Monday, May 08, 2006

Step On A Crack

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. It was a game we played as children, and I remember wondering whether the spaces between blocks counted as cracks. I never believed Mom would come to any harm, and don’t know anyone who did – just one of those mild superstitions. Once you had started, however, it was a problem stopping. Even if you didn’t believe there was any direct connection between misstepping on concrete and your mother’s spinal column, actually landing on a crack carried the suggestion that you didn’t care if it did. You, vicious child, were unwilling to make this tiny sacrifice for your Mummy. In front of God and everybody you were declaring that it was perfectly all right with you if she ended up in the hospital on your account. What had started as an amusement took on deep psychological significance, ripe with opportunities for guilt, parentification, revenge, and abandonment fears.

I wonder if something like this drives socialism. Mounds of data which indicate that when nations trade, both benefit, or long depressing observation of poor countries with abundant resources remaining poor because of socialist policies do not seem to dent the socialist mentality. To turn off the spigot of government solution would look as if we didn’t care what happens to the poor. Socialism makes a statement about ourselves that we like, regardless of the practical effect. I suspect this superstition of kindness is a motivator, not because I think leftists are necessarily self-serving, but because they leap so quickly to the accusation themselves. Any free-market proposal brings forth howls that the plutocrats are abandoning the poor, and the rich manipulating the system solely for their own gain. If they think it so readily about others, they must fear it in themselves. Stepping carefully shows that they really care about their mothers. Not like you, you heedless and ungrateful child.

What happens with most children is that they step on cracks through carelessness, clumsiness, or ceasing to play, and return home to find mother in excellent spirits and health. A few repetitions of this, and they can let the whole matter go as just a game. Still, a twinge might still arise the next time the phrase occurs to them. Of course it’s silly, but why take the chance?* Worse, it will eventually occur to them: there are mothers whose backs are broken. Their children must have stepped on a crack sometime in their lives. Could it be…nah! But what if?

Even in rich, free-market countries there are poor people. Does that mean some capitalist stepped on a crack, driving them to destitution? It is an article of faith that one person’s wealth is related to another’s poverty, but I don’t think that connection is established in reality.

*Collect enough of these little rituals you can’t drop, or have some very intense ones, and you have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. It is now classified as an anxiety disorder; the repetitions and incantations are seen as attempts to bind anxiety. They are often things that do have a meaning or connection with reality, but have gone beyond rationality. It is good to recheck the locks when you leave the house, good to wash your hands, good to make your letters carefully. Checking the locks 5 times is a bit much.


Jerub-Baal said...

wonderful observation. It makes perfect sense to me, but then again, I'm a terrible crack-stepping-capitalist.

Anonymous said...

In my neighborhood, the spaces between the pavement blocks WERE the cracks. We didn't count cracks that were defects in the pavement - probably because it was a brand spanking new development and the sidewalks were fresh and clean and new - no time for ground to settle.

So, our "not stepping on cracks" was sort of a precursor for marching band, measuring our stride so that we would never land on the edge of a pavement block and adjusting where necessary for turns and stuff.

And, I didn't know anyone whose mother had a broken back, so maybe it worked? Or maybe handicapped people don't move into new houses? I dunno.

Steve Burri said...

I don't know about someone being driven to destitution by stepping on a crack. Smoking crack, maybe...

Anonymous said...

I don't think there are any free market economies, certainly not the United States. We have a "mixed economy" that blends elements of a free market with government regulation.

We have some level of socialism in our mixed economy that doesn't seem to hurt our economic growth. The problem is the creeping growth of big government and socialism.

I think you can make a case that the rich are indeed manipulating the system for their own personal gain. Not just the executives at Enron, but the guy getting the $400 million retirement package from Exxon too. There's no way to justify that sort of compensation for one man. It's simply a result of cronyism in the boardroom. Don't tell me that it's up to the shareholders to make those decisions because most of the shares are controlled by institutional investors also raking in money from the system. They are simply creating a new noble class with so much money that they can't be touched. The government might as well tax it.

jw said...

AVI: It's not quite so simple.

There's no doubt that in the early Victorian period in Britain the power of the landowning men (1 in 6 white men), who were the only ones with a vote, did indeed cause poverty.

In the same way, Cuban socialist monetary policy does indeed cause Cuban poverty.

The are socialist countries wherein the standard of living is better than in the US as there are capatilist countries where the standard of living is lower.

The best argument, given what is known, is: Monetary policy, not socialism or capitalism, is the key to the poverty level of a country.

Mind you, there are many things which may influence this. One of those things is the ability of the governing classes to get along with each other. As the gap between left & right, in the first world, grows ever larger, the standard of living in the first world will slip. This is happening: Those in the bottom third of the first world are much worse off now, while those in the top third are better off; this lowers the average.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The only "socialist" country with a higher standard of living than the US is Luxembourg, which siphons money off the rest of the EU. As anonymous notes, we have a mixed economy, as do the other Western nations. The others tend to have more socialism in the mix. They have slower growth thereby.

I don't get the part about the gap in the governing classes left and right. We are supposedly viciously divided in the US, yet the economy rolls along nicely. Perhaps I have not understood what you meant, but I don't see any signs of imminent collapse.

The $400M that a CEO makes is irrelevent to anything. It doesn't affect our prices or the overall economy. People find it annoying because they think that salary should be justifiable on some moral grounds. I don't see why it should. That always leads to worse abuses. I also don't get the "new noble class" mythology.

jw, the Victorian gentlemen did not cause the poverty. Virtually everyone in the world was impovershed, going hungry at some point of the year and dying young until about 1700. In England and America, the number of people rising above subsistence started about then. By 1800, there actually was a small middle class in those two countries, but even by 1900, half of the populace was quite poor. The existence of the poor and the well-off, a la Dickens, does not imply cause.

Anonymous said...

If compensation isn't tied to merit (and I don't buy that one man could be responsible for generating enough wealth to merit a $400 million retirement bonus), then you can't argue that it is wrong for society to confiscate that wealth either.

If you don't think that there isn't a "noble class" being created, then how do you explain how people like Patrick Kennedy get off scott free. He's a rich man that has used his family money to put himself outside the system of ordinary people. He's only the tip of the iceberg.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I didn't say merit, I said moral. A CEO could indeed create that much wealth for a company. Even if he didn't, it's none of our affair. I don't get the connection with taxation, unless you are positing some artificial system in which property rights don't exist.

PK is old nobility. That system of the famous, wealthy, or connected being able to game the justice system may persist. But I think it will ebb over time because of increased transparency.

Anonymous said...

I'm a card-carrying capitalist and have worked solely for for-profit companies my entire 30 year career. But the $400m CEO retirement IS our concern - or at least the concern of those who are stockholders. If I hold stock in publicly-traded Exxon-Mobil (and I probably do unintentionally through the dozen-plus mutual funds I have in my IRA), then any corporate excess affects my ownership share of the company, however modest that share might be. Whether the Exxon CEO gets $400m in a "retirement" package or Tyco's CEO spends an equal amount of company funds on art work, umbrella stands and shower cutains, it's money that is not going to the enterprise owners - the stockholders. I'm not at all sure that the Exxon board's granting of a huge retirement payout to it's favorite CEO (wink-wink) is too much different than what Dennis Kozlowsli did with tacit Tyco board approval. There's a failure in both instances that our capitalistic system hasn't quite figured out how to correct - and to prevent.