Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ulp Update

Reasons to worry:

About one out of three Americans is the target of a debt collector, the Daily Caller reports. Ulp.

The real unemployment rate is at least 18 percent.

The typical American family is one-third poorer than it was a decade earlier.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Who's to Blame? The Superman? Or Everyman?

Who's really to blame for our current imbroglio?

The Superman, the Overman, whom all long to me?

The Everyman, who dominates our politics?

Or President Kardashian, who goes from event to event, while actually doing nothing?

Is the fault, to go back to that famous line, not in our stars -- even the stars, the celebrities,  who inhabit the White House and the rest of Washington, but in ourselves?

The world is in chaos, as even liberal apologists admit. The foreign policy of the United States in the past may not have been right, but it seldom if ever has been so feckless and incoherent.

Meanwhile, one of the basic principles of nationhood has been undermined and may be eradicated.

Plus, the economy is still sputtering despite the desperate avowals of the chattering classes, Putin creeps up on Europe, the Mideast is in flames, terrorism revives all over, China struts in Asia. Underlying all of it is national debt that will -- repeat -- will blow up on us unless we tackle it soon.

Yet President Obama continues his rounds of golfing and fundraising. He doesn't even bother to feign emotion. He has checked out.

But is he any different from the Everyman of our Modern Age? Or the American in the Age of Obama?

For in the modern human being has checked out.

Look around. The defining issue of our age is the void in our emotional life. Look at our popular culture, for instance. There is overall an emotional deadness to it all.

That is why movies and TV and music have to hammer at us with the bluntest and heaviest appeals to our emotion. It is like this: they say our taste buds deteriorate as we grow older, which is why us old folks have to so liberally put salt and ketchup and salsa and whatever to be able to give us any state. So our popular culture must continually ratchet up the blood, sex, noise. The culture machine (and in high culture too) no longer is able or even willing to rouse real emotion, so it must as with any drug supply higher and higher doses of substitutes: horror, shock, arousal, confusion.

Compare almost any movie of today with movies of even ten or twenty years  or seventy ago. This is not about quality per se, though of course no really good movie fails to stir emotion. Even a bad movie of the past at least purveyed some emotion -- perhaps in a tired or insincere form, but a feeling nevertheless. Today's movies can can fabricate images of giant monsters or armies of intelligent chimps; they can make us gasp or turn away in disgust and horror, or simply reel from having our eardrums and eyeballs assaulted. Yet they seldom if ever touch us with feelings of warmth, sadness, joy, pity, terror, love.

The same goes for politics and all social life. We are dead to all feeling, even interest. Sure, blowing up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon roused us for a bit, as did a war in Iraq. But we quickly sank back into an apathetic doze.

I submit that is just one symptom of a civilization that no longer feels. But why?

Nietzsche, as in so much else, foresaw it; or maybe wanted it before the rest of Western Civ did. He told of the ubermensch -- the overman or superman. This man would transcend the old, weak, slavish Christian values, the values of the slave. And yet to those of us who followed, including myself, the superman would leave behind all values, he would truly go beyond good and evil.

Modern man, as first clearly manifested in Nietzsche, felt himself to be godlike in his powers over reality; man was conquering smallpox and the plague and dysentery and even syphilis -- though perhaps too late with the latter to save the philosopher. He of course, like so many of the 19th century, still believed in values; he still lived off the trust fund of the Judeo-Christian civilization, which he despised but which continued to cut him checks of order, rationality, beauty, and, in his time, peace. (Lewis Latham was, if memory served, one of the writers who pointed out how we were living off the wealth of our civilization, and not just materially.)

But those of who followed were generations removed from it; and the trenches of Verdun and the Somme, the skulls and survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau, the boredom of life in a smug corporate world, all of the 20th century tended to wring out of us any remaining sense that these values were real things. We were closer to Sartre, living in a time of cultural exhaustion and ennui, of bad faith, with the bitter knowledge of how we had failed.

We thought values were imaginary. We believed there there was no good in substance of the cosmos; there was no such thing as justice and beauty and truth in the DNA of reality. As we could dial up or down the temperature in our split-level houses and West Side co-op apartments, so we adjust reality in the wider world. We thought we could at least dream up new values, which might serve, if we

So it turns out that rather than transcending old values to find new ones, we transcended values altogether. We no longer believe in right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust. But it turns out that we no longer care about much of anything. It turns out we can't do much to establish values if we don't believe values exist; we can't be much good at hunting unicorns, no many benefits unicorns could bestow on us. We no longer feel much either; it turns out that, surprise, human beings can't give a hoot about things they are told are just imaginary and probably even unhealthy, such as morality.

The philosopher might have a moment of bitter amusement to see his superman stride on the scene, and transcend all values, and become a man not a man of superior action and self, but one drained of all. A hollow man, as T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis saw. We seem him and her everywhere. They drift through life, but nothing touches them.

That would at least explain a troubling phenomenon: the apathy of the body politic. A government suborns the tax collection agency, with its frightening power; it allows weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels; it does nothing after American diplomats are murdered; it stands by as allies are overrun; it seems willing to in effect dissolve our southern border. Meanwhile, financial Armageddon looms. Yet American voters are, by and large, unmoved.

I'd suggest that means almost anything will leave them unmoved. As modern men and women, they are poorly equipped to get worked up about danger of the debt or the world or the border.

So don't blame Obama. He is just the typical American of our age -- an age when we all conceive of ourselves as Supermen, invulnerable and omnipotent. Conservatives would hate that, for they want him to be some evil genius; liberals of course want him to be the Superintellectual of their dreams. But he is actually just Everyman, albeit one with a good tailor and a talent for reading a Teleprompter.

As other ages were the ages of Jackson, say, or Lincoln, we live in the Age of Obama. We too are golfing while the world burns. We cannot rouse ourselves to care. Jefferson said something about a democracy being a political order in which the people get the government they deserve -- and, as Mencken famously said (HT Instapundit) they get it good and hard.

But it is also the political system in which the people get the government they are. We look at the presidents after Jackson and through Buchanan and wonder why the people chose men who are mostly ciphers who did little about the obvious crisis looming: slavery. But the people chose them because, in the sum of their wisdom, they didn't want to face the crisis, much less do something about it.

So it is Obama who really is Everyman. Look at him: raised in a fragmented family, mentored by radicals, told by everyone he is No. 1 till his self-esteem at least is superhuman, given a patina of education,  escorted from one fake job to the next, rising all the way, applauded all the while. He is us, like it or not.

At the same time, he plainly likes being a celebrity, in the sense of needing to do nothing but be famous. He is our Kardashian president, but of course it's no longer just a material world, for it is that, but it is a Kardashian world, where merely attaining fame means you will continue to be famous, until you bore the public, that is. For today Everyman demands that celebrities being just ordinary people. Aside from their talent for celebrity, the Kardashians would have trouble holding down jobs at a hamburger stand; so it goes for our other celebrities, from Hollywood to Washington.

So we plainly should not worry so much about Obama. We should worry about the rest of us, and why we cannot stir ourselves enough to protect the world we inherited.

Of course, fantasy can only take you so far. Reality will intrude. We will feel again -- unfortunately, I suspect our emotions will return, at first, in the forms of pain and suffering and regret and horror and rage and terror.

Monday, July 21, 2014

You Can't Be Recovered If You still Have an IV

On the American economy:

I was in the hospital a few years ago. I was "recovering" from an operation. That is technically true. But while I was in the hospital, hooked up to an IV, wearing a hospital gown, confined to bed, supervised by nurses, it would be a bad mistake to think I had "recovered." I was a lot closer to being incapacitated than being "healthy." Even after I got out of the hospital, it was some weeks before I was even marginally well, months till I was healthy.

And then it took me a lot of work and exercise to become fit and active again.

We are misled by the word "recovery," and of course the propagandists wish it that way. Our economy is a lot closer to the operating room than anything else. As long as the Fed keeps that IV drip of low interest rates going, as long as the economists and government are hovering over the economy, consider it to be in the hospital.

Which means closer to a relapse than health.

And when and if it gets out of the hospital, then the real work begins.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Why We Are a Nation of Cowards

Eric Holder stands by his "nation of cowards" speech.

Why shouldn't he?

We're too afraid of being called racist to throw Holder out of office, though he has undercut the rule of law, from failing to investigate intimidation of voters, to the Fast and Furious scandal, and on to the present day.

We're too cowardly to force his boss to do his job. At the very best Barack Obama is a feckless, spineless incompetent. How bad is he? As bad as Jimmy Carter? Worse. Obama is veering toward James Buchanan territory, as he dithers and blustered while our borders are under assault, our allies are being attacked, and as our economy stumbles along, even as the IRS and NSA accumulate ominous levels of power and unaccountability.

We're too cowardly to insist that our government, on all levels, perform one of the most basic functions of government: protecting the nation's border.

We're too cowardly to risk even the slightest restraint on government largess, because we're afraid we'll lose our own seat on the gravy train, and because -- despite all the propaganda about how the economy is bouncing back -- we're terrified of what an honest economy would be like.

We're afraid of standing up for the values that have been the foundation of our civilization for millennia.

We're too afraid to stand up and point out that John Kerry slandered and smeared his fellow soldiers for political gain, and is in addition a pompous fool with no evident ability or accomplishment.

We're too afraid to stand up and say that all of us have to cut back, because we are afraid of losing anything, and everything.

We're afraid to face up the real enemies we have, and admit they pose real dangers. We are too cowardly to admit even to ourselves that lying ahead of us are long years of sacrifice and suffering.

We're afraid to take a real look at our nation's finances, for fear they will show how phony much of our prosperity is, and of how much hard work and sacrifice lies ahead of us.

We're afraid to admit how lazy we have become. We're terrified, perhaps most of all, of facing how empty our lives and our civilization have become.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why the Nation-State is Failing. And Why It Must Not Fail.

1. The modernist mindset has stripped the state of all those values that once promoted the cohesion and power of the state. Of course, as Hemingway famously wrote, after World War I,

“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

The secularist, hedonistic continued to corrode those values, and other key values for the functioning of a large state: loyalty, patriotism, the American Way of Life, democracy, the national heritage, the . Even I get ironic about all that.

After World War I, the nation-state was tarnished. The values had been misused; it might even be said that we would be better off without patriotism and nationalism.

But if patriotism is bad, then why have une patrie? If nationalism is bad, why have a nation?

2. It is becoming more evident the nation-state can't deliver the goods. Consider just one example in my home state: dysfunction in Medicaid in North Carolina. The linked news article is another hit piece on the Republican administration. Even the paper admits the problems were rife under Democrats.

The problem, however, is that Medicaid is inherently dysfunctional. It never can and never will function effectively and economically. Under the Medicaid model, a centralized, bureaucratic state never can get enough information about health care of hundreds of thousands of people administered by thousands of doctors and other professionals. Nor can it provide the incentives to make this work.

(I leave to another day the question of whether there can be a "conservative" government solution, with the government setting up some health framework that would provide the right incentives and framework to safeguard the health of the populace.)

That's the problem of the modern state in microcosm. It can't do all the things it claims it can and should do. But having abandoned loyalty and tradition, the modern state has nothing else to bind people to it except the services it provides -- and it can't provide them.

3. People won't die for services and benefits. No one would have suffered at Valley Forge for their welfare check; no one would have landed on Normandy or Guadalcanal for their health insurance.

But in the end that is an essential element of a state: to paraphrase Orwell, the state can provide comfort and safety to its citizens because some crude, hard men are willing to fight and die for that nation.

4. And of course the can't pay for any of it, neither the aircraft carriers nor the Medicare payments. Oh, the Fed is imagining money right now, and banks and such are pretending it's money, but when they all grow tired of that, we're in trouble.

And of course though I refer explicitly to the United States, the same applies to most other nations.

Yet ... We need the nation-state. More than ever.

1. It does create a framework for transmitting and magnifying values. "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." would be forgotten if it were merely some philosopher's musing. Valley Forge and Yorktown made it one of the most important sentences in the history of the world.

We take this for granted. Even conservatives have to stifle yawns at the mention of patriotism, the Declaration of Independence, Lexington and Concord, the Fourth of July, and all the rest.

Those of a libertarian event scorn the nation-state. They genuinely fear its powers, so they mock its ambitions.

But individualists and libertarians overestimate what someone -- Chesterton, maybe -- called the individual's personal stock of virtues and strengths, and tend to denigrate a nation's storehouse of excellence.

It is one thing for an individual to long for freedom. It is a far greater thing for a nation to found itself on a creed of ordered freedom. It is greater yet to march barefoot through the snow, leaving bloody footprints, to attack Trenton. Or to hold Cemetery Ridge as Pickett's men come hollering up the slope at you. Or pilot your obsolescent torpedo planes at Japanese carriers at Midway, probably knowing you won't survive, and going to your death without knowing that your hopeless attack drew the Zeros out of the sky and left the carriers open to an attack of dive bombers that came out of nowhere to change the course of the war in the Pacific.

A nation can magnify and propagate a people's values and virtues.

It's also one thing for Thoreau to daydream about living life unencumbered by other people or history. It is another for a whole nation to forge, out of a brutal civil war, a true new birth of freedom.

Yes, I'm painfully aware of the shortcomings of that nation and all others. Would we give up the nation's accomplishments and glories, if we could avert its crimes and failures?

I don't forget that the nation-state also magnifies bad values.

2. Other nation-states pose threats that only can be countered by a strong nation-state.

Since there is evil in the world, we had better have a nation-state that can be good.

Just the latest is the caliphate, also called the Islamic State. The pundits are mocking it. But it is an ominous event. Kim Jong Un wouldn't be a threat -- except he runs a nation, and though it is on the verge of starvation, it has atomic bombs.

Do not underestimate the power of an evil state.

I'd even suggest that the growth of the United States, from the view of Providence, has nothing with a car in every garage, but with creating a vehicle for defeating fascism and communism.

Maybe that's the real story of America in the 21st century: having performed our historical function, we ought to pass from the scene, and let our successor fight the evils of our time.

I rather suspect, however, that we have other jobs in front of us, and maybe sooner than anybody thought.

In either case, the nation-state is confronting a crisis -- just as the power of the nation-state is needed more than ever.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What Today's Hobby Lobby Fight Is Really All About

What if the United States has already ceased to exist, and we're only slowly finding that out?

"He's just not the same guy," we say of someone as he ages, and it's true. A nation can go along, looking like it always has, but suddenly it isn't what it was.

That's what it looks like on July 1, 2014.

Rights made absolute.

The clamor over the Hobby Lobby decision reveals a dangerous rigidity. When bones become too brittle, they snap. When the political process becomes brittle, it snaps.

Let us leave aside for now the legal and religious questions. Note the frenzy stirred up by the slightest infringement of a "right" that didn't exist a couple of years ago: The right to force an employer to pay for a particular medical benefit.

Note that it isn't about the money, which is actually scarier. This is about a trivial amount of money that would be paid by a tiny segment of the population, or more likely none at all, as (HT to Rush Limbaugh) in most or all cases employers do or would cover most forms of birth control.

That is scary. This is not about the Benjamins. It is about rights. Once government imagines and crates a "right," the battle about that right becomes about self, about right and wrong. There can be no compromise, as there can be with money.

Americans, especially, even on the left, imagine themselves to be self-reliant and independent. They are also proud. If they maintain a tinge of religion, it is of the variety in which the just are honored and rewarded in this life. If they have no fate, they cannot accept that what happens to them is mere chance or luck; as much as the early Puritans, they believe their own good luck is due to their merits; the difference is that today's American agnostics blame some other group of people for any misfortunes. Americans cannot accept that something the government doles out is, well, at best a gift or an unmerited act of charity and generosity, or just dumb luck or chance,  even an egalitarian divvying-up of the booty, as one unsightly but not uncommon aspect of life in a democracy.

No, we believe everything we get is a right, thus taking it from us is a wrong. If you think I am selling people short, I advise watching homo sapiens some time. Or the evening news.

Let's recap: the Left is going off the deep end because a newly fabricated "right" has had the slightest of limitations put on it.

So what happens when the day comes that Social Security, Medicare, medicaid, farm subsidies, veterans care, defense spending must be cut?

All hell breaks loose. In some ways we are more ill-prepared than the Europeans. At least they understand it's the boodle they are paid to remain dutiful peasants. Some nations, such as Sweden, have even cut back on government. But Americans won't. It's not only the money. As proud individualists, we cannot psychologically accept that government handouts are just that. No, we tell ourselves these are our rights; we deserve them. Any attempt to take them is not a prudent trimming of government largess in a change world, but an evil plot to rob us of the sacred things we earn and we deserve.

Moreover, both the political left and right have promiscuously added more and more rights: When they haven't been handing out money, our politicians have been imagining new rights to buy us off with. Here too a cliff lurks: Where the promised rights, oversold, begin to falter, and where new rights collide with other rights, old and new, setting off new conflicts that cannot be resolves, because both sides are dug in in fortresses of rights.

Which means that when the inevitable downturn comes, there will be hell to pay. And there is little indication our leaders or our political system can handle it. Worse, there are many signs We the People won't be able to handle it.

Next (I hope): How a caliphate will change America

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Seven Threats to the Western Nation-State

Following N.N. Taleb, I am eschewing predictions. I will look at eight factors that raise warnings about the nation-state structure of the West that underlies the international order we take for granted.

1. The nation-states have too much to lose.

The West's wealth is assumed to a source of its power, but it also a weakness.

NATO can bluster about the Crimea and Ukraine. But German businesses and French shipyards cannot  bear to risk losing their customers. Russia has less to lose, so Putin can call their bluffs. Ditto also for the United States.

Al-Qaida and ISIS have nothing to lose. They're a bunch of hoodlums with "Born to Lose" tattooed on their souls. That makes them dangerous.

2. The West has a surfeit of social workers, a shortage of people able to endure hardship while willing to kill other people.

Check out Victor Davis Hanson's "The Savior Generals." He notes how in Sherman's army, those Midwestern farmboys were able to slog on day after day, living off the land, tearing things up and building other things, and going on. An underappreciated quality: the ability to deal with hardship and suffering, without letting it distract you.

3. Too many dependent on it; dependent, they cannot serve it.

The number of Americans on disability has soared past 11 million for the first time. More than 100 million Americans are not working.

First, they are not producing. Jean-Baptiste Say had it right: productivity was the most important thing, and modern western societies have too few people producing anything.

That's a weakness. But also, by definition, the dependent cannot serve a society; they can only be served by it.

4. The modern corporate state has been left in the dust by technology. Once the big government agencies could by sheer size dominate business. But now government cannot keep up with business.

Nor can government keep up with anti-government entrepreneurs. All the NSA couldn't keep Edward Snowden from exposing its secrets; the Pentagon lagged behind primitive terrorists in finding new weapons.

5.  Bureaucratic atherosclerosis. The republic is now dominated by the government union/insider/corporate complex. This contributes to the deterioration of production while increase the dependency of the populace, thus the rigidity and weakness of society.

Meanwhile, the Peter Principle wreaks havoc. No failures are weeded out, or at least sent off to a more productive life. The economy and society are infected with incompetence.

6. The nation state no longer inspires loyalty. Read about the fighting in World I, or the American Civil War. It's hard to imagine people fighting like that.

People like the perks of living in a welfare state. But it doesn't inspire people; as so often, in the human species, gratitude engenders not respect and admiration but a sort of contempt.

A good thing, you say? On one level. But on another ...

7. We are confronted with a deadly and insidious challenge from jihadists, and not just in Syria and Iraq, but in the West itself, as in cases of genital mutilation in Sweden. Yet we as a society are now ill-suited to such intense conflict.

Conclusion: The modern West faces threats not only from outside -- from terrorists and rogue states -- but from its own weaknesses.