The Black Swan

October 19, 2020

You get fed every day. All you can eat. Treated very nicely too. As such days go by, you grow ever more confident they will continue. Then comes Thanksgiving — and you are a turkey.

Or a sucker, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Like that turkey, we are all suckers of a sort in failing to anticipate the possibility of a dramatic discontinuity in our reality. What Taleb calls a “black swan.” We may believe all swans are white, until a black one comes along, blowing up that assumption.

The book is fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking. It was published in 2007, just before a big black swan, the financial crisis. And reading it in 2020 gave it special added force. The Trump presidency makes many of us feel like that turkey. And then of course the pandemic hit.

The book’s watchword is unpredictability. Taleb considers it an inherent characteristic of existence. Yet we go through life seeming to ignore that. Thinking we know what’s going on, when in a deep sense we do not. Taleb is from Lebanon, his perspective shaped by the trauma of its 1975-90 civil war — coming after a thousand years of sectarian comity, this unforeseen black swan utterly changed the country.

Taleb divides things between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In the former, as its name implies, matters cluster around a middle, dictated by averages, conforming to a bell curve. Take height for example. Outliers like three foot dwarves and seven foot basketballers exist but disappear into the average, hardly affecting it because of the vast numbers closer to the middle.

But while in Mediocristan you do get people 50% above average, for something like wealth the outliers are thousands of times higher, with big effects on the overall picture. That’s Extremistan. Taleb sees reality as more like Extremistan; yet again we behave largely as Mediocristanis.

Trump’s election prompted an avalanche of analysis. Seemingly a tectonic cataclysm, but remember it was extremely close. Had it tipped the other way, the after-talk would have been totally different. His 2020 defeat will be, in major part, attributable to the pandemic. But for that, history might be going in a very different direction.

However — those things are not in fact black swans as Taleb defines the term. (He’d actually call them gray swans.) His black swan is something not just unforeseen but unforeseeable (except in hindsight). Taleb says we retrospectively paste our explanations onto past events as though they were (or should, or could, have been) foreseeable. But history just doesn’t work that way.

Reality is complex to an extreme degree. To navigate it, one’s mind creates a representation of it that is perforce vastly oversimplified. I’m reminded here of “LaPlace’s demon,”  hypothetically knowing literally everything about the Universe at a given moment — what every particle is doing — enabling it to predict the next moment (and the next). Of course humans are way short of that. One of Taleb’s key points is insufficiency of information available to us. Especially what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t realize we don’t know.

The book mentions the “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a storm in Kansas. I’m not sure that can ever literally happen, but the point is that a very small cause can trigger a very big effect. A black swan. Which we cannot foresee because we, unlike LaPlace’s demon, cannot assess every small thing happening in the world at a given moment. And, Taleb argues, the black swan’s disproportionately big impact renders what we do know about the world pretty much nugatory.

While most of us did not expect Trump’s presidency, we did at least see it as within the realm of possibility. And many voices had long been warning of a pandemic, someday, much like what we’ve got. It makes sense (though not to Trump) to prepare for such things. Los Angeles has preparations for an earthquake bound to happen someday. But in human psychology, “someday” is not an immediate concern, and for all practical purposes Angelenos live their lives in disregard of the earthquake threat. Just as we all did regarding the possibility of a pandemic. That’s actually not crazy.

Taleb is scathing about hosts of so-called experts, analysts, economists, etc., calling them frauds who are anchored in Mediocristan and oblivious toward Extremistan. Who don’t know what they don’t know. Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s famous study of political and economic “experts,” analyzing their predictions compared against results. Their predictions stunk. And the bigger their reputations the worse they stunk. Taleb comments: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” I recall hearing one forecast Taleb would have applauded: a “psychic” who predicted “unpredictable weather!”

Taleb’s particular bête noir is the Gaussian bell curve, which he deems an artifact of Mediocristan with scant applicability to the real world. I disagree, considering the bell curve a useful conceptual tool for understanding. For example, regarding the mentioned distribution of heights. Though of course one has to know when not to apply a bell curve. A black swan can blow it up, as Taleb insists.

For the stock market, you might expect daily ups and downs to fall along a bell curve — that is, most clustering around the average daily change, with the more extreme moves growing in rarity as they grow in size. That would be Mediocristan. But again Taleb thinks that’s not reality. He presents an analysis showing that if you remove from a fifty year stock market chart the ten most extreme days, the total return falls by half.

Another point is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Taleb cites the story of the ancient philosopher (Epicurus) shown portraits of sailors who prayed to the gods and survived shipwrecks. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Of course those couldn’t testify about their experience. That’s absence of evidence, or what Taleb calls “silent evidence.”

So what should we do? Taleb says (his emphases) “the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that . . . . This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.”

Reading this charitably, Taleb spent most of his life in financial markets, and that’s the context he’s mainly talking about. But as advice for life more generally — it’s insane.

One problem with his above quote is that if something really isunknown, you can’tguess its effect. But even in the realm of the knowable, myriad possibilities for disasters could conceivably strike us. We may not be able to gauge their probabilities with precision, but we can in fact know they are individually very small. A life spent trying to avoid every remote danger would be absurd. If you actually followed Taleb’s advice and focused on the potential (very large) impacts in disregard of their (very small) probabilities — you would never get out of bed in the morning.

No, we cannot know everything, and can be hit hard by things we couldn’t foresee. But we do the best we can. Evolution gave us minds — and psychologies — that, for all their undoubted limitations, are actually pretty darn good at equipping us to navigate through life and avoid pitfalls. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

A dozen daffy delusions

October 17, 2020

1. Urban rioting is scarier than Covid-19.1

2. Only Trump can fix it.2

3. Face masks infringe on freedom.3

4. Immigration is bad for us.4

5. Foreign trade costs jobs.5

6. Gun ownership makes people safer.6

7. Whites are better than blacks.7

8. 2016 Russian election meddling was a hoax.8

9. Trump tells it like it is.9

10. He can only lose the election by fraud.10

11. He’s making America great again.11

12. He’s chosen by God.12

Footnotes:

1. Covid’s human and economic toll is literally thousands of times greater.

2. Trump stokes the societal divisions that lead to such violence. And he’s screwed up horribly on Covid.

3. Science is clear that masks curtail the spread of disease. Nobody has “freedom” to endanger others.

4. Immigrants contribute workers and skills we need, creating wealth, paying taxes, and adding consumer demand that means more jobs.

5. Trade enables consumers to buy things cheaper, leaving them with more money to spend on other things, which in turn creates more jobs, not fewer.

6. A gun in the home is way more likely to injure a family member than an intruder. America’s gun violence far outstrips other countries, because of less regulation and more guns.

7. Anyone believing that proves their own inferiority.

8. Major Russian subversion was conclusively proven by evidence.

9. He’s the biggest liar ever (also proven).

10. He can only win the election by fraud, because sensible Americans are fed up with his freak show.

11. His mishandling Covid and the resultant economic fallout hugely damages America. His disgusting behavior degrades our global standing.

12. There is no God. But if there were, he’d be a fool to rely on Trump.

My Q&A with Biden

October 14, 2020

I was privileged to participate in a zoom with Joe Biden today, and got to ask him a question.

Ricchetti

The session began with Steve Ricchetti (Biden’s chief of staff as vice president, now in a top campaign role) giving an election update. He urged watching Biden’s recent Gettysburg speech,* displaying his character and vision for the country. Ricchetti lauded how well the campaign has adapted to covid’s exigencies, tearing up the old playbook — a success he ascribed to Biden’s personal leadership.

He talked about the electoral map, looking better and better, with Biden holding and even increasing a strong lead nationally, while leading too in nearly all the swing states — some of which weren’t swing states until Trump support lately eroded. But he also stressed the campaign’s strong focus on voter protection and fighting Republican efforts to disrupt the election.

Listening reminded me how I’m consistently impressed with the straightforward honest seriousness that characterizes all the many communications I get from the Biden campaign. I also receive, as a former Republican, numerous daily ones from their side. The contrast couldn’t be greater. The Republican blasts are all blatant dishonesty, name-calling, and deranged hysteria. Lately they’ve been frantically touting supposed matches for donations, at levels up to 825%! Never specifying the source for those matching funds. Of course it’s just simply a lie, a scam.

Biden began with a brief talk, saying it’s “the character of the country on the ballot.” Explaining how it was Charlottesville that persuaded him to run, which he hadn’t anticipated. He emphasized that he will govern for all Americans, not just a narrow base; that reuniting the country is crucial if we are to move forward. He eviscerated Trump’s ghastly performance on covid. And urged voting for hope over fear, light over darkness, truth over lies — and “science over fiction.”

He answered five questions, each in considerable depth. At this stage of the campaign, it must get wearying. But Biden didn’t show it, treating every question with full respect.

Mine was: “Trump slashed our refugee quota by more than 90%, and made it harder to apply for asylum. Will you reverse these shameful actions? Also, thousands of children were separated from parents at the border, many with poor tracking. It’s so chaotic that I couldn’t find out the number still in custody. How will you tackle this shameful mess?”

Biden’s response was impassioned and eloquent. Yes, he would reverse those policies — “immediately — immediately.” Recognizing how they betray what America should be. “What have we become?” he said, assailing Trump’s “relentless assault on immigrant communities.” We do have to enforce immigration laws, but “in a way that’s humane.” He promised to quickly tackle the whole immigration problem with comprehensive legislation, that will include, at long last, a path to citizenship for our 11 million undocumented residents. The refugee quota will be restored to its pre-Trump level, with more resources, like immigration judges, to facilitate asylum seekers; and his first executive order will be to protect the “dreamers.” Regarding separated children, Biden avowed that keeping families together will be key to his policy.

This face time with the next president was frankly a great thrill for me. And answering my question (and others) the way he did inspired yet greater confidence in him as the leader we desperately need. I am so proud to support him.

* Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoiUnwTz4lA

The disputed presidential election — of 1876

October 12, 2020

In college I wrote a paper on the disputed 1876 election — a unique case in our history. Which I never thought I’d see reprised.

President Grant, after two terms, did not run again. The Democratic nominee, Samuel Tilden (New York’s reformist governor) won a clear popular vote majority over the Republican Rutherford Hayes. But three southern states submitted different sets of electoral votes, certified by rival state officials. One Oregon electoral vote was also disputed. The southern story was largely a consequence of post-Civil War reconstruction, and electoral chaos, with ex-slaves voting and white efforts to suppress that. (Since most Blacks voted Republican, Hayes would probably have won a fair election.)

The Constitution says Congress counts the electoral votes, but the exact procedure, in case of disputes, was unclear. Needless to say, the situation created an uproar. Congress set up a 15-member “Electoral Commission,” to resolve it, designed to have seven members from each party, including two Democratic and two Republican Supreme Court justices who would choose the 15th member, presumably neutral. Long story short, it didn’t work out that way, and the Commission awarded all 20 disputed electoral votes to Hayes — giving him victory, 185-184.

Democrats felt cheated, and there were threats of not accepting Hayes as president. But as inauguration day loomed, the two parties made a deal. Hayes would become president, and in return, federal troops would be removed from the South. Effectively putting white Democrats back in power.

Tilden expressed satisfaction at having had the honor of being elected president while escaping the burdens of office.

In the 2000 election one state’s ballot counting (and hence who won the electoral vote) was contested. There was talk of rival electoral vote submissions like in 1876 (triggering Sec. 15), but before it got to that the Supreme Court resolved the matter. Some did call it a partisan decision, a stolen election. However, it’s impossible to know who “really” won; and had the Court decided the other way, that wouldn’t have given the election to Gore. Instead, the matter would have been thrown back to Florida and into further turmoil, with the path ahead very murky.

Immediately after the decision, Gore made an extremely gracious speech conceding the election without reservations. That helped to persuade his supporters to accept the outcome. And peace did reign in the land. But actually, nobody expected otherwise at the time, even though we did have serious partisan divisions.

In 2020 there is the specter of another 1876, with disputed electoral votes. An unusually high proportion of popular votes will be cast by mail; likely most for Biden. They will be counted after November 3, with a December 14 deadline for certifying presidential electors. The apparent Republican plan is to disrupt that count as much as possible, throwing up baseless fraud claims, so that in swing states with legislatures they control (thanks to gerrymandering), those legislatures can take over and simply appoint Trump presidential electors. The Constitution does not actually say electors must be chosen by popular vote.

But there is a safeguard against that plan. After the 1876 mess, a law (3 U.S. Code Sec.15) was enacted specifying how electoral votes are to be counted. Congress — the new one, in January — can reject electoral votes, if both chambers agree. The House will be Democratic. It’s increasingly likely the Senate will too. Though it’s conceivable that blocking the count of mail ballots could also prevent some Democratic Senators being seated.

Republicans will also employ litigation, aiming to somehow have the election ultimately decided — as in 2000 — by the Supreme Court, which they control. In the past I would not have used those words, strongly defending the Court’s nonpartisan integrity. And I might have trusted Chief Justice Roberts to do the right thing and avoid having the Court’s credibility destroyed by ratifying a blatant election theft. But I’ve just read Joan Biskupic’s Roberts biography, and now I’m not so sure. I fear Roberts is too limited a man to see the picture largely enough, and might rule on some narrow theory of not interfering with state election machinery (as though that’s steering clear of politics). Furthermore, the Court will soon have five other members (out of nine) apt to side with Republicans.

This whole nightmare may be avoided with a decisive Biden victory. But if Republicans can win by stealing just one or two states, they probably will try; if more is needed, it will likely be a bridge too far. Then Trumpsters can accuse me of crying wolf here. Fine. I’d love it if this wolf never arrives.

The country did peacefully accept the outcome in 1876; and in 2000. But it’s a very different nation today, with divisive political feelings far more intense. And impervious to reason, as evidenced by 40% still supporting Trump, in spite of everything. November’s turmoil will put American democracy to an unprecedented stress test. Can it survive this? Or will it finally become the sham democracy that cynics have long called it? With — as in many autocracies today — democratic theater without democratic reality?

No matter how big the vote against him, Trump will refuse to concede, will continue waging media war crying fraud, and millions will believe him, not peaceably accepting the outcome. Many have guns and are busting for the chance to prove their “patriotism.” We’ve just seen a foiled plot by domestic terrorists to kidnap Michigan’s governor and seize control of the state. This was not some joke, it might well have resulted in a very bloody rupture of our civic fabric. And there are surely more where those Michigan plotters came from. Trump, tacitly encouraging them, is playing with fire. After November 3, it may be more than tacit. Buckle your seat belts.

And what if Trump’s putsch succeeds? Will Democrats accept it? I will not. What will I do? I don’t know. I believe in not crossing bridges till you get to them. I still hope this is one I won’t have to cross.

Bidenomics: What to expect

October 10, 2020

Trump tries to scare voters with a bogeyman Biden — a captive of left-wing radicals who will turn America socialist, open borders, unleash violence, destroy suburbs, and more. All utterly idiotic. Only fools fall for it.

Biden’s always been determinedly centrist, a political moderate, a pragmatist, deeply respecting the hard-working middle class. In the primaries he decisively crushed his party’s leftist minority. True, he afterward created a task force to flatter them by crafting a diluted version of their policies. He’s diluted it further in his own policy pronouncements. As president he’ll be his own man. And he’ll have to work through a Congress where moderates likewise dominate among Democrats.

The stock market has risen even as a Biden presidency grows likelier. Wall Street obviously doesn’t foresee an anti-capitalist socialist administration.

The Economist has presented a thorough analysis of what “Bidenomics” probably portends. That pro-market publication likewise fears no radicalism. If anything, it says, Biden may be insufficiently daring.

Job One will be the covid-induced economic crisis, that’s hit the less affluent worst, and ravaged state and local government budgets. Trump’s insane refusal to negotiate anything before the election will give Biden full responsibility. This should mean a major, costly recovery initiative, particularly helping small business, largely left out so far. Infrastructure will be a key part, with a big green tinge. Rock-bottom interest rates make financing this fairly painless. Though eventually we must get to grips with our huge ongoing taxing/spending imbalance. The Economist isn’t betting on Biden biting that bullet.

He should, however, address the imbalance within the tax structure, worsened by Trump’s inexcusable giveaway to the richest. People like me must pay a fairer share. We should also see a long-overdue Medicare-like government health insurance option for people wanting it. Biden will also likely tackle college costs and student debt, though here again, the most radical “free-for-all” ideas will be non-starters, with help instead targeted to those most in need.

On trade, it’s unfortunate that Biden’s free trade instincts probably can’t overcome the self-harming protectionism that now infects both parties. So Trump’s stupid tariffs will be hard to unwind.

Further, Biden seems stuck in a retro mindset emphasizing manufacturing’s economic role. This vain dream of “bringing back American manufacturing jobs” has bedeviled us for decades. We actually manufacture as much as ever, but do it with ever less labor, thanks to technological advances. That’s a good thing. Our future prosperity does not lie with manufacturing but with the technology that pervades it and every other aspect of modern life.

America’s economy is meanwhile becoming sclerotic. A key reason corporate profits (and stocks) are strong is decreasing competition. Small business creation was lagging even before the pandemic crippled that sector. The commanding position of the tech giants is obvious. The Economisthopes Biden will revitalize antitrust enforcement and otherwise act to open up the economy to make it more competitive.

But the great contrast with Trump will be restoration of the ideals of public service and conduct that he so traduces. Biden will act conscientiously and responsibly, getting and heeding good advice rather than disdaining it, working within America’s time-tested institutions rather than trying to blow them up. He will govern for all Americans, not just a minority of diehard fans. Honoring our democratic traditions. A return to sanity, rebuilding what Trump has knocked down.

It’s all crystallized by Trump’s sickening attack on the credibility of our election, encouraging supporters to disrupt it based on ballot fraud lies, so he can overturn the results. Making America into a banana republic.

That’s what’s really at stake in this election. First, save the country. Then worry about economic policy.

Why are Trumpsuckers so manipulable?

October 7, 2020

We evolved as an extraordinarily social species, with group cooperation a key adaptation. Of course every animal looks out for itself, to get its genes into the next generation. But humans balanced that selfishness against cooperativeness so the whole group could thrive and replicate. That required being able to tell who was really cooperative, and who was faking and should be shunned and punished. So we evolved instinctive lie-detectors.

Thus too cynicism is an evolved psychology. We certainly see a lot of that in the realm of public affairs, with many people skeptical toward the political class, thinking they’re all liars, corrupt and incompetent. That’s been a big driver of political populism all across the world. Making voters receptive to would-be strongmen saying, “Only I can fix it!”

Wait, what? Why doesn’t the latter incur the same cynicism and skepticism? This has been vexing me for half a decade. Why do so many voters’ intuitive lie detectors fail so spectacularly when it comes to a con man like Trump? Can’t they see they’re being manipulated?

Well, that is what con men do. Often successfully, because our inner lie detectors are fallible. Nobody is immune; I’ve been fooled myself sometimes in life. However, there are some basic precepts one can apply.

In many cases you can’t directly verify information; but you can consider the source. Whether there’s good reason to trust it. That’s true of responsible, conscientious mainstream news media, like PBS, NPR, The Economist, The New York Times. As opposed to fake ones like Fox or Breitbart, or what a Facebook friend saw somewhere on the internet. One can also normally trust mainstream science (with understanding of how science actually works), as opposed to hucksters with different agendas (such as religion).

Which brings up the second precept: to consider the motivation — why are they pushing the story they’re pushing? Is it to inform you — or manipulate you?

And thirdly, one must develop a good accurate mental model of the world’s reality and how it works, grounded in factual knowledge. Then assess how any assertion fits with that reality. A basic plausibility test.

Too many people get all this wrong. They’re cynical about responsible news sources like those I mentioned while uncritically swallowing crap from dodgy ones (even the likes of Alex Jones). They similarly discount mainstream science while taking crackpots seriously. And their mental models of reality are like Hieronymus Bosch phantasmagorias.

So Trump says mail voting is a giant fraud disaster. And his supporters nod their heads (“ditto-heads” in apt Limbaugh-speak), fall right in line, and parrot the trope. Not even envisioning the possibility it isn’t true.

But consider the source. With a huge record of lying. And the motivation: obvious self-serving reasons to create this lie. Knowing most mail ballots will go against him, and only by getting rid of them can he win. (He’s actually said so.)

Consider too the plausibility. Look at actual facts. Use your head. Were mail voting really so prone to fraud, wouldn’t candidates have massively exploited that before, with major scandals? There have been practically none. Instead, mail voting has been widely used for years, with only insignificant glitches. (Nothing is ever perfect.)

Thus Trump’s claims flunk all three tests. He’s so obviously manipulating his fans. It will be more dangerous for the country in November when they’ll believe his election defeat is some sort of illegitimate coup. The syndrome can even be fatal. A gal at the Democratic convention spoke of her father’s covid death, saying his “pre-existing condition” was believing Trump. (Even after his own infection, he’s resumed saying the virus is no big deal. As if we can all get presidential level medical care.)

Trumpsuckers’ falling for his manipulation might seem bizarre. Where is all the cynicism they deploy elsewhere? Can’t they see Trump’s own blatant cynicism? There are actually many explanatory factors. One is Trump playing upon their resentments and anxieties, economic but especially racial and cultural, like no other politician. He certainly exploits their hatreds — of elites and seemingly pushy minorities, and their left wing Democratic avatars — which Trump revvs up to fever pitch. Trumpsters vote less for him than against their bêtes noires. 

Perhaps too, after long bathing in corrosive cynicism, many actually thirst for an antidote, for something to believe in. Religion is of course one way to get that. Trump seems to be another. Indeed, there are many comorbidities. The one-third or so of Americans who are strongly religious and the third or so diehard Trumpers are mostly the same people. Religion undermines critical thinking and accustoms receptivity to tropes that flout reality. Both religion and Trumpism share cult-like characteristics. It’s the same willingness to believe, the hunger to believe. Belief itself being a kind of mood-altering drug.

But I find truth and reality better.

Presidential covidiocy

October 4, 2020

In the debate, Trump mocked Biden’s mask-wearing, as he’s done continuously. Trump was probably already infected. 

He also denigrated Biden’s intelligence. Who looks smart now?

All along, Trump pooh-poohed the pandemic, acting, at every stage, like it’s all done or soon will be. However, we can see how contagious this virus is, when even the President, in the White House bubble, gets infected.

But wait. What bubble? Now it’s evident how fecklessly lax the whole White House operation has been, with not only Trump but everyone around him flouting the safety precautions urged by other parts of his own government. A huge spreader was the mask-free Barrett nomination reception. So the infected now include not only Trump, but Melania, Hope Hicks, Kellyanne Conway, campaign chief Stepien, Republican party head McDaniel, Gov. Chris Christie (in Trump’s debate prep), Notre Dame’s President (at the Barrett event), several senators, and many others.

This White House covidiocy was not only recklessly stupid for everyone thusly endangering themselves — and others coming in contact with them — it was irresponsible toward the whole American public, screwing up the administration’s ability to function. Institutions throughout the land have wrestled with how to operate safely. But not the White House!

Along with incompetence, another of its defining characteristics has been untruthfulness, a super-spreader of lies. A Cornell University study reviewing 38 million articles about covid found Trump the “single largest driver” of misinformation. That pandemic of dishonesty infects even this presidential health crisis. At Saturday’s medical briefing, his doctor, Sean Conley, repeatedly evaded questions whether Trump had received oxygen by serially stating times when oxygen was not administered. But Friday morning was excluded from that litany. They also couldn’t get the infection timeline straight.

Trump is in special danger, being 74 and obese — we actually don’t know what other prior health issues he might have. Nevertheless, he may come out of this with flying colors. Thanks, of course, to receiving extraordinary medical care (not, presumably, including hydroxychloroquine or bleach injections). 

Nice for him; others are not so fortunate. Over 200,000 Americans dead so far, with many more suffering long-term if not permanent injury (plus millions losing jobs, and psychological damage). And, while he’s getting that great publicly-provided health care, Trump’s minions are right now asking the Supreme Court to end Obamacare, and thus end health coverage for millions of Americans. 

Most of the covid deaths and other damage could have been avoided had Trump acted responsibly about masking and other precautions, not only personally, but urging everyone to comply, instead of encouraging what became mass covidiocy. Most Americans are, in spite of Trump, doing the right thing. But the minority who refuse, instigated by the covidiot-in-chief, are the cause of the virus still being out of control here, in contrast to most other nations. 

So as to Trump’s own illness, some might say he had it coming. Nevertheless I hope for his recovery. So he can face what else he’s justly got coming, starting with a crushing defeat in November. 

Mortimer Adler: Ten Philosophical “Mistakes”

October 3, 2020

Mortimer Adler (1902-2001) was an American philosophy impresario. His shtick was promoting philosophy to the masses, at least the intelligent masses. I picked up his 1985 book Ten Philosophical Mistakes at a library sale, because it was there.

Philosophy is important, in two key respects. The first is understanding existence itself; the second is how should we live? Of course one can go through life without such pondering. Many do, untroubled. But it can help.

However, I am not a fan of “philosophy” as practiced by modern “philosophers,” mostly academics who write papers and books, likewise academic. Meaning that instead of tackling big questions, they go down rabbit holes of minutiae, unedifying to non-initiates.

I hoped Adler’s book on philosophical mistakes might aid my own thinking. It didn’t.

His relentless pounding the word “mistake” reminded me of how Stalinists applied it to ostensibly trifling ideological deviations made to seem so criminal the penalty could be death. (See also political correctness in today’s American universities.) You might imagine Adler is identifying real big bloopers. Instead most are subtle points that are at least arguable. Thus his castigating “mistakes” by thinkers like Locke, Hume, Kant, Mill (and others with multisyllabic names) felt overbearing.

He’s often attacking straw men. Example: Adler calls “mistaken” Hobbes’s idea of people in a “state of nature” agreeing to a social contract to resolve their predicament. Never happened, says Adler. Well, of course it didn’t. Hobbes was not writing history. He was instead seeking to elucidate the moral logic underpinning society.

Adler’s writing style doesn’t help. Actually, his book is painstakingly written to ensure every sentence says exactly what he means. But that very carefulness impedes communication. It felt stilted, abstruse, and opaque. Concrete examples would have aided intelligibility, but those are few. He often seems to dance around a point without ever grabbing it by the throat. Frequently it’s just hard to discern what the heck he’s talking about. This was a tedious read.

I will delve into just one of Adler’s disquisitions — one at least sufficiently clear that I feel able to.

This concerned Hume’s famous dictum that you can’t get an ought from an is. Or, how things arecannot tell us how they should be. Moral truths can’t be derived from any factual truths. “The Earth is round” is a provable statement of fact (notwithstanding dissent from latter-day flat earthers). “Murder is wrong,” in contrast, is an unprovable feeling or preference, no different really from a preference for chocolate.

This has vexed thinkers for centuries. We want there to be moral truths. Calling Hume mistaken, Adler seeks to find some premise that can be considered factual that can be parlayed into ethical facts.

He posits that what qualifies as a fact is something for which the contrary cannot be imagined as true. That is, a self-evident truth. His candidate is “right desire.” Which “consists in seeking what we ought to desire or seek.” But that, he says, “cannot simply be the good, for whatever we desire has the aspect of the good whether or not our desires are right or wrong.

That’s the kind of writing I found so maddening. Not to mention that saying we ought to desire that which we ought to desire seems a wee bit tautological.

Nevertheless — Adler goes on to distinguish between “natural desires” (“inherent in our nature” and thus the same in all humans) and “acquired desires” unique to each individual. That is, differentiating between “needs” and “wants.” Adler asserts that “[w]hatever we need is really good for us. There are no wrong needs. We never need anything to an excess that is really bad for us.” It’s only our “wants” that can go to an excess bad for us.

Excuse me? When an addict seeks a fix (concrete example), that may not be a “natural” need in Adler’s sense of human commonality, but for the addict it sure feels a lot like a need. A need “to an excess that is really bad for” him. On the other hand, “need” for sex certainly does meet Adler’s criterion for naturalness, but it’s clearly untrue that no one ever needs it to excess. All rendering problematic Adler’s dichotomy between needs and wants.

Nevertheless, it leads him to “the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire what is really good for us and nothing else (his emphasis).” This, he says, qualifies as self-evident.

And he does offer an example. “All human beings naturally desire or need knowledge (which is tantamount to saying that knowledge is really good for us) . . . we ought to seek or desire knowledge.” Extending this reasoning, he says, “can produce a whole set of of true prescriptive judgments.” And “solve all the problems that modern thought has posed [!]”

It’s not clear to me how this devolves from his dichotomy between “needs” and “wants.” The quotation above actually conflates the two. And it still seems fundamentally tautological — saying we should desire what’s desirable. Providing no guidance for determining what is good for us. Which is kind of central.

Take his own example of knowledge. In fact, saying all people “desire or need knowledge” is patently untrue. Lots of people positively shun knowledge lest it disturb cherished illusions.

Furthermore, Adler has, at best, offered only a partial solution to the is/ought problem. Addressing the aspect of moral philosophy concerning what’s good for oneself. But a big part of what we mean when we talk about “moral philosophy” is how we relate to others. That actually seems excluded by the “and nothing else” part of Adler’s formulation. Telling us to desire what we should desire is fine, albeit perhaps actually meaningless, but offers no help for when our desires conflict with those of others. A pretty large issue.

Hume was not “mistaken.” He was right that moral precepts cannot be facts in the “Earth is round” sense. But they don’t have to be, and I don’t think Hume was saying we’re morally at sea if they’re not. “Murder is wrong” is an opinion, but it is not a mere bald opinion, it is one premised upon a great deal of rational logic about how all people can, collectively, live the best lives possible.

The foundational premise for my own moral philosophy is that the only thing that ultimately matters is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. From this precept a full morality can indeed be derived. And it actually meets Adler’s criterion for a fact, since I cannot conceive of a refutation that makes any sense (correctly assuming there’s no god).

That’s my answer for the is/ought problem. Better, I think, than Adler’s.

The debate: Trump’s demons out of control

September 30, 2020

Trump is actually exceptionally intelligent. His glibness, ability to spin the blarney, is prodigious. Unfortunately, he is also mentally ill.

One commentator used the word “strategy” in questioning Trump’s debate performance. That’s a mistake ubiquitous from the start of the Trump saga. He is never guided by any “strategy,” but instead by his demons. His mental illness was on full display in the debate. Nobody who gave any serious thought to actually attracting support would have behaved that way. But among Trump’s demons is the need to feel he’s strong and tough and infallible. And those demons are out of control; there are no limits.

Thus, one voter on a CNN panel said she agreed with much of what Trump was saying, but his vicious performance repelled her. Another woman was quoted saying her schoolgirl daughter, watching, ran from the room in tears. Joining me for part of it was a student from Somaliland, who couldn’t believe an American president behaving that way. Somaliland’s president (whom I’ve met) certainly wouldn’t. Talk about shit-hole countries. Trump’s debate horror-show utterly disgraced America.

I was not thrilled by Biden’s performance, often wishing I’d been standing there in his place. Like when Trump, about the Supreme Court appointment, insisted he’d been elected for a full four years, Biden never mentioned Republicans’ refusal to apply that principle in Obama’s case, with Merrick Garland. When discussing protests, violence, and law-and-order, I’d have pointed out Trump’s actually defending a vigilante fan of his who travelled to Kenosha with a gun and killed two people. And regarding mail ballots, Biden never said it’s Trump who wants to rig the election, by throwing out legitimate ballots and keeping power regardless.

But all this points up the stark contrast of character between the two. No, Biden does not have Trump’s instinct for the jugular. Biden is a genuinely humble, soft-spoken, mild-mannered human being with a deep heart and soul. So he was no firecracker in the debate. (He did tell Trump to “shut up,” called him a liar, and the worst president in history — good for him — though all spoken mildly.) But this debate should finally put to bed all the nonsense about Biden’s mental capacity.

He is also an honest person. On points, Trump might have massively won the debate. But that’s easy to do if you’re completely unconstrained by factual reality, and can just make up anything in answer to anything. That Trump did massively, from start to finish. CNN’s fact check guy had his hands full. He did say Biden misstated a few facts (on at least one, regarding trade deficits, I think Biden was actually correct), but in Trump’s case, Boy-Oh-Boy. One wee point: Trump said Portland’s sheriff supports him. I noticed on social media the sheriff quoted that he’d never support Trump.

When it came to the latest revelations that he paid only $750 in income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, he simply lied. He actually had the brass to say that everyone will see, when his returns are released. Which he’s been saying for four years. While of course still refusing to release them. How stupid does he think voters are?

And about the pandemic, claiming his handling of it was fantastic and he’s saved umpteen lives. I don’t have to go through the facts here, it’s just so obvious to anyone living in the actual real world.

But perhaps the scariest lie is Trump’s attack on mail ballots as rife with fraud. He recited a whole string of incidents, and every single one was either a gross distortion or an outright lie. It’s scary because scores of millions of citizens will be voting by mail, and Trump is going for the jugular — of our democracy. His words in the debate clearly presaged resort to violence to remain in power. Which, after this debate, is now surely the only way he can. Already decisively behind, Trump showed what a monster he is. A disaster for his chances.

The headline moment was when Trump was asked to separate himself from white supremacists. He gave a surly (all his answers were surly) refusal. Even brought up “Proud Boys,” a notorious racist group, telling them to “stand back and stand by.” They, and other allied hate groups, immediately rushed online to jubilantly herald Trump’s endorsement, using his quote as a rallying cry.

This shows two things. One, that Trump is racist (as if we didn’t know). And second, he thinks American voters are predominantly racist; not just deep down, but so openly (to themselves) they’ll vote for an openly racist candidate, indeed, support him for that very reason.

He’s wrong. He is mentally ill, living in an alternate universe, and this proves it. He does have that vote. But cannot — must not —win.

Trump’s plan: “Get rid of the ballots”

September 27, 2020

Trump is very clear. He says he wants the Supreme Court vacancy filled before Nov. 3, because he sees the election being decided by the court (not voters). He refuses to pledge an orderly peaceful transfer of power.

His actual quote: “Get rid of the ballots and we’ll have a very peaceful . . . There won’t be a transfer, frankly.”

He’s referring of course to mail ballots. Covid concerns mean they’ll be utilized this year far more than usual. Democrats being more serious about Covid, The Economist projects up to 80% of mail ballots will be for Biden.

Before they’re counted, Trump may seem be winning. So he opposes counting all those many millions of mail votes, claiming they’re a fraud, a “disaster,” a “big scam.” Fact: mail voting has long been part of our election system, with virtually zero fraud. Trump says ballots are being indiscriminately sent to people not entitled to vote. Another ridiculous lie. Likewise foreign agents sending phony mail ballots. No way they could get counted. (The main foreign election meddler is once again Russia, supporting Trump.)

Watch for him to send armed federal officers to polling places (unprecedented), supposedly to keep order (unnecessary), but really to intimidate and scare off voters. Black ones, that is.

After November 3, Trump will try to disrupt mail vote counting, with lawyers besieging election boards challenging every ballot, and flooding the courts with ballot litigation — anything to delay resolution and muddy the waters. To prevent key states from completing their counts by the December 14 deadline. Thus creating a pretext for nullifying the popular vote entirely in those states and having their legislatures (mostly controlled by Republicans, thanks to their gerrymandering) appoint presidential electors.* That’s the plan. “Get rid of the ballots.”

Our system has always worked before, based on participants’ responsible good faith respect for the process, the concept of democracy, and voter sovereignty. But now Republicans are bent on keeping power by any means possible. “Get rid of the ballots.” Things will go so much smoother. “There won’t be a transfer, frankly.”

If they succeed in getting rid of the ballots and prevent the true election winner (Biden) from taking office, that will be the end of America’s democracy and the onset of fascist dictatorship. Following the standard autocrats’ playbook — as in Hungary, Venezuela, Turkey, Belarus, Russia, etc.  Manipulating enough people, at least, into voting for such authoritarians. A facade of democratic process while all opposition is neutered.

An international panel that assesses countries, on numerous measures, for democracy versus authoritarian government, finds America already far down the latter road. Look how Trump has flouted laws, norms, and the Constitution, and disregarded Congress. Once past the election, nothing will restrain him.

Certainly not Republican officialdom. He’ll issue executive orders to stop vote counting, despite having no such power, and some Republican election functionaries will cheerfully obey. Republicans in Congress will endorse electoral votes submitted by state legislatures in defiance of actual popular votes. “Get rid of the ballots.”

Trump-and-guns cultists and QAnon-type conspiracy lunatics will come out supporting this with weapons loaded. Though who exactly will they shoot? They might imagine police and the military on their side. They’d be wrong (as with everything).

My contacts with the Biden campaign give me confidence that they’re well prepared to combat Trump’s putsch attempt vigorously and effectively. I also hope Biden’s vote margin will be large enough to be beyond disputing. Though that won’t stop Trump from throwing up as much chaos as possible, if only to hide, from his own diseased psyche, the humiliation of defeat.

After 2016, Republicans jeered — falsely— that Democrats did not accept the election outcome. This time Republicans will go berserk in refusing to accept it. Trump has revved up his cult to believe a Biden presidency will be the apocalypse and can only result from fraud. They’ll imagine themselves the victims of an anti-democratic putsch. Long will they cling to this grievance — like the South after the Civil War, creating an enduring “lost cause” mythology.

Meanwhile, even if our democracy does prevail — by the skin of its teeth, this time — public confidence in the legitimacy of its processes will have suffered a severe blow. Our democratic culture may have been mortally wounded by the long-run damage Trump has done. Saving it is what this election is really about — far transcending any conventional issue or policy concerns.

Get rid of the ballots.” After everything else, it is this, above all, that makes voting for Trump now completely insane.

* Electoral votes will be counted by the newly elected Congress in January. To throw out a state’s votes, both houses must agree. The House of Representatives will be Democratic; the Senate may be.