Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for April 2016

The Saturated Citizen

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How do We the People let this happen? Every presidential campaign appears worse than the last. The debates are largely content-free exercises in posturing. Very little time is spent on serious issues that are important to the future of the country.

Well, how would we change it? Most of us have lives. We have to earn a living and function. Let’s look at where the time goes.

We’ll start with eight hours of sleep a day. Some people need more, some less.

If you have a salaried job, your employer didn’t put you on salary to only get 40 hours a week from you, but to get more than that at a fixed price. Let’s say our citizen works 45 hours/week, plus an hour for lunch.

The average commute is around 22 minutes/day one way, so round up to one hour a day spent commuting.

Add in some time for daily preparation, other meals and tasks to operate the household. Here is the full picture:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Total
Sleep 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 56
Work 9 9 9 9 9 45
Lunch 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 7
Commute 1 1 1 1 1 5
Daily prep + breakfast 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 14
Dinner 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 7
Household 1 1 1 1 1 4 1 10
Sub Total 23 23 23 23 23 16 13 144
Total Available Hours 24 24 24 24 24 24 24 168
Discretionary Hours 1 1 1 1 1 8 11 24

I haven’t even considered kids in this model. Kids will blow this all to hell.

Discretionary hours are those not already committed, and include:

  • Having a marital relationship;
  • Worship;
  • Social activities;
  • Reinvestment in your career (you had better, if you want to be able to compete for jobs ten years from now);
  • Continuing education requirements for any professional certifications you may have;
  • Personal interests;
  • Volunteer work;
  • Citizenship;
  • Entertainment.

That leaves 24 hours a week, on a week in which nothing goes wrong that you have to manage the project of fixing. Five of those hours are on weekdays; they will be the first to be dissipated when you come home from work completely fried and can’t concentrate on anything. So our model citizen has 19 quality hours a week to allocate among all the competing claims.

Yes, there are optimizations you can do. You can eat your lunch at your desk and read, unless your co-workers consider you fair game for interruptions as long as they can find you. You can learn to read faster. You can work on getting by with less sleep. But there are many people who don’t have these options.

Let’s say you want to understand more about the 2008 financial crisis. You’ve heard about The Big Short by Michael Lewis, so you decide to read that. It’s about 290 pages long. If you’re typical, you can read 20-30 pages of a non-technical quality paperback an hour. Lewis is readable and accessible, so his writing won’t slow you down further. Still, you are looking at between ten and fifteen hours to read the book. If you have to spread that over multiple weekends, the amount of information you retain drops off. It’s worse if you have to spread the reading out over a couple months.

And once you’re done, what are you going to do with your newly acquired learning? Are you doing to hear the detailed plans of the presidential candidates for managing systemic risk in banking? Forget that noise. Are you going to hear financial policy issues discussed in accurate detail on cable TV news? Not likely.

Where are you going to get the information you can use now that you have this new processing apparatus? Do you have contacts in the Federal Reserve or the Treasury that can tell you what’s really going on? If not, what are you left with? I mean, besides a spouse who is mad at you for “blowing two days reading that stupid book.”

Or, how about taking some time to learn more about the Middle East. Where do you start? How do you tell the belligerents apart? How do you get oriented? Do you remember hearing anything in school about Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War or Black September? The people who live in the Middle East have deep, if biased, knowledge of these matters. Like Art Spiegelman, their fathers bleed history.

So if you’re an ordinary person having to earn your own way and solve your problems without a personal assistant or a graduate student, how do you manage this cyclone of data with its appallingly low signal/noise ratio? Under the circumstances, withdrawing or making surface judgments on perceptions are rational responses within the guidelines of the problem. Confronted with limited access to information, untrustworthy sources and limited time to invest in a situation over which you have little influence anyway, what other choices do you have?

It takes a lot to blast people out of this zone of indifference, and when it happens, the people to whom it happens are usually rather angry. If they weren’t angry, they would still be off living their lives and paying no attention to politics. Many of the people who have come out to Tea Party rallies never saw themselves as politically involved. They became politicized because they found the political situation of the country increasingly intolerable to them, until it tripped a switch and caused them to reallocate their discretionary time. Like any people who are newly politicized, sometimes they say questionable things. I’m sure that, if you dug up a recording of me in my twenties speaking, some of the things I said would make me wince uncomfortably.

Politicization is a process. People who are already in the political process have staying power, and they count on those who would challenge them losing interest. Anyone remember Occupy Wall Street?

Time is a scarce resource, just like money. People have to make economic decisions how to allocate their time. Look at their positions as economic agents and consider their alternatives.

Citizen involvement is a difficult problem. The Republic requires the consent of the governed, and does not work right if the governed do not understand what it is to which they are consenting. The solution is not clear, but it does not include blaming ordinary working people for failure to devote time they don’t have to digesting information that is not available to them to make a more informed choice among bad alternatives.

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Written by srojak

April 9, 2016 at 1:47 pm

No Gods before Me

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A religion does not require a supernatural being. All you need for a religion is a faith and a community of believers. People have built religions from economics (socialism), romantic folk nationalism and even science.

You shall have no other gods before me.
— Deut. 5:7 (NIV)

Any self-respecting monotheistic god is a jealous god, demanding that worship of him/her/it come before any other human purpose. Otherwise, the religion would offer no guidance and no meaning. It could offer no definitive ethical norms. There would be no reason for people to commit to it.

Few people are sufficiently willful and self-assertive to determine for themselves how they ought to live. Even among those who reject prevailing norms of the majority community, most seek to belong to some community of dissenters, which in turn has its own norms, rituals and punishments for apostates. The common communities of dissent found in America, such as at universities, pride themselves on critical thinking. If you think critically about what goes on in these dissent communities, however, don’t vocalize your conclusions, because they will not be well received.

Once the basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are met, people start thinking about meaning and justice. They start seeking answers that must be found outside of themselves. Most people can call into question tomorrow answers that they find inside themselves today. Thus, they must obtain from somewhere outside of themselves a source of moral authority that they are prepared to accept and submit to that authority. The increase in personal autonomy in the West over the past five hundred years has released most of us from the obligation to believe as our parents did, but there is no release from the obligation to believe in something.

Prior to the French Revolution, faiths other than those in supernatural beings had not been tried. Their supporters could point to a large catalog of abuses that believers in Christianity or Islam had perpetrated in the name of their respective faiths. By now, the believers of these alternative faiths have had their own opportunities to wield political power, and we can point to their sorry history of crimes committed in the name of The People.

Autonomy allows each individual to choose where to place her faith. History shows that there are inferior choices. The experience of the Social Gospel is one such cautionary tale. The Social Gospel visualized corporate redemption for the entire country by having the power of the government make everyone live according to the leaders’ vision of what is virtuous. Most Social Gospel leaders were not honest about the coercion that they advocated. However, if you want to make people live right, the Judeo-Christian God is a poor substitute for the modern nation state. God is not intrusive; although grace is always available to you, you have the choice of whether or not to take it. The state has police power to compel citizens to comply with the directives of its leaders. So earnest followers turned from God to the state, because the latter could deliver results.

Anyone who traces the subject historically will acquire the conviction … that the Christian religion founded something of which not even a Plato or an Aristotle had any adequate notion — personal liberty. By its separation of the things of God and the things of Caesar, it established a domain of free conscience, in which the individual might take refuge from the encroachments of the omnipotent state.
— Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (1924), p. 115.

Particularly after the experiences of the twentieth century, the Christian separation of the things of God from the things of Caesar is particularly appealing. As Babbitt illustrates in his writing, it is necessary and fundamental to any notion of a private individual space within the community. Compare:

The rights and the powers both of states and individuals must be competent to serve their purposes efficiently in an economical and coherent national organization, or else they must be superseded. A prejudice against centralization is as pernicious, provided centralization is necessary, as a prejudice in its favor. All rights under the law are functions in a democratic political organism and must be justified by their actual or presumable functional adequacy.
— Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (1909), Chapter IX.

Herbert Croly was a thought leader in Progressivism and a champion of the new faith in The People, through the means of the state. He means exactly what he says: the state is organic and has a will of its own, and rights that do not serve the state’s purposes must not stand. For Croly, there are no inalienable rights to which all men are endowed by their Creator. There is no private individual space here; Caesar is God.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
— First Amendment (1791)

The greatest threat to our liberty is the establishment of a religion requiring belief in the state as the diviner of truth and fount of wisdom, and we are already well on our way to such establishment. Advocates of this belief would argue that theirs is not a religion because there is no supreme being, but this is disingenuous. The worship of the state still has a priesthood, who alone can interpret what is in “the public interest.” It requires faith. It divides the people into the elect, who are in harmony with its purposes, and the damned, who put their own selfish interests first. The religion of the state identifies sin, delivers judgment and promises redemption. Its god is also a jealous god, who demands we worship no gods before it.

Written by srojak

April 2, 2016 at 1:27 pm