Having cut back my political screeds to once a month - and maybe twice a month for other matters - let me start February's mensual political flashflood with....
1. THE OTHER “C-WORD”
In my previous missive, I remarked on how President Obama’s inaugural address proposed to “restore science to its proper place.” Signifying that we may (at long last) be departing a proudly know-nothing era. Only later did I recall where I had seen a similar phrase:
Our countrymen have recovered from the alarm into which art and industry had thrown them; science and honesty are replaced on their high ground.
- Thomas Jefferson, on entering office and repealing the Alien & Sedition Acts
Dang, is Obama mining everybody for ideas? First Lincoln, then both Roosevelts, JFK, Reagan, Ike and now Jefferson? Not that I’m complaining about the quality of his sources...
Also last time, I spoke of what I considered to be the most “telling” word in his speech - notable because he did not have to mention it. Of course, I was glad to hear tolerance, responsibility, justice, progress, openness, accountability and so on, spoken with intense sincerity, for a change. Other virtues, freedom and leadership, seemed to be rescued from the bizarre half-meanings they held in recent years. Still, in a sense, he had to mention all of those. But what sparked my interest was a word that nobody expected - and that would win no particular political or rhetorical points. It was totally his own volition to include curiosity. I suggested that this may reveal much about the man.
As a quick followup, before heading on to other matters in a long monthly compendium, I must turn from curiosity to the other “c-word” that lurks, like a ghost at the banquet. Almost diametrically opposite, this anti-virtue represents perhaps the worst trait of the awful gang who left our country such a shambles. No, not “corruption” or “criminality” or “cretinous.” The worst Bush era anti-virtue was certainty.
The kind of absolute certainty manifested by a clade that demolished the very same Pax Americana they claimed to love, by pursuing, with absolute determination (plus contempt for all criticism) policies that proved to be at-best wrong, and often criminally delusional. Even the “reform minded” McCain-Palin ticket shared this strange and childish anti-value, stressing proudly, over and over, their perfection of will, an iron-jawed grit that arises straight from the gut, not out of any namby pamby enlightenment process of assertion, evidence, argument, negotiation or reciprocal accountability. A stubborn, schoolyard obstinacy that is elevated and extolled as something somehow admirable.
This, I believe, is the root cause of the situation that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bemoaned last week, in a blunt warning to Republicans: “We’re all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us. And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one.”
No doubt, in McConnel’s mind, the GOP “region” is geographical -- largely the South and the Mormon Belt. But I think a map that would be even more telling is wherever towns and counties have seen their smartest young people move away, via university and profession, leaving behind those who feel viscerally abandoned, resentful and hurt. I refer to Limbaugh-Land, where citizens have only limited access to diversity, or diverse opinions, but live instead immersed in media voices who preach nothing but indignant fury. And if there is one thing about addictive indignation, we know that it flourishes best in an ambience of unswerving, unquestioned certainty.
Oh, there are some things in life that do merit gritty resolution. Love of family. Loyalty. Freedom (in the true sense, and not reducing it to a tribal totem-slogan). Also courage, charity, and a willingness to keep fighting for a better world -- first through negotiation but also by confronting bona fide “evil-doers.” Heck, I can go for all of that, and fie upon snooty/urban fools who sneer at such things, from an equally-flaky left! We need to improve, a great deal! But of all nations -- especially those that were ever tempted by great power -- none could ever brag of a higher ratio of goodness over villainy and error.
Anyway, wasn’t that supposed to be the purpose of Pax Americana? Moreover, from the ecstatic worldwide reception given President BHO, perhaps people all over the world still feel that ought to be our role. We may have one more chance to prove we deserve it for the crucial time that it takes to forge a grownup civilization. Of that much, I feel certain.
Nevertheless, it’s become clear why right-wing “certainty” has such a grip, festering still, in at least a quarter of the nation. It offers a clear and simple rebutal against those postgrad-educated folk who talk like they know so much -- and probably do -- but who are so superior and irritating. After all, in Hollywood films, isn’t it the villain who goes on and on, in polysyllabic, explanatory monologues about how logical his plan is? Until the hero -- Bruce Willis, or Sylvester or Arnold -- simply shouts “Oh, yeah?” and blasts the scoundrel with utter moral... certainty?
In other words, doesn’t this attitude resonate in American tradition? Without it, might we long ago have tumbled into a different nightmare? Technocracy, or rule by the smartypants? Ew!
During our present pendulum swing back toward sanity and calm thought, let’s remember that the know-nothings do have a complaint. It is 95% crap, but we would be wrong to respond to their moronic contempt with a similar (if reciprocal)... certainty.
2. AN ILLUSTRATION OF HOW BAD IT’S BEEN
Which leads me to an article published recently in the Wall Street Journal by Eliot A. Cohen, Condoleeza Rice’s foreign policy advisor, or the (supposedly) smart guy who guided the smart people who guided Pax Americana for all but two months (so far) of the 21st Century. In “How Government Looks at Pundits” Cohen offered his list of reasons why government insiders have little patience or use for input from others, beyond the narrow circle of those who receive “three-to-six-inch-thick briefing books, every day.”
On the discussion list of SIGMA (the “think tank of scientific science fiction authors”) several members were all-aflutter over how this splash of cold water should remind us outside consultants to keep our expectations low, no matter who is in power or what philosophies or personalities guide our myriad agencies.
Appalled at this complacent acceptance, I’m afraid I went a bit ballistic! Nobody else seemed to recognize Cohen’s article as a lengthy and utterly horrific apologia by one of the chief architects of the demolition of the American Pax,. In-effect, a longwinded whine about how nobody but a uniform and self-referential ingroup should ever expect to be heeded.
In vain, I searched his article for any mention of processes that might track outcomes and/or re-appraise policies in light of predictive success or failure. No mention of the pragmatic aim of finding people - both inside and outside of government - who happen to be right a lot and bringing them into the “briefing books” layer. No interest - or curiosity - about how his own error-avoidance methods might improve. Nor, of course, any awareness that the self-limiting perspective that he described might be a pathology. A perniciously destructive one, that merits correction by smart, sincere, skilled and patriotic people.
What I did find was the following especially bizarre excerpt:
”Do not prescribe a policy that the current group of officials cannot hope to implement because of who they are. I have had highly intelligent individuals -- including some with senior government experience -- sit in my office and lay out perfectly plausible policies that the current team, limited by time remaining in office, the pressure of competing and more urgent crises, and the all important mix of personalities, could never hope to put into effect. Moreover, core beliefs and style constrain policy makers profoundly. So don't ask them to do something outside their range of psychological possibility by, for example, proposing cold-eyed realpolitik to a band of idealists or vice versa.”
So, let me get this straight. We are to be guided by a core “band” that steers the ship of state with gut-level certainty, while accepting no advice, no feedback or course-correction based on ongoing metrics, having culled themselves of not only diversity of philosophy, but any difference in personality? As if any leader worth more than a bucket of warm seawater would not make sure to employ realists and idealists and all kinds that might both temper and challenge one another? Questioning assumptions and seeking good ideas, whatever the source?
Reminder, this was the best and most highly-touted kind of “expert” that we got under Bush. The very brightest of the brightest of those who have been ruling us, all but two months of the 21st century. With results and outcomes that are blatantly obvious to all.
3. CAN WE BE MORE ROBUST?
What bothers me above all else? I’ve raised it many times before, from Defense Department consultations to magazine articles -- the issue of fragility vs resilience, and how much less robust we’ve become. Especially, my teeth ache over small tweaks of public policy that might address so many these manmade fralities and potential failure modes. A few examples:
1) Reversing the inventory tax (e.g Thor Power Tools) into a mild inventory incentive could ease a curse that was bequeathed on us by the same MBA dunces who invented "efficient investment instruments." I speak of "just-in-time" delivery practices that leave our industries and cities without any reserves, to keep us going in case of transport disruptions. (Taxing inventory would seem to be especially unwise right now, when unsold goods are piling up at companies in delicate health.)
2) A minuscule tax on un-hardened electronics - something very small would do no harm but exert perpetual pressure on Intel, Ford etc to come up with chips and electronics that won't be fried by a simple EMP.
3) Require that all cell phones have a backup peer-to-peer, packet-based system, allowing simple text messages to leave an afflicted area, even when normal cell towers are down. Thus empowering citizens to communicate, when they need it most.
4) Tax incentives for companies to sponsor CERT team (civil defense) training among employees and neighbors.
Those are just four (of many) relatively small "stitch in time" policy endeavors that could add robustness to society without costing much at all.
Here is another one from author Wil McCarthy: Adding some capacitance to the power grid would be a big deal, too. The reason our current grid can't support more than about 10% wind power is because it's an LRC circuit with no C. The reason power failures can cascade out of control: same deal. The current system is very brittle. A power grid with distributed capacitance could, for example, go into a "safe mode" where all the interconnects were severed either regionally, locally, or even down the neighborhood level, and run independently for a few minutes (or even hours) while the problem is sorted out. The ability to break up the grid for even a few seconds would make it a lot less vulnerable to spikes, EMP, sabotage, etc. Why not pay property owners to house an ultracapacitor or battery bank, the same way cell phone companies pay for towers? For serious storage, you can even go to hydrolysis and fuel cells, although that's more hazardous and requires more infrastructure. I'm also a big fan of the Mormon practice of keeping a two-year supply of food on hand.
4. A SUGGESTION FOR DEALING WITH GOP TACTICS
Some of you have checked out my “100 unusual suggestions for the Obama Administration” Now here’s another.
Facing Obama’s 70% approval ratings (the highest since Eisenhower), and especially after experiencing the President’s forthcoming and genial engagement, Congressional republicans are playing nice... verbally, that is. Said Mitch McConnell: "I know I'm speaking for every single member of our conference that we appreciated his coming up (to meet with Coingressfolk), and enjoyed the whole exchange." To some extent, Republicans -- along with the rest of the country -- may still be getting used to having a president who realizes Congress exists as an independent branch of the federal government, and not merely as a collection of 535 minor irritants to be alternately steamrolled or ignored. As another GOP aide joked, Obama paid more attention on Tuesday to House Republicans than George W. Bush did in most of the last eight years.
Alas, this did not extend to offering any support for the economic rescue package. (Which, frankly, has in it some items I would like to have seen the GOP members assertively and pragmatically bargain-down! The aren’t always wrong, at the level of specifics.) The GOP members voted nay, as a bloc, in order to position themselves, in case BHO’s program fails.
One tactic the dems might try -- pass, by a narrow partisan majority, a bill without any GOP-loved sweeteners. Then offer a vote on a replacement package that contains such sweeteners, but requiring a super-majority. Let’s see if their business constituents will act swiftly to null out the political gamesmanship.
5. REMINDER OF RECENT ITEMS
Those who have been following my political commentaries know that I have long favored efforts to wean our more decent conservative neighbors away from their reflex-driven alliance with the kleptos and know-nothings who have hijacked their movement. Conservatism, in its better form, deserves a place at the negotiating table, but it can only return to credibility if its saner members gather the courage and patriotism to do what democrats and liberals did in 1947 -- by cutting themselves off from monsters, dogmatists, troglodytes and a bona fide criminal gang.
And an older essay (still relevant).
Those interested in following up on this concept can find more grist for thought in "Building a Rhetorical Bridge To (and For) Reasonable Conservatives," by my colleague in the SIGMA think tank of scientific science fiction authors, Dr. Charles E. Gannon. Most insightful.
Ex GOP Congressman and Heritage Foundation co-founder Mickey Edwards writes about his realization that today’s neocon movement has abandoned Ronald Reagan’s version of conservatism -- along with Locke and Madison and any kind of common sense. Of course, I’ve been long pointing out that it is much worse than that. Today’s “conservatism” has betrayed - above all - Adam Smith and market capitalism. Indeed, its central paradigm is to assist the quasi feudal crony-aristocratism that Smith despised as the worst and most consistent foe of market enterprise.
Somebody refer Mr. Edwards to my paper about the “miracle of 1947”?
Atlas Shrugged Updated For The Current Financial Crisis. by Jeremiah Tucker http://mcsweeneys.net/2008/11/20tucker.html
In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole? http://www.independent.org/blog/?p=513
And now... although I have more items (a lot!) to offer, I’ll clip and offer them only to the die-hards among you! By posting them below, under “comments.” Some are cute or weird. All political.
Above all, I am hoping that politics will simply matter less, real soon! I am tired of it. I want civilization to consider politics just another problem solving tool, one among many, and no longer obsess on it, as (ironically) has been the case under the error... er, era... of the neocons.