Another normal day in the United States of Trump

January 20, 2018

A “government shutdown” is when the government can’t pay employees for working, so instead pays them for not working.

That’s the reality. Workers are sent home because there’s no Congressional authorization to pay their salaries. But because nobody wants to screw them out of much-needed income, once the “shutdown” ends they get their missing pay anyway. Paying for work not done costs taxpayers billions; the loss to the economy is billions more.

The shutdown is happening because Trump is holding DACA “dreamers” hostage to funding his wall (the one he promised Mexico would pay for). DACA concerns people brought to America as children, outside the legal immigration system, who have made their lives here. A strong majority of Americans wants them allowed to stay. The criminal cruelty of revoking their permission to stay is obvious (and it would damage our economy too). When in September Trump cancelled DACA he shed crocodile tears for these “dreamers” and said he wanted Congress to fix it. He was lying — as I said at the time.

The shutdown is happening because this celebrated author of The Art of the Deal* actually stinks at deal-making. Because his position changes by the minute, he doesn’t negotiate in good faith, doesn’t fulfill commitments, and nobody can trust anything he says. It’s his disordered mind. He was offered deals that would solve the DACA issue and avoid a shutdown. He refused.

Of course he blames Democrats — even though Republicans control all branches of the government. It’s just his normal modus operandi of lying, scapegoating, and name-calling. He plays the military card — as in “weak on borders, weak on crime, weak on the military” — nonsense he spews at any political opponent, knowing he can say absolutely anything and his supporters lap it up.

In other words, we’re having just another normal day in the United States of Trump.

* Ghost-written, actually, of course. When will he publish the sequel, The Art of the Lie?

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A nation of losers

January 18, 2018

America has long been embroiled in cultural and ideological wars, which if anything are intensifying. So — who’s winning? Nobody, if you listen to either side.

The left’s social justice warriors see the system as rigged by retrograde forces and for the rich against the rest; controlled by corporations and fatcats whose money buys politicians and power. They see an incorrigibly racist and homophobic nation too.

The right inhabits a mirror-image country: seen as coddling ethnic minorities, foreigners, and sexual deviants, controlled by a corrupt establishment selling out the nation’s interests and traditional values.

In other words, both sides see themselves as losing. Victimhood becomes an increasingly popular mindset. Columnist David Brooks notes a poll showing 64% of Americans see their group as losing most of the time. He calls it a “siege mentality” — which can actually feel kind of good. Like you’re a noble warrior making a stand against evil. Us against the world!

This actually explains a lot, especially about the right, which might otherwise seem puzzling. How could fundamentalist Christians countenance Trump’s lies, grotesqueries, and even “grab them by the pussy?” Or Roy Moore’s pedophilia? Brooks’s take: “When our very existence is on the line, we can’t be worrying about things like humility, sexual morality, honesty and basic decency. In times of war, all is permissible. Even molesting teenagers . . . .”

It helps if you can close your eyes to reality, telling yourself Trump doesn’t lie, it’s the news media (part of the establishment conspiracy) trying to do him down. And that even Roy Moore was a good, godly man, victimized by fake news.

Brooks laments that such attitudes only serve to marginalize their holders even more; so they don’t merely imagine themselves as losing, they really are losers. He adds that contempt for such people (“basket of deplorables”) also feels good — “But contempt only breeds contempt.” We should instead give each other the benefit of the doubt, he concludes.

I admit to the kind of contempt Brooks describes. Indeed, schadenfreude about Moore, pumping my fist when learning of another accuser, and of course when he lost. Yet I am deeply saddened and disturbed that so many of my fellow citizens’ heads are so far up their rears. Brooks calls for meeting them “with confident pluralism.” And after all, I did write a book touting “rational optimism.” But it’s hard to see how America rises out of this swamp. A nation full of people seeing themselves as losing is a nation of losers.

Of babies and bathwater

January 15, 2018

Libertarians tend to be skeptical toward government because it too often uses sledgehammers to kill ants, throws babies out with bathwater, and punishes the many for the sins of a few. (Like TSA, incapable of smart targeting, punishes all air travelers; confiscating, because of some past liquid bomb plot, the coffee bottle my wife forgot was in her bag.)

Advocates of free market economics do not actually call for “unfettered” capitalism. Just like we’re all subject to laws against jaywalking and murder, etc., the same principle applies to businesses, to protect us from harm. But there can be too much of a good thing.

India is a clear lesson, having suffered, since independence, from its founders’ infatuation with the idea of socialism, producing an excess of government and regulation. It’s been called the “Licence Raj.” Whatever notional harm this thicket of rules supposedly protected the public against, that was far outweighed by suffocating the economy and thereby keeping Indians a lot poorer than they need have been. (Another sardonic Indian expression for this was “the Hindu rate of growth.”) Thankfully, India started undoing all this after a 1991 financial crisis, and Narendra Modi’s government, elected in 2014, promised to do more to let business do business.

But two recent episodes show that India hasn’t unlearned its bad habits.

Government’s main economic role should not be constraining businesses, but facilitating them, by creating the conditions for commerce to thrive. For example, a sound judicial system wherein legal disputes can be fairly and efficiently resolved. Another critical role is providing a money supply, the lubricant of commerce.

Modi’s government thought it had a problem with tax-evading business people hiding cash. Maybe it did. Its answer was an attempt to catch them out by invalidating, on short notice, the highest value banknotes — 86% of the money in circulation! Economic chaos ensued with citizens queuing for hours outside banks trying to exchange their old notes — with strict limits — for new ones that were in short supply — prompting a mad scramble to find other ways to buy, sell, and get paid. While many poor people lost savings.

Punishing the many for the sins of a few; a sledgehammer to kill an ant; a baby thrown out with bathwater. (Meantime, it doesn’t even seem that black marketeers were inconvenienced much. Unsurprisingly, they found ways around the restrictions.)

Now a second Indian tale. Another problem is rampant car crashes, often caused by drunk driving. India’s latest brilliant answer: a Supreme Court ruling barring alcohol sales within 500 meters (about 1500 feet) of a state or national highway. Location near a highway used to be advantageous for such businesses. No longer. Indeed, the ruling could potentially close 100,000 bars, costing a million jobs.

Punishing drunk driving makes sense. Punishing an entire legitimate industry– indeed, the entire country — does not. More sledgehammers and ants; babies and bathwater. The victims of this insanity also include state and local governments, which stand to lose billions in alcohol taxes. But many are taking evasive action, by hastily reclassifying state highways into district or municipal roads. Some wags say the true reading of the new rule is “No road shall be classified as a highway within 500 meters of a bar.”

Maybe India will next literally require throwing out babies with bathwater. As a population control measure, of course.

Shit-hole countries

January 13, 2018
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

BREAKING NEWS: Trump Shoots Woman on 5th Ave

January 13, 2018

(Associated Press) — President Donald Trump shot a woman on New York’s Fifth Avenue last night. The woman, whose name has not been released, was shot in the foot and is reportedly in stable condition in a nearby hospital.

The incident, captured on video, occurred shortly after 8 PM, as the President was being escorted by his Secret Service detail from Trump Tower to a waiting car. The woman, who was walking her dog nearby, screamed at the President, impugning his physical appearance, truthfulness, and mental condition. Mr. Trump looked in her direction and shouted back, “Lunatic!” whereupon the woman rejoined, “You’re the lunatic!”

The President then voiced an expletive and turned to Secret Service Agent Matthew Carnevale saying, “Give me your [expletive deleted] gun.” Agent Carnevale initially demurred, but when Mr. Trump said it was a direct order, Carnevale complied. The President then fired once at the dog walker, now standing about ten feet away, striking her foot. It is not clear where the President was aiming.

Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy stated that Agent Carnevale has been suspended, pending an administrative review of the incident.

President Trump tweeted shortly afterwards, “Lying bitch insulted your President to-nite! Lock her up! Will be SUEING [sic] HER!! But there was no shootting [sic], none whatsoever, believe me. FAKE NEWS!!”

Early this morning, after it was reported that overnight polls showed no measurable drop in his favorability ratings, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Remember I said could shoot somebody on 5th Ave & lose no votes? Look at polls! I am a GENIUS!!”

Idiocracy: The Death of Expertise

January 9, 2018

Our pockets hold a device to access all the information in the world. We use it to view cat videos. And while the sum of human knowledge grows hyperbolically, and we’re getting more education than ever, the average American’s ignorance is rising.

This is the nub of Tom Nichols’s 2017 book, The Death of Expertise. (Nichols is a professor and foreign affairs wonk.) Expertise itself isn’t dying — it’s being rejected.

Take vaccination. Expert, knowledgeable, responsible opinion is clear about its benefits, and the baselessness of fears about it. They began with a fraudulent “study” by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, that was authoritatively debunked. Wakefield’s medical license was even revoked. That hasn’t stopped the nonsense, still spewed by irresponsible people like former Playboy pin-up Jenny McCarthy. Too many listen to her rather than the medical establishment, and refuse vaccination. Result: children dying of illnesses previously almost eliminated. (See my commentary on a previous book, Denialism; it also discusses the similarly misguided (and likewise deadly) campaign against GM foods.)

Civilization is grounded upon division of labor and specialization of function. We have doctors who doctor and plumbers who plumb, with arcane expertise not possessed by the mass of others. This is how airplanes are engineered and flown. We trust such experts to do these things. Nobody would imagine they could build and fly a plane equally well. Yet plenty do somehow imagine they know better about vaccination than the experts.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That old saw is weaponized by the internet, spreading what might appear to be “knowledge” but actually isn’t. While previously, discourse about matters like science or public policy was largely confined within intellectual ghettoes, those walls have been blown down.

Anti-intellectualism and magical thinking have long afflicted American culture. Worse now, many people, fortified by a college degree, deem themselves their own intellectual experts. But Nichols, who delves deeply into the subject, says going to college is not the same as getting a college education. Students arrive there already spoiled by the coddling of helicopter parents, giving them an arrogant attitude of entitlement. (I can’t count how often I’ve heard that word, “entitlement,” spoken by professionals discussing interactions with young people.)

Schools find themselves forced to surrender to this ethos, with fluff courses, “safe spaces” against intellectual challenge, feelings allowed to trump facts, and gradeflation to flatter fragile egos. “When college is a business, you can’t flunk the customers,” Nichols says. Critical thinking? Rational discourse? Forget it.

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Thusly stepping back to see oneself objectively is metacognition. Such humility is fading from America’s narcissistic culture, where college makes people imagine they’re smart without giving them the tools to recognize their own deficiencies (or deficiencies in the “information” they imbibe). Anti-vaccine madness is more rampant among the college-educated than the uneducated.

Social science actually has a name for this phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people think they are (like all Lake Wobegone children) above average. Those who don’t understand logic don’t recognize their own illogicality. They don’t actually understand the concepts of knowledge and expertise.

It’s an irony that in the past, with far fewer people “educated,” there was more respect for education, expertise, seriousness, and indeed facts. A less educated past America would never have tolerated the lies and vulgarities of a Trump.

But there’s also the cynical feeling that experts and elites have their own self-serving agendas and have led us astray. Look at the Vietnam War; the 2008 financial crisis. Nichols addresses at length the problem of expert error. But he invokes the old conundrum of a plane crash getting headlines while thousands of daily safe flights are just taken for granted. In fact, everything about modernity and its benefits — medical science, air travel, and so much else — is the work of experts. If they weren’t generally very good at it, planes wouldn’t fly. You would not board one staffed by a bunch of Joe Sixpacks. Experts can be wrong, but is it likelier that Jenny McCarthy is right about vaccines?

“Rocket science” is used as a metaphor for extreme expertise. I recently saw a TV documentary about the Hubble Space Telescope* — which, after launch, didn’t work, a huge bungle by experts. But even more striking was how, against all odds, NASA people managed to figure out, and execute, a fix. Expertise more than redeemed itself.

Another factor in the shunning of expertise is a rising ethos of individualism and egalitarianism. It’s the idea that you — and your opinions (however derived) — are as good as anyone else and their opinions (expertise be damned). Nichols thinks Americans misunderstand democracy, confusing the concept of equality of rights with actual equality, and equal validity of all opinions. Yet at the same time there’s a refusal to engage in a serious way with the public sphere — “a collapse of functional citizenship.” Democracy is corrupted if voting isn’t based on a grasp of facts that are actually facts.

I keep mentioning confirmation bias because it’s such a big factor. We welcome information that seemingly validates our pre-existing beliefs, and insulate ourselves against anything contrary. Smarter, educated people are actually better at constructing such rationalizations. And modern media facilitates this cherry-picking; we embed ourselves in comfortable cocoons of confirmation.

Declining trust in experts is part of a larger trend of declining social trust generally. Polls show a belief that other people are getting less trustworthy (for which there’s no evidence). Mainstream news has been a victim of this. Many Americans don’t know who to believe. Or, worse, their cynical lapse of confidence, in conventional repositories of trust, paradoxically leads them to swallow what should be trusted least. Like all that garbage from the internet — and the White House.

So rejecting input from real experts opens a field day for phony ones. The Jenny McCarthys, conspiracy freaks like Alex Jones, not to mention legions of religious and spiritualist frauds. Nichols cites Sturgeon’s law (Theodore Sturgeon was a sci-fi writer): 90% of everything is crap.

The ironies multiply. Trump’s election, and the Brexit vote too, were revolts against experts and elites, seen as lording over common folk. Yet those voters have delivered themselves, gift-wrapped, to the not-so-tender mercies of a different gang that exploits their ignorance and credulity for its own bad ends.

Americans are losing their grasp of the nation’s founding ideals and values (no longer taught in schools). Without such understanding, those principles cannot be sustained. Nichols sees a “toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like [a] full suit of armor against . . . experts and professionals.” This, he says, puts democracy in a “death spiral” as disregard for informed expert viewpoints (and, one might add, just plain reality) produces ever worse results in the public sphere. This embitters citizens even more.

I’ve always seen a dichotomy between the smartest people, who really understand and know things, and the rest of humanity. And it’s only the former — maybe 1% of the species — at the far end of the bell curve of cognitive ability — who actually run things. Who are indeed responsible for all we’ve achieved. Literally all. Without that 1%, we’d still be in caves.

* A picture in that documentary included someone who was at my last birthday party!

Paul Auster: Travels in the Scriptorium, The Prisoner of Time, and a bar joke

January 6, 2018

I first read a book by Paul Auster mainly because I’d met his ex-wife (Lydia Davis). But that book, The New York Trilogy, which I’ve reviewed, was great. So then I picked up his Travels in the Scriptorium.

I didn’t even look first to see what it was about. But it turns out to uncannily evoke a novel I once wrote myself. I wrote quite a few; I was mentored by a wonderful literary agent, Virginia Kidd, and I still feel bad that my work never repaid her efforts to develop me. She did get one of my novels published, but the others were, well, pretty much awful.

One was The Prisoner of Time. It was really a title in search of a story. A prisoner is held under mysterious, enigmatic circumstances. A woman he’d loved looms in the picture. (Had he murdered her? Or is she still out there?) The gimmick was that he’s in some kind of time loop (hence the title) and the ending loops back to the beginning, so that his situation is eternal. Or something like that. It didn’t really make much sense. You can see why I failed as a novelist.

That was all over forty years ago. I no longer have a copy of Prisoner, I must have tossed it. But Paul Auster seems to have channeled it, because his 2006 novel is that book, more or less, though of course done far better. Not that his makes complete sense in the end either (another similarity).

Scriptorium all takes place in one room, wherein elderly “Mr. Blank” (is this name a metaphor?) is (apparently) confined under mysterious, enigmatic circumstances. He’s being treated with powerful pills; struggles with elusive memory; interacts with various visitors. One is possibly a former lover, now a sort of nurse to him. He’s apparently done great harm, to her and others, though its exact nature is never clear to him (or the reader).

Much of the novel is taken up with his reading an incomplete fictional manuscript (hence the title). It’s the purported memoir of another prisoner, in some alternate world, with some convoluted conspiracy enmeshing him. Then Mr. Blank imagines, in great detail, that story’s continuation.

All this was pure Prisoner of Time. And then: at the end, Mr. Blank finds a different manuscript in his room. He starts reading, and it describes this room he’s in, and the start of this day he himself is still living. In fact it’s a verbatim repeat of the first pages of Scriptorium itself. Talk about looping back!

Auster includes a joke Mr. Blank recalls hearing: A man walks into a Chicago bar at 5 PM, asks for three scotches all lined up, drinks them, pays, and leaves. When this recurs for several days in succession, curiosity impels the bartender to ask what’s up. The man explains that his two brothers live on opposite coasts, and to honor their bond, they each perform this 5 PM ritual, as though all three were together.

It continues for several months, until one day when the man comes in as usual but orders and knocks back only two scotches. The implications are not lost on the bartender. “I don’t want to pry,” he says, “but is anything wrong in your family?”

“Oh no,” the man answers, “nothing’s wrong.”

“Why only two scotches then?”

“The answer is simple,” comes the reply. “I’ve stopped drinking.”

I applaud President Trump!!

January 4, 2018

President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order yesterday for which I stand up and cheer!

His order disbanded the “Voter Fraud Commission” he’d set up at the start of his administration.

The commission had two purposes. First, to massage Trump’s meshugas over having lost, by nearly 3 million, the popular vote — with the preposterous lie that those 3 million were fraudulent votes. Of course the commission failed. Voter fraud in fact is virtually nonexistent.*

The commission’s second purpose was the sinister one of creating a pretext for more stringent voter ID requirements. The Republican party, having given up on winning over poor and minority voters, instead strives to keep them from voting. Some GOP-ruled states have instituted ID requirements especially crafted to stymie those voters in particular. Shame on them!

But Trump’s commission combined two salient characteristics of his administration: meanness and incompetence. Mean though it was, it couldn’t get its act together sufficiently to gin up the phony evidence of voter fraud it was meant to concoct. Or maybe that was just too heavy a lift even for these prodigious liars.

Anyway, they’ve given up, and I applaud that.

When I mentioned it to my wife at breakfast, she asked, “Does this mean Trump has grown from a three-year-old to a five-year-old?” Alas, no. Even while announcing this, he still tweeted, “System is rigged.”

* Voter rolls do include many names of people who’ve died or moved away. But those names don’t get voted. Trump focused particularly on New Hampshire, where hordes supposedly invaded the state to vote. Turns out those were all people lawfully entitled to vote in New Hampshire.

The Mueller Investigation Scandal

December 31, 2017

The Kremlin has warned the U.S. against meddling in Russia’s presidential election. (Or its rigging; chief Putin opponent and recent acid attack victim Navalny is barred from the ballot.) While the U.S. president denies Russia meddled in America’s own election!

Despite, please remember, an official U.S. intelligence finding, a year ago, that it happened. And it was no mere “attempt.” Since then we’ve learned its audacious breadth* — surely enough to swing just a few thousand votes in three key states and thus the outcome. America’s top foreign enemy threw our election to its preferred candidate. That’s huge. Our hair should be on fire.

But Republicans’ hair is on fire about . . . the investigation.

I previously predicted a smear campaign trying to discredit Robert Mueller and his probe, because Republicans expect it to uncover some very bad stuff about Trump and his fellow creeps. Mueller is a highly respected former FBI director, and happens to be a Republican, appointed by a Republican. Yet the GOP (and their shameless shills at Fox Fake News) are now in full shoot-the-messenger mode, waging pre-emptive war against not only Mueller but also the FBI, Department of Justice, and intelligence services, flinging charges of corrupt partisanship. And muddying the waters with irrelevant old red herrings about Hillary. This is all blatant rubbish. It’s the GOP itself (and Fox) being corruptly partisan.

Their Exhibit A is one Peter Strzok, briefly on Mueller’s team, who wrote some anti-Trump personal e-mails. When that became known, Mueller promptly fired him. A Big Nothing. (Government investigators are actually allowed to have political opinions; even to contribute to campaigns. Mueller’s critics themselves certainly do.) But that doesn’t stop them from exploiting this stuff to beat on Mueller.

Focus on what’s happening. A foreign enemy subverted our presidential election, and the investigation thereof is being subverted by Republicans with phony smears aimed at tearing down our own institutions of government and law. Compounding the damage to our increasingly fragile democracy. That’s the scandal here, and it too is huge.

Any fair-minded, objective observer could see this reality. Like so much of the Trump dumpster fire. I myself was a longtime GOP stalwart until I saw the reality, of the party’s dive to the dark side. I’m reminded of the disgusting old line, “if you’re being raped, lie back and enjoy it.” That’s how Republicans have responded to Trump’s grabbing them by the pussy. Now they’re “all in” with him.

Trashing everything they ever stood for. Make America great again? Those red hats should be stuffed down their throats.

Happy New Year.

*One example: fake ads misdirecting blacks to vote on the internet.

What is populism?

December 28, 2017

“Populism” is the political word du jour. America has its first president so labeled, and “populist” parties are thriving throughout Europe. What exactly does “populism” mean?

It (like the word “popular”) comes from the Latin “populus,” meaning “people.” During the Roman Republic, politics was divided between “Populares” and “Optimates;” not organized parties as we know them, but factions. The Optimates (“best ones”) represented the elites and the status quo; the Populares, as the name implies, aimed to represent the interests of the common folk.

“Populism” connotes the people ruling and getting what they want. Of course, all democratic politics is supposed to entail the people (a majority) having their way, that’s what voting is all about. But today’s populism reflects a notion that somehow “the people” have not been getting what they want, because the system is rigged against them by elites, who have to be pulled down. A theme of both the right and left.

America had a “People’s Party” in the late 1800s, also called “Populist,” whence we get the modern usage. Those Populists too stood against the elites, representing mainly farmers. One of their key policies was free silver coinage, championed by William Jennings Bryan (“you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”). This might seem an arcane issue, but it was really about “easy money” and favoring debtors (mostly farmers) against creditors. It was at least a coherent and basically rational program which, if enacted, would have achieved its stated aims.

Sigmund Freud divided the mind among the super-ego, the rational moral cogitator; the id, the primal instinctual unconscious; and the ego which pragmatically mediates between them. Modern populism is id-based politics — the politics of the gut, not the brain. Emotion does have a legitimate role, of course, indeed it’s an inextricable part of our functioning. But it has to be moderated by our higher executive intellect. Otherwise the result is policies which are not coherent and rational, often actually running counter to the ostensible objectives.

This is epitomized by modern populism’s xenophobia, racialism, and economic nationalism. They manifest in hostility toward immigrants, toward ethnic and cultural diversity, and toward free trade. And in favor of misguided and counterproductive policies that will not “make America great again,” but worse. Likewise Britain’s vote to leave the European Union — quintessential populism. This is the id, not reason, in charge.

“Optimates” versus “populares” type class conflict is actually an eternal political phenomenon. But in America, until recently at least, the elites were seen to have a certain moral authority, were accorded a certain deference, were looked to for guidance. The nation had a sense of common purpose. However, all that has been eroded by a populist ethos of egalitarianism and individualism, with Joe Sixpack deeming himself equal, and maybe even in a down-to-earth way superior, to the “optimates.” And woe betide any “leader” who tells him nay. Politicians are cowed from making the case for anti-populist policies like liberal immigration and free trade.

But true leaders like Lincoln, FDR, and JFK summoned Americans to their highest values, ideals, and aspirations. “The better angels of our nature.” In contrast, today’s populism — Trump’s populism — panders to and enflames our baser nature. Appealing to the id, our primal engine of raw instinct, rather than our rational moral minds. Trump’s America is not a shining city on a hill, but a squalid slum in a swamp.