Political Chemistry

I’ve been “offline” for a couple of days — avoiding the computer and the news media — but plenty has been happening.

If you’ve been waiting for the Muslim Brotherhood to extend its hand in Egypt, wait no longer. The Ikwhan’s éminence grise and foremost theoretician Yusuf Qaradawi — the one who explained to the ummah that Hitler was simply one of the many agents sent periodically by Allah to punish the Jews, and who urges Muslims to reconquer Jerusalem and finish the job — addressed an enormous rally in Cairo yesterday.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the similarities between various ideas in the physical sciences and the processes that drive global social change (there are many), and in that context a simple metaphor for what’s happening in Egypt comes to mind. It’s hardly an important insight, but I never metaphor I didn’t like, so here it is anyway.

Are you familiar with “supercooling”? It happens when a liquid drops below the conditions of temperature and pressure at which it would normally freeze, but doesn’t. This can happen when there are no particles in suspension around which crystals can begin to form. Highly purified water can be held in a supercooled state at temperatures far below 0° C. When a “seed”, like a grain of sand, is dropped in, the water solidifies around it at once.

Egypt has been in a similar condition for the past week or two, caused by the sudden release of pressure, and subsequent expansion of political freedom, brought about by the toppling of the Mubarak regime. It’s been just like a supercooled liquid, looking for a seed upon which to crystallize. When one appears, the phase transition can happen in a twinkling.

Meanwhile, the plates are slipping, and the fault-lines rupturing, here at home as well, as we see in Wisconsin. There is rage this week in Madison — where, as elsewhere, disruptive change is necessary and inevitable. John Derbyshire made an important point about it all in last night’s podcast (transcript here):

I won’t play down the degree to which these unionized public-sector workers have been parasitic on the national economy. I mentioned Scott Walker raising state employees’ health-care contributions to 12 percent and their pension contributions to 5.6 percent. Who pays for the other 88 percent on health care? Who pays for the other 94.4 percent on pensions? Why, the taxpayers of Wisconsin, of course. That’s the kind of distortion, the kind of injustice, that public-sector unionization has brought us. It’s wrong and it needs fixing.

We’ll be seeing a lot more of these kinds of battles, and the public sector will have to lose them, if the dollar is to retain any value at all. So there’s a certain glee, a certain anticipatory triumphalism among conservatives here. The public-sector unions are, after all, the backbone of the Democratic Party.

Let’s please remember, though, while we’re exulting, that these are our fellow citizens here. The root cause of the problem is a systemic one that we have to fix, and I hope we do fix it. A patriot should always be troubled by large-scale civil dissension, though. America has enemies enough in the world, without us exhausting ourselves battling each other.

Let’s fix the problem; let’s get the public sector into some kind of reasonable alignment with the private sector on benefits. When it comes to vituperation against our fellow citizens, though, let’s keep a sense of proportion. Someone has to teach the kids and collect the garbage. These sweetheart deals arose from faults in our political arrangements. I want the faults fixed, but I don’t blame anyone for taking the deals.

We’re going to win these fights, listeners, and the public-sector unions, and the Democratic Party they nourish, are going to be humbled and brought low. Let’s just keep in mind the American tradition of magnanimity in victory. These are our neighbors, our friends, sometimes our family members; and we’re all Americans.

Well, enough for now. Time to switch this thing off again for another day or two.

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6 Comments

  1. the one eyed man says

    I never metaphor I didn’t like either, and the one I would use for the Arab world is the shifting of tectonic plates. Nothing happens for a very long time, and then all of a sudden everything is changed to a new alignment.

    As for the Muslim Brotherhood: if democracy takes hold in Egypt, then they will have the same right to compete for power as every other faction. By all accounts, they were taken by surprise as much as everybody else, as the protests in Egypt seem driven by grievances which have little or nothing to do with religion. It is amazing that the events taking place in the Arab world (and Iran) started with a shopkeeper in Tunisia being slapped by a petty bureaucrat.

    Posted February 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    I don’t know enough about economics to comment intelligently and at length on the subject, but I have to wonder whether there isn’t a sort of “reverse redistributionism” now blossoming in the conservative mind. The inequities of payments and benefits need to be evened out somehow:

    “I mentioned Scott Walker raising state employees’ health-care contributions to 12 percent and their pension contributions to 5.6 percent. Who pays for the other 88 percent on health care? Who pays for the other 94.4 percent on pensions? Why, the taxpayers of Wisconsin, of course. That’s the kind of distortion, the kind of injustice, that public-sector unionization has brought us. It’s wrong and it needs fixing.”

    Obviously, on one level, there are disanalogies. When liberals get redistributive, they’re usually targeting rich corporate types, individuals who have amassed fortunes and who don’t seem to want to “spread the wealth around” — a dynamic that appears unfair to the redistributionist mindset. The conservative response to this is that, in a free market, you can expect inequities to appear as people demonstrate varying degrees of competitiveness: how far one rises is in large part a function of one’s willingness to work for that brass ring.

    The current case, with conservatives crying foul over fiscal inequities, might be disanalogous because, from the conservative standpoint, anyway, this is about the collusion of large entities like the federal government and unions with thousands of members to siphon off public money. As Derb says, it’s a systemic problem (which is, by the way, the sort of language I tend to associate more with liberals than with conservatives: the language of systems, not individuals).

    But however we slice it, there’s still the redistributive mindset at work among conservatives, disanalogies aside. Or so it seems to me, anyway. Does this mean conservatives are for equitable redistribution of money in some cases? To put it more succinctly: conservatives normally define economic “justice” in more Darwinian terms (competition, inherent inequities, different outcomes, etc.), leaving redistributive justice to the liberals. Has this changed?

    Posted February 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Kevin,

    As I think you point out, one can look at this not as a new species of “reverse” redistributionism, but rather as a new effort to push back against the usual kind, in which the government redistributes resources taken from the private sector (which is where “public” money comes from).

    But I’d say the issue here isn’t redistribution per se; it’s just that the states simply can’t afford any longer to support these unions at the level of comfort to which they’ve become accustomed.

    As Derb says, it’s a systemic problem (which is, by the way, the sort of language I tend to associate more with liberals than with conservatives: the language of systems, not individuals).

    Well, conservatives just want to avert fiscal disaster here, and the only way to fix the problem is by changing the system.

    Posted February 19, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says

    “As for the Muslim Brotherhood: if democracy takes hold in Egypt, then they will have the same right to compete for power as every other faction.”

    True Peter, but only so far as it goes.

    Factions, coalitions, political parties whatever, take organization before being able to compete successfully. The “Facebook Youth” I’ve heard all the media types giving credit to for Mubarak’s ousting (though I’d qualify that simple explanation by saying ‘they might of started it, but the Army ended it’).

    The Brotherhood has been organizing since at least the 1920s. If the Army allows the democratic process to go forward at the pace the Generals seem to indicate – well, I’m of the opinion things will get very interesting in fairly short order.

    Jeff’s got a post up currently that’s worth a look:

    http://gypsyscholarship.blogspot.com/

    Posted February 20, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says

    Oops, left in incomplete thought.

    The Facebook Youth only seem capable of organizing a party in Tahrir Square.

    And that “party” only in the college fraternity party sense.

    Posted February 20, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  6. JK says

    Took me awhile to remember where I’d read it – this little snippet should warm the heart:

    “Just last week, in thanking the Iranian government for its support in the opposition to the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood expressed a desire to see in Egypt “a good government, like the Iranian government, and a good president like Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is very brave.”

    http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2011/02/13/lawrence-solomon-cairos-protesters-dont-speak-for-egypt/

    Posted February 20, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink