You go, Lem!

It’s long been a favorite aphorism of mine that a police state is not only run by the police; it’s run for the police. Of course this is an exaggeration, but I think there’s a truth in it.

I happened to use this line the other day on one of my mailing lists — not a Lefty one; this one concerns itself with the classical languages. Somewhat to my surprise, I got a rather tart response that would have been less unexpected from the Lefties:

Not really. It’s run by the elite, using the police as a tool. All states are police states to a greater or lesser extent.

Well, this got me thinking.

At the most fundamental level, the former proposition is certainly true. I’m not so sure about the second. But even the first misses some important detail, I think.

One very striking feature of life in the States (dunno about elsewhere) in recent years has been an appalling hypertrophy of the enforcement and incarceration sectors: there are more and more cops every year, they’re more and more heavily armed, they’re more and more arrogant, overbearing, self-indulgent and unaccountable, they’re more and more intrusive and activist, and more and more they have become an important political force in their own right.

And all this is entirely disproportionate to any underlying need for increased repression on behalf of the US elites. Indeed, the polloi have been remarkably passive and acquiescent in the face of a really brutal campaign of immiseration on the part of the oligoi.

Nor do I think the latter are quivering in their boots at the mere hypothesis of a sansculotte insurrection. If anything, they seem to be giddy with triumph and convinced that the sky’s the limit – or rather, the abyss is the limit. Full speed ahead!

Social phenomena can’t just be ‘read off’ in detail from the underlying laws of large-scale motion. Of course the elites ultimately run the show – until the aforementioned sansculottes show up pulling their tumbrils, and it can’t be too soon for me. But even when the elites’ rule is tranquil and undisputed, there’s a certain internal dialectic in the workings of dominance itself. The instrumentalities of dominance take on a Golem-like life of their own. The tail doesn’t quite end up wagging the dog, but it
can become a lot more tail than the dog really needs.

Another contributor to the thread corrected me on the facts:

Numbers may vary locally, I’m sure, but the stats for the whole USA on don’t bear this out.

It looks like the numbers as a percentage of the population are pretty constant, and even falling a little for the years 2006-2011.

I expect they do vary locally, and even here in NYC what we saw was a long period (late 70s to 2000 or 2001) where the force really ramped up dramatically — from 20,000-odd, IIRC, to 40,000 or so at the peak. It’s slumped a bit since then, and I think it’s around 35,000 now.

That’s just NYPD of course; no idea what the stats look like for the various suburban and ancillary police forces — the Port Authority has its own police, as do the MTA and the TBTA and so on.

It probably varies a lot by neighborhood too. In my fairly well-off neck of the woods, it’s routine to see a dozen or more cops ‘responding’ to some fairly trivial event; one gets the very strong impression that they really don’t have enough to do, except for gratuitously rousting people (‘stop and frisk’), and the preposterous theater of searching knapsacks in the subway.

The reasons for the slump since 2001 or so are variously explained. There do seem to be fewer vocations, for whatever reason. Perhaps Nineleven(tm) had a chilling effect on the ardor of the police recruitment demographic.

Mayor Bloomberg is of course very much a technocrat and it’s also possible that he’s decided the tail is now big enough for this particular dog, though he slathers the force with the usual grovelling flattery that it now feels entitled to expect, as its due, from politicians and the official media.

This is in public, of course, where the liturgies of police worship are obligatory, and the word ‘cop’ can’t be uttered without its usual Homeric epithet ‘hero’. But Bloomie may
have his own secret counsel on the subject.

Of course neither tails nor police departments can grow without limit.

Department of esprit d’escalier: I neglected to ask the classicists whether  anybody knew the time-series stats on the size of the Praetorian Guard, another overgrown  body of thugs in uniform; another tail that got pretty close to wagging the dog, now and then.



For once, the Times gets it right…

… at least, if you read no farther than the headline:

Social Security: It’s Worse Than You Think

Congress and President Obama have pushed through a relatively modest stopgap measure to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” but over the coming years, the United States will confront another huge cliff: Social Security….

For the first time in more than a quarter-century, Social Security ran a deficit in 2010: It spent $49 billion dollars more in benefits than it received in revenues, and drew from its trust funds to cover the shortfall. Those funds — a $2.7 trillion buffer built in anticipation of retiring baby boomers — will be exhausted by 2033, the government currently projects.

Now of course there is no such thing as a ‘Social Security trust fund.’ There’s no Scrooge McDuck money bin where all our derisory widow’s mites have accumulated over  the years. It’s an accountant’s jeu d’esprit: cumulating a certain category of payroll tax revenues and a certain category of government expenditures and subtracting the latter from the former.  So any time people start talking about the solvency of Social Security, it’s time to count the spoons and go long on cat-food futures.

The Times catfooders do not disappoint. They go on and float  some possible approaches to dealing with this entirely imaginary crisis:

tough choices have to be made. One option is to continue raising the retirement age, perhaps to as high as 69 or 70. While the full retirement age is gradually increasing to 67 (for people born in 1960 or later) from 65, this increase is not enough to counterbalance the gains in longevity.

A second option is to increase payroll taxes, for example by taxing wages over $113,700, the current earnings limit. A third is to limit the annual cost-of-living adjustments, possibly by changing how those adjustments are calculated. A fourth is to reduce benefits — for example, by lowering the initial benefits for workers whose lifetime wages are above the national average (currently $43,000 a year). Other choices, in numerous combinations, are possible, too.

One factor that might be considered is new research suggesting that retirement itself, although popular, may reduce life expectancy by breaking lifelong routines and disrupting deep social connections. One might question how much government policy should actively encourage retirement, as opposed to merely making it an option.

When I hear the phrase ‘tough choices,’ I go for my Browning. The choices are going to be made, and they’re going to be tough, but they’re not going to be tough on the people making the choices.

Hey, it’s just a movie

An old pal swept me off the other day to see Tarantino’s blaxploitation spaghetti Western, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I thought the script was extremely witty, and all the performances were sheer delight. I’m so old-school that I think a movie ought to last exactly ninety minutes, not a minute more and not a minute less, but I wasn’t even bothered by the length. It was just a fun-filled boyish romp from start to finish, and hardly — I won’t say never, but hardly — a dull moment.

Spoiler alert: I am going to mention some things that happen in the story. It’s not exactly a suspenseful narrative — everything is telegraphed pretty thoroughly — but people don’t always like to know beforehand, so be warned.

My favorite bit was the proto-Klan guys bitching about their hoods, a scene which must have lasted ten minutes, and should have lasted twenty.  It was really just about all the commentary that Birth Of A Nation needs. That’s the part shown above, though the image doesn’t at all do justice to it. The night riders come galloping in, and of course you think Oh shit, how sinister, and then… but I can’t begin to convey it; it’s all in the writing, and actors who know how to put the lines over; just go see it.

Then there was the wonderful moment when Django guns down the gaping, insipid but not particularly offensive sister of the Leonardo di Caprio character, which is pure sight gag, like Toto falling out of the frame in Palm Beach Story. Hey, you too, beeyotch. In a glaring and deliberately obvious stunt effect, the victim is abruptly yanked backward through a doorway, apparently by the mother of all bungee cords. Anybody who doesn’t laugh at this simply has no susceptibility to slapstick. Do not consort with such folk.

My comrades on the Lefty mailing lists mostly took a much dimmer view, e.g.  “unrelenting tastelessness — exclamatory kitsch — on a subject as loaded, gruesome, and dishonorable as American slavery.” (‘Dishonorable’ in this context is the mother of all anticlimaxes, innit? Speaking of mothers.)

I have to wonder just what these guys expect of a movie: something Spielbergian in its high moral seriousness, but also impeccably Marxist? I don’t think I would go see that movie. I’d approve of the Marxist part, but the Spielbergeoiserie would kill it, for me.

Much of the commentary ended up wondering what ‘point’ Tarantino was trying to make, or what the movie was ‘really about’. (One ingenious contributor suggested it was an allegory about racism in… Hollywood!)

Why do we do this: go to the movies — of all places! — looking for meaning, or instruction, or edification, or political analysis? That’s a pretty sad commentary on us, isn’t it? Don’t we have better sources for all those things?