Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Now Fearful

{continued from Not Hopeful.}

What has inspired my fear is the “Tea Party” movement. It looks like simply unfocused anger, apparently fed by two deep-seated fears. One is the well-founded fear that America is no longer supreme in the world. The movement seems to include those who fear that the USA is no longer able to do anything we want, that no one can compel us or forbid us, and those who fear that the USA is no longer a moral leader. Few will admit these fears openly; thus I have to insert weasel words – “apparently”, “seems”. I could be wrong. Indeed, I profoundly hope that I am wrong. Because this kind of nationalism is a terrible danger, as World Wars I and II surely demonstrate. This has a frightening resemblance to the kind of inferiority complex in Germany that contributed so heavily to those horrible wars. The loss of moral leadership is harder to admit, at least in so many words. We’re losing the sense, never fully justified, that America was admired, not just envied.

The other basic fear is more personal: a fear that our lives are not under our own control. Certainly government has the power to exercise more control than anyone could tolerate, even if it is not currently doing so. But this fear also has an economic and personal component. It is not just fear of excessive taxation, or excessive economic regulation, though that is the public face of it. It is also the fear that maybe my life is not at all under my control. A certain type of rugged individualism is a major factor in the American psyche. If I try hard, I will succeed, and if I don’t succeed I didn’t really try. This has, for many people, the force of a religious doctrine. Unfortunately it is really not correct. If I don’t try, I won’t succeed; that part is clearly true. But human history has uncounted examples of people who tried as hard as anyone, and completely failed. Logically, effort is a “necessary but not sufficient condition” of success.

The conservative emphasis on personal responsibility is not, in itself, a bad thing. Indeed no system lasts long when people need not take responsibility for themselves. But the real problem is opportunity. Can people effectively take responsibility for their lives? The rugged individualist ethic goes deep in our national culture and psyche. I feel that this is because until the 20th century, it was possible to live your own life completely. Just head west till you found a place you liked, and plant a crop or hunt. It might not be easy, or comfortable, but for all but disabled men it was doable. This hasn’t been possible for a long time now, but the attitude persists among us. We are all limited in our choices.

Growing one’s own food is a live option for very few of us. For better or worse, the vast majority of Americans live in a money-only economy. If we want food, clothing or shelter, we buy them. And the thing about money is, you don’t have it until someone gives you some. What we call “earning” money is really trading something we have that is not money (merchandise or labor, most commonly) for money. This means that to get, say, food, we need to find someone with money. We must convince them that we can give them something they want and to give us money in exchange for it. Then we find someone with food, and convince them to take our money in exchange for their food. (I’m making this sound like a more complex version of bartering. It is, but it’s a vast improvement; that’s a subject for another time.)

This gives us two problems to solve: we must sell something, and we must buy something. But the system does not guarantee that either will be possible. We may not be able to find anyone who will pay for anything we have, and we may not be able to find anyone who can sell what we want to buy. Indeed, there may not be anyone who will pay for what we have, or sell us what we need. The second case is what happens in a famine. In this country that is hardly a serious risk any more. But the first happens all the time, for a lot of people and a lot of reasons. Here is my favorite example: In the nineteenth century, telegraph operators were respected skilled workers. It took time and practice to learn the Morse code and acquire speed in transmitting and receiving messages. Such men were in demand; they received a good amount of money for their work. But then came the telephone. The demand for telegraph operators dwindled and died. Men who had been respected middle-class wage-earners had to acquire a different skill or join the underclass. The examples in my own life are Fortran (me) and Cobol programmers. And the older one is, the harder it is to acquire a new marketable skill.

So here we have modern American conservatives. They are committed to the belief that good people always succeed in America, and they know that they are good people. If someone fails, they must try again until they succeed. But by now, a majority of Americans has either lost a job, through no fault of their own, or has a close friend who has lost theirs. This is particularly true among the well-paid but low-skill jobs, which are now getting very scarce. (The post from May 2009 has more detail on this.) And what should be happening, isn’t happening. They cannot find anyone who wants what they have, no matter how valuable the searcher knows it is and no matter how hard they work at looking. That’s not supposed to happen to good people. And it’s hardest for the middle-aged. If they acquire a new skill, they are competing with fresh young workers for entry-level jobs. Employers who should look at their proven record of good work instead look at the lower salaries that young, childless workers are happy with.

This has the effect of a failure of one’s religion. The bedrock I’ve been standing on isn’t rock after all; my life is not what I thought it was. I thought that if I worked hard I was safe, but I worked hard and I’ve been tossed out in the street. The lifeline came loose in my hand. Probably the most common reaction to this experience is the conviction that somebody screwed up the system, and they must be stopped. It must be somebody’s fault, and it sure ain’t mine! And the search for the scapegoat begins.

{a third installment will probably follow}