IN PART ONE, I TALKED ABOUT what I called the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability — the tendency since the Industrial Revolution for accountability in our economic relations to become ever more abstracted from anything resembling personal responsibility. I used as my examples an imaginary (but also reasonably typical) village named “Sylvan” in the year 1800, versus Benicia (and pretty much everywhere else in America) in the present day.
In Sylvan, it would be an absurdity to write to a company 2,000 miles
away if you had a problem with a chair, since the person who made it
would probably be personally known to you, and you would likely be no
more than a few minutes’ walk from the location of its manufacture. If
you wanted, you could easily arrange to watch it being made, along with
practically everything else you owned — milk, butter, the shoes for your
horse, the shoes you wore, and so on.
It is probably still possible to live your life that way — eating
only agricultural products from local farmers, using only locally made
furniture, clothing and shoes, and so forth — but it is nowhere near the
typical experience. The very structure of our civilization would have
been nearly unimaginable to the residents of Sylvan, and probably
somewhat terrifying if they did imagine it.
The desk and the keyboard on which I’m typing this was made in China
by people I’ll never meet, as was the cup holding the cocoa I’m sipping.
The car I drive was made somewhere in the U.S.; my shirt in Indonesia;
my jeans in the U.S. (again, I have no idea where, exactly). There is
virtually no possibility of my ever meeting the people who made most of
the stuff I use every day.
To be sure, there are many advantages to living in the present
industrial world. I like being able to take BART to work. Altogether,
getting to work and getting around in general is much easier than it
used to be — in 1800, America’s larger cities reeked of horse dung, and
the bloated, putrefying remains of work-to-death draft animals used to
be a common sight in the streets of places like New York and
Smokestacks constantly belched black smoke. I really, really would
not want to give up modern dentistry. I like being able to eat a
more-or-less fresh orange in New York City in, say, February.
But the price of the material abundance made possible by the
Industrial Revolution is that we are deeply, structurally alienated from
one another in our economic relations.
When I read some of the arguments put forth by my opponents on the
political right, it seems that the remedies they propose are more suited
for the problems of the world inhabited by my Sylvanians in 1800 than
to the challenges of the scale and complexity of American civilization
in 2013. A large, powerful national government in 1800 would have been
an intrusive absurdity – there was no need for it. To the extent that
economic regulation was needed, it could easily be handled at the local
level, since that was the scale of virtually any problems that arose.
New Deal-type liberals like myself think there is a critical role to
be played by a large, powerful central government in the present United
States — not because we think governments ought, always and everywhere,
to be big, but because Big Government is the only potential
counter-balance to the power of Big Business. And big business, in the
present world, has enormous power and influence. ExxonMobil made more in
after-tax profits last year than many U.S. state governments took in in
Now, some might be surprised to hear me say this, but I don’t think
there is anything innately wrong with business in general, nor even with
big business, per se. My father retired from Chevron after 33 years,
and worked with many fine people, including people who became old family
friends. I worked for a major imaging company for several years and
have fond memories of my co-workers and supervisors from my time there.
The benefits of industrialization — primarily a great variety and
abundance of stuff — are great, too. But the costs need to be addressed.
For all the complaints about how environmental regulations cost U.S.
companies efficiency, I appreciate the fact that as a result of their
existence I can be reasonably certain that I will not be poisoned by
toxic waste as I go about my day. I also like the fact that my food has
been inspected, and that the facilities in which it is produced are
subject to all kinds of regulations regarding sanitation and the humane
treatment of animals.
I like the fact that gold mining companies can no longer blithely
contaminate rivers, the Bay and Pacific Ocean with mercury like they
used to. I like the fact that our coal mines kill fewer workers in a
year than were killed in them each month before safety regulations were
imposed. I like the fact that, thanks to child labor laws, 9-year-olds
no longer have their arms torn off working in mills. I like the fact
that unions can no longer be crushed by company-hired thugs for the
simple act of banding together and asking for fair treatment and wages.
The world of Sylvan was in many ways better than the world in which
we live out our lives today — but that pastoral, courtly world is well
and truly gone. New citizens, and new circumstances, require new laws.