Human social virtues in a time of crisis

April 1, 2020

Garrison Keillor once said, if the purpose of one’s life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? This actually poses a deep philosophical issue. John Donne wrote that no man is an island. Yet each of us experiences existence only within the confines of our own skulls. Experiencing only one’s own feelings, not those of others.

It can be argued that we only ever do seemingly selfless deeds when it rewards us with good feelings. Evolution programmed us to have such feelings — and with empathy for the feelings of others, even if we cannot experience them directly — to make us do things for the common good. Hence even if pure selfishness might seem strictly logical, a degree of selflessness is a fundamental part of our human nature (barring sociopaths who failed to get that software installed). And we measure our virtue largely in terms of our interactions with others. Summed up pretty well by the golden rule. Nobody is perfect but most of us try.

And not just because of our programming. Your rational brain tells you that if you want to live in a society where people treat each other well, it behooves you to behave that way yourself. And if everybody does this, it’s good for everybody. We do what’s right mainly because we know it’s right, and why.

Holding fast to these standards of conduct is especially vital in a crisis like today’s, where the temptations for selfishness are heightened, and so is its ill effect. Where social solidarity is more needful than ever. Americans are largely meeting the test.

Acting rightly does make one feel good about oneself. But that may not be enough. We all have egos, greedy for such feelings, and one way to pump them up is through validation from others. This may seem strange because, again, you don’t have direct access to what others feel. But you’re affected by their behavior, which in turn is affected by their feelings toward you. And our social programming makes our position in society important to us. All this makes us crave the good opinion of others, and suckers for flattery.

Thus if we do good or are successful, we want others to know it. One way is to tell them. But that actually contravenes the golden rule. How so? Well, do you enjoy hearing others’ boasts? Saying “Look how great I am” implicitly tells the hearer, “and you’re not.” Even if unintentionally, self-aggrandizement forces the hearer to ponder the comparison. It’s not nice. That’s why bragging has a negative connotation, and modesty and humility are virtues.* A basic rule of living in society.

Much human behavior seeks to evade that rule. Successful, rich people cannot wear a badge announcing their net worth. But a lot of what they do (and buy) is mainly to advertise to others about their success. Boastfulness by other means.

But some are boastful by boasting. “I am very rich,” Trump has said. “I am very smart.” He’s even boasted of being the most modest person ever. And he tells us he’s doing a great job. Thus his coronavirus briefings (whose TV ratings he’s bragged about). Recently the word of the day, repeated like a verbal tic, was “tremendous.” Then he switched to “incredible.” Maybe tomorrow it will be “fantastic.” And not content to trumpet his wonderfulness himself, he trots out sycophantic flatterers to bubble about it.

What’s truly incredible is a president using a horrific crisis, with thousands dying, and millions suffering deprivation, as an occasion for sickening orgies of self-congratulation.

And contemptible as such braggadocio is, worse yet if the boasts are lies. It’s been factually documented how his failure of leadership delayed forceful action on testing to contain the virus. Doing what other countries did would have saved many thousands of lives and trillions in economic devastation. This reality might have brought forth some humility. A different reality can only be constructed out of lies. Like the simply false claim that we’re testing more than any other nation. (Our per-capita testing rate is certainly way below.)

I have pilloried Governor Cuomo in the past, but his coronavirus briefings are models of what Trump’s are not. No self-praise extravaganzas. No bashing the press and other critics, no demanding obsequious flattery. No lying. Cuomo gives us the unvarnished truth. He takes responsibility. He brings the situation home to us in a very human way we can all relate to. He tells us what needs to be done, what we all must do.

Knowing he’s being unfavorably compared to Cuomo infuriates Trump. But, incapable of learning from Cuomo, he resorts to pot-shots at him: “He had a chance to buy, in 2015, 16,000 ventilators at a very low price . . . he shouldn’t be talking about us. He should be buying his own ventilators.” But instead, said Trump, Cuomo goes for “death panels and lotteries.”

Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill has deconstructed exactly how vile this Trump cheap shot is. It came (surprise) from the internet, a right-wing website, based on a 2015 state task force report on pandemic planning. Churchill read it and interviewed the task force leader — concluding that the attack on Cuomo was “blatantly dishonest.” The report discussed strategies for dealing with a ventilator shortage, but did not recommend buying thousands just in case. Let alone somehow present an option to buy 16,000 “at a very low price.”

But Trump’s gross distortion of the facts is kind of beside the point. He’s repeatedly shown he needs no facts at all to slime somebody. And keeping up such divisive dishonesty, even in this time of national trauma, is just ghastly.

Here is the real point, that all this leads up to. I started out talking about our most fundamental human precepts for living among others. How normal people have that software pre-installed, and how crucial it is in a crisis like we face now. When the leadership we choose is someone who has not had that software installed, we are in very deep trouble as a society.

* Certain commenters will jump to sneer about my own modesty. I was tempted to actually talk about it here. But that would be immodest.

As the virus goes viral

March 30, 2020

My first 3/9 post on coronavirus was mocked for underestimating it. That’s a misreading. But I was over-estimating the government’s response. Which could have greatly limited the damage, but failed to.

An in-depth 3/29 New York Times report* details how the Trump administration squandered the opportunity to identify hot spots by testing, and to confine the disease through targeted quarantines — avoiding what became a need for a nationwide lockdown with unfathomable human and economic costs. While other countries were already testing tens of thousands daily, we were still doing fewer than a hundred. We effectively lost an entire, critical month.

Trump’s claim that we’re testing more than any other nation is simply false. Even today, many Americans with symptoms cannot get tested. A Brooklyn ER doctor, in a radio interview Saturday, said her hospital was turning away hundreds daily. While many coming in for unrelated problems are actually testing positive for COVID-19. So it’s likely our count of known cases is just the tip of an iceberg.

The Times documents the leadership failure. The NSC’s pandemic response team, established under Obama, was disbanded under Trump. Bureaucracies acted like bureaucracies. As the crisis metastasized, the FDA was actually tightening restrictions on testing; we were using a test both slow and faulty; were slow to fix that; while refusing a better test on offer from the World Health Organization. (Trump disdains such international bodies.)

The Times report is sickening (no pun here), and makes a mockery of Trump’s daily self-congratulatory briefings. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We now need megatons of cure because we didn’t test swiftly and widely. Even now, a massive crash testing program — which would cost a tiny fraction of the price tag for our economic shutdown — could pay off hugely in limiting the damage. We should test everybody. (At last we seem to have a test that’s cheap & quick.) Then quarantine those infected, and everybody else could resume normal life, knowing they’ll be safe.

We’re still doing nothing like that. The death toll is now projected to exceed 100,000. Trump tells us he’s a hero because it would have been 2 million if nothing at all had been done. But the whole story would have been very different with true, responsible, sensible leadership.

* * *

The Bible tells us those who have will get more, and for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. (Biblical morality.) Coronavirus is taking from everyone; perhaps reducing inequality by shredding the investments of the rich; but the poorest are suffering most. They’re not the ones with jobs suitable for working from home. It’s mainly lower wage workers losing paychecks. The giant bail-out legislation indiscriminately spews cash, but won’t make whole those thrown out of work.

Our biggest inequality is in education. Born into a poor family in a poor neighborhood, your chances of surmounting are slim because your school likely stinks. Now even those schools are closed. Distance learning may help affluent kids in stable homes. Poor kids in dysfunctional ones, often without computers or even web access, will fall further behind.

* * *

Almost forgotten in the midst of this cataclysm is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national census right now. It isn’t postponed. The Trump administration was already trying to skew it for political advantage, by undercounting people in Democrat-leaning areas, to reduce their congressional representation and electoral votes. One way was to simply underfund the census, making it harder to count people on the margins. They tried to particularly target Hispanics by including a citizenship question to scare them off from participating. The Supreme Court slapped down this proposal, literally ruling it was based on lies.

Trump said the census should count only citizens. The (“phony”) Constitution actually says all persons must be counted. That includes even the undocumented. But despite the Court ruling, the “citizenship” gambit probably succeeded in scaring off a lot of them.

The virus surely makes a full accurate count even harder, with census workers confined to quarters and practicing social distancing.

* * *

Almost forgotten too is that we’re supposed to be conducting a national election. Many primaries are postponed. That might have been a mess had the Democratic race not already been effectively decided. Especially now, Bernie should end his candidacy and urge uniting behind Biden.

Some say Biden’s invisible. Actually he’s not silent, is acting very responsibly, and quite reasonably the media is currently giving little attention to the election. That’s fine. Our campaigns are too long anyway. Biden will be on the ballot in November. Is anybody still “undecided?”

Now, more than ever — now that Trump’s fecklessness has really and truly fucked this nation up — we need that vote.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/28/us/testing-coronavirus-pandemic.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200329&instance_id=17169&nl=morning-briefing&regi_id=60449143&segment_id=23230&te=1&user_id=0588054855cd59fb97458c82182d229e

The pandemic and the Trump cult

March 27, 2020

(Expanding on my Feb. 13 featured commentary in the Albany Times-Union)

America is the culmination of thousands of years of people grappling with how to make good lives in a good society. Striving to tame all the demons in human nature, so our better angels can flourish.

This humanistic triumph cannot be taken for granted. Those demons always threaten it — more than do viruses. Many are the societies that have succumbed. America has no God-given immunity from its own bad choices.

Coronavirus is putting us to the test. Calling forth our better angels and social solidarity. We do see it in health workers, heroically on the job, often denied protective gear, literally risking their lives. We all must sacrifice, to serve the common good; and stay mindful of our most disadvantaged, who will suffer the most. Americans are mostly good, public-spirited people, rising to the challenge. But unfortunately right now we have an administration whose ethos is not social solidarity — rather, stirring up divisions and mutual hatreds, and led by the most self-serving man on Earth. A bad choice we’d made.

His supporters are unnervingly oblivious to the seriousness of unleashing those demons of human nature. Like foolish children, playing with fire, heedless of the profound consequences. Blithely condoning the shredding of cultural norms and standards that took centuries to build up.

I knew we were in trouble when “grab them by the pussy” did not end a presidential candidacy. Suddenly, we’d become a different country.

We’ve always had racism, xenophobia, and other hatreds, but never so legitimized. We’ve always had dishonesty and lying. But never like this, a war against the very concept of truth. We’ve always had thirst for political power, but never such willingness to subvert democracy and rule-of-law for it. There’s always been corruption, viciousness, cruelty. But never like this, at the top, a collapse of civic decency. Taken all together, degrading every virtue America used to embody.

Virtues all the more sorely missed in today’s crisis. With Trump’s daily “briefings” of misinformation, press-bashing, and self-glorification, telling us mainly what a tremendous job he imagines he’s doing. Endlessly repeating the word “tremendous” may gull people who don’t know better. His claque will sneer I’m just venting my Trump hatred. Well, I had a very bad opinion of Governor Cuomo too — yet recognize Cuomo’s exemplary leadership in this crisis. The contrast against Trump’s asininity couldn’t be more stark. 

Any rational person can see the reality. Trump true believers’ refusal to, even in this extremis, is stunning. They’re devotees of a cult that blinds them. People are often suckers for venerating a god, a messianic figure. Here they’ve got a doozy. Evil always exerts a strange attraction. So, more pedestrianly, does strength, or an illusion of it. Thus the appeal of military strongmen. Vile behavior, and getting away with it, plays to that, a potent macho brew more bracing than what’s seen as weak tea on the other side. And dupes of this cult are also blinded by their own demons: immigrants, foreigners, other religions and ethnicities; the media and other “elites;” the whole Democratic party.* It’s a mess of pottage for which they’ve sold their souls to a real devil. No good can come from this depraved bargain.

Power never makes bad men better. Trump is a very bad man, and we keep giving him more power. Impeachment acquittal left him with almost unchecked power. He soon made clear he’s drunk with it. What would re-election do?

Polls show about half of Americans still approve of this monster. People who wrap themselves in a flag of patriotism but have lost all sense of the country’s meaning. Have lost their minds.

This is more than just politics. America can survive Coronavirus but not another Trump term.

*Who, unlike Republicans, have kept their heads in responsibly choosing a moderate, decent, honest, experienced presidential candidate, rejecting radical alternatives.

 

Coronavirus realities

March 24, 2020

Trump, having previously said the economic shutdown could last till August, now wants a return to normalcy much sooner. (Much sooner than medical experts recommend.)

Actually we’re only just beginning to see how bad things are. The Economist’s latest issue (as usual) provides much clarity.

COVID-19 is very contagious, and the containment measures look too little too late because the virus is already very widespread. The swiftly rising number of reported cases is likely just the tip of an iceberg. Many infected people don’t show symptoms right away, if ever, but meantime can infect others.

Our efforts might, in a couple of weeks, appear to bend the curve down. But the problem is that a majority of the population won’t have been infected, hence won’t have developed immunity, and the virus won’t have disappeared from the landscape. This means that after Trump declares victory and restrictive measures are relaxed, the virus will likely spike back up — necessitating a reimposition of restrictions. “This on-off cycle,” says The Economist, “must be repeated until either the disease has worked through the population or there is a vaccine which could be months away, if one works at all.”

This virus, while new, is not a fundamentally different creature from others of its ilk, so in principle previous methods to create vaccines should succeed. But before then, most of our population could contract the illness. As we know, most would have only minor symptoms, or none. But even a death rate below 1% could still be expected to kill a million or two.

Of course, besides a vaccine, a medicine to treat the illness would change everything. While some candidates are being tested, we don’t have a treatment yet.

Note that — barring the virus’s complete eradication (practically impossible) — the more effective a shutdown is in preventing infections, the worse will be the second wave, after the relaxation, because the virus will have so many potential new victims without immunity. The Imperial College in London built a set of models (reported by The Economist) showing this effect after five months of restrictions. If they included schools, the second wave is even more severe. (China may soon be putting this to the test.) Governments need to be candid about this prospect, instead of encouraging us to imagine the whole thing will just go away in due course.

I have argued that we really have no choice but to accept severe economic pain to avoid a nightmare scenario of a health system unable to handle a flood of illnesses so that many thousands die simply from lack of care. That’s starting to look likely despite our best efforts. Realize not just coronavirus victims will be affected — hospitals won’t be able to treat accidents, heart attacks, anything else. And, says The Economist, “the bitter truth is that [those containment efforts] may be economically unsustainable. After a few iterations governments might not have the capacity to carry businesses and consumers. Ordinary people might not tolerate the upheaval. The cost of repeated isolation, measured by mental well-being and the long-term health of the rest of the population, might not justify it.”

An agonizing dilemma. But The Economist also says it can be mitigated by a massive testing regime and use of technology to trace contacts and identify who really needs quarantining. As South Korea and China have done.

Trump keeps patting himself on the back for his early restrictions on travel from China and, later, Europe. That may indeed have helped slow the virus’s spread. However, it was already underway before the travel bans, so it was delusional to think they solved the problem. What was really needed was what South Korea did — again, massive testing, right away.

But even to this day, we’re still not doing that. Still only starting to ramp up toward it.

As The Economist’s “Lexington” columnist (on American affairs) writes, this testing inadequacy at least partly owes to the Trump administration’s “decision to scrap the NSC’s dedicated pandemic unit” (established under Obama). He also points to its “sticking with a faulty viral test when the WHO could have provided a working alternative.” (As South Korea used. The tests mostly in use here now, still way too few, also don’t give results for up to ten days — almost useless in this fast-moving pandemic.) Lexington also points to overall White House dysfunctionality, and concludes: “a stunning catalog of failure.”

Add in Trump’s fountain of false and misleading information, which delayed most Americans’ taking the problem seriously. Last Wednesday he belatedly invoked the Defense Production Act, enabling government to require industries to produce stuff needed in an emergency. We’re desperately short on respirators and protective gear. But just signing an order, with Trump’s posturing flamboyance, actually produces nothing, absent follow-through. And it is absent. Trump seems to imagine he’ll nevertheless make the needed items magically appear.

Trump (never able to admit error) now claims he knew very early this would be a pandemic. Contradicting his own previous statements. And begging the question: if he knew so early, why was our response, particularly on testing, so dilatory?

The harsh truth: South Korea’s infection began exactly the same time as ours. Had we done what South Korea did, we might have avoided the need for economic restrictions as extreme as those now in force, which may well fail anyway. And avoided literally trillions in costs and losses and untold human suffering. And of course a vast number of deaths soon to occur.

Trump bears terrible blame for this catastrophe. As do Americans who voted for such a person.

Suppose there were some disease that would somehow disproportionately take out Republicans. Well, here it is. They do tend to be much older on average. But moreover, many Trump fans who took on board his early pooh-poohing of the virus still treat it less seriously than even he does now; thus are more likely to expose themselves to infection and death.

On the other hand, this thing is bollixing up voting, and Republicans will take advantage to make casting ballots harder — especially for Democrats. We must be vigilant lest our democracy be another casualty of COVID-19.

COVID-19: How much is a life worth?

March 22, 2020

Watching news reports about the economic devastation, my wife said the unsayable: “This isn’t worth it.”

The economic disaster is not from people falling ill, but the aversive measures. They’re hurting huge numbers very badly. Is this worth it? Would it entail less suffering to just let COVID-19 run its course? Many millions would get sick, but for the vast majority it would be minor. Only a fairly small percentage would die. Common flu annually sickens tens of millions and kills tens of thousands.

Dr. Fauci (a real hero) was asked why we’re taking extreme measures for COVID-19, but not for common flu. He didn’t have much of an answer — basically that common flu is, well, common, and COVID-19 is not. It’s also called “novel coronavirus.” Novelty grabs attention that the familiar doesn’t.

Suppose, if unchecked, COVID-19 would kill a million Americans, even several million. Fighting it costs many trillions. Governments will lose tax revenues and spend several trillion on bailouts and economic aid. Individuals, collectively, will lose even more in reduced incomes; personal wealth is already shredded. A trillion is a million million. So the fight is costing us quite a few million for every life saved.

How much is a life worth? That might sound like a crass question, or an unanswerable one. But in reality we answer it all the time, in many contexts. For example, when juries decide what dollar damages to award in “wrongful death” lawsuits. More pertinent here, public policy is forced to answer it when weighing the costs of any health and safety measures against the benefits.

Take pollutants. We might be able to remove 99% of a pollutant at a cost that’s pretty reasonable for every resulting life saved. But to get the last 1% out might cost a lot more — too much in relation to the few additional lives that would save. We recognize that lives have value, but not infinite value.

That’s not callous but rational simply because resources are not infinite either. The money spent to eradicate that last 1% of a pollutant would mean less money for other things — which could save more lives. Imperfect humans don’t always make these choices with perfect rationality, but we intuitively grasp the point and act accordingly in at least a general way.*

Economists can analyze all these instances in which, explicitly or implicitly, we put a value on a human life, and calculate a number. It’s been done. The answer seems to be somewhere in the range of a million or two.

But are some lives worth more than others? One could note that most COVID-19 deaths are elderly and frail, not long for this world anyway, so the loss is arguably much less than for a youngster with many years ahead. Wrongful death cases often entail estimating what the deceased might have gone on to earn. This was taken into account by the 9/11 compensation fund. But for all the logic of trying to put a number on a life’s value, such an earnings-based approach seems faulty. That views lives as economic assets for others. Whereas the value of people’s lives is primarily to themselves.

A homeless person’s life is not worth less to them than a billionaire’s. And don’t be quick to say the latter derives more enjoyment from living. Many homeless people are happier than many billionaires.

What I’ve written here is shaped by my humanist philosophy. Which tells us to apply reason to human problems. And that human life (as Vince Lombardi said of winning) “is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

Those two precepts might seem to clash in a dilemma like COVID-19. That’s far from unique in human affairs. The value of human life — of any single human life — is ultimately an ineffable thing. But respect for it is the cornerstone of humanism. That is why we are doing what we are doing to contain COVID-19. We cannot do otherwise, even if the cost seems disproportionate.

With common flu (and all other normal threats to life), we’re set up to provide medical care to those who need it; recognizing that some will die even with everything done for them. We’re not similarly equipped to deal with a spike of COVID-19 victims in the millions. Hospitals and medical personnel would be overwhelmed, unable to cope. Great numbers of people would die simply for lack of care. A horrific scenario that would sear all our souls. To avoid that is why we’re trying to “flatten the curve,” so everyone will at least get proper medical help. We may yet actually fail.

This is about who we are as a society, as human beings. We cannot let ourselves say that the lives of some people — frail aged people — are of lesser value, and we can just kiss them off. That would put us on a road whose destination we know all too well.

* Economist Robert Frank has said there’s actually an optimal amount of dirt in your house. Up to a point, cleaning is worth it, but the effort to banish the last speck of dirt is not.

Leadership and attitude in a crisis

March 21, 2020

In this crisis, daily White House press briefings with professionals like Dr. Fauci are good. Trump being there is not. Maybe he fantasizes he looks leaderlike. But one commentator said what we see is less leadership than “attitude.” That’s putting it nicely. Even in this dire crisis Trump can’t leave aside his personal demons.

Press-bashing continues apace. He opened one briefing relishing how “nice” it was to see fewer reporters. When PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor asked him about his having disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic response unit, he called it a “nasty question” and claimed he knew nothing about it. (Previously he’d falsely blamed it on Obama — who’d in fact established the unit.) Though its disbanding was a key factor in our still being way behind the curve on testing, for that Trump said he took “no responsibility at all.” South Korea, whose infection began exactly when ours did, was able to swiftly deploy massive testing, with great results in curbing the spread. We’re also woefully short on protective gear and ventilators. The coming weeks are looking horrific.

Then Friday saw an unseemly shouting match between Trump and reporters, after he went off because Peter Robinson had the temerity to ask what he could say to Americans “who are scared.” Actually a classic softball. Yet somehow Trump considered this “a very nasty question,” calling Robinson “a terrible reporter,” giving Americans “a very bad signal.”

The stock market promptly plunged — unnerved to be reminded that, in this crisis, our president is a deranged ass.

Only WE Can Fix It: Speech by Joe Biden

March 19, 2020

In the past I’ve written speeches for politicians, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — tongue-in-cheek speeches they’d never give. But now I’ve written one for Joe Biden that’s for real. It’s my channeling him, with words he could really say. (In fact, I’ve sent it along to Biden’s campaign manager.) Here it is:

 

Today we face an extraordinary crisis.

Four years ago a presidential candidate stood before us and painted a dark picture. “I alone can fix it,” he said.

He was wrong, in every way. Wrong in his fearmongering description of America then. Like calling crime out of control, when in fact it had been steadily falling for twenty years.

Secondly, he was wrong about his own capabilities. He couldn’t fix anything.

But most importantly, it’s wrong for any American leader to say “I alone can fix it.” That’s what a would-be dictator says. A would-be messiah. That’s not what we need; least of all a man with such delusions of grandeur. Our problems only WE can fix.  We Americans, working together. But we do need real leadership — to lead us in thusly joining together to tackle our challenges.

We sure don’t have that now. President Trump gives occasional lip service to unity while he cynically stokes and exploits our divisions. And that divisiveness is really our biggest problem, because it prevents dealing with all others. We can’t solve anything together in the midst of scorched-earth partisan war and mutual hatreds.

So here is my number one pledge to you, my fellow Americans: to do my utmost to work to heal our divisions. I have no naïve illusions about this, it’s an incredibly tough problem. Our partisan tribal bitterness is deeply entrenched. Feelings are intense. Many in each tribe think the other is not just wrong but evil, a threat to all that’s good and holy; and happy talk won’t solve this. But, my God, we have to find our way to rise above it.

One place to start, at least, is to turn down the volume. Restore civility and basic human decency. No more nasty nicknames and taunting tweets. And let me be clear about this: it’s obvious President Trump governs only for his “base” of supporters and cares not a fig for anyone else; but I intend to be president of all  of America. I never want to hear the word “base” again.

We must remember that we still actually have far more in common than what divides us. And the vast majority of Americans, including Republicans, of course are not evil, but are good honest people, sincere in wanting policies that serve our national interests and give us good lives. We just disagree on how to get there. Having a democracy means living alongside people not like you, accepting that their opinions differ, they have a right to those opinions, to argue for them in public debate, and sometimes even to win politically. That’s democracy.

It also means that very often, to reach solutions, we have to compromise with each other. I have a long history of being able to work together with people I disagreed very strongly with. I’ve actually been criticized for that. But it’s not abandoning principles, not being wimpy or surrendering; it’s how to get at least some of what you want, address problems, and move forward. President Lyndon Johnson liked to quote the Bible: “Come, let us reason together.”

Some years ago our postal service issued a stamp with a picture of a lamp saying, “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” Those two do go hand-in-hand — reasoning together requires knowing what’s really true and what’s not.

This is especially a problem nowadays because of course we’re bombarded with falsehoods. And I am not  talking about the mainstream news media. President Trump once candidly told a reporter that he smears journalists and accuses them of “fake news” so that when bad stuff about him comes out it won’t be believed. Mainstream news media make tremendous efforts to report the truth, and correct the record when they make mistakes. Much unlike President Trump, who wages war on the very concept of truth and has never admitted a mistake in his life.

All this makes it impossible to reason together and deal realistically with our problems. A nationwide poll recently showed 60% of Americans do not trust President Trump about the coronavirus. He has no credibility about anything, and for good reason. Here we’re in one of the greatest crises we’ve ever faced, and if we can’t trust our president about it, I hardly need to spell out how damaging that is.

So here is my second basic pledge: truthfulness. I will always be honest with you.

Now frankly, I know I’ve been called a “gaffe machine.” Somebody once defined a gaffe as accidentally blurting the truth. But seriously, a national candidate has to do a lot of talking, and making zero mistakes is impossible. Like any human, I sometimes misremember things, and my mouth can run ahead of my brain. But I will never deliberately bend the facts or mislead you. If I make an error, I will correct it. If appropriate, I will apologize. In all humility, I’ve done it plenty of times.

So those are my two most basic promises: to do all I possibly can to heal our divisions, and to always be truthful. I realize the words “promises” and “politician” are viewed together with a certain cynicism. But the promises I’m talking about here are not political promises. They are personal. Personal commitments, from my heart, to you, my fellow citizens, about what kind of president, what kind of human being,  I’m striving to be.

America has experienced terrible division before. But even as the Civil War loomed, Abraham Lincoln — the great Republican president — in his First Inaugural Address, still tried to summon “the better angels of our nature.” He could not prevent the war, which killed 600,000 Americans. But even as that bloody war continued, nearing its conclusion, President Lincoln called upon us “to bind up the nation’s wounds,” “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Lincoln believed in America. He believed profoundly in the idea of America. The principles, the values, the ideals that this country represents. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. All created equal, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. E Pluribus Unum — one nation out of many. Truth and reason. With malice toward none, with charity for all.

It is to unite us — to reunite us — in dedication to these principles, values and ideals that I seek to be your president. I humbly ask all Americans to join with me. I will need your help. I alone can’t fix it.

Artificial Intelligence and our ethical responsibility

March 16, 2020

(A virus-free and Trump-free post. (At least until I added this.))

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was originally conceived as replicating human intelligence. That turns out to be harder than once thought. What is rapidly progressing is deep machine learning, with resulting artificial systems able to perform specific tasks (like medical diagnosis) better than humans. That’s far from the integrated general intelligence we have. Nevertheless, an artificial system for the latter may yet be inevitable in the future. Some foresee a coming “singularity” when AI surpasses human intelligence and then takes over its own further evolution. Which changes everything.

Much AI fearmongering warns this could be a mortal threat to us. That superior AI beings could enslave or even eliminate us. I’m extremely skeptical toward such doomsaying; mainly because AI would still be imprisoned under human control. (“HAL” in 2001 did get unplugged.) Nevertheless, AI’s vast implications raise many ethical issues, much written about too.

One such article, with a unique slant, was by Paul Conrad Samuelsson in Philosophy Now magazine. He addresses our ethical obligations toward AI.

Start from the question of whether any artificial system could ever possess a humanlike conscious self. I’ve had that debate with David Gelernter, who answered no. Samuelsson echoes my position, saying “those who argue against even the theoretical possibility of digital consciousness [disregard] that human consciousness somehow arises from configurations of unconscious atoms.” While Gelernter held that our neurons can’t be replicated artificially, I countered that their functional equivalent surely can be. Samuelsson says that while such “artificial networks are still comparatively primitive,” eventually “they will surpass our own neural nets in capacity, creativity, scope and efficiency.”

And thus attain consciousness with selves like ours. Having the ability to feel — including to suffer.

I was reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s argument against animal cruelty: regardless of whatever else might be said of animal mentation, the dispositive fact is their capacity for suffering.

Samuelsson considers the potential for AI suffering a very serious concern. Because, indeed, with AI capabilities outstripping the human, the pain could likewise be more intense. He hypothesizes a program putting an AI being into a concentration camp, but on a loop with a thousand reiterations per second. Why, one might ask, would anyone do that? But Samuelsson then says, “Picture a bored teenager finding bootlegged AI software online and using it to double the amount of pain ever suffered in the history of the world.”

That may still be far-fetched. Yet the next passage really caught my attention. “If this description does not stir you,” Samuelsson writes, “it may be because the concept of a trillion subjects suffering limitlessly inside a computer is so abstract to us that it does not entice our empathy. But this itself shows us” the problem. We do indeed have a hard time conceptualizing an AI’s pain as remotely resembling human pain. However, says Samuelsson, this is a failure of imagination.

Art can help here. Remember the movie “Her?” (See my recap: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/her-a-love-story/)

Samantha, in the film, is a person, with all the feelings people have (maybe more). The fact that her substrate is a network of circuits inside a computer rather than a network of neurons inside a skull is immaterial. If anything, her aliveness did finally outstrip that of her human lover. And surely any suffering she’s made to experience would carry at least equal moral concern.

I suspect our failure of imagination regarding Samuelsson’s hypotheticals is because none of us has ever actually met a Samantha. That will change, and with it, our moral intuitions.

AI rights are human rights.

Responsibility

March 15, 2020

“Leadership: Whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible.”

—— Trump, tweeting in 2013, slamming Obama)

“No, I don’t take responsibility at all.”

—— Trump at Friday’s event, asked about the disgraceful testing lag)

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! And the chickens come home to roost

March 13, 2020

 

The end of the world. Everything shut down, cancelled, locked down.

This is what we get when we elect a government of clowns. Trump’s response has been largely the usual: keep out foreigners. Tax cuts. Self-congratulation. Demonizing Democrats. And of course lies. He said everyone could get tested when that was blatantly false. He’s blamed Obama for disbanding our pandemic response team, when it was Trump himself who disbanded it.

He did give a scripted teleprompter speech. But written by the likes of Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, so it was a misleading mush of misinformation that required swift correction. Thus, intended to reassure, it fueled the panic, financial markets collapsing the next day.

Nothing in Trump’s speech called upon Americans to join together, and to shoulder some sacrifices, in a national effort to confront this crisis. (He said about three such words today.)

My previous post on coronavirus was read by some as belittling the problem. No. I did discuss how humans often aren’t rational about threats and dangers, and questioned why we don’t go nuts like this every flu season which sickens 30+ million Americans and kills tens of thousands. Coronavirus could get that bad, or worse. But, so far at least, it has not. We should act strongly to prevent it.

Cancelling and closing down everything looks like the wrong response. In terms of bang-for-the-buck it seems very inefficient and wasteful, because the societal and economic cost is huge, while (again, so far) it appears only one person out of thousands is infected. We don’t handle seasonal flu this way, despite a far higher percentage of carriers among us.

The emphasis should instead be on targeting those likeliest to harbor the virus, by testing them, and quarantining people testing positive. Testing not only ones with symptoms but anyone having had contact with known carriers.* This means a massive crash program to manufacture and distribute test kits and organize a testing infrastructure. Yesterday.

The Trump administration started off way behind the curve on testing, and didn’t (appear to) finally get serious about it until the press conference just hours ago. (Even there Trump seemed to actually discourage people from getting tested.) It’s because we weren’t prepared to deploy that preferred testing method for containing the illness that forces resorting to the very second-best alternative of closing and cancelling myriad public events.

It’s said that when the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked. We always knew there’d be some crisis showing up what Trump is.

Cocksure Trumpers have long sneered at Democrats’ chances of beating him, banging on about how the wonderful economy assures his re-election. I generally wouldn’t respond; what will be will be. Well, the economy is now shot.

This was before Coronavirus. Trump’s campaign fired its pollster

Yet at least one comment as late as Thursday still jeered at Biden. Such divorcement from reality seems greater than ever. America can’t be so deranged as to re-elect Trump now.

* One of whom is Trump. He dodges and resists being tested. What a terrible personal example.