Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Right To Swing Your Fist Ends At My Nose

Neil Gaiman, writer of the most sublimely frightening fiction, was asked recently what scared him. His answer is illuminating and thought provoking:
The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It's like the feeling, sometimes, that you'd start talking to people and you're going, "I don't know if what you're saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don't know. And you're walking around being haunted by dead ideas... Look around and see where you are today." I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.
 A lot of the ideas bedeviling America these days are like that. They've died everywhere else in the world but the U.S. is like a haunted forest. And like the ghosts of a good story some of them look just like they did in life and others appear as horribly corrupted versions of themselves.

One of the most dangerous of those ideas is "rugged individuality"; the idea that, despite John Donne, every man is an island. It is manifested in so many ways in modern America. As just one example, there has been a lot of news recently about the return of whooping cough. Is it some new strain rising from the miasma of the third world for which we have no vaccine? No. It's been traced to the increasing numbers of unvaccinated American kids whose parents don't "believe" in vaccination.

Public policy should prohibit the current exemptions that allow these children to attend school. There they mix with the general population of children who are a) vaccinated (but no vaccine can be 100% effective), b) cannot be vaccinated because of medical issues, or - most shameful - c) unvaccinated because they and their families have no access to affordable health care. I cannot imagine how it could be in any sane definition of "freedom of choice" or "free will" for parents to be able to deny their children life-saving medicine. And what choice did the children have in being left defenseless against preventable diseases?

The point being that the parents' "choice" is now affecting you and me. To the point of this post's title, choosing to endanger the rest of the us is swinging their fist so that it makes contact with my nose.

Such magical ideas - that whatever choices one makes have no consequences beyond themselves - should have long ago died out. Instead they have become the centerpiece of so much thought in the US.

Think of the reaction to trying to regulate the pollution poured out into our air by industry. Think of the reaction to regulating gun ownership (only a gun without bullets cannot reach beyond the owner's reach). Think of getting the neighborhood guy with all the rusting vehicles in his yard, leaching chemicals into the groundwater (which winds up in the local pond or your drinking water), to clean up his mess.

Perhaps, at some point in the far past, this idea of "rugged individualism" was tenable. But no more. Not with 7 billion people on this one, small world. All of us who have to breathe the same air, drink the same water, live on the same land. It is an old idea, whose time to die is long past, but which continues to haunt us.

In future posts - maybe - I will discuss some of the other ideas that should have died out but hang on to haunt the modern world.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Taking a Hammer to a Life

What if a well-known company were to release a new hammer to your local big-box hardware store? And what if that hammer proved to have a design flaw that caused the head to separate catastrophically from the handle resulting in scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries to users and bystanders? What would happen? You might consider the question rhetorical because you know what the answer is; it's happened thousands of times. The hammer would be recalled, redesigned and re-released for sale. The manufacturer would be held accountable for the deaths and injuries and the world of weekend projects would be safe again.

Tool makers learned that users expect safer tools than our parents and grandparents used. There hasn't been a circular saw released in decades without a rotating blade guard. There are still the occasional user who disables the guards but they wind up with new nicknames like "Lefty" or "Nine Fingers".

It all seems so simple. Users learned that they didn't have to risk loosing a finger while using a saw; manufacturers learned that they couldn't release dangerous tools with impunity. Laws and regulations were created or updated to protect users driving a cycle of improvements and innovations but most importantly of fewer injuries and deaths. Tools were improved to work better and to be less harmful.

This isn't about hammers in the literal sense; this is about tools in the broader sense. But the lesson pertains.

Conservatives, in general, and so-called "business leaders" specifically love to talk about "The Market" as though it were something created at the time of the Big Bang; as though it were a Platonic reality, casting it's shadow over the world. For the their part the general public has accepted this framing: if they have no economic training they accept the word of the the framers; if they have taken even a token Econ101 course they learned from books written by the framers.

We all know that the victors get to write history.

The system we call "The Market" is a tool. It was cobbled together over centuries of business and wars and political wrangling. But the people doing all of the wrangling were those with the power to influence the process and - NOT coincidentally - those who would benefit most from the end product. These were the people who would never be injured by their own product. They never had to worry if the hammer would fly apart and injure them or their family. They got to write the history of the development of "The Market". But it was an odd history. Not one of incremental accretion. No, their history was of a force (an "Invisible Hand") that had always existed. Like some form of economic Physics that underlies the whole universe. A law of gravity for money where some people had some sort of invisible mass that somehow made them attractors for wealth while others did not.

Their history of course is a lie, but they are the victors to whom go the spoils. An aphorism written by a victor, of course.

Markets are tools. Like hammers and saws they can build wonderful things, but they can also cause great harm and misery. They need to be better regulated and perhaps redesigned so as not to cause so much injury and death. Despite what the victors will say - and no matter how much they protest - we CAN redesign the economy. Real tool makers protested that they could never create a saw or hammer that was safer. Then they changed their story saying that if the did redesign their tools the resulting items would be so expensive that nobody would be able to afford them. Then under pressure from consumer protection watchdogs and consumers they did the "impossible" and made safe, affordable tools.