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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card March 7, 2004

When Progress Stops Being Progress

I remember, as a little kid, thinking that if a little bit of something tasted good, a lot of it should taste even better.

For instance, butter on bread. It was delicious. So I snuck a big spoonful of pure butter and ate it.


Salt on iceberg lettuce was a treat. But pile on too much, and you had to spit it out.

Eventually, most little kids learn that enough is enough, and when you reach that point, you stop.

The principle is called "moderation."

But in government -- and in the intellectual thinktanks that provide most of the theories that end up in political speeches -- the principle of moderation doesn't seem to get much respect.

Instead, whenever the country moves in a good direction, there develops a kind of intellectual momentum that insists that, having once moved in that direction, we must keep moving in that direction forever, no matter how ridiculous the place we end up.

For instance, take the Republican love affair with tax cutting.

It's true that tax cuts stimulate the economy. Obviously, if the government isn't taking money away from the people, they will spend or invest it themselves.

But it's also just as true that government needs to pay for the services that it performs. And if you cut taxes too much, you can't pay for those services.

To which Republicans reply, "Cut the waste and there's plenty of money for the real services!"

But what is "waste"? The vast majority of the discretionary money spent by government consists of salaries to people who then spend their money just like everybody else. If you cut taxes and then cut the budget by the same amount, you would be leaving a lot of federal workers either unemployed or with lower incomes.

Theoretically, the growing economy would be able to absorb the former federal workers. But there's a lot of dislocation and suffering along the way. It's the sort of thing which, if there were ever the political will to do it, would need to be done gradually.

In the real world, though, tax cuts are a lot more popular than budget cuts, and we end up with growing deficits. To hear Republicans tell the story these days, you'd think that as long as the economy is booming (and, despite Democratic political rhetoric, it is booming), deficits are fine.

But deficits are borrowed, and either you repay them, with interest, or you cheat the lenders by using inflation to allow you to repay the debts with cheaper money. And either way, you have to repay those debts with something. And that something is taxes.

In other words, you can't cut taxes down to zero. At some point, the benefits of tax cuts are far outweighed by the cost of deficits. You can have too much of a good thing.

As deficits increase, and the national debt increases, you run an ever graver risk that some enormous new demand on the government and a sharp downturn in the economy will coincide, resulting in a disastrous default.

Can't happen? Of course it can. As my generation -- all of us millions of baby boomers -- reach retirement age, the demands on Social Security and Medicare will be huge. These retirees will expect to be paid in real money. Suddenly that money won't be available to "lend" to the government to meet budget deficits. And if tax revenues happen to be falling at the same time because of an economic downturn, the result will be fiscal disaster.

So when I listen to Republican tax-cut rhetoric, with all the rosy forecasts of how a growing economy will solve everything, I get a little bit sick at heart. It's a like watching a little kid take a big spoonful of salt because he likes it so well sprinkled on food.

Republicans have no monopoly on pushing a good thing too far. Democrats have the same kind of love affair going with court-mandated social change.

Back in the 1950s, the courts broke the logjam over Civil Rights for African-Americans. Though the constitutional basis of Brown v. Board of Education is a little shaky, the fact is that until that point progress toward eliminating the Jim Crow system in the South was glacial -- if there was any progress at all. And Congress couldn't act because Southern senators used -- or threatened to use -- the power of the filibuster to block any effective legislative action.

So when the Supreme Court broke us out of the box we were in, it was a good thing. Let's not forget, though, that those first steps were followed by heroic action by civil rights activists and then by President Lyndon Johnson, who pulled out all the stops and got serious civil rights legislation through Congress. The courts couldn't make such massive social changes without the support of the other institutions of government -- and the people.

But the Democratic Party fell in love with the power of the courts and forgot the other steps necessary to social change. If court-created rights were a good thing for African-Americans, then any other group that wants "rights" that aren't exactly called for in the Constitution only needs to get a majority of judges on one court or another to "discover" hitherto unsuspected rights.

Now, just as the Republicans have gotten drunk on tax cuts, the Democrats are drunk on the power of the courts -- but only because they currently have narrow control of that institution. And to maintain that narrow control, they are grimly determined to keep a Republican President and a Republican-majority Senate from appointing judges who will put an end to judicial insurrection against written law.

Thus we have the irony of Democrats using the same filibuster that segregationists once used, but this time to destroy the constitutional system for appointing judges.

Just as Republicans try to ignore the fact that money you borrow today must be repaid in the future, one way or another, the Democrats seem grimly determined to ignore the fact that once you eliminate democratic process, you also lose the willingness of the people to obey the law. In the name of granting "rights" that never existed to small minorities that demand them, the Democrats are committed to taking away the rights of the huge majority that, under the constitution, is supposed to be able to rule in a democracy.

Yet in the minds of Democrats, they are merely "continuing" the progress made by Brown v. Board of Education. If some rights are good, then we must constantly search for new rights to grant people so we can continue to make "progress."

It's as if when the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific, they had said, "Westward movement is such a good idea, let's keep on going!"

Every good thing costs something, somewhere. Sometimes the cost is well worth paying. Sometimes it's so high that "progress" just isn't worth pursuing. But those committed to pushing onward pay no attention ... even as the water closes over their heads.

A third example: We're hearing a lot about all the jobs that President Bush supposedly exported overseas.

Never mind the flat-out lie that this involves -- after all, Bush is pursuing exactly the same foreign trade policies as President Clinton.

Never mind, too, that unemployment is at an astonishingly low percentage of the workforce right now -- so that the people who talk about how our kids won't be able to find jobs are grossly misrepresenting the actual situation.

Let's look at what it would entail to stop exporting jobs.

After all, it's not as though other countries were bribing American government officials to fire Americans and give their jobs to foreigners.

What's actually happening is that many companies have found that certain kinds of jobs can be done so much more cheaply abroad that even when they add in the costs of transportation, they can sell their products more cheaply in America by manufacturing them overseas.

This results in layoffs of American workers in certain industries, while massive hiring takes place overseas.

But what is driving this process is lower prices. And there is no way to stop the process without higher prices.

In other words, while a lot of politicians are trying to get you to vote for them because they will keep American jobs from being "exported," there is no way for them to stop the outward flow of those jobs without raising prices for everybody here in America.

The true campaign slogans for these politicians should be "higher prices for everybody!"

Now, it might well be that Americans are willing to pay those higher prices in order to hold on to jobs that foreigners can do more cheaply than American workers.

But at a time when unemployment is very, very low, and the kinds of jobs that are being exported are, to put it mildly, fairly lousy jobs, it's hard to imagine that it would be good for us as an economy or even as households, to have a rise in prices on a certain range of products.

There are other, legitimate arguments in favor of certain changes in trade policy. For instance, it's important to preserve industries that are vital to national security; and it's not right to let companies profit by exploiting sweatshop conditions abroad that would not be tolerated within our borders.

The trouble is, moderate positions on these issues don't get people angry or excited, and when you can't get people energized, you don't get campaign contributions.

So as this presidential election takes shape, we are in the ridiculous position of both major candidates advocating ridiculous positions on key issues, not because the majority of the people want them, but because it is the extreme position that generates campaign funds.

We can only hope that, once elected, these guys will break most of their silly promises. Otherwise, there'll be hell to pay.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.

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