Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Bloomberg on a white horse?

January 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do Trump supporters and ISIS recruits have in common?

December 19, 2015

UnknownNo, it’s not a joke question. Both actually do reflect a similar dynamic: a wave of disaffection and psychological alienation. Trump supporters and ISIS recruits both feel the world isn’t working for them or respecting them. They’re rebelling against the system and its elites which they see as soft and rotten. Standing against that imparts meaning to their lives.

imagesRadical Islamists portray the West as dissolute; its freedom a lack of discipline; bereft of moral seriousness. Putinist Russian chauvinism similarly puffs its chest as morally strong as against an insipid West. And Trump (now endorsed by Putin) casts himself as a no-nonsense tough guy while our government is run by squishy fools and knaves. Comparable tropes boost similar populist movements in Europe, like France’s National Front.

images-1All this is really a rejection of fundamental rationalist Enlightenment values – the classical liberalism (not big government “liberalism”) of democracy, personal autonomy, openness, tolerance, free commerce, free inquiry and expression, and the worth and dignity of every person. Liberalism, in that classical meaning, is under assault from both left and right, having become a dirty word even among lefties who inveigh against “neoliberalism” (as though some kind of Trojan horse for a rapacious capitalism). The word has particular opprobrium in Europe (Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban pugnaciously vaunts an “illiberal state”).

Such belittling of Enlightenment values is a well-worn theme of cynical disaffected intellectuals, making all kinds of ridiculous arguments – that those values somehow fail to embody more romanticist human proclivities, or that they’ve failed altogether, that misguided rationalism even “led us straight to Auschwitz.” What rubbish.

images-2It’s all a myopic refusal to see how much those liberal Enlightenment values have changed the world, and the lives of human beings, for the better. All those disaffected fools would not have enjoyed feudal times. Nor would the Eighth Century “utopia” ISIS yearns to restore be good for Muslims; the Arab world’s problem is not modernity, but insufficient modernity with its Enlightenment values. And Trump supporters should think twice about the illiberal paranoid state their champion would introduce.

Both Trumpism and Islamic radicalism need to be opposed not just with name-calling (and, in the case of the latter, air strikes and a domestic gestapo), but with full-throated advocacy for the fundamental humanistic values those movements trash. We have to explain them, and promote them, and make them attractive, to show people why they are better than the opposing poisonous farrago of mean-eyed garbage. Humanist ideals are not mere lofty piffle. They are better, not just morally as premised on enabling as many people as possible to thrive – they are better pragmatically because they do in fact promote that goal. In the past couple of centuries, it is precisely the advance of those humanist, rationalist, liberal Enlightenment values that has made a far better world.

Is it a perfect one? Of course not. But, again, if you don’t think it’s better, get thee back to feudal times to see what a really crappy world is like. And the different world today’s anti-liberal movements seek would go in that direction.

Unknown-2This is the case that must be vigorously made. But, in particular, we have woefully failed to meet the propaganda of Islamic radicalism with an alternative narrative. Remember Radio Free Europe, during the cold war? Actively and eloquently spreading free world values, in answer to the other side’s lies. What a success that was in helping to win that war of ideas. Where, on our side, is today’s equivalent? In today’s new war of ideas, where are our verbal boots on the ground?

Do you believe poverty is worsening?

November 28, 2015

UnknownThe global population living in extreme poverty has risen in the last 20 years – indeed has almost doubled – say two-thirds of Americans in a recent survey. Nearly all the rest guessed poverty has merely stayed the same.

“Rising poverty” is a pessimist idee fixe, so ubiquitous that most folks unthinkingly consider it an obvious truism, to be sanctimoniously deplored. I have actually seen people’s eyes sparkle when talking of “rising poverty;” puffing up one’s moral vanity feels good.

Unknown-1Well, sorry to be a killjoy, but global poverty has in fact plummeted in recent decades. If world poverty were a stock, you’d have lost your shirt on it. The 95% of Americans who believe otherwise are misinformed.

This little known secret was revealed by Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times op-ed, citing World Bank figures: since 1993, the proportion of world population living in extreme poverty (defined as earning less than $1.00-$1.25 daily) fell by more than half, from 35% to 14%. Adding insult to injury, Kristof also noted the child death rate, before age five, dropped by more than half since 1990.* And whereas in the ‘80s only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school, now 80% do. Literacy is rising and disease rates are falling. And so on. (Bill and Melinda Gates similarly argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that pessimists are wrong and global conditions are improving markedly.)

imagesYet still there’s rising inequality, we’ve still got that for moralizing lamentation, no? Well – Kristof’s data refute that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The rich are getting richer, yes, but so are the poor, though not as fast, which does increase wealth gaps. However, globally, inequality between poor countries and rich ones is indisputably lessening, simply because the former have higher economic growth. (Even with today’s big slowdown, the Asian Development Bank projects 5.8% 2015 growth for the region, minus Japan. For advanced countries, 3% is considered sizzling.)

images-1The left, wedded to a mantra of rising poverty and inequality, is all about wealth and income redistribution to fix it. But part of why developing economies are growing faster than advanced ones, reducing the gap between them, is because wealth is in fact being redistributed from the latter to the former. This is what Trump yaps about with his China bashing. And, ironically, the left hates it too – all the whining about “shipping jobs overseas.” That redistributes wealth from richer to poorer people. Shouldn’t the left love it?

Unknown-2But of course poorer countries aren’t simply sucking our wealth away. To the contrary, a more integrated global economy with fewer artificial barriers enables goods and services to be produced where it is cheapest and most efficient, and this makes the whole world richer – including us. Cheaper production in China or India or Vietnam reduces prices for U.S. consumers (to the tune of trillions of dollars in fact), enabling more spending on other things, which stimulates job creation, making up for jobs lost. Everybody wins.

Further illuminating what is happening and why, author Ronald Bailey provided a commentary (on Reason.comon Kristof’s piece. What has enabled many developing countries to improve by taking advantage of global trade opportunities is better economic policies – in a nutshell, more economic freedom for their people to do so – phasing out dysfunctional old socialist nostrums (this is the “neoliberalism” lefties condemn). Bailey cites a 2015 Fraser Institute report giving countries economic freedom ratings, based on various measures. The 102 countries continuously rated averaged 5.31 in 1980, rising to 5.77 in 1990, 6.74 in 2000, and 6.86 in 2013.

Bailey notes that such economic freedom, and its handmaid, rule of law, tend to flourish in politically and economically stable countries. And it should be no surprise that all those conditions combine to unleash human ingenuity and enterprise, creating wealth and reducing poverty. Bailey also cited data showing that such nations tend to have markedly reduced fertility rates (thus controlling population growth), better environmental stewardship, and higher life expectancies than in more repressive and misgoverned lands.

Bailey concludes by saying that it is in “democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women’s rights respected.”

images-2Free market capitalism admittedly produces uneven results – as will any economic system – but is far better than any alternative for giving the greatest number of people the best opportunities and quality of life. The gigantic poverty reduction and welfare improvement of recent decades was not the product of socialism, but of getting away from such economic folly. And a market economy is also ethically superior because it works by increasing freedom rather than restricting it. That’s what I call social justice.

(All of this was already covered in my own very excellent 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism. I thank Scott Perlman for pointing me to the cited articles.)

*Meantime, Bernie Sanders saying America has the world’s highest child poverty rate is ridiculous. We measure it in relation to average U.S. incomes – which top worldwide scales. Of course child poverty is much worse in many countries that still are much poorer.

The next president will be . . . Marco Rubio

November 12, 2015

Unknown-5News flash: The Rational Optimist blog can now call the next presidential election for . . . yes, Rubio.

We’re told Trump and Carson are “frontrunners” for the GOP nomination. I don’t know what that means when we’re talking 25% or so in polls. Last I checked it takes 50+% of convention votes. No way either guy can reach that. Especially when dividing the “outsider” vote between them. But even if those votes all went to just Trump, or Carson, it still couldn’t plausibly produce a convention majority.

imagesThere are really two contests. One is an outlet for folks to vent anger and disaffection, and mouth off for candidates who push their buttons. The ones Trump pushes are obvious. And Carson’s persona as the antithesis of the stereotypical politico is working for him. He’s also got a “magical negro” thing going, as inoculation against the idea that Republican Obama-hatred is race-based.

But the second contest is a presidential election. And when it comes to that, most voters will put aside their emotive responses to the likes of Trump and Carson, and get serious. And neither man can be taken seriously as presidential material, unless something has radically changed in the American mindset. Indeed, for all the Trump and Carson ballyhoo, voters are too timid for anything truly radical. After all, we’ve seen high levels of voter disaffection before, with Congressional approval ratings scraping 9% (and who are those clueless 9%?). Yet the Congressional re-election rate continues to exceed 90%!

So while Trump and Carson “lead” the polls, with meaninglessly anemic pluralities, the real battle is among the more conventional and serious candidates. Unknown-3Initially Bush seemed the man, just on general principles, and hence he’s raised a gazillion dollars. Proving yet again that money doesn’t “buy” elections. No amount of advertising can sell a product people don’t like, and Bush seems to be the lackluster Edsel of this campaign.

Unknown-1Marco Rubio has the pizzazz Bush does not, and is brightening as Bush fades. Rubio is attractive and articulate. And it isn’t flash without substance. While much of the Republican party seems mired in ruinous ideological fetishism, Rubio embodies what a relevant and truly progressive twenty-first century Republican party could be, tackling the country’s real problems with sensible approaches that emphasize the empowerment of people rather than government (in contrast to Democratic “progressives,” who are not my idea of progressivity).*

Bernie Sanders, for all his humorlessness, is another non-serious candidate. Admittedly, unlike Trump’s and Carson’s, his supporters wouldn’t flinch from actually making him president. But they can’t stop Hillary Clinton’s remorseless juggernaut. She’ll be the nominee.

With a presidential electorate fairly evenly divided between the parties, elections are decided by the swing voters who are actually the least engaged and informed and who vote impressionistically, with their gut, for the candidate whose persona they’re most comfortable with. They’re not ideological. images-1And between Clinton and Rubio, Rubio has the better story. Clinton personifies the poisonous political divisiveness of the past couple of decades; Rubio might offer a fresh start.

Watch for a smear campaign on Rubio’s personal finances. But against Hillary Clinton? Really? With her history of dishonesty, scandals, misjudgments, and massive conflicts of interest? (Declaring in the recent debate her pride in the enmity of pharmaceutical companies – which have given her millions!)

Unknown-4Overheard from an unsophisticated middle-American conversation: “Hillary is shifty. Like a car salesman.”

So on January 20, 2017: “I, Marco Rubio, do solemnly swear . . . . “

* For example, hostility to free trade and technological advancement, and intolerance of divergent views.

Charter Schools: How Democrats Betray Blacks

November 1, 2015

Unknown-6“Draining” is the word of choice. As in “draining money from public schools.” As if charter schools hurt public education – a sinister plot (“corporate” of course) to do just that. As if public education is great for everybody – including ghetto blacks.

Some folks hate the idea of profit-making business. As if that’s not the very thing that’s given us our prosperous lives. Generating the wealth we can spend on . . . well, stuff like public education. But never mind. Profit is evil; it’s greed. Surely we don’t want that corrupting our kids’ education.

Unknown-1Actually, I’ve always found rather better the services provided by profit-seeking businesses, competing for the consumer’s dollar, than by government. To survive, such businesses must satisfy their customers. Government bureaucrats, not so much. Would you find a nightly chocolate on your pillow on a government-run cruise ship?

Unknown-3Charter school detractors say they perform worse on average than public schools. But as I noted recently, former NY Education Commissioner David Steiner explained that charter school data is pulled down by a proliferation of what he called “mom and pop” operations, whereas larger, professional – “corporate!” – ones tend to perform admirably.

Meantime, some public schools do not. And, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, they’re too often schools serving inner city blacks — still separate and unequal. There are many reasons. One is that schools are funded, to a great degree, by property taxes, which favors white suburbs over black ghettoes. In the latter neighborhoods, charter schools are realistically the only hope. Steiner noted that Harlem kids in charter schools are seven times likelier to reach college.

Unknown-4So you might think the Democratic party, which owes its very viability to black votes, would champion charter schools. But of course there’s that ideological hostility to anything smacking of business or profit. And the party’s subservience to teacher unions, desperate to protect their near-monopoly. At recent Democratic national conventions, around one in eight delegates have been teacher union members.

Those unions have managed to convince most white Democrats that charter schools somehow threaten public education – the “draining” argument. And most white kids go to public schools that are pretty good; and the affluent ones can afford private schools. They see little to gain from charter schools.

But, again, things are very different in disadvantaged black neighborhoods where public schools do poorly, and charters – even if they didn’t actually outperform – would at least provide a spur of competition forcing public schools to raise their game. Yet blacks continue to vote Democratic, against their interests, somehow overlooking the party’s betrayal on this critical issue. When will they wake up and rebel? Why don’t Republicans stress this issue more?

Unknown-5Speaking of “draining money” – Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize, chronicles what happened to the whopping $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donated to fix Newark’s failing public schools. What happened was . . . not much. The money basically went down the drain, and the public schools are as bad as ever. Reform efforts were defeated by a combination of factors, prominently including the entrenched interests of the status quo. One might conclude the system is (as bureaucratic systems tend to be) impervious to real change. But meantime Newark charter schools are doing great.

And here in financially struggling Albany, the city aims to blow a whopping $196 million to build literally the costliest high school in history. That works out to about $90,000 per high school student! One weeps to think what even a tenth of that amount could do to improve actual education – which a palatial building will not.

That’s what I call draining money from public education.

What Is “Socialism?”

October 20, 2015

imagesBernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “socialist” has gotten much use in the past century. “Nazi” was actually short for “National Socialist.” Not that Sanders uses the word in the same sense as Hitler.

There’s a lot of effort to sugar-coat it, to persuade voters it’s nothing to fear. Sanders says it means nothing more than economic fairness. UnknownHumpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” One caller on a radio forum chirped, “Do you like the fire department, the police, military, run by government? Why, that’s socialism!”

Well, no. That’s simply government. Not everything government does is “socialism,” so that if you like government doing anything then you must be a socialist.

Time for some Political Science 101.

Why was government invented in the first place? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained: in a “state of nature” your neighbor could bash your head in and grab your food, or wife. Unknown-2Imagine people getting together to discuss this predicament. The answer is for each to give up his* freedom to bash a neighbor in return for others giving up theirs. Now you can devote less time and effort on self-defense, and tending your wounds, and more on getting food or nookie. But this system of law (the “social contract”) needs an enforcer. That’s government.

But notice this is a faustian bargain. You give up your right to use violence, to government – which can now use it against you. That’s a terrible power, and you want to be very careful it’s limited. And while we have found many other worthy functions for government (like fire protection, mentioned by that caller), government doesn’t work by voluntary cooperation, but through its ultimate power to put non-cooperators in jail. Unknown-3With all the talk these days about “corporate power,” remember that no corporation can put you in jail.

What “socialism” really means is government performing not only its social contract function, via a legal system, and communal functions like fire protection, but also economic functions; in the lingo, “owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.” What, in a market economy, is done by people individually or, more commonly, grouped together in businesses. A purely socialist economy doesn’t even allow that.

Now, of course, just as we don’t have a purely market economy, and America actually is already partly socialist, so too one can imagine a socialist economy that isn’t pure but is still partly capitalist. But that doesn’t negate the basic dichotomy between the socialist and market economic concepts. Though you can have a mix, socialism means government taking the place of private business activity.**

images-1Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is really something of an oxymoron, because it is, once more, the essence of socialism to supplant private activity. And the more pervasive government becomes, in running society, the harder it is to be democratic. While a market economy entails numerous non-government institutions (importantly, businesses and corporations) as independent power centers, a counterweight to government power, a socialist economy undermines that power dispersal and concentrates power in government hands.

And so it has indeed been the experience that countries with basically socialist economies have not been what we would recognize as democratic. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. This is one key reason why the world so decisively turned away from socialism in the late twentieth century.

The other reason was that it just didn’t work. While the idea of socialism is purportedly to give ordinary people better economic outcomes, in practice it did the opposite. Government has proven itself incapable of creating wealth, as does a market economy of enterprises competing with each other to give consumers better products and services at better prices. You can redistribute till the cows come home, but without a market economy creating wealth in the first place, people will be poorer. Whine all you like about the unfairness, the “harshness” of capitalism fueled by greed, but the ordinary person is still better off than under socialism.

Unknown* One is supposed to use gender-neutral language nowadays. But of course women don’t bash anybody.

** Socialists talk of “common ownership.” However, in reality that means nobody except government owning anything.

Hollow Hillary’s Trade Terrors

October 11, 2015

Republican presidential candidates are falling over themselves pandering to a right-wing activist base that dominates party primaries – exemplified by Scott Walker advocating a northern border wall. Though he quit, so maybe that out-crazied the party’s crazy wing.

unknown-12The Democratic party has likewise been captured by a left-wing activist base, which explains Hillary Clinton’s disgraceful attack on President Obama’s TPP (Pacific nation trade deal), even though she advocated the concept while Secretary of State. It’s one of the few really good things Obama has achieved. That a big trade deal could be concluded at all in today’s complicated world is almost a miracle. Failure to approve it would be yet another blow to America’s tattered international credibility, while China’s role is growing. Recall how our friends all ignored Obama’s plea to shun China’s new regional development bank.

imagesAnd it’s a good deal for America – the benefits to our consumers through lower prices on imports will vastly outweigh any jobs lost – and that furthermore will stimulate more spending on other things, creating new jobs, making up for the ones lost. It’s good for the world too, making people in other countries more prosperous. A more prosperous world, with wealthier trading partners, is also obviously good for America.

But none of this registers with the anti-trade – frankly, anti-market – anti-economic-growth – Democratic left wing which Hillary feels she must coddle. At one time it was actually the Republicans who were the protectionists, while Democrats were for free trade, recognizing that protectionism was a scam to protect businesses from economic competition, and free trade benefited the broader public. UnknownDemocrats’ newfound hostility to trade trashes the good of the many for the interests of a few. How did they get their heads so far up their rears on this issue?

Hillary, trying to justifying her betrayal on the TPP, claimed its provisions are too cushy for pharmaceutical companies. Funny that when the deal was announced, pharmaceutical stocks plunged because those companies were seen to be screwed.

Things We’re Not Allowed to Say

October 7, 2015

imagesBlacks can say the N-word. Whites like me cannot. Not even in my own blog, nor even when talking of its offensiveness (as Christopher Hitchens once learned when a TV interview was abruptly terminated).

Issues of who can say what were a key topic at a 9/26 Skidmore College symposium with a panel packed with intellectual rock stars (Marilynne Robinson, Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson, Phillip Lopate, etc.).

Patterson

Patterson

The agenda was the interplay between ideology and belief. Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor, discussed the cultural legitimacy of beliefs, especially about groups. He noted that using group stereotypes is actually a biologically-wired survival tool – quick judgments could mean life or death for early peoples – but today, of course, it’s a no-no.

Patterson cited Lawrence Summers, whose words about women’s under-representation in science got him ousted as Harvard’s president – “rightly so,” Patterson said, to my surprise.

Summers

Summers

Because Summers was making an almost indisputable evidence-based point, about differences in how male and female brains work, that actually echoed claims by feminists who were lionized for it. Thus a perfect example of some being allowed to say what others aren’t.

This epitomized liberal censorship – their talk of “free expression,” “open inquiry,” and “academic freedom” is too often hypocrisy when they really mean freedom of expression only for themselves and views they favor.

Moynihan

Moynihan

Patterson discussed Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report on black family breakdown (which Patterson, author of award-winning books on slavery, later blamed on slavery – even though black marriage rates through the Jim Crow era and even the Depression were no lower than for whites, and only plummeted a century after slavery’s end).

Anyhow, said Patterson, Moynihan-style attempts to connect behavior to cultural differences became seen as illegitimate – the “Typhoid Mary” of sociology.

Mary

Mary

Indeed, some denied that black single parenthood was even a problem, calling it not an inferior but merely a different family model (despite mountains of data showing how much better children do with two parents). Patterson labeled all of this “crippling” for sociology.

The 1980s finally saw a “slow, cautious return” to a more honest ethos. But you were still supposed to emphasize racism to explain sociological differences, with cultural explanations remaining suspect (except respecting racial IQ test disparities). More generally it was now okay to talk about culture, “but only what’s nice about people’s culture.”

Patterson ended by decrying what he sees as a “new victimism” (referring to police-versus-blacks issues), exemplified by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-discussed book addressed to his son, telling him his black body is an object of hate – “child abuse,” Patterson said.

Jim Sleeper (author of Liberal Racism) commented on the role here of “moral self-justification.” He made an analogy that while communism was bad, anti-communism also sometimes entailed bad things – and the same is true of anti-racism.

Miller

Miller

Epistemology (how and what one knows) loomed large in the discussion; in particular, what one chooses to know. Here again, liberal censorship. Patterson spoke of how information on black family breakdown was in effect whitewashed, and Jim Miller (former Director of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research) told how, when surveyed, his certifiably politically enlightened students mostly said they would not want to know hypothetical scientific data showing a group’s cognitive disability.

Relevant to belief differences entwined with knowledge differences, David Steiner, former (2009-11) New York State Education Commissioner, talked of attitudes toward charter schools. In Harlem he saw “tears running down the cheeks” of parents whose kids lost out in lotteries to attend charter schools – knowing those schools meant a likelihood of getting to college seven times greater. But a different narrative is evident in Baltimore where no charter school alternative for comparison exists because teacher unions have succeeded in protecting their monopoly and demonizing charters. Steiner wondered whether black Baltimoreans are cognizant of how bad their public schools are.

Steiner

Steiner

(I got to chat with Steiner afterwards. He said that nationwide, public schools outperform charters – because the latter are dragged down by results in a proliferation of what he called “mom and pop” schools, while larger, more professionally run charters do much better. One might add that inner city public schools tend to do much worse than national averages.)

Again, the headline topic was the interplay of ideology and belief. Patterson alluded to the problem of what it really means to “believe” something. People can “believe” in Heaven yet cry at funerals. Self-interest and self-regard are also distorting factors. I suspect O.J. Simpson believed himself innocent. Then there’s politics and ideology. China has bitterly denounced Japan’s recent adjustment of its pacifist strictures as a “return to militarism” – while China bullies its neighbors over territorial claims and its military build-up way outstrips Japan’s. Yet do Chinese authorities believe their rhetoric? Possibly.

A second session began with a talk by Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib which I think was about public versus private selves (not the scheduled topic) but was so encrusted with academic-ese that I got little from it. She tossed in some irrelevant bombs denouncing “neoliberalism” (a derogatory term by lefties for what is really a return to classical liberal principles) and how everything today is all about money, yada, yada, yada.

Lears

Lears

So Rutgers Professor Jackson Lears chimed in with an equally off-topic anti-capitalist rant. I was glad Jim Miller (“Liberal Studies,” remember!) called him on it, saying such burblings are empty because their devotees have no alternative to the economic arrangements they condemn (save perhaps a Soviet style command system, and we know how great that worked).

Lears shot back calling Miller’s comments among the most bizarre he’d ever heard, and that in thirty years he’d never been associated with the Soviet Union (something I doubt). Lears said the alternative system is “social democracy – it’s that simple – social democracy.”

Social Democracy

The alternative to free market capitalism

A catch-phrase totally devoid of substantive content. Might as well say the alternative is pie-in-the-sky.

The End of the Man on the White Horse

October 2, 2015

imagesThe Man on the White Horse is a hoary staple of the political imagination. The hero, with integrity, ideals, and vision, the leader who will put things right. We all fall for it, at different times. And then wind up disillusioned.

Exhibit A is, of course, Barack Obama. I didn’t vote for him (my 2008 evaluation seems prescient now) yet grasped what his election meant to so many – who hoped he’d be a transformational leader. He is not that; not even an effective one.

But this is not just about Obama, it’s larger than him. The hopes we put in political leaders seem systemically doomed to disillusionment.

Widodo

Widodo

I was prompted here by reading about Indonesia’s still fairly new president, Joko Widodo. Seemed a really good guy, decent, honest, able. It was hugely encouraging that he beat a military blowhard cut from a mold that’s proven awful elsewhere. Alas Widodo so far seems a lackluster president and disillusionment is fast setting in.

I’ve written of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who also raised great hopes and started strongly. His administration is now floundering. And of a wonderful election in Sri Lanka unexpectedly throwing out an autocrat; but the new administration is floundering there as well.

Modi

Modi

And I wrote of Narendra Modi, with potential to lift India from its daft economic policies. But he seems to be operating on the theory that just being Modi will energize India’s economy, without his actually doing much; certainly not anything politically hard.

images-2Yet another Man on a White Horse who will probably go out on a donkey.

Now many U.S. voters are bedazzled by some truly ridiculous candidates (Trump, Carson, Sanders – yes, anyone labeling himself “socialist” today is ridiculous), imagining they could somehow march in and set the country right. How very silly.

*     *     *

The syndrome does appear systemic. Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, Political Order and Political Decay (see my commentary) sheds some light.

Bismarck

Bismarck

In past epochs leaders had scope to be more radical and achieve big things. But modern states do not allow for Napoleons or Bismarcks.

There are two big factors. The first is political structure. Some see today a concentration of political power, undermining democracy (the false notion of “buying elections”). But the greater truth is exactly the opposite. Advanced modern democracies disperse power so widely that nobody can get very much of it, including presidents. Proliferating opportunities for some interests to block others produce what Fukuyama called a “vetocracy.” So a president does not run the government, he’s merely an administrator. Obamacare was really just a modest tweak of our healthcare system, not a fundamental overhaul.

And voters may profess anger at the status quo but actually vote very conservatively to lock it in, timorous toward any real change, lacking imagination, and suckered by tired old formulas. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Juncker famously said, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.” So Brazilian voters last year confirmed a dysfunctional statist model, rejecting a classically liberal alternative, and the nation’s rot predictably deepens.

The second factor is the nature of government itself in advanced modern states, its sheer hugeness and complexity, forming a political interest and power center in its own right which is also, by nature, highly resistant to any reform or change.

Unknown-1The combination of these two factors makes any major policy effort like trying to turn around the Titanic. (Worse – the Titanic’s captain could change its course, slowly.) Already six decades ago, Truman said, “Poor Ike. He’ll sit there and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ and nothing will happen. It won’t be a bit like the army.”

Government has a role in a modern society. We cannot get rid of it. Yet it is a fundamental mistake to look to government for solutions to societal problems today. Once that was reasonable, but no longer. We need ways of addressing issues that bypass government. Unfortunately, those are far from obvious.

images-4Well — at least no one can have any illusions about Hillary as a Woman on a White Horse.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,491 other followers