Friday, December 13, 2013

Dynamic Tension Turns an Eighty Pound Weakling into a Stasist King of the Beach

I decided not to read any more of Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (The Free Press, 1998).  Maybe I'll be missing something really great, but unless she changed her approach after the first eighty pages, I doubt it.  Here are a few more bits that show why I can't take her too seriously.
Work life itself is different from a generation ago – freer and more fluid, with greater risk and greater reward – and the general public is much more aware of the textures of how markets actually work [35].
I can't help wondering whose "work life" Postrel meant here.  For most people, as far up the scale as middle management, work is "freer and more fluid" only in terms of greater job insecurity.   Today's business ideal is, as Noam Chomsky has often put it, that you should never be able to assume that just because you had a job today, you'll have a job tomorrow.  At the same time, the degree of control exercised by employers has increased steadily over the past few decades: drug testing, psychological testing, background checks, and computerized surveillance of workers' "productivity", right down to counting the number of keystrokes one types in.  Lately I've helped some friends apply online for entry-level, menial kitchen jobs, and I've noticed that even if you're going to wash pots and pans in the back of a chain restaurant, you're expected to answer a long (100 questions or so) personality assay.  I suspect that Postrel is thinking only of a select group of workers, the kind often called "the creative class," but even if so, she's tripping.  And things have only gotten worse since The Future and Its Enemies was published.  Next slide:
Rather than try to address worst-case scenarios with technocratic schemes that will create legacies of their own, he [Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation] urges an evolutionary, common law approach.  “Almost always,” he says, “the time-tested laws and legal principles we already have in place are more than adequate to address the new medium” [46]
As I pointed out in my previous post on Postrel, she seems pretty sloppy in classifying ideas and behavior.  Hanging onto "time-tested laws and legal principles" sounds stasist by her criteria, but she seems to take Godwin's remark as an example of dynamism.
Consider the infamous Denver International Airport, (DIA).  Aviation officials touted the $4.6 billion project as essential to keep up with the region’s growth.  They promised it would be a vast improvement over the old Stapleton Airport, which was often locked in by bad weather.  But its sponsors foisted DIA on unwilling customers.  The airport is twenty-five miles outside Denver, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, while Stapleton was just fifteen minutes from downtown.  To make matters worse, there are no hotels neaer DIA.  And the new airport’s cost per passenger is somewhere between $11.75 and $11.84, depending on how you count – substantially more than either the $4.59 at Stapleton or the $9.91 promised by former mayor Federico Peña.  Frequent travelers resent the inconvenience and the generally higher ticket prices.  “I liked Stapleton better,” one told The Denver Post.  “You would literally leave about 45 minutes before your plane departed.  With DIA, you have to leave an hour and a half before. “  A flight attendant expressed a common sentiment: “It’s a beautiful airport.  But we hate it” [76].
These people are obviously statists, technophobes, and Luddites.  When people resist the installation of a Walmart in their area, Postrel accuses them of stasism.  Maybe the objections to DIA are okay because they're after the fact and ineffective?  Change is good, says Postrel, except when it isn't.  But I can't tell how she decides which is which.  I doubt she can either.

An airport, to say nothing of the airlines it serves, can hardly be a dynamist enterprise.  It requires centralized, long-term planning.  There's no way it could be dynamist, but then the older Stapleton airport is no different in that regard.  I wonder what folks around Denver thought about it when it was built?  Leaving for the airport forty-five minutes before your flight departs could well have seemed too much then.  (Since the 9/11 attacks, which took place after this book was published, increased "security" measures have made it necessary to arrive early anyhow.)

Finally, Postrel quotes with approval the right-wing writer (later to be a Bush II flunky) David Frum:
Why be thrifty any longer when your old age and health care are provided for, no matter how profligately you act in your youth?  Why be prudent when the state insures your bank deposits, replaces your flooded-out house, buys all the wheat you can grow, and rescues you when you stay into a foreign battle zone? [77]
I read Frum's Dead Right, from which this quotation comes, and I don't remember its being this delusional.  When there was no social safety net to speak of, most people didn't manage to provide for themselves very well -- that's why Social Security and other such programs were instituted.  One reason why personal thrift is not a reliable means to a comfortable old age is that it relies on institutions, and those institutions turned out to be unreliable.  In the Great Depression people who had saved lost their money when banks failed.  That's why bank deposits were insured, to protect people against irresponsible bankers.  Banks aren't supposed to be dynamist institutions.  When regulations were loosened at the close of the 20th century, people who had thriftily and prudently put their money into investments against their retirement lost money again, which is why privatizing Social Security is a bad idea.  Whom do you trust more, Wall Street or the Federal Government?  Like most small-government rightists, I would expect both Frum and Postrel to be the first to yammer for government disaster relief if their houses were flooded.  Insecurity is for other people, not for them.

This example shows how lopsided Postrel's stasist vs. dynamist categories are, and it's why I decided to quit reading her.  You can't have dynamism without some stable institutions, and a government is the best bet (though not a perfect one, especially when it is taken over by business types) over the long haul.  Thrift and prudence means that you expect some stability in an unstable world, or why bother to save and invest?  Of course it's possible for control and stability to go too far, just as dynamism can go too far; but neither one can be rejected altogether.  Postrel writes as though she really thinks that stasis should be abandoned altogether, and that's ridiculous.