The trouble with democracy

May 23, 2017

Democracy has always been central to my political philosophy. For all other modes by which some person or group rules, one must ask: by what right? By what right, for example, does China’s Communist Party reign? “The mandate of Heaven,” China’s ancient concept justifying rulership, is a mystical affront to reason. Citizen acquiescence might be invoked, but what can that mean without real choice? China’s reality — demonstrated in 1989 — is rule at gunpoint.

This is the problem of legitimacy. Another is accountability. Without it, you get the arrogance of power, corruption, oppression. All this undermines societal cohesion. We evolved for social cooperation because that boosted group survival. But communal loyalty is eroded when people are governed without consent.

However, what if voters themselves act to undermine society, by making terrible choices? As they have lately done in Britain, Turkey, Poland, and America of course. Philippine voters elected a murderer president, who has sanctioned thousands of extra-judicial killings. In France’s presidential first round, the one sensible choice (my opinion) managed less than 24% of the vote.

Philippine President Duterte

This wasn’t always such a problem. Sure, demagogues and bad ideas are nothing new. But, especially in advanced countries at least, voters used to take their civic responsibilities somewhat seriously. Extremism was shunned. Fringe parties remained on the fringes. And character counted. America’s first 44 presidents were not all great, but number 45 would, in past times, never even have passed the laugh test.

So has something important changed in modern society? We’ve long heard a lot about “anomie,” modern life divorcing people from the wholeness of harmony with nature — or some such folderol. Rubbish, I used to think. But maybe something of the sort does underlie this voting behavior.

“Social capital” refers to the intangible ways people relate to one another that make society work. Trust is a key element. It’s trusting that the stranger on the street won’t pull a knife and rob you. That when you buy something you’ll get what you pay for. That societal institutions, government most importantly, will function more or less as they’re supposed to. Of course none of this can be infallible. However, these are the default assumptions of underlying trust that shape our participation in society.

But surveys show people’s trust toward others is declining. Note that it’s not people being less trustworthy than in the past. It’s just that many of us think they are. Yet this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if it makes folks behave in ways that contribute to an overall atmosphere of lesser trust. Meantime, social trust is partly learned. With repeated positive interactions with others, you build up a basic attitude of trustingness. But modern life is reducing face-to-face interactions, with social media, video gaming, and people staring at screens cutting down time spent in the physical company of others.

People also used to be more willing to trust and, frankly, defer to the judgments of those they acknowledged as being their betters, including public officials, experts, business leaders, educators, scientists, and other elites. But that kind of deference has been eroded not only by less trust in general, but also by a reigning ethos of egalitarianism. The idea that every human being has equal dignity and worth is great. Yet it leads many people to imagine their own opinions (no matter how ill-informed) should carry weight equal to anyone else’s. Especially when opportunistic politicians flatter those opinions.

It all comes together. Declining social trust makes people less willing to defer not only toward elites but toward what is seen as the greater communal good. Social solidarity is impaired by an egalitarianism that exalts the individual and validates one’s own needs, desires and, yes, prejudices. Falling trust in institutions extends to sources of information, with society no longer having widely accepted arbiters of truth. Now everybody can have their own truth. No wonder voting behavior has changed.

This includes less voting, too, worldwide — especially by younger people. At fault may be disappearing civics education, and politics turning them off. Polls show declining belief in the value of democracy. Perhaps it’s also growing solipsism. People today expect to be entertained. Voting is not a fun thing, but a communitarian act; you know one vote won’t determine the outcome, but represents participation. Declining participation undermines democratic legitimacy, contributing to a vicious circle of disengagement. Trump’s vote was only 27% of the eligible total. (And he would not have won, nor would Brexit, had younger people voted equally with older ones.)

Churchill famously said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried. This is being tested. But I’m not ready to give up. And Venezuelans today are battling to save their democracy. At least some people still get it. Elected governments, alone, still have a good answer to the “by what right” question.

What is to be done?

May 19, 2017

Around January I wrote about some friends saying, “It’s worse than we expected,” and I said it’s not worse than I expected, because what I expected was very bad.

Well, OK, now it’s worse than even I expected. I thought Trump would better control his irresponsible impulses. Can we endure another 44 months of this?

Forget impeachment. Not gonna happen. Even if the House goes Democratic in 2018 (still unlikely), and he’s impeached, you’d need 67 Senate votes. Dems now have only 48 and can’t increase that much in 2018.

The 25th Amendment allows sidelining a president if the VP and a majority of the cabinet certify his incapacity. But if he resists, then it requires a 2/3 vote in both houses to override him. So forget that too.

Nixon was forced out basically because the whole nation turned against him for what he’d done. It was a different country then. One where Republicans could put country above party. One that was unforgiving toward politicians caught lying or otherwise transgressing — maybe even too unforgiving. But that’s turned upside down. Trump saying he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes was (uncharacteristically) truthful.

And, indeed, through the train wreck of his first four months, full of lies, blunders and misdeeds that in past times would have sunk any politician ten times over, Trump’s core supporters have hardly budged. I guess if you can excuse the pussygrabbing, you can excuse anything.

What might shake them? Maybe nothing. They believe Trump that all the bad news is fake, and he’s doing great. Trumpeters have made a psychological commitment not open to reason (like their belief in a benevolent god). And as long as Trump retains that diehard support from a third of the electorate, few Congressional Republicans will have the intestinal fortitude to do anything but go along. They’re circling the wagons. That’s why he won’t be removed.

I used to bemoan political polarization and each side’s demonization of their opponents. And I considered the left more guilty than the right. But that’s different now too. When Democrats and lefties demonize Trump and Republicans today, there’s ample justification. If anything, they don’t come on too strong, but not strong enough.

Trump’s problems aren’t really White House disarray, bad messaging, press unfairness, “fake news,” simple bungling, a “witch hunt,” or any such. Instead it’s all character: a vile creep, who sought the presidency for all the wrong reasons, who is out of his depth and out of his mind.

America is full of wonderful people. It kills me that we elected as president such a stinker.

His supporters bizarrely continue the mantra that Hillary was the biggest liar in politics, while Trump seems incapable of not lying. But it’s not just a matter of one man’s mental sickness. It’s shredding the whole concept of truth, trying to destroy confidence in an independent press as an information source. Without that, the public cannot hold government and its officials to account; and without that, meaningful democracy is impossible.

The seriousness of the situation can hardly be overstated. I’ve closely studied American political life for over half a century, and this is a discontinuity. A change from one paradigm to a very different one. A downward cultural lurch. And I don’t see the toothpaste being put back in the tube.

Macron

Is my optimism dead? France has meantime decisively rejected — by a 66% vote! — a Trumplike candidate, electing instead Emmanuel Macron, a remarkably good man moved by excellent ideas. He now faces a terrific battle against entrenched interests. But who ever imagined I’d look to France for political inspiration?

I renounce my Republicanism

May 14, 2017

I have been a Republican for 53 years. I have served as an elected party official; have run campaigns and run for office as a Republican; was appointed by President Nixon to a federal commission. Republicanism has been part of my personal identity.

I came by it the hard way, not by inheritance. I grew up in a Democratic family, in a Democratic neighborhood, in FDR’s afterglow. The party seemed to represent bland conventional wisdom. Until the 1964 Goldwater campaign gave me something stronger: fierce principles that felt right to me. I became a political activist. And not just a Republican, but a very conservative Republican.

The national and global issues were, of course, important. But Tip O’Neill’s dictum, “all politics is local,” supervened when I came to Albany in 1970. In place of somewhat abstract opposition to distant evils, I imbibed the heady brew of battling evil up close in my new home town, ruled by a corrupt old-time political machine. Here the Republican party was the avatar of civic virtue. This was a moral crusade (more about that here).

My period of intense political involvement ended when that crusade fizzled out. Yet my allegiance to the party’s basic ideals and principles continued.

And then, starting around 1980, the GOP got religion. It’s hard to remember now, but previously religion played very little role in what the party represented. Most Republicans may have been religious, but that was separate from politics. God was rarely mentioned. The Republicanism that originally attracted me was grounded in reason, in the values of the Enlightenment, in a classical philosophical liberalism (a word American “liberals” wrongly co-opted), aimed at making a world in which all people can best thrive.

Religion undermines this. One cannot apply reason to the world’s problems while mistaking the fundamental nature of reality. Religion is magical thinking, and that has infected Republican politics. We see this in their comprehensive scientific denialism. But nothing better epitomizes magical thinking, divorced from reason and reality, than putting in the White House a bad man who is the antithesis of everything godly people supposedly honor.

And of course the policies the Republican party now stands for are unrecognizable to this veteran of ’64. It sure isn’t conservatism. (Which, among other things, was strongly anti-communist. Now we’re a veritable Russian satellite.) But actually the old categories of conservative versus liberal, right versus left, have become a muddle. Today’s real political divide is between open and closed orientations. It’s openness to trade, to markets, to immigrants, to human diversity, to change, to ideas, to facts. With an outward-looking America building a world of open societies. Republicans flunk on all counts.

But my disaffection from Republicanism is more a matter of culture and values than policies or ideology. Those are trumped by the principles of rationalism, responsibility, just plain decency, and, in a word, humanism. Republicans and their regime trash all of it. Their xenophobia, ethnic nationalism, fondness for dictators, callousness and moralistic hypocrisy are repellent. They’re drenched in lies. They shred basic American values. They’re a freak show, disgracing the country.

Remember, this is not a Democrat talking, but a lifelong Republican — one not blinded (like most) by partisanship.

I have plenty of ideological problems with today’s Democrats and the Left (as expressed on this blog). But they are more humanistic. Their ideas about economics and social justice are often barmy, but at least they are genuinely concerned with human values, and at least their feet are planted, more or less, on this Earth. At least they mostly respect truth and reason (though freedom of expression not so much). They are serious and responsible. I like them better as people. Republicans’ behavior has become thoroughly hateful to me.

Are they irredeemable? For a long while now, it’s been asked when sane, public-minded Republicans would finally get it together and stand against Trump. Well, forget it, there just aren’t enough John McCains in the GOP. (And even McCain, whose heroism was smeared by Trump, nevertheless endorsed him.) No, Republicans, almost unanimously, have drunk the Kool-Aid.

(And, in their eyes, have been rewarded. The party has more power now than at any time since the 1920s. Even though Democrats actually have more voter support; Republican control is due to the Senate and electoral college math disproportionately empowering smaller and less urban states, and to gerrymandered House districts. But this doesn’t temper Republican triumphalist hubris.)

And so, after much agonizing, in recognition of today’s reality, I can no longer call myself a Republican. It’s not the party I joined. I must cut out that part of my selfhood. But I cannot join the Democrats’ own misguided leftward march.* I am cast out into the political wilderness.

I am not alone there. But most of the country remains stuck in the two hostile partisan camps. It’s a very destructive syndrome, with no cure I can see.

* “Socialism” has been pronounced dead even in France!

Trump – Comey – Russia

May 10, 2017

“Russia” was the first thing I thought of when hearing that Trump had fired FBI Director Comey. (On the PBS Newshour, devoting its first half to the story, Russia wasn’t mentioned till the 28th minute.)

Trump didn’t like Comey’s refuting his lie that Obama wiretapped him. But the fake-news reason given for the firing is the supposed inappropriateness of Comey’s announcement last summer that Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted. Not that she should have been; it’s Comey’s explaining that was supposedly improper. Really?

This is especially bizarre considering it was Comey’s late October announcement, that the Clinton investigation was being reopened, that really did seem improper. It almost certainly changed the election outcome. Which notion Comey now says makes him “mildly nauseous.” Only mildly?

Piling on more bizarrity is Trump’s assertion, in his letter firing Comey, that Comey had told him he’s not under investigation. Which may well be untrue, but in any case should be irrelevant to Comey’s firing. But of course Trump is mentally ill.

However, the main point is that this is surely all about the FBI’s investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election meddling. That the meddling happened is incontrovertible (and an extremely serious matter). Putin hated Hillary and wanted Trump to win mainly because he (unlike Trump voters) understood how much a Trump presidency would damage America. But the real FBI question is whether Trump operatives criminally conspired with the Russians. Fear of that answer led Trump to fire Comey.

Trump claims to have acted to restore public confidence in the FBI. What utter bullshit. Now he can appoint a toady FBI Director who will stifle the Russia investigation. A great way to restore public confidence.

Arguably, in fact, this constitutes obstruction of justice, a criminal offense (and grounds for impeachment).

Why so many blacks in ads?

May 8, 2017

One morning at breakfast I said to my wife, “Does T.J. Maxx especially cater to blacks?”

“Not that I know of. Why?”

“Well, they have a big ad in the paper showing two black women.”

“That’s not unusual. Lots of ads do that.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m noticing. Why do you suppose they do that?”

We are often told that America is still a fundamentally racist society. Not all, or even most, Trump voters are racist. But his campaign did push racist buttons, and racial resentments and anxieties did play a big role. A lot of less educated working class whites were voting against minorities – with a feeling they’re getting more than their due (to the detriment of those whites), and that a less white America is a worse America.

Yet since I noticed that T.J. Maxx ad, I’ve made a point of tallying blacks in ads and commercials. And in fact they are way overrepresented, relative to their 13+% population share. I even saw one TV ad with a white couple whose child looked kind of black. Of course, if you show a bunch of folks, you want to include some minorities. But what about ads with only one or two people, like T.J. Maxx’s? Let me offer a theory.

If this were indeed a racist society, where white people basically dislike, resent, and shun blacks, presumably no business would want to feature blacks in its ads. The purpose of advertising is to make a brand attractive. Advertisers must calculate that black faces actually do that.

Of course, the blacks shown in (modern) ads are not disadvantaged stereotypes; far from it, they are instead middle class people, speaking plain middle class English (not ethnic dialect), shown in typical middle class activities.

And while these ads don’t specifically target black customers, they certainly don’t target less educated working class Trumpites. That’s not at all the consumer demographic advertisers want to reach; those people are just disregarded. Instead, for a lot of ads, the target audience is better educated, more affluent and, especially, younger consumers. (Indeed, the content of some ads today must baffle older Archie Bunker viewers. Some baffle even me.) That yuppie demographic is where the consumer-spending money is. And for them, blackness is actually attractive; connoting coolness, hipness, with-it-ness, knowing what’s going on. Not inferior but superior. And to this demographic, an America fully integrating blacks is a better America. Putting them in ads hence creates a positive buzz.

Yet this is just one more way in which America is dividing into two very different cultures inhabiting the same body politic. How long can this split personality endure?

The decline of Western civilization and its values

May 4, 2017

David Brooks is my favorite commentator writing today. I don’t always agree with him — too much religion — but in most ways his head’s screwed on right and his work repays attention. A recent column crystallizes well my own global perspective.

Brooks starts by citing Will and Ariel Durant’s popular mid-20th century multi-volume opus, The Story of Civilization. It was really the narrative of Western civilization and the values undergirding its flourishing, including reasoned discourse, property rights, and a belief in human progress. I would add accountable democratic government, open markets, and scientific inquiry. It was the emergence of these Enlightenment ideas that propelled the West’s phenomenal achievement in improving people’s quality of life.

But this narrative, especially in universities, has lost its mojo — intellectually speaking. People don’t read the Durants, or their like, any more. Indeed, the construct “Western civilization” has actually fallen into bad odor, as “a history of oppression.” Now we are being educated to distrust, rather than honor, what it means. “The great cultural transmission belt broke.”

This intellectual reversal has had huge real-world impacts. There have always been forces eager to tear down what the West stands for. But now the citadel has few defenders against these onslaughts. So we see the rise of “illiberal” strongmen — Putin, Erdogan, al-Sisi, Xi, Trump — who, unlike previous bad guys, don’t even give lip service to democratic Western values.

Turkey’s recent vote turned its back on them. Democracy is no longer seen as the wave of the future. In “advanced” nations, the center doesn’t hold. In Europe mainstream political parties lose ground to fringe ones with fierce ideologies. In America, where you’d expect universities to be redoubts of intellectual freedom, the opposite is seen — destruction of those values, as nonconforming voices are literally shouted down. America’s president (an historical ignoramus) cozies up to some of the world’s worst thugs.

“The basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals.” The percentage of young Americans polled who say it’s “absolutely important” to live in a democracy has dropped from 91% in the 1930s to only 57% today. In his campaign, “Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries” — and every norm of civic decency — and too few voters seemed to care.

Brooks sadly concludes that defenders of the great tradition of Western values are now down to “a few lonely voices.”

Count me one of them. I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2009 when those Western values — and rationality — still seemed ascendant. Today fools prance triumphant around bonfires of reason. I’ll end with Schiller’s words: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

Michael Flynn — Lock him up

May 1, 2017

Are we trapped in a very bad movie — or grotesque reality show?

Michael Flynn — whom President Pussygrabber said was treated very unfairly — after he himself fired him — had joined in chants of “Lock her up!” at the GOP convention.

Flynn was not fired for incompetence (like the previous time he was fired), nor for his insane Islamophobic rantings, but for lying. To Mike Pence. (Lying to the public, in this administration, is perfectly okay. Especially calling journalists liars when they report the truth.)

We have since learned that Flynn also concealed tens of thousands of dollars paid him for “work” for RT, the Russian TV station that’s Putin’s lie-spewing propaganda vehicle, and for a company linked to Turkey’s democracy-crushing regime. Why they’d hire such a creep is a mystery. It’s disgraceful that any American would sell himself to such nasty foreign thugs. Even more disgraceful that our president would associate with such a man, let alone appoint him national security advisor. But — as with Bill O’Reilly — maybe Pussygrabber actually thinks Flynn did nothing wrong. After all, Pussygrabber congratulated Turkey’s President Erdogan on having himself made dictator! (Erdogan, and a parade of other authoritarian rulers, like the Philippines’ literal murderer Duterte, have been invited to the White House.)

Manafort and crony

Meantime Flynn was not even the only Trump henchman literally on the Kremlin payroll. So was Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chief for a time. Manafort also worked for Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian Ukraine president, so corrupt and vile that Ukrainians threw him out.

And speaking of creeps, Trump has gushed his admiration for radio’s Alex Jones, who has to be just about the biggest all-around creep in today’s America. He called the Newtown shootings a hoax. And speaking of “just about,” Trump has called his first 100 days “just about the most successful” in U.S. history. He crowed that getting a Supreme Court justice confirmed in the first 100 days hadn’t been achieved since 1881. Didn’t mention this “achievement” was due to Republicans’ refusal to act for the past year.

But getting back to Flynn: now it’s further revealed that those payments he took apparently violated federal law. When retiring from the military in 2014, Flynn was explicitly warned against taking foreign government money without advance Pentagon approval. There’s no evidence he sought that waiver.

Lock him up.

Telling tough truths: J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

April 27, 2017

J. D. Vance is a young Yale law graduate, who rose from what he calls Kentucky hillbilly culture. Hillbilly Elegy is memoir-cum-sociology, aptly titled; an elegy expresses sorrow for human loss.

We’re not supposed to blame the poor for their poverty. Yet that’s just what Vance does, more or less. Though sometimes lyrical in his love for his people, he’s scathing in critiquing their social pathology.

That social pathology is often attributed to the rustbelt’s hollowing out of old time manufacturing jobs. Vance doesn’t buy it. True, the jobs picture is a big problem, but he sees it as greatly worsened by how his people have responded to it.

Some studies say less educated men work more than the educated classes. This too is rubbish, according to Vance. Such data is often based on asking people how much they work — but they lie. Too many of “his people” don’t do much work, Vance says, even if they do have jobs.

The introduction discusses an early job Vance had in a tile warehouse. A fellow employee was “Bob,” nineteen, with a pregnant girlfriend, who was also hired, as a clerical worker. These were good jobs, with excellent health benefits. But the two were chronically late or absent, and Bob spent much of the workday in lengthy “bathroom breaks.” Both were eventually fired. Bob was pissed.

So was Vance. For him, this tale exemplifies the fecklessness of such losers, always blaming others for predicaments really of their own making.

I’ve previously reviewed Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids, exploring the socioeconomic divide between better educated and less educated Americans, and the difficulties of moving from one milieu to the other. Vance’s memoir illustrates what Putnam was talking about.

A key factor is the decline of stable two-parent families. In past eras, poverty was much worse (like in the Depression, with far less government help), yet even poor people mostly married and stayed married. No longer. Family life among less educated people has become frequently shambolic, with women cycling through parades of often useless men. Vance’s mom did that. He couldn’t even figure out whom to count as siblings. She abused drugs too.

“This was my world,” he writes, “a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poor house . . . . [using] high-interest credit cards and payday loans . . . . Thrift is inimical to our being . . . . no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund . . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other . . . . At least one member of the family uses drugs . . . . we’ll hit and punch each other . . . . We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools — like peace and quiet at home — to succeed . . . . We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness or for stealing . . . . or the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute bathroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves . . . . ”

Vance explains how family dysfunction is handed down from generation to generation. It’s more than just people mirroring their parents’ example. There are adverse developmental effects, impairing kids’ later ability to negotiate all aspects of living, particularly in maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. Violent episodes in childhood trigger classic “fight or flight” responses which, when repeated enough, actually rewire one’s brain, making that stance a default mode — a chronically stressed and prickly mental state with, again, baleful effects on one’s future human relationships.

Vance would have fallen into the syndrome himself, but for “Mamaw” — his grandmother, who pretty much rescued him from life with his mother (her daughter). Mamaw was no paragon of virtue or refinement either, being a foul-mouthed product of the same culture — but of its earlier incarnation. A crucial difference: “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood, embodied another.” Mamaw gave Vance a stable, peaceful home, and helped him to see clearly a better path. He was able to shun all the kinds of dysfunction he writes about mainly because, with Mamaw, he was happy.

At least partially explaining all the social pathology is what Vance refers to as “learned helplessness.” (A concept developed by psychologist Martin Seligman.) People like “Bob” (of the tile job) act as they do because they don’t really see themselves as making choices. Instead it’s as though what happens to them is fate, beyond their control, so there is no point in making any kind of effort or resisting any inclination. Again, it’s blaming others, or the cosmos, for what befalls them. Overcoming this psychology, and developing a sense of personal agency, was a key element in Vance’s own rise to a better life.

Here’s another factor Vance discusses. Love of country — seriously — loomed large in his people’s lives. But that tie that bound them together as a community, akin to a religion, has been fraying too, succumbing to a deep distrust toward the nation’s institutions. Vance wrote before the 2016 election but these passages have great resonance for understanding today’s political picture. President Obama was seen as an alien; quintessentially the product of a social system that’s not working for Vance’s people. Indeed, Obama’s personal success was a mirror to their own failure. Conspiracy theories about him (like birtherism), and other such nonsense, gain credence when the mainstream media is one more societal institution no longer trusted. Politicians too, of course, are distrusted; while many of them promote the idea that the economy is rigged as well and, on the right, the idea that it’s all the government’s fault. A toxic contrapuntal. “You can’t believe these things,” Vance says, “and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance.” Vance’s people have lost their sense of belonging and loyalty to the American project.

We can yearn for some magic bullet to fix this; some government initiative perhaps. But Vance rejects that fantasy. Indeed, he sees past government efforts as part of the problem, talking about how hard-working people watch their tax dollars go to support, in these communities, an awful lot of others who don’t work, even buying things with food stamps those working folks can’t afford. This too undermines communitarian social solidarity; and Vance cites it as a key factor in his region’s political shift away from Democrats.

It all feeds into a basic attitude of existential pessimism. Most blacks and Hispanics, Vance notes, report optimism about their future; working class whites, not so much. And he sees that as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So this is a tale not of progress but of its opposite, regress. The humanist and optimist in me, looking at the broad global picture, over the centuries, sees a great human capability to progress, and great progress actually achieved. But it’s never locked in. We also have ample capability for squandering it and regressing.

So we come back to the question we started with.  How much, in the end, is people’s own fault? It’s the old question of luck versus pluck. I did a lot right in my own life, and could say it was brains and character, yet realize that having those characteristics was just luck. Vance confronts the issue with particular regard to his mother. He recognizes all the demons to which his mother was exposed. “But at some point . . . you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” That’s what he did with his own life. His book is powerful testimony to how hard it can be. Yet it also makes clear that Vance is not unique. Not seeing ourselves as hapless victims is the best of being human. We do not succumb; we surmount. 

The march for science

April 24, 2017

Quiz #1 — Who made this statement about Saturday’s march for science: “Rigorous science depends not on ideology but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate”?

a) Neil deGrasse Tyson
b) Bill Gates
c) Stephen Hawking
d) Donald Trump

The answer is (d).

Quiz #2 — Did the statement come from

a) His lips
b) His Twitter account
c) His pen
d) A spokesperson

The answer is (d).

Science is not just another belief system or “faith.” Belief and knowledge are two different things. One can say “Joe believes the earth is flat” but not “Joe knows the earth is flat.”

How we know things is called epistemology. Scientific knowledge comes from a rigorous process of deduction from observation and evidence, always open to correction through better observation and evidence. Belief has nothing to do with it.

You can believe the earth is flat, but through science we know it isn’t. You can even do fake science, cherrypicking bits of information (and making up a lot) to deny evolution, but real science knows it’s true.

You can similarly torture facts to deny climate change and/or humanity’s role in it. Or to see harm outweighing benefits in vaccination, or Genetic Modification. Pick your ideology; believe what you like. But if you prefer reality, try real science.

Photo of me at the march by Therese Broderick

Coin collecting

April 22, 2017

Sartre called coin collecting a hobby for dull old men. Well, I started collecting as a dull young man 60 years ago. I’ve been selling coins too, for more than half that time. But Sartre was wrong. I can hardly calculate how much numismatics has enriched my life (and not just financially, though that’s important). To say that it enhances one’s sense of history hardly begins to explain. It has been a great window onto the vast pageant of the human enterprise. The connections involved, with other actual humans, are rewarding too.

And the quest, the chase, is challenging and fun. One never knows what will turn up. Many coins are not cut-and-dried, but can entail all sorts of intriguing nuances.

Many suppose that if a coin is old it must be valuable. Not so. Remember that past epochs didn’t have credit or debit cards, checks, Paypal, etc; even paper money is a relatively recent invention. Before then, all money was in the form of coins – so they needed a lot of them. And tons of those coins (many thousands of tons) have actually come down to us (especially since the advent of metal detectors).

What this huge supply means is that you can acquire historically fascinating coins for very little money. How little? Many thousand-year-old coins can be had for a buck or two; even ancient Roman coins if you’re not fussy about quality. However, quite nice ones can be gotten for only $10 or $20, too.

Quality is in fact where a lot of the spice of numismatics lies. A coin can be very common and cheap in crappy condition but very rare and desirable if well preserved. The true connoisseur relishes this difference. I am frankly much the condition snob when it comes to my own collection. Yet I’m also a bottom feeder about price. Those might seem incompatible, but for me there lies the sport of the thing: trying to find good quality at good prices. (This paid off spectacularly when my Chinese collection was sold in a 2011 Hong Kong auction. Good coins brought very good prices but excellent ones brought insane prices.)

My Julia Domna sestertius

I have written before about collecting ancient Roman coins in particular. Recently I got a really nice quality sestertius (large bronze coin) of Julia Domna (wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, 193-211 AD). From a Swiss auction, it cost me about $550. I was very happy with it, replacing a not-so-great one in my collection, and I liked the price. I liked it even more when I researched it online and found that the same coin had been in a different Swiss sale just a year earlier, where it sold for $4,086! Evaluating ancient coins in particular can be very subjective, and such price variances make the game pretty darn interesting.

Ancient coins in more typical condition

Pricing is, of course, governed by the law of supply and demand. The vast majority of old coins are cheap because there are so many of them. What makes a coin rare is that there are few of them (duh), and if many collectors seek one, that drives prices up.

But the demand factor is not the same across the board, for all kinds of coins. This blog post was in fact prompted by my seeing, in a Dutch (Schulman) auction catalog, a 1697 Holland Leeuwandaalder (“Lion dollar”). These coins were issued in great numbers by numerous Dutch provinces for a long period, so in general they are quite inexpensive for large old silver coins, available for $100 or less. But this 1697 is the only one known from the province of Holland with that date.

1697 Lion Dollar

So how much is it worth? A comparable U.S. coin – suppose only one 1797 Dollar existed – would be worth millions, because many people collect U.S. Dollars by date. But how many collect Lion Dollars by date? Those people are almost as rare as that 1697 coin. It carried an auction estimate of just 500 Euros. That struck me as quite inexpensive for such a rarity. So did I put in a bid? No; because I doubted I could find a buyer.*

Yet still that’s a very exciting coin, and things like this are also part of what makes numismatics so much fun. It’s full of piquant byways. The longer I’m at it, the richer grows the experience.

* It wound up selling for 750 – with added fees, just about $1000.