Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Ministry for the Future

June 5, 2023

A recent article in The Economist addressed global warming’s effect on India and Pakistan. With discussion of “wet-bulb” temperatures, a more complex measurement of heat impact; 35 about the limit humans can endure. Heat waves in those countries inch toward that. It sounded like India and Pakistan are on the cusp of becoming literally uninhabitable.

Then I pick up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, The Ministry for the Future. A novel — or a polemic in the guise of a novel. Starting in the very near future, with an Indian heat wave (and more wet-bulb talk), vividly chronicled through the eyes of Frank, a young aid worker at a clinic. The power’s gone out, but he’s got a generator and air conditioner. Until they’re stolen by gunmen. Frank still struggles to help save townspeople. In vain; all are among the 20 million killed by this heat wave. Frank himself survives — barely — traumatized.

The Ministry for the Future is a global agency set up to try to save civilization. But it’s not some monster bureaucracy with draconian powers. More like a glorified Greta Thunberg, to nag the world. Its head, Mary Murphy, is the book’s sort-of-hero. Its villain is “capitalism.”

There’s the usual bashing of fossil fuel industries; of course “the rich;” and “neoliberalism.” A pejorative referring to the economic consensus that widely emerged after communism and socialism seemed discredited; emphasizing free markets, globalization, free trade, and limits on government. When the word is fetishized, as here, you know where the writer is coming from politically.

Oh, and here America too is a villain. China and Russia basically good guys. Right-o.

This is a very preachy book. Pedantic, didactic, tedious. And long. Not a fun read. But a spoiler alert: the good guys win! Indeed, solving not just climate, but (practically) all the world’s other problems. Even inequality!

Some shadowy forces wage war against carbon emissions. Thus “Crash Day” when sixty planes go down. Though not quite indiscriminately — many are private jets. Container ships are being sunk. Et cetera. For Robinson, anyone contributing (heedlessly) to carbon emissions is a genocidal criminal deserving the ultimate penalty. Which he administers with relish.

Yet unlike many climate zealots, he understands the limitations of a carbon-centric approach. Even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures are already baked in. Global warming would only be moderated slightly.

“Geoengineering” is the term for actions to actually reverse the effects and cool the planet. It’s been a dirty word among climate warriors fixated on curbing emissions. One might think their real animus is not to save humanity but to punish it; to especially punish “neoliberal capitalism.” Geoengineering seen as an unwelcome distraction from that jihad.

In the book, India, after its catastrophic heat wave, goes full geoengineering — sending up planes to seed the atmosphere in mimicry of a major volcanic eruption, which does cause cooling. Mary Murphy tells India they can’t do that without international consensus. India tells Mary to stuff it.

Other concepts in the book, new to me, are pumping sea water into Antarctica’s interior where it freezes, thus offsetting sea level rises due to melting ice elsewhere; and dying the Arctic Ocean yucky yellow, to prevent heat absorption.

All these measures are portrayed favorably, as feasible and impactful, without the untoward side effects that geoengineering haters warn of. Indeed, given the climate crisis extremity in this imagined future, the word “geoengineering” loses its opprobrium, and even drops from common discourse. Now it’s just doing whatever it takes to save civilization.

Capitalism’s critics rarely have a glimmer of an alternative. Robinson at least tries. Confronting the argument that the market’s pricing and production decisions are too complex for government planners to substitute for — as the Soviet Union proved — Robinson says AI should solve that, being up to the job. Disregarding that bloodless AI lacks the entrepreneurial incentive to satisfy customers.

That’s the “greed” we keep hearing about. Another word Robinson harps on. Excessive greed can — like anything excessive — be a vice; but “greed” itself merely refers to the universal human desire for betterment for oneself and one’s family. An ineradicable thirst for wealth and status. Which has been the impetus behind betterment for everyone, all human progress. The idea of a world without “greed,” with everyone just complacently having their needs met, is actually inhuman — a world of cardboard cut-outs, not people.

Similarly, Robinson’s alternative economic model — he plays footsie with the word “socialism” — entails disallowing profit for provision of any goods or services people really need, those needs being met instead by government. Well, he talks in terms of everyone owning everything in common. But in practice that means government. Which in turn means certain people once again having inordinate power. Something you can’t get around, no matter the system.

The source of the money to finance production of all these goods and services, to be distributed with nobody making any profit, is something of a mystery. People would still be paid for working; with everyone, moreover, guaranteed a job. Old Soviet joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Robinson considers money itself a bad thing, at least as presently constituted; he sees it replaced by some sort of blockchain “people’s money” which, somehow, no one can hide or exploit for bad ends. And nobody’s allowed to have more than a limited amount.

It seems he actually foresees replacing humanity itself, as presently constituted, with a new model, free of greed, selfishness, tribalism, ignorance, every bad tendency. Required for the global New Jerusalem he envisions.

I’m no misanthrope, believing human good outweighs the bad. But you gotta grapple with the bad. Can’t just wish it all away.

Early in the book, attendees at an annual Davos gathering are locked in by some of those eco-terrorists and subjected to “re-education” via films and power-points, trying to shake their capitalist faith. They’re told that four billion people are still in poverty.* And one of the captive fat-cats rejoins that but for capitalism, it would be eight billion.

That guy was right. Robinson should listen to him.

* No longer true.

Florida Man Versus Florida Man for President

May 26, 2023

When “Florida Man” appears in a news headline, cue some real crazy shit going down.

A Florida Man, Governor Ron DeSantis, has declared his presidential candidacy.

Call me an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, but I’m nostalgic for candidates talking about the actual, serious problems confronting the country. That ain’t Ron DeSantis. He’s made it clear he’s all about culture wars, all the time. There’s no culture war issue whose hot buttons he doesn’t try to push. Talking about real issues? Nah.

Our epidemic of gun violence is a real issue. But guns are also a culture fetish for America’s right. So Florida Man DeSantis has made his state (site of some landmark mass shootings — Pulse Nightclub, Douglas school) a permitless-carry gun nuts’ paradise.

The right has also whipped itself into an obsessive frenzy over trans people and other sexually nonconforming folks. This too DeSantis has fed with his “Don’t Say Gay” law. Feeding a professed fear of kids somehow being influenced to go gay. Could these heteros imagine themselves propagandized into same-sex lust? It’s ridiculous. Yet they’re supposedly trying to “protect” children against that.

Protecting them from, like, drag queen story hours. Hey — how about protecting them against assault rifles??

And during Covid, DeSantis actually worked to block schools from measures to protect kids against the virus. Largely thanks to his coddling extreme right-wing opponents of public health strictures, at one point Florida had a fifth of all U.S. Covid infections.

He has also engaged in bashing immigrants and refugees, with cruel bussing stunts (while having nothing constructive to say about the issue). He’s exacerbated racial tensions by battling against the phony bogeyman of “critical race theory.” (“Protecting” kids against knowing our history.)

He’s promoted book banning, signed a draconian abortion ban, and weakened press freedom and academic freedom. All while, with no sense of irony, painting the word “freedom” all over himself.

DeSantis said Florida is “where woke goes to die.” No, it’s where sanity and decency go to die.

For the Republican presidential nomination, DeSantis is up mainly against Mar-a-Lago’s Donald Trump, another Florida Man par excellence. This reflects the Floridamanization of GOP politics. The Governor’s chief selling point is that he’s more electable. If this is what’s electable in today’s America, God help us.

The Coddling of the American Mind

May 18, 2023

The Coddling of the American Mind is a great 2018 book by Jonathan Haidt, an NYU social and cultural psychologist, and attorney Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

It’s about “woke” witch hunting on campuses — universities intimidated by hard left activists brooking no disagreement from their orthodoxies, mainly related to identity politics. (I previously reviewed, in Skeptic Magazine, another good book on this topic, The Tyranny of Virtue, by Robert Boyers.)

There’s a tendency in human affairs to go to extremes. The idea that if something is good, more is better. Running over moderation and restraint. Studies have shown that in a group of like-minded people, the most extreme among them will exert a gravitation-like force pulling the others toward that extreme.

What Coddling discusses is so extreme it’s off the charts; people losing all sense of perspective. A parallel to what’s happened to the Republican party.

Part of the woke ideology at issue is that everything comes down to power relationships. A kernel of truth they take to extremes. And it’s something they themselves ironically illustrate — their own empowerment being a key reason for their behavior. Central is performative “virtue signaling,” enabling them to feel superior to others, even to crush those others. Shouting down a campus speaker asserts one’s power over them.

Central too is a culture of safetyism, the idea that students (especially non-white) must be protected from the harm of exposure to any words potentially disturbing. With offenders to be punished. Another huge irony is that, rather than making campuses feel safer, this actually creates a culture of fear. With people terrified lest they utter some word falling afoul of the thought police. (Called “bias response teams” or the like on some campuses.) The phrase “walking on eggshells” appears multiple times in the book. Corroborated for me in conversation with a recent ivy league graduate who told of how a gang of “woke” activists had everyone else silenced in terror of their censorious wrath.

There’s another parallel here, to America’s gun culture. With, again, an ostensible safety notion — protection against threats of harm. When in fact the ubiquity of guns makes us all less safe. Indeed, harping on supposed self-protection (together with an overblown fixation on crime) creates another culture of fear. Manifested in a spate of recent shootings of people who innocently neared the homes of gun nuts. Shot instead of being asked, “Do you need help?” A sad aspect of American society today.

While (back to the book) higher education is shooting itself in the foot with regard to preparing students for life. Its subtitle is “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure.” The bad ideas are three “Great Untruths” which the authors blame for that campus dysfunctionality:

First, “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” (Inverting Nietzsche’s line.) It’s the notion that students are fragile snowflakes unable to withstand the mental trauma of encountering unwelcome ideas. Of course real life offers no such protections, and campus “safety” culture serves to heighten their emotional fragility. The authors instead advocate an anti-fragility ethos, wherein dealing with challenges strengthens one’s capability for doing so.

A metaphor is peanut allergies. Why has that become such a problem? Turns out that kids exposed early to peanuts mostly develop immunity; those “protected” more likely become vulnerable. It’s parents trying to avoid peanut allergies that have caused their explosion.

The second untruth is “always trust your feelings” — what the book calls emotional reasoning. The feelings at issue are, again, responsive to what other people say. Thus we get kerfuffles over “micro aggressions.” (Another irony: the very prefix “micro” ought to clue us that something’s not a big deal.) But the book posits that what really messes with our minds is not external events themselves but how we choose to think about them; invoking the childhood “sticks and stones” chant. The authors acknowledge that words can hurt, but a strong psyche can put that in perspective. More broadly, the whole point of education should be not letting emotions control you, with greater reliance on reason.

The third shibboleth is “us against them” — dividing humankind between the good (us) and the evil (them), who must be fought and defeated. Applicable regarding Russia and Ukraine. On campuses, not so much.

It’s classic witch hunting, casting out heretics. Though no one has actually been burned at the stake, plenty of victims have been demonized as pariahs and lost their jobs. The book suggests that rather few people are actually evil, most are well-intentioned (as its subtitle indicates), but can be misguided. (Much as I denounce the pathologies of Trump cultists, they’re not wicked people either, just (very) misguided.) Thus the authors call for giving people the benefit of the doubt — charitably viewing a faux pas as a mere mistake, not a heinous crime coming from a black heart and requiring capital punishment or near.

An “us-against-them” mentality is an evolutionary inheritance, since our ancient forebears did have much to fear from other tribes. Humanity has gone far toward advancing beyond this primitive paradigm. How weird that universities where, if anyplace, you’d expect enlightened rationalism, are backwaters of such stone age behavior.

So — why did this happen?

The authors (borrowing from chemistry) see a “phase change” occurring right around 2013, when “iGen” students started college. That was the first generation whose early teens were shaped by the iPhone (introduced in 2007), and the associated social media immersion. Making those kids virtually a different species.

The book breaks down the phenomenon into six causal factors:

• Increased political polarization. It’s not just the left on the warpath; left and right extremes feed off each other, deliberately provoke each other.

• Heightened iGen anxiety and depression, especially among girls; social media the key culprit (making them feel inferiority and exclusion). This very real pathology fed into the safetyism fetish, as if students are indeed unable to handle the stresses of micro aggressions and suchlike. Very counterproductive medicine.

• Paranoid, helicopter parenting (stemming from a wildly overblown 1980’s child abduction panic), also making kids feel beset with dangers, and needing protection. Priming them for a “safetyism” campus culture. The authors hold that kids are actually antifragile by nature, so that overprotection makes them less resilient later on.

• The decline of free play, another consequence of overly fearful parenting, which again keeps kids from learning the kinds of salutary life lessons, of how to get along with others, that a more “free range” childhood imparts.

• “The bureaucracy of safetyism.” The book shows how it suits campus administrators — a class that has exploded in size and influence — to coddle students as customers to be satisfied. And to just go along with campus Torquemadas rather than undertake the thankless and dangerous task of trying to rein them in. There’s also a CYA mentality whenever the word “safety” is invoked.

• The quest for justice. To their credit, students today are much attuned to issues of morality and justice, especially what’s termed “social justice” (actually a fraught concept). But even if the ends are right, the means can often be wrong.

The authors of course conclude with some recommendations, which boil down to doing less of the bad stuff they iterate, and more that’s counter to it. Well, sure. My own answer is the Pinkerish one that, in the big picture of human history, rationality has tended to inexorably push back against irrationality. We gain in wisdom. Even witch burnings, which went on for centuries, eventually burned themselves out. We can hope that reason will ultimately prevail even in the stygian caves of U.S. higher education.

2024: The Battle for America’s Soul

May 14, 2023

I vividly remember when Obama’s 2008 election victory was declared, and TV showed a middle aged Black Chicago woman jumping up and down shouting, “God bless America! God bless America!”

I didn’t vote for Obama (nor believe in God), but I understood that woman and it still gives me goosebumps. I saw there what is indeed America’s great virtue, inspiring my love. Not a perfect nation, but one striving to rise above human frailties, toward the soaring aspirations of its founding charter.

But more recent years have been rife with contra-indications. When Joe Biden declared his candidacy in 2020, he called it a battle for America’s soul, and I knew exactly what he was saying. It was for me a clarion call. Now he’s repeated it for 2024.

Columnist David Brooks has written that this truly does define what the 2024 election is about. Saying Biden is using the word “soul” not in a religious sense but a secular one: referring to a moral essence, possessed by people and nations. Lived through emotions that make us admire good deeds and despise nasty ones. With most people yearning to lead good lives; and if “they feel their lives have no moral purpose, they experience sickness of the soul.”

But Trump and Trumpism, says Brooks, embody an ethos “that deadens the soul under the reign of the ego.” Representing “a kind of nihilism that you might call amoral realism.” Where dogs eat dogs and might makes right. Where “cruelty, dishonesty, vainglory and arrogance are valorized.” Where “other people are not possessors of souls,” but “objects to be utilized.”

Here Brooks references Biden’s emphasizing the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. “One puts the dignity of individual souls at the center,” the other “operate[s] by the logic of dominance and submission.” Of course Trump fawned over dictators, openly dreaming of emulating them.

Brooks quotes Franklin Roosevelt that the presidency “is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” But during Trump’s term, says Brooks, “we had to endure a steady downpour of lies, transgressions and demoralizing behavior. We were all corroded by it.” And a return to that would mean “a social and moral disintegration.”

I, still harboring libertarian conservative DNA, am no Biden enthusiast. Critical of much that he’s done, and wishing he’d stood aside. Yet Brooks has it right: “Say what you will about Biden, but he has generally put human dignity at the center of his political vision. He treats people with charity and respect.” Totally Trump’s antithesis.

And this is the choice we face in 2024. Not “Democrat versus Republican or liberal versus conservative,” so much as “between an essentially moral vision and an essentially amoral one, a contest between decency and its opposite.” Between, literally, sanity and its opposite.

And yet most Americans are — otherwise — good and rational people. It’s confounding that so many could so bloody-mindedly vote for so grotesquely vile a creature as Trump. Blind to that reality. This was the bottom falling out of America’s civic culture. A betrayal, a repudiation, of that Chicago woman’s “God Bless America!” Lacerating my own soul.

A book I’m reading, a “history of emotion,” discusses “taste,” not so much about food as the broader aesthetic sense, imbued with a moral aspect. I’m not big on material things, but my love of country feels like a matter of aesthetics, for its virtues and worthiness.

And Trumpism violates that aesthetic sensibility, my pain like seeing a precious object smashed. Indeed, the book pointedly cites January 6 as eliciting, for many, just that kind of moral/aesthetic revulsion. CNN’s disgraceful May 10 Trump “town hall” — where he called January 6 “a beautiful day,” and the crowd cheered — smeared America with excrement.

A redemption of sorts came with Biden’s election, and with hope and charity I was able to forgive my country’s lapse. But that redemption was far from complete. The sickness of soul still spreads its poison through the land. Scarcely even dampened by that January 6 travesty; so-called “Christians” still strongly back Trump, and a jury verdict deeming him a sex offender won’t matter either. Republicans renominating him looms as an act of utter moral depravity. Polls show him running neck-and-neck with Biden.

While he and his deranged cult shriek that it’s Biden and Democrats “destroying America.”

I could forgive once but not a second time. God save America.

May 14: Democracy’s D-Day

May 8, 2023

The 1970s through ’90s saw a great democratic floodtide. Since greatly receded. Many wonder whether its authoritarian antithesis is really the wave of the future.

I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil, and that’s a big part of the story. Moral scruples restrain good people; bad ones are unrestrained. In practice this means democratic-minded forces have to win every election, but authoritarians often need only win once. Because gaining power, they can then act ruthlessly to keep it.

America had a close call in 2021.

A key factor was our two party system, with Democrats, albeit narrowly, controlling Congress. Authoritarians can be empowered despite only minority support if opposition is divided among multiple parties. Take India, where Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has racked up crushing electoral victories; almost overlooked is that the BJP actually has only around 37% voter support. Yet a fragmented opposition allows Modi to run roughshod over it.

He’s on the cover of the authoritarian playbook, outwardly maintaining democracy while giving it the death of a thousand cuts, gaining control of the press and other media to silence criticism and opposition, and of the courts to persecute dissenters. The head of India’s leading opposition party has recently been sentenced to prison, and barred from politics, for “insulting” the prime minister — an all too typical authoritarian abuse of power.

It also helps if you’ve got guns. National armies, in the modern age, are mostly anachronisms, serving no legitimate public purpose, while in fact being a curse. Often they’re dressed up criminal mafias, ruling countries like Al Capone’s gang ruled Chicago. Look at Sudan, with rival armies battling. Egypt too is a classic example, the army having spread its tentacles to squeeze ever more of the economy for its own enrichment and aggrandizement. Myanmar’s army is now literally at war with the entire civil society.

Thailand embodies several of these syndromes. A populist political force created by Thaksin Shinawatra has won every election starting in 2001. But Thailand is a (notionally constitutional) monarchy, with a lèse-majesté law against disparaging the king, which military regimes have enforced ruthlessly against any whisper of dissension. The previous king was genuinely loved, worshipped really (on dubious grounds), but his successor is a stinking piece of shit. (Publishing those words means I can’t now visit Thailand. Seriously.)

The country has been wracked by periodic violent conflict and protests between democracy supporters and royalists. In a 2006 coup, the army ousted Shinawatra and banished him. Then his sister won an election in 2011; a 2014 coup ousted her too. Thailand has since been run by a General, Prayuth Chan-ocha, another real asshole. Finally forced to hold an election, on May 14 — which Paetongtarn Shinawatra (Thaksin’s daughter) looks poised to win. Whether, and for how long, the army will actually allow her to govern, is an open question. (There are rumors of a deal.)

But the spotlight is on Turkey, with parliamentary and presidential elections also on May 14. (The presidency may go to a later runoff.)

Backstory: Modern Turkey’s 1923 founder, Kemal Ataturk, established a secular democracy, with separation of mosque and state, enforced by the army. Challenged by Muslim chauvinists; one of whom, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gained power by election in 2003. Yet he was initially a good guy, doing a lot right, with sensible economic policies. His foreign affairs mantra was “zero problems with neighbors.” He tried to pacify endemic conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Then growing power in his hands, The Economist has said, “clouded his judgment and his moral sense, as it tends to.”

A 2016 coup attempt empowered him even more; the next year he put across a constitutional referendum neutering much of Turkey’s checks-and-balances. Erdogan went on a rampage against perceived enemies, exploiting a captive judiciary, with many thousands purged from jobs or jailed, including 200,000 charged with the crime of “insulting the president;” legions of others with “terrorism.”

The media has been brought to heel. “Zero problems” is a bygone, as Erdogan pursues ill-advised foreign meddling, and has made Turkey, a NATO member, the alliance’s problem child. He plays footsie with Putin and has poisoned relations with Europe. Mirroring Modi’s insane demonization of India’s huge Muslim minority, Erdogan now exacerbates conflict with Turkey’s Kurds. Numerous elected mayors in Kurdish regions have been barred from office. Crack-brained economic mismanagement has proven devastating for average Turks. The government’s recent earthquake response was widely criticized. The list goes on.

Happily, regime opponents have uncharacteristically managed to unite behind a presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. No firecracker but he seems a very good man who promises to undo a lot of the Erdogan regime’s awfulness.

Given all this, you might think few Turks would be nuts enough to vote for Erdogan. But of course that’s not how the world works. Like all strongmen, one thing he is good at is manipulating support. Look how many Americans still back Trump.

Polls do show Erdogan trailing. But would he accept defeat? Trump again providing a cautionary tale. America’s institutions did prove strong enough to thwart him — but only barely. Are Turkey’s — already so ravaged by Erdogan — strong enough?

This is a seminal test of democracy versus authoritarianism. Erdogan is another poster boy for the latter, pulling every possible trick to neuter democratic accountability. Yet he’s also done everything possible to provoke votes against him. If, after all that, Turkey cannot free itself of Erdogan, what hope is there anywhere?

The Debt Ceiling: This Time Looks Different

April 26, 2023

We’ve been there, done that: Republicans try to hold hostage the Congressional vote to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, with maybe too a government shut-down, to extract some concessions. It always gets resolved in the end.

This is an unnecessarily crazy system, predictably producing these periodic crises. We could change that — if our whole governmental schema were not so dysfunctionally gridlocked by political polarization.

The next crisis looms soon. And this time looks different.

Of course Republicans only discover fiscal rectitude when Democrats are in power. During Trump’s presidency they spent like drunken sailors, piling on debt, always raising the ceiling when needed, with no whisper of concern. Indeed, they compounded deficits by passing a massive tax cut, mainly benefiting the rich and corporations. A big reason why the federal budget is so out of balance — yet Republicans now pose as warriors against profligacy.

Furthermore, if they were truly worried about deficits, here’s one simple remedy: fund the IRS adequately so it can collect the taxes actually owed (even after Trump’s tax cuts). Currently the IRS lacks the needed resources, so most high-income tax returns aren’t even audited. But Republicans demonize the IRS and try to starve it. The resulting tax collection gap has been estimated to equal around three-fourths of the annual deficit. So collecting that money would go far toward rendering unnecessary the spending cuts Republicans advocate (or pretend to advocate).

By the way, we’ve learned that the IRS, unable to audit many complex tax returns of rich folks, which is costly and hard, instead does what’s easy: targeting lower income taxpayers. Nice.

Meantime, note that for all the righteous rhetoric about government spending, a vote to raise the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future spending. Rather, it’s paying the bills for past spending. Nevertheless, Republican extortionists are yet again making demands about spending in exchange for their needed votes to increase the debt limit, so the government can pay its bills and not default. The Biden administration, standing on principle, insists it won’t play that game.

It’s a game of chicken. And it seems both sides have thrown their steering wheels out the window.

Economist Paul Krugman has said a U.S. debt default would “blow up the world economy.” What that would really mean, we don’t know. It’s uncharted territory — but certainly very dangerous territory.

One thing it would surely mean is financial markets downgrading U.S. government bonds, triggering higher interest costs on all our trillions of debt. That itself would hugely bust our budget. Republicans’ apparent willingness to let this happen makes all the more preposterous their professed concern about future deficits.

In past episodes, default was avoided because a certain modicum of sanity still prevailed among Republicans. We can no longer count on that. Speaker McCarthy, to win the gavel, made himself hostage to the GOP’s bomb-throwing crazy caucus. They may now be willing to bring the house down — imagining that its happening on President Biden’s watch will mean he gets the blame, and hence the catastrophe will politically benefit Republicans.

And these people have the chutzpah to call themselves “patriots.”

The Economist recently presented a full-throated counter to notions of American declinism, enumerating all the ways in which we’re actually doing extremely well compared to other advanced nations. But it’s threatened by that misconceived declinism itself, because it drives our self-harming retreat from globalization and free trade — so important to our economic health. And one sphere where a declinist narrative has much truth is the political one. Now seriously threatening a debt default which, The Economist fears, would do huge damage to our economy and international standing.

The Color of Law: Racial Segregation

April 22, 2023

Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book, The Color of Law, concerns U.S. residential segregation. He says we have a myth that it’s de facto segregation, meaning mainly a result of people’s individual choices and behaviors. Whereas instead the bigger factor is de jure segregation, a product of law and government policy. Not just in the Jim Crow South, but throughout America. And not just on the local level, but federal too, which lasted longer than you might think.

We all know about “redlining,” with banks drawing maps delineating no-go areas for mortgage loans. But this wasn’t just on the banks — their policies were responsive to those of the Federal Housing Authority, making it almost impossible for Blacks to participate in government mortgage insurance programs. Likewise programs aimed at helping veterans after WWII.

Illustrating government action hand-in-hand with individual hostility toward integration, Rothstein relates how in 1954, a Black family, the Wades, sought a home in Louisville, Kentucky. A white friend, Carl Braden, bought one in a white area and sold it to Wade. Klan violence ensued, culminating in the house being bombed. Through it all, the police just looked on, arresting no one — except for Mr. Wade and a friend, for “breach of the peace” in failing to provide notice that the friend would be visiting. Then Braden was charged with “sedition,” and sentenced to 15 years, for selling the house to Wade.

Affordability has of course been an issue for Blacks seeking homes in white middle class neighborhoods. But here too, Rothstein catalogs how government policies have penalized them, when it comes to earning and accumulating wealth. While Blacks do earn, on average, somewhat less than white Americans, their family wealth averages only around a tenth.

It’s actually expensive being poor in America — especially if also Black. One example in the book is how property tax assessments tend to be at higher percentages of market value in Black areas. Rothstein drily notes that higher assessed valuations don’t translate into actually higher home values. Yet he oddly fails to note that the opposite is true — higher property taxes on a house reduce its salability.

And while housing affordability is again an undoubted issue, the book shows that it’s often costlier to live in slums than in nice neighborhoods! Because Blacks can be very unwelcome in the latter, their housing options are effectively limited to African-American communities (ghettoes). Where the housing supply is often constricted, making for greater competition among would-be buyers and renters. In turn enabling property owners to charge more. Yet a further factor handicapping Black wealth accumulation.

Education is another, hardly mentioned in the book. Schools could be a great equalizer to offset all the disadvantages burdening Black kids in poor families in poor neighborhoods. But instead our schools tend to compound that disadvantage, often giving Blacks substandard education. Certainly that too is within the purview of government policy.

Then there’s over-incarceration of Black males. Combined with lesser educational attainment and job prospects — plus some white women marrying Black men — causing a husband shortage for Black women, and resulting prevalence of single motherhood. Which in turn deprives kids of the undoubted benefits of dual parenting, further handicapping their later lives.

And why have government policies been so discriminatory? Rothstein doesn’t really explore this question, with racism taken for granted, as a given. But what in fact explains that? Why do so many whites have this mentality?

Differentness is a starting factor. Humans evolved in tribes where a neighboring tribe was likely to be (or feared as) a potential competitor or enemy. Thus an innate animus toward “The Other.” Yet, especially in advanced countries like America, we’ve gone far toward overcoming that; and many immigrant groups that once were viewed with distaste and hostility have come to be thoroughly assimilated and accepted.

Blacks’ visible differentness, however, is harder to ignore. And that combines with a crucial cultural legacy — of slavery.

Slaveowners could justify it only by convincing themselves Blacks were not fully human — degraded creatures, for whom a degraded existence was appropriate. Even decreed by God. And there was a huge industry striving for scientific proof, with skull measurements and all that. (All bunk.) And of course making Blacks live in degrading conditions served to reinforce the idea of them as degraded by nature.

This idea became powerfully pervasive.

Yet despite that, the post-Civil War amendments gave ex-slaves citizenship, equal protection of the law, and even voting rights. Black service as Union troops helped there. Still, this was a breathtakingly broad-minded humanism, which must have reflected the prevailing viewpoint — in the North at least, where exposure to slavery, with all its nasty social ramifications, was fairly limited.

But that didn’t last. The 20th Century’s “Great Migration” of Southern Blacks northward seeded more racial anxiety there. And a recent article in The Economist discusses a study of white migration out of the South, widely spreading the poison of its political and cultural attitudes. The idea that Black people are fundamentally different and lesser creatures. To be shunned, even reviled, not pitied. Indeed, it’s almost surprising how little pity was actually in the stew of feelings toward Blacks.

I’m old enough to remember how this was a vague but real presence in the cultural background. No one ever actually articulated it to me, yet it somehow seeped into my own youthful brain. There was the notion that Blacks are “dirty” — polluting — so any contact with whites should be avoided. That they were louche, immoral, more crime-prone; coarser, cruder, vulgar. With the dysfunctionality one could expect in poverty-afflicted ghettoes seen as proving they have only themselves to blame for their degradation, with consequent antipathy toward any government efforts to help them at the expense of their (white) “betters.”

But even leaving aside all such particulars — they really didn’t have to stated — there was a basic notion that separation of the races was appropriate — it was the way things ought to be. Maybe even God-decreed.

This explains the blatantly racist policies of even a government agency like the FHA in the FDR administration. The bureaucrats were simply reflecting the ethos of the culture they inhabited. It was a given, taken for granted, proper and appropriate, that Blacks should be kept away from nice white neighborhoods. You didn’t even have to think about it.

As Rothstein argues, the lasting effects are so deeply embedded into societal structures that even after half a century of amelioration efforts, they still plague us. It’s very hard to undo. He observes that whereas discriminatory barriers have been reduced, and Black incomes have risen, the window of opportunity for residential integration has effectively been lost because those Black gains have been more than offset by soaring suburban home prices. And integration is not a simple matter of getting Black families into previously all-white enclaves. When more than just a few do get in, whites get out, and the neighborhood winds up segregated again. Maintaining a stable integrated community is tricky.

Meantime, while many of us had optimistically imagined racism confined just to some dark corners of American life, the last few years have revised that picture, showing us how Southernized the country actually became; how widespread those attitudes are, all over. Yet still, a more enlightened mentality does prevail for a majority of Americans today. And we can expect that majority to expand as the cohort of degraded older whites inexorably dies off. Progress funeral by funeral.

Afghanistan, Biden, and Trump: Is Biden Just as Bad?

April 15, 2023

The Biden administration has released a report blaming the 2021 Afghanistan disaster on its predecessor.

Well, sure. Trump, the great deal maker, had negotiated to give the Taliban the store, getting nothing in exchange. The pact required our withdrawal from Afghanistan, which President Biden proceeded to order.

But c’mon, man. Take responsibility for your own shit. We elected Biden to be different. Some disappointment there.

Like with refugees and immigrants. Despite a personal promise to me, to “immediately, immediately” reverse Trump’s policies, Biden’s actually are more similar than different. Because, it seems, he’s spooked by a Trumpist minority’s irrational fear of migrants. Likewise needlessly intimidated into continuing a misguided trade war with China and self-harming protectionist policies more broadly. Even continuing Trump’s preventing the World Trade Organization from functioning.

As for Afghanistan, Biden should have just repudiated Trump’s lousy deal. It would have been the right thing to do, instead of handing the country over to the Taliban. Biden miscalculated how fast that would happen. And we could have prevented it at very little cost, by maintaining a small presence there — avoiding what’s turned out to be human suffering on a colossal scale. And there’s no question that our rushed exit was botched, aggravating that suffering. Furthermore, those Afghan friends who did make it out, despite our misfeasance, are still being treated with callous irresponsibility.

That’s not on Trump. My heart sank when I heard about the report blaming him. What were they thinking? The catalog of Trump’s misdeeds is long enough. But this is a shameful dodging of responsibility. Indeed, very Trumpian.

So — is Biden just as bad?

I recall P.J. O’Rourke, the conservative gadfly, saying in 2016 that Hillary Clinton was wrong on everything — “but wrong within normal parameters.”

The same applies to Biden. He embodies many of the reasons why, for decades, I was a Republican, not a Democrat. But that was normal politics. To draw some equivalence between Biden and Trump is what philosophers call a category mistake. That’s what O’Rourke was getting at. Trump blows up the parameters of what used to be normal politics. And O’Rourke didn’t even live to see January 6, with an American president attempting a coup, based on lies, to overthrow an election and retain office illegitimately.

This should have made Americans’ heads explode, consigning Trump to permanent outer darkness of Benedict Arnoldhood. And the record has gotten even more damning since. There’s much hand-wringing over the merits of the NY indictment. But the bigger picture is that he’s so obviously something we should scrape off the bottom of our shoes. Yet too many voters are eager to re-elect him!

It’s only explainable as being not even “politics” any more. Not mere politics, but a religious fanaticism. Where no rationality comes in. No facts can penetrate; they’re all spun away as fitting somehow into the nutty narrative of an alternate reality.

So Trump will be the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. Enough Republicans have thrown themselves down this rabbit hole that no other outcome seems possible. The insane folly must play itself out to the bitter end.

The Arrogance of Power: India and Tennessee

April 11, 2023

Long called “the world’s largest democracy,” India is becoming a DINO — democracy in name only. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, elected in 2014, are following the familiar authoritarian playbook of giving democracy the death of a thousand cuts, to emasculate opposition and cement their own power. This includes stifling criticism by a no-longer-free press, suborning the judicial system to harass and intimidate political rivals, and so forth.

Now we see just how far down this dark road India has gone.

Rahul Gandhi is the latest in his family dynasty to head the opposition Congress Party. He’s been sentenced to two years in prison — just long enough to forfeit his parliamentary seat and thus any role in the next national elections. His offense? Defaming Modi. With a critical campaign speech which in any free country would be routine advocacy. But it included a joke mentioning some unrelated criminal also named Modi. For that lame joke he’s sentenced to prison and barred from parliament.

But what’s so telling here is that Gandhi’s once-powerful Congress Party was already a spent force in Indian politics, barely even clinging to relevance, with Gandhi himself widely deemed useless. Thus no threat at all the the Modi-BJP political leviathan.

Squashing Gandhi like a bug shows just how intolerant that regime is toward any dissent. Sending a powerful message to anyone not with their program: you’re vulnerable too.

Moreover, it’s not just politicians the Modi-BJP regime sees as enemies. Theirs is a Hindu religious chauvinist movement, anathematizing India’s whole Muslim population. There are even moves afoot to yank Muslims’ citizenship.

A religion like Hinduism might seem silly. No problem if merely an individual peccadillo. But as we know too well, religions can often be hostile and violent toward one other — long exemplified by India, with repeated bouts of inter-communal bloodshed. Mahatma Gandhi battled for tolerance and peace — for which he wound up assassinated. He’s whirling in his grave to see the insanity of today’s Indian regime deliberately stoking Hindu animosity toward the nation’s Muslims —numbering around two hundred million.

The Rahul Gandhi affair has an uncanny parallel in Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature recently unseating some Democratic members for their political advocacy. In this case, joining protesters calling for gun regulation in the wake of a local school shooting.

What could be more anti-democratic than denying legislative seats to people elected by their constituents? Yet these Republicans rail against “cancel culture!” And, as in India’s case, there was nothing to gain politically, they already held overwhelming control. This was just the arrogance of power.

The insanity of India’s regime fomenting Hindu-Muslim violence also has a parallel in America’s Republican party. These self-styled “pro-life” and crime-hating “law-and-order” Republicans block all common-sense gun regulation — which could prevent much gun crime and thousands of shooting deaths annually. Like Modi, Republicans have blood on their hands.

Well, at least the Tennessee Republicans didn’t try to jail the expelled legislators. And one has already been sent back to the state house by his local government. America is still a democracy.

Fingers crossed.

China and the New Cold War: Detente?

April 8, 2023

What makes nations enemies?

The Soviet Union aimed for Communism’s ultimate global triumph. The free world, led by the U.S., strove for containment. That was the Cold War.

But despite proxy hot wars, there never was much prospect of America and the USSR coming directly to blows. Far too dangerous, with both being nuclear-armed. Mutual recognition of this reality came to be labeled “detente.” Never an explicit agreement; rather a tacit understanding that whatever the conflicts, in the bigger picture the two sides could coexist more or less peaceably. A modus vivendi.

Today’s Russian aggression is a different situation. There’s no pretense of a universalist ideology, like Communism was. Instead it’s an ideology of brazen nationalism, the imagined greatness and moral superiority of Russian culture (belied of course by its abominable behavior).

China’s ideology is more like Russia’s today than in the Cold War. Invoking no universalist values, but a nationalistic Chinese self-assertion, here too claiming some sort of ethno-cultural virtue or even superiority —and its place in the sun. “Communism” a mere detail. China doesn’t actually seek to rule the world.

Yet this is a new cold war because Chinese view the West as an enemy conspiring to keep them down. A new containment paradigm. China does want other nations to kowtow, and hates criticism over its human rights abuses and suchlike, which it sees as just a weapon wielded against it. Belligerently accusing us of belligerence. China’s rhetorical ferocity is astonishing.

Actually, we were not trying to hold China down, and were okay with its economic rise (which could benefit us through trade*) until lately that’s gotten lost amid all the confrontational recriminations. Which have become a vicious feedback loop.

One we should try to break. By reprising the kind of detente we had with the Soviets. Not a friendship, but a mutual understanding to coexist and avoid needless confrontation. We can both benefit from trade with each other while also being economic competitors, but not necessarily geopolitical enemies. (Note that our trade with China vastly dwarfs anything we had with the USSR.)

The key obstacle is the prospect of China invading Taiwan. That would really make for a different, darker, nastier world; a poorer one too, especially given Taiwan being the world’s premier semiconductor source. China considers Taiwan a “renegade province” and has whipped itself into such a nationalist irredentist hysteria that it’s hard to see them backing off. Yet rather than subjugating and thereby devastating Taiwan, China would be better off leaving it prospering as a trading partner — together with the rest of the free world.

That would be the detente deal: China accepting the Taiwan status quo in return for a relaxation of hostility and resumption of global economic integration. That wouldn’t mean we stop criticizing China over human rights and other misbehavior. It wouldn’t mean we’re friends. Just recognition that trade war, decoupling our economies, and severing global supply chains, hurts everyone. As would military conflict of course.

Unfortunately, all the “soft on China” rhetoric Republicans lob at President Biden may make any such accommodation seem politically toxic. And on the Chinese side, an explicit renunciation of force vis-a-vis Taiwan is surely off the table. Nevertheless, a detente could be something that obtains so long as China refrains from invading (or “grey zone” actions like blockading or cyberwar). On that basis we can have peaceable and mutually advantageous economic relations.

Is that a naive, airy-fairy dream? No, totally pragmatic.

And, who knows, someday China might rise into wisdom. After all, we never expected how the Cold War with the Soviets turned out.

* Trump’s saying China was “raping” us on trade was idiotic. It’s a simple principle: if another nation can produce something cheaper than we can ourselves, we’re better off buying it from them and pocketing the gain, and shifting our own production to something else.