With only a few hours a day (at best) for reading, and an infinite number of “practical” books to absorb, one might suspect that reading fiction is a waste of time. Couldn’t the time spent buried in “Demian” have been used to learn more about neuroscience or cooking or search engine optimization?
To some extent this is true. The benefits of reading fiction are often outweighed by the benefits of reading non-fiction – especially if the fiction is of the lower grade popular sort: vampire porn, murder mysteries, spy thrillers, space opera, etc. But even this sort of thing is not read solely by losers.
Most people require a certain amount of recreation to remain functional, and there is nothing wrong with this. Few people regard money and success as ends in themselves; they are a means of indulging in various leisures in the future. Not all gratification need be delayed indefinitely, nor is it necessarily good to do so. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The danger here is not an occasional waste of time, but an addiction to escapism which can lead to a loss of effective engagement with reality.
Recreation, however, is not the highest benefit of reading fiction, nor is it the subject of this article. Good fiction can provide an experience of learning and personal growth, sometimes moreso than whatever non-fiction might be available in its place. The marginal utility of “Wuthering Heights” may exceed the marginal utility of a volume of Serbian history or of yet another collection of free enterprise folklore.
How can fiction, which is by definition untrue, be more valuable than acquiring factual knowledge? Consider: the most salient fact about fiction, in general, is that it is always about people. There are no exceptions. Sometimes people may masquerade as animals or machines, as in much children’s literature, but neither animals nor machines are ever the real subject. “Watership Down” is not about rabbits. From the earliest age of comprehension, human beings are interested only in stories about human beings; most people care about things like science (if at all) only insofar as those things affect human beings. For this reason mass media news generally ignores the substantive facts of every important event, instead rendering trivial but moving descriptions of individuals and how they are affected. Only higher intellects are drawn to abstract knowledge, even when it has potential implications for humanity. How many people study forensic pathology, compared to how many study the life and character of Adolf Hitler? Homo Sapiens is fascinated by mirrors.
Fiction is one of the ways that people learn about people. The characters and situations are imaginary and sometimes unrealistic, but they are nonetheless real – they portray something that is or could be part of human reality, expanding our awareness of the nature and potential of our world and especially our fellow inmates thereof. The (largely fictional) “Chanson de Roland” is not a biography. It is a lesson about courage, loyalty, and the bonds between men. It shows, in a way that mere facts never could, how and why a hero – that is, a man – may face death.
By reading fiction, one may learn things about other people, and about oneself, that may not be readily accessible in the real world. One may experience, vicariously but vividly enough, feelings and situations that one may not yet have encountered personally. One may even imagine, and thus experience, situations which are impossible or unsurvivable in reality. This is not only a powerful exercise of the imagination, a very useful faculty in itself, it helps one to learn how people – including oneself! – may or should react under conditions of stress that cannot otherwise be prepared for, and to have confidence when those conditions arise. How will you meet your own death, if you have never imagined it? Mere information about death will not help; it cannot provide an experience.
Fiction can simulate that experience. Good fiction is not escapist; it may even be traumatic to read. It does not make the reader comfortable; it makes him stronger and wiser.
Reading good fiction (and even, to some extent, popular fiction) is a way of preparing for life – testing and rehearsing emotional responses to crises that could, or will, confront the individual in “real” life. Academic knowledge alone cannot create the necessary emotional intensity; the closest thing to firsthand experience is a convincing story.
According to sociologists, the three great socializing influences on children are family, school, and church. I would add a fourth (or a third, church is of much less importance than it was during the formative era of sociology): fiction, predominately movies and television. The audiovisual media are far more compelling, especially to the young, than the written. They also provide much less scope for the individual activity of the audience. A book requires the exercise of the reader’s imagination to recreate appropriate emotions; it thus gives the reader some scope in interpreting the feelings of the characters. Movies typically demand little of the viewer in this regard: a good actor portrays emotion clearly and the viewer is a passive recipient. Some movies are still good fiction, and many are good entertainment, but on average movies are on a level somewhat below comic books, and television is lower still. In terms of teaching how to react and how to experience emotion, video is inferior to print. This is unfortunate because it is primarily fiction (and for this purpose I include songs, i.e. modern poetry) that teaches young people how to deal with the stressful and important things that family, school, and church tend to skirt around: that is, love and sex.
Science teaches the behavior of chemicals, fruit flies, and galaxies. History teaches the behavior of humankind in bulk, and how it relates to great men. Fiction teaches the individual how to fit into the world; it teaches us who we are and who we could be, and how to live with tragedy and triumph. Fiction opens new perspectives and inspires us to create ourselves.
“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
-Unknown (apocryphally attributed to Abraham Lincoln)
No, it’s not Barack Obama – he’s trying hard, but he hasn’t had much time yet and the competition is very stiff. It wasn’t Richard Nixon – a vile person can sometimes be a tolerable leader, and Nixon was actually one of the better Presidents. FDR gets a lot of crap from certain quarters, and he certainly made some big mistakes, but he dealt adequately with a couple of very serious problems not of his own creation (though Roosevelt might have turned out to be a horrific failure had Hitler been satisfied with Czechoslovakia). Warren Harding and Ulysses Grant are well known for the corruption they tolerated, but neither managed to really do much damage. It was during the Coolidge administration that the groundwork was laid for the First Great Depression, but there wasn’t much he could have done about it if he wanted to. Herbert Hoover is reviled for his failure to address the Depression (as Obama will be) but Hoover, like Obama, would have faced serious political challenges had he attempted to implement a meaningful policy. There are plenty of other candidates for last place – Reagan, Carter, George Bush II, Lyndon Johnson (whom I’d give a solid second-to-last), Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan…
Buchanan was faced, near the end of his one term, with the secession of South Carolina and then six other Southern states (Georgia and the so-called “Gulf Squadron” of Florida, Alabama, Mississipi, Louisiana, and later Texas). His response was to do very little – he said that although secession was illegal, the US Government was not empowered to intervene (a very dubious Constitutional interpretation). While lame-duck Buchanan waited passively to leave office, the seceding states seized most of the Federal property in their territory – including forts and arsenals. Buchanan did send a civilian ship to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, which the Secessionists were trying to starve out, but Star of the West fled when fired on by South Carolina’s shore batteries. Buchanan was still not ready to precipitate the country into war, though, and let the incident pass. Though he had nothing to do with causing the secessions, Buchanan is usually severely castigated by historians for his failure to do anything about them.
And yet – what was he supposed to do? The US Army was hardly prepared for an invasion of the South in January of 1861 – as usual the peacetime army had been very small*, and loyalties to states were then much stronger than now. Any attempt to prevent the capture of the Federal arsenals might well have failed, and/or caused a mutiny, and would certainly have provoked a war. Up until March of 1861, desperate eleventh-hour negotiations were still going on to reverse the secession, and it was far from obvious at the time that these were doomed. One Congressional peace plan was stalled by only a single vote. It is likely that the seceded states would have rejected it, but not certain: there was still a great deal of pro-Union sentiment in the South, and some people plainly regarded Secession as a ploy to gain concessions. Jefferson Davis himself had at first opposed Secession. Could we really expect Buchanan to throw away the last chance, however slim, of escaping the horror of a civil war, as the best solution to a crisis that he had not created, and take the blame on behalf of the man who had created it?
It is said that the Civil War was caused by Secession, but there was no certainty that Secession need bring about war. Furthermore, Secession itself could not have happened without the election of Abraham Lincoln. Secessionists in the South even made it their first priority to ensure Lincoln’s election by attacking Stephen Douglas, the only truly national candidate in the 1860 Presidential race and the only one likely to prevent Lincoln’s victory. It was Lincoln’s intemperate anti-slavery rhetoric that guaranteed his unacceptability to the slave-dependent cotton states of the Deep South. Although Douglas was denounced as a “rank Abolitionist”, he clearly and consistently favored protecting slavery wherever the citizens might want it, and his election would have made Secession politically impossible for the time being.
Had Abraham Lincoln been sincerely dedicated to the abolition of slavery, we would surely forgive him for using anti-slavery agitation as his chief political weapon, but he was not. Lincoln, like most other politicians, claimed whatever positions were politically useful to him, and contradicted them without the slightest hesitation whenever it was convenient. He is famous for saying that, “This Union cannot forever endure half slave and half free,” – a clear declaration of Abolitionist intent; he also said repeatedly that his only priority was preservation of the Union, and he admitted that if he could do this without freeing a single slave he would do so. Lincoln promised the South that he would not interfere with slavery wherever it already existed, and even supported a Constitutional amendment (the Corwin Amendment) protecting the “peculiar institution” in perpetuity. Even after the outbreak of war, Lincoln ordered Union generals (Hooker and Fremont) to return freed slaves to their owners.
Lincoln was also a racist, at least in public and in policy. He stated that blacks were by nature unequal to whites and could not be integrated into white civilization. Mexicans he despised as “a mongrel race not one in eight of whom are white.” His plan for dealing with freed slaves was to deport them to Africa. To this end, near the end of the war, a pilot colony was even established in the Caribbean. When the colony failed and many of the settlers died, Lincoln abandoned the plan for the time being, but it is uncertain whether he might later have yet undertaken mass deportations, had he lived and had Congress permitted.
It is said that Lincoln was no more racist than other men of his time, and that he could not afford to declare his supposedly genuine Abolitionist sentiments openly for political reasons. But there were Abolitionist political leaders, and even opponents of racism, who did declare themselves openly. If he lacked that much courage, why is Lincoln given any credit for being a visionary? He used Abolitionism to gain power, but at no time did he take any political risk for it, even though his strident exploitation of the anti-slavery movement had already destroyed any credibility his promise not to interfere with slavery could have had in the South. In fact, even during the war, Lincoln approached the abolition of slavery with all the eagerness of a man contemplating a dive into raw sewage. The Emancipation Proclamation had to wait until the tide of war was clearly running against the Confederacy, and even then was framed so that it did not immediately free any slaves. When slaves were eventually freed, it was at first only to be conscripted to labor for the Union armies, while the slaves of owners in non-seceded states were left in bondage.
Even without having any firm convictions, Lincoln managed to be perceived as an extreme partisan and was the most divisive Presidential candidate of his century, and perhaps ever. He achieved this partly through the manipulation of mobs. He owed the Republican nomination, which he captured from the leading (and more dignified) Republican, William Seward, to the fact that the Convention was held in Chicago, where organized crowds of Lincoln supporters could shout down pro-Seward speakers. (And, also, to backroom dealing wherein “Honest Abe” traded a Cabinet post for the votes of Simon Cameron’s delegation). His election campaign included virulent anti-Southern speeches and ominous pseudo-military parades, often conducted late at night by torch-bearing mobs. Lincoln worked hard to be perceived as the enemy of the South – a project in which the Secessionists wholeheartedly participated. Lincoln was not even on the ballot in most slave states, and where he was, his showing was miserable (26,395 votes altogether, most of them in Missouri).
Though he won the election, it was with a minority of the popular vote**. Lincoln was about as unpopular as a candidate can be and still win a bare majority in the Electoral College; he won almost all of the free states but in several cases (including his home state of Illinois) by small margins, and had essentially no votes in the slave states. Given Lincoln’s known political habits, it is not unlikely that he had some help from electoral fraud in certain key states (especially Pennsylvania, which Cameron had promised to deliver for him, and Illinois) in achieving this minority victory.
When his election precipitated the secession of seven slave states – as they had already been threatening to do – Lincoln participated in attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution (i.e., he cooperated with Buchanan’s much-derided policy), but any promises he made were of course disregarded in the South. Meanwhile, certain Northern states were already mobilizing troops.
Even before his inauguration, Lincoln had thus brought about the creation of the Confederacy. But the major questions remained unsettled: Would there be a war? If so, would the remaining Union hang together? Who would win? Lincoln decided the first two of these questions with some atrocious bungling which showed how completely out of touch he was with half of the country he had hijacked.
Lincoln was determined to rule over the entire United states, and not let any parts of it out of his grasp – this, not any Abolitionist intent, was his prime motivation throughout his administration. Negotiations having failed, his only alternative was to conquer the South by arms. On the surface, this seemed easy enough – the seven-state Confederacy had only a tiny fraction of the manpower and resources that the Union held, and no Navy or arms manufacturing capacity. Its only hope was foreign assistance. Lincoln’s problem was that, while the northernmost states were eager for bloodshed, in much of the Union there was little or no support for war. In particular, eight slave states had remained loyal but were obviously unsympathetic toward Lincoln’s aspirations.
Lincoln chose Fort Sumter, still under siege in Charleston harbor, as the place to start the war. Sumter was running out of food, and had to be immediately resupplied or surrendered. The President was presented with a plan for smuggling supplies in at night by small boats slipping into the harbor from warships lurking at sea. This plan was adopted, but Lincoln insisted on making some modifications.
What Lincoln ultimately did was to send warships openly into Charleston harbor in broad daylight, under the Confederate guns, flying the Union flag. To ensure that no one missed the point, Lincoln even cabled the Charleston authorities in advance to warn them of the mission. Since the latter had earlier fired on Star of the West, and had already announced that they would fire on any other resupply attempt, there was little risk that they would allow Union warships to defy them openly. They did not; the warships were forced to withdraw and Fort Sumter surrendered.
Lincoln’s intent was to force the Confederacy into firing the first shot so as to unite public opinion against them – as he put it, they would be “firing on bread” in view of the whole country. But Lincoln was sadly ignorant of the real state of opinion in the Border states, and unaware that no one was fooled by his clumsy ploy. When he issued an immediate demand that all the states provide quotas of troops to put down the rebellion, four more slave states promptly seceded and three more exhibited marked disloyalty.
The expansion of the Confederacy from seven states to eleven might not at first seem critical, but it was. The original seven had very little industry, and though they had a large (and almost indefensible) territory were comparatively sparsely populated (most of Florida and Texas was then empty). A large proportion of their population was slaves, who could not be used for troops and whose loyalty could hardly be counted on. The seven-state Confederacy had very little liquid capital, as all its wealth was in land, and its economy was entirely dependent on crop exports, mainly cotton – for which the main consumers were England and the North they had just seceded from. Ships, shipyards, foundries, weapon factories, iron, coal, etc. – even the manufacture of clothing and shoes – were all severely or totally lacking. To worsen its defensive situation, the Confederacy had a very long front with the Union – stretching from Texas to South Carolina – but little depth, without a single significant port being more than 400 miles from Union territory (and New Orleans and Savannah much closer). The large slave population was a major liability as well, as was the pro-Union white population of the hill regions.
Three of the four new Confederate states – Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee – were much more developed and all including Arkansas had relatively few slaves (which is why secession had not at first seemed necessary to them). Their accession doubled the population of the Confederacy, and tripled its industrial capacity. Most of the new population was white, and the loyalty of whites in Appalachia was to some degree cemented by Lincoln’s aggression and (presumably) by the fact that the Confederacy now appeared to have a fighting chance.
The Confederacy’s geographic defensibility was improved as it not only increased in depth (without adding much length) but gained the Appalachians as a defensive barrier. The Southern seaports, and the potentially rebellious concentrations of slaves in the Deep South, were now farther from Northern interference. More Federal arsenals were seized, and through Virginia the Confederacy was able to burn the Navy yard at Norfolk and threaten the capital at Washington. Meanwhile the Union was forced to devote part of its forces to occupying Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland – slave states which had not managed to formally secede, but were now as much pro-Confederate as pro-Union.
Every one of the four states which Lincoln forced into the Confederacy had already rejected secession, either explicitly or by refusing to vote on it. The regional, partisan President had ignorantly misinterpreted these decisions as conclusive, and even more foolishly had thought that his ruse at Sumter would turn local Unionism in the Upper South into support for a national war against their fellow slave societies. On the contrary, the Border states detested and feared Lincoln, and they supported the right of secession even when declining to exercise it themselves. A Union military conquest of the South would mean the end of their own slave societies and the subjugation of the South to the North, and they knew it. They preferred peace and Union, but given a choice between taking arms against their slave-owning allies and taking arms against their Abolitionist enemies, it should have been plain that they would choose the latter.
Lincoln had enabled the creation of the Confederacy by his vocal anti-Southern partisanship; by his arrogant fumbling he had turned it from a hopelessly weak and helpless nation into one with some ability to fight. But the North still had a huge advantage in resources – more than twice as many people, the vast majority of the nation’s industry, an excellent (by comparison) rail network, reserves of gold and silver, and (perhaps most importantly of all) virtually the entire Navy. The conquest of the Confederacy should not have been too difficult – but Lincoln wasn’t yet done screwing things up.
The incompetence of Union general officers during the first half of the Civil War is legendary. Their specific failures receive plenty of attention (and deservedly so); the fact that they were all political appointees approved by Lincoln is less emphasized. It may be that they were forced on him by Congress, but in this (as in so many other things) the best that may be said of our sixteenth President is that he failed to stand up against pressure. The bloodthirsty alcoholic Ulysses Grant, often considered the best Union general, finally won the war, but at horrendous cost in life – his most remarkable quality was his relentless aggression and disregard for casualties.
Lincoln wasn’t always content to let his generals make all the military mistakes, either. For political reasons he sometimes insisted on attacks even when these were militarily wasteful or even counterproductive, and he refused to withdraw the government from Washington where its vulnerability crippled Union operations. Lincoln was much more concerned with his own political future (which was obviously tied to the war’s progress) than with the carnage among the soldiers who had to fight his war.
If it hadn’t been for Lincoln’s assistance in winning over the Border states for the Confederacy, it is unlikely that a war would even have been needed to bring the original seven secedors (eventually) back into the Union. The Deep South was ill-equipped to survive on its own and, heavily dependent on imports, very vulnerable to blockade. Even the eleven-state Confederacy might have succumbed eventually to the so-called “Anaconda Plan” even without a massive war; perhaps even the Anaconda was unnecessary. The Confederacy was very loosely organized, united only by its fear and hatred of Abolition, and each state was naturally determined to retain its own full sovereignty. It was also very dependent on Northern markets for cotton.
President Lincoln, however, was not willing to wait for economic pressure and internal disorder to bring the South back into the Union. This could only have been completed under a different President, less hateful to the South, and he was not about to surrender the power to which he felt he was entitled, by virtue of a quirky electoral system, to wield over the slave states. He was also surely aware that his chance of reelection was small if he displeased his fanatical followers by failing to take firm action against the “traitors”. His ambition, as he himself showed through both words and actions, was never to liberate slaves but to preserve the Union, and it would be fair to say that by “Union” he meant Union under his own personal rule.
During the war to restore the Constitutional Union, Lincoln constantly and flagrantly violated the Constitution he was allegedly defending. His opponents were arrested without charge and imprisoned without trial; critical newspapers were seized; the Supreme Court was even prevented by armed force from hearing key cases. By 1864, the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt and Lincoln was less unpopular than before (and of course most of the slave states weren’t voting), but he still hedged his bets with ballot fraud to ensure his reelection. Quite likely the near-dictatorship that he created for himself would have carried on indefinitely, but for two fortuitous circumstances: his early death and the fact that he had picked a Democrat for Vice President in 1864, vainly hoping to thereby appear less partisan. Andrew Johnson was in no position to take over the dictatorship, and it died with Lincoln.
Had Lincoln lived longer, his present fame would certainly be much diminished. He would surely have sought a third term, and to retain his dictatorial powers. As the thrill of victory wore off, his impositions would have become harder to tolerate, and his flaws more controversial to his allies. But a dead man is always safe to make into a hero, and the time and circumstances of Lincoln’s death made him an ideal martyr for the Republicans and Abolitionists whereas, had he lived much longer, many of them would have been working to undermine his dangerous autocracy.
The Lincoln legend was reinforced during the rapprochement of the later nineteenth century between North and South, when the leaders of both were re-cast as heroes. It was at this time that the motive of the North, which had been to annihilate State’s Rights and preserve the personal authority of Lincoln, was reinterpreted as the liberation of the slaves, and the motive of the South, which had never in reality been more than a defense of its brutal institution of slavery, was transmogrified into an idealistic crusade for State’s Rights. By mutual agreement (among whites) the self-serving perpetrators of slavery and of slaughter became saints.
When Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, died in 1882 of the syphilis which surely contributed to her insanity, the real cause of death was suppressed by her doctors, who ascribed to an accidental fall the diagnosis of tabes dorsalis (known even then to be caused only by syphilis). The legend of Abraham Lincoln was already too entrenched to be tarnished by mere truth. The likelihood is that Abraham, true to his character as we know it, knowingly infected his wife but never told her even after she became ill. Mary Todd sought treatment only in 1869, when she had been seriously ill for several years. There is evidence that “Honest Abe”, however, was being treated for syphilis before he even met Mary Todd.
The historical picture of Lincoln is of a man rather less than heroic: a venal, inept, and unscrupulous megalomaniac. He brought about a terrible war, which killed more Americans than both World Wars combined; he prosecuted that war incompetently; he was a typical crooked politician who lied, contradicted himself, broke his promises, and even cheated in elections; he scorned the Constitution and ruled as a dictator. But at least he freed the slaves, even if he hadn’t set out to do so, even if he dragged his feet at every turn and planned a mass deportation of blacks?
The simple answer is yes – but with or without the Civil War, slavery was already a dying institution by 1860. Slavery – of the antebellum American kind – was principally an adjunct of plantation agriculture. It had completely failed to take root in the New Mexico or Kansas territories, and even in the oldest districts of the Old South the small farmers of the hill country owned few or no slaves. By 1850 slavery was already fading out in the Border states. In the East, slaves were more plentiful than needed, and the real motivation behind much of the obsession with legalizing slavery in the territories was the vain hope that new markets would open up where these unwanted slaves could be disposed of. It was for financial, not humanitarian, reasons that the Confederate Constitution banned the importation of slaves. Some Southerners even hoped to conquer new territories in Mexico or the Caribbean where their slaves could be sold, not realizing that these places had no use for slaves (or, like Cuba, already had their own surplus). In reality, the handful of slavery-dependent cotton states had a fixed realm which could not expand and they would have been increasingly powerless as the rest of the world grew around them.
Before the Civil War, there was controversy in the South about whether slavery was even profitable. The slaves cost less than free workers, but they also produced less, stole more, and could not be simply fired when they got sick or were too old to work. In post-war writings, it is not unusual to find Southerners claiming that the end of slavery was an economic boon, which is not implausible. The real purpose of slavery was, arguably, the social control of the Negro, and this control did not end with slavery.
An independent South, especially if it were just South Carolina and the Gulf Squadron, would have had other problems in maintaining slavery. Without the Southern votes in Congress, the Fugitive Slave Laws would have disappeared, making it easier for slaves to escape. Public opinion in the industrial world in general was increasingly anti-slavery, especially in Britain which was the greatest buyer of cotton, and a country totally dependent on exports could not ignore this forever. If nothing else, agricultural machinery would eventually have replaced most slave labor, being cheaper.
The process of emancipation might have taken several decades, but not necessarily: slavery had been abolished throughout the Western world by the end of the century, even in places like Brazil and Cuba that had been totally dependent on slave-worked plantations. Was the nominal freedom of a generation or two of American slaves worth the tremendous cost in lives, the dislocation of war, and the permanent end of the balance between State and Federal power? Maybe so, but we should remember that the “Great Emancipator” was perfectly willing to take all those lives without freeing a single slave.
President Obama likes to be compared with Abraham Lincoln. He does in fact share many of Lincoln’s virtues: divisiveness, partisanship, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, corruption, dishonesty, total unscrupulousness, fanaticism in the pursuit of personal power, expertise at dirty politics and a facility for rhetorical public speaking. Both men rose suddenly to the Presidency from a position of obscurity, partly by means of cultivating a mob mentality among their followers. The comparison is less flattering than Mr. Obama thinks.
I am not much in the habit of citing sources, since I write on my own time, but I feel obliged to draw attention to Bruce Catton’s The Coming Fury as a key resource for events leading up to the Civil War, especially the details about the Fort Sumter affair, which are usually censored from popular histories.
*The US Army had only 16,000 men total in 1860, of whom a substantial part had already deserted or surrendered to Secessionist militias even before the debacle at Fort Sumter.
**Lincoln won slightly less than 40% of the ballots in a four-way race. Curiously, Lincoln would have carried the Electoral College even if the votes of all three other candidates had been united behind a single candidate. The election of 1860 was by far the most regionally-dominated in American history.
Any attempt to create a national health care system is certain to backfire unless some basic reforms are undertaken first.
The problem with health care is a problem of supply. There is not enough to meet demand, so the market rations it. Giving more people money for health care will only raise the price to absorb the extra dollars, without increasing the amount supplied by one iota. In fact this is exactly what has happened over the last several decades as health insurance coverage has broadened. (Insurance also creates huge amounts of paperwork which eats up the doctor’s valuable time, without contributing anything at all).
We have an artificial bottleneck on the health care supply, created at the instigation of the AMA. The educational requirements for physicians (and even nurses) are absurd. In the US, to obtain a prescription for a common antibiotic you need the permission of someone with five to ten years of expensive university education, much of it unrelated to medical practice – the permission to buy a medicine will often cost you many times more than the medicine itself. Yet you can easily look up the side effects and interactions of any medication for yourself, and then you will know more about it than the doctor probably does. The only experts on medications are pharmacists – who aren’t allowed to prescribe.
If you thought the ten-year training makes our doctors better, think again. A good third of the curriculum has nothing to do with medicine at all, and hardly any of it gets to the business of actually diagnosing illness and knowing the right treatment (and you could look the latter up easily enough for yourself). When a new American physician goes into practice, her useful training is just a couple of years. Can your doctor solve integrals, read French, and debate the merits of Confucianism? Do you care? Well, that’s a good deal of what you’re paying for (see “Education is Class Warfare” for more ranting on this topic). We spend more per capita on health care than any other country, but we have a second-world life expectancy.
In fact nurses could do the great majority of what doctors do, and increasingly in most states the highest rank of nurses (PA/NP) are doing so – which has led to whining among doctors that the PAs should have seven years of education, which of course would cut down on the competition and preserve the ability of doctors to bleed you dry.
The claims that high health care prices are caused by liability issues or by the uninsured are lies. Rather, it works the other way around; people sue doctors because they can’t afford the bills, and health care was relatively much cheaper when few people had insurance. It’s the insured people who drive up the cost, because people consume health care more readily when they don’t pay for what they use. Malpractice suits only result in the indigents’ costs being passed on to the insured which they would be anyway. Making health care affordable would eliminate the lawsuits and the need for insurance for ordinary medical expenses, not the other way around.
Lack of insurance is NOT the problem. Less than a fifth of the population is uninsured. Furthermore, many of these people choose not to carry insurance because they don’t feel that it’s worth the price – they are mainly younger people without health problems, who are indeed cheated by group health plans. If they do have a health problem, the uninsured do not receive full medical care – their only option is to go to the emergency room, which they usually avoid, and even then hospitals will deny them care to the greatest extent possible. Of the care they do receive, a large portion is paid for by themselves or public assistance. Uncompensated care for uninsured individuals contributes only a small fraction of the total demand for health care – less than 5% even at the outrageously inflated prices which the uninsured are billed.
Giving more people insurance, however it is paid for, can only increase the demand for health care, and it will do nothing to increase the supply. More insurance = just as many people go without care, but the price goes up.
The market will not help with this problem – rising incomes in the health care industry cannot draw enough people into it. The incomes of doctors have gotten so ridiculously high that further increases actually cause a drop in the supply, as doctors work fewer hours, take more vacations, and retire earlier. (The price supply curve for the time of physicians has a negative slope, for those who know what that means). Can anyone remember when doctors worked all week like normal people and didn’t retire until old age?
Even if more people want to go into medicine, they can’t. The supply of trained medical personnel is strictly limited by the capacity of the medical schools. The tuition goes up, of course, to meet the rising demand, and graduates have incredible mountains of debt, but their number is not much increased. Even if it was, million-dollar incomes don’t necessarily attract the kind of people into medicine who ought to be there. Who would you want for a doctor, the person who cares at least a little about your health or the one who only wants a new Rolls Royce every year?
The only way to bring down the cost of health care is to increase the supply. We have to stop squandering our limited education resources on superfluous crap, build more medical schools and hospitals, and train more doctors, nurses, therapists, lab technicians, radiologists, etc. etc. That won’t happen unless it’s done directly and with public funding. Anything else will just result in money being drained into the existing system, which is a proven and effective way of screwing you (literally) to death. If the market were capable of correcting itself or even reaching equilibrium, it would have done so long ago.
We need to eliminate the absurd barriers to entry into the medical professions. If you’re willing to pay extra for a doctor who can discuss Nietzsche vs. Stirner with you, go look for one. We need shorter, more focused education. We need increased roles for the under-utilized and less over-educated RNs and LPNs, and for pharmacists.
We need to make medical training accessible to any young person with suitable ability and inclination, not just the wealthy. That means not only building more medical schools, it means 100% public funding for the students. Sounds like it would cost a lot of money? Wouldn’t it be a bargain compared to the blood money we’re putting up now for shitty insurance and three-minute doctor visits?
We need to eliminate the prescription requirement for anything that’s not genuinely dangerous, including lab procedures. If you want birth control or a blood test or an X-ray, you should be able to get them at the provider’s cost without having to bribe a millionaire doctor as well.
We need to curb the pharmacy giants. If they can’t make a profit selling medicines at less than 60000% markup, I’m sure the government could manage to produce and distribute patent-expired medicines for a lot less. Newer medicines are usually only a marginal improvement anyway, if at all.
We need to put a ceiling on what doctors can charge for services, not just to bring the prices down but to make doctors take on a few more patients to pay off their Rolls Royces.
We need to stop providing insurance for routine health care. Will some people do without? Yes, at least until supply increases. Some people are doing without already. It’s the supply that determines how many people get health care – insurance only determines which people. The federal government can lead the way by changing the insurance it provides – Medicare, Medicaid, employee benefits, etc. – to eliminate coverage for minor medical expenses. To make up for it, they can provide complete coverage for catastrophic medical expenses.
Arguably, we need a national health care plan that would insure everyone against catastrophic health care costs, so no one would face bankruptcy – or death – simply because they are unable to afford insurance (or are cheated by an insurance company). This would also reduce employment overhead and make it much easier for businesses to hire new employees. For minor problems or elective surgery, no insurance should be provided or allowed – that would discourage people from wasting the doctors’ time with their hangnails, and eliminate the need to fill hospital beds with patients who only need them because they are too heavily insured (hence profitable) not to be admitted. Vaccinations and preventive screenings should be covered only if that is cost effective in reducing major care costs.
With prices under control and individuals bearing the cost of their own routine doctor visits, everyone should be able to pay for their own catastrophic health insurance without drawing on public funds – but if not, so be it. Maybe public insurance wouldn’t be needed – but given the reputation of insurance companies for cheating people, I think it’s just as well that they be replaced with a public policy that cannot raise your rates or cancel your coverage when you get sick.
What we do NOT need is increased health care coverage without first addressing the problem of supply. This will accomplish nothing but driving the prices up even faster.
We also do not need a government-operated health service. Government bureaucrats are certainly not going to do a better job of managing hospitals than is already being done, and instead of rationing health care based on ability to pay it would be distributed by political preference – a nightmare for anyone not living in a major city, given the nature of the administration likely to implement such a plan.
What we do need, first and foremost, is to abolish the AMA, one of this country’s best funded political lobbies. They are the ones responsible for the health care crisis, and nothing can be done about it as long as they have power. To be on the safe side, we should probably also abolish every Congressvermin that has taken their money. That should eliminate about 535 of the bastards. At the very least we should force them to use any public health care that they foist on the rest of us.
“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?”
After an excessive number of political rants, I’m going to take a break and tackle a less sensitive topic: religion. I promise to be just as insulting, if not more so.
I’m not going to try to argue whether God exists: if you have enough brain matter to fill a pudding cup (and I am talking about the ridiculous little kiddie-size ones that only serve to remind you how good pudding tastes) you can tell that God is either dead or asleep at the wheel. “Intelligent Design” is the dumbest theory ever invented to support God’s existence; a better one would be “Malicious Idiot Design”. If you’re one of those who believes that an obscure nomadic tribal deity created the entire universe in a week six thousand years ago, deliberately designed it to look much older than it is, created trillions of galaxies for the sake of one tiny planet, peopled it with creatures who can’t help sinning and tormented them for being sinners, and then murdered His only child because it was the best excuse He could think of not to burn every single human being in Hell for eternity – and, furthermore, that this is a good thing – then you might as well not read any further. You’re not the kind of person I’m trying to piss off right now.
If on the other hand you are one of those who believes that you have the right to not only believe whatever you want, but to rub your superiority in the faces of the majority you despise, demonize them, and not be subjected to recriminations and the odd death threat, you are right in my crosshairs. (My political rants don’t count because I don’t mind being hated by greentards, randroids, and other trash, and besides, I’m always right.)
Of course I am (like all intelligent people) an atheist. I think that people should have the right to believe whatever they want without being penalized for it, and not be forced to participate in or subsidize any religion at all. People should not demand tolerance from those whose beliefs they mock and despise, when they are unwilling to grant the same tolerance themselves. They should not have the right to demand that every visible trace of conflicting belief – even atavistic Yahweh-worship – be expunged from public life. If the right of the majority to hold and express its beliefs is not protected, can we expect that the right of the minority will be?
Lawsuits over a Nativity scene at a county courthouse, over the Boy Scout’s use of the Pledge of Allegiance (even after the brats in question were excused from saying the words, “Under God”!), over public postings of the Ten Commandments; controversy over a period of silence in schools – these are reflections of an obscene petty narcissism, not any concern for liberty. Even if the people who instigate such things truly have no better problems of their own to address (which I heartily doubt), they should be reviled for causing pointless disruption to others.
The separation of Church and State (which does not actually exist in the Constitution) is no justification. In our modern world, where government is directly or indirectly involved in every aspect of our lives, there is no possibility of practicing religion without impinging in some way on the public sphere. Churches are going to be zoned differently than whorehouses, people are going to drive to them on taxpayer-subsidized roads, and our Great Annual Shopping Holiday is always going to be called Christmas. We don’t really need protection from this kind of persecution. We need protection from mandatory tithing, enforced church attendance, imprisonment, and burning at the stake. Yes, atheists have suffered such things in the past for their beliefs. So have Christians, and in far greater numbers.
There are some people who like to get all in your face with their religion, but 99.9% are content to leave you alone if you leave them alone. If you get all offended because some well-meaning person says, “God bless you”, you are an asshole. Why should everyone have to tip-toe around the atheist to avoid pricking his fragile ego? If you want to have beliefs that are your own, and not parroted from the herd, you have to be willing to be different; you can’t expect everyone else to change to accommodate you. If you can’t handle being reminded that you are different, you do not deserve to have your own beliefs. You can’t escape the herd while remaining a herd beast. If you call yourself an atheist because you want to make some kind of statement against religion, you are not an atheist, you are a twit.
I am an atheist because the idea of God is absurd – even the remote, passive God of Deists or Pantheists, let alone the anachronistic mythological chimera of Christianity. I am not an atheist because I think that religion itself, or religious people, are a curse on society (as some loud persons would have us believe). It’s easy to list numerous evils perpetrated in the name of God; some of them, perhaps, were even sincerely motivated by religion. But what about all the good and selfless things that people have done to please the imaginary Man in the sky? They may not be as spectacular, but they are undeniably numerous, and anyone who pretends otherwise is just being stupid. For every Jerry Falwell, there are millions of Christians who give to help out complete strangers – even atheist strangers. If they want anything in return, it’s a chance to save your soul. Condescending? Sure, but so is telling a Christian to move out of the Dark Ages, and I’ve never heard of anyone offering them a free meal in exchange for listening to it.
Some people claim to believe that religion is not a real motive for generosity – that religionists are simply doing what they would do anyway. Well, if religion is the cause of all the crimes ostensibly motivated by it, then surely it can motivate good deeds as well? Either religion has the power to influence behavior, or it does not, and it’s ridiculous and self-serving to pretend, in the absence of any evidence, that it can work only for evil and not for good. I think it is clear that religion can do both, and I’m far from certain that it does more harm than good (excepting Islam, of course).
It’s impossible to say whether Christians are more generous or less prone to crime than atheists, partly because the great majority of Christians are quite insincere in their beliefs – in fact, I suspect the majority of them are just directionless agnostics with a purely social attachment to a church. Atheists are more likely to have a moral character simply by virtue of the fact that one almost has to have some measure of character to be an atheist at all – the herd beasts stay in the herd, but it’s debatable whether they should be counted as Christians.
Clearly, atheists, like Christians, can have good moral character (or very bad moral character), and religion is not a necessary motivator for morality. But I have to wonder whether religion has some utility in transmitting ethical standards from one generation to the next. Sure, there are atheist parents who do this quite effectively. But the average atheist is much more intelligent and better educated than the average person. Without the simplifying framework of religion and the reinforcement of its aura of authority, would the average parent – overworked, unaware, and barely literate – do as well? I have my doubts. Better that children learn their values from Sunday school than from television.
People who are obnoxiously proud of being non-Christian usually style themselves atheists (unless they are into Wicca or some other form of pseudo-occult pseudo-pagan “religion” that exists solely for the purpose of giving dipshits an excuse to conflate their D&D characters with real life). Often such people are really agnostics, especially if they are pressed on the issue, because they don’t have the the personal integrity to maintain atheism or the intellectual capacity to defend it. An atheist believes something, an agnostic does not. Pretending that atheism is “lack of belief in God” is a dodge – the etymology of the name notwithstanding, a real atheist has a definite belief that God does not exist, and this is what the name has always meant. Those who claim otherwise are doing real atheists a grave disservice by pretending that we do not exist, and implying – by refusing to defend it and denying the value of doing so – that the belief of atheism cannot be defended. Someone who doesn’t claim to know whether God exists is an agnostic, or even a theist struggling with a crisis of faith, not an atheist at all.
In the end, a genuine Christian and a genuine atheist probably have more in common than either does with an agnostic. The latter avoids the consequences of knowledge by denying its existence. He may not believe in a life after death, but he is not absolutely certain that death is oblivion. He may not be absolutely certain that God has no will for his life, but he can disregard the possibility. But someone with a real belief must accept the consequences that it has in his life – he has to live with what he knows. This demands an integrity that agnosticism or phony-Christianity does not.
There is not much integrity displayed in the behavior of those loud atheists and pseudo-atheists who are so proud to have made so many enemies, who pretend that frivolous lawsuits represent the desires of all non-believers, who snivel hypocritically about intolerance while raining down wholesale defamy on billions of people who are, for the most part, no worse than they. Let them look to the log in their own eye…
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
-Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
In Anatomy of a Depression I explained the proximate cause of the ongoing depression. Of course, when I correctly predicted the current economic trainwreck, I gave much too optimistic an impression by exploring only the most immediate source of the present trouble – that is, an extreme inequity in the distribution of income which has led to an economy driven by untenable consumer borrowing. That’s plain old-fashioned Keynesian economics. Conceivably we could salvage the economy, at least for a while, by redistributing wealth (the pork stimulus won’t work, as you already know because I explained it in Why the “Stimulus” Will Fail). But the underlying problems go deeper than Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich: for several reasons, capitalism itself is no longer viable.
I can already hear the whining: “Those Commie Pinko Socialists have been saying for a hundred years that capitalism was obsolete, and they were wrong! Capitalism has to last forever, because it’s still around!” Bullshit. The Commie Pinko Socialists were right. Capitalism was obsolescent more than a hundred years ago. Economic history ever since the Industrial Revolution has been a history of struggling to find solutions for the problems caused by capitalism. In the first Great Depression, in the Thirties, it failed completely and did not recover. Capitalism isn’t dying; it’s long since dead.
But what about the boom period of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties? Didn’t FDR save capitalism from extinction? No, he didn’t; what he did was put the terminal patient on life support. The American economy since the New Deal has been modeled on Mussolini’s Corporatist plan – a close partnership between industry and government, with a huge chunk of GDP directly ordered by the government and the rest tightly regulated. Sometimes it’s hard to even tell where the government ends and the corporations start. It’s a sweet deal for the big corporations, who are supported by government contracts and subsidies, protected by regulations that smother competition, and bailed out if they somehow manage to fail anyway. Even the big unions get in on the action, skimming a share from the surplus provided by the remainder of the workforce that is still productive.
What keeps this government/corporate Frankenstein going is war. The high spending and high taxes (or prodigal borrowing) necessary to keep the masses employed have to be justified to the sub-literate public and the greedy corporate execs. “Emergency” economic measures may be acceptable during a collapse, but as soon as things have recovered somewhat, people start complaining about the impositions of “big government”. The underlying problem, though, has not been solved; massive government spending is the only way to keep aggregate demand high enough and stable enough to sustain the economy. Without it, any flicker in public confidence could lead to a swift and total shutdown.
World War Two was a necessity for America, as FDR realized; support for the New Deal couldn’t last much longer. Soon after the war was over, the economy had come apart again, and a new war (Korea) had to be found. After that, the economy slid again but the Korean war was replaced by escalation of the Cold War, which provided a good excuse to keep military spending high even in peacetime, and then there was Vietnam on top of that. Times were good; except for a couple of brief interludes where military spending declined, the economy soared for three decades. But it wasn’t a capitalist economy; it was a wartime corporatist economy.
Then some misguided people with insufficient knowledge of macroeconomics got the heretical idea that wholesale killing with no compelling political justification was a bad thing, and, even worse, that colossal peacetime preparations for total war were unnecessary and even dangerous. The Vietnam stimulus plan was cancelled; the economy went in the crapper and finally collapsed. It only recovered (sort of) when Reagan reinvigorated the Cold War stimulus plan. After it broke down again in 2000, it had to be restarted with the Iraq stimulus plan…
There are a couple of problems with this way of doing things, aside from the fact that we can’t seem to keep the American economy functioning without bombing anyone. One of them is that Reagan’s regressive tax cut not only left the government ultimately insolvent but undermined the effectiveness of the system. Another is that we’ve created a monstrosity of government that has made democracy meaningless. But even if we were to continually fight big enough wars to keep things moving, and tax the rich enough to prevent the gradual concentration of all wealth in a few hands, it wouldn’t keep us afloat much longer. The historical conditions that enabled capitalism (even our bastardized modern corporatism) to create so much wealth (and it did, indeed, create a vast amount of wealth) are disappearing.
Capitalism is based on certain fundamental assumptions, some of which are no longer valid. Among them are:
Competition among producers. Most of the purported benefits of capitalism come from competition, both between businesses and workers. Competition is supposed to regulate business profits, eliminate products that people don’t want, and encourage workers to be productive. In reality, genuine competition between businesses is a rare exception (competing advertising is not competition in any useful sense). Monopolism and collusion are problems that have long been recognized but never successfully dealt with. Even workers sometimes manage to beat the principle of competition by forming unions, allowing them to leach off of a non-competitive industry or the government (i.e., the taxpayers). But should we even want businesses to compete? The pressure of short-term competition encourages them to do irresponsible things ranging from long-term degradation of the industry to deliberate environmental contamination. The modern world requires a level of integration and planning that are inconsistent with ruthless competition.
Boundless growth is both possible and desirable. Continual growth is necessary for capitalism to work. A growing economy creates new industries that haven’t been monopolized yet, invents novel products that people will buy even though they don’t need them, and provides opportunities even for people who aren’t already rich and connected. Without growth, there are never enough jobs, competition disappears from the stagnant economy, and only the rich can get richer. But it should be evident to any sane person that growth cannot go on forever, at least not without a declining population to compensate. The Earth can only handle so much waste, only produce so much food, only provide so much energy. Every technological fix we find for an environmental problem or resource limitation creates more problems. Even when solutions are found in time, there is no guarantee of them being used. (See Hippies Cause Global Warming for example.) If we try to sustain infinite growth in a biosphere that isn’t growing at all, sooner or later we will make a fatal stumble. But even if we don’t, do we really wish to live in a world every square foot of which is overrun with people, superfluous consumer junk, and waste?
Consumption is unlimited. Implicit in the concept of capitalism is the assumption that people will always want to purchase more stuff, no matter how much they already have. However, most people (in the West) now have everything they actually need to live, and many people have so much crap that new crap has little marginal utility. It takes hundreds of billions of dollars of advertising every year to keep people buying, and most of them can still very easily cut their purchasing dramatically (for instance, if they are uncertain of the future and want to save). This is why a depression like the current one can happen so swiftly – the whole card castle depends on nearly everyone spending money as fast as they can borrow it, but there’s little or no real need for much of the spending and it can stop at any time. The mere expectation of hard times can cause total collapse.
Human labor is valuable. Capitalism is a cycle of production and consumption in which people freely exchange their own production for that of others; that is, they are only able to consume if their production is valued by others. This system worked great in the era when human labor was the key factor in production (i.e., before machinery) and was relatively scarce (i.e., before modern medicine) – it was certainly a huge improvement over the slavery that preceded it. But in the modern world, most human labor has very little value. The supply of people in the world is much larger than could ever be efficiently employed, and most kinds of labor can readily be replaced by machines. The price of labor in the world market accordingly can be no higher than the cost of mere subsistence; any deviations from this are due to national markets being protected from competition against nearly-free Asian labor, and these protections are crumbling. Once, automation was widely believed to be the future of manufacturing; now, an endless supply of arbitrarily cheap labor has mired us firmly in the sweatshop era.
Better-educated workers are not a solution to this problem. A large supply of skilled workers would just drive the cost of skilled labor down to the same starvation level. Even now, the high incomes of the most intensively trained professions (medicine, law, engineering) are maintained only by artificial barriers to entry (see Education is Class Warfare) and strictly rationed education. If we produced more doctors and engineers, this would have some benefits, but if every human capable of absorbing the education received it, doctors and engineers would be reduced to the same poverty as garment workers and without eliminating the surplus of the latter. There are just too many people, and technology is getting better and better at replacing even skilled labor.
Another problem with capitalism is that it deals poorly with what economists call “externalities”. These are costs or benefits of an activity that aren’t automatically charged to the person who causes or benefits from them; it is often infeasible to allocate them at all. National defense is an example; it is very difficult to say who benefits from it or how much. No one is going to mail in a check for what they think it is worth to them, and there is no way to just cut off the national defense service to your house if you don’t pay. Roads and public education also provide major externalities. Pollution is a negative externality – it is not practical for a company which causes some pollution to negotiate with every person who might ever be affected by it to pay them what they think fit to put up with it. Government intervention is required for externalities to be accounted for. When externalities were a minor aspect of the economy (i.e., when things were simpler and nobody cared about pollution), government interference could be minor. In the modern world, however, externalities make up a huge share of the economy, perhaps most of it.
In the future, the limiting factor in production will no longer be the supply of human labor, or even the supply of capital; it will be factors in the natural environment: energy, land, and above all the need to preserve a livable environment. In fact we have already reached the point where environmental factors should be limiting, even though some countries (China) allow horrendous pollution. The ever-escalating consumption that capitalism demands cannot be sustained or allowed, nor can unrestrained competition, nor are these things even possible under capitalism without massive government interference. We need a different solution, one that can provide a bearable life to the people who inhabit this planet while preserving it for many future generations.
What about isolationism? Except for oil and tropical fruit, America is capable of producing everything it needs, yet we import most of our manufactured goods, with dire economic consequences. If we banned the imports we don’t need, and expelled the illegal aliens, we could have full employment – for a while. We’d still be dependent on the whim of the public to keep buying unnecessary junk, and we’d run down our environment that much quicker with more manufacturing – infinite growth would still not be possible. And after a generation or two, better automation might bring back mass unemployment anyway.
What about an economy based on services and intangible (intellectual) products? If people were content to consume mostly software and entertainment, a lot less waste would be generated. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to steal intellectual property – so easy that some people think it isn’t stealing, just like some people think there’s nothing wrong with helping themselves to your wallet if you’re careless enough to drop it. Most people are never going to be good enough at anything creative (or at programming) to be paid for it anyway, and people can abruptly stop buying such things just as easily as they can any luxury goods. Most services are far from necessities, too, or are needed only in relation to consumer goods, or require exceptional talent. The only services that people will reliably purchase are medical. Could we build an economy in which most of the population works full time just to make sure no one-in-a-million disease goes undetected and everyone who is too fat to stand up has their own personal bed pan changer? Maybe, if you don’t mind the slack-jawed girl who got through high school by copying your homework being your operating room nurse – but I’m not exactly looking forward to the world where all of society’s efforts go to extending the average lifespan by three weeks, the only employment for most people is nursing homes, and most of the gross national product is controlled by insurance companies. I think we can do better than that.
If they were given a choice, many people would likely prefer less work and more leisure to achieving the maximum possible throughput of disposable consumer goods. The main goal of technology and capital in the past has always been to produce more junk, but higher productivity could just as well be used to reduce work. Manufacturing less superfluous crap would alleviate a lot of our environmental problems, it would stabilize the economy against sudden lapses in the crap-buying behavior of consumers, and it would give people more time to educate themselves, exercise, travel, get drunk, or whatever they want.
If the amount of available labor were reduced or restricted, it would make labor scarce and valuable again. This alone would stop many abuses by employers, who could no longer be guaranteed of replacing any employee at will, but without protecting abuses by workers (which current labor laws do, when they are enforced). The distribution of income problem which has led to the present crisis would be solved by a combination of higher wages and paying people not to work. (We already do the latter, but we try to pretend it is somehow based on “need” or “merit”, which is pure baloney because no one is a worse judge of need or merit than a bureaucracy.)
Paying people to not work would reduce the oversupply of labor, remedy the distribution of income, and stabilize the economy without frantic unsustainable growth. It could replace many existing programs that subsidize non-work, such as welfare, unemployment benefits, disability, and perhaps social security retirement. Unlike those programs, it would be fair, because everyone would have equal access to the benefits. There would be no need to pay armies of “social” “workers” to recruit “clients”. Every American would be guaranteed at least a minimum survival level of income, and they could decide for themselves whether they should work. With labor scarce and valuable, there would be a strong incentive to work for those able. Production could be limited to what is environmentally acceptable, without depriving tens of millions of Americans of their livelihood; there would be no need for gratuitous wars to accelerate public spending.
Limiting the length of the work week would help stabilize the supply of labor; shorter hours would encourage more people to take jobs while preventing the more ambitious from creating an excess labor supply through sheer overwork. The so-called forty hour week is a joke; employers can and do demand as many work hours as they want, and overtime pay is no penalty because they just pay a lower base rate to make up for it. Workweek length should be an absolute limitation, or at least there should be a penalty to discourage overtime (a surtax, for instance).
A simple guaranteed income plan would solve the distribution of income problem and stabilize the economy without the need for any “stimulus” spending or monetary shenanigans, ever again. It would cost a lot, certainly: the simplest and fairest way to do it would be to make a payment to every adult citizen, without trying to find out who is really unemployed and who is cheating the system by working “off the books”, and without punishing anyone for working. That would cost two or three trillion dollars a year. But there is no doubt that we can afford it; after all, we are already affording a basic living to almost everyone. Taxes would have to be higher, of course, but the subsidy would outweigh the tax increase for most people. The rich would have to pay more, but that is far overdue anyway.
[By the way, don’t believe any liar who tells you that high taxes on the rich will ruin the economy. Some of this country’s biggest booms have happened when the top rate was 91% or even higher.]
Here are some other things we need to do to fix the economy:
End competition with impoverished foreign workers who breed like flies. That means high tariffs or outright import bans targeted at countries with low standards of living – not tariffs designed to protect particular industries. It also means getting rid of illegal aliens, if necessary by closing and mining the Mexican border, and banning the employment of legal aliens. Eliminating imports would also mean we’d quit paying the Chinese to pollute the atmosphere.
Provide free training in useful occupations to those with the necessary aptitude. It’s a stupid ideological pretension that people should pay for their own education; the benefit to society outweighs the cost so it’s a common sense investment (provided of course that people are trained in useful things like teaching, medicine, or auto repair, not fripperies like drama and journalism). We also need to reform higher education to make it less wasteful, and lower education to make it effective – but that’s a different topic.
Fix the broken healthcare system before it devours us. We don’t need to spend more on healthcare; that only makes the problem worse. We can have better medicine for a lot less money – maybe I’ll explain how sometime.
Abolish labor unions. They prevent businesses from having the flexibility they need, and all they accomplish is allowing freeloaders to be grossly overpaid – largely at the expense of real workers and taxpayers. The workers who actually need protection are never unionized.
Get rid of regulations like the notorious Americans with Disabilities Act that are supposed to promote social justice. They’re a huge burden and more often abused than not. If the supply of labor is kept proportionate to the demand, workers will have the bargaining power to take care of themselves as they see fit.
Capitalism was once a great economic system; it would have been perfect 300 years ago (i.e., before it was realized). Capitalism industrialized the world and gave us enormous wealth – including luxuries like education that enables us to find better solutions now that capitalism has died. It’s been gone for eighty years now; with dramatic but simple reforms we can replace its bastard child, the corrupt corporatist quagmire that we facetiously call “free enterprise”, with a functioning, stable economic system that will provide for the needs of all, preserve the environment from the consequences of profligate consumption, remove the economic imperative for continual warfare, and give us a solid foundation for adapting to future change.
“Against stupidity the very gods Themselves contend in vain.”
-Johann von Schiller, The Maid of Orleans
Virtually everyone now agrees that global warming is a real phenomenon; even the oil companies grudgingly acknowledge that much. It’s also undeniable that the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses has been rising due to human activity. Conceivably the warming isn’t the result of greenhouse gasses, but it’s certainly a very plausible theory – and we should consider the alternative: if global warming is due to non-anthropogenic causes, like the Sun getting hotter, there’s probably nothing we can do about it and we’re doomed anyway. So we might as well take a shot at getting rid of greenhouse gasses – the worst that can happen is that we die a little poorer.
While there may be some hope of actively removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, the most obvious thing to do is to stop putting them there. The single worst culprit is carbon dioxide, most of which (the human contribution, at least) comes from burning fossil fuels. We use a great deal of these, having dumped so much fossil carbon into the biosphere that the original amount has been substantially diluted. (This is why carbon dating on living organisms sometimes shows them to be thousands of years old; it isn’t because science is a Satanic ploy to deceive the Faithful, it’s because everything now living is made up partly of the aeons-old coal and oil we’ve been burning.)
The largest uses for fossil fuels are electricity and transportation; heating takes a fair chunk as well. Right now there are no alternatives to fossil fuels for transportation, and using anything else for heating is very expensive, but electricity, which is the single biggest energy use and could at least theoretically replace fossil fuels for transportation and heating as well, can be produced with negligible carbon dioxide output at a competitive cost, and we’ve had the ability to do this for forty years.
So why haven’t we? Mainly because of a psychotic paranoia inflamed in the Seventies by radical environmentalists (some of whom were funded by the coal industry, which was feeling threatened by the new, superior energy source). By a decades-long campaign of disinformation, irrational panic-mongering, fraudulent conflation of nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, and brazen lies, the largest (and least informed) part of the American population was persuaded that nuclear power is uniquely dangerous, that nuclear waste is an insurmountable environmental problem, that uranium is running out, and of even more outrageous falsehoods. I don’t intend to deal with all of them in detail right now, but one thing should be blindingly obvious: since the advent of nuclear power, nuclear waste has never been a problem. Coal, on the other hand, has added vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and we have every reason to believe that we will suffer major adverse climatic changes that will last for centuries as a result.
Coal isn’t the only offender, of course, but it’s the worst and it’s the one we could have eliminated if we’d wanted to. Since the Industrial Revolution, something less than a trillion tons of net carbon dioxide have been added to the atmosphere. About half of that could have been avoided by phasing out coal in favor of nuclear electricity as soon as the technology was available, and by now carbon dioxide levels would be coming back down. In other words, if we’d gone nuclear, we would not have global warming. We have to deal with it now only because so many people were taken in thirty years ago by corrupt activists and delusional fanatics – some of whom are still around, still doing their best to accelerate global warming.
In general, the self-proclaimed “environmentalists” are the worst enemies the environment has. Global warming is just the most glaring way in which they harm the environment through their ignorant fanaticism. Most people know by now that the obsession some idiots have with preventing all logging, anywhere, has resulted in many huge forest fires. Not many people are yet aware that the recycling of waste by industry is being jeopardized by the equally absurd obsession many “environmentalists” have with recycling glass.
Forty years ago glass was a large part of the waste stream and a major industrial material. Soda pop, milk, peanut butter, salad dressing, and dozens of other things that are now packaged in plastic were then packaged in glass. Glass was worth recycling. These days, it’s totally different. Only a few percent of the waste stream is glass and there’s so little demand for it that it’s cheaper to put it in landfill than to pay someone to haul it off. Furthermore, many large cities are now switching to “single stream” recycling methods where people dump all their recyclables in one bin to be sorted out later at a central plant, partly by machinery. This works well enough for most things, but glass ruins the whole system because it gets broken and winds up contaminating the valuable paper. So the glass, which is worthless and doesn’t use significant landfill volume, winds up reducing the value of important recyclables – and landfill space is wasted on sorted paper and plastic that have to be trashed because they’ve been impacted with crushed glass. Trying to recycle glass is a net loss not just economically, but environmentally.
So why do many recycling programs (including single stream) continue to take glass? Because “environmentalists” go into hysterics if they don’t. The average “green” has no clue about the realities of recycling (or anything else) – and doesn’t see her total ignorance as being in any way limiting. Glass recycling is an utterly retarded policy based on nothing other than nostalgia. Like every other idea that self-styled “environmentalists” keep in their tiny brains, it’s the result of obsession combined with astounding ignorance and, worst of all, a self-righteous arrogance so intense that they consider having any actual knowledge at all, or even giving a moment’s thought to their opinions, to be irrelevant or even immoral. Environmentalism isn’t so much a movement as it is a cult of brainwashed zombies.
In “Big Oil, Big Lies,” I described the environmental holocaust we are approaching as a result of overpopulation, unsustainable farming methods and bio-fuel production. You will seldom hear any “environmentalist” talk about that! You’ve heard them sniveling about how we’re running out of landfill space, no doubt. We’re not, and won’t for hundreds of years – there’s plenty of room for landfills, in this country at least. The reason landfill costs are going up is because we now have high standards for building them (as opposed to no standards at all). We now have landfills that won’t contaminate the groundwater, thanks to listening to engineers who know how to do things instead of “environmentalists” who just scream about how we should all learn to live off of moonbeams and turkey shit so we don’t create any waste.
The number one snivel of your average “environmentalist” greentard is nuclear power. Here are some facts about nuclear power, which could have prevented global warming:
More people die in coal mining accidents every year than were killed by the Chernobyl accident.
More land is ruined by farming every year than was contaminated by Chernobyl.
No civilian nuclear reactor in the West is capable of a Chernobyl type event.
A nuclear power reactor cannot be used to make bomb-grade material without shutting down every few weeks – it could not be done secretly.
The environmental impact of a half century of nuclear power generation in the U.S. is zero. Not even the Three Mile Island accident released significant radiation compared to background radiation.
About 95% of the mass of nuclear “waste” is reusable as fuel. Most of the rest is non-radioactive within a few years.
We have had the technology for decades to separate the dangerous parts of the spent fuel and store them in an inert form (glass) that will last for millions of years.
The waste components that are really dangerous last only for a few hundred years. By comparison, we release larger amounts of chemicals that are more toxic and will last for millions of years, instead of storing them safely, and we don’t even solve global warming in return.
If we dumped all the long-lived isotopes from all the spent nuclear fuel we have into the ocean with no containment at all, the increase of background radiation would be too small to even measure.
You would get more radiation dosage from taking a couple of long plane flights every year than from working in a nuclear power plant.
Nuclear power costs about the same as power from natural gas, but without producing any carbon dioxide.
There is enough uranium to last for as long as we will need it. If we stick with today’s inefficient (but proven safe) technology, we’ll have to use lower and lower grade ores, but it doesn’t really matter. The cost of recovering uranium is a trivial part of the cost of nuclear power.
Nuclear power plants don’t need any more cooling water than coal or gas plants do. All large scale electric power requires cooling water.
Nuclear energy costs a fraction of what wind energy does and, unlike wind, it is very steady and reliable.
You can confirm any of these things for yourself with a little reading (and maybe some fourth grade math).
If you’re a greentard, you’d rather continue to wallow in ignorance, spout bullshit that you “heard somewhere” and think that you’re an expert merely by virtue of having a big mouth. But then, if you’re a greentard, you probably can’t do fourth grade math and you probably didn’t get this far.
In summary: the number one cause of environmental damage isn’t evil corporations, it’s stupid hippies – we can thank them for global warming. Thanks, hippies.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfil it.”
-George Santayana, Life of Reason
The ultimate objective of any “pump priming” plan is to motivate producers to hire more workers and generate more goods and services. Simply spending a lot of money isn’t the real purpose. Even if they see an increase in sales, employers will only step up production (and employment) if they are reasonably confident that the demand will continue. If they are pessimistic, they will “wait and see” instead of taking the risk of investing in higher capacity, and the extra demand will only result in a price increase. This is especially true of industries that are monopolistic or near-monopolistic (which is most American industries these days). A company with no competition, or a few friendly “rivals”, doesn’t need to worry about its competition stealing an opportunity from it – it can afford to hold off. Both the high degree of monopolism in our economy, and the general pessimism that has reigned since the massive act of naked corruption perpetrated in the form the bank bailout, mitigate against any positive business response to higher demand.
A stimulus program can only work by putting money into the hands of consumers who will actually spend it on domestic product. Money that winds up in the hands of the wealthy does no good at all; they’re already consuming as much as they want. Money that gets hoarded because of deflation or simply because people fear for their jobs does no good either. Money that is spent on imported goods (meaning almost any goods) mostly helps China, not us.
What happens to the money the Federal misgovernment spends on construction programs? Well, in the first place, most of it will be balanced by cuts in State spending. The States normally pay for construction themselves, and right now almost all of them are in dire financial straits. Federal construction spending will just allow the recipients to cut back their own construction spending – with the taxpayers of other States picking up the tab instead of their own.
Out of whatever increase is left, a good bit will be siphoned off by the inevitable corruption of the bureaucracies involved, and then the big contractors will get a healthy cut. None of that money goes into consumption; it goes into the hoards of the rich (who, if they’re wise, will invest it overseas). What about the part that goes to the workers? Well, it keeps the citizens off of unemployment, meaning once again that the States can cut their spending further. The construction industry also employs a large number of illegal aliens, who typically send as much money as they can to Mexico (where a U.S. dollar is still worth something). Of the small portion that does turn into higher consumer spending in the U.S., the bulk will probably go straight to Asia.
Why would Obama pick such an ineffective economic plan? The construction industry is usually considered a leading economic indicator, but only someone as stupid as an economist would think this meant that the housing slump was the cause of the depression. The housing slump was just one of the early symptoms of a deeper cause (which I may get around to explaining someday). The real reason all the money is going into construction is that it’s an easy way to reward not just states, but cities and counties, very selectively. It’s a simple wealth transfer, from Obama’s political enemies to his supporters. That’s Chicago politics – it has crap to do with national economic recovery.
A real economic plan would address the underlying causes – but failing that, even a makeshift scheme should take some cognizance of reality. This depression is similar to the Great Depression in many ways, but different in others. The so-called “stimulus” not only ignores the differences, but contradicts the similarities. Consider:
FDR financed the New Deal largely through very heavy taxation of the very wealthy. He borrowed some money, but not more than the country could afford. Taxation of the rich was a necessary remedy at the time, and it is a necessary remedy now. Obama’s plan is to depend entirely on borrowing and allow the wealthy to continue paying very little taxes. Thus the continual drift in the maldistribution of income is not addressed, and surpluses of investment funds will continue to fuel speculative bubbles.
The U.S.A. entered the first Great Depression with very little debt and could afford considerable borrowing. We have entered the current depression already carrying a crushing debt load. To continue this colossal spending (and it must be sustained, if it is to have any impact) can only be done by borrowing or printing money, since taxation of anyone but the poor has already been ruled out. With the U.S. government insolvent and hyperinflation looming, it’s doubtful whether borrowing can continue much longer. How fast can the government print money before people stop accepting it as payment? We’ll likely find out soon enough.
Why does the spending have to be sustained? Because, once again, it’s not enough for consumers to spend money; producers must first sell off all the surplus inventory they have accumulated and then be persuaded that the sales increases will continue for long enough to justify the expenses of bringing production back up to speed. It will be a slow process because each of them will be waiting for the economy to take a definite upward turn before proceeding, yet that upturn will not happen until enough of them have gone ahead on faith. This is one reason the Bush “stimulus” package failed to accomplish anything; everyone knew that any sales increase in April 2008 would be temporary, not something to base business plans on until after it worked – which it plainly couldn’t, with such a small time window.
Another key difference between this depression and the Great Depression is the nature of international trade. Until the Seventies, America was the world’s great exporter, and had large trade surpluses. The notorious Hawley-Smoot protective tariff was a disastrous mistake because it was the rest of the world that needed protection from cheap American goods – which is certainly no longer the case! The modern American economy needs protection from the impoverished labor of Asia and the Caribbean, if we are to maintain a standard of living higher than theirs. Any economic stimulus that allows the money to flow overseas to nations from whence it will not return, can only succeed in boosting those economies.
Mr. Obama cultivates the appearance of thinking that history has cast him as Franklin Roosevelt; if he truly believes this, he is sadly mistaken, as he has not one-tenth of the latter’s political courage and has merely continued with business as usual, instead of undertaking radical reform (or any reform at all). He has cast himself as Herbert Hoover.