Light Switch or Thermostat?

Over the past month or so Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker demonstrated how people like to view issues as a choice between opposites.   The new Republican governor there thinks that unions are bad, not indeterminate, and certainly never good. He wants to end collective bargaining and  eradicate unions.  A couple of weeks ago, Paul Krugman had a  column in the New York Times (2011 Feb 21).  Per Krugman, eradicate unions and return to oppression and enslavement —  eradication would empower a new oligarchy of the ultra-rich.

Think of a light switch. Flick it up, lights are ON, flick it down, lights are OFF.   Nothing in between; a dichotomy of choices.  People feel comfortable with this.

Light Switch OFF

Light switch set to OFF

Does Mr. Walker and US Republicans believe that all Unions are simply destructive, do nothing but block the advancement of Free Enterprise?  Maybe. This way, folks who work become a conceptual light switch.  Walker’s campaign is to stand up for pure Good against the purely Evil.  U.S. Democrats (and others) see it the same way, but with reversed identifications.

I suspect that Walker would never admit to wishing a return to the golden days of yesteryear, the late 1800’s when a worker’s choice might be plunging ever deeper debt at the company store, or was not surviving.  A century ago, the Muckrakers saw this choice in those bipolar terms.  They added other dichotomous choices:  would your children’s food help them grow or stunt them?  Would medicine heal you or kill you?  Would workplace conditions kill you if you blinked at the wrong time?  Then, as now, such light switch choices are easy to visualize; people respond strongly when something can imaged this way.

When you phrase something in the manner done here,  it is polarized. It reduces things complicated to things understandable.  Comfortable, but truly accurate? Maybe not, but is there a better way to describe issues?

Thermostat image

Thermostats for continuous choices

Consider the thermostat. Would anyone set the house temperature to it fullest maximum on the dial?  Or all the way down to 0 on the dial?  Do you really want to live in a room where butter melts on the table … or shatters?  Living temperature is not an OFF/ON issue.  Temperature should be set to an intermediate value, then continuously adjusted so that small variations will not run away to extreme values.  Could at least some issues could be better phrased as a thermostat setting rather than as a toggle switch?  Unions might be good case in point.

Light switch ON: Labor unions are the workers’ only shield from the voracious owner class, and must be allowed what they need and demand.  Else, we spiral back into the 19th century.

Light switch OFF: Labor unions are run by near-criminals, exist to acquire power and must be stopped before they choke off enterprise and we all lose our motivation to excel.

This two position switch has polarized US politics for nearly a hundred years.

My Analysis: Both switches illuminate truth at some level.  Labor unions serve a deeply important function by keeping members from becoming enslaved to the ultra-rich.   They also nearly all became institutionalized;  mirroring the corporations in organization and member control.  They start up through struggle and achieve good; they age through internal struggles for personal objectives.

Actually, unions should operate as a social thermostat.  If fully OFF, society will freeze over with the wintry blasts of greed.  If fully ON, society could split or stagnate from conflict between institutionalized corporate management and institutional unions.  An institutional union makes as much sense as an “institutional revolution.”

A thermostat is the metaphor for intermediate settings, a middle path that could hold the condition at a point of least discomfort.  Thermostats work best when they provide small adjustments to counter small changes in condition, not just send a static signal for control.   In this light, unions really should function as thermostats, they should exist and they should allow for adjustments in the status of the workers to meet current conditions.

Some issues may truly be light switch dichotomies: blinding brilliance vs numbing darkness: Should companies evacuate Kalamazoo MI, frac the underlying shale to extract natural gas? Though most issues are not binary choices, people often label conflicts for their own reasons.

Thermostat OFF image

Thermostats can be set to OFF too

•  News media workers try to polarize all issues to (A) simplify them and (B) generate good sound bites for increased readership.  Think about the questions on talk shows that polarize discussions …  they generate hot anger and discourse malfunctions (a stimulatingly over-the-top statements).

•  Ideologues polarize issues so that their side is Right and the other is Wrong, maybe even perpetrated by evildoers.  Unrestrained enterprise would be our salvation if the nasties did not block successful people; or central decision planning would make enterprise distribution fair at last, if venal people did not undercut it.  Or

•  Theologues are ideologues whose cause is the Supreme Being of the Universe.  I find these guys the most scary of all: Theologues say to themselves “I am on the side of Ultimate Good, Perfect Beauty, Radiant Light.  Those opposed are against all those things and must be on the side ultimate Evil, deepest Ugliness, the most consuming Darkness in the universe.”  A theologue will see no true limit to what is reasonable to support Good. No violence is too extreme when applied against the devils serving the Over-Lord of Ultimate Darkness.  … think Christendom’s experience with its own Holy Inquisition.

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  Ideologue Barry Goldwater said this nearly 50 years ago – and meant it.

(Were Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck ideologues or theologues when they published pictures of disliked people with targeting grids shown over their faces?)

Light switch vs thermostat issues, this is the subject for this posting.  Such attitudes can have a real effect on social cohesion.    Later, we will explore how these ways of describing issues relate to the chaotic fluctuations the permeate our existence.

Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
March 18, 2011
Listed under    Economics 
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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