Tag Archives: American Dream

Learning and Socialism

My cab driver this morning was from Haiti.  It was refreshing, on this trip to La Guardia, to get some variety from the Ethiopian/Eritrean mix you find in DC.

Jean Marie lost two nephews and a niece in the earthquake.  One nephew had been in law school; the other, a doctor.  Family scheduled the funerals for next week, the earliest possible time the morgue can release these three, amongst three hundred thousand, bodies for burial.

Jean Marie had been a sociology professor in Port-au-Prince.  He took great pleasure in teaching us this morning.

I earned a B+ from Jean Marie.  We talked about the de facto caste system capitalism imposes.  How Americans are solipsistic, selfish in a way that every other country is not.

Granted, Jean Marie has spent all 29 of his stateside years driving a cab in New York City.  If there’s any position on earth more prone to subjecting a man to the full measure of his humility, this is it.  Indeed, from his perspective it’s no wonder he sees Americans as one monolithic sonofabitch.

My final exam in Jean Marie’s class came as a discussion on socialism. Jean Marie agrees that capitalism is better at large in the world.  Still, though, he is determined to spend “periods at intervals” living in socialism.

Interesting, no?  The idea of socialism as a state of mind that cannot exist independent of capitalism, but that’s a refreshing way to mix it up once in awhile

I agree completely, I told JM.  I am a conservative and a capitalist, but I crave cooperation and unselfish sharing.  I tend towards academia, which is necessarily a social-mentality idea-sharing pool where nobody has any money.  And anyone I’ve ever dated can quote from my treatise on the Communism of Family, where Randian transactional relationships should cede to loving, sharing, unselfish pooled well-being.

JM denied me the A bc I could not agree that gov’t imposition is necessary – or even remotely beneficial – to the “cooperation” side of socialism.  Even the sharing he remembers from Haiti – where everyone delivers a daily plate of whatever’s-for-dinner to each neighbor – that has nothing to do w/ government.  In fact, Good Samaritan laws may well – anecdotally – tamp that spirit of generosity.

We debated only cursorily – I was more interested in what JM had to teach than in probing the weak spots in his argument s – but it’s fantastic to learn something quite so valuable without having to work hard for it.  Even as JM got excited and began gesticulating in ways not conducive to safe travel, it was a huge bonus on this airport run to find a window into how the Haitian educated elite – the ones comprising Hispanola’s Brain Drain – view class, race, and history.

“America never thought of Haiti at all until the earthquake,” JM said.

“But Americans don’t think of anyone.  It’s not personal, against Haiti.  We don’t think of Canada either, or Holland.”

America profits pretty spectacularly from our position as Shining City on a Hill.  But perhaps the left-leaning periods in our history are indeed Americans’ way of taking Jean Marie’s suggestion and delving into those intervals of socialism.  Perhaps there are some benefits – political or otherwise – to looking around a bit before the earthquake hits.

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Masonomics, #412

I love George Mason.

From Prof Boudreaux:

Bono writes that America is “a great idea about opportunity for all and responsibility to your fellow man.” He confuses consequences with causes.

The American Idea is one of individual freedom — as Jefferson put it in the summer of 1776, the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” From this freedom comes widespread economic opportunity, a cosmopolitan respect for the rights of strangers, and both the willingness and the material means to be generous toward others.

What distinguishes the American Idea from the superstitions, stifling traditions and the various forms of collectivism that have historically cursed humanity is its confidence in individual freedom. Without that freedom, opportunity is a mirage and “responsibility to your fellow man” is simply a slogan used to justify harnessing the populace to serve those in power.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Fairfax, Va., Oct. 18, 2009

NYT link to letters.

Would that DB’s exams were as well-written as his letters!

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More and Less

In 2007, when I lived in France, then President-elect Sarkozy incurred a lot of criticism for being “too American.”  Instead of taking introspective French strolls, he went for aggressive, ambitious runs like an American.  His policies, his taste in women, his clothes all suggested this same “new world” tendency.

That same year my most “American” French friend noted that the characteristic he most associates with Americans is our desire for more.  More wine.  More money.  More love.  We are greedy.  More is more.  What an accusation, from the people who invented l’amour a trois!

Whenever I first run after a long hiatus — no time like the present to start training for the Army Ten Miler this Saturday — I’m reminded of Sarkozy’s American tendencies.  I’m reminded that I want more.

Tonight I went from my apartment down through Rosslyn and over the Key Bridge.  That’s my favorite run; it’s the Potomac that keeps me going.  There’s something about that moment when a huge brackish breath rolls off the river and smacks my nostrils that just wakes up parts of me I tend to forget are asleep.

My running season starts when it cools down around here, so it makes sense that this first run, coincident with autumn and freshly-sharpened pencils and harvest would make me think of More.

When I first heard this indictment of Americans my reaction was: Of course we want more.  That’s the point.  To put ourselves in a position where we have the options, the opportunity.  We’ve learned we need to protect our power to choose later.

If I give it up and embrace the simple life too early — if I start dipping my hands in dried lentils before I finish reading my Tax homework — then when I graduate I will have no choice but to satisfy myself w/ the touch of dried lentils, because ain’t no firms hiring wayward law grads this year.  Money can’t buy me love, but frankly love can’t replace my broken brakes.

Part of what I loved so much about living in France was that people tend to be satisfied.  There’s something profoundly elegant about not wanting more.  I can count on two hands the number of Americans I know who are similarly so satisfied.

I am neither elegant nor satiable.  I am voracious.  There are times when I opt for less — less money, when an unpaid job is really interesting; less chocolate, when it’s winter and I want my pants to fit — but I always, always, want more.

For all of this I find the Eurofication of America so unsettling.  Many theories can explain why Americans want more while Europeans do not:

My personal standby, the American Dream, suggests that the American self-made man (and his daughters) cannot ever be satisfied, or he’s finished.  Americans raise ourselves by our bootstraps; to settle, to stop, undermines what it is to belong to this country.

We can look to the great European middle class, where everyone has always lived in close proximity to their neighbors, and the only difference between this bracket and that one is the depth of velvet on the walls or the name sewn into your boots.  Status symbols simply matter less, so status itself becomes imperceptible even among friends.

Finally, American suburban sprawl permits those hungry folks to grow.  If you work hard you can find a bigger house and feel like you’ve succeeded.  For many areas in Europe, keeping a house in the country isn’t even on the wish list — people have forgotten that they used to like space.

There are many other theories, of course, but the more critical point is that the thing that defines Americans is not having more, but wanting more. We are not satisfied with status quo.  We do not settle for “good enough.”  We have worked hard for our choice and damnit, our choice we shall have.

There is something noble about wanting more.  We may not be elegant, but we will work harder and we will reach more.  And the key to all of this is that what “more” implies is choice.

This is what I’m missing about the powers at be right now.  I have long called myself “libertarian,” but the reality is that we are all libertarians.  We all believe that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.  Your right to mandate payments stops at my purse.  We have celebrated vocal minorities and voted with our feet.  The only thing all Americans agree that we demand in excess is choice.

When I say “choice” in this context I don’t mean any one decision an individual makes.  I mean that in general we prefer to enjoy the full bounty of our profits, we prefer to wear what we like, drive as quickly as we please, etc.  Community requires order in these areas, but we’re talking about the margins.  At the margin, I’d rather keep one more dollar for myself rather than throw it into a communal pot for whatever he would like to buy.

Of course what separates political philosophies is the degree to which a person believes other people are capable of making the proper choice for themselves.  Of course, I want my choice, but you?  You cannot be trusted.  And so it goes.

Indeed, I am no noninterventionist; I believe that Iran’s right to swing its nukes ends at Israel’s nose, and that this limitation should be enforced.  There is always some degree of intervention, some empowering a decision-maker who knows better than The People what is best for them.  The nature of government is to aggregate choice, that is to say, to take away individuals’ ability to make active choices at every turn.

And all of this comes back to more.  The purpose of a community is to thrive together, to find something more than the sum of its parts.  Certainly not everyone will remain hungry for more, but we will all benefit when there is an option for more.

And this is what I don’t understand about politics.  An attempt to aggregate decision-making seems wholly reckless.  I don’t know what will solve our policy failures, but I do know that what makes this country great lies in our vigorous obsession with preserving future opportunity.  We have voted with our feet for so long, via the Market, to have as disaggregated a decision process as possible.  What part of that patterned, active, determined choice indicates that we would prefer a central decision-maker to decide for each of us what’s best?

To vote with one fell swoop to aggregate after all that just seems …ridiculous.  Of course it’s tempting to take away his choice – it’s obvious he doesn’t know any better – but once we start down that path we’ve given up control over our own margins.  First they came for the gypsies, right?

Here’s the thing about America, and about more.  The way to deal with being swept off one’s feet is to hit the ground running.  Cooler heads cannot prevail if they are not sufficiently cleared.  There may be something elegant about satisfaction, but that something cannot hold a candle to the nobility and humility of the American Dream.

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Voting With Your Feet

From the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy at Volokh, George Mason’s own Ilya Somin shares a personal account of how moving with one’s feet is easier for those without a lot of accumulated wealth:

[T]he much greater difficult of moving when you own a lot of stuff is an additional reason why voting with your feet is often easier for the poor. My experience is far from unique.Studies by economists find that homeownership (a proxy for wealth and possessions), tends to reduce labor mobility significantly. Another way of putting it is that the relatively high moving costs faced by the affluent make it less likely that they will move to a different jurisdiction to take advantage of its superior policies, unless the superiority is very great. The poor, by contrast, can often move to exploit relatively smaller interjurisdictional differences.

Personal stories offer some great illustration, but Somin’s account made me wonder whether it is the poor who vote with their feet.

After all, by definition poor folks are the ones who bear the brunt of unjust social policies.  Wealthy people don’t need to vote with their feet, because they can travel.  When health care grows scarce in a wealthy person’s country, she travels to find services abroad.  Injustices like gun bans don’t bother wealthy people as much, because they have doormen and can afford to live in safe neighborhoods.

Prof. Somin suggests that the “foot voting” phenomenon comes into play at the “home-buying” stage, that stage of affluence without roots.  It’s one thing to talk about moving from representation-bereft DC to the open-carry friendly, tobacco-smoker inviting Commonwealth, but leaving real injustice requires something more than a dash of get-up-and-go.

I have a skewed perspective.  My displaced friends are the Cubans whose parents left in the ’60’s, Jews whose grandparents recall the “Old Country,” and a handful of Caucasian-mutt Europeans with ancient memories of Ellis Island.  Both of the former categories consist of wealthy folks who realize that it is their right to leave when the government establishes its pattern of abuses rather than waiting til Despotism becomes entrenched.

Only that hopeful bunch concerned primarily with providing for their children represent the huddled masses voting with their feet for the American Dream.

I can imagine easy arguments for both sides.  It makes sense that unjust policies disproportionately affect the poor, and that the poor have less to lose by leaving.  Anecdotally the opposite seems true: The wealthy tend to leave, because they are more educated, more savvy, and :- more aware of the signs that their country is going in the wrong direction.  Functionally the effect of “self-imposed exile” is that the middle class wanes while thick upper- and lower-classes dominate the remaining population.  Yet it is never the middle class who leaves.

Economists rely on the idea that people will inevitably send a signal to wrongheaded governments when unhappy citizens simply go.  This works at the margin, but in practice it seems that foot-voting better resembles cultural evolution than representation.  When the only folks who can afford to leave are the same sophisticated few aware of greener pastures, that less educated, older demographic left behind bears the brunt of regimes rarely dissuaded by a mobile citizenry.

Unfortunately I’m not as curious about this as I am about Tax Law, but I’d love to see some studies showing who leaves and when they go — and how long until that signal effects change in the old country’s policies.

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From Facebook: Insight into the Nature of the Dream

From a friend’s Facebook status:

Did you succeed at getting your iPhone back from the taxi cab driver? Your mom tried to call you yesterday and was startled when a man with broken English answered your phone.” -email from my dad Sorry to everyone who had to interact with my bizarrely protective cab driver. I’m not sure why he felt it was necessary to call all of the random people he called but I got it back so the creepiness is over!

What a good argument for fixing our broken immigration policies! Yay for keeping the American dream of Community alive by being overprotective when you feel you have an ethical duty by virtue of your job, rather than switching to shorthand non-cooperative capitalism and feeling entitled to sell someone else’s stuff on eBay!

Disclaimer: Facebook = semi-public domain, so I do not feel guilty when I re-post someone’s wall post.

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My favorite photo of myself from Toulouse

I’m posting this photo totally gratuitously, for the sole purpose of enjoying the memory of that cheesy speech in Atlas Shrugged when Francisco D’Anconia reveals his big pimp-bling dollar sign and describes America’s blessed gall and using her initials to represent the currency.

dollas

When I was in Toulouse the French elected Sarkozy over Senegolene Royal as President. The election made for many great opportunities to discuss politics with my friends. Granted, I was in business school with a bunch of young twenty-somethings, so it makes sense that my demographic frame of reference was more focused on fiscal policies than social.

Most interesting was the criticism Sarkozy received for acting too “American.” He smoked less than your average French, and touted the health benefits of foregoing constant cigarettes. He ran for exercise, rather than walking. This garnered by far the most aggressive criticism. People were offended that Sarkozy would partake in such “individualistic” activities, as “ungraceful” as running, rather than fall back on the more graceful, contemplative strolls preferred by the French.

At the same time, a French boy I rather liked accused me of always wanting “more.” “This is the American thing,” he said: “the thing that Americans want is always more.”

I spent an inordinate amount of time considering these two things. Is it better to be an individualist, to forego thoughtful chats and graceful promenades, in favor of raucous, head-clearing, efficient runs? And the notion of “more” is no where more prominent than in my own family. Why would you stop at one piece of cheese if the second will be equally delicious? Why work only one job, when holding two will bolster your purse and keep you out of trouble longer?

The thing I loved so much about France was that people tended to be satisfied. There is something *so elegant* about not wanting more. Money, sex, chocolate…there are reasons why I’ll occasionally *choose* against more but I always, always want more.

In most of Europe a glass ceiling looms, chilling effort past a certain point. There aren’t viable suburbs like in the States, so it’s not as though you can expand indefinitely and enjoy ever-more space to breathe. There’s also a hefty tax policy disincentivizing real ambition. In Europe you work to be able to afford your wine and cigarettes. Fashion is cheap and current and fewer people yearn for a fat Cadillac than is US status quo.

Ultimately, people came to the US. We are a culture of self-starters. No one is here by default; we came because we were dissatisfied with what we had. We wanted more for our families, for ourselves.

There is something quite noble about the wanting more, but consider the elegance of being satisfied. I have never, not for a second in my life, felt “satisfied.” I have levied stern punishment on myself for not working to satisfaction: I move nearly every semester; I allow myself to fall into less-than-thrilling relationships; I allow contentment to get dragged down the track like a carrot, maintained by me always just out of reach. Is this American? I don’t think so. The thing I hope I learned in Toulouse is to be happy, even if not still.

The American Dream has always inspired me the most. I love this country so much that it puts tears in my eyes. We may well be the last free Republic in the world. But we have not put in the requisite intellectual exercise and political acrobatics necessary to maintain that. Freedom is intact (somewhat; ask those victims of racial profiling in the airport whether they believe civil liberties are alive and well), but our infrastructure is — physically and metaphorically — crumbling.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I know that continuing down this Boumediene-esque road is not an option. The baseline must be that we want more for ourselves. If 300 million Americans each jealously guards his own baseline, we will maintain what More we have so enjoyed til now. If, instead, we treat noncitizens — no, terrorists! — as citizens then it is clear we’ve forgotten what it means to be here.

I am afraid that we are staring down the barrel of rapidly-recoiling rights. The Golden Age of the Internet is already yellowing at the corners and it’s becoming perfectly clear that Americans have traded in the Sarkozy-esque head-clearing, individualist run for a thoughtful, consider-your-neighbors stroll. I am terrified that what many politicians are considering is how best to restrict our liberty — to conduct strip searches and maintain records of what we’ve learned — without provoking us to react. This is like the threatened-stick flip side to my proverbial carrot. This is not what more we came to find.

To those who forget why we are here, I ask that they remember and cherish the American Dream. But to those who believe that the very next step is to trample the civil rights of entire demographics of Americans, I ask that you remember that if first they come for the gypsies, and you say nothing, then when they come for you there will be nothing more to say.

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