Saturday, November 20, 2010

Consent of the Governed

First, a Facebook Friend posted this link:
12 Facts That Will Blow Your Mind – Federal Employees And Members Of Congress Are Getting Rich While Those Of Us Who Pay Their Salaries Suffer

So I had a few responses. Here they are, as commented on the thread:
#1: What's the source of her money? Just her salary as a Congresscritter?
#2: The Federal Government employs doctors, dual-PhDs, and people at CEO-level responsibility for government agencies. $150k a year is *low* for those types of jobs.... Do we want all the inmates in our Federal prisons to be seen by doctors who can't get a "real" job? Is that in the interest of public safety?
#3: ...which is why we need campaign reform. You can't become a member of Congress without your own war chest.
#4: there were 4,434,431 US government employees (including uniformed military personnel) as of 2009 ( So that's an average of $100,000 in *total compensation*... which includes things like military pensions, health benefits, etc. The typical ratio for benefits to compensation in the non-profit sector is 25%; it's probably higher for government jobs, as our military members and many civil servants have excellent benefits (like fully-paid health care or actual pensions rather than just 401ks). So then we're talking about more like an average salary of $75,000... including 1.3 million active-duty military members, thousands of doctors, etc.
#5: ...because we want the "average American" crafting legislation and advising on foreign policy? the average American can't find Germany on a map. Let's instead talk about how many people are making *far* below "average".
#6: The right of labor to organize is protected by law, for good reason. Wal-Mart employees aren't. Who do we want in charge of spending our tax dollars?
#7: Again, we need campaign reform. These people were rich long before they became electeds.
#8: We're complaining because people got raises? How many people were making $140k in 2005? $140k in 2005 is $156k now, just due to inflation.
#9: Don't know much about this issue. How much insider trading do members of Congress do? Which members of Congress have had legislation put before them that would make it illegal and refused to vote for it? What about the current legislation in the works... does it address the issue?
#10: And what's the difference in responsibility? You can slip the matre'd a ten-spot and get a table faster... do we want that at the IRS? The airport? Our prisons?
#11: I'll agree that benefits in the private sector suck.
#12: I want to invest in what they did. How much of that was real estate, btw? And how much did they lose in the crash?

This is an incredibly biased, misleading, and destructive way of looking at isolated pieces of information context-free to try to just get people against government. Get the *whole* story; don't let the pundits make your opinions for you.
The OP then asked an insightful and useful question for such a dialogue, which was (paraphrased; I haven't solicited permission to quote anyone) "What does government mean to you?"

So, here it is... again, as posted:
Government is a social contract among the governed. In a hypothetical state of nature without government, there is only natural and acquired power. Natural power is attributes like strength, beauty, and intelligence, which can be used to ...acquire power. Acquired power consists of things like resources, loyalty, or fame.

In the state of nature, those with less natural and/or acquired power (usually highly correlated) are consistently at a disadvantage to those with more. As social creatures, we depend on each other for not just the "extras," but bare survival... people cannot be healthy and whole in isolation. But in the state of nature, there is little one can do to prevent antisocial behavior on the part of someone more powerful. An individual lacks second-strike capacity: if I kill you for your food, you are now dead and can't take action against me.

So we form alliances. Ten people with less power can create a social contract, and best one person who is more powerful than each of them individually. Eventually, even the powerful realize they are better off by engaging in and complying with the social contract.

Modern government has come a long way in developing methods of negotiating and re-negotiating that contract, but in the end, it's still the same thing. Government is made up of people. We agree. We don't all, individually, agree with everything "government" does, but we all agree to be bound by the decisions of government, because we are better off than if we "go it alone." As social creatures, we are infinitely healthier and better-off in alliance than isolated.

When "government" is misbehaving, it's our job, as those who imbue government with its power, to find out why and fix it. To me, an awful lot of the issues we face today can be addressed by reforming campaign finance, so that people, rather than money, elect our government. I also think we need to get back to truth-telling; we seem to have no power to stop those with the acquired power of fame from just flat-out lying to influence people's opinions on the job of government. This causes them to vote, again and again, against the interests of themselves and most people, to the advantage of a few.

The social contract is breaking down. We don't fix that by breaking it further, but by remembering that these people only have the power to damage us because WE GAVE IT TO THEM. We can choose to give that power elsehow, too
...Never mind that "elsehow" doesn't appear to be in my browser's spelling dictionary. I like it.

For anyone who wants to know more about the social contract and the state of nature, start with Hobbes's Leviathan. Rousseau also did a lot on this. I had to read this stuff for some Sociology class, you should too. ;-)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I made this.

I remember looking down at my approximately seven month old baby almost six years ago now, and realizing with a shock that nearly every molecule in his body came from mine.

WOW. Powerful thought, huh? At that point, he was still making "food face" every time we tried to give him something solid, so he was still pretty much exclusively nursing, as he had been since birth (aside from the 20 ccs of infant formula the pediatrician at the hospital pushed on us because we didn't know what a wet disposable looked like :-/). So not only had the original 8 pounds 6 ounces of him come directly out of my body, the raw material he'd turned into the next 15 pounds had, too. (Yes, my 7-month-old was about 24 pounds. That's not a math error.)

So I'm reading The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, who is a behavioral economist at Duke University, and there's a chapter on the meaning of labor. Turns out, when we make things ourselves, we value them more. He calls it The Ikea Effect, and says, " increase your feelings of pride and ownership in your daily life, you should take a larger part in creating more of the things you use in your daily life."

This triggered my memory of that moment, when I realized this whole entire person on my lap was something I made (with some design assistance from my husband). How does that change how I value my child(ren)? Or, to put it a devastating way... how does the near-universal adoption of formula feeding for part or all of infancy compromise a mother's natural, normal pride in and value of her child?

A couple of pages later, he goes on at more length about how this phenomenon enters our everyday lives:
Similarly, we think we will not enjoy assembling furniture, so we buy the ready-made version. We want to enjoy movies in surround sound, but we imagine the stress involved in trying to connect a four-speaker stereo system to a television, so we hire someone else to do it for us. We like sitting in a garden but don't want to get sweaty and dirty digging up a garden space or mowing the lawn, so we pay a gardener to cut the grass and plant some flowers. We want to enjoy a nice meal, but shopping and cooking are too much trouble, so we eat out or just pop something in the microwave.

Sadly, in surrendering our effort in these activities... we may actually give up a lot of deep enjoyment because, in fact, it's often effort that ultimately creates long-term satisfaction.
Another WOW. This touches on so many things. People ask me "what do you EAT?" when they hear what I don't: gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, nightshades (not to mention artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives). What I eat is mostly what I make myself. Yes, doughnut day at work drives me crazy sometimes, and there are days where my brain throws its own little fit at the idea of having to jump straight into dinner prep as soon as I get home (once I've gotten snacks for the kids, nursed the baby, and started the older one on his homework). Every so often, I think, "I wish I could just call Crispy Crust and be done with it."

And then I'm glad I can't. Because if I could, I would... and I wouldn't feel good about it. I'd feel like a cop-out, a lazy bum, someone who isn't doing the right thing. Our modern world tempts us constantly to cut corners and compromise, and in the process cheats us out of so much satisfaction. While our Big List of food allergies makes things tricky, it also forces me to make, invent, and create.

And therefore, to enjoy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

We interrupt this important message with mindless drivel.

I haven't finished the Prop 13 post yet. I've realized it needs more work; the basic idea is there, but there's math and stuff. Usually it's fun, but right now* I'm not in the mood.

But I want to write. So here's a little exercise in semi-automatic writing**... we'll see where it goes.

I'm optimistic about the incoming Congress. I have this hope, that doesn't seem entirely unrealistic to me, that one or both of the following things will happen:

1. The frosh Congresscritters, suddenly having this as their real *job* with staffers who, some of them, may actually have some experience and background in running a Congressional district, might learn a thing or two about how things work. Like waiting periods for health care, and why we thought it'd be a good idea to abolish them. Or why it's cheaper to provide a social safety net than to just let people languish on the street. Or any number of things.

2. Because the Tea Party is somewhat outside the scope of the mainstream Republican party, some of the veteran Republicans may find it makes sense for them to break ranks and side with the Democrats on any number of things. Which is a nice way of saying that they'll be afraid of looking like idiots by association.

Sure, it may just be a ridiculous deadlock. I can hope, at the very least, the the Democrats will have learned by now that "bipartisan cooperation" takes two to tango, and the conservatives didn't come to the dance. Then, at least, they can be doing things, passing things through the Senate, the tsk-tsking when the House turns them down over and over. If only they'd done that the first two years, we might not be in this position.

But overall, I have severe politics fatigue. I try to care. Really I do. But it's so disgusting what some of these people want to do to us, to me. Hell yes I take it personally. Knowing that my family would be in deep doo-doo with health care if my husband lost his job? That's personal. Knowing that there are homeless people picking through my trash cans because we can't seem to find it in our hearts to provide decent social services? That's personal. Knowing that my son's elementary school is about to lose their librarian and their plant manager, and while the school is raising huge noise of protest, nothing is going to change because there's no money because me and my neighbors all have nicely insulated property tax rates? That's VERY personal.

And sometimes I make the mistake of reading the comments on articles on the Los Angeles Times website. Wow that hurts. I'm surrounded by hateful, hurtful people who vote. How do I meet that without wanting to crawl into a hole?

But on the upside... it could be worse! That's the ticket. I should just go back to that optimism thing I was enjoying earlier.

* i.e., the last three weeks.
** Automatic writing is an exercise my mom used to have her English classes do. You set a timer for five minutes, and you don't stop writing the whole time. Even if you're not actually creating prose, you just keep the words flowing. You don't correct, you don't even really think... you just put words to paper. It's different on a computer, and I'm far too compulsive for not correcting things... hence, semi-automatic. But now it sounds like a weapon. "Words are better weapons... words are the way to break through without blood." Peter Dee, "...And Stuff."