Friday, July 23, 2010

Light bulbs, common sense, and our ruling class

Yesterday's post recommended that people read this piece. If you haven't already read it, you might consider doing so over the weekend; it's long, but it's worth the time.

In it, Angelo M. Codevilla lays out in clear, forthright language what it is that is so very frustrating about life in twenty-first century America, and how we got here. There's no way to summarize such a lengthy and detailed piece, but essentially Codevilla is talking about the growing disparity between two groups of people, America's "ruling class" and its "country class."

About the ruling class, Codevilla says:

Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America's upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and "bureaucrat" was a dirty word for all. So was "social engineering." Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday's upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.

Today's ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters -- speaking the "in" language -- serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America's ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.

The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century's Northerners and Southerners -- nearly all of whom, as Lincoln reminded them, "prayed to the same God." By contrast, while most Americans pray to the God "who created and doth sustain us," our ruling class prays to itself as "saviors of the planet" and improvers of humanity. Our classes' clash is over "whose country" America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. The gravity of such divisions points us, as it did Lincoln, to Mark's Gospel: "if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand."

I think this is important, because the tendency when reading such a piece is to shrug and say, "Well, there have always been wealthy elite leaders in America, as in every place." But the point that's being made here is that we've never had so unified a group of elite leaders, all willing to pour their money and talents into a vision of America in which they, the wise and powerful, gradually take away from us, the simple and insignificant, such freedoms as they don't think we ought to have. Consider the tax changes that will take effect in January of next year unless something is done before then: once again marriage, saving, inheritance, and the like will be penalized, and parents who raise their own children at home will receive less tax help than parents who pay for day care.

When you contemplate the notion that what our ruling class really cares about is power for itself and its friends, and what it dislikes are ways of living and modes of earning income which do not depend on, rely on, or increase their power or that of their friends, a whole lot of things start to make sense that were only illogical before. Consider the upcoming ban on incandescent light bulbs. Does it really make environmental sense to ban a "carbon consuming" light bulb which is still often made in America and which can be disposed of in ordinary trash or recycling with one which, though using less energy, is manufactured and imported from overseas and must be disposed of via hazardous waste guidelines in special facilities (and heaven help you if you break one in your home)? Does the potential of dangerous accumulations of mercury in our landfills (assuming people won't bother to drive their used light bulbs to special disposal facilities) really get offset by the energy savings?

But suddenly the whole thing makes sense, if the point was never about what light bulbs Americans used at all. Consider the number of government jobs, the amount of government money, and the potential increase of government power at stake if we
  • commission studies of light bulbs and energy use
  • send government employees on "fact-finding" trips to the European nations which have already begun phasing out incandescents
  • work with foreign trade partners to increase their production of CFL bulbs to meet our proposed new "demand"
  • "educate" consumers as to the new rules for light bulb purchase, and produce educational materials on the correct way to clean up a broken CFL bulb including the need to open windows and turn off heating/air conditioning the next several times you vacuum an area where a bulb broke
  • simultaneously work with incandescent bulb manufacturers to set new standards for energy usage which might make incandescents still available for sale--at a much higher price
  • create regulatory commissions with various levels of power to oversee the incandescent light bulb production industry, to keep them apprised of ever-changing energy standards
I could go on and on, but you see the point--and that's without even considering the "friends of the ruling class" who start "green energy consulting" companies which then receive government grants as they sell their services to the private sector. And let's not forget the federal "green energy czar" position, duplicated in the private sector at many companies, and the various other environmental initiatives all of which can create just as many jobs/as much power as the light bulb "problem."

The people Codevilla describes as "country class" simply don't share the values of the ruling class. Out here in common-sense-land, questions do get asked, like "How much carbon does shipping all our light bulbs from China use?" and "Do we really want mercury-vapor bulbs in our homes, let alone in our landfills and water supply?" But understanding what the ruling class is all about makes it crystal clear why government programs, initiatives, rulings, bans etc. so often make no common sense at all. They don't have to make sense--they just have to increase the power of petty bureaucrats, and make sure the next generation of Ivy-league grads has something sufficiently trendy and "in-crowd" pleasing to put on their resumes, as they vie for power for themselves.

From huge, centralized education initiatives which treat local school districts and individual students as preformed cogs in a vastly inefficient machine, to wacky environmental rules that smother small businesses and stifle innovation, to ill-managed welfare programs which seem designed to increase the number of people dependent on the government for food and other goods or services, to a 2,000 plus-page health care leviathan that will likely make care less available, less affordable, and less quality than it is now, the policies and practices of a government of the ruling class, by the ruling class, and for the ruling class is understandable only to those who share their ambitions, their lust for power, and their contemptuous distrust of the rest of the American people. As for the rest of us, well, we're the sort of silly Americans who think that light bulbs are for illumination, not for creating a whole host of parasitic government jobs and power for the ruling class, so why should our opinions matter about this, or about anything at all?


Edward said...

Okay, the article does a good job of explaining the situation, but unless I missed something, it also seems to do a pretty good job of pointing out why the various potential solutions are very likely to be ineffective.

So . . . now what?

Red Cardigan said...

Hi, Ed! :)

I agree with you--the article is more about the problem than what to do about it.

"Now what?" is the million-dollar question, in my mind.

One thing I think might help is if we started looking much more cynically at proposed government "solutions" to problems. There are three questions every person should ask, at minimum:

1. Is this problem actually a problem that needs fixing (such as: oil spill, aftermath of hurricanes, etc.) or is it only a problem according to the values system of the ruling class (light bulbs, green energy mandates)?

2. Does this problem *require* a solution at the federal government level, or even at the state government level? Or can it be handled by local government in cooperation with non-government groups? (Catholic principle of subsidiarity might be helpful when pondering these things.)

3. Is the proposed solution going to add to the power of the ruling class? Is it going to do this primarily or disproportionately to the problem? (E.g., does the solution actually help, but does it do so at the expense of creating whole new areas of federal power?)

If enough people are asking these questions and demanding answers, it might help to slow, at least, the rate at which the ruling class grabs power. Their most vulnerable "body" is Congress, which is re-elected more frequently than other elected officials and which doesn't have any guarantee of lifetime power--but it will take time to create a real political alternative to the "ruling class Democrats" and the "wannabe ruling class Republicans" who form most of our choices now.

Anybody else have ideas?

JohnT said...

Hi Erin

JohnT from Rod's old blog. Think I will visit here more often.

Non-violent revolution. Non-cooperation with their schemes. The more regulations the more alternative economies will spring up. Ignore them and go about your business as if they were not there.

c matt said...

Other idea, but not necessarily a pleasant one. Eventually, as in Europe, the Country Class will care less because of the disillusionment, the Ruling Class will consolidate more power, and the cycle will continue. Eventually, the Ruling Class will collapse due to its own ineptitude, and a well disciplined and organized group will take over (my $$ is on the Muslims). Could be bloodless (demography + voting block), or not.