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.
Posted by the phantom speaks at 12:53 PM