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Works and Days

The New Commandments on the Barn Wall

February 18th, 2012 - 4:53 pm

Ten Commandments for Our New Century

If you think our quiet lives of desperation can sometimes become a bit much, relax. Here are some guidelines to soothe your frustration — a few commandments that make sense out of today’s nonsense.

1) Wealth and poverty are now more relative, than absolute, conditions. The ancient idea of the limited good once again rules. Someone who has more, by definition, took unfairly more from someone else with less, one who nobly chose not to do that in turn to others. Fairness, not poverty, is our national obsession. My 48-inch screen television gets wonderful reception and offers sharp quality, but only if I know that someone else does not (and should not) have a 52-inch screen. I liked my Accord until I found out “he” parked a BMW next to me. But at least I can console myself that I choose not to do the sort of things that the BMW owner succumbed to. As is true in every peasant-minded society, wealth is as collectively scorned as it is privately lusted after.

2) Regulators are never the problem; a dearth of regulations always must be. If a teacher is at fault, a train operator sleeps, or a Wall Streeter loots, it is never because an administrator was lax, a supervisor chose to overlook drug use, or an auditor was incompetent. Instead, the common culprit was that we did not have enough laws. If Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank did not preclude the career of a Jon Corzine, then we need far stronger statutes than both. If a gun is smuggled by ten idling TSA operators, then we need more and better full-body X-ray scanners. There are lots of odd mentalities at work here: the more poorly educated and inept are our regulators, the more we turn to regulations per se to make up the deficiencies — guaranteeing even more so that the regulators cannot wade through the accruing paperwork. While it is considered illiberal to fault employees as incompetent, it is considered very liberal to cite the shocking absence of yet another law.

3) Debt is a mirage. Borrowing right now has no connection with repaying eons later. At some future date, inflation, debt reduction, write-down, higher taxes on “them,” growing the economy, a computer meltdown, those not born, a few “fat cats,” or a German will somehow step in to erase what is owed — some $16 trillion in collective debt. Borrowing and spending win friends and foster admiration; cutting and repaying alienate and earn antipathy. Do we adore more the politician who enacts another entitlement with someone else’s money than we do hate the curmudgeon who wants to see how it is paid for? Close call. Just as a billion in 2009 instantly became a trillion, then why cannot a trillion in 2012 likewise become a zillion? What do a few zeros matter anyway?

4) In our new age of diplomacy, being liked trumps being respected. The former proves we are magnanimous, the latter that we may be unfairly feared and thus by implication unkind. Giving aid to an unappreciative country is a sign of sophisticated largess; cutting it is proof of small-minded vindictiveness. Being despised by recipient Egypt is part of sophisticated diplomacy; withdrawing our bitten feeding hand is abject yokelism. Trying to undermine Putin while assuring him we pose no threat to his dictatorship is now called clever reset; ignoring him while making it clear that he will regret bullying our allies was the primitivism that reset was supposed to address. We would prefer that Iran agree to make only three nukes due to our brilliant outreach diplomacy rather than to make none at all due to its fear of what we Neanderthals might do. In short, being considered right about human nature is a worse charge than being naïve; the one is proof of unthinking traditionalism, the other sophisticated idealism.

5) Collective national wealth is natural; private wealth is unnatural. Barack Obama flies on sophisticated jets because as an American president he deserves that birthright; Boeing, which makes such wonderful planes for profit, does so only by the exploitation of non-union workers. Shut down a Boeing plant, and the planes will still materialize out of the upper air. iPhones, gas, and brain surgery spontaneously appear for all our benefit; engineers, oil company CEOs, and doctors deliberately profit at all our expense. Good things appear on trees; bad people claimed they made them. The gas in your L.A. Mercedes never should come from the oil off your coast. The driver is a refined sort; the refiner is not. Those who use things are to be given more credit for their existence than those who provide them. The consumer, never the supplier, is king: dive into the steps of a swimming pool, and we will curse the negligent or conniving builder who out of greed or ignorance put steps there in the first place.

6) Medieval exemption is not medieval. Saying one thing, while doing another, is no longer hypocrisy, but rather logical, given that sinning is finessed by prior qualification. Deploring racial profiling ensures that you do not have to visit Detroit too often — and never feel guilt in avoiding it. Warren Buffett circumventing inheritance taxes, or fighting the IRS, requires him duly to whine about the soft tax treatment accorded billionaires like himself. Barack Obama can shake down Wall Street donors, but only if he has first branded them fat cats and corporate jet owners. Deriding super-PACsis requisite to creating them. You can keep Guantanamo open only if you damn those who opened it.

7) Victimhood is always sought, never questioned. If affirmative action seems biased and unfair, then we all will claim 1/16th Native American heritage due to our little known great-great grandmothers. We discriminate against Asian students on the basis of their too perfect grades and test scores, but would not so much if they just cited a grandparent unfairly interned or a great-great grandparent indentured to the railroad. What our ancestors apparently did not get to do can be more important now than what we have actually done.

8) Neanderthals need nerds. The cool gang banger who is knifed on Saturday night suddenly in extremis worships the surgeon who stiches up his liver and kidneys — a target whom he would otherwise have robbed earlier that Saturday afternoon. The thug who strips the copper wire from our streetlights nonetheless assumes a nerdish engineer will keep designing the wiring scheme that runs his car’s CD. For the good life to go on, each illiterate punk demands one corresponding graduate student at MIT to take care of him. When the former outnumber the latter, then civilization usually winds down.

9) Ideology, for all the protestations of the zealot, is now not to be taken too seriously — not in this age of global leisure and affluence. The pro-Palestinian European activist expects to stay at a comfortable Israeli hotel. The zealous supporter of affirmative action in row 22 on a transcontinental flight expects that tribal considerations will not adjudicate who is piloting his 747. The opponent of vouchers prefers his kids in Sidwell Friends to the D.C. public schools. The La Raza activist at the university does not really wish his tony suburb to resemble Oaxaca. Guantanamo is a horrific gulag in December — and a reasonable solution to an intractable problem by January 21. These hypocrisies are driven by both age-old and more recent fuels: power is always preferable to principle, at least for those who are attracted to office-seeking. And in this affluent age, it is nearly impossible for the populist to live the life of deprivation. Politics has become too lucrative a business; and the populace is no longer so poor.

10) Owing in our new millennium shall be less stressful than saving. The man with a little money in the bank is more worried that he thereby will be taxed more, earn no interest, or have his small sum expropriated, than the borrower is worried that he will have to pay back the full amount of quite a lot that he borrowed for his mortgage, credit card, or student loan. The saver is suspect of doing something bad to the borrower; savers are always active-voice beneficiaries, debtors passive-voice victims. An American without debt or a federal program to relieve it is not really an American. Before this Greek mess is over with, the press and elite opinion will have convinced us that the Germans who lost nearly $400 billion really are merciless and conniving and the Greeks who squandered it really are victims and largely innocent. In the modern age, the history of lending and borrowing does not count; the present ledger book trumps all: why do poor Greeks have to pay back rich Germans? Or better yet, if the defaulter of mortgage, credit card, and tuition bills is still poorer than those who lent him the money or others who did not take out such loans, why, then, should he become even poorer paying the richer back?

I keep these commandments in mind daily. That way what would have seemed absurd in my youth is now as natural as the sun rising.

Try it.

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