The Origin, the Use, and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth

Sometimes it’s dim at the top. Anglophiles know that Queen Anne, the last monarch of the House of Stuart, was dumb as rock – but at least she didn’t flirt with Catholicism like her father, James II, who was thrown out on his ear in favor of William and Mary in that Glorious Revolution of 1688 that’s still being fought out in Northern Ireland to this day. The Irish, or some of them, still have to work out that Protestant-Catholic thing. Anne played it safe – she’d be vaguely protestant in that pleasant Church of England way, and generally vague about everything. Luckily, she was mostly harmless, and when she passed harmlessly away, leaving no children, England, which had become Great Britain during her reign, when they brought in Scotland, turned to her by her second cousin, who became George I – he of the House of Hanover, over in Germany. The guy didn’t even speak English, but he’d do just fine, and he wasn’t dumb. Then it was one King George after another, the least of them being quite mad and famous for losing the American Colonies, and the rest is history. The family, by the way, decided that Windsor sounded a whole lot better than Hanover, and by then Queen Anne was long forgotten. There is a common weed named after her – but that’s about it.

The problem was the old girl never got the joke, and she lived at the wrong time for that. In 1704, Jonathan Swift published his first major work, the satire A Tale of a Tub – admittedly thorny and difficult, but brilliant in its biting wit, where what sounds so reasonable turns in on itself and becomes absurd. Queen Anne thought he was serious and profound, much as today there still are conservatives in America who think Stephen Colbert is one of them – or who used to think that. Most of them wised up. Queen Anne was incapable of getting the joke, and she certainly didn’t get the tale’s Digression on Madness (A DIGRESSION CONCERNING THE ORIGINAL, THE USE, AND IMPROVEMENT OF MADNESS IN A COMMONWEALTH) which might have been written with her in mind:

For if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived. And first, with relation to the mind or understanding, it is manifest what mighty advantages fiction has over truth, and the reason is just at our elbow: because imagination can build nobler scenes and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or Nature will be at the expense to furnish.

Colbert got to the same place in 2005 when he invented the word truthiness – named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster:

Now I’m sure some of the “word police” – the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s – are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen.

Webster’s gave in – the word was useful for describing the mighty advantages fiction has over truth, as a one word compression of what Swift said way back when. Some things feel true so they must be true, because your gut tells you so, in spite of all empirical evidence to the contrary. That feels right, and thus happiness, or smug satisfaction, has to do with the perpetual possession of being well-deceived.

Colbert had George Bush in mind when he first coined the term, for obvious reasons, and he riffed on the idea the next year:

I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us – we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

That’s another way of reframing what Swift was saying, and everyone saw this in the last presidential election. Peggy Noonan was saying forget the polls – she’d see the lawn signs and the crowds and Romney was going to win in a landslide, and Dick Morris saying the same of Fox News, based on how things felt, and then on election night, Karl Rove arguing with Meagan Kelly and all of the Fox News anchors, and their in-house statisticians, saying Romney really was going to win Ohio, and thus the election, and there was Mitt Romney himself having to scribble out a last-minute concession speech, because his entire campaign organization, until that final hour, felt they were going to win, in spite of Nate Silver and all his data, and everyone’s else data. Romney was never going to win, and that election was where truthiness met reality’s liberal bias.

Of course the battle between truthiness and reality’s bias, liberal or not, is as old as human pride and defensiveness. Swift put it one way and Colbert another. The only thing that changes is the particular battlefield.

When did American politics become this fully absurd? That might have been when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate back in 2008, a woman who knew next to nothing about anything, a woman the McCain campaign had to hide from the press after two disastrous press interviews, one with ABC’s Charlie Gibson and one with CBS’s Katie Couric, where Palin couldn’t even swing at any of the softball questions they lobbed at her. There was no way she could even hope, in McCain’s wildest dreams, to hit one out of the park. Even Dick Cheney called her an irresponsible choice, and then Tina Fey did her in. Republicans tried to put a brave face on things – she was a breath of fresh air, or she would grow into her new role, or any role, sooner or later, or something – but they knew better. She would say absurd things out there on the campaign trail, and all the defense of her – all the talk on Fox News and all the columns in the Weekly Standard and National Review – became baroque exercises in pretending that the absurd isn’t absurd, in spite of her not quite knowing the slightest thing about international relations, even if she could see Russia from her front door or whatever, or about how the economy actually works. That’s when this all started. That’s when one of our political parties committed themselves to telling us that what was obviously absurd – everyone could see it plainly with their own eyes – wasn’t absurd at all. She could have been out Queen Anne, although it’s unlikely she would have been harmless.

And when did it become conventional wisdom and thus common knowledge – at least among everyone on the right – that the economy was just like a rose bush? Cut and Grow was what they said, as severe pruning always produces magnificent blossoms or something. We should cut spending, and borrow no more to invest in anything – even if, unlike Greece, we can easily pay back what we borrow because we print our own money, in the form of our treasury bonds, which everyone accepts without question, unless we choose to stop the whole process and default on our bonds. No matter, austerity feels right. It has a certain kind of truthiness to it. We have to raise the debt ceiling to meet our obligations, and that creates more debt, which is bad, or feels bad. So the answer to all our economic woes is to drastically reduce economic activity, because drastically reducing economic activity will obviously increase economic activity.

What? When did austerity become prosperity, in spite of all evidence that this has never worked anywhere, ever? The Brits tried it and got themselves something like a true depression. The Europeans tried it, and the head of the European Central Bank was forced to admit, after two years of austerity economics, that the concept was pretty stupid – sorry about that. When did quite clear evidence that something is stupid become irrefutable evidence that it isn’t? How does that happen? That happens because “imagination can build nobler scenes and produce more wonderful revolutions than fortune or Nature will be at the expense to furnish.”

Swift would understand. The deficit is soaring, except it isn’t. The original stimulus package and any that follow will cause interest rates to go through the roof and cause hyperinflation, except that the opposite happened. Cutting of unemployment benefits and cutting food stamp benefits to next to nothing, and cutting Social Security payments and Medicaid and Medicare benefits, will cause a surge in consumer spending, somehow, except that many people will then be able to buy next to nothing and lots of low-end retailers and landlords will go under. Wal-Mart has a new earnings warning about that. Truthiness meets reality’s liberal bias again. Oh, and by the way, America will admire and respect the Republicans for shutting down the government for fifteen days, costing the economy twenty-four billion dollars and causing great pain to individuals, and to contractors from computer wizards to those who provide janitorial services, because everyone hates Obamacare, and even if this had no chance of stopping Obamacare, it was worth a shot.

No, it wasn’t, but everyone knows the truthiness here. Obamacare is the end of freedom. People should take care of themselves. If anyone is going to take care of anyone, that should be the neighbors, or someone in the family – a kindly rich uncle or something – or the church. Leave charity where it belongs, with the good-hearted American people, not with the government. If a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as with a church seeing a social need, collectively chooses to take a few initial steps to help its people get health care, it’s still government doing that, not a church – and that abridges freedom. Anyway, the free-market, left to its own devices, without any regulation, naturally, would have taken care of all this stuff. And there’s something else too. As Obamacare evolves, bosses will lose an important lever to keep people from walking away and starting their own businesses and whatnot. That’s because if healthcare becomes relatively cheap and easy to obtain, and portable from job to job, people will walk – and those will be the best people, the clever achievers, and employers will be left with the dregs. The good employees walk and the marginal drones remain? Obamacare is dangerous, or it FEELS dangerous, and that’s enough.

What really frightened conservatives in that new CBO report on Obamacare was that it did not say more than two million jobs will disappear. The report says people will have more options – Obamacare will free millions working only for the healthcare benefits. Now people can work only as much as they choose to work. Well shoot, if that happens we’d end up with a nation of Frenchman, working hard enough for the pleasant life they want, and no more, because they wouldn’t see the point, and be fine with paying substantial taxes so everyone can do the same, with no worries about crippling healthcare costs that will occur, sooner or later. Look at American productivity! A new sort of American-Frenchman might look at that. Yeah, so what’s so good about productivity? Does productivity make you happy? What we’re looking at here is the death of the Protestant Work Ethic. Is that a bad thing? Is there any other choice in this new world where no one really needs workers at all?

Now the Washington Post has run a story about workers who are now able to quit their jobs because of Obamacare like Polly Lower:

It happened in September, when her boss abruptly changed her job description. She went from doing payroll, which she liked, to working on her boss’s schedule, which she loathed. At another time, she might have had to grit her teeth and accept the new position because she needed the health benefits.

But with the health-care law soon to take effect, she simply resigned – and hasn’t looked back.

“It was wonderful. It was very freeing,” said Lower, 56, of Bourbon, Ind., who is now babysitting her 5-year-old granddaughter full time. With the help of federal subsidies that kicked in Jan. 1, she is paying less than $500 a month for health coverage for herself and her husband.

Kathleen Geier comments on this:

Polly Lower was able to quit a job a job that sucked so she could spend time with her granddaughter. She said this was “freeing” and “wonderful.” And the problem is…? Of course, this is America, so any policy that improves the lot of workers immediately becomes horribly “controversial.”

Of course it’s controversial, which is why the Post cites the conservative economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin:

“What the White House wants you to think is, if a person chooses to make less income, they must be doing something that makes them better off,” said former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, now president of the American Action Forum, a conservative policy group. “What conservatives would have you ask is, is it an appropriate use of someone else’s money to put you in that position to choose?”

At Protein Wisdom you’ll find this – “I can quit my job, pick my neighbor’s pocket and never feel guilty!” – but Geier sees it this way:

It’s fascinating that the conservatives, who normally think that “freedom” and “choice” are the grooviest things ever, are less than thrilled about those ideas in this context. I suppose it all depends on exactly whose choice and whose freedom we’re talking about, doesn’t it?

I think what’s really freaking out the conservatives here is the reality that the ACA empowers workers. Clinging to some nightmare of a job just so you can have healthcare for yourself and your family has now officially become a thing of the past in America. If Polly Lower’s boss wanted her to stick around, then maybe he should have thought about treating her better – and paying her more.

That’s the real issue here, and the conservative view is that CBO report proves their assertion that Obamacare is distorting the labor market – which it is doing, but the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik frames this a different way:

Economists, especially conservative economists, hate market distortions. But the question that always needs to be asked is: What’s being distorted? The term is almost always used to attack policies that interfere with the “free market” – policies such as taxation, for example. In the 1930s, it was a popular conservative notion advanced by Milton Friedman, among others, that the National Labor Relations Act, which removed obstacles to labor organizing, “distorted” the labor market; some even blamed the act for the recession of 1937-1938 (a notion that has been widely debunked).

Yet such policies are typically designed to correct imbalances and inequities that make the “free market” anything but free. As Notre Dame political scientist Benjamin Radcliffe observed, the conservative view that “the market consists of free individuals making free choices about what’s best for them … ignores the reality that people don’t face each other in the market as equals.”

In other words, is a market truly free when large employers – often acting as industries – face workers who can only bargain as individuals? Isn’t collective bargaining then a way to create a genuinely free labor market? By the same token, is an increase in the minimum wage a distortion of the wage market, or a rebalancing of a distorted market in which the wage has failed to keep up with productivity growth since 1968?

The free market that the Affordable Care Act supposedly distorts is one in which health insurance is inextricably linked to employment. But that’s the distortion; we know that because the U.S. has been the only industrialized country in which the loss of a job means the loss of medical coverage … until now.

So we may be getting back to a balanced system:

The curious thing about the most common definitions of “distortions” is that they presuppose that the dominance of capital over labor is normal, and that its increasing dominance, as represented by increasing income inequality, is even more normal.

So it’s unsurprising that a market in which the provision of healthcare gives employers one more weapon for dominating their employees is seen in some quarters as normal, and a policy that takes that weapon from their hands is treated as abnormal.

In short, one man’s happy truthiness is another’s unfair oppression. Do the facts of the matter have a liberal bias here?

The whole business just infuriates Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog:

Hey, conservatives: you think work is “essential to dignity, mobility and social equality”? You think a reduction in full-time work should “be fiercely resisted”? Then why aren’t you angry at employers, who aren’t providing this work? Why doesn’t it upset you that big companies are sitting on piles of cash but aren’t creating any jobs?

And if your deep distress at the possible damage indolence might cause to poor people’s souls won’t inspire you to ask your precious job creators to actually create a few more jobs, why aren’t you supporting – no, demanding – a massive New Deal-style government-funded make-work program, which could easily happen if you backed it because it would also be supported enthusiastically by liberals?

Steve M is not a happy camper:

What’s undoubtedly true is that conservatives believe the failure of poor people to work is a swell object lesson, a demonstration that society’s losers deserve to be losers, never mind the fact that their loser status is the result of hiring decisions made by society’s winners. Conservatives don’t fiercely resist any change in the marketplace for labor, even if the change would give poor people all that work-generated dignity. They’d much rather keep the poor, poor, so they can point and them and sneer.

Yeah, but that makes them happy, and that’s part of the battle between truthiness and reality’s bias, which is as old as human pride and defensiveness, as a reference item at Talking Points Memo demonstrates:

Over the last few weeks, the real victims of Obama’s America have come forth with pleas to end their persecution.

Venture capitalist Tom Perkins fired a warning shot last month in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

“Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich,'” the billionaire Silicon Valley pioneer wrote.

Real estate investor Sam Zell echoed his fellow one percenter’s lament earlier this week.

“The one percent are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” Zell said, adding that the one percent simply “work harder” than everyone else.

President Obama isn’t the only oppressor of the super-rich. Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, expressed concern late last year, that Pope Francis’ criticism of capitalism made the wealthiest Americans feel alienated.

There’s much more, but you get the idea, and Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder, connects a few dots:

Consider the case of a Texas teenager who killed four people and severely injured two others while drunk-driving in his father’s pickup truck. Prosecutors wanted to send him to prison for 20 years, but a judge decided to give him no jail time at all after an expert witness for the defense testified that the defendant was suffering from “affluenza.”

This affliction, the psychologist testified, was a product of the defendant having spent his life in the lap of luxury. Having his parents’ cash between himself and reality had left the killer of four of his neighbors unable to make the connection between his decisions – such as his decision to drive a two-ton truck down a residential street at 70 miles per hour while drunk out of his mind – and the potential consequences of those decisions.

In short, the defense team argued, their client was depraved because he wasn’t deprived.

This argument seems to have worked on the judge, who sentenced the defendant to 10 years of probation after his wealthy family offered to pay for their son’s confinement in a $450,000-per-year in-patient facility, where apparently young scions are therapeutically guided toward the insight that randomly slaughtering your fellow citizens as a predictable consequence of your own selfishness and stupidity is a bad thing to do.

Now connect that to Tom Perkins and the rest:

Perkins’ remarks (which have been echoed by various other one-percenters) point to the real affluenza, rather than the fake syndrome conjured up by an expert witness to help get a rich kid off the hook for four homicides. The real affluenza is the failure of the rich to appreciate that their special privileges – such as the privilege of operating under what is, from a practical perspective, a substantially different justice system than everyone else – must come at a price.

That price is paid in the form of the growing contempt of their fellow citizens, a contempt that grows in proportion to the ever-increasing gap in America between the children of privilege and everyone else.

Yeah, well, happiness is that perpetual possession of being well-deceived, smug and snug in your truthiness, but the problem is just not “getting it” as they say – kind of like Queen Anne actually. On the other hand, she was relatively harmless. These days we have a political party, financed by multimillionaires and billionaires, who, to slip into the vernacular of the street, believe their own bullshit, and expect everyone else to believe it too, and get very angry when they don’t. Yeah, they may be dumb as a rock, just like Queen Anne, but they have far more power than she ever had, and all we have is Colbert, not Swift.

That’s okay. As long as they keep telling us that Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin are insightful, and that Donald Trump is the most admired and respected man in America – and that Mitch McConnell is a charismatic hunk – things will work out. Reality does have a liberal bias, and like it or not, we do live in the real world. Somewhere Jonathan Swift is smiling.

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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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