HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 1, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Growing Up
November 25, 2008

One thing I've already learned since November 4th: it's a lot easier to write about campaigns than it is about government. That's because in campaigns it's obvious who's talking sense and who's promoting foolishness. It takes no brain power to know that citing Joe the Plumber as someone with valuable insights is nothing but manipulative bosh. But when it comes to figuring out which economic recovery plan will work best, that's another thing.

I've done my best to keep up with the economic crash since it moved to the top of the news in September. And I may have learned a little bit. Even so, I remain severely confused about where money goes when it is said to be lost. I can't even discern what's real in money and what's pure fantasy.

I do know a few things.

When the ratio between what the head of a company makes and what it pays to its average employee is more than four hundred, that company is headed for trouble.

When financial paper is bundled deceptively and sold as though its value were established, somebody is about to get cheated.

When a corporation's sales depend primarily on flashy advertising and not on the quality of its products, disaster is being courted.

When the face value of a debt has little relation to what a creditor is going to receive for it, everybody is encouraged to make shady deals.

When the price of an essential commodity can be doubled by a few people who play with the appearance of supply, the government is failing miserably to protect its people.

All these conditions make for a big mess. Yet knowing that doesn't tell you how to clean it up. I hope some people know how, but I have no confidence that they exist. The people coming into the national government appear to be more competent than the people going out. But that doesn't mean the newcomers can smoothly bring forth prosperity. I suspect there will be much fumbling over the coming years.

My best advice to those of us who are trying to keep up with what's going on is to watch how faithfully government officials stick to principles supportive of general well-being and not to believe that anybody knows precisely what to do. Preparing for confusion is, at least, better than being surprised by it.


Westworld
November 30, 2008

Over the past few days I have posted here less frequently than usual because I am in California, and when I'm traveling I can't seem to get my mind in order to write anything.

I've observed some things though which drive me to put down a few words. The most notable is a phenomenon I experienced in the desert yesterday east of San Diego, between the mountains and the Salton Sea. There great numbers of people congregate -- and when I say great numbers I mean thousands and thousands -- to drive various forms of off-road vehicles across the desert sands. They come in trailers, mobile homes, and pickup trucks to form temporary communities, generally resembling the wagon circles of the old West. Then they simply get out and drive all day in their dune buggies, motorcycles, and various contraptions that look like hopped-up golf carts. There are so many that a pall of dust hangs over the whole region. At night they make gigantic camp fires and sit around drinking beer, whooping it up, and doing goodness knows what else.

The scale of the thing is what gives it its surreal character. It seems like something brought to life out of the mind of Pieter Breugel, the Younger. I suppose the people doing it would say they are simply having fun. And, probably, they are. Yet, to an outsider they present themselves as force of unlimited primitivism. They seem like something out of the early road warrior movies, and I have little doubt that they like to project that image of themselves.

There's no doubt that they drive in a way that would be considered insanely reckless elsewhere. The number of emergency vehicles screaming along the highways is evidence that their behavior is not without consequences. The rule is that they don't drive on the roads themselves but they often drive so closely along the verges that one trying simply to get through the region feels he's being assaulted by legions of determined suicides.

I don't know what all this means. Maybe it means nothing. But the feel of it is momentous. It's a sign that there are untold numbers who want simply to break free of all civilized restraints. Even if their desire is only for a weekend away, it bespeaks an impulse we need to comprehend.


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