Friday, July 9, 2010

SAVAGE SEZ: Free Lemonade Leads to Gov. Lemon-Aid

Terry Savage yells at her family in closed cars when they misinterpret the economic interests of children and lemonade. Then she yells at children. Terry Savage has made a career writing columns that tell you about the important things you don't know, and sometimes she's forced to improvisationally dictate these columns literally in your face, because you have failed to pick up a newspaper for mediated in-your-faceness. Terry Savage is sick of your bullshit, kids.

She is a successful writer. Most people probably know her for her book The Savage Truth on Money* (or other books that have "The Savage Truth" in them and are also about money; it's a theme). It offers the economic wisdom that an intelligent and dedicated person could write herself by reading scores of identical retirement-planning books already in existence, resolving contested issues by going with whatever interpretation or course of action was advocated by the most books, then rewriting all the information in her own folksy language. Terry probably didn't write her book this way, but she benefited from the luxury of having accredited letters following her name when she produced a work of similar content. Planning ahead: that's what separates people who sit in a car yelling about lemonade and those who have to sit there and pretend not to be mortified by them.

* — It should be pointed out that the audience for this book not only noticed the warmed-over wisdom but also that Terry peppered her book with namedrops for Microsoft products, while she was on the Microsoft payroll. She defended herself by noting that she not only mentioned Quicken but also was on the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote columns for other publications and appeared on PBS. These last are irrelevant details, since of course none of those companies produce and sell home money management software. It's like she said, "But I write for Women's Wear Daily and appear on the Lifetime channel, too," in response to pointing out that she wrote a book on home defense, was on the payroll of Smith & Wesson and kept mentioning .38 Specials after a few token Glock namedrops. This may seem like piling on, but it's worth noting that this promotional thread in her work seemed obvious to the reader-review crowd, which usually exhibits the sort of nimbleness of mind that could be physically represented by a freshly baked pie sitting in the middle of a freeway.

Aside from making short appearances on the 24-hour news networks, Terry's real strength these days seems to be the regular column format. For the most part, she writes investment and retirement advice for the middle-aged, which is ostensibly balanced, reasonable and well-meaning. Occasionally, however, she devotes a column to polemic, which appears to serve the dual function of using ideological boilerplate to scare the most easily frightened citizens in the country—old people on fixed incomes—while also hectoring some group for the good of free-market America, even if that group includes kids. Or perhaps especially kids, since getting old people to fear and condemn children is incredibly easy, unlike getting them to fear other groups. For one thing, kids don't have to leap over concertina wire to enter the country or buy a house in the neighborhood. They just have to be young. And they can come in all shapes and colors!

Despite these outbursts and how they emphasize conservative keyword choices in her regular advice columns, Terry herself doesn't seem crazy. Looking over her Sun-Times archive, it's obvious that she's of a free-market conservative bent economically, but not around the bend mentally. When she writes columns titled "The Gold Standard," it's almost a disappointment to discover that she briefly explains its history and why people consider gold a worthwhile commodity investment. When she uses it, there's nothing of the rich signifiers of Southern-apologia states'-rights liberties, constitutional originalism, fearing other races and drinking silver that normally freight the term "Gold Standard."

Unlike the teapartiers of today, when discussing economic issues, she doesn't marry hysteria to lunacy in order to birth malice and eliminationism. Instead, hers is the avuncular old-school conservative rhetoric that now seems almost quaintly inoffensive: mendacious, lazy, dependent on fallacies and starring hideous straw men driven back into the dark by the dawn of Morning in America. She doesn't need to whip her audience into a frenzy to start a revolution to depose her nemeses when she can fall back on the staid classics of issuing contempt for the former and bigger checks than the latter.

Most of her political mendacity is the soft-pedaled kind. For instance, she's beholden to the term "Community Reinvestment" as a negative, using it here in March, 2010, in relation to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government tricksters who masterfully hoodwinked the free market into looking like it collapsed under the weight of its own morally inert gluttony. Of course, this is nothing new. This is, in fact, about 18 months old, relying on talking points and scapegoats proffered by the GOP in autumn of 2008. It's been bunk for at least that long. There is no reason to cleave to bad information or keywording like that without having an agenda.

That article appeared in Business Week, the sort of publication written for Terry's audience and by people like Terry, about the same sort of stuff Terry is concerned about. It's not that she doesn't know about it; it's that she doesn't want to know about it. The first would prove that she's too incompetent to hold her position, so the remaining option is that she's deliberately writing in bad faith. You only repeat "Community Reinvestment" and "Fannie" and "Freddie" if you want to invoke the same sorts of rhythmic connections that embedded multi-generational epics in the heads of ancient peoples who couldn't read and only listened to bards. It's the CRA's fault. It happened before Reagan. It was Carter. And government. It was the CRA, Carter and government. It was the CRA, Carter and government. Now pass this knowledge on to your children.

These cheap referential tactics abound in Terry's writing. For instance, I only skimmed the last year of her columns in her archives, yet I found Communism in viral abundance. If Google were hardwired into a House Unamerican Activities Committee, she might be in the running for the mainstream American "journalist" who's contributed the most testimony to it. Consider a column on possible regulation of Goldman Sachs:
But the real loss is to the future of America, which needs the free enterprise system to provide growth and opportunity, as well as pay down our existing debts. Every over-regulated economy in history has failed -- from the U.S.S.R. to Cuba -- to provide for its citizens, despite the good intentions of government planners.
Or this one, from another article about possible SEC reforms, which she characterizes as "Gone Wild":
But there is no regulation possible to completely smooth the business cycle. No economic system has figured out a way to control the natural economic cycles in a free-market economy. And those countries that tried a non-free-market solution faced even deeper economic woes.

Think about the economies of the old U.S.S.R. and of Cuba today. In each case, government planners tried to regulate and control the business cycle, to "even things out" so there would be no recessions or unemployment. The results were disastrous. Government control has always created shortages, black markets and poverty. In fact, the only thing that has ever been "evened out" was the misery suffered by most of their citizens.
Or, finally, look at this piece about "Ingenuity" and creativity as an economic solution:
Show me one economic system that has ever done a better job of organizing long-term economic growth than the free markets. The old Soviet Union tried it -- and those "Five-Year Plans" left its population starving. Cuba is still trying it. But even China has recognized the power of individual incentives versus collective proclamations to move an economy forward.
This is the power of the conservative false-dichotomy universe. Sure, the free market has problems. But do you want Cuba? Or the USSR? Those are your only choices. You could attempt to regulate the free market in even the most marginal way—you could even regulate it as far as to re-institute Glass-Steagall—and the result would be either of those two nightmares. Never Sweden. Never. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, any other nation of their ilk—that shit is imaginary. You only get horror.

It's like reading, "Sure, you can have doctors examine you because you are free to personally pay them, or you can have The State pay them... at Auschwitz." It's the most reductive and stupid argument possible. There is the free market, and there is tyranny. There are tongue depressors, and there are crematories. There can be nothing in between, because you must be too stupid to understand nuance, which is the death of columnists like Terry Savage. This is the sort of argument you get from randomly sampling her columns. A solid third rely on the empty proposition of total state control irrespective of American history, the American temperament or any knowledge of Europe for the last six decades. Europe does not exist. There is, only Reaganically, the United States... or absolute subservience and torture. Morning in America or Nightfall at Buchenwald.

Terry knows that The Savage Truth is that you can eat from a buffet or starve to death under a jackboot. Terry stares down a conference table at a shareholders' meeting and only sees herself reflected smilingly back at her, while tiny airbursts of chaff and amorphous fogs erupt and dissipate between the twin stars of her selfness. She gets into an elevator and can envision only the lobby and the penthouse buttons, the middle a black nothing. When people address Terry, they have to walk ten feet to the right or left to appear in her peripheral vision, because she has middle-distance, middle-idea and middle-anything scotoma.

None of this should be surprising, really, because she's your garden-variety Reaganomics tax-cut stooge. She tries to draw a clumsy tax-cut equivalency between Kennedy and Reagan as a means of illustrating what realistic presidents do and what the sort of good Democrats would do if they weren't busy being Democrats. She doesn't mention differing levels of the corporate income tax or the capital gains tax over four decades. She doesn't mention that under Reagan the payroll tax for the lowest quintile (the poorest 20%) of Americans increased by 15%. She doesn't talk about median income in adjusted dollars, at all. She likes numbers in vacuums, explanations without context. Reagan cut taxes (sort of), and so did Kennedy, so the two are equal, and so everyone should like tax cuts. Tax cuts fuel innovation. So does poverty. Work Will Set Us free.

Terry Savage bungles analysis in many ways that could just be accidental, but her deliberate invocation of "innovation" betrays a crude misunderstanding of science and economic development outside "Well, I'dn't That Neat!" feature pieces in USA Today's Life section. This is a constant refrain. We shouldn't tax companies or rich people because otherwise we would inhibit them from coming up with really amazing stuff that would eventually make them rich. (No, really. Think of them. They're trying so hard.) In fact, they're already coming up with this amazing stuff that will get us out of a recession, if only we get out of their way and make sure they can produce a product they can charge us for. To wit:
From our grandest exploits to our microscopic breakthroughs, we have led the world forward. And it's not over. For many years I have suggested that nanotechnology would create revolutionary ways of sourcing energy, food, and healthcare. Now it's happening and we're slow to take notice.
Well, maybe people are slow to take notice because nanotech shit is invisible. Or maybe people don't think that chucking economic eggs into the Star Trek it-may-be-profitable-just-please-believe-me-it's-going-to-happen-any-day-now basket works. Or maybe it's because they believe in her constant refrains of a superpower America and remember the 1950s and 1960s as nostalgically as she does but also remember that they were decades in which American corporations and wealthy Americans were at their most highly taxed—and unions effectively defended the rights of workers—and we still recorded our greatest prosperity anyway. No, obviously not that. It must be something else.

Perhaps when Terry runs off to a current fairy tale to anoint wonderful new business development as the sort of iMoses ready to lead us to the promised land, the audience has difficulty following. They didn't sit on the board of McDonald's or Pennzoil/Quaker State and as such probably don't have parts of their brains hardwired to think of national economic collapse and palingenetic rebirth in terms of the opportunities afforded billion-dollar mega-corporations. Terry mentions macroeconomic problems and national suffering, but her solutions get filtered through the micro level of individual corporate bottom lines. We might be thinking about unemployment, but her solution is patents. For instance:
Just this month, American genetic scientist Dr. Craig Venter created a synthetic, living cell! You might not have noticed that landmark moment in the midst of worrying about the stock market. But it is being hailed as "one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind."

Venter's work was not done at the direction of government, but in a private lab, funded with $40 million of private capital. And he has applied for patents on his process.
Craig Venter also tried to patent the human genome, when his foundation was mapping it. So, you know, that was a real advancement he tried to make for his company, privatizing what it is, chemically, to be a human being. Great guy. In Terry's world, this is probably a shame, because his company could have made tons of money, which would have fallen out of money troughs and showered on panhandlers somehow. Or maybe we would have all gotten jobs at the company, after it was renamed Globodyne. It warrants mentioning that, for someone as concerned with development and independent innovation as she is, she seems strikingly unfamiliar with the concept of open-source, which is rather more significant when it comes to the human animal than OS code. Human necessity and even mass proliferation of innovation seem to take a backseat to whatever can be stamped or branded.

That's beside the point. Terry Savage is so busy trying to tell you about free-market solutions that she doesn't even notice free-market problems. Craig Venter's foundation is, as of this year, losing $17.2 million dollars, despite upping its government grant income by 50%. Moreover, the completely privately funded institute to which she refers is staffed by people earning national grants. Theoretically the innovations she's talking about were made purely privately, but by people funded with public money, who happened to be working on a private thing—in a company that is sometimes publicly funded—because of a public subsidy, but their creativity was totally private.

They took that public money and put it aside. They said, "Although the public gave me this money, my insights will only be of a public nature when handling equipment or supplies paid for by public money, and sequestered from the private machines. Private insights are different. I even try to have them in a separate room." Whatever. This describes a needlessly complex worldview of how public money works in medical grant funding, but we have to assume that she means to make this tortured rationale for her claims. The only other explanation for them is that she's a journalist who writes columns about things without subjecting herself to the rigors of Googling anything about them.

Terry Savage is willing to appear ignorant of how medical advancements occur—largely in public-private partnership—for reasons that run the gamut from laziness to selective blindness. That her writing and analysis isn't rigorous is obvious, but one hopes at least that there is a motive there beyond mere incapacity to generate anything of quality. One wants her to be selective, like she's at a fixed-price juice bar with free refills. She can choose only what she likes, fill to bursting on it, and remain totally unfamiliar with anything else. Take lemonade and a particularly intellectually and morally disastrous column she wrote earlier this week. Terry Savage tries to make children and adults feel bad for no discernible reason.

Let's go to the bold-quote plain-text reply made fashionable by FireJoeMorgan:

This column is a true story -- every word of it. And I think it very appropriate to consider around the Fourth of July, Independence Day spirit.
This opening is perfect, because it comments on its author in two ways. One, it discloses in the first six words that the author is lying or an incredible jerk. Either she is literally the sort of person who speechifies at children in such an untoward manner (as revealed below), or she has embroidered her story and perfected her statements to present to you a person just like that. Either she's an ass, or she aspires to be considered one. You choose.

Two, she invokes "independence day spirit" before fulminating about the value of goods and services. Basically, she's trying to shoehorn American commerce into American independence, as if the two are indivisible. Not to get bogged down in a history lesson, but colonists asserting their rights to representative government that they believed were already legally apportioned to them as British subjects has nothing to do with whether lemons should be paid for. Further, even fussy old libertarian historian Forrest Macdonald,when tearing apart Charles Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,was quick to note that there was no shortage of colonials, including prominent founding fathers, whose enthusiasm for independence was predicated on the fact that it would allow them to default on massive speculative debt owed to British companies. Basically, you can't stare poetically into the distance and hear fife and drum while thinking of July 4th, 1776, without also reasonably thinking of plenty of periwigged land cheats who saw independence as an opportunity to pull a dine-and-dash with a whole country.

Last week, I was in a car with my brother and his fiancee, driving through their upscale neighborhood on a hot summer day. At the corner, we all noticed three little girls sitting at a homemade lemonade stand. We follow the same rules in our family, and one of them is: Always stop to buy lemonade from kids who are entrepreneurial enough to open up a little business.
My family has a lot of rules in it, too, and two of them are:
1. Have brief rules.
2. Try not to sound like an asshole.
The second one was shortened from a proposed (and struck down) rule, "Try not to have convoluted rules that sound like you made them up on the spot to further an ephemeral and unconvincing point." For instance, I don't know how you decide to stop by the side of the road for kids who are "entrepreneurial enough." Like, do they have LEMONADE cards with a tasteful thickness, subtle off-white coloring and a watermark? Do they know Paul Allen?

The three young girls -- under the watchful eye of a nanny, sitting on the grass with them -- explained that they had regular lemonade, raspberry lemonade, and small chocolate candy bars.
Remember the nanny.

Then my brother asked how much each item cost.

"Oh, no," they replied in unison, "they're all free!"

I sat in the back seat in shock. Free? My brother questioned them again: "But you have to charge something? What should I pay for a lemonade? I'm really thirsty!"

You have to lead a pretty sheltered existence or devote yourself pretty wholly to some whacked priorities to hear an exchange like this and find yourself in shock.

His fiancee smiled and commented, "Isn't that cute. They have the spirit of giving."
I wonder if the fiancée read this. I wonder if anyone in Terry Savage's family reads Terry Savage besides a put-upon mother or whomever it is who wants to have sex with her. Can you imagine being the straw man for liberal naiveté in this column?—what it's like to see yourself given an airy set-up line before the author wheels on you to teach you a lesson you clearly haven't grasped? I really hope the fiancée has fun with this at future family gatherings, like:
TERRY: It's funny, I mentioned this in a column—
FIANCÉE: Was that the one where I represented naive people you hate?
FIANCÉE: Because I really liked that one.
TERRY: Well,
FIANCÉE: Do you reduce the people around you to cardboard targets because you're that afraid of them, or is it just that your arguments are that weak?
TERRY: Snuh—
FIANCÉE: Someone please pass the mashed potatoes.
Either that, or I hope the fiancée is just uncomfortably gorgeous, in the sort of way that makes you question if God's mercy is actually finite.

That really set me off, as my regular readers can imagine.
This is actually my favorite line in the piece because it reads like pretty much every testimonial or "report from the front lines" on FreeRepublic or RedState. You know what I'm talking about—the ones that always start out all calm and levelheaded like, "An Obama voter walked into my store today, black as pitch," then quickly turns to comments like, "he was looking like he was gonna steal something, so I checked my tac pants to make sure my concealed-carry weapon was still there," before some act of unforgivable blackness results in, "that really set me off, as y'all can imagine."

This is not to suggest that Terry Savage is a racist of any kind, but rather that her sense of entitlement to sudden and complete outrage over something totally inconsequential—and her narcissistic belief that this should be known to people—is of a piece rhetorically with the easy familiarity and ugly righteousness of thousands of blowhards. Granted, she does write for the Chicago Sun-Times several times per year, but in light of her writing subject and writing style, the presumption of being "a personality" is just funny. If you wanted to build a cult around it, you'd have to stitch great Maoist tapestries with nothing on them.

"No!" I exclaimed from the back seat. "That's not the spirit of giving. You can only really give when you give something you own. They're giving away their parents' things -- the lemonade, cups, candy. It's not theirs to give."
Terry seems to have forgotten that she's out with family instead of day-tripping with America, hurling down great pronouncements about the market at some poor lady who just happens to think Terry's brother is hot stuff. Now, I don't know what the fiancée said, because that wasn't printed. In her place I'd be tempted to note that the lemonade becomes the children's when the parents give it to them to dispense. (Soup kitchens give away food all the time, despite much of it being donated or paid for, for them. Nobody gets up in the grill of the dude with the gravy tureen on Thanksgiving and starts demanding to know whose Knorr packets he stole.) In theory, the kids could just pocket the supply for themselves and get high on yellows, but instead they've chosen to give it away. In theory, the kids could be construed merely as distributors of their parents' product, but in that case Terry's quibble is with the parents, not the children. Of course, we have no idea if the fiancée said any of this, because we can hardly expect Terry to have knowingly printed an argument that makes her look bad. That so much of her writing already unknowingly does that for her is the accidental work of a permanent blind spot.

I pushed the button to roll down the window and stuck my head out to set them straight.

"You must charge something for the lemonade," I explained. "That's the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs -- how much the lemonade costs, and the cups -- and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money."

This is the money shot. As stated above, either Terry Savage is someone who literally thinks these things and then lectures on them to strange children, or she has fabricated details of her story to make you think that she thinks these things and then lectures on them to strange children. Frankly, it seems too preposterous for words that anyone would slide down the window in the backseat of the car to dispense homilies to the uninterested about the uninteresting. It's almost more comforting to believe she's massaged the dialogue to make herself seem more efficiently oracular. You want this to be a miscalculated slant on the truth, rather than envision a human being who does these things in real life. Because that human being is a terminal asshole.

I was confident I had explained it clearly. Until my brother, breaking the tension, ordered a raspberry lemonade. As they handed it to him, he again asked: "So how much is it?" And the girls once again replied: "It's free!" And the nanny looked on contentedly.
Tension? Really? With children? Now, I don't want to alarm anybody, but in 1776 we threw crates of lemons into Charleston harbor. But in 1917 and 1960, the governments of the USSR and Cuba began handing out fizzy citrus beverages to just anybody, which made lemons go extinct in those countries. Take the dollar from me now if you ever want to see a lemon alive again.

No wonder America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the "lemonade" or benefits we're "giving away" is free.
Okay, see if you can follow me, here. I'm the taxpayer, right? My taxes go to buying the "government" (in this case, the parents) lemons. Then the parents pass the lemons onto distributors, who give me lemons. No, wait. Shit. That didn't work. I'm outraged at my own faulty analogy.

And so the voters demand more -- more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits. They're all very nice. But these things aren't free.
I don't know what the point of mentioning rising costs is. It's probably something about how we need to cut taxes.

The government only gets the money to pay these benefits by raising taxes, meaning taxpayers pay for the "free lemonade." Or by printing money -- which is essentially a tax on savings, since printing more money devalues the wealth we hold in dollars.
It also devalues the worth of the debt held by giant corporations, akin to the ones on whose boards Terry Savage served, when wage earners are paid in higher numbers proportionate to inflationary value, while the number they owe their creditors is fixed. Moreover, deflation makes debts more onerous to pay off, while discouraging purchases and reducing discretionary spending activity. But, please, this is really about the worth of a poor person's dollar, not the adjusted value of the assets held by people who will bill them from cradle to grave. Like the people on whose boards Terry Savage used to serve.

If we can't teach our kids the basics of running a lemonade stand, how can we ever teach Congress the basics of economics?
Excellent. Because Congress = Children.

Or maybe it's the other way around: The kids are learning from the society around them. No one has ever taught them there's no free lunch -- and all they see is "free," not the result of hard work, and saving, and scrimping.

If that's what America's children think -- that there's a free lunch waiting -- then our country has larger problems ahead. The Declaration of Independence promised "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It didn't promise anything free. Something to think about this July 4th holiday weekend.

And here is our lesson, some mean backhand at American liberalism told via one person's determination to seem as ugly as possible while exploiting a completely inapt example. Remember that Terry's riding through an upper-middle-class neighborhood and encountering kids with a nanny, yet she's worried about people who don't learn the value of labor and have too many handouts. If she's made any compelling argument, it's that the parents of these children should be taxed much more rigorously. Going without builds character.

In fact, the crux of the whole discussion has nothing to do with the children—and certainly not the lazy analogy to voters terrified of losing their homes: it's to do with the parents. Terry seems to have adopted much of the economic and labor ideology of American conservatism without the responsibility aspect. She's yelling at some telescoped abstraction of the electorate, when the object of her ire lives in that house.

Of course, it's important for her to shift the terms of the discussion away from the house, because the parents represent the most pernicious argument against her "just work harder and value things" ethic. The fact is that these are well-off parents, which means that their kids will probably be well-off. If the parents were poor, the kids would likely be poor themselves.

This is the great turd in the conservative work-ethic punchbowl—that as much as we like to ignore class in this country, it works with a particularly effective determinism in the vast majority of cases. If you are born middle class, you will likely be middle class. If you are born in poverty, you will likely die there. If you are on a lawn giving away lemonade, in front of a big-ass house while a full-time nanny watches you, chances are you don't need to learn the value of a dollar. Someone you are related to already has, and you get to reap the windfall. You can probably win just by showing up. Terry Savage can't acknowledge this without destroying the weak foundation of her morally tendentious arguments. As regards social issues, class issues, poverty issues, her ideas vary from nonexistent to null.

Terry Savage offers nostalgic Reaganalia and tautological fan-service for conservatism couched in "let me help you, because you should be afraid of everything" details for retirees and the aging middle class. ("Let me help you to save money" requires your parting with $20 for her book, which tells you things you could learn from any one of dozens at your library—the government-handout result of wealth redistribution.) Without an audience of aged, wearied and less-engaged people, she abuts the terrible trials of fact. Terry Savage needs to scare your grandmother, because you aren't fair game. You leave the house and see the world and know the sky isn't falling.

Her polemical columns represent the sloth of old conservative bugaboos and nostrums on a near-total level. Her languid unwillingness to engage in ideas is so perfect a mirror of stale conservative rhetoric about the lazy poor that the similarity suggests some form of psychological compensation. She has imputed her own essential ideological, rhetorical, personal, moral, professional and ethical laziness onto the Other, the Great Specter of The Poor, who must surely be less hard-working and less deserving. Given her near total lack of analytical merit, that's saying a hell of a lot. The lazy become less than her, less than nothing, less than anything—mere garble in her navel-gazing pidgin exegesis. To be less than her is to not be anything. Especially if you lack a last name that can be an adjective in a punchy and easily branded sentence.

And that's the Savage Truth!