Bernie: time to support Biden

March 11, 2020

In any human endeavor, rationality demands asking what purpose is served. It’s not always obvious.

What purpose is served now by Sanders continuing to campaign? After the latest primaries, his probability of nomination is approximately zero. No: make that precisely zero.

Thank goodness. His nomination could have ensured Trump’s re-election. That in fact is the main reason why most Democrats have voted against him. And so many doing so proves how wrong was the argument that he’d be the strongest nominee. Most Democrats recognized that Sanders is not what the nation most needs: not another upheaval, but a president of simple decency, honesty, responsibility, and sanity. That’s Biden.

Showcased by his speech last night. What a stark contrast with the blowhard asshole in the White House. I’m increasingly confident sanity will finally prevail.

Left wingers are always whining that “the system” unfairly screws them (a mirror-image to Trumpian grievance politics). They relentlessly claimed the media buried news about opposition to the Iraq war. It got relentless coverage, in my recollection. Likewise with Sanders, always the complaint he isn’t covered enough, equally bogus.

Now it’s “the establishment” and “Wall Street corporate billionaires” in some imagined conspiracy to thwart Bernie’s candidacy. When what’s really thwarting it is voters.

They aren’t being manipulated by some “establishment.” The surge to Biden is an entirely spontaneous one, with Democrats sizing up the field and deciding on their own. On Super Tuesday Biden won some states he didn’t even campaign in. It’s black voters especially who show the good sense to reject Bernie’s stridency and embrace instead an achievable vision of America at its best. Yes, after all the shit they’ve suffered, still it’s they who most believe in what America means, bless their hearts.

And in the end it may be said it was they who saved the country. They’re the ones with the greatest role in keeping the Democratic party from barreling down the kind of rabbit hole that’s swallowed up Republicans. This former conservative Republican feels very comfortable having left the deranged cult my party became, joining instead the one retaining its sanity.

To Sanders voters: you are passionate idealists. You wanted radical change. I didn’t agree with it, but I get it, and respect it. You did have a fair argument to make; you made it well; you didn’t persuade a majority. That’s democracy. Democracy means you have to accept it when the other side wins.

In 2016 we had a revolution by the populist right. Sandernistas wanted a revolution too. Van Jones, on CNN last night, said what we’re seeing is a revolution after all — a revolution by the middle.

Many Bernie Bros say they won’t vote for Biden. On a radio call-in, I heard one declare he’s looking forward to saying “I told you so” on November 4. How can you back Sanders but relish another Trump term? This is nuts. It’s why I say we need to restore sanity to our politics, to combat such toxic divisiveness.

Van Jones also said Bernie must now decide whether to be a uniter or divider. He should end his campaign and urge his supporters to unite behind Biden. Full-throated support for Biden will make Sanders a hero. Continuing an effort to tear Biden down can only serve to help Trump.

Coronavirus/Covid19: Don’t panic, it’s just flu

March 9, 2020

It may or may not be a pandemic, but it is certainly a panic. A huge chunk of Italy, including Milan and Venice, is locked down, as is much of Washington State. Financial markets have freaked out, anticipating economic damage (mostly not from disease but from measures combating it).

Our federal government’s response so far is shambolic. Test kits: too little too late. Moronic Trump spews misinformation and utilizes the occasion to bash enemies.

China’s draconian restrictions on freedom seem to have gotten the spread under control. One worries about countries with governments even less competent than Trump’s. (Yes, there are many.)

A problem is that an infected person is symptomless for a while, so can infect many others before detection.

Okay. Now let’s please get a grip.

So far, coronavirus has caused something over 100,000 illnesses and 3000 deaths worldwide. It’s an ailment much like ordinary flu, so most cases are relatively mild and clear up by themselves. Both illnesses kill mostly people already in frail health.

In the U.S. alone, ordinary common flu this season has thus far caused at least 32 million illnesses, 310,000 hospitalizations, and 20,000 deaths.

Coronavirus does seem to have a somewhat higher death rate, but it’s still a very small percentage and the vast majority of victims recover. Coronavirus also does seem somewhat more infectious. On both measures, researchers are still trying to get an accurate fix. But it’s clear that though, on a case-by-case basis, coronavirus is more dangerous, it is not dramatically more dangerous.

And even if coronavirus is more contagious than ordinary flu, your chances of catching the latter, in the U.S., are hundreds of times greater simply because there are vastly more carriers. That could conceivably change, but coronavirus would have to metastasize humongously before it would actually be a U.S. health threat rivaling ordinary flu.

So why the panic over coronavirus, but not ordinary flu?*

As ever, human psychology is very bad at rationally gauging threats. After 9/11, millions felt safer driving than flying, though the risk on the roads was hugely greater (even counting the terrorism factor). People feel safer driving because they imagine they have control, unlike on an airplane. In the case of flu, the control factor is represented by vaccines, though in reality their effectiveness is limited. Another factor is familiarity. Driving, and seasonal flu, are thoroughly familiar. Unfamiliarity makes airplane terrorism, and coronavirus, seem more scary.

So we have TSA, and drastic efforts to contain coronavirus. Similarly strong measures could prevent tens of thousands of deaths annually from car crashes and ordinary flu, not to mention guns, but most Americans just yawn.

Government might do better at calming the coronavirus panic by calling it just “flu.”

* Actually, measures combating coronvirus will probably prevent larger numbers of flu deaths as a side effect.

Contradiction: religion and results for U.S. blacks

March 8, 2020

In Jeremiah Camara’s film Contradiction: A Question of Faith, the question is whether blacks’ religiosity helps or harms them.

They tend to be more religious than other Americans, on average. Especially black women, far more than men. There are 85,000 predominantly black churches, roughly one for every 500 African-Americans. They’re less likely to question their faith, strongly inculcated down the generations. But if all that prayer did any good, blacks would be flush with God’s blessings. Obviously they’re not.

Camara sees religion as a misdirection of time, energy, and resources, that actually hinders black progress. There seemed to be little concept of “God helps those who help themselves.” Instead, worshipers are shown as mainly looking for miracles to lift them up. (Similarly, they’re suckers for lotteries.) Camara considers this a philosophy of powerlessness, of dependency rather than autonomy, indeed emulating the master-slave relationship. This is seen in the posture of prayer — on one’s knees, with hands positioned as though shackled.

As the film points out, Christianity is itself a legacy of enslavement, having been forcibly imposed to replace ancestral belief systems. Jesus was not a black man from Africa. Somewhat weird, really, that African-Americans still hold so firmly to this religion.

People were asked whether Jesus means more to them than the sacrifices of their own ancestors. Camara was nonplussed at their answering yes. They explained that Christ’s crucifixion washed away their sins. A powerful idea, if true. Of course it’s not – and would actually make no moral sense if it were.

Yet some people in the film claimed God gives them morality. Camara said that’s not being moral — merely obedient. Fear of Hell does play a big role. (For blacks growing up, religion is “a big woman with a belt.”) But in fact we do good because of our thinking brains, experience, and grasp of how to live amongst others. God is unnecessary.

The film was very negative about black pastors, calling this a lucrative career requiring no real qualifications except a talent for emotional manipulation. There was a tutorial on six basic techniques: 1) repeated phrases as a hook; 2) pointing up people’s tribulations; 3) assigning actions like “touch your neighbor;” 4) peddling hope; 5) claiming to convey messages from God; and 6) invoking the Devil to terrorize hearers. One pastor was shown using all six.

Camara observed that if these guys were really in communication with a supreme being, shouldn’t we expect more profound wisdom than the obvious claptrap they spout? It’s pathetic they’re taken seriously, rather than as disingenuous hucksters or deranged fools.

The idea of “faith” itself is an affront to human reason. Yet our society still so valorizes religious “faith” as commanding respect that it’s largely exempted from critical scrutiny like other ideologies. This film is a welcome departure, pulling no punches in its deconstruction of religious tropes and their social impacts.

But one thing bothered me. Most onscreen voices were black, and while some spoke with great intelligence and insight (including some “ordinary” folks), the religious ones did not, and the film focused mainly on them. Most were shown sounding pretty dumb. One could almost call this film racist. A Martian seeing it would think the pathology is black-centric, with no idea that legions of whites harbor the same beliefs.

Trump’s Afghan surrender

March 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Tuesday and American democracy

March 4, 2020

As Super Tuesday loomed, I hoped for a triumph of sanity — but feared its last stand.

Thank you, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, tribunes of sanity who did the right thing. And to voters who took a cold hard look at Sanders — and decided “uh uh.” It seems the moral imbecility of his praising Castro hurt him. Virtually everywhere, he got fewer votes than in 2016. Biden won states he hadn’t even campaigned in. He is now the clear leader in popular votes and delegates. This broad-based victory will strengthen his momentum. Sanders will continue to torment Biden, but cannot be nominated.

So enough already with this foolishness of wanting on “outsider” who will “shake things up.” We got that last time. Now let’s please put things back together, with a president who actually knows what he’s doing, actually understands the world, and is actually a decent honest human being.

Voter hatred for “politicians” had long been intensifying. Yet who elected those people? The real problem is politicians heeding the uninformed whims of voters who can’t say how many branches the federal government has or in what century the Civil War occurred. Politicians will do what they must, to coddle voters. Democracy would work a lot better without voters mucking it up.

A recent Michael Gerson column laments that the outsider shake-up fetish serves to encourage “unpleasant, ill-mannered loudmouths.” Trump unquestionably represents a collapse of civic decency. Sanders is not much better. Supporters may say they don’t like the nastiness, but wave it off as not really important. Gerson disagrees. The phenomenon, he says, has “blossomed into a crisis of democratic values.”

Here’s why. Democracy is not just voting. It’s a culture, with pluralism — different kinds of people getting along together — of the essence. This means respecting the legitimacy of opposing interests and viewpoints, engaging in rational persuasion, compromising with them, even accepting their victories.

That does not describe America’s political culture lately.

Trumpers blast Democrats as supposedly never accepting the 2016 election. But Republicans overplay that election result as a universal trump card. Meaning everyone with different views about anything should just shut up and go away. And any effort toward presidential accountability somehow disrespects Trump’s voters. As if Republicans don’t disrespect the greater number who actually voted against him. This is not how a democratic culture works. Elections do have consequences — but not the ending of debate and suppression of opposition.

Gerson comments that a politician’s promise “to burn down the house is visceral and emotional. That does not make institutional arsonists more sincere or wise.” Putting it mildly. The sad truth is that voters who want the house burned down are ignorant of what it’s made of. They do not understand democratic culture, nor the role of the institutions that sustain it. And what terrible consequences will ensue from their conflagration.

Call in the firefighters. That’s what Biden’s campaign is really mainly about, and I feel confident he can defeat Trump.

American Nightmare — Sanders versus Trump

March 1, 2020

American Nightmare” is The Economist’s latest cover story. This is an authoritative, extremely serious, sober publication, not given to hysteria. But this editorial is strong stuff. I copy it below, with some editing by me, mainly for brevity:

Sometimes people wake from a bad dream only to discover that the nightmare goes on. This is the prospect facing America if Democrats nominate Sanders against Trump. An appalling choice with no good outcome.

Sanders is so convinced he is morally right, he has a dangerous tendency to put ends before means. And, where Trump has whipped up politics into a frenzy of loathing, Sanders’s election would feed the hatred.

He is not a cuddly Scandinavian social democrat who would let companies do their thing and then tax them to build a better world. Instead, he believes American capitalism is rapacious and needs to be radically weakened. He puts to shame Jeremy Corbyn [hard-left British Labour party leader who recently led his party to electoral disaster] proposing to confiscate not 10% but 20% of the equity of companies and hand it over to workers [actually, the government]. On trade, Sanders is at least as hostile to open markets as Trump is. He seeks to double government spending. With unemployment at a record low and wages in the bottom quarter growing by 4.6%, his call for a revolution in the economy is an epically poor prescription for what ails America.

Sanders displays the intolerance of a Righteous Man. He embraces perfectly reasonable causes like reducing poverty, universal health care and decarbonising the economy, and then insists on the most unreasonable extremes in the policies to achieve them. Like banning private health insurance (not even Britain, devoted to its National Health Service, goes that far). He wants to cut billionaires’ wealth in half over 15 years. A sensible ecologist would tax fracking; Sanders would ban it outright. Making college cost-free is a self-defeating way to alleviate poverty, because most of the subsidy would go to people who are, or will be, relatively wealthy. Banning nuclear energy would stand in the way of his goal to create a zero-carbon economy.

His ideological bent gives him a habit of indulging autocrats, like in Cuba and Nicaragua, so long as they claim to be “socialist.”

Last is the effect of a President Sanders on America’s political culture. The country’s political divisions helped make Trump’s candidacy possible. They are now enabling Sanders’s rise. Leftist activists find his revolution thrilling. They seem to have almost as much hatred for his Democratic opponents as for Republicans.

This speaks to Sanders’s political style. When asked how he would persuade Congress to eliminate private health insurance (which 60% of Americans oppose), Sanders replies that he would hold rallies in the states of recalcitrant senators until they relented. Traveling around the country holding rallies for a far-left program he could not get through Congress would widen America’s divisions. Political realities blocking his revolution would frustrate his supporters. On the right, an actual socialist in the White House would generate even greater fury.

The mainstream three-quarters of Democrats have begun to tell themselves that Sanders would not be so bad. Some say he would not be able to do many of the things he promises. This sounds worryingly familiar. Trump has shown that it is unwise to dismiss what a man seeking power says he wants to do with it.

If Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, America will have to choose between a corrupt, divisive, right-wing populist, who scorns the rule of law and the constitution, and a sanctimonious, divisive, left-wing populist, who blames a cabal of billionaires and businesses for everything wrong with the world. All this when the country is as peaceful and prosperous as ever. It is hard to think of a worse choice. Wake up, America! 

Postscript (this is Frank writing): Sanders could not be nominated were Obama still alive. Everything he worked for faces destruction. His weighing in would have huge impact. Yet he is inert. One commentator discussing this stressed the word “caution.” Reminds me of Obama’s anemic foreign policy. There are times for caution and times for taking a stand. This time, right now, is the latter.

 

 

Is inequality really worsening?

February 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Democrat drinks some Trump Kool-Aid

February 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*https://gen.medium.com/ive-been-a-democrat-for-20-years-here-s-what-i-experienced-at-trump-s-rally-in-new-hampshire-c69ddaaf6d07

God and meaning

February 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 20, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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