Saturday, October 30, 2010

The taint of trade

The consistently execrable Jacob Weisberg recently had an article at Slate excoriating Peter Thiel for his recently announced plan, the Thiel Fellowship, that will give promising young people money to pursue their technological and entrepreneurial ideas instead of going to college. Weisberg, appalled by what he considers to be a display of "an ugly side of Silicon Valley's politics," responds with an article, "Turn on, Start Up, Drop Out Hyper-libertarian Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel's appalling plan to pay students to quit college," that seems almost intentionally designed to push as many of my buttons as possible. After some generic anti-libertarian boilerplate (Gordon Gekko! Unapologetic selfishness! Economic Darwinism! GLENN BECK!), a bit of pearl-clutching horror at Thiel's impious remarks about American democracy, and some middle school-level sneering about "computer nerds" and Thiel's interest in technology, Weisberg gets to the meat of his criticism:

Where to start with this nasty idea? A basic feature of the venture capitalist's worldview is its narcissism, and with that comes the desire to clone oneself—perhaps literally in Thiel's case. Thus Thiel fellows will have the opportunity to emulate their sponsor by halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood, maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible, and thereby avoid the siren lure of helping others or contributing to the advances in basic science that have made the great tech fortunes possible. Thiel's program is premised on the idea that America suffers from a deficiency of entrepreneurship. In fact, we may be on the verge of the opposite, a world in which too many weak ideas find funding and every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg. This threatens to turn the risk-taking startup model into a white boy's version of the NBA, diverting a generation of young people from the love of knowledge for its own sake and respect for middle-class values.
Where to start, indeed? Various things that this article brought to mind:

The "basic feature of the venture capitalist's worldview" remark would be an asinine statement in any context, but the subject at hand lifts it from being just another example of the mainstream's Left's aristocratic contempt for commerce to something more interesting. Weisberg, a college-educated employee of a large media conglomerate, has dedicated a whole article to condemning Thiel for narcissistically trying trying to "clone" himself by encouraging young people to become entrepreneurs, because this will stop them from doing what Weisberg thinks a right-thinking young person ought to do- go to college and then get a job working for somebody else.

The fact that Weisberg equates young people not going to college with “halting their intellectual development around the onset of adulthood” says so much about Weisberg's view of the world. Intellectual development is something that only occurs through public gatherings with strangers presided over by officially sanctioned authority figures at large government-controlled or government-supported institutions. He simply takes this as given. If he saw me back when I was a kid, putting enough effort into school to make people leave me alone and then reading about history or science or politics on my own in my free time because I thought they were interesting, he'd probably be terribly confused.

Weisberg offers no reason to accept his assumption that Thiel's program somehow entails "maintaining a narrow-minded focus on getting rich as young as possible" or avoiding "the siren call of helping others" that allegedly exists in college, aside from Weisberg's smug sense of superiority and sneering aristocratic prejudice against people interested in business. It also says something that when Weisberg talks about the negative results he thinks Thiel's program might cause, his Chilling Vision of Things to Come is a world where “every kid dreams of being the next Mark Zuckerberg”- that is, a man who became wealthy by creating something millions of people enjoy.

It's remarkable how much contempt oozes from Weisberg's article. Contempt for entrepreneurs and businessmen, of course, but also for anyone without formal educational credentials like Weisberg's. This doesn't surprise me- I've long thought that most of liberalism/progressivism as we know it today is basically aristocratic conservatism in Enlightenment drag, with the landed gentleman's disgust and disdain for the bourgeoisie and the vulgar world of commerce, contemptuous paternalism towards the peasantry, and unthinking presumption of his own superiority. The idea that businessmen are soulless money machines was a reactionary prejudice before it was a "progressive" one.

Without college, your "intellectual development" inescapably stops forever at 18. College is also apparently a prerequisite for having an interest in "helping others," since avoiding college is apparently a sufficient condition to avoid exposure to the idea. If you went directly into the workforce or started learning a skilled trade after high school, you're a profoundly stunted human being.

(I doubt that was the thought running through Weisberg's brain when he wrote this, but that doesn't mean he didn't say it. One of the common symptoms of an ingrained belief in one's own superior value is a tendency to insult people without realizing it.)

This doesn't surprise me, either- if my knowledge of the world came entirely from what media figures and intellectuals on the American moderate Left said and wrote, I'd probably be under the impression that most poor and working class Americans, and a good chunk of the middle class too, were part of some sort of bestial race of subhuman ape-men that H. sapiens had domesticated out of pity.
It's not usually this explicit, though.

I don't know how Weisberg has divined that we are on the brink of having too many entrepreneurs and not enough salarymen, or why he thinks wanting to go into business for yourself instead is a "white boy" thing. (Or how this article managed to get past however many pairs of eyes saw it before it was published without the "Maybe implying that only white boys would be interested in working for a chance to gain greater autonomy, be productive, and achieve their dreams isn't such a great idea" issue being brought up at some point.)

The chief problem with staking one's future on the slim hope of being a professional athlete, which Weisberg compares Thiel's idea to, is that the skills don't transfer to other things. If you're not a professional athlete, being really good at basketball has few money-making applications. The sort of skills a kid who wanted to grow up to be an entrepreneur would cultivate do, though that's probably hard to understand if you think that people who run start their own businesses spend all their time fondling big sacks of money, carefully avoiding any stimuli that might spur intellectual development or a desire to help others, and cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West. Besides, unless the Fellowship involves some sort of blood oath promising to never go to college, it's not as if this permanently closes off that option.

What does Weisberg mean here by "middle-class values?" The idea that going to college is going to teach things like industry, thrift, prudence, or restraint more effectively than trying to start and operate a new enterprise would- or do much to inculcate them at all, in most cases- is ridiculous. On the other hand, there's another sort of "middle-class value" that Thiel's plan does threaten. I'm from a middle-class, white-collar background. When I was growing up, there was perhaps no greater taboo among my people than not going to college. (Or "the unspeakable vice of the technical schools," as it is more politely called when ladies and children are present.) And that was back in the 90s, before the current "absolutely every child must go to college" mania had established itself, and among mundane white-collar professionals rather than people in the media or other "intellectual" fields, so I can only imagine what it's like in the sort of circles Weisberg moves in in the present day. For someone of Weisberg's socioeconomic class in modern America, foregoing college is Just Not Done. It's one of the things separating him from Those People.

Weisberg’s horror makes sense, given the elitism, credentialism, and often-venomous snobbery so common among liberal/progressive intellectuals and partisans. And if you fancy yourself part of an intellectual and moral elite, the sort of person lesser breeds need for their own salvation, someone who publicly challenges the value of one of the traits required to be part of that elite is a social menace and, for lack of a better word, impious.

For someone of Weisberg's expressed attitudes, the fact that this is coming from a lowly businessman championing things as base, dirty, and ungentlemanly as commerce and entrepreneurship would make it especially appalling. And if you place as much emphasis on social, cultural, and class markers as Weisberg’s ideological ilk frequently seem to, and despise people with the wrong such markers as much as Weisberg clearly and vehemently does, I suppose Thiel must seem like a secular Devil leading souls to damnation.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Nothing new under the sun

Contemporary American politics makes a great deal more sense in light of the realization that Barack Obama's most devoted fans and fiercest critics are united by a shared delusion: the belief that Obama is really, really interesting.

How this manifests among his supporters is apparent enough in the starry-eyed adulation he been able to inspire in so many people. How this manifests among his opponents was especially driven home recently by the now somewhat notorious Dinesh D'Souza article in Forbes, in which D'Souza argued that Obama's politics are the result of the anti-colonialist ideology of Obama's Kenyan father. As D'Souza summarizes:

It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying. From a very young age and through his formative years, Obama learned to see America as a force for global domination and destruction. He came to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation. He adopted his father's position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder...

For Obama, the solutions are simple. He must work to wring the neocolonialism out of America and the West. And here is where our anticolonial understanding of Obama really takes off, because it provides a vital key to explaining not only his major policy actions but also the little details that no other theory can adequately account for.

Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s...
Equipped with this window into the president's soul, D'Souza purports to explain a variety of Obama's political positions, from economics to his interest in using NASA for outreach to the Muslim world.

There are two problems with this thesis. (Three if one counts D'Souza's questionable attempts at psychoanalysis, which takes a somewhat troubled young man's youthful romanticizing of his absent biological father and turns it into The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.)

The first relates to Obama's military and foreign policy. In the real world, where the sitting president of the United States of America is the actual Barack Obama and not a cunningly disguised George McGovern wearing a Barack Obama mask, Obama has maintained tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, significantly escalated military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan with considerable cost in human lives, and is loudly rattling his saber at Iran. If he's grieved by the fact that the United States has military bases spanning the globe, well over one million men under arms, and an annual military budget that accounts for two-fifths of the planet's military spending, he 's been remarkably restrained in his complaints about it.

If Obama really views America's military as "an instrument of neocolonial occupation," as D'Souza claims, that's actually a rather decisive refutation of the idea that he's driven by anticolonialism.

In his discussion of domestic matters, D'Souza is at least reasonably accurate about describing Obama's actual policies. (Though it should be noted that, contrary to both D'Souza and some of Obama's own apologists, the rich aren't Obama's only tax targets: Obama signed a bill that more than doubled federal cigarette taxes. Like most lifestyle choices that progressives cluck their tongues at, cigarette smoking is disproportionately common among people at lower income levels.) However, he is no more effective in making his case for Obama the anticolonialist.

D'Souza's claims about Obama's desire to use NASA as a way to forge closer ties with Muslim countries is nicely representative of how he goes wrong:
No explanation other than anticolonialism makes sense of Obama's curious mandate to convert a space agency into a Muslim and international outreach.
Please. This is generic off-the-shelf liberalism- government programs will bring people together in a United Colors of Benetton-esque fraternity of cooperation and mutual understanding. Give me half an hour at any university in this country and I could round up dozens of lily-white progressives who would think that using NASA as a way to reach out to the Muslim world is a splendid idea.

The problem is that D'Souza asks the wrong questions: Why would Obama blow hundreds of billions of dollars on a dubious "stimulus" program during an economic crisis? Why would he try to make banks that had declined bailout money due to the strings attached take it anyway? Why would he try to tighten the government's grip on health care? Why would he want to raise taxes on higher income brackets?

Why on earth wouldn't he? He's blowing hundreds of billions on the stimulus so that he and his political allies can fund pet projects, justify the exercise of greater influence and power over society and pass out government swag to friends, allies, and supporters. He's doing the standard, normal thing for someone with political power to do - he's just able to do more because of the circumstances he finds himself in.

He wants to raise taxes on higher income brackets? So does every other center-left politician cultivating his "friend of the people" persona. He wants to increase federal involvement in this or that sector of the economy? He'd be a bizarre anomaly if he was a major American politician who didn't.

The same can be said of questions raised by faltering or disenchanted Obama supporters: Why hasn't he shown interest in liberalizing drug laws? Why isn't he renouncing the Bush era's offenses against civil liberties and separation of powers? Why is he handing out wagonloads of boodle to big corporations?

Why would it be otherwise?

The problem D'Souza has- and that many conservative critics of Obama have, and that many liberal admirers of Obama have- is this: He thinks there must be some interesting, unusual, or complex explanation for what is actually entirely mundane, typical behavior with a mundane, typical explanation.

The conservative reaction to Obama's programs are remarkably similar to the liberal reaction to George W. Bush, which also tended to ridiculously exaggerate the novelty of what Bush was doing by acting as if incremental changes building on established precedent were new and shocking.

Torture? President Bill Clinton signed an executive order authorizing "extraordinary rendition" in 1995- Bush's innovation was the idea of having it done in-house instead of subcontracting it out to the Third World. Bush killed hundreds of thousands of people by invading Iraq... not at all like his immediate predecessor, who had the good taste and discretion to kill hundreds of thousands of people through low-key methods like starvation and water-borne disease. Bush's encroachments on civil liberties weren't just built on the foundation of past encroachments by past administrations of both parties- they were, in many cases, the same law enforcement powers that Clinton had tried and failed to enact after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing.

That's easy to forget, amidst all the hysterical squealing about Bush's supposed radical right-wingerness. In domestic policy, much of said squealing is the result of outright falsehoods- specifically, the ludicrous but impressively durable myth that Bush was a proponent of laissez-faire or presided over a reduction in the government's domestic size or regulatory power. This belief is actually very much like D'Souza's belief that Obama is anti-military- it's not only false, it's very obviously false, but the truth is incompatible with each side's mental image of the other side and so cannot penetrate their skulls.

Liberal treatment of Bush's foreign policy is generally much like D'Souza's interpretation of Obama's domestic policy- based on a reasonably accurate account of what Bush actually did but distorted into nonsense by the assumption that the Bush administration's polices and ideas, a Wilsonian crusade to spread the blessings of democracy through military force that would probably have met with the approval of many of the original Progressives, represented some sort of radical and novel right-wing extremism. (You don't get a vote in favor of your war from the number two contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and President Obama's current Secretary of State without bipartisan appeal.)

Bush was able to push the limits further than Clinton because Bush had a bigger, scarier terrorist attack. Likewise, Obama has a bigger, scarier economic problem than his predecessors, and that provides opportunity. Each man chose to avail himself of the opportunity not because there is anything unusual or special about either of these politicians, but precisely because there isn't. No need for any unique wickedness from either of them. No need for any sort of exotic political agenda, be it Marxism, anticolonialism, neoconservatism as it exists in the liberal imagination*, secret adherence to Islam, or the machinations of the vengeful shade of Saul Alinsky.

*(Not to be confused with neoconservatism as it exists in the real world, where it's a movement founded by New Deal-style liberals, Trotskyites, anti-Soviet social democrats, and technocratic center-leftists who started identifying with the conservative movement because they were were appalled by the New Left's antimilitarism, cultural radicalism, and hostility to Cold War consensus liberalism.)

Acknowledging the incremental rather than revolutionary nature of what you condemn is potentially awkward for people in the political mainstream, because doing so will entail condemning your own side in the process. Everything that both the mainstream Right and mainstream Left profess to oppose, they both helped to create and preserve. If you don't want to face that, or don't want other people to, or are so deeply immersed in mainstream political assumptions that ideas like "Republicans aren't consistent or principled supporters of the free market or opponents of big government and government regulation" or "Democrats aren't consistent or principled supporters of peace and civil liberties or opponents of the rich, powerful, and privileged" makes your brain start giving Bad command or file name error messages, you'll need to replace the most plausible, obvious, and parsimonious explanation with something more baroque.

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