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On the Third Hand: Frivolity

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I think of myself as being a rather moderate, suggestible enough person — talk to me long enough, and I’ll probably agree with most of what you’re saying, but I’ll also agree with the conversationalist who comes along after you.

But, in one way, I’m way to the right of some people who think of themselves as being very far to the right: I’m pretty skeptical about the whole idea of the stability of modern technological and financial civilization.

We have a beloved reader, Sunforester, who posts many passionate comments about the idea of the futility of government efforts to help the poor. My version of Sunforester’s position is that Sunforester, like Ayn Rand, believes that imposing taxes on citizens is a form of theft; that government intervention will almost always make things worse for everyone; and that efforts to justify government programs that “help the poor” are usually just intentional schemes to take from the poor and the middle class and give to the rich, or eventually will turn into that sort of scheme, even if the organizers’ intentions are good.

And, of course, the frustrating thing for someone who kind of likes Medicare and Social Security is that, in the long run, Sunforester is clearly absolutely right.

In the not-so-long run, we’re all dead. In the not-so-long run, the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies and entropy of all kinds increases. The hot rock cools down. The ball rolls down the hill. The life forms who live in a particular habitat use up all accessible, necessary natural resources and die for lack of clean water, energy, food, etc. Efforts to “manage an economy” may maintain the illusion of stability for a while but will always inevitably lead to horrible, pent-up systemic risk that will be all-the-more destructive because of regulatory pressure to eliminate it.

So, in other words: I read articles by people who think that financial guarantees mean much, and that gold is a great hedge against bad times, and just feel sad.

What good will gold do for me when I’m spending my last years scavenging for canned goods in the ruins of supermarkets? At that point, I think I’d much rather have a well-made multi-tool, or a magnesium bar that’s attached to a nice flint striker.

But, in the short run, while civilization lasts, I want Social Security and Medicare to minimize the number of panhandlers on my block. I want old people who are old now to have benefits now, even though it seems highly unlikely to me that the benefits will still exist in 2032, when I turn 67.

I think civilization, and life, really are about strategies for temporarily shielding us from the reality of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Our skin keeps our organs working in our bodies; our organs keep our cells working within their membranes; and our cell walls keep the little organelles working within the cell walls — temporarily.

Our civilization is stable enough to keep our government going — temporarily. Our government arranges for someone to pick up the trash, repave bumpy roads, pick up the trash, and tend to the needs of the poor and the incapacitated — temporarily.

Certainly, it will all come to an end, but why rush to get to that day? Why not try to keep some form of the stability going as long as it can?

I’d like for candidates for political office to show that they’re open to doing what they can to maintain the comforting illusion of political and economic stability for as long as we can keep it going.

When Democrats go around slamming the rich — even though, let’s face it, much of their money comes from the rich, and even many of the Democratic officeholders and would-be officeholders are rich — that completely ruins the illusion that they might have an interest in working with Republicans to keep the country. Or even the illusion that they might have some interest in thinking and talking about reality.

They give the impression that they’re just repeating words and ideas that poll well with this or that interest group, not even saying what they actually think.

The Republicans, meanwhile, enable that kind of focus group-driven obstinacy (and elicit a similar kind of add-on layer of obstinacy from the Democrats) by going around saying that they refuse to raise any taxes on anyone for any reason, under any circumstances.

On the one hand, dumping new taxes on the rich and expecting them to fix the budget deficit on their own seems to be a silly approach. If we imposed enough new taxes on them to generate that kind of revenue and made the taxes stick, we’d probably somehow decrease their paper wealth to the point that they weren’t even super rich.

On the other hand, saying that we’ll hold down guaranteed growth in Medicare and Social Security benefits for people of modest means but won’t impose 1 dime more in taxes on billionaires fails the smell test. 

On the third hand, I think the obvious answer, that Democrats and Republicans are pretending doesn’t exist, is that, as long as we’re going to put our inner Sunforester on mute and pretend that we can keep a government-intervention-based economy going, at least for a while, we’re all benefiting from living in a nice country and we all have to do what we can to pay more to keep it going. 

If we have enough assets to have a coffee can full of spare change, then we’re going to dig into the can to pay more in taxes, and get less in benefits, and spend more time playing Minecraft if we want to exist in a world where unlimited supplies of cool stuff are free.

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