Archive for February, 2020

Is inequality really worsening?

February 28, 2020

Rising inequality is a fixture of left-wing polemics. Sanders harps on it. Lamenting a widening gap between the richest and the rest. A lot of numbers are invoked — the top X%’s wealth share has grown from Y% to Z% over such-and-such a time span. As if such numbers are simple facts.

They never are. A recent in-depth lead article in The Economist explored all the assumptions and difficulties behind any such calculations. It casts much doubt on the “rising inequality” narrative, at least within rich countries.

Globally, inequality has indisputably been falling. That’s because economic growth rates in developing countries have greatly exceeded those in mature economies, narrowing that gap.

We keep hearing about “exporting jobs.” When we then import the goods produced from, say, China, cheaper than we can make them ourselves, that savings actually makes Americans collectively better off, even while some Americans who lose jobs are worse off. That job shift is a wealth transfer from richer nations to poorer ones — again, decreasing global inequality. Indeed, the numbers of people in extreme poverty have plummeted. Which progressives should welcome, no?

The Economist addresses four pillars of the “rising inequality” narrative: top earners snare a greater share of income; middle class incomes have stagnated; this is because labor’s share of rising productivity has fallen relative to capital’s; thus wealth has been concentrating at the top.

In each respect, you get very different results depending on how the numbers are parsed. It’s complicated: you must take into account not just raw income data but also taxes and government transfer programs, and fringe benefits, especially increasingly valuable medical benefits. And demographic factors — “household income” is often the focus, yet households grow smaller as marriage rates fall, with more single parenthood, thus income is divided among more “households.”

Results also greatly depend on how you adjust for past inflation. It’s widely acknowledged that government inflation numbers are too high, failing to properly account for, among other things, technological changes. For example, they actually disregard the valuable benefits from smartphones. When you chart pay levels over time using overstated inflation estimates, you can show pay falling even while the quality of life people get from it is rising.

The Economist also notes that while “returns to capital” (that is, to owners of corporate shares) have grown, a lot of that actually flows to the middle class because an increasing chunk of the stock market is owned by pension funds. Furthermore, as far as wealth is concerned, the effect of shareholding is actually eclipsed by the long-term rise in the value of home ownership, again mostly benefiting the middle class. This is another (usually overlooked) counter to the idea of rising wealth concentration at the top.

But on the other hand — showing how complex all this is — at the bottom of the income scale, educational inequality looms large. Kids born poor tend to stay poor because of lousy education. That’s largely because of where they live. Rising home values tend to lock them out of better locales. Moreover, higher house prices go with areas where good jobs concentrate. Everything is interconnected.

Meantime, when we say the top 10% or 1% of Americans’ wealth share has risen, we imagine we’re talking about the same people in Year X as in Year Y. Life doesn’t work that way. Those in the top groups in 2020 often differ from those who comprised those groups in 1990 or 2000. At the beginning, your income and wealth may be low because you’re a student or just starting out. The picture changes greatly in your peak earning years. So people move in and out among income groups at different stages of life. Students will of course appear very unequal vis-a-vis middle agers. Differences like that are a huge part of “inequality.”

So where does all this leave us? “Inequality” is almost surely not growing in the way many scream about. That doesn’t mean all is fine. A dynamic complex economy — and society— like ours will always have inequities of one sort or another, and we must constantly seek to diagnose and combat them.

I’ve mentioned one big example, educational inequity. Another factor is our allowing some businesses to be protected against competition. But we have to be clear on what the problems really are, and what they are not.

One thing that’s not a problem is people being rich. They’re not the cause of others being poor. Our focus should be not bashing the rich but lifting up the poor, giving more people opportunities to earn enough to live decently. And worldwide, thanks to globalization, capitalism, and free trade, that’s been happening a lot. A real social justice revolution.

A Democrat drinks some Trump Kool-Aid

February 25, 2020

Karlyn Borysenko was a strong New Hampshire Democrat for 20 years. Considered Trump supporters all racist, “horrible (yes, even deplorable),” as is Trump himself. But now, writing on,* she’s almost reversed that view, calling Democrats out of touch and headed for an ass-kicking.

It started with her knitting circle — encountering “roving gangs of online social justice warriors” who “started going after anyone in the knitting community who was not lockstep with their ideology.” A wave of viciousness, prompting her effort to escape her echo chamber and actually listen to Trump fans. She found they weren’t bad people, not racists or Nazis, and could justify their opinions using arguments — in contrast to the left’s “shouting and ranting.” She says it’s driving other Democrats to leave the party.

Wearing a red hat reading “Make Speech Free Again,” Borysenko noticed people on both right and left each saw it as aimed at the other side.

Then she attended Trump’s New Hampshire rally, and was struck by the positive energy there, marked by optimism and love of country, in contrast to a recent ill-attended Democratic event where people booed and shouted at those backing the “wrong” candidates, and were all doom and gloom and criticism of America.

Borysenko acknowledges that Trump lies. “But the strength of this rally wasn’t about the facts and figures. It was a group of people who felt like they had someone in their corner, who would fight for them . . . they believe he has their back.”

She concludes, “most people on both sides are good, decent human beings who want the best for the country and have dramatic disagreements on how to get there. But until we start seeing each other as human beings, there will be no bridging the divide.” Borysenko voted in the NH primary for Buttigieg and then changed her registration to independent.

* * *

I changed my own registration from Republican to Democrat in 2017. Because I actually couldn’t see my lifelong party through Borysenko’s rose-colored glasses.

Yes, there are honest disagreements about America’s direction. Yet honesty is not the hallmark of today’s Republicanism. At the top it’s disingenuous to the core. Epitomized by weaponizing phony concerns about election fraud to block many citizens from voting.

Borysenko is right that most in the rank-and-file are not bad people. But unfortunately they’ve been sucked into a cult of followership for someone very bad indeed. Seeing Trump as speaking for them, having their backs, would be quite understandable were there any reality to it. But it’s all a big con; everything about Trump and his presidency is bullshit. The only back he has is his own.

And as for the country’s direction — while we’ve always had policy disagreements, this is about America’s character. Respect for truth, facts, and reason — when that goes, everything else goes. Humankind has made great progress from a dog-eat-dog world. America had a huge role in the vanguard of that progress. But Trump is Mister Dog-Eat-Dog.

* * *

I enrolled Democrat to combat what, for years, I’ve excoriated the left for, that Borysenko writes about. The mindset of totalitarian intolerance. The insistence on ideological purity, with any deviation delegitimized, punished. Long seen on “liberal” campuses, it’s metastasizing in our wider political culture.

Some Sanders fans are mere starry-eyed idealists. But too many are hard left, latter-day Torquemadas, lusting for a new Inquisition to burn heretics. These are the hateful voices that so repel Borysenko. Supporters of Biden or Buttigieg aren’t like this.

But Borysenko is wrong in seeing the problem only on the left. Certainly there’s Republican intolerance for anyone not a total Trumpsucker. And meantime he’s not only whipped up a deranged hatred for Democrats, it’s mainly based on lies. I was no Hillary fan, but her demonization bore no relation to reality. At least Democrats’ hatred for Trump is grounded in what he actually does.

America today is in a profound crisis of its civic soul. It’s no hyperbole calling this our most important election at least since 1860. The Republican/Russian campaign will be a shitstorm of lies, disinformation, and ruthless dirty tactics. Yet facing this crisis, Democrats, in a fit of foolish self-indulgence, seem on track to put up an utterly ridiculous candidate.

Sandernistas fancy he’ll energize many new voters. Maybe so; but such polarizing extremist candidates energize even greater numbers to show up to vote against them. You say you want a revolution? Thomas Friedman wrote, I’ll show you a revolution: four more years of Trump. America will be irretrievably transformed.

What we absolutely don’t need is a November gotterdammerung between two opposing revolutions. Instead, a return to decency, honesty, sobriety, sanity. For two centuries we’ve progressed greatly in making life fairer and better for more and more people. We need not revolution but to resume that incremental humanistic evolution. Unfortunately, that’s not what Bernie is about.

I’m starting to wonder if, pragmatically, Bloomberg is the last hope. Can he buy the election? Gosh, it would be money well spent. Unlike Trump whose “charity” was (of course) a self-serving fraud, Bloomberg is a genuine philanthropist, with the public good truly at heart, and willing to use his money to promote that.

I’d rather have Bloomberg buy his way to the presidency than Trump lie his way to it.


God and meaning

February 20, 2020

Core claims of religion are that God gives us morality, and gives our lives meaning. An essay by Daniel Farrell, in Louise Antony’s book Philosophers Without Gods, has no trouble disposing of the first, based on Socrates’s Euthyphro question: is something moral because God says so, or does God say so because it is moral? If the latter, we can figure it out without God. If the former it’s just arbitrary and we can do better.

But Farrell has more trouble with the problem of meaning. The idea that things are worth doing or have value because God imparts that value. Even given Socrates’s insight, Farrell still posits that God is our best source for knowing what is right, hence losing God from the picture is a big loss. And without God, isn’t everything futility and meaninglessness?

What this really shows is how religious concepts stuck in our heads mess up thinking. Farrell’s problem is a problem only if you start from a paradigm with God at the center as the source of all meaning. Subtract God and there is a big hole. But what if you start from a paradigm that was never confused by that false idea? That is, a paradigm of reality as it actually is.

Then it’s clear we must make our own meaning. And it’s actually easier. Trying to ground the meaning of your life in the context of a supernatural concept full of logical absurdities (like, where did God come from in the first place, anyway?) is a fool’s errand. Far better to ground it in reality.

The reality that life has value to us, who live it, as individuals. Living it as a story, from a beginning to an end; living it through sensory experience, through pleasure and pain. Such feelings, experienced by beings capable of them, are ultimately the only things in the cosmos that matter, or can matter. Nothing you might posit, not even the existence of the Universe itself, can matter except insofar as it impacts those sentient feelings. And that is the only conceivable source of meaning — our strivings to optimize feelings, to enhance pleasure and combat suffering, for ourselves and our fellow sentient beings. Meaning aplenty for us, with no need for any god.

This is truth. A concept of God only muddles things with falsity.

Farrell talks about important decisions, like a career choice, saying they’re based on ultimately subjective mental modeling of how we’ll feel under different scenarios. He says many non-believers don’t find this as problematic as he does, because they’re satisfied to make such decisions based on their feelings without a need to (somehow) know they’re right. With that rightness being grounded in some notion of a “special significance” to one’s life. A concept in turn that comes from God — even if one no longer believes in him!

Is this messed up or what? Farrell actually confesses his inability to really explain it himself. Yet he goes on to talk about wanting one’s decisions to embody some sort of “rightness” above and beyond one’s (mere?) feelings. And about God supplying that rightness. Which, after all, can only be pure delusion — even if God exists (he doesn’t), nobody could know what he thinks about anything.

Contrary to Farrell, overcoming superstition is not a loss, but a benefit, in making meaningful sense of our lives, to live them authentically. We can do that only by eschewing delusions and coming to grips with reality. The rightness of our decisions can only come from within us.

Broken politics and rule-of-law augur U.S. decline

February 20, 2020

Trump boasts about the strong economy. What makes it strong? Certainly not his “policies,” like stupid trade wars, and curbing immigration, very harmful. But if the government pumps a trillion dollars a year into it, you’ll have a good economy. That’s the big story: huge budget deficits, mostly borrowed money. Mortgaging tomorrow to live high today.

America does still have a lot of genuine economic strengths. Our free-market capitalist system is a great machine for producing wealth and human welfare. But that, Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in the Washington Post, will be undermined by the political division paralyzing government, and Trump’s war on rule of law.

Back in antediluvian 2013, I reviewed a book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us. A can-do nation that could come together, tackle challenges, bite bullets, and do big things. If that seemed moribund in 2013, it’s a lot worse now.

The book talked about deteriorating infrastructure; shrinking investment in research and development; virtually ignoring climate change; a broken immigration system that shuts out legions of motivated brainy people we desperately need; an education system inadequate for the competitive high-tech globalized marketplace. Instead of all that, we spend resources on a military to re-fight WWII, farm subsidies, burgeoning pensions, overly expensive healthcare, and other “entitlements.”

And we’re not paying even for those, as already noted, going deeply in debt to finance them. Testing the limits on how much we can borrow. We’re OK as long as interest rates stay rock bottom and the market still has great confidence in America. If it decides our game is up, we’ll be like Wile E. Coyote in the old cartoons — running off a cliff till he realizes nothing holds him up. Then he drops like a stone.

But our supervening problem, Friedman and Mandelbaum said, is our political dysfunction, blocking action on all the rest. A partisan tribal war on every issue which, in a closely divided nation, neither side can really win. It’s gotten worse since.

Back to Pearlstein: he says what “really distinguishes a successful economy from a failing one” is “the quality of institutions — the laws, rules, norms and policies that create the framework in which any economy operates.” And broken politics are degrading the quality of U.S. institutions. Pearlstein cites the same familiar challenges as Friedman and Mandelbaum, saying a “working political system would . . . embrace the obvious compromises, building on what works and fixing what doesn’t.”

But instead, Americans “deny the problem, demonize those with whom we disagree and ostracize anyone who dares to compromise.”

And today’s great tragedy is Trump’s destruction of even those institutions that were still continuing to function. For all our political conflict, we still operated under strong rule of law, with a basic level of civic decency, and acted as the responsible global leader.

Rule of law is a truly great human achievement and a bulwark for a society working well. A key underpinning for a dynamic economy. People must be able to make investments knowing the law will be there for them. Recall Putin’s regime jailing a big oil entrepreneur to steal his company. Pearlstein writes, “perhaps the greatest threat to the U.S. economy is the deterioration in the rule of law that has become a hallmark of the Trump presidency.”

We see it lately in the cases of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, convicted of serious crimes; then political interference trying to get them off the hook. While Trump critics are targeted. The Justice Department’s credibility is now in shreds.

Trump flouts such basic norms at every turn. No tax transparency. Exploiting the presidency for personal gain. Abusing tariffs to punish longtime allies who annoy him. Abusing pardons to reward supporters. Undermining institutions like the FBI with lying accusations. Firing diplomats and civil servants who thwart his illicit aims. Dismissing uncooperative judges as political hacks. Calling journalists who report the truth “enemies of the people,” any investigation of wrongdoing a “witch hunt,” and calling a liar anyone who unmasks his own lies. Breaking the law to hold up vital military aid to an ally to extort a bribe in the form of smearing a political opponent, trying to cover it up, lying about it, and trying to block Congress from investigating it.

And getting away with it all. That’s what acquittal by a feckless Senate majority, in the impeachment debacle, signifies. The death of accountability and rule-of-law. Our economy will not eternally be immune from the effects.

As Friedman and Mandelbaum wrote, America had crises before, which we overcame. Like the Civil War, and the Depression. Trump’s presidency is truly just such a crisis — a crisis of the very soul of this nation. Voting him out could be at least a start on repairing the damage. But if we can’t even see clearly enough to do that . . . .

The End of Blogging?

February 17, 2020

I started blogging in May 2008. It seemed cutting edge then. Now it seems passé.

My wife blogged first, and encouraged me to do it, mainly to promote my book. But I’ve loved having this vehicle for self-expression. I enjoy the craft of writing; the mental stimulation of putting ideas into words; my blog posts are always quite carefully composed. It’s also fun finding cute amusing illustrations. And I try to offer perspectives others don’t. Hoping to provide real value to readers.

After five years, my blog had attained a lordly followership of 70. Then one of my more brilliant posts, “America on meds,” was picked to be featured on the host WordPress site. This attracted a flood of hits, and my follower numbers rapidly zoomed up to 3,000. This seemed pretty cool, till I checked out one of their blogs, with a slew of comments — nearly all saying, “thanks for subscribing to my blog.” So evidently many of my new “followers” were just angling to promote their own sites.

Well, few ever bothered to unsubscribe. Meantime, in the nearly seven years since, I’ve gradually gained a further thousand followers. And WordPress stats say I’ve had visitors from over 162 countries.*

My daily hits also gradually rose, till I was averaging over 200 in late 2017 and early 2018. A lot of that traffic comes because google search terms bring up links to my posts. All my past ones of course remain available. Now numbering around a thousand. So as I keep writing more, on different topics, one should naturally expect more links to pop up in searches, and thus ever rising traffic.

But the opposite has happened. In fact, daily average peaked at 244 during February 2018, and has since inexorably declined. The last two months’ daily average of 65 was actually the lowest since 2012 — before the “America on meds” big bang.

Why the fall? I really don’t think the quality has declined. And even if it did — again, most hits are on stuff written years ago, which is all still out there. While much of my more recent activity has been political “red meat” which might be expected to attract flies.

But what has changed is the world. All those legions of people fixated on their phones. What are they looking at? Not earnest blogs like mine. Instead, small discrete brain hits; snippets; quick little connects to others; videos watched for a few minutes, at most; photos viewed for seconds, or nano-seconds. Political jolts packed into just a few lines. Who, today, wants to read a 700-word essay?

That may itself be a sad commentary on our modern world. Certainly the social/cultural transformations wrought by technology have been endlessly discussed; especially the downsides. But as (still) an optimist, I think it remains to be seen whether those downsides are outweighed by the ultimate upsides. Even if one of the downsides is the demise of blogging like mine.

In any case, I will continue writing for, if no one else, my one most appreciative reader — me.

* All numbers here are for WordPress. I don’t get stats for my Times-Union blog which has the same posts (and gets far more comments).

Trump’s insane war on immigrants

February 14, 2020

Six more countries, including Africa’s most populous, have been added to Trump’s travel ban. He has also slashed, again, our annual refugee ceiling, to just 18,000, now fully 92% below the peak of 230,000 (while global refugee numbers are at flood tide). He’s also made it much harder, if not impossible, to apply for asylum pursuant to international norms. Ordinary legal immigration is far tougher too. Paperwork takes years, if not decades. And now anyone receiving any public benefit — or just deemed likely to — is ineligible. Further, they’ve announced yet another round of big fee increases for processing immigrants; achieving citizenship will now cost thousands. Even refugees applying for asylum must, for the first time, pay a fee. And the past program for fee waivers is largely defunct.

Trumpists have long insisted would-be immigrants should follow legal procedures and get in the line. But Trump is choking off the line. And he keeps saying countries “don’t send us their best.” How moronic can you be? Countries don’t pick who they “send.” People pick themselves — pick themselves up and go. And anyone with such enterprise and grit would likely be an asset to our nation.

The war on immigration is insane. Condemning America to be an increasingly backward nation in decline. Especially as ever more Americans age and hoover up pension and health benefits, with fewer working people paying taxes to support that. We need more immigrants to replenish our workforce. Immigrants — and, yes, refugees — contribute more economically than they cost. And rejuvenate our society. (They are also (contrary to Trump’s fear-mongering) on average more law-abiding than the native-born.)

But Trump’s policies send a clear message to ambitious people worldwide: go elsewhere.

It’s not only self-harming, but a fundamental betrayal of what America is all about. Yet when 90% of Republicans say they approve of Trump, his shameful and deceitful immigrant-bashing is, above all, what they approve of.

The plaque on the Statue of Liberty has been revised:

Stay out, you tired, you poor,

You huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

You wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Or pay us thousands of dollars in fees;

I douse my lamp and shut the golden door.

When the monster in the nightmare is you

February 11, 2020

Monsters are a staple of nightmares.

Recently I dreamed I surreptitiously listened in to a phone call between my wife and our dentist. The hushed conversation was frustratingly hard to make out. But I got the gist: he was commiserating about her husband being a monster. One with no clue. I did hear the phrases “repulsive personality” and “pain in the ass.”

Was it true? Should I confront my wife about what I’d heard? How could I deal with this at all? My life was shattered!

I was jolted awake.

The trigger for this nightmare was immediately obvious. I’d just been reading Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, a scientific examination of all the factors influencing human behavior. Specifically, the chapter discussing the famous Milgram and Zimbardo experiments.

In Milgram’s, most subjects complied with orders to administer to others what they thought were increasingly severe electric shocks. Zimbardo’s was the “Stanford Prison Experiment” with students role-playing as prisoners and guards. Here too the behavior was appalling.

We know some people are monsters. But does everyone have a monster lurking just below the surface? Sapolsky quotes Solzhenitsyn that the line between good and evil runs through every heart.

The apparent lesson of both experiments is that human behavior is very much shaped by context and circumstances. Put us in extreme circumstances, and extreme behavior will often be forthcoming. Though not always; some people have the self-possession to rise above circumstances. But most of us are not saints or angels.

Naturally, reading such stuff causes soul-searching. Hence my nightmare. Maybe, contrary to that nightmare, I’ve lived my life admirably. But if so, perhaps it’s thanks less to my character than my circumstances. It’s easy being Mister Nice Guy when everything is going nicely. I’ve never really been tested. Would I press the button to deliver severe pain in Milgram’s experiment? Would I brutalize “prisoners” in Zimbardo’s? I’d like to think not. But one can’t feel sure.

We also know that people in groups can be influenced to do things they individually never would. Thus lynch mobs. But a much greater phenomenon is people in groups creating civilization. Its purpose is to make our lives better — mainly by curtailing the kinds of circumstances that cause people to behave badly toward each other, and expand those like I’ve experienced, increasing the likelihood that even a non-saintly person can go through life rarely behaving Zimbardoic or Milgramy.

This isn’t just a matter of affluence (though it helps; poverty can confront people with rotten choices). I don’t think the propensity to push Milgram’s shocker button correlated with income. What civilized society does is to create the structures wherein people can trust each other, with a basic bargain that you don’t harm others and they don’t harm you. In contrast to the Hobbesian “state of nature” with its “war of all against all.”

Of course it’s not perfection. Civilization, in all its complexity, does create some individual roles conducive to bad behavior. Some people are in fact tasked as prison guards. More generally, any sort of power can be problematic. And sometimes an entire society can become Nazi Germany. But that’s never been true of human civilization as a whole. It defeated the Nazis. And while the line between good and evil may go through every heart, they’re not equally partitioned. For most of us, the bad side of the line is dwarfed by the good.

And civilization’s big picture is an upward climb, organized ever better to achieve that. A slow fitful climb through most of history, but accelerating in modern times, with ever more people enjoying the benign circumstances of life that enable us to expand the good sides of our hearts and confine the bad to ever smaller precincts. So the “better angels of our nature” prevail.

But the climb does not go in a straight line. There was Nazi Germany. And there is Trump’s America where, for too many people, the better angels of their nature are succumbing to their demons. Whether our own downward spiral can be reversed remains to be seen.

Pelosi rips up Trump’s speech

February 8, 2020

I wouldn’t have done it. If only because Trumpers would exploit it. I’d have instead held a press conference (a long one) detailing all the outrageous lies in his speech.

Like pledging, with a straight face, to protect “pre-existing conditions” — while his administration is fighting in court to undo those protections.

But it’s doubtful a press conference would have conveyed the message as well as Pelosi’s gesture. Theater now trumps substance in our politics.

Democrats debate over Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high.” Some instead say, fight fire with fire. I’m with Michelle. Democrats should not get in the gutter with Trump. His modus operandi is vicious lies, and his re-election campaign is taking that to new heights (or, rather, lows). We’ve seen it already in his making the State of the Union address a divisive partisan circus, then likewise defiling the National Prayer Breakfast, and his deranged chest-thumping post-impeachment bash-fest.

Democrats should bet the American people have had enough. Or a majority of them anyway.

As for the others — I’m frankly at a loss. My better angel says we must bind up the nation’s wounds; the ordinary citizens backing Trump, at least, really aren’t  bad people. Apart from politics. But, my gosh, the political pathology runs deep, how can we pull these folks back to sanity? (Sanders is not the man for the job.)

Look at the venom unleashed against Pelosi, as if tearing up some papers was a scandalous breach of decorum. As if “grab them by the pussy” was not. Nor anything else in Trump’s mountainous record of vileness and lies, on full display these past few days, throwing our whole civic culture in the toilet. The double standard, the partisan blindness, is insane. Trump supporters quite simply can’t tell right from wrong.

They wrap themselves in the flag, professing love of country, saying Democrats hate America. But it’s Trumpers themselves who seem to hate (or maybe never understood) the principles, values, and ideals America stands for. Which Trump tramples.

Pelosi ripped apart his speech, but he is ripping apart the country, and every good thing it represents.

The Senate’s degradation, and America’s

February 5, 2020

As a lad I got besotted with politics and political history. In particular, venerating the U.S. Senate, as the Olympian pinnacle of noble politics. I devoured biographies of Senate icons: Clay, Webster, Borah, Taft.

My college had a student senate. Of course I ran; and lost twice. But running unopposed the third time, I did get to play at being a senator. Some battles there seemed epic.

Meantime, my Young Republican club had a trip to Washington, DC. I arranged a meeting with, among others, Senator Strom Thurmond (who said he’d give us “pins” with his name, which turned out to be pens.) In the congressional underground train I sat in a car with John Sherman Cooper. I even encountered the ancient Carl Hayden — who’d entered Congress when Arizona entered the Union in 1912.

It felt like ascending Mount Olympus and communing with the Gods.

An impeachment trial is a most solemn and weighty Senate duty. At its start, Senators must take an oath to do impartial justice, as jurors. But Republican senators almost all made clear they’d refuse to seriously weigh the evidence. Their leader McConnell openly avowed he’d be coordinating with the defense team. So much for impartial justice.

Republicans call the impeachment illegitimate because it wasn’t bipartisan. It wasn’t bipartisan because they themselves (unlike in the Nixon case) refused to put country over party. And while they try to paint it as some kind of farce, it was they themselves who made farcical the most important trial of our time. A trial without witnesses or evidence! They said they’d heard it all before; nothing new to see here. And indeed, more testimony might have been moot because a ton of it in the House hearings fully established the damning facts. Which Republicans nevertheless denied.

Then John Bolton blew apart their denial, offering unanswerable first-hand evidence that Trump did exactly what he was charged with. But Republicans refused to let Bolton testify. And then, having thusly covered up Trump’s guilt (from their own eyes anyway), are voting with straight faces to acquit him.

They also excused his actions as not technically a crime. Though in fact he did break the law. They pretended it somehow wasn’t wrong. Or if it was, we should, in Mulvaney’s immortal words, “Get over it.” And Trump’s apologist Dershowitz argued that if a president believes his own re-election is in the public interest, then any deal he makes to advance that — howsoever corrupt — can’t be grounds for impeachment.

Not a joke. That argument, holding the president truly above the law, was put forth by a famous law professor before the United States Senate. Which now proceeds to vote in accordance with it.

Divided opinion about impeachment might be explicable were there reasonable arguments on both sides. There really aren’t. The Republican excuses are dishonest, in bad faith, insults to intelligence. Of that, Dershowitz is the final sickening testament.

Many suppose Republican senators privately despise Trump but kowtow out of fear for their careers. Bad enough if they’re willing to sell out their country and integrity so cravenly. But their behavior shows most have actually drunk the Kool-Aid, succumbed to the cult, and embraced the dark side. Losing all moral sense and actually convincing themselves this vile creep show is somehow good for America.

Columnist Michael Gerson (a Republican) notes that despite the Mueller report’s compelling evidence of wrongdoing and obstruction of justice, Trump escaped accountability (even as many of his flunkies went to jail). Now he’s done it again. How? “By employing the methods of his mentor Roy Cohn. Admit nothing. Stonewall investigators. Defy subpoenas. Viciously attack opponents. Flood the zone with exculpatory lies.” And it’s working, with Republican senators and state propaganda network Fox News covering for him with “layer upon layer of obfuscation, misdirection and deception.” Shredding “norms of truthfulness, public service and ethical behavior.” And the principles and institutions that once made America great.

Marco Rubio said that even if Trump’s crimes are impeachable, removing him would be bad for the country. As if removing accountability isn’t bad for the country. But Susan Collins says Trump has learned his lesson. Seriously? This depraved monster? His lesson is he can get away with anything. He’ll be even more drunk with untrammeled power. Senate acquittal further demolishes the guard rails, serving as an accelerant for this ghastly bonfire of civic decency.

Today, visiting the United States Senate would not be like ascending to Olympus. Instead, descending into Hades.

POSTSCRIPT: There were three profiles in courage. Mitt Romney of course — the first time in history any Senator has voted to remove a president of his own party. Romney delivered a scathing, devastating speech explaining his vote. The other two were Democrats Joe Manchin and Doug Jones, who also voted to convict, despite coming from very Trump-deranged states. Their votes will cost them dearly, politically; Jones almost surely kissed off his re-election chances. The nation owes them a debt of gratitude for their courage and integrity.

The politics of identity: Francis Fukuyama

February 2, 2020

(Trigger warning: this piece may offend political correctness. The Humanist magazine’s editor wouldn’t publish it. It appears instead in the current issue of  Free Inquirya publication living up to its name.)

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man importantly broadened my political perspective. Now he’s written Identity — The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. 

A key concept in The End of History was thymos. Man does not live by bread alone. Thymos is an ancient Greek word referring to a desire for status and dignity; recognition of one’s human worth. It looms large in all matters political. For example, the push for gay marriage was a thymotic quest by gay people. Similarly, the pay equity issue is more about respect than money.

Identity carries this idea forward, as it’s become central to understanding today’s political situation. Fukuyama distinguishes between megalothymos, in aristocratic systems, with dignity accruing to superiority (for a few), and isothymos, the modern democratic concept of equal dignity for all.

But it’s not that simple. “Who am I, really?” is a modern question. It would not have occurred to those in pre-modern societies where identity was totally, immutably fixed by social context. And while who you are outwardly may seem clear enough, your idea of personal identity rooted inside is a more slippery concept.

Fukuyama sees Rousseau (writing in the late 1700s) as seminal here. Rousseau idealized people in the state of nature, with society actually being a corrupting force, an obstacle to the realization of one’s human potential. Rousseau would have said a craving for thymos is something that can only have meaning in a social context yet society actually impedes its achievement, a Catch-22 dooming us to unhappiness. But Fukuyama thinks social existence is of the essence in human life so it’s meaningless to posit its absence. It’s through society that our thymotic cravings play out — and their satisfaction is finally being enabled by modern liberal democracy. (That was the chief point in The End of History.)

Fukuyama spells out his take on today’s evolved concept of identity: the distinction between inner and outer selves; valuation of the inner self above social demands; its dignity resting on moral freedom; in which all human beings share. But then we come to a fork in the road. One path emphasizes individual fulfillment, the other a collective identity. And while the latter, in the guise of overtly collectivist systems like communism has largely proven a dead end, collective identity has lately recrudesced in ethno-nationalism and politicized religion (not only among Muslims, but also American Christians).

One might have expected the 2008 economic crisis, with rising inequality and a stressed working class, to spark a big surge for the populist left. Yet the opposite happened, especially in the U.S., electing Trump, and in Britain’s Brexit (though both were close votes). Fukuyama finds the explanation in how economic motivations are intertwined with identity issues in human behavior. Again, it’s thymos. In particular, immigration is seen on the right as a threat to the nation’s traditional culture, and undermining respect for those identifying with it.

But perhaps the left just hasn’t had a good answer for the economic problems coming to the fore. Fukuyama says the traditional left is now long on rhetoric but short on actual workable policies. The essence of its project — to increase socio-economic equality through state power — having reached its limits.

He also thinks it’s a problem that the principle of universal equal recognition has mutated into special recognition for particular groups. And those are mainly groups whom less educated working class whites don’t identify or feel solidarity with. Thus the left with its identity politics has actually lost touch with what used to be its own core identity group.

This identity politics also diverts attention from society’s most salient inequality, namely that between educational levels. Which will only grow more acute as technology, the biggest factor behind it, advances. Progressives have little to say about this (and what they do say is often unhelpful — battling school choice and in effect defending an abysmal educational status quo for the underclass you might think they’d champion).

Fukuyama notes the rise of the “self esteem” idea, tying in with that of liberating and dignifying the inner self. And this points to another basic dichotomy: asking society to treat your group the same as others, versus demanding respect for its differentness. The latter, Fukuyama says, has tended to win out. Thus “multiculturalism” and the idea of equal respect for cultures, contrasted with classical liberalism’s equal respect for human beings. Indeed, the left seems willing to sacrifice the latter on the altar of the former. (Some consider FGM or “honor” killings, for example, not wrong but merely culturally different).

Hence Fukuyama sees the idea of common humanity getting submerged in a celebration of differences. As though the black experience cannot be appreciated by whites; the “lived experience” of women is inherently terra incognita to non-women. With the next step being to delegitimize any differing viewpoint. And he deems it ironic that all this valorizes only certain approved identities while actually barring respect for some others: white, Western, Christian — male! — etc.

What a shock that there’s a backlash, a reassertion of such other identities. Fukuyama considers this whole dynamic (with associated censorious political correctness) bad for free reasoned discourse and liberal democracy itself. It’s torn apart when groups within society demonize one another as illegitimate threats to all that’s good and holy. This plays into the bitter partisan tribalism dividing America. Fukuyama says “societies need to protect the marginalized and excluded but they also need to achieve common goals.”

Note that while identity does come from inside oneself, most people actually conceive their identities in relation to other people: binding them with others in their groups, and also vis-a-vis other people whom they may see as not giving their group its due. Again, this centrifugal tendency among groups can unravel a liberal democracy whose organizing concept is groups coexisting, accepting each other’s legitimacy.

That’s a problem within a society. Then there’s nationalism, looking outward. The concern, Fukuyama writes, is not with nationalism per se but with a narrow, ethnically-based, intolerant form that it has widely taken. There’s a better alternative: building national identity around a set of positive values. That’s America’s own story, our identity uniquely grounded not in ethnicity or the like but in the American idea: constitutionalism, rule of law, democratic accountability, and all people being created equal.

Some actually see America as traducing such ideals, epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, a litany of oppression, injustice, and illiberalism. Missing there is any sense of America’s progress in ameliorating and overcoming its defects. Which, for Fukuyama in contrast, is the real story.

And we lift our lamp beside the golden door. That too is integral to our American identity, expressed in our national motto, e pluribus unum. The very fact that diverse people came here from every corner of the globe, to join in the American enterprise, is our crowning glory.

And so immigration doesn’t threaten our national identity — to the contrary, immigrants actually embody it more faithfully than do many native-born Americans who, for all their flag-waving, have lost their own consciousness of the nation’s true ideals and values.

Our identity in those ideals and values is what we must fight for.