Monday, March 25, 2013

Beyond the bubble: Arguing and agreeing with Mark Steyn's "After America."

The term 'bubble' refers to the tendency to take in only those materials that agree with one's world view, an increasing danger if one lets the Internet select what one sees.

I believe civilization can only survive if people of differing views are able to have intelligent and respectful conversations. That includes granting your opponent a point, without feeling you have to buy his entire narrative. Think of the ethics of a sports match rather than a battle in war.

More on this here.

Most people's lives are a mixture of conditions we have little control over, like the time/place we are born in, and factors for which we are responsible. We might say so-called progressives stress the former and so-called conservatives the latter. That is a simplification. Reflections on the absurdity of the labels another time. Anyway, pay attention to both to get the whole picture. Do not discard someone's observations of what is happening because you disagree with his conclusions about why it is happening. This happens much too often.

I just read "After America" by Mark Steyn. Steyn is a sharp and funny writer. He gets full credit for being readable. The book had me alternate between laughing out loud, nodding in agreement, and  wanting to bang my head against the wall in frustration, wondering how someone so intelligent can miss such basic factors.

Overall, I frequently appreciate his observations of what is happening, but disagree about why it is happening and what should be done about it.

What follows is the talk in my head with Mark Steyn. 

Gist of the book: America is about to lose its position as the world's super power, and the world will be a worse place for it. Americans are becoming like the feeble, androgynous Eloy from H.G. Wells' Time Machine. Blame goes to greedy unions, government regulations, and a PC mentality that stifles innovation. 

Steyn claims redistribution of wealth went from the productive class to the regulatory class, with nary a word about the disastrous accumulation of wealth at the very top of society. The top 1% does not consist of civil servants.

Is the civil service bloated? Possibly. Anyone who doubts its power should watch some episodes of  "Yes, Minister." On the other hand, a sound civil service with expertise that carries on through the fickleness of political change is a prerequisite of a civil society. The question is how to create a dynamic process of checks and balances. 

Do we have too much regulation in some areas, like 'certified' everything?". Yes, agreed. Valid point: in the 50's one in 20 members of the workforce needed the OK of government, now it is one in 3. Do we really need certified yoga instructors? Professional associations bear some blame here. 

However, Steyn completely ignores the role that transnational corporations play in creating the very regulations and distortions of the free market that he so despises. Not a word about the famous revolving door between corporations and the agencies that are supposed to regulate them. He rants against "Obamacare", which may indeed prove to be unsustainable. But he does not mention the role the health insurance industry played in shaping the bill.

Steyn has a touching faith in the liberating powers of capitalism. The capitalistic society supposedly allows people of talent who work hard to rise to the top. That may have been true for a brief golden period in the recent past, but how has it been working lately? Ask any young person who has gone into debt to get an education and finds herself lucky to get a job at Starbucks. 

True Free Enterprise is a myth. The reality is that elite groups have always managed to tilt the playing field in their favour, and governments have always played some role, for better or worse. The promise of Justice for All is increasingly a joke. The process is so expensive that those with deep pockets can get their way simply by threatening a law suit. Ask any farmer whose canola got contaminated by Monsanto's pollen blowing his way. Then there is the absurdity of the debt-based financial system, but we'll save that for another time.

Mark's narrative, somewhat simplified, sees America  as the successor of the British Empire, and both as a force for good in the world. There is some truth here. The empire did leave worthwhile infrastructure behind, both physical assets like roads and railroads and institutions. The world owes the Anglo-Saxon tradition for many worthwhile ideas. It is rather refreshing to see that acknowledged. But Steyn ignores the darker side of Empire. He makes one wonder why Gandhi was making such a fuss. 

His depiction of  America as the under-appreciated, well-intentioned  police of the world, selflessly defending democracy everywhere, is just plain propaganda. Granted: Western Europe had the luxury of creating its welfare states because the USA carried the burden of defense. However, democratically chosen governments elsewhere were frequently overthrown for the benefit of USA corporations. How would the world today be different if Mossadegh had been allowed to continue in Iran? Would Guatemala be a better place if the democratically elected Arbenz Guzman had been allowed to continue land reform?

Agreed with Mr. Stein: 
Welfare, generation after generation, destroys people. Too much "help" zaps personal initiative and undermines the family because we don't have to rely on each other anymore. 
I share his distrust of the psychology-industrial complex. 
Agreed: Education has become dysfunctional. Too much self esteem babble. 
Agreed: the administration of poverty can become a non-productive industry employing well-paid professionals who just maintain the status quo. For  thought-provoking essays on this topic I highly recommend the writings of Theodore Dalrymple, alias of British psychiatrist Anthony Daniels. The essays bundled in "Life at the Bottom" can be found for free online. Google yielded this list. 

The question is where to draw the line. Mr. Steyn depicts the past as an idyllic time when men were men, women knew their place, and the family was a tough self-reliant system. Children of immigrants joined the middle class thanks to the parents sacrifice. He says nothing about the conditions that drive people to welfare in the first place. Camden, New Jersey, has become hell on earth, but it is corporations that moved the jobs out of town and destroyed the manufacturing base. 

Should the social safety net be reformed in some way? Please, yes. I strongly believe that people depending on the public purse should be asked to contribute to the public good in some way. We'll kick ideas around another time. But anyone wanting to dismantle the safety net should read The Grapes of Wrath, some Dickens, or remember that the plot of Les Misérables starts with a man stealing a loaf of bread to feed the children of his desperate sister. Most of us really don't want to go back there.

Valid points: The demographic time bomb. Yes, indeed, we need to start talking about how to manage the aging of the Baby Boom. If General Motors has 96.000 employees but has to pay health costs for a million, something has to give. But are the Unions truly the only party to blame? By the way Mr. Stein, might General Motors be better off with a National Health Care system? Oops, I forgot, that's creeping socialism. 

Speaking of demographics: one important point is that China is dangerous precisely because of its weakness. Chinese leaders are well aware of the impending squeeze caused by the One Child policy, they will want to achieve more power before they hit the demographic cliff. And who is having the children? People in dangerous places, that's who, and in particular people of the Islamic persuasion. 

This is where it gets really interesting. While I frequently find myself exasperated by Steyn, I heartily applaud his attempt to break through the taboos of PC language and start a much needed conversation. We need to stop hurling epithets around that have the effect of immediately causing the opponent to backtrack for fear of carrying the shame of being any kind of -ist or -phobe. 

I have decided that I am a proud Islamophobe. This is an equal opportunity fear. It has nothing to do with worry about people of different colour or culture, and everything with fear of theocracy in general. 

Seriously, I agree we need to start brainstorming about how to manage this growing threat, but encouraging larger American families is not a solution.

The most blatant omission in the entire tome is the complete disregard for the limits posed by the carrying capacity of the planet. This is where I bang my head against the wall. We can disagree about the details, but sooner or later we reach limits. An economic system based on endless growth is at odds with the basic laws of Nature.  In the long run, She tends to win.


Jacqui Binford-Bell said...

Nothing a pandemic of Asian flu will not cure.

I do think there is a huge difference from what airs on media as America and what is America. Yes we look over regulated but the GOP has gutted every single regulation. There is realistically no EPA, FTA, FAA, FCC or FDA. GW gutted the staffing and then law makers did loops in regulations that are impossible to enforce so it isn't done.

I would all disagree with your opening thing about the limitations of the internet for information. Keep in mind that none of our television stations is supported by the government. They are all supported by companies that want to sell us drugs. I stopped watching ABC news because I had the Viagra ad memorized.

No American media will air anything which upsets one of their sponsors. So we have to go to the internet or on like to the BBC to get the truth. And it seems to me since 9/11 the goal of even the BBC is to keep us scared.

The Islamic state does not scare me. The Baptists do. I am scared to death of fundamental Christians. They will soon be burning witches at the stake here.

There are no equal rights for women, we are not a democracy, and Obama care was modeled after the Canadian system of health care.

And the colbalt dog and the hydrogen cat side by side in Korea's armory sat.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this and really agree with this part of your well written piece:
"This is where it gets really interesting. While I frequently find myself exasperated by Steyn, I heartily applaud his attempt to break through the taboos of PC language and start a much needed conversation. We need to stop hurling epithets around that have the effect of immediately causing the opponent to backtrack for fear of carrying the shame of being any kind of -ist or -phobe.".

I myself am a Fundamentalist/ExstremistAnyReligionophobe.

I also really enjoyed Jacquie Binford-Bell's response.


Ien in the Kootenays said...

@Jacui: Thanks for reading the whole thing. I was referring to the internet as feedback loop. Google will feed you things based on past preferences. As for the regulations: in the USA as here, the regulations that guard the commons from the large corporate predators have been gutted, agreed. But meanwhile many rules strangle small free enterprise. I am scared by both Baptists and Islamists. Was your last sentence facetious? Obama care was NOT modeled after the Canadian system. Ours is non profit.

Jacqui Binford-Bell said...

Len, it will ultimately be non-profit. It is a several step process if the Republicans do not get it repealed. And one of the reasons they have brought it up to vote more than 45 times is because of the Insurance company lobby.

Last line is from Space Aged Mother Goose. And it is very scary to have Korea playing with nuclear power.

troutbirder said...

What a thoughtful post. And very well written. Thank you.....:)
A few years ago we spent a week on VanCouver Island at a B&B. There we had breakfast with a Canadian couple from Quebec. We learned a lot about the Canadian health care system from their own experiences and were very impressed.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

@Jacqui: I hope you are right, but as far as I understand Obamacare, it forces people to buy insurance from existing for-profit companies. Korea IS scary. How do reasonable peopleengage the crazy? @Troutbirder:Nice to hear you got the right impression of our beloved Medicare. The combination of cancer and car accident last summer would have wiped us out if we had been in the USA!