The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

There’s probably no grand unified theory of everything, unless it comes from the Monty Python troop or Douglas Adams. You might remember Deep Thought – the computer that was created by the pan-dimensional, hyper-intelligent race of beings (whose three dimensional protrusions into our universe seem to be small white mice) to come up with The Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That’s so important it does have to be capitalized. And of course after seven and a half million years of calculation Deep Thought really does come up with the answer – 42. And then the problem becomes figuring out what the original question was. Douglas Adams was a strange fellow. But then the Monty Python troop gave us Every Sperm is Sacred – which seems to be the grand unified theory of life, the universe, and everything for the right-to-life social conservatives in America. Those are the values voters, as they say. There is that bill in the Georgia legislature to make miscarriage a crime, in fact a capital crime, punishable by death. Every zygote is sacred. And the state representative who introduced this bill, Bobby Franklin, does not seem to be in any way associated with that now disbanded Monty Python ensemble. Grand unified theories of anything are nothing but trouble.

That is not to say unified field theory and other such theories of everything aren’t interesting. It might be cool to map out all the physical constants in nature and diagram how everything is related to everything. But that’s for those who live and breathe theoretical physics – those are your friends at MIT or Cal Tech who will talk your ear off about string theory and eleven-dimensional mathematical models and such things. It’s best to just nod and try to look interested. And don’t ask them if they think the answer is 42 – that just makes them angry.

So you’re stuck. Be pleasant. And face it. You’re probably not going to understand the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything – or even the question. So we all make do with lesser grand theories. Everyone wants to know that they do know how things really work. This – whatever it is – is just how things are, and that’s a fact. These are the more mundane physical constants in nature.

And of course in a lightly-regulated free-market capitalist winner-take-all society that means that everyone knows everything should be run like a business. That why there has been, since the Reagan years, that push to privatize everything is sight. It might be public utilities or AMTRAK or the Post Office, or now schools or the Army or prisons. But everyone just knows that if someone has to make a profit – private enterprise – things will be run wonderfully, at low cost, with the best results imaginable. If the government runs something it will be a mess – when no one has to make money they just goof off and nothing gets done. That’s the grand unified theory of America, or so conservatives will tell you – they’ll tell you that FDR and Obama and every Democrat in-between was just a goofball, and a dangerous goofball at that.

There is some dispute here. Jamelle Bouie comments here on a Sarah Lacy essay on why America just can’t function like a fiscally responsible company – and Bouie says this is a good example of “why tech writers should stay away from politics.” The dispute is pretty basic. Governments should be run like a business. No, that’s not so – their purpose isn’t to make money, so the model doesn’t work. Yes it does. No it doesn’t. And this is the old argument once again. Sarah Lacy is saying everyone’s grand unified theory here is pretty stupid.

And Matthew Yglesias has an interesting take on this, saying that there’s a deeper issue here:

A state is fundamentally an ethical enterprise aimed at promoting human welfare. A business isn’t like that. If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. It’s not “entitlements” and it’s not “Social Security” and it’s not “Medicare” and it’s not “health care costs” it’s the existence of old people. Old people, generally speaking, don’t produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street. The problem with this isn’t that it wouldn’t work – it’s that it would be wrong, morally speaking.

Swift argued the same thing back in 1729 – some things would work fine, economically – they do make sense in terms of profit and efficiency – and some of those things are monstrous. Yglesias argues that the grand unified theory at play here just doesn’t work, and cannot work:

Now obviously an idea like raising the retirement age to 70 isn’t as wrong as mandatory euthanasia at the age of 70. But by the same token, it doesn’t “work” as well at boosting per capita GDP or cutting down on American red ink. And both ideas exist on a continuum of the same tradeoff. Bolstering the living standards of old people is an economically inefficient undertaking that we sentimental human beings find ethically appealing. That’s not to say that the spot on the continuum occupied by current policy is the best possible way to make the tradeoff. But it’s simply to dramatize the nature of calculus we’re talking about. As a “business strategy” it’s ridiculous – on a par with preserving the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon or having the military pay health care costs of soldiers who are too injured to fight – but that’s because it’s not a business strategy.

And that might explain what is going on is Wisconsin:

A crowd estimated at more than 70,000 people on Saturday waved American flags, sang the national anthem and called for the defeat of a Wisconsin plan to curb public sector unions that has galvanized opposition from the American labor movement.

In one of the biggest rallies at the state Capitol since the Vietnam War, union members and their supporters braved frigid temperatures and a light snowfall to show their displeasure.

The mood was upbeat despite the setback their cause suffered earlier this week when the state Assembly approved the Republican-backed restrictions on union collective bargaining rights over fierce Democratic objections.

“I’m deeply honored to be here with you,” said Peter Yarrow, a veteran of many social protests during his 50-year folk music career and a founding member of the group Peter, Paul and Mary. “If you persist, you will prevail.”

People don’t like monsters (except for Yarrows’ Puff, the Magic Dragon). And then it got interesting:

From inside the Wisconsin State Capitol, RAN ally Ryan Harvey reports:

“Hundreds of cops have just marched into the Wisconsin state capitol building to protest the anti-Union bill, to massive applause. They now join up to 600 people who are inside.”

Ryan reported on his Facebook page earlier today:

“Police have just announced to the crowds inside the occupied State Capitol of Wisconsin: ‘We have been ordered by the legislature to kick you all out at 4:00 today. But we know what’s right from wrong. We will not be kicking anyone out; in fact, we will be sleeping here with you!’ Unreal.”

It seems that the Hippies and the Pigs are holding hands now – so much for the sixties. But you just don’t treat low-level workers – the working stiffs – this way, taking their voice away after they had agreed to wage and benefits and pension reductions. It may make marginal sense in terms of profit and efficiency to do so, but some things are monstrous. And why wouldn’t the Egyptian Army open fire on those protestors, and why did those Libyan pilots fly off to Malta and defect, rather than strafe and bomb their countrymen? Yes, order and efficiency and profits are fine. But is that what government is about?

Of course the report is anecdotal. When CNN reports it then it will be true.

On the other hand, Digby really shouldn’t watch CNN:

I’m really enjoying watching fabulously compensated TV celebrities on CNN this morning kvetch and moan about how much more union workers make than your average worker and why they need to give up their fat salaries and benefits for the greater good. According to the graphic they put up on the screen the average public employee makes 917 bucks a week compared to 717 bucks a week for the non-union workers. Who do these greedy bastards think they are? TV hosts?

In other words, what I’m being told right now by these wealthy spokesmodels and fatuous gasbags is that these college-educated teachers and urban planners and blue collar workers like road and sewage workers need to bring their salaries down below 40K a year because they are living way too high off the hog.

And as Swift noted long ago, if the Irish are starving they should boil their babies and eat them. Something odd is going on here, and Digby says that Adele Stan connects some dots for us:

In the week-long battle taking place in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights, you’d expect Fox News to be doing what it’s done: misreporting the story, mistakenly characterizing a poll supporting public workers to mean its opposite, featuring Glenn Beck painting the protests of union workers as something cooked up by Stalinists. And you might be tempted to think, well, that’s just Fox playing to its base of frightened Tea Partiers who prefer a fact-free zone to the more challenging territory of actual news, where the answers are never pat, and the world is a bit more complicated than it seems in the realm of Fox Nation.

You might think it’s all about what brings in the advertising dollars for Rupert Murdoch, CEO of Fox’s parent company, News Corporation. But it runs much deeper than that, involving key players at the Wall Street Journal, News Corp.’s crown jewel. The informal partnership between billionaire David Koch, whose campaign dollars and Astroturf group, Americans for Prosperity, have fomented the Wisconsin crisis, and billionaire Rupert Murdoch, is profoundly ideological – the ideology being the exponential enrichment of the two men’s heirs, all dressed up in the language of libertarianism and free enterprise. Together with his brother, Charles – also a big donor to right-wing causes – David Koch runs Koch Industries, the conglomerate that sprang from the oil and gas company founded by his father.

You see where that’s going. There are monsters here, or something. But actually it’s somewhat an argument that we’ve been bamboozled – if the government should be run like a business than businessmen are the only ones who know how things really work. We’ve come to believe they should be in charge, because they want to make a ton of money. And everyone knows that’s admirable. After all, a common insult is to say someone just don’t think like a businessman.

And Digby recommends, from August 2004, Philip E. Agre with What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?

That’s rather lengthy and opens with this:

Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

Ah, this seems to be a different grand unifying theory of everything:

From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.

The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use “social issues” as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats.

And in America the businessmen are the aristocracy. How else would explain the almost universal admiration for someone like Donald Trump? In any other civilized society he would be nothing more than an embarrassment.

But Agre offers an explanation:

More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.

If only those low-life college-educated teachers and urban planners and blue collar workers like road and sewage workers would recognize their betters, and stop this nonsense. The Agre theory fits the current dynamic.

And there is this:

The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation. This is true for many reasons, including internal conflicts among the aristocrats; institutional shifts due to climate, markets, or warfare; and ideological gains and losses in the perpetual struggle against democracy.

In some societies the aristocracy is rigid, closed, and stratified, while in others it is more of an aspiration among various fluid and factionalized groups. The situation in the United States right now is toward the latter end of the spectrum. A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children, and many of the aspiring aristocrats of the United States are appointing their children to positions in government and in the archipelago of think tanks that promote conservative theories.

A lot of this rings true even if, or because, so many working-class stiffs did drink the Kool-Aid – those rich folks are our betters, so stop picking in them! They have internalized the grand unified theory of life, the universe, and everything that this lightly-regulated free-market capitalist winner-take-all society inevitably generated.

But what happens when a grand unified theory of life, the universe, and everything causes so much pain that folks say, well, that’s stupid? That seems to be what is happening here. Grand unified theories of anything are nothing but trouble.

But unified field theory is cool. There, no one knows what the hell those guys are talking about. Here however, in Wisconsin, folks have figured out this stuff – it’s not rocket science. And some things are monstrous.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

  1. Rick says:

    “Governments should be run like a business.”

    What nobody seems to understand is that governments are run like businesses, because they are businesses, and always have been.

    Specifically, the United States government is a not-for-profit company — that is, a company whose mission is not framed in terms of the money it makes for the owners but instead in terms of getting done all those things that We, the People — the ones who theoretically founded this business — want to get done, including, among other things, promoting the welfare of all its citizens, not just the rich ones.

    But is “promoting the welfare” of citizens really the proper function of government?

    The founding fathers apparently thought so, or they wouldn’t have mentioned it in the preamble — that is, the “mission statement” — of the nation’s number one founding document, the Constitution.

    So the next time you hear some conservative, Tea Party conservative or otherwise, say we need to put someone in charge who has experience running a business, tell him he may be right, that maybe we need someone who has successfully run a not-for-profit business, one whose object was not to make a profit but instead to do something that needed to be done.


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