21 July 2012

Bleeding Hearts

In Mexico City, adjacent to the Zocalo (the immense square in the center of town) is an archeological dig turned museum that is called the Templo Major.  Here there is the partially and beautifully exposed remains of an Aztec pyramid that was part of the ritual complex of that society.  At the top, under a canopy to keep it from decay by rain and sun, is the stone upon which thousands were sacrificed – their beating hearts cut from their chests to thank the gods who were the sun and rain upon whom depended.

Horrific to our sensibilities, the practice was ancient when Cortez arrived, embedded within a culture that connected life and death, blood and water, sun and life, in ways that made living sacrifice a privilege people sought.  We recoil from it, grateful that we no longer entertain the barbaric notion that human lives must be sacrificed to appease the gods.

Then I read this column by Monica Hesse “Aurora’s horror is a sadly familiar exercise in America - The Washington Post

How different are we?  Mass murder has become a ritual in our society.  It may not be a function of the state in the way Aztecs did, but our dogmatic belief that guns are sacred to freedom means we willingly sacrifice people to preserve that right.  How far removed is this from the belief that beating human hearts must be given back to the gods?

Hesse’s article limns out the ritual we now go through, largely via the media. By the end we will have wept, mourned, and done our part in the ritual sacrifice that our love of guns requires.  Then we can go back to our lives, knowing that the periodic bloodletting required of our gun gods has been done, but knowing also that it will be necessary again.

We are heathens about guns, worshipping them as devoutly as any Aztec god, and blind to the waste of life that exacts.  Posterity will look back and gag at our barbarism as we do those historic feathered butchers.  How could they believe such nonsense, our descendants will ask, as we do now?  And America may well be the lesson the future studies to avoid the fate of knavish states paralyzed by beliefs that became their undoing. 

We are better than this.  We know it.  We should be ashamed that we have not the courage to serve the better angels of our nature and cavil to the demons instead.

15 July 2012

Since I am not a candidate, I can say…

Free Enterprise is not evil.  Let he hasten to say that it is not noble either. That’s what Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute says in this morning’s “Five Myths” segment - Five myths about free enterprise - The Washington Post.

Those on the left make free enterprise out to be so bad, which, even if true, doesn’t matter. 

Because people will always want to make money.  They did in medieval times, they did in Soviet Russia, they have done it everywhere, especially America.  De Toqueville thrills to the pecuniary instinct in his famous book.  It’s old, it’s pervasive, and it’s 100% American.

Like the theory of sin, original or otherwise, the debate over free enterprise had focused on the wrong question.  It is not whether it is good or bad, but how it should be governed.

To those who find it innately good, a sort of economic prelapsarianism, any government of economic activity weakens its power and thus its goodness.  Similarly, for those who think free enterprise is proof of the T in TULIP, government is essential to hobble its satanic power.

Political Manichaeism is the order of the day, of course.  But I know that in the titanic battle between ideas it is ordinary lives that pay.  So my interest is in smearing the boundaries ideologues create and defend.  Hence this essay.

People will always want to make money, I said at the beginning.  The only question is to what extent (if at all) it should be governed.  As most of those who read this are on the left side, making the case for governing free enterprise is not my purpose.  Giving you non ideological reasons to explain it to a free marketer is.

1. Human beings are imperfect, and everything they do is imperfect.  Even when they make money. 

When free marketers extol the perfection of markets (and the imperfection of government) remind them that human beings run both. And even kids know you need to have clear rules before starting to play or the game won’t last very long. 

2. Laws are better at making us less bad than making us more good.

Ironically, laws that punish are better than laws that reward.  It makes sense when you realize the number of good outcomes is far more than the number of bad ones.  Make what is wrong the focus of the laws, and then give them consequences, costly ones.  Robbery is a form of economic activity, but it is costly to society, so we ban it and make doing it costly.  Any economic activity that we conclude does more harm to society than good needs regulation.  Robbery is only one, and every change in society brings new ways.  It takes an internet to create phishing.

3. Laws are nothing but rules of the game, which people follow only if they are understood to be fair, impartial and universal. 

No child joins a game whose rules are rigged. Democracy us the only way we know to create rules.  It is not automatic that they will, but every other system is worse (as Churchill observed). Those laws will themselves be imperfect, because people are, but they will be broadly imperfect, which is fair and impartial and imperfect. And annoying.

4.  When people find a way around the rules, and they always will, build better rules not necessarily more. 

This is hard, because government and business grow in the shape of the garden we create with rules.  Major changes threaten both public and private establishments.  That’ why slavery did not end until there was a war, and industrial excess until the Great Depression.  Sadly, the system has to be on the verge of collapse before transformation actually takes place, and often at a very costly price.

Start with these (I think) common sense notions, and it is clear that the idea of a completely free market is folish, just as is a perfectly governed one. Let’s focus on deciding what harm must be prevented and redressed, make it very costly to do it, and ensure it is enforced.  That would be a good start.

But right now, we are unclear on all three.  And we wonder why things are a mess.

07 July 2012

It's That Simple

So in today's NY Times you can find this little gossipy nugget.

The Republicans’ $3 Million Weekend in the Hamptons

For those who lament that 'we have the best government money can buy' this is but the latest evidence. 

Of course the ultimate proof will come in November.  Complain about "Citizens United" all day, the truly best way to end the influence of money in politics is to elect the ones who did not spend the most money.  If spending a lot buys you nothing, why spend it next time? 

Yep, the salvation of democracy is not the Supreme Court, or the Constitution, but the thing that made them both -  We The People.

I know that sounds naive and simplistic.  It also happens to be true.  To paraphrase a popular and misquoted aphorism, "Te only necessary for the triumph of money over the people is for people to do what the money tells them to do."

Time to go to bed.