Sunday, March 26, 2017

Beware the School of Life

Lately, every time I watch a video on YouTube, in my peripheral vision, on the sidelines, or in the center when my video ends, YouTube offers me a selection from The School of Life. I don't know how much YouTube has been bribed to show me those videos and to tempt me to watch them, but I'll wager that some not so small amount of money has passed hands.

The style of some of those videos is similar to this one I made to promote the unrequited love aspect of Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way.

The School of Life videos are better drawn, more professionally edited and feature a sensible sounding male voice with a British accent. "Sensible" is the word that comes to mind when listening to the advice they offer. It's quite a bit like talking to my distant relations in Great Britain. Urbane, well read and very, very sensible.

Here's the sort of advice you might get from one of the  School of Life videos:

  • Everyone has feet of clay, goes to the bathroom, puts on their pants one leg at a time, so don't let being painfully aware of your own failings blind you to the fact that you are just as much a mess as everybody else. Chin up and do your best.
  • We instinctively choose people who remind us of our parents to mate with, even when they remind us of our parents' worst qualities. So when choosing a mate, whatever you do, do not listen to your feelings. Be sensible, and choose somebody nice.
  • People don't come with an owner's manual, so this makes anticipating another person's needs difficult. But in order to keep your relationships going, do your best to help your partner unravel what makes you tick.
  • Machievelli has a bad reputation for telling princes how to do evil things, but in fact he is just trying to help nice people find a way to get by in life by manipulating others for their own good.
  • We are told to respect other people, but in fact when someone is throwing a tantrum, you should treat that person like a very small child.
  • Work is boring, but there is a good reason for that, so carry on. At least we know it is equally boring for the CEO of your company as it is for the lowliest janitor -- so it's fair! 
I don't even know where to begin. In case you think I am exaggerating, go watch some of their videos. I do not think they need any more promotion from me than they are already getting from YouTube, so I am going to limit myself to just one of their videos, the one about how boring work is and why it's all good.

Take this statement "The modern job market gives us no option but to specialize." It makes it seem so one-sided. Us against the job market. But if everybody didn't agree to specialize, what would happen to the job market? Is there something that inherently makes the job market trump all our individual wishes? I mean, I could understand it if just one person wanted to give expression to the multitude of possibilities within himself, but nobody else wanted that. But if all of us want the same thing, couldn't we do something about it? What is forcing us into jobs we don't actually want?

According to our sensible middle class British narrator, this was first explained by Adam Smith, who said that "the division of labor massively increases collective productivity." Remember this word: collective. I'll come back to it.

And then we move on to a discussion of Karl Marx. Make no mistake, our middle class British narrator actually knows something about Marx's writings, which the average American, whether a conservative, a liberal or even a libertarian does not. Most Americans I have met -- those who like Marxism and those who detest it -- assume that Marx was for redistribution and collectivization of the ownership of  the "means of production." They assume that he was preoccupied with inequality of wealth and that it was out of an egalitarian concern for meeting the material needs of the poor that he wanted socialism or communism -- or progressivism or whatever we are calling that -ism today, because the last -ism we used has fallen into disrepute. Wrong! Marx actually cared about the mind of the common laborer and was afraid he would die of boredom. He wanted to put an end to the forced drudgery of the constant repetitive actions in the factory. He cared about ordinary people's minds and souls, something no modern day socialist cares a fig for.

Now, here is where our sensible guide to Marx comes in with the most sensible twist of all. Marx was wrong! he tells us. But he wasn't wrong because redistribution of wealth violates the rights of the individual. He wasn't wrong because theft is bad. He was wrong because collectively we can produce more stuff  by all of us doing work that bores us out of our gourd. So it's all good!

"In suffering this way we are participating in a common human lot," the Sensible Narrator tells us. But the thing is, it is not a common human lot. In a free market, you can choose what you do. You can change your mind and choose again. And yes, you can even work at one job by day, and follow another career by night.

In my own life, I have been a lawyer, and a linguist, a novelist and an ape language researcher, a mother and an academician, a poet and a lyricist and a playwright. And that's not counting my hobbies of painting, taking pictures of butterflies and editing YouTube videos. My life is not boring at all. I do not do the exact same thing every day, and while some of the changes from one profession to another have been serial, many other things were done and continue to be done in tandem. There are such multitudes lurking in many of us, and they find external expression every day. I was almost tempted to say that there are such multitudes in everybody, but that would have been falling into the universalist trap that the Sensible Narrator has set.

The fact of the matter is that contrary to what we have always been told, not everybody wants the same thing. Not everybody is the same on the inside. You cannot just imagine yourself in another person's shoes and know instinctively how they must feel.  Not everybody wants to be free! Some people just want to be safe and loved and taken care of, while other people want to go on grand adventures. We are always going to be in trouble if we imagine that we can solve all the world's problems just by catering to our own desires on a global scale.

Karl Marx felt sorry for the average factory worker from the 19th century, because he tried to put himself into that person's shoes and realized that he would be bored silly! He had a kind heart, and he wanted to rescue the multitudes from boredom. But guess what? Not everybody is Karl Marx. Not everybody is bored by repetitive work. Some people are bored instead by reading multi-volume works on economics or how to build a utopia. Some people feel safe and comfortable doing the same job, day in, day out and repeating the same actions, provided they are paid well and given plenty of security.

Work does not have to be boring, nor is it boring for a great many people. Some people like to learn things by rote and keep repeating, and others like to think for themselves. There is room for both sorts on the planet, and for many other sub-types that I have not named.

There is a problem, though, if government interference forces all people to work day in, day out at secure jobs to pay for everybody's collective prosperity and security. And this is why some of my libertarian friends are running into a wall while talking to others, when they use the assumption that we are all the same at heart and all want the same things. The materialist argument in favor of capitalism only works on materialists. The romantic argument in favor of freedom of self-expression only works on romantics. And don't even get me started on how silly it is to mistake our sensible pro-status-quo friends for people who care about liberty and justice, just because they are anti-communist.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Representation without Taxation

"No taxation without representation!" was a slogan of the American Revolutionary war. Yes, they had slogans back then, too. And this slogan -- while catchy --  was not much more than a slogan. Like many other slogans, it did not directly translate into policy. In order to solve the disparity of representation of the Colonists as British subjects, they could have been given seats in the British Parliament. Then their representatives in the House of Commons might have voted on the Stamp Act along with the representatives of all their English speaking compatriots, and they could  have gotten great solace from the fact that even though the tax had not been repealed, they had had a "voice" in the matter.

James Macpherson argued that the Colonists should have asked for seats in the House of Commons

In  The Rights of Great Britain Asserted, published in 1776, James Macpherson, Colonial Secretary of British West Florida, called the rebellious Colonists' bluff:

Had the Americans, instead of flying to arms, submitted the same supposed grievance, in a peaceable and dutiful manner, to the Legislature, I can perceive no reason why their request should be refused. Had they, like the County and City of Chester, represented, that "for lack of Knights and Burgesses to represent them in the High Court of Parliament, they had been oftentimes TOUCHED and GRIEVED with Acts and Statutes made within the said Court, derogatory to their most ancient jurisdictions, liberties and privileges, and prejudicial to their quietness, rest and peace;" this Country would, I am persuaded, have no objection to their being represented in her Parliament... If they are not madly bent on independence, let them propose the conditions on which they wish to continue as subjects...

Let's face it: it was never about equal representation. The Colonists didn't want equality with their distant cousins. They had no desire to vote and get outvoted by their brethren abroad. They did not want to continue as subjects under any conditions. They wanted to be self-governing, They didn't want the British outside the American colonies to have any say in the matter.  The Colonists didn't want more representation. They wanted less taxation.  They wanted to be free.

Today, when we look back to that slogan of no taxation without representation, people often criticize the representational scheme that the American states first put into effect once they were free from the British. We are told that women and blacks could not vote -- and that there were poll taxes and even poor white men were kept from voting in some places, if they did not own property. And we are expected to consider our current uniform voting rights to be so much more enlightened than those propounded by the Founding Fathers and the legislatures of the several states, as each worked out its own suffrage laws. All the while we ignore the fact that the yoke of taxation that all of us suffer under is much heavier than ever the British Crown would dare to impose in 1776.

Why is that? Why are our taxes so much higher under "freedom" than they were as British subjects?

Just maybe it has something to do with who is allowed to vote about what today. When people who don't get taxed have equal representation with those who pay the tax in question, this rather skews the outcome of the vote in favor of higher taxation. That's why removing all the voters in Britain from the right to vote in America was a much more effective cure than giving Americans seats in the House of Commons.

This is also why a state such as New Jersey right after the revolution, in its own enlightened self interest, allowed everyone, blacks, women, or poor whites to vote, as long as they were free, not in debt, had a net worth of fifty pounds and had lived in the county for a year.

Today, people who have nothing are voting on representatives who have the power to tax people who have something. This happens at the Federal level with regard to income taxation, but it is not the only place where it happens. Even in a governmental unit as lowly as a county or a school district, people who own no property get to vote on the property taxes that are imposed on people with property. This ultimately hurts everybody, but the poor are encouraged to do this, because they are told it will hurt only "the rich". We have been taught to worry about the rights of the poor, but nobody seems to have spoken to us of how helpless any property owner is in a county where most people own nothing.

In Vacuum County, I touch obliquely on this issue.

He wasn't laughing any more. "At least it saved me
some money."
"Every hearing is at taxpayer expense. And I pay
eighty percent of the taxes in this county."
I thought about that. "And yet you only get one vote."
He smiled. "It hardly seems fair, does it?" (paqe 334, Vacuum County.)

In school districts where a large percentage of voters are living in subsidized housing, property taxes tend to go up. Sometimes homeowners are baffled by it, not understanding whether their neighbors are so rich that they can afford the extra taxes that they themselves cannot or whether all the other voters are just plain stupid enough to vote for every proposed tax hike. The answer is much simpler. The voters who support the tax hikes are neither rich nor stupid: they simply have nothing at stake. They are not property owners, and we are no longer allowed to keep people who don't own property from voting on property taxes.

The slogan the colonists used was not exactly what they were fighting for. It was not "no taxation without representation" as James Macpherson so ably noted. But maybe what they meant to say is "no representation without something at stake." If you are not going to be subject to a tax, you should not get to vote on it.