Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Perception of Confinement

"What could they really do if we all just stopped paying taxes?"

I'd seen this question asked on Facebook, and I responded:

Close down. No more post office, no fire department, no police, no courts, no air traffic controllers, no military, no Coast Guard, nobody to clear the snow off the streets, nobody to build and repair streets in the first place, no clean drinking water piped right into your house under pressure. The ones running the show would be corporations who have the means to offer these services for sale. They'd have a monopoly, and they'd be completely unregulated. "Invisible hand of the market?" Yeah, let's see how tough a negotiator you are when your kid is dying and the ambulance service and private hospital are demanding a cash deposit since you're not a VIP member. You don't get a vote on how anything will be run unless you're a shareholder.

Can you imagine what eminent domain would look like in such a society? A gas company wants to drill on your land, and you won't sell them the rights, so they just drive their equipment in and start work anyway. Who's going to stop them? You with your gun? Like they can't afford their own team of Green Berets to take you out once all those guys are laid off when the government shuts down. The people with money will do whatever the hell they all the rest of us.

The already-poor, unable to get jobs and dependent on government money for food and shelter, would be forced to make their own work...which could mean setting up their own toll booths on the roads you take to work, or going door-to-door selling their own fire insurance--"Pay up, and we won't burn down your house." Without a police department to stop them, your only protection would be to hire guards or band together with neighbors for your common defense. Humans being a highly social and adaptable species, these thugs would then form groups of their own to overwhelm your defenses. With no criminal justice system and no government of any kind, the leaders of these criminal organizations will become incredibly powerful.

We saw this in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. The gangster oligarchs controlled everything, while pretty much everybody else starved. In developing nations, we call these crime bosses "warlords." In medieval Europe, they were called noblemen.

Someone reading my other posts might have been surprised to see that, as I'd just been griping about policies of both the Republicans and Democrats in office. I said both parties need to go. But then here I was saying how horrible things would be if we had no government. Is it better to have bad government of none at all? Do you want to remain a prisoner aboard the pirate ship, or do you want to walk the plank into shark-infested waters?

I don't really know the answer to that, but there's something to be said for having a government, even a bad one. According to this article, someone earning $50,000 a year with a spouse and one child pays ten cents a day for SNAP (the food stamp program), the school lunch program, and WIC (the supplemental nutrition program for pregnant and nursing women, infants, and children) combined. That includes administrative costs. It's not clear from the article exactly how many of those ten cents actually feed the 46 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits. Considering what I wrote above about what it would be like if the government simply disbanded, imagine what it would be like if 46 million Americans--15% of the population--many of them armed, suddenly found themselves without food. Does that sound like a nice place to live? For just ten cents a day, you get to stave off that Mad Max scenario. That's quite a deal.

Why, then, are taxes such a big deal to some people? If you spend any time at all consuming right-wing media in this country, you'll hear again and again the idea that we're living under a tyrannical dictatorship where the government robs us at gunpoint to steal all our money so they can give it away to lazy people and drug addicts. They speak in very literal terms of being slaves to the government, and they fantasize about armed revolution.

All that over $37 a year? When that token amount keeps the underprivileged from staging a revolution of their own? On its face, that doesn't make any sense. But if you dig deeper, you see there's a more general, overarching theme stirring up this emotion. These people aren't being provoked to war over thirty-seven dollars. They're exhibiting a fight-or-flight response to the feeling of being captured--the feeling that someone else has more control over their lives than they do.

This feeling isn't the exclusive domain of the political right, or of people wealthy enough to feel like they're getting squeezed too tightly by the IRS. It's a common theme across American culture. Generally speaking, if you see a group of Americans angry about something, it's because they feel like someone else has more control over some aspect of their lives than they do. Not everyone feels this way, though. In my observation, the chief difference between those getting upset and those who are content is how much they feel like someone else is running their lives. Note that emphasis on the word "feel." There are plenty of content people who are just as much adrift on the whims of their superiors as anybody else is, but they're okay with that, while others are hopping mad about it. The difference is in how heightened their awareness is that someone else is pulling the strings, and whether they feel incentivized enough to go along with it. The better compensated someone is for their conformity, the less they see the demand to conform as being a burden. If they're required to conform, and what they get out of it doesn't feel like it's worth what they're being asked to give up, they resist.

As I said, this is just my personal observation. It's not the finding of any academically approved scientific study. As such, I should probably tell you something about my own ride up and down the socioeconomic ladder.

I grew up in an economically depressed community in southern Ohio as the son of middle-class business owners who were both from out of town. We weren't wealthy, but my parents lived far beyond their means, and compared to the destitution all around us, we might as well have been aristocracy. The once-prosperous city collapsed when the steel mill shut down, and it never really recovered. It's not unusual for a family there to be on some form of public assistance for multiple generations. Teen pregnancy, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and violence are commonplace there, and the biggest thing the area has been known for in recent years is trafficking in Oxycontin. My parents' business--a funeral home and private ambulance service--was on the same block as a public housing project.

When I attended public school there, my classmates saw me as "the rich kid," and told me--in Southern Appalachian drawls so thick I could scarcely understand them--that I talked funny. They presumed I looked down on them, and my parents saw to it that I did. After that first year in public school, I was moved to a private school, and after that, a public school in a suburb that served as an enclave for the region's doctors, lawyers, and wealthier business people. My parents frequently joked about the "hillbillies" we encountered and hammered home the idea that we were better than those people: we could speak proper English, and we didn't marry our cousins or drink moonshine or eat squirrels. And then I married my high school sweetheart, who was from a family that was the embodiment of every Appalachian stereotype my parents had spent most of my life teaching me to disdain.

I attended college, but dropped out before graduating and found myself stuck in this place where my wife was related to so many people. The only occupation high school had prepared me for was that of college student, and college had only prepared me for a job I wasn't yet qualified for. With no prospects in the area, no knowledge of opportunities elsewhere, and no resources to pursue those opportunities even if I had known of them, I--along with my wife and two children--subsisted on a combination of whatever the government would give us (until my wife refused to comply with the requirements and our food stamps got cut off), whatever our families would give us, and whatever I could scrounge up by working at low-paying jobs now and again. Between jobs, I tried to live off the land. My wife's family taught me to hunt and trap. I gardened. I gathered ginseng. I did odd jobs on a few farms. I even sold a couple woodcarvings on consignment through a store downtown.

I did manage to get a Pell grant to attend a vocational school to study HVAC (and I was doing well in it), but in order to keep a check coming in after Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton passed their welfare reform measures, I had to drop out in order to "volunteer" so many hours a week as a tutor at a state university's program to help high school dropouts earn their GED and transition to college life. I found that once the students got started on their assignments, most of them needed very little help, so I was left with many idle hours sitting at a desk, standing by in case someone should need me.

To pass the time, I began writing a book called "The Fenced-In Yard." The thesis was that while citizens of totalitarian dictatorships were like dogs tied to a tree with a short, heavy chain that rattled loudly and choked them any time they tried to move, being a citizen of a country like the United States was more like being a dog in a large, fenced-in yard. As long as you stay away from the fence, you're free to run and play all you like, and you'll feel no sense of being oppressed. When you decide to push further, though, and explore the areas that fences have been erected to keep you from exploring, you discover the reality of your incarceration. The latter half of the book was to be a point-by-point litany of how each of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were being violated. The first half was a hodge-podge of Marxist ideology, personal frustrations, and my ecotopian ideas that I thought would save the world.

It was crap. Granted, it was only a first draft, but the manuscript read like the Unabomber Manifesto, a similarity underscored by the fact that it was entirely hand-written on several loose sheets of paper. It was the angry rant of a twenty-something who had been raised in the middle class and promised the world, who found himself trapped in the reality of his own poverty. It was the protest of someone discomfited by the fact that other people had more control over his life than he did.

Eventually, I broke free. I graduated the police academy, my wife divorced me, and friends in the big city (who I met through the Internet) took me in and found me a job that paid 50% more than the one I had been working. After several months there, I got hired as a full-time police officer at a large state community college where I worked for six years. I started in 2001 making about $28,000 a year, and with the contract we had in place when I left, I was on track to make $36,000. To most of you reading this, that probably doesn't seem like much money. Remember, though, that less than a year before I was hired by the college police department, I was earning $6.35 an hour for gathering shopping carts off the parking lot at Wal-Mart.

Not only had my income increased, so had my social status and the power that I exercised. In less than a year, I had gone from feeling like it was a treat to get to eat fast food that people had dumped out of their cars onto the parking lot or using my employee discount to get a sandwich from Wal-Mart's snack bar, to being paid to sit through catered meetings and going out to eat at restaurants with co-workers who bitched about paying taxes to feed all the lazy low-lifes on welfare. I was giving orders to people who thought themselves too good to eat fast food or shop at Wal-Mart. I could tell a total stranger I'd never seen in my life to lie down on the ground, and they had to do it. And they apologized and called me sir. My voice stopped criminals in their tracks. Some of them actually trembled with fear. Most of my take-home pay was split between child support and paying off debts, so I was still living in poverty by most Americans' standards, hardly able to maintain a car to get me to work without breaking down, but I had definitely moved up in the world. I was both respectable and respected.

My former life gave me a perspective most of the officers I worked with didn't have. I saw how pervasive homelessness was in our community, and rather than treating the homeless as vermin to be shooed away, I'd give them rides to the homeless shelters. I helped drunks arrange rides home. I didn't arrest people simply because I could. Instead, I weighed whether I'd be doing more good by making an arrest or taking some other action. I encountered a lot of people living troubled lives, people who felt helpless, as I had. All my friends and co-workers were middle-class, though, so I was in a position to see the unfortunate as "those other people." I still remembered being one of those people, so I mostly avoided being too judgmental or prejudiced against them, but I still caught myself from time to time thinking, "This person is suffering from learned helplessness. Their life might be hard, but it's nowhere near as hard as they're making it out to be. They just need to buck up and exercise some self-discipline."

I helped my department organize, and I was elected to represent my shift in contract negotiations and grievance hearings. The college's human resources department pushed back. One by one, they eliminated anyone of any position in our bargaining group, firing people over petty or even trumped-up disciplinary problems, or persuading them to leave by other means. When they got to me, they opted to cheat me out of some money they owed me for tuition reimbursement. When I filed a grievance and they saw that my evidence not only proved that they owed me the money, but also showed that they were knowingly cheating me and had tried to cover it up, they blew a gasket and accused me of having violated school policies in obtaining that evidence. They moved to fire me. I could have fought it in arbitration, but even if I had won, I knew my days were numbered now that the Human Resources office had marked me as the Evil Union Adversary. By then, I had accumulated so many training certificates and good recommendations from senior officers that I figured I'd have no problem at all finding a job with another police department--one that would likely pay me better and that wouldn't have administrators who treated me like I was the enemy. My attorney offered a deal--the college would drop their disciplinary action against me, eliminate any record of it, and give me a neutral reference. In return, I would resign and waive my right to sue them. I walked away feeling like this change was a blessing in disguise, and that I'd be in a better job in no time.

I had remarried and had another child by this time. Our two-year old son needed eye surgery just as I was about to lose my health insurance, and the Department of Job and Family Services was dragging their feet in getting our son approved for Medicaid. It was a scary time, as there was a danger that he could have lost his sight in one eye if he didn't get the surgery right away. After we got that situation resolved, I took a month just coasting, licking my wounds and spending time with my family. Then, as money started to get a little tight (my income was zero but my child support obligation was still based on my income of $36K a year), I stepped up the search, applying for private security jobs as well as positions with law enforcement agencies. I was desperate to get another commission before my peace officer certificate expired, even if it meant having to volunteer at a small police department somewhere. The problem was that the small departments that would give me a badge for volunteering all required me to have my own equipment. As a full-timer at my previous position, my uniforms and equipment were provided by the college. I didn't even have a weapon suitable for duty, and now, with no income, I couldn't afford to equip myself for a volunteer position.

Worse, though, was that the hopelessness of my situation started to become apparent. Prospective employers want to know why an applicant left his last job. In law enforcement, having been fired from an agency for any reason at all will land your application in the trash. Resigning to avoid being fired can sometimes yield the same result. Police departments are pretty thorough about screening out liars and people who evade questions, and any employer is going to frown on an applicant who speaks poorly of a former employer. There was no way to tell my story without being labeled a boat rocker or a whistle blower, and no way to not tell it and still get a job, at least not as a cop. Even when I dared to explain, employers wanted the college to confirm my story--which they apparently never did.

I took a job as a security guard in a distribution warehouse and hated every moment of it. In my mind, I was still a cop. This job was just something I was doing for a short time for money until I got another police position. I was paid $10.50 an hour for doing things that, in my professional opinion, were useless for accomplishing anything other than demoralizing the warehouse employees. My co-workers were paid $9.50, but I was paid a dollar more, not because of my previous experience, but because I had agreed to be their on-call person. My wife was self-employed and needed to be able to arrange for me to care for our son when she had to meet with clients. My job got in the way, as my schedule was changed frequently and without warning. She earned more than I did at that point, so it made sense for me to accept a downgrade in order to help her earn at her full potential. I tried to get the company to reassign me to one of the $9.50 positions with a regular schedule, even if it meant cutting back to part time, but they refused. They said the only way they'd do it was if I found my own replacement. Instead, I ended up leaving for a part-time job driving a delivery truck for a small bean sprout factory located closer to my home. That lasted four days, as the owner fired me for wearing a wrist brace to work after I had gotten injured.

As quickly as I went from Wal-Mart cart pusher to state college police officer, I slid down to broke, unequipped, unemployed, with an unstable job history. I had already decided that the following spring, I would turn my hobbies of raising chickens and growing vegetables into a full-time business growing food to sell at local farmers markets, but in the mean time, I had to earn some money to keep Child Support Enforcement from putting me in jail. Fortunately, my wife works with computers, so no matter how bad things got, we had always made it a priority to have an internet connection. I got on Craig's list and started hustling odd jobs--doing custom woodwork, landscaping, and household maintenance. I even got a regular gig as a part-time groundskeeper for a wealthy doctor. That was a little awkward. He had hired me to do things like weeding the flower beds and doing mechanical maintenance on the mower and pond pump, but I'd just as often be sweeping out his garage or washing his Ferrari. Once, he sent me out to pick up some dry ice for his son's birthday party. That job lasted two or three years until he made plans to sell his home and my farm demanded more of my time.

It was still a struggle, though, just to pay my child support obligation. Because I sent nearly every penny I earned to the state to pay for the support of my children from my first marriage, I had nothing left for my (now two) children who actually lived with me. My wife's income, which was merely a supplement in years past that allowed us to do fun things like take vacations to Florida, was now supporting our family entirely as I tried to get my own farm business established. We were broke, we had very little money coming in, we were dependent on food stamps and Medicaid, and I, at least, was firmly entrenched in the working class. I worked with my hands, I got dirty, I worked with plants and animals. I made things. I used tools and drove an old, beat-up pickup truck. Having no dress code to adhere to, I let my hair and beard grow long, as I always preferred them to be. I wore clothes appropriate to the work I did, and the work I did quickly wore holes in them.

Something was different about poverty this time around, though. I was doing it on my own terms. I was my own boss. I wasn't idle, but I also didn't lose my right to work if I failed to punch somebody else's time clock at precisely the right minute. There was no such thing anymore as getting fired or laid off. If one customer didn't buy what I had, another one would. If one farmers market didn't want me, three more did. If I went several weeks straight without making a dollar, I was still a farmer. Not a "former farmer" or an "unemployed farmer" or a "farmer between jobs at the moment"--just a farmer.

In ways, it was an improvement over being a cop, too. I didn't have to get someone else's approval to attend training. If the Extension Office or anyone else had a class I wanted to attend, and I had the money and time free to go, I went. If I wanted to explore a new specialty, I didn't have to wait for a position to open up. There were no task forces or detective positions to compete for. I'd just buy (or build) the necessary equipment and start doing it.

My social status changed entirely, in ways to which I still haven't fully adjusted. To many people who see me in the neighborhood, with my long hair and holey overalls, I'm just another poor person, someone of no status. Middle class people seeing me in such a context don't want to be near me. I make them uncomfortable. Neighbors look at the farm house I can't afford to make pretty and call zoning officers on me. But among the people in the local food scene, it's more like I'm a public personality. I won't go so far as to say a celebrity, but people I've never met know me. Magazines have done articles on me. Newspapers, even children and college students doing projects for school, call me to ask questions. University researchers who wouldn't have had two words to say to me when I was a cop now want my perspective. Public policy makers amend their drafts based on my input. I get calls from stores, even from international businessmen who have no idea how small my farm is, wanting me to supply them. Both my wife and I are involved with various food and farm organizations that give us access to powerful people. We get invited to events we couldn't possibly afford to attend. Non-profits and even private individuals want to do whatever they can to help my for-profit, privately owned farm succeed, because they see the work as something heroic (and perhaps tragic). I have more people looking up to me now than I did when I was in a position of authority and tasked with protecting them.

Last year, animal rights activists stole my chickens. I replaced them, and the nugget liberators stole them again. In what they no doubt saw as acts of selfless, heroic compassion, they tore down my fences and broke into the farmhouse to steal, among other things, an axe, a bow, and some hunting arrows, any of which I expect may be used against me someday if I let them catch me with my guard down. I had trouble with other thieves, too, some of whom I caught and turned over to the police. Still, I lost most of my tools and all of my chickens to thieves. My truck broke down and the mechanic had it for the rest of the year trying (or not trying) to find a rare, compatible part. On top of that, the deer ate most of the crops I grew. I turned the ugly little peaches I got that year into jam, and managed to harvest small crops of onions, garlic, beets, tomatoes, and hot peppers. Other than that, I was more or less out of business--but remember, there's no boss to tell me I have no job, so I still have one. I'm just not making any money at it.

Since I've had so little to sell, I've had a lot less interaction with customers. I'm turning down invitations to vend at markets because I have nothing to sell. I'm concentrating my efforts on rebuilding and preventing the sort of things that brought me down last year from happening again, but this means that whenever someone contacts me wanting to buy things, I have to send them away empty handed. I avoid talking to the media now, because what is there to say until I'm back on my feet? Why drum up attention for my business if I've nothing to sell? I still hear occasionally that someone has heard of me, but mostly, I live a very private life right now. The only people who see me are the ones who just see that poor guy who's apparently unemployed. People who know me see me as the guy who spends too much time online ranting about the injustice of this or that, about wealth inequality and government intrusion. I get incensed over how employers treat their employees, even though I'm neither one anymore. My middle-class relatives are uncomfortable talking to me. I see how my wife is working herself to death just trying to keep us afloat. I see the pressure she gets from her family, coming from a culture where a man's not a man unless he's a good provider.

At this point, I don't even feel like there's a rat race for me to go back to. My only hope for prosperity is to keep slogging along and rebuild my farm. There's opportunity there. It's just a hard road getting to it. And meanwhile, I'm being bombarded with messages from one side of the political sphere telling me I'm a no good, lazy bum for eating on their ten cents a day, and the other side of the political sphere saying the problem is that I don't have an advanced degree and that there aren't enough soul-eating corporate jobs that will pay me a living wage for being someone else's obedient subordinate.

During the last Presidential campaign, I heard the candidates talking about "jobs, jobs, jobs!" Meanwhile, I saw zoning officials going through my neighborhood telling the self-employed contractor he can't store building materials behind his house, telling the self-employed auto mechanic he can't fix cars in his driveway, telling the scrap metal salvager he can't dismantle junked cars in his yard, telling me I couldn't raise chickens. The guys cooking ribs on the street corners are ducking the health inspectors because they can't afford a license and the approved equipment. The city council passed new laws last year to restrict farmers markets and to discourage street vendors and door-to-door salesmen. We don't need a big nanny corporation to come in and give us jobs that will disappear just as quick as they appeared. We need the government to get out of our damned businesses and let us earn a living. But the journalists are asking the politicians, "How will you create jobs?" as though the only way you can possibly increase a household's income is to appoint the residents as someone else's servants.

Meanwhile, I'm looking at the whole picture and thinking, "You know, my frustration over all of this is still the same thing as the first time around. I'm raging against a world where it feels like others have more control over my life than I do." And it's not just me. And it's not just from people in my financial position. When I hear conservatives scream about taxes and regulations and losing their guns; when I hear liberals shriek about abortion rights and the need for social welfare programs; when I hear women and people of color, even those with good jobs or a good reason they don't have them, complaining of discrimination, I hear the same thing. People have seen the fence. They've been told that they can run free, and then they run to the edge of the yard and see that something is off limits to them. They didn't put that fence there. They didn't say, "Please, somebody limit my opportunities and choices."

They know somebody did limit them, though, even if they don't know who that somebody is. And that somebody, that fence builder, is the one in charge. He limits you. He defines the acceptable boundaries of your life and decides how far you're allowed to wander. Catching sight of his handiwork freaks people out. It doesn't freak out the dog chained to the tree. He thinks the dogs along the fence are ungrateful and spoiled and ought to all be chained to trees of their own. But the ones who thought they were free panic when they discover the limits of their freedom that someone else has imposed.

So why is it that the privileged people don't get freaked out? Why is it that the middle-class people brush off injustice and say, "Frankly, I just don't see myself as being oppressed. I think you get the opportunity you make for yourself," when they see people expressing frustration about externally-imposed limitations? It's because they can't see the fence. They're jumping and playing out in the middle of the yard where they were told to be. They haven't wandered out close enough to the fence to realize that it's there, or that there's anything worth seeing on the other side. They have all they need right where they are.

At least that's what they think. I think they're just stupefied by the luxury of their lifestyles. Imagine, for example, that you're walking down the street one day, and a van pulls up and stops alongside you. Men jump out, throw a black bag over your head, throw you into their van, and tie your hands and feet. You don't know who they are, where you're going, or why this is happening, and you scream. You scream your fool head off the whole way. Does it matter that they let you do that? Does the fact that you can complain loudly without being beaten into silence mean you're free? Of course you're not free. You're being taken somewhere against your will. There's nothing okay about that.

But what if, instead of it happening like that, you got a letter in the mail. The Department of Mobility and Economic Enhancement is notifying you that you've been transferred. This happens to everybody you know every so often, and it's always been that way. As the years go on, the government moves you to progressively nicer homes, jobs, and social circles. Or maybe it's the company you work for that's moving you around, doing what's best for you. You didn't ask for it, but you know what it is, you believe it's a good and necessary thing, and hey--it's always worked out for you. This time, the letter says you're being moved from your 2-bedroom apartment to a beachfront cottage, and you'll be making twice as much money for doing half as much work. The relocation crew will be by next week to pick you up and pack your things for you. No black bag over your head, no getting tied up, and you get to sit in the front seat. Better? Don't even think of screaming. That sort of thing is inappropriate and we expect better of you. Mind your manners and don't say anything controversial, and we'll let you sit in the front seat the whole way.

What's the difference between those two hypothetical events? Not a damned thing, that's what. In both instances, a person is being transported like livestock. Some other entity is deciding for you where you ought to be and how and when you're going to be placed there. But the person getting black bagged is going to be a lot more put out about it. He's going to panic and get aggressive and try to run any which way he can. The one sitting in the front seat is going to crank up the AC and listen to the radio. They may be going to the same place to do the same thing, but for the one who's tied up, it's hell. To the one in the front seat, the one who's tied up seems crazy and dangerous.

I once read that when you raise hogs, you should get them in the habit of walking to the place where they're going to be slaughtered. That way, when the final day comes, they'll happily join you for the walk instead of fighting and screaming the whole way. The defining difference between the workplace experience of middle-class and lower-class workers is whether employers do them the courtesy of taking them on that walk around the shed and giving them pats and treats and kind words along the way, or just chase them with a cattle prod until they're cornered.

So if you, in your middle-class job with all the perks that entails, feel that people beneath you are there because they lack your work ethic, ask yourself if you're putting the cart before the horse. Would you be as eager to go to work if you were them? If, rather than doing the work you went to college to learn how to do, you just got dragged off by circumstance to whatever dehumanizing labor would pay you a few dollars, would you feel as good about your job? Or would you resent it? The cozier your cage, the happier you'll be to stay inside it; but just because you stop fighting to get out doesn't mean it's not still a cage. As I indicated at the beginning of this post, it's not just about employment. It's about luxuries offered in exchange for obedience and conformity. The greater the incentives, the easier it is to rationalize away what you pay for them. When obedience and conformity are forced on people without sufficient treats to lure them into it, they resist, sometimes violently.

The thing to take away from this is that when you see those people getting loud an protesting something you don't think is any big deal, the difference between you and them probably has less to do with your personalities and more to do with what you've been offered to go along.

(Watch for my wife's comment arguing that it's not so much about what's being offered as what expectations the people were given in the first place. She says that it's less about the fact that there's a fence than the fact that the dogs in the yard were led to believe that there was no fence.)

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