its own partitioning effect. However much we strive for openness and inclusion, through some mysterious social physics, one’s friends list is gradually purged of people with whom one disagrees, and willy-nilly, the echo chamber is reborn. This tendency was at odds with the integration/disclosure process I mentioned above. As I became more openly complex, the complex network I was in became more and more composed of hysterical dogmatists of left and right. And though I chose my friends as wisely as I could, unfortunately, my friends tended not to do the same, perhaps because they did not confront the same dilemma. A day wouldn’t go by when I didn’t see some obnoxious, ignorant comment expressing hatred for some group I was also associated with, by a total stranger. I finally jumped ship, put my expressive efforts into this blog, and kept the friendships to email, the telephone and, horrors, in person interaction.

But this has made it rather difficult to maintain frequent contact with people whose social lives have largely migrated to Facebook, like trying to have a social life without a telephone in 1960. Over a period of some months the memory of the unpleasantness of unchosen friends of friends sounding off and circulating political propaganda started to fade. One day, one of my dearest friends was going through the hassle of modifying his privacy settings momentarily just so that I could view his family photos which were only on Facebook, and I said to myself “screw it, how bad can it be?” I came back. It lasted twenty-four hours, give or take.

The first day I assembled my friends list, this time with an eye toward genuine affection rather than networking, and instead of sixty friends, I chose ten. Within a few hours, I saw my first “Obama as Manchurian Candidate” propaganda. Response: hiding. A few hours later, a friend of a friend weighs in on the malevolent parasitism of Wisconsin public sector unions (he is unemployed and lives with his parents; I work my tail off at a public institution and renounced my pension out of public-spiritedness). Response: blocked. A few hours later, an academic friend thoughtlessly passes on some MoveOn propaganda about an alleged “Republican War On Women” and, forgetting the vital role MoveOn had played in turning me from a Clinton Democrat to a Bush Republican, I foolishly fact-check its ten claims, five of which prove to be malicious lies. I waste over an hour drafting and redrafting a response for him, all the while knowing that this is not how one is supposed to respond to this sort of thing: one is supposed to high-five it, or pick different friends. I end up deleting all my responses.

Then late last night, my wife’s Facebook page churns up photos of one of her friends’ new-born infant. This pushes her into a crying jag that goes on for much of the rest of the night. Careful readers of this space will know that we tried to raise one of my sons from a prior marriage together, but he committed suicide in our house, and we never had the heart to love a child again after that.

I slept on it and returned to the fray, but there it all still was: tribes huddled together for warmth hurling lies at and about other tribes to reaffirm their identities. I went to my profile page and tried to change my “Current Location” to “Planet of the Apes” but Facebook wouldn’t let me. Then I de-activated the account and resumed my distinctively human life of peace and silence, tinged with loneliness.

[Update: Honesty compels me to add that I did subsequently re-activate.]