Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

That Which Cannot Continue

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From time to time, I mention the idea of a day of reckoning for the United States. What would prompt it? How do I know? When will it happen?

The Cause

The cause of the reckoning will be inability to pay for all the entitlements. We have been voting ourselves rich for almost 85 years now. As we have moved through time and got away with it, we have become bolder. Like most other civilizations that were prosperous in their day, we have convinced ourselves that we are too cool, too rich and too slick to be constrained by the same reality that applies to others.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
— Rudyard Kipling, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919)

I didn’t originate this idea myself. Not only do I have a degree in economics, but I have been reading the thoughts of others for decades. Howard Ruff was forecasting a day of reckoning before I graduated high school. He wrote books like How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years. But the Coming Bad Years never came. So what happened?

What happened was an active defense. Washington is full of people whose job, really, is to postpone the day of reckoning, whether or not they accept the idea that one is coming. People in Treasury looked at the same data that Howard Ruff was looking at. They also saw that we were jeopardizing the health of the economy by financing entitlements through inflation. So, during the Eighties, they switched to financing entitlements through debt.

Economists have forecast twelve of the past seven recessions.
— Old economics joke

However, continued experience in getting away with it just emboldens people. They start reaching farther and grasping for more. As the decades have passed, politicians have promised more goodies to more people.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
— Kipling, loc. cit.

How I Know

In the face of almost nine decades of experience, not to mention contrary assertions from Nobel laureate economists, how can I maintain that a day of reckoning is coming?

Moral Principles of Reality

I work in software engineering. The computer really doesn’t care how much pressure you are under or how badly you want the application to work. If you haven’t written the application properly, it has a defect. You can ignore the defect. You can claim it’s not a bug, but a feature. You can polish the turd: tell everyone who will listen why they should really want the behavior that they’re experiencing. At the end of the day, however, you have a defect, whether you recognize it or whistle past it.

Software does not respond to enthusiasm.
— William L. Livingston, Have Fun at Work (1988)

Economics, like other social sciences, has physics envy; practitioners seek quantitative support for their pronouncements, substituting precision for accuracy when necessary. Any serious normative discussion in economics — what should be, as opposed to what is — relies on assertions from below, from ethics.

A tree falling in the forest really does make a sound, whether or not anyone is there to hear it. Ideas and actions have consequences, whether or not anyone wants to acknowledge them. This is the moral aspect of reality. You can refuse to believe that you are walking off a cliff: on the way down, you can be proud of having given your life for your beliefs. Then — splat!

How Decline Works

I have seen a number of organizations decline and collapse over my lifetime. From my study of history, I have learned about many more. There is a pattern to decline.

How decline works.

How decline works.

The declining organization can marshal its resources to mask the extend of decline for some time. Most people want to believe that all is well, and seize upon favorable evidence provided by outward appearances, while ignoring or excusing the occasional crack in the wall. By the time intractable problems become really noticeable, the rot has become quite advanced.

At a national scale, the machinery to produce happy tunes is massive. It really has to be, since we have fiat money: if the leadership caused the people to lose confidence in the currency, it would in fact become worthless.

The Humanitarian Impulse

We have experienced a 250-year-long explosion in rampant humanitarianism. What’s wrong with that? Well, that depends on how humanitarianism is understood. By most people, it is understood poorly.

Irving Babbitt make a valiant attempt to distinguish between humanism and humanitarianism:

The humanist, then, as opposed to the humanitarian, is interest in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole; and although he allows largely for sympathy, he insists that it be disciplined and tempered by judgement.
— Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (1908), p. 8

Babbitt found that the sentimental humanitarian was ready to deny the inner conflict between good and evil in each individual, launching into the expansive pursuit of utopian ideals.

With the progress of the new morality every one has become familiar with the type of the perfect idealist who is ready to pass laws for the regulation of everybody and everything except himself, and who knows how to envelop in a mist of radiant words schemes the true driving power of which is the desire to confiscate property.
— Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), p. 156.

Possessed of the moral force of an observed problem, such as poverty, and the expansive desire to make everyone else make his priority theirs also, whether they want to or not, the sentimental humanitarian seeks to wield the police power of the state to compel others to do what he deems to be good.

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all, 
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul; 
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy, 
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.” 
— Kipling, loc. cit.

Thus we have people who are now saying that a citizen has the right to health care. It’s understandable that they should say this, and understandable that people should want this. Health care has the potential to be ruinously expensive, and no one wants to watch a loved one die. However, how is this to be provided? Health care is a wealth-producing activity. Whom do we enslave to produce the wealth to pay for health care as a right? Apparently, the answer is: Everyone, a little bit. We can afford it, right?

Actually, no. Health care is about the worst thing you can make a right of, because the demand for health care is effectively insatiable. If we can get everyone to live to eighty, why not press on to ninety? Where are we prepared to stop? It is undiscussable.

When Will It End?

Events of this year have made it more clear to me than before that this people, firmly in the grip of sentimental humanitarianism, will heed no warning. Thus it has ever been:

When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
— 1 Samuel 8:18

The people who run the country will continue to strive to keep the vote-buying engine running. It is their responsibility to do so, and they certainly do not want to have the collapse on their watch. They will continue to seek ways to postpone the consequences, preferably until they are dead and gone.

If I could identify the event that must trigger the day of reckoning, it would be the job of someone in Washington to make sure that triggering event does not occur. This active defense will continue until someone miscalculates or a series of unforeseen events box the government into a corner. There are really bright people in Washington, so the latter is more likely. In chess, it’s called zugzwang (move-compulsion); you must do something, but anything you do is profoundly disadvantageous. It’s how World War I started, among other disasters.

We are already getting a taste of how unpleasant this can be. We haven’t got to the difficult part yet. I wish I had a less unpleasant report to make, but I don’t see the country having the will to take the necessary measures until reality reveals the consequences so forcefully that only the truest of believers can ignore them.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. 
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, 
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins, 
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, 
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
— Kipling, loc. cit.


Written by srojak

May 8, 2016 at 1:17 pm

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