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

27 November 2014

Proving Dratler’s Law

[Thanksgiving note: I’m sorry not to post my usual cheery Thanksgiving message this year. Those messages have been something of a short tradition on this blog. (For the first and the latest, respectively, see 1 and 2.) But this blog aims at probing analysis of trends and consequences—prophecy, if you will—not happy talk. I still love my country and cherish Thanksgiving as my favorite holiday. But this year, except for the still painfully recovering economy, there’s more to be gloomy about than to be thankful for. The following essay explains why.]

[For an example of how demonically cynical our Yankee politics has become, click here.]

There are at least two kinds of human intelligence, besides the spying kind. There is emotional intelligence, and there is analytical intelligence.

The two differ greatly (See 1, 2, 3 and 4). Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand people, to predict how they will react to shocks and circumstances, and, when necessary, to motivate (or manipulate) their thinking and their action. Those who often have high emotional intelligence include politicians, psychologists, and successful salespeople, especially used-car hawkers.

Analytical intelligence is the ability to see things as they are, without distortion, to predict the consequences of events and actions, and to plan successful tactics and strategies. Those with high analytical intelligence include scientists, engineers, winning generals, and strategic planners. Some, but not all, political consultants have it too.

One’s career alone does not necessarily determine the need for, let alone the level of, the two kinds of intelligence. Those things depend on the precise nature of the job. Trial lawyers, for example, need emotional intelligence, in order to get juries on their sides. Appellate lawyers mostly need analytical intelligence, in order to argue complex and nuanced abstractions before highly trained judges.

Some jobs require both kinds of intelligence, but not necessarily in equal measure. Military leaders need emotional intelligence to motivate their troops and assess their troops’ morale and spirit, and analytical intelligence to assess their troops’ readiness and the battlefield, plan strategy, and respond to unforeseen events. Politicians are similar: they need analytical intelligence to see what has to be done and assess what can be done, and emotional intelligence to motivate their followers, neutralize opposition, and persuade voters and fellow pols to get it done. Lyndon Johnson didn’t use clever essays to get the Civil Rights Acts through Congress just two years after George Wallace had promised Alabama “segregation forever.”

Applying these principles to human history, I propose “Dratler’s Law,” which I’ve bruited elsewhere in this blog. The worst political leaders are those with high emotional intelligence and low analytical intelligence. With their high emotional intelligence, they can get people to follow them almost anywhere. But with their low analytical intelligence, they don’t know where to lead, or they lead to disaster.

In the worst cases, they can entice people to follow them enthusiastically into the Mouth of Hell, because they cannot foresee the natural consequences of events or their own actions. Examples are Hitler, Stalin and (in his later years) Mao, with his self-evidently doomed-to-failure Great Leap Forward (to self-sufficiency) and Cultural Revolution (pitting youth against age in a culture built on venerating elders). Vladimir Putin may turn out to be one of them, although he certainly seemed analytically smart earlier in his career.

There there’s Dubya, a unique case. I can’t recall any leader of any major power, during my lifetime, with lower analytical intelligence, let alone painful difficulty in speaking his own native tongue.

Political commentators identified this flaw as early as Dubya’s first campaign for president. Mark Shields indelicately called him a “dim bulb.” But once our Supreme Court put Dubya in the White House, tact and the respect due his office made his stupidity all but invisible. The naked emperor had new clothes.

And so it surprised many when this man, utterly unable to foresee the consequences of his or anyone else’s actions, invaded two sovereign foreign nations because of a terrorist attack for which neither was responsible. It surprised many again when he presided over the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression, and again when he endorsed, without the slightest critical scrutiny, the greatest-ever undeserved taxpayer bailout of those who caused it.

(Later, Ben Bernanke figured out how to inject cash into our economy without bailing out culpable bankers, giving them incentives to prolong their gambling and swindling, ballooning deficits or raising taxes. Called “quantitative easing,” his method has become the tool of choice for central bankers worldwide. That was analytically smart.)

Dubya’s vaunted emotional intelligence never did much for me. But it appealed to a large fraction of our society, which was then fat (literally!) and happy. The self-satisfied among us had been reinforced and expanded by Bill Clinton’s massive job creation and surpluses, and Dubya communed with them successfully.

It’s hard to recall now, but when Dubya first ran for the White House in 2000, most of us Yanks saw ourselves as on top of the world. It took far more than 9/11 to knock us off our imagined pedestal. It took the two decade-long needless wars that Dubya started and the Crash of 2008.

Pride does indeed come before a fall, and Dubya was part of the fall. But he knew how to get to people. He first won office by painting Al Gore as an out-of-touch intellectual. He won in 2004 (the only time he won fairly) by tarring war-hero Kerry as a “Defeatocrat” and a “flip-flopper.”

This “reasoning,” if you can call it that, was little more than the taunting of a toddler on a playground, or of a frat boy during rush week. But on some dark, primitive emotional level, it worked. So if any political-science doctoral student ever sets out to write a thesis proving Dratler’s Law, Dubya will be Exhibit A.

Unfortunately, the next two years are going to give us Yanks a second chance to see Dratler’s Law at work here at home. Both of our leaders of the Republican majorities in Congress have good-to-high emotional intelligence and low analytical intelligence. Whether they even care about objective analysis and consequences—other than for their own personal political power—is in doubt.

Mitch McConnell has just proved his emotional intelligence by winning a tight race to retain his Senate seat against a smart, skilled and female opponent, at a time when we Yanks desperately need more female leaders. As I’ve noted before, he’s a skilled manipulator of tribalism. He can foster it in his listeners with his soft Kentucky accent, which he never uses on the Senate floor, combined with code words that Kentuckians well understand, but which are not so stark as to outrage outsiders.

Like Validmir Putin, Mitch knows his own people and his voters well. Whether he has the slightest conception how people outside his small, relatively insignificant state think remains to be seen.

On his low analytical intelligence, Mitch’s barren record speaks volumes. Even after a diligent search, I’m unaware of any major piece of legislation that bears his name, or any significant achievement in Congress that bears his stamp. An early version of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill did bear his name, until he went turncoat, opposed the very concept of effective campaign finance reform, and twice sued to kill the new law.

More recently, Mitch repeatedly mis-estimated his following in the Senate and therefore failed to deliver what he had promised. In one case, whether deliberately or inadvertently, he mis-remembered a key piece of partisan history in an important interview. In other words, his ability to see things as they are, and not as desired, is sub-normal, especially for a leader at his new level. That ability is a key element of analytical intelligence.

John Boehner is similar. I have written a whole essay on his egregious misunderstanding of basic economics. He easily slides below the level of a middling undergraduate with a single course in introductory economics under his belt. Consequently, he’s a poster child for making universal education in economics mandatory in college, if not in high school.

Like Mitch, John has several times promised what he couldn’t deliver, shedding doubt on his ability to see things as they are, even in his own rigidly run House. Like Dubya, he repeats himself endlessly, using similar simplistic phrases as mantras. He refers constantly to “job-killing taxes,” despite the fact that taxes fund jobs, not only in the public sector, but indirectly in the private sector, too. For all you can tell from his public personality, John Boehner actually thinks in stock, bumper-sticker phrases; I have seen no evidence that he can hold a complex or nuanced thought in his head.

John is also utterly predictable, while events and circumstances are not. I have never heard him utter a single sentence, the substance of which and/or the fact he would say it I didn’t know beforehand. Such drone-like predictability must be comforting to his followers; it therefore is evidence of his emotional intelligence. But anyone with an iota of analytical intelligence knows that the very same answers cannot apply to every single question or solve every single problem.

John’s party’s pols twice elected him Speaker. And he seems to have had some success, together with his party’s strategists and monied backers, in securing a victory of his party’s business wing over the Tea-Party extremists that the party made and now has crushed in order to win elections. These facts are further evidence of his emotional intelligence.

Besides their abnormally low analytical intelligence, Mitch and John mark a new phenomenon in American politics in yet another respect: their values. They “win,” in their minds, if they stay elected, keep their jobs, keep the rich folks’ donations coming, and keep alive some mushy and often counterproductive abstractions that today pass for a Republican “program.” The idea of doing anything concrete and practical to improve ordinary people’s lives, let alone human civilization, simply doesn’t make their lists of priorities.

Mitch and John would be astonished if they could understand how closely they resemble apparatchiks in the old Soviet Union, or the series of mummified seniors that ran the Soviet Union just before Gorbachev, a man of immense analytical intelligence, came to power and shook things up. For Mitch and John, as for those mummies, politics is just a game, with no goal or aim but “winning,” which means nothing more than having and increasing one’s personal power. What to use that power for is beyond their ken and interest.

Why else, after six years in opposition, would they have no specific programs or alternatives whatsoever, on such vital issues as immigration, health insurance, global warming, and rising economic inequality? Why else would they dare to deny that the last two of these problems even exist, other than that denial hasn’t yet impaired their “winning”?

So we Yanks now have an interesting set of circumstances. We have a President whose emotional and analytical intelligence are both off the charts. We have two leaders in Congress whose emotional intelligence is high enough to have gotten them elected to positions two and three heartbeats from the presidency, but whose analytical intelligence, if it exists at all, has not moved any needle anywhere over two long careers.

How will the people behind these facts interact? Will there be a collision or cooperation? In particular, will the President use his veto power?

I think so. The President has much higher analytical intelligence than either Mitch or John. He also has a better and longer memory. So he can see things as they are.

The President remembers that Mitch and John have led a pitched battle of mindless obstruction against him and his party for six long years. Already he has signaled his refusal to knuckle under to threats of even greater obstruction, if that were possible. He did so in taking Executive action to avoid mass deportation of worthy innocents, and to give them a temporary incentive to come out of the shadows and stand tall.

The President’s “unilateral” but entirely lawful action speaks louder than any shout that he will defend his policies, his achievements, and his legacy by all legal means, including presidential vetoes. Who in his position wouldn’t?

John and Mitch made their latest threats almost entirely out of emotional, not analytical, intelligence. There are only two possible reasons for having made them: to excuse their own obstructionism in advance, or to blame it on the President. They have enough emotional intelligence to know that their threats would not sway the President’s course of action.

As for analysis, they tried that same trick with the government shutdowns, and it didn’t work. The public put the blame where it belonged, on them and their party. (Hint: it’s hard to shift the blame if you have absolutely no credible alternative to your opponent’s proposals and policies.) Apparently, these not-too-analytically-bright men simply can’t see the strong analogy to present circumstances, which differ only slightly.

So what will happen for the next two years is becoming clear. Mitch and John will use all their long experience with congressional procedures to try to slip things by the President. They will attach riders. They will pack “Christmas tree” bills with some things the President wants and every cockamamie Republican scheme imaginable, including rollbacks of vital regulation of coal pollution, assaults on workplace and consumer safety, restrictions on labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively, yet more license for still-dangerous bankers, and reduced taxes on the rich at a time of already obscene inequality. The scheme of Big Oil to get richer by refining North America’s dirtiest oil on our Yankee Gulf Coast and selling the resulting gasoline and diesel abroad (aka Keystone XL)—coincidentally depleting an important part of North America’s precious oil reserves prematurely—will be just the first of many.

John and Mitch and their minions will also conduct innumerable Chinese-style “show-trial” hearings, in an attempt to distract the public’s attention from their failure to do anything real. These hearings will be mere theater—sound and fury without meaning or consequence. No useful legislation will come out of them; their sole purpose will be to score political points.

The public may even begin to enjoy the shows and forget the primary purpose of Congress’ subpoena power: informing its legislative function. Thus may the US Congress come to resemble the Senate in ancient Rome, and perhaps eventually to suffer the same fate.

Having passed their Trojan-Horse bills, John and Mitch will dare the President to veto them and try to blame him when he does. And they, like clueless commentator David Brooks, will say it all started when the President acted “unilaterally” on immigration, notwithstanding their threats, if he did, to continue what they’d been doing ruthlessly and consistently for the previous six years.

As they have been doing, John and Mitch will invite our Twitter Generation to forget the entire six years that came before. They will use all their emotional intelligence to make voters nod off. And they might succeed. If David Brooks can forget, why not most voters? Bring on the Tweets and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the best Nepenthe ever invented!

So grit your teeth, my fellow Americans, and prepare to grin and bear it. Gridlock will continue and get worse.

Commentators willfully ignorant of our Constitution, laws and history will continue to argue that our Founders bequeathed us gridlock as our Yankee destiny, that it never occurred to them that our nation would have to change and grow and that a vocal minority might some day want to stop the world and get off. The President will stand firm because, although a soft-spoken, mild-mannered and understated professor, he is nothing whatever like the wimp his political enemies have tried to paint him. Mitch’s and John’s repeated misjudgment and underestimation of the President will provide further evidence, if any were needed, of their low analytical intelligence.

But don’t be sad. This, too, will pass. It’s only two years until the next election. Then the tables will turn. Far more shaky Republican seats will be up for grabs than Democratic ones. Maybe the Dems, for a change, will strategize and plan well in advance, and show some unity and discipline.

Maybe they will come up with a stratagem besides surrendering to outrageous propaganda. Maybe they’ll lick their still-open wounds and start seeking and nurturing strong candidates even now. Maybe some in the Senate will start grooming Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker for the presidency in 2020.

But maybe not. We Yanks seem to have fallen down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. There, perception is reality, pols try to make their own reality, and analytical intelligence, let alone analysis, takes a back seat to manipulating voters in the most cynical ways imaginable.

Republicans have become masters of that dark art, and they use it almost exclusively. But both parties use it. And, fueled by Citizens United, the trend is accelerating.

Mitch and John are firmly stuck in that rabbit hole. Mitch will turn 73 years old the month after he becomes Senate Majority Leader. He’s done the same thing all his life. He’s not going to change. He’s become the Pope of fomenting tribalism, speaking nonsense with Valium, bowing at rich donors’ feet and blocking action. He likes his silk robes.

At 65, John is a bit younger. He should retire soon. Maybe he will, after two more years of reactionism, obstruction and blame.

But John won’t change, either. He’s about as introspective and self-critical as a cowpie. Learning a new set of simplistic mantras might break his brain.

The only thing that moves John’s needle is the risk of losing his own personal power, and that’s not going to happen in the next two years. With his Hastert Rule, which killed immigration reform, he’s a principal architect of gridlock, and he seems to relish his notoriety. Relentlessly jeering and blocking others’ ideas and achievements well befits a man who, apart from getting elected, has never had an idea or achievement of his own.

So make yourself a stash of good books, either electronic or on dead trees. Forget about politics or political progress, whether you’re on the left or the right. Prepare to read yourself through the next two years, or at least until Hillary makes her play or the GOP presidential free-for-all heats up.

Nothing significant is going to happen, unless Putin goes totally nuts and starts a real war. Xi seems far too smart, analytically speaking, to exploit our continuing Yankee paralysis as an excuse to start a catastrophic war in Asia, although he may exploit it at the margins. Sooner or later, the powers that surround IS—Turkey, Iran, what’s left of Iraq and, if called on, Israel—will dispose of it, with our weapons and air support.

The best we Yanks can hope for ourselves is that maybe, just maybe, the 2016 elections will bring us leaders in Congress with some analytical intelligence and a penchant for getting things done. The next president will almost certainly be such a leader because the GOP, having adroitly alienated all minorities and pursued know-nothings’ dreams of doing nothing but making the rich richer, will have cleverly transformed itself into a permanent minority party for that post. Yet as we ought to know by now, even a good president cannot cure a sick culture alone.

In the meantime, the Millennials, who just failed their Woody Allen test and will suffer most for their laxity, must put their dreams on hold. Like believing nomads bent over a crucifix, they will bow forlornly over their inanimate mobile devices.

It will be good for them to have something to believe in and to occupy their attention. For if things continue as they are, and if we Yanks still turn dumbly on each other, some Millennials—maybe many—will have to emigrate to find economic freedom and opportunity.

Here at home, we will have Matthew Arnold’s “ignorant armies clash[ing] by night,” inspired by bumpers stickers and with iPhones in their hands. Things will have to get much worse, apparently, before enough of us Yanks wise up.

Footnote: As of 2009, Kentucky ranked 26th in population and 28th in GDP among the 50 states—near or in the bottom quartile on both measures. In comparison, Ohio (John Boehner’s state) ranked 7th and 9th, respectively—in the top quartile on both. Figuring out how a man like Boehner garnered and holds entrenched power in a dynamic “swing” state like Ohio will no doubt motivate future doctoral theses in political science.

Demonic Yankee Cynicism

If you want to know just how demonically cynical our Yankee politics has become, watch this clip of Ronald Reagan debating Walter Mondale on the subject of immigration thirty years ago.

Ignore the headlines, which are additional proof of Dratler’s Law. Apparently the person who posted the clip on YouTube has analytical intelligence so low as to impair his understanding of what Reagan said. Hear and listen to what Reagan says, and judge for yourself.

First, he forthrightly defends “amnesty” for long-time undocumented immigrants, while honestly and unabashedly using that very term. Second, he points out that employers, some of whom shamelessly exploit illegal immigrants, are the magnet that keeps them coming, despite any fence that could or will ever be built. That was thirty years ago, from the mouth of the patron saint of modern so-called “conservatives.”

Now fast-forward to today. The GOP’s Tea-Party wing incites its followers to foam at the mouth for building fences and deporting new illegal immigrants yesterday. At the same time, its business wing, wanting to exploit both long-ago and recent undocumented immigrants as cheap labor, keeps silent as a mouse about what really brings them here—unregulated employers who hire them and exploit them. The business wing also (falsely) convinces the GOP rank and file that the immigrants are stealing their jobs, which few or no native-born Yanks will take.

Cynical? How to measure how much?

Many so-called “Christians” foam at the mouth about abortion and perceived slights to religion but conveniently ignore what Jesus said about lifting up the poor, welcoming strangers, and accepting “sinners.” Pope Francis, who just might know a bit about Christianity, recently chided Europe for similar faults.

Just so, modern Yankee “conservatives” ignore the simple, direct and absolutely correct reasoning of their patron saint on immigration. Why? Because vicious propaganda doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to persuade and get votes. And it usually does so through emotion, not reason.

Somewhere, in a hot place below, the soul of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ chief propagandist, is laughing uproariously.


21 November 2014

At Last the President Leads

[For analysis of how the GOP has become The Reactionary Party, click here.]

We are Yanks. We do things. We do things that no other people could do, or that no other people thought of doing. We make things work. At least we used to.

We formed a new nation on a sparsely populated continent. Our Founders were conscious and unabashed social engineers. They created a new form of government, with a separation of powers, checks and balances, and a Bill of Rights.

Some think that was the most important thing we Yanks ever did. But we did lots of other things, too.

We invented controlled flight, electric lighting, phonographs and movies. We arose from rural isolation to become the decisive factor in defeating human history’s two greatest military tyrannies. Later, we helped dissolve a third, peacefully and without a shot fired.

After working decisively to win the greatest war in human history, we didn’t rest on our laurels. Instead, we created the United Nations and planned the Bretton Woods economic forum, which eventually morphed into the WTO.

We sanitized our tropical South by eradicating malaria and yellow fever and abolishing slavery. We invented television. We invented vaccines for polio, which had crippled our greatest president. We set up medical networks that eradicated smallpox. We co-discovered DNA, co-invented CAT scans and MRIs, co-contained AIDS, and set up medical networks that, so far, have beaten SARs, swine flu, and bird flu, and are containing ebola in Africa and fighting it there.

We invented atomic energy and nuclear weapons. We used the weapons to stop the most horrible war in human history and convert a terrible military tyranny into a thriving democracy and the world’s third-largest economy.

We put Men on the Moon. We invented the Internet, originally to let essential communications survive a nuclear war. Then we gave it to the world for commercial use, even to our rivals and potential enemies.

So I think I can say, without exaggeration or bragging, that we Yanks are inventors and problem solvers.

But not on immigration. Our broken system has festered for 28 years, since the President was 25 years old, and still too young to run for the top job. Hard to blame it all on him, isn’t it?

Our system is not just broken. It’s vicious, immoral and cruel.

It breaks up families. It keeps honest, hard workers in the shadows. It subjects them to exploitation by dishonest and oppressive employers. It uses them as political footballs, while exploiting their labor for low prices. It’s a demonic system unworthy of our democracy and our national reputation for compassion, fairness and justice. In short, it’s a mess.

Opponents of compassionate reform invoke “law” and a twisted notion of fairness. It’s “unfair,” they say, to let people who came here illegally “jump ahead” of those who waited patiently for legal status before coming.

So what should we do with the eleven million already here? One “solution” is to deport them all. Wasn’t that the kind of thing Stalin did? He deported millions of innocent, ethnically non-Russian workers and peasants all over the former Soviet Union. Do we want to emulate him?

The other option is to keep the “illegals” in limbo, where they are now. There, employers can exploit them economically, pols can exploit them politically, and their families can be torn apart, just so those patiently waiting in the legal immigration queue can enjoy their priority. Is that what we Yanks really want?

Sometimes “logic” is not only inhumane and unjust, but flat wrong. This is one of those cases. Another was the First-World-War Germans’ absurd notion of “total war.” It animated the worst atrocities in human history and nearly extinguished our species in October 1962. Now we humans have rejected it: we see the goal of war not as exterminating our human enemies like cockroaches, but as changing their behavior. Sometimes pure “logic” is inhuman.

In trying to solve this vile and long-festering problem on his own, some say, the President exceeded his authority. But the leading Supreme Court opinion on presidential power is Justice Jackson’s concurrence in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952), the so-called “steel seizure” case. For three generations, jurists and legal scholars have taken his probing and flexible analysis as the most that can be said, in general, on the subject of presidential power.

Justice Jackson divided challenges to presidential power into three categories: (1) those involving express or implied congressional approval, (2) those involving the “absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority,” and (3) those involving presidential “measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress[.]” He put President Truman’s seizure of the steel plants during the Korean War squarely in the third category, and so he concurred that it was unlawful.

Our current President’s decision to act, announced yesterday evening, falls squarely in the second category, not the third. His temporary expedient of exercising the Executive Branch’s prosecutorial discretion to avoid a torrent of unnecessary, impractical and cruel deportations falls within a clear and longstanding vacuum of congressional action: Congress’ failure to do anything for 511 days.

More important still, Congress’ failure to act was a clear and obnoxious example of minority rule. When the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform over a year and a half ago, the House would have adopted it, too, had it come up for a vote. There was ample bipartisan support in the House to pass it.

What stopped the House from helping make law was an obscure House rule, adopted by the then Republican majority in the House. Called the “Hastert Rule,” it requires a majority of the majority, then a minority of the whole House, to approve a bill before it can come to the House floor for a vote. So a “solution” to our immigration debacle, which has festered for 28 years now, failed because a minority of the whole House blocked it.

So not only did the President act within a vacuum of congressional decision. It was a vacuum deliberately created by a minority of the House. Under these circumstances, what would Justice Jackson say?

We don’t have to speculate. He already opined. “[C]ongressional inertia, indifference or quiescence,” he wrote, “may sometimes, at least, as a practical matter, enable, if not invite, measures on independent presidential responsibility.” Isn’t this precisely such a case, where Congress failed to act because of the deliberate obstruction of a minority of a single House?

There is yet another reason why our Supreme Court should not, and probably will not, rule against the President. Our Constitution gives a president of the United States—any president—plenary power over foreign policy. Yet immigration lies in the no-man’s land between foreign and domestic policy.

The status and potential deportation of immigrants is far indeed from the seizure of privately owned domestic steel plants at issue in the Youngstown case. Although President Truman tried to justify that seizure as necessary to prosecute the Korean War, its objects were wholly domestic properties, and the aggrieved persons their US-citizen owners. In this case, the objects of the President’s action are illegal aliens, presumably objects of his dominant constitutional authority over foreign policy, defense, and national security.

But enough of legal niceties. We Yanks pride ourselves on our “rule of law.” But other countries have law, too. They include China, Iran and Russia. Even IS has law—Sharia law.

Somehow, we Yanks think we differ from them in what most of us see as essential respects. The difference, as I have pointed out, is that we Yanks recognize the distinction between law and justice. When the two diverge, we change our law. Sometimes, we even ignore it.

Despite the “total war” logic of the immigrantophobes, our current immigration laws are unjust. They leave eleven million people—mostly innocent, law abiding and hard working—in limbo, subject to injustice, mistreatment, the destruction of families, and exploitation for others’ economic and political gain. In the worst case, they threaten a Stalin-like mass deportation of people who have lived here for years or decades, built their lives here, and raised their families here.

All the President has said he will do is give the best of these limbo dwellers temporary status, until our dysfunctional Congress can make up its collective mind to do right. As the President said last night, all Congress has to do to assert its authority and (if it wants) restrict his Executive authority is act. That it has refused to do, at the insistence of a vocal minority.

As for the Republicans, come January they will have a clear majority in both Houses of Congress. For six years, they have done nothing but jeer a good and diligent president and obstruct his every move. If they want to change his temporary plan to fix our cruel and broken immigration system, they have every right, and will have every power, to do so in just two months.

But no Yank worthy of the name, who considers his or her people problem solvers, should support the cruel, impractical and unjust status quo, even for another day. Twenty-eight broken years are enough.

Coda: The Reactionary Party

The more I think about it, the more the GOP victory in the recent midterm elections strikes me as not just extraordinary, but bizarre.

To understand why, you must recall an old and trusty but today much-underused word: “reactionary.” What does it mean? Well, my parents’ generation and my own often used it loosely to describe people who invariably want to march backward.

You know what I mean. They fear change. They fear the future. They are far from smart, creative, thoughtful or helpful. But they are vocal. They live on nostalgia for an imagined golden past. They want to return there even when doing so is self-evidently impossible, and any real attempt to do so would be counterproductive, even harmful. Yet they persist because they cannot conceive of any way to go forward other than to fall back.

All these words, of course, describe today’s Republican party pretty well. But they are not the precise meaning of “reactionary.” The word’s meaning comes from its root, “reaction.” “Reactionaries” are people who do nothing on their own, but simply react to what other people do and, occasionally, to events. They have and offer no solutions. They just jeer, criticize, carp and view with alarm.

Aren’t these things precisely what the GOP has done for the last six years? It has jeered at every solution proposed by the President or the Dems, and even at most proposed by Republicans themselves.

From all appearances, today’s GOP doesn’t want solutions. It just wants power—the power to oppose. It wants to stop the world and get off. But where? It doesn’t say. When I was a kid, that sort of behavior was the earmark of reactionism.

What’s extraordinary is not that the GOP has absolutely no solutions. It doesn’t even propose any. The reasons are not complex. As a party, it has no imagination, no daring, and no creativity. But more important, it’s split within itself.

Immigration, of course, is a case in point. The GOP has never proposed a “solution” to the eleven million undocumented immigrants now living and working among us. It has jeered a lot at so-called “amnesty,” while horribly misusing that word. It’s jeering now at the President’s limited action—a temporary program for people who’ve been here fruitfully, paying taxes and avoiding criminal activity for five years.

The GOP continually hints at deportation, if only to attract the brutal and heartless goons who now seem to comprise its electorate. But it never actually goes there.

Why? Because the party’s adults know that deportation would be costly, disruptive and un-American. More important, the business titans who finance and now run the party need all those intimidated and oppressed “illegals” for cheap labor.

Unlike the Fox-deluded GOP cadres, the titans know that the “illegals” take no jobs away from native-born Americans: they just do jobs (and for wages) that no native-born would take because, however hard conditions may be in their workplaces, they are worse where they came from. Recall the rampant gang murders in Central America that sent tens of thousands of unaccompanied children to bang on our closed doors?

The GOP titans—and, no doubt, even John and Mitch—know that border fences are likewise no solution. There is no fence that cannot be dug under, climbed over, walked, sailed or flown around, or breached. And building one along our entire Southern border would cost far too much and bust their precious budget.

More important, John and Mitch, unlike their deluded partisans, are fully aware that present economic conditions, plus the President’s honest efforts to better control our borders, have cut the flow of illegal entrants to the lowest levels since the seventies. But they continue to paint, falsely, a picture of waves of criminals and terrorists submerging our borders every day.

So what do the GOP leaders actually do? They propose nothing, if only because they can’t agree. They jeer at and deride the President and his solutions. And they threaten to get even nastier and more negative if, God forbid, the President should do anything on his own.

PBS commentator David Brooks buys this line. While agreeing with the President on substance, he laments that the President taking action after 28 years of inaction will make the GOP’s obstinacy even worse. How could it possibly?

Lest you think the GOP’s reactionism is confined to immigration, look at health-insurance reform. From the very beginning of the debate, the GOP jeered at the new law’s “mandates,” which require individuals and businesses to buy health insurance of suffer penalties. I, too, criticized the individual mandates, on political and economic grounds, as early as seven years ago, in one of the most popular essays on this blog. I pointed out that, as the sole rational flaw in the proposed health-insurance reform, mandates would provide a strong foundation for opposition and political attacks. And so they have done.

But now GOP members are suing the President for delaying the mandates, challenging his power to do so. Go figure. Consistency, apparently, doesn’t matter at all to these fools. What matters is having more to jeer and cavil about, while solving nothing. And Fox—the greatest propaganda machine in human history—continues to make hay of this relentless, mindless negativity.

Then there’s Benghazi. A minor headline yesterday noted that the GOP-controlled House committee still beating this dead horse had “cleared” the CIA and military of culpability for the tragedy. The obvious next step is blaming it all, once again, on Hillary. “Solutions” for preventing anything similar from happening again in a still-turbulent Middle East, where IS is weaving its noxious, beheading web? Fuhgeddaboutem!

This is what has become of the so-called Grand Old Party, the party of Lincoln, Teddy, and Ike. It rightly uses only the initials today. The full phrase would be self-evident self-parody.

The wonder is not that this can happen to grown men. The wonder is not that people who claim to devote their lives to public service can make diabolically relentless negativity their credo and their lodestar.

The wonder is not that a serious political party can make threatening to make diabolical obstinacy even worse a serious political riposte to an attempt to solve a real problem that has festered for a generation and a half. We Yanks went behind the looking glass long ago, when we decided to substitute thirty-second “gotcha” ads financed by rich people for serious political debate.

The wonder is not that elected representatives who style themselves the modern (and better!) heirs of Plato, Socrates, Cato and Cicero can so self-evidently act like bullies on a playground, or frat boys getting ready to gang-rape a drunk freshwoman. There are still far too few women in Congress to provide motherly restraint on the child gangs.

The wonder is that, in our much vaunted Information Age, the “free” American public, led around by nose-rings forged by Fox and the rich, could buy this culture of jeering and “no” as American. Aren’t carping, jeering, threatening and repeatedly blocking solutions what Russians are supposed to do?

Footnote: One of the real tragedies of this month’s election was that so many good women lost to reactionary men. How many women do you know who would say, in effect, “if you don’t stop trying to solve this real problem and improve people’s lives, I’m going to stamp my feet even harder and fight you even more”?

Maybe female candidates need to get female campaign advisers. So far, they’ve not had great success trying to duplicate male testosterone-fueled obstinacy and stupidity. Or, in Grimes’ case, abandoning a good and honest leader striving hard to do right (and often succeeding).


15 November 2014

Size Matters

Introduction: Godzilla’s modern message
Size in population
Size in territory
Size of leaders
How Long Might Reaching Equilibrium Take?

Introduction: Godzilla’s modern message

The title of this essay is an advertising slogan. Yankee movie makers used it to promote their recent American remake of the classic 1954 Japanese horror movie “Godzilla.”

As you may recall, Godzilla was a very, very big mutant lizard. He stomped through human cities, crushing cars and buses, knocking over skyscrapers, and batting down fighter jets with his huge but (to him) relatively small front paws. It took a lot to bring him down.

The chief threat to our species (and others) today is not mutants, let alone imaginary ones. It’s self-caused climate change. Not only is global warming increasing freakish and destructive weather, causing drought and floods, and decreasing our planet’s usable land area, potentially causing yet more conflict within our species, to add to the gratuitous tribal conflict that we already have. Climate change will also cause massive extinction of our fellow species.

How massive? Well, the extinction will rival—but we hope not surpass—that caused by the asteroid collision 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and gave us mammals a chance. Scientists estimate that a third of all species might die from our human craving for easy and reckless energy. And we haven’t even reached the inflection point of climate change yet.

Not even Godzilla could do that! Yet the advertising slogan used to promote his remake retains some important lessons. Size does matter, in powerful but as yet under-appreciated ways. The size of nations and people could influence, if not determine, our species’ future.

Thus does Godzilla work in mysterious ways. Let’s take a look.

Size in population

About a week ago, Bloomberg.com published a story noting how China—now the world’s second largest economy—had surpassed Japan not just in GDP, but in several important quantitative measures of economic success. The story drew no conclusions; it just reported “news.” But it had an air of surprise about it, as if the old postwar order of things was about to change irrevocably.

That it will. Three short-term implications of China’s rapid rise have been obvious for some time. First, China’s huge population will give its economic rise and its policies—including energy, environmental and military policies—global effect. It’s a major power experiencing an unprecedented rise from an historic two-century-long slump.

Second, China’s rise is now at its inflection point. It’s cutting itself loose from foreign investment and exports as the chief drivers of its economy. In fact, its current economic policies are directed consciously toward that end: passing the cusp quickly, without sacrificing hard-won peace or stability and so backsliding.

Third, China’s meteoric rise makes others nervous, especially its neighbors. Japan is no exception. China’s relationship with Japan is especially fraught because of Japan’s wartime atrocities in China and its repeated attempts to downplay them.

Because of that unfortunate history, the US’ effort to mediate between the two countries is not going to be easy. Perhaps our most important diplomatic goal is keeping Japan from engaging in a pointless conflict that ultimately it can’t win. Achieving that goal may take supreme diplomatic and leadership effort, worthy of President Obama’s sustained attention during his last two years in office.

But Bloomberg.com’s numbers also got me thinking beyond the short term, to what both economists and physicists call “equilibrium.” When a system—any system—makes a transition from one relatively stable or “steady” state to another, there is a period of turmoil or chaos. After that, a new steady state called “equilibrium” sets in. The job of science, including economics, is to predict how long and unstable the transition period will be, and what the following equilibrium will look like.

The particular transition we humans are now enduring is globalization. It’s a slow and sporadic process, much like the rest of our social and biological evolution. But it appears to be irreversible, and it appears to be reaching its own inflection point.

As I pointed out nearly a decade ago, Anglo-American culture is largely responsible for the process. But that culture’s loss of influence, due both to China’s rise and other factors, is an inevitable part of globalization. As economic power—and with it, the rise of Science, Industry and Reason—become more widely distributed globally, the extraordinary influence of English-speaking culture, which amounts to about 6% of our species (not counting India), cannot last forever.

The whole thrust of globalization points in the other direction. Already it has lifted nearly a billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty, mostly in China and Africa. Even West Africa’s ebola crisis could have a positive long-term outcome. If the rest of the world makes all the ebola-motivated investments it has promised, West Africa might emerge from the crisis shaken but on a firm path toward economic parity with the rest of Africa and ultimately the world.

There are risks and dangers, to be sure, some noted below. But what will happen if present trends continue? What will happen if the non-English-speaking world, with China in the lead, manages to stay on a stable and productive course, avoid the very real pitfalls of tribalism, empire, war and revolution, and drive the process of globalization to its logical conclusion?

One thing is clear. Globalization tends toward global parity of economic achievement, technology and power. Since people, i.e., individuals, are the ultimate sources of all those things, a probable consequence of complete or nearly complete globalization is something close to parity of those measures on a per-capita basis.

In other words, post-globalization humanity will trend toward parity of economic measures, such as GDP, on a per-capita basis. If that happens, what will be the result?

Here’s where Godzilla and his advertising slogan come in. Size does matter. And it will matter more as globalization proceeds toward global equilibrium.

The following table compares China’s population with that of other leading nations and blocs (including the EU and the Former Soviet Union). Since China is the largest in population, the first and second columns show, in absolute numbers and percentages, how much larger China is in population.

The third column compares the current aggregate GDP figures of the same nations and blocs, as a fraction of the figure for the US, which is, at the moment, the leading nation in GDP. The final column shows how that fraction of the leader’s GDP will change for each nation or block when globalization reaches equilibrium, per-capita GDPs reach parity, and China, not the US, is the leader in aggregate GDP.

Projected Consequences of Post-Globalization Equilibrium for GDP,
on Assumption of Eventual Per-Capita GDP Parity

or Bloc
Present PopulationPresent Population
as Fraction of China’s
Present GDP, as Fraction of US’ (2013)Projected GDP,
as Fraction of China’s
China1.36 billion100%55%100%
India1.24 billion91%11%91%
EU511 million38%107%38%
US319 million23%100%23%
Former Soviet Union287 million21%17%21%
Indonesia254 million19%5%19%
Russia142 million10.5%1%10.5%
Japan127 million9%29%9%
Germany81 million6%22%6%

    Table Notes: The dollar GDP figure for the EU, and hence its percentage of US GDP, uses this estimated 2013 EU GDP, 13 trillion Euros, multiplied by the 2013 year-end exchange rate, or 1/0.7260. Although the EU’s aggregate GDP exceeds the US’ even now, I use the US figure as the standard of comparison because the US is still the leading single nation, and most current statistics refer to it as such.

    Easily available online GDP figures for the Former Soviet Union are wildly discrepant. This graph’s 2010 per-capita GDP figure, about 4.43 2005 US dollars, when multiplied by the 2006 total population summed from this table, yields a total GDP of 1.272 trillion 2005 dollars, or 1.55 trillion dollars inflated up to 2014 per this inflation calculator. In contrast, the former-Soviet-states GDP table from this report, which purports to recite numbers from the CIA’s World Factbook, sums to $2.905 trillion in 2013 US dollars, for the year 2013. I have taken the higher number as more accurate.

    Note that, on the assumption of per-capita GDP parity, the projected GDPs in the last (right) column are the same percentages of China’s GDP as the respective populations are of China’s population (both at present). No adjustment has been made for the exponential character of population growth, so the table probably exaggerates the percentage-of-leader’s-GDP figures for nations or blocs with smaller populations.

What will it take to reach this sort of equilibrium? First and foremost, our species will have to avoid the perils of tribalism, empire, war and revolution. In other words, we will all have to emulate China in seeking stability as our overriding goal, even while suffering a difficult transition.

Second, we must work together to retard global warming and ameliorate its adverse effects and their centrifugal forces on globalization. Specifically, we must do our best to avert conflicts over land and resources as the globe’s land area decreases under rising seas, and as fossil fuels run out.

Perhaps the most critical challenge will come with declining production and rising prices for oil and gas, probably within the lifetimes of students now in university. Declining supply and rising prices will promote hoarding, incite nationalism, encourage backsliding on phasing out coal, and cause tremendous further backsliding on globalization through isolationism and protectionism.

That’s why we need to cooperate globally, and soon, on a rapid transition to renewables and safe nuclear energy. The recent agreement in principle between China and the US is a good start, but only a start. And peace in the South China Sea is a necessary precondition to completing globalization. Nothing could stop it dead in its tracks more quickly than a war in Asia.

Finally, we have to take to heart the notion that we are all 98% genetically identical and that our chief evolutionary advantage is our ability to cooperate. If we can do that, we can make our little planet a globalized Paradise, in maybe two generations. If we can’t, we might extinguish ourselves, or a large part of our population, and make our world a Hell in the process.

Size in territory

The size of a nation’s territory doesn’t matter as much as the size of its population. After all, land by itself doesn’t produce anything, let alone think. It takes people to make land productive for people, whether by farming, mining, drilling for fossil fuels, or building solar farms and windmills to take free energy from the sun and wind.

So as long as a nation is big enough to support its population, the size of its territory has what scientists call a “second-order,” or secondary, effect. Yet that second-order effect works on human imagination and culture in strange and wonderful ways. It could be among the wild cards of human advancement.

Why has our Yankee culture so captured the world’s imagination during the near century and a half since our Civil War? Sure, we Yanks are now rich and powerful, far beyond our numbers. Sure, we are productive, and we have been both clever and practical, at least until our present infatuation with dogmatic ideology began.

But except for their one-generation psychotic break of Nazism, the Germans, too, have been all these things. Redact the Nazi era, and Germany is a strong rival of America, England and France for world-historical leadership in human culture and thinking.

Before the two great wars, Germany was a global leader in science, math, music and literature. One of the four greatest scientists in human history—Albert Einstein—was a German Jew. He wrote his Nobel-Prize-winning paper on the photoelectric effect—which powers my solar array—in 1905. Germans and German-speaking composers like Mozart dominated classical music and still do.

Today’s Germany, quietly and without fuss, has created what may be the most egalitarian society on our planet. It’s per-capita productivity is among the highest in non-petro-states; yet the ratio of its CEOs’ pay to that of its average workers is ten. Ours is 400. At the same time, on a per-capita basis Germany has gone farther than any other nation to wean itself from fossil fuels and the dangers of unsafe nuclear power.

So why are we Yanks, and not Germans, the focus of human imagination worldwide? Why have our movies and our native music—hardly a match for Bach, Brahms, Beethoven or Mozart—taken the world by storm, and not Germany’s?

Part of the answer, of course, is the simplicity and brevity of the English alphabet and language (apart from spelling!). When everybody’s favorite second language is your own native tongue, you garner a lot of influence, if only by cultural osmosis. People worldwide read your newspapers and watch your movies and television just to learn your language.

But there are other reasons as well. An important one I discovered quite accidentally, while taking a bicycle trip near the former East-German town of Warnemunde.

As we pedaled along a country path between German farms on one side and the distant Baltic shoreline on the other, something surprised me. The farms were huge. Unlike our small family farms in say, New England, they went on for miles.

There was no sign that these farms were outposts of agribusiness. There were no giant combines or commercial-style buildings with metal roofs. They looked like ordinary family farms. So I asked our English-speaking German guide to explain, and she did.

Nineteenth-century Germans in this area followed a strict rule of primogeniture. Farming families never split up their land; they left it all to their eldest son. The siblings had to work for the eldest, leave farming, or emigrate.

As it happened, most of the siblings from the area of our bicycle trip left Germany. They emigrated to Pennsylvania, where they got their own land, founded a thriving German farming community, and abandoned the custom of primogeniture.

Even back then, land, as much as freedom, captured these Germans’ imagination. Our new nation had land that stretched as far as the eye could see, with no one claiming ownership but a few inconvenient natives lacking firearms. That vast land engendered feelings of freedom and possibility.

Empty land available for the taking was a dominant part of the “liberty” that our nascent Yankee culture provided and projected worldwide. Our various Homestead Acts in the mid-nineteenth century explicitly recognized and formalized that fact.

This was something the “Old World” of Europe never could have done, with its centuries of feudal land tenure. Its stern and non-egalitarian rules of land ownership were written in the great estates and literally graven in stone, in gates, fences and markers of granite.

If today you live in a tenement, a large apartment building, or an endless sea of nearly identical tract homes, it’s hard to see beyond your immediate neighbors. Your dreary surroundings confine your dreams to getting out and getting up in the world. Money and riches become ends in themselves, at first for survival and comfort, and later just by habit.

Land beyond what’s needed to live and farm frees the human spirit and imagination. It’s a blank slate on which human creativity and industry can write their stories. The United States has had more of it—a whole unexplored and sparsely populated continent!—and has used it more liberally than any other society in human history. You might say that our largely unsettled “new” continent helped form our unique Yankee personality.

Yet if the truth be told, we Yanks also have a dirty little secret. It’s a secret that few foreigners know, and not even every Yank. We have not just one culture, but several.

Today, not quite two and a half centuries after our Founding, our Eastern Seaboard is beginning to look much like “Old Europe.” It’s crowded, congested, and filled with as much or more history than future.

Recently I’ve spent some time in Virginia, a key Founding state in which I never spent time before. Every city and small town has its historical buildings and monuments. Some date from our Founding, and a lot more from our Civil War. The tourism industry, including charming bed-and-breakfast hotels in eighteenth- and nineteenth century houses, thrives on this history.

In such a state, where ever-present trees keep you from seeing anything more than fifty meters from the highway, grand vistas of land or possibility are hard to see. No wonder so many Virginians are still fighting our long-ago-decided Civil War in the twenty-first century! They live among its ruins and its ghosts, confined by the same forests that once hid Union and Confederate snipers.

My native West is as different from Virginia as Argentina is from Spain. I live on fifteen acres in the country. From my windows I can see Sandia Mountain fifty miles away. To the northwest and southwest, I can see other mountain ranges over twenty miles away. My solar array, which gives me more energy than my home needs, seems small compared to the land and the sky. No matter what the profit, I wouldn’t even think of drilling for fossil fuels, for fear of spoiling the land, the vistas, and the possibilities.

The state of my birth and youth, California, is also different. When I was born in 1945, it was still part of the West, and not only geographically. Its population then was roughly 8.75 million people. That’s only about twice today’s population of New Zealand, which, with about the same total land area as California, is the most beautiful and pristine country that I’ve ever seen.

Today California is much changed. Its population has more than quadrupled, to over 37 million as of 2010. Its congested and smoggy cities and highways, wholly dependent on oil, are reminiscent of the East Coast.

But California, like all the West, is still as much desert as forest. Most of the trees in the cities were imported. The grand vistas and the welcoming Western culture remain, even after most of the best land has been spoken for. Immigrants still come from Asia and all over the world, including Mexico and points south, and they find refuge and welcome in California. The state prepares official voter materials in seven languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog (Filipino) and Vietnamese.

And so it was when I grew up there, a fourth-generation assimilated Jew, never a bar mitzvah, seeing myself as a human being and an American, not a hyphenated being. And so it was that California today is not just the American State with the highest population and GDP, but the state with the creativity and innovation of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and one of the strongest centers of twenty-first-century biology and medicine. It is no accident that one of the three small biotech firms collaborating on the ebola drug Zmapp is in San Diego.

California today may be crowded, expensive and smoggy. But its Gold-Rush culture of broad vistas, a hearty welcome for strangers, and openness to new possibilities remains. In a cultural sense, it is still part of the West. You can sense the difference in atmosphere from the Midwest and East Coast not long after you step off the plane.

Land—lots of it and free for the taking—helped create and define these cultural differences. The size of a culture’s territory does matter.

There was, and still is, land in the South, too. But there human culture took a different turn, with large plantations and slavery more reminiscent of “Old Europe” than the American West, or even Midwest. We Yanks are a multi-cultural nation divided by a common language, an original but still dominant Great Compromise, and an outmoded government structure that cements minority rule and gridlock. As we use up our land and space, especially what remains in the West, our vistas and possibilities will diminish accordingly.

At this very moment of our history, as these truths become self-evident, a Yankophile Englishman named Ray Mears reminds us of them. He produced a wonderful television series about the American “wild” West. In it, he showed how the land—our continent’s vast wild and open spaces—shaped the history and culture of our people, and especially our West.

Mears’ original reporting and this analysis support the view that the size of territory matters. Man does not live by bread alone. Enough land to grow bread and sleep at night is not enough to nurture a hopeful and vibrant culture. Members of our species need more land and space to dream and grow, lest the heavy hand of history and tradition, not to mention corruption of the rich and powerful, weigh them down.

If you credit this analysis, then your next question might be: where’s the free land today? The most obvious answer is in the Southern Hemisphere. There is almost as much free and potentially useful land in South America as there was in the United States at the end of our Civil War, i.e., at the beginning of our own big China-like growth spurt. And, as I have noted, Australia’s vast, unpopulated Outback is a perfect place for wind and solar farms, which could supply all of humanity’s energy needs many, many times over.

Well over a century ago, Horace Greeley advised us Yanks to “Go West, young man!” Today’s similar advice, at least in our Hemisphere, should be to go South. If I were in my twenties or thirties and knew what I know today, I would almost certainly do so. That’s where the vistas and the possibilities of our young twenty-first century still lie. There’s even some land still available in the American West.

Paradoxically, global warming will create more free land elsewhere, by melting permafrost and making the frozen north more habitable. The chief beneficiaries of climate change in this regard will include, among others, Canada and Russia.

Already Russia is preparing to exploit fossil-fuel and mineral resources made accessible by retreating ice in the Arctic Sea. And what about the vast reaches of empty Siberia? Make a vaccine against the endemic viral encephalitis there—or exterminate the mosquitos that carry it, as we Yanks did over a century ago in sanitizing our Mississippi Valley—and you have a large fraction of a continent of undeveloped land. Wouldn’t it be nice if Russia embarked on that project, rather than making trouble, and possibly a nasty war, in Eastern Ukraine?

Size of leaders

And so we come to the last of our “size matters” topics. An individual leader’s size—especially a male’s—can make a difference in his personality and his modus operandi.

Those who study literature or psychology know the phenomenon through reading. One evening long ago, I met it up close and personal. It was the first and only Harvard Law Review annual banquet that I’ve attended.

The main room was at least a hundred feet in each dimension. There were several hundred people present. All were current (student) members of the Law Review, alumni who had served on it, or their spouses. At one point a friend standing nearby exclaimed, “Look how short they all are!”

We did, and my small group started laughing. At that time (I’ve shrunk in my geezerhood) I was 5 feet 10 inches. I looked down on the vast majority of those present. We could have been standing in a convocation of midgets, rather than a banquet of law students, lawyers, law professors and jurists who were serving or had served on the Harvard Law Review.

A moment’s thought revealed the evolutionary reason. Short people—especially short men—fear conflict, for they have little or no ability to win a physical one, and no intrinsic ability to intimidate or influence others with their size. Is it any wonder that they came to excel at reading, interpreting, arguing about, and ultimately making rules? It was and is an obvious social-evolutionary adaptation, whose reality was visibly present in the banquet room around us that night.

And so we come to Vladimir Putin, the quintessential short man. Has anyone else noticed his resemblance to Napoleon? Napoleon, too, was especially short. He compensated for small stature with legendary people skills and nonstop work. He subsisted on three or four hours of sleep a night. He worked, planned and plotted the rest of the time, about twenty hours a day. He was skilled at motivating and, when necessary, manipulating others to do his bidding. He was a classic emperor.

Napoleon was also, in large measure, a practical and egalitarian man. In part beause he worked so hard, he was an accomplished and excellent administrator. Although he became Emperor of France (and much else), he never lost sight of or sympathy for ordinary people. That was an open secret of his personal power. According to my college history professor, many European peasant and working families kept portraits of Napoleon on display in their homes well into the twentieth century.

But after consolidating his Western European Empire and bringing stability and relative prosperity to many an ordinary family, Napoleon could not rest. He turned East and invaded Russia twice. Both forays were catastrophic for Russia and for France.

What irony! One short man invades Russia twice to prove his manhood, causing human catastrophies that Lev Tolstoi—one of the greatest writers in human history—laid bare in his magnum opus War and Peace. The short invader does so willy nilly, after working and fighting hard for years to improve ordinary people’s lives on a turbulent continent, and succeeding so well that their families remembered him for well over a century.

Then, two centuries later, another short man comes to rule Russia, ostensibly democratically but actually almost like a Tsar. This man helps alleviate the worst poverty in Russia and brings his nation back into the global economic order. Then, to prove his manhood, he drives West, toward Europe, just as Napoleon drove East. He threatens to disturb, if not destroy, the global economic order, just as Napoleon lost his Empire(and his freedom) by overextension.

And lest you think that short-man risks are confined to Eurasia, consider Dubya. Only a short man with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove could think, let alone say publicly, things like “We make our own reality,” or “Bring it on!” That’s especially true of the leader of the free world, who (one would hope) might be selected for some sense of decorum and diplomacy. And only a short man could actually consider, let alone start, unnecessary invasions of two whole (and innocent) sovereign nations to avenge and avoid a recurrence of a terrorist attack that killed less than 3,000 Americans.

We can thank our lucky stars, and hope for a better future, that Obama and Xi are both tall. We can also appreciate Angela Merkel, who, being a woman, lacks the excess testosterone that makes short men dangerous.


Do these three themes of size—population, territory, and personal stature—have anything in common? I think so.

Our species is now at an inflection point in tribalism. We are at or nearing a cusp. We must soon decide, collectively, whether we want to continue and enhance our species’ chief evolutionary and biological advantage: our ability to cooperate. In short, we are going to have to grow up or reach our sad Peter Principle as a species.

If we decide to grow up, we must and will complete the process of globalization, with all that doing so implies. For that process is both the instrument and the result of our species’ trans-tribal, transnational and trans-cultural cooperation.

If we finish the project, per-capita GDPs will equalize, if only roughly. We are all 98% genetically identical. Patents and other intellectual property will slow the transfer of technology but will not stop it. Nations like China that bend the rules by spying and hacking will hasten it. As various cultures smell the scent of hope and success, they will work as hard as have the Japanese and Chinese. The only thing that might hold nations back is the awkwardness of their writing systems. (See 1 and 2) But expatriates can learn more efficient writing systems and bring them back to the homeland.

For all these reasons, China will, sooner or later, become the world’s leading economic power. Its pragmatism and low susceptibility to either muscular, proselytizing religion or simplistic ideology (apart from its brief “Communist” era) certaintly won’t hurt. India will follow, more slowly because of its present lag and religious troubles, but probably more quickly than forecasters think. India’s common use of the efficient English language and alphabet won’t hurt.

As global per-capita GDPs slowly equalize, those whose absolute GDP rankings now lead will fall, including us Yanks and the Japanese and Germans. But their people need not suffer. Standards of living will roughly equalize along with per-capita GDPs, and so will salaries and environmental benefits. So good jobs will remain where all people live. No one will have to emigrate to find economic opportunity, although many young people will do so for the excitement, the adventure and the challenge.

The most likely alternative to this benign and hopeful scenario is to reconfigure the world as conceived by Orwell in his masterpiece of dark prophecy, the novel 1984. Our species might divide into three great blocs: China, Russia, and the US and the EU together, with India and Japan as likely fellow travelers. Each bloc might try to be self-sufficient, as China did so disastrously in its Great Leap Forward, and as Short-Man Putin, the Napoleon of the East, is pushing Russia to do today.

The result might be as Orwell conceived—perpetual enmity and a cold or warm war among three or four great blocs of humanity. (Orwell didn’t foresee the rise of the EU but otherwise envisaged such a world.) Life would likely get miserable in most or all of them, as each spent far too much on spying and “defense,” and as each used the external “threat” of perpetual conflict as an excuse to justify greater and greater intrusions on the lives and personal liberty of its citizens. All that, too, Orwell envisioned.

Then all it might take to set off the spark of species self-extinction might be another aging short man, much like Putin, seeking to press a transient tactical advantage in an endless, never-winnable conflict.

So our first and last “size matters” themes coalesce. We have to finish globalization and let China (and eventually India) assume the prominence that their big populations portend. The alternatives are human and evolutionary nonsense and a big risk. To do otherwise, we would have to abandon our chief evolutionary advantage for a world in which a few great-power blocs perpetually seek self-sufficiency and supremacy through perpetual enmity and war, ultimately risking a nuclear coup de grace for our species.

The size-of-territory meme has a more optimistic aspect. It’s true, as Will Rogers quipped, that “They ain’t makin’ any more land.” And global warming will slowly reduce the amount of existing land area available for easy productive use. Whatever happens, the Northern Hemisphere, by and large, likely will remain as it is: overpopulated and over polluted. Global warming will only darken the picture.

But China has shown and is showing our species the way to effective population control, and there are still pockets of useful land available in the Northern Hemisphere. Global warming, which we can slow down but never stop or reverse, may reveal other northern pockets, especially in or near the Arctic. (It can’t near Antarctica because a huge ocean surrounds that continent.)

Even if we fail to exploit these resources, the Southern Hemisphere will still beckon explorers, immigrants and dreamers for a century or more. Whatever happens elsewhere, short of nuclear war, it will still provide vistas and possibilities to excite the imagination of youth of our exploring, probing, and creative species.

At least it should do so for another century or so. By then, we may have advanced enough technologically and socially to be ready to move on to the other planets and, eventually, the stars. Those projects will take far greater energy and a much stronger cooperative spirit than our species has yet been able to muster.

Footnote 1: Like most landowners in New Mexico and Texas (and several other states), I don’t own the rights to subsurface minerals or fossil fuels under my land. But I carefully researched their absence before buying, so that no multinational would start mining or drilling on my land. Here in text I’m referring to the influence of land on culture and my personal response, not to the legal regime.

Footnote 2: As I wrote these words, I couldn’t help but recall a lecture I attended while working as a Fulbright Fellow in Moscow in 1993.

The speaker was the widow of a Russian writer and refusenik, who had died shortly after having been released from long years in one of the Soviet Union’s gulags. The widow was a tall, elegant, well-educated, and supremely cultured woman. She spoke Russian the way the Queen speaks English. That is, she spoke it perfectly, giving her words almost supernatural grace and power.

Without a trace of bitterness or irony, she told us about her late husband’s and her experiences during the Soviet Union’s Stalinist Terror. Toward the end of her lecture, she read a poem that I think her husband had written while in a gulag.

Unfortunately, I no longer recall her name or her husband’s, or the entire poem. But I do recall one gripping line: “На восток! На восток! На восток!” (“To the East! To the East! To the East!”). If memory serves, the reference was to Nazi troops penetrating Mother Russia during her Great Patriotic War.

It’s ironic and tragic in the extreme that Putin, a twenty-first-century reincarnation of Napoleon, cannot see his own drive into Eastern Ukraine as precisely the same phenomenon, but “To the West! To the West! To the West!” No doubt he conceives it as some sort of bizarre payback for past wrongs against Russia from the West, of which there were many. He thinks he is fighting encirclement by NATO and us Yanks. But what he really is fighting is the yearning of formerly subject peoples to be free of empire and set their own destinies—things that every people on this planet desires.

How Long Might Reaching Equilibrium Take?

Reaching the equilibrium levels of GDP estimate above will not happen overnight. We can estimate, for example, how long it might take for the GDPs of the US and China to reach their relative equilibrium levels on various assumptions of the growth rates for each.

In the table above, the US aggregate GDP falls relatively from 1/0.55 = 182% of China’s to 23% of China’s. That’s a relative reduction by a factor of 182/23 = 7.91.

The following table shows how long it would take to reach that relative reduction ratio at various currently realistic growth-rate levels for the United States and China, rounded to the nearest whole year:

US Growth Rate (%)China Growth Rate (%)Years
to Equilibrium

Of course it’s highly speculative to project the growth rates of two nations out so far, let alone the two leading nations in GDP. But this uncertain estimate suggests that it will take between two and three generations to reach equilibrium. That should be ample time for global society to adjust, barring a global cataclysm from climate change or war.


09 November 2014


“Tribalism” is an odd word. It sounds outmoded, doesn’t it?

Wasn’t “tribalism” something that Native Americans and primitive pre-modern Africans had? Surely it doesn’t exist today, in twenty-first century America, in our clean, polished, humming cities.

But yes, Virginia, it does. It subsists everywhere. More than that. Right now, today, it’s responsible for our species’ greatest problems and tragedies, nearly all of which are self-inflicted.

It’s easiest to identify in the Middle East. There tribalism is driving the utter destruction of Syria, as Assad’s Alewite branch of Muslims attempts genocide and “ethnic cleansing” of other Sunni Muslims. There and in Iraq, it’s driving IS’ slaughter of Shiites, Kurds, innocent Yazidis and others. It’s causing the Turks to continue to oppress and harass the Kurds, who are patiently and valiantly protecting Turkey’s southern flank (and Iran’s) from political chaos and the likes of IS.

But tribalism rages far beyond the Middle East. It’s strong in Eastern Ukraine. There it’s driving a nasty civil war among white people who share not only the same race, but the same Slavic roots, the same religion, the same culture and history, the same alphabet, and even closely similar languages. Here in America, it was just responsible for an extraordinary election, in which the right-wing heirs to the worst presidency in a century decisively defeated the communitarians, few of whom even bothered to show up to vote.

How was that election tribal? Well, the old white guys showed up. African-Americans, Hispanics and other recent immigrant groups didn’t. Women did, but not nearly in the same proportions as they had in 2008 or 2012. And they failed to recognize where their common interests as mothers and (in many cases) heads of families lie, due both to the old white guys’ brilliant propaganda and to the Dems’ abject failure to make their case.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is now on track to become Senate Majority Leader. The most striking thing he said in his long, tough and dirty campaign to retain his senate seat was this: “These people have run this country in the ground, and they need to be stopped.”

Any American of age and sensitivity knows what the words “these people” mean, especially in the Deep South or a border state like Kentucky. They mean African-Americans, and maybe a few Hispanic immigrants. More generally, they mean anyone not from the older, white, male, conservative culture that still largely dominates those states.

So our new Senate Majority Leader will be a product and proponent of tribalism. At least he will be an adroit manipulator of tribalism, who hardly knows what to do now with the power it let him achieve.

More fundamentally, politics itself has devolved into tribalism in America. Simplistic cant, amounting to bumper-sticker dogma, has become a tribal badge or banner, a substitute for thought. You’re either a cowardly, promiscuous, immoral, lazy and freeloading “liberal.” Or you’re a militarist, racist, sexist, hard-headed “fascist,” bent on waxing rich and powerful by crushing women, the poor, and the unfortunate.

Expressing a single belief or assertion is enough to put you in one camp or the other. There is no middle ground, neither in our Houses of Congress nor in our popular culture. (The election just completed managed to oust nearly all the remaining “moderates” who once tried to bridge the gap.)

If you don’t believe this, just read the comments to any politically charged story in Bloomberg.com—our only remaining national Yankee newspaper that is free of charge. You can identify a politically charged story easily: it’s one with more than two or three hundred comments.

As you read the comments (if you have the stomach and the patience), you’ll find that the vast majority are simple assertions of tribal identity. They lack reasoning, let alone persuasive points. They recite not a single fact. They simply identify the writer as a member of one political tribe and disparage the other. Assad, IS or the rebels in Donetsk could hardly do worse, let alone in a culture that prides itself on universal education.

Tribalism even infects our medicine. We Yanks have known about ebola for nearly forty years. We have the most advanced and most well-funded medical technology on the globe. We are world-beaters at rapid mass-production. Yet in four decades we failed to develop and stockpile any drug or vaccine for this dread disease. Now Canada, France and even China are trying to pick up the slack.

Why did we fail? Two reasons. There wasn’t enough money in it to interest our Big Pharma. And after all, it was only killing “those people” in Africa, and then only in small numbers, until recently.

For their time, the Bible’s anonymous authors were among the smartest people around. When they wrote their magnum opus, universal literacy was not even a distant dream. There was no public education at all. So they tried to distill ancient wisdom into parables that any simple person could understand from oral recitation.

Perhaps the most important parable was the story of Cain and Abel. It’s a story that every Jew and Christian still learns by rote at an early age. It’s a story about sibling rivalry, which is strongly analogous to tribalism.

The Bible’s wise authors left us with no answers, just a burning question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” So asks Cain, having killed his brother.

The answer, of course, is “yes.” We all are our brothers’ keepers, and our sisters’, too.

Why? Because our chief evolutionary advantage as a species is our ability to cooperate. Individually, we are small, weak and stupid. Only by cooperating can we hope to fly through the air, communicate instantaneously across continents, ken our Universe, understand or cure disease, or (perhaps some day still) extinguish our own species in nuclear fire. How can we cooperate if we don’t “keep” each other?

It’s such a simple idea, really. The common good, or “general welfare,” as our Yankee Constitution recites. But it’s so devilishly hard to get through our still-thick skulls.

We Yanks finally have a president from a minority race. He’s not done a perfect job, but he’s done a damn good one. Compared to his predecessor, he’ a virtual Jesus, a national savior.

Yet we run away from him when the right wing pushes us. Some of us even refuse to admit we voted for him, when we would have had to have been crazy and disloyal to our party and beliefs not to. Mitt the Clueless Egotist and Self-Promoter as president?

How could any serious candidate believe the voting public would see that stance as anything other than dissembling cowardice? What could possibly induce such self-defeating behavior other than tribalism and the monstrous propaganda machine that incites and feeds it?

Despite all our comforting myths about the “afterlife,” from ancient Egypt forward, we humans have no real evidence that death is not final. Like the story of Cain and Abel, Heaven and Hell are only parables.

But they, too, are parables about real life, in the here and now. Albeit subtly, they tell us that we humans can make our Paradise right here, on the planet we evolved on, if only we abandon tribalism and cooperate. If we fail to do so, we can make our planet much like Hell, as in Syria, West Africa, and Eastern Ukraine today.

And things could get so much worse so quickly, as the fossil fuels that run our global civilization begin to run out, and as the climate that we are changing by burning them begins to main our agriculture, drive tropical diseases northward, and create further tribal conflict over retreating land area.

The choice is ours. With characteristic vanity, we call ourselves "Homo sapiens." We flatter ourselves with free will and intelligence.

Can we use them to our common benefit? That question still resounds at the dawn of the twenty-first century as it did at the dawn of the first.

Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? Indeed. And they are ours. That’s the way our species and its evolution work.


05 November 2014

Midterms 2014

[Note to readers: I’ve taken the liberty of reversing the order of the two essays previously posted on this page. How and why the Dems lost is much more important than speculation how bad Mitch might be.]

After a short night’s sleep, it’s possible to discern some hard lessons of Midterms 2014. They are not encouraging, but they are real:

1. Propaganda works. First and foremost, the American public is susceptible to propaganda, exceptionally susceptible. We must throw away any notion that our “exceptional” democracy or Yankee skepticism makes us resistant after yesterday’s results. In any medium-term view, those results were absolutely extraordinary.

President Obama’s predecessor was, by far, the worst president of my 69 years. He is probably among a handful of the worst presidents in American history. Among many other sad and bad things, he started two wholly unnecessary wars, which have killed far more Americans directly (in combat) than the terrorists killed on 9/11, while killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis and Afghans and displacing millions. He put his Torquemada Cheney in a position to give our supposedly benevolent nation the face of rendition, torture, and secret dungeons. And although his administration didn’t cause the Crash of 2008 (his party’s longstanding laissez-faire policies did), it made it worse by setting the precedent of banker bailouts and impunity, which Obama only followed as president.

President Obama has done much better. Here's a short list of what he has accomplished in six years, with his job still only three-quarters done:
  • 1. Passed national health-insurance reform where others had failed for a century
  • 2. Wound down the two unnecessary wars that Dubya and Cheney started
  • 3. Killed the perpetrator of 9/11 and, with intelligence (in both senses of the term), ninjas and drones, made sure nothing similar happened again
  • 4. Started phasing out coal—by far the most nasty, dangerous and polluting fossil fuel—as Germany and France have done and as even China and India (with their solar programs) are trying to do
  • 5. By voluntary agreement with auto makers, doubled our national standard for gas mileage
  • 6. Made a stab (Dodd-Frank) at reducing the depredations and impunity of rogue bankers
  • 7. By fighting IS with air power, coalitions and military cooperation with locals, stopped IS’ advances and begun to reverse them without (so far) a single American combat casualty
  • 8. Avoided a new war and entanglement in Ukraine, which pols like John McCain and Lindsey Graham would love to see bogging us down
  • 9. Tried to ameliorate our national immigration fiasco and circumvent legislative gridlock by prosecuting and deporting the worst illegals with a vengeance, while saving the youngest, best and brightest for us by executive action
  • 10. Despite the consistently mindless opposition of Congress and the GOP, brought our economy roughly back to its level before the Crash, with the promise of GDP gains not seen in a decade
  • 11. Saved our major banks and auto makers from bankruptcy, with massive benefits for their workers; and
  • 12. Put in place policies, including Atlantic Coast drilling, that have made us Yanks more energy independent than we have been in decades
But no good deed goes unpunished. The President is a thoughtful, modest, understated man—an ex-professor. He hasn’t tooted his own horn as much as he should have, and his party has failed ignominiously to do it for him.

As so many commentators rightly said last night, the Midterms 2014 were “mood” elections. With a constant drumbeat of negative “spin,” the GOP’s brilliant propagandists, with Fox in the lead, painted this skillfully effective leader as a feckless, fearful, hesitating wimp, with a penchant for aggrandizing hated government for its own sake.

The false mood and the false labels stuck, and so we have Redneck Mitch. Political-science doctoral students will write theses about how this brilliant propaganda campaign turned day into night, a thoughtful, effective leader into a wimp, and an incremental but effective progressive movement into a right-wing sweep.

2. Stand by your man. An important cause of that sweep was the Dems’ self-evident failure to stand by their man. Instead, they fell into the clever GOP trap, went along with the propaganda and “spin”, and so reinforced the manufactured negative mood. Alison Lundergan Grimes went tso far as to refuse to admit that she even voted for her nation’s president and her party’s titular head.

You might say it’s poetic justice that virtually all the most egregious Democratic turncoats lost. But if so, it’s painful, depressing poetic justice. Several of the losers were both good candidates and women, whom we sorely need more of in our dysfunctional Old Boys’ Club. And Grimes herself was and is a good candidate; instead of her we have Mitch.

No, the wimp is not the President. The wimps are the Dems who failed to stand with a good, thoughtful and effective leader, instead allowing relentless GOP propaganda to generate a sour mood and take the Senate away from them. (For a short but highly cogent comment to this effect, with a dose of Midwestern common sense, by former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, click here and scroll to near bottom of the political page.)

Perhaps the GOP and Fox brainwashers were just too good at what they do. Perhaps a concerted attempt to explain how good a leader the President has been—let alone in comparison with his predecessor—would have failed, too. But isn’t it better to lose fighting for principles that you believe in than to wimp out, abandon your principles, and lose nevertheless? The job of good pols is not to go along with a fabricated “mood,” but to explain why the mood is false and inappropriate and how their policies have been making ordinary people’s lives better and will continue to do so.

3. Women matter, but they are not cows. Looking at yesterday’s results, a casual observer might be tempted to sing along with Mozart, “La donna e mobile” (women are fickle). The gender gap that twice put Barack Obama in the White House seemed to evaporate.

But the Dems should have seen this one coming a mile away. Last cycle, the GOP lost big because it pushed the macho culture war on women much too far, in a clumsy attempt to consolidate its lead among old white guys. It nominated abysmal candidates who went out of their ways to diss and offend women and their legitimate concerns with family planning, reproductive freedom, and insecurity regarding unequal pay, rape and sexual harassment. These candidates were extreme and obnoxious even by Tea-Party standards. So naturally they lost.

Republicans may have poor goals, pandering to business, banking and the rich and powerful in order to keep the campaign contributions flowing. But they are far from stupid. They have always understood that pandering to sexist and anti-feminist sentiment, just like pandering to racism, is a tactic, not a goal or strategy.

Having lost so abysmally in 2012, the GOP made a mid-course correction. The Chamber of Commerce, the rich backers, and the business lobby—the so-called “establishment”—geared up to take their party back from the Tea-Party yahoos whose movement they had created and encouraged. That movement was no longer useful, so the establishment crushed it quickly with iron heels.

The Dems’ strategists were snookered. They failed to understand that no real power in the GOP cares about any of the so-called “cultural” issues. These issues are just a means of manipulating simple and gullible minds to get what they want, which is money and power. When extreme stands on cultural issues fail to work, the GOP’s real leaders drop them like the political hot potatoes they are.

That’s precisely what the GOP did this cycle. It left the Dems holding the bag of cultural issues, treating women as a bloc of single-issue voters, and taking them for granted. And we men all know how women love to be taken for granted.

Worst of all, the Dems’ strategists apparently didn’t even see it coming, probably because most of them are men. Their giving up the gender gap was an abject failure of intelligent strategy.

4. Politics is not a game. If the truth be told, the GOP is generally better at politics than the Dems. Why? Because the GOP’s movers and shakers know exactly what they want. Their core belief is that evolution and history favor the rich, the smart, and the powerful. They have money and power and want more.

Social issues mean nothing to them except as a way to get what they want. They exploit those issues relentlessly, but only when exploiting them works. Apart from a few oddballs, they don’t otherwise give a damn about abortion, gay marriage, letting citizens carry concealed weapons, or religion. They are quintessentially practical people, ever pragmatic in pursuing their own interests.

Think the average billionaire is a racist? Probably not. But he (nearly all are men) will exploit racism (or any other peripheral thing) shamelessly and relentlessly to prevent someone like Obama from pursuing an egalitarian agenda that cuts his income or power. Just recall how the insurance executives used relentless propaganda to turn the first real health-insurance reform since Medicare into a cause of the President’s low popularity and the Dems’ losses yesterday.

We humans are approaching an inflection point in our social evolution. We have a vital question to answer. Britain will have remained a viable democracy for eight centuries next year. That’s the longest lived in human history. But this achievement came at the cost of giving up empire. Ancient Rome remained an empire but degenerated into oligarchy long before that.

Our Yankee enterprise—so-called “America”—poses a new question. Can a nation keep the world-striding power of ancient Rome and, at the same time, stay a democracy, without degenerating into oligarchy?

The GOP, in essence, says no. It welcomes the oligarchy, while denying that gross inequality exists. It welcomes the Koch Brothers controlling national politics with their money because it believes, deep down, that their doing so is the natural order of things. Putin would understand and approve.

The Dems diagree. They answer yes, we certainly hope so, but so far without much conviction.

This is not a game. This is a Manichean struggle between two diametrically opposed views of human nature, human society and human social evolution. In mistaking tactics for strategy, abandoning their leader, and treating women as pawns, the Dems treated it like a game and lost big. How quickly they get their eyes back on the ball and resume the struggle will determine the near future of our nation, if not our species.

Who is Mitch McConnell?

It won’t happen until January. But after the newly elected senators take their seats, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, will be Majority Leader of our Senate.

Who is he, and what will he do? It’s hard to tell.

For most of his career his personality has seemed nonexistent. He recalls nothing so much as Valium.

But this week, in the heat of his survival campaign, his voice had real fire. “These people,” he said, “have run this country in the ground, and they need to be stopped.” He said it with a clear Kentucky twang, which you never hear him use in the Senate.

Translated from the Redneck, what he probably meant was this: “These black boys and college boys have taken away our coal mines, and we aren’t going to stand for it.”

Yet there’s another side to Mitch. He got, and survived, a Tea-Party challenge from his right, after making a debt-ceiling deal with the President and Democrats to avoid a third consecutive Republican government shutdown.

Did he do it just to avoid the public blame that surely would have followed a third try at GOP extortion? Or did he do it for the good of the people?

Has he learned that extortion doesn’t pay? Probably not. Just days ago, he promised his constituents that he would use apportionment bills to extract concessions from the President and Democrats. Precisely what those concessions might be, he didn’t say.

For years he’s been one of the loudest bangers of the debt-and-spending drum. But the deficit is now down well over 60% from what it was when the President took office.

Mitch has also been among the foremost bashers of “Obamacare.” But after last night’s GOP wave—and even during the campaign—it became clear that serious Republicans want to “fix” Obamacare, not repeal it, albeit without ever saying how.

Having turned the President’s success where others had failed for a century into a badge of infamy, the GOP had what they wanted. So-called “establishment” members of the party did not need to actually do something stupid, although they had tried enthusiastically to do it over fifty times before.

So will Mitch beat one or both of two dead horses, debt and Obamacare? Or will he do something else?

Does he have a plan? Does any pol whose greatest skill is pushing people’s buttons?

And if Mitch has a plan, is it just to put his state’s coal miners back to work, pollution and global warming be damned? Is it to follow the GOP mantra for any problem, no matter what it is: lower taxes, less regulation, and making sure the rich campaign donors get richer?

Mitch is hardly presidential material. Senate Majority Leader is as high as he can go. Now that he has reached the crowning achievement of his long career of pushing people’s buttons successfully, does he have any idea of what to do with the power he will have?

Does he really believe in the simplistic dogma that he spouts to get money and votes, or is he more intelligent than he seems? Is his only goal to put “his” coal miners back to work?

A lot rides on the answers, and optimistic ones are always possible. But Mitch does that redneck hate thing so well and so convincingly. It’s the only thing I ever heard him say with real conviction.