Day 844 Tuesday April 30, 2019
552 Days to the 2020 election and 630 Days to Inauguration Day
As a high school student I remember being interested in two periods of American history and wondering how they related to the present day. I wondered if we were in a cycle where these two periods would reappear, and if so, what should we do if and when they did reappear. Those two periods were The Great Depression and the period of corruption around the administration of Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant had been a successful general. Maybe not so much due to his brilliance on the battlefield as his tenacity. That and the fact that there had been so many truly bad military leaders before him. But what I remember about the Grant presidency was that he would leave the White House, go across the street to the hotel and read the newspaper. I guess he saved the country the cost of the paper by reading the hotel’s copy. It was known by some that he would do this and they hung out in the lobby waiting for him so they could bend his ear and ask favors. Hence, the term lobbyists. (We should be thankful for that because if it had waited until this era the term would be much different, and like our times, much more vulgar. It turns out that Bill Gates can’t even take a piss without someone pitching him an investment idea. He has a security staff that blocks anyone else from going into the bathroom while Bill is in there. Imagine if he didn’t have his security team do that? And imagine if in Grant’s time we didn’t coin the term “lobbyist”? What would we have? Pissers. You heard me. Hum, I kind of like that, “so and so was convicted of being an unregistered pisser…” It’s got a nice – well, hum – “ring” to it. Kind of like when you really have to go and that first stream hits the dry bowl. Never mind. I digress.)
In high school I thought the 1880s through to the 1920s and then 30s was a bleak time in our country and the world: Grant’s corruption, the robber barons, WWI, The great Depression, fascism. The only bright spot was the roaring twenties that ended in a huge thud on Black Friday. I wondered if the rising problems in Vietnam and the civil unrest it prompted as well as rising health care costs via what seemed a rigged system and politicians inability or unwillingness to deal with inflation were not a harbinger of another similar cycle that we were on the cusp of it beginning again.
I still wonder. We seem to be trying to break through the wave crashing on the shore and hoping that calm waters lie beyond, but the reality seems to be even bigger waves that suck all the water up into them and would leave us on a bare sandbar to be pounded into that sand as the bigger waved crashed upon the bar. (Okay, every analogy suffers at some point and this one didn’t take long for it to happen.)
There seem to be basic patterns in human history that shape the outcome at any particular point in time of a civilization. Why does a political entity succeed or fail? Failure seems to be rooted in not understanding how or why something can fail. Ayn Rand repeatedly wrote, “Check your assumptions. One of them is wrong.” One that point I have to agree with the old gal. The problem is, “Which assumption?” (I liken this to the folks who want to sell you penny stock screening programs. Their pitch is that on any given day a number of stocks double in value. If you invested in those stocks the day before that happened you’d be rich in no time. The problem is there are so many stocks and so few doubles. The stock screener sales people claim to have a program that will tell you what those stocks are. They don’t. Of course or they’d be using them.)
If we go back and look at history several things jump out at me in this regard. A failure of a political entity comes from not knowing, or not dealing, with something. This or assuming things would stay the same (I.e. always be there):
The Roman Republic’s people became complacent because in their lifetime the republic had always been there, until it wasn’t. (I’ve heard similar things with the rise of Hitler. People in Germany knew he was crazy, but didn’t try to act until it was too late.)
Constantinople had stood for centuries as a bulwark against invasion into Europe so it was thought that it always would, because it had. However, in those centuries there was a back and forth phenomena. The land owners (the rich) and the priests (the influencers) would team up to rig the rules in their favor. When they got enough power they would change the tax laws so they paid little or no taxes. This put the burden on the middle class: the workers and the shop keepers. What did those workers and shop keepers do? They left town. They literally “took to the hills.” The middle class disappeared. The city faltered and finally a new administration would come in, clean up the mess, until people weren’t paying attention and the land owners and priests would sneak into power again. Constantinople finally fell when they decided not to pay a young man who had this idea of a canon. A canon that shot an 800 pound ball of stone. Boom. End of a civilization and a way of life.
Interestingly what did the city in, before that, was the ginned up feeling in Europe that the city was not a team player, not on their side, and people stopped supporting it. This was caused by a crusade. Yup, the Christian crusades were the social media campaign of its day that soured folks on supporting what was in their best interest. Instead of supporting the city they attacked it. There was a fellow named Peter the Hermit, a priest. He wandered around Europe gathering every hanger on and starving person promising them great salvation and riches if they followed him to the holy lands to take it back for Christianity. At the same time the jews were blamed and slaughtered in Europe. When Peter’s rag tag mob showed up in Constantinople they demanded food and arms and everything else. Why they thought the city would do this was based on some vague idea that they should. The city didn’t have the resources or the interest in doing this, but let the mob pass through. Guess what happened? I mean what happens when a street mob meets a professional fighting force? Yeah, surprise. They got their asses kicked and the rest of Europe blamed Constantinople. Left unsupported and roiled by internal conflict the city couldn’t rise to defend itself adequately and fell to the Ottomans. Then everyone in Europe was shocked. Kind of like Notre Dame burning.
“People don’t know what they’ve got til it’s gone…” Joni
The Roman Republic fell because folks were tired of the corruption and let a strong man take over. Sure they were concerned, but the republic had always been there in their time so surely it would survive. Surprise, it didn’t. Their system of government scaled up to a certain point and then became unmanageable. The idea was that you elected two men to serve for a year, then you had another election. Once the empire got so large that a year wasn’t enough time to wander off and do something great to get you elected again, things fell apart.
The Roman Empire suffered a similar fate*. It’s politicians and populace decided to ignore the threat posed to them by an invading army. They killed the man who said we have to do something. Then when they were on the verge of being wiped out they cried.
The United States goes through cycles. There have been cycles of boom and bust brought on by greed and over confidence. Much of this has been tamped down by having a central banking system. Before then it was much worse. There are also cycles of addiction too, notably to cocaine and heroin. I suspect a few other drugs will enter that pantheon. There also are cycles of political thinking. This is often viewed as conservative versus progressive or left versus right. The underlying thinking seems based on beliefs about human behavior and fear.
The fear seems to be a sense that someone is getting something for nothing. However, those who believe that seem to also think it’s slick to get something for nothing, to learn to play the system, which they deem okay for themselves but a travesty if someone else does it. The belief side of this seems to be a sense of how a person will behave in a given situation. The conservative mindset seems to be not only a fear of someone getting something they don’t deserve, but a sense that if people don’t earn it for themselves they won’t appreciate it, and therefore should be made to struggle. While a more progressive mindset is the thinking that the system is rigged and folks need a helping hand to overcome the inequalities built into the system. They tend to believe more in the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats while a conservative seems more of the mindset of “I got my boat off the beach and you can too if you work hard.” (I’m trying to be positive here.)
I recently asked some of my conservative friends what they believed in. I never got an answer to that question. The first round brought a “Here’s what the left believes and why that’s no good,” and the second attempt got a “when government gives hand-outs over a certain percentage of (wealth? tax revenue? GDP? something) then the country is in decline and everything will go to hell.” Both arguments are based in fear. Yes, there’s a point along an economic curve where if you go too far (in whatever it is) the underlying premise no longer holds. I always liked “the backward bending curve of labor,” which basically states that a person will continue to work in 24 hour period longer hours as long as you pay them enough, but at some point they will say no, because no matter how much you offer they need to sleep. (Hence the backward bend.) The Lafler curve was another one that I liked because it really didn’t work in the general case and perhaps in certain extremes it would, but Lafler tried to apply it to the general case where it didn’t work at all and hence Reaganomics was shit.
I would posit that an economy and a political entity do better when everyone is involved.
I would guess that few would argue that point. Where the argument comes in, is how to achieve that state and what does it mean? Also, how willing are you to work to achieve it? What if it means giving someone help? One could argue that by giving someone help they aren’t earning it and therefore won’t appreciate it because they didn’t struggle. The other side of that argument is that people that are down and out need some help. What form that should take and how much is the question. In the case of the very rich, they believe they are entitled to the help in the form of tax breaks. In the case of the very rich’s attitude toward everyone else, it’s dog eat dog and good luck. If you’re poor or if you are struggling then any help you get is typically appreciated. It’s hard to worry about altruism when you’re struggling to breath. Also, it’s hard to worry if someone else is getting more than you when you are drowning.
552 Days to the 2020 election and 630 Days to Inauguration Day