Sunday, February 26, 2012

Literature as Immortality

“Writing,” as a friend of mine wrote recently,1 “is a beggarly business.”

The impression of most people among the unthinking public is that many writers can support themselves with their writing and often do so very handsomely. This may be true of some nonfiction writers who have acquired expertise in an area of general public interest (e.g., political affairs, diet and weight loss, home improvement, business success), are skilled at marketing, and supplement their book and article sales with speaking engagements, videos and podcasts, T-shirts and ball caps, and other collateral. But for the fiction writer, regardless of genre, the reality is less rosy. Except for a handful who are exceptionally talented and exceptionally lucky, are still good at marketing, and write novels that happen to tease the zeitgeist, most writers see only modest sales and never quit their day jobs.

So why do we do it? If it’s not the money, is it for recognition? But, in this business, there’s not much fame where there is no hope of fortune. Then what drives us to devote our free time, which most normal people spend with family, friends, and hobbies, to sitting hunched over a keyboard, reeling out lines of prose, agonizing over it, polishing it, and walking the gauntlet of rejection to see it published?

For some of us, it’s just an itch. Our brains—my brain, at least—are structured so that we live through tinkering with language. We have a thought and immediately put it into a formula of words, then pause, repeat it to ourselves, change a word here and there for better fit, repeat the whole thing again, fix another phrase … continuing until it works with neat economy and subtle elegance. We walk through life hammering out epigrams, soliloquies, and declamations.2 We visit a new city or historic site and immediately think how to encapsulate and phrase it as background for a scene. We read an unusual name and savor it for a new character. And this is just when we have no book in hand.

When we do have a book on the front burner, it nags us like a spoiled child. The story wants to get out. The characters live as shadows to our everyday thoughts. Bits of action, bits of dialogue float up at the most inopportune times and demand to be written down. And after a day’s writing task, words come back to haunt us: the awkward word in a passage that needs to be fixed, the appropriate word that springs up to fix it. Writing a novel is like living a second, fantasy life in parallel with the mundane lives that everyone else leads. The itch.

But aside from this mental condition, which borders on a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, why do we do it? We could tell ourselves that the book isn’t going to be marketable, that there’s no future in the effort it will require, and that with sufficient self-control we can go out and have a life. We can put soothing lotion on the itch instead of scratching it. … So why don’t we?

Because, deep down, each one of us wants to be immortal. Even if the novel we’re working on isn’t likely to be marketable in this economy at this time, we have faith in its power to someday find readers. Deep down, we believe we’re really pretty good at this writing thing. It’s not exactly vanity, not the “me, me, see me” that may afflict a popular singer or leading actor. It’s not our persons who will be celebrated long after we’re dead and buried, but the story that we’ve loved, worked to shape as something separate from us, breathed life into, and brought to the world.3

When the world that faces you every day seems cold and indifferent, when the rejection letters pile up, when friends and family start shaking their heads, we retreat into another fantasy: that we are a Cervantes or Shakespeare in hiding. Posterity will seek us out and celebrate us. Okay, it’s a dream. But it has a kernel of truth.

What, in this world, really lasts? A month after we’re dead, our medals and trophies may end up on EBay. A bronze plaque in our honor will be stolen for scrap value. Our names cut an inch deep on a granite slab will weather away in a few hundred years. Even the Pyramids are crumbling grain by grain.

Good works seldom outlast the memory of friends. Children grow up, go their own ways, and stop telling stories about mothers and fathers, let alone their grandparents. Memories of great-grandparents disappear entirely.

Even works of art eventually disappear. Statues are defaced and buried. Paint fades while canvas rots. Book paper disintegrates with time or burns at the whim of politics and religion.

Stories abide and live on—not in the printer’s impression or the pen strokes, but in the essence, the tale, the character in action, the fascination we all have with people who live only in our imaginations. The stories told by Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare—we remember them even though the original manuscripts have long since turned to dust. And now there is hope that digital bits, simply because they are so portable and copyable, will kick around on hard drives and bubble memories and storage systems yet undreamed for at least as long and perhaps longer.

The work of philosophers goes in and out of fashion, becoming a subject for academics to study more than for the average reader to enjoy. Who really expects to read Aristotle to understand natural history or Plato to understand ethics? We read them as background, as part of our cultural history. We read them to understand the evolution of our society. We read them because to be ignorant of them would be shameful. But we don’t—or most of us don’t—read them with the excitement of discovery, with delight at the intellectual secrets they reveal.

The work of earlier historians and scientists is not read as revelation so much as source material. Their observations and conclusions become picked over, compared, annotated, and adjusted by later scholars. History is a moving target, and every age creates its own image of the past according to the dictates of culture. Again, the average person might read Suetonius or Gibbon, Galileo or Pepys because they had first-hand knowledge and because to be ignorant of them would be shameful. But we moderns always check their reporting against other, perhaps conflicting, perhaps better situated sources.

Stories simply live on, and a young person can pick up and read Homer’s tales with as much enthusiasm as any reader of the last 2,700 years. The text may go through multiple translations, but unlike the surgical work of historical scholars, the work of translators is an act of love, trying to give the story new life in a faithful rendition in a new language. Think of Robert Fagles’s excellent translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey: Fagles stands back, and Homer speaks clearly in the best modern English.

Stories are the only things that last. And that’s why we writers spend so much time on them. Not because of the money, but because of the magic. The story may sit on a bookshelf in the living room unread for twenty, thirty, perhaps a hundred years. Then, one day, a child will wander in and pull the book down, open it, and fall in love. The story will be just as alive and vital as the day it was written.4

This ability to speak across time, to become a real time traveler, is part of the fascination. We know that our own books may be languishing as paperbacks slowly turning brown on the bottom shelf at the used bookstore, or dawdling along as the 2,304,558th most popular seller on But they’re not dead yet. The magic might still happen.

That thought is probably silly. It’s probably just a sad fantasy. But it’s a stronger grasp on immortality than most people will get.

1. Kate Campbell, who blogs at Kate Campbell’s Word Garden, in an email during our editing of her debut novel Adrift in the Sound. Our email collection will soon be published as a Kindle Single titled “Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange About Writing, Editing, and Publishing.”

2. Yes, you’re reading one right now.

3. And really, it’s the same for the best of the singers and actors. They want to fade into the background and let the song or the performance stand as a piece of art. But it’s easier for them to be dazzled by the bright lights.

4. That’s how I discovered much of the fiction of the 1930s and ’40s, by trying the books in my father’s den—almost always without first asking for a recommendation.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Freedom or Security?

I am becoming vastly uneasy about the current state of American politics. As noted elsewhere,1 the two parties have drawn far apart, staking positions at what used to be the fringes of liberal or progressive views on one side, and of conservative or libertarian views on the other. The middle ground has become a killing zone of withering contempt. The mainstream media and comedians heap scorn on Republicans. Every morning I open my Facebook page to find a cast of friends engaging in an Orwell-style “Two Minutes Hate” against Republicans. On the other side, talk radio and conservative websites openly despise and despair of Democrats.

Courtesy is long gone. We’re now at the stage of open verbal war and take no prisoners. The opposition is insane, witless, evil, disgusting. No word is too vile to use. … My fear is that, if these passions continue to run unchecked, eventually we’ll be at open physical war, a true civil war, and after that will come peremptory jailings, deportations, and ultimately executions of the party on the outside.2 That’s the stuff of inquisitions and fanatic republics.

As a thinker and a sometime rhetorician, I look for what I call “cleavage” issues. These are the planes of argument along which, like a diamond cutter cleaving a stone, the questions fall neatly on one side of a divide or the other. If nothing else, such issues help us understand what we are taking about. Eventually, they may help people examine the issues that divide them and work toward common understanding.

I believe one such divide that’s driving our current politics is the choice between freedom and security.

In the progressive view, the higher good is security. They see people as essentially weak and helpless against the forces of adversity fueled by unfettered capitalism. People need to come together and share collectively in order to reach a common goal. People need to be protected by a benevolent government that will shield them against the effects of natural disasters, market forces, depredations of the rich and powerful, and other rude shocks of the human existence. Progressives can see benefit in economies of scale and so favor a larger, more inclusive governmental organization—usually at the federal level—that can better fulfill this function. Uncertainty is also a form of adversity, and so the government or some nongovernmental organization must provide insurance against loss of life, health, and livelihood, against changing conditions that might upset the established order, and even against progress itself—if progress might lead to an unknowable and unplanned future.

In the conservative view, the higher good is freedom. They see people as essentially robust and capable, able to fight back against, adapt to, or even profit from adversity. People work best when exercising individual initiative and pursuing individually chosen goals. Conservatives place reliance on small, personal units—family, company, church—to decide how to deal with adversity and danger. But more than protection from adversity, they value the freedom to see and take advantage of opportunity. Uncertainty is the fertile ground upon which inventors, investors, and individuals with varied skills and prepared minds can create something new and meaningful. If the future is unknowable and unplanned, that means people still have the ability to shape it and make something of it.

Of course, these views are not entirely exclusive. Conservatives can see value in some functions of a large and powerful government: enabling national defense and international diplomacy, pursuing massive projects like the interstate highway system, and setting national standards for activities like finance and commerce. Progressives can see the virtues of personal choice and action in areas like self-expression, personal associations, reproductive health issues, controversial beliefs, and unpopular choices . But in general, I believe, if you describe an impending situation of unknown effect, the progressive will look for ways to mitigate it, and the conservative to exploit it.

The progressive looks for freedom from: from want, from danger, from exploitation, from injustice, from envy engendered by inequality, from embarrassment engendered by eccentricity. The conservative looks for freedom to: to make decisions, to create a better life, to build something new, to be tested, to overcome, to surpass.

Given these perceptions of which is the higher good, either side is likely to devalue and discount the opposing choice. The progressive will accept more laws and restrictions on personal freedom and initiative if that will reduce the odds of mischance leading to harm. The conservative will accept the risks of failure and loss through hostile action if that will offer the potential for gain, growth, and advancement. The progressive will accept limitations on speech if it means reducing the possibility of giving offense. The conservative will discount the harm done through offense if it will ensure the ability to speak one’s mind.

Again, these views are not exclusive. In pursuit of their dream of freeing women from the necessities of their own biology, the progressive wants no restrictions on abortion, even if it means harm to a potential life. And out of concern for that hypothetical life, the conservative is willing to put restrictions on the freedom of women. Politics is never simple.

Sometimes adherence to the stated choice, freedom or security, requires the partisan to overlook certain obvious complications. For example, in the area of gun control, the progressive is willing to restrict the freedom of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves and instead require them to rely on government counterforce. This flies in the face of two obvious facts. First, the police themselves insist their job is to keep the peace and not to provide personal protection, because they cannot be everywhere at once and cannot guarantee such service. Second, even if all law-abiding citizens could be effectively disarmed, the criminal class would still have access to millions of guns through the black market. Disarming the citizenry only makes it easier for evildoers to prosper. But allowing free access to weapons for a self-sufficient population just feels wrong to the progressive mind.

For another example, conservatives value the “creative destruction” of free-market capitalism. And yes, ultimately, in the long run, on a societal scale, it makes sense to let inefficient companies with out-of-date approaches and processes and lagging technologies fail and die away so that new, nimbler, more energetic, more aggressive companies embracing new approaches, processes, and technologies can thrive. From the consumer’s point of view, this promises the possibility of the best products in the widest possible choices at the lowest prices. From the entrepreneur’s point of view, this offers the greatest potential for monetary gain. And employees in those dying companies are presumed able to retrain themselves in the new technologies and find paying positions in the new companies. This flies in the face of the fact that most people have ongoing, day-to-day obligations—to feed their family, pay the mortgage, put the kids through school—and the disruption of not just losing a job but losing an entire industry is a huge hurdle to overcome. Rapid economic turnover lowers the standard of living for many while creating opportunities for others. In the long run, however, the newer technologies are rapidly replacing people with machines.3

As I said, the battle lines along the freedom-vs.-security divide are not always clear, predictable, or consistent. And yet the cleavage is there.

These differences are instinctual and perceptual, the bedrock of deep-founded belief. That makes them effectively immune to analysis and compromise. For the progressive, the proposition that the freedom of the individual is more important than the safety and orderly functioning of society seems … just … wrong. For the conservative, the proposition that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”4 feels static, smothering, claustrophobic.

In this debate, which side will win is less important to me than the notion that neither side should win. As our political environment careens toward armed warfare, I believe it’s important for both sides to recognize that a society is held together by dynamic tension among opposite values and beliefs in the same way that the universe is held together by the attraction of dark matter and the repulsion of dark energy. Freedom and security are competing values that do not have to be resolved in favor of one or the other, but should be held as equal goods to be applied on a case-by-case basis according to common sense.

When one wins in triumph over the other, then the game is lost.

1. See most recently You Say You Want a Revolution from February 5, 2012.

2. Some would say we’re already there, with the Guantanamo detention of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners without due process, and the violent reaction of various local police departments to various Occupy movements. But these are, so far, exceptions to the general rule of constitutional order. The turnover will come when simple belief and opinion, rather than past action, are held to be equal to treason, with punishment to follow.

3. See The Coming Robotics Age from January 8, 2012.

4. To quote an axiom from Star Trek that paraphrases the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Taxing the Wealthy

It has become clear to everyone on the Democrat/liberal/progressive side of the aisle that the only way to pay for the Federal government’s obligations to Social Security, Medicare, and other safety net and health care entitlements, as well as for government programs in support of defense, education, and the rest of the cabinet list, and still pay down the Federal debt, is to raise taxes on the wealthy.1 These fortunate individuals must pay their “fair share” of the government’s burden.

The only problem with this, aside from the usual Republican/conservative/libertarian objections,2 is that extremely wealthy individuals usually don’t have much of what’s considered traditional income to tax. As we’ve seen recently with the tax disclosures by billionaire Warren Buffett and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the extremely wealthy in this country don’t make much in “wages, salaries, and tips”—the substance of everyone else’s tax return. The wealthy make most of their money through capital gains, earnings from the investment of money and assets they already have.

While the tax rate on investments held for less than a year is equal to the individual’s ordinary income tax rate, taxes on long-term investments (i.e., held for more than a year) are lower.3 This encourages people to invest their money in things like savings accounts to support bank lending, and company stocks and corporate bonds to provide a source of capital to build the economy.4

As an effort to get the wealthy to pay their “fair share,” the tax on long-term capital gains might be raised to the individual income rate, as if these earnings were the same as short-term gains and wages. Or the long-term rate could be set even higher, as a way of taking more from the wealthy. Of course, this would have a hugely depressive effect on investment and the capital available to build our infrastructure and industry. If earning money through investment is going to be punished, why not put your dollars in Swiss chalets, fancy yachts, sports cars, and artworks?

All of these tax rates apply to money earned or gained during the tax year. If you take last year’s earnings and put them under the mattress this year—or buy land, gold bars, or a yacht with them—that value disappears from the tax rolls. It doesn’t reappear as taxable income until you start investing the mattress money or sell the fixed assets and realize an increase in their value.5 The government has no method for taxing a person’s wealth directly or the assets on which he or she spends it.6 The money and goods that you have—as opposed to what you earn during the year—is yours forever … or at least until the inheritance tax kicks in.

That little quirk of fate is spelled out—at least by omission—in the U.S. Constitution.

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, in describing congressional powers, states up front: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States …”7 An “impost” is a tax or duty, such as upon imported goods. An “excise” is a tax on the manufacture, sale, or consumption of goods.8 One would think that all this allowed the Federal government to tax personal wealth itself, but clearly legislators and jurists of the early 20th century thought otherwise. That is why they went to the trouble of proposing and ratifying with a majority of states the 16th Amendment to provide for a tax on personal income.

Amendment 16 to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1913, states: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” The two clauses about “apportionment” and “census or enumeration” mean that the tax falls directly on individuals and is not adjusted based on the size or population of the state where they live.

So, even with the 16th Amendment, the Federal power to tax is limited to taxing income received during the year, not the total wealth of the individual. Generally, the states follow the lead of the Federal government in terms of taxation. Individual states may tax income, and some tax certain kinds of property such as automobiles, but none so far has a tax on existing net worth, or wealth.

On January 9 in The Wall Street Journal, Ronald McKinnon, a Stanford University professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Institution for Economic Policy, wrote an opinion piece titled “The Conservative Case for a Wealth Tax.” His thesis was that “a modest levy on the overall wealth of the very rich would allow lower incentive-distorting income tax rates for them and everyone else.” His proposal was an annual 3% tax on personal wealth in excess of $3 million. The tax would include all domestic and foreign assets, not just cash on hand and savings accounts; so the wealth tax would require an annual listing and evaluation of a person’s stock portfolios, bond holdings, homes, art collections, and anything else of value he or she might possess.

This would raise several problems. First, it would probably require a separate constitutional amendment, because the 16th Amendment addresses only income, not net worth or assets.

Second, absent any effort to build up new wealth through investment, the tax would erode the value of the assets and the resulting tax revenue over time. For example, a net worth of $1 million, taxed at 3% per year, yields $30,000 in taxes in the first year and a remaining wealth of $970,000. In the second year, the tax take is $29,100 on that $970,000, and the remaining wealth is only $940,900. By the 24th year, half the wealth is gone, and the take is only $14,889. After two centuries, the individual is a pauper with a net worth of $2,332 and a tax burden of $70—but, of course, long before this the inheritance tax will have taken the lion’s share of that initial wealth.

Third, if determining the amount that an individual owes in income taxes and capital gains during the year is an accounting nightmare, consider the process of identifying and valuing all of a person’s assets. While annual income can be checked against mandated Internal Revenue Service filings by employers and institutions using forms such as W-2s and 1099s, what body exists to notify the IRS about ownership of a second home, a luxury sports car, or artwork? Certainly, local property taxes can be dragooned for this purpose in the case of land, and bills of sale can be requisitioned for the year of purchase and original valuation of other assets. But over the long term, the individual will be asked to register and provide a narrative history for every asset he or she possesses: Still owned, and at what estimated depreciation or appreciation in value? Sold, and if so when and at what price? Acquired, and if so when and at what price? The bureaucracy required to establish and track each purchase and sale would make current IRS operations seem … simple.

Fourth, if such a wealth tax is initially aimed at the “truly wealthy”—as in McKinnon’s choice of a $3 million cutoff—over time, inflation will bring a larger and larger percentage of the population into the process. This happened with the Alternative Minimum Tax, which started in 1969 as a tax on about 150 high-income households that had managed to shield their income through deductions and writeoffs. The AMT now falls due on more and more middle class taxpayers every year. Over time, a wealth tax—no matter how well intentioned—would be eroding the assets of any individual or family that had any assets or savings. And, in this case, those assets would include college funds, retirement plans, and other individual hedges against future uncertainty.

Fifth, by its nature, a wealth tax would force the sale of assets to pay the percentage owed in taxes. This would merely be a drain on liquid assets such as bank accounts and stocks. For illiquid assets like homes, cars, and artworks, the tax would either accelerate the drain on ready cash or force a sale. And if the asset was a private business or farm, the tax would cut heavily into operational funds and capital, force a sale of business assets, or liquidate the business altogether.

A wealth tax might sound like a way to make the “truly wealthy” pay their “fair share.” It might even start that way. But over the long term it would become a way to impoverish families and small businesses. Over time, the average citizen would be encouraged to own nothing, save nothing, have no plan for the future. The wealth tax would create a nation of paupers and clients of an even larger welfare state. It would, de facto, impose a limit on the amount and kind of property a person could own, similar to the restrictions in the old Soviet Union.

In short, a wealth tax would change the face of American society—and not for the better.

1. Certainly, cutting spending is off the table. For one thing, these are entitlements, which means that someone somewhere is, by law, owed the benefit and will suffer and complain if the benefit is denied. For another, cutting any other part of the Federal budget—from the Pentagon to any of the cabinet departments and the institutions they support and the grants they award—means putting someone somewhere out of work and adding to the unemployment rolls. Raising revenue by actually lowering taxes and thereby encouraging taxable economic activity is, to the Democrat/liberal/progressive mindset, an obviously blown economic theory that is no longer worth the time and effort to refute.

2. Briefly, that the top 1% of taxpayers already pay more than 36% of the Federal income tax revenues, and the top 10% pay more than 70% of those revenues, while the bottom 50% pay just 2.3% (source: Tax Foundation as of 2009). So the income tax rates are already steeply progressive. Add to this the conservative belief that government spending, left unchecked, will always outpace government revenues (or, in a corollary to Parkinson’s law, the appetite for benefits and programs increases to consume the resources available). And finally, that increasing economic activity will increase the wealth available to a society, which means more jobs, more goods and services available to people, and more tax revenues for government (i.e., the theory of raising revenue by increasing economic activity ain’t dead by a long shot).

3. Through 2012, the long-term capital gains rate on individuals in the 10% and 15% income brackets is 0%, while for higher brackets it’s 15%. In 2013, the rate rises to 10% for individuals in the 15% bracket, and to 20% for all higher brackets.

4. Usually, investment in municipal bonds is free of Federal and State taxes, to encourage investment in local infrastructure.

5. Of course, if you sell your yacht or artwork at a loss, there’s no tax to be paid on the transaction and you may even use that loss to lower taxes owed on other investment income.

6. With the exceptions that local governments usually impose annual taxes on property like houses and land to pay for local infrastructure and services like education; some states tax assets like automobiles to pay for road building and maintenance; and many local governments and states—but not so far the Federal government—impose a sales tax on various categories of spending.

7. See U.S. Constitution Online.

8. The Federal government—so far—has apparently only dabbled in excise taxes, such as the tax on tires. While the Federal government doesn’t have a sales tax, many on the Democrat/liberal/progressive side would like to impose a European-style value added tax (VAT)—kind of a super sales tax on every step in production and distribution—which would be a massive money-raiser. It would essentially tax on production and consumption in parallel with existing taxes on investment and income. This article of the Constitution would appear to support such a move.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

You Say You Want a Revolution

Politics has always been a serious business in the United States, as in most of the world. I believe that’s a good thing. People should air their different beliefs and preferred policies, discuss them, analyze them, and try to find a compromise, a middle path, a solution that will work for—if not everybody—as least for most people. That was the original intention of democracy: messy and less than satisfying, but still more congenial than life under a monarchy or dictatorship. That’s the way it has worked for about 200 years in this country.

Apparently, not anymore. It seems that in the last decade the two political parties have drawn fixed lines and dug deep trenches, not unlike the battlefields of World War I. The center of gravity on each side has moved from somewhere near the middle and amenable to compromise, out to fringe positions and extreme statements that border on obsession and blindness. The Democrats are now firmly and openly hostile to the private sector, personal wealth, and religion; firmly and openly in favor of government control of the economy, redistribution of personal assets, and a behaviorist view of human nature. The Republicans are now firmly and openly hostile to government regulation, taxation, and social engineering; firmly and openly in favor of unfettered market forces, capitalism’s penchant for “creative destruction” come what may, and a hierarchical view of human nature.

Positions are so solid that any move toward compromise is viewed as treacherous and shameful, a complete loss of faith. Our side is the earthly beacon of light and sanity. The other side is the original author of all stupidity and wrongheadedness. Anyone who lifts his head above the trench line will get it shot off, and the middle ground is a no-man’s land with death in the crossfire.1

In the last year or so I’ve heard the words “civil war” used by bloggers and people I tend to respect. They are usually referring to these battle lines of social and economic difference, and they imply we’re in the middle of such a war already.2 But to my mind, we’re still at the talking stage: airing differences and seeking solutions. It’s not a real war, yet.

If the people of right and left were homogenously intermingled, so that neighbor was talking to and arguing with neighbor, I wouldn’t be so worried. People who have to rake leaves and shovel snow together usually have a hard time imagining each other as “the enemy” at the working end of a gun—especially if they’ve held a few block parties over the years. But there is that map of the red and blue states. Colloquially, people talk about the two coasts as being more liberal or progressive, while the heartland, or “flyover country,” is more conservative or libertarian. However, if you look at the map, the East Coast is true blue only in the Northeast, and the Midwest is deep red only below Illinois.

If our differences become irreconcilable, if the policies of the party in power become intolerable to the party on the outs, and especially if the economy is crippled or collapses because of the federal debt burden or the demands imposed by our foreign lenders—then this is the strategic map for secession and civil war.

I wrote fancifully about a second civil war in America in my novel First Citizen. Of course, before the country fell apart in that story, it had suffered some serious insults: a decapitating nuclear strike on Washington, DC, by forces unknown, and a series of constitutional amendments that repudiated the federal debt and limited the federal power to raise revenue through taxes. In our current situation—with a robust and expanding federal government—any move toward secession would face almost insurmountable hurdles. Here are some examples.

Social Programs Almost every American citizen, except those covered under alternative government programs, has paid into Social Security and Medicare. Financial advisors routinely incorporate expected payouts under these programs into people’s retirement planning. Any state that secedes from the Union must expect to supplement this support or face opposition from its older, more established citizens. Medical facilities and personnel are also heavily dependent on federal payments under Medicare. Seceding states will be hard pressed to manage health care on their own.

Infrastructure Support Roads and highways, waterways, water supply systems, airports, public schools and universities, and urban development all draw heavily on funds provided by the federal government. Any state that secedes will have to support itself in terms of infrastructure. Yes, the state government will be able to absorb the taxes its citizens formerly paid into the federal treasury. But many states—particularly those among the less populous red states—usually get back more from the federal government than their citizens pay in taxes. Making up the difference will be hard.

Military Systems Any state that secedes can appropriate the military bases inside its borders, but that will yield only the land and buildings. Certainly, the U.S. military will fly its aircraft out, remove its heavy weapons like tanks, artillery, and personnel carriers, and sail its ships away. If the state should happen to appropriate any of these assets—so what? These days, weapons are not the planes or ships but the systems of appropriations and contracts that allow them to be maintained, fueled, armed, and prepared for battle. Individual states won’t have access to these systems. Any assets they do claim will become inert within about eighteen months. And while nuclear weapons are hard to remove on short notice, they too are inert without the launch codes. All of this is going to be bad news if the federal government opens hostilities to recover the seceding states.

Commercial and Financial Systems The economy of the United States is remarkably cohesive, knit together by interlocking systems of commercial exchange, credit, and finance. Your bank accounts, credit cards, and mortgage loan are possibly managed by banks in one or more other states. The bread, meat, produce, and all the processed foods in your local grocery store probably came from several states away, carried in by train and truck. The natural gas you burn in your furnace and stove and the gasoline in your car probably come from wells and refineries in other states. Your cell phone and internet connections are managed through switching and routing systems that may be managed by firms in other states. In the midst of secession, access to these necessities may not cease but certainly will be slowed by a new set of rules and regulations. If secession leads to civil war, access will almost certainly stop. Look for a much lower standard of living.

In 1860, the South could secede from the Union because most states were self-sufficient.3 Foods, fuels, finance, and other necessities were usually produced and consumed locally. The federal government was small and relatively weak. A cannon or a musket was just a metal tube that could fire a variety of ammunition, and anyone could make black powder. A horse was a horse on either side of the border, ready for saddling and riding. Being a part of the Union was more a matter of politics and pride than necessity. And when pride overrode reason, well, a gentleman could opt to leave the club.

The world of the 21st century is much more connected—and more fragile. Close the borders to interstate trucking, and your grocery store empties out within 48 hours. Cancel the credit cards and close the accounts of out-of-state banking customers, and people become paupers in 24 hours. Close the switches on interstate electric transmission and the valves on interstate gas pipelines, and cities go dark and cold by sundown.

If you don’t get your way in politics, you may consider secession. But you’d better hope there’s not another Lincoln around, refusing to let you go in peace. It’s always daring and dramatic to talk about civil war. But the reality will be the collapse of a society it has taken us a century of technological advances to knit together.

Faced with that, politics and pride hardly matter at all.

1. As someone who lives mostly in the middle ground—fiscally conservative to a point, socially progressive to a point, falling about “center right” on the political scale—I find all this distressing. The two parties are drawing to the right and left of the spectrum so quickly that I feel like an astronomer of the far future, when dark energy has expanded the edges of the universe into a thin, cool emptiness. Where have all the galaxies gone? Where have all the stars gone?

2. President Obama’s promise to “fundamentally transform” the country seems to have kicked off some of this angst and anger on both sides. The politics of gradualism, winning a position step by step, is easier for most people to accept than sudden and irreversible transformations—which can cause major and irreversible dislocations.

3. Although, as Rhett Butler pointed out, the South was remarkably deficient in cannon foundries.