May 17th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Nightmare Towns and Self-Fulfilling Prophesy? (part 1 of 2)

I know there was a long hiatus in the middle, but does anybody remember that what got me started thinking about all of these ethical and meta-ethical issues again was Sin City? The issue isn't new to me. If you go back to the very, very beginning of this journal, one of the first things I wrote about was Enron. And what I had to say about the Enron scandal was that it seemed to me that what had gone wrong was that an awful lot of people forgot that there are limits to how much you can steal before you ruin the game for everyone. There is a certain amount of crime, scandal, theft, violence, and so forth that is irreducible. Retail businesses are used to theft rates, what they euphemistically call "shrinkage," of around 33%. In business classes, they tell you that any business that accepts checks should assume a bounced-check rate of around 6%. In the credit card industry, the target rate for fraud is 0.4%. Similarly, no society, no matter how draconian, has ever managed to completely eliminate murder, burglary, assault, or rape. A few societies have managed to come close to eliminating drug abuse (Singapore and Saudi Arabia), but they did it at a horrific cost in dead innocent accused and other lost civil liberties. Need I go on? And yet, despite this inevitable, irreducible amount of violence and corruption, societies have survived and thrived.

A few days ago, I suggested that a "nightmare town" is one in which corruption is no longer seen as scandalous. There are examples in the real world, even to this day, let me give you one. Do you remember Clinton's 4-city "poverty tour"? One of his stops was in Hazard, Kentucky, which really is a real place, a small town in the Appalachian mountain range in eastern Kentucky. Clinton's visit was big news in nearby Lexington, Kentucky, where I was staying at the time, so I read a lot of coverage of it in the Lexington Herald-Leader. The Herald-Leader turned up an interesting factoid during their research before the Presidential visit. If you took all of the financial aid and grants, federal and state, that flow into Hazard County, add them all up, and divide them by the number of households in the county from the last census, you would end up with an annual household average income of, if memory serves, somewhere just short of $30,000 per year. And remember, that's just taxpayer money, not counting any actual economic activity in Hazard County, which does have some mining and timber business, and some banking and office space for eastern Kentucky. Now, let me tell you ... $30k/yr is a pretty good standard of living, given low rural eastern Kentucky cost of living. And yet Hazard County, Kentucky, is one of the poorest places in the United States. The literacy and high school graduation rates are abysmal, many people are still living in tar paper shacks with no plumbing or electricity, and you actually still find children dying of starvation or of vitamin-deprivation diseases like pellagra.

So where does all that money go? The Herald-Leader's reporter asked that question all over town, from the few relatively rich to the teaming poor, from people in every line of work. Everybody gave the same answer, "Oh, it gets stolen." Nor did anybody doubt who was stealing it, the county's and city's elected officials. Nor did they mind. Why? Because politics was a very active sport in Hazard County. Everybody had someone campaigning "for" them, who promised to divert some of that money to them if he won. Everybody the Herald-Leader talked to took it for granted, even though it was obviously not true, that some day it would be their turn to steal. The result is widespread poverty. There is similar poverty in the East St. Louis area, and in northern Louisiana, and I'll tell you right now that both places are equally famous for political corruption and what's more, for widespread acceptance of it. No, that doesn't go far enough: in Hazard, and in the various tiny towns of southwestern Illinois, and in the parishes along the west bank of the Mississippi river in northern Louisiana, successful political corruption is openly admired. And I think there's plenty of proof that that level of political corruption is unspeakably toxic to society. But OK, there's nothing new here, either, is there? After all, I'm talking about something that was in the papers in the Clinton administration, years ago. Why am I talking about it again now? Because there's something I'm coming to wonder. How will we not end up there, nation wide?

Everybody has things that scare them. Here's one of the little things that scares me: that so many smart people take it for granted that all politicians are corrupt.

(I'm out of room and getting tired, have a busy day tomorrow. Tell you what. I want to finish making my point about this before answering questions, so I hope y'all will forgive me for locking comments on this one. More on this thought tomorrow.)
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