Sunday, November 18, 2012


Will, Inertia, and Wile E. Coyote

As a kid, I loved the Roadrunner cartoons.  They were kid-friendly versions of the Sisyphus myth, with lovable characters, preposterous gadgetry, and an endearing disregard for the laws of physics.  (To this day, I can’t see the word “Acme” without picturing Wile E. Coyote crashing into the side of a canyon.)  I always laughed when the coyote found himself suspended in mid-air, looked down, looked at the camera, and then fell; the suggestion was that gravity only kicked in once you noticed it.

Last week I thought again of poor Wile E. suspended in mid-air.  

In a discussion with a serious-minded advocate for full-time jobs for everybody, I realized that my interlocutor’s sense of “political will” and its evil twin, “institutional inertia,” was similar to the coyote’s sense of gravity.  She seemed to believe that obstacles only exist if you believe they do.

“Political will” and “institutional inertia” are usually invoked when an advocate for a cause is asked why, if her position is so obviously correct, it hasn’t come to fruition yet.  They’re used to suggest that objections are really just excuses, and that if we would just wake up, or suck it up, or whatever, then we would put aside the silly excuses and just catch the damn roadrunner.  Raise consciousness, take a deep breath, and we can remake the world in the image of our obviously correct idea.

Which would be lovely, were it true.

But one person’s “political will” is another’s recognition that gravity is real.  

What would it take to give every adjunct who wants it a full-time permanent job?  Among other things, it would take an enormous, permanent, and ever-growing budget increase.  In other words, other people would have to fork over a lot more money.  Whether those other people are taxpayers, students, or other sectors of government, it would have to come from somewhere.  And I suspect that whomever would be tapped for that increase would have something to say about it.

As it happens, students are already paying dramatically more than they were just a few years ago; I really don’t see a defensible argument to the effect that the rate of tuition/fee increases has been too slow.  So that leaves taxpayers and other sectors of government.  (Yes, there’s also philanthropy, but we don’t usually get to use that for operating costs, such as salaries.)  I’m entirely on board with an argument that says, for example, that a more progressive tax code and a turn away from voluntary wars would free up valuable resources for higher education, among other things, and that the change would be a good thing.  But the obstacles to that go far beyond “inertia.”

I think of “political will” and “institutional inertia” as rhetorical placeholders.  They function as a way of saying “If I knew how things actually worked, I’d address them here.”  They’re signs that the speaker has run out of analytical gas.  (In politics, “partisan bickering” works much the same way.)  They lump disparate interests, agendas, and histories into a single dismissive aside, as if they could be wished away if only we  mustered enough panache.  They stop the discussion right where it should start.

Finding actual, workable solutions is a whole lot harder than just wishing competing interests away.  But it’s worth trying.  Wile E. may have had a comic delay before falling, but fall he did.  (I always laughed at the little puff of smoke when he hit the riverbed...)  As those of us in middle age know, gravity has a way of catching up with you, whether you acknowledge it or not.

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