Hard Choices

Unless Donald Trump actually shoots someone, or does something equally stupid or horrible, the Senate won’t even come close to convicting him on the articles passed by the House of Representatives. The reason most analysts give for this conclusion is the polarization and tribalization of American politics.

At the same time, I don’t see anyone going into the basic reason behind the polarization of government. There are plenty of commentaries and articles offering reasons why the electorate is polarized, but in our history there have been many times where there’s been significant civic polarization, but only one other time, at least as I see it, where the legislative branch has been so polarized.

And the reason for those two instances is the triumph of short-term greed over ideals and long-term economics.

Most people don’t quite understand the basics behind the Civil War. That conflict is often presented in a form of good versus evil. Sometimes, it’s presented as a struggle between two different economic systems. In fact, it really wasn’t either. It was a struggle between two different visions of capitalism. The economic elites of both North and South were capitalists, but their forms of capitalism differed. The North invested much of its capital in equipment, and paid near-starvation wages to those who worked in the factories. The South’s “capital” was largely invested in slaves; they were the equivalent of machines, and they were also often poorly fed.

Because the South’s “capital” was largely in slaves, and in land worked by those slaves, any form of abolition would have immediately bankrupted or at least severely impoverished most Southern landholders… which was largely what later occurred as a result of the Union victory. Yet the southern elite could see no way out of the problem, simply because so much wealth was in the slaves they held. That meant that Southern politicians could not compromise, not when any compromise would have meant economic disaster in the Old South. Those politicians felt they could not make hard choices, and they refused to look to the North or to the rest of the world, where most industrialized nations were outlawing slavery and the slave trade.

The result of failing to make hard choices in the years leading up to the Civil War led to an even greater disaster in the long run, just as today’s failure to deal with economic and environmental problems will make the eventual reckoning even more costly and disastrous.

We face a situation similar to the 1840s and 1850s today, if in a more fragmented way. For example, coal is viewed as cheap energy, just as slaves were cheap labor. But what those whose economic well-being has been based on cheap coal don’t want to see is that coal is anything but cheap if all its costs are considered. Over 80,000 miners are known to have died from black lung. The costs of black lung disability benefits now exceed $100 billion. According to a report published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences back in 2011, the external costs of coal-fired power are twice the direct costs. In other words, it costs twice as much to deal with health, waste, and environmental costs of a coal-fired power plant as it does to generate the power.

There have been more than a few documentaries on Amazon’s brutal workplace practices, which are the 21st century equivalent of the wage-slaves of early industrialization. At the same time, the real wages of the majority of Americans are declining. Life expectancy of certain economic and age-groups has actually declined in the last decade, for the first time in a century.

But the Legislative Branch of our government is polarized, and in considering some issues, paralyzed, largely because any realistic solutions are seen as politically unacceptable. The right wing feels the industries supporting its senators and representatives cannot or will not change because the costs are too high. The left wing won’t compromise from idealistic standards that cannot possibly be funded [regardless of what Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders claim]. Members of either side refuse to make the hard choices because they fear that, if they do, they won’t be re-elected… and re-election is far more important than the future of the country… or the planet.

So no one will make hard choices… and, if they don’t…

1 thought on “Hard Choices”

  1. Dominic says:

    Long term reader and very occasional commentator who would like to say how much I appreciate your practical but ethical approach to books and life. Perhaps a problem (and as I am UK based I miss nuances and detail when it comes to the USA) is that when people think they are losing, they double down and refuse to compromise at all. In retrospect did the South by overplaying its hand in the 1850s bring about its own downfall more quickly by upping the stakes, where I gather from what I have read that there was only limited appetite in the North for forcing change in existing slave states. In the past the UK benefitted from a ruling class which seemed to know when to give way and accept limited (albeit fundamental) change. Again speaking from the viewpoint of an outsider, Teddy Roosevelt and LBJ as originally unelected VPs seemed to have been able to make changes previously thought to have been impossible politically. On wage slaves, the extension of self employment whereby the real employer accepts no responsibilities and the “employee” is back to 19th century vulnerabilities.

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