Archive for December, 2016

The tide of history

December 30, 2016

               “There is a tide in the affairs of men . . . “  – William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)

unknownThe Enlightenment began in the early 1700s, aiming to free us from shackles both mental and political. In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, and America, the Declaration of Independence. Both were seminal Enlightenment manifestos. The latter lit a slow-burning fuse that finally set off a worldwide democratic explosion in the late Twentieth Century.

That century first passed through a Götterdämmerung as powerful totalitarian and militaristic forces rose up and were, amid vast slaughter, beaten down. unknown-1Not until the late ‘80s did Communism succumb. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and, viewing the New Year’s Eve fireworks, I saluted aloud that “blessed, golden year.” Then the Soviet Union itself fell, and soon after I was thrilled to visit a Russia that was now a free country.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama captured the zeitgeist with The End of History, proclaiming the global triumph of humanistic values centered upon peaceful democratic politics and open economies – ascendant because this gives human beings the opportunities for self-realization they most deeply crave.

unknown-2All that, in hindsight now, was a high-water mark. There is a tide in the affairs of men. And future historians will deem 2016 another seminal year – when the tide of history turned.

It was America that had shouldered the lead, in defeating the militarist totalitarians, and then through the Cold War, continuing its leadership and rallying the forces of light against darkness. Great steadfast America (most of the time) standing up for the best human values. But now America has tired of it; or perhaps has simply lost the thread, ceasing to understand what it’s about.

The Fukuyama paradigm was already wobbling, as Russia resumed being bad old Russia, China’s repression intensified, the “Arab Spring” largely backfired, horrors went largely unpunished, the European Union began to unravel, and democracy was in retreat in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Thailand, Malaysia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Nicaragua . . . .

And then America elected Trump.

unknown-3It’s what this represents that makes 2016 a hinge of history. It’s America throwing its moral leadership down the toilet. Trump, unique among modern U.S. presidents, shows no interest whatsoever in that mission. To the contrary, he sucks up to Putin, and seems to actually align us on the dark side. And electing a man of his flagrantly obvious vile character signals a collapse of our civic culture. This, combined with the triumph of his appeal to his voters’ worst instincts, shows that America has indeed turned its back on the high ideals that made it great in the first place. (True, those voters were a minority. But 63 million of them have given him the presidency.)

This is not something we’ll recover from in four years, or eight. Our body politic used to punish lies and gaffes. Now it rewards them. Jeb Bush was proven wrong in telling Trump, “You can’t insult your way to the presidency.” Now our politics is deeply polluted with vulgarity, lies, bogus news, and conspiracy theories; while partisan divisions harden, the two sides inhabiting separate universes and hating each other ever more passionately. We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t end in literal civil war. But we sure won’t be coming together to tackle the challenging issues that cloud America’s future.

Some are already speculating about when his followers will turn on Trump. Of course he won’t fulfill his impossible promises. But this assumes Trump support is rational (despite his promises having been absurd). images-1Nobody wants to admit they made a mistake, and that will likely apply to most Trump voters. Their refusal so far to see the truth about him is like a religious faith. And if they do find their faith betrayed, will they then return to sanity, decency and civic responsibility, to a conventional mainstream politician and platform? I don’t think so. If anger and resentments drove many voters in 2016, a perceived Trump betrayal will enflame them even more. And with the door opened to monsters, the next could well be even worse.

America’s decline might not be the end of the world – if the rest could go merrily along building the Fukuyama Jerusalem without us. But that’s not what’s happening. As explained, America has been the “indispensable nation,” the linchpin, the keystone. images-3Subtract U.S. moral leadership, and what happens to a humanistic global order, of openness and democracy, already under assault by hordes of howling demons?

This is why 2016 is such a tragedy.

 

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Fear and loathing in chemistry sets

December 26, 2016

images-1Remember chemistry sets? Millennials won’t. They pretty much vanished about 25 years ago. These were kits sold for kids, with arrays of different chemicals in little jars, and maybe some equipment like tongs, glassware, and Bunsen burners.

People loved them. Were they out of their minds? The danger! The danger!

Well, they sure were dangerous. I don’t recall having had a store-bought chemistry set, but I did have a science bent, and one time when my parents were out, I conducted a little clandestine chemistry experiment on the kitchen counter. images-2Yes, it blew up. The countertop was damaged, but luckily I was unscathed . . . until Mom got home.

The idea of letting a kid today play with chemicals, using fragile glassware and a Bunsen burner no less, would be seen as flat-out madness. Such a parent would probably be locked up.

Actually, chemistry sets are still sold, but they’re a pale shadow, with only a few insipid substances that do nothing more than change color; and certainly no Bunsen burners. unknownI even read that the Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering banning one set because it included . . . wait for it . . . a paper clip. Yes, the dreaded paper clip. Could be swallowed.

Remember the “Bubble Boy” . . . ?

But no doubt old-time chemistry sets did cause some injuries. However, when I googled the phrase “children killed by chemistry sets” (yes, intensive research goes into these blog posts), I couldn’t find a single case. But one commentary that came up said chemistry sets in fact taught kids safety. You learn by doing. (I certainly learned from that kitchen mishap.) Whereas today’s kids are so overprotected from every conceivable danger that they don’t properly develop the concept of danger. unknown-1I wonder if this is a cause for a modern behavior that really is insanely hazardous (killing thousands annually): texting while driving.

Chemistry sets also taught kids about, well, chemistry, and science more generally. My googling, while it turned up no death stories, did turn up kids who developed a love of science from those chemistry sets and went on to scientific careers. Maybe the demise of chemistry kits is one small reason why we’re producing fewer scientists.

Yet another casualty of our twisted mentality about fears and dangers. Both fear and its lack can be irrational, and we often get it wrong both ways. How many people have ever sent a text expressing fear about GM foods (no danger at all) – while driving? And too often we vent fears about good things (like GM, and child science kits) but not truly bad things (like guns in the home which, unlike chemistry sets, kill kids in droves).

unknown-2Another good thing that has suffered from this syndrome is the childhood fun of Halloween. Do you know how many kids were ever actually poisoned by Halloween candy?

Precisely one. His father did it to collect insurance.

Lies and voters

December 21, 2016
Erdogan

Erdogan

After Turkey’s attempted coup last summer, Turks marched en masse to support their democracy – and their President Erdogan – who is a bigger threat to that democracy than the coup was. Soon they’ll be asked to vote to effectively give Erdogan total power. Seems they’ll say yes.

Why? Isn’t it national suicide?

Erdogan has pretty much crushed independent media; Turkish public information sources now spew his propaganda. Similarly in Russia, state controlled media feed the people a diet of distorted and false “information” to manipulate them into thinking what Putin wants them to. And so they do think it. If you call that “thinking.”*

If I lived in such a country, I would, on principle, believe (and vote) the opposite of what the regime wants. Yet few people follow such logic.

images-2Fortunately we don’t live in that kind of country. Yet, perversely, many Americans view our own media with exactly that sort of distrust. In the last campaign, we had the “lugenpresse” trope – an unashamed borrowing from Nazi propaganda – retaining the original German no less! “Lugenpresse” meant “lying press” – a line Hitler used until he solved the “problem” by (like Erdogan and Putin) suppressing independent media.

Regarding Trump’s campaign, the press’s alleged “lying” consisted chiefly of reporting what he said. As though he meant what he said. When honest reporters would have realized he didn’t. Or something.

images-4The other great irony here is that while the mainstream media, truthfully exposing all Trump’s moral degeneracies, was distrusted and ignored as the “lugenpresse,” what his followers did trust instead was a farrago of fly-by-night fake news venues. They reported such obvious howlers as the Pope endorsing Trump, President Obama (that Kenya-born Muslim) encouraging illegal immigrants to vote, and Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a Pizza parlor basement. (Incoming whacko National Security Advisor Michael Flynn  seems to have embraced the latter story.)

images-3And when Trump said Hillary wouldn’t be prosecuted, demonstrators outside his New York palace marched with signs saying “Hillary’s Lies Matter.” The Biggest Liar Ever had lied to them about prosecuting her, yet it was still her supposed lies that matter! Trump also says he’d won “the single greatest victory in the history of politics.” Does that mean capturing the presidency despite losing the popular vote by millions? Of course he says he didn’t truly lose it. And denies the obvious fact that his Russian pals actively worked to elect him. Sheesh!

The left is not immune from the syndrome; they too live in their own separate reality of so-called “information.” The problem actually isn’t that mainstream media have somehow failed in their mission of giving us objective, unbiased information. images-5It’s that people hate information that contradicts their beliefs. And in today’s world of totally free media, there is an incentive for providers of biased information (and outright fake news) that caters to a particular mindset. They can profit and gain power and influence by coddling their followers’ prejudices (as Steve Bannon of the racist Breitbart News has done). Why listen to mainstream media when you can go elsewhere for “information” that better flatters your prejudices?

unknownAnd so we have countries like Russia and Turkey without free media where people lap up the propaganda fed them by cynical state-controlled sources; while in America with free media people choose to lap up the propaganda fed them by cynical biased sources.

* There are limits. Venezuelan President Maduro’s effort to blame economic implosion on conspiracies is getting short shrift when his own folly is so obviously at fault.

Eat the Rich

December 17, 2016

unknownP. J. O’Rourke is the funniest serious writer I know. Or the most serious humorist. Even the “Acknowledgments” section of his book Eat the Rich is hilarious. Its subtitle is A Treatise on Economics – often called the dismal science. Some dispute that – denying economics is a science. But it’s normally no laff riot. O’Rourke makes it one while actually treating the subject in deadly earnest.

O’Rourke asks why countries are rich or poor. It’s not obvious. He starts by naming the usual suspects – brains, education, natural resources, culture, history, hard work, technology, government – and exonerating them all with counter-examples. Admittedly that’s a mite glib. While he says government doesn’t cause affluence, because places with a lot of government are often broke, the kind of government matters.

unknownSo he visits countries, seeking enlightenment. First stop, Albania. So dysfunctional is Albania in O’Rourke’s telling that it’s a mystery Albanians don’t just starve. He titles the chapter “Bad Capitalism,” but capitalism per se is not Albania’s problem. It’s a deficiency of civil society. Albanians never got the memo about living decently among other people.

Next, Sweden: “Good Socialism.” This “socialist utopia” is often romanticized – the common mistake of confusing labels with reality. O’Rourke: “When the Social Democrats did get in office, they made socialism work by the novel expedient of not introducing any.” Instead, they retained a free market capitalist economy, and heavily taxed the resulting prosperity to fund egalitarian redistribution and social welfare spending. Swedes bought into this because, on the civil society spectrum, they’re at the opposite end from Albanians – really nice people who believe in egalitarianism and social welfare.

unknown-1But unfortunately, O’Rourke explains, politicians found they could buy votes with ever increasing hand-outs. Whereas originally, benefits mainly went to working people, now non-work started to pay.

Guess what. Redistributing the fruits of prosperity might fly, but not redistributing fruits you’re not producing. Sweden got into a deep hole. But at least, being Swedish and sensible, they saw the need for retrenchment. So today’s Sweden is very much not what lefties dream.

images-1Then on to Cuba: “Bad Socialism.” Worse even than Albania which at least actually has an economy, sort of. I won’t go into details, but if you’re one of those ideologues who thinks Cuba is the cat’s meow (the healthcare! the healthcare!) – you’re an idiot.

I mean, come on, really, you are.

O’Rourke quotes a Cuba guidebook that a museum’s antique furniture was “recovered from the great mansions of the local bourgeoisie” – “Tactfully put,” he says. “Outside the tourist areas, however, there was a fair danger of experiencing some freelance socialism; you might find that you were the local bourgeoisie from which something got recovered.”

Finally, Hong Kong: a tiny place with huge population density and no natural resources, poor as dirt when the Brits came in. They made it rich. How? By doing nothing. Just letting Hong Kongers freely do their own thing. The freest market economy on Earth. Today its per capita income exceeds Britain’s own (the Brits partly socialized themselves).images-2

This sets the stage for O’Rourke’s summing-up chapter – a cogent, compelling defense of free market capitalism.

In pre-industrial times, nearly everyone was poor as dirt. Economic growth was approximately squat. Since then, growth has multiplied average incomes around tenfold. More efficient production is part of it. But you also need secure property rights, rule of law, and democratic (hence accountable) government. These are interconnected, and part of a society’s culture.

unknown-2So is a free market – enabling people to freely utilize their abilities to improve their lot, and enjoy the fruits of their efforts. No freedom is more fundamental. This is also more moral than any alternative – even though it results in inequality, which some deem unfair. O’Rourke: “The market is ‘heartless.’ So are clocks and yardsticks.” Blaming inequality on free markets is like gaining twenty pounds and blaming the bathroom scale.

The common error is thinking Joe’s wealth causes Sue’s poverty. As though there’s a fixed amount of wealth to go around, and Joe having more means Sue having less. Not so. Mainly, the world’s Joes get richer by producing something of value, enlarging the pie, enabling Sue to have more too. So wealth is not an evil, it’s a good thing. And actually, the ethic of capitalism, as opposed to mere wealth, is to reinvest riches, not just hoard them. This also grows the pie.

unknown-1Adam Smith, in 1776, called it the “invisible hand.” The truth that folks striving to enrich themselves wind up enriching society. Many still don’t get it. Why? Because it is invisible. Yet because of it, globally, the gap between rich and poor is in fact narrowing, not just in money, but in quality of life measures like literacy, infant mortality, longevity, etc. Some unfairness is a reasonable price to pay for the betterment of all (or most).

unknown-3But O’Rourke deems it actually wrong to care about fairness. He invokes the Tenth Commandment: don’t covet thy neighbor’s stuff. Get your own. A message to socialists, egalitarians, and fairness fetishists.

Here’s my own summation – also a concept that eludes many people (like Bernie, the Cuban government). All wealth comes from producing goods and services people need or want. Whatever encourages (or at least doesn’t hinder) folks getting on with it is good economic policy.

That is all ye know on earth,
And all ye need to know.

Russia’s newest satellite nation: America

December 12, 2016

images-1America’s Central Intelligence Agency, after careful analysis of the factual evidence, has reached a firm conclusion that Russia’s regime not only interfered with our presidential election, but did so specifically to help Trump. We can be sure that such an explosive charge would not have been made unless the CIA felt confident of the evidence. In fact, Russia’s game was obvious; they hacked both parties, but only material damaging to Democrats was leaked (not that anything really damaging emerged; but the consequent foofaw hurt Clinton nevertheless).

And moreover, it was also obvious why the Kremlin preferred Trump. He was dissing NATO and our treaty commitments, lauding Putin, excusing Russia’s aggressions, and suggesting sanctions against Russia should end. unknown-1And of course it would delight the Kremlin for America to be weakened and to look bad, due to a presidential bull in a china shop.

A foreign government interfering in an American election – successfully! – is a matter of the highest seriousness. It cannot be tolerated, and calls for a robust response, doing everything possible to deter this kind of thing happening again.

Trump has responded instead by attacking not Russia but America’s own intelligence services, as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” What others see as obvious truth he dismisses as “ridiculous.” He also brayed that the election “ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” A “massive landslide,” he called it; the Democrats “suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics.”

unknown-2Fact check: we have had 58 presidential elections. In 45, the winning electoral vote margin, percentagewise, was greater than Trump’s. And he lost the popular vote by a decisive 2-1/2 million. We are suffering one of the greatest liars in the history of politics. Exactly the jackass Russia wanted to saddle us with.

Further still, in the wake of the CIA’s explosive revelation, and Trump’s moronic response, we also learn that the top choice for Secretary of State is now Rex Tillerson.*

Tillerson with the new top dog

Tillerson with America’s new top dog

He’s the head of Exxon Mobil, where he’s spent his entire career. Not a jot of governmental, diplomatic, or public policy experience. But that’s not the worst of it. If we wanted the most pro-Russian Putin-loving guy possible – short of naming Sergei Lavrov himself – it would be Rex Tillerson.

images-3Make America great again? We’d better start learning Russian.

* I always thought Trump was deliberately jerking Romney around, as payback for Romney’s words about him. Creeps will be creeps.

Is reality real?

December 10, 2016

Bishop Berkeley, a 1700s philosopher, was the first to question the existence of a material reality outside our minds. unknownIn my 2009 Optimism book, I quoted an article by Professor Robert Lanza similarly arguing that reality is just a figment of mental activity – literally – “the trees and snow evaporate when we’re sleeping. The kitchen disappears when we’re in the bathroom.”

But (I wrote) if our perceptions create reality, then what creates our perceptions? Though you might question a reality that was yours alone, the fact that we all experience essentially the same reality corroborates it. images-1This isn’t a mass delusion. Madonna was right: we are living in a material world.

Lanza has meantime authored, together with astronomy writer Bob Berman, some books on “biocentrism,” carrying the argument further, and even using it to deem death an illusion. My wife and I debated about this, and she smacked me with an article in The Atlantic, (“The Case Against Reality”), interviewing Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science.

Hoffman starts with the idea that our ancestors whose perceptions best matched reality would have had a competitive evolutionary advantage. Very plausible, he says, but “utterly false.” images-2Evolution, according to Hoffman, really hinges instead on “fitness functions” – “an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness.”

Hoffman invokes here as metaphor a computer’s desktop interface. It might show a blue rectangular icon in a lower right screen position – but those characteristics reveal nothing true about that file or anything in the computer. images-3The icon guides our behavior while hiding a complex reality we don’t need to know. Similarly, if I see a snake, it’s “a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions.”

But, like Lanza and Berman, Hoffman goes further, arguing that experienced perceptions are all there is, and what is perceived doesn’t really exist. This, he says, is what quantum mechanics tells us: “there are no physical objects.” So, “[j]ust like you have your own headache, you have your own moon” that you see. Thus, Hoffman derides most neuroscientists for focusing on “a physical brain,” an idea archaically rooted in 300-year-old Newtonian physics, when we’ve learned from more modern quantum physics “that classical objects – including brains – don’t exist.”

Let’s see if I can demystify this.

Hoffman’s perception-versus-fitness argument entails a false dichotomy. Simply put, accurate perception is one element of fitness. All else equal, an organism with better perceptual accuracy is more fit, and has a competitive advantage. images-4Seeing a snake may be like seeing a desktop icon, in guiding behavior, without needing to know anything about the underlying reality. Yet an ability to distinguish snakes from sticks, and some knowledge of a snake’s underlying reality (how it behaves), are important “fitness functions.”

It’s been said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t. This applies to Hoffman, Lanza, Berman, and Deepak Chopra – another philosophical quack who similarly misuses catch phrases from quantum physics to propound nonsensical woo-woo propositions. (I noticed the first blurb for the latest Lanza-Berman book is from Deepak Chopra.)

Specifically, the Hoffman article says experiments have shown “that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get wrong answers.” Hence “[t]here are no public objects sitting out there in some pre-existing space.” But that second sentence simply does not follow from the first; it’s an absurd leap. While quantum physics does tell us some very queer things about particle behavior at the subatomic level, none of that means “classical objects” made up of zillions of particles don’t exist. Nonexistent things can’t have any behavior; you can’t perform experiments on them. imagesFailure to acknowledge that quantum mechanics governs only the subatomic realm, not that of everyday objects, is the fundamental mistake (or flim-flam) here. (And by the other authors mentioned.)

Our scientific understanding of the physics of reality has penetrated very far toward its core. We are not all the way there yet, and the problem gets ever harder because we are trying to see into ever tinier realms. It concerns the deepest structure of the particles at the heart of existence and of the spacetime in which they do their thing. And, true, the deeper we go, the more it’s as if “there’s no there there.” I’m writing this on a desk, seemingly a hard object. But it’s made up of atoms, which are almost entirely empty space, and what’s not empty space consists of particles which don’t seem to be the kind of solid objects we’re familiar with either. Drilling down, we haven’t gotten to where we can put our fingers onto something hard. Yet the desk is hard. How can that be? Or is it really?

images-5And so we have guys like Hoffman telling us “classical objects” like brains don’t exist. But the fact that we don’t yet understand – deeply, at the subatomic level – how their existence works certainly does not mean they don’t exist at all.

And the fundamental contradiction in Hoffman’s idea is that if reality is only a construct of mental activity, where does that mental activity come from, if not the brain? If brains (“classical objects”) don’t actually exist, how can there be any mental activity, any perceptions? It’s a chicken-and-egg tautology.

This is the problem with all philosophies (like Lanza-Berman’s too) that posit some kind of “mind” that somehow exists apart from the physical neurons in the brain. A “soul.” At the end of the day, our minds, our consciousness, our selves, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, all can only be phenomena rooted in the physical functioning of neurons. We don’t yet fully understand how that works either, but it must. There is no other possibility.

When Lanza and Berman tell us death is an illusion, what they’re really saying is that life is an illusion. Our lives – our consciousness, sense of self – may indeed be a kind of illusion generated by the physical interactions of our neurons. And when they die, the illusion dies.

William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!

December 5, 2016

sartorisAsked to name my favorite author, I’d probably say Faulkner. I’m reminded of this by finding, at a recent book sale, his novel Sartoris. I’d always meant to read that one – since I happen to be a three-time recipient of the Sartoris medal.*

Faulkner’s work is not easy reading, but worth the effort. It always packs a wallop, plumbing the greatest intensity of human experience.

Faulkner

Faulkner

Its difficulty is exemplified by The Sound and the Fury, whose beginning seems like gibberish. Once when I took my teenaged daughter to a bookstore, she picked it out and asked me about the title. I replied that it’s from Shakespeare: a human life is like “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Not till I said that did I suddenly grasp the title’s full import. The book is – literally – “a tale told by an idiot.”

In this and other Faulkner books it’s not always obvious what’s being talked about. You have to work at it and keep reading. unknown-3In The Hamlet there’s a lengthy sequence involving another idiot, and a cow. Trying to make sense of it, I’m saying to myself, “Is this really what I think it is?” Well, it was.

Faulkner’s oeuvre is set in his own deep South, from around the mid-1800s to the early 1900s; and focuses on its white society. It’s not a pretty picture. Every negative aspect of the human character is unsparingly portrayed.

Now, I am not a cynical misanthrope, and hate misanthropic books. But Faulkner is no misanthrope either. To the contrary: while he does depict all the awfulness of the human animal, he does it with sympathy. His message is not: despise him, condemn him. Rather it is: understand him. And when I wrote my Optimism book, it was a quote from Faulkner that I chose for its epigraph: I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail.

Still, when I read these books, they make me very glad I didn’t have to live in their time and place – even as a white person. The palpable change fuels my optimism. I see the past as dark, and my own time and place as full of light. We have progressed.

Faulkner’s books tend to entail peeling back layers to finally get to the heart of things. This is nowhere truer than in Absalom, Absalom!

imagesThomas Sutpen is a protean character who arrives in antebellum Mississippi from Haiti with a chain-gang of slaves and by sharp dealing with Indians acquires 100 square miles to build his plantation. In time, he marries and has two children: Henry and Judith. At college, Henry meets an older fellow, Charles, who soon courts Judith.

(Spoiler alert: stop here if you want to read the book.)

Thomas opposes the match. He has an excellent reason: it develops that Charles is already married. But, as we eventually learn, that’s not the true reason. It seems the other wife is not an insurmountable obstacle.

However, by and by, a more devastating fact about Charles emerges: he’s actually Thomas’s son, by his own previous Haitian wife.

Incest would seem an amply good reason to oppose the marriage. But, it turns out, that wasn’t the true reason either; for Thomas, a rough character, not even that is an insurmountable obstacle.

unknownNot until near the end do we finally learn the real reason. Can you guess? It’s also the reason why Thomas left behind that first wife in Haiti. A drop of black blood.

This ends badly, for everybody. The lone survivor, decades later, is Charles’s black grandchild – another idiot.

Reading Faulkner makes me better appreciate my own life and family.

 

 

* Awarded by the Albany Numismatic Society, named after a different Sartoris.

The sickness of Trump voters

December 3, 2016

images-1The Economist magazine did a statistical analysis of the presidential vote, by county, to find what demographic factor best predicted the swing to Trump (from Romney’s 2012 vote). The percentage of non-college whites was an obvious factor – they went two-to-one for Trump. But The Economist found another factor that correlated even better with Trump’s gains over Romney: health.

They analyzed data for life expectancy, obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking, and exercise (or lack thereof). The worse a county did on these measures, the better Trump fared relative to Romney. Those poor health factors did also correlate with high percentages of non-college whites; but among non-college white populations some did less poorly on health; and there, Trump did less well.

images-2Why? The Economist suggests “that the ill may have been particularly susceptible to Mr. Trump’s message.” They note too a rising death rate among middle-aged less educated white males (bucking the bigger global trend toward longer lives). Drinking, opioid abuse, and suicide are cited as factors; which in turn are linked to deindustrialization and poor job prospects. The Economist deems it unsurprising that people in such circumstances pinned their hopes on Trump (foolish though it may be).

imagesBased on its analysis, the magazine calculates that if diabetes were 7% lower in Michigan, 8% more Pennsylvanians exercised regularly, and heavy drinking in Wisconsin were 5% lower, Clinton would have won.

This might suggest a winning strategy for Democrats would be to focus on public health. But meantime many of them are saying that if only Bernie had been nominated, he’d have won. They still feel he was somehow cheated out of the nomination – even though Clinton got several million more primary votes. Anyhow, the idea that the nation that elected Trump would really have preferred a cheerless 74-year-old socialist Brooklyn Jew is laughable. America is basically a center-right country, not center-left, and certainly not far left. By travelling that route, Democrats will achieve ideological self-satisfaction and electoral irrelevance.

One commenter diagnosed the Democrats’ problem thusly: Kennedy put a man on the Moon. Obama put a man in the women’s room. (At least that’s how some see it.)

I don’t expect another election will somehow snap America back to political sanity. It will most likely be a contest between the White People’s Party of Lies and Nonsense and the Democrats’ Socialist Party of Economic Nonsense.images-1 Can’t we get a third option, a Party of Truth and Reason? Actually, it may not be hopeless. David Brooks writes in a recent column of efforts toward organizing a sensible center alliance in American politics. And as I’ve noted previously, Ross Perot in 1992, running as a third party candidate, albeit very flawed, got 19% of the vote. That’s halfway to winning a three-sided race. If Trump could win the presidency with 46% of Americans voting idiotically, maybe, just maybe, someone could win with 40% voting sensibly.