Friday, April 1, 2011

1999: More Wonderful Hate Mail

From Tucson Comic News #76. I never get any hate mail these days, whereas I used to get some great stuff. Maybe as I return to a more public profile after years of hunkering down with my young kids, I'll attract some entertaining correspondents. After all, it's not like there's any shortage of wingnuts these days.

In any case, this exchange is kind of long, but does raise a few issues relevant to our current situation. The useful links are down in my second reply:

I saw your editorial in the News for Nov. 1999 and realized that you don't really understand what is happening in our society. I might say that many technical journal editors are in the same boat, you think that if someone only comes up with a good idea we can go back to the 3 class society that existed for about 100 years.

The two class society, Upper and Lower, is far older and longer lasting---that is the way we are going and it is happening in every developed country on the planet. I could discuss the reasons for this, it is not a right wing plot, but I don't think you would be interested.

Stuart A. Hoenig

Dear Mr. Hoenig,

You may be surprised to learn that I don't think that everything is a right-wing plot. Still, right-wingers do plot from time to time, as that jury in Memphis just affirmed in the case of the plot to kill Martin Luther King. In general, right-wing plots do tend to be more successful than the left-wing variety, since the right usually has more money and meaner lawyers (see above).

But Mr. H! What sort of world is this when those like yourself, who truly understand how society works, despair of explaining it to the unenlightened? Of course I'm interested in your explanation.

In my own feeble understanding, income inequality has been a cyclical phenomenon in this country. After a certain interval, the Upper tier aggregates too much of the wealth in too few hands, which leads to a deflationary spiral; the most recent being in the 1930s and 40s. Then an outraged Lower tier makes demands for progressive reforms, and for a time, wealth is more equally distributed, as during the 50s and 60s. Eventually Upper gets sick of this situation and moves more aggressively to undo the reforms - as in the 80s and 90s.

The reason this is cyclical is that it takes around sixty years for the older generation who crashed the economy to die off. Then they're not around to explain to their grandchildren what stupid mistakes they made, and the whole cycle starts over again. It's taking a little bit longer this time because of longer life spans, but the supremely stupid repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act is right on time.

As far as the rest of the developed world goes, they have their own cycles, and neoliberal economic policies are increasing inequality, particularly in the UK, but they're nowhere near as bad as we are, and Japan and Scandanavia have a far more even income distribution. It's also true that there are lower and middle-income countries with staggering inequality (Malaysia, Brazil, Kenya), and others which are more equitable (India, South Korea, Morocco). So it's not really a function of development, but of political decisions.

And either way, the United States is among the most unequal societies on Earth, rich or poor - and as I mentioned, Tucson is one of the most unequal cities in the US.

But what do I know? I thought having a large and prosperous middle class was a desirable thing; one of the greatest achievements of my parents' generation. And it didn't happen by accident. It was, if you will, a left-wing plot, one involving such things as a progressive income tax, the GI Bill, strong unions, and a very different sort of leadership at the Federal Reserve.

So how could I not be interested in the reasons those things have been cast aside? You wound me, sir.

But hey, speaking of right-wing plots, ignoring the will of the people and staggering inequality, how about that WTO meeting?

I've got more to say about that - lots more, in fact, but we're out of room. Suffice it to say: Big Money doesn't win every time. Happy Holidays!

Date: Thu, 16 Dec 1999 18:09:34 -0700
From: Stuart Hoenig
To: Mark Zepazaur

I read your "answer" to my letter of Nov. and I must say you have new ideas. I had never heard of the 60 year cycle and no one ever mentioned it at the Universities of Michigan, Maryland or UC Berkeley. You should present this material more widely, I for one would be fascinated.

Apparently you don't think that computers have made and will make a real change in our Society. Just looking at buying over the Web in the Wall Street Journal would change your mind, but I guess you wouldn't look at that Fascist newspaper. The 3 Class system is rapidly going to a 2 Class system but again if you don't pay attention to it maybe it will go away. (I recall people said that about Hitler too.)

In any case there are many people who think the way you do, I suspect that they don't want to face the idea of living in a 2 Class society. I don't blame them, many more will move Down than Up.

Prof. Stuart A. Hoenig, P.E., Ph.D

Dear Prof. Hoenig:

Having read your answer to my "answer" I must say I'm disappointed. First you leap to conclusions as to whether or not I'd be interested in your explanation of how the world works. Now you make similarly unfounded assumptions as to what I would or would not be willing to read. But at the same time your crisis of confidence regarding your ability to enlighten ignorant wretches like myself continues, in that you don't make much of an effort to do so.

However on the basis of your argument so far, I'm beginning to suspect your lack of self-confidence may be justified. I certainly hope you do a better job of educating your students than you do arguing with me. I'm always willing (nay, eager) to dialogue with those of opposing viewpoints. The problem here is (and I'm sure it's entirely my fault) that I can barely figure out what you're trying to say.

First of all, the fascinating ideas I discuss in this month's Rant are not my own, nor are they new. But as they say about summer re-runs on TV: if you haven't seen it before, it's new to you. If no one ever mentioned the economic theories of Nicolai Kondratieff or Joseph Schumpeter at Michigan, Maryland or Berkeley, it's not my fault; but it doesn't seem to be yours either, since apparently they were also failing to teach logic, rhetoric or even grammar.

My own exposure to these ideas came mainly (but by no means exclusively) from a wonderful article by Donella H. Meadows in the Summer 1998 issue of Whole Earth magazine, entitled (Word doc) "The Long Wave: Or, Why Asian Economies are Collapsing and Democrats are Cutting Welfare." I will make no assumptions about your willingness to glean insights from such an airy-fairy source; I will simply append it below and allow you to consume or ignore it as you see fit. Note, however, that if you consult the dead-tree edition at your local library it contains a number of useful graphs and charts as well as some droll little cartoons.

Next we come to what seems to be the crux of your argument. I'm at a loss to see how you decided what I do or don't think about computers, since the topic hadn't arisen before. No matter; as I understand it, your entire explanation of how the world works is that A), computers have made and will make a real difference; B), simply "looking at" accounts of e-commerce in the Wall Street Journal would bring me to your level of intellectual acuity; and thus C), we are rapidly becoming a two-tier society.

Please forgive me. I've read that paragraph over and over again, and I'm sure it's my fault but I still don't understand how the world works. I will try to go through it slowly in hopes of comprehending your superior world view. The first part was awfully tough, but after thinking about it real hard I've come to accept the wisdom of your position. By Jove, you're right! Computers are making a big difference in our society! How could I not have seen this before? Be patient with me, Professor. You're making progress.

But the second part is even tougher. You see, I actually have read articles on e-commerce in the Journal, and I don't feel any smarter. In fact, I kind of enjoy reading fascist publications; I'll read just about anything - right, left, center or extreme - that will help me understand how the world works. As my wife can tell you, I'd probably read a toothpaste tube rather than have nothing at all to read. And I get a particular kick out of the WSJ, given the amusing contradictions between their generally reliable reporting and the fanatical ideologies expressed on their editorial pages.

But it's true that I don't read the Wall Street Journal every day, and that's probably why I'm having so much trouble getting your point. Perhaps if I consumed it more religiously I would see why buying over the Web will destroy the middle class, but as it is I'm troubled. By my understanding, income inequality has been increasing since 1973, and yet e-commerce has been going on for only the past few years. How can this be? Perhaps the economy began to redistribute wealth upwards in anticipation of the invention of the Web? That must be it.

If I extrapolate, I might assume that your point is that because of e-commerce, traditional retailing and manufacturing will soon be extinct, along with the middle class which used to be employed in those sectors. Let's leave aside the surprising resilience of certain bricks-and mortar retail brands in competition with pure e-commerce sites. Are you telling me that the assurances of our political class, that we will all be comfortably absorbed by service-sector employment, are not to be taken seriously? I simply have to get better educated. Perhaps you could help me by citing actual articles from the Journal which advance your argument.

I do recall that both the Dutch and British Empires abandoned their manufacturing bases in favor of economic globalization and weakened their middle classes in favor of service-sector employment. I assume that the wisdom of those moves will pay off any day now, and they will be crawling out of the dustbin of history to assume their rightful place in the brave new 2 Class world.

But anyway, I gather that more frequent perusal of the Journal would enable me to fathom the logic of your A+B=C argument. Thus we come to your third point, that the more stratified economy of the postwar order is giving way to a more polarized one. This is, in fact, a phenomenon to which I have been paying attention. What I can't quite get from your answer to my "answer" is whether or not you believe this is both 1), inevitable and/or 2), desirable.

Forgive me for reading between the lines, but you do provide some clues. I gather you expect to remain a part of the Up Class once the middle has disappeared. My woefully infrequent reading of the Journal gives me some familiarity with the idea that the ongoing polarization redounds to the benefit of the better educated. Given the apparent deficiencies in the institutions you cited, I would caution you to take nothing for granted; nevertheless such an assumption would generally be well-founded.

I can almost discern some nascent sympathy for the downtrodden masses-to-be in your comment that you "don't blame them" for averting their eyes from their imminent immiseration, but the omission of any qualifier from the second half of that sentence is a possible clue that you regard such trends as inevitable. Please don't hesitate to correct me if I'm wrong, either on the sympathy or the inevitability.

(Note, as well, another law with which you may be unfamiliar: the value of an argument is inversely proportional to the number of Hitler analogies it employs.)

Recall that Keynes said, "the long run is a misleading guide to current affairs; in the long run we are all dead." Quite so, and economic history is littered with the corpses of those who thought certain trends to be inevitable. Likewise there have been more than a few investors transferred from the Up Class to the Down by mistaking the end of the business cycle for a paradigm shift.

Just recently I recall an economic assumption, mostly touted by the folks at the Wall Street Journal, that there was such a thing as the "natural rate of unemplyment," then thought to be about 6 per cent, below which we would inevitably suffer from increased inflation. Even more recently, there were widespread expectations that the Up countries would inevitably be able to continue imposing their will on the Down countries through the WTO; said inevitability seems to have been somewhat delayed.

You say that there are many people who think the way I do; perhaps you will not be surprised to hear that I don't think there are nearly enough. Nevertheless, I have been able to find some who are not only willing to face the idea of living in a 2 Class society, but who propose "good ideas" for countering such trends, including the aforementioned Lord Keynes. People who think like I do consider the destruction of the middle class to be a recipe for social unrest. Perhaps if we got a bit more guidance from people who think like you do, we would see the futility of any efforts to ameliorate such dislocations, but to date we persist in our perverse notions that justice is worth struggling for.

So let's review: I had the temerity to kvetch about economic inequality on the local, national and global levels. In response, you berate my lack of understanding and assert that polarization is the default paradigm in the developed world. In my "answer" I cite societies both developed and "developing" in which this is not exactly the case; this point you leave unchallenged, no doubt due to my insufficiencies in articulation. I make the main point that economic polarization is neither inevitable nor desirable, but that it is the result of political decisions. The sum total of your response is that "buying over the Web" explains your position.

I'm begging you, Professor: do not give up on me. Help me attain your level of sophistication. I realize that you teach people, for a living, what is happening in our society, and that you may be no more inclined to hand out free samples than a physician desires to diagnose ailments at a cocktail party. Perhaps that explains the abbreviated nature of your response. But you've been teasing me, and now I hunger for enlightenment. Further scrutiny of your Zen koan on the nature of the Web will no doubt reward me; imagine how much closer I could get to letting the Up Class have their way if you would just toss me another few nuggets of wisdom.

One last thing: I realize that the revolutionary nature of the Net has rendered obsolete such archaic matters as the standards regarding capitalization, punctuation or even traditional salutations. Nevertheless I would be grateful for the courtesy of having my name spelled correctly. It took me many years to master, though, so you should not be daunted by an initially unsuccessful effort. You will find an example below, preceding the article I promised you.

Yours truly,
Mark Zepezauer

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