Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Jobs of the future and Idiocracy

January 9, 2017

The Economist magazine recently tried to identify where America’s job growth will come from. Of course, pessimists are always seeing the opposite, afraid that advancing technology will put people out of work – starting with the 19th century Luddites, who campaigned against factory automation – and could not have foreseen the explosion of new jobs that technologies like railways, telegraphy, and electrification would soon bring.scan-2

So using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Economist presented the job categories that should see the highest growth rates in the years ahead, to 2024. Now, America, judging from current politics, is fixated upon old-time factory jobs (like Carrier’s). But here’s what struck me from that Economist article. It’s not just that such factory jobs aren’t in it. Of course not. However, I asked myself whether the kinds of people who did such factory jobs can switch into these other professions. I don’t think so.

Well, maybe for one or two of the 16 shown, like “ambulance drivers.” Though even that may overlook the advance of self-driving technology.

images-1The top job growth category is “wind turbine service technicians,” reflecting increasing emphasis on alternative energy technologies. But most of the list reflects a different trend: ageing populations, and the panoply of services they’ll require. And, as The Economist notes, “[t]hese are all tasks that require empathy and social skills.”

Again – not the métier of America’s army of less educated assembly line jockeys. They’re yesterday’s men.

The Economist’s writer also points out that the analysis doesn’t take into account job categories that don’t exist yet. Some will be related to technologies that are just emerging, like virtual reality and drones. unknownHe notes that his 16-year-old daughter wants to be a robopsychologist (who figures out why robots are misbehaving). Such jobs don’t exist now, but probably will soon. And then there are all the future jobs we can’t even conceive of today.

A lifeline for all those yesterday men? Not a chance. Yet we’re still producing such people. Our educational system still spits out a sizeable cohort of folks without even a high school diploma. Some can do those remnants of low skill jobs that aren’t automated away. Many though have to be supported by the productive population, in one way or another; the “disability” system covers a lot of people whose “disability” is really just being useless.

unknown-1The movie Idiocracy (one of those dystopian-future flicks) began by contrasting two families. A highly educated, brainy couple agonize over having even a single child. While a bunch of doofuses pops them out right and left. Result, after multiple generations: a nation of doofuses. Apparently everyone is supported somehow because technology dispenses with a need for human work. Not very realistic.

The fact is that, to support all our yesterday’s men (and women) we’ll need a lot of tomorrow people, capable of doing the tomorrow jobs that the former cannot. And Idiocracy wasn’t entirely cuckoo in highlighting that advanced modern populations are not reproducing themselves. So where will we get the tomorrow people we need? Immigration.

Indeed, a key reason why America’s economy has been more dynamic than Europe’s is our greater ability to assimilate immigrants. They fill the gaps our own natives cannot. Our schools don’t produce enough Americans to do all the high tech and skilled service jobs; a lot of them are done by immigrants (especially from Asia).

unknown-2The idea that other countries send us losers and scroungers is stupid. People willing to uproot themselves and start fresh in a new and unfamiliar environment are, to the contrary, full of the kind of enterprise and drive we need.

America’s fixation on manufacturing jobs – and its growing hostility toward immigration – are a double whammy of, well, idiocracy.

 

The tide of history

December 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then America elected Trump.

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

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

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

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

This is why 2016 is such a tragedy.

 

Fear and loathing in chemistry sets

December 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the “Bubble Boy” . . . ?

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

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

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

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

Precisely one. His father did it to collect insurance.

Eat the Rich

December 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, come on, really, you are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!

December 5, 2016

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

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

Faulkner

Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The sickness of Trump voters

December 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death with Dignity*

November 30, 2016

unknownHow would you prefer to die? While having sex, some answer. But most just want to die at home among loved ones. However, most people die in some kind of facility. We also fear pain. But usually pain can be medically managed. The real issue is quality of life at the end. People want to feel they have some control over what’s happening to them.

Our medical and legal systems work against that. Suicide is not allowed, certainly not with medical help. Some get around this by refusing nourishment. Actually a pretty nasty way to go.

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard was a California gal who got brain cancer at 28. Aggressive treatment failed. Maynard’s end-game looked horrible, and doctors couldn’t help her. So she moved to Oregon, which had adopted a “Death With Dignity” law in 1994. This allowed her to get a prescription for 100 Seconal capsules. Maynard enjoyed the time she had left, and when the disease’s depredations duly overcame that enjoyment, she popped the pills. In five minutes she was sleeping peacefully; in an hour or so, an ex-parrot.

unknown-2But before that, Maynard helped campaign for California legislation similar to Oregon’s. Governor Brown signed it in 2015; the fourth state with such a law. Efforts are underway to get one passed in New York.

My libertarianism says you should be free to do what you want, as long as no one else is harmed. Nothing is more fundamental than your right to control your own passing.

The proposed law has many safeguards. It would only apply after a terminal diagnosis (death expected within six months) confirmed by two doctors; and a written request with two witnesses. The patient must be mentally capable, and while there can be help, the fatal dose must be self-administered.images-1 The patient must also receive counseling on other options. And must wear green shoes.

Some opposition comes from religious quarters – the idea of taking things out of God’s hands. Of course all medical interventions do that. There is also the allied “sanctity of life” argument. But if life is sacred, it is sacred first and foremost to the individual living it. Whatever meaning it has is primarily its meaning to him or her; and they should have the freedom to choose the right time to end it. Denying that autonomy seems indeed antithetical to the concept of life as sacred.

Also, some believers maintain that suffering is redemptive. Fine if the suffering is your own choice. But to demand it for another is not redemptive, it’s just cruel.

Medical organizations have also traditionally opposed these laws. Some doctors see them as fundamentally contrary to the Hippocratic oath (“First, do no harm”), and don’t want to be put in morally ambiguous situations. However, some organizations are moderating that stance; in California, the local one opted for neutrality. In Oregon, under the new regime, end-of-life care has improved, and doctors wound up feeling better about things.

Opposition has also come from advocates for the disabled, who fear such laws could put vulnerable people at risk. That’s a paternalistic attitude – most disabled people themselves actually want to have the choices the law would allow. In polls, they are as much in favor as the general population – which supports such legislation, by large majorities. And while many opponents cite potential abuses, Oregon’s experience fails to reveal a single such case.

unknown-1Then there’s the “slippery slope” argument – if euthanasia is permitted, it could evolve into being required, or people pressured into it. Again, Oregon’s experience rebuts this; after twenty years it hasn’t happened, and the numbers utilizing Oregon’s law haven’t risen over time. But meanwhile all of public policy is a slippery slope. At every point on the slope, we must make choices and decisions. As rational creatures, we can do this.

Little by little, step by step, human beings gradually have been getting better at how to do things, improving our quality of life. “Death with Dignity,” giving us more and better options for controlling our own circumstances, is one example. This is progress. It’s why I’m an optimist.

* Note, this post is based on a talk by Corinne Carey of “Compassion and Choices New York,” a nonprofit working to improve care and expand choices at the end of life.

President Trump, of the Nation Formerly Known as America

November 16, 2016

Give him a chance. He can’t be so bad. He’s our president now. Let’s hope he succeeds. You’re just a bunch of political sore losers, get over it. This is what we’re hearing.

unknownThere’s an idea that his critics have been refuted, that being elected somehow laundered him – proving all the negative stuff about him during the campaign was untrue or irrelevant. That the media misrepresented him. Sorry, not so. Things said don’t become unsaid; facts don’t become non-facts. He’s still Donald “Grab them by the pussy” Trump.

But America does love redemption stories, and it’s hoped the presidency’s awesomeness will reform him. He did seem subdued in his post-election appearances. However, so many times I’ve seen some foreign leader elected, thinking what a great opportunity he has to prove the doubters wrong. They never do. Look at South Africa’s Zuma. A creep before. A bigger creep after.

Power does corrupt. It doesn’t make bad men better, it makes them worse. As a student of history and world affairs, I know this story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

Steve Bannon, Senior Counselor to the President

It’s also hoped that a “successful businessman” will naturally surround himself with the best people. What a joke. He was a failure at actually building businesses, making his fortune by looting them and leaving others holding the bag; then marketing his celebrity name. And the best people? Steve Bannon? Reince Priebus? Rudy Giuliani? Newt Gingrich?

Send in the clowns.

In hindsight, Trump won the election on his campaign’s first day, with two words: “They’re rapists.” Not that it was believed literally, but it set the tone. Enough voters instantly latched onto him as their personal avatar, and nothing could budge them. “He tells it like it is.” Another sick joke – the biggest liar in our political history.

His voters feel America has been going downhill, and Trump will turn it around. They’re right about the former, in some ways, but not the latter. unknown-2Our politics has certainly been going downhill, with divisions hardening, and truth, reason and decency among the casualties. Trump is the culmination; not a national renewal, but a national degradation; the bottom falling out.

This is not being a sore loser about an election, it’s the loss of our country. Not about politics or ideology, but culture and values. I keep hearing, “This is not who we are.” And I say to myself: “Well, it is now.”

Of course this is all hyperbole. Life will go on much as before; America is still a great place to live. Unlike in many others, I can still freely write this blog. For now; Donald Trump truly does not like that, nor do a lot of his followers. That’s just one way they trash the principles that actually made America great. unknown-3When will we see the Trump neighborhood brigades to “defend the revolution,” like in Cuba and Venezuela? (And in Sinclair Lewis’s now uncanny 1935 book, It Can’t Happen Here.)

This American travesty reflects an unfortunate worldwide trend of short-sighted voters brainlessly demolishing what was so painstakingly built. Like in the Brexit vote. The democratic, genuinely liberal and humanistic lights are also going out in Turkey (a huge tragedy), the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Thailand; France and Italy could well be next. The EU’s continuation is doubtful. While Russia and China get more repressive and emboldened; look for a Baltic invasion, putting NATO to the test. And America’s steady leadership is a bygone. A tough time for optimists.

I am politically homeless today. The name “Republican” is ashes in my mouth. I find myself in some sympathy with “progressive” Trump opponents; however, they’re wrong on so many issues, and often just as bad on the fundamental ideal of freedom of thought and expression. The alternative in the next election will likely be far left.

unknown-4But no matter how lonely, I will continue speaking out for the humanistic values I hold dear, and that have given us so much progress. I will continue — until that brigade comes for me.

Our new lawn sign

November 14, 2016

Rational optimist – or pessimist?

November 12, 2016

On Wednesday morning I changed this blog’s title from “The Rational Optimist” to “The Rational Pessimist.”

unknown-1Psychology research shows that optimism-versus-pessimism, happiness-versus-unhappiness, is largely inborn, and largely impervious to life’s vicissitudes. That we have a set-point of temperament, to which one’s mood reverts, after the immediate impact of some positive or negative event dissipates. I have been blessed with a setting at the far end of the range. It was no coincidence that I literally wrote the book on optimism.

Tuesday night was the worst thing ever in my life. Worse than 9/11. Worse even than when my longtime girlfriend left me. Someone has said that “Never Trump” Republicans (like me) are now the loneliest people in the world. I have agonized about changing my enrollment; but the Democrats will likely continue their leftward march. images-1I’m the man without a party; I feel like the man without a country.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a local gathering (celebrating an election upset 50 years earlier). I wore black. However, as I ran toward the entrance, in the rain, I realized I was already actually feeling cheerful – confirming all that set-point psychology research! (A nod here to my wife and marriage, which have been my rock.)

But my book and blog referenced rational optimism – not a Pollyanna attitude with rose-colored glasses. Another strong personality trait of mine is realism. I see no benefit in deluding myself about things I wish were true. Thus I’ve also written of my “ideology of reality.”

One of the realities I accept is that the cosmos is purposeless, undirected, and our existence is an evolutionary accident. But that means it’s entirely up to us to make the best of our situation; and, unlike every other creature that ever existed, we have great tools for it. Mainly, our incredibly powerful brains. And, using those tools, we have actually done fantastically at making for ourselves lives worth living. unknown-2Especially in modern times, since the Enlightenment, humanity has achieved incredible progress. (Once again I reference Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) This is the heart of my rational optimism.

In that march of progress, building the means for people to live good lives, one of our greatest creations has been the United States of America.

But the realist in me knows that we are not perfect beings, and for all the reasoning power of our brains, we are subject to rampaging emotions and irrationality. What people build people can also destroy – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. America is not immune. No God protects her from human folly.

unknownAn enterprise like America can only be sustained if the people in it actually understand what it’s all about. Tuesday showed that America – well, half at least – has lost the thread. It’s freedom and democracy, yes, but also rule of law; pluralism; human dignity; tolerance; openness; generosity; fair play; civility; responsibility; community spirit; and, not least, devotion to truth and reason. What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (inspiring Pinker’s title).

Those establishment “elites” whom Trump voters so resent have upheld those values quite well, indeed kept up the momentum of progress (for example with gay marriage). But meantime, lamentably, the rest of America has undergone a long process of civic decline – decline in genuine devotion to its ideals and values, because too few people are educated and acculturated nowadays in what those precepts mean. Too many have reduced Americanism to flag waving and snarling empty slogans.

There are a lot of reasons, a lot of culprits, it’s not a simple story, and a lot of it is actually fallout from some aspects of our progress (like greater racial equality) – but the bottom line is that too few Americans still understand what actually made America great. unknown-4This is why the “Make America Great Again” slogan was so painfully ironic. I wish we could make America great again – like it was before Tuesday.

We heard much talk of voters expressing their pain. I won’t belittle what anyone feels; but surely conditions of life in today’s America are not historically bad. Things in the Depression, for example, were much, much worse. However, voters in the Depression did not fall for such a blatant, un-American demagogue. Nor would have tolerated a candidate with such grotesque defects of character.* That all this was accepted in 2016 bespeaks a sad corrosion of America’s character.

This is why I am so heartbroken. Hearing the national anthem has always teared me up. Now it will be for what’s been lost.

And yet there may be hope, because perhaps strangely, it is older people who most embody the decline, while younger people – more shaped by the trends of modernity I mentioned – seem to better embrace those Enlightenment civic values their elders have forgotten. unknown-5It’s true too of the new arrivals – that’s why I so welcome immigration – people come here because they do crave America’s true meaning, and their coming is a national renewal.

Well, our new first lady is an immigrant.** That’s one thing at least to celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” images-2Seeing that great trend of history made me an optimist. But it’s never a smooth curve, and America has just bent sharply the other way. But I’m not ready to believe humanity’s whole arc has changed. Nor am I ready to give up on what America used to stand for. I have tried to promote those values on this blog. Now, I will have to work harder at it.

I have restored this blog’s title.

* Please, stuff the spluttering about Clinton. There’s no comparison. Indeed, the very fact that so many failed to see this shows how messed up the country has become.

** Though not the first; that was Louisa Adams. However, also ironically, the first family will include its first Jew.