Monday, December 18, 2017

Incentives And Impatience

     All right, enough with the frivolity, seasonal or otherwise. It’s time for another serious essay, and your Curmudgeon is here to fill the need.

     Our social, cultural, and political orders are displeasing to anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders. They’ve been displeasing for some time: at least thirty years. Over that time, nominal conservatives and others of a generally pro-freedom, pro-civility bent have thrice achieved dominance at the federal and state levels. Yet those periods passed without significant changes for the better. Indeed, despite its hegemony, in some cases matters got worse by the standards of the Right. This has engendered considerable frustration, such that even sober-minded people are seriously discussing radical moves such as secession and rebellion.

     You’re not alone in feeling such frustration, Gentle Reader; your Curmudgeon is there alongside you. But a pair of complementary dynamics has brought us to where we are. One of them has produced our sociocultural and political distresses. The other has robbed us of the requirement for correcting them.

     First, a thematic quote from a rather impressive movie:

     "I nursed him through two divorces, a cocaine rehab, and a pregnant receptionist. God's creature, right? God's special creature. I've warned him, Kevin. I've warned him every step of the way. Watching him bounce around like a fucking game. Like a wind-up toy. Like pounds of self-serving greed on wheels. The next thousand years is right around the corner. Eddie Barzoon...take a good look because he's the poster child for the next millennium.

     "These people, it's no mystery where they come from. You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire. You build egos the size of cathedrals. Fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse. Grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green gold-plated fantasies until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own god. Where can you go from there? As we're scrambling from one deal to the next, who's got his eye on the planet? As the air thickens, the water sours, even bees honey takes on the metallic taste of radioactivity... and it just keeps coming, faster and faster. There's no chance to think, to prepare; it's buy futures, sell futures.. when there is no future.

     "We got a runaway train, boy. We got a billion Eddie Barzoons all jogging into the future. Every one of them is getting ready to fistfuck God's ex-planet, lick their fingers clean, as they reach out toward their pristine, cybernetic keyboards to tote up their fucking billable hours. And then it hits home. You got to pay your own way, Eddie. It's a little late in the game to buy out now. Your belly's too full, your dick is sore your eyes are bloodshot and you're screaming for someone to help. But guess what, there's no one there! You're all alone, Eddie, 'CAUSE YOU'RE GOD'S SPECIAL LITTLE CREATURE!" -- "John Milton," played by Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, describing the milieu that gave rise to his doomed partner Eddie Barzoon.

     Much has been said about the demise of willingness to defer gratification in service to some higher priority. The late M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist of great insight, noted that the willingness to defer gratification is one of the four indispensable tools of personal growth:

     What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing. As will be evident, these are not complex tools....Yet presidents and kings will often forget to use them, to their own downfall. The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them. For they are tools with which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools.

     There is more wisdom in those hundred words than you could find in any other book, the Bible excepted.

     The most conspicuous of all the traits that have risen among us these past eighty years is the “I want it now, and by God I’ll have it now” insistence on the immediate gratification of every desire. Virtually no one is willing to wait for anything any longer. In an irony too profound for your Curmudgeon to capture in a net of words, the most intense expression of that trait is the insistence that suffering is always bad: Not only should one never accept suffering; every sort of suffering in progress must be alleviated at once.

     The will to persevere in suffering, confident that it’s the only road to eventual healing, is especially conspicuous by its absence from our political order.

     Much has been said and written about the “short time horizons” of professional politicians. Their vision stops short at the next election. What will keep them in office is good; what might impede their tenure there is bad.

     Governmental careerism is indistinguishable in its incentive structure from private-sector careerism. Yet in our republican order, in which officials are chosen by democratic electoral processes, the careerist dynamic depends on another, more widely distributed characteristic: the unwillingness to tolerate suffering even when it’s provably inevitable.

     Consider the deterioration of the U.S. dollar as a case study. The dollar has lost more than 90% of its purchasing power over the century behind us. Anyone capable of making change without a calculator will immediately see that this is a bad thing – that persons whose incomes and savings are denominated in dollars suffer as a result, and that persons whose incomes are fixed will suffer worst. But the dollar’s fall is a consequence of federal borrowing from the Federal Reserve Bank, a process that automatically inflates the number of dollars in circulation, thereby reducing the value of each one. Congress borrows to make up the difference between its revenues and its expenditures: the annual deficit.

     Clearly there are two and only two ways to halt this process:

  1. Increase federal revenues;
  2. Decrease federal spending.

     Both courses are fatally unpopular with the electorate. Either one would cause suffering among some sectors of society that the public is unwilling to tolerate. Therefore, Congressmen determined to remain in their seats will never vote for either one. Indeed, given the pressures focused upon Capitol Hill by special interest groups that command the loyalties of significant blocs of votes, the more plausible road to re-election is to increase federal spending each year, regardless of federal revenues. Therefore, the slow but steady decline of the dollar will continue indefinitely.

     No one wants to vote for suffering, especially if it would be his own.

     If We the People have earned a certain suffering-debt for our previous sociopolitical sins – never mind that we were set upon our sinful courses by an earlier We the People, who passed their accumulated suffering-debt down to us – then our choice is simple:

  1. We could accept the penalty, endure it, and come out healed;
  2. We could reject the penalty, which would compound the ultimate suffering.

     Since World War II at least, the public has preferred politicians who will “kick the can down the road.” In consequence, government has gone ever further astray and our accumulated debt of ultimate suffering has compounded year by year. At some point, though the moment is difficult to predict, the debt will be paid. If it’s grown large enough, it will destroy our society completely.

     But a payable sociopolitical suffering-debt is like a prison term: it’s finite. It will end. It can and should be endured, especially if the alternative is to raise it to an unpayable level. Our unwillingness to accept and endure the penalties that have already accrued is propelling such debts toward the threshold of sociopolitical bankruptcy.

     What debts does your Curmudgeon have in mind? Five in particular:

  1. Government: We have allowed the federal Leviathan to expand beyond all Constitutional borders, and to extend its tentacles into every area of human life. Unlimited power is incompatible with any degree of human freedom.
  2. Politics: Owing to the item above, the stakes in political contests have become so large that the contestants have cast aside all the rules: legal, ethical, or prudential. Every election is a battle to the death in which there’s no such thing as an unthinkable tactic.
  3. Social Intercourse: The importation of persons hostile to American norms and the rise of victimism-as-social-currency have made it almost too hazardous for persons of different races, sexes, religions, or ethnicities to share a community. Social trust is gone; each of us is at the mercy of “the other.”
  4. Family Bonds: The collapse of the earlier bonds that held families and societies together, particularly the obligations that traditionally united each generation to its parents and its progeny, have created a pervasive sense of vulnerability that flacksters for innumerable causes and movements can exploit.
  5. Personal Indulgences: The insistence on the immediate gratification of our desires, coupled to the lack of will to accept the costs and endure the suffering, has foreshortened individuals’ vision of the future, what it might hold for them, and how best to prepare for it.

     The incentives We the People followed brought us to where we stand. Most potent among those incentives was our inclination to defer the suffering we and our forebears had already earned. For the generation that emerged from World War II, the term of suffering might have been fairly short: a few years of privation and social adjustment as we relearned Constitutional constraints and the many wisdoms set aside during the Progressive Era. Today the term would encompass at least an entire generation, perhaps two. That is:

  1. Millions of “civil servants” would have to find productive work.
  2. There would be an end, probably through term limits, to life tenure in elective office.
  3. We would need to accept two unfairly condemned social necessities: segregation and discrimination.
  4. Families would be forced to care for their own helpless and vulnerable members.
  5. Individuals would be denied the ability to “finance” their desires.

     Each of these things would involve suffering:

  1. Some former “civil servants” would prove unable to work at real jobs, and would become mendicants.
  2. Some politicians would starve right alongside them. Moreover, lower polities would be compelled to accept burdens previously carried by the federal government.
  3. The natural segregation of our people according to race, creed, and ethnicity would resume. Members of each camp would discriminate in favor of “our own” at least until “the other” had earned trust by adopting and displaying compatible language, conduct, and values.
  4. Needy families would be thrown upon the charity of their neighbors and communities. Some would not receive the help they need to stave off great personal suffering and loss.
  5. Many things cavalierly treated as “needs” would become unaffordable.

     The suffering – happily, a relative matter in a nation as rich as the United States – would persist for anywhere from twenty to fifty years. But at the end we would be healed – whole – and immune, for a little while at least, to the diseases we had left behind us.

     “If something cannot continue indefinitely, it will stop.” – Herbert Stein

     Ultimately, we know what we ought to do. Yea verily, even “progressives” are aware that we cannot “kick the can down the road” indefinitely. The problem is a lack of will, or framed through its inverse, our impatience with the term of our suffering.

     The trends of the postwar decades have sapped our will to endure by increasing our will to believe that all suffering is avoidable. Concurrently, the debts have accumulated. Never before have we owed so much...and never before have we been so ready to avert necessary suffering by passing our debts along to our children.

     Have a nice day.


Linda Fox said...

The concept of "Tough Love" has long been accepted by the addiction treatment community.

When will that concept be accepted by the "poverty enabling" community?

When people's own actions cause the overwhelming majority of their failures, how can we NOT help them to see the error of their ways?

We do children no favor by letting them stay with those parents who refuse to change their ways. I'm in favor on allowing children to stay for a short term - one year or less - upon reaching that point, put them up for adoption. If family members want the children to stay with them, they have to compete against actual functional families.

Most addicted/dysfunctional people don't change unless they absolutely HAVE to. So, let's do our part in helping them reach that point.

Linda Fox said...

That stay in the comment above refers to Foster Care.