Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Questioning assumptions, left and right

We lead off with a pair of recent books, one striving desperately to undermine our confidence, and the other trying just as hard to snap us out of our funk.

Though as an appetizer… here’s probably the most cogent observation about our current political climate.  And this.

 == Decline of the Western Experiment ==

Much touted in conservative media is a new book by Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen - “Why Liberalism Failed” that starts with the cleverly implied assumption that it has failed. In supplying “why” incantations, Deneen joins a genre of gloom that includes Allan Bloom’s (1980s) “The Closing of the American Mind” and David Gelernter’s imitative article “The Closing of the Scientific Mind,” stretching all the way back to Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West” and even “Das Kapital.”  

To be clear, I’ll avow that liberalism has many flaws in its specifics and execution. Our civilization — vastly more successful than any combination of others, across all of time — suffers from mistakes, inconsistencies, contradictions and obstinacies that we’re behooved to re-examine, on a regular basis. Indeed, that ability and habit of openness to reciprocal criticism — (discussed extensively in “The Transparent Society”) — is a core hallmark of most branches of liberalism. It’s a trait that enemies pounce upon, calling it weakness.

Take the descriptive paragraph issued by Deneen’s publisher, presumably the author’s chosen pitch to all readers:

Of the three dominant ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last remains. This has created a peculiar situation in which liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution. As Patrick Deneen argues in this provocative book, liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history. Here, Deneen offers an astringent warning that the centripetal forces now at work on our political culture are not superficial flaws but inherent features of a system whose success is generating its own failure.”

Sentence by sentence, alas, this diatribe is (let’s be plain) utter bullshit in every single detail. Professor Deneen deliberately excludes the fourth and by-far largest creature in our political bestiary —  the elephant in the room — feudalism. In its various forms, aristocratic hierarchism dominated almost all societies for 6000 years.

Inheritance lordship by owner-caste oligarchy is arguably the most natural form of governance, having dominated nearly all societies that had agriculture. It never went away, and indeed is roaring back. Its omission from Deneen’s list of “dominant ideologies of the twentieth century” is glaring, that is, unless he implicitly folded it into “fascism.” Either way, the first sentence of this summarizing paragraph is an outright, knowing and spectacular lie.

== Two kinds of liberalism ==

But pray continue with Prof. Deneen’s summary: “liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution.”

While some shallow people presume this, very few serious thinkers do. Most know that liberalism is an exception to historical patterns, that always had the decks stacked against it. Indeed, Liberalism has two major branches, that agree on overall policy, but not the reasons.

First is a large minority who know about liberalism’s founder - Adam Smith – who taught about both harnessing and liberating the most creative force in the universe: flat-fair-open competition.

Lords, kings and priests always crushed fair competition. Cheating by the mighty always led to feudal cancer that killed competitive vigor, far more thoroughly and often than socialism ever did. Even the doyen of conservative economics, Friedrich Hayek, proclaimed that markets, democracy and our other arenas do best when there’s maximum participation.  Smith’s teachings, to keep the playing field flat and fair, form the deep root of “liberal” politics and economics.

All liberals push for rights, tolerance, diversity, science and compassionate uplift of the poor. But the Smithian branch does so for practical reasons. Maximizing the number of empowered and knowing participants almost always maximizes competition’s pragmatic benefits.

== The touchy-feely branch of liberalism ==

A much larger population wants those same policies — rights, tolerance, diversity, compassion, science etc. — for somewhat different reasons. They view these things as absolute moral virtues needing no practical justification. Ironically, that weakens their case! Since anyone else can answer: “my absolute virtues differ! And dismissing them makes you intolerant!”

Those in this passionate second category are more numerous, as you’d expect in any movement, and sure, their simplistic dedication to generosity and individualism might be dismissed as just another religion.  Certainly forces of feudalism/fascism - like Professor Deneen - try desperately to argue this point.

Feeding them ammo are performances like the weepy “response to the State of the Union” given recently by Rep. Joe Kennedy. It perfectly played into the right-wing narrative that liberals are impractical moralists, and not creators of the most successful, pragmatic, and dynamic problem-solving civilization of all time.

But the first category of liberals cannot be so easily dismissed.  Rights and compassionate uplift and science have had pragmatic effects, profound and even spectacular, leading to a society that out-performed all others - *combined* - by every conceivable metric of success, like exponentiating knowledge and wealth and health and freedom and happiness. There are also under-appreciated outcomes. Only liberal society created a vast and unhindered literature of error-prevention and opportunity-targeting called science fiction. And only this society managed to maximize opportunity-reification to such a degree that we may soon - very plausibly - become an interstellar species.

Liberal virtues achieved this in part by opening the flow of criticism and reciprocal accountability that comes from free speech by educated and calmly competitive masses. It also reduced the waste of human talent by orders of magnitude, by eliminating so many stupidly unjustifiable prejudices.

Reiterating: Liberals such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek (yes “liberals” in the classic sense of opposing market cheating) emphasized that entrepreneurial competition and market wisdom cannot occur until the number of skilled, competent participants is maximized, something that feudal regimes try desperately to prevent! Maximizing the diversity and number of skilled, competent participants cannot happen without rights and compassionate uplift and science.

== The insidious message ==

Let’s get back to the Deneen book writeup:

Of the three dominant ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last remains. This has created a peculiar situation in which liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution. As Patrick Deneen argues in this provocative book, liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history. Here, Deneen offers an astringent warning that the centripetal forces now at work on our political culture are not superficial flaws but inherent features of a system whose success is generating its own failure.”

Every sentence fizzes with dizzying silliness, as Deneen denounces liberalism because: “it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism…” 

Malarkey! Never before have the descendants of peasants, slaves and serfs been more participatory on civic life. Moreover, every single feudal society was more unequal than ours, in terms that matter most, the ability to raise comfortable, healthy and educated children who might plausibly compete with even the children of elites. (Witness today’s tech billionaires.) Almost never was this allowed in earlier aristocracies. And it will not be allowed again, if feudalists are allowed to control things, again.

Moreover, it was liberal policies enacted by the Greatest Generation - whose most-adored figure was FDR - that reduced inequality to its lowest levels! And it was GOP politicians - tools of resurgent feudalism - who dismantled most of those reforms, leading - directly and causally - to skyrocketing inequality.

This is very old stuff. Many of the same “contradictions of liberalism” were hollered by the Marxists for 150 years and by Oswald Spengler - then the Nazis - a century ago. And yet, this unusual experiment perseveres, dazzling future historians, who will call this an age above all others.

After all that, is the author wrong to say liberalism faces danger of failure?

His reasons and reasonings may be calamitously stupid. But, in fact, the decks have always been stacked against this bold and rare departure from the feudalist attractor state. As happened to the brief Periclean and Florentine experiments, many powerful forces are trying desperately to crush our renaissance. To stave off and prevent an onrushing Star Trek future, that could lock in liberal civilization — the way that Francis Fukayama thought it was already locked in, when he wrote about “The End Of History.”

The feudalist attractor state of brutally enforced inheritance-lordship by owner castes is very strong, deeply-embedded and driven by male reproductive urges. It overwhelmed 99+% of our ancestors, smashing all hope and any chance of advancement. It has tried to do the same to us, across the last 240 years. They are verging on success right now. And Professor Deneen is what he appears to be. Their shill and lackey propagandist.

== In contrast. We are truly a diverse species. ==

I’ve long touted the works of Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, whose book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” make clear that the modern era is one of unprecedented peace. All of Pinker’s careful statistics notwithstanding, you have only to know that a majority of our ancestors who ever lived near a city must have watched it burn, at least once in their lives. It’s no longer true for the vast majority.

Here, Bill Gates reviews Pinker’s latest tome “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” a vigorous defense of our stunningly successful civilization, against the gloom merchants seeking to wreck citizen confidence.

Enlightenment Now takes the approach he uses in Better Angels to track violence throughout history and applies it to 15 different measures of progress (like quality of life, knowledge, and safety). The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better. It’s like Better Angels on steroids.”

Now, Pinker has drawn bilious ire not only from the mad-right, but also from a large component of today’s left. Their reasoning – a stunning example of insane illogic – is that any acknowledgement of actual progress will undermine the urgency we must feel, in order to attack all the problems before us. Of course this plays into the hands of rightists, who can then proclaim: “See? Liberalism never worked, and liberal activists are the first to admit it!”

Nonsense. Countless past “liberal” endeavors were fantastically successful, from reducing war to lowering the arms spending of most nations to unprecedented low fractions of their national income and wealth. (What? You never heard that one?) From saving the ozone layer to increasing the populations of every species of whale. From ending the pandemic of southern lynchings to supplying every ghetto youth with a cell phone camera. From black and woman presidential nominees and #MeToo exposure of sexual predators to rising IQ scores wherever children got better nutrition. And none of that led to complacency! In fact, bragging is great salesmanship! It leads to a can-do spirit.

Gates continues: “People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones? He does a good job explaining why we’re drawn to pessimism and how that instinct influences our approach to the world, although I wish he went more in depth about the psychology (especially since he’s a psychologist by training).”

He adds: “I agree with Pinker on most areas, but I think he’s a bit too optimistic about artificial intelligence. He’s quick to dismiss the idea of robots overthrowing their human creators. While I don’t think we’re in danger of a Terminator-style scenario, the question underlying that fear—who exactly controls the robots?—is a valid one. We’re not there yet, but at some point, who has AI and who controls it will be an important issue for global institutions to address.”

(Want my own take on a possible AI Apocalypse?  I've been speaking and writing about Artificial Intelligence a lot.  Here’s video of my talk on the future of A.I. to a packed house at IBM's World of Watson Congress - offering big perspectives on both artificial and human augmentation.)          

Still, Gates adds: “ Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.”


Books along similar lines:

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future,” an optimistic science fiction anthology edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer.

Try optimism and confidence on, for size. If you want to change the world, it helps to note that some of your predecessors thought they could. And they did.      

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Resist (Carefully!) the Parade Nonsense: Confidence speaks louder than symbolism

Nothing expresses lack of inner confidence like bluster. Sure, we all know — and even supporters avow — that our president blusters, like no one else. So the latest imperative from the Commander-in-Chief should come as no surprise; a direct order to the Pentagon. To march.

(Note: This missive is cross-posted on MEDIUM, where I'll put up some of my items meriting wider coverage.)
Of course, showy military displays go back millennia, to ancient Egypt and Greece and beyond. Yet, the U.S. has no consistent tradition of big military parades, especially since the Second World War. Why is that?
Ask any senior officer. She or he will explain that it’s because a confident Pax Americana never felt any need. Strutting and preening is, in fact, the surest sign of an inferiority complex.
Americans saw no point in grandiose expense and display — until now. Rather than boosting pride, such a gaudy spectacle will be a sad milestone indicating our fall from leading superpower status.
May I illustrate with a very telling anecdote? During World War II, we were the one nation rich enough to supply each soldier with two uniforms. One was for travel, office work and business — okay-looking, but not tailored for show. And it was stored away near the front, as each fighting man donned olive drab combat fatigues. Our adversaries — and yes, allies — mocked how ugly the ensemble was, then shut up when they saw how it allowed free, agile movement and easy maintenance. The combat uniform was purely functional and saved many hours of upkeep, as G.I.s seldom had to spit and polish or brush it for inspections.
George Marshall -- who should have been Time’s Person of the 20th Century — made this decision, in part for practical reasons, but also because obsession with symbolism has always been the surest sign of second rate thinking. We had a world to remake, and we weren’t in it for show.
For contrast, do you recall the Joseph Heller novel Catch 22? How Lieutenant Scheisskopf — nemesis of all recruits at the training base — demanded that they march? And later in the book, General Scheisskopf made the whole European Air Force waste time in parades? Heller’s satiric tale bitterly contrasted Marshall’s spirit of pragmatic competence with a symbolism-mania that — alas — has become rife in the Republican Party. (See how this obsession went overboard in the naming of aircraft carriers.)
Still, at another level, this parade nonsense is damned clever! Indeed, it’s a canny political trap. Picture a half million liberals gathered along the route, protesting and jeering, a rabid few even spitting on Vets and Soldiers and Marines. 

Can you imagine anything more counterproductive for the “Resistance”? Anything more perfectly guaranteed to push our wavering service members, their families and supporters back into Republican arms?
Right now,the mad-right is losing people of skill — every single fact-centered profession — in an arterial gusher that now includes scientists, teachers, journalists, doctors… name an exception! And now, members of the reviled “Deep State” — the FBI, the Intelligence communities, and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. The lords of the Confederacy know this is a recipe for long term disaster… unless they can find a way to keep the “crewcut” fact users grudgingly loyal to the GOP. 

Sure enough, if anything could push them rightward again, it’s getting spit upon while on parade. Yep, that’d do it. 

Spread the word — this… is… a… trap. 
One we could evade if protesters wave signs saying: 
“We love our skilled defenders!” And...
“We’ll defend YOU against fact-hating loonies!” And...
“You look great! Now back to work keeping Democracy sane and safe.”
What terrifies Ryan, McConnell, Trump and their oligarch and foreign despot masters? Democratic candidates like Conor Lamb, a retired Marine officer who just won one of the deepest-red districts in Pennsylvania, Proving me right in my call for a "Year for Colonels." There's more than one way for our dedicated defenders to defend us, like at the ballot box. But luring lefty splitters and spitters into tearing up the Big Tent could shatter this new, tentative alliance of maturity and hope. 

No. We should resist this parade nonsense for better reasons. Because an America that’s still confident leader of the world — or ‘great’ — doesn’t need to show off. Our overwhelming ability, professionalism, science, technical skill and calm assurance speak for themselves. Or... they have, for 70+ years.
In fact, nothing will more profoundly advertise our plummet from paramount confidence than this silly dive into wasteful symbolism/obsession.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Politics vs Policy... vs Reality: and the "evonomics" of those tax cuts

First off…  I tol’ you so. “After President Trump signed the Republican tax cut into law, companies put out cheery announcements that they were giving workers bonuses because of their expected windfalls from the tax reductions. 

… Now? Corporate announcements and analyst reports confirm what honest observers always said — this claim was pure fantasy. Businesses are using the tax windfall to buy back shares, which our parents in the Greatest Generation were wise enough to outlaw in most circumstances.  Buybacks create demand for the stocks, boost share prices and benefit big investors. Some of the cash is going to increase dividends. And a chunk will go to acquiring other businesses, creating ever-larger corporations that face less competition. 

Oh, but it has one purpose above all others... making it trivial for CEOs to max their stock price milestones and cash out gigantic bonuses.

I have friends who actually dare to try the switcheroo on me, wailing "the tax cut on the wealthy is only a percent or so and I'll lose more by the loss of some deductions!"
My answer: "you'd insult me by thinking me so stupid I can't see where the huge corporate tax cut is going?" 

Seriously. Had the same amount of cut gone to targeted uses -- R&D, actual capital productive capacity, infrastructure or bona fide new jobs -- this might have been stimulative. As is? It is more Supply Side voodoo. A raid on the middle class that will widen steep wealth disparities, further plummet money velocity and send us plunging into debt.

These neo-feudal would-be lords are enemies of the republic. Enemies of civilization. And yes, the worst enemies of flat-fair-competitive-creative-entrepreneurial capitalism.

== Post mortems, looking back ==

Yipe! Read this detailed post-mortem of the tenure of Reince Preibus as White House Chief of Staff. It’s not unsympathetic. The list of stunning calamities will sound familiar, and yet you wind up a little sorry for the guy. A little.

‘Who would have ever thought that the Clinton-Gingrich years would become the good old days?’ I did. I’ve repeatedly called 1995 an “anno mirabilis” - or miracle year - in which the Republican Party paused in its obstructionism and lickspittle devotion to oligarchy, to actually negotiate some things in good faith, for the good of the country. Yes, conservative wishes that nevertheless were at least sane: like Welfare Reform and the Budget Act that led to surpluses. That kind of Republican is, of course, extinct.

Here: “Former Republican revolutionaries weigh in on the Trump presidency and reflect on retaking the House in 1994 with their “Contract With America” — and on whether their era was the end of a time when “public service was a noble calling.”

Let’s be clear. The 1995 Republicans were only admirable in comparison to the depths they later sank, then plunged. On the minus side, they began 22 years and half a billion dollars (that's BILLION) in “investigations" into every file, pore or body cavity of the Clintons, ultimately uncovering nothing to justify the hysteria. Zip.  Nada.

On the other hand, Newt wanted accomplishments and hence was the last GOP leader to negotiate with Democrats in good faith, resulting -- let me repeat -- in both Welfare Reform and the Clinton-Gingrich budget agreements that sent us into shrinking(!) debt.

Moreover, let’s admit that Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was brilliant political polemic! It made the oligarchic right look reformist (like a non-lobotomized version of “drain the swamp!”) And indeed half of the items on their list were actually somewhat meritorious! Those items were, of course, the ones the GOP almost immediately rescinded, betrayed or allowed to lapse… as they also banished the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) as part of the ensuing War on Science and Fact.

The key point is that Democrats… were they to find three neurons to scrape together… might do well to study the Contract With America. Learn from the past. Shake off habits that don’t work.

Alas, this list of “suggestions” that I wrote for the incoming Obama Administration - in 2009 - never got a glance from anyone in political power.   Any one of them might have made a difference… and I have new ones!  And zero hope that anyone will listen to sapient ideas.

 == Evonomics - Economics ==

At the Evonomics site, moderate liberal economists and scholars are the ones who nowadays most discuss Adam Smith – the “first liberal” -- who is both touted by name and utterly betrayed by those on the right. Smith would have had no truck with “libertarians” who recite the catechism that “all government and regulation is evil,” nor with so-called capitalists who conspire to achieve monopoly and other suppressions of competition. Indeed, the C-Word is almost never used anymore, in either community. But at Evonomics, the discussion is all about how to recover the blessings and cornucopia of truly flat-fair-open-creative-competitive market systems.

(Likewise, our Founders would have been enraged by the “Tea Party” and its cant that the American Revolution was against government or even taxes, when the biggest grievance, by far, was getting ripped off by the King and his oligarch cronies.)

Take this article by David Sloan Wilson, who denounces the standard definition of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Clearly after 6000 years of recorded history, we know that human beings are human, and hence will use power to cheat. The one time we got truly flat-fair-open-creative-competitive markets is when a society first cooperated to set up rules and structures that damped down the cheating. 

For example, the American Founders seized half the land in the colonies from the lordly families that owned it and redistributed the land to the masses. They meddled in property rights by banning primogeniture and demanding that estates be broken up equally among a family's children. Both interventions were more radical than anything attempted by Franklin Roosevelt, as was a later generation’s expropriation and liberation of millions of slaves.

Wilson says we can grasp Smith’s real lesson by looking at society operating on two levels, one that’s about cooperation and deliberation and negotiated planning about what kind of rules our democracy and markets will operate under – and hence a level that is not blind.

But then, each of us becomes a consumer or producer participating in the resulting markets. And at that level, we cannot be all-knowing or even very knowing, at all! Instead, as commended by the economist-doyen of the right – who is regularly betrayed and misquoted by today’s right – Friedrich Hayek, market wisdom arises from the amalgamated interactions of millions of players, each with partial knowledge and lots of self-interest as motivation.

Wilson puts it succinctly: “As designers of large-scale social systems and as participants in the social systems that we design. As participants, we don’t need to have the welfare of the whole system in mind, but as designers we do.”

Not only can competition not thrive without macro-level cooperation, to prevent monopoly, oligarchy and cheating, but cooperation-negotiation is essential – listening to science – for society to decide which externalities – like resource and environmental protection – must be tuned into the market, for our descendants to thrive. This is not anti-market or anti-competitive. It is called sapience. It is the whole reason why we have prefrontal lobes and interest in the future and science fiction!

Read the article, if you want to understand why – if he were alive today, Adam Smith would be a Democrat… though a quirky one, critical of some standard “liberal” positions, in favor of some that are more classically “Liberal.”

And see my own earlier riff on similar matters:  "Allocation vs Markets" - an ancient struggle with strange modern implications,” from 2006.

== Vanity has a price == 

How I hate the fact that we have been dragged down to the level of physical mockery.  But this is street fighting and they started it. So...

No wonder he wages war on science.  Now it’s verified. Trump’s hand length of 7.25 inches hovers around the 25th percentile of hand length among military men. A meta-analysis of studies from the Georgia Tech Research Institute places Trump’s hands below the 50th percentile. And the 1988 Anthropomorphic Survey of U.S. Personnel, used frequently by the Ergonomic Center of North Carolina, places Trump’s hands at the 15th percentile. Trump is, medically speaking, short-fingered. Where did they get the data?  Madame Tussauds - the famed waxworks museum - had measured Trump for a life-sized sculpture, which was removed from their New York City location in 2011. But Trump’s handprint itself, which was cast in bronze, has for the entirety of the presidential election been displayed prominently in front of the Tussauds museum in Times Square.

Had he simply shrugged and laughed about this, it all would have blown over long ago, especially given his 6’2” height. Alas, vanity is his un-doing. The firing of FBI Director Comey is said to have derived in part from Comey’s towering height. Trump’s recent height inflation to 6’3 in the medical report was just enough to let his down-reported weight – 239 pounds – fall 1 lb below “obese.” Had any of this been done by any democratic politician, it would be an endless scandal… as with the news items pouring from the House of Two Scoops, almost daily.

But that’s the point! The news cycle is so rapid that – in the words of Trevor Noah – “We ain’t got time for that.” At least the 40% of Americans enslaved by Rupert Murdoch don’t.

== Moving on ==

Pennsylvanians! Do your duty. Conor Lamb: This 33 year old retired Marine officer, federal prosecutor and devout Catholic has a chance to win a special election vs the GOP candidate ("I'm more Trump than Trump!") in a solid-red district in Pennsylvania, where the former Republican rep had to resign... caught ordering his mistress to get an abortion. Conor Lamb is everything (it seems) that I asked for, when I said we must run sane, pro-science and fact, purple ex-officers in every red district in America. Every State Assembly seat. Every State Senate, City Council and dogcatcher position.

If that means liberals in all those places will then have to negotiate with sane, decent, calm, science-respecting, rights-progressive, environmentally-responsible -- but temperamentally conservative crewcut types who sometimes go hunting -- instead of confronting the insane, fact-hating traitor-shills of Rupert Murdoch... then live with that! See my essay calling for a "Year of Colonels."

American conservatism won't die, but it can be shaken out of its current, nightmare fever or jibbering lunacy.

A broad front... a Big Tent... and the intelligence to run the right people in each district... that's how the Union will win this phase (number 8) of the American Civil War against a risen Confederacy that's absolutely (as always) treason.