Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Destroying our rule of law culture

May 11, 2020

After firing Michael Flynn as national security advisor for lying, Trump said Flynn had been “treated very unfairly.” Flynn was then indicted for lying to the FBI (this came out of the Mueller investigation). He pled guilty, twice, and was awaiting sentencing. Now the Department of Justice has dropped all charges. An unprecedented action so bizarre it leaves responsible legal observers dumbfounded with outrage.

Boot-licking Attorney General Barr did this to serve his master Trump and his vendetta trying to discredit Mueller. Giving Flynn a free pass is a frontal assault on the principle of impartial justice. Coming on top of the political interference with Roger Stone’s sentencing, it’s Barr’s DOJ now thoroughly discredited.

(Trump could have simply pardoned Flynn. But having Barr do the dirty work lets Trump paint it as somehow discrediting Mueller.)

Rule of law is a foundational precept of this democracy. Rule of law, not of men; with government accountable to citizens. A departure from most of human history when autocrats were laws unto themselves. “L’etat c’est moi,” said Louis XIV. Laws were only for the peasants.

Changing that meant laws even rulers had to obey. That’s what we think we have in America. We do have a Constitution, and many thousands of pages of other laws. But that’s actually not enough. China too has a Constitution; it even guarantees freedom of speech. What’s lacking in China is a cultural norm obliging the powers-that-be to respect the law. So China has laws, but not rule-of-law as we understand those words. As in Louis XIV’s France, China’s laws are just tools for the rulers to control the peasants.

Ordinary people have little choice about obeying laws. But who will enforce them against a president if he chooses the attitude of Louis XIV?

There’s that cockeyed Justice Department memo saying a president can’t be indicted (which nothing in the Constitution actually supports). Its theory is that for a president the only sanction is impeachment. And now we’ve seen that for this president impeachment is no constraint at all either. Certainly he himself took that lesson.

So what is there left to make him law-abiding? Only his self-restraint, his personal buy-in to the mentioned cultural norm of respect for rule of law. And actually, throughout all our past history, that ethos prevailed. We’ve had presidents better and worse than others, but our rule-of-law culture was always strong enough to restrain them. To make them restrain themselves.

But this president? Not this sociopath who respects nothing but his own exalted view of himself, who believes he is all-powerful, or should be.

Trump (through his toady Barr) took Flynn off the hook simply because he could. No president with an iota of regard for the principle of rule of law, not men, would ever have imagined doing such a thing. Cultural norms? Civic propriety? Those are for wimps, for losers.

Trump is methodically, with no compunction, hammering down this nation’s foundational principles. There is nothing to stop him — except, for now, the fear of election defeat. And his besotted cultists won’t let a little thing like rule-of-law give them pause. Once re-elected, nothing whatsoever will restrain him.


The anti-democratic pandemic

May 8, 2020

The 1980s and ’90s saw a global democratic surge. Strongman rule ended in practically all of Latin America, much of Africa, and elsewhere. Communism collapsed. China, while still a dictatorship, at least became economically free. It all culminated in publication of my 2009 book,The Case for Rational Optimism.

Then tyranny made a comeback. What really happened was its practitioners raising their game, perfecting techniques for neutering democratic accountability and suppressing opposition. With sufficient pushback this could not succeed. But they also perfected techniques to dupe enough people to support them.

Turkey, Hungary, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Thailand, Tanzania, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Egypt. India’s masses cheer on Modi’s increasing authoritarianism. Sri Lanka brings back the Rajapaksas. Chinese love Xi as he inexorably tightens the screws.

For autocrats always seeking pretexts to grow their power, Covid-19 is a golden opportunity. Everyone recognizes that governments do need extra tools to combat the virus. People scared by it are less fastidious about such power grabs, and distracted from opposing them as might normally occur.* And while such measures might be called temporary, good luck with that once the crisis ends. Authoritarians are not known for relinquishing powers.

At least eighty-four countries have enacted such “emergency” laws. Notable is Hungary, where Viktor Orban was already a textbook exemplar for the mentioned autocrat’s playbook, parlaying the support of a minority of voters to irremovably entrench his regime. Now the parliament has handed him power to “rule by decree.” Temporarily of course. Don’t hold your breath.

Contagion concerns have scotched large gatherings everywhere. Nice for autocrats who hate mass protests — like Hong Kong’s in 2019. When in 1997 Britain returned the territory to China, the deal supposedly guaranteed, for 50 years at least, continuation of Hong Kong’s free institutions. The protesters saw Beijing as reneging on that deal. Now a bunch of leading figures in the democracy movement have been jailed. Meantime, Article 22 of Hong Kong’s “Basic Law” bars China from interfering with its internal affairs. But now China’s “Liaison Office” in Hong Kong asserts it’s not bound by Article 22. Beijing is betting that a world focused on the pandemic will shrug.

Lockdown rules are made in Heaven for dictators, a perfect excuse to lock up opponents. Fighting the virus also entails what would ordinarily be seen as privacy violations — giving countries like Russia and especially China yet more pretexts to ramp up their Orwellian surveillance states.

Free flow of information is vital to democracy and inimical to tyranny. Here again the bad guys are taking advantage of coronavirus, to clamp down. Some countries now outlaw “fake news,” with harsh penalties. What’s “fake” is decided by the governments. It really means news they don’t want their people to hear.

Free flow of cash is vital to dictators’ hold on power, to keep their enablers sweet. The unprecedented amounts being dispensed to fight the virus and its economic damage offer unprecedented opportunities for corruption. Hardly was the ink dry on America’s $2 trillion coronavirus package when Trump fired the inspector general tasked with watching where the money went.

And of course the pandemic offers an ideal excuse to fiddle with elections in the name of protecting public health and safety. This has already become a contentious issue in America, with fights over mail voting. Many are properly worried that a Trump facing defeat might pull something egregious.

A final point. Populist movements, rebelling against “establishments” — Germany’s AFD, Italy’s League and M5S, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Trump of course — are at odds with democratic values. Their supporters feel ill-served by traditional democracy. But in years ahead, the massive costs associated with Covid-19, together with reduced tax revenues — while the economic pain of high unemployment persists — will confront governments at all levels with nasty choices. There will be anger, apt to intensify the populist hostility toward conventional politics, and the allure of demagogic would-be strongmen promising to bust up the system.

The virus will in due course subside. Recovery from its economic damage will take longer. And the damage to democracy could last longer still.

* This is not an endorsement of America’s anti-lockdown protests. We’re still a democracy (for now), and government’s most basic remit is protecting people from harm by others. That includes protection against fools who disobey directives to contain the spread of disease. No one ever has the “freedom” to harm others.

How old is the world?

April 25, 2020

Is the Earth around 4.5 billion years old? Or, just 6,022 and a few months?

PBS’s Independent Lens had a fascinating documentary about Kentucky’s “Ark Encounter” — to go with the “Creation Museum” I’ve written about. The documentary spotlighted some local opposition mainly to the project’s millions in tax subsidies. Surely unconstitutionally violating church-state separation.

This ark is a full-size imagining of Noah’s vessel. Really gigantic, costing in nine figures, to illustrate the ark accommodating every “kind” of animal. But apparently these Biblical literalists weren’t bothered by the implausibility of Noah and his three sons alone somehow managing such a huge project, without the modern technology they themselves used — not to mention the funding.

But of course that’s the least thing that might trouble young-earth creationists. They’ve calculated, from the Bible, Earth’s beginning in 4004 BC. October 23, to be exact! Biblical literalism taken to its ultimate, preposterous extreme.

Actually, the planet is roughly a million times older. If its history were condensed to a single year, then 4004 BC would have arrived on December 31 — at about 11:59 PM.

To swallow that 4004 story, you have to torture a lot of facts. Or just ignore them. One is our seeing other galaxies millions, even billions, of light years distant. A light year is how far light travels in a year. The light from those galaxies took millions or billions of years to reach us. Case closed.*

Likewise, to deny biological evolution you have to work awfully hard waving away practically everything we actually know about life and its history. As geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.

The impresario behind the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter is Ken Ham. The documentary showed what a slick con artist he is. Speaking to a big audience of youngsters, Ham led them in a chant mocking scientists who say the Earth originated billions of years ago: Were you there?

What a killer argument. And if you believe, instead of those scientists, the Biblical story of creation — were YOU there?? And the people who wrote that Bible story — were THEY there??

Also shown was one young woman “scientist,” part of the Ark organization, to give it a patina of “science.” I put those words in quotes because, as one (real) scientist said, one can have the training and capability to do science, but actually doing it is another thing. The young woman “scientist” declared that the Bible is true. How does she know? Because it’s true. It just is. She believes it because she believes it.

As a child I found a price guide to check my Canadian coins. “I’ve got a valuable one!” I exclaimed to my parents. The 1913 dime has two varieties, one rare, one common. My rationalist dad said, “How do you know yours is the rare one?” I said, “I just know it!” I wanted to believe.

In science, facts dictate beliefs. Not the other way around.

Then the show profiled a young man, reared in young-earth creationism. It was very important to him to protect his belief by having all the answers. Which he got from creationist websites arming him with refutations to every fact of mainstream geology and evolution-based science. Refutations which gradually he came to see through as false, misleading bunk.

I’m in awe of someone able to do that, having such intellectual equipment, honesty, and courage. I had it easy; I may have believed in my 1913 Canadian dime, but never in religion. But for people who do, the belief is very powerful. The documentary showed several whose certitude and confidence runs deep. I always remind myself that certain as I am they’re wrong, they’re equally certain I am wrong.

But: what difference does it make, really, whether you think the world is billions of years old, or only a few thousand? If you understand evolution science, or refuse to? It doesn’t exactly affect our daily lives. Or does it? The belief isn’t in a vacuum. It’s integral to a whole way of thinking, to one’s relationship with reality, with existence itself. Indeed, people shape their lives around such beliefs. That’s why they hold them so tenaciously, and why freeing oneself from such false belief is often so traumatic.

Surveys show about 40% of Americans believe the 4004 BC story. These are more or less the same people who don’t believe climate science. Who believe Trump.

* Actually, young-earth creationists answer that God could simply have made that light travel faster. Or created all the stars, and made them visible, all on the first day. Belief in such literal omnipotence is a universal cognitive get-out-of-jail free card.

The Open Society and its Enemies

April 21, 2020

(A condensed recap of my talk at the Albany Public Library on Nov. 19)

Philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945. It seems timely now. The old political categories of right versus left, liberal versus conservative, are breaking down. Today’s true divide is over the open society idea. Meaning openness to change, toward ideas and free debate, individuals following their own paths, immigration, globalism, free trade, and so forth.

Popper attacks what he calls “historicism” — the idea that history has laws we can discover. But concepts of future inevitability inhibit efforts to change it. Popper says “the future depends on ourselves, and we do not depend on any historical necessity.”

Also, he contrasts “piecemeal” social engineering against utopianism aiming to remake society entirely. The former pragmatically targets the most urgent problems; deploying reason rather than passion, to achieve its aims democratically. Whereas utopianism pretty much requires coercion. A closed society. And that, says Popper, leads to the Inquisition, the secret police, and a “romanticized gangsterism.”

So who are the enemies of the open society, of Popper’s title? Plato, Hegel, and Marx. Most of book is a critique of these three.

We start with Plato’s “Theory of Forms.” It holds everything in our world is a pale shadow of a corresponding perfect prototype, its Form. The Forms are more real than our “actual” things, which are doomed to decay. Of course this is nonsense.

But for Plato it had big implications. “The state” too had a corresponding Form — a perfect antecedent, which once existed. Plato saw his contemporary states as necessarily less perfect; indeed, degenerated. To arrest that degeneration, by opposing all change, was the essence of his political program.

He gives lip service to a goal of human happiness, but it’s the happiness of the whole society, not of any individuals. He seems to assume his ideal state is a “good” in itself. Having nothing to do with the well-being of ordinary people, who Plato says exist only to serve the state. As do, indeed, even the rulers.

Those rulers would be a class apart, a race apart — with no mixing allowed. This leads Plato to eugenics; he actually invented the idea. The ruling class must preserve its racial purity through carefully supervised breeding.

We associate Plato with the idea of “philosopher kings.” Supervising the eugenics program required trained philosophers — meaning men indoctrinated with Plato’s ideas, giving them the necessary “wisdom.” And also, the mystical “Platonic Number” they’d need.

Yes, he said there is a magic number, which he didn’t reveal. But without rulers privy to it, racial degeneration is inevitable. (Plato was really angling to be made ruler himself.)

Popper casts Plato’s ideal as a quintessential closed society; a tribal, collectivist, caste society. Collectivism is often held up as a virtue, the idea that the community supersedes the individual, and one must transcend selfishness and valorize something higher — the collective. Whereas in an open society people are free to choose social connections as they please.

The transition from the former condition to the latter is a profound and even wrenching social revolution. It was first seen in Plato’s Athens, with the rise of democratic and individualist ideas. Popper says Plato actually diagnosed the resulting social strains quite acutely. Longing for a return to ancestral virtues — Make Athens Great Again. But that ancient faith was gone forever, and against it was rising a new faith — in reason, freedom, and human brotherhood — the faith of an open society.

Plato’s ideas may not have seemed so extreme in 400 BC as now. Our quest for wisdom was just beginning. Yet other ancient thinkers, like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius, were already capable of deeply humanistic ideas. And before Plato, in his own Athens, there was Pericles, who said the state should serve the many, not the few. That reason and humanitarianism should rule.

And there was one other giant upon whose shoulders Plato might well have stood: Socrates. He’s seemingly a major voice in Plato’s written dialogs. But Socrates was the true soul of humility and wisdom, knowing how little he knew; a believer in individualism, and that it’s reason that makes one human. He died for these beliefs. Plato betrayed him.

Plato was Athenian, but saw its perennial enemy Sparta as more like his perfect state. Today, we see one even closer to it — North Korea.

Hegel was a German philosopher of the early 1800s. Popper quotes Schopenhauer, who knew Hegel personally: “The Certified Great Philosopher was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.” I wish Schopenhauer had told us what he really thought.

But for all the gibberish, Hegel did have something to say. Whereas Plato saw civilization’s trajectory as degeneration, Hegel saw progress toward an ideal. But not in a straight line. This is the concept of the “dialectic,” with every thesis having its antithesis, and out of their conflict comes a synthesis, a kind of unity of opposites. Then the process can repeat on a higher level. “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” But alas, what Hegel meant by “freedom” is nothing we’d recognize. The essence of Hegel was the romanticized worship of the state, the nation, and its historical destiny.

Thus did Hegel propel the rise of German nationalism, appealing to tribal instincts, again putting the collective over the individual. Hegel conceived the nation as united by a spirit that acts historically, with the state as its incarnation, asserting its supremacy through war, which he also idolized. The state is exempt from any moral consideration; only historical success matters. And of course you have the Great Man as leader, the one who expresses the will of his time, embodying the idea of a heroic life, contrasted against shallow mediocrity.

All this Popper deems a surrender of reason and humanity. And German thought is riddled with such tripe, from Fichte to Nietzsche. With, of course, a straight line to Hitler.

Then we come to Marx. (I wonder if history would have been different if he’d had a longer name. “Marxism” is punchy. Would “Schickelgruberism” have such appeal?)

But Marx was not a Marxist, in today’s sense; nor a communist. Instead he was mainly the ultimate historicist, promoting the idea of history as a science, with the working class overthrowing capitalism being predictably destined.

But Popper says that unlike Plato and Hegel, Marx really applied careful reason in his analysis. He also had a genuine humanitarian impulse, troubled by the lousy conditions suffered by working people in industrialized economies. In Marx’s social analysis, economic class interest and class struggle was central. But Popper casts him as an enemy of the open society insofar as Marx sanctioned social change not through democracy but violence. A kind of revolution without moral legitimacy.

And Marx and his followers had no handle on the greatest problem of politics: how to control power. Marxists saw state power as a threat only in the hands of the bourgeoisie or capitalists. How wrong that was. Only democracy, says Popper, can hope to protect human values from the state. And he was writing at a time when Soviet Communism’s horrors were still largely unrevealed.

Marx predicted capitalism’s downfall because competition would force intensifying worker exploitation, their worsening misery making revolution inevitable. He never foresaw a totally different story: how proletarians would make the state work for them, by democratic means, achieving a host of reforms regulating and improving working conditions, while also gaining a substantial share of the rising wealth created by vastly increasing productivity. All this led not to greater misery but mass affluence on a scale Marx never imagined. Invalidating his historicist approach.

Popper says “history” is not really even a thing. Human existence is too complex. What people usually mean by “history” concerns just one aspect, political power; which Popper calls an idolatrous worship of power (recalling Hegel). And he’s particularly scathing toward Christians who see “the hand of god” in this so-called history.

He also discusses rationalism versus irrationalism. Of course nobody explicitly advocates irrationalism. But that’s what it actually is when people attack what they call a “soulless” faith in rationalism that supposedly leads to all sorts of excesses, even the Holocaust. Postmodernism, that flourished after Popper, denied there’s any such thing as truth. But while truth may not be absolute, we use our reason to get ever closer to it. The Holocaust did not result from over-reliance on reason, but from the kind of Hegelian irrationalist romanticism Popper denounces.

Popper’s final conclusion is that history has no meaning. And while the fact of progress is written large in human annals, no law of history propels such progress. Nor can history tell us what to do. Rather, it’s all a matter of what we choose to do. And that is how, if history has no meaning, we can give it meaning — by our choices, working for right principles — rule of reason, justice, freedom, equality — humanism — the open society.

“Total authority” and Robinson’s Law

April 16, 2020

Trump has claimed “total authority.” Robinson’s Law: Any democracy is one bad man away from dictatorship.

Germany was a democracy until January 30, 1933. Then President Hindenburg named yet another new Chancellor (prime minister). The chancellorship had been a revolving door. Now it was the turn of National Socialist party; though never winning an electoral majority, they did have a large parliamentary bloc. Hindenburg was unaware of Robinson’s law. (I hadn’t been born yet — in fact Hindenburg’s action led to my birth.)

We’ve seen this movie enough times, we know the script. Put in power the wrong kind of bad man and there’s no turning back. Erdogan in Turkey. Putin in Russia. Maduro in Venezuela. Ortega in Nicaragua. Orban in Hungary. Sisi in Egypt. Modi in India seems to be trying.

China was no democracy, but did have term limits and no one man wielding total power. Until Xi Jinping got it and made himself president for life. Sri Lanka appeared stuck with the Rajapaksa brothers until its voters defied the script and did see them off. But then idiotically brought them back.

It doesn’t actually have to be a man. Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh appears to be on this script.

How is it done? You still hold elections, but with varying degrees of rigging. Demonizing, delegitimizing, silencing opposition. Some regimes stuff ballot boxes, or don’t even bother, simply faking results. In Congo’s presidential election, Fayulu got at least three times as many votes as Tsishekedi; Tsishekedi was decreed the winner. America’s Republicans use voter suppression: enacting all sorts of rules hampering opponents (students, the poor, minorities) from casting ballots, voiding their registrations, requiring particular IDs most don’t have, while polling stations in their neighborhoods are few and far between. With resulting hours-long waits.

Usually, the bad apple has to actually win an election at least once. And too many voters are suckers for them, like Brazil’s creep Bolsonaro. It’s the perennial appeal of the strong man, the tough guy, who will put all to rights. “I alone can fix it.” Even badness itself exerts a strange allure. “Grab them by the pussy.” Duterte in the Philippines, whose anti-drugs program entailed simply murdering thousands, still enjoys robust approval ratings.

You also chip away at checks-and-balances. Co-opt or discredit bodies like the FBI or Justice Department. Stuff the courts with your tools. Stonewall Congress by just disregarding it. All power to the leader. Gradually it becomes the reality.

Then there’s propaganda. You flood the zone with lies, aided by a state propaganda broadcaster (Faux News), while undermining the credibility of real news reporting — “the enemy of the people.” That phrase literally straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, chillingly echoed by dictatorships everywhere. Trump candidly told reporter Lesley Stahl he smears the press so when they report the truth about him, people won’t believe it.

And it works. You might think citizens in a country like Russia would understand it’s a regime of lies and refuse to swallow it. Some do keep their independent minds. But too many just swallow the propaganda. It can be very slick, like Faux News. And of course it fits with what they want to believe.

Total authority.” Today it’s just another grotesque lie. But it could be prophetic. In November, American voters have one last chance to reverse the ghastly mistake made in 2016.

I am hopeful. The vote is sacred. Wisconsin has been ground zero for Republican voter suppression efforts, where they forced an election last week to grab another state high court seat. But enough voters, God bless them, literally risked their lives to go to the polls, and the Republicans lost.

Yes, Virginia, there are racists

April 11, 2020

My last post ended by noting how many people doing important work, especially in these perilous times, are non-whites. Which irks certain whites. My writing this irked certain commenters (on the Albany Times-Union platform).

Some quotes: ” . . . castigate an entire race of people [whites], based solely on THEIR skin color;” “fueled by a sense of superior, and excessive righteous indignation;” ” . . . this tripe — like we’re still living in 19th century America under Jim Crow? . . . who notices the color of one’s epidermis? Fringe nuts and Frank . . . a racebaiter pure and simple;” ” . . . blatant example of the politics of division.”

I’ve always rejected rhetoric calling America an incorrigibly racist society, having seen tremendous progress in my lifetime. Signified by electing a non-white president. I didn’t vote for Obama but was deeply moved, that election night, by a middle aged Chicago black woman jumping up and down, with tears in her eyes, shouting “God bless America! God bless America!” I understood what African-Americans must have felt at that moment after what they’d experienced all their lives.

And I did believe racism was finally relegated to the fringes, the dark corners of our society. Not foreseeing what a backlash Obama’s election would provoke. Some whites’ antipathy toward non-whites had been contained by believing they were still really in an inferior station. For those whites, Obama’s election was a rude awakening. Now America’s reality as an integrated multiracial society, with whites no longer securely on top, hit them in the face. They might tolerate blacks as subordinate but not as equals (let alone in the White House).

So they acted out. Some of the criticism of Obama (like  mine) was principled or ideological, continuing what had been the Clinton wars and Bush wars. But for some Obama’s real sin was governing-while-black. It drove them nuts — epitomized by the idiotic “birther” foofaraw — promoted by Trump.*

Even so, they were still really on the fringe, with no legitimation in mainstream society. Which only deranged them more.

Then came 2016. Careful psephological analyses have shown that the one factor most strongly correlated with voting for Trump was not economic anxiety, nor even religiosity, but racial/ethnic antagonism. Seeing non-whites and foreigners as muscling in where they don’t belong. Not all Trump supporters are racist but all racists are Trump supporters. Because they know he has their back, giving them the seeming legitimacy so long denied them.

And so these racists and white supremacists now feel empowered to push their misbegotten hatefulness as never before (in modern times). Charlottesville was only the most prominent manifestation. Trump made absolutely clear what side he is on, and continues doing so in repeated despicable ways. (Chutzpah: a Trump fan lecturing about “the politics of division.”)

Still don’t think racism is alive and well in today’s America? Three years ago I wrote a blog post titled “Why so many blacks in ads?” It’s my most widely read ever (and not for its analytical sophistication). It’s attracted way the most comments, over 300 and counting. Here’s the link:

Please look at those comments. If you have a strong stomach, to see the face of today’s American racism in all its unabashed Trumped up vileness.

* And don’t spout that nonsense that it was really Hillary.

Life in difficult times: German notgeld

April 4, 2020

We’re now seeing pandemic literature — personal accounts from people about coping with home confinement. My own normal life is much like quarantine anyway. Luckily my business of selling collector coins, by mail and internet, is largely unaffected (though I can’t buy at coin shows). Practically my only outings are to the post office.

Recently quite a few hours were consumed working on a lot of over 800 notgeld coins I got from a German auction. These were issued by thousands of towns and businesses during and shortly after WWI. (France also had similar local coins.) As a kid, knowing that “geld” meant money (my mother is German), I assumed “notgeld” meant something like “not real money.” Actually, “not” is a German word for “emergency.” So working on these “emergency coins” during our own national emergency seemed fitting.

Many sport interesting pictorial designs. One noteworthy series of 45 was from Nurnberg, showing all different local landmarks and historical personages. My grandparents were from Nurnberg and had a set of these. They’re common and inexpensive. Over the years I’ve handled many, sometimes in original albums (less common).

Some notgeld coins were issued in prisoner-of-war camps. “Camp” in German is “lager.” Prisoners “gefangenen.” War is “krieg.” Germans often make compound words — thus “kriegsgefangenenlagergeld.” There were also special issues using encapsulated stamps. Those are kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld. One sees these words in German coin sale catalogs. I remember using this as an example, when telling my small daughter about German compound words. Afterward she danced around merrily chanting, “kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld, kriegsgefangenenlagerkapselgeld.”

Most notgeld coins were made of iron or zinc, and often suffer from ugly rust or white encrustation. On many, a little work with a wire brush removes the crud. (I’ve made a board with round slots to hold coins in place for that.) But several hundred needed more drastic treatment. These I put in a rock tumbler (another useful piece of equipment) with some lemon juice (mildly acidic). After four hours nearly all emerged quite nice.

Happily this lot had come alphabetized by town in small envelopes. That saved some effort, but I did have to re-sort the ones I’d tumbled. Next, the real work: having handled thousands before, most of the common ones I could recognize as such, but many I had to research. There isn’t a good up-to-date catalog. I have two older ones that often disagree, but between them I can get an idea about scarcity, to price accordingly.

About 150 better ones I pulled out to sell individually. The rest in group lots. I learned this shtick early in my coin dealing, when I put out a price list including many common German coins at ten or twenty cents each. They didn’t sell. Preparing my next list, I didn’t feel like retyping all that (this was before word processing). So I just added up the prices and entered “Lot of X-number of German coins” at that combined amount. Guess what? Everybody wanted to order it! Collectors love to play around with coins in batches like that (I do too), and it’s a very effective selling tool. Also far more efficient than hawking them one-by-one.

So the bulk of the notgeld coins I carefully organized into nice big group lots, each with all different varieties but uniform quality. (Quality control is another watchword for my business.)

All in all, a lot of work. But having gotten this lot at a very nice price, little over a dollar per coin, I’ll wind up making a couple of thousand on the deal — while having had a lot of fun, and improving my notgeld knowledge. Though my hand is a bit sore from all the wire brushing.

After the era of notgeld coins, in the early ’20s, came the time of paper notgeld notes, from Germany and, even more prolifically, Austria. The varieties are endless, and you can buy them even cheaper than the coins. Sitting here I’ve also got a few thousand of those to work on. At least they don’t need cleaning.

Trump’s Afghan surrender

March 6, 2020

The story begins 40 years ago with a Communist coup. The Soviets invaded to protect the new regime, while Muslims rose in revolt. We supported and armed them. (One recipient was Bin Laden. A lot of thanks we got.)

The Russians finally pulled out after Gorbachev acknowledged defeat in Afghanistan and in the Cold War more generally. The Afghan Communist government fell, but then civil war ensued among various Muslim forces. Eventually it was won by the Taliban, who imposed their extremist, repressive version of Islam. They gave sanctuary to Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda which perpetrated 9/11. Which prompted America to invade to take down the Taliban. Which we swiftly did. But we eased up before wiping them out. Big fumble by G. W. Bush.

However, under our aegis, Afghans finally got some democracy. They first elected President Karzai, kind of a disaster, but then Ashraf Ghani, far better. Meantime our military involvement against the resurgent Taliban waxed and waned. Obama called this the right war and ramped it up, but then ramped it down, foolishly signaling the Taliban need merely wait us out. Then Trump, for all his spite toward Obama, reprised Obama’s trajectory.

He sent Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American former Ambassador, to negotiate with the Taliban for our extrication. The negotiations excluded the Afghan government, which the Taliban refuses to recognize. Nevertheless, we now have a “peace” deal. If you can call it that.

We started the negotiations laying out three conditions for a U.S. troop withdrawal: a cease-fire; Taliban recognition for the Ghani government; and forswearing aid to terrorism. That was already halfway a surrender. And as the talks progressed, amid ongoing Taliban atrocities, the first two conditions fell away.

The cease-fire has been watered down into a vague pledge of “violence reduction.” The Taliban still won’t recognize the Ghani government, even though the deal calls for a supposed next phase of talks between them. (Indeed, no Afghans apart from the Taliban have yet been involved; the government rejects the deal’s Taliban prisoner release.) And, finally, as for the no-terrorism pledge  — how much is that worth, once U.S. troops are gone? (Indeed, integrated with the Taliban is the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. designates as a terrorist organization.)

It’s clear this “agreement” is a fig leaf for our just bugging out of Afghanistan, flushing away two decades of costly commitment. Mainly so Trump can claim some accomplishment. As always with him, it’s bullshit. The great negotiator will brag that he got our troops home, as though it’s a victory, having gotten bupkis in return. This “great achievement” comes conveniently before the 2020 election — and also conveniently before the inevitable blow-up, with Afghanistan collapsing in violence, and the extremist Taliban likely winning in the end.

True, Afghanistan has long been a graveyard of other-country aspirations. A benighted country with a squalid history. A playground for cynicism. And yet, our involvement there, for all our undoubted missteps, has been a very good thing for the Afghan people.* For half of them especially — the female half. As far as women’s education, empowerment, and role in society is concerned, we helped pull Afghanistan into the Twentieth Century. Well, maybe just the start of that century, but at least an advance upon the Twelfth.

All of that will go down the drain when we pull out and the Taliban triumphs. Returning women to the Twelfth Century.

*My daughter, who has lived in Afghanistan and travels there frequently, reports, “A lot of Afghans — whom I’ve spoken with — actually are very thankful and give the US a lot of credit. They don’t want US forces to leave”

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 . . . .

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.