Something horrible is happening: reading the obituary page

May 1, 2016

UnknownSomething horrible is happening. Dozens of local people die every day. It’s a holocaust.

I read the obituary page, and feel bad for everyone there. What’s happened to them is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. (And someday it will happen to me.)

imagesIt’s gotten worse since the local paper went to full color printing. Now the people pictured in obituaries seem more real to me.

Dying at, like, 83, is uninteresting. But I’m always drawn to those listing younger ages. “Passed away suddenly,” “died at home,” etc. – it makes me wonder what could have happened. It’s a reminder of life’s fragility. Though actually such wording – especially, “died unexpectedly” – can be a euphemism for suicide. Tragic how common that is.

Speaking of euphemism, of course most obituaries avoid words like “died.” Some read as though the person merely moved away – to a better neighborhood, at that.

Unknown-1What I like is obituaries with high ages. “Sally Jones, 103.” I say to myself, way to go, old Sal! Made it to 103! It gives me hope. And for centenarians I’ll glance over the details, to see what a person did in such a long life. It seems that high achievers in the age department are often high achievers in other ways.

One recent obit was for a Vera Lister, 100. I read it. Said she was a “homemaker for most of her life.” Zzzz. But also that, in the British navy in WWII, she participated in breaking the German enigma code. Holy smoke!

There are some amazing people among us, and we don’t always know it. One local acquaintance, the most unassuming of men, I recently learned worked on the Manhattan Project.

Of course, a big reason for checking the obits is to look for names I know. I’m not very social, yet it’s amazing how many folks one has encountered in half a century in Albany. Seeing someone on that page can be a shocker. Not long ago, a guy I knew from work; younger than me; a lively fellow, in rude health when I’d seen him just shortly before. Died in some stupid accident. Another memento mori reminder.

Sometimes merely the age is a shocker. Just saw the obit of a young feller I once knew slightly. He was eighty. How could that be? Time gets away from us.

"Hap" Hazzard

“Hap” Hazzard

Yet the obituary page – occasionally – offers some yuks too. One recently made me laugh out loud. Guy’s name was Harold Hazzard. The obit included his nickname: Harold “Hap” Hazzard. He must have had a sense of humor.

But this holocaust must stop. And we’re working on it. This is what medical science is ultimately all about. It’s not enough to cure illness when people must die in the end anyway. But aging and death too are medical problems. A key factor is telomeres, little extensions on the ends of chromosomes. When cells divide, telomeres get shorter. And, when you’re out of telomeres – you’re out.

images-2There’s an enzyme called telomerase that can replenish them. Unfortunately, a dose of telomerase gives you cancer. But maybe we can fix that.

And someday, you’ll turn to the obituary page, and it will say: no deaths to report.

African-Americans on currency – too politically correct?

April 25, 2016

UnknownAndrew Jackson will be replaced, on the front of the $20 bill, with Harriet Tubman, a black woman. Inevitably some (like Trump) cry, “Political correctness!” Others, much worse.

Meantime, proposed designs were also recently made public for a future special-issue gold coin. imagesPast U.S. coins often portrayed “Lady Liberty.” Now she would have African-American features.

In the numismatic publications, reactions from the coin collector community were again sadly predictable. People always like what’s old and familiar and hate what’s new and different. The proposed design is seen as traducing a hallowed tradition. And Coin World’s editor called out the racism behind many of the comments.  Some seem to think the Goddess of Liberty is caucasian.

Morgan Dollar

Morgan Dollar

A lot of commenters called the image ugly. I wonder where they get their aesthetic nous. This design seems far finer than most modern U.S. mint productions. The gal depicted “I wouldn’t kick out of bed.” She’s certainly lovelier than many of our past Lady Liberties – like the bloated battleaxe on the Morgan dollar, so beloved by collectors. (Maybe they had different notions of feminine beauty in those days.) But I doubt Michelangelo could make a coin showing a black person that these people wouldn’t find ugly.

As for the $20 bill, Jackson has never been one of my heroes. He once said, “The Supreme Court has made its decision – now let them enforce it.” Spitting on the rule of law. And Jackson was talking about a court ruling that Georgia couldn’t steal Cherokee land. No friend of Indians, he. Indeed, his policy could be called genocidal.

Get that SOB off our money.

. . . or how about this comely lass?

. . . or how about this comely lass?

Harriet Tubman was a great, heroic personage, a humble woman of outstanding virtue, who fought slavery not just with words but deeds. She actually freed slaves. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country that would put her on its currency.

And as for that new Lady Liberty, I would remind critics, so wedded to traditional portrayals, that one of the greatest things this nation ever did, to live out its creed of liberty, was to fight a war to free the slaves. In light of that, an African-American Liberty goddess is an entirely fitting and deeply meaningful representation of the liberty this nation stands for.

But the mentioned hostility to the proposed designs doesn’t mean America is deeply racist (as cynics continue to say). This isn’t your grandfather’s racism, but more a reaction to the affirmative action culture and what’s seen as privileging blacks (an ironic counterpoint to “white privilege”). Reverse discrimination (say, in hiring) can indeed be a legitimate issue. But portrayals on currency are just symbolism, the wrong battle to fight. Given what blacks have suffered, no one should begrudge their pictures on money. And those who do are not the American mainstream. We’re a better country than that; these currency designs prove it again.

What explains the vicious left?

April 20, 2016

images-2I recently wrote about a talk by scientist David Gelernter, at the state university. A student got up to ask about an article he’d written – “What Explains the Vicious Left?” The student said he’s politically moderate, and a pervasive, aggressive campus left-wing atmosphere makes him feel under attack.

I too have written about the poisoning of American politics by those who believe people with opposing views are not just wrong but wicked. And that, while both left and right are guilty, the left is far the bigger culprit.* imagesThis is especially true on campuses, where the left totally dominates, and seeks to disallow dissent. This is the “political correctness” that is so vile.

Its latest manifestation is to “protect” students from words or ideas that might make them “uncomfortable.” We hear much about verbal “micro-aggressions” having that effect, especially on minority students. Ethnic and gender minorities, that is. images-3But what about the minority that is truly persecuted – non-leftist students – like the questioner at Gelernter’s talk? Where is the concern about their being made uncomfortable, by efforts to browbeat them into silence?

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” On campuses today, conservatives have no rights a leftist is bound to respect. “The left seems to have lost its taste for democracy,” Gelernter’s article said.

Responding to the questioner, he noted that at Yale, where he teaches, conservative students have come to his office in tears because of the left’s “frantic fervor” and bullying. Gelernter suggested the phenomenon has to do with the fact that campus leftists are almost exclusively atheist/agnostic, whereas conservatives are frequently religious.

UnknownThe latter, he said, are cocooned in a strongly held moralistic belief system, satisfying a fairly universal psychological need. And with that box checked off, they don’t infuse their political views with a similar moral fervor. For them, politics is just politics. Atheist leftists, on the other hand, have only their politics to fill this psychological need, which is why they become so fierce. “Politics is their faith, in default of any other; it is the basis of their moral life.”

And naturally they are very protective of that faith, responding ferociously to any challenge; unwilling even to let opposing ideas be heard. (Just like some religious faiths, even today – apostasy is punished with death in some Muslim lands.)

More generally, politics is becoming very tribal, “us against them,” and for many it’s their core identity – virtually their ethnicity. As for why this is more true on the left, Gelernter’s religion-based theory may be at least a partial explanation. But there’s much in his article I find problematic. He’s evidently religious himself, and argues that the problem could only be cured with a religious revival — “a miracle.” Yet he seems to think it possible – ignoring why religious belief is declining — its sheer implausibility. (Though implausible ideas aren’t hampering certain presidential contenders.)

In googling Gelernter’s article, I found comments from left-wingers that were . . . surprise . . . absolutely vicious. Exemplifying the very syndrome he discusses. (Somewhat ironic, with leftists also full of talk about kindness, compassion, non-judgmentalism, and so forth.)

images-4At one time, the kind of moralistic fervor Gelernter discusses drove people to burn dissenters alive. At least we haven’t reached that stage in politics.

Yet.

*Journalism professor Rosemary Armao, frequently on local radio discussion shows, supporting Hillary, has remarked upon the viciousness of messages she’s received from Bernie backers. (But none from Republicans.)

Could a machine ever feel emotion? – David Gelernter

April 15, 2016

UnknownI recently heard a talk by Yale Professor David Gelernter, notable guru of computer science and artificial intelligence.* His new book is The Tides of Mind. That’s his metaphor for human consciousness cycling between varying states: early in the day we’re full of energy, seeing the world differently from later, when attention shifts from the external to the internal realm, and insistence of memory crowds out use of reason. After reaching a mid-afternoon low point, one cycles back upward somewhat before cycling back down again toward sleep. (I’ve always felt sharpest, doing my best work, in the morning; I’m drafting this at 5 AM in an airport; in mid-afternoon I’m soporific.)

Gelernter spoke of his project to emulate these workings of the mind in a computer program. He said the spectrum’s “top edge,” where rationality predominates, is easiest to model; it gets harder lower down, where we become less like calculating machines and more emotive. And Gelernter said – categorically – that no artificial system would ever be able to feel like a human feels.

Unknown-1This I challenged in the question period, suggesting that everything a human mind does must emerge out of neurons’ information processing – admittedly a massively complex system – but if such a system could be mimicked artificially, couldn’t all its effects, including consciousness and emotion, arise therein? I referenced the movie Her.

 Gelernter replied at great length. He said that some man-made systems already approach that degree of complexity (actually, I doubt this), but nobody imagines they’re conscious. He quoted Paul Ziff that a computer can do nothing that’s not a performance – a simulation of mind functioning, not the real thing.

Unknown-5Making notes, I wrote the words “Chinese Room” before Gelernter spoke them. This refers to John Searle’s famous thought experiment: a person in a room, using a set of rules, can respond to incoming messages in Chinese, thus appearing to understand Chinese, without actually understanding Chinese. Likewise a computer, using programmed rules, could appear to converse and understand, without actually understanding.

images-1Gelernter contrasted the view of “computationalists” like Daniel Dennett who – consistent with my question – regard the mind as basically akin to a computer – the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software. Gelernter acknowledged this is a majority view. It says that while a single neuron can do nothing, nor can a thousand, when a brain has trillions of interconnections, mind emerges. But this Gelernter dismissed, analogizing that a single grain of sand can do nothing, but a trillion can’t either.

images-2Gelernter asserted that computationalists actually have no evidence for their stance, and it boils down to being an axiom – an assumption, like Euclid’s axiom that parallel lines never meet (though never meeting is the definition of parallel lines, which is something different).

I found none of this persuasive. Someone later asked me what’s the antithesis of “computationalism.” I said “magicalism.” Because Gelernter seemed to posit something magical that creates mind, above and beyond mechanistic neural processing. Unknown-3This argument has been going on for centuries. But it’s really Gelernterists who engage in axioms – that is, assuming something must be true, albeit unprovable. And I call the opposing view materialism – that all phenomena must be explicable rationally – and the mind must arise from what neurons physically do – because there is no other possibility. I do not believe in magic.

Talking with Gelernter afterward, he offered a somewhat better argument – that to get a mind from neurons, you need, well, neurons. That their specific characteristics, with all their chemistry, are indispensable, and their effects could not be reproduced in a system made, say, of plastic. He analogized neurons to the steel girders holding up the building – thanks to steel’s particular characteristics – and girders made of something else, like potato chips, wouldn’t do.Unknown-4

But I still wasn’t persuaded. Gelernter had said, again, that computer programs can only simulate human mind phenomena; for example, a program that “learns” is simulating learning but not actually learning as a human does. I think that’s incorrect – and exemplifies Gelernter’s error. What does “learning” mean? Incorporating new information to change the response to new situations – becoming smarter from experience. Computer programs now do exactly this.

Neuronal functioning is very special and sophisticated, and would be very hard to truly reproduce in a system not made from actual neurons. But not impossible, because it’s not magical. I still see no reason, in principle, why an artificial system could not someday achieve the kind of complex information processing that human brains do, which gives rise to consciousness, a sense of self, and feelings.**

Those who’ve said something is impossible have almost always proven wrong. And Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

* In 1993 he survived an attack by the Unabomber, whose brother, David Kaczynski, has been to my house (we had an interesting discussion about spirituality) – my three degrees of separation to Gelernter.

** See my famous article in The Humanist magazine: The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement.

 

Trumpelstiltskin and the yahoo vote

April 10, 2016

UnknownI will vote for Kasich, reason, and decency, in the New York primary. But this may be the first state giving Trump over 50%. Shame on New York.

He says Kasich should quit the race. That would help Trump . . . how? Does he think Kasich voters would switch to him? That he’d do better in a two-man race? Polls show over half of Republicans, nationwide, despise him.

For all his ostensible success, Trump actually has no political sense. As in his recent comment about punishing women who have abortions. Columnist Michael Gerson has suggested that what Trump is trying to do is to say things he imagines hard-right voters like. Yet Trump has not been politically engaged enough to know what conservatives actually think. His playbook is a caricature of conservatism (one largely created by its critics).

Unknown-1Of course he isn’t getting the conservative vote. He’s getting the yahoo vote. His campaign is not brilliant. Yahoos are a minority.

Insulting people isn’t normally my style. But, as The Economist quoted one observer, Trump voters “have dirt for brains.” Wanting an outsider, a savvy entrepreneur, who tells the truth, and would shake up the system, is fine. I’d vote for her. But Trump is a crass ass who does not tell it like it is, he is a compulsive serial liar; his business history is a string of scams and failures; he has no serious program; what he advocates is un-American and based on big lies too; and he enflames people’s worst instincts. He is unfit to be the leader of a great nation. His supporters disgrace their citizenship. (That means you, Christie, and Giuliani. I’m taking names.)

It remains unclear that Trump will get the delegates needed for nomination. The winner-take-all California primary will likely be decisive. Meantime we hear the trope that whoever has the most delegates, even if not a majority, should be nominated. F**k that.

images-2In fact, even if Trump does secure the 1,237 delegates, there are whispers of a GOP Plan B. The convention (to be chaired by Paul Ryan) could vote to change the rules, to require a supermajority on the first ballot.*

And here’s a key detail: winning a state’s delegates doesn’t mean a candidate gets to name them. Many are picked by state party organizations. UnknownSo a lot of delegates bound to Trump on the first ballot actually don’t like him. They could vote for the rules change. And on a second ballot Trump’s majority would melt away like a snowman in Spring.

Trump and his yahoos will scream bloody murder. But winning all these primaries with 35-40% of the vote does not entitle Trump to the nomination. A majority of primary voters (bar New York) are rejecting him. Honoring their will would be legitimate.

Would Republicans have the balls for this? It would save the party. Not only would Trump suffer a monumental November defeat, he is wrecking the Republican brand with his toxic caricature of what the party stands for.

Unknown-2And if we have an open convention, who would wind up nominated? Delegates might pull a rabbit out of a hat (like Garfield in 1880, who began with one vote). Paul Ryan would be great.

Could a fresh candidate like that win? Yes. Bernie will not be nominated, but his strength spotlights Hillary’s weakness. In November, voters will choose between two candidates, and how one got nominated won’t matter much.

I am sick to death of Trump and his vileness. I don’t want to see his vile face, hear his vile voice, or have to talk about this any more. I want it to be over.

*Not unprecedented: until 1936, Democrats required a two-thirds majority.

What America needs: more competition

April 5, 2016

imagesUnfashionably, I am an unrepentant advocate for free market capitalism. Vocal “progressive” and populist critics assail the system as rotten, rigged against ordinary people, aggravating inequality. Their cure: more regulation and government intervention, protectionism, curbing free trade, forcing wages higher, and banning corporate money from politics.

Unknown-1Well, the system is indeed rigged. Corporate money does suborn government. And, as a recent piece in The Economist explains, not only have overall profits been strong,* but particularly profitable companies have, in this century, been able to sustain their dominance. That’s contrary to economic theory, which says fat profits in a sector will soon attract competitors, driving prices down and squeezing profits.

However, the cited “progressive” agenda would actually make things worse. Indeed, a lot of it is already part of the problem. The true problem is insufficient competition. And everything “progressives” seek would lessen competition.

When I wrote my Rational Optimism book in 2009, the airline industry was Exhibit A for the virtue of competitive free markets. Now it exemplifies what’s gone wrong. The industry once was pervasively regulated and government-cosseted, but in the 1970s Alfred Kahn (my former leader at the NY PSC) heroically swept all that aside. Unknown-2The resultant flowering of new small airlines and open competition slashed fares so much that flying was no longer for the rich alone. The skies opened to millions of travelers, a vast public boon. And, as of 2009, the industry’s cumulative profits, over its entire history, were approximately zero. In other words, all the benefits of airline investment were captured by consumers, with nothing for the “greedy capitalists” who made it possible!

But then a wave of consolidations and mergers drastically reduced airline competition. Carriers now have far more pricing power, becoming very profitable indeed. Their fuel costs recently collapsed – in competition’s heyday, that would have triggered huge fare cuts – but now airlines get to keep the windfall.

images-1So, as The Economist argued, what we need is not the anti-competitive “progressive” agenda but, rather, lower barriers to competition. One example they cited is the proliferation of licensing requirements, afflicting a host of trades from hairdressing to interior decorating. Supposed consumer protection masks the real purpose: squelching competitors to existing businesses. A hair salon can charge a lot more if there’s not another nearby. Likewise, incumbent taxi firms and hotels try to get government regulators to shield them from Uber and Airbnb.

Protectionism is the same story: protecting businesses against competition, so they can charge more. Sure, free trade means some job losses. They’re very visible, like when Carrier moves a factory to Mexico. Less visible is the benefit to consumers, of lower prices, adding trillions to their wallets – whose spending means vast job creation, making up for those lost. Protectionists ignore this.

Unknown-3I’ve written before how government regulation hurts competition. Coping with massively complex regulatory regimes like Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley is doable for huge corporations with armies of lawyers and accountants. For small start-up firms, not so much. This has caused a big decline in our rate of new business creation.

Higher minimum wages too impede competition. Governor Cuomo’s $15 plan has brought forth a parade of small businesses explaining how it will hurt their viability, for self-evident reasons. “Progressives” dismiss such concerns, as if the money will just come out of fat profits, as if all business earn fat profits. Most in fact don’t. And driving some out of business, reducing competition, will make big ones even stronger, harming consumers.

I’ve recognized how campaign cash corrupts government to favor some businesses over others, again undermining competition. But opposing Citizens United is anti-competitive on the part of the political class itself. Government regulation of political campaigns will always be an incumbent-protection scheme, stifling electoral competition. I’ve advocated instead a tax credit for political donations, to unleash a flood of citizen contributions, freeing politicians from servitude to big money donors. The savings from reduced corporate welfare would dwarf the cost, to the Treasury, of the tax credit.

images-3Competition makes people better, do better, and live better.

 

 

The truth about immigration

March 30, 2016

My local community is having a celebration of immigrants. It’s timely, given our national panic attack over immigration. Unknown-1Forgetting Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall,” now a presidential candidate wants to build a new one.

Do immigrants take jobs from Americans? Many think there are only so many jobs to go around, and anyone hired means someone else unemployed. Economists call this the “lump of labor fallacy.” It assumes a static, unchanging economy, whereas the reality is constant dynamic change.* Add productive capability, and uses for it will be found.

Immigrants do add to such capability, thus making our nation economically stronger, not weaker. Especially since they have more drive than the pre-existing population’s average. Countries like Mexico are not sending us “wretched refuse.” To the contrary, anyone willing to face all the hazards of emigrating is among the most courageous, ambitious, enterprising, resourceful, capable of people. We need them. They come here to get ahead, not to get hand-outs.

images-1In fact, we have a huge problem with a growing imbalance between our rising elderly population, collecting benefits, and those working and paying taxes to fund those benefits. Young work-hungry immigrants help redress that imbalance. Thusly replenishing our work force is a key factor making America’s economy stronger than Europe’s (actually more anti-immigrant than we are).

America believes in freedom. A fundamental freedom is to live where you want. Should we then let everybody in? It’s not a crazy idea. Economists have estimated – get this – worldwide free movement of people would double global GDP. Because migrants would multiply their earning power by going to where their work is more productive (often because of better technology). Most poor people are poor because they’re trapped where their productive potential is vastly underutilized. Remedying that, through freer movement, would go far toward eradicating poverty. And the resulting more efficient production of goods and services, globally, would make everyone richer.

Some fear immigrants will degrade our culture.

Learn English or get out

Learn English or get out

But successive waves of immigrants have enriched U.S. culture, continuously rejuvenating it; our polyglot diversity is what makes our culture the world’s most vibrant and attractive. Ironically, those who fear this cultural flux are not themselves paragons of cultural refinement. No, it’s not immigrants who threaten America with cultural degradation – it’s the immigrant-haters, who would hand the presidency to a braying, bragging brute.

Real Americans love apostrophes!

Apostrophes belong to Americans too!

*Automation is a similar jobs bugbear. So far employment has always actually expanded. But is technological progress finally leading to all production needs met without jobs for all? Ever fewer people are employed making stuff — but more in services. Unskilled work is disappearing, hurting the less educated. Our challenge is to make everyone productive.

Morocco: open for business

March 25, 2016

UnknownSince our daughter had a gap between jobs in Jordan and Afghanistan, we met up for a hastily booked Morocco tour.

We had been to this North African country before, a brief side excursion. I remember exiting the tourist bus in Tetouan and saying, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more” – it was like stepping back in time a thousand years. But that was not representative of Morocco, whose modernity, this time, surprised me.

photo by Elizabeth Robinson

photo by Elizabeth Robinson

It’s overwhelmingly Muslim, with two main ethnic groups, the indigenous Berbers, and Arabs who came later. Ethnic tensions seem minimal. I asked our tour guide about this, in light of sectarian strife in other Islamic lands. “Those people aren’t Muslims,” he said, “they’re fanatics.”

Moroccans are bilingual, equally using Arabic and French (this was a French colony, 1912-56). The distinctive Berber script is seen occasionally; and of course there’s Globalspeak (English).

Berber script

Berber script

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, not what you’d call a free country; but while the King, Mohammad VI (since 1999), is really still the boss, he’s done a fair bit to modernize, liberalize and democratize Morocco.

Volubilis - photo by Elizabeth Robinson

Volubilis – photo by Elizabeth Robinson

It was part of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania; later, of the Roman Empire. A nice surprise was visiting the extensive ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis – off my radar screen because (unlike the typical ancient city), Volubilis issued virtually no coinage.

We spent quite a few hours in the “medina” (old city) of Fes – a vast labyrinth of narrow streets. Here, and elsewhere, one finds an incredible profusion of little stores and seller stalls; the country is like one gigantic flea market, offering every sort of edible, wearable, or useable. One stall might have nothing but a mountain of peanuts; others with pyramids of dates, or cookies, or spices, etc. Even bathtubs! People mostly do their shopping, and many earn their living, through these markets.

My wife wanted to try a sizable disk-shaped bread loaf. The quoted price was Two Dirhems – about 20 cents. But for that we actually received two loaves.

I wondered aloud how they all could sell enough to stay in business. But my daughter pointed out the obvious: they wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Then we went to Marrakech, where the souk (marketplace) was orders of magnitude larger, with the profusion of goods bordering on unbelievable: mountains of shoes, foodstuffs, handbags, electronics, souvenirs, jewelry, handicrafts (one entire section, for example, with stall after stall selling brasswork); a lot of the production was being done on site too, making for quite a humming scene.

imagesI had fantasized finding a pile of those cool cast 19th century Moroccan coins, but didn’t see any. At the end I asked our local guide, and he took me back to one gnarled ancient fellow who came forth with a bagful of about 30. But his price was way high. Then our guide knocked on a closed door, which opened into an antique shop, with a bucketful of silver coins. I bought a few Moroccan ones in unusually choice condition – and a 1929 Italian 10 Lire – good date! – and a steal. Meantime my daughter bought a handbag and some boots, proving herself better than me at haggling.

Photo by Elizabeth Robinson

Photo by Elizabeth Robinson

We also had the obligatory tourist visit to a carpet emporium. Once on a similar excursion in Turkey, I made the mistake of agreeing to sign in with my phone number. I couldn’t believe how often those carpet pushers called me in subsequent years, despite my increasingly angry brush-offs.

The overall impression of Morocco was one of basic prosperity. There were, admittedly, a fair number of beggars. But many looked no scruffier than a typical seller in the souk. I suppose that holding one’s hand out is actually a more effective way of getting passersby to part with cash.

UnknownBut Marrakech is also a very modern city, whose main drags might be hardly distinguishable from, say, Lille, or Dusseldorf. We visited one glitzy shopping mall, very different from the chaotic souk, with beautiful Moroccan décor, and the poshest brands. I remarked to my wife, “I must be the shabbiest looking person in this mall.”

And the Moroccan economy is not all souk sellers flogging kitsch. Everywhere you looked it was evident that every sort of modern business was thriving. The roads were jammed with vans and trucks displaying a profusion of their logos. If not politically free, this is manifestly a very open, free economy. I am always energized visiting countries like this. It’s part of a worldwide phenomenon, of recent decades, which many people fail to grasp amid all the gloom and doom talk. Economic openness, free enterprise, and trade, are transforming, for the better, the lives of billions of people.

I couldn’t help pondering the contrast with a country like Venezuela, where folks stand in line for hours outside the few stores, hoping for a rare chance to buy some meager necessities – thanks to their “21st century socialism.”

Splitting the GOP

March 20, 2016

images-1I’ve been writing a lot about politics lately. Every four years we’re told “this election is critical;” it’s a cliché. But this time really is different – reshaping our political landscape.

For a long time, the Republican party prospered as a marriage between a principled segment – supporting limited government, free market economics, fiscal and personal responsibility, free trade, and global engagement – and a working class segment actuated by cultural primitivism, nativism, xenophobia, and bigotry. The former milked the latter for votes without actually delivering much for them. Now they’re rebelling and the marriage is coming apart.

Much punditry says we should understand Trump supporters as moved by legitimate economic concerns. That’s part of it, but not the main thing. The economy could be better but is not in crisis. a-holesThis is more about attitude than economics. It’s people feeling personally alienated from what the American mainstream is becoming; disconnected from the ruling elite. In America 2.0, they’re still stuck in America 1.0. They embrace Trump not in spite of his crudeness, but proudly because of it, which embodies their own. For all his billions, he’s the first presidential candidate with whom they culturally identify. This is not a revolt of the lower class, but of the no-class. That’s why attacking Trump for his various transgressions doesn’t dissuade his voters.

Trump claims he’s uniting the GOP. Yeah, right. Orthodox Republicans, the “establishment,” are freaking out. I’ve heard radio commentary saying it’s because they can’t “control” Trump. That just plays to his appeal. No — Republicans still compos mentis see Trump as turning the party into a grotesquerie, headed for electoral obliteration.

Yet a party schism does not really seem to be happening either. At the February 29 GOP debate, three candidates vilified the fourth as unfit to be president, yet all said they’d support the eventual nominee. That reluctance to break a political taboo is understandable, but it makes it harder for other Republicans to repudiate Trump, and indeed, very few so far have done so. Instead, most seem likely to fall into line behind him because they lack the political imagination to do otherwise.

Unknown-2As a lifelong Republican, if Trump is nominated, I would like to see a party split – as in 1860, 1912 or 1948 – with a rump of delegates walking out to hold their own convention, naming a “True Republican” candidate on a platform of the party’s traditional values.* Yes, that would assure Hillary’s election. But she’s likely to crush the white trash candidate anyway. At least some integrity would be preserved, as a basis for reconstituting, from the wreckage, a Republican party worthy of support.

However, this might also be seen as destroying our two-party system, leaving us with a 1-1/2 party system. Maybe at least that might break the 50-50 partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington. But such a settlement could not be lasting, since half the nation (me included) would still be in deep disaffection.

Politics is very tribal; the us-versus-them mentality explains a lot of the partisan bitterness we’ve seen. But this election is exposing the nation’s real division not between two tribes, but more like three (at least) – the Democratic party, increasingly left-wing, in coalition with minorities, unions, and other interest groups – the traditionally conservative, market-economics Republicans – and the disaffected primitivists who really have no ideological affinity with true conservativism. If that three-way split congeals, the first tribe will always outvote the other two.

Trump’s nomination is far from certain. He still needs to win over half the delegates in the remaining primaries; though it’s very possible, most being (stupidly, unlike on the Dem side) winner-take-all (including California, likely to be make-or-break). But Trump is nobody’s second choice; a majority of Republicans still find him repellent. And Cruz is very much the sort of candidate who appeals to the GOP’s traditional base – a quasi-outsider, with religion on his sleeve and a purist right-wing ideology.** So we may well have an open convention, no candidate going in with a majority. What happens then? Who knows?

imagesTrump says there’ll be riots if he’s not nominated. So go riot. America is governed by voting, not rioting. The party is not obliged to nominate a candidate rejected by a majority of primary voters.

Finally, if you think campaigns have been nasty before, just wait for this fall. The attacks will be savage. UnknownSadly, a lot will be justified. Hillary should win, but then we’ll have four more years of bitter partisan divisiveness.

Well, we’re used to that. At least we won’t have an American Putin.

*Actually, to get on the ballot in most states, this would have to be organized much sooner.

**Lindsey Graham once said the choice of Cruz or Trump is like being poisoned or shot. But now he says he’s ready to take the poison.

Supreme Court nomination – the stupid party again

March 18, 2016

images-2Republicans control the Senate. They could have simply gone through the motions of considering President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, holding hearings, but letting him dangle in the wind without a vote. Or, ultimately, just vote him down. They have the votes.

But no. Instead they insist on making themselves look terrible, partisan, and obstructionist, by refusing to even allow the process to occur.

Mitch McConnell’s speech, after the nomination announcement, made no sense. With a straight face, he accused the president of politicizing the matter, just by submitting a name. But the Constitution says that’s what the president shall do. It isn’t an arguable point.

These Republicans act as though they’re confident of winning the presidency and then naming Scalia’s replacement. images-3What planet are they living on? Have they noticed who their likely presidential nominee is? An ideological wild card, whom they detest? Whose own supreme court pick they might also detest? Who will likely lose the election anyway, and may even lose them control of the Senate besides?

Then Hillary picks Scalia’s replacement. Meantime, Obama has offered a relatively moderate nominee, who is 63 and thus would not be on the court forever. Republicans should grab that deal while they can.

I consider myself a Republican; I expect Republican senators to be partisan. But not stupidly suicidal.


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