Government, the Real World, and Politics

Posted Oct 12, 2008
Last Updated Oct 12, 2008


Political candidates generally don't seem to think very deeply, at least not publicly.  Instead they guide on pieces of conventional "political wisdom" that reflect their political and economic prejudices and can be spun to support their election.  And elected they may be; we get what we collectively vote for.  But in the process, government, and collaboration in useful causes, becomes difficult.
    Mainly what I'm going to do in this short series is list some slogans, mottos, and "political wisdom" in general, and examine them as honestly as I can.  But first I'll look, briefly, at the nature of political reality, as I see it, and of the broad reality that underlies it.  If you're impatient with that, you might prefer to skip or skim over the fundamentals and get to the political truisms and autopsy that follow. 
    Meanwhile remember, I'm no expert in any of this.  But I am analytical, and have a non-standard viewpoint. 
    Let  me add that I am not pushing some new economic gospel, or even a new paradigm.  Just observing and commenting.
Some Hidden Roots of Political Science
    A lot of politicians have degrees in political science.  You can get arguments on whether the adjective "political" fits with the noun "science," but certainly the field that calls itself Political Science uses orderly tools of investigation, drawing on psychology, sociology, and statistical theory and methods.  As a field, it could do better, but the real problem isn't the subject matter; it's the practitioners.  And unavoidably, zeal both among the practitioners and within the electorate.

"Outside" Variables— It's long been recognized in science that many advances have grown out of an outsider getting involved, someone with a non-standard point of view.  So let's try this for fit.  In ecology, biophysical associations are the major "objects" of study.  These are ever-fluctuating communities of life forms, interacting with the numerous environmental factors, subtly and intimately.  Communities that constitute more or less open systems that integrate uncountable, indeed indefinable levels, or layers, of factors: "open" systems in that they are subject to effects from factors "outside" the  system.
    For example, the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest depend on more or less fluctuating ocean currents, and in the atmosphere, the ever-changing jet stream, that condition their climate in various ways.
    Fluctuations in the solar constant are another and farther reaching factor, especially if they prove to be erratic and substantial.
    Really there is no "inside" or "outside" to those systems.  They are part of one overall system — the entire universe.  Subsystems interact in undefined, even unsuspected, but sometimes powerful ways, all with infinite degrees of interdependence.  All of which make statistical analyses dubious, whether your goal is to describe the subsystem or predict its behavior. 
    On the other hand, such limited analyses can help sort out subordinate relationships, and provide clues, indicators for guiding short-term tactical adjustments.           Things may perk along more or less as expected for a while.  Then out of the blue, a wild card impinges — conspicuously or obscurely — what chaos physicists call a "strange attractor" — turning order into chaos. Resulting, perhaps very gradually, in a new system.  The "records of the rocks and sediments" tell of many such potent, transformative events in Earth's history.
    Political systems are further complicated by the continuous play of human free will, which can generate other strange attractors, resulting, for example, in the American Revolution, and the French, the Russian, the Chinese Revolutions.  So system equilibria  are subject to severe, and often unpredictable, self-adjustments.
    How can we deal with such matters in politics?
    I suspect that simple intuitive sortings can be more useful in drawing productive conclusions than can statistical analyses and system modeling.  Although statistical analyses and models can provide insights useful in refining, planning, and applying intuitions.
    In fact, politicians, like most of us, rely heavily on intuition.  The major problem with that is, their intuitions are leveraged by their  influence and  aauthority, which  tend to be guided by unexamined and highly subjective prejudices and principles — call them cultural/political assumptions.  For example, that the soul enters the ovum at conception.  Which is dear to many fundamentalist hearts and minds, but far from demonstrated.  Or disproven, for that matter.  (And where does that soul come from?  Or is it generated on site?  Or...)
    Subjective prejudices and principles, accepted or even generated by you and me, and varying in the degree of self-honesty  — or deliberate dishonesty.  It's a bigger problem with some politicians than with others, of course.
    (By self-honesty I refer to the recognition that a particular premise isn't actually proven, and that an alternative or alternatives are possible.)

Think Tanks—  I'll be brief and subjective here.  My impression is, think tanks are created less to honestly seek out the truth than to support political positions.  I'm sure there are exceptions to that, but that's how  think-tank mavens tend to come across on talk shows.  I've also visited some think tank websites where you can explore their takes on numerous subjects.  I suspect they begin with a right wing or left wing viewpoint on a subject, and search for data that supports their predetermined positions.    
    They call that research.
    Many think tanks are financed by conservative foundations.  But don't automatically assume that something a conservative think tank says is BS.  And don't automatically assume their analyses or data are politically skewed.  But read them closely, critically; they are suspect.
    (More on this in the section in a later post on Health Care,)

 Perfection (vs practicality/reality)—  Politicians don't often mention perfection,which is just as well, but they use the concept implicitly (along with 20/20 hindsight) in attacking the records and positions of their opposition.  Perfection is a theoretical notion, an ideal, and a stick to beat others with.  One person's "perfection" is another person's BS, and someone else's anathema.
    Notions of perfection also make it easy to denigrate the accomplishments, efforts… and intentions, of others.  It's a form of complaint.  Complaints, even if unreasonable, are useful in the world of practical affairs.  If nothing else, they help define the ideological landscape.
Mapping and Planning—  There is value in having a tentative road map to facilitate planning and course correction.  And as a kill-switch for failed projects.  Always keeping in mind the imperfection of us humans and our institutions.  And that results can disappoint preliminary expectations, while still forwarding a project usefully.  Or even failing that, still prove beneficial in the long run.
    In fact, ANY UNDERSTANDING OF THE OVERALL SYSTEM WILL FALL SHORT, even without factoring in human cross-intentions or counter-intentions.  That's okay by me; I'm used to human imperfection.  The history of Homo sapiens is largely the long and bumpy story of disappointed hopes - and the lessons learned.

    And that's enough set-ups.  Now for some

Slogans, Mottos, and Conventional
Wisdom: Reflections and Perceptions
    Here I'll line up some slogans, mottos, and conventional wisdom in general, and examinine them as honestly as I can.  My comments will have the flavor of an independent thinker who leans toward populism.  Call me a "Realist" if you'd like, one who's aware that "reality" is invariably suppositional.  (I am a human being, after all.  We use what we have.)

The "Trickle Down" Theory—  Not to be confused with "Trickle Down Marketing," Trickle Down Theory implies that the way money flows in  economies resembles the way water trickles downward through a granular medium under gravity.  In natural systems that medium is usually soil.  (Apparently those  theorists  don't know about how water behaves in nature.   But that's beside the point; the analogy serves their purposes and  prejudices.)

    Reasoning by analogy can be useful in characterizing a system.  But for drawing conclusions, or in managing enterprises, it is risky to assume that the system behaves like the system it supposedly resembles.  In nature, the hydrodynamics of ecosystems, for example,  involves much more than gravity.  So the trickle-down analogy needs to be reexamined.  How well does it fit?  Otherwise you're just playing a word game, either to fool people, or because you're careless, or don't care, or are ignorant.
    (If politicians want to pitch by analogy, surely I can counter them by analogy.  And in my case, explore aspects they've ignored.)
    Even in hydrological systems, "trickle down" has a seriously limited — a partial application.  Consider a region visited by annual, seasonal drought.  Normally, at the end of the wet season, the soil holds considerable available moisture — money in the bank so to speak.  Some of it is held so tightly by electro-chemical charges on the soil particles that plants can't withdraw it.  The plants can draw only on the available moisture, removing some, much, or all of it.  In many climates, all is the word, and when the available moisture is gone, many plants either become dormant or die.  Many species survive the dry season only as seeds, others as dormant roots with the potential to send up new shoots when the rains arrive.
    In dry weather, net water transfer is not downward through the soil, but upward through vascular plants, then outward into the atmosphere.   In fact, this is typical on hot dry days in the rainy season.
    Some plants store considerable water in their tissues, and survive on that through the dry season.  Still others, whose roots grow deeper, take water from deeper in the ground than their competition can reach.  (Although their seedlings may not survive, except for the occasional year with opportune rainfall at critical times.)      Or the farmer may uproot or poison the "weeds" that compete for the water, leaving more of it for the sensitive crop species.  Or may irrigate in times of inadequate rain.  (The water does, though, have to  come from somewhere.)
    Populist governments may apply monetary "irrigation" to stricken populations.
    "Oh my god!  You can't do that!  That's socialism!"
    It can be, depending on who makes the decision.  If your name is Warren Buffitt, social irrigation is charity, compassion.  And starvation is starvation, leading to the decay of the nation.    
    "Well let them die then, and reduce the surplus population!"  That's a line from Uncle Ebenezer in  Charles Dickens' famous novel A Christmas Carol.
Scrooge was a greedy, ruthless old bastard, but even at his worst, he saw the value of public work projects — the "work houses."
    And there are other things that can be done: notably, educate the jobless or the marginally employed, preparing them for better-paying work.
    Which brings up a question: What is the basic goal of public works projects?  Bridges?  Roads?  Housing developments?   Hell no!  The basic purpose is jobs and civil order.  They are a form of coping, of dealing with privation and hopelessness while you develop ways to get at the roots of the problems, and meanwhile getting useful work accomplished.  Education, including "vocational education," along with effective planning, are, if not actual solutions, at least longer term fixes.

"All Men are Created Equal"—  But we are conspicuously not the same.  So "all men are created equal" is typically interpreted as "all humans have the same legal rights."  That's fine by me, but in application, legal rights usually turn out to be considerably skewed, even screwed.
    Consider: Some persons are born aggressive, just as some individuals of other species are born aggressive.  Aggression can be appropriate.  (And some cultures massage that aggressiveness — ours for example.)  Some identical twins differ markedly in aggressiveness.  One twin might be aggressive, the other cautious.  One twin may find it natural to assume and exercise power, the other may find it nearly impossible.  Some seem naturally respectful and generous; others are acquisitive, grasping, and learn respect for the rights of others only with difficulty.  Also, two personality aspects strongly correlated (I do not doubt) with getting rich are greed and aggressiveness.  Excellent intelligence may be useful, but my impression is, the correlation of greed with wealth seems much stronger.   
    And of course, living in wealth and luxury are easier if your daddy is rich.
    This is not a knock on being acquisitive  or aggressive — we are what we are — or on being born rich.  They have their functions in human affairs.  But when health care, education, legal assistance, and access to legislators and officials varies with property and income, "all men are created equal" can be looked at as a farce, a dodge.
    In fact, part of that conundrum itself is a farce, because what properly goes with being "born equal" is a matter of opinion.
    Meanwhile, opinion is a real and powerful factor.  And if today's increasingly bimodal distribution of wealth and power contunues to grow — with the ultra-wealthy getting richer, the newly poor more numerous, and a college education increasingly out of financial reach — this country will be in serious trouble.  Even more touble than it is right now, October 12, 2008.
    More about that later, too.
    Frankly, I suspect our increasingly bimodal distribution of wealth will become  considerably blunted, though it may require social upheavals.  Or more dramatically, a physical mega-disaster - say the next explosion of the Yellowstone Volcanic Field, or the next big-league asteroid collision.  Then we'll learn how hard Hard Times can be.

The Poor, the Middle Class, the Wealthy—  You and I may define those terms  more or less differently, but I suspect our concepts are pretty similar.  Our experiences and observations, on the other hand, probably aren't.
    When I was a kid (that again!) in the 1930s, a lot of people in America were seriously poor, and  not  just because of  the Great Depression — the so-called Hard Times.  There was also the Dust Bowl, for instance.  And "poor" meant something different then: the circumstances were a lot different and the rules, the experience. 
    A family in our neighborhood had a small plot with a shed on it, and lived in the shed.  (I don't think they owned it; more likely they simply had permission to occupy it.)  One room, two beds (four kids), a small sheet-iron stove that burned coal, bought by the sack, or firewood.  (And the use of an outdoor privy, but those were still common in rural communities.)  They carried water from a neighbor's well.  (Almost every home had one, generally in the back yard or on the back porch.)  I don't remember what they cooked on; probably a small kerosene stove, on a small, cobbled togther table.  All of  it unsanitary, and cold in winter.  They had a kerosene lamp, and maybe a kerosene lantern; no electricity, no telephone. 
    That was in 1937, as I reconstruct it.  Even by depression standards, that was poor!  They were the poorest family I knew of in that village.  But it was legal, and they got by; they survived that way.  Today it would be illegal, any way you look at it.  Little towns like that had no sewer system.  You had a private sewer line to the river, or a septic tank, or a cesspool for waste water.  And by then, many homes had indoor plumbing, so the sewage could be pretty septic.  And if you had no plumbing, you had a privy — a pit in the ground with a little shack over it, replete with flies and spiders.  And of course, flies could fly fom the privy pit into the kitchen. 
    You can see why water and sewer systems, with water purification plants became widely mandatory in later decades.  And a sheet-iron stove and kerosene lamps are fire hazards.
    (The upside was, little kids learned somewhat about spiders while sitting in privies.  One boyhood sport was catching flies, pulling off a wing, and throwing the fly into a spider web.  An activity virtually extinct now, alas.)
    As for income — ditches were dug with picks and shovels, gravel and sand were shoveled by hand and moved by wheelbarrows, farms required quite a lot of manual laborers in season, and so did road building.  From time to  time, cisterns needed cleaning, and gardens needed spading.  Garbage holes needed to be dug, firewood needed to be cut... Such work tended to be tough and temporary, and most paid poorly.  (No minimum wage law then.)  A tough way to live, but the poor of the 1930s could get by very cheaply and frugally. 
    I can't speak knowledgably about today's poor, but I suspect most of them have TV.  Poor has always been a comparative phenomenon.  Even  allowing for inflation, it takes a lot more money to be poor now, if only because of the legal requirements for living and sanitation.  Also it takes a more affluent society to support education and transportation. 
    As a child, I was sometimes rural, sometimes urban, but in neither case were we considered poor, even when we had an outdoor privy, burned wood or cobs or coal, lit our evenings with kerosene, and pumped water by hand — well water on the back porch, cistern water in the kitchen.  In Chicago and Gary, I could ride the streetcar for a nickel (and get a transfer), go to a movie for a dime or 15 cents, ice skate on the village millpond,  or in Chicago's Lincoln Park lagoon.  I  could also go to the Lindoln  Park Zoo free (thanks to the taxpayer, no doubt), and sketch the animals.  Got into Wrigley Field for a quarter, when I had a quarter.  (I sold Liberty Magazine on the street for a dime (my cut was probably 1 cent);  mama was a voice coach for a local radio show, and went to night school learning hotel management.  And Uncle Al mailed an occasional check, because I had health problems and doctor bills.) 
    But we weren't poor, we were "lower middle class," with a decent apartment —one-room with an "in-the-wall" bed, plus kiitch/dinette, and bathroom.  Electricity, phone, and radio. 
    There's a lot more technology today, and different standards.  Middle class means something very different than it did 70 years ago.  As was true in 1937 compared to 1866, a similar time gap.
    Meanwhile our population in the late 1930s was 130 million.  Today it's over 300 million.  And the per capita consumption of just about everything is much greater.  Ah yes: the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy.  All three are always with us, but the proportions vary.

    I'll end  this here.  The next installment will start out with a look at Free Market Economics.