Friday, July 29, 2005

Why New Yorkers Cannot Drive

The denizens of New York City and vicinity, in general, do not know how to drive. I am not talking about those urban dwellers who don’t own cars and some of whom don’t even have driving licenses. Nor am I talking about immigrants who drive the way people do back in the third world. I mean native born New Yorkers with driving licenses, many of whom have been “driving” for decades. They drive very badly and create traffic jams unnecessarily. The further one gets from NYC, the better the people drive. By the time you get to Dutchess County where I live, you have some pretty decent drivers, the exception being folks who moved here from closer to NYC.

NYC drivers, as I will call them, are egregious tailgaters. This means an increased likelihood of otherwise avoidable accidents and delays and the phenomenon whereby traffic slows and speeds accordion fashion due to excessive braking. The latter can cause extensive delays for miles down the road for no reason other than the sheer incompetence of the drivers in front of you.

NYC drivers are incapable of merging appropriately onto a highway from an on ramp. In most places, a spontaneous order emerges in which traffic already on the road coordinates with merging traffic and leaves an appropriate space. Not so with NYC drivers. If I did not know that they were simply incapable of thinking beyond themselves, suffering as they do from a kind of vehicular autism, I would suspect that they were perversely interfering with the cars on the on ramp. This is the result of a lack of the kind of coordination found elsewhere in the country. And the drivers on the ramp are just as problematic. The driver in front of you on the ramp is likely to stop rather than adjusting speed and finding a way into traffic, in which case everyone on the ramp is screwed. This is probably because these drivers do not have any reason to trust that the drivers already in traffic will not interfere with them. This causes incredible delays on the highways and parkways wherever there is an on ramp.

In the same way, NYC drivers cannot efficiently handle a reduction in the number of lanes. The simple coordination required for this is entirely beyond their capabilities; therefore, any lane closure inevitably results in a traffic jam.

NYC drivers cannot efficiently get through a toll plaza. They will bunch up chaotically, not in any line or file, and block one another. Again, they cannot coordinate.

I have a theory to explain this. I used to attribute it to the overall relative bad manners of New Yorkers, but I have come to believe that their bad driving is an artifact of learning to drive and developing driving habits within the city. In the city, every movement is ostensibly controlled by road markers, traffic lights, barricades, cops out the wazoo, the need to avoid being hit by maniacal cab drivers, the need to avoid hitting suicidal delivery men and messengers on bikes, and the need to work around masses of pedestrians and jaywalkers. There is little opportunity for coordination within this complex environment, and any hesitation will be exploited by other drivers in a quest to keep moving. You can barely move in the city at all, and your movements are so highly regulated and constrained that there is little opportunity for any kind of collaborative effort among drivers. On the contrary, driving in the city is competitive, a jockeying for position constrained only by the inconvenience that ramming another vehicle or human being or being rammed would entail. NYC drivers simply do not learn the coordination skills necessary to drive on highways outside the city.

Contrast this to a place like Seattle where most of the intersections out of downtown are not even controlled. Traffic jams occur, due to roadwork and sheer volume of cars, but Seattleites are by and large well able to merge and coordinate among themselves on the roads. They have a well-developed awareness of what other cars and pedestrians are doing and an ability to anticipate. They yield to pedestrians, and they generally do not tailgate. There is a lot more freedom of movement for drivers in Seattle even downtown; therefore, they have the chance to learn to coordinate those movements. I suspect that they will lose these skills as the area becomes more congested.

Contrast this also to Los Angeles where the highways are full of cars all the time and yet, for much of the time traffic is moving at high speed. This can be a little scary for a country boy like myself, but I am always amazed at how easy it is to merge onto the highway compared to NY. Again, more freedom of movement translates to better skills at coordinating those movements.

The moral of the story is that if you give people freedom, they will work out how to exercise it just fine. If you are inexperienced with freedom, you may be retarded in its exercise.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Moralizing for Power

James Leroy Wilson had a post several weeks ago ( that I have been thinking about ever since. In it, he compared people who impose top down rules based on ideological principles (level 5 reasoning) with individualists who follow rules of thumb informed by actual social interaction (level 1 reasoning) from the bottom up. The latter moral reasoning process is generally more consistent with liberty than the former.

It sometimes seems to me that just about every so-called moral rule that anyone claims to be acting under is really a thinly veiled rationalization for a power grab by someone. When you bring a moral problem down to the level of actual human interaction, it looks very different than it does from the lofty tower of principle.

Take abortion, for example. When someone says that a fertilized egg is a moral person that the state must protect, he is really saying that women should be subject to being compelled to bring pregnancies to term and that women are not entitled to control their own bodies or to decide what health risks to run. He is saying that the government should interfere in and second guess the most intimate and private decisions about pregnancy and health care. He is saying that he would, in effect, hold a gun to a woman's head and force her to carry a pregnancy to term. This says a lot about where he or she thinks a woman belongs in the social pecking order. The ostensible concern for the egg, blastocyst, embryo, fetus is just a smokescreen. Who could really look someone in the face, someone they loved, and tell them that while you know that they are unwilling to run the health risks of a pregnancy you are more concerned with the abstract principle that an unsentient blob of protoplasm has "civil rights"? Who could seriously tell someone that they loved that their self ownership, their sovereignty as a person takes a back seat to some arbitrarily contrived principle applied to something no more human in any meaningful sense than a tumor?

Take the recent case of the Nebraska man charged with statutory rape of the young woman to whom he is now married and who is carrying his child. I don't know the facts of the case, but the individual circumstances don't seem to matter to the state of Nebraska. All that matters to the state is that the man had sex with a woman who was not yet of an arbitrary age of consent. The principles of "childhood" and capacity to consent trump the actual circumstances of this family. A man will be taken from his wife and child and imprisoned just for the sake of these abstract principles. A family will be destroyed just so the state can demonstrate its power.

Take just about everything that government does. The government itself is an abstraction that deploys legitimizing abstractions by the truckload, all to get, keep and expand power. What loving person would throw a child into an incinerator on the basis that it might promote democracy in Iraq? The US has incinerated lots of Iraqi children on that lofty principle. Would you drive your neighbor from his home by force and steal his property to pay for your child's education on the basis that society benefits from educated children? That's precisely the threat that homeowners live under, that if they do not pay property and school taxes their homes will be taken from them and the proceeds used to pay for their neighbors' children's schooling and other "public" purposes. You can't honestly plead "social contract" while looking someone in the eye.

Every time someone pontificates about some universal moral principle, we should subject it to reality testing. Could you act on the principle with a straight face to the detriment of someone you love?

Skunk Adventure

Last night about 10, Jesse Lou Baggett, our Ruthenian Shepherd, took on a skunk. His head and face were pretty much covered with noisome skunk oil. Meanwhile, his sidekick, William Jasper Stone the pit bull, got a dab of skunk oil on his face and, as Mrs Vache Folle put it, became the "drama queen" with fits of crying and rolling around on the rugs. I dabbed the spot with vinegar and pretty much removed his skunkiness.

Mrs Vache Folle kept Jesse off the furniture and immediately applied the "Welcome Home Pet Sitting De-skunkification Formula". Baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and liquid laundry detergent are mixed up and used to wash off the skunk oil. Darned if it did not work fairly well. Jesse still stinks, but it is bearable. Usually, a good skunking takes about 3 months to wear off completely, and even then a little skunk stench comes out if the dog gets wet.

Jesse, along with other dogs we have had, has been skunked at least four times. It is clearly an unpleasant experience for him, so I keep thinking that he will learn to avoid skunks. Mrs Vache Folle says that his skunk hatred overwhelms his reason and all he can think of is killing the varmint that sprayed him with that stinky stuff.

We have tried de-skunking products from the pet store and found them wanting. Tomato juice does nothing except make your dog smell like a skunk that spilled tomato juice on itself. Douche, due to its vinegar content, works a little bit, and diswashing liquid with grease cutting properties is also helpful since the skunk spray is oily and not water soluble. But our dog walker's remedy as described above has worked the best of anything we have tried. Hat tip to Steve Spiegel the Hundmeister.

I wish that there was some reasonably easy way to deter the skunk from entering the fenced area. That way there would be no need for him to deploy his chemical weapons.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

God is not a Republican

There is a bumper sticker on some of the cars in the church parking lot that reads "God is not a Republican..... or a Democrat." I've never had a bumper sticker on my car, but I would proudly stick this one on my bumper if I can get my hands on one. (I also wanted "Jesus is Coming- Look busy" and "Earth First-We'll log the other planets later.")

To me, God is a libertarian. My conversion to libertarianism came with the evolution of my Christianity and my conviction that violence other than in self defense is antiChristian. It is patently antiChristian to use force against another human being, and the hallmark of being a Christian is a commitment to peace, to loving one's neighbor. The first thing I did when I came to this realization was to resign my commission in the Army Reserve. I could not participate in the military in good conscience even if my service as a judge advocate meant that I would never have to take up arms.

It began to dawn on me, however, that my profession as a lawyer involved the use of force. I was, after all, asking the state to make people, under pain of punishment, do what my clients wanted. I had to quit lawyering, and I went back to graduate school to study anthropology, about as harmless (and useless) an occupation as there is. I have since found a way to ply my trade as a lawyer without violating my conscience, since I work exclusively in defending my employer from the application of force by the state. Wherever possible, I work to negotiate outcomes outside of court. My goal is to keep my employer and the state as far from one another as possible. (Meanwhile, it is doubtful that I will ever write that dissertation in anthropology since I have come to the conclusion that being an anthropologist would necessarily entail being an utter parasite on society.)

Later, I began to realize that the state itself is all about coercion. Therefore, I asked myself, how can a Christian in good conscience regard the state as legitimate and lend any voluntary support to it? He cannot. He cannot serve the state in any manner that involves even indirect coercion. He cannot support laws and institutions that entail coercion, even to enforce righteousness. (How righteous are you really if your actions are coerced and not truly inspired by an inner transformation through the workings of the Holy Ghost?)

The idea that Christians should take over the state and rule over others is appalling to me. This is the message of false prophets, and their devotion to the state and lust for power are among the rotten fruits that make them known as such. The Christians of the so called religious right are dupes of false prophets, and I wish that some right thinking clergymen would speak out in a high profile way about just how antiChristian the agenda of the religious right is. Christians should be sickened that Christ's name is invoked in connection with coercion and murder.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Terrorists Have Won

Mrs Vache Folle points out that the killing of the unfortunate Brazilian man in England and the justifications therefor mean that the terrorists have won. This depressing incident in a supposedly civilized nation is truly indicative of the death of the culture of liberty.

Local Government is Still Government

Knappster has a couple of good posts on the tyranny of local government . Local is not necessarily better than global, and local is probably worse in many ways because it has nothing better to do than get into your daily business. Anyone who has ever lived in a planned community or a coop can tell you horror stories about the “covenant fascists” that inhabit the boards of these entities. These are not “government”, per se, but they are a good example of the tendency of people close to you to be tyrants just as much as or more than the faceless bureaucrats in the capital. Your own neighbors are willing to drive you out of your home if you keep your Xmas lights up too long or plant the wrong flowers on your porch.

Towns, school districts, counties, and various “authorities” exercise power over the minute details of our lives. I can’t erect so much as a shed on my own property without clearing it with some functionary in Hopewell Junction. When a tree took down my power lines and the utility pole on my house, I actually had to get permission from the gang in Hopewell Junction to have my own house repaired. And start a business? Fuhgeddaboutit!

For this regulation and surveillance, we pay in property and school taxes more than some people pay for their entire mortgage, and one of the biggest obstacles to affordable housing in our area is the high property tax rate. You have to figure in payments of hundreds or a thousand dollars or more per month in taxes in addition to the cost of the house. What is most difficult for me to fathom is that homeowners appear to tolerate these tax rates with little protest. To some extent, this is because tax rates are even higher in Westchester and Putnam Counties to our south, and folks who have moved from those high tax areas think they are getting a bargain. Worse, they think nothing of voting for tax increases to subsidize the educations of their children.

The racket is to increase tax rates to improve the schools to increase home values to drive out the riff raff, etc. It’s tough to be the riff raff in these circumstances, and you simply aren’t allowed to question the program. Everyone wants good schools, right? Everyone wants his home values to go up, right? Only a complete troglodyte wouldn’t be on board with the better schools/new library/new police station/new jail/more extensive building code/(insert proposed local action). As such a troglodyte, I wish more of us would stand up and problematize what local government is up to. I would like to think that there are more troglodytes than local tyrants, and the only way to find out is to challenge the program.

I don’t see that I am getting anything out of these local tax payments or the income taxes I pay to Albany except to keep all these local and state authorities from abducting me and seizing my property. I have to pay for the privilege of living in my own home. If you add sales taxes, we probably pay more than a fifth of our earnings to state and local government. So at least one day a week that we toil, we do so entirely for the benefit of the parasites in Albany, Hopewell Junction or Carmel. This is a big deprivation of liberty in my book and is, in a sense, involuntary servitude. I do not have independent means and must work to live, and the state and locals take everything I make one day a week. The feds take the next day and a half, so we have to get by on half of our earnings. We don’t start working for ourselves until Wednesday afternoon.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Don't Know Much About Libertarianism

I am new to the libertarian “scene”, and my involvement has been limited entirely to reading libertarian material and blogs on the web and to speaking up about freedom whenever I can in social settings, around the water cooler, and on other occasions. I love it that there are thousands of other people who share my views and feelings about freedom and the state, and I get a lot out of my daily wanderings through the libertarian blogosphere.

My own weblog is sometimes an embarrassment to me since I often find that I am stating some hideously obvious point that a more well read libertarian would respond to with a resounding “Duh!” (Let alone the fact that I can’t figure out how to post pictures or set up a blogroll.) Everything that I think about has been thought through before by much better minds, and every issue that I struggle with has a body of literature out there with which I am sadly unfamiliar. But I soldier on as a “lay” libertarian, just another schmendrick trying to get by in the world with some dignity, and I find that the more experienced and advanced libertarians I have encountered have been extremely gracious and always willing to point me in the right direction.

Strangely, it always seems that the very topic that I am struggling with gets addressed in the blogosphere just when I need it or that I find a whole new neighborhood of blogs that have what I need just when I need it. That’s what happened when I discovered the “left” libertarians. Thank you, Independent Country , and thanks for your blogroll. (They have shown me that I can be subversively free in my every day life and that I can work to build free institutions even in the presence of the state.) And right about now they are talking about the different kinds and schools of libertarianism and how they differ (see for example, This is fantastic, although it would be helpful if someone would work up a “Libertarianism for Dummies” manual for those of us who are just would-be foot soldiers in the movement. (A “Chicken Soup for the Libertarian Soul” should not be far behind, I suppose.) It’s hard to tell the players without a program. Odds are, there is such a tome already at my disposal, and I am just too ignorant to know it.

What I need sometimes are plain old talking points, ways to talk to my acquaintances (most of whom are not all that intellectually gifted and none of whom is well educated, although often possessing professional degrees). I need to relate to my conspecifics on an emotional level, and this is where my own libertarianism really has its foundation. I didn’t think my way to libertarianism; I came to it intuitively and emotionally based on my personal search for dignity, autonomy, and meaning in life. It comes from my most deeply felt religious convictions. My conspecifics probably won’t embrace libertarianism out of the weight of logic or reasoning; if they embrace it, it will be a matter of the heart. My problem is that I fear that I don’t know how to communicate my libertarianism on these levels, that I will be a poor witness.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Abuse of Power

Sunni Maravillosa at points out that the USG's Solicitor General is claiming that the US is a "battlefield" in the War on Terror and that the USG has the authority to detain anyone it deems an enemy without charges or trial. I regard this as disturbing on so many levels, but what jumps out is the feeling that no American who has any love for his country should willingly advance such an argument. I would like to live in an America where a succession of Solicitor Generals would have resigned in protest before some complete fascist tool could be found to make the case for such power. Alas, the first Solicitor General was apparently already sufficently corrupt, a nod being due I suppose to the White House vetting process. The regime appears to have developed a considerable pool of good fellows ready to sell out their country on a moment's notice.

The president should at least be afraid to make such an argument. In a better world, we would have presidents who would never dream of even wanting the kind of power this regime has usurped. My fellow Americans are not as outraged as they should be, and I fear that the culture of liberty that the country was founded upon has been replaced by slavish devotion to the state. I am profoundly saddened and ashamed of my fellow Americans on this account.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Some Thoughts on National Security in a Free Society

I want to live in a free society, and I find that militarism is incompatible with freedom. Powerful martial institutions are collectivist and socialist to the core, and they tend to grow and drain wealth from productive people. Humans tend to assess risk irrationally and appear willing to give up big chunks of liberty for security even where the risk is largely illusory. The Global War on Terror is an excellent example of irrationality. A miniscule risk that can be met with traditional law enforcement techniques is instead used to justify hundreds of billions of dollars in expenditures, curtailment of even the most basic freedoms, and the commission of atrocities.

That said, I am resigned to the idea that even a free society will have to have a defense establishment of some sort and that it is worth considering what kind of institutions could be deployed to provide defense while safeguarding freedom. Given the evident attractions of statism to some folks and given that a martial state may be willing and able to invade and oppress my free society, my free society must be prepared to defend its existence. At the same time, statist enemies within the free society must be thwarted in their statist aims, a substantial risk from this quarter being the abuse of the defense establishment itself.

The first line of defense is, of course, the peaceful nature of the free society. No other state should rationally be able to view the free society as a potential invader or attacker. An absolute commitment to principles of just war, to non-aggression and to noninterference by the free society should help to eliminate us as a legitimate target. The development of peaceful trading relationships will make the free society and its would-be enemies sufficiently interdependent to render war unprofitable.

That said, there may always be potential threats, and a free society with weak martial institutions may be vulnerable to a more militaristic state. The statists who are parasites on these countries may well view freedom as a dangerous ideology to be wiped out. How we meet such threats while avoiding the dangers of militarism is the challenge to be met by libertarians.

A number of features of the defense establishment in a free society suggest themselves:

§ Rational assessment of risk must be provided for by an intelligence system independent of the defense establishment.
§ Minimal standing forces should be maintained, if any, and voluntary militia should be the primary source of personnel. This will assure broad public participation and support for any undertaking and will help prevent adventurism.
§ Standing forces should be stationed in the homeland and not abroad. This will reduce adventures and provocations.
§ Defensive capabilities should take priority over offensive ones, and there should be an absolute commitment to defense under just war principles. Overseas aggressive action is where the militarists have the most wiggle room and where they can argue for more resources and power. At the same time, it is debatable that such overseas actions have any positive impact on security. In any event, any security gains are overridden by the increased threat from the military establishment itself.
§ All military undertakings should be subject to continuing review, and authorizations of funds should be limited to short durations. Active duty terms for militiamen should be of short duration.

These features are necessary, IMO, because my notion of national security includes security against an ever encroaching state and the assumption of power under the cover of national security. There are evidently enough parasites in our midst who presently feed at the national security trough that we should be rightly concerned about their motives and trustworthiness. These parasites are as great a threat to me and mine as any foreign nation or terrorist organization.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Putting Justice into the Family Law System

I have done a lot of work over the years in the area of family law, and as anyone who has been through a divorce or other family law proceeding can attest, I can state unequivocally that the family law system provides no satisfaction and adds not a whit to human happiness. I cannot call the system a “failure” because, if one looks at it from the perspective of the state, it has certainly provided the state with lots of power over what are ordinarily very private and intimate family affairs, and the entire child welfare bureaucracy provides lots of jobs for parasites and other folks who like to exercise power over others.

I have come to the conclusion that it is a mistake to marry under a state license. Marriage is a matter between spouses and their families and their gods, and the state should not be in the business of regulating or legitimating consensual relationships. That said, a lot of us find ourselves married or drawn to one or more of the supposed benefits of state sanctioned matrimony. Now, if we need to extricate ourselves from the relationship, we have to ask the state to let us get divorced, and we are subject to the state’s definition of what our marriage was all about the whole time. Indeed, the state intrudes more and more into relationships where there is no official marriage under the same terms.

One of the most difficult aspects of divorce practice is getting clients reconciled to the fact that the state does not care about the justice of their situation. To the client, the central issue is often the grotesque betrayal of one spouse by the other, and the division of assets and liabilities is largely irrelevant. Assets and liabilities become proxy in the clients’ minds for justice, and they have difficulty with the idea that the state will award the guilty spouse a share of property without regard to his or her guilt. Access to children also becomes a potential instrument for marital justice, and clients will make demands that fly in the face of the interests of their children and their own interests in a vain effort to get justice.

As a divorce mediator and in negotiating divorce and custody matters, I encourage the disputants to address issues of marital justice and betrayal and to account for this in their property settlement and other aspects of their divorce decree if they wish. It is not unusual or inappropriate for the spouse who wants the divorce to feel guilt and to want to buy out of it by making a more generous financial arrangement than a court would probably decree. The “innocent” spouse almost always feels that this kind of arrangement is the least that the leaving spouse can do.

I find that the parties are more satisfied with the outcome and better able to live with their arrangements as to custody and visitation when they feel that they have been heard and that they have grappled with the justice of the situation. Providing a forum for addressing justice and openly discussing how to adjust for it makes it less likely for the spouses to use custody and visitation as weapons. Moreover, if the spouses feel that some justice has been done, there is less reason for them to continue an adversarial relationship after the divorce. After all, if they have children, they will always be a family, albeit in a new and untested form. Unresolved issues of justice are not helpful in the functioning of the family in its altered form.

A problematic aspect of this approach is the involvement of divorce lawyers. Counsel almost always questions the settlement of the parties because it does not conform to what a judge would order. It is difficult for lawyers to conceive of disputants’ desire to remain empowered to adjust their relations as they see fit without regard to the perspective of the state. For counsel, dispute resolution almost always boils down to force, what you can get the state to decree, and you should settle the matter based on what the likely outcome of trial would be. Counsel for the guilty spouse sees part of her role as educating her client to the reality that marriage is what the state says it is and that there is no state sanctioned guilt to be felt. The emotional and spiritual components of marriage are simply childish illusions, and one important role of the divorce lawyer is disillusionment of the client. This role conveniently decreases the likelihood of an amicable settlement and leads to a more disputatious and lucrative case for counsel; therefore, counsel feels ethically obligated to get their clients to fit the state sanctioned mold. Counsel will almost always try to undermine a justice-based settlement or any settlement that does not conform to expectations.

To divorce counsel, I submit that being an officer of the court does not require you to be a tool of the state and to disempower your clients. You don’t have to accept the state definition of marriage as exclusive or even valid except as a social fact to be reckoned with, and you should recognize your clients’ right to define marriage along any dimensions they see fit. Your job is to serve your clients’ interests as they see them and to help them negotiate the family law system in a way that lets them retain as much power and autonomy as they wish. The guilt, the sense of betrayal, and the concern for justice are not pathologies to be treated and eliminated from the system; rather, the system’s inability to address these matters is the central problem to which counsel energies should be directed. Rather than making clients fit the system, let the system serve clients. The best way to do this may be to make the system as irrelevant as possible.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Politics of Envy

Envy is a deadly sin, and my species seems to be almost hardwired to feel envious. When offered a choice of being better off ourselves or seeing the more fortunate fall to our level or lower yet, we frequently derive greater satisfaction from the latter. To see the mighty fall is great entertainment, and it is hard work to love other folks enough to derive any satisfaction from their success, especially if it eclipses our own.

The key to defeating envy is love for our conspecifics and for God who has seen fit to bless us all differently. This, however, involves considerable moral effort.

I grew up in a farming and working class family and never really wanted for anything, and I realized that there were folks who were much wealthier than we were and that there were probably even more folks who were not as well off. I was taken aback in the fifth grade to learn that some of my poorer classmates regarded my family as "rich". Compared to some of them, I suppose I was rich. There were classmates who did not get enough to eat and who showed signs of malnutrition. Some had polio and other diseases that had been largely eradicated in the higher socio-economic classes. Others lived in abject squalor and made their living rummaging through the county landfill or on handouts from charitable neighbors.

What I learned from being both richer and poorer than others in a relatively stratified society and what was expressly drummed into my head by my family and society was that I was as responsible for avoiding the excitation of envy in the hearts of my less fortunate neighbors as they were for overcoming any envy that they might feel. For the most part, my economic betters practiced restraint and did not lord their possessions and positions over the rest of us. The richest folks with the oldest money lived fairly simply, albeit in large stately homes, and avoided ostentatious displays of wealth or status. No such rich man in my hearing ever claimed any moral superiority by virtue of his wealth, and they were more inclined to attribute their wealth to luck and unwarranted blessings from God.

It was the newly rich who were most apt to violate the rules against inspiring envy, and they would usually succumb to peer pressure to tone down their pretensions to grandeur. The joy of lording it over others wears off pretty quickly when you find that your supposed inferiors and new set of peers actually hold you in contempt.

Lately, in decrying the politics of envy, some of my Republican conspecifics have taken to calling themselves the "productive class" and "wealth builders" and "job creators". The implication is that of moral superiority to the hordes of envious undeserving parasites in the working classes. This kind of talk does little to quell envy and, in fact, is likely to make folks derive even more satisfaction out of one's comeuppance. It would be better if my Republican conspecifics would take moral responsibility for their own role in arousing envy and recognize that their good fortune is not an indicator of character. This is especially true in the case of those whose McMansions and Hummers are the products of crippling debt and whose wealth is only an illusion.

Perhaps it is the Republicans who benefit most from a politics of envy by playing to this class of strivers and status seekers who imagine themselves to be so far above their fellows by virtue of their suburban, middle class trappings. They think they are so far removed from the working class, but they are no more financially independent and are often only a few months away from utter ruin. They derive satisfaction from the envy of others less fortunate than themselves, and they irrationally associate themselves and conflate their interests with the oligarchs and corporatists and mercantilists in power. In fact, their interests are probably much more aligned with those of the working class of whom they are so contemptuous and from whom they wish to distance themselves.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Being a Celtic-American

Not long ago I read James Webb's Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, and I must say that it provided new insights into how to examine my own culture and the experiences of my ancestors. Leaving aside the details on what characteristics might be attributable to Scots-Irish or Celtic-American culture, the work helped to realize that I was indeed the beneficiary of a distinct and honorable cultural heritage. I had grown up suspecting this but had too often been confronted with negative memes about my Appalachian forebears: illiterate, brawling, incestuous, lazy, tobacco chewing (later crank using), slovenly hillbillies. These memes always flew in the face of actual experience with my hard-working, thrifty, resourceful, honest and loving kinsmen and neighbors but they nonetheless persist in popular culture. Indeed, it seems that the only politically correct racial or ethnic slur that can me made these days are directed at "rednecks" and "hillbillies".

I will never forget a diversity seminar at Columbia dealing with identity based conflict where a woman praised me by saying that she had come to realize in the course that I was "not just another redneck". It was inconceivable that I would be offended by this epithet or the implications about what stereotypical attitudes and behaviors I could be expected to manifest. Moreover, if I expressed any pride in my own heritage, this was interpreted as racist!

I have some ancestors who were English, German, Prussian, Frisian, Huguenot, Welsh, or Cherokee, but I am at least half Scots and Scots-Irish. All of my ancestors had arrived in North America before 1790, and most were here by 1725. By 1800 and most long before then, they had all made their way to the Appalachians in search of land that had not already been claimed by Tidewater oligarchs and in search of the opportunity to make a living as free men and women constrained only by their willingness to work hard. A very few had a couple of slaves but most had none and worked their own land or as tenant farmers. They also herded livestock, cut timber and hunted and made whiskey. They had large families and, consequently, younger children were often on the move in search of new land. This way, my families came down from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia into Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Other kin moved on to Arkansas, Texas and California in search of opportunity.

They faced enormous hardships of disease, premature death of breadwinners, conflicts with Indians, and warfare. When called upon, they served in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the War Between the States. Every male ancestor of the right age served the Condfederacy under arms, poor dupes. They did this not out of love for slave-holding oligarchs or the idea of slavery, but because their country was being invaded and their liberty threatened. The WBTS was about their love of country for them. They viewed their countries at that time as Georgia or Tennesee or North Carolina. My ancestors bore the burden of the WBTS and the crippling sanctions of Reconstruction. Federal oppression stifled the economic development of the South for a century.

My ancestors were victims of this oppression but would never have claimed victimhood such was their pride. They just kept on getting by, working their farms and picking up work on industry when it came along. The Dillards of Fannin County went to Polk County to work the mines. Others became lumberjacks. Still others went North seasonally to earn money in factories, sometimes as "replacement workers" or "scabs" in union disputes. Still more were drawn to Whitfield County, Georgia and the burgeoning textile industry. And they served in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, the poor dupes. One kinsman, Audie Murphy, was the most highly decorated soldier ever thanks to his heroic exploits in WWII. Even today, my people are disproportionatelly represented in the military and are drawn to the martial.

I am proud of my farming, working-class roots and our history. I see the Confederate flag as a symbol of my ancestors' sacrifices and hardships, not as a symbol of racism. God knows, there is racism, and my people are no more free of it than others, but our culture and history are not to be defined solely in terms of the legacy of racism, and we should not let others define the meaning of our symbols or demean our ancestors' contributions. We should be free to explore and preserve our heritage and to confront the good and the bad. We should not allow ourselves to made the repositories of national guilt over slavery, especially since it was very little of our ancestors' doing.

My only complaint with my people is that they seem to have become especially susceptible to nationalistic jingo and have begun to lose their mistrust of the state.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Why Are Bosses So Bad?

Every boss I have ever had has been a terrible manager. I have never met anyone who praises his boss (at least when he is not actively engaged in sycophancy), and I am pretty sure that I have been more or less a failure at bossing whenever I was put in charge of people. With experience, I think that I got better over the years and that I did this by simply doing less. Whenever I left productive people alone, they became even more productive. And the unproductive ones were not going to get any better no matter how closely I supervised them, so I learned to work around them when I could not get rid of them. Luckily, I don't have to exercise authority over anybody in my current position, and I can either work around or in collaboration with my ostensible subordinates.

I have thought a lot about bad bossing over the years. I accept the Peter Principle as valid in that hierarchical organizations promote people out of their comfort and competence zones. Managing people is very different from doing their job, and being a cracker jack salesman does not necessarily make one qualified to be a sales manager. Also, there is very little good training in leadership and management, and what there is seems to be based on hierarchical, top down models involving tight control.

Your subordinates are your enemies who must be constantly surveilled and cowed into doing their work under such models. The more simple-minded and mechanical the work is, the less you have to rely on worker initiative or intelligence, and the more control you have. Of course, your organization is less responsive to its clientele's needs. I often think of working at McDonald's back in the 1970s when ordering a hamburger with no pickle would bring the whole hamburger distribution system almost to its knees. Back then, we took orders and added up bills with a pencil on a pad, so those of us with good mental arithmetic skills were in high demand and could make management cut us some minimal slack. Still, the whole process was completely dehumanized, and management was evidently under the impression that job satisfaction was a form of employee theft.

Another problem inherent in bossing is that anyone who wants to be a boss in a hierarchical organization is probably already a power hungry prick. Otherwise, he would find the whole bossing idea distasteful. If he is at all a reluctant boss, his higher boss will see any non-bossiness as evidence of weakness and lax management. If his unorthodox non-bossing yields results, the higher bosses will have to find a way to sabotage this.

Finally, bossing is problematic because in any hierarchical organization every boss at each level in the hierarchy will act in his own individual interests without regard to the interests of others or of the organization itself. He ordinarily has no incentive to collaborate or cooperate or to promote the careers or well being of others. The success of his unit should be seen as a function of his skilled bossing rather than the creativity and competence of his underlings. It is better for the boss for everyone to think that his underlings are idiots and that success derives entirely from the blessings of his good management. Otherwise, he may be seen as superfluous (which he probably is). No boss on his way up wants to see any contraction in the layers or levels of boss positions; therefore, all are committed to the maintenance of the hierarchy and rooting out anti-hierarchical heresy.

Accordingly, it is easier and more satisfying for a potential good boss to go out and start his own business than to climb the corporate ladder. The bossed probably already realize that their bosses are parasites and must be overthrown as in the great myth of Yertle the Turtle. Maybe if investors begin to see bosses in the same light, we may come to see more humane business organizations.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Next Supreme Court Justice Will Suck

I don’t know whom George “Not as Bad as Hitler” Bush will put up for the Supreme Court, but I am sure that she will not be fit for the job. Our country does not possess an aristocracy devoted to selfless public service from whom Justices might be selected. On the contrary, the next Justice will be selected from among the striving “meritocracy”, and she will necessarily be a person who is best suited to serving self interest and the interests of the political class to whom she is beholden.

In the first instance, the next Justice will be a lawyer with experience in a prestigious firm, experience as a highly visible prosecutor, experience as a teacher in a law school, or some combination of the foregoing. She will have had this experience because she toed the establishment line. She will have been ruthlessly ambitious, and she will believe in the depths of her soul that she deserves the rewards she has won by virtue of her having “merit”. This gives her the sense that she is fit to impose her views and her will on her less “meritorious” conspecifics. She will have been trained to “think like a lawyer”, ie to reduce every issue to a set of narrow categories and to strip them of all substance. In sum, she will be an utter tool.

She will have served as a judge on the high court of a state or on the federal appellate bench. She may have been an Attorney General or some other Cabinet officer. This will mean that she is probably comfortable financially but that she is not independently wealthy and cannot easily take a stand on conscience in the public interest. This also means that she is parasite dependent on the state for her livelihood.

She will be politically connected to the GOP. Enough said on this point.

The absence of a public-spirited aristocracy means that all positions of trust in this country are held by men of dubious character who lack the courage and independence to resign in protest over wrongdoing. The military is led by careerists who need their jobs and who will not resign over a matter of honor. Judges treasure their positions over principles, and bureaucrats at every level of government depend on their government salaries too much to permit them to act in the public interest.

It will take decades to cultivate an aristocracy, and the concept of the meritocracy will have to be rooted out first. The aristocracy needs independent means (I reckon that an individual estate of $20 mm in the city or $10 mm in rural areas would be the minimum) that it did not earn and that it does not pretend to merit. It also needs to be trained in the ideals of noblesse oblige and in good character. The most important positions of trust and honor should be reserved for the aristocracy, and they should be trained to regard these as sacred civic obligations. The Supreme Court would be a very different and much improved institution if the Justices were required to come from the aristocracy.

Genital Mutiliation

The subject of genital mutilation came up in my anthropological studies from time to time and in the context of protests about non-consensual clitorectomies. Some folks engage in some pretty bizarre (to me, at least) modifications of their original equipment. The issue rarely comes up in conversation lately, but I have recently learned that my own brother makes a good part of his living from genital mutilation right here in America. In Red State, “Buckle of the Bible Belt” Georgia, he does a thriving business in, among other things, piercing and mutilating both male and female genitalia.

I probably should not be surprised that genital mutilation, that I once believed belonged to the province of primitives, is fairly common in 21st Century America. My own parents subjected me to circumcision as an infant (my mother claims that she was never asked and that it was the default to circumcise babies at that time). Thanks for the reduced sensitivity and sexual pleasure, Mom and Dad. Most of the guys I have showered with (gym class, Army, etc) have also been “helmets” rather than “anteaters”. So male genital mutilation is clearly no big deal.

My brother is paid to perform a procedure known as a “Prince Albert” (I don’t know why His Highness is implicated in this) which, to the extent that I was able to listen to its description, involves insertion of a tube into the urethra and poking a spike through the penis. This is said to enhance sexual pleasure for both partners, presumably once the healing process runs its course. The main down side, besides having anything in your urethra and the spike through the penis, is that the man will have to sit down to urinate for the rest of his life. Apparently, this is the warning that most often deters my brother’s would be clients from having the procedure done. For me, it is the urethra and spike thing. The amazing thing to me is that my brother’s shop performs the Prince Albert procedure all the time, and other tattoo parlors also do this. There are thousands of men running around with spikes through their penises! There are thousands more saving up for the big day when they can get theirs done.

Women get their fair share of genital mutilation. Labial tattoos and piercings are common. Clitoral rings are all the rage. According to my brother, the Georgia legislature proposed a bill to ban female genital mutilation and included clitoral piercing in the definition. Thanks to the tireless lobbying of countless mullet headed, flannel wearing lesbians, that part of the bill was defeated, and Georgians retained their god given right to have holes poked in their clitorises.

According to my brother, his clients are not drunk or high on meth or anything when they come in for genital mutilation. He will not work on an intoxicated person at all. They have thought the whole thing through and have decided that their original equipment could be improved upon.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Back in the Saddle

I spent last week in the North Georgia mountains visiting my parents, siblings and their descendants. I met my brother's one year old son and my sister's five month old grandson, and I declare them to be within the range of normal human variation notwithstanding their dodgy genetic heritages. I enjoyed myself and spent quality time with my kin.

I had an interesting conversation with my siblings in which we all sat around complaining about the massive state and oppressive taxes. We were all of one accord until I piped in about how public schools mean stealing from some folks to propagandize the children of others. My sister, a full time employee of a county school system for about 18 years, looked at me as if I were from another planet. She was articulate and well versed in all the usual apologetics for public schooling. My brother, who will be sending his 6 year old to public school this fall and whose wife also works for a school system, was also skeptical. Schooling is different, said the sibs, because it benefits everybody. I suspect that schooling is different for them because it directly benefits them and that they really don't give a hoot about whether anybody else gets anything out of it.

Now, I'm all for schooling and book learning and such, and I admit that a learned population is more desirable than an ignorant mob from just about any perspective. Where I differ from my siblings and apparently most of my conspecifics is on the matter of who provides this learning and who pays for it. I submit that most of the parents who actually care about their children's education could home school them in a way that would be superior to the public education they might receive. Moreover, these parents would find a way to finance a private education for their children if they did not choose to home school. Finally, I am certain that philanthropists who are concerned about this issue would provide scholarships for deserving children from poor families. The rest of the children, the ones from dysfunctional families and who are either stupid or lazy or both and who cost the most to school, aren't going to get anything out of a public education in any event. (How much book learning does it take to work in the carnival industry, anyway?) So let's save the money we are throwing away on these dead end kids and put it to better use, eg repairing the roof of my house where the capenter ants have been feasting or replacing my about to explode water tank.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Mad Cow Testing

This story at MSNBC indicates that the USDA will not permit meat packers to test their own product for mad cow disease! (There is an instant poll at the site, and I was surprised that, at the time I voted, 17% of the 8000 or so respondents did not think that meat packers should be allowed to test their beef for mad cow. I speculate that these folks already have mad cow disease and want company.)

I found this story because this issue was featured on Morning Sedition this morning, and I had a hard time believing that the government would actually prevent a meat packer from performing tests at its own expense to insure the safety of its own product. It appears to be true, absurd as it is. Have the bureaucrats at USDA succumbed to mad cow themselves? The fact is that the USDA is more concerned about confidence in the beef supply and protecting its patrons in Big Beef than in the safety of the food supply. It turns out that the government testing program in place since 1990 has been found by the USDA IG to have no statistical validity whatsoever. The program has been nothing but window dressing to build false confidence in the safety of beef.

I'm not one to panic over this, and I recognize that deaths known to be related to mad cow are very few (if you can even believe death stats). That said, I don't think I want to take the chance that my next hamburger will destroy my brain. The technology and the incentives exist for meat packers to test for mad cow, and I would definitely pay a premium for beef that was credibly certified as mad-cow-free. And by credibly I mean certified by the packer, not the lying USDA. We have got to find a way to get the USDA out of the way.

For my part, I am going to lay off beef unless it comes from a local organic farmer who does not feed cows to cows. I encourage my conspecifics top do the same.