Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tribe and country: Mitt's frame for America

The one hive or the many in existential competition- how do we want to live?

I listened with fascination to several speeches of the Republican convention. It is remarkable, really, in this age of video, facebook, powerpoint, writing, printing, and many other so-called revolutions in communication that the speech remains the coin of our political realm, just as it was in ancient times and beyond (with apologies to the political attack ad, surely an up-and-coming form of political communication). Even when every single word out of a politician's mouth is a lie, speech at length remains the unparalleled window into the person, a connection desired by both the speaker and the listener.

In the lengthy runup to Mitt Romney's speech, an elderly couple from his congregation (stake) spoke about how kind and thoughtful Mitt was as their pastor when their eleven-year old son was hospitalized, and then died, of cancer. Among much else, they mentioned that their son wished to be buried in his Boy Scout uniform. This got me thinking about the role of groups in Mormon life, and in America.

Romney himself, while gauzy with platitudes, offered a program of reducing the federal government while somehow supporting small businesses, reducing the deficit, cutting lots of taxes, and creating twelve million jobs. For all the opportunism, flip-flopping, lying, and numbers that don't add up, I think he is honest about his views about the federal role. He was characteristically stingy with praise for the government he seeks to lead, mentioning Neil Armstrong, the Statue of Liberty, and the raid on Osama bin Laden. On the other hand, he and everyone else at the convention focused ceaselessly on small business, family and faith:
"The strength and power and goodness of America has always been based on the strength and power and goodness of our communities, our families, and our faiths."
Sure, it is the purest distillation of platitude, but there is something more- a vision of what groups count in America and how they should relate. On the one hand, there is Romney's experience in a minority faith and in a ruthlessly competitive business environment. And on the other, there is the technocratic approach of Federal and other levels of government to create public goods and restrict internal competition on a rational, conscious basis, partly out of moral fairness, partly to reduce violent and other unnecessary conflict, but also partly to increase the overall efficiency of our business and other communities.

As a missionary in France, he participated personally in the great Darwinian struggle that is religion in America- to show one's faith, serve one's faith, and grow one's faith, planting flags all over the world. His service to his bereaved parishioners was one of countless expressions of his dedication to his faith and to no other. The couple's son imbibed this love of the group like mother's milk; the Mormons use scouting assiduously to train their young in this regard.

Likewise, in business, Romney participated in brutal tribal struggles, first to manage and advise businesses for competitive growth, and later to identify targets for asset-stripping and debt loading. He has not shied from winning through hostile maneuvers, destroying companies, buying off managements against shareholder interests, convincing banks to give unsustainable loans, environmental pollution, and many other methods that in any larger perspective would be counted as "sins". But in the service of his group and himself, much leeway is allowed.

The picture one gets is of a man dedicated to group competition in the rawest way. I am not such a group-oriented person, so I find this all a bit hard to understand. But Romney's frame seems to be of a light federal government presiding over a ruthlessly competitive landscape, and may the cleverest and hardest businessman win, may the most hive-like religion win, and may the devil take the hindmost. If one does not have a functional group allegiance, his prescription would be to get one. In his experience, the Mormons have a full social service system, and would probably have their own sharia-like legal system, were that possible. He already pays taxes/tithes to his religion/hive, so one can understand why paying another set of taxes to provide frequently similiar social services to others outside his faith would stick in his craw.

He sees the sub-groups and tribes in America as the proper frame of competition and ultimate improvement. Out of the crucible of inter-group competition comes success, and the Republicans worship nothing like competitive success. The convention featured successful people, real or imagined, who harped again and again on the need to not punish success, and reveled in their financial and reproductive success. Their main slogan petulantly and ceaselessly repeated their conviction that they and they alone had built their own successes.. no help needed from no educational system, public services, legal apparatus, federales, or the like.

Indeed, the ticket's tax proposals clearly relieve the successful of yet more taxes, making the unsuccessful pay instead. This would truly be karmic justice- an Indian caste-style system of rewarding and entrenching what looks from the outside like privilege and guanxi rather than broader concepts of fairness, a national community, or even a smoothly functioning or broadly prosperous macro-economy.

Sure, Romney has some uses for the federal government, especially in the no-holds-barred inter-group competition that is international affairs. Looking outward, the military serves the interests of our national group, even while the tree-huggers and one-worlders seek rationality and unification on that level as well. No, America is exceptional, will brook no limits to our power, and will rule the world right up until China pries the last M16 from our cold, dead, hands. Competitive in/out group tribalism informs the Republican perspective at all scales.

What follows from all this is that any regulation or redistribution that is rationally conceived on the governmental level, especially the federal level, to redress wrongs, to equalize opportunities, or soften the blows of fate, are fundamentally anathema to the Darwinian war within America among its many competing sub-groups. However glaring the need or clear the benefits from a public good, or however arbitrary and clearly remediable the workings of fate, Republicans- and Romney foremost among them- are deeply uncomfortable with any impairment of their ability to win- by fair means, or more significantly, by foul. A true competitor seeks any and all advantages, and doesn't whine about rules, fairness, or morals.

His conduct of the campaign is emblematic, changing positions with gymnastic precision, and lying through his teeth. His attitude is.. of course I am lying.. I'm trying to win an election, right? We're all adults here, and you know as well as I that I am lying. Just so long as you don't tell anyone, because as you know, I am a highly successful and socially dominant person, so my lies are OK.

It is evident that Romeny sees nothing wrong with paying a mere 13% of his income in taxes, even though each year he makes far more than he will ever need. Indeed, he has gone to heroic lengths to cheat the government out of every possible cent. And in Ryan's budget proposals which Romney applauds, he will be paying less than 1% in taxes. It is evident that Romney sees nothing wrong with screwing workers out of their benefits and jobs, as long as his company/hive wins. He can build companies and add jobs if that is what it takes to win, but if not, then that is what his competitive position demands. Nothing personal, it's only business. It is evident that Romney sees nothing wrong with voucherizing medicare and medicaid, along with cutting what remains of the social safety net, (similarly, Republicans seek weakened civil rights protections, environmental protections, and campaign finance rules), so that the groups he is part of can have a freer hand in the grand competition of making it in America.

I get it, of course. I've read Hayek. Competition is an irreplaceable tool in micro-economics and most other pursuits. Competition is a large part of how humanity got to where it is today, and how we operate. I watched the Olympics. But competition is not the whole story, either operationally in how best to run an economy from the macro perspective, historically in explaining how humanity evolved, nor morally in deciding what kind of society we want to live in. Even in efficiency terms, excess competition can be intensely negative, as shown by global financial crisis, our handsome dividend from freeing the financial industry from oversight in favor the free-form screw-anyone-you-can competition of which Mitt Romney is such a champion.

Who does the truly great things in our nation? Who does the pure research, the interstate highway building, the space exploration, the education, the civil rights enforcement, and the park preservation? Towards the end of his speech, Romney cited Steve Jobs as an iconic business innovator. Jobs would turn in his grave, but more significantly, his success was rather different from Romney's example. He cared about the product and the customer's experience more than the money. He was an artist after a sort. A hippie at heart. His success was built on countless public investments and non-competitive facets of our society, all the way from the transistor (enabled by ATT's monopoly position and essentially academic research arm), to the internet and public education. And Apple barely survived the monopolistic jihad of Microsoft, which but for the government's antitrust intervention would have snuffed Apple out completely.

What is the balance we want? We can see the stark costs of all-out intergroup competition through history and all over the world. Especially in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the Balkans. Societies that let inter-group competition get out of control tear themselves apart into smaller societies. Societies that let successful groups win to impose continuing inequalities and exempt themselves from common duties become feudal / caste-ridden. On the other hand, societies that suppress competition excessively, like the Soviets, tend to find it emerging on other planes, like the political. We surely need some, but we need it carefully channeled, regulated, and limited. Along these lines, the Olympics are a model of highly, even painstakingly, managed competition.

I come from a Star Trek mindset where ever-greater collections of societies (the Federation of Planets!) would gather together in peaceful and beneficial coexistence, facing existential (and dramatic) threats arriving only from outside. Here on Earth, we have serious planet-wide business to attend to, what with destroying the biosphere and all. The Republican program is understandable from a primitive psychological mindset, but would take us backward by a century, if not several.

  • A nation of "takers"?
  • Class war, ad infinitum ad obliviosum.
  • Willful screw-the-poor and everyone else policy, British edition.
  • Where is the war on poverty now?
  • Whatever happened to unions?
  • Oh, this is what happened to unions.. complete victory by money/business in politics, including total corruption of one party and partial corruption of the other.
  • Obamacare rocks.
  • Energy independence is a chimera... real security means using less oil.
  • Geology and religion.. how much does one "owe" the other?
  • Religion continues to yield dividends in terror.
  • The Taliban is still there, still losing the battles and winning the war. There continues to be a fatal political, legitimacy, and power vacuum at the center- in Kabul.
  • We really need fiscal policy.
  • Political image of the week, from the super pack.

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