Betterment as “yes-but” through “yes-and”

“I in fact believe that we possess valid criteria for judging when criticism is good and when it is bad…But I also think it is a mistake to assume, and self-defeating to pretend, that these criteria are simple and obvious….To get progressively clearer to the multiple and interdependent discriminations involved requires the evolving give-and-take of dialogue…[W]hen a proponent says, ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ his interlocutor will reply, ‘Yes, but. . .'”   M.H. Abrams, literary critic

“The motto on his shield is a bold ‘YES BUT—.’” Dwight Macdonald, the critic writing of himself

“Remember, I started out learning and appreciating literature at the time of the Black Arts Movement, when people were saying, ‘Look at what’s around you. Look at the people around you. Look at all that music around you.’ I was learning poetry at that time. So I was learning poetry when people were saying, ‘We don’t need no poems about trees. We need poems about the people.’ That was one of the things that you would hear from the people who wanted a certain kind of community poetry. But see, you’ve got a guy like me who’s listening to that, and I’ve been twelve miles out on the Bermuda reef and working in Alaska. My job was with nature. So when I picked up the Black Arts Movement, I picked it up with, ‘Yeah, yeah. But—.'”  Ed Roberson, poet

This entry’s upshot: Betterment is the realization that very difficult issues of politics and policy where inexperience still matters are made sense of and advanced by getting to point of having to say, “Yes, but” or more “Yes, and.” “Yes, it is complex; but it’s worth pushing this matter further…” The part that is “yes” is affirmation that taking a decision does matter; the part that is “but” or “and” is the insistence that the follow-on also matters. Another way to put it is that the “not-yets” we end up calling the future are opened up and preserved by insistent “and-yets” of the present. Our duty of care is to say and show how “even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it needs to be pushed further if we are to see what can be done…”


A great deal of US politics and policy is caught up in the yes’s as against the no’s of pros versus cons, advantages versus disadvantages, and costs versus benefits. But there has never been consensus on making this either/or. Lionel Trilling famously said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. For Robert Frost, neither exists in its own right—“yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” That is difficult to answer, Bolaño describes:

“And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.”

Bolaño’s translator (Natasha Wimmer) asks, did this Simonel mean “Absolutely”? For my part, I’d like to think simonel insists “yes” and “no” matter when followed by “but” or “and,” the first as a caution and the second as encouragement.

Betterment happens, when, after someone says to us, “Isn’t this so? Isn’t this the decision we must take?,” we respond, “Well, yes but…” or “Yes indeed, and…” The former may be a call for second thoughts before proceeding; the latter may be the guarantee of another time and place to reconsider a decision once taken or its consequences. Either way, the insistence on yes-but or yes-and is itself a decision that what is missing now requires further inquiry. It is the insistence that we can still make decisions when pushing the truth further and having made that decision, we can and will do so again.

Here’s an important example.

In his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, Flaubert defined (at the time, scandalously) “budget” as “never balanced.” That holds also for the public debt. If I am reading historians Istvan Hont and Michael Sonenscher correctly, 18th century thinkers wrestled again and again with the constitutional means for reining in the bad-‘no’ side of public debt (e.g., rulers use monies to go to war), while promoting the good-‘yes’ side of public debt (e.g., rulers build the infrastructure Adam Smith and even others saw as the appanage for betterment). To put it another way: If the future we cannot now predict is the mess we are currently in—or, if you prefer, we are constantly trying to foresee what the present is all about—why ever would we think we can manage the public debt better than the yes-buts and yes-ands of today?

But what are those yes-buts and yes-ands?

We arrive at an answer when we differentiate the time horizons and responses with respect to the “public debt crisis.” Which current public debt crisis—one, more, or all—are we talking about for managing better? Is it that the current problem with the public debt is: that we can’t predict the kind of interventions and states of affair are necessary to adapt better to future debt conditions; that increases in the public debt (including interest payments) are unsustainable; that our latest shop-window budget avoidance vaporizes like all fads; and/or not that the debt crisis will worsen, but determining when it will be catastrophic? Each of four represents a different kind of “present.”

Betterment comes to the fore not by having to choose which of the four presents (or in combination) “better” represent reality; rather it is by insisting that each must be interrogated by asking the further question: “What are the implications of not-knowing the present being identified or surmised in each?” Doing so is to insist “yes-but.” As in: What if “not knowing the present” is the only practical way to keep ourselves open to the possibility of different long-terms with respect to, in this case, bettering ourselves when it comes to the public debt?

If the discounted net present value of obligated public and private pensions threatens to swamp projected resources to fund them, then the first question is not, “Omigod, what do we do?,” but instead: “What do we really know about these estimates?” For that matter, what sense do categories like NPV and discount rates make in a contingent world?

More specifically, what if not-knowing—not-knowing really—is the way we keep options open or in reserve, if only because we rightly insist that affairs constellating around the public debt remain difficult after three hundred years grappling with its yes’s and no’s of inexperience? I am insisting that most everything said about the pros versus cons of the public debt today are best treated as stopping short of what could be pushed further. Taking decisions about the public debt while admitting its complexity is the way we open ourselves to redefining just what the public debt is to us, now and ahead. More, if you did further differentiate the public debt as a set of categories for action, you would identify cases much closer to the yes-and-no’s—our simonel—we have also been talking about for centuries, one of which I call betterment.

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