A cautionary tale

The recent British election, in which Tories, and therefore Boris Johnson and Brexit, won in a landslide, should serve as a warning to the American left in the coming elections next November.

In my particular (left leaning) media bubble everything I read about British politics was against the Tories, and in particular against Brexit. It looked like BJ would get his ass handed to him on a platter, or at best eke out a narrow victory. The extent of his victory, never mind the verdict itself, was a shock to me. Of course, this could say more about me as an individual than about the expectations of the British public, but the point is that I had no reason to doubt my impression of the political zeitgeist there.

Everything I read about American politics would lead me to believe Trump is a dead man walking. Polls notwithstanding, the daily barrage of lamentation and outrage serves only to support the idea that his Waterloo is imminent. His transgressions are increasingly brazen, and even his support in the Senate seem transparently self-serving; a person could be forgiven for thinking that fair-minded peoiple on the right could easily rebel and go against him and his enablers.

I keep reading that Republicans, even in the Senate, despise him in their secret hearts. I hear that the fact that they stand by him publicly only exposes their hypocrisy and self preservation.

But here’s the rub: maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe the very hypocrisy we deplore should tell us something about the electorate, that Republicans don’t dare show their anti-Trump side because they know it would hurt them politically.

Maybe, as in the UK, enough people are more tired of liberal condescension than they are afraid of what Trump is doing to the coutry. Maybe — dare I say it? -– they actually like what he’s doing. Going strictly by the numbers, the economy looks good. True, much of that can be said to be in spite of Trump rather than because of him, but Republicans may well believe their constituency will reward staying the course and punish any criticism of it.

A case in point is the currently favorite liberal whipping boy, Lindsey Graham. He certainly is among the most brazen of the code-switchers, since he has a history of public Trump-bashing. What does he see that makes him so confident in his turn-around?

On one hand, if Trump survives and gets re-elected along with a majority in either house, Graham coasts in on the tide. If on the other hand, Trump loses, what are the prospects?

Surveying the current Democratic contenders, he probably doesn’t see anyone who would survive beyond a single term. Don’t forget, Republican obstructionists were able to limit much of Obama’s agenda, even when he had a Democratic congress.

I’m not saying such an analysis has any merit, but I can see Graham and his cohort believing it. Graham himself has a history of running for president, and certainly has his eyes on 2024.

But why, you may ask, is the Republican electorate so blind to the hipocrisy of so many Republican politicians, who were so dead set against Trump, and now enthusiastically sing in his choir?

I have a better question. Why is the left, in particular the Bernie-crats, so smitten with political consistency, as if no one is allowed to learn anything for the duration of a public career?

One big reason BJ got his victory in the UK was that so many people who might normally have voted left couldn’t stomach Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader. There are very good reasons for this, but the key is that their disdain was never enough to dislodge him from his position as leader.

Take that as you will; I just hope it’s not a lesson too late for the learning.

Medicare for all: too expensive?

In a word, not even close.

Let’s check this out, using some of the same figures that have been bouncing around lately.  Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All (MFA) proposal, reported CNN in 2017, would cost $1.3 trillion per year.

Wow, that’s a lot! Isn’t it? Let’s break it down.  There are approximately 157,288,000 Americans in the work force in 2019. $1.3 trillion, then, comes to roughly $8,900 per taxpayer, assuming that the entire cost of MFA will be borne by working people paying taxes.

About 55.4% of employed Americans are covered by health insurance provided by their employers, which accounts for 8.5% of wages for these people. The national average annual income, excluding benefits,is $46,800.  That’s a cost to the employer of $4,212 per year per employee.

If you’re a working American that’s a part of your compensation that you don’t normally see, but you can bet your employer does.

So, let’s get back to the cost of MFA, $8,900. If the money your employer pays for your health insurance were simply shifted to financing MFA, it would cover almost half of the cost.

So, what about the rest of it?  Well, the rest of it can be covered by the 44.6% of working people whose employers do not pay for their health insurance, and who therefore must pay for their own insurance, and you can bet that they pay a hell of a lot more for the same coverage than do employers.  The average cost of all private health insurance in 2019 is about $7,000.  Even accounting for the free spirits who would rather risk going broke than buy insurance, it’s more than enough to offset the remaining cost of MFA in increased taxes.

Of course, the entire cost could be offset by simply rescinding the recent Republican tax cuts, which benefit primarily the ultra rich, amounting to $2.3 trillion. But that’s off the table.

Or is it?

 

My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

Notice to Consumers

It has come to our attention that some of you have been seen engaging in activities that have little or nothing to do with consuming.  This, of course, must stop, as it jeopardizes the entire consummation system.  In the 19th century, enthusiasm for consuming was so robust that people were even reported to have died from consumption.  Are we to fail such a heritage?

Even the French have surpassed us.  There is a soup there called consommé which is quite widely used in cooking, even though, judging from the name, it has clearly already been consumed before.  Surely we can do as well or better.

If the general population fails to improve by next Tuesday, all businesses in the US will be forced to not only become French, but to move all operations involving wage earners to an impoverished country … what?  Oh, never mind.  Become French, then.

When work became work

Work, for many, if not most, is a drudge.  As the saying goes, that’s why they pay you to do it.  We take it as a kind of law of nature.  We’ve elevated leisure time to a kind of sacred status; that’s what all the advertising and consumerism is about, isn’t it?  Get more stuff to make the time you’re off work more awesome.  Of course, very little is not awesome these days, but that’s another post altogether.  And what’s the pinnacle of awesomeness?  Why, retirement, of course.  Picture yourself, free at last of your pointy-haired boss (and he of you, for that matter), lounging on a sunny beach somewhere, umbrella-topped drink tipping in your drowsy hand.  Or finally getting your golf handicap down to single digits.  It’s you time, unproductive by sacred right.

Only, when the time comes, the euphoria lasts a month or two, and then too often leisure replaces work as the major source of drudgery.  Some people decline so much they slip into chronic depression; some even die not long after.  Cruelly, it seems that, after all, drudgery was a personality trait, not an externally imposed condition.  What’s going on?  Was it always thus?

There’s a Twitter meme that rises to the top of the sludge periodically, one of those quote things that you get to attribute to anyone you like, as long as they’re sufficiently famous, that goes, “If you see a difference between play and work, you’re not doing one of them right.”  Seems vapid enough, as these things go, but it persists because it has the ring of truth to it.  Or is it the desire of truth?

You might be tempted to dismiss this whole issue as a First World problem; the overwhelming majority of people throughout the world have no time to spare for thinking about the quality of their work experience, let alone of their leisure time.  What they do is integral with their survival.

Is it possible that such a clear link between work and survival actually makes work more satisfying?  There have been, to my knowledge, no studies of this, but, given that roughly the first 250,000 years of human development were spent hunting and gathering, I would say that it’s a distinct possibility.  For better or worse, though, since it first occurred to someone to plant food and raise stock about 10,000 years ago, the link has grown increasingly obscure, and therein may lie the issue.  Most of us no longer get food and shelter directly from our work; what we get is the means to obtain these things, and not always to the degree we think necessary.

My father used to say there was no such thing as a job without dignity.  In my rebellious youth, I understood this to be a kind of statement of egalitarianism, a solidarity with the Working Class.  Collecting trash was just as good as producing it, from the standpoint of dignity.

Cool, I thought, that the stodgy old coot could express such an idea in spite of himself.

Although I can’t claim to be certain of what he actually meant to say, my own understanding of the sentiment has changed over the years.  Dignity, as such, is simply not a characteristic of work.  That is, such dignity as there is, is supplied by the worker.  Of course, it may be easier or more difficult, or even, rarely, impossible, depending on such things as difficulty, collegiality, and management.  This brings up the social factor, which I believe to be critical.

There has never been a documented case of a truly feral human.  Society, love it or hate it, is what we do; it’s how we’ve survived all these thousands of years despite our wimpy claws and fangs.  Maybe we find work satisfying to the degree that it enriches our social relationships, either by providing a context for them, or by creating a sense of significant contribution.  This is how cleaning sewers can be rewarding, and how pushing numbers around a hedge fund can be numbing, despite the vastly greater material rewards of the latter.  It’s why billionaires refuse to leave the rest of us alone, but insist on doing some kind of job, even (shudder) politics.

It also explains the retirement conundrum.  Even the most menial of jobs usually involves social contact with fellow workers, even if that interaction is limited to griping about working conditions, or tyrannical bosses.  Retire, and you’re suddenly booted out of a society that was, for better or worse, the milieu of the majority of your waking hours for most of your life.

I won’t say love your job and it will love you back, but maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty to jump the fence into those greener pastures.  We might find it considerably more swampy than we thought.

Tough love economics

I was in the grocery store, jam-packed on this gorgeous day, when I saw a lane with nobody in it. Unbelievable, I thought, and went for it. As I was unloading my cart, I joked with the check out person.

“Jeez, was it some thing you said?”

“No, I don’t think so.”  Then she pointed to the bagger: “It must have been him!”

“Sure,” I said, “blame it on the lowest wage person here!”

We all shared a laugh, and then the check out person got this pensive look on her face, like an infant child about to fill its diapers.

“It is funny, though,” she said.  “He works much harder than I do, and gets paid less.”

Well, this got me to thinking.  What if the hardest working people got paid the most?  Would that be fairer?  Would it solve any of our social problems?

Nah.

If that happened, then everyone would want the hardest jobs.  Before you know it, everything would be done.

There we’d be, nothing to do but sit around and talk revolution.

Alma Mater, Bursa Pater

The purpose of the University is simple.  It is to further the careers of academicians.

For administrators, this means graduating as many people in lucrative fields as possible, so they can donate generously to the endowment as alumni.  This is mutually beneficial, since a large endowment enhances the reputation of the university, and, by reflection, that of its graduates, all the while assuring princely salaries for top administrators.

To achieve a similar impact in less lucrative fields, for example, in the humanities, requires significantly larger numbers of graduates, since each one will be able to contribute significantly less to the endowment.  This, in turn, is reflected in the salaries of the faculty.  By far, the largest salaries are generally paid to faculty in the professional schools: Medicine, law, and even that johnny-come-lately, business.  Funds for educational programs in the various schools are distributed in similar proportions.  Literature, history, and other such poorly remunerated fields suffer accordingly; a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since these graduates are more likely to find work in the university system which trained them, where they will get paid relatively little.  This is especially true in these times, when such faculty are increasingly part time, at truly pathetic salaries with no benefits.

For faculty, career advancement requires an entirely different set of principles.  The motive here is to ensure a slow, but steady supply of young colleagues who will not upend years of pronouncements by established faculty.  This is accomplished in two ways.

The first is to act as gate keepers.  Faculty hiring committees sift through applications for open positions, discarding obviously unqualified candidates, then sparring over how to rank the rest.  This usually breaks down along adherence to schools of thought within the discipline; factions, in other words.  Structuralists will want other structuralists, post-modernists will want more of their kind, and so on.  Almost no one will favor applicants whose work calls into question any of the prevailing factions in the department.  There is some honor among academics, after all.  In this way, serene advancement through a career is ensured without problematic disagreement, except along acceptable factional lines.  The process is disturbingly similar to the way acolytes move up through religious ranks.

The second way is similar; it works through the peer review system for publication of papers.  For professors, advancement occurs through just one avenue: publication in peer reviewed journals.  I don’t think I need to go into detail on the difficulties of publishing a serious objection to accepted dogma, when that publication depends on favorable reviews by the very people who have built their reputations on that dogma.

It’s worth noting the increasing trend to circumvent this entire process by hiring only “adjunct” faculty, a process wryly called “adjunctivitis.”  Adjuncts are hired as part time employees, or as contractors, thereby absolving the institution of any requirements for minimum compensation, especially with regard to health insurance, retirement , and so on.  They are usually hired en masse to teach the large lower-level courses established faculty find so tiring.  This is obviously beneficial for administrators, as it frees up much more money for their own bloated salaries, but many short-sighted faculty also fall into line as well.  Adjunct faculty are no threat to the established faculty, because, in spite of technically being part-time, they are forced to teach so many courses to make ends meet, that they have no time left for the kind of research that leads to publication and career enhancement.  I say short-sighted, because this will inevitably lead to further erosion of prestige for university faculty in general, affecting the upper echelons as well as the lowest.  Of course, some, at the end of their relatively lucrative careers and ready for retirement, hardly care.

The wily reader will have noticed that at no point was the welfare of students, or the contribution to knowledge brought up.  Let me just remind you that we have spent the last few decades selling higher education exclusively as the gateway to lucrative jobs.  The inescapable conclusion is that it is the paper, not the process, which has any true value.

Surprise!  Welcome to our brave new world.