Topics in Political Theory

1984 at last

I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
 -- Joni Mitchell

Welcome to 1984. Russia has been bot-playing both sides of the NFL controversy. The implications are enormous. By creating and exacerbating wedge social issues that Russian social media agents exploit, Trump has been colluding with Putin. And Trump probably doesn't even know it. But giving aid and comfort to the enemy is treason, according to Article 3. Are ignorance and incompetence a defense for a treason charge? Trump should cease and desist, or else resign and resume tweeting as a private person.

China was slow to catch up, but now is leading the way to a fully controlled society, wherein everything you do or say is recorded and used to compute your "social credit" GoodThink/BadThink score, and then the data is sold. Paul Ohm calls this a Database of Ruin.

And although the Chinese government does not conduct referenda, it would not surprise me if a majority of Chinese citizens support the Great Firewall: too much social dissension and unrest is bad for business and weakens China against foreign powers. The Firewall has been enhanced by prohibiting VPN in China.

Although polarization in American politics did not begin with social media nor with Russia - the explosion of narrowcast cable television channels unshackled from the Fairness Doctrine came earlier, along with rising income inequality. What's new is foreign actors stirring both sides of controversial issues.

It doesn't matter what the issue is, if it is or can be made into a wedge, Russian agents can fan the flames from both sides. Thanks Putin! Thanks Facebook! Thanks Twitter! Neither ignorance nor incompetence is an adequate defense for allowing the weaponization of social media. Although most of us only came to understand the depth of the problem in the last year, there were some who saw it coming in 2012.

Originally I thought Putin's goal was just revenge against Clinton for promoting democracy in Russia. Now I see that Putin's goal is much grander - a plot against democratic government anywhere in the world.

In the 1930's, left and right had to go to much trouble to create fake news to batter each other and more to the point, destroy the center that stood in their way. Now there's no more need to fake news to create wedges when the President and a lot of the political leadership create on demand, or even without demand, all the wedges anybody could want. That will test the foresight of our founding fathers.

The larger issue is: if anybody online might be a Russian bot, then anybody offline might be one too, consciously or unconsciously. Remembering the Calexit guy's own exit to Russia and the Russian Texas Secession Facebook page that fooled hundreds of thousands of people... How do I know that you're not on Putin's payroll? How do you know that I'm not? What if Putin is funding the Nazis AND the antifas? Reds under every bed was never this bad. Most people don't know what to believe, and so distrust everything. Soon it will be believed that controversy of any kind just stirs up trouble.

Fortunately we have models of solutions in North Korea and China: there will be just one Ministry of one Truth and you can have a little internet (Korea) or a lot (China) as long as you don't stray. Is this the final solution where Bannon's National Socialist Workers Party will finally arrive?

"The street finds its own uses for things" - William Gibson. When it comes to inventing the future, that future has not been fully invented until criminals, terrorists, spies, and police states have figured out how to exploit it.

"The pioneers of Silicon Valley were inherent optimists who simply believed in connecting the world. But it is precisely such integration that provides our authoritarian enemies with access into our own democratic systems." -- Robert Kaplan

Although telephone scams already existed in 1888, the internet was required to unlock the full potential of robocall scams.

Cheap plentiful ground, sea, and air drones will certainly level the playing field between terrorists and governments: Islamic State forces are already using commodity air drones in the defense of Mosul. So France is training eagles to attack drones. Commodity encrypted communication allows Islamic State to strike with remote human drones too. Likewise cheap drone murder machines may be nearer than you think.

Even conventional cars collect a lot of data for the manufacturer, which is an asset that might be sold. Driverless cars are next.

Internet dependence is a mixed blessing and curse. Cybercriminals have already shorted a target company's stock and then hacked its production systems to make the stock drop. Drones can enable breaking out of real jails. It's possible to tell which printer you use. Franklin Foer argues that concentration of internet power will inevitably lead to enforced conformity. Tim Wu points out the insidious tyranny of convenience undermining individuality.

Ever wonder how the tiny Mongol nation briefly ruled a vast stretch of Asia and Europe, and then suddenly lost power? Technology was one enabler - Genghis Khan practised inclusion and encouraged innovation and free trade. One innovation was the world's fastest post office system - a forerunner of the Pony Express - that enabled relatively rapid command and control across a vast region. Unfortunately it turned out to be an even greater disabler - when the Black Death originated in China, it quickly spread everywhere that the Mongols controlled. The communication lines themselves died, and the survivors in the far-flung empire were on their own in separate fiefdoms. The Mongols soon forgot what Genghis had taught them and went back to killing each other.

In my middle school days, the joke was "Jack Kennedy was elected in 1960, and it will be Bobby in 1968, and the Teddy in 1976, and then it will be 1984..." The novel 1984 was based on a structure of two-way television surveillance that wasn't ready in the actual year 1984, but the enabling technology was underway... the internet protocol was defined in 1974 and the web in 1989. Originally conceived as a method of communicating data between large computers, the internet is on track to become the social control mechanism that was missing in 1984. That's what the Internet of Things is going to be all about. Devices like Amazon Echo are always listening, always reporting what they hear back to the cloud. But the story about Echo calling 911 is questionable.

And even if the real thing were OK, the low-cost imported clone might not be. Law enforcement is already interested in Echo and in utility metering. Burger King has tried to talk to Amazon Home. The CIA is already exploiting phones, televisions, and computers. Even smartphone accelerometers! Even vibrators! And your face is already in a lot of government databases. Nobody asked for permission, so none was given. Congress is giving permission now, with little apparent understanding of the consequences, except to major campaign donors. Now privacy is a luxury for the wealthy and powerful only. Strava proved just how much we sign away by using a social-media app. Maybe it's time to rejuvenate the Technocracy movement.

One wonders if an evolutionary process will weed out technology users who are too trustful to survive. One thinks of Native Americans who were so adversely affected by exposure to Europeans' alcohol, lacking the Europeans' thousands of years of evolutionary adaptation to it. Like other addictive drugs, technology will take generations for humans to arrive at a sane collective understanding of moderate use, and even then there will be addiction-prone individuals whose only sane response is abstinence.

But such data won't be used for any unintended use - we have the assurances of numerous Marketing Vice Presidents that the data will only be used for the purposes for which it was gathered, and the purposes for which it can be subpoenad, and the purposes for which it can be sold. Of course, every publicly-traded corporation is for sale to the highest bidder every business day, so a new Marketing Vice President with a new agenda and a new firmware download could show up unannounced at any time. Vizio has already been fined for spying. Facebook data is already used by the government to identify potential terrorists. Your car can tell a lot about you.

Julian Assange has led the way in showing how data can be used against big targets; but even little targets might worry about how much personal data is available free.

One reason not to conduct referenda, especially over the internet, is that you might be conducting referenda among bots. One can also use human hordes to smother unfavorable press.

On the Russian front:

To those ends, one can easily imagine that the governments of China, Russia, and India have incentive to develop their own PC and smartphone CPU's and Amazon Echo's, in order to be sure that the only backdoors are the ones they put in themselves.

Trump thinks he's safe from hacking because he doesn't use computers. Evidently "how smart phones work" can be added to the list of things he doesn't know about, along with "how modern cars work" and "how modern aircraft fly..." (or "Smoot-Hawley"). The Secret Service already took away his smartphone and gave him a new one that they hope is secure and with a really unlisted number.

And just imagine what would have happened if his smart teleprompter were hacked to break down in the middle of his inauguration speech and he had to adlib about how he really felt? The teleprompter didn't break on his inauguration day but it must have been broken the day after when he spoke at the CIA.

And even if none of the evils mentioned above come to pass - it might not matter if the social disruption caused by automation and artifical intelligence becomes serious enough.

A subtle and therefore more pernicious form of thought control abetted by modern technology is the tyrany of the urgent: the urgent and unimportant continually driving the unurgent and important from individual and collective consciousness. Read all about it in Samuel Covey's books. We all need a Shultz Hour.

In the book 1984, the ministries of propaganda and war were called the ministries of truth and peace. In like manner, Trump's notion of draining the swamp has been revealed to actually mean filling the swamp deeper and calling it dry land. Thus there is no longer any difference between the regulated and the regulators; the EPA, FCC, Energy Department, Education Department are not explicitly abolished, but reversed into protectors instead of regulators.

Electronics manufacturers are getting into the game of thought control too - by prohibiting you from repairing products you buy. Of course, the real prize for manufacturers is to prohibit purchase entirely and make all transactions leases. The guaranteed monthly lease income supports higher stock prices, which is why practically every business is eager to sign you up to make regular monthly payments that they hope you will forget about. Likewise customer loyalty rewards programs aim to reward the business rather than the consumer, by accumulating consumer behavior that the business can use directly or sell.

The eternal business cycle
revised 5 January 2018

Our hope and despair is that no matter who's running the government and no matter what they do, the economy will wax, peak, wane, bottom, and repeat. Whoever is in charge will take the credit or get the blame for whatever was bound to happen sooner or later anyway. Government action or inaction can affect the timing and severity to only a limited extent.

The current economic recovery is about 8 years old and will expire sometime in the next 8 years, no matter who is in the White House; the longest postwar recovery was 10 years. The current recovery has an expiration date on or before June, 2019. As always, the party in power will be blamed, even though nobody has been able to figure out how to defeat the business cycle. I think that's because it's ultimately a phenomenon of mass psychology rather than economics.

The next two years might seem to coast along well enough economically. There's some truth in the old joke that economists have successfully predicted nine of the last five recessions. But

So another recession is coming, more likely sooner than later. The Republicans are doing their best to make it the worst. Samuelson thinks the Democrats are no better. But an examination of the actual data over the last 40 years suggests that the Democrats have become the party of fiscal responsibility!

On 25 January 2017, the DJIA, S&P, and NASDAQ all set new records, and they're still doing it a year later. That's not good news for Mr. Trump at the beginning of his term - it would have been a lot more helpful to him in 2020. Nobody rings a bell at the top, or the bottom - some minor news blip, much like numerous inconsequential minor news blips in the weeks and months before, will seem to trigger a stock market crash. But the news blip is innocent - a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time - because the cause of the crash is that the market has temporarily run out of buyers at a time when somebody needs to sell for his own specific reasons. Which blip - nobody can say in advance. What is certain is that the following problem is what is called overconstrained and infeasible in my line of work:

And this infeasibility will dawn on a critical mass of institutional investors on some random blipful day and they will start to take their profits, and highly leveraged investors will start to cover their positions, and the daily trading limit crash barrier will be hit before most individual investors even know something's up. Too bad for them. Trump will blame it on a media conspiracy. To the extent the Trump Organization is still invested in real estate rather than brand licensing, he might not even be a billionaire any more. Big investors will move from stocks to bonds, and that part will moderate the rise in interest rates.

People over-exposed to stocks too close to retirement will blame it on Trump, as will younger people who haven't learned yet that even though stocks, especially in technology, go up slowly and down quickly, common stock funds are still the best individual investment for the long term.

Whatever happened to bipartisanship?
revised 28 March 2017

Whatever happened to bipartisanship? Kenneth Baer blames single-issue voters. President Obama blames gerrymandered electoral districts, money in politics, a politicized media, and voter apathy, especially among young people. But "doing the right thing" is not so obvious - right thing locally, nationally or globally - right thing for this year, for four years later, for a century later?

I blame Tricky Dick and his tricky Southern Strategy, which was basically to combine the flat-earth Birchers with the racist former Dixiecrats and Wallace supporters, but without being explicit about the racism - in order to retain the liberal Republicans and their money. This could also be called the Agnew Suburban strategy.

What was it like before? Liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats had to reach across the aisle to make any progress, and likewise conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats. 50 years ago I learned that one of the strengths of our two-party system was that ethnic/social/religious groups did not feel obliged to affiliate with one party or the other but might feel comfortable in both.

Not any more. There aren't any liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats left. Hardly any bipartisanship either, although elections are still decided by the middle 20% of voters who might vote either way.

Happily, the Washington Post reports that 40 Representatives have formed a Problem Solvers Caucus to try to restore some bipartisan solutionship to Congress.

At least in California, many voters call themselves "independent" or "unaffiliated." In other places, I suppose most voters never change party affiliations. While I used to try to consider the merits of all candidates, especially third party candidates, after the 2000 election I deemed that a luxury I could no longer afford, and since then I have voted a straight Democratic ticket.


A historical example of bipartisanship is the Base Realignment and Closure Commissions which had some success up until 2005 but not since.

A less successful more recent attempt is Simpson-Bowles. There is bipartisan agreement that continued deficit spending is an unconscionable tax on future generations to support our over-consumption. A bipartisan commission was formed, studied the matter, and issued a report with recommendations. Everybody who could do anything about it agreed that it was a good start, but nobody started. They are all waiting for the other guys to start and take the heat for the unpopular choices that have to be made, and then the waiters could "reluctantly" go along... or just oppose without proposing any plausible alternative. They all implicitly agreed to kick the can down the road to some future time when the issues could no longer be avoided. Good partisanship, lousy statesmanship. No need for a new edition of Profiles in Courage. At least the can kicking is bipartisan.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is attempting to resuscitate bipartisan approaches.

Conservative-Progressive Party
revised 2 April 2018

I would welcome dealing with a Conservative-Progressive party that actually stood for

For a model, think of Theodore Roosevelt - minus the imperialism. Forcefully trying to impose your progress on other cultures can elicit an equal and opposite reaction in the technological era of cheap methods of mass destruction.

The archetypal conservative mythology (Hamilton) is that since human nature never changes, progress in improving the human condition is extremely difficult if not ultimately impossible.

The archetypal progressive mythology (Jefferson) is that since man is infinitely perfectible, progress in improving the human condition is indeed possible and desirable. According to Chesterson via Benjamin Domenech: "The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected."

Greg Weiner argues that the terms "liberal" and "progressive" have quite different histories and connotations.

"Liberal" has the same roots at "liberate" and that's the meaning of the classic "liberal arts". They were the disciplines required of a free citizen, to free from ignorance and superstition.

In contrast, "progressivism" had ties to eugenics, temperance at the beginning and cultural revolution and obliteration of history more recently. Those Islamic State and al-Quaeda leaders, who liked to blow up cultural landmarks from the pre-Islamic past, could claim to be expediting the inevitable flow of history, just as a previous generation of Communist cultural revolutionaries claimed. Neither the new Islamic man nor the new Socialist man needed to know what mistaken ideologies came before.

There have been various Progressive movements in the United States, and the institution of initiative, referendum, and recall in various states was part of the positive legacy at the time, though these reforms have since been perverted by big money.

While Woodrow Wilson was counted as a Progressive in many ways, racial relations wasn't one of them; he thought segregation was a fine idea.

Soviet era propagandists used "progressive" to refer to leftists in non-Communist countries, not necessarily Communists but not unsympathetic to Communist goals. More recently in the US, "progressive" is often applied to the left and Bernie Sanders wings of the Democratic Party and perhaps the Greens.

So where does that leave us and US? American politics move gradually to the left over time; too quickly for reactionaries, too slowly for revolutionaries. Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas were ahead of their times but a lot of their ideas are mainstream now. Bernie Sanders may be in the same tradition.

Trumpism is neither conservative nor liberal; it's just populist tending toward fascist and kleptocratic. So it really doesn't shed any light on this discussion. However the excesses of Trumpism have inspired a lot of thinking about a mainstream alternative.

One approach is a coalition of nonpartisan or bipartisan or independent thinkers to work together to make progress on the things they can agree on, without expecting that they can agree on everything.

Another approach is to create a new third party in the center. This is a difficult task and the record of third parties is not encouraging; the Republicans became the majority party in only four years but usually third parties just enjoy a brief spark of popularity until one of the main parties make some concessions to their point of view and incorporates their supporters.

Michael Gerson writes that the stratification of partisanship into far-left and far-right will make "every issue a culture-war battle."

One existential issue for any new party is whether it's going to be a party of ideas or a party of laws: to replace either the Republican or the Democratic parties that make laws, or to replace the Green and Libertarian parties that promulgate ideas that sometimes later become taken up by the law-making parties.

"You cannot resist an idea whose time has come" - Victor Hugo. Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas ran many times but were never elected President, but when the time came, many of their ideas were adopted by the Democrats and then the Republicans ("keep your government hands off my medicare!"). Besides parties of ideas trying to redirect the political debate from winning elections to winning ideas, there are also the personality cult fringe parties like Peace and Freedom, American Independent (both still barely alive in California), Prohibition, Natural Law...

Currently our main third parties are implicit ones - the Freedom Caucus on the right and the Bernie Sanders socialists on the left. Both seem to feel that they can somehow become parties of laws by sufficiently purifying their ranks ideologically. The mythology of the Freedom Caucus is a past that never existed. The mythology of the socialists is a future that will always be in the future. These mythologies are the lights at the ends of the tunnel, but the train keeps chugging along in the center, progressing no faster than most of its passengers can stomach. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "You get the far right dreaming of a golden past that never was and the far left yearning for a utopian future that never will be. And then comes populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny, whether of the right or of the left... we need a culture of responsibility, not one of victimhood, because if you define yourself as a victim, you can never be free."

Gehl and Porter produced a study for Harvard Business School asserting that the current two-party system shows all the signs of a classic duopoly industry that tends to entrench the dual antagonists and raise barriers to entry of alternatives. They refer to a number of alternative approaches:

There is much talk about ideological litmus tests imposed on the Democrats from the left and the Republicans from the right. This is party-of-ideas thinking. I think the party-of-laws thinking should be more like this:

Those are big-tent principles opposed to the ideological wedge issues that the major parties use to try to fracture each other, and then sometimes use to fracture themselves. Of course, ultimately, there is no economic justice without enough economic liberty, and no economic liberty without enough economic justice. Viewed thus, the major parties have different starting points but still might be able to find points of agreement.

Bhaskar Sunkara argues the case for democratic socialism as a means and an end.

In reality, successful parties of laws build a mythology of the present and erect the largest possible tent in order to create legislative majorities. The dominant party of laws in the United States exists when moderate Republicans and Democrats work together toward a common though compromised end. This seems to happen less frequently nowadays, which is why most people associate "do-nothing" with Congress. The Problem Solvers Caucus to try to restore some bipartisan solutionship to Congress.

American democracy can tolerate any number of politically ineffective third parties - they serve to keep the main parties from getting too far out of line with the people - but our system has not evolved to handle more than two main parties. It's hard to project what might happen with three or more politically powerful parties. The experience of other countries is not encouraging. The usual pattern is that governing coalitions form that last for a while until changing voting patterns force a new coalition to be created. In contrast, in America, changing voting patterns (such as by temporarily popular third parties) cause the two major parties to adjust - effectively creating two new coalitions, one of which will manage to govern for a while.

The transition from heckling to governing can be fatal for ideological parties - as UKIP is discovering.

If three of more politically powerful parties developed, ranked-choice voting would be a good idea. That way voter choice is maximized and nobody's vote is wasted.

An unexpected effect of social media is that now

Anti-intellectualism is another of those recurring currents in American politics. Anti-intellectualism is a problem for a Conservative-Progressive party that intends to win elections because its appeal is primarily intellectual rather than emotional.

When a crisis is perceived, the people want Somebody to Do Something. "There's nothing to do done" or "anything you could do would make it worse" about global trade or technology innovation or violent clan-based politics in Asia sounds defeatist, even when it's true. Somebody will come up with a Secret Plan to fix the problem - secret because it doesn't exist or would be embarrassingly easy to shoot down if revealed. An intellectual existential quandary of a Conservative-Progressive party is agreeing on which problems it can make progress on, and which are best conserved as they are. All Conservative ideals were Progressive at some time in the past. All Progressive ideals will be Conservative at some time in the future.

Perhaps Trump will even make bipartisanship popular again. The 2 April 2018 San Jose Mercury News has a full-page ad for the Serve America Movement - SAM. It's another attempt to solve the bipartisan gridlock of the current Republican and Democratic parties, in this case by starting a third party. SAM's chair explained the rationale in Huffpost last year. They haven't gotten a lot of press yet.

Notes on Authority

The most serious charge against Trump is that he is (probably without being aware of it) profoundly reactionary in the sense of preferring authoritarianism over empiricism as a source of knowledge. Indeed his tweets could be collected into a new Syllabus of Errors to rival the original. The essential contribution of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment was the idea that vast areas of knowledge could be plumbed by experiment and analysis more productively than by appeal to religious or political authority or tradition or superstition:

Somewhere along the way, there has developed this idea that if you believe something hard enough, it's as true as things discovered through the process of science. And I will say that's objectively wrong. -- Bill Nye, Science Guy
That is fundamentally a reactionary assault on the basis of modern western civilization. This is why the current global political climate is no longer conservative vs progressive but empiricist-intellectual vs instinctive-authoritarian. As Jonathan Capehart illustrates with quotes:

The Greek philosophers were right to observe that empirical investigations were subject to error, but the development of the scientific method - gather data, formulate hypothesis, gather more data to test hypothesis, refine hypothesis - all cross-checked by peer review - has, over time, proven efficient at investigating many aspects of reality and moving from problem perception to problem solution.

Liberty and Equality

Unequal distribution doesn't bother me 
- Roy Cohn in Angels in America
unequal distribution bothers Warren Buffett and others.
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: 
but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
Who says Trump doesn't want to lead a Scriptural life?

I'd always supposed that Calvin Coolidge was a failure president sandwiched between the failures of Harding and Hoover, but I got an unexpectedly progressive perspective of his beliefs from wikipedia:

There is a standard of righteousness that might does not make right, that the end does not justify the means, and that expediency as a working principle is bound to fail. The only hope of perfecting human relationships is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give. Yet people are entitled to the rewards of their industry. What they earn is theirs, no matter how small or how great. But the possession of property carries the obligation to use it in a larger service.

But cool Cal didn't address whether people are entitled to the rewards of the industry of their distant ancestors. One of the oldest questions of democratic theory is the tension between freedom and equality. People are born with unequal genetic attributes and raised in unequal circumstances. Some people thus start with unequal advantages and disadvantages. Even in the presence of equal opportunity, if they are free to achieve their fullest potential, they will achieve unequal levels of success. Equal opportunity plus unequal capabilities yields unequal success. If they are free to institutionalize their unequal success, soon following generations will no longer have even equal opportunity.

One of the ongoing tasks of a government that believes in equality of opportunity is continuous intervention to make it a continuous reality. One form of that intervention is estate taxes to prevent excessive concentration of economic power in individuals and families over generations.

Another form is intervention against excessive concentration of economic power in large corporations. The normal competitive business methods that are legal in a free market with many players, none dominant, have to be curbed when one of the players is so successful that it dominates the market and stifles competition and innovation. Entrepreneurs are often astounded and resentful that the methods that made them successful are now forbidden.

Ideologues who believe that the free market will magically guarantee equal opportunity without external intervention generally would not accept the same proposition about politics - rather, they understand the need for institutional mechanisms to continually undermine excessive concentrations of power that inhibit new solutions to new problems. But it's the same problem of human organizations, whether economic or political.

Silicon Valley is in California. Non-compete clauses in employment contracts are illegal in California. The correlation is lost on other struggling Silicon Valley-wannabes. Tearing down concentrations of power to enable new power is essential in corporate business as well as individual business.


Roy Cohn, who represented Trump when the Justice Department sued him for housing discrimination in the 1970s, taught him to never apologize and to always counterpunch.

Why I'm a registered Democrat again

I became eligible to vote in 1970 while living in DC, but looking forward to establishing CA residence and tuition, I did not register to vote until I arrived at Berkeley in the fall. I registered Democrat because I thought Nixon was a crook who had also squandered his chance to get us out of Vietnam and thus be better than Johnson.

While at Berkeley I often had a Top Dog for dinner at the stand on Hearst. Top Dog regulars would not be surprised that I found the libertarian writings posted on the wall more interesting than the Star Trek episodes playing on the TV. Libertarians seemed to be against everything that Nixon and Johnson stood for, and so I eventually registered, and then voted Libertarian for the next 25 years.

During that time I had forgotten what I had read in freshman political science about the essential conflict between liberty and equality and the essential need in an ongoing democracy to actively undo liberty in favor of equality at a measured rate. I had to think about this again when Ron Paul and Rand Paul became active in politics and eventually became scarcely distinguishable from the doctrinaire reactionary wing of the Republican party. And why were the Kochs so heavily involved in the Cato Institute? What is the end state of Libertarianism anyway?

I concluded that it's the same as the end state of Communism - the withering of the "state". Except in a complex society, somebody is going to set some rules about how people treat each other. If it's all "fresh and local" then it's a system we already know about - anarchy or feudalism - where fresh and local armed gangs run things according to whatever rules they make up on the spot. This system is still observable in much of the world, typically in impoverished scarcity-based economies, often deserts or mountains. There is a lot of liberty if you've got a lot of gun. There is a lot less equality because there is no external entity charged with regenerating it - a democratic government.

Under Communism, there is only one armed gang at the center. Not fresh or local. There is a lot of equality because everybody is oppressed the same. There is a lot less freedom because there is no external entity charged with ensuring it - once again, a democratic government.

In other words, the state never withers; it is just called something else. Some mechanism will decide about power allocation and resource allocation. There will always be a ruling class - the class of people who are willing and able to rule other people, both those that like to be told what to do and those that don't.

The best resolution is the form of government envisioned by Hamilton and Jefferson wherein the forces of liberty and the forces of equality are locked in perpetual tension with neither retaining a decisive power advantage.

The triggering event for me was the Bush-Gore cliffhanger of 2000. At least it was resolved under the rule of law. But it convinced me that voting for ideological third parties was a bad idea. Such self-indulgence had real consequences. Since then I have voted as a yellow-dog Democrat.

However California has an open primary, a debatable system, but one that means that you don't have to be a Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary, which is the only election that counts in Silicon Valley. So I could retain a third party registration so that third party could get the small advantages that accrue to parties that achieve a minimum registration threshold. But which third party?

I re-registered as a Green. Not that I expected or hoped that they would win very much - same as my later feeling about Libertarians - but I hoped that they would get just enough recognition to stay in the discussion and influence the Democrats. The Greens were definite about fresh and local, conservation, and climate change, even if they were sometimes naive about government.

Finally the 2016 election convinced me to re-register as Democrat once more and to start political donations for the first time in my life, to Democratic causes. I am hardly in complete sympathy with every plank of the Democratic platform - most Democrats have issues with one point or another, just like the Republicans - but to me the important issue was to take a stand against Trumpism. I stand with the elitists who believe in reason, logic, objective truth, education, inclusiveness, politeness, and transparency.

What about representative democracy?

Most voters say that Congress is doing a lousy job, but then they generally vote to return incumbents. Part of the problem is that vital military and economic national security projects happen in my district, and pork barrel waste and fraud in yours. I take principled stands against unwise decisions, while you impede progress with bare-faced partisanship. Voters seem to buy the argument that the problem is always in somebody else's district.

Fewer vote in the midterm elections than in the general election. It seems to me that the composition of the House and Senate is much more important than the White House. But a presidential race captures the simultaneous attention of the whole nation, and seduces it with the notion that voting for one person can change things somehow. Real representative democracy is a lot more work, and starts with the Representatives.

I suspect the ultimate problem with real representative democracy is that normal people are not much interested in politics most of the time. Even the president-elect finds the details boring! People just want somebody to go to Washington/Sacramento/City Hall and "fix the problem." Of course the real problem is that normal people don't want to deal with the messy complicated details, so politicians promise to take care of things, and never do, because they can't. Besides, if they fixed the problem, what would they run on next time? Nothing much has changed since Josiah Gilbert Holland's time.

Lack of ongoing political interest by normal people is why continuous revolution models of governance like China in the 1960's and France in the 1790's don't last long.

Until the extent of Putin hacking into the 2016 election was revealed, I would have said the greatest threat to American representative democracy was single-issue voters. They elect single-issue legislators who faithfully deliver on their single issue and then can get into to unsupervised mischief the rest of the time... as dramatized in Charlie Wilson's War.

One of the points that struck me about the movie was that the only characters I could empathize with were the Soviet gunship crews who were so much like their American counterparts in Vietnam.

The book that explained to me why nobody ever wins in Afghanistan is The Places in Between, Rory Stewart's account of surviving what no Afghan could: walking alone and unarmed across the country. No Afghan could do that because every Afghan has many murderous traditional enemies.

That book also illuminated why the Soviet Union fell: after their Afghan experience fighting the Taliban that Wilson and Reagan armed, observing the relative birth rates in Russia vs the traditionally Muslim Asiatic republic-stans, the Russians realized they would soon be a minority in their own country: a minority under an Asiatic majority on which Communist ideology was a very thin and deteriorating veneer, losing ground to the worldwide rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Subsequent Putin ideology confirms the hypothesis; after all the Soviet sacrifices in the Great Patriotic War against National Socialism in the 1940's, the end game was to abandon International Socialism in favor of Putin's own National Socialism, replete with Russian language and imperialism, Orthodox Church support, and virulent anti-semitism.

Ronald Reagan only gets credit for the fall of the Soviet Union if he also gets credit for arming the Taliban and 9/11. But Hollywood might have played a minor role along the edges of the iron curtain, where people could watch European broadcasts of stupid American sitcoms that displayed as unexceptional a level of material comfort that Communists could only fantasize about. Do not under-estimate the cumulative impact of that implicit vision of material comfort vs explicit political propaganda, which probably had comparatively little effect. It's the economy, stupid!

What about left and right political ideology? - with application to ACA

Any conservative will tell you that the great myth of the left is that government always can do better for individuals than they can do for themselves.

They are not so clear on the great myth of the right: that individuals can do better than the government on most issues of modern life. It's only true that some individuals can do better than the government on some issues. Members of Congress that can't do their own taxes, repair their own cars, or reinstall their own operating systems suggests the limitations of individual competence in a complex modern world.

Thanks to the force multipliers of modern technology, a corporation with one million dollars in capitalization can easily do a billion dollars in damage to people who it never paid for the privilege. Hundreds of superfund sites prove the futility of remedies after the fact. We depend on the government (who else) to apply some prior restraint on behavior. Who cleans up old oil rigs when their owners go broke? The taxpayers, of course.

There are those that think that Federal overreach is crippling the economy, and it certainly cripples some roads to riches. And I agree to the extent that I like "fresh and local" - so if a company has all its owners and all its employees and all its business operations and all its pollution in Kentucky, then the Feds can butt out and let the state of Kentucky try to regulate that company. But to maintain a balance of power, a national company needs a national regulator, and a global company needs a global regulator.

ACA: Jefferson didn't have the opportunity to buy health insurance. Any that is offered to the modern citizen will come from some kind of large organization that will take its cut in overhead. Does anybody think that this large organization will do better if its medical decisions are made by anonymous bureaucrats on Wall St, compared to anonymous bureaucrats in Washington?

To avoid the middleman markup, you don't buy insurance for risks you can insure yourself. So rich people don't have to buy any insurance from anybody - and they set up corporations with limited liability to take their billion-dollar business risks so their personal fortunes are not endangered. Naturally they see no point in participating in insurance pools that only benefit persons of lesser means. And besides - why try to thwart God's will - see the discussion of Jobs-Friends-ism theology below. There are lots of rich people in the world that don't have a problem with poor people dying in the street. Those who made their billions more by luck than talent tend to think that it's all pre-ordained.

A lot of government is really insurance of some sort. Everybody pays a little so nobody pays a lot. There is plenty of room for petty mischief in such a system, but we tolerate a certain amount of friction to avoid catastrophic losses. We don't allow people to not pay taxes to support the police, even though most people will never require direct police assistance. (In contrast, there may still be a few rural places left where fire protection is optional. If your unprotected house catches fire, the fire company will arrive to watch your house burn and make sure it doesn't spread to nearby protected houses.)

At one of my employers, one of the recurrent employee questions was "why don't we have a dental plan" and the answer was "most employees don't want it." The response then "why don't we have an optional dental plan" and the answer was "only people with major dental issues would join an optional plan, so it would cost as much as going uninsured, so nobody would join."

What about political ideology for the masses?
revised 28 March 2017

Marx is famous for "religion is the opiate of the masses". Its fuller context is more positive:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

But it's a shame Marx didn't live long enough to see modern communism and fascism; perhaps he would have been led to generalize his pithy quotation like this:

Ideology is the means by which the ruling classes get the masses to act against their own interests.

It's always fascinated me how the rich Southern slave-owners got the poor free whites to fight for them, despite that even an elementary study of economics shows that slave black labor reduces the value of free white labor. As W. E. B. Dubois wrote:

Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own "niggers." To these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole slave system. The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white.

The original Confederate conscription law exempted men who owned 20 or more slaves. As one of my ancestors observed, "it's a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." He was unwillingly conscripted anyway, but luckily survived the siege of Vicksburg.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 alarmed the officers of the ruling classes as to the consequences if the common soldiers figured out who their real enemy was, and so was commemorated on subsequent Christmases by continuous artillery barrages in the hope of preventing a recurrence. Opera San Jose's production of the story was seen in 2017; Atlanta Opera's in 2016. The final Peter Capaldi episode of Dr Who also featured the Christmas Truce.

The modern equivalent of a rich man's war and a poor man's fight is Trump's nominating a cabinet of billionaires to implement his populist promises... perhaps. The masses get their circus - admiring Trump from a distance, while the billionaires get more billions. Trump sounded as many single-issue voter themes as possible (abortion, gun control, US embassy to Jerusalem, opposition to Castro, vaccination, etc.) that he's never shown much interest in, in order to get the masses on board. But the head of his business council is experienced in cutting jobs, not creating them.

A couple of signs of budding despotism are starting wars as a distraction, and changing the rules so nobody else can get to power the same way the despot did. Trump has already promised to change the libel laws so rich public figures can sue for libel and thereby suppress criticism whether libelous or not. No idle threat - as the NYT reported, "[Friedman's firm] represented Mr. Trump in his unsuccessful libel lawsuit against a former New York Times reporter, Timothy L. O'Brien, and [Friedman's firm's] founding partner, Marc E. Kasowitz, twice this year threatened to sue The Times in relation to articles it was preparing regarding Mr. Trump's treatment of women and income tax returns."

As for foreign wars, it seems likely that starting January 20, seeing America's former allies reeling in confusion and uncertainty about the administration's intentions, our adversaries in Russia on land, Russia at sea, Ukraine, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Islamic State, Libya - and even friendlier states that we might have restrained in the past like Israel and India - will start seeing what they can get away with. So the odds are that Trump will not need to start a foreign war, he'll get one with no effort.

And that's too bad, because the law of unintended consequences applies most emphatically to warfare: would World War I have ended less destructively and World War II been less vehement if the United States had stayed home in 1917?

A $64,003 Question: Is the US really better off ceding world leadership to China?

And then, back to the masses and ideology: some people assert a citizen's duty to fight to protect his country. Yet many wars are wars of administration survival rather than national survival. The best recent real-life example was the Falkland Islands War. The governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom backed themselves into corners where they would fall to their worst enemies - the domestic opposition - unless they started a foreign war over some very remote real estate involving very few people and nobody's essential national interest. So lots of soldiers, sailors, and civilians were killed or injured until the Argentine government finally fell. Probably more people are familiar with the fictional Wag the Dog.

Likewise, the majority of "national security" issues, particularly with respect to classified information, are really "administration security" issues. Disclosure threatens harm to the current administration more than to the nation.

So what happens when a despot fails to deliver on his promises, as always happens? Then scapegoats have to and will be found! This was best explained to me in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.


Sending a message: I recall a discussion with an auto repair shop owner in the late 1970's when Oregon was debating its version of California's Proposition 13. I pointed out how the proposal was actually inimical to his interests, but he told me the important thing was to "send a message to Salem." I guess he did, but perhaps the message received was interpreted differently than he intended.

Sticking it to our allies: Trump thinks NATO and the European Union are counter-productive, because it undoes the cultural cohesion of the nation-states we have now. But 1939-1918 = 21 years of comparative peace without the EU; 2017-1958 = 59 years of comparative peace with the EU. And if Europeans start thinking of themselves as united Europeans as much as members of their own tribe, it makes it possible to undo the nation states which were mostly achieved by force of arms - Basques, Bavarians, Bretons, and Scots could all choose to become independent states within the Union, much as the Serbs, Slovaks, and Slovenes have already done. The argument for larger nation-states is to protect small nations from other larger nation-states. That argument goes away if the EU eliminates the need for that intermediate protection racket. Robert Kaplan argues that the European Union is the main bulwark against another world war starting in the Balkans.

I'd think Trump would find convenient the European trend to speaking English as a common language instead of French for diplomacy, German for science, Spanish for love, as it was 100 years ago, or "Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse" as it was for Charles V.

If I were president or vice president, my first working lunch would be with the senior enlisted personnel of the armed forces - the Sergeant Major of the Army, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, and their peers in other services - to hear directly from them what issues are critical to maximize the effectiveness and readiness of the senior enlisted ranks that lead the hands-to-hand dirty work of combat.

Religion opiates the ruling classes differently from the masses: Aside from a few oblique references to ancient fertility cults, the oldest religion spelled out in the Bible is a simple creed that I call Jobs-Friends-ism (theologians probably have a better label). It's espoused by his friends in the book of Job, which is older than Judaism and contains no references to Judaism. Old as it is, Jobs-Friends-ism never goes out of style:

It's a very simple creed, and beloved by the rich and powerful in all places and times, even though they might make a show of nominal commitment to some more complicated belief system. This simple creed is contrary to Hebrew scripture, contrary to Christian scripture, and may well be contrary to Islam for all I know. Anyway the adherents to this simple creed are not disturbed by poverty or illness of other people, and espouse policies to "discourage dependency" and let those other people figure out their own solutions.

The same thinking lies beneath the surface of many public policy issues. People who think that way also like the prosperity gospel which is another way of blaming the poor and sick for being poor or sick, compounded by schemes to take from them even what little they have.

I believe in free will: the history of the world is not fixed in advance but is mutable by human choices and action. Not everybody agrees: if you're rich and powerful, you might prefer to preach that your outcome was predestined before you were born, rather than the result of choices made by you and your ancestors and your other supporters.

Many people who might be better off believing otherwise, still cling to the notion that God is in command and everything that happens is in accordance with God's will and so there is more order to the universe than historical fact supports. However, as one of the characters in Tom Robbin's Another Roadside Attraction observes, if you prove to somebody that his religion is false, his reaction is not to thank you, but to kill you.

And there are always preachers who will preach what you want to hear: as Louis Lomax explained it, Southern preachers soothed white consciences about racial matters with a refrain as old as established religion: "Come to church! Bring money! We'll take care of it!"

And that's why the First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Combined church and state might be the government of heaven, but it's certainly the government of hell. There was plenty of European experience to draw upon to see that when church and state prostitute themselves together, both are diminished. It's a lesson still to be learned in much of the world.

There's a reason elementary study of economics was uncommon in the south: In 1917, Mississippi inductees reporting to Camp Shelby mostly needed remedial literacy, but mostly needed no remedial marksmanship. Twenty years later my father was in the first Mississippi generation to attend a rural consolidated public high school.

While leading the Future Farmers club at that high school, my father would occasionally proselytize modern farming methods to his neighbors, such as contour plowing. One neighbor listened politely and then said that contour plowing wasn't in Scripture so he wasn't going to do it. That straight-plowing farmer's descendants are probably growing pulp and running cattle, which is about all you can do in that part of Mississippi with cotton-worn land.

But my favorite (perhaps apocryphal) Southern Baptist story has a city slicker asking a backwoodsman if he believed in infant baptism. The backwoodsman replied "Believe it? Hell, I've seen it DONE!"

Golden Rule: What about that other Golden Rule that is supposed to govern Christian life? Professional politicians and professional soldiers eventually learn that tides ebb as well as flow, and when the tide turns against you, your opponents might not treat you as well as you treated them, but they certainly won't treat you better. So there's a reason why some German commanders declined to promulgate Hitler's Commando Order.

Amateur politicians and soldiers are more likely to feel their cause not merely just, but in service to God or History or Restoring Our Place Among the Nations, and so opponents are not worthy of any more than subjugation or even extermination. Take no prisoners, make no compromises. This attitude enables their manipulation by more cynical leaders. Even Mitch McConnell has to remind them: "It's always a mistake to misread your mandate. And frequently new majorities think it's going to be forever. Nothing is forever in this country. We have an election every two years right on schedule. We have had since 1788. And so I don't think we should act as if we're going to be in the majority forever."

There are no wars of religion

Since major religions all include a message of peace, why do there seem to be so many religious wars?

As posited above, wars are usually between administrations of nations rather than peoples of nations; most of the people usually have to be forcibly conscripted to serve the administrations.

At some level there is a genetic memory of war as a very dangerous sport of tribal men, as it still is in remote parts of New Guinea and other mountainous areas, which unfortunately afflicts unwilling participants as well, including elderly, women, and children. As a sport there are some traditions that insure that it does not consume too much of the growing and hunting season, nor proceed to total destruction of either side.

More complex societies with politicians require more complex rationales and sometimes more utter destruction of the enemy. Warfare loses its genetic grounding as sport and its appeal to soldiers to volunteer for more than one season of good weather. To some extent soldiers can be motivated by offering legalized murder, rape, enslavement, and theft of the losing side. But eventually ideologists have to recast war from an exciting volunteer pastime to a grueling ideological duty and conscript soldiers when volunteers see no value in further participation. Appeals to national pride - making the country great again - might carry the day for a while.

Or economics: war now serves as a medium through which favors are bestowed, largess distributed and ambitions satisfied -- Andrew Bacevich.

Eventually stronger medicine is required, and in complex societies, organized religions or other ideologies provide that medicine. Now the war is not just a game but a crusade against evil. The enemy is not just the opposing team but the embodiment of evil. Therefore no traditions of proper play apply; the only goal is the total destruction of the enemy people. The religion or ideology is not the reason for the war; it is the excuse.

That's how armies recruit women into combat. Most women would consider men's violent games to be stupid and destructive rather than attractive or interesting; murder, rape, and theft don't appeal. But women can be fired up to exterminate evil. When they do, women can be the most dedicated and vicious soldiers, having no genetic memory of war as sport. That may be one more reason that many societies exclude women from combat service (so keeping their roles to helpless victims); they just don't understand the male traditions. I doubt there are many female mercenaries.

The Thirty Years War was an noteworthy example of a "religious" war that was only a few generations removed from America's Founding Fathers and much on their minds. How could a theological argument about selling indulgences kill eight million people?

In the previous century, Charles V had regretted not eliminating Martin Luther at the beginning when he had the chance. Charles had failed to recognize that he was dealing with a technological and a political revolution as well as a theological one. The printing press was a critical enabler of Protestantism, as was the northern German princes desire to be free of the Emperor. Luther happened to be the spark plug of the hour, but somebody else would have set things off if Luther hadn't. The tumultuous era of Henry VIII, Wolsey, More, and Thomas Cromwell was bound to erupt eventually.

The Washington Post published a number of essays on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation:

Christianity had experienced schisms before; there is an amazingly complex web of recognition and non-recognition among primates of the various Eastern rites. But the number of Protestant splinters exploded for centuries and only started to contract as the number of Protestant worshippers started to decline. The end result at least in American Protestantism is that if you didn't like the church you were in, you joined with like-minded persons to start a new one - my grandfather did that. The same dynamic applied to denominations. Each group was certain that it had recovered the authentic faith and practice of the Church Fathers, and everybody else was mistaken.

So we have priesthood of all believers, and primacy of scripture, as hallmarks of Protestantism, but Protestants divided according to beliefs about creedal vs covenantal membership, episcopal vs congregational polity, transubstantiation vs cosubstantiation vs remembrance, etc. What's the proper basis for ecumenism? Even the mainline Protestant churches have a lot of trouble getting to mutual recognition, even for offering and receiving communion.

It seems to me that a lot of the dividing lines today can be found in Paul's letters and so are not likely to be resolved any time soon. So why can't Christian groups recognize each other as different legitimate traditions within the same basic faith? So what's a Christian? Why not accept everybody who affirms any of the ancient Christian creeds, either individually or corporately as part of a creedal denomination?

As for Roman Catholicism, it seems sufficient to me to define a Roman Catholic Christian as one who accepts the teachings of the Bishop of Rome as final in matters of faith and morals - final meaning ending discussion and dispute within Roman Catholicism during that Bishop's lifetime. Too bad that Pius IX couldn't resist the temptation to proclaim his office infallible and universal, but what would one expect from the compiler of the Syllabus of Errors?

What's the difference between leadership and lying?

In describing present and possible realities, what's the difference between leadership and lying? In technology it's normal for leaders to exaggerate opportunities and benefits and minimize risks and costs. There's perhaps deliberate confusion between present and future tense, between indicative and subjunctive mood.

I wondered for years why leaders in trouble in business or politics always deny, deny, deny, until the truth is obvious to everybody, then they make a show of finally coming clean. Eventually I concluded is that it's because every leader, despite whatever "self-made man" mythology they promulgate, got to leadership because of the investments of others of time, energy, or money. (Have you ever heard of a "self-made woman"? Women seem to have a more realistic understanding that success is always a group effort.)

These others are the shareholders who have invested in the leader, and the leader has effectively covenanted to respect and protect their investment. In time of trouble, then, why NOT deny, deny, deny? The stock market might crash, the president might be shot, world war III might start, an asteroid might destroy the liberal elitist east coast Lugenpresse... and in the confusion of any such events, the troubled leader might be able to slip from public consciousness scot-free, protecting his shareholders' investment. Why surrender while you have the means to resist?

Exponentials and Democracy

Many more people use the word "exponential" than can define it accurately. But it's a very well-defined kind of function known to mathematicians, scientists, and finance people that understand compound interest. Basically an exponential function is one that grows (or declines) faster as it grows (or declines). In the growing case, the function is always increasing, the rate of increase of the function is always increasing, and the rate of increase of the rate of increase is also always increasing... indefinitely. In contrast, a polynomial function might be increasing, and the rate of increase might be increasing, but eventually there is a rate of rate of... that is exactly zero. But most people use "exponential" to mean any kind of rapidly increasing function.

For most political discussion, the distinction hardly matters. What matters is that in a finite domain, once it gets going, exponential growth does not last very long before something is exhausted. Perhaps most people understand better that the reason you can't win in gambling by continuing to double down is house limits: eventually you exhaust the amount of risk the house is willing to take for your amusement. But it seems to work fine until you hit the limit.

In the same way, if in your lifetime something has grown exponentially from essentially zero to consuming 10% of the available resource, you might suppose that you have eight more lifetimes before the resource is 90% gone - plenty of time to repent and reform. But without knowing what the rate of growth is - the interest rate if you will - for all you know, you might only have eight more days, not enough time to even draft a bill and get it into committee. Like an infection, it's easier to treat a sniffle than advanced pneumonia.

That's bad for democracy. By waiting until the effects of climate change are obvious and undeniable even to the ostriches, there might not be time enough to prevent truly catastrophic effects in our lifetimes. Democratic governments are very slow to react to future problems; it's hard enough to react to current ones.

The faint consolation is that over thousands of years, natural climate change will work eventually and overcome artificial. Thanks mostly to Jupiter, the earth's orbit's eccentricity and obliquity are constantly changing slowly, and that changes the seasons. Indeed thanks to Jupiter, Mercury might not be a permanent part of our solar system - but most urban dwellers have never seen Mercury and might not care, unless Mercury's exit path takes it close to the earth - then everybody will care. And over tens of millions of years, random external events like asteroid collisions will also affect climate... again if we're lucky and avoid worse fates.

The interplay between exponential growth and finite resources results in an S-curve phenomenon that comes up in many contexts to correct people mistakenly thinking that some kind of exponential growth is unlimited, e.g. "the rules have changed and the economy and stock market will rise forever." Putt's S-Curve Law explains the associated hazards for technology project managers, and these apply to technology investments too.

Celebrities in Politics
revised 8 January 2018

Should Oprah Winfrey run for President in 2020?

Media personalities should not run for President - that seemed evident to many people even when Reagan was governor. But now can anybody win without being one or becoming one?

The Washington Post on January 8 has a lot of opinion pieces about Oprah for President, pro and con. Jennifer Rubin was first with a list of positive attributes. But:

The list of Oprah Winfrey attributes would have all fit Barack Obama just as well. Yet he was irrevocably reviled by a significant segment of the electorate - for a lot of reasons but most of all because he was black.

Much of the list would fit Hillary Clinton as well. Yet she was irrevocably reviled by a significant segment of the electorate too - for a lot of reasons but at least in part because she was a woman.

One first has to wonder why anybody would subject themselves, their family, their friends, their business, to the withering barrage of real or imaginary dirt stories that professional dirt writers will dig up or make up. Look at all the shameless vitriol directed at Michelle Obama.

One next has to wonder, does America deserve a leader as inspiring as Oprah Winfrey? If she did run, she'd have to take positions on a number of hot-button issues, and no matter which way she went, or if she took no position, she'd lose some supporters on each issue. Just as every other candidate does.

Rather than running for office now, perhaps she should focus on change advocacy far more profound than any one elected official can accomplish alone - getting the money out of politics, the politics out of redistricting, states out of the business of suppressing voter registration and turnout, and reforms that foster problem-solving bipartisanship rather than ideological intransigence, such as ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts. Then who is elected president will matter less, but the elected president will matter more. And she's young enough that 2024 or 2028 would still be realistic targets if she were still interested.

On the other hand ... The movie Darkest Hour ends on the memorable line

He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.
The movie takes liberties; the quote dates not from Parliament in May 1940 but from Edward R. Murrow in 1954.

Churchill wrote all his speeches by himself, and planned all the phrasing and pauses in advance. Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address and delivered it from his handwritten draft. How many of our current politicians could write their own speeches and deliver them effectively without a teleprompter?

If Oprah can continue to mobilize the English language, more power to her. Just remember that Churchill was voted out a few months after the end of the war. He had his time and place but the world moved on.

A Bias Toward Action can lead to Bad Foreign Policy
revised 17 April 2018

A bias toward action is generally considered to be a good thing in business. Just do a web search on "bias toward action" to see. Information is always incomplete, and fear of failure can lead to "analysis paralysis." In Silicon Valley, startups often fail because of decisions they made, but startups that fail to make essential decisions always fail. At least one CEO liked to say "no decision is also a decision" - and often, the worst possible decision. In Silicon Valley, if your startup fails, you list it as a learning experience on your resume and try again. Foreign policy is different. Churchill did say, in 1942:

 The maxim 'Nothing avails but perfection' may be spelt shorter: 'Paralysis.'

But that was before the nuclear era. A misjudged nuclear-armed adversary is not a recoverable learning experience.

In the specific case of Syria, there are about eight different sides whose allegiances are subject to change without notice. Unless the US is willing to enter the war in a major way to confront Russia and depose Assad, he will continue, under Russian protection, exterminating his opponents until he restores peace and law and order to his liking.

In Syria, the only reliable allies of the US and Israel are the hapless Kurds, who have been struggling for independence forever - but are doomed by a hopeless landlocked geopolitical situation surrounded by larger enemies who are strategically more important to the US. Susan Rice lays out the path to the least bad outcome the US can realistically expect.

You'd think we'd learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that it's a lot easier to get in than to get out. All these locales are wrapped up in ethnic and sectarian conflicts - there is probably no resolution in Afghanistan, for instance, until there is a resolution in Kashmir.

But Kashmir is unresolvable by the US and probably by anybody: supposedly a State Dept veteran interviewed new college grad job applicants by asking what they'd do about Kashmir - and the only correct answer was silence. If they said anything at all, they failed that test.

Israel/Palestine is a similar problem. North Korea is another. To solve refractory problems like these requires a rare coincidence: leaders on both sides have to WANT a solution, and they must have the political capital to negotiate a solution even against their own muscular internal opposition. The current leaders of India and Pakistan do not want a solution. The current leaders of Israel and Palestine do not have the political capital to negotiate a solution. The net result is that no third party can negotiate a solution for them.

Federal R&D

What sorts of Research and Development should the Federal government fund? Where in the Constitution does it say that the Federal government has the power to fund space exploration and cancer research and ... ? These powers are mostly missing from the Constitution, and do not seem essential to the exercise of any powers explicitly enumerated. Despite that, there's been a lot of Federally-funded R&D, especially since 1940, originally oriented toward defense and later branching out to encompass much more. It seemed like it was here to stay until Trump arrived, determined to put a major crimp in the hose of Federal non-defense R&D funding and to end altogether Federal climate research funding.

Most incremental evolutionary technology development that's economically justified can and will be done by private industry, here or abroad. So the Feds don't need to fund that. What won't be done is fundamental research because the expected return from a single project can't justify the risk. Truly fundamental research has a very high chance of failure; if the outcome were relatively certain and economically attractive, it would have already been done.

So a useful Federal research program would be a portfolio of diverse projects marked by a very high failure rate and thus would always seem to be a likely candidate for cutting back. But it would occasionally score really fundamental breakthroughs, like the nuclear bomb, space travel, and the internet. Sometimes it took quite a while, but the internet is now commercialized, space travel might be getting there soon, and nuclear armaments are going to be commercialized unless somebody can think of a safe way to persuade the North Koreans not to.

Original Sin, Genetics and Human Perfectibility

One of the hallmarks of many Enlightenment thinkers who influenced America's founders was belief in the infinite perfectibility of mankind. That was in contrast to a widespread Christian belief in Original Sin which had varying interpretations among various Christian groups, but generally led to a conclusion against the possibility of infinite perfectibility. Indeed much of the debate around the Constitution really amounted to differences in opinion about how much ordinary people could be trusted and how much they needed to be led. The final Constitution was a compromise, with a House of Representatives for the people and a Senate for the leadership - not unlike Commons and Lords.

Thanks to the technologically-enabled destruction of the twentieth century, perfectibility seemed again out of reach and those advocating it by eugenics untrustworthy. The story of the fall of man was not one that most educated people would take literally as historic, but perhaps it was a metaphor for something else. And indeed the church fathers who developed the doctrine blamed human sexuality as the means of transmission of the sin, or the tendency to sin, depending on the commentator.

In a certain sense they were correct. As Shaw observes in Man and Superman:

The earth is a nursery in which men and women play at being heroes and heroines, saints and sinners; but they are dragged down from their fool's paradise by their bodies: hunger and cold and thirst, age and decay and disease, death above all, make them slaves of reality: thrice a day meals must be eaten and digested: thrice a century a new generation must be engendered.
Spiritual natures perhaps, but slaves to physics and biology; eat thrice a day, breed thrice a century: why is that? It's because that is the only kind of creature that could have survived long enough to contemplate the question. Evolutionary accident creatures that did not take care to preserve their individual selves and their collective species didn't last long. The lion never lay down with the lamb; instead the lion evolved toward better predation and the lamb toward better escape.

Thus genes are the mechanism by which animal survival is guaranteed. Human tendencies that are not individually rational may be collectively rational, and vice versa. Sexual reproduction increases genetic diversity, which increases conflict in the short term, but probably increases the probability of species survival in the long term; a diverse gene pool is some insurance against the physical and biological accidents of the unknown future.

A Way of Thinking - Dr. Albert Burke
revised 28 March 2017

During the Kennedy administration, I watched a show on WETA called "A Way of Thinking - with Dr. Albert Burke." I absorbed more than I realized at the time, but after 1962 that show was gone and Dr. Burke seemed to completely disappear, as far as I noticed.

Now at last there is a bit of bio on Wikipedia. And while I haven't observed any trace of his broadcasts, his book is still available on Ebay.

Some of the issues he discussed that I remember:

It's not always easy to discern prophecy even when it's right in front of you.

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