Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 February 2014

A Terrible Price

[For an essay on how the coming movie “Noah” may prefigure our species’ near-term climate experience, click here. For a brief note on how John Cornyn just confirmed my analysis in the first post below, click here.]

We Yanks have paid a terrible price. We have paid it in economic progress foregone, social cohesion destroyed, and minds and lives wasted. We have paid it in blood, in our Civil War and innumerable lynchings and shootings before, during and since. That bloodletting continues today, in two notorious shootings of innocent youth in Florida.

We are paying a huge price right now. We pay with respect to Hispanic immigrants who, like every other immigrant group in our history, came to us seeking a more rational social order and better lives. We pay every time a law-abiding hard worker gets deported.

Our business loses a good worker. The community loses a father or mother. Innocent children lose a parent, and the fisc loses a reliable taxpayer. There is no upside but the smug and transient satisfaction of racists.

In its effect on communities, mass deportation differs little from war. The biggest difference is that each victim still lives, somewhere, out of sight, mind and the help of his loved ones and erstwhile community. The deportee is forced to sink or swim in a now-foreign culture with which he may have lost contact for years or decades. This is America?

Some day an aspiring doctoral student in economics should attempt to quantify all our losses from the insanity that is racism. The total dollar amount would be speculative and difficult to pin down. But the number would be astronomical. It would dwarf the losses in all the other wars in our history, including our War of Independence, the Great War, and the Wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

More recently, we have paid a huge price in governmental paralysis and economic stagnation. Just when we most needed government—because our markets and private sector had become broken almost beyond repair—racism raised its ugly head. A smart, empathetic and quintessentially moderate president has been tied down like Gulliver by racist Lilliputians for five whole years.

There have been other excuses, to be sure. We have a big deficit, but it started and was foreordained by the acts and policies of our “black” President’s predecessor. We have a thirty-year-old national ideology of selfishness, masquerading as “conservatism,” which we still have to grow out of.

But it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that much of our current self-imposed national agony comes from racism, conscious or unconscious. The agony long antedates President Obama’s tenure. His own trials are a symptom, not a cause.

The most recent epoch began precisely half a century ago this year. With social progress in his heart and a lot of arm-twisting, President Lyndon Johnson managed to get a recalcitrant Congress to pass the first of our modern civil-rights laws. He got another passed the following year.

With a few strokes of his presidential pen, the legal part of Jim Crow vanished into history. African-Americans in our South suddenly found themselves able to eat, sleep, pee, and poo in the same facilities as the rest of us.

They do all these things just as the rest of us do, because (like all humans) they are 98% genetically identical to the rest of us. But it took the bloodiest war in our history and another century of political struggle to begin to recognize this simple biological fact.

And that was just the law. Unlike law, culture and social attitudes don’t change with the stroke of a pen. They persist for decades or centuries. Just two years before our first modern civil-rights law, racist Democratic governor George Wallace stood on the steps of Alabama’s state capital and declared, “Segregation today . . . Segregation tomorrow . . . Segregation forever!”

Neither the political support that this experienced Southern pol expected nor the underlying social attitudes could change overnight. They didn’t and they haven’t.

Lyndon Johnson knew the score. After signing our new civil rights laws, he said the Democrats had lost our South for two generations.

But even Johnson underestimated the time required to come to our senses. Another half-generation has passed, and we still are not there.

Doubt this? Well, just consider a few facts. Our President is one of the most moderate and self-restrained men ever to hold his office. He never raises his voice. He is always polite, tactful and understated. His policies are as moderate—wimpy to some—as moderate can be.

As a former constitutional law professor, he understands the limits of his office. When his own supporters jeered him for failing to stop mass deportation, he replied, honestly and simply, “Actually, I can’t.” Like the rest of us, he has to obey the laws that Congress passes, no matter how misguided they may be.

Few presidents in our history have shown the moderation in character and policy of this President. Yet they called him a socialist, Communist, fascist, Marxist, terrorist sympathizer, radical Muslim, alien, redistributor, and every other name in the book. They invented new names just for him and his supporters, such as “takers.” The torrent of invectives only slowed down, but didn’t stop, after he killed mass murderer bin Laden, something neither of his predecessors could do.

A House member shouted at him, “You lie!” in a joint session of Congress, during his State of the Union speech. This happened at about the same time that Tea Party zealots were spitting on venerable African-American lions of our civil rights movement in Congress.

Do you really think all this would have happened to a 100% white man otherwise just like him? The voters would have laughed the name-callers off the podium and stoned the spitters. And this was the guy who, eighteen months before first being elected, disavowed single-payer health insurance as politically impossible. Such a radical!

Who paid the heaviest price for all this insanity? It was not our President. It was all of us. In the deepest economic crisis in nearly a century, our federal government did next to nothing. The GOP deigned to support a miserly stimulus package because every economist in the nation said our economy would implode without it. A few GOP renegades (mostly females) provided the votes to pass the Affordable Care Act.

After that, the opposition dug in its heels. Virtually nothing else of any consequence has passed Congress in five years. Until recently, Congress couldn’t even pass a budget, its most basic task.

A rump minority, mostly from the Old South and border states, shut the government down twice. Twice it threatened an unprecedented national default. The party that claims to represent business kept our government from helping business fix broken markets and a broken economy for five long years.

But no agony lasts forever. Even bouts of collective insanity end, eventually. And so we have, at last, a clean debt-ceiling bill, like the dozens that passed Congress without dissent before this President took office.

The GOP, apparently, is finally beginning to understand that most of us, unlike the racists in their ranks, don’t want to emasculate our President, paralyze our government, weaken our economy, make millions suffer, and let our infrastructure and education decay just to prove that a “black” man and his party can’t govern us, deprive him of credit or make him seem a wimp.

Barack Obama is a reasonable and thoughtful leader. He’s no wimp. He said he wanted a clean debt-ceiling bill, and he got it. The other guys blinked. So now can we drop all this racist posturing and get on with our collective lives?

The core Tea Party members—at least the ones proud of that affiliation—constitute about 7.3% of our House membership. About two-thirds of them are from the Old South and the Border States. When John Boehner finally let both Democrats and reasonable Republicans vote, the clean debt-ceiling bill sailed through, as it should have, every time, in any rational democracy that honors majority rule.

The GOP is just beginning to understand that the politics of racism is a loser. A clear popular majority of us voted for Obama for President, twice. That’s the first time we did so for any president since Ike.

We voted for Obama twice because we like him and respect him, and because he is far better than either alternative. We want him and our nation to succeed, not fail. We are tired of shooting ourselves in our collective feet for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with rational policy.

The GOP is also coming to understand that a party of old white male throwbacks is a loser in twenty-first century America. Hispanics alone will bury the party if it can’t come to grips with our ongoing immigration travesty. In the last presidential election, the GOP lost every non-white, non-male, and non-Christian ethnic group, from African-Americans and Hispanics to women, Asians to Jews. And it lost them by landslide proportions.

None of these groups—especially women—is going anywhere. They are only going to increase in number and political power as they gain political savvy and register more voters. Vote suppression is a despicable, desperate tactic of losers willing to see our democracy go down with them, like rats leaving a sinking ship.

Fear and hate have been effective tools of demagoguery now for more than Johnson’s two generations. But they are losing their luster. Selfishness may have a bit longer legs, but it is tiring, too.

Now the GOP has to come up with real policies to solve real and longstanding problems, lest our nation lapse into the third-world status toward which it is demonstrably headed. As the GOP does so, the rest of us should welcome its rational members back into the fold.

We on the left can’t afford to bear grudges, any more than we Yanks did after the Nazi psychosis. Our collective unsolved problems are many. International competition is stiff. And time is short.

We are a practical nation. Although we may trust in God, we have always built our strength and prosperity on rational social engineering and working together.

But ever since our Founding, we have paid a terrible price for racism. We haven’t begun to stop paying yet. Isn’t is time we stopped paying for insanity and started building again, together?

Confirmation: John Cornyn and His Big Lie

Most of the time, I love it when immediately subsequent events confirm my analaysis. But there can be no loving racist lies. Ever.

Last Friday Gwen Ifill aired a clip of Texas’ right-wing Senator John Cornyn accusing the President of being lawless, apparently for failing to enforce our immigration laws. There was some hatred—real or feigned—in Cornyn’s voice as he spoke.

I doubt Cornyn was unaware that the President had said, “Actually, I can’t,” just a few months before when asked by his own supporters to stop mass deportation. The President made that confession precisely because he knows he must enforce the law even if he doesn’t agree with it. If Cornyn was aware of that remark, his rant was as close to a deliberate lie as one ever catches any pol in making, let alone a US senator.

The probable motivation for such a big lie was as utterly transparent as its unfairness. Cornyn wants to avoid being “Tea Partied.”

Should we sympathize with him? Is he a good man, like Dick Lugar, whose departure from our Senate would be a loss for all of us?

Not hardly. If Cornyn ever sponsored or pushed any significant legislation that made this nation a better place, I’m unaware of it. He’s one the meanest, most demagogic, sorriest excuses for an American pol that ever stained the hallowed floors of our Senate just by walking on them. He’s one of the reasons why people like me, if asked to vote to let Texas (in its present demented state) secede, would shout, “Go, with my blessing!”

Cornyn was smart enough to get through law school and make it to the US Senate. Surely he knows that it’s not an easy or simple thing—or economically rational, for that matter—to deport 11.7 million people living and working peacefully among us. Surely he knows that any executive, required by his office to enforce a mean and evil law, would start by deporting criminals and misfits, and leave the most promising and innocent for last. Surely he, as someone who somehow graduated from St. Mary’s School of Law despite his self-evident lack of character and humanity, has heard of prosecutorial discretion.

But all these things mean nothing to Cornyn in his lifelong quest to retain a job he never deserved by feeding fear and hate. If I were Texan, I would switch parties and vote for his most successful primary opponent, however crazy, just to get rid of him, and to reduce the seniority of his successor.

The less power Texas has in our Senate’s committees, the better off we all will be. It alone accounts for six of the Tea Party’s hard-core House members, or nearly one-fifth. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Texas’ pols hatched the Tea Party, including its attempt to steal the reputation of Boston and our Founding.

Unlike the rest of our nation, Texas and its short-sighted pols are striving to make a mockery of Lyndon Johnson’s “two generations” forecast. Apparently they’re shooting (literally!) for another century of racism. Lyndon Johnson would cry to see what the state he catapulted into national visibility—and gave the Houston Space Center that bears his name—has become.

Footnote: To watch the clip, set the timer at about 2:10 and be patient. For the words alone, search the transcript (after it comes out on Monday) for “Cornyn.”

Get Ready for Noah

For all its faults—and there are many!—Hollywood sometimes is prescient. I’ve already written how the great racial metaphor from “The Defiant Ones” prefigured and helped spark our civil-rights revolution of the sixties. This year we may have another such film, when the movie “Noah” is released.

Head-in-the-sanders persist in seeing the recent record cold and snow in our east as just more evidence that global warming is a hoax. But they’re precisely wrong. Together with Australia’s record heat wave, Britain’s Biblical flooding, and California’s several-century drought, they are compelling evidence that what global weather is doing is hardly business as usual.

I’m a word guy. Like my father before me, who left me a binder of odd words you can’t find in anything but the Oxford unabridged, I love words. When I discover new ones, I try to remember them. As a one-time scientist, I pay special attention to scientific terms.

But I don’t believe I ever heard the term “Polar Vortex” before this winter. That could be just an over-fifty moment. But I’m virtually certain I never heard of a whole quadrant of our nation, including parts of our usually warm South, being stuck in a way below zero freeze for about a week.

That’s not just freak weather. It’s Biblical-Plague freak weather. It’s the kind of thing you’re going to see on the big screen in late March when the movie “Noah” comes out.

Unlike the movie, the Polar Vortex and the other freak weather events are real. What do they mean? What do they portend?

First of all, you have to take all the several freak weather events this winter together. While we North Americans were having record cold and snows, Australia was having a record heat wave. Remember the week of near 115 ˚F heat Down Under? A seasoned tennis pro, in top physical shape, fainted on the court, and the games had to be postponed. On top of that, there were/are record floods in Britain, overflowing the Thames and Avon. And Malaysia, normally a tropical country, had an unusual cold snap (for it) just about the same time as our Big Chill.

So the first thing to notice is that whatever is happening is a global, not local, phenomenon. Freak weather events were and are happening all over the globe, at about the same time. A milder example is the unusual heat at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where melting snow down close to the Black Sea is making ski runs slushy and tricky.

When strange things happen all over the globe, that’s climate, not weather.

The second thing to notice is that, contrary to what the head-in-the-sanders think, the big picture is quite consistent. Our planet is still heating up, raising ocean surface temperatures and putting more water vapor into our atmosphere. That’s the reason for the heavy snows in our east and the Biblical flooding in Southern Britain. When water vapor condenses and gets cold, it falls as snow, hail or sleet. And water vapor, like carbon dioxide, has a greenhouse effect, just not as much.

So the same phenomenon explains the floods in Britain and the record snows east of our Mississippi. More water vapor in the air means more precipitation. Duh!

The third thing to notice is that weather and climate are going unstable. In our modern scientific era, we’ve never seen anything like this before. Our species has been measuring temperature and weather accurately for a few hundred years only, and not equally everywhere on the globe. But as far as we know from our sorely limited records, we’ve never experienced anything like this before, at least at a time when anyone could make an enduring record of it.

There is one possible exception: Noah and his Ark. Like the Legend of King Arthur, many legends and myths have a basis in historical fact. Could it be that the movie we’re about to see has some factual basis, preserved for centuries or millennia in an oral or artistic tradition, so-called “race memory”?

If so, the best candidate for speculation is the end of the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago. That’s just long enough ago not to have any written record, but close enough to today that persistent legend or “race memory” might have some weak correspondence with fact.

The end of the last Ice Age is also a phenomenon that scientists are just now beginning to think they can explain. Some of them think that an episode of positive global-warming feedback caused that phenomenon, and that it happened mind-bendingly quickly. Some estimate that it took just a few decades for average global surface temperatures to rise between 30˚ and 60˚F. If indeed that happened, there surely would have been Noah-like floods, and our species might have somehow remembered them.

Weather events this year—especially the unprecedented Polar Vortex—suggest that our global weather/climate system is going unstable. That’s precisely what happens with positive feedback. Things go unstable. The next moment becomes harder and harder to predict from the last. Nonlinear math applies, and so-called “chaos theory” justifies its name. Things get very nasty and unpredictable very quickly (for a global phenomenon). They stay that way for a while, until eventually a new and vastly different steady state emerges.

Are we moving into the nonlinear maelstrom? It certainly seems so. No one can be sure yet. But by the time we can be sure our entire species will be in the middle of a monstrous global calamity that will likely last at least a decade or two before it ends. When it finally ends, our global temperatures and climate, and our sea levels, might be very different from today’s.

What will be the consequences? I think we’re seeing them already. Places like Southern England and the Eastern US will experience unprecedented snows and, in the summer, unprecedented rains. When global temperatures rise enough to make snow unlikely, there will be only rains, many torrential.

Monsoons may become familiar to much of the English-speaking world outside of India. At the same time, other parts of the globe may experience devastating persistent drought. Some now densely inhabited places may become deserts. California may be one of them.

On the other hand, California may get lucky and experience monsoons, too, at least during the summer. Although big for our nation, on a global scale California is so small that a slight fluctuation in the coming nonlinear climate chaos could fix its fate.

The butterfly of fortune (a small term in the chaos equation) could make the difference between catastrophic drought and regular but manageable flooding for California. The state might even ride the line of chaos and experience drought one year and torrential flooding the next.

If California is lucky enough to get flooding instead of drought, or both alternately, it will not be too badly hurt. With its hardy water infrastructure, it is well positioned to store the monsoons for drinking and growing crops during dry seasons or drought.

But vast swatches of South and Southeast Asia might not be so lucky. Many of them are going to be out of luck and even out of life unless they get to work quickly building a hardy fresh-water infrastructure like California’s.

Why is this so? Because much of that region depends for fresh water on the great glaciers of the Himalayas and the great rivers, such as the Ganges, that flow from them.

Glaciers and snow are convenient, God given fresh-water storage devices. During the winter, they pile up. During the summers and dry seasons they melt and flow downstream to the ocean, providing fresh water to hundreds of millions who live on or near the world’s great rivers.

As climate warms, glaciers are disappearing. So, eventually, will deep snows. We will still have fresh water coming from the sky. In fact, global warming will give us more of it. But it will all be liquid. We will no longer have the natural storage of freezing in winter and water release during the dry seasons.

We humans will have to build our own means of trapping rains and storing them for ourselves. Nature no longer will.

So if you want to make a good long-term investment, invest in builders of dams, reservoirs and cisterns. Umbrellas and raincoats might be good investments, too. We humans are going to need a lot of all of these things as we enter a regime of unprecedentedly wet climate—largely of our own making.

Anyway, be sure to see the movie “Noah.” No matter how good or bad it may be artistically, it will probably give you a good idea of what your children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be like, almost anywhere in the world except the coming deserts.



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