"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Talking to Martians

The great philosopher/historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, used the term "incommensurable" to describe collisions between world-views in which, at the most fundamental level, communication is impossible and conflict is inevitable, because the deepest goals of each world-view simply cannot be reconciled with each other.   To put it in simplest terms, it is like earthlings talking to Martians.

We are in the throes of two of these collisions of incommensurable world-views today, one foreign and one domestic.   The foreign one we know:  it is the collision between an essentially secular West governed by science and the rule of law in democracies (at least theoretically); and a theocratic Islamist world-view in which the only truth flows from the Koran.   The West, in short, applies methods (science, the law, elections) to discover truth and create new truths; while the Islamic world simply receives truth that is always already a given (the primacy of the Koran, sharia, Allah, Mohammed).   We are the earthlings, they are the Martians.

The domestic one that interests me is the collision between an essentially entrepreneurial, risk-taking culture of capitalism and a bureaucratic, risk-averse culture of government workers.   Consider this passage from an article about the $40 billion shortfall in the Illinois state teachers' pension fund:
At 28, social studies teacher Patrick Sheridan is only in his fourth year of teaching, but he's already on edge about retirement, wondering if he'll ever get the pension checks he was promised.

"It's very scary and very frustrating being a younger teacher, and not having any certainty," said Sheridan, who teaches and coaches at Cook County's Elmwood Park High School.
Scary?   A twenty-eight year old teacher in a nice, close-in suburb of Chicago (median family income approx. $52,000, median price for house $299,000) is "scared" and "frustrated" about not having any "certainty"?   What kind of world-view does this guy have?   Does he imagine himself always being a teacher until he retires?   Does he imagine never having to change careers?  Does he imagine ever starting a company?   Meanwhile, where exactly does he think the $40 billion needed to fund his pension and the pensions of other Illinois teachers is going to come from?   There are about 13 million people in Illinois.   Each person in Illinois is $3,000 in debt to fund teachers' pensions right now.   Do you think if he stood up in front of his classroom of thirty kids and said, "oh, by the way, you all owe about $90,000 so that I can retire at age 55, and it's only going to go up" what do you think they would say? 

Government employee union members somehow think it is their birthright to never have uncertainty about their employment (tenure cures this) or their retirement (pensions solve this, or at least they did), even when they've only worked four years.  (Noteworthy:  young Patrick Sheridan has already had in four years one whole year off for summer vacations!  That's fifty-two weeks!   I haven't taken even two weeks of vacation in a single year since I started at my law firm.)   The rest of us schlubs learn to cope with uncertainty and, in the case of entrepreneurs, to embrace it.  They are fundamentally different world-views, and they are going to be increasingly in collision as the bills for the impossible promised pensions for public employees come due.  

The public employee unions have been living on Mars for a long time.   They need to come back down to earth where the rest of us live.

No comments:

Post a Comment