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(This appeared on a Facebook thread following a post about real patriots being willing to pay taxes to support valuable social services.)

DK: It’s Interesting that a significant majority of folks who have served in the armed forces favor Romney. They do know how to make sacrifices. My bias favors those leaders who have actual experience in managing a business. Nice to have a Harvard law degree, but having a Harvard MBA too is a good base to build on. Romney proved himself as a businessman and created a fortune. But “liberals” today tend to demonize those who are successful (the evil 1%). That kind of thinking will obviously do lots to promote business creation and the needed risk taking and hard work. Romney’s success rate in turning around failing companies was about 80%. We’ll be hearing lots about the 20%. All politicians pander to their base, as you well know. The 50% of us who actually pay federal income taxes are patriots and are happy to pay those taxes. I know I’m happy to do so and frankly I’m simply amused by those who pay nothing and then have the gall to say that I don’t pay my fair share. It’s so weird.There are crazy elements on both the right and left. Some would say that liberal spendthrifts are going to bankrupt our country. Government spending is not all that different than personal finance. You have to set priorities. That is being responsible, not crazy. Most people in this country are hard working, caring people. Let’s try to get along!

SH: Actually, managing a business and managing a government involve very different skill sets, because: 1) the former allows for a far more authoritarian approach while the latter requires more ability as a mediator and facilitator, and 2) the former is driven by a single goal (maximizing the profit margin) while the latter serves a complex matrix of goals in service to maximizing the well-being of a populace.

I don’t “demonize” the 1%. I’d be happy to be among them; there are a lot of things I’d like to do with such money (esp. financing the social movement of my dreams, that I’ve outlined on my blog). I critique the system that produces such an excessive and growing concentration of wealth, and do so for two reasons: 1) It isn’t within a context of widespread prosperity, and so indicates a systemic failure to distribute the wealth produced with some modicum of equitability (and given that we have the most inequitable distribution of wealth of any developed nation on Earth, and the highest poverty rates accompanied by a plethora of associated ills, it clearly is not a necessary and unresolvable condition in a modern, successful, capitalist economy). And 2) It actually harms the economy as a whole, DIMINISHES AGGREGATE WEALTH, and WEAKENS THE ECONOMIC ENGINE.

The fact that all other developed nations have far less economic inequality than we do definitively debunks the notion that addressing socioeconomic inequality undermines economic prosperity. AS AN EMPIRICAL FACT (something people need to pay more attention to), those countries that DO pay attention to the issue of the distribution of wealth have LESS poverty, more generalized prosperity, and lower rates of all of the associated ills (e.g, violent crime, homelessness, malnutrition, etc.). As I outlined in my straight-forward “A Framework for Public Discourse” that I wrote in response to you, David, and that you never replied to, there is no a priori economic reason why we have to assume that any social problem is off-limits for us to contemplate and look for ways to solve, always doing so with attention to all relevant factors and implications. Economics is not the science of excusing inaction because it is presumed that doing so will decrease the production of aggregate wealth, as you use it, but rather is the science of figuring out how to balance a variety of interrelated and sometimes competing concerns to maximize human welfare, as people more concerned with humanity and less concerned with rationalizing inequality use it.

(Did you see the wonderful quote by John Kenneth Galbraith, by the way? “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: That is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” That sums up my above point beautifully.)

And it is clear, both historically and in economic theory, that excessive concentration of wealth diminishes the robustness of an economy in its entirety. This is because it creates a sub-optimal balance of capital investment and consumer spending, and is well illustrated historically by the fact that the two most catastrophic economic collapses in America of the last 100 years were immediately preceded by the two greatest concentrations in wealth in America in the last 100 years, in 1929 and 2008 respectively, which in turn were preceded by a decade or more of small government, pro-business, deregulatory policies. Your entire edifice, David, is counterfactual and contradicted by well-established economic theory.

As for military personnel favoring Romney, those who pursue military careers have long tended toward conservatism (though far less universally than some suppose), and the fact that they do so today is neither new nor interesting. Those individuals, in fact, are part of the inspiration for the above post, since they tend to be among those who insist that patriotism requires that it take their preferred form. This was a response to that notion. As a former U.S. Army infantryman myself, I have no compunction about criticizing our militaristic emphasis in America (nor should anyone, whether they’ve served or not). We haven’t yet struck the right balance between “supporting our soldiers” and “criticizing how we use them and how we culturally contextualize the use of them.” Vietnam was an object lesson in the horrible error of vilifying those who are also victims of our overzealous militarism, the soldiers themselves. But it has become excessively taboo to say “I oppose the glorification of warfare, and the glorification of inflicting enormous damage on enormous numbers of other human beings, in the name of patriotism, with the flag waving and stirring songs echoing in our hardened hearts.”

Something that absolutely appalls me is that, when we discuss the pros and cons of any particular military action, the issue of how it will affect the innocent civilians on the other end is almost off the radar. When we debated the costs and benefits of the Iraq war, what you heard least (barely at all, really) was “we are killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians every year, and maiming and leaving homeless tens of thousands more.” That failure, that omission, is not patriotic, and I am tired of it passing for patriotism. It is a sign of a hegemon that has become so self-absorbed and self-serving in the utilization of its rather awesome power that it has earned the enmity that much of the world feels for it, and should take to heart the lesson that should teach.

That’s the whole point: Should “patriotism” be defined by our willingness and ability to inflict massive suffering on others, or on our willingness and ability to create more well-being among the members of our own society (at the very least)? I say the latter. Conservatives, apparently, insist on the former.

Don’t use the word “gall” with me when we talk about “fairness.” In terms of the distribution of wealth and opportunity, we are the least fair of all developed nations. Repeat that to yourself a few hundred times, because you’re having a great deal of trouble grasping it: Every other developed country on Earth does a better job than we do of extending the fruits of prosperity to a larger portion of their citizenry. That matters. That’s relevant. And that’s because they, unlike you, understand that we are societies, not just random collections of mutually indifferent human beings. Your wealth (as Ben Franklin himself emphasized) belongs to the public as much as it belongs to you, because it is produced through a partnership in which your efforts and skills are facilitated by a social institutional framework in which we all are invested and to which we all belong.

You call it “gall” to consider equality of opportunity a legitimate issue of concern, and then insist that we should all “try to get along”? You talk about “liberal spendthrifts bankrupting our country” when 80% of American economists favor Democratic over Republican economic policies, and the free-market advocate Economist magazine called your economic arguments “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical”? Give me a break, David! From the point of view of the discipline of economics, on the basis of the empirical evidence, it is this excessive concentration of wealth which is bankrupting the country, not “liberal spending” (especially since our national debt has grown more under Republican than Democratic administrations, due to that same conservative eagerness to kill other people at great cost to ourselves and our economy)! As an EMPIRICAL FACT, the two most catastrophic economic collapses of the past 100 years were immediately preceded by the two greatest concentrations of wealth in the last 100 years, both of which followed a decade or more of small-government, deregulatory conservative policies. This isn’t JUST about what’s fair and humane, it’s ALSO about what’s necessary to the health of the economy as a whole!

I DO believe in fiscal responsibility, but fiscal responsibility is not best achieved by pursuing draconian cuts in a slew of extremely marginal (in a budgetary sense) social welfare policies and programs. There are really only two social welfare programs that are substantial budget items: Social Security and Medicare. And, yes, I’m in favor of reducing their budgets, in two ways: Raising the retirement age, and means testing both of them. Problem solved (especially if we stop spending far larger amounts of money beating the world into submission).

You want to keep doing contortions to find ever-more satisfying moral justifications for rank selfishness, you go for it my friend. And I won’t hesitate to shame you for it in return, because it IS a shameful attitude, and one that I will not legitimate with any degree of acceptance, even if, after a series of insulting and disingenuous statements, dedicated to perpetuating the suffering of my fellow citizens in service to continuing to tank our economy, you close by saying “let’s all get along.”

(If you really want to get along, actually listen to opposing arguments, consider their merits, look at the evidence, and realize that you, as well as those you are talking with, are going to have to compromise, particularly when the evidence is resoundingly against you. Merely attributing mainstream liberal positions to “extremists,” which you graciously indicate are complemented by far-right extremist positions that you don’t hold, followed by “let’s all get along,” isn’t enough.)

(A continuation of this exchange can be found in A Response to a Conservative on Personal and Collective Responsibility, Reason, Bias, Discourse & Humanity.)

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  • sblecher:

    I can’t resist jumping into this conversation, and I’ll try not to be too judgmental. Romney is a successful businessman and he has an MBA. Dubya had an MBA too, but he was a lackluster businessman. The difference is Romney is a lot smarter. Herbert Hoover was a successful businessman too, and a really good Secretary of Commerce, but his presidency was a disaster. The Stock Market crash was not Hoover’s fault, but he was not up to the challenge.
    I don’t demonize the top 1% (actually it’s the top 1/10 of 1% that runs the country). I prefer to consider how they made their money. For instance some hedge fund managers made huge amounts of money but created no wealth. They are just the same as winners of high-stakes poker games. People who built companies like Intel or Hewlett Packard earned their money by creating wealth. If these people are rich that’s fine with me.
    Since the 1970′s the distribution of wealth has shifted strongly to those at the top and the dynamic is not hard to explain. The primary cause is the loss of manufacturing jobs. I’m not claiming that we must hang on to every manufacturing job we ever had, but we have lost whole industries. Practically no shoes and clothing are made in the US, and Third World wages are so low that brand name clothing companies can increase their profit margins, and still sell the products at a reasonable price There’s nothing illegal about shifting those jobs to Third World countries. The consumer electronics industry has practically disappeared in the US. Apple has sold millions of I-phones and I-pads, but Americans are not involved in their manufacture. Mostly middle class people buy those products, but the proceeds go to the management and stockholders of Apple. There’s nothing illegal or immoral about all of this: American companies are supplying products that the public wants. The problem is that this trend can’t continue indefinitely. Our balance of trade is very unfavorable, and also people will gradually run out of the wherewithal to buy that stuff. Nobody has figured out how to revive manufacturing in the US.

  • I’ll go further: Manufacturing is transforming, and, within the next couple of generations, will cease to exist as we know it. 3D Printers will take over, with designs digitally communicated to them anywhere in the world, to produce any quantity of any component or mechanism, varied to address customized needs, but more rapid and efficient than current mass production (and producing objects that are more seamless and less subject to various kinds of malfunction and wear and tear). Jobs will become increasingly information-intensive, and decreasingly labor-intensive. Less costly, labor-intensive jobs will continue to filter “downward” and “outward” through the global economy, followed by successive waves of innovation that also flows downward and outward. That which flows away will not, generally, come back (except maybe for brief and desperate revivals), though successor technological versions of it may.

    And I’m much more okay with this than many people are. First of all, I’m a global humanist, so I’m glad that wealth and the means to acquire it is spreading to places in the world where it is in shortest supply. The challenge for us isn’t to recover what is now benefitting others, but to acquire new expertise in the new waves of innovation in which we can and should have a comparative advantage.

    And that means preparing our kids for those new, information-intensive jobs. Frankly, I’ve had a little bit of a paradigm shift over this: I had, until very recently, been of the belief that we shouldn’t necessarily try to prepare every kid for, and channel every kid into, college, when for some training for a skilled trade just might make more sense. But I’m becoming increasingly concerned that those skilled trades simply won’t exist, especially here, for the duration of the working lives of the current crop of school-age kids. We HAVE TO prepare for the information intensive jobs of the future, because, increasingly, that’s going to be the only jobs available.

  • sblecher:

    Manufacturing is already a lot different from what it was in the past. In a modern manufacturing operation only about a quarter of the jobs are of the “assembly line” type. Most of them are engineering, supervision, tooling, parts, shipping, equipment, logistics, and so forth. Low tech industries like clothing will never return to the US.
    Most of my career was in industry, and some of it was in research, so I’ll expand upon my remarks later.

  • sblecher:

    Thanks, Steve. I’ll pick up on the continuation with DK, and continue my comments on manufacturing later.

  • sblecher:

    To continue,three dimensional printing is not intended for production parts, but for prototypes, because they must be made from photo-polymers that are not adaptable for everyday products. Injection molding is much more economical for plastic parts. In the 1990′s our company converted from conventional machining to computer-controlled machining Instead of a machinist setting up each cut manually, computers control the machining operations. Computer controlled machining is now used very extensively, especially in the automotive industry. Electronic circuit assembly is also done robotically, although humans do a few finishing operations.
    This brings us to the topic or education. The machinists in our company received training courses in operating and programming computer-controlled machines, and the transition was very smooth, and they didn’t have any college education. Precision machinists are smart people. Kids these days enter grade school knowing how to run computers, so I don’t see why they can’t graduate from high school knowing how to perform all sorts of jobs in the world of information technology, given some on-the-job training. Twelve years of schooling should prepare people for most jobs, and if the schools are not doing that, they’re not teaching the right stuff, and/or the students are not working. I also think there are enough people graduating from four-year colleges. Some of them are unemployed because they have unreasonable expectations. The late Nora Ephron was a graduate of Wellesley, but she started out in the publishing industry doing very menial jobs for several years, before they gave her the opportunity to do some writing.
    The original topic was extreme inequality of income distribution, which I attributed in part to the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector. If a company is doing its own manufacturing, wealth flows downward in the form of wages and salaries for a wide variety of people, and purchases of goods and services on the domestic market. Wealth flows upward in the form of revenues and profits. In the example I cited of I-Pads and I-phones, wealth
    primarily flows upward. The trend seems to be ever-increasing inequality.
    Do you have any suggestions for reversing that trend, since we both believe it’s unhealthy?

  • The use of 3-D printers is expanding, and both the first glimmers and further projections of more generalized production uses are becoming increasingly widespread. Several start-ups have already established themselves for making certain commercial items with 3-D printers, and the range of materials that can be used is growing, some exceedingly strong and light. It is already used to make commercial plane parts, among other things. Read the spread in The Ecoomist from a few weeks ago. I think that it’s more likely that the obstacles to more generalized application will diminish with time, as they have been diminishing since its inception.

    The problem you point to by emphasizing another, transitional production technology is that any specific technical skill anyone trains for is increasingly likely to become obsolete long before their working years are over. We need training that is less task-specific, and more flexible, which means training the mind in the use of cognitive skills and tools that can be adapted to a variety of applications. This requires more than computer skills; it also requires cognitive and imaginative skills.

    Yes, I think there are ways to increase economic equality without undermining the market economy. One strategy basically involves using government and nonprofits as the funder of community development and local enterprise, turning communities into businesses, something one Indian Tribe is famous for having done (can’t remember which one; not talking about casinos, but a more mainstream good or service in high demand that this tribe has become the pre-eminent supplier of). More generally, we have to identify it as a goal, and act with the resolve to address it, and then treat government itself as a corporation through which we meet goals such as that one, in the manner that any for-profit corporation might, as an actor within the market, driven by a different bottom line.

  • sblecher:

    By golly, you’re right. 3-D printing is finding new applications, although it’s still used mostly for prototyping. Basic computers skills will be required for a long time to come, along with reading and math. I still don’t think the public schools are really preparing students for the post-modern world, and we don’t really know exactly what will be required 50 years from now, or even in 10 years. People should be prepared to learn new skills, and the example I gave shows that ordinary people are quite capable of doing that.
    At present people are being dumbed-down with passive entertainment and spectator sports, while the politicians are lulling them to sleep with propaganda about American exceptionalism. My complaint about suburban communities like Highlands Ranch is the children are over-structured and have fewer opportunities to improvise and just hang out. This doesn’t help them develop their imagination. When I was a kid we had fewer highly organized activities, which was fine. On the other hand the schools didn’t encourage creative thinking, and they were really into rote learning. Now we have CSAP , which is a total disaster, especially since it completely dominates the curriculum. You will never get students to develop imagination and real cognitive skills if CSAP dominates everything.

  • I agree with you. The overstructuring of children’s time is a new twist on the old factory-processing of children model, sticking them on the conveyer belt and imprinting them with knowledge and skills. I’m proud of the fact that I don’t do that with my own 8 year old daughter. We just had a fantastic day together, in fact, that included laptop shopping, and lunch out together, and our own sort of imaginative, playful form of conversation. She really blows me away with how sharp and funny she is!

  • sblecher:

    Although this is a digression: if you read about the lives of creative people you notice that a lot of them have had an unconventional upbringing, and spent more than an average amount of time pursuing their own interests. My wife is a teacher who retired before CSAP, and she has been doing volunteer teaching of students with learning disabilities. She has books of interesting mental exercises for kids of various ages, that challenge their imagination and build thinking skills. Unfortunately if the only concern is CSAP scores, they really don’t get a chance to exercise their imagination. Early religious indoctrination also has a bad effect overall, in my opinion.

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