Harris States it Plain

Essays like this must be the reason I am a fan of Sam Harris.

While the United States has suffered the worst recession in living memory, I find that I have very few financial concerns. Many of my friends are in the same position: Most of us attended private schools and good universities, and we will be able to provide these same opportunities to our own children. No one in my immediate circle has a family member serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the only sacrifice we were asked to make for our beloved country was to go shopping. Nearly a decade has passed, with our nation’s influence and infrastructure crumbling by the hour, and yet those of us who have been so fortunate as to actually live the American dream–rather than merely dream it–have been spared every inconvenience. Now we are told that we will soon receive a large tax cut for all our troubles. What is the word for the feeling this provokes in me? Imagine being safely seated in lifeboat, while countless others drown, only to learn that another lifeboat has been secured to take your luggage to shore…

The essay is quite long, and I would quibble with some of his remarks about education, but it is well worth reading the whole thing.


  1. #1 IanW
    December 30, 2010

    I don’t think Sam Harris would state it plain. I think he would state it plainly….

  2. #2 david
    December 30, 2010

    @ #1

    We know about -ly IanW. But “plain” here is a type of figure of speech in which obviously one form is substituted for another, which adds emphasis and irony not present in “plainly.” You be listening? The living language, like the language of Shakespeare, can go trippingly on the tongue for what’s needed to express, without regard for rules of the old teachers. The effectiveness of communication is, I venture, directly proportional to willingness to use figures of speech of all kinds, not understood and disdained by the old teachers— but well understood by the Elizabethans, for example, who had names for all of them, over double the frequent modern “list”.
    : )
    Plus, consider this : there would be no objection to saying, “Harris makes it plain.” So here, we are free to consider that “states” means “makes plain by stating,” unless we be one for whom rules mean more than communicating, hard up with which to put, as if none are.

  3. #3 BaldApe
    December 30, 2010

    #s 1 and 2,

    The deliberate use of poor grammar is useful in implying that any idiot could see the point being made, as in “It ain’t gonna happen.”

    As to Harris’s argument, I would quibble with one thing: the idea that the wealthy might be entitled to their share of America’s wealth because “they earned it.”

    Their companies earned it. Because of the greater negotiating power of management than that of workers, they take a larger share of the wealth earned by their company than might fairly be considered theirs.

    ISTM that two things are to blame for this: weakening of trade unions, and lower top marginal tax rates. If top managers are facing a tax rate of 70 to 95% on additional income, and can increase the productivity of their company by attracting better workers, they might be more inclined to reward increasing worker productivity with better pay.

    These are the two biggest things that have changed since the 80s: weaker unions, and lower top marginal tax rates. Cheaper labor abroad and other things that are typically blamed have more to do with Comparative advantage. There are just some kinds of businesses in which we can no longer compete, and we shouldn’t try. Let the buggy-whip businesses go overseas. There are still things we can do well.

  4. #4 Jesse Parrish
    December 31, 2010

    A good article, I think, but it failed to emphasize certain things. While it rightly pointed out that failures in infrastructure and education would cost the next generation of billionaires, it failed to sufficiently point out that things like infrastructure cost are incurred by the wealthy.

    A factory which pollutes the local water supply incurs a socialized cost, e.g. cost in the maintenance of water treatment plants. For the same reason that market-thinkers would agree that investors must cover for raw material like steel, the other indirect costs should be similarly covered. The difference is that because `clean water for the city’ is not so immediately necessary for production as `quality steel’, the expenditure is fought off as an illegitimate government intrusion by those who have no interest in paying. And so payment is undertaken by the general population and future generations of the faceless mass. They will have to ship in their water, pay for their decline in health, or pay the costs of leaving to other, similarly unprotected, frontiers.

    Another point, one which should be obvious in Balmer’s case, is that the livelihoods of many billionaires are the products of popularly undertaken entrepreneurship; the risk was socialized. (These days, I don’t have to mention bailouts, but I will mention that the recent bailouts are a bi-partisan continuation of old policy.) The entire technology industry, from silicon chips to the internet, has been and continues to be subsidized by the government, from NASA to `defense’ spending.

    Everything I have mentioned is so obvious as to be tedious. None of it is original to me. But reading my WSJ feed…

  5. #5 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    January 3, 2011

    As to Harris’s argument, I would quibble with one thing: the idea that the wealthy might be entitled to their share of America’s wealth because “they earned it.”
    Their companies earned it…

    I’m not sure I’d go even that far on a blanket basis. Did Enron “earn” the money it was taking in (before it went under) by adding to the general prosperity, or did it simply figure out how to game the system by manipulating the energy market? How about the Wall Street banks who sold both sides of deals? Is that “earning”? How about the lucrative no-bid military contracts “earned” by Halliburton and their subsidiaries while they enjoyed unprecedented influence within the previous administration? Is that “earning”?

    As I say, I am will to grant “earning” status on a case by base basis, but not as a broad blanket statement.

  6. #6 Lawrence Wood
    January 28, 2011

    Very interesting insight into this evolutionary subject.

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