Monday, January 19, 2015

David Brooks: The Child in the Basement

David Brooks writes of Ursula Le Guin's parable, the child in the basement, about a community whose prosperity depends on keeping a single child locked in a basement, sitting in its own excrement and starving. The villagers all know about this child and its suffering and some even visit it but none will act to rescue the child because, for unstated reasons, the suffering of the child is essential to the welfare of everyone else.

Now, Mad Dog is as much a fan of parables as anyone else, but usually with parables one can say, "Oh, that is like..." but for the life of him, Mad Dog cannot conjure up a situation in which the suffering of a very few is so directly and inexorably tied to the welfare of a larger society. Ordinarily, the Phantom would have ignored this column, but it was recommended by an impeccable source, so the Phantom will struggle with it.

Brooks says the analogy is with the child laborers who make the world's cell phones. But this fails because the fact is their exploitation is not necessary to world prosperity. In fact, if they were paid a living wage everyone would pay more for cell phones but the world economy would grow and prosper even more because you'd have wage earners in those factories spending and building economies.  The excuse from the factory owners and the stockholders that we "have" to keep costs down is bogus.  Those workers could be paid more and the stockholders may make less profit but they would still profit--prosperity does not depend on worker exploitation.  And, in fact, in the case of workers producing products, it's not a case of the suffering of the few benefiting the prosperity of the many; it's just the opposite--the many (working class people) suffer for the benefit of the few (the factory owners.)

This has always been the conservative argument: To make the production of goods work, we must starve the workers. In fact, as non other than Henry Ford demonstrated, to make the production line work, you pay the workers better.

Another analogy Brooks suggests: To kill the terrorists, you have to kill a few children, so everyone can live in safety. But it has never been demonstrated the "collateral damage" of killing innocent civilians  with drones has ever really resulted in greater safety for the masses of Americans back home. That is what the guys pushing the drone buttons tell themselves. Don't you believe them.

And then there is the rejection of qualified applicants for spots at highly selective colleges--but there the few are benefited while the mass suffers. Not a good fit.

One might have argued the best fit would be the Third Reich's murder of Jewish children and Roma children to "cleanse" the Fatherland of the pestilence of impure races. A "few" die so the many can prosper. But we all can see the problem with that thinking. 

Had Mad Dog had to propose an analogy, it might be the killing of severely deformed babies so the huge expense of their care might free the great number of citizens to live free of that burden. But the problem here is there have never been enough of these infants to actually threaten an economy the size of the American economy. These infants may bankrupt their parents, but not the whole economy.

So, Mad Dog has to say, he cannot see this parable having any real merit, in the real world. It is not a parable of allowing the distressing suffering of the few for the benefit of the many as a practical solution because, practically speaking, raising up the suffering almost always benefits the many. Abolishing slavery did not bankrupt the South; in fact, it benefited the South. Abolishing slavery actually freed the many (the slaves) while bankrupting their owners (but not in all cases), who were in fact, a small minority of the Southern population.

The only example Mad Dog can conjure up is the American military: They are the injured small number, sitting in their own excrement and in Bethesda Naval Medical Center without arms or legs and by their suffering, they assure prosperity for the rest of us (a debatable point.) As Andrew Bacevich has so clearly explored, we have mistreated our military and broken faith with them "Breach of Trust." They suffer so we may shop and have our feel good moments at stadiums and public gatherings.
Funny that did not occur to either Mad Dog or Brooks immediately, but it does fit the suffering few and the prospering many living well because of that suffering. Likely this did not come to mind because the young who are our military are so invisible and forgotten, trotted out only like a circus act, at Fenway or the Super Bowl, so we can all feel warm and virtuous and then go back to ignoring them.


  1. Mad Dog,
    It doesn't seem that Brooks or LeGuin were trying to make the case that the few suffering for the many was a system or scenario that worked-just that it is the reality in many cultures including our own. You ,me, Brooks Le Guin and a whole host of others may believe the world economy would be improved without child labor and if workers in third world countries were paid a living wage, but the fact remains the powers that be-the captains of industry don't believe that. If they were convinced such a change in the status quo would improve their bottom line they'd already be doing it. So the workers in these third world countries continue to suffer so we can have our cheap electronics and migrant workers here continue to lead desperate lives so we can get a good deal on our fruit etc Perhaps I threw you off by referring to the point of the parable as the few benefiting the many, when perhaps a more accurate word to reflect the intent of the story is the weak exploited for the many-weak either in number or political or economic power. Your example of our wounded military and their families is a very apt one because clearly they suffer, hidden away, so the rest of us can enjoy "peacetime" at home. But it would seem to me Brooks' example of civilians killed by drone attacks is also an example of the weak suffering for the many or the more powerful, also on behalf of our military success.The point isn't when this happens it is right or wrong-just simply that it happens. I believe black men living in our cities with limited opportunities for advancement or a successful future are also the "child in the basement" --we don't expend the funds we could to improve their lives because we'd rather not spend the money..we'd rather continue to frolic in suburbia than assist the poor out of squalor..and as Le Guin says in the story, the happy city dwellers don't even know why the child must suffer on their behalf-they just know that it must...In the story Le Guin throws out a kernel of hope through the few who walk away from Omelas and yet it's not overly optimistic that the child in the basement will see relief any time soon since those walking away, walk off to parts unknown...Le Guin apparently did not have a lot of faith in major changes occurring to benefit the world's most vulnerable..well that's what I got out of it anyway--clearly you got a bit less...

  2. Maud,
    You will always get more out of a story, that's a given; you tend to give the author more respect, and think through the implications not spelled out.
    I tend to think: "What an idiot" and move on.

    You are also an unreconstructed liberal, where I am another sort of liberal.

    Virtually all of the captains, and even the lieutenants, of industry I've known will say the game is the game. The point of the game is to make money for the company (and for yourself) nothing more complicated, no implications beyond that. You want to benefit the poor and the weak--do charity.

    When I opened a small business--a medical practice--I needed certain jobs done--answering the phones, scheduling appointments etc. Hired a woman who grew up in West Virginia, never got past eighth grade. But she was smart and learned everything, even the computer. As my employee, I discovered I was not simply purchasing a service. I paid for unemployment insurance (state required), disability insurance (state required), pension (IRS rules--I could not have my own without paying for hers), health insurance (not required, but in my interest to keep her loyal), and, of course, sick leave and vacation. In many ways, it felt like I had acquired another child. All I wanted was my telephones answered but I had acquired a whole new responsibility. Her neer do well husband did not work; she was the only source of income for her family.

    So, I can sympathize with the man who says, "All I wanted to do was to sell shirts. I am not looking for an extended family." Of course, there is the question of scale. If you have hundreds of employees and a larger profit margin, you don't have to choose between paying your employees and paying your mortgage--you have wiggle room. You can support "your" people and simply bank less for yourself and your investors. You can accept a lower stock price. You can look at the social contract you have with your employees as a goal of your business--the way Arthur T did for Market Basket and you can say, there is more to business than simply selling product. The other goals--providing good rewards for employees, paying taxes to support the roads on which our products travel--are just as important as the company profit.
    But that takes a different mindset. You get beyond playing a simple game by simple rules.
    As for helping the weak in the inner cities by expending funds--I saw some efforts at that in Bedford Stuyvesant, when I was a medical student. Federal government jobs for kids who had no clocks or calendars at home, who couldn't read, who had no parents in the house, or who had parents too strung out on dope to be anything but a burden. It's not those kids were beyond help, but no simple hand out of cash was going to do the job. The job was much bigger than that.
    The government wanted to do something simple to solve a whole problem of culture. I came face to face with the profound nature of that culture that summer.
    I worked with a twenty year old woman who was my "guide"--she was Black and any white guy in Bed Stuy needed a black person to walk around the neighborhood if he wanted to survive. She was a street prostitute and all the local men knew her. From the tracks on her arms, she was a user. I didn't know where she lived, or if she had a fixed address. She had a full wardrobe of tight fitting dresses and high heels. We had very little in common, but I liked her for her dry, mordant wit. I had no clue if she even could recognize me. My mother died that summer and so I took a week off. When I got back, she said, "Sorry about your mother." My look of surprise must have told her all she needed. "Hey," she said. "I had a mother once. You don't think I know what it is to lose a mother?"

    Mad Dog

  3. Mad Dog,
    Unreconstructed liberal-do you mean outdated and unrealistic-in which case I must disagree..When I'm speaking of industry doing more with their record profits to help the weak and disadvantaged who helped them acquire those financial gains, I am not including small businesses.The small business owner, I agree, has his or her hands full just trying to keep the business afloat..But we as a society throw up our hands when it comes to providing relief to the most vulnerable out there-as if there is nothing more we can do. Which of course is a ridiculous assumption, there is plenty more the billionaires, mega corporations, banks and financial institutions can do-starting with paying their fair share. It's the rest of us who continue to turn a blind eye to a solution and to all those " children in the basement" while the top 1% laugh all the way to the bank...

  4. Ms. Maud,

    Moved and excited, reading your words.
    New Hampshire has its very own Elizabeth Warren.
    From FDR to Mario Cuomo, the same idea, and you frame them as cogently and ardently as any of them.
    You really are wasted on a trashy, obscure blog like this.
    I am humbled.

    Mad Dog
    P.S. forming an exploratory committee for 2016. Kelly Ayotte is toast.