Monday, September 29, 2008

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

One of the most delightful "finds" we made during our many summers cruising on our boat in Canadian waters was the writings of Canadian author and historian, Pierre Berton. Over time, we ended up purchasing and reading some 30 of his works.

Berton often wrote about what he perceived as a fundamental cultural difference between Canada and its neighbor to the south, a difference which he considered profound. America, he wrote, was born by an act of violence (The Revolution) and in the founding document, The Declaration of Independence, expressed that government existed to preserve certain inalienable rights, chief among which are "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness". In short, Berton posits, a society where the sovereignty of the individual trumps the collective well being.

Canada, on the other hand, came into being some 100 years later by a rational and peaceful act of Parliament (The North America Act of 1867), and in that Act, it is stated that the purpose of the government was to ensure "Peace, Order and Good Government". Berton held that this reflects a society where the collective well being trumps the desires of the individual.

Briefly here, let me address the business of "Trickle Down Economics", also known as "The Horse and Sparrow Paradigm". This view holds that if the privileged are allowed to satisfy their desires for "Life, Liberty and Happiness", the lot of the underprivileged will rise as a byproduct, whether the wealthy want this or not. If we allow the rich to get even richer, the additional money they spend and/or invest will ultimately trickle down to the benefit of everyone. Similarly, overfeeding a horse benefits the sparrow, who will find more undigested oats in the horse's feces than it would if the horse were simply fed an adequate diet. The horse need not care about the well being of the sparrow, and indeed it doesn't. The more gluttonous the horse's behavior, the more the sparrow will benefit every time the horse shits. Greed and gluttony become suitable replacements for good intentions and human caring. Two of the "Seven Deadly Sins" are thereby redeemed and become virtues. In fact, envy, pride, lust and wrath can also be redeemed by this mindset, leaving sloth as the only real "Deadly Sin". And, the lazy deserve to suffer, don't they?

Whether or not Berton is totally accurate in his assessment of the two countries, he does make a very interesting point, and events of the past several years could readily be described as reflecting his characterization of the US. One could readily say that the excesses of the financial markets, mortgage markets and real estate markets ran unchecked because certain individuals did indeed benefit. Not every American, but enough to keep the wheels spinning as they did. During the past 7+ years, more and more Americans lost health care coverage, and more and more Americans fell into poverty. But also during those years, enough Americans acquired enough wealth and "toys" to ensure a majority that was enjoying enough "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" to hungrily encourage the economy and financial institutions to run higher and higher risks.

So, after 7+ years of virtually unregulated activity, the financial institutions of the US have finally screwed the pooch too much and are in desperate straits. And the general reaction? "What, use my tax dollars to bail out those greedy Wall Street pigs? Bail out people who took out mortgages they couldn't afford? They made their beds, now they can sleep in them! " Except it is not the bed that is ill made. It's a major part of the foundation of the house itself. And who will bear the greatest burden of a financial collapse? Not the rich. Not the upper middle class. Those with considerable means may suffer a lifestyle adjustment, but those of little means will find their very lives imperiled. We have devolved into a society where the least among us are dependent upon the fecal oats, and the horses' diets are about to be cut. The problem with the foundation is more rooted in culture than economics. Greed was fully acceptable to many as long as the debt creation machine catered to enough folks.

I find it interesting to see that Paulson's initial proposal was to simply burden us all to feed the horse. While I am sure he "believed" this would result in more fecal oats for the sparrows, the sparrows' well being still remains a byproduct and is totally dependent upon the horses' metabolism being over served. If you think about it, in its totality, it isn't even an efficient model, no less an effective one. At least in terms of the "common good". Resources that could directly address human needs are not available at the outset, but only after being passed through the colons of the rich. And this waste has to be picked through to find the nutrition. But then, it is not the rich that have to pick through this waste, is it?

I do not claim to know what the financial answer to the melt down might be. But I do know that the culture shift necessary for tending to the common good would be a total shock to American society. Sharing some of the oats before they are ingested by the gluttonous horse is totally inconsistent with "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" as we perceive it. The least of us should be thankful that oat rich feces are available for them. And if the horse suddenly has to cut its dietary intake to a simply adequate nutritional level for himself, eliminating the nutritious content of his feces, isn't the horse "sharing the pain"? I'm sure the horse sees it that way. And the sparrows can always go to the emergency room.




mike said...

Gives new meaning to the old term: 'road apples'!

I have read Berton's book on the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge. I would definitely recommend it. Although I am not in agreement with his glowing portait of General Byng.

Your post goaded me into looking up a list of all his writings. So now will have to go out and buy some of his other military histories.

Rick98c said...

Well, as a recent email forward has it, if you gave every American over 18 their share of the 700 billion, we wouldn't much care what happened to Wall Street. It's all smoke and mirrors anyway.

Aviator47 said...


There is a book store on Saltspring Island, just off Vancouver Island. They had a great collection of used copies of Berton's books. We would pull into port, load up on titles we did not have and spend peaceful evenings reading on the aft deck.

His two volumes on the War of 1812 are a must read for any student of military/political history. While obviously written from a Canadian viewpoint, they are outstanding. They made the rounds of my retiree friends when we returned to home port, generating a waiting list for additional volumes of his work as we finished reading them.

More than anything, his writing style is superb. Truly fascinating to read his work. Don't limit yourself to his military history.


Yes, if it was given to the people, it would enrich them, but we would then owe ourselves the money, or more accurately, our grandkids/great grandkids. At least the plan currently under debate offers a chance of the debt being paid back. A slim chance, but a chance.

There was a great piece in the IHT about how this came to pass. Too much wealth looking for a quick and easy way to increase itself. Since mortgage securities presented such an investment, the money chased same. But there weren't enough people qualified for mortgages to absorb all this money, so the qualifications were lowered, and lowered and lowered to "expand the market".

This, to me, was a classic case of the "marketing mentality" gone haywire. The sub-prime market came into existence simply to accommodate the excess wealth floating around.


mike said...

Thanks Al, will do. Would love to go to your bookstore on Saltspring. But with the state of the economy maybe not. The 'City of Books', across the river in FDChief's fair city offers a second-hand selection of his works.

Quite a retirement you have Al. Where was your homeport before your sojourn in the Greek Isles? Were you one of Sequim Syndicate of military retirees??

Let's hope our pensions and savings are not completely trashed by the current econocrisis.

seydlitz89 said...

That was brilliant Al. Can I use your essay in my classes, with whichever name you choose of course?

Publius said...

We hear a lot about how various members of the British Commonwealth have these wonderfully idyllic lives, untainted by the excesses of their wayward cousins in the U.S. But ISTM that the U.S. can never be properly compared to members of the British Commonwealth specifically because none of those nations has ever borne the sole burden for its own defense. When they fight, they fight under the Brits. And they live under the protection of the U.S. In some respects, I think comparing Canada and the U.S. is akin to comparing California and the U.S.

Yes, their transition to freedom was unaccompanied by violence, but as I've asked the stray Canuck, "Do you think that maybe you got the blessings peacefully might have just a little to do with how the mother country's leadership threw the Crown out on it ass? And accordingly frightened those Brits so much that they became much more willing to accommodate other (white) members of their empire"?

The point to this is that even though we speak the same language, Americans are not at all the same as citizens of the Commonwealth. We grew up in different circumstances: We were the runaway who hit it big; Canada was the dutiful son who stayed close and tended to the parent. And we always kept the parent at arms' length. Think of Gallipoli and trench warfare. Then think of Pershing and the insistence that an American lead the Allies in WW2.

I've got nothing against the Canadians or any other commonwealth folks, probably because I know comparisons don't work very well. And the whole collective good thing? Well, ants and bees all work diligently for the good of the colony.

Publius said...

Boy, I butchered that one.

Where it reads "Do you think that maybe you got the blessings peacefully might have just a little to do with how the mother country's leadership threw the Crown out on it ass?...", it should read:

"Do you think that the fact that you got the blessings peacefully might have just a little to do with how one colony threw the mother country's leadership out on its ass and told the Crown not to come back?"

The rest of the post ain't all that great either, but I plead a need for haste because of an early tee time.

Aviator47 said...


We lived on Whidbey Island in a small sub-division near Oak Harbor. Moored the boat about 250 meters from the house in the small community marina. Spend 6 to 8 weeks afloat every season, primarily in Canadian waters, where the cruising is idyllic. Made many friends there amongst the Gulf Islands. We sold the boat just before we left Whidbey, and the time we have been here is the first time since my 18th birthday that I have not owned a boat of some kind! And prior to my 18th, the family always had a boat. But then, the open water cruising here has not beckoned us, not to mention the costs of boat ownership. And, we do have access to a friends 18 ft runabout.

And, the up side of inflation is that it will cause a boost in military pension and Soc Sec in Jan. It might be somewhat symbolic, but at least we get symbolism.

I am quite flattered and willing to be quoted. Pop me an email at aviator6715 at gmail dot com and I will reply with any info you desire - within reason.


Let me clarify. I was trying to show that we are different from Canadian culture, but not necessarily "better". From that starting point, a point of contrast, I went on to discuss the less attractive aspects of "Life, Liberty.....". One of those points to ponder.