Archive for January, 2016

Bloomberg on a white horse?

January 28, 2016

imagesMy political awakening was in 1964, backing Barry Goldwater. Some saw his nomination as politically suicidal – as Trump’s or Cruz’s would be. But Goldwater was a serious man, a principled candidate, a prophet before his time. Trump is a bomb-thrower.

images-2Indeed, his candidacy has no philosophical grounding. It’s all atmospherics, finger-shoving, and personality — an odious personality at that, which bizarrely seems to work to his advantage. He gets the jerk vote. There’s also the “successful, can-do businessman” thing. Which is bunkum too, as columnist Ross Douthat points out, envisioning an ad campaign savaging Trump’s wreckage-strewn business history.

images-1The left likes to link conservatism to fascism supposedly on the “right.” Yet fascism was really closer to communism or socialism, all of them centered on a domineering state – which true conservatives abhor. Trump is no conservative; and his campaign does have an unmistakable whiff of fascism. His chin-thrusting braggadocio evokes Mussolini, posturing as the strong leader who will sweep aside namby-pambies and set things right. He’ll deport all the illegals and build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He’ll make the trains run on time. (For the record, it’s a myth that Mussolini did that. Power and competence are two different things.)

images-4“Make America great again”? More like a banana republic.

Cruz is just about as bad, a smarmy con man. Maybe it’s no surprise that evangelicals taken in by preachers and a fairy tale man-in-the-sky would likewise fall for the political equivalent.

Unknown-1The angry old white man vote might carry the nomination, but not the country. Republicans went over a cliff with Goldwater, but at least he stood for something worthy. It seems nuts to go over the cliff for what juvenile jollies Trump provides. To nominate him is to elect Hillary. But (though I normally refrain from saying this of those I disagree with) rational thinking is no part of the Trump phenomenon. This is what you get from years of Republicans stoking anti-intellectualism and crude cultural resentments. It could destroy the party if an anti-Trump tsunami sweeps out its legislators too, handing control of gerrymandering to Democrats. The presidential electoral map already strongly favors them, and demographic trends do as well.

Part of the trouble is the sensible Republican vote being diluted among too many candidates. The party’s serious leaders need to unite behind just one – surely Marco Rubio. He would defeat Hillary, really a weak, damaged candidate, with all her baggage. But instead, regarding Trump, the Republican “establishment” now exhibits the classic stages of grief – it started with denial, and ends with acceptance.

images-3But what if – the nightmare scenario – both parties nominate unelectable candidates? I wrote long ago that Hillary could be felled from the left. All the energy is with Sanders. His taking both Iowa and New Hampshire might spike Hillary’s juggernaut. But while Democratic activists have veered sharply left, they’re deluded to imagine the country receptive to their message. This is still a center-right nation, leery of left-wing class warfare. In November, just one word – “socialist” – will sink Bernie, no matter his disingenuous attempts to redefine it.

The rise of ridiculous candidates like Trump and Sanders is symptomatic of America’s broken politics – dominated by fire-eaters of both left and right, neither grappling realistically with our challenges, let alone coming together to tackle them. This, and its disheartening results, is what makes voters susceptible to the likes of a Trump. I have long argued that a possible way out of this mess might be via a centrist third party candidate, of serious stature, well-funded, talking sense to voters as adults, and calling out both major parties for their dysfunctionality.*

Unknown-2Reportedly Michael Bloomberg is considering it. Conventional wisdom says it’s doomed. But remember Perot in 1992, a somewhat similar though deeply flawed candidate, who nevertheless got 19% of the vote – and a three-way race could be won with 35%. We’re also told Bloomberg couldn’t win because he’s pro-choice and anti-gun – though just such a candidate actually did win the last two elections. Bloomberg is imperfect in other ways, but let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good. I’d gladly support him. And whereas Perot contended against two plausible candidates (Bush 41 & Bill Clinton), Bloomberg would be far stronger vis-a-vis a Hobson’s choice of Bernie versus Trump.

This rational optimist wants to believe, like David Brooks in his latest column, that our great country will, at the end of the day, never elect a Trump, Cruz, or Sanders. It’s customary to genuflect at the ultimate wisdom of the electorate. But voters in other countries have made some pretty horrible mistakes. America is not necessarily immune from this pitfall of democracy. Trump too could win a three-way race with only 35%.

* See my own presidential announcement speech; click here. Alas, I did not get a groundswell of support.

Advertisements

Grannies killed by college exams

January 24, 2016

imagesIt’s true. College exams are deadly for students’ grandmothers. A study determined that granny death rates spike tenfold before a midterm, and nineteen times before a final exam. One theory is that grannies’ health is undermined by anxiety and stress when their grandchildren face exams. Indeed, the study found that failing students are fifty times likelier to lose a grandmother in the run-up to an exam, compared to non-failing students.

This is reported in Dan Ariely’s book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke.

images-3But seriously, what’s really going on is that students commonly make up grandmother deaths as a pretext for requesting exam postponements. Shocking.

The book’s main theme is that we all lie and cheat. But that doesn’t make us sociopaths. In fact, we tend to lie and cheat only so much that we can still look in the mirror and see an honest ethical person. We sometimes lie to ourselves.

UnknownAriely invokes numerous laboratory experiments. In a typical case, test subjects are asked to solve a set of puzzles within a time limit, earning a payment for each one solved. But on an honor system: they self-report their performance. Most fudge it upward, but only by a little.

images-1I found much of this suspiciously artificial and unlike real life. In another example, people were asked to gauge whether more dots appeared to the right or left of a line. Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes not. But when told they’d be paid substantially more for saying “right” than “left,” the answers skewed rightward. This Ariely called dishonesty. I disagree. If told I’d be paid more simply for saying “right” rather than “left,” I’d shrug and say “right” every time. That’s just a rational response to the rules.

Perhaps I’m quibbling. But most of Ariely’s lab tests entailed honesty along a gradient, falling in shades of gray. Whereas in everyday life ethical questions are often either-or. For instance, in my coin business, I normally send out orders before payment. Perhaps if, Ariely lab style, customers calculated their own bills, there might be some fudging. But when it’s just paying versus not paying, over 99% pay. Some even correct errors made in their favor.

This bespeaks honesty of a high order. Maybe my customers are not a representative cross-section, but I don’t think collectively they’re that unusual. Nor is my business. Most of the world’s commerce proceeds on a basis of mutual trust between trading partners; it’s our default assumption. Unknown-1I once got an e-mail from a stranger in Africa selling coins. I gave him a substantial order. He didn’t know me, but assumed that an American businessperson would likely pay. And I did pay him after receiving the package. That’s how it works.

This basic level of trust is a fundamental underpinning of civilization. Of course we know we must watch out for violators; we lock our doors. Yet still you assume the average person whose paths you cross won’t bash your head in and grab your stuff. Or that a store won’t sell you defective goods. And so forth. Otherwise civilization could not function.

A recent poll found a significant decline in the percentage agreeing that most people are trustworthy. There’s no evidence we’ve actually become less trustworthy – only that we think people have. images-2Ariely seems to, pointing to scandals like Enron. But were businesses more ethical in bygone times? I doubt it; indeed, it’s harder to get away with scams in today’s interconnected media world of constant scrutiny and exposure. Yet that parade of exposures – Volkswagen is a recent example – does make people believe misfeasance has become rampant, compared to a romanticized past. I also suspect that decreased face-to-face personal interactions undermines our acculturation to the idea that people are generally trustworthy. But if that makes us less trusting, the decline in perceived trustworthiness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Joe Krausman, Monkeyshines, and heightism

January 20, 2016

UnknownMy friend Joe Krausman is a truly amazing fellow. Everywhere I go – whether it’s a lecture, open mic, party, whatever – Joe is there. Maybe he’s stalking me. But, among his many talents and accomplishments, he’s a very droll poet. Now he’s finally got a little book of poems, titled Monkeyshines.* It’s great.

One poem I particularly enjoyed features a hypothetical, enticing personal ad:

ATTRACTIVE VIBRANT ENGLISH PROFESSOR, 35, INTERESTED IN
CANDLE LIGHT DINNERS, BICYCLING, GOOD BOOKS, SEEKING TALL
GOOD LOOKING PROFESSIONAL, FINANCIALLY SECURE, UNDER 40 . . .

images-1The poem goes on to lament all the ways in which its author (Joe) would fail to make the cut – height being one of them. I myself had noticed, back when I was working personal ads, that women do often toss in that word “tall,” perhaps almost unthinkingly.

I’m 5’4” but shortness doesn’t actually figure in my self perception; I’m surprised when anyone else sees me that way. Like the law professor who began a letter of recommendation saying, “Frank is a little bit of a guy, but . . . .” That seemed bizarre to me.

Nevertheless, when dating, I couldn’t avoid being aware of the height factor. Most women want it. Or believe they should. Even short women. Men below a certain height tend to be sexually invisible to them.

Unknown-3This is a product of biological evolution. Throughout our long prehistory, bigger really did mean fitter; a bigger man could better protect a woman from marauders. That preference got coded into our genes. That’s why, even absent any marauders today, short men still get short shrift.

Gals wouldn’t always put it baldly in a personal ad, yet still it lurked. One who didn’t use the T-word in her ad nevertheless ended what had seemed a very simpatico date with, “Well, I’m really looking for someone taller.”

But this is not just about sex. That evolutionary history favoring height also affects men’s attitudes. They too have an unconscious heightism. A taller man is imagined to be an abler man. So, while I did alright in my professional life, I can’t help wondering how my career path might have differed had I not been seen as “a little bit of a guy, but . . . .”

Unknown-1Our society is much concerned about racism, sexism, discrimination based on religion, sexual orientation, you name it; even fat people are recognized as victims of bias. But even here short men** are disregarded. We can’t get any respect even in the victimhood game.

Anyhow, Joe’s poem contains another personal ad, more promising for guys like him, yet in some elusive way perhaps less alluring:

FRUMPY WOMAN, GOES SHOPPING WITH CURLERS IN HER HAIR,
TENDS TO PUT ON WEIGHT WHEN BREATHING, INTERESTED IN
WATCHING DAYTIME TV, LOOKING FOR SHORT MAN TO ANNOY.

Unknown-4*Published by Rootdrinker Institute’s Benevolent Bird Press. (Their website is unfortunately not kept up to date!)

** “Vertically challenged” is, I believe, the politically correct term.

The angry, illiberal left and right, and the silent majority

January 15, 2016

UnknownOur politics is riven between a left whose anger is largely economic and a right whose is largely cultural. Both are illiberal in the classical sense.

Classical liberal philosophy (not modern American “liberalism”) stressed the worth of the individual, and human flourishing through openness and freedom to follow one’s own path. imagesToday’s American right and left both are hostile to that sort of openness. The left always liked big government telling people what to do, and now wants to close us off from a global economy seen as threatening; and to close off debate by delegitimizing opposing viewpoints. The right wants to close off America from immigrants, “the other,” and from cultural evolution.

UnknownThe latest example of the intolerant left’s allergy toward openness is the movement for campus “safety” – that is, making students “safe” from ideas they might supposedly find unsettling. What a travesty of what a university should be. They prattle about “diversity” yet hate the kind that really matters – diversity of opinion.

The right, or conservatism, used to stand for basically classical liberal ideas, aimed at opportunity for all people. But the perversion of those ideals is epitomized by far the vilest presidential candidate in memory. “He says what he thinks, what others won’t say.” Well, that’s because it’s rancid.

images-3Republicans, for decades, frankly exploited base cultural resentments to get votes and hence the power to promote their worthier policies. But that created a monster that’s now swallowing the GOP. The yahoos it coddled are taking over the party with ugly, disgraceful policies. For all today’s mantra-like invocation of the word “conservative,” this isn’t any kind of principled conservatism – or Republicanism – that this child of ’64 can recognize.

If ever there was a time for “the silent majority,” this is it. I still do not believe the shrill bigots of today’s right and left together represent America. They’re just louder, drowning out more temperate voices; and that turns off the reasonable people toward politics altogether. images-4I myself feel, politically, like my namesake Robinson Crusoe, marooned on deserted island. Yet I will continue to argue for what I consider to be genuinely liberal, humanistic ideas, and against the illiberalism of both left and right.

Regulation, poverty, and hot sex

January 9, 2016

imagesTacna is an industrial park set up by Peru’s government. It even offers exemption from corporate income tax. Yet Tacna stands empty. Why? Because of the red tape for setting up there.

I read this recently in The Economist, discussing Latin America’s economic stagnation. The article also mentions that to build a gas pipeline in Peru requires 4,102 separate permits.

We constantly hear about world poverty and inequality, and remedies as economically clueless as they are radical. But the more I learn how the world actually works, the larger looms the unsexy yet critical issue of excessive regulation.

UnknownFirst of all, “unfettered capitalism” is a straw-man caricature. Nobody believes business should have no restraints. Just as individuals are subject to societal laws, against littering and murder, to protect us all, so too for businesses.

But that actually concerns only a tiny fraction of business regulations. They have a natural tendency to metastasize, with the idea that if a little regulation is good, more is better. Unknown-1Thus we get OSHA regulating how many inches apart a ladder’s rungs must be.

There is a psychology that fears and hates life’s uncertainty and disorder, imagining they can be controlled with sufficient regulation. And believes “society” somehow knows better than individuals and should supplant their decisions and choices, putatively to make a more orderly world.

But there’s a huge downside. Like in Peru’s case, all this regulation stifles economic activity. My local newspaper, the Times-Union, recently had a piece very revealing about how New York’s governmental regulation impedes would-be small business entrepreneurs.

Over-regulation is much worse in many other countries, especially – seemingly counter-intuitively – poorer ones, making it difficult if not impossible to do business. Many have sought to emulate the rich nations in establishing elaborate bureaucratic rule-books, indeed outdoing them in an orgy of regulation for regulation’s sake.

images-1You think I exaggerate. But look at Peru; Nigeria; Egypt. India is the standout poster boy, with a jungle of nonsensical rules (the “License Raj”), many actually the product of an anti-business mentality. For example, that same Economist issue elsewhere mentions an Indian law banning storage of large quantities of various commodities – supposedly to deter “hoarding.” It actually deters investment in warehouses and cold storage, so much farm produce just rots (in the land with the most malnourished people on Earth).

images-2Also, some poor countries intentionally create a morass of fiddly rules to give officials opportunities to extort bribes to bend or overlook those rules. Or else rules may be well intentioned but fall victim to the law of unintended consequences. Many nations (especially in Europe) have regulations making it difficult and costly to fire employees. The aim is job security. But the result is unemployment because businesses become reluctant to hire people in the first place.

In many places it’s so difficult and costly to comply with all the nitpicking regulations that businesses just give up and operate, if at all, in the black market – limiting their access to finance and growth, and of course neutering the consumer safeguards regulation ought ideally to provide. No way to run an economy.

If you have scant sympathy for the businessmen stymied by over-regulation, consider all the jobs that might otherwise be created. And how much regulatory costs add to the prices of goods and services purchased by the poor. images-3Those prices are also inflated by lack of business competition – another true aim of much regulation, at the behest of politically powerful firms. (Taxi companies worldwide are mobiilizing to squelch the competitive threat of Uber – often by means of regulation.)

Bottom line: over-regulation hurts the poor. It limits their opportunities to rise to better lives through honest toil and commerce, and aggravates inequality. This is a bigger issue than anything in Piketty.

The world (and especially its poorest) would – literally – be better off with no regulation of business (apart from obvious criminality like fraud). Wouldn’t many people be harmed? Certainly. But that would be vastly outweighed by the benefits of more jobs, lower prices, more goods produced more cheaply and more consumption, thus overall greater economic growth.

images-4This isn’t just theoretical. I give you China – despite its “Communist” label (and authoritarianism), China in fact is the closest thing in the world to that mythical creature, “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” It’s a wild west where private business is just about not regulated at all. Yes, there have been some scandals. But China’s average real-dollar per-person income has soared, since 1979, more than THIRTY-FOLD – over 3000%. Human betterment on a vast scale, unprecedented in history, with hundreds of millions rising out of poverty. That’s what you get with no business regulation.

So what about the “hot sex” of my title? Well, no one (few anyway) would read something prosaically titled “Regulation and poverty.”

What do we live for?

January 3, 2016

“God, make me chaste – but not yet.”

Augustine

Augustine

That was Saint Augustine, famously wrestling between his worldly desires and desire for holiness. He’s profiled in David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character.

Brooks’s theme is that a truly good life requires controlling, even sacrificing, personal desires — but it’s an advantageous trade-off. This is what Augustine struggled over. He knew his pursuit of worldly success, pleasures, sex, wasn’t making him happy. But could he change?

Brooks profiles people he feels did resolve the dilemma and hence did live good lives.

Marshall

Marshall

George Marshall, for example, a model of soldierly devotion to duty and country. In WWII, Marshall ached to lead the D-Day invasion, and believed he’d earned the prize. But he forbade himself from ever putting personal desires first, and when FDR asked him point blank if he wanted it, Marshall could not utter the word “yes.” So it went to Eisenhower.

Eisenhower too is profiled in the book, along with Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot, Frances Perkins, and Samuel Johnson; all certainly admirable characters. Each made sacrifices for the sake of a higher good, exercising self-control over personal impulses which might have entailed transient rewards but which conflicted with larger goals. The key is understanding what is really important, and the strength of will to put that first.

This again was Augustine’s struggle. But, unlike the others profiled, his greater good was not to achieve something in the human realm. While Ike and Marshall served their country, Randolph the cause of equality, Day and Perkins the downtrodden, etc., for Augustine it was God. It was to get right with God that Augustine finally summoned the will to reorder his life.

The others were serving something real; Augustine, something imaginary. So what is the moral lesson there? Brooks’s chapter on Augustine is all theological mumbo-jumbo, convoluted and false; indeed, absurd. You cannot live a truly meaningful life if the whole thing is grounded in delusion. Only when you overcome false ideas about existence, and grapple with the world as it really is, can you live a life of authentic meaning and virtue.

Unknown-4In concluding his chapter on Augustine, Brooks speaks of “faith against pure rationalism.” Mark Twain defined faith as believing what you know ain’t so. My rationalism isn’t “pure,” since humans are imperfect. But we must try.

Brooks talks of a broad cultural shift from an ethos of “moral realism,” controlling the self in service to some larger good (a la Marshall) to one of self-actualization, “be all you can be,” or condensed to “the big Me.” imagesAnd like others who put things in such terms, Brooks is censorious, albeit mildly; he thinks the shift has gone too far, and we’re losing a deeper kind of virtue.

Here’s my take. For most of human history, conditions of life were unforgivingly harsh, such that Brooksian “moral realism” was not just a virtue but a necessity. Of course selfishness and greed always operated too, yet survival required individuals to conform to societal strictures. That’s what has changed. No longer will a little free-spirited self-indulgence throw us back to living in caves. Modern advanced societies have at last mastered the problem of subsistence, freeing us to seek personal fulfillment in whatever ways feel nourishing to us, without having to be George Marshall about it.

Most of us still do try to serve others, and a larger good. But it’s not the only way to live meaningfully. In a utilitarian calculus of increasing the world’s sum total of human happiness, seeing to your own needs and desires is at least equal in importance to worrying about someone else’s. Indeed, you have a special duty to yourself, and you are the one person best positioned to know what’s good for you.

As Garrison Keillor has said, if one’s purpose in life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others?

UnknownIn his summing up, Brooks’s point number one is: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” But the explanatory paragraph actually says nothing of God, it’s about moral ambition. If we live for such “holiness,” why so? Ultimately it’s always about personal fulfillment – doing that which makes us feel good. The ascetic starving himself in a cave does it because, on a level most important to him, the suffering makes him feel good about himself. “Happiness” is a suitable word for this concept. It is what everyone lives for.