February 12, 2004

Thought experiment

Just for a moment, let's try NOT to be realistic. Let's try a thought experiment, and see where it takes us. What is there to be afraid of? After all, we're just letting our minds wander.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Machiavellian-type elite associated with the US government, or with a major American corporation. Your only philosophical commitments are that a) remaining in power is an end that justifies most means, and that b) you believe that government assistance to poor people is immoral, because it comes at the cost of taking money away from people who've earned it fairly.

Now, imagine that this person takes a moment to quietly think about the future. What does he see?

He might see the continuation of the processes of "globalization." Technology continues to knit the world closer together. Multinational corporations continue to purchase the cheapest labor available anywhere in the world to lower their costs of production. As most models of global free-trade predict, the standard of living across all nations continues to equalize.

Since our hypothetical leader is a level-headed realist kind of guy, he realizes that this process of globalization and worldwide laissez-faire approach to markets does not necessarily mean that the whole world will end up looking like Ohio in the 1950s. It's much more likely that Ohio will soon begin to resemble present-day Mexico or Argentina. Most important for our leader, however, is that the American middle-class will likely disappear, and the very rich will get a whole lot richer.

So, says our realist guy, what will happen when the middle-class disappears? Ever since the New Deal, there's been an expectation in this country that there will be some sort of social safety-net for those who fall out of the middle class. As more and more people become relatively "poor" (intermittently employed, unable to afford even a basic education, and without health insurance), the demands on the government for welfare assistance will increase.

Now, we've already postulated that our realist guy doesn't like welfare, because he thinks it's wrong. He agrees with Grover Norquist that the government needs to be "drowned like a baby in the bathtub." So he thinks, we've got to insulate the government from this impending increase in the demand for social services. Paeans to the free market from the Heritage Foundation might not continue to be enough. (Our guy is nothing if not a level-headed realist.)

So our guy is wasting time one day and comes upon a suggestion that running up huge deficits might be a good way to eliminate welfare. Does he scoff, and say "this is unrealistic!" No way, Jose. After all, he's been listening to Grover and the boys over at Americans for Tax Reform for years. What's more, he immediately realizes that he can kill three birds (please pardon the expression) with one stone. Spend like crazy on the military, and cut taxes. This will run up huge deficits by increasing America's power to enforce its version of globalization (laissez-faire worldwide markets) at the same time that fundamentally immoral taxes are being slashed. A budgetary perfect storm.

Our guy may be a level-headed realist, but at this point his balding pate is beginning to sweat from too much excitement.

After he calms down a bit, our realist guy starts thinking about all those disgruntled poor people whose parents used to comprise the great American middle-class. If they can't get a fair shake from the government, where will they turn? And what about all those poor people in whom our imperialist military is continuing to inspire hatred? What will they do?

Clearly, in the absence of a stable, satisfied middle class, the ruling elite will need to take action to prevent violence. Terrorism and other violence common to two-layered societies will obviously be a big problem. How to solve it? The UK Home Secretary has a good idea.

In this guy's idle thoughts about the future, the unlimited ability for the rich to get richer leads to the loss of the middle class and, along with it, the loss of civil rights.

Will our realist guy worry and fret? Not about any supposed loss of "American ideals" or other such mumbo-jumbo. That's nothing but sentimental longing for days of yore, and our guy is nothing if not a realist.

Posted by Carey at February 12, 2004 03:00 PM

Nice post! It reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw, that said, "Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?"

The worst thing is, our country is ruled by this hideous two headed scizophrenic beast, one of whose heads is your realist guy. The other is the ultimate unrealist who believes in establishing a theocracy that dictates and enforces society's morals (only on people, morals don't apply to corporations. don't ask us why, the lord works in mysterious ways.) so the underprivileged masses can have fewer rights, more babies, and a spoonful of opiate to help the medecin of free market capitalism go down.

Posted by: Julie at February 12, 2004 02:57 PM

Great. A military theocracy. That's just what we need.

Posted by: Heidi at February 12, 2004 07:07 PM

If Presidente Bush has his way you won't have to go abroad in search of cheap labor anymore. The marvelous "guest workers" from Mexico can come right to your hometown and undercut your wages. Don't lay it all at the feet of the evil conservatives though. The left loves a cheap cause and those poor brown migrant laborers just do the jobs nobody else wants, right?

Posted by: Nick at February 12, 2004 08:34 PM

What I want to know is- how do you find time to read so many articles as you have linked to here? I am very impressed...

Posted by: Jordan at February 12, 2004 11:36 PM

This is the choir: Preach on, brother! ;-)

Have you read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood? To a large extent, it's set in the future world you describe. Isn't it great to have so much to look forward to?

Nick: Where on "the left" do you see support for the Bush "guest worker" program? I've been happily surprised to see most everyone deriding it (from both left and right) as exactly what we don't need right now.

Posted by: ambimb at February 13, 2004 03:11 PM

ambimb: Most leftists are dissatisfied with the proposal because it doesn't go far enough! The Democratic presidential contenders complain it is inhumane and would instead grant citizenship to essentially anyone who crosses our border. Either way you swell the pool of low-skill labor and inevitably drive wages down.

Posted by: Nick at February 13, 2004 03:51 PM


Um, not any of the ones I talk to. Maybe you should talk to people, not caricatures.

Posted by: Heidi at February 14, 2004 05:27 PM

I agree Kerry, Dean, et al are certainly "caricatures." Just go to their official websites and click immigration policy. Every absurd liberal homily about "bringing the opressed out of the darkness" and "doing the jobs Americans won't do" is on display.

Posted by: Nick at February 14, 2004 05:54 PM

Well, yeah, I agree with the lefties who think Bush's immigration policy "doesn't go far enough," but not that we should "grant citizenship to essentially anyone who crosses our border." We should grant citizenship to people who work in the U.S., and we should pass and enforce fair labor standards that basically eliminate low wage jobs. We should also rewrite all our trade agreements to demand that all our trading partners (including Mexico) provide those same protections and wages to their workers in their own countries. Guess what? Suddenly the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. would slow right down. Yes, we'd all be paying more for goods and services, but there's no free lunch, right?

(Feel free to poke all the holes you want in this line of thinking. I'm no economist; I'd just prefer to see people treated fairly than to pay low prices at walmart or anywhere else, for that matter.)

Posted by: ambimb at February 16, 2004 09:29 AM