Who Do You Trust — Government or Business?

July 27, 2009 at 4:44 pm (By Amba) (, , , , , , , )

Been thinking a lot lately about how liberals trust government and mistrust business, while conservatives trust business and mistrust government.  It may be the single most fundamental difference between them.  Now here’s John Stossel quoting Greg Mankiw:

Perhaps a lot of the disagreement over healthcare reform, and maybe other policy issues as well, stems from the fundamental question of what kind of institutions a person trusts. Some people are naturally skeptical of profit-seeking firms; others are naturally skeptical of government. […]

I tend to distrust power unchecked by competition. This makes me particularly suspicious of federal policies that take a strong role in directing private decisions. I am much more willing to have state and local governments exercise power in a variety of ways than for the federal government to undertake similar actions. I can more easily move to another state or town than to another nation. […]

Most private organizations have some competitors, and this fact makes me more comfortable interacting with them. […]  To be sure, we need a government-run court system to enforce contracts, prevent fraud, and preserve honest competition. But it is fundamentally competition among private organizations that I trust.

This philosophical inclination most likely influences my views of the healthcare debate. The more power a centralized government authority asserts, the more worried I am that the power will be misused either purposefully or, more likely, because of some well-intentioned but mistaken social theory. I prefer reforms that set up rules of the game but end up with power over key decisions as decentralized as possible.

Mankiw cites Paul Krugman, who raised the whole “who do you trust” issue, as a member of the opposite camp:

What puzzles me is that Paul seems so ready to trust solutions that give a large role to the federal government. (In the past, for instance, he has advocated a single payer for healthcare.) I understand that trust of centralized authority is common among liberals. But here is the part that puzzles me: Over the past eight years, Paul has tried to convince his readers that Republicans are stupid and venal. History suggests that Republicans will run the government about half the time. Does he really want to turn control of healthcare half the time over to a group that he considers stupid and venal?

Stossel adds some thoughts of his own (the ABC site seems to be copy-proofed somehow, so I have to take a screenshot of the passage):


I grew up in the allegedly benevolent shadow of FDR, believing that business was greed and government was public spirit.  My attitude has changed drastically, mostly (the way my attitude usually changes) through broadening circles of friendship, which came to include small entrepreneurs, a couple of first-generation millionaires from working-class backgrounds whom I love and admire.  Also typically, though, I haven’t gone all the way.  I think of government and business as another of the vital checks and balances of American life.

An example I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is cars.  We had a visit recently (which I noted on Twitter) from a deeply and deliberately Southern character, a 61-year-old who looks (to RT myself) as if “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” had been written by John Crowe Ransom, but who is a stealth liberal and Obama voter in a conservative small Tennessee town.  He said that after the election he had heard one of his neighbors raging, “They’re going to take our cars away!”  Who knew that SUVs were in the Bill of Rights?  Which amendment is that?

There’s a paradox about business:  it is at once the most innovative force in the world and, at the same time, can be one of the most conservative and inert.  Nothing illustrates its inertia more than the fossil fuel economy, with all that it entails of manifold environmental damage (not even counting disputed global warming, just the health effects of air pollution and the ravages of, for instance, mining the Alberta tar sands) and dangerous dependence on foreign countries.  As long as there is oil and as long as its price can be kept within broad bounds, our energy habits are not going to change.  There’s too much employment, too much existing infrastructure, too much power and profit and, yes, pleasure (I love the freedom of a fast car as much as anyone, and more than many) entrenched there.  Market forces will keep on playing that hand until it is catastrophically played out, because the costs of changing are too high and the rewards too meager and speculative.  In this case, there isn’t enough necessity to mother sufficient invention, and there won’t be until it’s too late.

The conservative solution is “Drill, baby, drill!”  The way of life that cheap oil made possible is too often equated with the American way, a days-are-numbered luxury with an eternal right.  I think this is a place where government can play a legitimate role in forcing innovation by manipulating the market — creating an anticipatory artificial scarcity (through taxation and regulation) on one end and incentives for new solutions on the other end.  (Don’t tell me government should never manipulate the market until you’ve eliminated farm subsidies, please.)  It’s a delicate business because the transition can only be gradual and the regulation can’t be too draconian without strangling the economy.  But the decades of permissive mileage standards have been shameful, and have contributed to the American auto industry’s fatal complacency.  Unnecessary waste — in a sort of potlatch*-like display of boastful affluence — has too often been the American way.

Here’s how I feel about cars:  getting places fast on Ike’s highway system, with the top down and the radio blasting, has been wonderful — and quintessentially American for a particular time.  But I sometimes think about the places I’m passing, the detail I’m missing at my usual 75 miles per hour.  The convenience and pleasure the automobile has given us has exacted a high and mostly unnoticed price, from the annual fatalities (which usually equal the number of American deaths in the Vietnam war) to the creation of car-dependent bedroom communities.  If we have to drive slower, drive less, or drive shorter distances in yet-to-be-invented plug-in electrics, I won’t feel that my God-given rights have been violated; I’ll feel that a wonderful era has passed and another, differently wonderful, is beginning.  Besides, I have faith in American inventiveness.  Given the chance and the necessity, I don’t doubt that the problem of the fast electric car, too, will be solved.

(I didn’t have time to write this, and I definitely don’t have time to put links in, but will do so later.  Meanwhile, Google “Alberta tar sands.”)

UPDATE: At the link to “potlatch” I find that these traditional feasts were all about the redistribution and sometimes the destruction of wealth.  Prestige was proportionate to how much you gave away.  Here’s the ultimate irony:

Potlatching was made illegal in Canada in 1885 and the United States in the late nineteenth century, largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it “a worse than useless custom” that was seen as wasteful, unproductive which was not part of “civilized” values.

I guess it was thought subversive of the sacredness of private property?


  1. Sissy Willis said,

    Tech note: If you select and then use your menu — rather than mouse right click — to copy and paste, that should work.

  2. amba12 said,

    Hmmm, thanks!!

  3. Ron said,

    Can I select ‘none of the above’?

  4. Ron said,

    I also wonder if the ‘inert’ tendencies of business are businessmen who yearn for a faux ‘governmental’ approach to their own markets where they are the ‘government’ who dictate terms to proles who are devoid of choices. “Choice for me, not for thee”, might well be their motto.

    Liberals and conservatives alike are attracted to the idea of fascism — as long as they’re the dictator.

  5. amba12 said,


    “None of the above” is the reason for checks and balances — paralysis or slow, weaving forward motion being preferable to runaway this or that.

  6. Donna B. said,

    First of all, I’m surprised to read that your average speed is only 75 mph!

    I’ve read (but don’t remember where) that the larger percentage of oil goes to generating electricity and heating. Turning the thermostat up or down (depending on where you are when) may have more impact than driving slower.

    Where the greatest benefit hoped for from the “cash for clunkers” plan is 5 mpg, the energy expended in making a new car to replace the old one and disposing of the old one most likely outweigh any actual energy savings in that small gain in mpg could produce.

    Of course, I don’t actually believe that money is being passed out to decrease energy usage. A nationwide driving education course could have done better for increased mpg. And I didn’t understand why Obama was ridiculed for saying good car maintenance would help with mpg. Did he make some outrageous claim about how much it would help?

    My dad and I recently had a contest to see who was the “better” driver. On a trip to Little Rock, he drove to, getting 23.9 mpg. I drove back and got 25.1. His response was, “Hmph. I taught you how to drive so I still win.”

    Next we’re doing that experiment in my car because I’ve bet him that mine (same make/model/engine but 8 years older and 100,000 more miles) will get us both an increase of 3-4 mpg and beat his in a drag race. On strictly interstate driving, I consistently get between 28 and 29 mpg. We both are curious what Cadillac did between 1998 and 2006 that reduced the mileage (and available power) so much. We’re thinking transmission changes.

    Next topic: Unless I’ve been miseducated about potlatch customs, wasn’t it also a way of sharing everything with the whole community? I’d like to think that’s sort of an American “way” too.

  7. amba12 said,

    About 75 mph: I lied.

    About potlatches: I understand that there were a couple of variations, and I don’t know if they were sequential like this, but they started out being giveaways of wealth and ended up being displays of the destruction of wealth; or maybe those were two coexisting variations in different Northwest Coast Indian tribes. I hate posting when I don’t have time to find links so I can learn what I’m talking about.

    Your father’s was the PERFECT answer.

  8. Jason (the commenter) said,

    There seems to be a lot of moralizing going on here and I don’t know if the issues are as black and white as they are being made to seem.

    But since waste is the topic, why do we spend health care dollars on the elderly, or agriculture dollars on restaurants, or any of our money on anything other than generic products at WalMart?

    None of it is protected by the Bill of Rights.

    Why are any of us wasting our time on blogs when we could be working!

  9. amba12 said,

    Especially that!

    Maybe we’re supposed to, or at least going to, use up and shrivel up this planet like bugs that hatch inside a fruit and launch at least a few of us into space. Maybe we’re larvae.

    The moralizing is why I hate getting on topics like this (believe it or not). Whatever is said, the opposite can be said with as much justification. Why I prefer to shut up and be a Taoist. Que sera sera.

    If we didn’t meddle with things, though, with our half-assed good intentions, there’d be even more suffering than there is. The argument is all over how much and how best to meddle. Those who argued in favor of no bailouts strike me as right in principle, but who had the nerve to invite the consequences of that? A wealthy and economically conservative friend of mine says it would’ve been ugly but brief, and would’ve made for a healthier fresh start. How ugly is “ugly”? Children of affluence that most of us are, can we even imagine?

  10. Donna B. said,

    haha Jason. Define waste!

    Here’s one of my definitions: Waste is having a car capable of doing 140 and being too chicken to get it there at least once.

  11. amba12 said,

    I’m not drag racin’ with you! (On the other hand, those new SHOs, if they’re still in the pipeline, might make it irresistible. Wonder if they’re still in the pipeline. If not, I’ll have to resign myself to smelling the flowers.)

  12. Donna B. said,

    I can only dream of the SHO these days. This year we’ve wasted our money on a new hot water heater, new AC/Heat unit, and new radiator for the aging Caddy (which is still a hot car, powerwise. I loves me the Northstar engine.)

    On meddling – there are some, I think, who do it for the sheer pleasure of meddling.

  13. amba12 said,

    I mind those less than the ones who think they “know how the world should look” (Michelle Obama).

  14. Rod said,

    When I was 19, and I had all the answers, I trusted government more because that was the only way I could imagine society changing in the way I thought it should. At the time, I couldn’t imagine an emptier life than chasing the dollar.

    Businessmen can mislead and dissemble, but, absent con men, whether you are buying groceries at the supermarket or negotiating with a Turkish rug merchant, there is an essential honesty about the transaction: everyone knows the businessman is trying to maximize profit and you are trying to get the most bang for your buck.

    Politics, on the other hand, is almost entirely misdirection and deceit, because it is usually not really about the issue being discussed, but about the politician’s agenda, which is usually about enhancing his power and security. Because they are accomplished at pursuing their own ends while pretending to be helping you, politicians cannot be trusted.

    Still, there are some things the market cannot do. There is no pure market incentive not to pollute, or to take into account the energy or security needs of a nation beyond the narrow motive of profit, or even to take care of your aging parents. So, we need other institutions to encourage a certain level of social altruism. The main nominees are government, religion, or family, and each has its strengths and drawbacks.

    Faith can take us to a higher calling and many clergymen are sincere, but because it operates at the level of our deepest beliefs, it can be manipulated and result in self righteous evil. Still, I would trust a priest or minister or rabbi before a politician.

    Family is our most basic unit. Many of us have been let down by members of our families. There is a reason people say your family is where you go when nobody else will take you.

    So, I say it is best to examine your own motives and beliefs relentlessly against a moral code that is not too malleable, then trust yourself.

  15. amba12 said,

    Wow — that had the effect of a “punch” line.

    Also, if more people did exactly that, much would flow from it.

  16. Jason (the commenter) said,

    amba12 : Whatever is said, the opposite can be said with as much justification.

    But if we can find a third way, not what is stated or its opposite, perhaps we can find a solution to the problem. Especially if the problem is thinking about things in black and white.

    Whom do I trust — government or business? Neither. I see the problem, like Virginia Postrel, as a choice between dynamism and stasis, innovation and the Malthusian trap.

    The fact is, that business and government generally work together towards common goals. Large companies like Walmart have gone along with the government’s health care plans because they know large companies can handle regulations more efficiently than small ones. The government is taking out the competition for them.

    So, I think the choice between government and business is a false one. Big business wins no matter which you choose to trust.

  17. amba12 said,

    I like Postrel’s “stasists” (as opposed to “dynamists”) — a nice pun on “statists,” and not exactly the same thing, although they go together — control freaks of the uncontrollable, I guess she’d call them. The people who try to rig the game because they’re afraid to gamble — in a chaos-theory universe where the whole concept that you COULD rig the game is laughable.

    In the libertarian cosmos the exciting game isn’t “big business wins every time,” it’s “which little business has what it takes to get big?” That’s what life is all about. The Darwinian survival of the fittest great game of life. It’s one of the appeals of Althouse’s blog, by the way. The pleasure of watching individual success on the merits.

    There’s no real place in this cosmos for either the noncompetitively inclined or the losers (except as employees and cannon fodder). But that’s life, right?

  18. amba12 said,

    Oh, I should have said, “employees and cannon fodder . . . and commenters.” The rest of us are the audience, the consumers, the cheering section. They do it all for our eyeballs. Success is counted in us. There’s that.

  19. realpc said,

    “If we didn’t meddle with things, though, with our half-assed good intentions, there’d be even more suffering than there is”

    I don’t think so, and it depends how you define and quantify suffering. We might like our modern lifestyle because it’s all we know. You have always disagreed with me about this, but I really do think the primitive lifestyle, with all its dangers and uncertainties, was a far more pleasurable and authentic form of existence. I don’t think most Americans even realize how sick they are, or how toxic and filthy everything has become. I am not saying we should destroy all the machines and try to be primitive again. Just that I don’t think our lives are nearly as wonderful as everyone seems to think. I, for one, would rather be running through the forest than driving a car. Of course, I would be running with a baby tied on my back! I love the freedom of modern society, but I still think we are very sick and alienated from nature and super-nature.

    As for whether to trust government or business — the philosophy of America is supposed to be that we don’t trust any powerful group. Conservatives should not have blind faith in business, and liberals shouldn’t have blind faith in government. We have to hope the powers balance and control each other.

    Why does Krugman have such faith in government? There are lots of liberals/progressives who feel that way. Maybe it’s because they worship humanity, rather than god or any non-physical forces. If you worship human nature then you don’t see its limitations and weaknesses. Of course, Krugman and others like him do see all kinds of weakness and vice in conservatives. I guess they think conservatives have been led astray by a false ideology.

  20. Rod said,

    Real: You said, “I love the freedom of modern society, but I still think we are very sick and alienated from nature and super-nature.”

    What do you mean by super-nature? God? Astrology? That part of the natural world which science has not yet decoded?

    I agree that we are alienated. Is it a modern condition or a human condition? That is a more complicated issue. Rod

  21. realpc920 said,

    “What do you mean by super-nature? God? Astrology? That part of the natural world which science has not yet decoded?”

    There are probably higher order dimensions than what our senses can experience in this life. This has been noticed in modern physics, although most physicists don’t make a connection between the experiences of mystics and their mathematical theories. Still, it seems obvious that there are higher-order realities. There have been and are sensitive individuals in all cultures at all times who experience these higher-order ‘super natural” planes.

    I don’t see any logical or scientific reason for anyone to insist that all paranormal beliefs and experiences are delusions and superstitions.

    “I agree that we are alienated. Is it a modern condition or a human condition?”

    It is probably a universal human conditions. But it’s much worse for us. We are alienated from each other because of geographical mobility. We are alienated from the rest of nature because of our technology. And many of us are alienated from the spiritual dimensions because of our science and our religions and our philosophies.

    And our environment is full of chemicals that our bodies do not know how to process. We don’t know how sick we are because of all the distractions and diversions. Our individual freedom plus the remarkable technological and artistic achievements of our culture give us a kind of happiness that can co-exist with alienation and sickness.

    Would I trade my life in for a primitive tribal existence? I have no idea if that would be a good deal or not. If you just compare the music of our society, with its amazing range of styles, to the music of a Native American tribe, for example, the best of our music is just better. Much much better. The choices we have for self-expression, and our access to ideas and information are dazzling.

    Does all that outweigh the ever-growing piles of crud and the soul-killing alienation? I have no idea.

  22. amba12 said,

    Good points, I think, real. It’s certainly true that our bodies are full of chemicals they don’t know how to handle, and also zapped by microwaves from all directions. The autism and cancer epidemics have got to have much to do with those things.

    I suspect “primitive” people lived with more wonder and sensitivity and a lot more fear. Just look at how many cultures blame witchcraft when someone gets sick, and find an enemy “witch” to blame. I also suspect they lived with a lot more community and a lot more regimentation of the individual by that community.

    I think that even while we’re bombarded with noise, stimulation, information, and electronic bedazzlement, our senses and spirits are starved for the subtlety of nature.

  23. realpc920 said,

    “Just look at how many cultures blame witchcraft when someone gets sick”

    And very often witchcraft may have been the cause. Why not? Our culture has no official understanding of witchcraft or magic, or how the spiritual dimensions are related to health and disease. Yet our scientists and physicians assure us that the causes of disease are entirely physical. How can they possibly know that? They can’t.

    Yes, primitives lived with a lot of fear. But why should our fear be less than theirs? We can be killed on the highway any time another driver stops paying attention for an instant. Nuclear war can break out at any moment, and it’s amazing that it hasn’t yet.

    If primitives experienced more fear it was only because they weren’t as anesthetized and lulled into complacency as we are. Our experts constantly assure us that everything is under control. Hogwash.

  24. amba12 said,

    All very well unless you’re the one who’s accused of witchcraft, just because somebody doesn’t like something about you. Doesn’t have kids . . . must be a witch making other people’s kids sick . . .

    Reason isn’t everything, but you wouldn’t want to live without it, either. My brother has a great quote at the top of his blog:

    “The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel

    That’s brilliant.

  25. realpc920 said,

    “All very well unless you’re the one who’s accused of witchcraft”

    I wouldn’t argue that primitive or traditional belief systems are any less fallible than ours. Of course people have been accused of witchcraft who were innocent. And I would not argue that traditional cultures are better to live in than ours — I know that they have almost no freedom compared to us.

    Is it worse to accuse someone of witchcraft who may be innocent, or to be utterly ignorant about magic and the role spirits in health and disease? Why is our ignorance and insensitivity equated with rationalism? Why are primitive beliefs considered irrational, just because they involve things we know almost nothing about?

  26. Jason (the commenter) said,

    realpc920 : If primitives experienced more fear it was only because they weren’t as anesthetized and lulled into complacency as we are. Our experts constantly assure us that everything is under control. Hogwash.

    The primitives you talk about have much more obvious strings determining their actions than a modern person does. It’s a life of abject slavery in almost every way imaginable (often literally). No freedom whatsoever.

  27. realpc said,

    “It’s a life of abject slavery in almost every way imaginable ”

    I doubt you have read anything about any primitive or traditional cultures. Native Americans, for example, were not happy to see their culture destroyed by white settlers. They did not perceive the “civilized” European lifestyle as better or more “free” than their own. If you had read anything at all about non-European cultures you would see that each has its advantages and disadvantages. Everyone is programmed to believe their own culture is the most fabulous and all others are barbaric. It is often untrue.

  28. realpc920 said,

    An example is the book Black Elk Speaks, which is the story told by a Sioux medicine man, of his early life. It covers the transition from his life within a traditional culture, to that culture’s defeat by white setters. Black Elk was riding a horse and shooting arrows by age three, and no one had taught him how. The traditional culture dictated that men were hunters and warriors, and they learned the skills by observing, never giving it much thought. They had no choice. Black Elk could not have told his parents he had decided to be an accountant, a medical doctor, or a movie star, because those concepts didn’t exist in his world.

    But he was perfectly happy with the role of hunter/warrior, as were all the other young men he knew. Yes it got cold in the winter, but they were tough, not wimps like us who suffer if the temperature is a few degrees too high or too low. Hunting bison was thrilling to them, and their surroundings were beautiful.

    When they had to fight they were willing to die for their people. They thought about the women and children who depended on them for protection and they went off to war without thinking twice. It was a challenge and a responsibility. At times he questioned the morality of killing, but he never questioned the necessity of protecting his people.

    In Black Elk’s narration, there is no mention of feeling like a slave during the time he lived the traditional Sioux life. He loved it. Of course he only gives the male perspective, but I doubt the women felt like slaves or questioned their traditional roles either. As long as their were plenty of bison to hunt and no unbeatable enemies, the people were happy.

    Then of course the white men came with better guns and in tremendous numbers and no amount of bravery or skill could defeat them. Black Elk never felt relieved at being “freed” from the traditional lifestyle that he loved. He was not glad to no longer be responsible for his people. After their defeat he felt empty and life felt meaningless.

    When he was still a warrior, hunter and medicine man, Black Elk sometimes was contacted by powerful spirits and received inspiring visions and healing powers. He had a definite role within his social group, and he experienced his life as beautiful and meaningful.

    I am NOT saying we should live as nomadic hunters. We can’t, and most of us wouldn’t if we could. I am saying that the “primitive” life wasn’t primitive, and it wasn’t slavery.

    There have been many different varieties of traditional cultures since humanity began. I’m sure some were happier than others, and some may have been truly miserable. We cannot generalize about all traditional cultures.

    Our culture has its own traditions, but the level of individual freedom is unprecedented. The freedom has a high price and we lost as much as we have won. But it never occurs to most Americans that there may be anything abnormal about this culture, or that it might be less than ideal in some ways. The harrowing experience of driving is never questioned. Having no close relatives nearby is taken for granted.

  29. Rod said,

    Every culture imposes traditions and rules and laws because the absence of any culture is anarchy. Every way a society can be structured involves trade-offs and at any given moment most of the people within a culture are blind to them. Every system of traditions and rules and laws is ultimately unfair to some degree. So any way you can structure a society will alienate many people and those who are alienated will understand why to varying degrees.

    As far as our modern alienation from nature, I suspect most primitives would trade away a lot of their connection with nature for the ability to have a reasonable chance to live to an advanced age, take a pain killer when needed, have access to much of the literature of humanity, or drive for a few days from the seashore through farms and mountains and deserts, and come home to a refrigerator in which the food is still edible.

  30. amba12 said,

    Every “primitive” culture that encountered “civilization” has had the problem that the majority of its members wanted needles and thread, mirrors, canned food, radios, and guns. We are attracted to novelty, power, and convenience; we are attracted to whatever we don’t have. The grass is always greener, even if you have real grass and the other side of the fence has AstroTurf.

    Here’s a really good book about that, by an anthropologist who experienced “the romance of fieldwork” and at first wanted to BE a Sharanahua Indian, but later realized a) that she had a free access to both male and female parts of their culture that she wouldn’t have had as a Sharanahua woman (or man), and b) that their culture had constraints they sometimes longed to escape from, just as she longed to escape the constraints of hers.

  31. amba12 said,

    From its sole Amazon review: “I read this ethnography more than 20 years ago, but it has always stayed with me. [me too] . . . I have never met anyone else who read this book, but that is the world’s loss. . . . most of all, I remember her most poignant words, ‘The romance of anthropology is to find somewhere else a culture less trammeled than our own. The reality of anthropology is to take part in learning to break its confines.’ At some time during anthropological field work, if you do it wholeheartedly, you come face to face with yourself and ask the fateful questions, . . . Should you try to impose your views on others? Or should you help them to achieve what they want even if you doubt its worth?”

  32. realpc said,

    “their culture had constraints they sometimes longed to escape from, just as she longed to escape the constraints of hers.”

    That’s what I meant. I do NOT see our culture as the best possible culture. I started reading anthropology when I was in college and it gave me a different perspective, and I stopped taking for granted that our ways are always the best. Most Americans seem to think nothing of weaving and merging in and of lanes while driving. To me, it’s the most dangerous thing imaginable, worse than ski-diving and certainly worse than bison hunting. Thousands die every year, but many others wind up permanently disabled. It’s horrifying to me.

    And there are other things I question about our culture, some of which I mentioned. Lack of physical exercise, very bad food (even if you eat all-natural, it really isn’t), contaminated air and water. The lack of extended family.

    But of course there are the wonderful things — the ability to choose “tribes” of people we have something in common with. The creative and expressive potential, the access to massive amounts of information, the chance to form our own opinions. The ability to do what I am doing right now — look at my culture as if I were outside it and criticize it.

    But many of the things most people believe are wonderful about our culture I think are myths. And most don’t see what we have lost, because they have no knowledge of any other type of culture. Our medicine is not nearly as wonderful as most believe — aside from antibiotics, anesthesia and surgical and diagnostic technology most of it is harmful or ineffective. Yes, antibiotics, surgery, etc., are great, but it’s a big mistake to think it’s all great.

  33. Rod said,

    It seems to me we are flickering between two different threads – one on the impact of modern technology and another about the mental filters created by each particular culture, which illuminate our humanity in some ways, but leave us blind to other parts of the human experience.

    To use an extreme example of the latter, nearly all of us would find the culture of ancient Sparta to be stifling and unspeakably cruel, yet it probably opened up sublime opportunities to understand the nature of courage and commitment to the community. Most Spartans did not see their society as cruel; they saw their neighbors as weak.

    The impact of technology on society could easily be the subject of a blog I became interested in that question in college, when I first read Future Shock (about the same time I was reading Black Elk Speaks) and it lead me to other critics and commentators on technology. Suffice it to say that Alvin Tofler’s description of the pace of change in transportation and communication, leading to the single generation that saw the first airplane and the first Moon landings, left an impression.

    When they first came out, I questioned why anyone would ever need: (1) a microwave oven; (2) a cell phone; and (3) a personal computer. So, at least I’ve picked up a little humility about my prognastications.

  34. amba12 said,

    Reading Future Shock and Black Elk Speaks at the same time would be a shock in itself! Whiplash!

    But it’s interesting to read thoughts of how technology has enabled retribalization. Each of us now has our own overlapping, floating tribes that travel in a cloud around us. If literacy slightly detribalized us, postliteracy and the almost oral (or faster) speed which we can now constantly communicate has undone that, for better and for worse. And now are tribes are as much found as given. Works in progress.

  35. realpc said,

    Amba, the new tribes are very different from the old ones. I said we now can choose our own tribes, and in some ways that’s an advantage, but the connections and loyalties are weak and shifting. In traditional tribes, members would die for each other, but is that true in the tribes we form online, or at our jobs, or even in church? If I died, I doubt any one outside my closest relatives and friends would feel any grief. And my closest relatives live so far away, the might not miss me very much.

    Just 2 generations ago, in my grandparents’ families, brothers and sisters were likely to continue living very close to each other for life. People lived in small towns, or in small neighborhoods within cities, and they knew each other. Of course, not everyone liked it, and many were thrilled to escape.

    Now I think we are very fragmented and alienated, and I don’t think online communities make up for it.

  36. Rod said,

    Real: My son was in Kuwait for a year, and he talked to his wife in Nevada nearly every day. He and I shared jokes and anecdotes weekly by email and called each other every couple of weeks from half way around the world.

    When I was growing up, we lived 300 miles from my grandparents. Calls were a little pricey, and my father only spoke with his parents once a month. Technology makes it possible for us to stay connected. We may be fragmented and alienated, but the people you love are only a touch away.

    The fragmentation you feel is the price of freedom. The loss of freedom is always part of the price of commitment. The decision is yours.

  37. realpc said,

    “The fragmentation you feel is the price of freedom. The loss of freedom is always part of the price of commitment. The decision is yours.”

    I wasn’t saying anything different from that. I was just stating the fact that there are disadvantages to freedom. I live in the same area where I was born because it’s a good place to find jobs and I didn’t see any compelling reasons to leave. My siblings and cousins all left and some of them now live in rural areas where you have to drive for an hour to go shopping, and there aren’t any jobs. The scenery may be great, but is it really worth it? I can get to great scenery by driving an hour, and I can walk to the store. So I don’t really see what great advantages they got by leaving — they were just expressing their freedom. And now our mother is old and disabled and they see her once a year, or at most twice. No — telephone calls are not the same as hugs to my mother!

  38. Rod said,

    Real: From your last comment, it looks like you have identified yet another aspect of the conflict between freedom and commitment. Our dissatisfactions vary with age and point of view. You wouldn’t have written your comment the way you did unless you were more involved in your mother’s life than are your siblings. And since she is old and disabled, your involvement must impinge on your freedom, at least sometimes. I know because both of my parents are old and disabled and living in town, my mother-in-law spent the last 15 months of her life in town including part of that time in our house, and my wife and I are both only children.

    I don’t know how footloose your mother was or whether she became a caretaker for one of her parents, but she probably wishes her children were a little less free and a little more committed art this point in their lives.

    My grandchildren are young and I take them to my parents’ house as often as I can to keep both generations connected. They gripe that my parents’ house is boring.

    As young children, we experience the tension between freedom and commitment mainly through anxiety about whether our parents are committed to us. As adolescents and young adults, freedom becomes paramount. The equation changes when we have kids. As our children become independent, we become more free again. As we age further, we become dependent. Our security (the commitment of others to care for us) rises again.

  39. amba12 said,

    Well observed! And you can see how a mismatching of the waves could cause conflict or at least suffering. When teen-agers grow up, parents are more than ready to let them go and the freedom of both coincides. But sometimes just then an aging parent needs care. Or a disabled child never grows up. Or a grown child comes back home to stay indefinitely after a breakdown, addiction, or accident.

    Teen-age pregnancy is another incisive example. Just when a girl is full of the urge to be free and to discover herself for those few precious years when that’s your only responsibility, there is another life, totally dependent on her. (What Bristol Palin was trying to tell other teen-agers.)

    Look what we’re willing to do to defend our freedom. (Are we not the Land of the Free? So much is in how you interpret a word.)

  40. realpc said,

    Well of course freedom is a relative and hard to define concept. Our culture is more free than traditional cultures because we can choose our careers and where to live. That freedom creates problems and should not be seen as all good. I can understand people moving away from their extended family if it’s necessary for financial or career reasons, but it’s often done just because. And old people often move away from their children and grandchildren just to live in a warner climate. When I was a child I had four grandparents within 50 miles, and I wonder how many kids have that now.

    Then people way well it doesn’t matter because you can always take a plane or make a phone call. Because people have a strong need to believe their own culture is the most fabulous, and is all good with no down sides.

  41. amba12 said,

    I can understand people moving away from their extended family if it’s necessary for financial or career reasons, but it’s often done just because.

    That’s very true. When we were kids there was a strong sense that you were supposed to get far away from your parents (that’s if you could afford to, so it became an upper-middle-class thing) for college and your first years on your own, to “cut the apron strings” and learn to be independent. Then our lives take root in whatever place we have gone for our first jobs, and when we reach the age where we regret distance from our families, it’s too late. By contrast, Europeans, never mind other nationalities, take it for granted that one will grow up, likely continue to live with one’s parents until marriage, and then live nearby for the rest of one’s life.

    This certainly happened to my family. There are six “kids,” now middle-aged. One of my sisters roved far for school (Navajo Community College, Many Farms Arizona! and NAU in Flagstaff) but returned to Chicago soon afterwards and settled there. Only one of her three kids is living there, with the bonus of her first grandchild. One of my brothers, after his wife graduated from Yale Divinity School, moved to Denver and stayed. The other brother bounced from grad school at UNC Chapel Hill to NYC, back to Chicago, Denver, and back to the Chicago suburbs. One sister married a Canadian and lived in Sudbury (WAAAAY the hell up there) and now Toronto. Her daughter lives in Toronto too. One sister went to medical school in Chicago, then moved to Richmond, VA and stayed there. Only one of her three kids is presently close by. I went to New York right after college in Boston and got stuck there for almost 40 years, then moved to Chapel Hill (where we had a childless friend we could trade favors with) for fear of our being a burden on any of my siblings I might have chosen to live near.

    We’ve tried with only very partial success to mend the tears. My parents retired from Chicago to the house in FL that our family has had since 1955, but they go back to Chicago for the summers. In recent years they have lived with our Chicago sister in the summers, and last year the Toronto sister and her husband started spending the winters in Florida with them. This has seemed very right and good to all of us. My Chicago-suburbs brother (True Ancestor) bought a nonprofit senior living property in Naples, FL and traveled down there for business as often as he could. The rest of us bounce in and out of the core at sadly infrequent intervals.

    My father used to have a motto (which might actually have referred to his mother-in-law, with good reason) that the quality of the relationship between kin varies as the inverse square of the distance between them. If we all lived closer, would we appreciate each other less and fight more?

  42. realpc said,

    “the quality of the relationship between kin varies as the inverse square of the distance between them”

    No, it’s part of the myth that tribal intimacy is for the uneducated, unsophisticated classes. If it were true, it would be true of everyone, not just relatives — people in general would get along better if they lived far apart. But of course that isn’t true. All those mother-in-law jokes reinforced the myth. Of course the mother-in-law relationship was often difficult, when the younger generation had more Western education and wordliness than the older generation. As in the TV show All in the Family.

    Extended families, with all their rituals, disintegrated for the upper middle class. Replaced by TV and whatnot.

  43. amba12 said,

    Of course the mother-in-law relationship was often difficult, when the younger generation had more Western education and wordliness than the older generation.

    C’mon real, let’s face it — sometimes the mother-in-law relationship was difficult because the mother-in-law was a bitch. My father threw my grandmother out of the house once. She treated him with more respect after that. I adored that grandmother, but have to admit that SHE was difficult, temperamental, domineering, and interfering.

  44. realpc920 said,


    People are difficult. We’re all hard to get along with, at least sometimes. Yes some are more domineering than others — maybe some are genetically programmed to be alpha males or females, or whatever. Human social relationships are difficult and complex — no wonder so many of us tried to escape them. But escape to what? Are your tribes of choice any easier to get along with? If yes, maybe because they are more superficial, easier to give up on when things don’t go smoothly.

    The modern Western educated “enlightened” upper middle class has finally taken over the society. Now you almost need a Western education to succeed in the high-tech civilization. Tribalism, religious “superstition,” all that is for the loser lower classes, the rednecks. The Republican conservatives tried to hang on to the remnants of the old dying culture — that’s what conservatives always do, hang on to a dying culture.

    Now the “smart” “enlightened” progressives in charge, again, gazing at towards a radiant future, again. And then, eventually, we will realize, again, that the old bathwater is gone but so is the baby. Again.

  45. realpc920 said,

    I guess one of the things I am really trying to say is that we don’t realize how programmed we are, and how much of our thinking is automatic. I am NOT saying we shouldn’t be programmed, and I am NOT saying we should try to be more conscious. I guess people are better off if they believe their culture is fabulous with only advantages, no disadvantages.

  46. realpc920 said,

    “If we all lived closer, would we appreciate each other less and fight more?”

    We would fight more, and get over it, and learn about each other, just like a married couple. Now our tribes, when we have them, only contain a husband and wife.

  47. amba12 said,

    Our social skills and capacities must have atrophied quite a lot. When you think of juggling several relationships as intense as husband-wife (such as parent-grown child, or grown siblings), at once — or when you actually do it — and you realize this was the norm for much of human time, along with being aware of nature to a degree of subtle detail that would leave us flatfooted, you begin to think our much-vaunted “multitasking” skills are pretty two-dimensional.

  48. realpc920 said,

    Yes I imagine the cognitive skills required for “primitive” tribal living were immense. Their kinship systems were much more complicated than ours, for one thing, with intricate rules for how to speak to everyone. I guess all those rules made things run relatively smoothly.

    And besides nature, they had all the spirit worlds to deal with, and all the complicated rules and rituals the gods and spirits required.

    So now we use our brains for technology, etc., instead.

  49. realpc920 said,

    But sometimes I wonder how modern people know what to say to everyone, since our social rules are so rudimentary. And thinking about this now is making me realize why, possibly, I often feel like it’s too complicated for me. I had thought maybe it’s because my brain is missing some parts, but maybe it’s because our system is so chaotic.

    Some people seem to be right at home in this system, though. Are they just pretending? And I’ve heard that happiness research found that most Americans are happy — does that seem possible, with hardly any deep or stablel emotional connections?

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