Pop-tarts and prophets: on the emptiness of our politics

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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85 Responses

  1. Avatar dhex
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    says:

    man, i don’t even want a senator to come close to questions like that. they’re far too important to leave in the hands of politicians.Report

  2. Avatar Pat Cahalan
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    says:

    Just shop at Trader Joe’s.Report

  3. Avatar Lyle
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    says:

    Interesting comment on the issue of choice, a number of folks that came over in the late 70s and early 80s from the soviet union went back because they were confronted with to many choices in the US. It was easier to let some one else do the thinking for them.Report

  4. Avatar James K
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    says:

    What the above passage reminded me of most immediately was the feeling of exhausting, frustration and dread that at times overcomes me whenever I’m shopping in a grocery store.

    This happens to me occaisonally, but the way to break out of it is to realise that if you are indifferent to the prevailing alternatives, the utility-maximising rule is the one that minimises the time and effort of decision-making. Or, in layman’s terms, if you can’t choose between two things, pick one at random.

    Another approach, for a repeat decision, is to choose what you chose last time. I have a lot of habit for this reason alone, it’s easier than deciding what to do anew every time. Though I like to break a habit occasionally just to make sure I’m not missing out on anything.

    Why is it that this kind of thinking is so absent from our political conversation? When you look back at politics from, say, a century ago, it wasn’t so much the case. For good and (sometimes titanic, world-destroying) ill, national politics across the world often concerned themselves with what kind of life was worth creating and sustaining on this Earth.

    One reason that government does a lot more than it used to. I know from personal experience how much paper a modern government generates (and I suspect our government is quite a bit more efficient than yours). The more a government does, the more the leading figures in that government have to make decisions about. Politics fills up with discussions of minutiae and that crowds out the big discussions.

    Secondly, most people don’t think about politics much, because there’s no point. It’s not like your vote actually matters, so why bother wasting good effort. Only strange people like you and I think about politics, because we derive some please from it. I think you may be overstating the influence of “big issues” on popular thought in the past. As a general rule hoi polloi are pulled along by big ideas, they provide the mass for a revolution, but not the direction (Keynes’s line about defunct economists is applicable here).Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to James K
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      says:

      Another approach, for a repeat decision, is to choose what you chose last time.

      When faced with a choice of consumer products, I often adopt the opposite rule, within the rough bounds of good taste and nutrition, of course.

      But do think what we need are some whip-smart twentysomethings to make all our decisions for us. Nothing cures anomie like tyranny.Report

  5. Avatar North
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    Elias this strikes me as nuts. Neoliberal goals are all about improving the general quality of life for the maximum number of people and that necessarily means providing many choices. If you have many choices and you don’t like them then you can simply flip a coin or otherwise pick arbitrarily but if you have a desire to have many alternatives and there’s only one bag of government selected for you whatever (policy/cereal/etc) then you are being constrained and frustrated.
    Heck, if one really hates choices that much then one could run out and get themselves a control freak partner (or hire a domineering housekeeper) to make all those decisions for you. Neoliberals say that what makes one happy is up to the individual and the government’s job is to open up enough maneuvering room for each given individual above the basic necessities so that they have the wherewithal to answer that question themselves. What constitutes a good happy life? That’s far too important a question to leave to a administrator to decide for you.

    Heck, can we think of any time ever that authorities have decreed an answer to that question and it’s resulted in general happiness and prosperity for the people under its writ?Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to North
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      I think the people in the various nations that use the single-payer model of health care seem pretty happy with it, if public opinion polls and their domestic politics are to be trusted as a guide.

      I’m not advocating politicians decide what I should do to be happy, but rather that they allow me to vote for policies that create the space in which I can reach my own conclusion. Even by the standards of choice uber alles, that’s not what we have in our politics. At least not when it comes to health care and the like.Report

      • Avatar Jonathan in reply to Elias Isquith
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        I’m pretty sure North is okay with single-payer health care. And, anyway, single-payer need not be synonymous with single-provider or lack of choice. I’m guessing this is what North is getting at by suggesting that “government’s job is to open up enough maneuvering room for each given individual”.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Elias Isquith
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        says:

        Jonathan’s precisely right Elias, I’m certainly not going to sing the praise of the American system since I believe the objective evidence suggests that the rest of the west has answered that question more productively than we have.

        But even WRT healthcare choice is not really a factor. In the US you get whatever healthcare options your employer chooses for you by and large. So healthcare in America isn’t exactly rife with choices.Report

        • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to North
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          says:

          Oh I know you’re good on health care, North. I just meant to cite it as an example of how the “lack” of choice can be liberating. You make a good point about how the health care market is not a good example of real choice, regardless.Report

      • Avatar Larry in reply to Elias Isquith
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        I’m not advocating politicians decide what I should do to be happy, but rather that they allow me to vote for policies that create the space in which I can reach my own conclusion.

        Um, wouldn’t those be policies that allow you to, you know, choose? If not, how would they allow you to reach your own conclusion? Unless of course your “own conclusion” is that you’d like to have choice taken away from you…. So maybe you just need your own personal dictator.Report

        • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Larry
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          I don’t consider choosing between 401k plans to be the road to happiness. My choices in that regard would very likely have nothing to do with money whatsoever! Gasp!Report

          • Avatar Larry in reply to Elias Isquith
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            Fine, so then don’t choose. Let it go! Or, base your choice on anything but money. That’s kind of the point — your road to happiness is your road. Problems arise only when some start to think that their road to happiness should be everybody else’s.Report

            • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Larry
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              So your answer is that if I don’t want to jump through various hoops for the rest of my life with regards to my retirement and health care then I’ll just have to go without?

              Sounds great. About the same degree of choice a kidnapper offers his victim’s loved ones.Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Elias Isquith
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                says:

                If you want to say that “taking responsibility for your own well-being” is the same as “jumping through hoops for the rest of your life”, then yes, if you don’t want to “jump through hoops for the rest of your life” then you’ll just have to go without.

                I mean, let’s just remember here that you’re saying life is complicated and someone should make it less so. Would you expect someone making similar claims about global warming to be given the time of day?Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to DensityDuck
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                I know I shouldn’t bother but:

                I mean, let’s just remember here that you’re saying life is complicated and someone should make it less so. Would you expect someone making similar claims about global warming to be given the time of day?

                Please, elaborate.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Elias Isquith
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                says:

                Going without isn’t your only choice. You could pick a 401k at random, and if money isn’t that important to you — Gasp! — you shouldn’t be bothered by it.

                What’s more, I understand that picking stocks at random stands a good chance of beating the experts anyway, so you’ll be choosing a good strategy despite all your kvetching.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                Having something be important isn’t the same as having it be what makes one happy.Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                But who cares if you’re happy as long as we can assure that losers always lose?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                Is there a level of happiness that we, as a society, are responsible for making sure that everyone enjoys?Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                Maybe. Sure, for some definition of “everyone”.

                But “responsible for” isn’t the same thing as “have a duty for” or “a legal obligation to”Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                @ J, Maybe, maybe not.

                But if I feel that policy A will lead to my greater happiness, I’m likely to endorse it, especially if I think it won’t make others worse off.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                It is remarkably easy to convince yourself that others will not lose, when you are dealing with policies that admittedly make you happy.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                A parable I lifted from off the ‘tubes:

                There’s an old Jewish story about the guy who goes to his rabbi to complain about his living situation. He says ‘Rabbi, I live in a tiny house with my wife and children and in-laws. It’s just one room and we are so crowded we need to sleep in shifts! Please help me.’

                The Rabbi asks him- ‘Do you have chickens?’

                The man say- ‘I do.’

                The Rabbi instructs the man to bring the chickens into the house to live with him and come back in a week. Of course when he returns his despair is even greater- now in addition to the people in his house, the chickens are driving everyone crazy. The Rabbi instructs the man to bring his goat into the house. So the next week, the man returns in true distress, what with the chickens and the goat and the chaos they create. The Rabbi says ‘Bring in your donkey’. The third time the man returns he is distraught beyond belief. The Rabbi says- ‘Ok, now, get the chickens, the goat and the doneky out of your house.’

                The man returns the next day to the rabbi in great high spirits. His house is suddenly huge and quiet, with only his wife, children and in-laws in there! How can he ever thank the rabbi?Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                Not really, people tend to have a pretty good idea of when they’re screwing someone else.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                Not really, people tend to have a pretty good idea of when they’re screwing someone else.

                I couldn’t disagree more.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                @JB

                Ah, the Jews, longtime stalwarts of orthodox libertarianism.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Robert Nozick, even Ayn Rand.

                Not all of them ready to listen to a rabbi, mind you.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                …..buy gold, or better yet, buy gold when Glenn Beck first told yunz to!Report

              • Avatar Larry in reply to Elias Isquith
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                says:

                So your answer is that if I don’t want to jump through various hoops for the rest of my life with regards to my retirement and health care then I’ll just have to go without?

                Not at all. Focus here. If you don’t want to jump through various hoops, and you don’t want to go without, then just flip a coin. Doesn’t take a fraction of a second.

                What? You’re worried that flipping a coin might negatively impact your “road to happiness”? Well then. Your options are to take an interest in the decisions that affect your own happiness, OR, you can hand them over to some one or some entity that you trust to safeguard your own happiness. That person might be a good friend, or a spouse, or some “expert” somewhere, or maybe even the government (assuming it’s controlled by a party/faction you trust, which of course is always iffy). In any case, fine — but your choice of option may not be everyone’s, is all.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Larry
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                But, Lar’, what if I can’t afford to have an expert do it; and what if I can’t delegate to the gov’t because that would mean my gov’t was being “tyrannical?”

                But I still think you think I’m talking about money and my road to happiness be interrelated in the sense that I can’t get there without it, which is not the case. I’m privileging time over money here.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Elias Isquith
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                I’m privileging time over money here.

                As should everyone.

                At the point of a gun.Report

              • Avatar Larry in reply to Elias Isquith
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                says:

                But, El’, you can delegate to the gov’t or anyone else all you like (there’s nothing magical about the gov’t, after all)– just like those who feel they’re not paying enough taxes can always pay more — without supporting a “tyrannical” gov’t. Just don’t support policies that force everyone else to do the same. I know, I know, misery loves company. But it’s wrong nonetheless.

                And I don’t think you think I think you think … sorry — I don’t think, necessarily, you’re talking about money — it’s just that if you don’t have the time to be concerned about your own life decisions, and you don’t have the money to pay someone else to be concerned about them for you, and you don’t want to stop worrying and just flip a coin, and you don’t want to read a Consumer Reports (over someone’s shoulder if need be), then you really are making a good argument for the Personal Dictator who’ll privilege control over other people’s lives over money and time.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Larry
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                So would you consider Britain’s NHS to be a form of dictatorship? Not trying to be flippant.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Larry
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                There are people who have been told that they will be denied NHS care if they use their own funds to purchase care that the NHS does not cover.

                Sure enough, when they sell their house and buy the medication, the NHS denies them care.

                Why?

                Because it’s not fair for them to have more care than someone on the NHS gets. If you don’t want to get treated equally, then you won’t get treated at all.

                Despite having paid into the system all their lives. Despite using their own funds to pay for the stuff not covered.

                I don’t know that “dictatorship” is the best word to use… it’s not the worst one.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Larry
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                For about 3 years, this has no longer been the case. One solution was to get rid of the system entirely since it was so tyrannical (except if someone was, being a good rational consumer, wise enough to purchase supplementary health care insurance that would allow them to keep their NHS while paying for the rest, which existed); another solution was to simply lift the ban and keep the system in place.

                Britain went with option no. 2.Report

              • Avatar Larry in reply to Larry
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                Are we changing the subject? I mean, there may be other arguments for Britain’s NHS. But the general idea that it’s better to have someone or some entity take your money and spend it for you in order to relieve you of the burden of decision-making is, at the very least, an odd one to make in its favor. And even if that’s your preference, it certainly doesn’t follow that it is, or should be, everyone else’s.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Larry
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                It’s a pity that the NHS is still doing it as recently as 2010, then.

                If only people were smarter and bought their own insurance! Maybe they wouldn’t be denied care, right?Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Larry
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                JB, do you have a source for the top-up policy being enforced 2 years after was banned? I can’t find it on Google. Thanks.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Larry
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                There’s this.

                Does that count?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Larry
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                Don’t get me wrong: I understand what they’re going for.

                If you don’t want to be part of the society that gives you the NHS, then you don’t get to take the NHS stuff only when it suits you.

                The enforced equality thing seems a little… odd.

                But, hey. It seems to be working out for them. Especially now that denial of service is illegal, per the government.Report

              • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Larry
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                Well, it’s not the same thing as what we were talking about earlier, though it’s hardly to be celebrated. But, as is usually the case, I’m finding you to be unnecessarily, willfully, and rather doggedly unpleasant to converse with, so I think it’s best we leave it there.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Larry
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                Best of luck changing the world by only being willing to talk with those you find pleasant partners.

                That’s what the guns are for, I suppose.Report

  6. Avatar Zach
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    says:

    In general, quality-of-life issues aren’t discussed at all anymore. It’s nice to be able to meet your visitors at the airport gate, drive without hitting potholes, know your doctor, etc, but issues are only discussed in regards to (1) how much they cost, (2) how much they effect macroeconomic variables, and (3) what effect they have on events with extremely low probabilities (i.e. transportation funding only got national attention when a bridge collapsed in MN). You do have folks on the technocratic left who are trying to provide folks with more information to inform their choices while at the same time reducing the total amount of data available — see Elizabeth Warren’s work related to the CFPB (new credit card agreements, mortgage forms), various ideas for a tax “receipt” that breaks down what the government does with your money, and better ways to compare healthcare options. A lot of information-overload has to do with intentionally bewildering customers, which is obviously not a path towards perfect markets. A market in which many folks are so overwhelmed that they check out of the decision-making process isn’t a good one.

    I only buy things on sale at the grocery store; not so much out of thrift as out of a desire to limit the available choices and avoid this problem. Just look at things with bright stickers as price tags. Of course, grocery stores have responded to my scheme by putting nearly half of their products on sale and having absurd sales like buy-2-get-4-free that force me to think too much. I’d kill for a grocery store that advertises that they charge X% above invoice for everything. There’s a food co-op like this in Champaign, IL. Something like +15% for casual customers, +10% for folks who volunteer once a month, +5% for folks who volunteer once a week.Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Zach
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      Yes, I forgot to use the “quality of life” phrase, which is a lot of what this post is about, and which would probably have been clarifying for some.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Zach
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      I certainly respect the basic complaint but where I get off the train is at the idea that high quality of life is something that government is capable of providing large numbers of people. I’d submit that government is capable of preventing things that would hurt your quality of life (crimes, assault etc) and that it’s capable of providing a safety net for disasters (natures or unemployment) but that outside of this I think quality of life is something people can only claim for themselves and government would be best advised merely to keep as much latitude open to people for them to pursue happiness on their own.Report

      • Avatar Zach in reply to North
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        I’m not saying that the government can or should do everything it could to make life comfortable, but there’s little focus on the discomfort government causes when it comes to ridiculous public safety measures, etc. When it comes to the sorts of bewildering commercial overload, that’s often a result of government action as well. There’s no naturally correct state of contract law — what’s allowed and disallowed in contracts varies; restricting complexity in credit card agreements is no different from siding with companies that put up fine-print smokescreens. Take end-user license agreements that you click on for most pieces of software and many websites for example. These are next to useless for the consumer, but the legal system protects them as enforceable agreements.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Zach
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          Well sure government can and should reduce regulation and useless public safety measures. But while we can blithely say that we’re not the public official who cans a useless safety measure and then gets ridden out of his job on a rail because someone gets hurt in an incident that can be even tangentally related to the regulation so removed. Cover your ass is a colossus that towers over the political landscape and every official and politician pays close mind to it.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    Do you identify with the people making the decisions on behalf of others?

    Do you identify with the people being told what their options are?

    I tend to always identify with the latter, rather than with the former.Report

  8. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    says:

    Great post Elias.

    I’d be curious, and maybe there’s already some research on this topic. But it’s possible that too much choice actually forces people, psychologically/neurochemically, to purse more narrow and predicatable routes.

    So perhaps if presented with three alternatives, I choose the one most optimal (will simplify this to monetary transactions) 75% of the time, but when presented with five choices, I only choose one of the most optimal ones %50 of the time.

    You could do with this available health care plans. See if people with fewer but still some minimum modicum of choice have and easier time choosing what is most optimal for them according to various metrics.

    Of course, to you’re point more specifically, I’ve often found myself in a similar position. Maybe it’s the statist age in which I was born and raised.

    Because even as a home schooled kid (no bureaucracy) who only entered into “the system” late in his education (8th grade), I still find myself pretty comfortable within bureaucracies, be they governmental, social, or commercial. And rather than expend the majority of my time and energies micromanaging EVERY decision, I’d rather focus on the ones that are meaningful to me: politics, relationships, and career. The only consumer choices I get excited about making on the media related ones, like what video game to purchase, what TV shows to get involved with, and so on with movies, music, books, etc.

    One could argue that certain government bureaucracies, when reaching a certain level of success, actually help limit bureaucracies in other parts of life that arise naturally.

    Like you imply, being the all privy consumer can be as limiting to one’s choice as the most autocratic regime. Although in the first case, it only limits an individual’s freedom and quality of life, while in the latter this occurs across the board.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F.
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    says:

    The anxiety you’re talking about has been a nagging one throughout the era we call “Modern” somewhat confusingly. (My definition of “Modernity” is something like: the general conditions of life in industrialized, democratic societies with a secular public sphere) There have been people writing about this feeling of emptiness or anomie for about 200 years now. I can’t remember how they put it but the existentialists wrote about the terror induced by freedom. I think it’s a useful cultural issue and maybe there is some cultural salve that we haven’t quite found. The problem though is that there is absolutely no political solution and most of the ones that have been suggested or tried have been really terrible. The state might be able to gesture towards the good life, but let’s just hope it’s all empty rhetoric.

    And culture helps. Depicting that feeling of oceanic loneliness that one might feel in a mile-long toothpaste aisle allows us to overcome some of that loneliness or anxiety or whatever you want to call it and make sense of our condition. So I think saying something like “Oh get over it! Why do you hate freedom?” would be as bad a response as saying, “Why can’t the government do something about this?” Let the novelists and painters and filmmakers deal with this issue- the interior landscape is their realm.Report

  10. Avatar NoPublic
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    says:

    I understand why the words Romney and liberal appear in the same sentence but I still don’t feel good about it (nor do I agree with it).

    “Empowerment”, “Choice”, etc. are all code words for “make the individual more day-to-day responsible for every little decision that can affect them. And it’s great if you can afford to hire a financial planner, a lawyer, and a personal shopper. It can almost always provide you with a better outcome than the old way. For the remaining 99% of people who already have a job (or are spending their waking hours looking for one) they don’t really need another. 55-60 hours a week for work, 42-56 hours for sleep, 5-7 for cooking, 2-3 for shopping, 4-15 for a commute, a half-dozen for chores and general home maintenance. How many of those am I supposed to spend on re-balancing my 401(k) contributions. Managing my retirement portfolio? Making sure my insurance company actually pays for the stuff it’s supposed to? Raising my children? Yeah, that gets left behind all too often doesn’t it?Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to NoPublic
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      says:

      Why that much for work? Gads, that’s a lot of time. I clock less than 50 hours for work (counting commute). And four hours to cook up a stew should last you for the week.

      America has lost its middle class. Welcome to the working poor.Report

      • Avatar NoPublic in reply to Kim
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        says:

        Corporate America raises productivity by “encouraging” “casual overtime”. An HR manager at my company rather famously said in a meeting that we “expect” 55 hours a week from salaried employees. That’s pretty much a white collar norm. Add to that the number of blue collar folks working 2+ jobs and I’m guessing that the average in hours worked runs somewhere near that for an awfully big segment of the population.

        There are many days I wish I was working an hourly shift job again.Report

  11. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    WAR IS PEACE

    FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

    IGNORANCE IS STRENGTHReport

  12. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist
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    says:

    I’d rather have the wide range of choices, better to keep the pressure on to improve.Report

  13. Avatar Brandon Berg
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    says:

    A while back there were two girls of whom I was more or less equally fond, and who both seemed to like me. They knew each other, so I didn’t want to ask both of them out. I had to pick one. I couldn’t make up my mind, and ended up not asking either out.

    I think the government needs to step in and make these kinds of decisions for everyone.Report

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