Sunday, June 27, 2010

Out of the Doldrums

One of my favorite books from my childhood was Norton Juster's "The Phantom Tollbooth".   I've read it many times, and it had a significant impact on my imagination & sense of humor -- and the way I think.  In other words, who I am. 

Early on in the story, Milo isn't paying attention to where he is going, and ends up in a dreadfully grey, dull place called The Doldrums  -- which the more I think about it, the more I think it would reflect life in the ultimate Nanny State.   It is populated by the Lethargarians, who have a very rigorous schedule for doing nothing that is strictly enforced. 

When he first meets the Lethargarians, the following conversation takes place:
"I'm very pleased to meet you", said Milo, not sure whether or not he was pleased at all. "I think I'm lost. Can you help me, please?"

"Don't say 'think'", said one sitting on his shoe, for the one sitting on his shoulder had fallen asleep. "It's against the law." And he yawned and fell off to sleep, too.

"No one's allowed to think in the Doldrums", continued a third, beginning to doze off. And as each one spoke, he fell off to sleep and another picked up the conversation with hardly any interruption.

"Don't you have a rule book? It's local ordinance 175389-J."

Milo quickly pulled the rule book from his pocket, opened to the page, and read, "Ordinance 175389-J: It shall be unlawful, illegal, and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate, or speculate while in the Doldrums. Anyone breaking this law shall be severely punished!"
Eventually Milo meets the "dreaded" Watch Dog, Tock -- and Tock helps him out.
"I was on my way to Dictionopolis when I got stuck here", explained Milo. "Can you help me?"

"Help you! You must help yourself", the dog replied, carefully winding himself with his left hind leg. "I suppose you know why you got stuck."

"I guess I just wasn't thinking", said Milo.

"PRECISELY!", shouted the dog as his alarm went off again. "Now you know what you must do."

"I'm afraid I don't", admitted Milo, feeling quite stupid.

"Well," continued the watchdog impatiently, "since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect that, in order to get out, you must start thinking", and with that he hopped in the car.

"Do you mind if I get in? I love automobile rides."
And of course Milo starts thinking and the car starts moving and before you know it, he and Tock are out of the Doldrums.

And what brought this to mind was this bit in an excellent editorial by Janet Daley in the Telegraph. 
But we must be clear that we have not got to where we are by accident. It is the basic premise of Big State thinking that has produced the monstrous edifice that we know as the benefits trap: the idea that “the poor” are a fixed and immutable section of society who must be “protected”. Sadly, what “protecting the poor” generally amounts to in practice is “protecting poverty” – which is to say, preserving it. Welfare dependency creates huge disincentives to entering employment because few jobs at entry level can offer a competitive package of payments and support equivalent to the benefits system.

At this point the Big State camp will shriek: “Why should people be forced into demeaning, low-paid jobs?” Answer: because most of them will not stay on such low pay for long. All the statistical evidence from the US welfare-reform programmes shows that people who are “forced” into minimum wage jobs initially, move up the earnings ladder quite quickly into better-paid employment, with their places at the bottom being filled by newer recruits to the workforce. Getting a job at almost any rate of pay is, indeed, the best and most lasting route out of poverty.
How'd we get here? Now how do we get out?

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