Magic Thinking

Although most Americans would deny it, a great number are actual employ one aspect of fantasy in their day to day lives, at least when it comes to their relationship with politicians and government.  They employ “magic thinking” – the belief that one particular single “magic wand” will resolve the problems with government.  For those on the left, in general, their magic wand is more government programs and more comprehensive government programs.  For those on the right, their magic wand is lower taxes and less government.

Both sides, of course, are living in a fantasy world stranger than anything I’ve ever written, but any attempt to inject a strong dose of reality into their magic thinking results in violent rejection, and, with that sort of rejection, it shouldn’t be any surprise that those who represent them in Congress offer equally strong reactions to any legislative proposal that conflicts with their fantasy view of the world.

Those on the right continue to insist that all will be well if government just unleashes the power of “free enterprise,” but to which free enterprise are they referring?  The free enterprise of the banking system that accepted something like a trillion dollars in government funding while using it primarily to build reserves while also finding ways to invest in anything except rebuilding jobs in the United States?  Or the corporate free enterprise system that continues to automate and outsource jobs while reducing jobs to increase profits to record levels?  Or the government free enterprise system that has implemented massive cuts in education and modified our tax system so that corporate farmers get subsidized and hedge fund managers pay a smaller percentage of taxes than do police, firefighters, and teachers?

On the left, those “magic thinkers” continue to insist that greater and greater deficit spending will create jobs through massive income subsidies when a huge amount of that spending is used to buy imported goods and foreign oil.  They continue to insist that more spending on education will improve the system when they undermine it continually in a myriad of ways, ranging from blaming the teachers for everything to insisting that college-oriented education is the only way for every student.  At the same time, they drive all too many good teachers out of the field through low salaries and outrage at those who insist on high standards for students.  They want more government programs, but only if those programs are paid for by someone else, which has resulted in more than half the population paying no federal income taxes at all.

And all too many of them would believe [if they read my books, which most won’t] that my works, which shows costs for dreams and change, are just too fantastic to believe.  And, come to think of it, in today’s United States… maybe they’re right.



11 thoughts on “Magic Thinking”

  1. G.Thomas says:

    I for one have always appreciated the fact that your books showcase reality based “costs” of living, with characters that have to work hard to advance themselves and their plans.

    As for the left and right, the moderates of both sides have far more in common with each other than they do with the extremists of their own parties. The problem is extremists have much louder voices as they have reduced/polarized their own views into a very emotionally charged black and white existence which appeals to those who are looking for an easy answer to their perceived problems.

    My boss tends to be very conservative in some things while I tend toward a more liberal or open minded view for the most part. We both however agree on many things and feel there should be a new party, the “Common Sense” party since this attribute seems so lacking in the decision making process of most of our public servants in government.

  2. Joe says:

    These days the biggest example of magical thinking is to believe electing the candidate of your choice will result in said candidate honoring his/her campaign promises.

    As to your actual point, the only fix left may be to dismantle the current systems and start over. They are far too riddled with corruption to serve their function, or to be cleaned out easily. Unfortunately institutions also fight for their survival, so our future looks more like slow decay rather than reformation. Of course should food prices rise high enough, revolution becomes likely.

  3. Jack Cain says:

    I’ve found that very few people actually make “bad” decisions. They make the decisions that make sense with the information they have.

    Once “news” became a fight between which “analysts” yelled the loudest instead of actually providing real information, nobody has real information and most wouldn’t know it if they did. Most people under 35 haven’t ever seen news that wasn’t provided by entertainers in drag as “expert commentators”.

    We’ve got men and women in elite units going into their 9th tour of war duty – even 5 for Reserve and Guard units – while the powers that be make sure the contracts go to their friends from whatever exclusive college society their daddy got them into.

    I just got done with teh Ecolitan Egnigma and it just depressed me. I spent 6 years recording Soviet ship sounds and doing other fun stuff, and most of the people around me don’t even know there WAS a threat in the so-called Cold War. Just like the book, most of us just have to deal with whatever the powers that be drop off their plate.

    1. Jack Cain says:

      So much for spelling at this time of the night…that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

    2. I’m sorry the book depressed you, but it reflects what I saw when I was in the Navy and what I’ve observed from “outside” since then.

      1. Jack Cain says:

        No need for sorrow – it was not the book that was depressing, it was the acknowledgement that most of the principles in the book cannot be understood by the average American citizen. Even worse is the thought that there are people in our government that will do things that subvert our stated ideals and therefore create huge numbers of non-Americans who think we are all hypocrites (and in a way we are).

        Plausible deniability should be a capital offense. No unelected government employee should ever be making decisions and carrying out operations that cannot be tied to their leadership, even if the link is by nature classified.

        On a daily basis I encounter people who cannot listen for more than 5 words without making a decision about what the speaker is saying, and responding as if that decision actually represents what the speaker said. I even see magazine editors telling people not to use more than 110 characters for anything because “nobody will read it if it is longer”. He even said that you must put your 110 character summary at the beginning and at the end of a document because “nobody reads the middle”.

        How can we elect representatives and hold them accountable if we cannot communicate?

  4. Kathryn says:

    I think the politicians themselves are the biggest ‘magic thinkers’, if I’m honest. How many claim to support a fair democracy? How many say “I will fix this, and I will do it faster than Obama in the White House!” or “Lol, dinosaurs? Really?”.

    Politicians delude themselves as to how they’re going to fix the country they work for. They claim to know how to fix the economy, to solve unemployment, to make the little kids smile. It’s all ‘magic thinking’, because once they get into power they forget it all.

    I don’t know how much you follow the UK news, Mr Modesitt, but our current government is such a shambles. We were told University fees for students wouldn’t go up, but they basically *tripled* due to absolutely ridiculous implementation. Universities were told they could charge upto £9k a year, so what did they do? The majority went to £9k. If one stayed closer to the £3-4k it is now, they looked cheap (And poor by comparison) and risked being unable to fund themselves. Is it wholly the fault of this government? No, not really. The previous ones have butchered our education system to the point where if you don’t go to sixth form/college and then university, you haven’t a hope of getting far in most cases. Jobs want A-Levels, and most people either don’t have them, or fall under ‘overqualified’ due to degrees.

    We’re told the money is gone, but how can it be? Money doesn’t just elope! It doesn’t self-combust or get married and have kids, it sits around doing nothing until someone pushes it into the hands of someone else. The money, like power, has gravitated to the upper echelons. Bank managers, CEOs, COOs, actors, sports personalities, they’re where the money is. Many of them are sitting on millions a year and do nothing with it. Bill Gates is a bit of an exception in that he does a *lot* for charity, which few seem to do, at least openly.

    Why can’t we have legislation that says the government should have access to these bank accounts in times of dire crisis, like now? You’ve had war bonds in the past, why can’t the politicians do something like that again? It is in the interest of businesses and corporate entities to help maintain the countries they’re based in, as without those countries, they can’t make money as no-one will be able to afford their products. That’s not what a company wants.

    The world can’t be fixed by one politician. A country can’t be fixed by one politician. Heck, a state couldn’t be fixed by one. It takes many people, a lot of time and a lot of hard work to fix something that’s broken.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    Unfortunately, your example of the right’s favoring free markets shows a lot of exceptions. One might wonder what would happen if _NOBODY_ got subsidized, neither individuals _nor_ corporations. A point I’d like to make is that a tax break is not a subsidy unless it’s a tax break that’s not available to all taxed entities.

    Tax something, get less of it; subsidize something, get more. So of course taxing the productive and subsidizing the unproductive will generally be a miserable failure.

    But the whole _premise_ of targeted taxation is suspect, because it implies that government ought to be doing something other than simply defining what is and isn’t a crime and enforcing accordingly. It suggests that government should be trying to incentivize or dis-incentivize legal behavior, manipulating the public for their own good. If any _private_ institution engaged in such behavior (aside from advertising), we’d call that contemptible and be outraged. But if the government does it, it’s _good_? Hardly. The accumulation of power is a threat to liberty, period.

    Moreover, the question isn’t just what should government do, the question is also at what level of government certain things should be done. The Tenth Amendment (oft-ignored because of the Fourteenth which does _not_ revoke it, and because of state abuses of due process and equal protection) specifies that the federal government only has constitutionally enumerated powers (and some which very obviously follow from them, but not to the point of abusing the commerce clause into granting federal power over practically everything – the original meaning of “regulate commerce…among the several states” was more like regularize rather than restrict, and was intended primarily to prevent individual states from engaging in protectionism against other states. Some reasonable extensions of the concept are apparent: fluids (air and water) and radio waves do not respect borders, certain standards are only effective on a national level, and so on. But in no wise can this be imagined as justifying for example treating every natural puddle as a protected wetlands and thereby denying property owners the full useful value of their property.

    There’s a place for _limited_ government, but that place is at the most local level consistent with the constitution and with a reasonable expectation of useful results; or just not at all, and leave it to private concerns.

    I don’t say no help to people, I say as little _government_ help as possible, and what little there must be, means-tested and designed to get people self-sufficient and off of it whenever possible. Public education? Reluctantly, maybe it’s better than a bunch of ignorant young people running amok. But there’s zero accountability in it as it stands now; a public education may cost more per student than a private one, partly because the public system is inefficient and corrupt, and partly because the public system is too often expected to take the place of parents, while those who took the initiative (and bore the expense – but note that they’re still paying taxes for other people’s children to go to public school, unless there’s a voucher program in place!) to send their children to private school are probably involved enough to not expect the school to deal with all manner of inattentiveness, behavioral issues, nutritional and health issues, and so on.

    So painting the argument as total socialism or total laissez-faire is probably not realistic. But that shouldn’t detract from the sad fact that the trend over the last hundred or so years has been almost always toward _more_ government, that trillions have been spent on a fundamentally unwinnable war on poverty (which is at least as much a matter of mindset as of disability or lack of opportunity; thus “you will have the poor always with you” is no less true now than a couple of thousand years ago, and now as then the answer should primarily be _private_ charity, which not only holds the recipient accountable, but transforms rather than burdens the giver), and that reducing the size, scope, and intrusiveness of government has seldom been seriously attempted in that time. Of course, it would have to be done with some care as to orderly changes; and everyone that thinks they’re being more burdened or less subsidized will resist, so it would have to be done in such a way as to make the change both gradual and producing visibly beneficial results before greatly inconveniencing any significant number of people. But the attempt to restore the precedence of liberty over guaranteed outcomes is long overdue!

  6. In many respects, I don’t disagree with much of what you said, but one point you made, applied to our current situation, amuses me. You said that subsidizing something creates more of it — and we’ve certainly subsidized less than ideally productive hedge fund managers and investment banks with artificially low interest rates and tax rates.

  7. R. Hamilton says:

    I agree that the interest rates are artificially low, and artificial anything strikes me as likely to result in a larger problem for having postponed it. Low interest rates plus pumping (printing?) money into the system seems to me a dubious attempt to trade recession today for high inflation in the future.

    I’m not sure what constitutes an artificially low tax rate though. All depends on what’s trying to be accomplished with taxation beyond simply obtaining revenue. Seems to me the only legitimate variance from a flat tax (on all income if an income tax, or on all goods and services if a sales tax) would be that which would be most likely to minimize the drag of taxation on the economy while at the same time not creating an ever-growing constituency for further special exceptions (leading to a nightmarish tax code like, oh, what we’ve got now).

    But beyond that, perhaps you have a point: _competence_ won’t necessarily be created by any amount of subsidy. Which brings us to what those who want guaranteed outcomes must surely shy away from: when is helping not helpful at all? When does someone do better by appreciating the effort it took them rather than taking for granted the assistance they received?

    Asking that question does not imply an unwillingness to help; it’s about helping that actually works, rather than feel-good diversions of money and power producing corruption and weakness rather than results.

    And it’s certainly a point you’ve discussed in your stories. Reminds me of the conversations between Lerris and Justin.

    Seems like we have a lot of young folks that want the nanny state, and a somewhat smaller number of retired folks that want the retirement-home state. It’s a bit much for those in between to carry…

  8. Joe says:

    The current “debate” between free markets or government intervention is also an example of magical thinking: simplistic understanding rather than understanding the whole system. We also care about the kind of market: a mass market.

    Rich people can only drive Porsches because they can fill their tank up easily, thanks to the poor people who also buy gasoline. Rich people can use cellphones because we all contribute to the cost of the network. The reason we live more comfortable lives than the kings of the past is that the cost of providing us with this lifestyle is shouldered by all of us.

    The more unemployed people, the smaller our “mass market”. And one cannot expect China to save the day — they sell to us and save their pennies. So shouldn’t the government protect the mass market? If so would that not mean regulating inequality — creating tax systems that discourage the top 1% from getting very rich?

    Alternatively, we can keep our “magic hand of the market” approach, and automate away most people’s jobs. For instance, if Safeway replaces its workers by robots, it will have a competitive advantage. It can take half of the savings it makes on reducing headcount and keep them, passing on the other half. It will gain market-share and profits, until its competition catches up. Its ex-employees may not buy anything, but there are still plenty other customers. Now repeat this process over all sectors, not forgetting that AIs now beat humans at the “very difficult game of chess”, and you’ll find that you need to employ very few people. Unfortunately there’s no one left to buy anything. Wonder why we are having a jobless recovery? You may object rich people in the third world have a nice lifestyle, but this is only because they can buy their high-tech from the West’s mass markets. No mass markets, no advanced tech like cars, computers, etc.)

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