Three Exciting Candidates

September 15, 2014

UnknownI first noticed Neel Kashkari in 2008 as a remarkably young Indian-American, standing beside the Treasury Secretary and being tasked with sorting out the floundering banking system. Having accomplished that, he’s now the Republican candidate for California governor.

Jerry Brown (first elected 40 years ago! – seems like yesterday) has actually been a great governor this time around, resurrecting the state with reforms that few once thought doable. But there’s more to be done, and Kashkari is the one who gets it. In a nation whose economy is hobbled by too much business regulation, California may be the most regulation-happy state of all, virtually building a moat to keep new businesses out, and a catapult to eject existing ones.* Unknown-2No surprise that its unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest.

Kashkari wants to fix this, and also another part of the problem, education, which in California is abysmal and strangled by bureaucracy, which Kashkari pledges to slash. He sensibly favors charter schools too (not that they’re necessarily better than public ones, but because both will likely be better if in competition with each other).

Kashkari also thinks Brown is nuts to budget a gazillion dollars on a high-speed rail boondoggle when California has much more pressing needs, like a water supply crisis.

But, unusual in today’s GOP, Kashkari combines all that economic good sense with classical liberal social views. He’s marched in a gay pride parade. He wants a more humane immigration policy. He wants others to be able to follow him in achieving the American dream.

This is my kind of Republican, embodying the reasons I became one myself, in the Pleistocene, when it was not a party with its head up its rear, but stood for values good for all Americans (and would-be Americans). This kind of Kashkari Republicanism might have a future. A Republicanism of grumpy old white men who don’t believe in evolution will prove themselves wrong by going extinct.

Unknown-1Speaking of grumpy old white men, Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, 78, trying to fend off the Tea Party, turned himself into one of them stoopit Republicans. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932, and Roberts’s Democratic opponent has withdrawn, leaving him up against independent candidate Greg Orman, who’s getting much support from Republicans of the non-stoopit variety (yes, there are many of us, even in Kansas). Orman says he voted for Obama in ’08 and Romney in ’12, and, much like Kashkari, seems to make good choices in selecting from both the right and left sides of the policy menu.

Greg Orman,. cartooned in The Economist

Greg Orman, cartooned in The Economist

But Orman’s real attraction is his assertive critique of the partisan enmity that so afflicts today’s U.S. politics, with each side demonizing the other as not just wrong but evil. We need to can this, and boost up that “radical middle.”

Next, Brazil. The line goes, it’s the country of the future and always will be. What keeps Brazil from being an economic dynamo is big government. Yes, even worse than America’s; Brazil’s economy is so strangled with regulation and government meddling that businesses just throw up their hands in despair.

The current caretaker of this stultifying system is President Dilma Rousseff, a standard-issue unimaginative old lefty (sees nothing amiss in Venezuela, etc.), up for re-election. Many Brazilians are fed up and realize something must change. But, frustratingly, the best candidate, offering real change, Eduardo Campos, with a program of unshackling the economy, was running a distant third. Then in August he died in a plane crash.

Marina Silva, an ascetic black woman, risen from dire poverty (taught herself to read at 16!); former environment minister; had run third in the previous election. But trying again, she was blocked from the ballot on a technicality. So she joined Campos as his vice-presidential running mate.

Marina Silva

Marina Silva

And with Campos’s death, Silva has replaced him as their party’s presidential candidate. This seems to have electrified Brazilians. Partly it’s a personality thing – in a country plagued by repeated scandals, Silva’s backstory and perceived unimpeachable integrity are highly attractive. But she also appears to have bought into Campos’s agenda of economic liberalization. And she now looks likely to win the election. It would be a bracing breath of fresh air for Brazil.

* I’ve written about this here, and here.

Thomas More’s Utopia: The First Communist Manifesto?

September 12, 2014

UnknownSaint Thomas More (1477-1535) wrote Utopia in 1516.* Not only the first in the utopian fiction genre, it’s also been called the first communist book.

In the imaginary country Utopia (the name means “noplace”), there is no money or private property. Everyone has a job, working for the commonwealth, and productivity is such that all needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) while also leaving ample leisure time. Needless to say, everyone is happy, there’s no cause for dissatisfaction, hence practically no cheating or crime or grasping for power.

Communist” or not, this might seem attractive (albeit kind of boring). imagesBut of course it’s a vain dream, because actual human beings resist such regimentation, and mainly because there’s a powerful drive for status (biologically installed by evolution since higher status means more mating opportunities). That’s the ultimate reason why utopian experiments (many in 19th century America) invariably collapsed. Moreover, while More depicts everyone performing diligently at their jobs, no reason appears why they should, since benefits are unrelated to how hard they work. In the real world, failure to reward effort elicits less of it, resulting in a poorer living standard (as places like East Germany have proven).

Still, the book is nicely imagined, and contains some very advanced thinking. images-1It came mainly out of More’s concern over inequality, an unusual view in the 1500s (far less equal than today); some passages sound like “Occupy” movement stuff. More says no existing social system is “anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests.” He’s particularly troubled by the vast numbers of thieves hanged, seeing them driven to crime by unemployment. That’s what he envisioned Utopia to remedy.

Also unusually for his time, More was a pacifist, disparaging military aggression as rarely worth the cost in lives and money. images-2I enjoyed Utopia’s game-book for war: start with secret agents plastering enemy lands with posters offering huge rewards for anyone killing (or delivering alive) their king and other named functionaries. This sows enough distrust and dissension that Utopia can usually triumph without firing a shot.

So the book makes More seem a good man with his heart in the right place. As did the popular 1966 biopic, A Man For All Seasons. More became a high public official under Henry VIII, and the film casts him as a moral hero for refusing on principle to endorse Henry’s making himself head of the English church in order to divorce his first wife. For that refusal, More wound up beheaded.

images-3However, a rather different (and historically more accurate) picture emerges from Hilary Mantel’s novelization Wolf Hall (centered on Thomas Cromwell), showing More as a remorseless religious hard-ass responsible for the horrific torture and burning alive of numerous (so-called) heretics. And this man was declared a saint by Catholicism! By the end, one was glad to read of More’s own execution.

It’s hard to believe the same Thomas More wrote Utopia. Indeed, only late in Utopia is God even mentioned, with Christianity introduced to (and gladly received by) the islanders. But they maintain a principle of religious tolerance. In fact, punishment is prescribed not for “heresy” but, rather, “for being too aggressive in religious controversy.” And More even suggests “that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.”

And then More himself turned into exactly the sort of religious persecutor he’d once decried. People do change.

Meantime, though Utopia vaunted religious tolerance, even there, on one point More drew the line: disbelief in an afterlife incurred harsh condemnation and punishment. He thought anyone unconcerned about eternal penalty or reward would have no reason to behave decently in this life. Nonsense of course (but in those days nobody ever met an actual nonbeliever). Anyhow, it seemed bizarre that More worried so much about maintaining posthumous incentives, yet not at all about a lack of incentives on Earth.

images-4I was also quite surprised at More’s denouncing the illogic of religious zealots who advocate asceticism, self-denial and even mortifying the flesh, yet urge devoting oneself to relieving the suffering of others. If happiness (or at least freedom from pain) is a good thing for others, why not for oneself? (Garrison Keillor has quipped, if the purpose of life is to serve others, what purpose is served by the existence of those others?) Charity begins at home, More wrote; and “The Utopians themselves therefore regard the enjoyment of life – that is, pleasure – as the natural object of all human efforts, and natural, as they define it, is synonymous with virtuous.” Yet on this point too More apparently changed his mind; he was later known to wear, under his clothes, a literal hair-shirt, whose purpose is to inflict not only discomfort but actual pain (it drew blood). And his refusal of any compromise, to save himself in the controversy with King Henry, may well have reflected something of a martyr complex.

Some people improve with age, and grow wiser. Thomas More, it seems, went the other way. What a pity he didn’t die promptly after writing his book. Then maybe he’d have deserved sainthood.

*I read a plain English translation (from Latin) by Paul Turner.

Goodbye, Cutesie

September 9, 2014

Cutesie was our cat. We got him for our daughter Elizabeth when she was four, and she gave him that, well, cutesie name. Maybe a play on the word’s definition? (I decided it was short for Cutesmeier.)

After Elizabeth left for college he was really my wife’s cat and she loved him dearly. He didn’t exactly reciprocate, but did like to be near us, and in the last years started snuggling up to my wife while we watched TV, letting her stroke him. One shouldn’t make assumptions about the mind of a cat. He lacked a “theory of mind,” an understanding that we are conscious beings (like him); rather, we were objects, a part of his environment. But he was certainly conscious, with thoughts and feelings.

cutesieWe buried him yesterday, a proper funeral. He’d been showing his age a bit but was quite fine until the weekend. Then it happened fast; kidney failure. When the vet brought him out the final time, he was still a living sentient being, engaged with the world. Then the needle, and he wasn’t.

Kind of makes you think. Especially happening on my 67th birthday; ever harder to sustain the idea that I’m not an old man, with my own needle looming.* (Though my wife is great at making me feel like the young man I actually never was when young.)

I recalled the rhyme on an old German token, “Heut rot, morgen todt.” Loosely translated: Here today, gone tomorrow. I ponder what it was like for Cutesie to be alive, then not. Watching him being covered with dirt hits one in the gut. I’ve written recently about death**; this intensified the feelings there expressed.

graveWe recently attended a talk about “Final Exit Network,” which helps folks take control of their demise. The speaker stressed that we often treat pets more humanely, to avoid suffering, than people, and I remembered this when seeing how peacefully and painlessly Cutesie went. His transition was virtually imperceptible.

That also seemed relevant to the furore over botched executions. I suspect we’ve gone so overboard in trying to ensure humaneness that we’re tripping over our own feet in that regard. Can’t we manage to do for people what we do for cats?

* Today brought my law school’s glitzy magazine. Once full of news of my professors, now it’s only an occasional obituary (except for Norman Dorsen, reassuringly still active). Even reports on my classmates’ accomplishments have faded out.

** See this also. And that law school magazine has an interesting essay by Samuel Scheffler, arguing that humanity’s continuity after one’s death is psychologically far more important than we realize in giving life meaning.

“Cleaning Up” Albany Corruption: The Cuomo Way

September 7, 2014

Andrew Cuomo ran for governor in 2010 pledging to “clean up” Albany political corruption.

images-1In Cuomo-speak, “to clean up” must mean “to perfect.” (As Humpty Dumpty said, “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”)

Back in May, I wrote of the Moreland Commission, a blue-ribbon panel Cuomo set up to investigate Albany. Before it finished, Cuomo pulled the plug, saying it’s his own commission so he can do with it as he likes. His pretext was that its purpose had been accomplished, the legislature having passed a campaign-finance reform. Only that “reform” was the joke of the year (applicable to one office-holder, for one election.)

To me, it all stank to high heaven. Then in July, The New York Times published an extensive investigative report on the Moreland Commission – showing how Cuomo and his stooges systematically interfered with, manipulated, and hobbled its work, trying to stop its investigation getting close to Cuomo or his campaign donors.

UnknownIn launching the commission, Cuomo had repeatedly said it would be free to investigate anything in state government including the executive branch. After the NYT exposé, Cuomo asserted the commission could not investigate the executive branch because it was a creature thereof (not only contradicting his own prior words, but clear nonsense). He also waved about a statement just released by one commission member disavowing any interference – a statement obviously solicited by, and probably drafted by, Cuomo’s team.

Thereupon, Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, who’d also been investigating the Moreland miasma, sent Cuomo a stern letter cautioning him against witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

Since Watergate, it’s a cliché that the cover-up is worse than the crime, and it’s been applied to Cuomo. But here, the crime itself was pretty awful, a cesspool of manipulation and mendacity, selling down the river any hope of the “clean up” New York was promised.

I’ve also written about the Cuomo administration’s dishonest manipulation of a referendum authorizing new casinos. But the real crime is Cuomo’s betting New York’s future on casinos (and the economics of predation upon poor suckers).* Since the vote, the news has been full of casino decline. images-2Casinos were successful and lucrative when they were few and far between. With casinos everywhere now it’s a very different story, of over-saturation. As Times-Union columnist Fred LeBrun put it, New York is too late to cash in on the casino “boom,” but not to reap all the downsides. Nice play, Guv.

Unknown-1This year we have another referendum, to approve another of Cuomo’s sham “reforms,” this one on legislative redistricting (not a mere technical issue, it’s crucial to political control). And once again the ballot wording is blatantly deceptive. It makes it sound like an independent body will control redistricting. However, it won’t be independent, but a creature of the legislature, which can anyway reject the “independent” body’s maps and once more do its own – which the ballot question does not mention! So we’re being asked to vote for a lie. This will actually entrench gerrymandering. And also forever entrench the Democratic party (once Republicans inevitably lose the State Senate). A one-party state is not compatible with democracy.

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout

Cuomo is opposed in the September 9 primary by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Rain Teachout (her real name). His bullyboy attempts to knock her off the ballot, using New York’s arcane election laws, first by challenging the signatures on her nominating petitions, and then her residency, failed. (So New York is not quite Soviet yet.) Cuomo has refused to debate her. (Debates can be a “disservice to democracy,” he declared!) Teachout is a darling of “progressives”**, and I disagree with her on many issues (like fracking). But something more important is at stake. There are standards. So between Zephyr Teachout and Moreland Cuomo, my strong endorsement goes to Teachout. (And running mate Tim Wu for Lt. Gov.)

Cuomo’s Republican challenger is Rob Astorino. The governor will use his huge campaign war-chest (stuffed by the special interests he dissolved the Moreland commission to shield) to blanket the state with TV ads shamefully smearing Astorino. Our local paper, the Times-Union, though it ran absolutely blistering editorials about the Moreland scandal and redistricting, will turn around and endorse Cuomo’s re-election. (The T-U has long been a reliably partisan cheerleader for Democrats.) Similarly, The New York Times, despite its exposé, will endorse him.***

Cuomo will win.

I will throw up.

images-4Once-proud New York will continue its descent down the toilet.

Those are my predictions. (Some optimist, huh?)

* Slot machines do not work randomly. They are programmed to pay out just often enough to string players along.

** A viewer poll by PBS’s “New York Now” show – which they cautioned is not scientific — gave Teachout 93% of the vote!!

*** The Times refused to endorse him in the primary, but would not endorse Teachout, citing lack of experience. Because experienced politicians have served us so well?? The Times did endorse Wu. The Times-Union has been strangely silent about a primary endorsement.

Civilizational Crisis: The World According to Brooks (& Robinson)

September 5, 2014

imagesI like columnist David Brooks for being a “Big Picture” kind of guy – giving the view from Olympus.

His 9/3 column finds commonality in the two big conflicts bedeviling us. Ukraine and the Islamic State might not seem direct threats to our security. (Obama calls Ukraine a “regional” conflict.) But this is myopic because “the underlying frameworks by which nations operate” and “the norms of restraint that undergird civilization,” Brooks says, “are being threatened in fairly devastating ways.” This is not geopolitical business-as-usual, but a true civilizational crisis.

I don’t say that lightly. Politicians are always burbling how the challenges of the day are somehow unique, but as a student of history, I know better. In my Rational Optimism book I argued that cynics and pessimists lacking true historical perspective don’t grasp the progress we’ve made. But that was 2009, and now in 2014 that progress is really jeopardized.

images-2Brooks casts Putin as playing, in conventional terms, a very weak hand. His country is a shit-hole. “But he is rich in brazenness . . . in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.” That’s exactly what the world (mostly) had progressed beyond.

Neither Russia’s kleptocracy nor the Islamic State can give their people a modern living standard. Putin substitutes for that the intoxication of militarist swagger; the Islamic State substitutes the intoxication of religious fervor. This Brooks calls “a coalition of the unsuccessful . . . a revolt of the weak.” Unable to play by the normal rules, they seek “to blow up the rule book.” (Thomas Friedman talks of the “world of order” versus “the world of disorder.”)

Thus while Putinism attacks a key principle of modern civilization – no grabbing territory by force – so too does the Islamic State – no imposing religion by force.

As Brooks says, you (well, Obama) might think these atavisms must ultimately fail because they are such ugly responses to human aspirations. “But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.”

images-1Put another way – people not squeamish about shooting will beat those who are.

I am tired of hearing the words, “There is no military solution.” Actually, there is. And, contrary to pacifism, there are things worth fighting for.

The Islamic State may indeed be weak, seen objectively; but it thrives on an aura of success. Osama Bin Laden was on to something in saying, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” UnknownWhile the West acts like a 97-pound weakling, the Islamic State appears to sweep all before it. That’s what attracts so many, even from the West, to its banner, heightening its seeming strength. This needs to be crushed – militarily.*

Likewise, Putin rides a wave of popularity, seen as avatar of a resurgent Russia making fools of a flabby decadent West. This too needs to be militarily crushed. What are we afraid of? That Russia will nuke us? Putin isn’t that crazy. I far more fear a future in which he did not get his nose bloodied in Ukraine.

Germany and Japan had to be militarily crushed to teach them the lesson that aggression does not pay. They learned it well, and the world is better for that. But it seems the lesson must be applied a few more times before the whole world absorbs it once and for all.

We took 10,000 years to finally achieve a world order where you don’t grab territory or impose religion by force. That is worth fighting to defend. Even pacifists should get this; it’s peace that needs fighting for.

Unknown-1But are Putin and the Islamic State right after all – have we become too flabby and pusillanimous to really defend our values?

* In Iraq. In Syria, let them and Assad’s goons kill each other, for now.

POSTSCRIPT: At today’s NATO summit, for all the bluster, nobody proposed to send Ukraine any military help, not even defensive. And the cease-fire, if it holds, locks in the Russian military gains of the last few weeks — a clear victory for Putin.

Net Neutrality, and Regulation by the Unicorn State

September 3, 2014

images-4Net Neutrality” is a hot issue. It refers to equal service quality for all web-based traffic, against a fear that Internet providers (like Verizon) will allow (or effectively force) some to pay more for faster data delivery, making others second class netizens. So some advocate designating the Internet a “public utility” subject to FCC regulation to enforce net neutrality. This plea is highly seductive.

UnknownSimilar regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission was imposed on railroads in 1887. No; “imposed” is the wrong word; actually the railroads wanted this, seeing ICC regulation as a tool to protect their market power against upstart competition.

I spent my professional career as a public utility regulator. One of my first cases targeted a small moving company breaking the rules. Its transgression? Prices too low. Were we protecting the public? Certainly not; we were protecting the established moving companies. This is the face of regulation in the real world.

Columnist L. Gordon Crovitz in the 8/18 Wall Street Journal notes that the ICC enforced a kind of “net neutrality” on the railroads: prohibiting “discriminatory” volume discounts or other market-oriented pricing schemes.* Result: a stagnating U.S. rail industry. The ICC was finally abolished in 1995, but the lingering effects of this deadening regulation leave American train service shabby compared to spiffier European or Far East rail systems.

images-1Crovitz also discusses the heavily regulated taxi industry. He quotes the New York City regulator’s website explaining that before it stepped in, the taxi business was a free-for-all with numerous competitors using “underhanded tactics” – like “drastically lowering fares to get more business.” The horror! The horror!

But today, across the globe, the taxi business is being up-ended by innovators like Uber and Lyft giving smartphone-using consumers service better tailored to their needs. And a battle royale is underway between these feisty upstarts and the old regulators (backed by the stodgy old taxi firms) struggling to hobble them. A similar war pits the old hotel industry against newcomers like Airbnb disrupting their business model by providing alternatives more attractive to consumers. This is what economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” – it’s how an economy progresses – a great virtue of a truly free market.

imagesDo we really want to give the FCC regulatory power to squelch this by enforcing its ideas of service and pricing for the Internet? Or let creativity rip, with businesses free to innovate on services and pricing tailored to a swiftly changing technological landscape, responding to market forces and consumer preferences and needs?

Business-hating lefties think government must keep them on a tight regulatory leash lest abuses occur. And absent regulation they would occur. But I believe the costs and harms to consumers would be simply overwhelmed – overwhelmed – by the benefits in better products and services, lower prices, and greater overall societal wealth, if all regulation were abolished.

Think I’m nuts? Then look at China, where that’s exactly what happened. Since 1978, China’s private sector has been virtually free of regulation. And, yes, abuses have occurred. But meantime average per-capita income has grown 3000% – thirtyfold. I repeat: thirtyfold. (99-percenters take note.)

I wrote recently about an abuse by government, the unjust prosecution of innocent Muslim-Americans on phony “terrorism” charges. I marched in protest with local liberals. But they, I said, are like battered spouses who still profess undying love for their batterers – no matter how much it tramples their ideals, still liberals love government. images-2The same Wall Street Journal issue elsewhere quotes economist Michael Munger: “My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of ‘the State.’ That seems literally insane to me . . . Then I realized they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge and abilities that they can imagine for it. [They] imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world.”

I just got a call from a car repair business asking if I was “completely satisfied” with their service. I’ve never received such a call from a government agency.

* America’s first federal conviction of a corporation, in 1909, was for a railroad’s crime of cutting prices.

Nude Celebrity Photos

September 2, 2014

Big breaking news! Hacked nude photos of celebrities on the Internet! Holy Cow!

UnknownLike, this is the very first time we’ve ever seen pictures of these actresses WITHOUT THEIR CLOTHES ON! I am shocked, shocked.

The celebrities are indignantly huffing and puffing about the scandalous invasion of their privacy.

Excuse me – these people were not kidnapped, forcibly stripped, and photographed against their will. Hello, this is the 21st century. It’s the friggin’ INTERNET. If you don’t want your nude photos splashed all over the Internet – then don’t let them get anywhere near the Internet. Why, it’s just that simple. But, of course, naïve celebrities can’t be expected to understand such things. (Don’t they hire “people” for that?)

[Nerd note: How many hits will this blog get from folks googling “nude celebrity photos?” I got an unexpected traffic spike on a recent post from people using the search term “head chopped off” or variants thereof.]

The Passion of the Western Mind

August 30, 2014

UnknownThis book by Richard Tarnas is a history of Western thought. Now, yes, Eastern thought is also worthy of respect. But the Western intellectual tradition is the 800 pound gorilla, the elephant in the room, the hippo in the bathtub.

I have written about our falling down on humanities education. Tarnas presents his history as a story – the tale of how we got from Point A (the ancient Greeks) to Point B (where we are today), with hints of a further Point C. It’s actually a thrilling story – but more, it’s vital to understanding our world and its challenges.

Play-doh's Forms

Play-doh’s Forms

Tarnas says he aims to describe systems of thought “on their own terms,” without “condescension,” so that we can better understand our journey. He begins with the Greeks, notably Plato, whose theory of “forms” was a first stab at understanding the nature of reality, starting a conversation that’s never stopped.

Then comes Christianity. True to his word, Tarnas gives us Christian thought and its development straight, “on its own terms,” nonjudgmentally. images-2This takes many pages. Frankly I skimmed over much of it. However, one thing that impressed itself upon me was how impossible it was, in Europe at least, during the centuries of church domination, to break free of that influence. The Christian way of thinking was the only way of thinking.

But then the story gets good. Revolution bursts out all over. You’ve got your Renaissance. Then your Reformation. And then your scientific revolution, and your Enlightenment. It all makes the church’s head spin.

When it comes to discussing the modern intellectual paradigm – the Enlightenment of science and rationality – Tarnas lets slip his straight-faced mask of nonjudgmentalism. images-4He is downright triumphalist about how thoroughly the modern idea demolishes the older mentality grounded in religion. To read his passages on the sweeping victory of science over faith, you might think religion has slunk away, crushed and banished. This may be true in the academic groves Tarnas inhabits; but it sure ain’t true in Kansas.

Meantime, though, it wasn’t just religion having trouble with science; philosophy did too. It’s the eternal problem of epistemology:  what is true knowledge, and how can a human mind possess it? “The Crisis of Modern Science,” Tarnas calls this chapter. In particular he invokes philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), and the notion that what we’ve got is not so much information as interpretation; we cannot truly know anything. And then we find sentences like this: “The aggressive exploitation of the natural environment, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the threat of global catastrophe – all pointed to an indictment of science, of human reason itself, now seemingly in thrall to man’s own self-destructive irrationality.”

Please. This is indeed the pessimistic post-modern mindset. But just as Tarnas was over-the-top in declaring that science had killed faith, he is even further off the mark in declaring science mortally wounded.

Unknown-1Firstly, you can bullshit all night in your dorm room over the epistemological conundrum, whether we can truly know anything – but airplanes fly (and pigs don’t). That airplanes do fly actually proves that the great corpus of modern scientific knowledge is true. Not probably true, as Kuhn might at most allow, all encrusted with qualifiers and caveats – but absolutely true, full stop. (But perhaps Professor Kuhn, believing as he did, never boarded an airplane; or did 99% of the other things modern people do, like using computers, thanks to scientific knowledge.)

As for “man’s own self-destructive irrationality,” etc., it’s undeniable that we are at least imperfectly rational and sometimes cause great harm to ourselves and others. But is that the whole picture? It’s not even most of it. The bigger picture – vastly bigger – is that, from our emergence as a species, and especially from the start of civilization, and especially in modern scientific times, we humans have increasingly utilized rationality to create societal structures and to gain knowledge to advance technologically, to give ever greater numbers ever better quality of life.

Unknown-2That’s the bigger picture. All this “self-destructive irrationality” crap makes me sick. We have not blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons. Most of us are less violent than ever (yes; see again my review of Pinker’s book). More people than ever have more food, better health, more education, and more rewarding and longer lives.* True, all this has put a strain on the planet, but rather than being irrationally self-destructive, to the contrary it’s been a rational effort to improve life. There’s no free lunch, but the price has been worth paying, and so far growing knowledge has enabled us to handle the resulting environmental challenges.

Now what about that Point C I mentioned? In the spirit of Tarnas I’ll try to present this “on its own terms.” He suggests a resolution to “the profound dualism of the modern mind” – man vs. nature, mind vs. matter, self vs. other, etc. One’s birth is an expression of a larger underlying archetypal process of moving from one paradigm to another. The newborn is expelled into a world of confusion, needing a “redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix.” It’s not a matter of our seeking to extract knowledge from the world; rather, “the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind.” There is a “universal unconscious” that “reflects the human mind’s radical kinship with the cosmos.” images-6This break-out is what the great Western intellectual journey has been leading toward. But so far it’s been mostly a masculine thing, and only now are we beginning to reunite our masculine and feminine. For this, “the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death.” This evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stage.

Well. As Francis Urquhart, in the original House of Cards would say, “You might think that; but I could not possibly comment.”

* No doubt some lefty cynic will deride me as a blind fool. Much though such folks love to believe everything is getting worse, it just ain’t so.

Ferguson

August 27, 2014

imagesAs a blogger, I’m required to comment on Ferguson.

I’ve read that 65% of blacks polled believe the police overreacted to the protests. This shocked me. I thought: were those other 35% stoned?

But seriously: of course police overreacted, making a bad situation worse.* And gratuitously busting on journalists? Do those policemen think this is Russia or China?

Why did President Obama not go to Ferguson? Shame on him.

Police forces represent a Faustian societal bargain. To protect us, we arm them, while recognizing this can turn around and bite us. Not a concern if police were saints, but alas most are human, and worse, police work too often attracts the wrong sort for the wrong reasons. So cops must be kept on tight leashes by civilian authorities (in a free society, as opposed to a police state).

images-1Modern technology could help on a lot of problems. In Rialto, California, after cops were equipped with cameras recording interactions, their use of force declined 60% and citizen complaints 88%. But law enforcement generally seems stubbornly resistant to such advancements. Ferguson actually has the cameras – but hasn’t deployed them. Police still do not routinely videotape interrogations and confessions, sources of so much subsequent repercussion. Nor do they routinely test DNA. In fact, police and prosecutors often fight tooth and nail to prevent DNA tests. Because they’d rather punish an innocent than be proven wrong.**

All this is exacerbated by the militarization of the police. America has the posse comitatus legal principle barring use of the army to enforce local law. Yet now the police are turning into another army. images-2True, sometimes they’re met with bad guys toting serious weapons. But we read about local cops in a small town patrolling a pumpkin festival in an armored personnel carrier. Ferguson police behaved like an occupying army going into battle.

U.S. cops killed 409 people last year. In Britain and Japan — zero. The difference is chiefly due to the ubiquity of guns in America; police are always worrying the guy they confront has a gun, and act accordingly.

Looming over everything is the drug war. The illegality of drugs is key to the big-time criminality that is the police’s greatest challenge (just like in an earlier era, Prohibition gave birth to America’s organized crime). Race relations – and particularly relations between minorities and police – are poisoned by the high arrest and incarceration rate experienced by minorities. And that too is a direct fallout of the drug war.

images-3So is police militarization – it’s not only because police think they need heavy duty weaponry against the most extreme drug criminals, nor just because the Pentagon has been handing out surplus military kit. Under the pretext of the drug war, U.S. police forces have been on a rampage of confiscations and forfeitures, of cash and other kinds of property. I’ve written about this scandal. Any property police say they suspect may possibly have something to do with drugs can be seized, without them having to prove a thing. (Forget the Fourth Amendment!) images-6In many cases police get to keep what they grab (a big incentive factor). And this has filled the coffers of local police forces with a flood of lucre, with which they can splurge out fulfilling their testosterone-fueled fantasies with military-style toys.

Legalizing drugs might cause some harm, but not remotely approaching the harm done by keeping them illegal. The insane drug war’s damage to America is beyond calculating.

*Gene O’Donnnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice says, “It is hard to point to anything that Ferguson police did [after the Brown shooting] that was not wrong.” (But in the same mentioned poll, only 33% of whites thought police overreacted.)

** Thus often leaving at large the true culprit, who goes on to commit further crimes.

TSA Follies and The Death of Common Sense

August 25, 2014

I hear the TSA is seeking public suggestions.

imagesRecently at airport “Security” we almost missed a flight because TSA thought a boarding pass didn’t look quite right. They might have simply checked with the airline. But that would be too sensible. This is government, remember.

UnknownWhat is TSA’s mission? To prevent hijackings and bombings? Maybe in theory; but that’s not how TSA actually functions on the ground. For its employees, the real mission is to follow procedures and tick off the bureaucratic boxes. So your boarding pass must look a certain way. (Some think the true purpose of TSA is “security theater” — to make travelers believe flying is safe.)

But anyway, two seconds thought shows that the whole rigmarole of officiously checking boarding passes and IDs makes no sense. Faking them would be the easiest part of the plot for a would-be hijacker. Nor does x-raying every bag and person make much sense – especially with TSA personnel being (forgive my bluntness) low-paid drones proven unable to spot true problems.

Unknown-2I’m reminded of Philip Howard’s enlightening 1994 book, The Death of Common Sense. In his latest, The Rule of Nobody, he relates that after some nasty scandals, Australia scrapped hundreds of detailed rules governing nursing homes. Regulatory experts were aghast. Yet, with facilities now enjoined simply to provide a “homelike environment” with “privacy and dignity” – freeing them to think creatively rather than blindly following checklists – they measurably improved.

Howard’s point is that we tend to impose complex regulatory schemes because we don’t trust their targets – be it governmental arms, or businesses – to behave reasonably and fairly otherwise. It’s a big mistake, as evidenced by Australia’s experience. And by TSA.

images-1Before my next flight folks on the security line were told that “if your boarding pass says ‘TSA Pre’” you go on a different (shorter) queue. I’d thought one had to register and pay $85 for that preclearance program. Yet on my return flight, I was surprised to see “TSA Pre” on my own pass. So I was waved through with shoes on, no body scan, no pat-down, nothing. Inquiring, I was informed that “TSA Pre” is now put on some boarding passes strictly at random!

images-2When I told my wife, it took her, yes, exactly two seconds to realize, “Well, if a terrorist just buys multiple tickets . . . .” (Or he could just pay the $85 fee!) What’s the logic of “TSA Pre” when they still insist on otherwise x-raying toddlers and centenarians in wheelchairs? If it’s okay for a few people, some at random, to go unscreened, why not most people?

My next flight: TSA busted me for carrying knives. Lest you think I’m a moron, they were ancient Chinese “knife money”–somewhat knife-shaped, but for use as currency, not cutting, hence without sharp edges, generally encrusted with green corrosion product, and quite fragile to boot. It had never occurred to me, but in TSA’s inane bureaucratized mentality, a “knife” is a “knife,” and there was no arguing. (Fortunately, I was permitted to spend $5.60 to mail them home.)

Chinese knife money

Chinese knife money

If I were in charge of TSA, instead of having an army of drones uselessly torturing travelers by scrutinizing every ID and bag, I would hire a third of the number at three times the pay – highly trained professionals who’d simply eyeball passengers passing (mostly) unmolested through a gate, with discretion to stop for intensive screening anyone who, for any reason, they deem suspect, or at random. (This is pretty much how U.S. Customs operates. Most travelers just walk right through.) And normally innocent items like hand cream or scissors (or Chinese knife money) would be subject to exclusion – but not required to be excluded.

Wouldn’t this make a thousand times more sense?

Unknown-1My wife constantly mocks my supposed belief in human rationality. What I actually believe is that people are capable of rationality, and act rationally most of the time. But not, alas, always. True rationality might abolish the TSA altogether. We might lose some planes and lives, but many more lives could be saved if the billions lavished on TSA were spent instead on, say, auto safety, or public health.

And if you really love to hate the TSA, take a look at this!


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