modern politics

If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re old, you have no brains.

This cleverly constructed insult is very hard to refute from personal knowledge: if you’re young, you only have half the knowledge required to speak from experience; if you’re old, disagreement is evidence of stupidity. There does actually seem to be some correlation between age and political philosophy, but fitting statistics over politics is an exercise in explaining music with numbers – it explains everything except what it actually feels like to hear a song, which is only everything that matters about music.

On the few occasions that I pay attention to politics, I feel like the crabby old man railing about what the kids are listening to these days – it sounds like so much noise, and each election seems to bring only a dismaying choice between two unpalatable options. I wish that elections weren’t about making the “least worst” choice. But I don’t pine for the days of big band music, bebop or classic rock – to the contrary, what bothers me is that no choice ever seems to offer anything that aligns with my sense of a modern world.

The essay “Why I left the GOP” is a journey from one pre-modern society to another. The author explains his privileged background, mainstream education and birthright belief in competition and free markets – but then war, Katrina, and actual contact with honest-to-goodness poor people opened his eyes. He had no choice but to flee the GOP for the liberal heart of the Democratic party. I’ve seen this article triumphantly distributed by my left-leaning friends, but it’s sad how his story is all about what he’s fleeing from – there’s nothing at all about what he’s fleeing to. I like everything about the article but its ending – it’s the story of a man who ran out of a burning building only to sprint blindly towards a cliff.

Most of my “intelligent” friends lean Democratic, in no small part because of the anti-intellectualism of today’s Republican party. The irony here is that the intelligent citizen recognizes that the conservative values of community, decency, humanity and individual strength require that we extend these benefits to everyone in our society. But there is stunning intellectual inconsistency in the failure to acknowledge the evidence of governmental incompetence in providing the most basic services. Is there anyone who would sing the praises of their most recent interaction with the DMV, IRS, Post Office, or community planning board? Is there any large governmental agency that provides the daily benefit of America’s largest corporations? Oh sure, you can rail against Exxon or Bank of America, but can you remember the last time you couldn’t put gas in your tank or find a working ATM? Who brought you more joy yesterday, the federal or state government, or Apple or Google or Amazon?

Rich people who don’t want want to pay taxes because they don’t want to help poor people are just being assholes. But rich people who don’t want to pay taxes because they have no faith that government can help poor people are just being rational, they are just responding to the daily evidence before their eyes. Why isn’t there a third party that can satisfy both the liberal heart and conservative brain? The largest third party in the U.S. is the Libertarian party, which has succeeded only in being more heartless than conservatives and more senseless than liberals. Can’t we do better than that?

I am waiting and hoping for the day when technology will transform politics. So far, the incredible rise of the Internet, social media, mobile devices, and electronic payment have only been used in politics for the same old purposes: raising money for existing political parties. Someday these modern advances will come together to form a new political party that is committed to direct change in our society without relying on the fundamentally outdated infrastructure of the old political system. We will see a political party formed on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, organized on Facebook and Twitter and Google+, funded through Paypal and Amazon and Square – and it will improve people’s lives through Donors Choose and other direct means of helping society without the inefficiency of governmental oversight. We need political leaders who recognize that this is not just the future, this is the unevenly distributed present, and government needs to be reconstructed to enable this transformation.

5 thoughts on “modern politics

  1. Good thinking, and I concur with it almost completely. A few concerns:

    Government is ideally better situated to administer assistance to those in need. I would simply want to see it reconstructed to more efficiently administer these services, unencumbered by political and other counter productive agendas. The big problem I see with charity in the private sector is that it too often comes with unrelated and unnecessary strings – the best example being religious organizations who capitalize the needy they “serve” through proselytizing and recruitment into the tithe-paying flock of religious sheep. Charity should not be conditioned upon acceptance of (or even giving audience to) religious doctrine, nor any other thing not directly related to both serving the immediate need, and lifting the needy out of poverty and into a self-sufficient livelihood. This needs to be a central consideration in the process of rehabilitating Government into an entity that capably serves a modern society.

    Another thing that stands out to me as a problem that sooner or later must be reconciled:

    “Who brought you more joy yesterday, the federal or state government, or Apple or Google or Amazon?”

    Venture capitalists, shareholders and other investors aside, who among humanity is really paying the highest imaginable cost to bring this massive quantity of inexpensive technology to the masses? I won’t even answer that, because I’m certain that you and your readers are already keenly aware.


    1. Tim, on your first point, we agree completely. I do not think we can replace government with voluntary charity. I do think that we can better identify and help those in need without the existing form of government administration.

      Today, the government identifies “those in need” through an often unprincipled process of interest politics and backroom dealmaking. And then it “helps” the needy through inefficient and incompetent systems.

      Unlike the heartless conservatives, I am ok with government requiring that a percentage of my income go to those in need. I think that government can generally define needs and require income redistribution to help those needs. But given our modern tools of communication and social action, I do not believe that government can beat the collective action of people in actually specifying what to do with the money. In other words, I hate paying 5% of my income to fund a school system that fails to educate kids year after year, but I would be glad to be required to pay 5% of my income to Donors Choose.

      Regarding your second comment, I think you’re referring to overworked factory workers in China, right? We are not at all in agreement on this one. First, that’s been an issue for Apple, but not Google or Amazon – tarring all private industry with the same brush strikes me as anti-modern, as if we were back in the Industrial Age. Second, those abuses came to light and were corrected because of the collective action of people and private institutions, enabled by today’s social media and instant communication – not today’s form of government, since nothing that Apple did was actually illegal. Third, while I believe I have at least the same level of moral dismay at the abuse of citizens of any country, it is the role of our government to improve conditions for the citizens of this country, at least in terms of direct income redistribution. I don’t mind being required to pay 5% of my income to fund education in my state or country, but I would be outraged if I were required to pay 5% of my income to fund education in another country.


  2. Take my second point as really just an intentionally general statement about the tendency of industry (of any sort really) to gravitate toward cheap 3rd world production labor, and the human concerns that accompany it. If I could have highlighted Apple in my comment, I would have, as that is a recent and well known example. We get our Walmarts, and our cheap technology, but at a cost that makes me wonder if it’s worth it. And it’s a conundrum. Manufacturing jobs leave the country, cheap products return off the backs of the poor and poverty stricken often working in conditions indistinguishable from slave labor. The alternative means that the products aren’t so cheap. It’s a complicated problem, and if there’s a solution, that solution is no less complex. I otherwise cannot disagree with you. We are already spending too much in other parts of the world, while our investment within our own borders remains profoundly and disgracefully lacking, the subject of endless and futile political and ideological pissing contests. (pardon my french) If anything, companies like Google are creating the technological infrastructure to accelerate solutions to these increasingly complex problems, both “at home” and in the global context. I do believe we are headed down that path, and can only hope that I will live long enough to see it work.


  3. Private companies bring you more joy because the stuff that’s about pleasing people is easy to leave to private enterprise to get on with. Government services are routinely awful because the government only needs to step in and do something itself when it’s so difficult to get it right that private enterprise can’t be trusted with it…


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