A Mission Statement
You do not get to live in a world that satisfies your sense of ethics. You do, however, get to create one. And that’s what this blog has always been about.
A lot of people believe capitalism is a step forward. And they’re right. But it’s only a step forward.
Feminists have come up with a term: “Kyriarchy.” They invented it when they started talking about ‘patriarchal’ system that weren’t patriarchal, like the question of how popular girls oppress other girls. Calling this ‘patriarchy’ is… well, there’s certainly some of it in there; but it’s also not the best term, since — in general — when a girl decides to be mean to another girl, no Y chromosomes are directly involved. (I mean, one of the girls could have complete androgen insensitivity syndrome.) “Patriarchy” is a power structure where men are in charge; feminists wanted a word that simply involved the power structure of dominance and control, regardless of the sex or gender of the person doing the controlling. Hence the term “kyriarchy”. If you’ve ever been to a Christian church or listened to any choir music (or remember that Mister Mister hit from the 80s), you’ve probably heard “Kyrie eleison.” It’s Greek. “Kyrie” means lord in this case, though figuratively it means God. And I think that’s a handy definition to keep in mind when contemplating the term kyriarchy.
In the past, we lived in highly delineated kyriarchies. In the days of absolute despotism, you had some sort of monarch — a king or an emperor or a pharaoh or whatever. This person could walk around confident that their life mattered: if something happened to them, someone would throw themselves in the way to save them if they could. Later we upgraded to feudalism, where landed gentry could assume their lives mattered: the king, the nobility, the knights, etc. One important key to feudalism was the concept of upward mobility: If you possessed certain skills which the feudal hierarchy valued (mainly, a facility with using pointy bits of metal to kill other people), you could get promoted to knighthood. It was still a kyriarchy, where only certain people were considered deserving of life, but it was more possible to become one of those people.
Capitalism was yet another step forward. Within capitalism, it’s the same concept: if you possess certain skills which the capitalist hierarchy values, you have access to upward mobility. In this case, the values are some combination of “hard work,” “creativity” and — let’s face it — “luck.” (I mean, tell me that Paris Hilton has any of the other two.) But prosperity was now in easier reach than ever before; in fact, basically an entire generation, the Baby Boomers, managed to achieve it. Now, obviously some people fell through the cracks; but by and large, upward mobility was accessible to everyone. Only certain people were considered deserving of life, but it was the easiest it’s ever been to qualify yourself as one of those people.
And with that in mind, people who are calling to tear down capitalism might seem… short-sighted.
Actually, I agree that they’re short-sighted. To mis-quote a famous soldier-statesman, “Capitalism is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” It is, in other words, the least-bad. It works — and works well — because it incentivizes self-interest. All human beings inherently want to, well, survive: they want to live long enough to mate and have children and die at old age. Capitalism works because it is built on a proven and empirical quality of human nature. And that’s not nothing.
Communism, on the other hand… Jeez, don’t get me started. Communism is built on fairy tales. The basic idea is, “Do what you can, take what you need” — everyone works, everyone puts the fruits of their labor into a central pot, everyone takes out of it what they need. This is a perfectly sensible system… but we’ve seen it fail over and over. Why? Because it’s based on the idea that humans are not lazy — that humans will work even when there’s no reason for them to do so. After all, Communism was obsessed with some silly crap about “the dignity of the common man” and such; cracking the whip would be antithetical to the kind of proletariat revolt they were trying to drive. People were allowed to work if they felt like it, and slack off if they felt like it. The Communists hoped humans would magically, radically change into industrious, driven workers, instead of remaining what they are — lazy, slovenly fucks that will not lift a finger if they can get away with it. So if you build an economy on a trait that doesn’t exist… Well, the economy itself stops existing soon after. Which is, weirdly enough, exactly what happened.
(Now, the counter-argument to this is the ‘commune’ — little clutches of people here and there who live under a Communist system. According to my argument, these communes do not and cannot exist; and yet, empirically, they do. How is this possible? Simple: Communism works on a small scale. If you’re in a small environment, one — to quote the old TV show — “where everybody knows your name,” then if you’re the person who slacks off, who takes out of the pot without putting everything in, then everybody knows. A small-scale commune can apply the age-old human governmental tactic of “shame” to its less-productive members, either cajoling them into pulling their own weight or — if worst comes to worst — simply exiling them entirely. Communism’s problems are problems of scale. Unfortunately, those problems are largely insurmountable.)
Capitalism is the least-bad system. That’s not nothing. But it’s also not nothing that it’s the least-bad — the best of a number of bad options. After all, capitalism — when you get down to it — is still a form of kyriarchy. “Only certain people, under capitalism, deserve life.” The criteria for becoming one of those people is the widest they’ve ever been, but the criteria still exist.
Which is why it surprises me that everyone’s answer seems to be, “Well, capitalism is broken, but the answer is to capitalism harder.” Because making something worse has such a long track record of making it better.
If you were to say, “Capitalism is the best we have,” you would not be wrong. But if you were to say, “Capitalism is bad,” you would also not be wrong. Because the ideal form of economy — the one to strive towards — is the one that isn’t a kyriarchy. The economy I want to see, as we move forward, is the one that doesn’t say that only certain people deserve life. The economy I want to see is the one that says — well, to co-opt that racist slogan — that All Lives Matter.
And until capitalism either says that or has given way to something that does, we haven’t finished our work.
Under the circumstances, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that my dad is such a cynic.
You have to keep in mind, my dad is arguably a poster child for the American Dream. He was born in Hong Kong, the fourth of six children, during the time when Hong Kong was an English colony. He emigrated to California and got a degree in Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley whilst simultaneously working a full-time job in a cannery and moonlighting as a construction worker. He got into the nuclear-reactor business, where he met his best friend, but later left for the comparatively sane world of accounting. Joining Arthur Anderson, he expanded their business to private accounting, and was on track to be named “youngest partner in the company” when he quit to follow his true love: architecture. Because of him and his design jobs, I’ve been inside Barry Bonds’ Los Altos Hills mansion, among other places. He did very well before his retirement, retained on the staff of a major construction company as their sole architect and helping to develop much of the Bay Area; the head of said company was also a partial owner of the Oakland A’s during the Moneyball years. He also helped bring his entire family over from Hong Kong, with his mother and father last; he built a house where they and two of his sisters lived, and helped a third sister demolish and remodel her home. He also built his own dream house in Cupertino, CA, and then a second one in Los Altos, which was done on a shoestring budget using connections from within the industry and today is estimated to be worth close to $5 million. (I do mean “estimated”, as the people who bought it from us still own it; there’s been no appraisal since then.) I don’t know if my dad is a millionaire, because I’ve never asked, and I don’t want to embarrass him, but I’m fairly sure the answer is Yes. In terms of the whole “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” thing, you couldn’t ask for much more than my dad’s success story.
(He also met my mom. His best friend had just had his first child, a healthy baby boy, and my dad came to visit and pay his respects. His best friend’s younger sister, the fourth of six children, was helping to babysit, and she and my dad first met eyes over that crib. She is also an immigrant, a woman of Chinese descent who grew up in Indonesia, who got her degree there and came to America for more education. In Indonesia, they spoke Dutch and German in addition to Indonesian; my dad learned Cantonese. They flirted in English, the only language they both spoke. My dad says he knew my mom was the one after only six weeks of dating, but that they waited 18 months to marry to be polite. 14 months later, I happened. My mom’s family was a little more successful, monetarily speaking, so my dad didn’t have to build as many houses for them, but they’re all here now as well.)
Because my dad spent two decades as an architect, and more as a framer, he knows something about construction. And the part he hates most is the bureaucracy. From zoning boards to inspections, from fire codes to HVAC regulations, he knows the whole thing backwards and forwards. (He didn’t actually design Barry Bonds’ house; Bonds hired his own architect from Florida to do that. My dad was brought on solely for his expertise with navigating the local bureaucracy.) His time spent as a tax accountant certainly cannot have helped. He has basically no faith in government to function the way it was meant to; all he ever sees — and certainly, all he is ever exposed to — is time-wasting, red-tape and looking-out-for-number-one-ism. He retired from architecture not because he lost his passion for it, but because he was tired of his life resembling an endless visit to the DMV. Because, to him, that’s what government is: a waste of time and money.
And with this in mind, it’s probably not surprising that my dad is a conservative.
It all came to a head at dinner the other day. My dad, the certified tax expert, sat down with my sister (and her husband) and me (and my wife) to file our taxes. I’m not sure what my sister got, but Mara and I were in for a nasty surprise: between my new position, which I’ve been in for almost a year now, and my wife’s pay grade, we went up at least one tax bracket. Last year we owed quite a bit. This year it’s worse. Afterwards, we served dinner (my dad loves to cook), and my dad went in on his beliefs.
In short, he didn’t see good things for the country if Bernie Sanders were to be president. He claims that every Communist regime has eventually become a dictatorship. He dislikes the idea that billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are automatically evil. He is against big government, and against the idea that expanding the government can ever be a good idea. He also brought up the coming proposed repeal of California’s Proposition 13, which caps estate tax at 3.5% growth year over year. If it’s repealed, my dad and my sister and I (who all own property) could see our property taxes increase by 10,000%. And that would be all well and good if we could afford it, but my sister and I cannot. (Part of the problem with the current meddling with taxes and all is that everyone is still using Baby-Boomer definitions of wealth. My wife and I, collectively, pull down a 6-figure income. The tax system treats us as if we’re in the upper class… even though, factually speaking, we’re not far above the poverty line.) In total fairness to my dad, someone within the government cooked up this scheme: “Everyone’s complaining that California is too expensive. Surely, the way to fix that is to make it more expensive!” I’m not sure what they’re smoking, but I’d really like some. But the point my dad made is well-founded: If this is how Government solves problems, then we’d be foolish to trust the Capitol Building any further than we can throw it.
(The idea that Communist regimes correlate 1-to-1 with dictatorships is something my sister challenged. It also does not follow that Sweden, Norway and Denmark are Communist hellscapes. A lot of people — my dad included — don’t seem to understand that there is a meeting-place between capitalism and communism. But that’s the first half of this essay.)
My dad’s argument boils down to a pretty simple statement: If we attempt to create a new government with the same old people in charge, we’re going to be stuck with the same old problems.
And my counter-argument is… nothing. I don’t have one. He’s 100% correct. If we attempt to create a new government with the same old people in charge, we’re going to be stuck with the same old problems.
“But then, C,” you might ask, “what the heck are you talking about on this blog? You’re constantly talking about creating some sort of new government! Now you’re saying that you were wrong? Why have we bothered reading anything you’ve ever written?”
Well, first off: wow, somebody reads anything I write? Cool! That’s awesome. But anyway. Second: you’re right, and you’re wrong. My mission here has always been about creating a new form of government… But as a side-effect. My primary mission, the goal I work towards — the reason I write everything I write here — is a different one.
“If we can’t create a new government with the same old people, then how do we create a new breed of people?”
That’s why almost everything I’ve ever written has been of an ethical bent. To me, everything about politics, about government, about business — everything worth discussing — comes down to one question: “How should we treat other people?” And it should be pointed out that a great deal of social-justice revolves solely around that very question. Black Lives Matter, Me Too, the separate-but-intertwined movements led by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders… They are all concerned with questions of human rights and human dignity, and how those translate (or have failed to translate) into our modern policies. They are questioning the things we have been taught.
That’s where I think the future lies. Not in radical new forms of political science, but in the slow evolution of the human heart, the gradual understanding that we don’t need to worry about how we treat other people, because there are no other people — just us, ourselves, under marginally different circumstances.
Fundamentally, capitalism, like any kyriarchy, is broken. However, the parts of it that work also work better than anything else before it. It’s based on a truth and a lie — the survival instinct on one hand, the scarcity principle on the other. If we can ditch the lies and keep the truth, we’ll be better off.
And we’re part of the way there already. Again, my dad is absolutely right: If we attempt to create a new government with the same old people in charge, we’re going to be stuck with the same old problems. This is an accurate conclusion and one I would support him in. However, it does not follow that we must put the same old people in charge. It does not follow that we don’t already have, at least a little bit, a new breed of people. The way we train our children, the way they talk… My wife, a high school teacher, has a student who is openly transgender, and their colleagues by and large do not shun them. There is a growing understanding amongst Generation Z that diversity is not threatening, that uniqueness is acceptable, that pure normalness is not necessarily a good thing (if it even exists at all). I am, technically, a Millenial (though some demographists have identified a cusp microgeneration called the “Xennials” which describes me much more accurately) and even we didn’t have that sort of open-mindedness; I was one of the most bullied children in school until about 10th grade, and the only reason it stopped there was because the bullies finally grew a second brain cell and started growing up. And the thing is: I wasn’t trans. I wasn’t gay. I wasn’t outstanding in any way. What I was was shy and easily riled… And that all it took to make me start wondering whether my classmates deserved to be the victims of a Columbine re-enactment. When Mara describes this trans kid — who is not just trans but awkward about it — I am grateful that they (I don’t remember their preferred gender — and maybe oughtn’t share it in any case) are growing up today. If they had been in school with me, they would have killed themselves before high school. I say that not because I believe this trans kid is weak, but because that’s what bullying was like amongst my cohort. We had no tolerance for any sort of unusualness. The open-mindedness my wife tells me about today is something I longed for but knew I would never experience. And it gladdens my heart to know that it has finally come to fruition today. Look how far we’ve come in such a short time!
(And also: thank the fucking LORD that Shiloh, who will be at least as weird as me, won’t have to put up with that fucking bullshit.)
I don’t think my dad is wrong to believe what he believes. But what needs to be pointed out is that politics are a product of their contexts. The Silent Generation protested de-segregation; today, interracial marriage is barely blinked at. Twenty years ago the country solidly opposed gay marriage; today it’s legal and barely blinked at. Marijuana is edging towards legality. Conservatives may call all of this “social breakdown,” but the rest of us call it “progress.” My dad is right in his opinions about his generation and the people it produced… but what he’s forgotten is that his generation is on its way out. “The Times, They Are A-Changing,” to quote the songwriter.
Now, this raises an important question: Is this amount of progress enough? Is this enough of a fundamental change that we can institute some newer, greater form of government?
Honestly, I don’t know. But honestly, I don’t care. If we, as a species, keep teaching ourselves more about ourselves — if we keep moving towards a society that doesn’t concern itself with how it treats the Other because it understands there is no Other — then newer, betterer forms of government will be an inevitability. I have no idea what they are or what they will be like, but that’s okay: it’s not my job to answer those questions. It is, however, my job to ask them, to pass to the next generation this sacred question: “Is this good enough?” We all know — my dad knows, I know, and I’m sure Shiloh will know as well once he figures out that “Agua” does not mean “Let me out of my high chair” — that the current system isn’t good enough. And when my dad says, “I don’t believe it can be fixed with the tools we have,” I trust him. He’s already spent his years in the trenches; he’s reporting first-hand based on experience I don’t have and never will. So if we can’t fix it with the tools we have, my job is to create better tools.
And that’s what this blog is about. It’s about asking the questions that, as far as I can tell, will lead us forward.
(And yes, I realize it’s a cop-out to disclaim that I can or will provide answers. But what else can I say? I am not exactly the world’s most brilliant political thinker. I know my limitations. This is one of them. I’m going to do what I can with what I have. I don’t claim it’s enough. But I do claim it can be useful.)
We don’t have a right to live in a world that satisfies us morally, but we do have the right to create one. And, insofar as I am capable of doing so, that’s what I’ll be trying to do. Merely asking the questions is, of course, not enough. But it’s a start. And, call me naive if you wish, but I believe that this journey does, in fact, have an ending.
Maybe I’ll even live to see it.