Socks, parking and parables of hell


by Emilio DeGrazia • When I learned that humans consume a cubic mile of crude oil each year my mental sky did not turn entirely black. I took some consolation from one of William Blake’s Parables of Hell. The parable is simple enough: “Enough! Or too much.” Over the years Blake has helped shape how I see the world, as have my parents, who believed that waste and excess were sins racing down a wide boulevard leading straight to hell. My heroes––Blake was one––are not like parents. Heroes are never wrong, ever, about anything. But how could I justify Blake’s blessing of excess without incurring the wrath of my parents, who recycled handfuls of table scraps long before it was deemed a patriotic act?

It would have been a gas to have the radical Blake drinking a few too many beers with his radical gentleman contemporary Thomas Jefferson. If too much will do when enough isn’t enough, how would Blake respond to Jefferson’s “That government is best which governs least”? Blake no doubt would shoot back another of his one-liners: “One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.”

Our contemporary oxymorons, radical conservatives, would cheer Blake on: They like the idea of letting lions, oxen, and weasels be themselves, tax-free. The American Revolution, they would insist, was fought to free individuals to be what they imagine they have made of themselves. Life––be it the pursuit of corn pone or porn––is a private matter and government should keep its nose out. In particular, government has no business trying to design the economic future. When we’re left to our own devices to design our individual private enterprises, we’ll all be equally free to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of property. And if some of us become casualties in the attempt, we will freely fall through the cracks, taking consolation from seeing our carnage scattered on a level playing field.

Henry David Thoreau, his words unprivatized in the essays he wrote at Walden Pond, trumped Jefferson’s minimalism. “I say that government is best which governs not at all, and that is the kind of government we will have when we’re ready for it.” Call him an anarchist subject to the autocracy of self-control, the kind of self-government we like to think makes for fewer committee meetings and fewer executive orders. If citizens have the habit of not killing each other, they don’t need a commandment requiring them not to kill. If the Israelites had been better behaved, Moses would not have had to lug those stone tablets down the mountainside. Good culture makes government controls superfluous.

Do we have commandments and commandants because we have too much government? I look in my dresser drawer and find twenty–two pairs of socks. I can only wear one pair at a time, and some are in mint condition, biding their time for possible release at the next garage sale. The same goes for shirts and pants, and shoes, and videos, and books, and tools, and cans of nails, and paper clips, and cell phones, TVs, weight-control machines, bicycles, and cars. I’m guilty as sin: Too much is enough. Enough becomes too much when it’s time to have another garage sale, after which too much is still too much.

It doesn’t occur to us to sell the garage.

And what we don’t see as we idle in a swirl of exhaust fumes in another traffic jam are the 20,000,000 barrels of oil going up in smoke every single day, just here in the U.S. How many fill-ups equal a cubic mile?

Try seeing it.

Then try weighing that cubic mile in accord with surging prosperity in the developing world that has allowed China and India, for example, to increase their consumption of crude oil to 11% of the world’s supply, up from 6% ten years ago. What, me worry? We’re still far ahead in the race to crude: In the U.S. we use 25 barrels per person per year, compared to 2 barrels per person per year in China.

Try seeing two cubic miles of oil. Huge black cubes looming above white clouds over Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Does the planet begin to wobble drunkenly during five p.m. traffic jams? Does the earth’s tidy curveball spin turn into a knuckleball?

If an economic system’s success story depends on Growth––call it “demand creation”––certain excesses seem inevitable: Population, production, pollution, and probably plague. If I––with my 22 pairs of socks, my shirts and pants and shoes and videos and books and tools and cans of nails and paper clips, etc.––am the benchmark, the human norm to which the world aspires, then demand creation aims to provide everyone in China (1,400,000,000 souls) and India (1,000,000,000 souls) with 22 pairs of socks. And eventually a family car or two. Try seeing it.

Try seeing the parking problems. If every car in the U.S. now commands eight parking spaces for itself, where will Asians park their cars?

Growth naturally grows government too. We can’t have lions, oxen, and weasels parking just anywhere. So we’ll need more meter maids, more cops, more taxes, more judges, more laws. As demand creation grows Growth, and as Growth breeds more population, production, pollution and plague, it’s certain we’ll have to make bigger parking lots for more government cars.

My hero Blake, always on alert for ways to marry Heaven and Hell, aims another consoling Parable of Hell at me. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” The headaches in the headlines that trouble us should encourage us to clear our minds. On a knuckleball planet wobbling obesely off course and shrinking from us as we distance ourselves from its natural processes, there is too much for some of us to want and too many millions in real need. The Palace of Wisdom does not have a swimming pool next to a three-car garage, and it has enough space for a few pairs of socks. In that Palace essentials are properly valued, and they command the fair prices that are basis of a balanced and sustainable economy. And because there would be less room in this Palace for useless socks, there would be fewer spaces and cars in government parking lots.

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