Saving the Country

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This note grows out of a comment made during the election night coverage of the midterms.  Analysts were breaking down the vote in various categories, and one of them remarked that if you just look at white voters, this seems like a completely different country:  Republican voters outnumbered Democrats 3 to 2.  They were all-in for the Trump program.

It’s worth paying attention to what that means.  Diversity is not a matter of tolerance; it’s a matter of national success.

Immigrants and their families are assets by any statistical measure.  They need to work harder to succeed, and they do it.   As the various waves of immigration entered this country, they have adapted and prospered, and the country as a whole has benefited.  It’s no accident that the most prominent players in our new economy—Google and Apple—were founded by an immigrant and the son of an immigrant.

But there is another aspect to this as well.   Outsiders (and not just immigrants) are not so easily tempted by images of an idealized past paradise.  Those siren-song images are not from their past, so they can keep focused on reality and the future.

Despite the many similarities between the Trump regime and the early stages of the “illiberal democracies” of Poland and the Czech Republic, our diversity provides perhaps a degree of protection.  White voters have not called all the shots in the midterm election.  And it’s possible to believe that we’ve taken a first step back from the brink.

The problems of the Trump regime affect everyone.  First and foremost, we are squandering our strongest economic advantages out of ignorance and arrogance.  And we are at each other’s throats by conscious choice.  Dictatorships are not just bad for outside groups, they are historically bad for everyone.

So we should give credit where it’s due.  Three cheers for diversity in all of its shapes and colors—the saviors of the country!

 

Don’t Pretend This Election is Normal

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On the economy:  We’ve embarked on an unprecedented binge of deficit-financed stimulus in good times.  In just the past fiscal year the deficit ballooned by an extra $300 B, far more than foreseen.   That’s a great stimulus for the election, but it will be a long, cold winter.

Erratic tariff policy is already causing layoffs and market swings, with the major impact delayed until after the election.  George Bush’s 2002 steel tariffs cost 200,000 jobs;  this time effects will go much wider.  And there is no pot of gold from these trade wars.

Finally we’re setting ourselves up for the very considerable economic consequences of ignoring climate change.

On personal welfare:  Last year’s attack on ACA showed no commitment to do anything serious about healthcare—other than remove the progressive tax that funds it.

The huge business tax cuts have produced no wage increases beyond inflation (and no jump in business investment either).  Further those tax cuts have left no room for education, infrastructure, or social services, leading to recent plans to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Supreme Court justices were chosen to fight unions and satisfy the moral pretensions of the evangelical right.  Roe v Wade is only the beginning.

On freedom: We’ve had ongoing and increasingly brutal attacks on truth and the media.  Trump’s attempts to control the FBI have not succeeded, but by all accounts a win in the mid-terms means replacing Sessions with a more obliging alternative.  We’re reached the stage where we actually have to worry about the Justice Department!

On democracy:  It needs to be emphasized that the Kavanaugh appointment completes Trump’s control of government.  With a committed majority on the Court and capitulation by Republicans in both Houses of Congress, there is effectively no check on what he does.  We haven’t had time yet to understand how bad this is going to be.  Even Constitutional limits only work if the Court will enforce them.  Without a Democratic majority in the House, there is nothing protecting the nation from whatever comes into his head—trade wars, real wars, silencing of opposition, personal vendettas, whatever.

Our founding fathers chose democracy for a good reason.  They knew all about one-man rule.  Democracy is inherently fragile, but that’s what made us what we are.  We need to preserve it.  VOTE.

Kavanaugh Nightmares

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This subject is too painful to talk about but too painful to leave alone.  A few points:

– The fundamental danger of the Kavanaugh appointment was of course clear from the start—it was clear from the moment that Kennedy announced his retirement.  One way or another we were going to get a Supreme Court majority for authoritarian control of the country.   Since the Supreme Court enforces the Constitution, this is the fox in the hen house.

– The Kavanaugh hearing made matters worse in two ways.  The idea that law-giving on abortion and contraception might be determined by a perpetrator of sexual assault was bad enough, but additionally we were given the spectacle of Kavanaugh’s unhinged rant about liberal conspiracies with the implied threat (now soon to be realized) of revenge.  The final act, with Collins presenting the Party’s carefully-crafted whitewash of the whole affair, was an apotheosis of hypocrisy.

– The press has thus far, as usual, attempted to normalize the situation.  The word “conservative” is a handy tool in this effort.  As if these people represented an ordinary, conservative political wing rather than a takeover of the country to subvert democracy for the foreseeable future!  Even the focus on Roe v Wade has this effect, by making it sound like the problem is limited to a few specific issues.

Instead this takeover of the court will pervade all aspects of society.  Here are a few more examples of what may be in store:

  1. Essentially all regulatory agencies risk shutdown. The new “conservative” mantra is that delegation to regulatory agencies is unconstitutional, i.e. any regulation has to be a law passed by Congress.  Since that is as a practical matter unworkable, none of it can happen.
  2. The 14th Amendment can be weakened out of existence (the Constitution only exists as interpreted by the Court), limiting the ability to address racism or LGBT issues.  This is a stated “conservative” objective.
  3. Selected portions of Medicare, Social Security, and other aid programs can be eliminated as unconstitutional. This works directly to the Koch organization’s goal of drastically cutting government to reduce their taxes.
  4. Basic problems of the society can become unaddressable. Education, student loans, healthcare, opioid crisis, etc. can be made untouchable by any future Congressional effort.
  5. Fundamental free speech rules can become unenforceable. Trump could be able to shut down the NY Times or Washington Post on whatever pretext he chooses.
  6. Rule by Presidential fiat can become the norm, as only the Court can challenge it. With the example of the current trade wars, arbitrary control of the US economy will erode its strengths for all of us.

That’s what’s looming for the not-so-distant future.  It doesn’t change our immediate goals, as the mid-term elections are now more important than ever.  But it will be a tough battle, and the unprincipled savagery of today’s Republican Party has been vividly on display.

Mid-Term Diplomacy

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Given all the publicity around our trade wars and the North Korean negotiations, it’s worth taking a step back to look at what’s going on.  Let’s check each one.

Why have we started the trade wars?

It’s a good question, since

– The steel and aluminum tariffs have nothing to do with the real issue.

– We gave up half our leverage with China by going it alone, and there have been no significant achievements beyond what China was prepared to do anyway.

Given those facts, there is only one conclusion here—it’s reality TV for the mid-term elections.  “I’ve fought for you like no one else has ever done.”  That way every single news story is a win.  Who cares about the details anyway?

That also fits with Wibur Ross’ explanation to the Europeans of the peculiar idea that the best path to negotiation is to declare war:

“China are paying their tariffs …. China hasn’t used that as an excuse not to negotiate… It’s only the EU that is insisting we can’t negotiate if there are tariffs.”

Otherwise stated:  why can’t you people be like the Chinese?  They let us play boss when we think it looks good.  You people just have to learn.

What’s going on with North Korea?

Trump needs a deal, and he’ll get one on Kim’s terms.   It will be just like all the other agreements with North Korea—phased (and easily reversed) build-down of nuclear weapons in exchange for benefits.  Except this time it will probably include phased withdrawal of US forces from the South—a bigger concession than any other American president has every made.

However, that will be enough for the Trump propaganda machine to get going, and the rest of the press will be so relieved that Trump’s worst impulses were contained that they’ll probably agree.  And so, for public consumption, Trump can be peacemaker for the mid-terms!

 

Back in the real world, though, there are two different questions worth asking:

What do these trade games mean for our future?

If there’s any policy, it’s that we’ve decided it’s no fun winning unless everyone else loses.  So we’re not interested in alliances or trade agreements.  Prosperity is only achieved at others’ expense, so conflict is good—a philosophy that is historically disastrous and particularly inapt today.

Where is the outcry about “national security”?

Our President’s “national security” trade wars are already a constitutional crisis—arbitrary control of trade is NOT an executive power.  And it’s just going to get worse until someone finally does scream.  Trump has been increasingly willing to make up a “national security” excuse for almost anything he wants to do.  Unless the Supreme Court (or public outcry) stops him, there is no limit to where that leads.

 

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

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There haven’t been any book reviews on this site before, but Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is something of a special case.  This is a political book with a message that doesn’t quite fit into the current political environment, and it includes a large body of relevant history.  Not surprisingly, Pinker finds Trump antithetical to the Enlightenment precepts he is defending.  But he also finds plenty of guilt to go around.

To start with, the book seems to have two competing objectives:

  1. Validating the fact of human progress and documenting how it has been achieved. This is really a call to action based on humanistic goals.
  2. Providing reasons for optimism about the future. This is different—good things that are going to happen for reasons such as demographics, outside the scope of specific human actors.

On the face of it, a reader expects the first subject to be primary, if only because (at this point in time) you expect any political book to end up with recommendations for what to do.  But that’s not quite where Pinker is going.  He’s trying to view history not just as a demonstration of what works, but also as a way to understand where things are going longer term.  Since the two objectives are different, it helps to treat them one-by-one.

On the first subject, Pinker does a remarkable job of demonstrating the successes that humanity has achieved—In the longer term, in the last century, and in the past few decades. This involves health, security, standard of living, and many other quantitative measures of human welfare.   Much of this is unfamiliar because, as he says, this kind of thing just doesn’t make news.  The book is worth reading for this part alone.  Pinker does a good job of demonstrating progress and what is responsible for that progress:  science, rationality, and a broad-based desire to create a better world for everyone.  It is hard to argue with the historical fact that prosperity is not a zero-sum game.

In passing Pinker tries to dispose of past arguments against enlightenment humanism.  As examples:  Humans are inherently irrational (except when they want to make a point).  Humanism is a white racist production (its advocates were on the anti-imperialist side).   Science ignores human values (just plain not true).

Predicting the future is harder, and overall I’d say that Pinker is not well-served by his desire to make things look positive.  He tries to say that nuclear war is improbable, but we know that just one outlier is bad enough.  He treats the climate change movement as a kind of hysteria, because science will just take care of it in time (based on mostly anecdotal evidence).  He views the populist phenomenon as a brief episode of backsliding until more liberal generations take over from the ones now on the verge of dying out.

So in the end it seems a shame that the future predictions tend to dominate discussions of the book, when it’s the first part—the defense of progress—that is its greatest contribution.

And then there is the question of the call to action.  What Pinker espouses is humanism—the broad-based, rational process that has delivered progress.  The problem is that humanism doesn’t have a political party.

Pinker points out that much of the political process just doesn’t work:  Issue-based movements systematically deny progress for fear of losing momentum (even though that means they frequently get caught in the bind of asking for more money to continue going nowhere).  Discussion of issues is based on faulty statistics and dishonest patterns of argument.  Democracy as a whole is not as rational or responsive as we would like to think (the chapter on that subject is well worth reading).  He gives plenty of examples of bad behavior on both the left and the right.  Both sides contributed to the grim view of reality that was instrumental in producing Trump.

So where do we go from here?  Individuals can learn to be more rational in their behavior and in their evaluation of what they see and read.  They can work with the flawed organizations that are fighting bad actors such as Trump.  They can involve themselves with specific issues and help to push them along.  All told—incremental change but no miracle solution.

That’s actually the optimism of the book.   There’s no silver bullet, but the process has worked thus far.  And hopefully we will keep it going.

Political Correctness, False News, and the Attack on Education

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This is a tough time for colleges and universities.  Many of them—particularly the public ones—are being squeezed for money, and they’ve all got to deal with conflicting standards for sexual harassment, trigger warnings, and political polarization of the student body.

And then there’s “political correctness”.  It’s a difficult issue, with arguments on multiple sides, and with something quite sinister lurking in the background.

On one hand there is the classic liberal argument for universal openness.  Constraints on the intellectual environment are bad, because truth can be unpopular.   Furthermore, once you allow constraints you never know who is going to do the deciding.

It’s hard to argue with that position in an ideal world, but the real world makes the situation less clear.

First there is the question of safety or feelings of safety for the student body.   You can’t allow some people to attack others they don’t like, and the only question is how far that prohibition goes.  In the real world, the university must guarantee that every student is safe and valued.  That has to apply to all groups, religious beliefs, and sexual attitudes (liberal, Christian, or anything else).  That’s not a simple criterion to enforce, but universities cannot be faulted for setting such rules.

A second problem is harder.  Today we’re dealing with an environment where not all ideas have an equal chance, as more and more intellectual discourse is bought.  The prime example is the Koch organization, that has plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into institutes that promote their ideas.  Everyday examples are the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Mercatus Center at George Mason.  People working for these institutes (e.g. Charles Murray) can do legitimate research, but they are paid for reaching correct conclusions, and their ideas are heavily promoted to serve their masters.  This isn’t exactly false news, but any implication of unbiased research is certainly false.

In such cases it is understandable that some students feel that their ideas are being squashed by the power of money—a feeling that is particularly acute in a time of Citizens United and Trump.  But it’s also true that the student intellectual environments are prey to their own fads, with self-righteous acts directed at others. (I personally remember unbridled enthusiasm for Chinese communism and Mao’s little red book.  I also remember reading Simon Leys’ Chinese Shadows, with the comment that Western fascination with Mao was proof of how little anyone really cared about China!)

So there is some justice in decrying political correctness, but that doesn’t mean that student concerns about speakers are wrong.   Any opinions can be expressed (subject to valuing all students), but it also seems that sponsors of a speaker should be required to enforce standards for on-campus speech and also to make clear the nature of the institutions represented.  And it should be part of everyone’s education to understand how intellectual discourse is bought.  With the profusion of institutes and representatives, it’s not simple to keep track of all the Koch tentacles!  Even when the subject is government, people aren’t reminded frequently enough that Pence, Pruitt, and Pompeo are all Koch creations.

However, we have not yet reached the crux of the issue.  Thus far we have treated political correctness as a real issue where there can be legitimate areas of disagreement.   That’s true for some of the discussion, but certainly not all.  You have to go back to the core Koch motivations:  shrink government, shrink controls, and above all shrink taxes.  Colleges are expensive and turn out liberals.  The Koch’s attack on political correctness is actually just a pretext for a full-bore attack on college education overall.  The whole system has to go.

A recent best-seller on Amazon could not be more explicit—“The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money”.  College education teaches nothing useful, it’s just a game to certify the capabilities of students to potential employers.  It teaches people things they don’t want to learn and will just forget anyway.  In particular nobody needs to know history, because no one is going to get a job as a historian.  Scrap the whole thing, save a fortune, and give people some useful vocational education to get a job!

The author is an academic from a reputable institution, nominally talking about what he as a teacher really thinks needs to be done.   Almost all reviews on Amazon take that at face value.  You have to know that he comes from the Mercatus Institute at George Mason, where Charles Koch sits on the board!

The argument is of course self-serving.  There’s no question about the value of education—both financial and personal—to those who complete it, and also no question about what kind of education people with money will chose for their own children.   The “just a game” story ignores the value of intellectual activity—the real goal of education—and focuses on memorized facts.  In the end the proposal comes down to a two-tiered educational model, where the world is wide open to children whose parents can afford the real thing, but not to the rest.   The Kochs are willing to pay for the basics needed to produce employees and nothing more.  Just like the good old days.

Nonetheless the argument has a scary amount of currency.  Mainstream Republicans are hostile to education in general and college education in particular (but richer ones send their kids to college anyway).  Identity politics and vilification of liberals have convinced some people against their interests to keep their kids from being corrupted by education.   Some state governments (Wisconsin, North Carolina) have deliberately attacked their state universities.  Trump’s State of the Union speech pointedly talked about “vocational education” only.  (A more recent NY Times college education overview is perhaps scariest of all in the amount of Republican rhetoric it swallows whole in its effort to be even-handed.)

We can’t claim all colleges have always paid enough attention to getting their students jobs, but the value of education has been undeniable and increasing.  Further, broad-based college education has always been one of the major strengths of this country, and the rest of the world has learned its value as well.  College at its best prepares students for a world where they will have to adapt continually to changes and opportunities, whatever those might be.  A two-tiered system would be a nightmarish step backward both for students and for the country.

Education is one of the most important battlegrounds where our collective future will be won or lost.

Guns

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Despite all that has been written about guns and their consequences, there are still important topics that haven’t received much press.  This note is about two interrelated subjects:

  1. Why the NRA and the gun lobby are as powerful as they are.
  2. Why the pro-gun campaigns are as damaging as the guns themselves.

Both are important in thinking about what needs to happen with public policy.

 

  1. Why the NRA and the gun lobby are as powerful as they are.

The point here is that the usual stories explain influence but nothing like the absolute veto power wielded by the NRA.   Most articles describe NRA contributions to candidates and gun manufacturer contributions to the NRA.  The stories are compelling, but the money just isn’t there for absolute power.

A recent article clarifies the situation.  As with much of today’s politics, the real story is in the dark.   The vast majority of the money spent by the NRA actually doesn’t go directly to candidates but to political action committees.   And the source of that money is also dark and from far deeper pockets.  Specifically the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, and Political Victory Fund are supported by conservative Super PACs and the Koch brothers’ organization.

Nothing says that guns are necessarily close to the hearts of the Koch brothers, but the rhetoric around guns is.   The central argument of the Koch agenda is that governments can do nothing, so we need to shrink government, shrink controls, and above all shrink taxes.  We’ve talked about this before:

Government is corrupt and inept.   Sometimes, as with the EPA, it is actively malicious.  It makes laws that impinge on our freedoms.  It wastes money with social welfare programs for ungrateful non-white cheats.  Education is useless indoctrination.  Even the police cannot be trusted to do their job—we need more good people with guns.

In that context the Kochs have every reason to support the gun lobby, and the pro-gun movement has to viewed as just one more aspect of the Koch organization that has already delivered unimaginable tax cuts for the ultra-rich.

That leads to the next topic.

  1. Why the pro-gun campaigns are as damaging as the guns themselves.

The first point here is obvious but needs to be emphasized.   The whole notion of “good people with guns” is an attack on the rule of law. The Kochs may not have to care about it—they certainly have their own law enforcement—but for the rest of us this is terrible.   No one should be cheering for laws that say it is okay for people to go execute each other with only the vaguest notion of self-defense.

That gets us to the main point:  the pro-gun movement is not just supporting guns—it is supporting vigilante action.  This is important, because it undermines the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument.  We’re actually glorifying citizen executions.

And if there is anything that stands out in virtually all cases of mass shootings it’s that.

 

So now the question is what we can do about it.  Anything in this piece is of course pure speculation, but here goes.

Fighting the whole Koch agenda is impractical, so we have to separate this part out.   It seems that a first step is to go after the “good people with guns” notion explicitly and with support from law-enforcement and anyone else willing to stand up for rule of law.  Guns are for defense, not vigilantes.  Basic gun control (background checks and no assault weapons) is intrinsically part of the package.  Ideally that could be an acceptable compromise and could also make gun issue less productive for the Kochs.

It’s worth noting that nothing in the second amendment supports vigilante action, and no one can possibly believe that the eminently respectable founding fathers wanted to encourage it!