An Economic Riddle

Okay, I need an answer.

I noticed the other day at the bike shop where I work that most of the bicycle tires we sell are made in Taiwan. A few more expensive, well-made tires are made in France. A cheap bicycle tire — a Taiwanese one — sells for $15, while a French-made tire might sell for $30 (or even $60).

(These are the tires I put on my bike, also fairly expensive, but not made in Germany. Made in China or South Korea, I think, according to the German company’s specifications. They rock as far as bicycle tires go.)

Granted, the per-capita GDPs of France and Taiwan are fairly close — $30,000 and $26,000 respectively — while per-capita GDP in the US is roughly $42,000. (Do you make that?) But isn’t France supposed to be all, like, uncompetitive, unproductive, the stuff of modern economic evil, a dustbin-bound nation of lazy workers attached to their summer holidays and their socialized medicine? And yet, why can something as simple as a bicycle tire still get manufactured in France but not here in the United States?

The Future in Black and White and Bold

I received my Social Security statement in the mail sometime last week.

Yay Social Security Statement!

I have a collection of these things, in a folder that I keep in a big plastic box, and have kept them since they started mysteriously showing up in the mid-1990s. I think I recall something about the Clinton Regime wanting to make people more aware how important Social Security is, to connect them to their “benefits” and therefore invest them in the continued existence of the program. Or somesuch.

I was a long time ago.

The review of my earnings for the last 20 years — 20 years — is not that impressive. While I’ve worked enough to qualify for the spectrum of benefits that Social Security provides (retirement, disability, survivors payments, medicare), I’m only eligible for about $900 should I earn no more and retire at 62. That would be $1,391 at at 67 and $1,766 at 70! I think I’ll stop working right now and simply sit and wait right here until I can apply — in 2029. Why work anymore if I don’t have to?

But let’s look at the fine print. Actually, it’s not fine print, it’s in bold at the bottom of page two:

Your estimated benefits are based on current law. Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so again at any time. The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2041, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 74 percent of scheduled benefits.

Rummaging through my previous statements… umm, statement. It turns out I was not so fastidious in saving them, and only have the 2002 mailing to keep me company … we find no such statement in bold, or italics, or underlined, at the bottom of page two.

But why is 2041, when payroll taxes will meet only 74% of Social Security’s obligations? Why 74%? Why is that “the magic figure?” Is it frightening enough yet far enough away? Doom but not tomorrow? If I live that long, I will turn 74 that year (I have many very long-lived relatives and ancestors who were active and ornery well into their 90s). What is that paragraph at the bottom of page two designed to elicit in me? How am I supposed to react to that information?

No doubt Congress will change the law a time or two somewhere between here and there. Actually, I fully expect the United States government to be broke by then (there may not even be a United States of America by then, either), and utterly incapable of keeping the lights on, much less paying me $1,700 per month. So, I expect to have to work at something the rest of my life. Or get rich somewhere between here and there. And given I am getting ready to enter the ministry, that is unlikely.

I have no problem with risk-sharing, so long as it is cooperative. I like the idea of mutual societies (my insurance company/bank is a mutual society), of some folks carrying others when they cannot carry themselves. I just don’t think a kind, caring, compassionate and decent society can be built at gun-point. I like the promises of Social Democracy, I really truly do. But I also understand that Social Democracy is a lie, for it is based on the very real threat of state violence for those who do not wish to belong. No truly decent human society can be created on the ever-present threat of violence.

So, how do you prepare for the future? I am a pessimist. In fact, I am a doom-and-gloom pessimist, and things will probably not get as bad I think they will. You could do worse than to have some arable land owned free and clear (or rented), a decent and livable home, honest work, a water right (or something similar), a good collection of non-hybrid seeds, and association with a community of like-minded, like-souled folks who can help you (and who you can help). At best you can create or be a part of a nice, decent community; at worst you will have a place to hole up in when the world falls down around you. (I told you I am a pessimist…)

My wife and I do not live like this. Yet. But we will.

Fascism: Ancient & Modern, Foreign & Domestic

I am currently reading Australian academic R.J.B. Bosworth’s MUSSOLINI’S ITALY: LIFE UNDER THE FASCIST DICTATORSHIP, 1915-1945. It’s a big thick book, lots of footnotes, and I’m about halfway through, a little less maybe.

The book is a bit of a mess, and could have used much tighter editing. I am guessing it works best as a companion piece to Bosworth’s biography of Mussolini (which I have not read), but he unfortunately assumes the average reader knows a fair amount of late 19th and early 20th century Italian history — a terrible thing to assume of your typical American reader. Had I not read John T. Flynn’s AS WE GO MARCHING (a comparison of Italian and German politics from the 1870s to the rise of the dictatorships in the 1920s and 1930s), I would have had no context for any of the history Bosworth outlines in the first two decades of the 20th century. As it is, Bosworth simply plops the reader down in about 1910 without a map or guide and then lets us grope for the summit on our own. He leaves a lot out, and it shows.

The goal of the book is to describe the Italy that gave victory to the Fascists and the Italy the Fascists then created. Bosworth both gives too much and too little detail. It’s not as bad as a diplomatic history, burying the reader in the nonsense of what the negotiators at Munich ate for dinner, but Bosworth seems unfocused, and the reader (well, me, anyway) has to shovel and pick through too much coal to find the diamonds. Forgive me, I may have dozed through the part of the discussion of squadronism, the rise of the Fascist party gangs who, prior to the March on Rome and Mussolini’s elevation as prime minister in late 1922, beat up on socialists and others were not acceptably nationalistic enough, but I don’t recall that Bosworth explained their origin well enough. He may have, and I may have snoozed by that passage. I have tried reading too much of this book while being distracted (why did so many designers choose that strange shade of yellow-green as the color of Italian units in strategic war games?) or tired.

But it also got me thinking — what is Fascism? And is the current direction of the US politics and the exercise of government a drift toward fascism?

We can start with the Italian regimes own words about what it was. Mussolini said Fascism is a system in which “all is for the state, nothing is outside the state, nothing and no one are against the state.” Justice Minister (from 1925) Alfredo Rocco said “The Fascist state has its own morality, its own religion, its own political mission in the world, its own form of social justice, in sum its own economic arrangement.” Rocco also described the relationship of the individual to the state when he said “Only through the state could a Fascist citizen find his well-being and fortune.”

Bosworth also notes that we should thank the Italian Fascists for the word “totalitarianism,” because it was the word they used to describe themselves and regimes they liked, admired or flirted with — Franco in Spain, Dollfus in Austria, Metaxas in Greece (before invading the place in 1940), and sometimes Stalin. The Nazis, he states, never considered themselves totalitarians.

So, we have a state that seeks to be the center of the national community, a nation-state based on ethnicity/language and its supposed superiority (especially in regards to some non-nationals; Naziism and Fascism especially had it in for Slavs). The nation has a special destiny, and has been denied that destiny by both lesser people and socialists. The nation is also an organic whole, and the individual has an identity only through being a member of the whole, and become a full person only by fully submitting to the whole and joining the whole. Only through the leader can any of these things be achieved, and all — party, state, people — must submit to the leader, who (like Christ in John’s Gospel) abides mystically in all and all in him.

Fascism is also an economic system distinguished largely by state management and supervision of an economy BUT NOT state ownership. Some would say this is the major feature of fascism, the thing that distinguishes it between the various forms of socialism that ran rampant in the 20th century. But there is more to fascism than mere economics; it is also a social system that is heavily dependent on organized but unofficial violence to seize and maintain power (however, once power is achieved, the SA and the Squadrons were quickly subdued to the state) as well as war.

Does any of this describe us — Americans, I mean? Flynn thought so. Writing in the late 1930s, Flynn thought he saw a lot of incipient Fascism in the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt — deficit spending, increased executive power, the drift to war. In the case of Italy, war and the deficits they created from 1870 onward eroded parliamentary power and increased the need for the prime minister to accrue “special powers.”

But while the FDR presidency expanded executive power, and was a very important series of precedents on our long, slow but very likely inevitable march to tyranny in the United States, I don’t think it could hardly be called fascist. Or even fascist lite.

Is Bush a fascist? Is Bush’s Republican Party a Fascist Party? Again, there are some significant similarities — and not just with the GOP or George W. Bush. War we got. In abundance, in fact. The United States of America has been at war almost consistently since 1940 (when Congress passed the “peacetime” draft and FDR started moving to involve the United States in the Second World War), with a few breaks here and there in the mid-1940s and the late 1980s. We have been at war almost consistently since August 1990, in one place or another, wars mostly endorsed but not constitutionally declared by congress, wars entered into largely at the whim of the executive, wars against opponents that posed little or no risk to us at home or even on the field of battle. War has been so present in modern American life that I suspect most Americans would not know what to do without it, would assume they could not live without fear or threat, without knowing there were weak people somewhere they could beat to death or bomb from high altitude with nearly absolute impunity.

There are many elements of fascism to modern American politics. The sense of american national destiny, the belief that somehow the world needs American leadership and guidance, that there are lesser people — Muslims, Asians, Communists — who stand in our way and must be dealt with. There is the state-centered economy, which under Bush is attempting to reward friends and punish enemies by ensuring that everyone who is good and loyal gets a government contract — easy money no one really has to work for. And let us not forget the endless contracts for weapons and services. And the ocean of debt being flooded to fund all of this.

But the resemblance is only superficial. Bush is not a fascist, Clinton was not a fascist, and the Democrats and Republicans are not yet Fascist Parties because there are two critical elements missing — mass participation and domestic violence.

Totalitarianism in Italy meant mobilizing the entire society. There would be no spectators in the Fascist State. Bush’s GOP may have thought they were going to create a Republican majority with all their handouts and the endless wars, but that appears to have failed, and they have fallen back to getting a plurality or bare majority and assuming “the Mandate of Heaven” — the right to rule. There may be a leadership cult around Bush (and it’s pretty disgusting), but it is for true believers, and is not marketed to any masses that I can see. There has been no draft, no discipline, no syndicates of producers and workers, no revolution from above. Instead, the Bush regime has acted more or less as an imperial regime, expanding executive power where it can and as it can regardless of whatever opposition it finds.

And that opposition has not been muzzled. There are no equivalent of the squadrons, save on talk radio or out in Blogistan, and they just talk. Democrats have not been beaten up, murdered, rounded up, reporters are still free (relatively speaking), papers and magazines are still published, and regime opponents still walk the street. There has been no effort that I can see to organize unofficial violence to compel regime opponents to flee the country or shut up.

The violence that will emerge will likely emerge from the state, not outside it, and will be broad enough to frighten most of the population without actually having to do so. I don’t even think many regime opponents will be officially silenced or even roughed up. Why bother when the regime can do whatever it wants regardless?

The one thing I am concerned about is the role of soldiers returning from Iraq. What has the occupation of that country taught them about the legitimate role of an army versus a civilian population? It is important to remember that unlike Germany, the Italian army of 1918-1919 was “victorious.” That still did not matter to many returned soldiers, who saw that victory as tenuous, not enough and constantly threatened. And we have seen the effect of the pernicious “stabbed in the back” story that emerged in Germany after the collapse of the Imperial government and the war effort in November, 1918 — a similar myth rose up around the Vietnam War regarding the media and Democrats, and I expect similar “myths” as the result of the Iraq war, though they will be less partisan because Republicans have been the authors of that disaster. That may mean a more politically independent role for members of the armed forces in the future. That’s not a good thing.

So, no fascism in the United States today. This doesn’t mean that tyranny of some kind won’t come — I think tyranny is more likely than not. It just won’t be fascist. Most importantly, it will not likely be a mass-based or “popular” tyranny, and will look more like the regimes of the generals and colonels in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s (Augusto Pinochet, anyone?) than it will European Fascism of the 1920s and 1930s. Which means it will not last long (I do not know how long “not long” is — a few years, maybe), or will at least eventually come crashing down upon itself.

What to do? I don’t believe anything can be done. Politics is broken beyond repair in the United States. Both parties place far too much faith in both the state and the president, both parties believe too much in war and find it too easy to wage, elites in both parties still see government resources and wisdom and unlimited and believe that God or History has empowered them to rule the world. Both parties have substituted ideology for truth and both are so committed to winning and ruling that one day, leaders of one of those parties will face a loss and refuse to concede. That’s when things will get extra-constitutional, when squadrons will be organized, when opponents will be beaten up, when soldiers will walk the streets and “maintain order.” That, rather than some public health emergency or even terrorist attack, is the likely catalyst for the coming tyranny.

I hope I am wrong and that none of this comes. But I fear it will.

Labor, Physical and Otherwise

For anyone out there who might be reading this, I apologize for having been awol the last few days. I could say I’ve been busy — part-time editing and part-time bicycle repair take up more time than I thought they would — but I could also simply confess I’ve been lazy. Which would be true too.

I try to work a couple of hours at the bike shop four days a week (not on weekends). It is tiring, good physical work that leaves me honestly tired, and I like that. Mostly tune-ups, as I said earlier, people bringing in their old bicycles that they found in a corner of their spider-infested garages or that have been sitting in a weedy patch out by the shed, people who decided that maybe riding a bicycle around would be good exercise and a way to save a few bucks on gasoline right now. Crummy old bikes, too, but my job is not to judge the cyclist or the bicycle, but to love it as I would my own (always hard, and one reason I no longer do computer work — I could never love anyone else’s computer like I love my own) and make it work. The things I hate working on the most are brakes, especially V-brakes (I do not know why anyone ever invented them) and thin 700cc road tires.

While men and women have striven very hard to increase leisure time and make remunerative work less strenuous, I think we’ve lost something by not having hard physical exertion in our lives. Some folks spend a lot of money to work out and get just that, all the while most human societies (and many individuals) continue to look down upon those who do physical work, thinking the best position to do a job is sitting. At a desk, maybe, and in front of a computer. This may be a result of the enslavement of human beings, this distaste for physical labor, since through most of human history, people were compelled to do that kind of work. I have concluded that it is very human to want to dominate others, to own them and their labor (and not merely rent their labor to produce your goods), and that regardless of how banned actual slavery is, men still seek to own the labor of other men.

Dominion — we as human beings seek dominion over other human beings even though God never gave it to us. The person of conscience does not seek dominion over others, does not seek to expropriate their labor or their wealth because the person of conscience understands that he is not entitled to the liberty or labor of others. But the person of conscience also understands that he cannot change the world, that some — maybe many — will seek to possess or control the lives and labor of others.

Well, this wasn’t going to be a discussion of general principles. Back to physical labor. Sometimes, my wife and I find ourselves living farm hours — going to bed before 9 pm, and waking just as the sun rises (a little after 5 am these days). It’s an honest tired, the tired I get from working hard. I sweat honestly, too. You can sweat while sitting at a computer, but it’s not an honest sweat.

Bicycle Repair

No, I didn’t do that to a bicycle wheel. Okay, I did. Kind-of.

A guy came in, an older man with an accept — sounded French to me, but it could have been Italian — with an older Trek bike, a nice steel frame with brazed lugs and down tube shifters. The bike was about 25 years old, in reasonably good shape (no rust), but it was covered in… dirt? dust? 25-year-old mud? I’m not sure. He wanted it looked at, cleaned up, and air in the tires. Both of which were in advanced states of dry rot.

So, I cleaned it up (it took a half-hour to simply wipe all the dirt off), changed the tires and tubes, tightened bolts and nuts, fiddled with the brakes. Part of doing a tune-up at the bike shop where I sometimes work, also means truing the wheels if they need it. And this bike needed it badly. For not having been used for a while, the wheel was badly out of true (even though it cleared the brakes, it wobbled) and it was also out of dish (which means the rim was not centered on the hub, which happens as spokes loosen slowly).

I thought I’d done a reasonably good job of redishing and truing the wheel. But when I went to retension it — by holding it horizontally by the rim, with the hub in the center pointing up and down, resting the hub endpoint on a table and then pressing down — it went all wobbbly, like it was made of plastic. At first, I thought I’d done something horribly wrong. But it turns out the rim came apart at the weld — metal fatigue. At least the wheel didn’t come apart with someone on it. Must have been some riding this guy — or someone — did on this old Trek.

He was looking forward to having the bike running, too. He’d just given up smoking, and wanted to save some money on gasoline. We’re doing a lot of tune-ups of old bikes being hauled out of tool sheds, garages, back porches and the weedy corners of backyards, people looking to save a few bucks on fuel.

And mostly they go better than this tune-up did.

Inhuman Bondage

I’m currently reading INHUMAN BONDAGE, David Brion Davis’ history of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere (with a little general history and theory of slavery thrown in). It’s a fairly short book, 331 pages plus nearly 100 pages of footnotes, but extremely dense. Maybe a little too dense. I have not finished, but the book is fairly depressing. Not for the narrative it weaves, but because David makes it clear that while it is human to wish to be free, it is also apparently just as human to want to own — to have dominion — over other human beings.

Davis himself is not theorizing in this book, but rather reviews most of the prominent theories that other academics have put forth about the origins and functions of slavery as a social and economic system. Among those:

1) That human slavery probably arose not long after human learned to domestic animals, since the processes of breaking animals and human beings are similar.

2) Plantation agriculture (to produce sugar) was already fairly extensive in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 15th century, with slaves provided from the Caucasus mountains, when the Portuguese and the Spanish began setting up sugar plantations, and importing African slaves, on Atlantic islands from Fernando Po to Madeira.

3) Arabs and Africans were intimately involved in the African slave trade, and what we understand as “white racism” probably arose with Muslim Arabs, though it found fertile intellectual and spiritual ground in Christian Europe, where it had been considered beyond the pale to enslave Europeans since the late Middle Ages.

4) Slavery, when combined with plantation agriculture, is actually a pretty efficient and competitive economic system. After Britain freed its Caribbean slaves in the 1830s (actually, freed all its slaves, except in India), its Caribbean sugar economices collapsed as the former slaves moved to subsistence agriculture. Britain then opened itself to free trade, taking advantage of other slave economies, while beginning the importation of indentured labor from India to rebuild the sugar plantations — a sign that while the British may have abandoned slavery, they did not clearly abandon unfree labor.

5) That the American revolutionary notion of “all men are created equal” could only have been possible in a slave society. That poor whites would consider themselves socially equal to wealthy businessmen and planters could only happen if there was someone else in society to look down upon and hate — a notion Davis sayd John C. Calhoun understood very well.

6) American slave owners were uniquely concerned at presenting a “patriarchal” image of caring slavery. And that image of the compassionate master caring for both property and a lesser race has a lot of similarities to the way Americans seem to view their country’s role in the world. By comparison, Brazilian, Caribbean and Cuban slave owners (slavery persisted longest in Cuba and Brazil) felt no such compunction to justify their rule as either humanitarian or benevolent.

7) Despite the violence, degredation and brutality of slavery, most slaves did not seek their freedom, but rather seek to make their lives as easy as possible, seek to adjust as best as possible to circumstances most of them could not control. There were few slave rebellions in the Western Hemisphere, none but Haiti succeeded, and most (outside the US) were quashed despite the overwhelming advantage in numbers the slaves had, in part because there was no “color consciousness” (the British regularly employed free Black and mulatto troops in repression of slave uprisings).

I’ve long believed slavery is America’s mortal sin. It allows to hold very high ideals all the while engaging in brutal and ugly violence that would seem to completely nullify those ideals. And as Davis points out, it allows to put forward rhetoric we don’t mean — the founders clearly never really meant that “all men” were created equal.

Jennifer the Mighty

My wife Jennifer was run over by a DC Metro bus in January while she was riding her bicycle home from Misha’s cafe here in Alexandria. She was going north, the bus was going south and making a left turn on a one-way street and clearly didn’t see he when he ran her over. Her right foot was pretty torn up (the bus’ left front wheel apparently came to a rest on her foot, the driver came out to see what happened, and then got back in and moved the bus), needed a couple-dozen stitches, and then got infected. Oh, and she had a huge fracture blister on the top of her foot and tissue began to die. So, some of that had to be removed.

Jennifer was hospitalized for nearly two weeks, needed several surgeries to remove dead tissue, had a wound wac attached to her right foot for a month, and then skin grafts atop the open wounds where no skin could grow.

It was a painful and difficult process. Jennifer was out of commission for all of February and nearly all of March.

But she has gotten better than either her orthopedist or her plastic surgeon. Her skin grafts caught in just two weeks and both her doctors said she was free to walk or ride. So, Jennifer’s been back on a bicycle for the last two weeks, following me around to cafes with wi-fi and then to the bike shop! Today, she rode more than 19 miles (to and from church) and even took the great big hill up North Morgan Street in one fell swoop — no resting and no breaks!

My little girl is back! She’s tired — it’s a lot more riding than she’s done in a long time — but she’s well! A friend called her “Jennifer the Mighty,” for battling a bus and surviving, and she truly is!