Oh the times! Oh the customs!

Here’s BlaiseP in a post-worthy comment:

Traditions aren’t dying out… says the man who just bought a new Online calligraphy pen.

Harking back to Sam Smith’s ur-screed, bemoaning the Liberal instinct to concentrate and modernize, from whence the worthy E. D. Kain began his progresso-libertarian riff on Less Gummint and Moral Autonomy, I’d like to venture an opinion, based on astrophysics.

The sun and planets coalesced out of the remnants of a supernova. Over time, the larger bodies accreted ever more objects smaller than themselves. Jupiter continues to hoover up comets and suchlike, making our own orbit around the sun that much safer. Mr. Newton laid it out in his laws of gravity and Dr. Einstein would explain why those laws work: spacetime warps around mass. The boffins of CERN are similarly interested in this problem. Still, nobody understands gravity as we understand electromagnetism.

Economies seem to follow the same rules. Wealth accumulates. The Brazilians have a phrase to describe a million BRL “um coelho”, a rabbit. Put one rabbit next to another, soon you will have more rabbits. Klipspringer sang in Gatsby, (misquoting the original song), “The rich get richer and the poor get children.”

Gatsby quickly shot back “Don’t talk so much, old sport…play!”

Klipspringer was right and Gatsby was avoiding the issue. Girls with 12 years of education will statistically have two children. Girls with less education will have more children. It seems the most potent contraceptive is a schoolbook.

I completely disagree with Sam Smith: if Liberals want centralized government, they understand laws without an efficient bureaucracy to enforce them are no laws at all. All this populist puffery praising local government is grossly misinformed: for well over a decade, from about 85 to 95, I watched as the various states competed for Japanese screwdriver factories, biting each other’s asses, offering insane tax rebates. The Japanese played them off against each other. They’d pour a slab of concrete, put up a big metal shed then fly me in to do the assembly line integration and robotics.

Not one of those factories is still operating. When the tax rebates ran out, those factories moved again, to another state. They even took the big metal sheds with ‘em. Now they’re all in Mexico and Malaysia and Vietnam. Same machines though.

So much for the benefits of local governments: it’s a crock. The American Civil War was the triumph of federalism and the states and counties and parishes and school districts and all the rest of these parochial fiefdoms create as many problems as they solve with their massive duplication of efforts. Which is why Conservatives love ‘em so much and encourage these populist mouth breathers. While hoi polloi squabble over the right to pack a cell phone into a box, the multinational corporations are already planning to eliminate those jobs when the margin drops by a penny.

As Rome edged ever closer to the abyss, its rich men affected the style of Agricola the Farmer, an ancient form we now see in these wretched Country Music artistes. All hat and no horse: not one of them could sterilize a milking machine or worm a hog. Marie Antoinette affected the lifestyle of a shepherdess, her little flock grazing down by Le Petit Trianon, the fanciest abri ever built.

O tempura, o morels.

I think a lot of the pushback to my Little Republics post was very good, very compelling stuff. It probably did come off as way more populist and way more conservative than I meant it to – this is the romantic in my again, romanticizing things. I get carried away. Perhaps I am just Mr. Toad off in another stolen motor car.

Anyways, the worst, most damnably stupid government in this country is at the state level, and the most corrupt is usually local. If I could abolish the states I would. A federal government on the one hand, local governments on the other. To hell with the middle-man. We’d be better off for it I’m sure. Even with the corrupt local officials and the distant Washingtonians.

So why am I a localist? Well, I don’t think the feds can do everything. Oh they can do everything the states can do – and likely they can do it better. But can the federal government run our school system? Could they run it well? I suppose it’s possible, but I worry that the push toward more federal involvement has come at the end of a stick and carrot ride off a cliff. The standardized test regime is a joke, and it’s the path to centralization and standardization that got us to this point. So maybe I’m a single-issue voter on this one. I’m a localist in that I think you do need a human touch in things like education, and I think a federal-sized bureaucracy would devour that human touch.

Anyways, I’m working a lot of this stuff out as I go – blogging for me is an experiment in thinking out loud.

Perhaps it’s all aesthetic. I don’t like large institutions. Big corporations and big government bureaucracies both make me nervous. I take Blaise’s point about the Japanese plants moving in and suckering one state and community after another; but they suckered the federal government first. There’s no perfect solutions here. Or at least I don’t know of any.

I wrote this comment in Rufus’s tradition post:

My localism is not of the neo-agrarian variety. I have no desire to make people accept voluntary impoverishment or to consign them to isolation. What I want to do with localism is:

1) Empower local communities and businesses as well as local governments to have as much say over the direction of their community as possible. So in my hometown what this amounts to is a strong alliance between local business, the local art community, and the local government to create a really vibrant downtown with no chains or big corporations anywhere in sight. All local businesses, local restaurants and bars. First Friday of every month there’s an art walk where you can go see all the local artists’ stuff in bars and studios and there’s free wine and music and such. It’s great. Local cooperation is great.

2) Buy local. We try to buy locally as much as possible but we’re not fanatics about it. We still shop at the big retailers and grocery chains (though we do try to frequent the local grocery stores more). We go to the local farmer’s market.

3) As much political self-determination as possible at the local level. I’d be really happy if we could cut out the states as middle men and just have the federal government and local governments. That’s my kind of subsidiarity. Everything the states can do the feds can do better; everything the locals can do, the feds can’t do.

That’s pretty much it. I don’t want “back to the land” stuff. I do like more promotion of local talent and local art and so forth, and less reliance on Hollywood and Big Music and the rest. But a lot of that’s also taste, I realize. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that I really love my home town.

I think my vision of subsidiarity is actually very compatible with a strong central government; every parish still looks to Rome after all. I just don’t want that force to dehumanize local communities any more than I want a country overrun with strip malls and corporate coffee shops. Maybe it is just aesthetics, but something about sameness and repetition really freaks me out. I think we’re governed in large part by nostalgia regardless, and I don’t think that’s something we can escape.

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31 thoughts on “Oh the times! Oh the customs!

  1. I just don’t want that force to dehumanize local communities any more than I want a country overrun with strip malls and corporate coffee shops. Maybe it is just aesthetics, but something about sameness and repetition really freaks me out.

    Maybe you should move to Berkeley or San Francisco. They do a lot to encourage local businesses while pushing the corporate chains out.

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  2. A League of Lukewarm Water, passed off as wisdom.

    To carry the physics analogy to its conclusion, there is a substantive difference between a planet that human beings can live on and a singularity.

    Especially a black hole. Subsidiarity and statism cannot be averaged out. To believe they can be, or to attempt to stand above them both and laugh is folly, not wisdom.

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  3. This is a good series.
    The founders got it right and I’ll make my stand with ’em boys.
    A strong state gummint, with the federal senators choosen by the state legislature working to defend the states’ interest and disempower the centralizing tendencies of the fed; “’em damn consolidators.”
    And, state elected officials working to combat the effects of ‘globalization’ while implementing nullification and similar pro-state legislation.

    “I think my vision of subsidiarity is actually very compatible with a strong central government; every parish still looks to Rome after all. I just don’t want that force to dehumanize local communities any more than I want a country overrun with strip malls and corporate coffee shops. ”
    Am I wrong or isn’t this just the opposite poly-sci of the founding generation who understood the nature of human nature? Has not the consolidating tendencies of the Obama regime et al, reinforced the evils of centralization?
    I’m not sure what, in history, encourages you to seek to empower the central gummint? Surely, the history of the past century illustrates the unhappy results of such folly?

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      • I am too, Pat!
        However, at this point in our history I’m thinking something like that may not be a bad idea at all. I’m figuring we can trade with those nations who are willing to trade straight up/free trade????, and those nations that don’t we tariff the hell outta ’em and give our industries a chance.
        I have no clue if it’ll work. I suppose I’m looking for the great unwashed to figure out that they have to do something to protect themselves and that ‘something’ might as well have its roots in the founding and not in some Hegelian/Marxist wetdream that is doomed to the same sort of failure the current Hegelian/Marxist wetdream is experiencing.

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  4. Speaking of ‘oh tempura’, during the same era that BlaiseP discussed, although the Keirestsu were famously buying up America*, ironically(?)in many other sectors, particularly retail and restauranting, the Japanese had significant cultural and legal obstacles towardly ‘wal-marting’ all their mom&pop operations. (Still do, I think – it’s one of the many facets of their long term malaise, as a lot of these small firms are also tied up in the banking/real estate clusterfark that hampered them for over a decade)

    *how’d that work out, btw?

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  5. A few points:

    “they suckered the federal government first”

    I am not sure this is entirely accurate. Many of the Japanese firms were actually bullied (via threats of tariffs) to open plants in the US. I believe Sandy Berger was one of the brokers of such deals.

    Second, I am still leary of the idea of local businesses working closely with governments to achieve _______. Having the city council tell me I CANNOT sell my property to a developer they do not like does not seem a great deal better than telling me I MUST sell my property to a developer they do like. It’s like Kelo in reverse. If I own a storefront and Subway makes me an offer to buy or lease it, it’s not like you are powerless. You can outbid them. If you cannot outbid them, that might have at least something to do with the fact that you will not do as much business at that same location. Which has to mean something.

    Finally, I think this could all be resolved, once and for all, by having a national reconsideration of Gung-Ho. Seriously. I cannot think of a movie (or book) that pokes at these anxieties more effectively. The fact that Norm from Cheers and Pittsburgh’s own Michael Keaton are in it makes it even more effective.

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    • Ain’t that tough enough…Bwahhhhh.

      Actually, I thought of Gung Ho when reading about the Japanese factories, too. I’m going to have to watch it again –remember when Keaton was funny?– but only for entertainment. It didn’t have much to say in 1986, and I suspect it has even less to say now.

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    • Gung Ho was the cry of the Chinese river boatmen, literally “all together”, as the men on the shore strained on the tow ropes, pulling the boat upstream.

      Yes, the Japanese companies were bullied, somewhat, but their economic judo was smarter than the American politicians. You see, they had gone to K Street, where they’d spent great sums of money. They watched the lobbyists chivvy the long list of our Congresscritters. It didn’t take them long to realize each of these Elected Bozos had a State after his name on the meishi. Why bother with the Federal Government when corporations are entities of the several states?

      The Japanese promptly cut out the Federal middlemen and began to play the States off against each other.

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    • I cannot think of a movie (or book) that pokes at these anxieties more effectively

      I haven’t seen Gung Ho, but that won’t stop me from recommending Network, i.e the ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more’ movie. There’s a scene in it where the deranged newsman has just gotten his viewers to squelch a Saudi buyout of the company he works for, much to the chagrin of his bosses. So he’s brought in for a little chat with the CEO.

      I’m also partial to Local Hero.

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    • Gung Ho was an exceedingly stupid movie, repulsively condescending and blankly ignorant of how the Japanese manage people and enterprises. I could write a whole book on this subject.

      The Japanese work ethic, as anyone who’s ever actually seen Japanese at work, is amazingly similar to American work ethic. They lie, cheat, cover for each other, go out drinking after work and gossip in nemawashi, where even the low-level management cadre will turn up, put their badges in their pockets and chime in with their own gripes. The Japanese genuinely admire our work ethic: Americans won’t just sit around and stare at a broken piece of machinery like a pig looking at a wristwatch, amerikajin will wrap the break up in duct tape and soldier on.

      Ignored in his own country, W Edwards Deming went to Japan, where his principles of management and efficiency were taken to heart. It certainly wasn’t a Japanese invention, this keiretsu conglomerate. It arose from Deming’s Fourth Principle of sole-sourcing and trust-building.

      The Japanese have always lived in the shadow of other cultures. The very word kanji means Chinese Characters. The Japanese have always studied the West, taking from it what seemed best in their eyes, making it their own.

      A prophet hath no honour in his own country, we are told in the Gospel of John. The Brits took our own blues and gave them back to us in the 1960s. The Indians now crank out deferential worker bees to write the crappy software with which we must all contend these days. The Chinese exploit their own workers with all the gusto of a Carolina cotton mill. That which we despise and fear in others originated on our own shores.

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        • Well sure. Still, every culture clings to its own idiosyncrasies and customs, leading to all sorts of misunderstandings. From my own experience over several decades in and out of the Japanese milieu, I’ve concluded the Japanese believe their culture cannot be understood by outsiders. Thus, despite years of mastering Japanese, I now pretend I don’t understand it. If someone does find out (usually to the great consternation of all and sundry), I loudly protest mikka bozu. I am the monk of three days.

          There are several ways to interpret that phrase. Usually it implies a quitter, for the life of a novice monk is hard, hard, hard. Many would-be monks quit at this point and nobody stops them. An alternate interpretation is a know-it-all, who believes after three days he has mastered The Way. The last, and my own personal interpretation, is this: every monk was once a monk-of-three-days.

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      • “Gung Ho was an exceedingly stupid movie, repulsively condescending and blankly ignorant of how the Japanese manage people and enterprises.”

        That’s why it’s so important.

        “It didn’t have much to say in 1986…”

        I would agree, and would counter that it has more to say ABOUT 1986. To me, it’s almost like discussing something like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Did that offer an accurate portrayal of real life in the West? Of course not. But the fact that it existed and was popular says something about America’s perceptions, hopes and anxieties about the West.

        I was born and raised in western PA, and I am old enough to remember all the people flabbergasted by the Japanese juggernaut. They mostly focused on the fact that they wore MATCHING OVERALLS and did JUMPING JACKS. Oh man… how do we compete with THAT?

        It’s easy to remember 1986 as the precursor to the computer age. But at the time, all I remember is a bunch of guys bemoaning the fact that the mills were closed, and Terry Bradshaw had somehow devolved into Mark Malone.

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      • BlaiseP, I look forward to your promised future condemnations and defenses against the unrush of Kojève’s Universal and Homogeneous State [UHS].

        Starbucks doesn’t bother me so much. It’s a fad. Although as with England, I do believe there will always be a McDonalds. It’s a darned good burger, although I’m a flame-broiled Burger King man meself.

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          • Oh, please do run with M. Kojève, BlaiseP. Fukuyama is his epigone, and easily dispatched in the current climate. Kojève was the philosophical godfather of the European Union, the future, a UHS. If we can extract him from the neo-con controversy via Fukuyama, we could get down to some brass tacks.

            My own view is that the question is no longer Athens and Jerusalem, but Paris and Mecca. ;-}

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            • Here I sit, in my housecoat, listening to Harold Budd and Brian Eno, The Pearl, fifteen browser tabs open, my metaphorical fingers running up and down the seldom-practiced scales of Heidegger. The essay has already galloped away, intent upon a preliminary discursion on Niger Republic, Kwame Nkrumah, post-colonial Africa and Nelson Mandela’s vision of a United States of Africa.

              See, I’d never have thought to write this essay without a good push. Thanks.

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  6. “Harking back to Sam Smith’s ur-screed, bemoaning the Liberal instinct to concentrate and modernize, from whence the worthy E. D. Kain began his progresso-libertarian riff on Less Gummint and Moral Autonomy, I’d like to venture an opinion, based on astrophysics.”

    I guess successful corporations are all run by liberals, since concentrate and modernize is how they grow.

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    • Many successful corporations are run by Liberals. The Wicked Old Plutocrat is generally to be found bilking the Gummint, doing end runs around legislation, hiring illegal aliens and enthusiastically screwing the working man, loudly decrying the cost of lubricant.

      And which states elect these soi-disant Conservatives to high office? Why, it’s the poor states, with their grubby hands out for ever more Federal Largesse. Even Sarah Palin and her cretinous brood would climb in their covered wagon, making pilgrimage to Canada for health care.

      Conservatism has lost its good name. Deleuze once wrote about bricks. You can either build courthouses with them, or throw them through windows.

      Liberals are fundamentally pessimists, Though they’re constantly nattering to each other about Fairness, the Liberal understands life is not fair. All men are created equal but they do not remain equal. Progressive taxation, a Liberal concept, takes this into account. Health care for all recognizes a paper cut can turn to gangrene:. Liberals understand treating a seemingly-insignificant problem, while it is small, can forestall the inevitable large and expensive problem.

      So yes, these days, it’s the Liberals who run the successful corporations. They’re pragmatic enough to treat their workers well.

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  7. 3) As much political self-determination as possible at the local level. I’d be really happy if we could cut out the states as middle men and just have the federal government and local governments.

    Maybe you have expanded on this elsewhere, but a question being begged here is ‘what is local?’ Political boundaries at all levels are somewhat arbitrary (some more than others), but you can almost always divide the smallest divisions that exist now — towns, cities, and counties – into even smaller ‘sovereign’ units with sufficiently coherent political interests.

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  8. Bigness leads to estrangement and alienation. It’s harder to just shove things along, whether as a bureaucrat or a customer service rep when, when the person you are shoving along is your neighbor, and the house being foreclosed or the system your imposing is swamping the business down the street in paperwork.

    Closeness matters. It matters for communities to function, whether they are congressional communities (it’s easier to blast the other side when you don’t have to have lunch with them later that day), corporate communities (it’s easier to ruin the bank with bad loans if you’re never going to have to see them again when you skip town) or our own civic communities, where a school district can be big enough that it’s “us” and “them”, and every interested party can be cast as wholly “other”.

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  9. From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.–Madison, Federalist 10.

    Experience has shown that Madison was wrong about a lot of things, but I’m not convinced he was wrong about this.

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