The Bullies on Our Side

I think odd thoughts sometimes, and this may be one of the oddest: I come not to bury the bullies, but to praise them. At least, the bullies on our side.

(Full disclosure: I have only been bullied a little in my life, and I’m ashamed to say I was something of a bully for a while. It was part of my being young-and-stupid, and one of many parts that I would change if I could. What I’m talking about in this post, though, goes far beyond the schoolyard though it can be just as discouraging.)

Because when we think we’re right and other people are wrong, and we decide we need to enforce our rightness by making others conform to standards we set, we often end up relying on bullies to help us get our way. Not so much on the individual, interpersonal level (as adults), but enlarge the scope to the level of civic interaction and pretty soon the bully we know, the bully we like, the bully on our side becomes a most valued ally.

Why? Because much of society is unbalanced, power-wise.

Two equals who have different viewpoints and preferences are more likely to “live and let live” than two unequal parties, and even two closely matched entities may find it better to negotiate settlements. But in many cases where the power differentials are substantial, the less powerful party’s behavior is coerced in some way. Sometimes it’s overt and natural, as when parents teach their children how to behave in civil society. Sometimes it’s expected and voluntary, as when military members submit to higher authority. Sometimes, however, it’s subtle, insidious, and dictatorial.

Uninvited coercion on larger scales can be peaceful, as in the nonviolent movements of Ghandi and King that used moral suasion to great effect. It can also be martial, as in every revolution and riot that resorts to violence and the threat of violence to achieve its ends. Either way, the end result is accomplished by applying pressure — and remember, in physics terms pressure is force applied over an area. Force does not have to be shocking: the force you feel from atmospheric pressure is different from the force you feel if hit with a hammer, but it is a force nonetheless. And force, or the threat of force, is often what gets results in the wider world.

You may not think of such group action as bullying. But whenever we force someone who is not in our charge to do something they would rather not do, we effectively bully them — whether directly, or by proxy. And the biggest proxy bully around, that we have empowered to do the bullying on our behalf, is the government.


Yeah, don’t tread on me … but if you wouldn’t mind, those other people over there need to be trod upon…. (Image: “The Gadsden flag,” on Wikimedia Commons.)

The government offers us choices of who we might select as our favorite bully. It might be the legislature, since they pass laws that make other people do things that we want them to (or stop them from doing what we don’t like). Or it could be the judiciary, since their decisions can amount to much the same thing. We might choose the executive, since they enforce laws and may do so in our favor. Or it may be the police, because they keep all those lawbreakers and ne’er-do-wells in line.

Or perhaps our favorite bully is closer to hand, like our supervisor or plant manager or CEO — if we’re one of their favored employees. Maybe we ally ourselves with someone at work or church or the gym who has some degree of “informal” power, and they become the bully on our side. Or maybe we choose the mob: not the capital-m Mob of organized crime, but the gang around us — the school clique, the workplace cronies, the neighborhood crowd, the thinks/acts/looks like us mob that comes together at opportune times to make our wishes and even our demands known and strives to make them come to pass.

It could be that our favorite bully isn’t a person at all. It might, for instance, be the Bible, if we use it to tell other people — whether or not they share our faith — how they should act. (For the record: From what I can tell, if we try to make the Bible’s guidelines apply to nonbelievers, we’re wrong.)

How refreshing it would be if we would admit liking when government officials enforce the laws we approve, especially when those laws apply to other people, or when the government fails to enforce laws we despise (that usually apply to us).

We may be reluctant to admit that because we know it’s no fun being bullied. Maybe we don’t have a favorite bully, and don’t cheer when authorities and powers-that-be start bullying others — even if we approve of the result. Maybe we’re rather more libertarian than we usually think; it does seem that in many respects the lowercase-L libertarians have the right handle on the overall “live and let live” approach. And even if we’re not very libertarian-minded, we may sympathize a little with those on the opposite side since we know what it’s like to be coerced.

We may prefer not to consider all this to be bullying, although our ends — especially if we think of them as pure and noble — can justify all manner of different means. And in pursuit of those ends, even if we don’t call them by name or like them very much we still turn our bullies loose on those we think should do things to our liking. And if those other people complain or disagree, that’s fine — as long as they still comply.

We despise the other side’s bullies, of course, who stand ready to force us to do what we would rather not. But when we believe our way is the only right way, and we’re so dead set on getting our way that we will countenance force (or, pressure) to achieve it, we need our bullies. We may not love them, but we’re willing to rely on them.

As long as we’re convinced they’re really on our side.

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That Pesky Constitution

That idea I floated yesterday? The one about making Legislative pay and benefits dependent on how well Congress, you know, actually does its job? Turns out it wouldn’t take immediate effect because of the 27th Amendment.

Herein lies a lesson in how age dims the faculties … especially when one’s references are also old.

The copy of the U.S. Constitution that I have near to hand, and that I used before publishing yesterday’s post, was printed in 1984. Thus it predates the 1992 ratification of the 27th Amendment — and, frankly, I had forgotten that amendment even existed. Given that it was ratified during my second USAF assignment, and didn’t make a big impression on me at the time, perhaps I can be forgiven that error.

Anyway, the 27th Amendment says, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

Thus, Congress can’t vote itself an immediate pay raise (which I knew, and joked about in “I Think I’ll Run for Congress”), but they also can’t have their pay immediately docked. The first thing makes sense, but I’m not so sure about the second.

Pay to the order of...
(Image: “Pay to the order of…,” by dslrninja, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

So, a law like the one I laid out yesterday could be passed, but it wouldn’t go into effect until the next congressional session. That might be okay — in fact, it might be good, because it would give a little bit of time for lawmakers to start buckling down to their fiscal responsibilities.

I suppose another way to go, though it would take more time, would be to put forward a new amendment. Maybe something like this, to change one word in the 27th Amendment to allow for pay reductions to take immediate effect:

Amendment

Section 1. The twenty-seventh article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2. No law, increasing the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

In the current climate, I imagine something like that would be ratified fairly quickly by the states. But, like yesterday’s proposal, I doubt I’d find many people willing to co-sponsor it.

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Another Wacky Idea: Legislative Pay Based on Fiscal Performance

In honor (ha!) of the latest government shutdown, I present another of my wild ideas about the government from the perspective of the “Anti-Candidate.” This idea would fit in well with a series of blog posts I wrote several years ago called “If I Were My Own Representative” — I’ll link to them at the bottom of this post, for anyone who’s interested — or with the myriad other tax ideas I’ve floated through the years.

The Anti-Candidate, of course, running the perpetual “Anti-Campaign,” has no chance of ever implementing any of these oddball notions. But if anyone wanted to fund and run a campaign to get me elected to the U.S. legislature — I don’t want to deal with the hassle of getting elected, but despite my joking around about politics I’d actually be honored to serve — I’d take great pleasure in submitting a bill something like this:

Whereas, it is the solemn responsibility of the U.S. Government to act as a trustworthy steward of the citizens’ treasure; and

Whereas, the endless accumulation of debt is not indicative of good stewardship; and

Whereas, the U.S. Constitution charges the Congress with the power to lay and collect taxes, and the power to spend the revenues therefrom; and

Whereas, the mechanism for spending the collected revenues is the annual budget for the operation of the U.S. Government; and

Whereas, the U.S. Constitution forbids the withdrawal of monies from the Treasury except under duly-legislated appropriations;

Be it hereby enacted that salaries and benefits for Legislative Branch personnel, including Senators, Representatives, and the top-paid half of their respective staffs, shall in perpetuity be limited as follows:

– For any period in which the U.S. Government is operating under a complete budget in which authorizations and appropriations are projected to be revenue-neutral or produce a surplus, 100 percent; or

– For any period in which the U.S. Government is operating under a complete budget in which authorizations and appropriations are projected to produce a deficit, 80 percent; or

– For any period in which the U.S. Government is operating under an incomplete budget, leaving any U.S. Government function to operate under a continuing resolution, 60 percent; or

– For any period in which the U.S. Government is operating entirely under continuing resolutions, 40 percent; or

– For the first 7 calendar days of any period in which the U.S. Government ceases normal operations for lack of appropriated funds, 20 percent;

– For any period beyond the first 7 calendar days in which the U.S. Government ceases normal operations for lack of appropriated funds, zero.

The above adjustments shall be made automatically by the Treasury except in cases where the President has returned duly passed appropriation legislation to the Congress, in which case the adjustment shall be as if the President had signed the legislation.

Or something like that. Obviously I’m no master of legal lingo, and I’ve probably left out some important details, but hopefully that gets the idea across.


(Image: U.S. Capitol, Western Front, from Wikimedia Commons.)

It would be amusing to listen to legislators explain why they should receive their full pay when they haven’t performed one of the most basic functions of their job. But for that to happen, the bill would have to get to the floor, which means getting through committee(s), which means it first must be brought up — and something tells me it would be fairly difficult to find a co-sponsor.

Still, it’s fun to think about.

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P.S. For anyone who might care, the five parts of the “If I Were My Own Representative” series were:
If I Were My Own Representative, Part I
Part II: Knowing What I’m Voting For
Part III: Hearings and Caucuses
Part IV: My Touchstone for Voting
Part V: A Positive Message

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We Need Government, But Not Necessarily Governing

(Another in the series of quotes to start the week.)

Fantasy fans may be expecting a quote from the Harry Potter series this morning, since today is J.K. Rowling’s birthday; while that was tempting, I decided to take this in a different direction.

In addition to being Ms. Rowling’s birthday, today is also the birthday of US economist Milton Friedman (31 July 1912 – 16 November 2006). Friedman received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, and is something of a hero to libertarians because he argued for smaller government and a freer economy. However, it’s important to note that Friedman understood the importance of government, as he said in 1973:

We need a government to maintain a system of courts that will uphold contracts and rule on compensation for damages. We need a government to ensure the safety of its citizens — to provide police protection. But government is failing at a lot of these things that it ought to be doing because it’s involved in so many things it shouldn’t be doing.

And in 1978 Friedman said:

We have to recognize that we must not hope for a Utopia that is unattainable. I would like to see a great deal less government activity than we have now, but I do not believe that we can have a situation in which we don’t need government at all.

The problem is that often government spends too much time and effort governing — that is, imposing requirements and restrictions on citizens as to what they must and must not do. If we as citizens need governing, it is only because we have failed to govern ourselves; and if we freely impose upon ourselves a government to rule us rather than to operate alongside us — if we accede to be governed in that way — then we will have admitted that liberty is too great a burden for us to bear.


(Image: “US Capitol at Dusk,” by Martin Falbisoner, on Wikimedia Commons.)

I prefer the idea of a government that governs itself well; that leaves the rest of us to govern ourselves as best we can; and that intervenes and interferes in our lives very little.

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And now, if you’ll permit me an aside on “This Day in History” … I was interested to read on the Internet (so of course that means it’s all true) that today marks three separate events in the US space program, each having to do with the Moon:
– In 1964, the Ranger 7 spacecraft sent back the first close-up photographs of the Moon;
– In 1971, Apollo 15 astronauts David R. Scott and James B. Irwin became the first to ride across the Moon’s surface in the lunar rover; and
– In 1999, NASA crashed the Lunar Prospector spacecraft into Shoemaker Crater at the lunar south pole.

I was interested in all of those things, of course, because last week my lunar colonization novel, Walking On The Sea of Clouds, was published. And not just that, but I mention the Lunar Prospector mission in the novel! It comes up as a group of colonists pass Shoemaker Crater on a journey to retrieve polar ice needed to keep the colony alive.

Walking On The Sea of Clouds is available as an e-book on Amazon or as a trade paperback on Amazon, or if you prefer it’s also available as an e-book from Kobo and Smashwords.

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Thanks, and have a great week!

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New Video: Of, By, and For the People

Have you thought much about the placement of the prepositions in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? Does their placement — “of the people, by the people, for the people” — matter much in understanding what they imply for our government?

In this video, I suggest that their placement is pertinent … and proper:

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Related:
– Video: The Verbs in the Preamble
– More videos: My YouTube channel

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The Author and Politics

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

This past Saturday, at the ConCarolinas science fiction and fantasy convention, I was part of a panel called “Author and Politics” which was both well-attended and well-run. We agreed on some points, we disagreed on some points, but we did so like grown-ups — respectfully and without rancor.

It was, in the end, quite refreshing.

So when it came to figuring out a good quote to start the week, I thought of this one from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which I copied out of The Gulag Archipelago many years ago.

Is it not true that professional politicians are boils on the neck of society that prevent it from turning its head and moving its arms? And why shouldn’t engineers have political views? After all, politics is not even a science, but is an empirical area not susceptible to description by any mathematical apparatus; furthermore, it is an area subject to human egotism and blind passion.

That quote has always resonated with me, mostly because of the imagery in the first sentence but also because I was trained as an engineer and still to a small degree think of myself as one. And it hasn’t lost any of its power: certainly we saw in our most recent election plenty of instances of “human egotism and blind passion.”

Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey - Icons
The parties don’t often see eye to eye, do they? (Image: “Republican Elephant & Democratic Donkey – Icons,” by DonkeyHotey, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But when I have experiences like the panel on Saturday, and I recall the adage that “all politics are local,” I am a bit more hopeful that if we conduct ourselves well we can avoid (at least in the small circles of our friends) the worst excesses of either side, and chart a course that’s mutually beneficial.

I admit that I may be hopelessly naïve about such things.

After all, I’m The Anti-Candidate, and I approved this message.

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Related Items:
– Listen to “I Think I’ll Run for Congress”, from the album Truths and Lies and Make-Believe
– Listen to “The Anti-Candidate Song”, from the album Distorted Vision

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Political vs. Personal Priorities

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

It’s been said that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” and over the last few years we’ve been treated to some evidence of that. It’s also been said that “power tends to corrupt,” or (if you prefer) that power “is magnetic to the corruptible,” and I daresay that’s been evident from time to time as well — on both ends of the political spectrum.

But no matter where we are on that spectrum — left, right, or center — it seems prudent to remind ourselves that politicians’ priorities rarely match ours. As Thomas Sowell said,

No one will really understand politics until they understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their own problems — of which getting elected and re-elected are number one and number two. Whatever is number three is far behind.

Can you think of very many politicians who pursue causes that are independent of their reelection prospects? How many would risk losing their positions in order to achieve something on behalf of someone else?

(Not The Anti-Candidate, that’s for sure.)

Political Guide
Instead of “new ideas,” I think “different ideas” would be more fitting, but in general this seems to hold true for many people, much of the time. (Image: “Political Guide,” by Jason Nelms, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

If Mr. Sowell is correct, and the evidence suggests that he is, maybe we’re better off taking care of our own priorities ourselves, and helping our friends and neighbors with their priorities when we can, instead of entrusting them to and relying on politicians who clearly have priorities of their own.

Something to think about. Hope you have a great week!

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Ideas as Rabbits, Writing as Horse-Racing?

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Today is John Steinbeck’s birthday (27 February 1902 – 20 December 1968). Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, and wrote classics such as Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and The Grapes of Wrath (which won the Pulitzer Prize). As you might expect, Steinbeck had a few things to say about writing.

In the April 1947 issue of Cosmopolitan, for instance, Steinbeck said,

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.

The trick, of course, is to turn the ideas into fully-formed stories and books. It’s not always easy, and it’s not the most predictable line of work, as Steinbeck observed in a December 1962 issue of Newsweek,

The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.

That’s why so many of us ply other trades to support our writing habits. But we persist (as I pointed out last week), whether we consider it art or craft or simply obsession. But how can we persist long enough to create something worthwhile? In June 1969, Steinbeck told The New York Times,

The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.

Certainly the prolific writers I know prove that writing is the most important thing in their worlds — and I suspect one reason why my output is not what it could (or possibly should) be is that I don’t think of my own writing as all that important, and am too quick to prioritize other things over it.

Horse Racing
How does writing compare to horse racing? (Image: “Horse Racing,” by Peter Miller, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

But before this blog post devolves into self-recrimination, how about something completely different?

Given our current political environment, it seems important to close with something Steinbeck wrote in one of the essays in the last book he published, 1966’s America and Americans.

The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.

Thus it has ever been. So even if writing is less stable than horse-racing, maybe it’s not so bad after all.

(But I still think I’d make a good President.)

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We Must Be Strong

Much of what I observe in our polity today — and over the past several years, frankly — seems calculated to weaken the United States. Sometimes it appears to be for short-term financial or political gain, by people who want to cash in before everything goes Tango Uniform.* Sometimes it appears to be for ideological gain, by people for whom the U.S. represents something terrible.

In contrast, I believe we must not allow ourselves to weaken, to diminish, or especially to disappear. The U.S. must be strong: economically, diplomatically, and most especially militarily. I hold that an enfeebled, chastened, toothless United States would be a prelude to disaster for the world.

"If You're Not Outraged...You're Not Paying Attention!"
Our national symbol, making its voice heard. (Image: “‘If You’re Not Outraged…You’re Not Paying Attention!’,” by Kenny P., on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Why? Because for all our faults, for all our failings, for all our missteps and miscalculations, we have done more than any other nation in history to protect and preserve the weak by virtue of our strength. The way I see it, in terms of the sheer power at our disposal, we have wielded our strength more judiciously and with less outright malice than pretty much anyone.

If you believe otherwise, I will not attempt to dissuade you in this brief missive. But I will not let your negativity become my prophecy or your perception become my reality. I will not let reports of our decadence and decay or predictions of our doom and decline dash my hope in a better future, or my belief that our systems are the best systems under which people can be free to live and produce and thrive.

We must be strong. I would rather we could demonstrate our strength in ways that build rather than break, heal rather than harm, and even when — not if, in this imperfect world — we need to use our strength to defend ourselves and those we treasure, I would prefer that we do so swiftly, cleanly, with as much restraint as possible. But we must be strong in the first place.

We are not perfect, and we will make mistakes. In spite of our imperfections, however, we are in general a shining example of what is good in the world: freedom of thought, freedom of action, freedom of association. If we are to remain so — both free, and an exemplar of the best that freedom conveys — we must remain strong.

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*A technical term.

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Feeding Upon Corruption

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Given the response to the first full week of our new Presidency, it seemed fitting to share one of my favorite quotes about our tendency — and here I use the royal “our” when in particular I am thinking of the media and of political pundits — to think the worst of those we dislike or with whom we disagree, and to give voice to the worst of our thoughts.

This week’s quote comes from the Occasional Meditations of English churchman Joseph Hall, specifically number 31, under the title “Upon the Flies Gathering to a Galled Horse.” The language may be a bit difficult (it was published in 1630, after all), but it will reward a close reading:

How these flies swarm to the galled part of this poor beast; and there sit, feeding upon that worst piece of his flesh, not meddling with the other sound parts of his skin!

Even thus do malicious tongues of detractors: if a man have any infirmity in his person or actions, that they will be sure to gather unto, and dwell upon; whereas, his commendable parts and well-deservings are passed by, without mention, without regard. It is an envious self-love and base cruelty, that causeth this ill disposition in men: in the mean time, this only they have gained; it must needs be a filthy creature, that feeds upon nothing but corruption.

Horse Fly
“It must needs be a filthy creature ….” (Image: “Horse Fly,” by Jonathan Bliss, on Flickr, under Creative Commons.)

Does that not describe our sensationalist media? Does it not often describe many of the rest of us, as well?

Do we not, from time to time, gather at the metaphorical wounded flesh of an opponent, feast upon the blood and fill our bellies with the gore? Is it not both self-serving and cruel for us to do so? Does it not say something about us that we focus our attention not on that which is admirable, but on that which is tainted? Yet of course we do so with only the best of intentions, or so we tell ourselves, forgetting where good intentions leave us.

This week, even when it comes to people with whom I disagree, I think I’ll try to find things I can commend more than condemn. You’re welcome to try the same.

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