In my classroom I make available a form that says “I Want an Answer!”. If a student has a question which does not directly relate to the class, or if I don’t have time to answer, I will ask them to fill out one of these forms and I can answer when I have some time.

The results vary. Usually the questions are mundane (“Why do we have to do [name of assignment]?”), and many times they’re just fooling around. (“Why does it hurt when I pee?”) But sometimes I get some very interesting questions. I once had a student who regularly (2-3 times a week) presented me with philosophical questions like “If I rid myself of all desire, could I totally avoid suffering?”. I’d write back at length, and he seemed genuinely interested in my answers. It was great. (Thoreau said: “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”)

So anyway. Recently two students asked my opinions on “the machine” and government debt. I wrote long responses (the only kind I know how to write, it seems) and I figured I’d post them here.

Question: Why do people call the government “the machine”? Also I do not understand why some people are so against “the machine” even when it has let them live a comfortable life. I have mostly heard this from the younger generation like mine. I feel like most of their animosity toward the “machine” is caused by their dislike of the laws that are in place.

My response: The first instance I know of in which someone mentions “the machine” in a manner similar to your question is Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience“. I encourage you to read it, because it is an excellent piece of writing from one of our nation’s most important thinkers.

Thoreau wrote:

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

I think your concern (“‘the machine’ … has let [many people] live a comfortable life”) matches Thoreau’s idea here that many times the injustices of our system take care of themselves. You’re quite right that our system of government has provided most of us with very comfortable lives, and material abundance.

However, there are also huge problems with our system of government, and — as you point out — these mostly relate to the laws that are (or are not) in place. For example, most of the people who are in charge of regulating dangerous industries like natural gas extraction have worked for large resource-extracting corporations. Once they become regulators, they refuse to enact meaningful regulation (probably because they have the best interests of their former employers in mind, not the people they are supposed to protect). The movie Gasland explores this phenomenon in some depth.

There are many other such examples, from war profiteering to education reform. The fact that so many issues face similar problems means that sometimes the entire system seems corrupt. Many young people, especially, feel overwhelmed by the size and complexity of these problems, and become frustrated by their efforts to understand individual issues in isolation. As a result, they may lash out at a mythical “machine”, since it’s much easier to blame one large monster than trying to examine dozens of smaller monsters. (Thus when I was a teenager, one of my favorite songs from the thrash metal band Corrosion of Conformity said: “If the system had one neck / you know I’d gladly break it”.)

Of course, I believe there are problems with the entire system of government itself. For one thing, we recognize corporations as people, with all the rights (but few of the responsibilities) that real people have. We also have a system of runaway spending on campaigns, and it’s very difficult for candidates outside of the established Republican-Democrat orthodoxy to get access to debates, the media, etc.

However, the more I work on issues of social justice (East Timor, for example), the more I realize that there are many people within the system — and many elements of our governmental system itself — that are positive and excellent and superb. Again, it’s a matter of recognizing all the shades of grey in the jungle of black and white that surrounds us. It’s much easier to think of the entire “machine” as being corrupt, and even easier to just give up on the idea of participating in democratic processes. But Harriet Tubman never gave up. Frederick Douglass never gave up. Neither did Harvey Milk or Emma Goldman.

So neither can we.

Question: How do you think we, as a nation and state, should deal with the growing state and national debt?

My Response: The question of debt is a sticky and complicated one. The first thing we should do is look at where it came from. To this end, I recommend a very well-made documentary film called IOUSA. It explains the historical necessity of debt in the US (usually because of war), and the explosive rise of recent peacetime debt.

On both the state and national levels, our debt is the result of taking in less money than we spend. (Obviously.) While there are clearly some things that we should spend less money on (bloated, inefficient weapons systems in the US military come immediately to mind), the biggest cause of our debt, in my opinion, is the huge drop in tax rates over the past thirty years. Beginning with the Reagan administration, US tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations have been cut over and over. What hasn’t been cut has been filled with loopholes that allow the wealthiest Americans to evade their economics responsibilities to the nation.

As the New York Times recently reported, GE paid no taxes at all in 2010, despite making $14.2 billion in profits. Theirs is not an isolated example; as the journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele have documented in numerous books (including America: What Went Wrong? and America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?), this is part of a much larger trend that has obliterated our tax base over the course of several decades.

Unfortunately, this slow and steady process has allowed some politicians to pretend like there is no wealth at all to be had, either on the state or federal level. Thus I am very skeptical indeed when people like our illustrious governor claim that our state is “broke”. The state government coffers might be empty, but that’s because we’ve provided wave after wave of tax breaks to wealthy people in the name of “stimulating job growth”. The problem with this formulation is that businesses don’t grow just because their owners have some extra capital. Of course that’s necessary, but businesses only grow when there is demand for their products or services. And if the entire economy is in a tailspin (as it has been recently), then businesses are foolish to grow, because no one has the money to buy their products or services. Right? There’s plenty more I could say on this matter, but I feel like I’m getting off topic.

How do we deal with the incredible debt we’re currently accumulating in the US? Well, obviously I feel that we should raise taxes on wealthy Americans. I myself am happy to pay taxes, so long as I know they will go to improving roads, and keeping libraries open, funding fire departments, and making class sizes smaller. Rich people should do the same.

At the same time, there’s no question that we’re also spending a lot of money (and will spend even more in the future) on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. As you probably know, the generation known as the Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, and there are fewer and fewer people now working (and therefore paying into the Social Security system) than twenty years ago. However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) realized long ago that this would happen, and planned for it in the form of the Social Security Trust Fund. Baby Boomers (and others) have been paying into this fund for decades, and now that the Baby Boomers are starting to retire, we’re drawing out of it.

Will it be enough? Maybe. At the end of 2010 the fund had $2.6 trillion, so there’s more than a little wiggle room there. The SSA says that the fund will run out in 2042. In the meantime, medical care (in the form of Medicare — which is available to all elderly Americans — and Medicaid — which is available to poor Americans) is also becoming more and more expensive.

Part of this is because we’re living longer. Part of it is the increased cost of drugs. Part of it is insurance costs and malpractice lawsuits, and lots of other causes as well. As a result, there are many different suggestions for how we deal with these costs.

The US pays more for heath care than any other nation in the industrialized world, but we’re way down on the list of major health indicators (infant mortality, quality of life, etc). This is probably because we don’t have the single-payer universal health care system that every other industrialized nation has. So I’m in favor of a true universal health system, like the universal education system and the universal highway system that we all enjoy.

What I am not in favor of is the proposal that many people keep advocating whereby we push back the retirement age. If you’ll indulge me, I need to rant about this a little.

Some people point out (rightly) that when Social Security was first created, in the 1930s, life expectancy in the US was around 65. Today life expectancy in the US is 78.7 years. This is impressive, no doubt. However, it’s not as though we’re shifting all stages of the human life cycle along some spectrum. Puberty doesn’t happen later in life, right? It’s not like menopause or male-pattern baldness arrive later than they used to. We still begin suffering from arthritis and alzheimer’s and calcium imbalances at the same stage of life; it’s just that we’ve found ways to lengthen this final old-age stage.

The thinking used to be: “Okay, Grandpa, you worked for forty-five years, from the age of 20 to the age of 65, and now your body is starting to break down, so you deserve some time to rest.” Well, what has changed? People still put in 45 years of work, and our bodies still start to break down at the age of 65. We’ve just found ways to ameliorate this breakdown process, and let people live. But it’s not like people in their late 60s have lots of energy or less fatigue.

There are many other ways we can reduce the debt, but I think I’ve rambled on enough for now. The producers of that movie I mentioned, IOUSA, also made a follow-up film, called IOUSA: Solutions, which examines some of these possibilities. I don’t like it as much as the original movie (it features some “experts” from The Heritage Foundation, an organization that I don’t trust), but it’s worth a look if you’re interested in this issue.


Try playing with this for just five minutes and then stop. I dare you.

Today I’m listening to: Muslamic Ray Guns!