BILLIONAIRE PHILANTHROPY: A GOOD THING?

https://www.amazon.com/DECONSTRUCTING-ENIGMA-AMERICAN-PLUTOCRACY-NEOLIBERAL/dp/1976746515

Above is the link to purchase Deconstructing the Enigma of American Plutocracy on Amazon. Below is Chapter Ten: Billionaire Philanthropy and Rebutting the Neoliberal Apologia. Enjoy!

 

Charity is a cold thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.

– Clement Attlee

You cannot just wait for private philanthropy to fix the problem, you know I think that private philanthropy is perfectly fine when it comes in addition to taxation, but when it comes instead of taxation, it is difficult to organize society. [i]

– Thomas Piketty

Credit: Forbes.com

At this point a skeptic might think that I have developed an argument that money is the root of all evil and would like to pursue it its logical completion. Well, essentially I am, with some caveats and some nuances explored here. Money may not be the root of all evil, but it certainly accounts for a lot. In fact, in a comprehensive study[i] by Paul K. Riff of the University of California at Berkeley found that the wealthy are more unethical that the poor, have more narcissistic personally tendencies, and have greater psychological sense of entitlement. Whether these characteristics helped them achieve their wealth, or wealth changed them as they acquired it is an open question, but the causal factors don’t matter much. The wealthy tend to be – to put it bluntly – assholes. (Billionaire philanthropy would seem to support Adam Smith’s tentative postulation that individual selfishness serves the greater good, but for reasons given below, I do not think that is the case.)

[i] Piff, Paul K., “Wealth and the Inflated Self,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, August 10,2013, Vol. 40:1, pp. 34-42.

Be that as it may, obviously the world economy operates on money, and the history of commerce makes for a fascinating study. Historians and economists have written some very good books on the subject, but alas it is beyond this book. Let me give some specific form to the skeptic’s objection to criticism of wealth concentration: What about Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the Walton family, Mark Zuckerberg, and many more billionaire philanthropists who have pledged to give away large portions (or all) of their wealth for the human good? What about liberal billionaires like George Soros whose foundations support progressive causes? Some of these people even support, after all, UBI, while others do not. These are serious questions. My answer is this: I applaud their efforts and some of their projects have helped many people, and they often accomplish more harm than good. Not of course harm to direct beneficiaries, but rather to the idea of the social compact between governments and the governed. There is a better way more compatible with democratic institutions and not reliant on on-again off-again vacillations of the wealth class’s charitable intent.

There are legitimate criticisms of billionaire philanthropy in individual case studies. For example, the Walton Family Foundation’s charitable giving appears to be mostly a tax dodge, and the infinitesimally small portion of their wealth has gone to the arts and the environment, doing very little if anything to help the poor.[iii] Meanwhile, their employees are so underpaid that taxpayers must supplement their incomes by the tune of $6.3 billion annually for public assistance programs.[iv] Some criticisms focus of billionaire philanthropy just being good public relations[v] predicated on the optics of income and wealth inequality being so bad. Surely, there must be some truth to that. Others are critical because quite a lot of charitable giving seems to be going to, arguably, the “wrong” places and in paltry amounts: according to the National Philanthropic Foundation, in 2016 a very large plurality (32 percent) of charitable contributions went to religion, and charitably giving only rose one-third as fast as the stock market.[vi]  In fairness, though, one might also consider a 2012 study which found that there are also illegitimate criticisms of rich philanthropists, such as it is only a tax dodge, or they don’t deserve praise because they’re still unspeakably rich.[vii] What is one to make of all this? Let us suspend disbelief about the nature of the human condition for the moment and assume for the purpose of argument that these philanthropists have only the best of intentions of society in mind, there is no nefarious counter-narrative for their actions, and they really do want to do good.

The first objection is simply to ask the question: Why is charity necessary? In an equality-based functioning socio-political system it wouldn’t be necessary at all. This question can be viewed as hopelessly naïve, an admission that utopia is achievable against my assertion that it is not, especially given my arguments about the deprivations of human nature and psychology that evolution has bestowed upon us. But the question does not require this radicalization. I would be happy to concede that charity has a place in society, and even happier to concede that it would be necessary to alleviate the worst of human suffering in any economic system one might imagine. The problem is that when we applaud billionaire philanthropy, are we not also validating an economic system which allows individuals to accumulate vast wealth at the expense of the less fortunate but no less worthy members of society? Consider that the four wealthiest American families own as much as 40 percent of the entire US population.[viii] Is the value billionaires have contributed to society commensurate with their wealth? Ideologues will argue that it is: with great risks come great rewards. In making that claim, though, what does that then say about the ordinary citizen who works very hard, perhaps at Wal-Mart trying to support a family, perhaps somewhere else, but still lives below the poverty line? After all, a series of studies collected by Bloomberg Businessweek, demonstrated fairly conclusively that an enormous factor in wealth accumulation is simply attributable to luck and the happenstance of one’s birth.[ix] (This is one area where intuition appears to have a solid base in reality: Would Donald Trump have become a billionaire if he had been born into a poor family in rural Appalachia?) Meanwhile, workers’ incomes may be so low that they don’t pay an income tax, and they are forced to take public assistance payed for by the middle class. In the case of Wal-Mart, the Walton family apparently finds it acceptable to pass the burden of poverty wages on to the middle class as they enjoy special tax breaks not available them.

At some point one must decide either that we as a society are all in this together, or we are all just individuals competing in a reality show. The billionaire class implicitly recognize that we are all in this together; if they didn’t they would hardly bother with charitable giving. Or in the alternative, they recognize that the capitalist system is unsustainable without some form of wealth redistribution. Be that as it may, the minimum wage – and the idea of raising it to a living wage – enjoys broad popular support.[x] But establishing a maximum wage is political taboo, despite the fact that at one time we had a de facto maximum wage with a top marginal tax rate of 90 percent.[xi] This seems odd. Would Bill Gates have not founded Microsoft if he knew that his maximum personal wealth would be capped at, let’s say, one billion dollars? Of course risk taking and innovation are partially products of the will to accumulate riches. But is there not a point at which the returns diminish? Would one’s lifestyle improve much if one accumulated two billion dollars instead of merely one billion? How many yachts, airplanes and mansions – and charitable foundations – are enough? These are not questions that capitalist neoliberals take seriously, much less ask. It is outside of their ideological comprehension. But these are the questions that we should all be asking.

Billionaire philanthropy is also undemocratic. In the abstract, in democratic societies people vote on issues indirectly through their vote for politicians who have stands on those issues. The public policy issues that they collectively agree upon become law (again, in the abstract). When billionaires decide what is important according to their fancy, and therefore where their money goes, they indirectly subvert democratic institutions. Perhaps their judgment is better than that of the mob. Perhaps it isn’t. Take, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which according to its website, had a foundation trust endowment of $ 40.3 billion in 2016.[xii] Much of this money goes to support health, education and agricultural projects in developing countries, and much of that in Africa. In Tanzania alone, the Foundation spent $300 million in 2017.[xiii] The Foundation is making progress in improving human health in many other impoverished countries as well. The goals are laudable and the successes are measurable. But one has to wonder, if given a choice, if a US politician’s platform included distributing a $300 million budget surplus to the poor in the United States, or using it for college and trade school subsidies, or to stabilize the health insurance market, or to be invested in clean energy technologies, or any number of other things, how voters would respond. There are poor and needy in America too. It seems that, at least in this particular case, billionaires – in addition to all of the other perks – may substitute their own priorities over others. It is, after all, their right.

One of the strangest books I have read recently is Matthew Bishop’s and Michael Green’s 2009 Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World. It was a broad book, and well-researched. But something about it made me uneasy, it seemed to be a little too rosy – an advocacy piece shrouded in a protective journalistic clamshell veneer, not seriously discussing the downsides of billionaire philanthropy. Notably, it didn’t directly address what I think is an important question: Doesn’t billionaire philanthropy perpetuate the myth the endemic problems of society can only be solved by the rich and the powerful? I felt a similar unease in watching Robert Reich’s excellent documentary “Saving Capitalism,” based on his book of the same name. It is rich with policy prescriptions to reverse growing wealth inequality – re-growing the strength of trade unions, increasing taxes on the wealthy, among many other things which would undoubtedly help – but largely ignores the fundamental flaws of capitalism itself. I suppose one cannot blame professor Reich: he spent many years in government as Secretary of Labor, and he was good at his job (remember the Clinton surplus) so one might expect that he would be a supporter of capitalism. But until we are to seriously look at its structural flaws, I fear that we constantly patching holes and replacing parts when what it really needs is a complete overhaul. Reich would like to return to the halcyon days of the post-war boom, or perhaps the Clinton 90s, but technology has changed the rules of the game. It is difficult to argue, given the history available to us, that these snapshots in time are not in fact anomalies.

There is a further objection, and one that is in many ways more troubling. Billionaire philanthropy can be nefarious too. Enter the Koch brothers. Their philanthropy, unlike the Walton family’s, is not primarily a public relations tool or tax avoidance scheme. Nor, like Gates’ philanthropic projects, is it well-intentioned. Much of the Koch’s money is funneled into philanthropic endeavors that are baldly self-serving and dangerous.

But before we go there, we should take a slight digression and look as the now-famous “Powell Memo” or “Powell Manifesto” of August 23, 1971.[xiv] Lewis Powell, who was months later to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was working at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when he penned the memo to his boss, who was the Chairman of the Education Committee. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a turbulent time in America, and one of the many sources of that turbulence was the general dissatisfaction with the outcomes of capitalism for workers – low wages, anti-unionism, dangerous consumer products brought to the attention of the public by Ralph Nader, among others, and a growing sentiment towards more socialist policies. Powell’s deeply cynical and somewhat paranoid memorandum was a call to arms for the business community to fight back in an organized and disciplined way, through the funding of conservative think tanks, the media, congressional lobbying efforts, and among other things, invading academia with a conservative counter-balance in order to attack what was perceived as a liberal, neo-Marxist bias within the academy. Apparently it worked, and the following decade ushered in an aggressive pushback by the business community resulting in the creation of a plethora of new conservative pro-business causes and academic appointments,[xv] as well as the expanding role of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Oddly, Powell didn’t perceive that this general dissatisfaction with capitalism and big business was a general response to its abuses, but was rather purely political ideology at work. I don’t know how one can account for this glaring mistake from a bright person, but the corporate community took Powell’s admonitions to heart, and there is no better example of this than the Koch brothers.

Their lobbying efforts, support of conservative think tanks, and political contributions are well known. And yes, they support public television, the United Negro College fund, as well as other non-political causes such as medical research. Nonetheless, The Kochs were apparently shocked at a 2010 exposé in the New Yorker by Jane May which painted them in, shall we say, a less than flattering light.[xvi] They developed a rapid response public relations team and a new website, KochFacts.com as a counter narrative, focusing on their giving. But you can support medical research and have your name put on hospital wings all you want; the fact remains that the Kochs are partisan ideologues of the first order and were avid supporters of the now-defunct Tea Party movement,[xvii] marshalling an army of the credulous and undereducated to crusade against their own interests. They are also smart, and their most insidious attack with money has been on higher education and research.

Colleges and Universities in the United States have long been bastions of liberal and progressive thinking. (I touched upon some reasons for this in Chapter 3.) Graduates become leaders in many areas of both private and public endeavors, including of course politics. It would make natural sense that the Kochs would want to spread their influence to the university campus as well as a counterweight, and that is precisely what they’ve done, with of course as many strings attached as possible. In partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, David Levinthal of The Atlantic produced a piece of investigative journalism that shed much light on the Kochs’ ambitions in shaping young minds and developing scholarship toward neoliberal free market principles.[xviii] The findings are troubling.

Koch foundation’s spending on college campuses increased from $12.7 million at 163 institutions in 2012 to $19.3 million at 210 campuses in 2013. As Levinthal writes, “A review of hundreds of private documents, emails, and audio recordings—along with interviews with more than 75 college officials, professors, students, and others—indicate the Koch brothers’ spending on higher education is now a critical part of their broader campaign to infuse politics and government with free-market principles.”[xix] Of course many wealthy donors are patrons of universities, so there is nothing automatically untoward about this fact, unless such donors interfere with academic freedom. Levinthal recounts that back in 2007, a large donation to Florida State University came with some strings antithetical to the concept of academic freedom: “Teachings must align with the libertarian economic philosophy of Charles Koch, the Charles Koch Foundation would maintain partial control over faculty hiring and the chairman of the school’s economics department—a prominent economic theorist—must stay in place for another three years despite his plans to step down.”[xx] While Florida State ultimately rejected the request, the Kochs continue to donate and ties with the university remain close. The lion’s share of Koch funding in 2013 was received by Virginia’s George Mason University[xxi] and its Mercatus Center – a libertarian-leaning free market research center which a former director described as housing the “largest collection” of “free market faculty” in the world.[xxii] Not surprisingly, the research taking place at the Mercatus Center is noticed by Congress, and used to support movements to end the Affordable Care Act and cut taxes for the wealthy.[xxiii] Many other examples abound of the Kochs aggressively asserting their neoliberal libertarian ideology on college campuses.

Again, the Kochs are entitled to their views, but they should not be entitled to interfere with academic research to suit their ideological goals consistent with their conglomerate’s bottom line. It is inimical to the very idea of a marketplace of ideas.[1] And just when you think it can’t get worse with the Kochs, it does. Readers may be familiar with Project Veritas, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit run by an unscrupulous (even by Koch standards) character named James O’Keefe. His mission is ostensibly to discredit institutions he views as progressive or left-leaning with sting operations, and has a long history of failures in this regard.[xxiv] O’Keefe gets millions of funding from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, which in turn are funded by billionaires, including – you guessed it – the Koch brothers.[xxv]

As to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I remain somewhat ambivalent. There is something troubling about the fact that, first, individuals can accumulate such vast, almost obscene, wealth, and second, that it is entirely up to them to decide what is in the best interests of societies and what charitable causes to spend it on, or as the case may be, not spend it at all. If we lived in a just society, one that was not rigged in favor of the rich, these moral and ethical quandaries would not be presented for us to ponder. The fact that they exist, and continue to be debated, points to the fact that there is a very real foundational problem to the neoliberally-led political economy in America.

The quote at the outset of this chapter from Thomas Piketty comes from a BBC Newsnight interview with Evan Davies, roughly 18 months after the release of his book. Piketty goes on to say that

 

[i]f you want to do philanthropic giving I think it’s important that you don’t keep control…we have to be serious about what’s public interest and what’s private interest. In many countries in order to all this philanthropic giving to a public interest charity then you must lose any control right…it would be much more convincing if he [Bill Gates] gave away power.

I think we’re being very naïve if we think about the idea that now we don’t need taxation and that we don’t need the government, we just need to wait for the billionaires to give some of their wealth away.[xxvi]

 

The emphasis on the word power in the first paragraph above is Piketty´s. He goes on to talk about how nice it must be for billionaires to have people coming to them with projects to help humanity, and how good it must make them feel to become involved in the planning and implementation of such projects. Piketty is more than a brilliant economist: he is also an intuitive amateur psychologist. One has to wonder how the proportion of hubris, power, and psychological satisfaction plays out in the minds of billionaires who cannot bear to relinquish control of their wealth.  If philanthropy were to replace taxation, Piketty notes, it would also end democracy. At this stage in history I am not aware of anyone seriously arguing that it should, but keep your ears open. Given the history of neoliberalism, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone at a libertarian think tank, whose salary is paid by the Kochs, is mulling the idea over. One could accuse me of hyperbole here, but I plead not guilty. A single example, in my view, is sufficient to make the point that democracy – to the extent that it still exists in any meaningful way – is in danger of complete sublimation to the whims of billionaires.

Keith A. Spencer of Salon wrote an interesting piece recently about how the wealthy scions of Silicon Valley have kept the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) operating through their charitable contributions.[xxvii] In the fever pitch of neoliberal ideology in the 1990s, where Bill Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over,” the NASA appropriations bill was stripped of SETI funding. Now, you may or may not think that SETI is a good idea, or that it is a proper use of taxpayer dollars – there are good arguments on both sides of that particular debate. But in terms of the underlying principle, do we really want science and research to be funded at the impulses of billionaires? And it isn’t only SETI – enormous areas of what were formerly public domain, such as the arts, social safety nets, prisons, public education, and infrastructure development, just to name a few, have been sold off to private interests with a profit motive, or altogether abandoned to sink or swim depending on the fancies of philanthropists. We are rapidly approaching the perihelion where the public interest will be protected and advanced by only two sources of power: for-profit enterprises or benevolent billionaires. Anything that cannot be monetized and does not attract the interest of the wealthy, will simply die. That, I submit, would not be a good society in which to live.

 

A Refutation of Neoliberalism’s Apologia

Obviously there are arguments in favor of neoliberalism, quite a lot of them. I undertook the task of reading as many as a could for a full week. Something about the three dozen or so papers I read – journal articles, op-eds, long form essays and pieces in the popular press – struck me as odd. They seldom began with vociferous advocacy of the neoliberal view. Almost all of the authors seemed to think that a very long introductory throat-clearing was required. This usually took the form of an intellectual history of economic thought, an unnecessary and pained pointing-out of neoliberalism’s nascent beginnings in classical liberalism, followed not by neoliberalism’s accomplishments, but by a defense of it from critics. It was usually not until the very end, sometimes the final paragraph, that most writers got around to extolling the successes of neoliberalism. When they did, I found four recurring points of advocacy, which roughly follow the following lines. First, the defenders of neoliberalism make the claim that critics of neoliberalism have nothing to offer other than criticism. Second, that communists saw the light in the late 1980s and early1990s and committed apostasy in favor of the neoliberal world view, so it must be right. Third, there will be winners and losers in any economic system, and the winners under the neoliberal model far outweigh the small number of losers. Finally, neoliberalism produces great wealth, which is then voluntarily redistributed by beneficent philanthropists.

As to the first point that critics have nothing better to offer, I offer Chapter Eight. As to the last point about philanthropists, see above. The second point is simply a non sequitur: it does not follow that because the Soviet Eastern Block and the Chinese threw in the economic towel, they did so because they were finally convinced of the superiority of neoliberal economics. Indeed, there were many reasons that these and other countries abandoned their national political ideologies: a very expensive arms race and military spending, a yearning for liberal freedoms unrelated to economics, a recognition that communism was wasteful, regressive and inefficient, and also, of course, that capitalism leads to material wealth. That, I have never denied, but rather only questioned: Creates material wealth for whom? And that’s only the beginning – the geopolitical complications in the early 1990s consisted of a complicated amalgam of competing strategic and economic interests, led by strong personalities. But let us say that the Soviets and the Chinese, did in fact embrace capitalism because of its superiority. That wouldn’t prove in any way that neoliberalism is the best system for the most people, but only that it is better than communism – the setting of a very low bar.Obviously there are arguments in favor of neoliberalism, quite a lot of them. I undertook the task of reading as many as a could for a full week. Something about the three dozen or so papers I read – journal articles, op-eds, long form essays and pieces in the popular press – struck me as odd. They seldom began with vociferous advocacy of the neoliberal view. Almost all of the authors seemed to think that a very long introductory throat-clearing was required. This usually took the form of an intellectual history of economic thought, an unnecessary and pained pointing-out of neoliberalism’s nascent beginnings in classical liberalism, followed not by neoliberalism’s accomplishments, but by a defense of it from critics. It was usually not until the very end, sometimes the final paragraph, that most writers got around to extolling the successes of neoliberalism. When they did, I found four recurring points of advocacy, which roughly follow the following lines. First, the defenders of neoliberalism make the claim that critics of neoliberalism have nothing to offer other than criticism. Second, that communists saw the light in the late 1980s and early1990s and committed apostasy in favor of the neoliberal world view, so it must be right. Third, there will be winners and losers in any economic system, and the winners under the neoliberal model far outweigh the small number of losers. Finally, neoliberalism produces great wealth, which is then voluntarily redistributed by beneficent philanthropists.

The third objection is the only serious one – that neoliberal economic systems create more winners than losers. If this is true, then I have wasted a book. After all, I have been going on and on about how the best public policy is the one that benefits the most people while hurting the fewest. Obviously this book concerns the effects of hyper-capitalism on the population of the United States. In previous chapters I have already laid out my best argument that neoliberalism benefits the fewest while harming the most – there is no question in my mind that that is the case. But I’m willing to take a more expansive view; after all, we all share the same planet, and an American life is no more valuable than a Bangladeshi or Indian one.

So let’s take a not-so-simple metric: the amount of people living in extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank on a 30-year timescale. I say not-so-simple because the World Bank defines extreme poverty as people living on less than $1.90 a day, which is a developing nation standard applied equally to developed countries. An American living on $1.91 a day would not be included as living in extreme poverty. But let’s not niggle. The World Bank estimates that in 1990, 37.1 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, and only 9.6 percent in 2015, accounting for a 74.1 percent reduction in just 25 years, despite population growth.[xxviii] Way to go hyper-capitalism! Perhaps a rising tide really does raise all ships. Notwithstanding the fact that making even $2.00 per day would mean you were still quite poor, it’s an impressive statistic. But wait. If we use the US Census Bureau threshold for poverty in the US (about $33 per day), it would account for 13.5 percent of the population in 1990, and 12.7 percent in 2016[xxix] – hardly a change at all, and significantly higher than the world extreme poverty average of 9.6 percent.

What are we to make of this? One conclusion could be that neoliberalism and its corollary of outsourcing to cheaper labor locals, is good for developing nations and bad for developed ones. That seems like a reasonable conclusion, given that developing countries are receiving increasing balance of trade for both manufacturing and service from the United States. Then again, these trends are perhaps not the result of neoliberalism at all: Had we stuck to a Keynesian restrained capitalist model, or a more overtly socialist one, would the world reduction of poverty have been significantly different? If it were true, we also have another problem: as developing economies improve and head down the same path as the US, global businesses operating within them will feel increasing pressure to reduce costs as well. Simply put, there is no endgame – it’s a race to eventual collapse.

There is of course a more fundamental macroeconomic flaw in neoliberal theology that is seldom mentioned by its apologists: it is supposed to be about growth, but its results are increasing wealth and income inequality. At some point wealth will become so unequal, it will make sustaining further growth impossible. The International Monetary Fund acknowledged this in 2016:

 

[S]ince both openness and austerity are associated with increasing income inequality, this distributional effect sets up an adverse feedback loop. The increase in inequality engendered by financial openness and austerity might itself undercut growth, the very thing that the neoliberal agenda is intent on boosting. There is now strong evidence that inequality can significantly lower both the level and the durability of growth. ­

The evidence of the economic damage from inequality suggests that policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they are. Of course, apart from redistribution, policies could be designed to mitigate some of the impacts in advance—for instance, through increased spending on education and training, which expands equality of opportunity (so-called predistribution policies). And fiscal consolidation strategies—when they are needed—could be designed to minimize the adverse impact on low-income groups. But in some cases, the untoward distributional consequences will have to be remedied after they occur by using taxes and government spending to redistribute income. Fortunately, the fear that such policies will themselves necessarily hurt growth is unfounded.­[xxx]

 

Though couched in neutral academic language, this is a startling admission from the IMF.

Neoliberalism, if it is to be sustainable requires not just redistribution of wealth for people who have been harmed by it, but also pre-distribution of wealth by people who will be harmed by it before the actual harm takes place. Let’s think about that for a moment. If neoliberalism is supposed to, as it claims, be good for everyone because expanding economies lift everyone up, why would redistribution be necessary? There is a larger point, too: if it is such a superior economic model, as its advocates claim, why would it need so many patches to keep in from self-implosion? Like religion, it is riddled with self-contradictions, inconsistencies, and claims of the miraculous, that it cannot be distinguished from religious dogmas themselves. Nor can neoliberalism’s wonkiest advocates be distinguished from our average preachers, priests, Imams, rabbis, shamans, and new age faith healers. The emperor has no clothes.

[1] For a detailed description of the Koch’s involvement in and support of radical right wing economic causes, see Nancy MacLean’s 2017 book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Plan for America. Much of her research involved uncovering archival correspondence between GMU neoliberal economists such as James M. Buchanan and the Kochs. Some of the conversations are chilling and involve destroying Social Security and re-segregating schools. Not surprisingly MacLean’s scholarship has been vigorously attacked, by libertarians.

[i] BBC Newsnight interview, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6frECZhxJA

[ii] Piff, Paul K., “Wealth and the Inflated Self,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, August 10,2013, Vol. 40:1, pp. 34-42.

[iii] O’Connor, Clare, “Report: Wal-Mart’s Billionaire Walton’s Give Almost None of Own Cash to Foundation,” Forbes, June 31, 2014, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2014/06/03/report-walmarts-billionaire-waltons-give-almost-none-of-own-cash-to-family-foundation/#6c96e5df7d52.

[iv] Report: “Wal-Mart on tax day: how taxpayers subsidize America’s biggest employer and richest family,” Americans For Tax Fairness, April 2014, available at https://americansfortaxfairness.org/files/Walmart-on-Tax-Day-Americans-for-Tax-Fairness-1.pdf.

[v] See, e.g., “McElwee, Sean, “Bargain for billionaires: why philanthropy is more about PR than progress,” Salon, February 10, 2014, available at https://www.salon.com/2014/02/10/bargain_for_billionaires_why_philanthropy_is_more_about_p_r_than_progress/.

[vi] Charitable Giving Statistics, the National Philanthropic Trust, available at https://www.nptrust.org/philanthropic-resources/charitable-giving-statistics/.

[vii] See, e.g., MacAskill, William, “5 criticisms of billionaire mega-philanthropy, debunked,” Quartz, December 4, 2015, available at https://qz.com/564805/5-criticisms-of-billionaire-mega-philanthropy-debunked/.

[viii] Galka, Mark, “America’s 4 Richest Families Own as Much as the Bottom 40%,” Huffpost, February 24, 2016, available at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/max-galka/americas-4-richest-families-own-as-much-as-the-bottom-40_b_9259942.html.

[ix] Kenny, Charles, “How Did the World’s Rich Get That Way? Luck,” Bloomberg Business Week, April 222, 2013, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-04-22/how-did-the-worlds-rich-get-that-way-luck.

[x] Desilver, Drew, “5 facts about the minimum wage,” January 4, 2017, Pew Research Center, available at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/04/5-facts-about-the-minimum-wage/.

[xi] See, e.g., Yglesias, Mathew, “The case for a maximum wage,” Vox, August 6, 2014, available at https://www.vox.com/2014/8/6/5964369/maximum-wage.

[xii] Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Foundation Fact Sheet, available at https://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/General-Information/Foundation-Factsheet.

[xiii] Ng’wanaki, Fumbuka, “Gates Foundation to spend $300 million in Tanzania in 2017,” Reuters, August 13, 2017, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-health/gates-foundation-to-spend-over-300-million-in-tanzania-in-2017-idUSKCN1AT0IF.

[xiv] Available in pdf format at http://dy00k1db5oznd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Lewis-Powell-Memo.pdf..

[xv] See, e.g., Hacker, Jacob S. and Pierson, Paul, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, New York: Simon & Schuster (2010).

[xvi] See, e.g., Mayer, Jane, “Covert Operations,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2010, available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations.

[xvii] See, e.g., Nesbit, Jeff, “The Secret Origins of the Tea Party,” Time, available at http://time.com/secret-origins-of-the-tea-party/. For a fuller account, see, e.g., Nesbit, Jeff, Poison Tea: How Big Tobacco Invented the Tea Party and Captured the GOP, St. Martin’s Press (2016).

[xviii] Levinthal, Dave, “Spreading the Free-Market Gospel,” The Atlantic, October 30, 2015, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/spreading-the-free-market-gospel/413239/.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid., see also, e.g., Levinthal, Dave, “Koch foundation proposal to college: Teach our curriculum, get millions,” The Center For Public Integrity, September 12, 2014, available at https://www.publicintegrity.org/2014/09/12/15495/koch-foundation-proposal-college-teach-our-curriculum-get-millions.

[xxi] See, e.g., “How colleges used Koch money in 2013,” The Center for Public Integrity, available at https://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/10/30/18673/how-colleges-use-koch-money.

[xxii] Id., at note 14.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] See, e.g., Weiss, Brennan, “The 33-year-old who tried to trick the Washington Post with a fake sexual harassment story has a long history of sting operations backfiring,” Business Insider, November 28, 2017, available at http://www.businessinsider.com/james-okeefe-project-veritas-sting-fails-2017-11.

[xxv] Kotch, Alex, “The Secret Right-Wing Donors Behind James O’Keefe’s Vile Project Veritas, Alternet, November 29, 2017, available at https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/secret-right-wing-donors-behind-james-okeefes-vile-project-veritas?akid=16421.1932697.ROW5Ij&rd=1&src=newsletter1085805&t=22.

[xxvi] Ibid., at note 1.

[xxvii] Spencer, Keith A., “The new hobby of the super-rich: Alien hunting,” Salon, November 26, 2017, available at https://www.salon.com/2017/11/26/the-new-hobby-of-the-super-rich-hunting-aliens.

[xxviii] Cruz, Marcio, et al., “Ending Extreme Poverty and Sharing Prosperity: Progress and Policies,” World Bank Group, Policy Research Institute, October 2015, DRN/15/13, available in pdf format at http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/109701443800596288/PRN03Oct2015TwinGoals.pdf.

[xxix] Statista, “Poverty rate in the United States from 1990 to 2016,” available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/200463/us-poverty-rate-since-1990/.

[xxx] Ostry, Jonathan D., et al., “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” International Monetary Fund, June 2016, Vol.53, No.2, available at http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/2016/06/ostry.htm.

 

 

Deconstructing the Enigma of American Plutocracy

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1976746515/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1514738914&sr=8-1&keywords=glen+olives+thompson

My new book is now available on Amazon, at a bargain price of $12.95. Above is the link. As a bonus to followers of my blog, below is a free chapter. I chose Chapter Eight because its short (less than 5,000 words), and there remains a stubborn misconception in many people’s minds about what socialism is, and what social democracies are. Enjoy!

(N.B., This was uploaded from the MS Word file before it was edited and converted to pdf, so there are likely to be some typos.)

EIGHT

Case Study: The Horrors of Living in a Social Democracy

Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.[1]

  • Winston Churchill

What being a socialist means is… that you hold out… a vision of society where poverty is absolutely unnecessary, where international relations are not based on greed… but on cooperation… where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves to other people who can hire and fire.[2]

  • Bernie Sanders

The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.[3]

  • Paul Ryan

Anything that Paul Ryan does not like must have some merit.[4]

  • Hypothetical musing from John Nichols

As I’ve previously noted, “socialism” is a word that has been poisoned. It has become, through decades of effective and invective messaging, a pejorative, and we automatically reject what it represents, without actually understanding what is represents. I have even been taken to task for calling some Nordic countries like Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands “social democracies” by people living there. I think part of the problem is people don’t like their countries labelled (especially from foreigners) so faciley – their natural instinct is to push back with pedantry. But we communicate ideas mostly with words, and we can’t do anything about definitions being inherently malleable. Katja Kaila from Finland (one of those who admonished me) defines the Nordic Model as “a combination of free market capitalism with a comprehensive welfare state and collective bargaining at the national level.”[5] That’s just fine, but it’s also a mouthful, so when I use the term social democracy, think of Kaila’s description, along with the idea that within these democracies, citizens have decided (the “democracy” part) that they want a broad welfare state to meet everyone’s economic needs with correspondingly higher taxes (the “social” part), and of course free enterprise too. One might suppose this is because (although they may have been caught in between the machinations of dueling hegemonies) they have never been infected by the caustic viral infections in thinking that the current world’s (fading) hegemonic power, the United States, and the world’s rival hegemony, the Soviet Union, came to represent.

Another term that I use frequently which is also subject to some confusion is “political economy.” It is defined in various ways, but the Wikipedia definition is the most complete: “the study of production and trade, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth.”[6] The terms went out of fashion in the 19th Century with the development of the “science” of economics, which took its place. Economists, imagining themselves to be scientists, came to exclude the distribution of wealth from their thinking. They were concerned with growing the economy, and left it to politicians to decide how wealth is to be divided within society; in other words, how the pie was sliced was none of their concern. With the publication of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, however, which among other things clearly showed that economists should be very concerned with wealth distribution, the term is making a comeback. (The reason economists should be concerned should be self-evident – if political economies become so unbalanced that societies collapse, there will be no need for economists.) We are, according to a recent paper in Nature, very close to the inequality tipping point to civilizational downfall due to inequality.[7]

Blame it on the Russians

Last year, with the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, I decided to re-read Louis Fischer’s 1964 magnum opus The Life of Lenin. That led to me to write an essay where I puzzled about the impact of the Revolution had on American capitalism. I wrote that

[t]he damage the Russian Revolution (and by extension the Cold War) inflicted on capitalism, was as subtle as it was insidious. Because we were battling a war of ideas, we could not dispassionately examine the warts of our beloved system of free markets and political liberalism[.] Doing so would be admitting the possibility of weakness for the enemy to exploit. Thus, the American propaganda machine rolled on for nine decades until the “truth” about of virtues of free market capitalism and the evils of autocratic socialism became a permanent part of almost everyone’s mental furniture. The stamping out of communism required, not surprisingly, our own purges and black lists for those with a tainted political ideology. Indeed, in many circles calling someone a socialist is still the ultimate political insult, and the central tenant of conservatism remains ideological purity, which must include banishment to the hinterlands of thought the slightest miasmic whiff of socialism (or abortion, but that’s another matter). It should not be lost on historians and political philosophers that the similarities of Lenin’s insistence on ideological puritanism with regard to state socialism is similar in kind to that of American conservatives in their fetishism of capitalism (the ideological ends always justifying the intellectually dishonest, and often violent, means).

But just like Putin’s Russia is unable to wean itself from authoritarianism, we are unable to wean ourselves from the idea that laisses faire capitalism is an unalterable, inerrant gift from the Heavens. The coterie of capitalists (or their cognate of corporatists) in their current unchecked state are not members of a religion, but rather a cult, which bastardizes and obfuscates the English language with is very own cultish Orwellian argot, turning the idle rich into “job creators” and the great unwashed working class poor into “takers.”[8]

This is a very real problem. The solutions are (1) the passage of time, (2) education, and (3) experience. First, as the Cold War fades from collective memory, so too will capitalist propaganda. Second, as I’ve noted before, many people simply don’t realize that even in hyper-capitalist America, we have a mixed economy, portions of which are overtly socialistic, for very good reasons previously discussed. If the neoliberals win and everything that can be privatized is privatized, then we educators will not have done our jobs. Third, personal experience is important as well, and lessens the impact of perceived evils of socialism have on older minds, for two reasons. In a 2016 Harvard University survey of people aged 18 to 29, over half had an unfavorable view of capitalism.[9] I speculate that one reason is millennials have no living memory of the Cold war and its ideological battles. Another is that they have felt the sharp and unforgiving edges of capitalism up close and personal. Be that as it may, oddly, in the same study only 32 percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion about socialism, indicating some profound confusion in the minds of young people – again, educators have work to do. (Perhaps they have a well-thought-out alternative to a mix of these two systems, but I haven’t heard about it.)

My hope is that people at some point will realize that it is not a binary, zero-sum game, which is exactly how the battle between capitalism and socialism has been sold for a century. We need both systems working in a partnership of pragmatism. Some things private industry handles well, some things (notably healthcare) it does not. When I study public policy, I do it without making the mistake that most politicians make – trying to squeeze the policy in question to conform with their ideology. Knowing that all policies have unintended consequences, and also that given our incredibly diverse society we cannot be expected to promote everyone’s interests at all times, it is much better to analyze policy with a blank slate. The question I first ask to any policy issue is: What is the best policy which will promote the well-being of the most people while harming the well-being of the fewest people? From that perspective, it is quite easy to see that neoliberal economic policy turns that question on its head: hyper-capitalism promotes the interests of the few at the expense of the many. The two difficult questions that we must resolve are what the proper balance is between capitalism and socialism generally, and where free market public policies and socialist public policies should be applied specifically. Models for functioning, egalitarian, economically prosperous, safe, and happy nations, are before our eyes if we choose to examine them. I’m thinking of the social democracies of Europe. I surely will not argue that the policies operating within their political economies could or should be copy-pasted onto ours; that would be ham-fisted and foolish. But we can surely learn something by examining how they organize their priorities. Now, in a single book chapter I don’t think anyone should expect that could analyze in a meaningful way all of the varieties of social democracies out there, but I can do a reasonably good job of examining one, which shares many of the attributes of its continental neighbors. It also happens to be one of the happiest countries in the world.

Denmark

As mentioned, economists have traditionally measured GDP growth as a positive indicator, which they often wrongly equated with wealth generation across the board, and which now seems horribly short-sighed. Thus academics in other disciplines – notably psychology – began asking uncomfortable questions, such as: Why, in the richest country in the world, are so many people unhappy? It’s an important question, and has led to, among other things, the OECD to “redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the center of governments’ efforts,”[10] and the head of UN Development Program to criticize the “tyranny of GDP.”[11] It also led to the creation of the World Happiness Index in 2012. The Index measures the following metrics ascertain a nation’s socioeconomic well-being or “happiness”: (1) GDP per capita, (2) life expectancy, (3) social support, (4) trust, as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business, (5) perceived freedom to make life decisions, and (6) generosity. The top five happiest countries on the Index for 2017[12] were Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland. The top 10 also included the Netherlands, Canada, and Sweden. The US ranked 14th. Clearly, GDP is a factor in assessing life satisfaction, but it is only one factor in the milieu of other things leading to social well-being. I hardly need to point out that the happiest countries weigh heavily toward social democracies, or in the case of Canada, democracies with a very sturdy social safety net, including a single-payer (“socialized”) medical system. Now, this could be a coincidence, or it could be Flavin’s, et al. conclusion published in the academic journal Social Forces that “we find robust evidence that citizens find life more satisfying as the degree of government intervention in the economy increases” is correct.[13] It seems unlikely that Paul Ryan would ever read this book, let alone the study I just cited, but one can only imagine the dysphoria it would cause him if he did.

With that throat-clearing out of the way, what would it actually be like to live in a godless[14] social democracy below sea level with foul weather year-round? Well, a 2014 article in the Financial Post outlines in detail what it’s like to live in Denmark.[15] Wealth inequality is, among developed nations, the second lowest in the world. Healthcare is free. Not only is education free, but students over the age of 18 living on their own can receive a stipend of US $1,028 per month, and students living at home half of that. Unemployment benefits for up to 2 years pays out US $1,902 per month. Free job training. Subsidized child care. A generous public pension system. Fuel subsidies and rent allowances for the elderly. Strong unions have negotiated a universal minimum wage of US $20.30 per hour. Denmark is of course not without its problems, but many of them are problems other countries would love to have; for example, free education has resulted in a shortage of unskilled labor. And taxes are high, but the Danes like it that way: a Gallup poll found that 88 percent of Danes like paying their taxes, and 66 percent oppose any cuts to the welfare system. Sure, a lot of this has to do with the national culture. The Financial Post notes that “[a]mong Danes…distaste of ostentatious wealth tends to outweigh tends to outweigh dissatisfaction with taxes.” And yet Denmark’s GDP per capita for 2014, according to World Bank data, was $62,425 in US Dollars;[16] GDP per capita for the same year was $50,782 in the United States.[17]

In proportion to population, the middle class is significantly larger than in the United States. Forty-two percent of the working population in Denmark have after-tax incomes between US $36,700 and US $73,300 per year in 2014. In the same year, an income of $27,000 per year would put an American into the top 50 percent of income earners.[18] (Because we’re comparing developed economies, adjusting for purchasing power parity barely moves the numbers). With regard to income inequality, slightly less than 2.5 percent of Danes earn more than $100,000 per year. In the US, the number is 20 percent.[19]

Denmark is not business-shy about private sector market productivity either. It enjoys a trade surplus, and is a net exporter despite having few valuable natural resources. Among developed nations, it has one of the highest credit ratings. Also, despite a regulated business climate, Denmark consistently ranks among the top 10 countries for business according to yearly rankings done by Forbes. It topped the list again in 2014 as number one.[20] One reason is that it is governed by a many political parties with diverse, and often divergent, interests, and no single party has an absolute majority. That means that the parties must form coalitions and reach a consensus to pass legislation, “ramming legislation through,” as is so common in the US, is seldom an option in Denmark – pragmatism and compromise are the rules and not the exceptions. Now, this, I fear, is the point that I am going to completely lose American conservatives (if I haven’t already). Because Danes almost universally support their state welfare model, it allows for increased flexibility of Danish businesses. This I know is completely counter-intuitive to neoliberal ideologues, but if one were to be able to somehow inoculate oneself against ideology, even if for the minute it will take to read the next few sentences, the idea that a robust welfare state is good for business will make perfect sense.

Denmark has a regulated, but streamlined and efficient, business regulatory market, often referred to “Flexisecurity.” Employers are allowed to fire employers easily and without incurring direct costs in order to marshal resources efficiently elsewhere. This is permitted under Danish law precisely because unemployment benefits provide and actual livable income while the ex-employee can take advantage of free job retraining programs. Of course this comes at the cost of higher taxes, but the benefits are economic stability and a higher quality of life. Other European social democracies are organized around similar principles.

Living in Denmark doesn’t sound so bad, does it? As Linus Skov writes, “[O]ur enlarged welfare state provides us youths with a freedom of choice I suspect is not as dominant as elsewhere. [I have] the freedom to pursue a university education without a clear and lucrative career path, simply because I have a passion for it. My life in the workforce will not be a race against the accumulating debts, and the paths of my life will be decided by myself rather than my purse. That’s fortunate. To me, life is good. It’s better than it has ever been and likely better than in most other places on Earth. I’ve won the lottery, and I’m thankful for that.”[21] There are no utopias, there are no perfect societies. But there are ones built upon the idea that policies that work for the most, and harm the fewest, are good ones, and should be fought for if the concept of a society is to have any meaning at all.

What, then, is the practical objection to social democracy? Any ideological objection would be incoherent. The Danes and others seem to be having their cake and eating it too. Taxes are high, but so what? The quality of life is good, as is the business environment. Denmark is a country with a population of less than 6 million, fewer inhabitants than New York City, but it still boasts 70,000 millionaires[22] and 5 billionaires,[23] according to Forbes.[24] Perhaps an objection would be that it works for Denmark because that is part of their deeply ingrained culture, and our culture is different. Okay, but that’s merely stating the obvious. Culture is an invention of man, and it obviously changes over time. The last time our political economy was significantly overhauled was during the New Deal, with the ready, sometimes even enthusiastic, support of the business community. We’ve been walking back the progress ever since. I wonder it will have to get as bad as it was during the Great Depression for fundamental change will come, and even if then. As of this writing conservative ideologues are sticking to their guns, and there can only be three possible reasons which are credible: (1) they are true believers, which mean there are irredeemably ignorant and unlikely (but possibly – see below) to consider the mountain of evidence against their ideology; or (2) they are maniacal in their feckless, irrational, short-term self-interest and are willing to whore themselves out to the highest bidder in or to stay in power, the country – and eventually themselves – be damned. I’m agnostic about which of these two possibilities are more likely. There is a third possibility, though, and that is that they are right, and the neoliberal economic model is the best one to pursue to ensure the rising tide raises most of the ships. If that is their true position, then all I can say is that the great body of evidence is against it, if history can serve as any guide. America is a young nation, but it is no longer a grade-schooler. It is high time that it stops believing in fairly-tales, myths, and comforting tautologies if it expects to make it into adulthood with its peers.

A Note on Chomsky

I don’t think it would be possible to write about American plutocracy in any depth without talking about Noam Chomsky. He is, after all, arguably, America’s leading public intellectual, and has developed an enormous body of work, much of it directly dealing with issues I raise. Despite his prolific intellectual output and corresponding accolades from the academic community, though, he is almost never seen being interviewed by corporate media outlets. I wonder why that is. Nevertheless, in arguing that under the American mixed economic system socialism is for the rich and capitalism is for the poor, he notes that

[e]very time there is a crisis, the taxpayer is called on to bail out the banks and the major financial institutions. If you had a real capitalist economy in place, that would not be happening. Capitalists who made risky investments and failed would be wiped out. But the rich and powerful do not want a capitalist system. They want to be able to run the nanny state so when they are in trouble the taxpayer will bail them out.[25]

The point seems to be unrebuttable, except to the extent that a capitalist might argue that the bailout was a necessary solution to prevent total financial collapse and an all-out depression. But that would not be an argument in defense of capitalism at all, it would rather be an argument for socialism, for a particular “free market” industry relying on the everyman, who is nonetheless then, unfairly held to the harshest strictures of neoliberalism. The financial bailout of 2008 was a pragmatic solution to a very big problem, and there is no way you can put the square peg of pragmatism through the round hole of neoliberalism no matter how hard you try. Denmark has never been foolish enough to ever attempt it.

But I nonetheless have quibble with Chomsky. He, like many intelligent people, and because of his intelligence, tend to impute motives to people that they may not have, and are impossible to know in any regard. For example:

Well, the Washington consensus — which is basically designed for the Third World to make it that way, and keep it that way — it’s now being applied not just to the Third World countries, but to the rich industrial societies, with the United States and Britain in the lead. However, it’s with a twist.

Since it’s being applied at home, this is really existing free market theory that’s being applied at home, meaning nuanced. So, powerful government to protect the rich, and market discipline and tough love for everyone else. And you see that very clearly. Go through the various elements of the Washington consensus.[26]

First, as an aside, the above excerpt was from a speech at Harvard in 1996, and what Chomsky called the “Washington consensus” is now more commonly referred to as neoliberalism. (“Consensus refers to the fact that liberals either acquiesced or were coopted into accepting the conservative capitalist argument in the 1970s.) The point Chomsky is making, though, and repeatedly makes to this very day throughout his lectures and writings, is that the wealthy and powerful know that capitalism and neoliberalism are just long con jobs. He does this too with education policy. He argues that our system of education not only indoctrinates, co-opts, and disciplines students into supporting the very neoliberal system that harms them (for example burdening them with student loans, among other things), he argues that it is meant to.[27] In imputing motives to decision makers that he cannot know – and that they repeatedly deny – he is making a mistake that many smart people make, most notably advocacy journalists.[28] When Chomsky does this, he marshals impressive evidence which supports his elaborate theories he develops, with their own particular jargon, in order to reach the (rather convincing) conclusion that neoliberalism is not an honest mistake, but rather an intentional and iniquitous scam to rob from the poor and give to the rich. In reviewing Chomsky’s work that deals directly with the political economy, it reads like a highly intellectual freshman manifesto. Of course it could be that puppeteers know that it is all a scam. After all, Chomsky’s arguments make perfect sense. But then again, one could design a perfectly rational and plausible theory to explain many things outside of the realm of science, but because it is rational and plausible does not make it truth. If one accepts that proposition, one must also accept that it could also simply be that the progenitors and advocates of neoliberalism have been convinced that it is the best policy for the most people, and have so fallen in love with their beautiful theory that they have elevated it – as Stalin did with communism or Hitler did with National Socialism – to a state religion. The fact that neoliberals might actually believe they are “doing God’s work” need not include any nefarious intent. To the extent that it is quite obviously not the best policy for the most people, and they cannot see that to be the case, one must account for the possibility of the enormous power dogma, combined with the enormous effect of cognitive biases. Neoliberalism is, as I continue to argue, a religion. Arguing facts against someone’s religion will seldom convince them – they will simply either refer their faith and their holy book(s) or engage in clever casuistry to support their faith, or both. For neoliberals, their holy book is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and their casuistry are the combined writings of von Mises, Hayek and Milton Friedman, who became the theologians and apologists for a god (Smith) that did not even have much faith in his own creation.

Now, one might argue that the motives of those wishing to perpetuate this system are irrelevant – the harm caused is the same either way. But the possibility that these people are indeed true believers is more than a minor point. If we take the Paul Ryan’s of the world at their word – that capitalism when freed from the surly bonds of government will allow for the true flourishing of the human potential – then there at least exists the possibility, however slight, that they can be convinced of their error. It will take the marshalling of growing evidence and effective argumentation. It is not, I believe, a Sisyphean task, because history demonstrates that it has happened before. Remember that neoliberalism became the accepted fashion in the 1970s, and it can go out of fashion too, just as runaway capitalism did in the 1930s. The pendulum swings in both directions. Therefore, our goal should be twofold: defeat neoliberalism through the political system we have in place and build a true social democracy, and in doing so, convince as many as we can toward apostasy. It would take only one high priest conservative neoliberal order to renounce his error and embrace social democracy, for the dominoes to fall.

Chapter 8 Endnotes

[1] The Churchill Project, Hillsdale College, available at https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/socialism-is-the-philosophy-of-failure-winston-churchill/.

[2] Kruse, Michael, “14 things Bernie Sanders has said about socialism,” Politico, July 17, 2015, available at https://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/14-things-bernie-sanders-has-said-about-socialism-120265.

[3] Atlas Society audiotape, audio transcript available on delong.typepad.com at http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2012/09/paul-ryan-socialism-must-be-destroyed-and-by-socialism-i-mean-things-like-social-security-medicare-food-stamps-and-une.html

[4] Nichols, John, “Is Paul Ryan Making Americans More Favorably Inclined Toward Socialism?” The Nation, December 2, 2012, available at https://www.thenation.com/article/paul-ryan-making-americans-more-favorably-inclined-toward-socialism/.

[5] See answer on Quora at https://www.quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-live-in-a-social-democracy-in-Europe-Denmark-the-Netherlands-Belgium-among-others-I-am-very-interested-in-hearing-first-hand-accounts-of-the-daily-quality-of-life-and-the-political-economy-from-a-personal-perspective.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_economy.

[7] Kohler, Timothy A., et al., “Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesoamerica,” Nature, November 30, 2017, 551, pp. 619-622 available at (paywall) https://www.nature.com/articles/nature24646.

[8] Olives, Glen, “You say you want a revolution? Well, you know…,” DAILY KOS, September 27, 2017, available at https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/9/27/1702083/-You-say-you-want-a-revolution-Well-you-know.

[9] Ehrenfreund, Max, “A majority of millennials now reject capitalism, poll shows,” Washington Post, April 26, 2016, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/26/a-majority-of-millennials-now-reject-capitalism-poll-shows/?utm_term=.2a4c5cbefa62.

[10] Strategic Orientations of the Secretary-General: For 2016 and Beyond, Meeting of the OECD Council at Ministerial Level, Paris, 1-2 June 2016, available in pdf format at https://www.oecd.org/mcm/documents/strategic-orientations-of-the-secretary-general-2016.pdf.

[11] Altschuler, Glenn C., “The Tyranny of GDP,” Huffpost, June 16, 2016, available at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/glenn-c-altschuler/the-tyranny-of-gdp_b_7593380.html.

[12] The World Happiness Report 2017 can be downloaded in full or in part at http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2017/.

[13] Flavin, Patrick, et al., “Assessing the Impact of the Site and Scope of Government on Human Well-Being,” Social Forces, June 2014, 92:4, pp. 1241-1258.

[14] A full quarter of Denmark’s population are non-religious, and the rest are fleeing fast. See, e.g., Payton, Matt, “Record numbers leave Church of Denmark after atheist adverts,” Independent, September 7, 2016, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/atheist-adverts-denmark-religion-christians-blamed-record-numbers-church-danish-a7230156.html.

[15] “How Denmark’s welfare program has narrowed its wealth gap to one of the smallest in the world,” Financial Times, June 24, 2014, available at http://business.financialpost.com/news/economy/how-denmarks-welfare-program-has-narrowed-its-wealth-gap-to-one-of-the-smallest-in-the-world.

[16] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?end=2014&locations=DK&start=1960

[17] https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/gdp-per-capita.

[18] Van Dam, Andrew, “What Percent Are You?” The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2016, available at http://graphics.wsj.com/what-percent/.

[19] Guillot, Craig, “$100,000 income: No big deal anymore,” Bankrate, January 8, 2015, available at http://www.bankrate.com/finance/personal-finance/100-000-income-no-big-deal-anymore-1.aspx.

[20] Badenhausen, Kurt, “U.S. Slides Again as Denmark Tops Forbes’ Best Countries For Business,” Forbes, December 17, 2014, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2014/12/17/u-s-slides-again-as-denmark-tops-forbes-best-countries-for-business/#62476a516024.

[21] https://www.quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-live-in-a-social-democracy-in-Europe-Denmark-the-Netherlands-Belgium-among-others-I-am-very-interested-in-hearing-first-hand-accounts-of-the-daily-quality-of-life-and-the-political-economy-from-a-personal-perspective/answer/Linus-Skov?__nsrc__=4&__snid3__=1753622454.

[22] Marsh, Pia, “Almost 70,000 Danes are millionaires in U.S. dollars,” CPH PostOnline, June 17, 2016, available at http://cphpost.dk/news/almost-70000-danes-are-millionaires-in-us-dollars.html.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Forbes, “The World’s Billionaires,” available at https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/#version:static.

[25] Polychroniou, C.J., “Socialism for the Rich, Capitalism for the Poor: An Interview With Noam Chomsky,” Truthout, December 11, 2016, available at http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/38682-socialism-for-the-rich-capitalism-for-the-poor-an-interview-with-noam-chomsky.

[26] Chomsky, Noam, “Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism in the Real World,” Delivered at Harvard University, April 13, 1996, available at https://chomsky.info/19960413/.

[27] See, e.g., Jones, Josh, “Noam Chomsky Spells Out the Purpose of Education,” Open Culture, November 8, 2012, available at http://www.openculture.com/2012/11/noam_chomsky_spells_out_the_purpose_of_education.html

[28] See, e.g., Olives, Glen, “No, Donald Trump is Not an Evil Genius,” glenolives.com, April 7, 2017, available at http://glenolives.com/?p=145.

How to Talk About Politics Post-100: Policy, Not Political Gamesmanship

By Glen Olives Thompson

Joseph E. Stiglitz has observed that economists are so often wrong because they too often measure the wrong things – not unlike drunks (as he delightfully puts it) looking for their keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is. The same is largely true of the political media of the Left, especially when covering Donald J. Trump: they’re quite good at covering the political story, the winners and losers on any given issue, the scandals, the backstories, ad infinitum. But that’s not where the keys are, that’s just where the light is. The keys in this case are policies allowing for multicultural society to flourish in all the ways that matter: economically, culturally, scientifically.

In two words, policy matters. But in spite of the number one issue for voters during the 2016 election being the economy, the Big Three networks spent barely more than a half hour covering policy issues; instead they fixated on Trump’s mental illness and Clinton’s emails. Instead of focusing on important issues like the wealth inequality, racial injustice, foreign policy, education, and the environment, among many other things directly impinging on the daily lives of average Americans, they whored themselves for ratings.

After the election, think pieces and books about the (almost) inexplicable ascendancy of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States have come so hard and fast that they could fill several encyclopedia-length volumes, and it’s only been just over a hundred days since the Tangerine Tornado took office. One of course might have expected this, as the horrific enigma of a narcissistic failed real estate mogul and borderline moron who has never demonstrated even an infinitesimal interest in public service taking the Big Prize would have had to have led to America’s pundits and literati to pontificate, ad nauseam.

I too have not been shy about criticizing Trump, and more importantly, criticizing those who criticize him, because in their often rational and eloquent armchair musings about the Trump phenomenon, they commit the sin of over analysis, and in doing so are led astray, in turn leading their readers and listeners astray (I’m reminded of a writer who said something to the effect that “there have been brilliant theologians but I don’t think there is a god to theologize about.”) For example, there is an understandable trend among the cognoscenti to label Trump as an evil genius, an idiot-savant in his ability to manipulate the media, among many other areas where he is given credit where no credit is due him. The problem can be essentially boiled down to this – smart people are analyzing a really dumb person who has achieved something (by accident) that was thought to be impossible, and thereby they cannot bring themselves to believe that he can be all that dumb after all. A completely understandable mistake, but one we should try to remedy post haste.

Be that as is may, now that the hundred-day benchmark (e.g., disaster) of the Trump administration has come and gone, an equally point-missing analysis of Trump’s failures to implement policy is getting traction: his feckless bumbling to build a conservative governing coalition has led the left wing punditry to conclude that Trump’s lack of success is due largely to the fact that he does not have, and never has had, a political umbilicus. Once a pro-choice democrat, then a Perot-like protectionist, shuttling from being a New York liberal to a country club Republican turned scattershot playboy populist, he’s all over the board, and as such, he’s ensconced himself firmly in the chair of an effete and blustery dictator with no one to dictate to. His populist rhetoric consisting of nothing more than silly shibboleths and asinine aphorisms got him votes, but not the ability to govern. The political neophyte just didn’t understand the limited power of the presidency. He’s never had to answer to a corporate board, or shareholders, and much less two other branches of government. The talent most political pundits have brought to the table is simply this: the ability to state this obvious conclusion in interesting ways, a clever and gleeful schadenfreude. But where does that get us as a society when 97 percent of Trump voters still support him?

I’m troubled by this analytical consensus not because it isn’t true (surely it is), but rather because it is in turn both obvious and pointless, devoid of implications of the ham-fisted policies Trump’s kleptocratic cabinet are (so far unsuccessfully) trying to foist on the American people. People with national reach who are actually talking about the absurdity of Trump’s purblind policy wish list can be counted on a single hand (Reich, Krugman and Kristoff come to mind) while and army of politicos are marching the narrative (and the American body public) over the cliff of savvy analysis, and into a sunless sea filled with lemmings chattering about the horror that is Donald J. Trump as they drown.

Sure, Trump has been unable to implement his most perfidious, backward and counterproductive brain-farts-of-policies, and likely never will. But we’re going to be moving backward until at least January 20, 2021 on crucial game changers for our civilization: environmental degradation, climate change, wealth and income inequality, a necrotizing middle class, and unequal justice for all. And that’s just the start.

From the perspective of public policy, let me be as clear as I can be. Forget for the moment what we might consider political success – getting one’s policies made into public policy, regardless of its efficacy. We’ve had extremely “successful” presidents who’ve been political ideologues (viz. Ronald Reagan) and extremely “successful” presidents who’ve had no discernable political ideology (viz. Franklin Roosevelt), and many in between (George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among others). But to ignore the difference in being politically “successful,” as both Reagan and FDR inarguably were, and guiding the country into the future as a positive force for economic equality and growth, peace, stability, a sense of community (as in we’re all in this together in a complicated world), and yes, a hope that our children might have the chance at a better life, are political journalist’s and pundit’s mistakes to make. Call me a contrarian, but political success is not simply getting one’s way. And the measure of a great nation is not quantified by how its wealthiest live, but rather by how its unluckiest do.

So no, Donald Trump will not be a failed president because he failed at forming a coherent political ideology that could be sold to his own party in Congress. And he will not have failed the country, as other presidents have, because of reasons beyond his political control. He has, and will have, failed the country, while perhaps damaging our already fragile democracy/plutocracy hybrid beyond repair, because he’s an idiot, as are the vast majority of his supporters. As FDR said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

The only chance we will ever have at rebuilding a worthy civilization will depend on the media class recognizing that science- (hard and social) based policies must be talked about and rigorously debated; focusing on the personalities and the political strategies of the players is the forever unrewarded labor of Sisyphus while the country rots around us. Good governance can never successfully have any real relation to political ideology or dogma. That is quite a claim. It will take some explanation.

Ideologies, Dogmas, and Common Sense Deceive Us

One doesn’t hear many economists, or political scientists, or public policy wonks, talk much about the role of the sciences in crafting good public policy. Public policy is mostly based on public perceptions, which are largely molded by economic elites, and as I have often said, bad policy is often good politics. What I mean by “good public policy” is public policy that works for all Americans, not just the rich, and almost by definition, must be stripped of any veneer that claims to represent reality.

We’re slaves to the pairing of two simple words: common (something shared by all) and sense (rationality). Common sense, once our only friend, has become our worst enemy. It needs to be unfriended. The most frequent phrase uttered by my conservative friends when arguing about law and public policy is, “It’s just common sense!” E.g., imprisoning drug dealers and addicts will reduce drug use and abuse, sealing our borders will keep out undesirables who take our jobs and commit violent crimes against us, releasing the shackles of tax and regulation will allow our job creators to create more jobs, and not coddling sexual deviants like those within the LGBT with equal rights will promote healthy traditional lifestyles. (And many more things besides.)

It is true of course that Thomas Paine ─ who Glenn Beck and other Republicans have oddly idolized to the point of beatification ─ used common sense to great effect in his famous pamphlet by the same name. Paine argued that, among other things, there was little reason for an island to rule a continent, the distance between America and Britain made governance difficult, and that Britain ruled America in the interests of Britain without considering the best interests of the colonists. Written in plain language. And solidly based on common sense. It is a beautiful pamphlet: simple, elegant, and correct. When Paine wrote Common Sense almost two and a half centuries ago, science was a novelty, Benjamin Franklin had had only just discovered that lighting was electricity, the extinction of species was but a hypothesis, the basis for modern chemistry was still a decade away, the germ theory of disease wasn’t even on the radar, and we had a comparatively unsophisticated view of how economies worked (I argue that we still do). Indeed, for most of human existence, the only two pillars upon which civilizations could be supported were common sense and religious dogma. Often they complemented one another. (Of course our Earth is the center of the universe – it says so in the bible and we can observe the sun and the stars and the other planets revolving around us!) Our political systems, too, were crude. Slavery was ubiquitous, as were religious inquisitions. Both political and religious patronage, clientelism, and corruption were rife. Women and many minorities, without suffrage, were treated mostly as property of propertied men. The list of the failures of good governance were long and ghoulish, and Paine railed against some of them, speaking truth to power. The central problem we face today is this: while science has progressed remarkably, our political institutions have remained largely stuck three centuries in the past because many of our beliefs have as well.

Common sense, to perhaps state the obvious, is necessary to our survival. Looking both ways before crossing the street. Not driving motor vehicles if under the influence of alcohol. Refraining from sex with intemperate strangers. Avoiding contact with lions or bears. Not shitting where you eat. Among thousands of other things. Through evolution by natural selection, we are biologically disposed to have it (some more than others, as “fail” videos on YouTube amply demonstrate); it keeps us alive so that we can reproduce and spread our genetic heritage.

But common sense rationality also often fools us. We think, for example that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. We are, after all, the center of the universe. At least that’s what humanity believed for the vast majority of its existence. But now we know better (thank you Copernicus). The sun does not rise or set. We live on a planet orbiting around a rather ordinary star, and the appearance of a rising and setting sun is merely a spatial illusion; we’re rotating on our axis at 1,037 miles per hour through space travelling through the cosmos with our solar system and galaxy at a rate of 2.7 million miles per hour. We cannot feel this of course, because we have evolved to sense only the force of our planet’s gravity, the impingement of other movement on our senses would not serve any useful purpose for our survival. It is only through science, which gives no credit or importance to common sense, that we now understand that when compared to the cosmos, we are at best a bacterium, a micro-fauna, on a speck of dust on the leaf of a tree on an entirely forested continent.

David Hume said some two hundred years ago that we know nothing. What we pass off as knowledge is the product of custom, habit, and the application of common sense which is almost bound to be wrong; even in science we cannot observe causation, the best we can do is falsify theories, never prove them. Kant, Schopenhauer, and later Karl Popper seized upon these ideas, creating an impressive body of philosophical work.[i] (Some people still can’t get their heads around Kant’s famous premise that objects conform to our knowledge of them.)

As I’ve said before, paraphrasing a long-out-of-print college history textbook:

If we reduce the age of the earth to our own familiar 24-hour day, the time that elapsed prior to the appearance of humans is 23 hours and 58 minutes. And of the two remaining minutes, which represents the time of humans on earth, the period of civilization is less that the last ½ second. Given this time scale, it should be no surprise that we know almost nothing; certainly what we don’t know vastly dwarfs what knowledge we have sown from science so far in our still brief awakening to sentient existence. [ii]

It seems that we have willingly imprisoned ourselves in Plato’s Cave, refusing to believe the reality presented to us through science. We tend toward finding comfort in the solace that is ignorance, in stolid platitudes and silly slogans posted on social media by the millions a day.

Thinking is hard work.

If this were not bad enough, we are wired to be seekers of patterns and causal connections, no doubt contributing to our survival, but this has a down side, too. When we don’t know something, we are inclined to invent knowledge, mistaking ignorance for truth. Our brains interpret the lack of knowledge as pain, and understanding with pleasure,[iii] whether that understanding is based on verifiable data or not. And for good reason: there is an indisputable evolutionary advantage in acquiring more knowledge, but this becomes an obvious disadvantage when we invent fake knowledge. A troubling observation, to be sure, something that has come to haunt us in the form of fake news, the pride and joy of the Trump administration and the alt-right.

In a purely intellectual sense, these problems of perception, epistemology, psychology and evolutionary biology fascinate me, but they are also key to the most basic problems of human existence on this planet: How are we to govern ourselves? How are we to create free, just, prosperous, and equitable societies? The answer for America has been a representative democracy combined with free market capitalism, but this doesn’t seem to be working nearly as well as it seemed to a half century ago.

Good manufacturing jobs are all but gone. The middle class is well along the well-travelled road to extinction while the wealthiest are living lives of opulence never seen before in human history. Our prisons are splitting at the seams. Racial tensions and police brutality seem to be where they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Otherwise intelligent people believe that bad weather is caused by sin. We are more politically polarized than ever. We seem to be perpetually taking one step forward and two steps back. We’re living in a new Gilded Age where corporations and their wealthy constituents control the government to the inarguable detriment of the rest of society. We seem to be but barely a generation away from The Hunger Games writ large. If this trend can be reversed, it won’t be by choosing any particular political ideology or economic dogma on offer.

We Can’t Understand Good Policy Until We Understand Ourselves

Bryan Magee in his book Confessions of a Philosopher made an important observation. He said that asking, “What is the meaning of life?” is a very bad a priori question. It assumes that the foundational questions have already been answered: such as if there can there be such a thing as a meaning to life, and equally important, if we have a reliable mechanism ascertaining what it might be. If those questions are not reliably answered first, then one is likely to waste quite of lot of time, perhaps a lifetime, pursuing the question of the meaning of life without a proper foundation, leading to infinite false starts, wrong turns, and poetic, perhaps even soothing, casuistry, with no real knowledge to be gained. So too, we must first ask ourselves a foundational question before moving on to the subject of what is good as opposed to bad public policy. That question is: What are we? For example, if we were created in the image of god, and the fundamentalist, literalist traditions within Islam are the divine revealed truth of our creator as given to Mohamed, then the policies of ISIS would be the only way to go. By the same token, if the Jews got it right in their own bible and Jesus was not the son of god, then, well, we have a different result, or then again, perhaps another Abrahamic faith is the real truth of our existence, or then yet again, perhaps an altogether different Eastern faith. (For reasons I think I need not elaborate on, I do not think any are true.) By the same token, if another dogma – an economic as opposed religious one this time –  Milton Freidman’s supply-side, trickle-down program implemented by Ronald Reagan had been the nonpareil tide raising all ships, Reagan would never would have had to raise taxes, and the Clinton presidency would have spelled economic disaster for America. Of course the wealth never trickled down under Reagan (it never even trickled) and Clinton’s Keynesian approach led to one of the longest period of economic growth in U.S. history (and a budget surplus to boot). Of course Dubya was a Reagan fan, and with the help of perpetual wars, the Clinton gains were squandered. Hegel was right it seems: We learn from history that we do not learn from history.   That’s what blind troth in ideology gets you.

Once we have answered the question of what we are (a much easier question that whether or not there can be such a thing as meaning to life), we can tackle the next question: What is the best form of government and economic system to achieve maximum freedom, economic prosperity, and justice for all?

With some disrespect to creationists, we are highly evolved primates,[iv] and were not created by a supreme being from dust or a clot of blood or a rib. We are the products of evolution by natural selection. Our propensity for violence, for tribalism, for irrational cognitive biases, among many other things, are deeply ingrained in us, and it takes an educated mind and a conscious effort to recognize and combat them. We are predisposed to seek out, interpret, and focus on information in a way the confirms our own preconceptions, and arguments against our closely held beliefs only tends to make them stronger, such as our beliefs in particular religious dogmas or political ideologies. (This particular propensity is known as confirmation bias ─ but there are hundreds of others well known in psychology.) We are highly irrational animals, well evolved for living on the African savannah, but not so much for living in modern, complex, crowded, increasingly urban, and technologically-driven societies. This is a problem; we can’t change what we are, but we can understand what we are. The answer, in part, is education, especially within the sciences. Indeed, the lack of the application of social science to law and public policy explains, largely, why conservatism and its ugly younger brother, libertarianism, are so ubiquitous in America and around the globe.

Gaps have to be filled. We’re compelled to do it. We see patterns where they exist, and also where they do not exist. No doubt this led to our survival when 99 percent of our cousins went extinct. But this propensity has become a burden in modern civilizations. How does one explain what one does not know? How does one predict what one cannot predict? One creates a dogma, and from that, an ideology, a lattice around which everything can be explained and predicted. It is comforting even when it is wrong, perhaps especially when it is wrong. The Aztecs thought good things would come to their society as a whole if enough virgins were sacrificed. As mentioned above, college educated public leaders think that bad weather is caused by human sin, ignoring what climatologists say about the effects of global man-made climate change. An Iranian cleric, a man of countless years of “learning” not long ago preached that immodest women cause earthquakes. For most educated people and for all scientists, this is bizarre beyond description. But much of the world still believes this type of Bronze Age feckless stupidity.

There are real differences between Liberals and Conservatives, and some of them appear to be biological, but in a balance-obsessed media culture, they don’t get talked about much. Recent research, covering some 50 years of party politics, reveals that Democrats are generally solution-seekers and practical problem-solvers, building coalitions with groups having similar interests, while Republicans are much more obsessed with ideological purity.[v] This is not to say that politically liberal people are not ideological, as many of them join their politically conservative brethren in marrying themselves to an idea and then unable to divorce it when it is proven hopelessly wrong or misguided (more on that below), but there are fewer of them. Democrats also tend to be smarter. Not only is there a curious and disturbing connection between low I.Q., conservatism, and racism, liberals are generally better educated, and the more educated one becomes, the more liberal one becomes, something that conservatives, unable to ignore, attribute to liberal college professors indoctrinating students into their “cause,” but not surprisingly this turns out to be bad pseudoscience,[vi] not even good enough to be wrong. There’s more. I’ve always been puzzled how fearful my conservative friends are – of death, of crime, of immigrants, of socialism, of voter fraud, of minorities, you name it. As it turns out, my anecdotal experience with social and political conservatives is born out statistically in a recent Pew poll, which found that 58 percent of Republicans think that the ability of terrorists to attack the United States is greater than the time of 9/11 compared to only 31 percent of Democrats, despite that the Conservative assertion is patently false by any metric looked at. It turns out, according to a fascinating study conducted in Britain, people with conservative views tend to have larger amygdalae, the structure in the brain activated by fear.[vii] This raises the perennially fascinating chicken-or-egg question of whether conservatives are born, or their amygdalae are shaped through their personal experiences, or of course, some combination of the two, but it does not matter much. The above findings are being confirmed more every day: conservatives tend to be not great at abstract thinking, undereducated, tribal, driven by fear, and slaves to ideology and dogma. When one finds the modern world so overwhelming, so seemingly incomprehensible when individual pieces are examined up close, one place to turn is ideology – a hook to hang the whole bag one’s beliefs that never need change based on new information, to say that “welfare makes people lazy,” “other people (mostly Mexicans and Chinese) are to blame for our problems.”

I mentioned Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s insights in the opening paragraph of this essay, and to illustrate how ideology will always corrupt public policy, economic ideology provides a very good example.

Hyper forms of state socialism, such as that experienced in Soviet Russia, hyper-forms of capitalism, which we are now enduring (and have suffered through before in the first Gilded Age), and all other absolutist ideologies, will always fail because they are constructs of the human mind, and as such, they claim knowledge to which they cannot know, and ignore evidence which contradicts their veracity. It is, again, a fool’s game where being wrong has little significance: if a society believes that the rains will come if enough virgins are sacrificed, and still the rains do not come, the High Priest, the Grand Shaman, will not be blamed. (Over the course of human history, “truth,” “knowledge,” and “facts” were simply decided by the ruling classes.) After all it is only He who is in direct contact with the gods. He will only say that the drought was caused by impiety, and not enough virgins were sacrificed. More virgins will be sacrificed. And either the rains will still not come and the civilization will wither and die, in which case only those with the capital resources (the high priesthood) will remain, or the rains will come, through no doing of the shaman, and He will claim victory. So, too, if economic prosperity does not come to all through free market capitalism, through the operation of plutocracy, no matter. It is not the fault of for-profit business corporations, but rather the government of the people which was too timorous to fully embrace it and let it turn its swag on, erecting obstacles like regulations and taxes. This is what ideologies and dogmas do so very, very, well – they can never be wrong.

All Politics is Yokel, and That’s a Big Problem Too

Most people are inscrutably ignorant about some very important things that all participants in society should have at least a basic knowledge of, like science, basic geography, economics, and government. Seventy-five percent of Republicans and Evangelicals think that Christianity was written into the Constitution, 80 percent don’t know how many Senators the United States has, almost half the population can’t point to where New York is on a map (much less Iraq or Afghanistan), a quarter of Americans don’t know from which country the United States gained its independence, almost a third don’t know what the Holocaust was, and some 25 percent of Americans think that the sun revolves around the Earth. The list of specific instances of our ignorance is much longer and sobering. And yet we ask these participants in our pseudo-democracy to make informed judgments about policy, and who would be the best representative in government to carry those policies out.

Even more sobering, if not hopelessly depressing, is what too many of us believe to be true is in fact embarrassingly fustian rubbish. Recent polling suggests that 42 percent of Americans think that god created mankind unevolved 10,000 years ago, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Seventy-two percent of adults believe in heaven. Conspiracy theorists routinely mistake correlation with causation and haven’t a clue as to the basic rules of logic, the scientific method, or how to identify logical fallacies. Social media is abuzz with conspiracy theories that Hurricane Mathew was created by FEMA for reasons that are too moronic even to mention. Sixty-six percent of Trump supporters think that Barack Obama is a “secret Muslim” despite the fact that he drinks alcohol, eats pork and professes to be a Christian. Whether people believe these things or simply say them as a way to articulate their dissatisfaction at being ignored for so long is still an open question. But these passionate, disenfranchised people vote nonetheless, and they’re increasingly frustrated with their seemingly hopeless economic plight, misdirecting their animosities through clouded minds and fuzzy thinking, shadowboxing the ghost villains of taxes, big government, regulation, and immigrants, insisting on easy solutions to complex problems, instead of focusing on what is before their very eyes: an increasingly plutocratic system manipulated by people that not only care nothing for them, but openly disdains them. They are, to put it mildly, easily distracted, and easily distractible by the emotional propaganda peddled by plutocrats. They unknowingly, but consistently, vote against their own interests.

Let me illustrate with three short examples. Paul LePage – a high-functioning retard and open racist who thinks immigrants are bringing the “Ziki fly” into his state – was elected to the governorship of Maine. Twice. Although his state, like many others, is suffering from a serious opioid overdose problem, he vetoed a bill which would have allowed pharmacists to dispense anti-overdose drugs without a prescription, claiming it would only encourage drug use, and openly advocates for the beheadings of criminal defendants who kill Mainers. Sam Brownback, another simpleton governor (Kansas) too dumb or naïve or corrupt or blinded by ideology to notice that supply side economic policy works in theory but fails in practice, tanked his state’s economy by cutting both regulations and taxes for the rich. Louisiana’s failed governor, Bobby Jindal, offers us another tale of caution about the application of idiotic supply-side theory. When he took office in 2008 Louisiana had a $1 billion budget surplus; when, after slashing taxes for wealthy business interests, deregulating industry where he could, cutting welfare benefits, and ignoring environmental regulations for Louisiana’s oil and gas industry, in the nation’s second poorest state, he left it with a deficit of $1.6 billion, and unprecedented environmental degradation, adversely affecting the lives and health of hundreds of thousands of Louisianans. Idiots elect other idiots, or people who pretend to be idiots to get elected. This is a problem. Winston Churchill’s quip that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” seems like a more prescient observation now than at any other time in history.

I stole the “All Politics is Yokel” portion of the above heading from Christopher Hitchens, who didn’t coin the phrase, but brought it to life brilliantly in a 2011 article about Michele Bachman for Slate. Curiously, as Hitchens noted, we don’t want our public leaders to be smarter than us. We want our public leaders to be just as dumb as we are. One need only casually observe the political pandering to “regular” folk. Al Gore (for whom I have a great deal of respect because, among other things, he appreciates the value of empirical fact) emphasized his rural upbringing in Tennessee when in fact he was raised as a privileged Senator’s son at a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C. (to his credit, he willingly served in Vietnam, unlike the long list of chicken hawk draft dodgers like George W. Bush and Donald Trump). Bill Clinton, too, the Rhodes Scholar with a genius-level I.Q. of 148, “the man from Hope” Arkansas, spent most of his youth in the ever-so-slightly more worldly Hot Springs. But at least he can claim true hillbilly creds, being the first in his poor, dysfunctional family to graduate from college. The blue-blooded Connecticut Bush’s blushed at their Yankee roots and preferred to pretend they were Texas wildcatters. Joni Ernst, the graduate-degreed junior Senator from Iowa, bragged about having to wear bread bags on her feet as a child and working at the local Piggly-Wiggly. Politicians have learned the hard way that you need to downplay your intelligence, your education, your expertise, your privileged upbringing, if you want to get elected. Never bring your resume to a political debate. Politicians need to identify with voters, and the best way to do that is to dumb yourself down, to become one of them. The very word “elite” has become a pejorative, no doubt due in part to the frequent pairings of economic elite, business elite and political elite, or if you like, Hollywood elite. Of course it has not always been this way. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Adams, were highly educated and privileged elites – political philosophers, writers, military leaders, businessmen, lawyers and scientists. And yet they were elected by a largely illiterate agrarian citizenry who trusted that they had their best interests in mind.[viii] What happened? How have we come to distrust smart people so much? In his book In Defense of Elitism,[ix] William A. Henry III provides a provocative, if not persuasive, answer. Progressive liberalism and its confounding ideology of egalitarianism is to blame, at least partially. The myth propagated by this ideology has been fundamentally ingrained in us among the Left: all men are created equal, how you play the game is more important than winning, all cultures are equally contributors to society as a whole, everyone has something significant to contribute, and the common man is almost certainly always right – the diametric opposite philosophy of Ayn Rand’s caustic cult of individualism. But like Rand’s rantings, this too is hogwash. (The open acceptance of this egalitarian ideal has foisted upon us the scourges of moral relativism, cultural relativism, and the banal, parochial absurdities of political correctness.) These things are so obviously not the case in reality that I am confounded that any educated person could believe them.

Liberal readers may be feeling a flush coming on right about now, so poor yourself a Boulevarder, and brace yourselves for a modest revelation: some cultures contribute next to nothing to world civilization, some people are dumb through no fault of their own, objective achievement is nothing to be ashamed of, and the common man is more often than not wrong about just about everything. Disagree if you like, cling to your confirmation bias if you must, but note that, as Freud once said, the truth need not be something we must find agreeable.

Nonetheless, this puts politicians in a tough position. Identifying with your dumb constituency and agreeing with their incoherent views of the world – or coherent but incorrect views of the world –to get elected is one thing. Getting reelected is another. To do so you must have a credible argument that you have at least tried to turn your voters’ dangerous and dunderheaded perspectives into some form of policy. (Whether the politician actually believes her constituency’s views, while speculatively interesting, is irrelevant.) At the same time, you must please your wealthy benefactors with legislation that favors their interests at the expense of your poorer constituency. In sum, our political process, our very own human condition, has left us in a quagmire of absurdity. Legislators are beholden both to their rich financiers and their birdbrained base voters at the same time. A third of voters who see this clearly, both the forest and the trees, are a dissolute minority. The result is that the credulous voter finds herself (at best) within a maze of political sophistry or (at worst) an infinite library of riddles worthy of Borges’ fertile imaginings in “The Library of Babel.”

Sean Otto, author of The War On Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, noted recently in an article for Scientific American, that in this new era of “post-fact politics,” the denial of scientific evidence that conflicts with political, religious or economic agendas has become normalized. Otto went on to say in the same article that

[o]ver the last 25 years the political right has largely organized itself along antiscience lines that have become increasingly stark: fundamentalist evangelicals, who reject what the biological sciences have to say about human origins, sexuality and reproduction, serve as willing foot soldiers for moneyed business interests who reject what the environmental sciences have to say about pollution and resource extraction. In 1990, for example, House Democrats scored an average of 68 percent on the League of Conservation Voters National Environmental Scorecard and Republicans scored a respectable 40 percent. But by 2014 Democrats scored 87 percent whereas Republican scores fell to just over 4 percent.

Such rejection is essentially an authoritarian argument that says “I don’t care about the evidence; what I say/what this book says/what my tribe says/what my wallet says goes.” This approach is all too human, and is not necessarily conscious. It is, rather, reflective of the sort of confirmation bias scientists themselves continually guard against. Francis Bacon noted the problem at the beginning of the scientific revolution, observing: “What a man had rather were true he more readily believes.” Conservatives notice that many scientists are, in fact, left-leaning. If one is not a scientist, and is conservative, a shorthand is brought to bear, with suspicion of the science as—rather than an objective statement—being a politically motivated argument from the left.

But liberals should not be gloating or feeling superior, as there are quite a lot of embarrassing antiscience beliefs among them as well, as liberal anti-vaccine and anti-GMO advocates so readily demonstrate. Liberal intellectuals have long preached the merits of postmodernist identity politics – that all truth is relative and subjective, that believing that the sun revolves around the Earth is as equally true as thinking otherwise, that we all construct our own truths and they are equally valid. This may be comforting (I personally can’t see how), but it is dumb nonetheless. The grandiloquent essay “Material Issue” by intellectual historian Jackson Lears is a perfect example of this asininity. In his fervent argument against scientific reductionism, he attacks Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris for scientism, which is, according to his own definition, “the redefinition of a science to a metaphysic, promising precise answers to age-old ultimate questions.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as nothing these three people have said indicate that this is what they believe. And even if they did, I will never understand why this would cause anyone any particular existential angst. He goes on to accuse the failures of neoliberalism on scientism, and even goes as far as to call evolutionary psychology “pop-Darwinism.” This is bizarre. In the world of fake news (not Trump’s “fake news” which is simply news he doesn’t like), the world hardly needs people who think that their beliefs or their “knowledge” – however authority-driven, alternative, or simply objectively daft it is – is equal to objective truths we have gleaned from the application of the scientific method to the natural world. Of course people are perfectly free to believe that the Earth is flat, manmade global climate disruption is a “scam to fund vacations up in the Antarctic,” or any else easily proven to be empirically false, drawn from the deepest well of human ignorance. But when such views are woven into the fabric of public policy, as they now are, it is hard to see how our planet’s species can survive in any meaningful way. And no, Dr. Lears, the failures of neoliberalism are the failures of an economic dogma, not of science.

This essay should give both liberal and conservative partisans a lot to bitch about. In my view, Republican voters are mostly dumb, hopelessly gullible, irrationally fearful of shadows, living in a cave formed from by millenia of ideology and dogma, too afraid to look outside at how the world might actually function in the sunlight of clear thinking. They elect either cynical leaders who are laughing themselves into the halls of power or the vaults of the bank (or both), or stupid leaders who actually believe the poppycock they so successfully promote. Democratic voters, in turn, though smarter and more issue-oriented, have bought, hook, line and sinker, the idea of egalitarianism as a universal truth, their leaders selling this brand of Bovine Scat almost equally well, and now we’re all choking on that rotting fish of coddling political correctness and silly side issues. We can happily debate cultural appropriation or identity politics when we live in an economically prosperous and economically equitable society. But instead public leaders on both sides have embraced – either fully or tepidly – the religion of neoliberalism. Political leadership has become more about internecine wars of rhetoric rather than a dispassionate application of what we already know toward implementing rational public policy fair for all of society. Not only is the truth not something we must find comforting or agreeable, it may be something we will never have the ability to know with absolute certainty. But striving to discover what it might be while fighting against obfuscation, pandering, self-interestedness, and cognitive bias, is the worthiest and most important goal of all.

If that were not a bleak-enough portrait, it gets worse. Perhaps the most fascinating – and depressing – book published in 2016 was The Enigma of Reason, written by cognitive researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, where they outline in convincing detail the very limits of reason. According to them, reason evolved as a mechanism to resolve problems posed by living in collaborative groups, and not to enable us to solve logical problems or make sound judgments after evaluating unfamiliar data. This, like much of what is discussed above, is counterintuitive in the extreme. Wouldn’t, through the process of evolution, abstract reasoning be selected for? In other words, wouldn’t humans who were poor at reasoning eventually be eliminated from the gene pool? The authors argue that in hunter-gatherer tribes, there was far less advantage to reasoning clearly than winning arguments – making sure that you weren’t being taken advantage of by your potentially selfish peers. Thus we have confirmation bias: sticking to your guns (or more strongly believing your erroneous beliefs) even when overwhelming counter-evidence is presented.  Not only do people have a natural tendency to believe that they know more than they actually do, what they think they know is, as often as not, un-remediated bullshit. In everyday life this may be relatively harmless, but when it comes to law and policy, it has gotten society, and our larger civilizations, in quite a lot of trouble.

The good news, of course, is that although reason may not have evolved to help us with problem solving, it can and has been hijacked to do just that, as our scientific and technological progress indubitably indicates. Alas, though, scientists don’t elect governments.

I hold no illusion that a majority of people will ever think like I do, or that I have any chance of convincing them to abandon their insidious belief systems; I just can’t bring myself to be diplomatic about willful ignorance. Others are better at that, and therefore probably more effective in actually changing minds. If they are, they should concentrate on our only hope: promoting pragmatism, embracing economic and other policy ideas that work for all people while rejecting those that do not, and making adjustments along the way as needed. To do this, however, we must excise the cancer of dogma and ideology from our minds and recognize our own human nature. The medicine to eliminate or at least shrink this cancer, the cancer-fighting cocktail, if you will, is education combined with a sea change in our political discourse. One cannot happen without the other. This would be no easy task, and perhaps ultimately a Sisyphean one, but not trying is not an option if world civilization is to have any hope of sustainability.

Which is Why the Political Media Needs to Focus on Policy, Not Politics

Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. He could have been describing the liberal class of American political pundits. Their intellectual heft could be put to much better use in talking about how specific policies really affect the lives of Americans. While surely they would agree that average voters need to be better informed, they’re afraid that getting into the weeds of public policy would be too boring, and eruditely calling the play by play of Trump’s floundering political ground game is undoubtedly thrilling. I don’t begrudge them that. Schadenfreude feels good. But for the love of god, our planet is at stake here.

And it is not as if the American body politic is deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to realizing the importance of policy. After all, the recent cris de cœur of righteous indignation at town hall meetings across the country about the possibility of the Republican Congress of actually repealing the Affordable Care Act is evidence enough.

So no, Donald J. Trump’s lack of political ideology is not a handicap to his political success, if you define political success as accomplishing something genuine for the betterment of America and all of her socioeconomic classes – her elite WASPs and her tired, and poor, and brown alike, instead of just possessing the sufficient political capital to enact one’s agenda.

Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity, though, brought about by his glaring flaws of character and intelligence, are a silver lining inasmuch as they almost guarantee that the worst of his pernicious policies will never be implemented. Of course the silver lining to this cloud has its dark side too: pragmatic progressive science-based policies during the reign of this administration are dead in the water as well. Absent a biblical miracle, hope at meaningful progress during this administration must be shelved.

By way of analogy, as mentioned, our most admired modern American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wasn’t an ideologue either. He was a rational pragmatist within the tradition of Benjamin Franklin. He best summed up his lack of political ideology by saying, “I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all.” He changed the course of American and world history in his first 100 days in office by implementing pragmatic policy solutions during the darkest days of the American experiment, jettisoning those that didn’t work and making permanent those that did. Trump’s lack of political ideology is best summed up in his own words as well: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure. It’s not your fault.” His is the ideology of a petty cult of personality.

And that sums it up. Political ideology is a palliative, not a cure. Not everyone within the political media can be a Krugman or a Reich, but everyone can talk about progressive policy ideas that work, and conservative policies that do not. We consigned the Ptolemaic model of our solar system to the dustbin of history 500 years ago for the heliocentric model. We openly and rightly ridicule people who think spirits cause disease instead of germs. We trust engineers to build our airplanes and not imams. There is no reason in principle or practice that we cannot apply science and reason to politics and public policy. FDR was right – a democracy will fail without an educated electorate. There will always be conservative media outlets the cynically selling the seductive pap of obscurantism and a failed ideology, and the advantage is theirs: fear, tribalism, and greed sells (sometimes you can’t keep it on the shelves). We’re genetically predisposed to it. But we’re also capable of learning.

Yes, liberal media, you were right about Trump as his first hundred days in office have indubitably proven. Yes, he is a monster, a fraud, a liar, a dunce, a bad businessman, and a wholly incapable national leader. But at some point the back patting must stop and the educating must begin in earnest. I can hear the objections already: “Our job is to report, not educate!” No, your job is to inform people about what is true. That means saying that while not all Trump voters are racists, all racists voted for Donald Trump; that the roots of tribalism and racism are partially biological; that the principles of economics is mostly dogma; that most socialist democracies have a higher standard of living and a larger middle class in proportion to their population than America; that too many conservatives unwittingly vote against their own interests; that what you believe based on intuition is almost always bound to be wrong; that voters are not yet powerless against plutocrats; that our problems have nothing to do with immigration; that climate change is real and we’re slowly killing our planet (and ourselves with it). That we can solve the problems that we created by educating ourselves and implementing good public policies that work for all Americans and not only the wealthy. And many more things besides.

With the notable exceptions of immigration, race relations, and the environment, Trump supporters are not significantly different from the supporter of Bernie Sanders on almost every other policy position: neoliberalism, the economy, wealth inequality, maintaining Social Security and Medicare, and avoiding more foreign military adventures. Indeed, many people who ended up supporting Trump had voted for Obama in the prior presidential contest, and seriously flirted with the Sanders campaign. Had Sanders been the Democratic nominee instead of Clinton, he would have won. That gives me hope.

Endnotes:

[i] For an excellent, delightfully readable overview of these philosophical works, see, e.g., Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher (New York: Radom House) 1998.

[ii] Greer, Thomas H., A Brief History of Western Civilization (5th Ed.), (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987), p. 6.

[iii] See, e.g., Kringelbach, Marten L. and Berridge, Kent C. (Eds.), Pleasures of the Brain, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[iv] If there were a single book to put to rest the feckless idea that we are somehow not the products of evolution by natural selection, it would have to be Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth. But, alas, willful ignorance is a too-powerful force.

[v] See, e.g., generally, Grossman, Matt and Hopkins, David A., Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, Oxford University Press, 2016.

[vi] See, e.g., generally, Gross, Niel and Simmons, Solomon (Eds.), Professors and Their Politics, John Hopkins University Press, 2014 (a series of studies indicating that the political leanings of professors have very little correlations with beliefs of their students upon graduation).

[vii] Kanai, Ryota, et al., “Political Orientations Are Correlated With Brain Structure in Young Adults,” Current Biology 21(8), p 677-80, April 26, 2011.

[viii] See, e.g., generally, Wood, Gordon S., Revolutionary Characters: What Made The Founders Different, New York: Penguin 2006.

[ix] Henry, William A., In Defense of Elitism, New York: Doubleday, 1994.

No, Donald Trump is Not an Evil Genius

Political and psychological analysis of Donald J. Trump has come so hard and fast after his election that it has almost become an interdisciplinary academic school in and of itself. This of course is understandable, as never in our nation’s history have we elected such an ignorant charlatan who has never had an even infinitesimal interest in public service, and has probably never read a book that wasn’t illustrated. People (non-Trump voters) are understandably shaking their heads and asking, why? How? This can’t be!

Not exactly a nuanced thinker

After his election, journalists and academics from all political appetites got down to the business dissecting and analyzing every desiccated strand of Trump’s hair: how he won, how he pays no price for his many mendacities, why his supporters by and large still like him, among many more topics. You could fill a multi-volume encyclopedia with the think pieces that have been written. The Trump phenomena is, after all, an intriguing and unprecedented enigma.

One of these threads of late has been how brilliant Trump is at manipulating the media using unpredictable tactics – baiting and switching, obfuscating, and touting conspiracy theories via Twitter at just the right time to divert attention away from his growing number of gruesome self-inflicted political wounds. To many on the left he is seen as a megalomaniacal evil genius, a master tactician of feckless Machiavellianism. On the right, he’s manhandling the biased media in a way that has never been done before, delightfully sowing fear, loathing and confusion in his wake. Both are wrong.

Much of this speculation is simply a case study for how to overanalyze. If William of Occam were still around he would conclude that the great bulk of these theories are wrong for a simple reason: Donald J. Trump is just an impulsive narcissist and a borderline moron, a very slightly more sophisticated version of his contemporary and New York’s other famous idiot, “Teflon Don”—John Gotti. This is a much easier explanation, with equal explanatory power concerning our Commander and Chief’s behavior.

Take, as one example, Trump’s series of tweets accusing former President Obama of wiretapping him, without providing, of course, evidence. This got deep, heavy, media coverage, and rightfully so. But that coverage then led the cognoscenti to wonder: Weren’t these accusations against Obama a brilliant distraction from the Russia collusion scandal? Keyboards sizzled as writers pontificated. Not surprisingly, as it turns out, Trump had just belched up some conspiracy he’d seen on – where else? – Fox News, by its international conspiracy theory correspondent, Judge Andrew Napolitano, who had culled the pap from “anonymous sources” which probably means Breitbart. These writers didn’t stop to think about the fact that Trump has had a habit of tweeting about anything and everything that he happens to find personally offensive, at all hours, based on dubious sources or no sources at all. Or that the President’s tweets only intensified the Russian “Manchurian Candidate” speculation. It seems entirely unlikely that Trump thought about this either.

Of course it’s easy to understand this basic instinct of the literati. This man assumed the presidency of the United States of America – inarguably the most powerful executive position that has ever existed on our planet – while withstanding the white-hot gauntlet of righteous indignation from the members of his own (professed) party. He achieved what was thought to be impossible only a year ago. Surely there must be something behind the hairspray, the grotesque hindquarters, the seeming inability to construct a coherent (much less grammatically correct and logically consistent) sentence on his feet. But, given his rapid ascendency, must he not possess some undefinable talent, not unlike an idiot-savant, which we must try to understand?

No, I say, and so would Occam: he’s no idiot-savant. He’s just a deeply flawed, wealthy moron. His political campaign was not the result of any masterplan or mastermind at work. Even he didn’t think he was going to win. It remains doubtful as to whether he ever wanted the job. We can go on and on analyzing how he won: an ineffectual Clinton campaign ignoring the Rust Belt, white middle class economic angst, an indifferent body politic, racism, white nationalism, the growing influence of the alt-right, a flawed election system, James Comey, ad nauseam. And in any combination one wishes. Trump’s election was a happenstance of history, a perfect and unfortunate storm of circumstance and luck. A much less definitive answer will always be elusive – any single factor could have changed the game. But it didn’t – politics is politics, it is not physics, as pollsters and pundits have so indubitably demonstrated to us. No, Trump is not a perfidious puppeteer, and how some political writers ostensibly believe this is a somewhat beguiling.

***

I can’t remember a time when I ever thought Donald Trump was a smart person. He and his acolytes on the alt-right milk the encomiastic meme that he’s a self-made man and negotiator nonpareil. But even in the 1990s, when his spoken words were slightly more intelligible, he came across as an insufferable self-promoter and real estate con man who lucked into a fortune. His personal history, when stripped of the glitter of hagiography, supports this view.

While he says, unsurprisingly, “I’m like a smart person,” he won’t release his college transcripts. Of course Presidents seldom voluntarily release their transcripts, but no President has ever prated so much about his own intelligence, and besides, didn’t Trump demand that Obama release his transcripts? He also claims to have gotten his start with a “small” million-dollar loan from his father, omitting the fact that he was also a trust fund kid, had testified in a deposition that he borrowed $9 million from his father’s estate, and according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), was given somewhere around $14 million by his father, Fred. Moreover, dad bailed him out of a bad casino deal with an illegal $3.5 million loan. Bloomberg News estimated Trump’s net worth at around $2.9 billion, not very close to Trump’s own $10 billion claim. He isn’t even among the top 20 richest real estate moguls in the world, but has been involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits (and counting). Had he simply invested his money in index funds, his net worth today would be closer to $13 billion. He operated a fake charity and a fake university, the latter of which cost him $25 million in a fraud settlement. Combined with his multiple bankruptcies, these facts hardly paint a picture of a smart businessman. By any honest account, he is a walking, talking, breathing fraud.

Trump is not particularly good at abstract thought, and has no patience for policy; like a bird, he’s mostly a bundle of instincts, appropriately demonstrated by his tweets. He surrounds himself with likeminded conspiracy theorists like Steve Bannon, and in the course of less than a hundred days has managed to change a flawed but functioning democracy into a third world kakistocracy/kleptocracy hybrid. He should not be given evil genius creds because it is entirely likely this was never his plan. Such a plan would require an actual political philosophy and coherent thinking. Nor do his current and former supporters deserve a shred of sympathy: they are either ignorant, credulous, complicit in Trump’s prevarications, or some amalgam of the three, and were therefore willing participants in strengthening the lattice of lies that ensconced him in the White House.

Trump is, and will always be, a failure – as a businessman, as a person, as the President of the United States. No financial net worth calculation will ever be able to change that.

Calling a Duck a Duck

“Alt-Right” is a Convenient Fiction: It’s Just the Right With A Modem

Many people have apparently forgotten that haplessly ignorant and hopelessly angry conspiracy theorists who sometimes couch their white supremacist leanings in obscurantist academic language have been included within the “big tent” of the Republican Party since 1965. This is simply an observation of fact, if one is to give any countenance to what most within the “alt-right” say they believe. How are their feckless ideas fundamentally different from those within the John Birch Society? Or the more important rhetorical question: How are their beliefs fundamentally different from the average mainstream Conservative who only repeats them as off-the-record whispers into the hairy ears of his peers at the country club bar?

There are a million ways to slice and dice the “real” reason Donald J. Trump got elected, and impressive efforts have been made to attribute it to third party candidates, white middle class angst, a fundamentally misguided Clinton campaign, fake news stories, the archaic electoral college model, and many others.  It of course could have been any of these things individually, and more likely a combination of some or all of these things, but without the “alt-right” and their preposterous, simplistic but easily digestible memes aimed at the ignorati, it is hard to see how Trump could have been elected. Could Trump have won without the “alt-right”? Sure, and for any of the above reasons. But the “alt-right” were game-changers in ways that none of the other competing theories are.

The “alt-right” doesn’t have anything new to contribute, and they don’t have any coherent political philosophy. They just learned how to use a computer.

Yes, I make the not-so-bold claim that the influence of the “alt-right” got their guy and their party elected, or, as this claim can never be empirically verified, it was enormously influential.

And their guy and their party must now dance with them that brung ‘um.

Realize, too, and equally importantly, that the very term “alt-right” is a misnomer, which is why I put it in quotes. Since Obama’s election in 2008 the “alt-right” became the “actual-Right” – the Right of reality, and let’s not insult everyone’s intelligence by pretending otherwise, that their ideas are somehow new, or important, or intelligible. And let’s not also pretend that this is some kind of new mutation of a virus infecting Conservative politics. If anything, it is simply an extension of old ideas by a social media medium that easily reaches people without requiring them to do anything so strenuous as to read a book.

The “alt-right” moniker used to describe Trump supporters should be discarded for simple “the Right,” or if you prefer, “Conservative.” You could even do the Prince thing and say, “The party formerly known as the Conservative Party,” but that’s a mouthful, and it wouldn’t clarify anything. (As Bill Maher once noted, “survival seeds” are really just “seeds.”)

The “alt-right” label does not procure us with any new insight, does not enlighten us, and it does not provide any new, particularly useful information. There’s simply no need to complicate things with a further descriptive. It’s been tried before. These reckless ideologues and irresponsible fakirs have been called the “far right,” “neoconservatives,” “paleoconservatives,” among other names, none of which stuck. Why? As I said, there’s simply no need for a new name. Certainly there’s a want for a new name, as it could have the effect of decoupling the racist kooks from mainstream Republicans, giving them political cover from being too closely associated with the the mentally ill and the shameless liars who spout the silly shibboleth “cuckservatives” (more on who those people are below), but it would be superfluous.

I think that too many people really don’t get this, and I feel the strange need to belabor the point somewhat, so please indulge me. By way of analogy, when you tell someone that you’re an American, do they ask you, “Really, from what country?” It might be a pedantically correct question because Mexicans (the ones actually living Mexico) are also Americans, if geography and history are to be considered. But it would also be an embarrassingly scholastic question. In the real world, when you tell someone that you are an American, they are not confused about what country you’re from. And in the real world when someone tells you that they’re a Conservative, there should be no confusion that they are from the party that supports Know-Nothing nativism, and has done so for more than a century. Now, though, they (Conservatives) have become so dumb that they’ve lost any pretense of diplomatic subtlety. Perhaps this was a result of having a sophisticated, educated scholar, gentleman, and black bon vivant in the White House for 8 years instead of a monosyllabic borderline moron from Connecticut who pretended to be a Texas Wildcatter and chews with his mouth open. Nobody knows. But this is, in my view, a good thing. It is always better to deal with open racists and people wearing tinfoil hats than people who pretend not to be racists, or sane, hiding their tinfoil hat under waves of orange comb overs.

The dog whistles are gone now, or at least now both dogs and humans can hear them.

romney-and-trump
Photo credit: MSNBC

How can I be so sure that the “alt-right” and the Conservative Right are just slightly different curings of the same beef? For a very simple reason. Those “cuckservatives” who so indignantly, righteously, and correctly, excoriated Donald J. Trump with unambiguous recursives throughout the long campaign, are now glad-handing him in the hope of serving in his administration. What Conservative among them refused to meet with him on principle? Who among them stood by their faux egalitarian, pluralist principles and denounced him? I haven’t been able to find a single one. The oft-repeated refrain from Trump supporters is, “He says what I am thinking.” Indeed, you’re thinking at a primary school level and you’re newly-anointed leader is speaking at the same level, often lower. And the shameless pilgrimage of newly-reformed, born-again acolytes to the Mecca of all that is wrong with the world – the Trump Tower – is proof that Conservative leaders agreed with Trump all along too, but because they were politicians, they just couldn’t say so, and like Trump himself, they thought he would lose anyway. But now that the game has changed, they no longer have to speak in code about their insidious ideas, and what a relief it must be to shed the heavy and false raiment of reason and say what you think, as grotesque as it is.

I could be wrong of course – I am, after all, imputing motives to the actions of desperate aspirants that they themselves deny, and therefore this is circumstantial evidence to be sure. It could be that they disagree with Trump but still think they can be instrumental in their respective roles in public service. But one might find it worth considering that their boss has never shown even the remotest interest in public service through the course of his silk-pajamad life, unless you count his fake charity or fake university. Or perhaps they think they will be serving the country and not the man running it. One doesn’t have to be completely politically jaded to dismiss that theory, though. Let’s be serious.

More broadly, this political amalgam of mostly poorly educated jingoists and xenophobes calling themselves Conservatives must always remain under the “big tent” of the Republican party for the very simple reason that if they split into different factions they would cancel out any real political influence they have held as a group; if they split into a Old-Conservative (pre-Tea Party) party and a New-Conservative (post-Breitbart) party, the big circus tent would collapse on itself and competing carnival barkers would drown themselves out. The internecine wars would not be survivable. I wouldn’t complain, but I’m not credulous enough to think it will happen. After all, we saw how politically ineffective Conservatives were when they found themselves between the two (politically) geologic periods of Obama’s election in 2008 and his reelection in 2012, which very nearly became the Permian-Triassic “dying out” for the Republican Party – but was saved by a little known organisms, like rural toothless hillbillies teaming up with resentful post-industrial Rust Belt garret-dwellers, who in turn developed symbiotic relationships with wealthy neoliberals, internationalists and the primordial slime of simpletons of all demographic groups, to create a more diverse and complex system which allowed it to survive, and apparently thrive. But like all complex systems, its survival comes with a price – inherent instability.

Conservatives are mad at the world, but their members can’t completely agree as to why they should be: minorities are taking their jobs (especially Mexicans), America was tricked into electing a secret Muslim from Kenya, manmade global climate disruption is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and the ultimate goal of Liberals is to see America become a communist fagtopia arm of the United Nations by taking away our guns (or any combination of the above, or all of the above, and many more absurdities as well).

As it turns out, these new Conservatives should be justly angry about many things. They should be angry that their Conservative leader for 8 years, a man so dumb he has become somewhat of a cult figure within the movement (and now spends his time finger painting wounded soldiers in his garage), sent young men and women into senseless wars of choice having much more to do with neoliberalist economic theology than its (much more effective) branding as “freedom” – because we don’t want average publicly-educated children to bothered with any author as scary and confusing as George Orwell. They should be mad that they have been conned for decades into voting against their own interests. They should be mad that the very same Conservative leaders who they worship openly, also despise them and ridicule them, openly. Indeed they should be angry at both major political parties for selling the snake oil of silly side issues like political correctness, identity politics, terrorist cells infiltrating the Homeland by parading as Syrian refugees, and the clear and imminent danger of transgender people using a restroom different from what their God-assigned individual genitalia told them their assigned restroom should be.

But the important issues do not anger them, because they’re not largely aware of them, or if aware of them, only vaguely. And their animosities are so easily misdirected by more emotional and visceral manufactured threats.

Things like economic theory or political philosophy are obscured by the grime on the lenses of perfectly serviceable reading glasses, and yes, I know that I am risking taking this analogy too far to imply that they cannot read. Of course they can read. They just cannot see well. The reason for their myopia is not their own doing, it is the result of the disease that was given to them by the very people who benefit from their legal blindness – the “alt-right” – the new Conservatives.

It did not used to be this way of course. There was a time when Conservatives were not bat-shit crazy, angry, confused nut jobs from an alternate universe, or kids with so little moral character or emotional intelligence that they value shock value over all else. Sure, some of their base tendencies were similar with their bad seed offspring – they tended to be white and privileged, slightly racist, fearful of change, and subject to unquestioning belief in dogma. But they weren’t crazy. They were part of an intellectual movement, a movement like all intellectual movements before and since, struggling to make sense of the world, and in doing so providing a framework in which one could hope to decipher reality, filtering out both the observable and non-observable objective facts that were superfluous and distracting to true human understanding of how a good human society could be achieved. They were people like William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will. Of course Buckley is dead and Will has been sidelined with most the rest of his reasonable, intellectual brethren, in the face of a movement that they themselves inspired, but has now cannibalized their leaders’ once respectable, if not at least intelligible, ideas, and shat them out as transmogrified demagogic slogans and memes, never having fully digested them. The stench is overpowering. But like a dog eating its own vomit, the stink is apparently overpoweringly seductive for the semi-sentient. To complete this offal scatology analogy – if for no other reason than to shock sensitive readers – one might remember the quote from Gabriel García Márquez, “…the day shit is worth money poor people will be born without an asshole.”

Never mind. While I never agreed with most of the arguments of the (now dead or well into the final death-rattle) intellectual conservative movement, but in the heady days in the marketplace of ideas, you could argue with them about economic policy, about social policy, and any number of other things like philosophy and sociology, and they would be well-versed in the arcane theories of Keynes and Kant and Nietzsche, and we could even agree on many objective facts in the process, of course differing on interpretation and details. They were passionate and persuasive debaters, and their arguments often made intuitive sense. The closest one can come now to any Conservative who is in power and can speak in complete sentences is the automaton in the form of Paul Davis Ryan (R-Wis), the current Speaker of the House whose apparatchiks think of him as some kind of policy wonk when he is in reality a gym rat man-boy who fell in love with Ayn Rand and never got over her.

But then something happened. Many of their policy ideas were put into practice. And time passed. And everyone could see without the need of intellectualizing that their theories just didn’t work, at least for the average American.

homeless-camp
Photo credit: USA Today
apacolypse
Photo credit: Daily Mail

Out of many possible examples, let me just give the most obvious one. The sine qua non of economic policy for Conservatives like Paul Ryan, to put it in its most sanitized form, is “supply-side” – reducing taxes for the wealthy and reducing regulations for corporations, which, as the story goes, would result in higher growth and higher investment, and the economic benefits that the wealthy would obviously filter down to the less rich, the workers, and to society as a whole (hence this theory’s more pungent name of “trickle down” economics). Economists like Milton Friedman and many others built whole careers on this fallacy. It was implemented in earnest with Ronald Reagan’s economic policies in 1980. The problem was of course that nothing trickled down. It didn’t even dribble. Almost four decades later, after being applied liberally (no pun intended), it became increasingly more difficult to convince people that it was working, or that it simply was never given a fair chance at working, or had been ruined by the sabotage of another competing party in power with a different theory. Even the congenitally or willfully ignorant could see that this was the case, without having to think too hard about it – it was felt in everyday life. Our grey post-apocalyptic industrial cities and towns are here, the homeless encampments are here, the food banks who turn hungry people away because there is no food are here, the record breaking Dow is here, and the full employment rate at crappy service industry jobs are here too. One need only open her eyes to see these things.

But when one invests a lifetime of intellectual energy propagating an argument, or as in this case be, a beautiful but dangerous illusion (neoliberal theology), it is a dreadfully hard habit to give up. So the passion for the argument has not abated, at least within the circles of conservative economic ideas, and neither did its sophistic leanings, or perhaps even its dogmatic principles. But at some point the all-powerful force of dogmatic belief had to eventually come in some sort of contact with the immovable object of economic reality. So conservatives simply gave up on reasoned argument and began selling fear and loathing, which have very good historical records of moving public opinion in one’s favor, as it requires no thought or analysis, only an amygdala and consciousness.

Progressives like very much to demonize Conservatives as being dimwitted knuckle-draggers too dumb to consider facts and too dumb to accept the realities of objective truth. Conservatives, likewise, very much like to demonize Progressives as pie-in-the-sky “knee-jerk” educated-beyond-their-means Liberals, who have no hard-felt ideological roots and will take them to wherever their interest-based political winds will blow them. Both of these absolutes are wrong, but if there were not some seed of truth to these generalizations, these stereotypes could never have taken root.

Conservatism, in principle, isn’t a bad thing. Teddy Roosevelt was a conservative, and he wanted, mostly, to conserve the natural environment. He almost single-handedly created our national park system and was the forerunner of our environmental protection laws. And Progressives love him for this. Yes, Liberal Progressives can love a Conservative. And Conservatives can love a Liberal right back. After all, none other than Richard Millhouse Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave us the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Yet Progressives excoriate Teddy for being a war-mongering, racist populist, as perhaps they should. And Conservatives excoriate Nixon as being a race-baiting political opportunist, as perhaps they should. Conservatives want to conserve – our democracy, our heritage, our way of life, our hopes and our dreams for a better future. Progressives want to progress beyond conservation, into the bold new world of possibilities, where all men being created equal is not just an aphorism. The instincts of these two groups have found common ground in the past, and if history is any guide, will again in the future. Their ideas need not become a diametrically opposed zero-sum game. Regressive dreamers of a golden-white Norman Rockwell past that never really existed but want to make it re-exist with the hocus-pocus of hyper-free market capitalism and white pride vs. progressive dreamers that a brave new world of equality can be created using the same magic.

Pragmatists, consigned to the bench, sit on sidelines, scratching their heads, writing essays like this, adjusting their jocks, and smelling their fingers.

It has been widely reported that coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News – the milquetoast powerhouses of basic news dissemination, spent a total of 32 minutes of airtime on coverage of public policy issues – crime, abortion, civil rights, the environment, poverty, etc. – compared to 220 minutes in 2008. During the Republican primary season, the networks spent 333 minutes on Donald Trump alone. Of course they did – facts and issues are mostly depressing, and talking about them when there is man who looks like an immolated orangutan with a bad wig would kill ratings. The major networks are not dumb. They’re just sycophantic followers of money at any cost, not unlike the racist they gave so much coverage to and helped to elect.

But I digress. The Conservative parties, both here and abroad, are parties of feckless white nationalists, blinded by a failed ideology of individualism and neoliberalism. Liberal parties, both here and abroad, are rainbow coalition parties guided by the failed ideology of what’s-in-it-for-me idealism, and neoliberalism too. The only people talking sense, the Bernie Sanders’s of the world, are not being listened to because the gatekeepers of ideas won’t let them be heard.

Conservatives can try to surgically excise deplorables from their platform by calling them “alt-right,” but that’s just an obvious ploy to distance themselves from the very people who elected them, and by extension, who will govern all of us. Why Liberals have accepted this labeling game is less clear. They would be better off to put all of them into the same sack and just call them Conservatives; of course they have differences, but it is a mistake to focus on those differences instead of their commonalities. Clinton was half-right to call half of Trump supporters “deplorables.” Half-right because they are all deplorables. You, Trump supporter, might be the most honest morally upright example of a hominid in the world, and supported the President-elect for a legitimate reason (e.g., he doesn’t like the Trans-Pacific Partnership), but in doing so you had have to have ignored every other deplorable thing he stood for, which is a moral failing if there ever was one.

I’m just calling a duck a duck.

Common Sense is Killing Us

We’re slaves to the pairing of two simple words: common (something shared by all) and sense (rationality). Common sense, once our only friend, has become our worst enemy. We need to defriend it, to scuttle it, to relegate is to the ages past.

 

The most frequent phrase uttered by my conservative friends when arguing about law and public policy is, “It’s just common sense!” E.g., imprisoning drug dealers and addicts will reduce drug use and abuse, sealing our borders will keep out undesirables who take our jobs and commit violent crimes against us, releasing the shackles of tax and regulation will allow our job creators to create more jobs, and not coddling sexual deviants like homosexuals with equal rights will promote healthy traditional lifestyles.

common sense

True, Thomas Paine ─ who Glenn Beck and other Republicans have oddly idolized to the point of beatification ─ used common sense to great effect in his famous pamphlet by the same name.

Paine argued that, among other things, there was little reason for an island to rule a continent, the distance between America and Britain made governance difficult, and that Britain ruled America in the interests of Britain without considering the best interests of the colonists. Written in plain language. And solidly based on common sense.

A beautiful pamphlet. Simple. Elegant. And correct.

When Paine wrote Common Sense almost two and a half centuries ago, science was a novelty, Benjamin Franklin had had only just discovered that lightning was electricity, the extinction of species was but a hypothesis, the basis for modern chemistry was still a decade away, and the germ theory of disease wasn’t even on the radar. Indeed, for most of human existence, the only two pillars upon which civilizations could be supported were common sense and religious dogma. Often they complemented one another.

Our political systems, too, were crude. Slavery was ubiquitous, as were religious inquisitions. Political corruption rife. Women were treated mostly as property without full suffrage. The list of the failures of good governance were long and ghoulish, and Paine railed against some of them, speaking truth to power.

The central problem we face today is this: while science has progressed remarkably, our political institutions have remained largely stuck three centuries in the past.

Why Epistemology Pisses-Off Republicans

Common sense, to perhaps state the obvious, is necessary to our survival. Looking both ways before crossing the street. Not driving motor vehicles if under the influence of alcohol. Refraining from sex with intemperate women (or men). Avoiding contact with lions. Not defecating where you eat. Among millions of other things. Through evolution by natural selection, we are biologically disposed to have it (some more than others, as “fail” videos on YouTube amply demonstrate); it keeps us alive so that we can reproduce and spread our genetic heritage.

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But common sense rationality also often fools us. We think, for example that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We are, after all, the center of the universe. At least that’s what humanity believed for the vast majority of its existence. But now we know better (thank you Copernicus). The sun does not rise or set. We live on a planet rotating on its axis and revolving around a rather ordinary star, and the appearance of a rising and setting sun is merely a spatial illusion; we’re rotating on our axis at 1,037 miles per hour through space travelling through the cosmos with our solar system and galaxy at a rate of 2.7 million miles per hour. We cannot feel this of course, because we have evolved to sense only the force of our planet’s gravity, the impingement of other movement on our senses would not serve any useful purpose for our survival. Common sense deceives us. It is only through science, which gives no credit or importance to common sense, that we now understand that when compared to the cosmos, we are at best a bacterium, a micro-fauna, on a speck of dust on the leaf of a tree on an entirely forested continent.

The video below of a small corner of our closest galactic neighbor Andromeda puts things into perspective.

David Hume said some two hundred years ago that we know nothing. What we pass off as knowledge is the product of custom, habit, and the application of common sense which is almost bound to be wrong; even in science we cannot observe causation, the best we can do is falsify theories, never prove them. Kant, Schopenhauer, and later Karl Popper seized upon these ideas, creating an impressive body of philosophical work. (Some people still can’t get their heads around Kant’s famous premise that objects conform to our knowledge of them.)

We’re limited by our biology; there are some things which may be forever unknowable to us (what Kant called the noumenal) because of our very limited apparatus of apprehension. Without getting too deep into the weeds of epistemology, the central idea can be summarized by way of a simple analogy. A beetle may get to “know” Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness as a comfortable place to build a nest or eat its pages, but will never understand it as a brilliant literary work. We humans are no different. There are some things we know, some things we don’t but perhaps will someday, and some things, like the beetle, are forever out of our grasp.

As I’ve said before, paraphrasing a long-out-of-print college history textbook:

If we reduce the age of the earth to our own familiar 24-hour day, the time that elapsed prior to the appearance of humans is 23 hours and 58 minutes. And of the two remaining minutes, which represents the time of humans on earth, the period of civilization is less than the last ½ second. Given this time scale, it should be no surprise that we know almost nothing; certainly what we don’t know vastly dwarfs what knowledge we have sown from science so far in our still brief awakening to sentient existence.

It seems that we have willingly imprisoned ourselves in Plato’s Cave, refusing to believe the reality presented to us through science. We tend toward finding comfort in the solace that is ignorance, in stolid platitudes and silly slogans posted on social media by the millions a day.

Thinking is hard work.

If this were not bad enough, we are wired to be seekers of patterns and causal connections, no doubt contributing to our survival, but this has a down side, too. When we don’t know something, we are inclined to invent knowledge, mistaking ignorance for truth. Our brains interpret the lack of knowledge as pain, and understanding with pleasure, whether that understanding is based on verifiable data or not. A troubling observation, to be sure.

In a purely intellectual sense, these problems of perception, epistemology, psychology and evolutionary biology fascinate me, but they are also key to the most basic problems of human existence on this planet: How are we to govern ourselves? How are we to create free, just, and equitable societies?

The answer for America has been a representative democracy, but this doesn’t seem to be working nearly as well as it seemed to a half century ago.

Good manufacturing jobs are gone. The middle class seems to be slowly becoming extinct while the wealthiest are living lives of opulence never seen before in human history. Our prisons are splitting at the seams. Racial tensions and police brutality seem to be where they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Otherwise intelligent people believe that the result of sin is bad weather. We are more politically polarized than ever. We seem to be perpetually taking one step forward and two steps back. At this rate, our children will be doomed to live “nasty, brutish and short” lives to quote Hobbes. We seem to be but barely a generation away from The Hunger Games writ large.

In order to understand where we’re going and how we got to where we are, we must first understand what we are.

I Am Primate, Hear Me Roar

Bryan Magee in his book Confessions of a Philosopher made a particularly salient observation. He said that asking, “What is the meaning of life?” is a stupid question (as I recall he didn’t use the word “stupid”). This is because if one pursues this question without first ascertaining if there can there be such a thing as a meaning to life, and equally important, if we have a reliable mechanism ascertaining what it might be, one is likely to waste quite of lot of time, perhaps a lifetime, pursuing a question without a proper foundation, leading to infinite false starts, wrong turns, and poetic, perhaps even soothing, casuistry, with no real knowledge to be gained.

So too, we must first ask ourselves a foundational question before moving on to the subject of what is good as opposed to bad public policy. That question is: What are we? For example, if we were created in the image of god, and the Abrahamic traditions are the divine revealed truth of our creator, then the policies of ISIS would be the only way to go. (For reasons I think I need not elaborate on, I do not think this is true.)

Once we have answered the question of what we are (a much easier question that whether or not there can be such a things a meaning to life), we can tackle the next question: What is the best form of government to achieve maximum freedom, economic prosperity, and justice for all?

With disrespect to creationists, we are highly evolved primates. We are the products of evolution by natural selection. Our propensity for violence, for tribalism, for irrational cognitive biases, among many other things, are deeply ingrained in us, and it takes an educated and conscious effort to recognize and combat them. We are predisposed to seek out, interpret, and focus on information in a way the confirms our own preconceptions, and arguments against our closely held beliefs only tends to make them stronger, such as our beliefs in particular religious dogmas or political ideologies. (This particular propensity is known as “confirmation bias” ─ but there are hundreds of others well known in psychology.)

We are highly irrational animals, perfectly evolved for living on the African savannah, but not so much for living in modern, complex, crowded and technologically-driven societies. This is a problem. The answer, in part, is education, especially within the sciences.

The lack of the application of science to law and public policy explains, largely, why conservatism and its ugly younger brother, libertarianism, are failed ideologies.

Let’s take a brief look are four areas of public policy and why they’re abject failures: the war on drugs, immigration, the free market economic model, and gay rights. (There are, of course, many more, but including them all would necessarily require a book-length work.)

U.S. Drug Policy ─ Bad Policy Makes for Good Politics

As has often been said ─ and correctly so ─ the War on Drugs has never been about drugs. It’s always been about social control and xenophobia. The first marijuana prohibitions were targeted against Mexican and Sikh immigrants. Opium prohibition targeted Chinese immigrants. Cocaine prohibition targeted the black community. Nixon’s War on Drugs targeted the liberal hippie counter culture. Why? Because we have evolved to be tribal.

A hundred thousand years ago, there was a survival advantage to be tribal: to keep within your small group, to be suspicious of other groups who might be competing for the same scarce resources, to the point of war. There is a limit to the number of people we can we can “know”; in other words, with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. That number is thought to be around 150 (Dunbar’s number): the size of a large tribe. After that, we have to rely on stereotypes or generalizations to assess the threat from other groups. This goes a long way in explaining the roots of racism, and how U.S. War on Drugs began, but less as to why we’re still fighting it.

The War on Drugs has been an abysmal failure. We have spent over a trillion dollars on it since 1970. And the results have been in for some time. We have the highest prison population of any country in the world, incarcerating the low hanging fruit of the poor and minorities, the most disenfranchised in society for low-level non-violent drug related crimes despite the fact that their drug use is the same as the white middle class and rich. The rate of drug use and abuse is essentially the same as it was in 1970. What’s more, studies confirm that illegal drug use is far less harmful both in terms of public health and socioeconomic wellbeing than alcohol, tobacco, or prescription drugs. Fighting senseless wars may be in our nature, as recent history suggests, but this war we’re fighting is against ourselves.

One reason we’re still fighting it is because making drugs illegal, as the conservative argument goes, and jailing those that use them, will reduce drug use, leading to a more productive, sober, and less violent society. It’s common sense, after all. It’s also wrong. Completely backwards. Jurisdictions that have decriminalized drug use have enjoyed the outcome of fewer drug users, increased drug rehabilitation rates, reduced rates of HIV/AIDS, and a diminution violent crime. The U.S., the other hand, not only has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but also has the highest illegal drug use rates in the world, despite having some of the strictest drug laws.

The reason we’re still fighting this fatuous war largely comes down to what I previously described in an academic paper an intricately interconnected and “immensely powerful trifecta”: counterintuitiveness, propaganda, and money.

Making drugs illegal makes them more available, not less so. This is contrary to common sense, but easy to explain. It is easier for a minor to purchase marijuana, cocaine, or any other illegal drug, than a beer or a pack of cigarettes (street dealers don’t generally ask for a photo ID before purchase). Alcohol and tobacco, on the other hand, are regulated and controlled. There is no black market trade in Budweiser or Marlboros.

We have for so long been fed the line on the evils of drug use that it has become a part of our collective mental furniture. We have created huge agencies giving drug enforcers and prison guards (and the communities that support them) well-paying jobs, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. How do you dismantle this monstrosity? If you’re a politician from a conservative district, you don’t even suggest doing so. As for the proposition that illegal drug use propagates violence, Harry Brown’s (Libertarian) response is the most salient:

There are no violent gangs fighting over aspirin territories, There are no violent gangs fighting over whisky territories or computer territories or anything else that’ legal. There are only criminal gangs fighting over territories covering drugs, gambling, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. Making a non-violent activity a crime creates a black market, which attracts criminal and gangs, which turns what was once a relatively harmless activity affecting a small group of people into a widespread epidemic of drug use and gang warfare.

Even a blind Libertarian bird sometimes catch a worm. The simplest, most pragmatic and effective thing to do would be to scrap all federal drug laws and let states decides their own drug policy; most state drug laws are duplicative of federal laws anyway. I don’t see Democrats having any real objection, and Republicans and Libertarians would be hard-pressed to pose intellectually honest and philosophically consistent objections, since the popular mantra among them is a smaller federal government and more states’ rights.

Of course, for the reasons stated above, this won’t happen.

The Great Unwashed

Immigration policy in the U.S. is another area everyone should consider a “fail.” According to Ann Coulter in Adios, America, our problems are mostly a result of immigration, legal or not. We’re apparently being overrun by stealing, raping maids and gardeners and migrant workers from Mexico with funny accents. Again, tribalism raises its ugly head. We’re most comfortable wearing the false raiment of victimhood, rather than admitting that our problems are generated from within, not from without.

The fact is that the Obama administration has deported more illegals than any administration before him, despite the fact that illegal immigration from Latin America is at net zero. As The Economist recently reported, immigration from Asia now outpaces immigration from the Americas. Yet Conservative automatons surround buses filled with child immigrants from Central America, shouting, “Impeach Obama,” decrying a law set in motion by George W. Bush. Obama is often portrayed as the “Smuggler in Chief” by the Right and “Deporter in Chief” by the Left.

There are some 11 million undocumented workers calling America home. We could, conceivably, deport them all, to devastating effect to our economy and socioeconomic wellbeing. Or we could be pragmatic and pass laws such as the proposed and long-defunct Dream Act, allowing for permanent resident status to illegals who pay fines and back-taxes, attend universities, serve in the military, and who prove good moral character. But this has been successfully labeled as “amnesty” by the GOP, a party that apparently does not have access to dictionaries. (I am wholly at a loss to explain how paying fines, undergoing criminal background checks, and paying back-taxes could be considered amnesty under any stretch of the definition.)

When one looks at the peer-reviewed academic studies and census data, illegal immigration is a net benefit to our economy. Which is one of the reasons why the GOP has no interest in sensible immigration reform. It is a classic case of having your cake and eating it too. The corporate and agricultural lobby like the status quo ─ the dystopians who often work for below minimum wage, don’t unionize, and don’t complain too much for fear of deportation. At the same time, GOP politicians can rail against illegal immigration to good political effect. The success of Coulter’s book is evidence of this love-fest of xenophobia. If you’d like to buy a copy, I suggest you buy a new one, though; if it’s used it’s likely to be flecked with the enthusiastic spittle of neocons.

The facts, stripped of the glitter of conservative rhetoric, suggest that illegal immigrants are no more predisposed to criminal activity than the average citizen, are less likely to report crimes committed against them, and take fewer public benefits than citizens or permanent residents. Somewhat surprisingly, the conservative think tank American Action Forum has admitted that immigrants, legal or illegal, are a net benefit to the US economy, and increasing immigration would reduce the federal deficit.

Yet a recent Pew poll indicates that 73 percent of “steadfast conservatives” believe that immigrants are a burden to our county. Why? Because, once again, we are tribal and immigrants are different, misperceived as a threat. Also, we are naturally predisposed, whether as individuals or societies, to attribute the cause of our own problems to outside forces (the self-serving cognitive bias). The GOP (whether knowingly or unknowingly) has seized upon these proclivities, explaining why anti-immigration propaganda makes for such good politics.

What we need, of course, is a sensible and pragmatic immigration system including a guest worker program. But this, too, seems entirely unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Laissez Faire, Laisser Passer

Free market capitalism is another sacred cow of American public policy on the right, and one which served us well for about three decades, but which has now proven to be a failure. The middle class is wilting on the once-succulent vine of manufacturing hegemony. Ross Perot, as batshit-crazy as he was, was right about the great “sucking sound” of well-paid manufacturing jobs going to Mexico as a result of NAFTA. (Wall Street neoliberals must share the blame here, too.) Jobs continue to be shipped overseas. Corporate profits are at all-time highs while wages are at their lowest in 65 years. Income and wealth inequality continue to accelerate. At this rate, the Middle Class is soon to become as rare as the Kihansi Spray Toad. Meanwhile, in Mexico the economy is booming, the middle class is growing, and inflation is at an historic low, due in large measure to direct foreign investment, despite endemic corruption, a violent drug war, and falling oil prices.

The problem, once again, comes down to common sense. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is all about common sense. It was the mantra of Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist and darling of the Reagan and Bush (the Younger, or Dumber) administrations. It is a simple economic theory. It is elegant. Even beautiful. It is also garbage. It’s based on the proposition that businesses that don’t serve the consumer, that aren’t competitive, that don’t offer the consumer the best service or product at the best price will fail in the free market of competition, as will the stakeholders. “Good” businesses will prosper, and all participants in the economy benefit. Regulation is not only not needed, but counterproductive, because the profit motive will ensure that businesses producing the safest, cheapest, quality products or services will prevail in the free market over others that don’t. Problem is, it doesn’t work. It depends on completely rational behavior by interested parties, namely the businesses themselves, but also Wall Street investors, traders and bankers. It ignores the warts of the human condition: greed, ambition, selfishness, and the cognitive bias known as the gambler’s fallacy or “representativeness bias.” Wall Street has operated for too long as a casino, largely behind every depression, every financial crisis, every crash, every recession in the nation’s financial history.

It gets worse. Despite its sketchy (at best) history, free market capitalism, with low (or no) taxation for corporations and the rich, has become a religion within the GOP, an untouchable dogma. And it sells. It is, after all, common sense that corporations and wealthy individuals are “job creators” who should be left alone. But common sense fails yet again. Corporations and the wealthy are in point of fact “value to the shareholder creators at all costs” (not nearly as catchy, but far more accurate). And that often means reducing costs by moving operations overseas, lobbying for the maintenance of public benefits for the working poor so companies can continue to pay below-living wages, or if you’re a for profit private prison, lobbying against immigration reform because incarcerating illegals is good business, or maintaining coffers for now-virtually-unlimited campaign contributions allowing for “access and ingratiation” (read, political corruption) in order to obtain lower corporate taxes or special loopholes and subsidies, and laying off full-time workers is favor of cheaper crowdsourcing alternatives, among other things.

Republicans are masters at getting their largest constituency, the white middle class, to vote against its own interests.

Naturally, conservatives can’t admit that this free market corporatist system also produces 1 in every 25 households living on less than $2 a day. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the poor. They must be lazy, living too comfortably on public assistance, claiming that it is a disincentive to hard work, to pulling oneself up by one’s mythical bootstraps. If being poor weren’t enough of a stigma, there’s been a movement among conservative politicians (also on the public dole) to further stigmatize the poor by publishing their names, limiting the amount of money they can withdraw from ATMs daily, and proposing that they be excluded from eating certain foods. After all, their own irresponsibility is the result of their poverty. We must save them from themselves. Or so the narrative goes. Which is, of course, bullshit. Municipalities finance themselves on the backs of the least able to pay, keeping them in the dystopian place where they belong. We are waging (and have been for some time) yet another war, this time on the underclass, the American Valmiki caste.

But times are changing. Despite snubbing by the media, Bernie Sanders (I-NH) is getting big-time traction. People are waking up, beginning to question a once unquestionable dogma. Senator Sanders probably can’t win of course, because he makes too much sense and has too little money. But he can change the debate; in fact, he already has.

God Hates Fags, and Ham Too (Or Why Being A Gay Pig is the Worst of Al Possible Existences)

Discrimination against gays is almost wholly driven by religion, despite the fact that god’s displeasure at homosexuality is only mentioned specifically two times in the Bible. God seems to be more concerned about not eating ham or shellfish, which peoples should be enslaved, which virgins should be taken, what pagans and apostates should be killed, which women are to be considered chattel (all), that disobedient children should be stoned to death, and how to properly sacrifice animals in a manner that pleases him, among many other things particularly useful to us humans.

(It seems the religious right has somehow gotten their priorities out of order.)

Be that as it may, the idea that homosexuality is an immoral choice is tantamount to left- handedness being an immoral choice. The arguments are often silly: for example, homosexuality is immoral because gays can’t procreate (“it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”). But of course the religious don’t stop there. A senior cleric in Iran recently preached that immodest women cause earthquakes. Apparently Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal thinks homosexuality caused Hurricane Katrina. An assemblywoman in California is certain that the horrible drought there is causally linked to abortion. Sadly, these perfidious views are not from backwoods home-schooled (if schooled at all) hillbillies, they are coming from the mouths, keyboards, pens and pulpits of are our educated clergy and public leaders.

It should be no surprise that biologists have observed around 450 species of animals that exhibit homosexual behavior, Homo sapiens obviously being no exception. As it turns out, giraffes engage in homosexual behavior more than 50 percent of their sexual contact, perhaps making them the gayest mammals of all.

Why do many within the Religious Right believe that severe weather is god’s response to sin, rather than global man-caused climate change? One reason people believe this nonsense is yet another cognitive bias commonly known as the just-world fallacy. Here, humans tend to believe that noble actions are bound to be rewarded and evil actions punished, giving rise to the concept of Karma and expressions such as “you reap what you sow.” (It’s common sense, isn’t it?) It is a powerful belief, one almost impossible to avoid at some level, but no evidence exists for it being true. Innocent children die horrible deaths from famine, cancer, and natural disasters; war criminals go unpunished; Wall Street bankers who caused the 2008 financial meltdown live in mansions and not prison cells.

As this fallacy goes, god simply cannot allow immoral behavior to go unpunished, in this life or another. When combined with tribalism (queers are different from “us” after all), and the mind-bending power of religious dogma, you get a perfectly rancid recipe for bigotry, intolerance, and the belief in laughable superstitions.

What to Do?

Our democracy is not working. Unless of course you’re a wealthy, white, fundamentalist Christian. Then everything’s just fine.

The central problem is twofold.

First, the electorate is mostly ignorant. Conservative American voters believe ridiculously asinine things, as mentioned, such as gays cause hurricanes, we’re being besieged by immigrants, and the wealthiest among us are the job creators. (The complete list is obviously quite a bit longer.) In order to get elected and reelected, politicians pander to these voters, and some may even believe their own pernicious preachments on these subjects.

Second, America, as I’ve said before, is a democracy only in name; with Citizens United and it’s malformed progeny McCutcheon now five years old, we have morphed into a plutocracy where the interests of wealthy take precedent of those truly in need of political representation; where minorities and the poor are living increasingly marginal lives, where the tired cliché “the rich get rich and poor get poorer” is actually true, as amply demonstrated by Thomas Piketty in his magnum opus Capital in the 21st Century.

And there’s not just anecdotal evidence that the wealthy control the political process. As Elias Esquith previously reported, BYU professor Michael Jay Barber conducted a study of US Senators and found that the interests of wealthy political donors were served far more than the interests of the voters in their states.

Our government is controlled, then, mostly by morons and Robber Barons, the latter perfectly willing to support the views of the feeble minded voters whom they exploit. Odd bedfellows, indeed.

Contrary to popular conservative belief, the parasites of society are not the poor on public assistance or undocumented workers ─ the parasites are the rich who prey upon the most helpless. Thomas Jefferson’s words prove prophetic: “The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history. Whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite.” As Hegel said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Would the election of Bernie Sanders (by almost all accounts a long shot) help? Surely, but not much. It wouldn’t change the fundamental organization of our government or our “democracy”; it wouldn’t make people smarter.

The endemic decline of America can only be reversed by a new Constitution. Ours is the shortest and vaguest constitution in the world. Not that it isn’t an amazing document, one constructed by men of genius, the elite of America in the stifling hot summer of 1787. Before electricity, the telephone, the automobile, air travel, the mapping of the human genome. Thomas Jefferson also thoughtfully said that we should have a new constitution every 19 years. Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly be shocked that we’re still operating under the same founding document, and giving it such reverence, as if it miraculously materialized from the mind of god.

Because our constitution is so short, and leaves so much unstated, and because we live in such a complex society of over three hundred million people, the task of SCOTUS to “interpret” it correctly is absurd, leading to the most impressive of mental gymnastics often seen in Supreme Court opinions, and the resulting accusations of judicial activism, from both the left and the right.

Were I god, I would order a new constitutional convention. The result would be as thick as a textbook. It would be specific, using the social sciences and hard sciences, psychology and social psychology, as its basis. Perhaps a little common sense too, but very little of it, as I’ve thus described it.

Pipe dream? Not even realistic enough to qualify for pipe dream status. It will never happen, certainly not within my lifetime, and undoubtedly not within my children’s lifetime. I mention it only to cite it as the best of all the available possibilities.

The next best thing within the realm of possibility would be a series of constitutional amendments, updating our founding document for the realities of the 21st Century, the first of which should be to end political gerrymandering of congressional districts, which results in in the absurdity that in 2014, the congressional approval rating was 14 percent, but 95 percent of incumbents were reelected. But that, too, seems entirely unlikely. Amending the Constitution, especially in our currently polarized, fractured, decayed political environment, would be nearly impossible. The last constitutional amendment (the 27th) was approved by Congress in 1789 and ratified by the states in 1992, taking almost 203 years to become law. That should give you some idea how difficult it is to get a majority of both houses of Congress and 38 of the 50 states to agree on anything, even in the best of circumstances.

What, then, are we left with? Sadly, not much. Alas, we are not at the tipping point, but staying on the current course will eventually lead to a violent civil war, a new American Revolution. Alarmist? Perhaps, but we’ve been there before, and come close in the 1930s before FDR’s New Deal. (Historians disagree whether it was the New Deal or the Second World War that turned the nation around economically ─ probably some combination of the two, although in what proportion it is impossible to know).

The most realistic option ─ not to reverse the endemic decline of America but rather to slow it ─ is that Bernie Sanders assumes the presidency in 2016 and there is a paradigm shift in attitudes about our policies. He would be working against a vocal and obstructionist opposition, those that look with nostalgia to the past instead of possibilities of the future.

 

 

© 2015 by Glen Olives Thompson