Archive for May, 2014

Lessons From the VA Scandal

May 30, 2014

Suppose you’re Eric Shinseki (Veterans Administration head).

Actual VA photo

Actual VA photo

You learn of huge problems – a vast backlog of unprocessed paperwork (partly because it is literally paper, mountains of it, not computerized) – and now this scandal of delayed medical attention and resulting horror stories and even deaths – compounded by widespread cover-ups of those treatment delays via fraudulent record keeping.images

So you snap your fingers and order it all fixed. Right? Wrong. The VA is a vast organization, but these scandals tell us it’s not actually vast enough. The paperwork piled up because the VA lacked the manpower to deal with it, let alone take steps to computerize it. Likewise, appointments were delayed because there weren’t enough doctors and other resources to meet patient needs.

Unknown-2No snap of the fingers could have fixed this. It required money. Shinseki should have been shouting from the rooftops, “Houston, we have a problem,” pre-emptively telling Congress and the president the VA is in trouble and needs more money.

But wait, you’ll say: isn’t that what bureaucrats are always whining? That they could do wonderful things if only their budgets were increased? Was there ever a bureaucrat who said, “My budget is quite adequate, thank you very much”?

We’re told the VA scandal shows what a lousy manager President Obama is. I’m loath to dispute that; but I take a bigger lesson. It shows what a lousy manager government is. Especially big government.

Unknown-1It’s actually probably unfair to imagine Obama should somehow have seen and fixed the VA problem. The VA isn’t exactly all he has to worry about. The government is a monster with a million tentacles and a very small brain – the president and his administration – to minutely direct those tentacles’ behavior. Good luck.

Yet the essence of American liberalism is the faith that government, because it is the avatar of disinterested public spiritedness, of the wish to do good – in contrast to a (selfish, grubby, greedy) quest for private profit – will do good, if given our trust (and money). images-5But the fly in the ointment is that government is comprised of human beings, not angels, and while they may indeed be motivated for good, they are also subject to all the other personal motives that govern human behavior in any context. And when those motives conflict with the disinterested desire to do good, it’s a rare person who will sacrifice the former for the latter.

VA staffers are probably mostly altruistic people who sincerely want to help veterans. But caring also for their own asses, in the situation, has made many of them perpetrate a great crime. Performance incentives, great in theory, merely incentivized VA personnel to cook the books to earn the rewards despite screwing patients. (And it’s not obvious how Shinseki might have avoided bamboozlement.)

At least in the private sector, the (selfish, grubby, greedy) profit motive – and competition – impose a certain discipline that’s lacking in the public sphere. Unknown-3That’s a fundamental reason why government is so problematic. No private sector organization could survive in a competitive marketplace treating customers as badly as the VA.

More broadly, the VA scandal shows that we, as a society, have gone way overboard in what we ask of government – greatly outstripping the money to pay for it. It’s not as though we’re miserly with the VA; its budget is huge; yet still evidently insufficient for its ever expanding mission, as more and more veterans survive better and live longer, with ever more and costlier medical advances to help them do so. This story is emblematic of so much of what government does, and why spending outgrows what we can afford. We borrow the difference, but as I keep saying, there’s a limit to how far we can stretch that without triggering economic disaster.

Unknown-4I’m not suggesting shutting down the VA. We must honor our commitment to veterans. But we, as a nation, must get serious about the overall gap between what we ask of government and what is affordable. This is the great problem of the age, which Obama is sweeping under the rug.



Soldiers Without Borders: A Modest Proposal

May 27, 2014

images-1My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, is studying International Relations at Tufts and will spend this fall with an NGO (“non-governmental organization”) in Jordan working on refugee issues. (Yes, I’m very pleased.) The other day she said to me, “Couldn’t someone hire a private army to rescue those Nigerian girls?”

Recently here I proposed a “League of Democracies” to legitimately bypass a deadlocked UN on difficult world problems. images-2But I’ve also often envisioned an international NGO that could execute missions requiring armed force, funded by some billionaire(s) or by donations, much like Doctors Without Borders.

This might sound like a comic book idea – an independent international crime-fighting organization a la The Avengers or Mission Impossible. It might indeed target some gangsters and criminals, but would mainly focus on higher-order problems. While sometimes, nations can and do step up to the plate militarily, as France has creditably done in Mali and Central African Republic, that doesn’t always happen. images-3It may be politically difficult, and legal niceties can get in the way. One wishes for a private organization that can just do it.

It’s actually not without precedent. A 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup attempt by mercenaries was privately funded. Unfortunately, it was busted and the principals (including Mark Thatcher, Margaret’s son) jailed. I say “unfortunately” because Equatorial Guinea’s dictatorship is one of the world’s vilest. The backers of that effort hoped to recoup their investment somehow through oil concessions; but there’s no reason why similar missions couldn’t have the kinds of disinterested motives that guide numerous conventional NGOs – again like Docs Without Borders.

Such a military organization need not cost a vast amount of money. As my wife chimed in to the conversation, much could be achieved using drones. images-4And in many situations a relatively small professional and technologically equipped armed force (akin to our “Seal Team 6” commandos) could be effective against larger but comparatively less organized or competent ones (like Nigeria’s Boko Haram). A lot of rotten dictatorships could be knocked over without too much actual firepower.

Admittedly, this proposal raises some tricky issues that would need to be carefully thought out. The advantage of an NGO model here is that, without accountability to national governments with all their political and legal constraints, etc., it would have far greater freedom of action. But on the other hand, choosing missions would be very fraught, and no doubt often vehemently criticized from some political quarters. And as we’ve seen too often, military interventions can be messy, with unintended consequences. Pacifists would condemn any use of force; some would say the whole thing would grossly violate international law, calling it a rogue army pursuing “vigilante justice.”

Maybe so, were there an operative system of international justice, akin to national ones. But there isn’t. The International Criminal Court lacks enforcement means and is handicapped by the same political constraints as the UN (hence no action on the crimes of the century thus far in Syria). Concepts of international law and national sovereignty should not be countenanced to shield atrocities. The UN itself has codified a “Responsibility to Protect” where a national government cannot handle, or is causing, a humanitarian threat. While it may seem disturbing in a philanthropic context to go in with soldiers, not doctors, sometimes only guns can stop bad people using guns.

And in a world where true rogue armies do operate – like, again, Boko Haram, or Joseph Kony’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda, of child soldiers brutally dragooned – not to mention national armies that are tools of dictators, perpetrating horrors like Syria’s – I’d welcome an NGO force run by the kinds of people who run Doctors Without Borders or the International Rescue Committee. A respected governing board of “the great and the good” would be important, to maintain serious moral purpose and guard against crackpots and hot-heads. images-5Yet I’d hope it would not flinch from doing gutsy things. Such an army might effectively combat some of the world’s bad ones, in ways the “international community” seems unable to get its act together to do; and I’d be willing to take our chances that its noble intentions would result in more good than harm.

It’s often said that America can’t be the world’s policeman. And it’s at least true that America cannot answer every moral call. We need a “Soldiers Without Borders.” How about another go at Equatorial Guinea?



Utilitarianism: Is Killing One to Save Five Moral?

May 24, 2014

You are a bystander seeing a runaway trolley, about to hit and kill five people. imagesYou can grab a switch and reroute it to a different track where it will kill only one person. Should you? Most people say yes. But suppose you’re on a bridge, and can save the five lives only by pushing a fat man off the bridge into the trolley’s path? Should you? Most say no.  Or suppose you’re a doctor with five patients about to die from different organ failures. Should you save them by grabbing someone off the street and harvesting his organs? Aren’t all three cases morally identical?

Our intuitive moral brain treats them differently. Pushing the man off the bridge, or harvesting organs, seem to contravene an ethical taboo against personal violence that the impersonal act of flipping the switch does not.* (This refutes the common idea that humans have a propensity for violence. Ironically, those who believe it may do so because their own built-in anti-violence brain module is set on high.)

UnknownSuch issues are central to Joshua Greene’s book, Moral Tribes. Our ethical intuitions were acquired through evolution, adaptations that enabled our ancestors to cope and survive in close-knit tribal societies. And our moral reflexes do work pretty well in such environments, where the dilemmas tend to be of the “me” versus “us” sort. But, because our ancestral tribes were effectively competing against other tribes, “us” versus “them” issues are another matter; and different tribes may see moral issues differently too. That’s the problem really concerning Greene.

He argues for a version of utilitarianism (he calls it deep pragmatism). Now, utilitarianism has a bad rep in philosophy circles. Its precept of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is seen as excluding other valid moral considerations; e.g., in the trolley and doctor situations, violating the rights of the one person sacrificed, and Kant’s dictum that people should always be ends, never means.

Greene’s line of argument (identical to mine in The Case for Rational Optimism) starts with what he deems the key question: what really matters? You can posit a whole array of “goods” but upon analysis they all actually resolve down to one thing: the feelings of beings capable of experiencing feelings. Or, in a word, happiness.

Unknown-2Happiness is a slippery concept if you try to pin down its definition. Is it a feeling – that one is happy? That’s circular; also simplistic. As John Stuart Mill famously suggested, it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.Unknown-3

But in any case, nothing ultimately matters except the feelings of feeling beings, and every other value you could name has meaning only insofar as it affects such feelings. Thus the supreme goal (if not the only goal) of moral philosophy should be to maximize good feelings (or happiness, or pleasure, or satisfaction) and minimize bad ones (pain and suffering).

A common misunderstanding is that such utilitarianism is about maximizing wealth. But, while all else equal, more wealth does confer more happiness, all else is never equal and happiness versus suffering is much more complex. Some beggars are happier than some billionaires. The “utility” that utilitarianism targets is not wealth; money is only a means to an end; and the end is feelings.

This is what “the greatest good for the greatest number” is about. Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism’s founding thinker, imagined assigning a point value to every experience. This is not intended literally; but if you could quantify good versus bad feelings, then the higher the score, the greater the “utility” achieved, and the better the world.

images-1But doesn’t this still give us the same problematic answer to the trolley and surgery hypotheticals – killing one to save five? In fact that answer flunks the utilitarian test. Because nobody would want to live in the kind of society where people can have their organs taken involuntarily (see this Monty Python sketch). That might be utilitarian from the standpoint of the people saved, but extremely non-utilitarian for everyone else. And while one can concoct bizarre hypotheticals as in trolleyology, the real world doesn’t work that way. In the real world, “utility” can’t actually be maximized by, say, 90% of the population enslaving the other 10% (another typical anti-utilitarian hypothetical).

images-2Utilitarianism doesn’t require narrow-minded calculation of “utility” within the confines of every situation and circumstance. What it tells us instead is to keep our eye on the big picture: that what really matters is feelings; what tends to make them better globally is good; what makes them worse is bad. As Greene puts it, utilitarianism supplies a “common currency,” or filter, for evaluating moral dilemmas among different “tribes.”

Meantime, if X is willing to sacrifice himself for what he thinks is the greater good, that’s fine; but if X is willing to sacrifice Y for what X thinks is the greater good, that’s not fine at all. images-4It’s the road to perdition, and we know of too many societies that actually travelled that road.

Thus, a true real-world utilitarianism incorporates the kind of inviolable human rights that protect people from being exploited for the supposed good of others – because that truly does maximize happiness, pleasure, and human flourishing, while minimizing pain and suffering.

* “Trolleyology” is big in moral philosophy precincts. For another slant on it, see an article in The Economist’s latest issue. 

Piketty Poo

May 20, 2014

                  For to everyone who has, will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. — Matthew 25:29



French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the latest book sensation. Confession: I haven’t actually read it. But I’ve read plenty about it (both pro and con) — hardly avoidable lately. “Progressives” are gaga over it*, a confirmation bias feeding frenzy. People love having their pre-existing beliefs flattered. Piketty strokes the left’s inequality obsession: he predicts the gap worsening, saying returns on capital tend to outpace economic growth, so wealth tends to concentrate; and to combat this he proposes a worldwide wealth tax and punitively high (80%) income tax rates for the rich.

images-1Piketty’s predictions of slow growth and consequently increasing inequality have been challenged for faulty economic assumptions and analysis. The Left imagines a coming dystopia where a corporate 1% hogs all the wealth and the 99% have nothing. The absurdity is: who would buy all the products and services that make the 1% rich?

Meantime, Piketty’s fans also strangely overlook a glaring political correctness no-no. The book is Western-centric, focusing on the “First World” and pretty much ignoring the rest. But this is no mere cosmetic flaw — it goes to the heart of Piketty’s presentation. Wealth and equality are global matters, and if you only look at part of the globe, you can’t get it right. The big story is that while inequality may indeed be rising in Pikettyland, it’s not rising, in fact it’s falling, globally.

That’s unarguable fact, because for some time, Western economic growth rates have been materially exceeded in the poorer countries, notably India and especially China (together comprising over a third of world population). That means the global gap between rich and poor must be narrowing (even if within countries it’s not).

Moreover (fatal to Piketty), trends in rich nations and poor ones are not unrelated. As we know well in America, a big reason for rising inequality is the disappearance of high-paying factory jobs that used to raise up the less affluent. images-2Many of those jobs have gone to poorer countries — raising up their lower classes. In other words, global inequality is shrinking because wealth is shifting from richer countries to poorer ones; though it’s flowing from the less wealthy people in the rich countries which thus become more internally unequal. So the U.S. lower and middle classes are being hurt more by poor foreigners than rich Americans.

Piketty calls rising inequality “terrifying.” It would be, if the poor were getting poorer; yet they’re not. While the rich are getting richer, so are the world’s poor, albeit not as fast, but with hundreds of millions rising out of poverty in recent decades. Even in advanced countries, the poor are not falling, what with all the social safety nets. (Entitlements to Social Security, Medicare, and other government benefits are a form of wealth Piketty seems to ignore.) And poverty ain’t what it used to be: the living standard of Americans now classed as “poor” would have been considered solidly middle class a few decades ago (and would be considered rich in much of the world today).

But inequality is really the wrong concern, because the problem of the poor is not that others are rich. The problem of the poor is instead their poverty, which cutting down the rich won’t solve. images-2The left’s big error is thinking the rich “extract” their wealth from the rest; that there’s a lump of wealth to be divided up. Not so; wealth is created by productive effort. Steve Jobs got rich because people gladly paid more for his products than they cost to make. That added value made everyone richer. Had Jobs and his products never existed, his wealth would not have been spread among everyone else; it would not have existed either!

True, if you simply grab money from the rich and hand it to the poor, they’d be less poor and unequal — for the moment. But it won’t solve why they’re poor in the first place. What’s needed is not redistribution of wealth, but of the ability to earn wealth. That would be good for everyone, and without taking anything away from anyone; but it’s a much tougher problem. (Piketty does acknowledge that expanding education must be part of the answer.)

UnknownYet the left’s inequality obsession is not truly a social conscience thing. It’s not so much compassion for the poor as envy and hatred for the rich. It’s wealth and the power it brings that they find so intolerable (because they lack it), and are so rabid to tear down. Thus their swoon for Piketty’s global wealth tax proposal (how innovative). How to use the tax revenues, to raise incomes at the bottom, is barely a concern; it’s mainly to make the rich less rich.** And of course Piketty and his fans ignore how their vendetta against the rich, if enacted, would gum up the economic growth machine. Now that would really be terrifying — for rich and poor alike.

But in a commentary on Piketty, in Salon, Jesse Myerson says the solution to inequality is really simple. Instead of letting the returns on capital assets flow to their owners, we can just have the returns flow “democratically” to, well, everybody! imagesAs Red Green would say, “It’s just that easy!” Why didn’t Piketty think of that?

If you don’t find Myerson enlightening, you might try more of Robinson: here, and here.

* Visiting SF’s famed City Lights bookstore last week, the guy ahead of me was buying their last copy.

**This was demonstrated by the string of hostile comments to a version of this review on Amazon. It was all “the rich this” and “the rich that” and why they should be made less rich, with nary a word about making anyone less poor. Will there be similar comments here?

Ideology and Insanity: What is Mental Illness?

May 16, 2014

UnknownI was hooked in by the book’s title, Ideology and Insanity, by psychiatrist Thomas Szasz; ideology can verge on insanity. But Szasz’s focus is instead on the “ideology” of the mental health industry. He says there is no such thing as mental illness. Szasz acknowledges the behaviors we label mental illness, but deems it a mislabeling – actually a metaphor, we apply to behaviors outside ethical and social norms. That’s very different from a true illness like, say, chicken pox, with a clear physiological etiology. (But Szasz’s brush is too broad. Some mental illness is physiological: depression, for example, is often a brain chemistry problem.)

Unknown-3Szasz’s argument has a political dimension. The basic political divide is between individualism and collectivism – and perhaps wisdom would steer a middling course, because we all crave autonomy but also social connectedness. However, Szasz importantly notes that the dichotomy isn’t symmetrical, because while in an individualistic society, images-4people would be perfectly free to also satisfy their communitarian social instincts, a collectivist society would not correspondingly allow free pursuit of their individualistic proclivities. Indeed, that can be punishable, an element of coercion that makes all the difference.

images-3The point isn’t merely theoretical. Szasz cites Joseph Brodsky, a poet in the Soviet Union who was sent to a labor camp for, literally, the crime of being a poet. The state judged that poetry was not socially useful and did not fulfill Brodsky’s obligations to the collective. So in the “worker’s paradise” you had to be a worker, with no choice about it.

Szasz’s main argument is that the whole enterprise of modern American mind doctoring aims at making us a more collectivist society. That’s the import of his saying “mental illness” labeling is a guise for enforcing social conformism. Szasz maintains that for most people in mental institutions, being “treated” for “their own good” is basically a fiction for what is really imprisonment. Moreover, since Szasz wrote in 1970, there’s been a huge shift from putting mentally ill people in asylums to literally jailing them. (See this recent article in The Economist.)

While reading all this, I kept thinking, Okay, but schizos really do have something gone wrong, and whether it has a physical cause like chicken pox or not is kind of beside the point. Unknown-2But on the other hand, the problem of stigmatization and the nexus of mental diagnosis with politics is a very real concern. I’ve written before about the plague of “analyses” by those who actually do think the views of people they disagree with – whether on matters of religion, science, or even economic policy – reflect mental disorders. Szasz describes one egregious example: in 1964 a magazine devoted an entire issue to printing psychiatrists’ diagnoses of presidential candidate Goldwater, mostly calling him a paranoid schizophrenic. None had ever even met the man. (Incredibly, the magazine’s name was Fact! Goldwater was one of the sanest politicians I’ve seen.)

images-2While the mental health industry strives mightily to cloak itself as science, especially with its sciency-seeming DSM encyclopedia of diagnosable “mental disorders,” the trouble is that none can be tested for objectively. It’s all just subjective evaluation of a person’s behavior. And if a doctor disapproves of how a person chooses to live and act — or his politics! — it’s all too easy to label him with some “disorder.”

That slipperiness is illustrated by own diagnosis. To get insurance coverage when a girlfriend and I went for counseling, the therapist said, “I’ll just put down ‘anxiety.’”

And don’t forget that, until quite recently, homosexuality was in the DSM, formally labeled a mental disorder, with gays stigmatized as diseased and defective (rather than just different) vis-à-vis the norms which, via that diagnosis, the mind doctors were indeed seeking to impose societally. And of course homosexuality was furthermore duly criminalized. (Szasz actually doesn’t even mention this because, when he was writing, few people thought twice about it.)

imagesThe term “mental illness” itself has no clear boundaries. Indeed, a lot of the “disorders” in the DSM, truth be told, fall within the spectrum of what common sense tells us is normal behavioral variation. I’ve written, for example, about “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” With respect to that personality feature, normality encompasses a range. Maybe extreme outliers merit the word “disorder.” But most people diagnosed with ADHD (a substantial percentage of the population!) are actually within what should be considered a normal range.

Unknown-1Society used to be more rigid about how people had to be. Today we’ve grown more open, tolerant, and accepting of diversity, more willing to allow people the freedom to be the way they are, or want to be. That’s all good. And yet, contradictorily, ever more people are diagnosed (and stigmatized) with “disorders” that really amount to non-conformance with the dictates of the normality police. Thus, while the goal of improving mental health in the abstract is hard to argue with, too much of the mental health industry is geared toward the suppression of individuality. That’s so Twentieth Century. (Or, really, Nineteenth.)

There are of course some true whackos. images-1But, as Szasz argues, most “mentally ill” people don’t actually have minds on the fritz at all but, rather, face what might better be called problems of living. How to live is the salient question in philosophy, and for many people, enmeshed in their webs of trying circumstances, its solution is far from clear. True, counseling may be helpful to them. But their problems are not all in their minds.


How I Got Irreligion

May 11, 2014

imagesAt around age six, I was sent to a Jewish “Sunday school,” featuring Bible stories: Daniel and the lions, Noah’s ark, etc. I was fine with them, as stories. But then I realized adults took them seriously; troubled by this, I confided in my mother.

No theologian, she. But I distinctly remember her ending the discussion by saying, “Well, you do believe in God, don’t you?” I said yes. And I knew I was lying.images-1

I was no rebellious kid; in fact, a meek, go-with-the-program, clueless kid. But even at six, I saw right through religion.

Odd, this common locution, “believe in God.” We don’t say we “believe in fire,” or upholsterers, or aardvarks. Few have actually seen that beast, but an aardvark nonbeliever would be pretty weird. images-2For reality, “belief” simply doesn’t enter into it. Talk of belief in God implicitly bespeaks something other than reality.

Anyway, I went on to Hebrew school, Bar-mitzvah lessons, and the Bar-mitzvah itself, on stage in the synogogue, chanting the memorized gobblydegook. It never occurred to me to say no to any of this; again, I was a go-with-the-program kid. I actually did well in Hebrew school, if only to avoid humiliation when called on in class. UnknownBut I drew the line at anything optional, to the despair of my religious teachers.

Through it all, my disbelief felt like a shameful, guilty secret, a personal failing. Performing at my Bar-mitzvah, I considered myself a fraud. The sanctimony all around me evoked virtue, propriety, right-thinking. It seemed universal – with the sole exclusion of pitiful me. Never, anywhere, was I exposed to a dissenting viewpoint. This was the ’50s, with no Dawkins or Hitchens. Nothing to suggest I was not alone, or to provide any validation for my unbelief. What was wrong with me?

In that sense, I can understand how being gay must have felt – with no validation for that either. (So underground was gayness that not till my twenties did I actually understand what it was.)

Unknown-1Yet I never agonized; never made an effort to get with the program of religion. Notwithstanding how admirable faith might appear, to me it seemed just fundamentally false. The Emperor had no clothes.

Some believers imagine atheists will eventually “see the light,” if only on their deathbeds (or in the proverbial foxholes). Human psychology varies endlessly, so it does happen, but quite rarely in fact. None of the many atheists I’ve known has ever lapsed. My own conviction has only grown stronger over time. What was at first a “simple faith” (or lack thereof) has profoundly deepened as I have learned ever more about the history of religions, the human psychology behind them, and all their spectacular philosophical contradictions. And I long ago stopped wondering “what’s wrong with me?”

My humanist atheism is indeed the essence of what’s right with me. Believers feel their faith is what gives their lives meaning. Unknown-2And if that’s really true for a person, fine. But for all the consolation claimed for religion, many are tortured by doubt. Wrestling with doubt might be portrayed, by intellectualist apologists, as part of a wholesome experience of faith. But I’m not attracted by a hopeless effort to reconcile the irreconcilable. I don’t feel it’s possible to make proper sense of anything while laboring under so basic a mistake about reality.

I have never been afflicted by doubt about my most fundamental perceptions. There’s much about life and the cosmos I don’t yet truly understand (quantum mechanics; why there’s something rather than nothing; the minds of priests who rape children); but my pursuit of such understanding is not hobbled by a need to reconcile it with preconceived dogmas that can never be squared with reality. Being thusly free to see the world as it really is, I feel, enables me to fit properly into that reality, and to make a life of authentic (not illusory) meaning.

Anyhow, that’s me. If it’s not you, I won’t try to get you burned at the stake.

Andrew Cuomo: New York’s Odious Governor

May 8, 2014

I actually thought Governor Andrew Cuomo started off admirably.

For one thing, he seemed sensible toward fracking. But then the antis ramped up their campaign, and Cuomo’s fracking policy became study-it-to-death and endless weaseling. Just like Obama on Keystone, cowed by the anti-progress “progressives.” Even they must be nauseated.

As to New York’s notorious gun law, I am no fan of the gun culture, but that legislation seems extreme, was rammed through with scant public consultation, and its true purpose was just to fuel Cuomo’s presidential imaginings.

Note the quotation marks

Note the quotation marks

But the biggest disgrace, in a word: Moreland. The stench of Albany corruption got so bad that Cuomo felt compelled to invoke the state’s Moreland Act, convening a blue-ribbon panel to investigate and make recommendations. The commission duly met a number of times, held hearings, and was in the midst of fulfilling its mandate — when Cuomo abruptly pulled the plug. The pretext for this breathtaking action (“It’s my commission,” he said) was that the purpose had been served, because it got the legislature to pass reform to clean up the mess.

And what, exactly, did this reform consist of? A state public campaign finance law. Excellent, you might say – until told that this “reform” was applicable to precisely one elected official, for precisely one year. The official happens to be State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who – coincidentally, I’m sure – happens to be in Cuomo’s dog house. And even for DiNapoli, participation in the campaign finance scheme was made optional. He promptly opted out, saying this “pilot program” was designed to fail.

But this was not the first shell game Cuomo’s played with reform. Previously it was gerrymandering – at the very heart of political dysfunction. “Gerrymandering” means drawing legislative district lines for partisan advantage. It virtually eliminates electoral competition and thus legislators’ accountability to voters. Well, Cuomo swore up and down he would not accept the redistricting required after the last census, absent a reform that took redistricting out the legislature’s hands altogether.images-2

Guess what? A reform was enacted, giving the process to an independent commission. But the commission will have an equal number from each party. And what if it deadlocks (as it’s thus guaranteed to do)? Redistricting goes back to the legislature. In other words, another totally bogus “reform.”

Cuomo postures not only as the Great Reformer, but also the Great Tax Cutter. Needless to say, the tax cuts are equally a sham (and New York’s business climate remains 50th out of 50 states). But the scheme will have the state send every taxpayer a rebate check. No doubt with Cuomo’s name prominently displayed. This will be in October – right before the election, when voters can show their gratitude.

images-4Excuse me while I go lose my breakfast.

OK, I’m back. Now, where was I? So — Republicans will nominate Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who seems a very reasonable guy with a strong record of accomplishment (including genuine tax and budget cutting). So far his campaign has focused on a factual deconstruction of Cuomo’s record. In contrast Cuomo, with his bulging $30+ million re-election war chest, has rushed out TV ads smearing Astorino. One ad says he’s “so far right he’s wrong for New York.”

Rob Astorino

Rob Astorino

This uncannily echoes a recent Cuomo comment that people with right wing views – which apparently means any views different from Cuomo’s – don’t belong in New York State. (Yet again we see the tortured relationship “progressives” have with freedom of thought and expression.) Cuomo’s remark justly elicited a barrage of condemnation. But not, apparently, enough to deter using the same tar-brush on Astorino. Never mind that there’s actually no basis for calling Astorino “right wing,” let alone “far right.” It’s simply name-calling, unashamedly cynical, based on the proposition that if you fling enough mud, some will stick.

Another ad says Astorino as County Executive is “in violation of anti-discrimination laws,” all but calling him a racist bigot. The grounds for this incendiary accusation? Westchester County’s opposing federal government efforts to seize control of the county’s public housing.

Unknown-1I think I’m going to lose my lunch now.

But one final thing: somebody please inform Cuomo that loud yelling isn’t eloquence.

The Worried Optimist: A “Broken Windows” Theory of World Order

May 3, 2014

David Brooks’s 4/30 column helps crystallize my own thoughts. I’ve argued here, and in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, that in the big picture we’ve been progressing toward Immanuel Kant’s vision of a trading network of peaceful democracies. images-5As did Francis Fukuyama in The End of History, and Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. But lately a lot’s been going wrong.

Spiraling downward are nations like Venezuela, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Egypt, whose revolution is producing a regime even worse than before; creeping authoritarianism afflicts Turkey; sectarian bloodletting recrudesces in Iraq; unbridled Chinese nationalism bullies its neighbors; Islamist violence seems everywhere; South Sudan blows up; Israelis and Palestinians act not to resolve their conflict but entrench it; Iran holds truculent; and of course Syria descends into metastasizing nightmare, while Putin tramples about, instigating havoc and laughing at the puny sanctions incurred. Devils dance while angels cower.

Is it to time to change this blog’s title?

Paraphrasing Brooks, the perennial problem is the strong preying on the weak. Starting with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the world had been getting a grip on this. Nazis and Communists challenged the resulting liberal system but were successfully beaten back. Democracy has expanded phenomenally, and democracies don’t fight each other. All good. But Brooks quotes foreign affairs wise man Charles Hill that this centuries-long trend of geopolitical progress may be stalling out, images-2and entering a phase of deterioration. This is what “wolves of the world” like Putin are testing against, for what pickings among the weak they can grab.

Today, says Brooks, the system is under assault not by a single empire but a swarm of bad actors large and small. Whereas Nazis and Commies were unambiguously foes we had to fight, now we face a more insidious infection, a “death by a thousand cuts.” images-3No individual problem (Syria, Iran, Ukraine, etc.) may seem threatening enough to justify the cost and effort of wrestling it down, “but, collectively, they can kill you.” That is, kill the system undergirding world peace and prosperity.

“How,” Brooks queries, “do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?” While “people will die for Mother Russia or Allah,” few will die “for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places.” Few seem to understand it, and too many actually oppose it, never mind fighting for it. But we’re not actually talking about fighting and dying. While some (like Andrew Bacevich on the Newshour the other night) obtusely cast the choice as war versus no war, in fact much could be done without shooting, which is not being done. Brooks notes the West’s balking at even a little economic pain to deploy meaningful sanctions on Russia. And look what happened when President Obama merely suggested a modest action to punish Syria’s regime (far short of “war” or anything that might resolve the problem).

This is why Obama’s foreign policy of tiptoeing caution is actually so profoundly dangerous for the world’s future. Brooks again: ”The liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous thing. Preserving that hard-earned ecosystem requires an ever-advancing fabric of alliances, clear lines about what behavior is unacceptably system-disrupting, and the credible threat of political, financial and hard power enforcement.” Unknown-1

At least some enforcement is needed for rule of law to work; some cop on the beat. Recall the “broken windows” theory of criminology: tolerate a few broken windows, and pretty soon the whole neighborhood succumbs to disorder and lawlessness.

Only America is capable of the necessary global leadership. What’s at stake is not just a bit of Ukrainian territory (the “broken windows”); it’s the whole world, the liberal, democratic, peaceful environment that has brought so much prosperity and freedom to so many. 20140503_cna400Failure to meet the challenge bodes very ugly consequences. And, as of now, we are failing. The Economist’s latest cover wonders, “What would America Fight For?” Credibility, it says, is easily lost and hard to rebuild; the West is losing it; and “is so careless of what it is losing.”

Well here’s a positive proposal. The UN’s creation embodied lofty hopes, but thwarted by what proved to be a design flaw, the Security Council veto, making it too often an obstacle to resolving problems. We need a new organization: a league of democracies. Eligibility might be a tricky issue, though the EU’s application of strict membership criteria seems to work okay. A majority of nations would surely qualify, and such a league would enjoy great moral legitimacy, to fill the role the UN cannot.images

But don’t hold your breath waiting for this.

I remain an optimist; albeit a worried optimist.