Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004


It strikes me that Democrats and Republicans actually agree on something very fundamental when it comes to the proper use of government assistance. This may seem unlikely, and I admit it seems so even to me, but I think it's true.

I came to this startling realization when I was chatting with my parents last Sunday. I generally speak with them once a week, usually on Sundays. This isn't some sort of weird sabbath holdover- though my parents are Presbyterian and occasionally test the strength of my atheism in the misguided hope that I'll convert back.

As a side note: has anyone noticed the quantity of explicitly christian music that has been reaching popular radio of late? Right now there's a song on about what the singer would do if he were in Jesus's presence. Recently I've also heard a female singer also going on about Jesus. This bothers me a little, to be perfectly honest. It wasn't that long ago that being an atheist was more or less equivalent to being a communist and/or pedophile in most people's eyes. Not that being a communist is BAD, but I really don't want to become any more socially unacceptable than I already am.

No, I talk to my folks on Sunday because it became something of a tradition after my sister and I went to college. Once you get in the habit, it can be hard to break. Besides, as I've mentioned before, now that I have free long distance, it's pretty hard to bow out of it. If you hadn't guessed from the tenor of this post, despite the regular calls, I'm not all that close to my parents.

In any case, my conversation with my folks really made me think about what makes Democrats and Republicans alike. See, my parents are both pretty conservative and are planning on voting for Bush in November. On the other hand, my sister and I are both pretty liberal (sis) or left-leaning moderate (me). Despite this, my sister, my folks, and I all have powerful concepts of personal responsibility, hard work, and sacrifice. In other words, we agree on most of the fundamentals, we just differ politically. The question is: why?

The answer appears when we examine our arguments more closely. My father justifies his planned Bush vote (I focus on him because my mother tends to defer to him in public as a good woman should) by claiming that while he doesn't like Bush, Kerry is just too liberal. I, of course, assert that Bush couldn't be much more conservative without either (a) turning into Barry Goldwater or (b) waving a swastika about. The interesting part of the conversation emerged when we discussed welfare. My folks both focus on the whole "people need to work" aspect of welfare, arguing that nobody should get a free handout. I, on the other hand, focus on the macroeconomic benefits of public assistance for capitalism as a system and the U.S. economy as a whole. They see welfare as a slop trough from which otherwise-useless people feed, while I see it as a necessary part of a society's infrastructure. This is the difference, and the similarity, I find instructive.

Okay, seriously, if you're sitting there fuming at me and mentally composing a response to my earlier "good woman" crack, just calm the hell down. From what I have said before it should be apparent that I'm pretty egalitarian in my outlook. It should also be obvious by now that I'm just a tad sarcastic. You can probably guess how serious I was about the above remark. I mean, damn, you need to get out more, okay?

What I think binds the Democrats and Republicans together is a concept summed up in a wonderfully-simple manner by the author Robert Anson Heinlein. Now, Heinlein was a science fiction writer, but sci-fi is a genre that often demands a certain amount of sociologizing- after all, if you're constructing alien beings and future worlds, you have to grapple with social structure. This doesn't even consider the extent to which sci-fi has been used deliberately for social commentary. In short, while many sci-fi writers are not rigorous social theorists, they can sometimes come up with something good. This is just one such occasion. In Heinlein's Hugo-winning book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, first published in 1966, he introduces the acronym TANSTAAFL, usually pronounced tahn-stah-full. This acronym literally means, "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."

I don't have my copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress handy just now, but Heinlein fleshes this acronym out by having his protaganist assert that, "...anything free costs twice as much in [the] long run or turns out [to be] worthless." This point is even more fleshed out by the protaganist's observation that a "free lunch" in a bar isn't really free- it's paid for through higher drink prices, or a cover-charge. This discussion, of course, is partially Heinlein's way of introducing us to a society where even the air one breathes must be paid for, but it is important in a deeper, more significant way. While TANSTAAFL may seem a bit unwieldly to write, and perhaps say, it does capture both an economic and a physical reality.

In physics you can't get something for nothing, there is always waste and friction and you must "pay" for that in order to get anything done. This concept, also known as entropy essentially argues that any change in the physical world must be paid for in energy. So, if we want to accelerate a car to 30 miles per hour we must not only release the amount of energy needed to accelerate so much mass to that speed, but an extra amount to cover the wastage. (This, as a side note, provides the foundation for a compelling environmental argument against electric cars. Ask, if you're curious. I'm sure I'll post on it eventually, but reader requests might motivate me to get on the stick. Or not. It's a tough call with me.) Similarly, in the economic context Heinlein was discussing, one cannot get something TRULY for free. The cost of providing it must be borne somewhere, and so while costs can be displaced they cannot be eliminated.

So how does this relate to Republicans and Democrats? Simple: both parties believe strongly in the TANSTAAFL principle. Neither party believes that a free lunch can, indeed, be had. So why do they disagree on policy? Well, it has to do with what constitutes a free lunch. The Republicans look at those they believe are abusing the system, and exclaim, "TANSTAAFL! You can't just live on handouts you lazy bums!" Of course, they're right: it isn't "right" for anyone to simply feed off of the largesse of others, as some sort of economic lamprey. On the other hand, the Democrats look at the larger economy and say, "TANSTAAFL! Private industry isn't providing all the services a society needs to be healthy!" And, of course, the Democrats are right too: many social services that moderate the business cycle and make economies operate more smoothly appear to almost demand government-organized social systems.

The difference in opinion is one of focus: Republicans focus on the individual-level inefficiencies of offering social programs, and Democrats focus on the system-level inefficiencies of the capitalist system. That both sides are actually right is just the icing on the cake. The Democrats are right- without social provision the efficiency of our economy won't be able to reach the levels it has in previous decades. Certain things must be provided by the government, if only to protect capitalism from itself. On the other hand, the Republicans are right too- if too much abuse of the system is going on, social provision goes from being a positive way to maintain a healthy economy, to a rupturned artery pumping away economic life-blood. That both sides are actually arguing from the same root belief- namely that we must pay for what we have- is just a titanic, and often bitter, irony.

On the other hand, this provides some hope. We on the left have long lamented (Woo-hoo, aliteration!) about the concept of the "rugged individual." The powerful idea that anyone, regardless of starting conditions, can work their way to the top in the U.S. has stood in the way of government actions that might help make this truly possible. We all want so badly to believe in our own economic fitness we refuse to acknowledge the possibility that the playing field may not be quite level. Yet, if Democrats and Republicans really do share this basic orientation, that may perhaps show the way to a new approach to arguing in favor of social provision. No longer should we argue that welfare is a benefit for the poor, but rather that welfare is a benefit for industry. The government is not draining away money from industry to pay social leeches, but rather is taking the necessary usage fees corporations owe to the government for providing a fertile economic context. If we can portray social programs not as handouts, or as handups (what an absolutely bizarre term, by the way) but as, for lack of a better term, "rent" we may succeed in building a system of social provision that actually helps. Perhaps then we could put the Barbara Ehrenreichs of the world out of business: if the poor are treated fairly and respectfully, there won't be a need for exposes of their shameful conditions. I'm confident Dr. Ehrenreich would be comfortable with that. Maybe this isn't a new idea, and maybe people have tried it before, but it's clear that appealing to the sympathy of the right, and many voters, isn't doing the trick. So, we have to ask ourselves this: are we in politics to show off our moral fiber, or are we in politics to make things better. I'm here for the latter.

It is indeed true that There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, and both the right and the left agree. Now, we need only do one thing:

Decide what constitutes a lunch. I've got some ideas, how about you?


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