Walter Rhett

A Playhouse for Our Worse Instincts

In Living, Media, Perlo, SC on January 17, 2011 at 6:56 am
Civil War Causalities at Fredericksburg, VA, 1864

Civil War Causalities at Fredericksburg, VA, 1864

In a striking underground example, the 60s popularized non-medicinal pot leading to an agricultural economy in Humboldt County, CA in which normal, happy school children worked after school with manicure scissors to trim the buds, adding value above a thousand dollars an ounce for brands in high demand whose aggregate worth is well over a $1 billion annually. So is the country undergoing an equally dramatic, seismic reorganization in its values. It changes our national identity and policies; it reconstructs our moral ground and redefines how we act and respond to issues on America’s every corner.

(1) In economic policy, the ideology that now guides politicians and policy makers fails its own means test. Besides not hitting its numbers and ignoring better percentage plays, it fails to note that the economic arm of American exceptionalism is philosophically rooted and connected historically to an astonishing and exceptional social action: it originally held that individuals or groups who achieved great economic success would would give more and do more, to benefit all.

This idea born in American democracy was a remarkable, radical break with previous global and historical actions. Wealth would no longer be hoarded as a prize of absolute power, maintained by brute strength and a blind eye to the plight of those with lesser means. Instead, American exceptionalism meant wealth would contribute to the success of the whole. It would dampen destructive conflicts and renew progress. Less Hobbes, (although Hobbes sought protections for labor as a worker’s property); more enlightened Rosseau. Its highest result: the Marshall Plan after World War II. Rosie’s muscle stood for our collective might.

Today’s ideology stands the old, founding principle on its head. Exceptionalism has come to be the wolf pack of lone wolves, bound together by obscene obsessions with their power and privilege and wealth. The result: 7 and 8 figure bonuses for executives which 70% of Americans favor banning. Twenty percent of the population controls 85% of the wealth, leaving only 15% of the nation’s wealth for the remaining 80 percent. The top one percent controls more than 40 % of the country’s financial wealth, as charted by NYU’s Edward Wolff. The result: where we once led the world in progressive policies and organized capitalism for its greatest benefits, we are now stand against the global trend.

(2) Morally, many want to be like the men and women enjoying the spoils, tone deaf to suffering. Who cares how much Bill Gates give away today? What the NBA is to inner city neighborhoods, corporate America is to a large segment of America: a dream that cannot be fulfilled but is rooted on for its place at the top. The fallacy is obvious: the dream depends on fewer and fewer people winning. The biggest lottery prize has the most losers.

But a large part of the country overlooks this contradiction. Despite the cognitive dissonance of knowing we can’t win and will be ultimate losers, a segment of America thinks ignoring the inconsistency and tension makes us stronger. The result: transplant patients who die because they can’t afford life saving operations while the state funds the study of algae as a fuel. The result: South Carolina’s new Governor Nikki Haley increasing a staffer’s salary (he worked on her campaign!) by $27,000 before he performed a day’s work or demonstrated any competence in public service. This from an official in her first week in office who promised to be fiscally responsible and cut the public budget to reduce the state’s debt. The result, rooted in Emile Durkheim, is a weaker society ripe with alienation: conspiracy constructs, secret cabals, guided by those estranged; harsh words, wary mistrust; a tyranny conceived to be real and posited by remote control.

(3) Socially, the exhilaration of reveling in the playhouse of our worst instincts, shrinking our sphere of concern, and linking effete, self-indulging hands empowers much of our public participation. Like those naively walking the Knife’s Edge arȇte on Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, (a trail a mile long, a mile high and often only six feet wide), many of us seek only the thrills and are blind to the dangers, and blame others when we fall. The result: we never improve our climbing technique but only demand a safety rope (read: bail-outs, gifts of tax cuts, debt for our causes, security for our purposes).

Political activists and pundits of all stripes should be required to perform a day of public service a month: real contact helping, listening, and serving real people. Let Newt tutor in Kenyan colonialism; Boehner in restaurant management. Hands on means fewer will be found with hands out, and maybe those whose hands have been raking it in will understand the value and mutual benefit of joining hands and truly giving back.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Walter Rhett, Writer, Walter Rhett, Writer, Walter Rhett, Writer and others. Walter Rhett, Writer said: A Playhouse for Our Worse Instincts: […]

  2. I agree with almost all you say, but I wonder why you choose research on algae as an example of unnecessary expenditure. Surely there are many wasteful or useless projects worse than this.

    • MS has more sun and wind then most states; can’t seem to see the forest for the trees! (algae) Actually closer to commerical hydropower using river currents (underwater rocking buoys or turbines at 2 knots, river speed), converting to storage and batteries, than they are to unleashing the algae! (Did they get it confused with atom?) And I like Mississippi! Good catch of the unstated inside pun! Thanks for reading!

  3. I saw this in the comments on Krugman’s “The War on Logic” piece today, and followed the link here. Nicely done.

    To Mark Troll’s point, while I don’t disagree with the idea that looking at algae for a new fuel might be a positive research area in which to spend some money, I think we do have to look at how the immediate value of a human life is subservient, in our current culture, to the long-term money-making possibilities of a new fuel source. Could that new fuel source also foster jobs and new technologies that improve life for all? Possibly. But when we don’t take care of the “people at home,” one wonders why we’re investing in the future–unless simply to make money, once again, for the few against the interests of the many.

    • Posted a reply; “algae” is an inside pun on green energy research in MS. See the previously posted reply for full details. I do agree with you, but enjoy as a writer the literacy license of an inside “non-logical” joke (pun on Paul’s column!), which writers can do-but e-conomists shouldn’t! Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion!

  4. Kudos for this piece. Consider the following analogy:

    Wealthy portion of society is like the snow gathering on mountain tops in season. When the season changes, the snow melts to support life giving rivers to the low lands. As crops grow, water returns to the atmosphere and feeds snow in season. The cycle repeats.

    Consider the state budget deficits (e.g., Texas: $27 Billion). During a recession, should there be less education, less medical, less police, less fire protection, etc.? In fact, shouldn’t the opposite be true? Why should normal government operations be considered an unnecessary luxury during a recession?

    Instead, imagine what would happen if the taxes on the very wealthy increased during a recession in order to support normal government operations. Suppose this wealth tax were automatic, returning to normal when full employment was achieved?

    Some would say such a policy would be “pro-cyclical.” But, huge reductions in state spending during a recession are also “pro-cyclical.”

    Some would say that wealth would be less likely to employ new workers in face of the increased tax. But, the wealthy hunker down and stop spending during a recession, which is also pro-cyclical. Their support of essential state functions would be counter-cyclical.

    Some would say that an automatic reduction in tax rates on the wealthy during times of prosperity (after State rainy day funds are recharged) would promote “bubbles”. It is the wealthy who create the bubbles, not the working poor. Surely the wealthy have the advice and counsel necessary to avoid creating a bubble. In order to avoid paying higher taxes in the event of a crash, there would be an added incentive to avoid speculation.

    In the final analysis, it is the rich who create the boom and bust cycles — not the working poor. Why should the working poor suffer the consequences of the irresponsibility of the wealthy? Why should essential State functions be sacrificed during a bust when education and health become even more important than before? How could this possibly be healthy?

    Our society makes the accumulation of wealth possible. It is only fair that those who avail themselves of the opportunity to accumulate vast wealthy pay for the privilege.

  5. You’re on it! Fine analysis of political economy, of who drives the economy–and it’s certainly not Adam Smith’s “invisible” hand. Thanks for reading and taking the time to share and post yr insights. You have enhanced the discussion and a great explanation for why tax cuts for the rich will not create jobs or prosperity–on increased demand will. Feel free to review other Perlo posts and stir: leave a comment!

  6. I enjoyed your analysis of the current economic framework described in your comment to Professor Krugman’s column in the NYT today. I am now following you on Twitter and I look forward to more writings from you. Be well.

  7. Mr. Rhett, this is a brilliant analysis of the “greed is good” mentality in this country. Thanks for writing it and thanks for posting it in the comment section after Dr. Krugman’s latest column.

    I will definitely be archiving this as well as sharing it with my progressive — and not so progressive — friends!

  8. “What the NBA is to inner city neighborhoods, corporate America is to a large segment of America: a dream that cannot be fulfilled but is rooted on for its place at the top. ”

    I adored your post today on Krugman’s blog (this post), and am glad it got the following it deserved…however, I do believe that the sense of “a seismic reorganization of values” is less “of the people” and more a distortion of corporatocracy infiltrating and dismantling our government…

    But the people cannot be held down, as history proves, and as Tunisia is proving this very moment. Slaves picked tons and tons and tons of cotton in the country, contributed for more than a century to our robust GDP, and had multiple uprisings and defections before slavery was successfully abolished…but abolished it was…

    There is not so much a shift in values in this country as much as the GOP would like to convince us there is…and since they (corporatist Dems and Repubs) know there _is_ a broad mission of shared common good, like Winning Progressive notes also in response to Krugman today, they cannot directly loot social security, Medicare, and the safety net–instead, they have to run up deficits with tax cuts for the rich and defense spending in order to make such cuts of the safety net palatable. That would suggest there is not so much a seismic shift in our values, as much as a cunning fox looting the henhouse…

  9. I was very lucky to have teachers all the way from elementary school to college that emphasized that whatever they tried to teach us, it would be but the tip of the iceberg in an mammoth floe of knowledge whose size and shape we could never begin to comprehend…

    In other words, no matter what handful of facts or words we speak, or were we a Shakespeare himself writing a life’s work of masterpieces, all are equally a useless smattering of trivia compared to the body of history’s grand total accumulated works…

    Therefore, against the backdrop of such immensity, the only foil against our own insignificance is the yowl to be as searingly honest as possible–from Camus’s “gentle indifference” to Ginsberg’s “Howl,”– language is but a speck connecting the pinpoints of humanity, living now, to the past and future centuries…

    Literature and commentary is not about self-aggrandizement, or narcissism, as we accuse our politicians of perpetrating in their seeming exclusive spheres of concern. In fact, writing is a form of reaching out that is the diametric opposition to narcissism, since it fundamentally requires reader and writer to emerge from the shell of self to understand others…

    And such reaching out has the ultimate logical conclusion of true pluralism—of creating the broadest negation possible of “the playhouse of our worst instincts”—it has the logical conclusion of making infinite correlations, of seeing words themselves as adhering to the politics of marginalization, though relentlessly they swoop in to bring the periphery to the center, yet another periphery ever lingers…

    So imagine how dismaying it feels to have words be used as “evidence” against you, to pin you down to an inherent label, that somehow defines you according to that superficial set of circumstances, once and for all…when, in fact, words are the very proof in themselves that all labels are malleable, and all seeming one day is but ground for the next day’s distortions, illuminations, and reverberations….but anger, and the desire to consolidate power of one person or group over another, can take on just as many millions of labels and justifications, and so humans use language as weapons against each other, while ignoring the true connective nature inherent to language…

    Thus, I agree with your last paragraph that physical interaction in the real world should, theoretically, reel our politicians and pundits in, to amplify our shared common good and goals–
    Yet actions alone, do not reel my soul in–why? Because ironically, the _lack_ of words– expressive, ebullient, haphazard, friendly, whimsical, mistaken, ungrammatical–make actions by themselves seem almost more narcissistic than writing….

    Words create, betray, maintain, and illuminate our alliances. I can’t express myself, and therefore, _be_ myself, as fully without them. Thus, I feel more fully myself when I try to collaborate with the entire world in my ideal of a truly pluralistic, non-narcissistic, society, through writing.

    When it becomes apparent, at times, that I am simply reaching out to the self-absorbed who apparently either lack such a vision or are incapable of expressing such a vision, or, worse, lack common courtesy and respect, (as it can feel reading negative comments on the New York Times website, for example–or seeing how many hundreds of TimesPeople list themselves as “following” and “followers” while rudely not reciprocating to those who follow them), I experience moments of bitterness and recrimination that make me want to revolt through poetry. Poets have been telling us for centuries that corruption is rampant and logic is screwed up…and seeing all the horrible affronts to our common good, like yanking health insurance away from people while sanctimoniously declaring you are preserving their liberty that you heard loud and clear they want to keep, makes even liberty seem so wicked I want no part if it, not if it is being defined as being free to die on the streets or face a lifetime of indentured servitude to medical bills.

    I start to agree with you, that our sphere of common concern is shrinking, and it becomes exhausting to be determinedly optimistic, to constantly appeal to our better nature, when we are met with rudeness, derision and indifference.

    It is one thing to take solace in the soaring eloquence of those you agree with, it is quite another to live in a world where experience is relentlessly divided into contrived sides and differences, so that two (or more) groups shout endlessly at each other about how their definition of liberty and freedom does not include the other…obviously bastardizing the very meaning of liberty, and somehow itself supposed to be signifying the liberty to shout each other down!

    At least Nature is blissfully indifferent to our concerns, equally as the harsh physical scale of justice she wields unflinchingly while we might, indeed, traipse that knife’s edge on Mt. Katahdin (which I had the pleasure to do, in 1988). Ideally, society is the attempt to help each other against the harshness of nature, so that some are not alone in the cold while the king feasts at his table… but resourcefulness is one thing we learn from the irremedial limits of mortality.

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