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.


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

We Can’t Un-Ring the Bell: Sanders’ Ideas are Here to Stay

To dream the impossible dream.


To convince poor, undereducated, socially conservative white males to stop voting against their own interests, to spark in them the temerity to question the lie of laissez-faire corporatism to which they have been so long been gavaged that it has become a part of their mental furniture.

To ignite that single sickly synapse toward a single simple thought: What if the GOP pandering, sloganeering Orwellian economic doublespeak somehow wasn’t true? The horror.

We’ve all seen the Facebook posts from our conservative friends: the problem with socialism is eventually you run out of other people’s money; taxing the job producers will make us all poor; if you vote left you’re not thinking right; I’d rather be a conservative nut job than a liberal with no nuts and no job, ad nauseam. Empty platitudes passed off as wisdom.

But the hard seed of truth may have finally germinated. Whether it will be choked out by the weeds of failed economic ideology remains to be seen, but I doubt it.

Many conservatives are now openly wondering whether or not free market capitalism in its uniquely American form is really a good thing for the working man and woman. And one need not tread too deep into the thistles of economic theory or read Krugman and Reich, or for that matter Piketty. Growing wealth inequality, growing income inequality, the evaporating middle class, and our political transmogrification from a representative democracy into a plutocracy, is all over us, palpable like an infected boil turning necrotic, no longer confined to a remote academic debate or a partisan pundit’s table. No longer sequestered, no longer able to hide behind the anecdotal stories of bootstrap entrepreneurs moving from yokeldom to yachtsdom. Those happily-propagated myths are mostly a century old, and reality has caught up. We’re living in the world of Augie March. And we know it.

We see it in our neighbor’s faces, the forced smiles and tired-distant stares of people half-engaged in banal small talk about the weather, but really preoccupied with credit card bills, of making the rent payment, of getting kids into college, and increasingly often, food on the table. People who have voted Republican their whole lives and are now reassessing Reaganesque coming-of-age political dogmas. People who hated Bill Clinton for staining a dress are now uneasily waxing nostalgic about the no-deficit upwardly-mobile Clinton economy, before crowdsourcing and the replacement of humans by robots.

The power of conservative rhetoric and outright sophistry may have met its limit, the convincing right wing legerdemain finally encountering a wall constructed from the concrete of empirical fact and the rebar of personal experience. You can only for so long tell people that the earth is flat before they start wondering why it appears, at the very least, curved. The sad thing is that this took so long, that things had to get so bad, that telling wasn’t enough, showing wasn’t enough, that actually experiencing dystopia up close and personal was needed. It took working two jobs and still qualifying for SNAP to convince us of the truth that book learning could not.

Are these wishful musings of a progressive? Perhaps. But Bernie Sanders is leading Hillary Clinton in recent New Hampshire polling, and closing the gap in other states as well. That’s not surprising. Nor is it surprising that Sanders has grown increasingly popular among the conservative punditry, undoubtedly for ulterior motives having to do with Hillary, and the misguided belief that he couldn’t win the general election. What is surprising, however, is that Sanders is beginning to poach conservative votes. So far the evidence is mostly spotty, but one might expect that to change if the current trajectory continues.

Few now think that our trickle-down economic model (either by design or chance, take your pick) is working for the middle class and the poor. The conservative argument that if you just free the market from regulation, let it turn its swag on, and lower taxes for the “job creators” then all would be right with the world. This perfidious view has had a century to take root, to prove itself, and it has failed, demonstrably. Wall Street capitalism has been touted by the right and, at the very least, tolerated by the neoliberal left, but the evidence is in, and in hillbilly vernacular, “That dog just won’t hunt.”

The common view is that Sanders’ populism is the left’s version of Trump’s, and that both will fade. The chance of that happening seems small. The rise of Sanders and Trump, and their apparent staying power, are here to get used to, for very different reasons.


Trump’s populism is of the basest kind: the roots derive nourishment from the self-serving cognitive biases of tribalism and hyper-nationalism. Foisting our anxiety upon the great unwashed underclass for our self-made troubles, packaging fear as policy, is an easy sell. It requires little thought and no analysis. Sanders’ populism, however, feeds not upon the empty calories of shameless pseudo-dangers and hectoring, but rather hard facts; facts that are easily demonstrable in everyday American life.

Horse-race political pundits may dismiss both Sanders and Trump, but keep in mind that they’re wrong most of the time.

True, money is king in American politics. But don’t count-out reason just yet. I’m sanguine by nature. If Bernie Sanders does not become our next president, so be it. He’s already changed the debate. And he’s not done it by way of hyperbole or the cult of personality or Ben Carson-like fumfering barely-intelligible outworn slogans. He’s done it by reasoned argument. He’s done it by pointing out what should have been obvious. He has opinions and ideas to be sure, but unlike his opponents’, they are based on verifiable fact, and not psychologically comforting mythology.

The “class warfare” meme of Fox News is waning. Socialism still carries an underserved stigma, still carries with it an unnatural conflation with communism, still triggers an negative emotional response with conservatives, but it  is no longer tantamount to the F-word (France). What most conservatives don’t realize, of course, is that we’re already a quasi-socialist country. The social security system, for example, is overtly socialist: if you receive more than you paid into the Social Security Trust fund, which you likely will, you’re a socialist. If you pay property taxes but don’t have kids enrolled in your local public school, you’re a socialist. The list of socialist programs is long and obvious. And the rich, along with corporations, like the system the way it is. They take advantage of not only special tax breaks, loopholes, and subsidies, but also the working poor: public assistance for the laboring classes lets corporations get away with paying a lower than living wage. On the backs of taxpayers.

If a paradigm shift is to occur in our body politics’ collective thinking about economic policy, now is the time. Putting off the inevitable by electing a “safe” candidate will surely result in our further, perhaps endemic, decline as a nation, as a civilization.

And that sea change is already happening. There is a growing grassroots movement, led by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, among others, challenging the obvious: trickle-down economics doesn’t work for the poor and middle class, in fact, money doesn’t trick down at all, it concentrates at the top, and when top earners make more, it actually slows the economy. What we need is a trickle-up model, where actual living wages are paid to workers, who then spend that money within the economy, creating more demand, and more jobs. Suffering, always having had a voice, is finally being heard.


© 2015 by Glen Olives.