Thursday, October 06, 2011

You just get wet

Charlie Pierce is one of those writers who, a hundred years from now, people will rank with Ambrose Bierce and...  maybe just Ambrose Bierce.  More prolific than Bierce but no less cranky, he's been writing insightful and honest opinions about sports and politics for so many years I don't remember a time when he wasn't writing.  And since I'm in my forties, that probably means a long time.  He's associated particularly with the Boston Globe and Esquire, and in both cases he represents a link to the tweedy, smart, New-England-in-Fall past of the 60s when Esquire was super cool and being from Boston meant you were intellectual and working class and understood the intellectual underpinnings of the west coast offense and also how to tie a bowtie.

I'm reminded, every time I read Pierce, of two things.  One is that I can write like him - maybe not as well, or as practiced, but because Pierce writes so easily on so many things, and makes such minor mistakes, and has such an insidiously clear style you think: what's holding me back from writing like that?  Not him specifically but comfortably.  He reports, why can't I.  Etc. 

The other thing he reminds me of is Charles S. Peirce, the philosopher known for his contribution (some would say foundation) of Pragmatism.  Peirce had a lot of interesting thoughts on a lot of things, and you should look into them, but the thought Peirce had that Pierce reminds me of is Peirce's psychology of theories.  Peirce held that theories, or ideas, or hypotheses, are formed by psychological irritations that create an impetus for explanation.  The scientist, inventor or philosopher is wracked with these irritations - is wracked with pain on an idea - and is thus constantly in search of theories to explain the idea, to assuage the pain, to turn the grit of the idea into the pearl of theory.  (Something like that - its been a while since I read Peirce.)  Pierce is an irritation, in the best and most inventive way.

What Pierce has irritated, to my mind, is the title of this post, and more generally this post.

I grew up in a Canada where the safety net was largely fait accompli.  We grew up watching Participaction commercials, which made sense to us because if we were all paying for our health care, we all had a responsibility to stay healthy by staying active.  We could all go to a university close enough to our high school that we didn't need to take out loans and could live with our parent(s).  We did peacekeeping overseas, because someone needed to offer sober judgment and stand between the two belligerent drunks who've taken it outside.  We spent long hours in elementary school learning what a "mosaic" was, and how Canada was different from the US because they were a melting pot and we were an intentionally multicultural society - we could fly to Quebec City, after all, or even parts of northern Saskatchewan, and find people who never learned to speak English because their family had spoken French since the 1600s.  We took for granted our compassion as a people.  It made us Canadians: our leaders were Pearson, Trudeau, and even Mulroney and sharp Alberta conservative lawyers like Lougheed and Joe Clarke.  Some of these guys were mere-but-great technocrats and some of them were gifted politicians and uniters, but they helped us understand what being a Canadian was all about.

At the same time, the economy sucked.  The US recessions of the 70s and 80s hurt Canadians badly, largely because, for the most part, Canadians rip shit up and sell it to Americans.  We cut down trees and grain and canola, we dig up nickel, we pull down mountains to find coal, and now we scrape up tar, and we sell it to the US.  Sometimes Japan and China, and occasionally Europe, who we used to behead baby seals or sieve the ocean of its cod for.  And when people don't want our gold, nickel, wood, coal, oil or baby seals we don't get any money.  It makes us very sad.  Oh sure we nod every once in a while in the direction of diversification and the knowledge economy - Alberta once called itself the Wired West -  and cleantech, but there's far too many people in our big cities who owe their lives to ripping shit out of the ground and selling it to the Americans for there to be too much of a concern for anything else.  Any attempts at diversification in Canadian industry tend to be met with the tut-tutting wry smile of conservative white men who think its certainly cute anyone would be so utopian as to think you could do anything different, but its not really serious.  So things sucked here for a long time - when Volcker sent rates up in 1980, they went up an additional 5-7% here, right at the time my family was trying to swing a loan to buy a farm, and when the Canadian dollar devalued against the US dollar to make exports simpler, the prices went up dramatically here.  And so we lived in the genteel poverty of a people assured by their proactive leaders that we were more sensible and more civilized, but also at the ruthless mercy of American capitalism.  We knew we were getting screwed, more or less, but it was for the greater good.

And then I moved to the US, because they had better schools, and stayed there, because they had jobs for intellectuals.  And much of what I thought about the US was wrong: it wasn't a melting pot; or rather, it might have been 50 or more melting pots, but certainly the whole thing wasn't.  Politics was completely absent from everyday life, and unlike Canada, where you could wear your party affiliation literally on your sleeve and have a generally thoughtful conversation about it, you might discover that very sensible and even admirable coworkers and colleagues and friends had personal Overton Windows so far from your own, or what you'd even think in the acceptable range, that you were shocked to discover how strange your surroundings really were.  It was often like a Twilight Zone episode: you discovered your neighbor thought people like you - i.e. liberals - should be herded into camps and exterminated, but because they didn't know you were a liberal they gave you the heads up without knowing they were warning you.  As I was driving to Palo Alto in 1992 in a little hatchback with skis and books and an ironing board (for some reason, my mom thought that was essential) I heard Rush Limbaugh, before he calmed down, growling out his poison at 4 AM while I was pointed at the Sierras.  I almost turned around.  I kept going because I thought he was the exception, that he was on at 4 AM because everyone was ashamed of him.  What I came to realize, and accept, was that these opinions were everywhere, and that like Canada, everyone thought everyone else agreed with them, but that unlike Canada, the field of opinion was much more like a mosaic than the Canadian melting pot.

Over time, I came to understand the US.  In Canada if you were young and proactive and enthusiastic and smart, you went into government or the university system or you tried to make a public life - you wanted to be on CBC, interviewed by Peter Gzowski, or popping up in the Globe and Mail bestseller list, whatever.  But any desire to grow in public life in the US was ended with the ruinous subopenas the GOP rained down in the Clinton administration - suddenly an idealistic kid just out of college working on national health care for Hillary might have to hire a lawyer for $100k/year in addition to paying their student loans, and all because they were mentioned in some memo or other.  The latent anti-intellectualism of the Reagan era took hold with a vengeance and the pat, simple slogan-answers manufactured in the wingnut welfare mills were everywhere.  People had hoped Clinton meant a swing back to a democratic era, a hipper Camelot, a period of peace and prosperity and rationality and none of the radical divisive destabilizing social experimentation the GOP was pushing.  It would be, people would say, y'know: More like Canada.

But I was lucky, because I lived in San Francisco and worked in Silicon Valley, and we were creating the future.  We knew guys like George Gilder and Kevin Kelly were a bit weird, and that a lot of the hype about flat entrepreneurial organizations with communal reward systems that treated their people right out of the sheer economic necessity of retaining and attracting talent was just hype.  But also, it wasn't.  It was a myth that the receptionist hired as employee number three at that startup down the street was now a multimillionaire who could spend all year living in her own private Burning Man.  But also, it wasn't.  People were making money.  They were getting a say in their corporate environments.  More often than not, they were voting with their feet, and the ruthless corporate darwinism the Stanford Ayn Rand society thought was so critical to life in the Valley was as often as not overridden by the ruthless Lamarckian threat that untempered Randian assholes in management could suddenly find themselves with no employees, hollowed out from within and unable to execute on their genius business plan.  Word got around.  Reputations were rehabilitated in a hurry.  Promises to smart people had to be kept, because they could sense your bullshit and they also had options.  And so slowly I came to realize that, in the 90s and the Bush 00s, the way to change the world was in the corporation.

The corporation is the only institution you've got daily contact with.  Its where you spend 20, 40, 60, 80 hours a week.  Your hopes and dreams are there, your reasons for drinking and celebrating.  Your friends, more often than not.  They provide you with food, health care, often pay for your commute, your opportunities to learn more stuff.  If you've got a bad boss, you genuinely live in a fascist dystopia: you generally can't go over their head, you live in a totalitarian and arbitrary environment for two-thirds or more of your waking life, and you have to wait for eons before they get let go, and that's if you can convince someone your boss is actually a bad one.  If you've got a good boss, you're on the 2007 Patriots: everything runs right, the offense is no-huddle, the incompetent and disgruntled get weeded out, and you begin to feel like you work at the Crimson Permanent Assurance: maybe you and your good boss and the rest of your unit could just go off on your own, and leave the idiots who run your company to sink their own ships.

But that's changed now.  Even the well-intentioned companies, the ones that want to be known for employee satisfaction, that work hard to retain the talented and skilled and just plain loyal, even they're being forced to become ruthless.  Its not just like the usual Wall Street calls for Costco to bust its union; its that even large corporations can't organize to keep their insurance premiums down, and so have to pass more of their insurance costs on to their employees.  They have to keep salary raises below inflation, because they've got upstream channel inflation they can't pass on to customers because of general price deflation on the shelves.  They can't afford the mindshare that employee engagement takes; they don't want to be excellent, to be the 2007 Patriots, because its too hard.  There's no reason to hire and retain for talent and skill now, because you can get 50% or 60% of what you need for a lot less, and those people won't get ideas.  And no one wants to be innovative anymore - you poke your head up into the national conversation and you've got a bunch of screaming right-wing monkeys messing with your business.

What is a growth industry is protecting the rich.  This is known as "wingnut welfare" in the US, but its never been easier or more lucrative to comfort the comforted and pour derision onto the afflicted.  The entire Tea Party phenomenon, post-TARP, is the gold-standard case study in astroturfing.  The spontaneous, cross-cultural protests against the idea of floating the big banks - the whole Bernanke-Paulson-Geithner plan - that started in the closing days of the Bush presidency got hijacked by the Koch family and their gilt-edged ilk, turned into a talent agency for low-income voters deluded into believing that the government programs they depended on were actually paid for by God, and directed like a missile against a GOP flirting with the idea of turning back the clock to the economic progress of the Clinton era.  These people don't understand the old warning, which I think was expressed by no less an elitist than FDR, that if you don't alleviate poverty then eventually poor people will take what they need.  Ed Abbey used to say the converse: "Arm the homeless.  They know who their enemies are."

But wingnut welfare is so obviously for the people who've sold their souls, for the true believers, for the ones who desperately want to rationalize their luck as merit, for the strivers who think the rules don't apply to them.  Its not for the rest of us.  And so where is the growth industry for the rest of us?  The rich and their minions have destroyed the economy in the US, have initiated a long slow collapse for their own benefit, and they're doing everything in their considerable power to ensure it doesn't end.

When I came back to Canada, that intellectual melting pot I'd grown up in and those assumptions had been dismantled.  It was a shock.  Lots more visible minorities than when I left - certainly more headscarves and chadors in Calgary than I'd ever seen in the Bay Area, although I lived in San Francisco and not Fremont so who knows for sure.  But the multiculturalism, the peacekeeping, the safety net, the sense we were all in this together, is gone.  Because the wingnut welfare rolls grew here too.  While I've spent the last 15 years in business, learning how to make it work better, faster, more efficiently, a number of the smarter guys I went to college with as an undergrad have taken money to push the opinion that business is good at all sorts of things that business now knows it can't do better.  The irony, of course, is not lost on me.  Its not even an ideology they're promulgating; its the pure self-interest of the monied classes, who've abdicated their membership in the world with the rest of us and who are effectively saying, to any attempt to confiscate any resources to improve the future: fuck you.  Being conservative means never having to say "I'm sorry," because its always someone else's fault they're not as wealthy as you are.

And so, I read Charlie's piece on Occupy Wall Street and I think...  I don't know what to think.  What do these people, the wealthy chattering classes, think we have for options?  They have systematically removed hope, even the faint hope of mobility.  The recession and their extraordinarily successful attempts to block accountability and change are a boot stamping on the face of humanity.  If you're of a certain age on this continent you know what a recession looks like and how to survive it and position yourself for the end of it.  Now, here, it doesn't look like there is an end.  It looks like this is it.

And clearly we're not ready to accept it anymore.  If all of the channels we might have been able to make change through have been closed down by financial collapse or bribery or ridicule, we will eventually create our own channels.

When I was young I was taught not to go out in the rain - it was some kind of "sensible" thing to avoid getting wet.  Don't go out in the rain, or exercise or hike or work or walk or whatever, because you'll get wet.  And at some point, I realized, you just get wet.  It doesn't kill you.  I've avoided writing for a long time because I didn't want to get wet.  Charlie Pierce reminds me that we're all wet anyway, so my avoidance mechanism has worked.  Its time to get wet.

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