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

05 March 2015

A Nation of Boors


[For three recent essays on Nazism, the new Russian variety, and Putin’s role in it, click here. For a brief note on Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, click here.]. Have we Yanks become a nation of boors?

It would seem so. At least it would to anyone who knows us only through our ubiquitous global media, and not from living here. That “anyone” includes 95% of our species.

Exhibit A is our leaders. No, not our top ones—the President, our Justices and diplomats. They still take care to speak accurately and precisely and to use understatement and finesse. They try not offend anyone. (Scalia is the sole exception.)

The lesser lights—especially in Congress—are another matter entirely. Senator Ted Cruz hurls barbs and insults on the Senate floor. Senator Jim Inhofe hurls snowballs. What ever happened to seniority and decorum?

Our House is worse. Overstatements, exaggerations, misstatements and outright lies are rampant among its members. House members repeat themselves endlessly. They insult and goad each other and their constituents on the House floor. If you judged our House of Representatives by the behavior of its least restrained members, you would rename it “Animal House.”

Take John Boehner, for example. Please. Until recently, his favorite mantra was “job-killing taxes.” He repeated it, often several times, in virtually every public appearance.

Under analysis, his mantra makes no sense at all. Taxes don’t kill jobs. They create jobs when broken markets can’t or don’t.

Taxes for supporting the poor, unemployed and elderly create jobs because they get spent soon. People with little other money spend their support money promptly, for the goods and services they need to survive. Taxes used for infrastructure go for building and repairing things like roads, bridges, sewer systems, air traffic control systems and the Internet’s backbone. Taxes for defense fund research, military hardware and software, and the services of the men and women who protect us.

Since virtually none of our troops is rich, their pay goes right back into markets. And taxes used for research in medicine and basic science go right into the salaries of scientists and technicians and the equipment that they buy, build and use.

About the only time taxes don’t get spent in markets is when they pay down old debt. So guess what John Boehner and his many followers have been advocating vociferously for the last six years—coincidentally the entire term of President Obama. Paying down debt. And they want to do it by cutting support for the poor, unemployed or elderly, which does go right back into markets for goods and services. What Boehner should be saying is that the only taxes his party would favor (if it favored any at all) would kill jobs.

John Boehner has repeated the mantra “job-killing taxes” so many times that it should be his middle name. John “Job-Killing-Taxes” Boehner.

If you met a guy like that at a dinner party, you would try to sit as far away from him as possible. That’s hard to do on our Yankee media because he was House Minority Leader for a long time and now is Speaker of the House. If (God forbid) something should happen to the President and Vice President, we Yanks would have our first Official Boor as president. (“Silent Cal” at least had the good sense to keep his unrefined mouth mostly shut.)

Exhibit B is Fox. It may not be our most successful or most viewed media outlet. But it’s a true media boor.

It’s certainly the most “in your face” of our most prominent media. Some restaurants and hotels have their TVs virtually hard-wired to it. At least no mere customer can change the channel. Ditto the TVs above exercise machines in the gyms on some cruise lines. There Fox reminds me of the little radios you can still find in bedrooms in some Russian cities, in some formerly Soviet hotels. These radios start up promptly at 6:00 am with government propaganda, free of charge. You can turn them down but not off.

How boorish is Fox? How is it not?

Just conjure up images of its leading on-screen figures. What descriptive words come to mind? The first is “bully,” even for the females. They don’t question or interview their guests. They badger, bully and harangue them toward preconceived conclusions. After “bully,” the word “boor” fits best.

Exhibit C is on-line comments on on-line newspapers. Have you ever read them much? If you haven’t and have the time, spend an hour reading the comments on any controversial political issue.

The overwhelming majority, you will find, have three characteristics. First, they are virtually devoid of useful information, aka “facts.” Second, their most salient feature is name-calling and insults. Third, in bulk they read like a conversation on a junior-high-school playground among testosterone-fueled male teenagers. “Boorish” and “boring” only begin to describe their aggressive, snide, tedious and repetitive nature.

Online comments to news stories appear to have become a failed experiment. Bloomberg.com has dropped them for all but a few editorials. Apparently the trolls have now migrated to the online Washington Post, where worthless comments are so numerous and come so fast that my computer’s screen can’t keep up with the flow of new ones being posted in real time. Only the New York Times seems to limit comments to its op-ed pieces to reasonably literate submissions that have something interesting to say.

Unless a newspaper now owned by Jeff Bezos can figure out some way to cull out the boors, flamers and ignoramuses, not to mention the excruciatingly vapid repetition, online comments on news will probably go the way of the dodo. Good riddance. If Iranians think these comments reflect our national culture, let alone policy, no wonder some of them want nuclear weapons!

However evanescent they may be, online comments, Fox and Boehner-like boors in high places ought to tell us Yanks something about ourselves.

Why does everyone love Pope Francis? Because he’s humble and ever-respectful of his global flock, as well as all his non-Catholic observers. He doesn’t rely on nonsensical mantras, let alone stale propaganda. He exudes empathy—our species’ chief evolutionary advantage.

As even non-Catholics like me know, the Pope is supposed to be the vicar of God and Christ on Earth. He is the titular and administrative head of a two-thousand-year-old institution, one of our species’ oldest. Today that institution is also one of the most hierarchical and paternal our species has.

When the supreme leader of such an institution asks “Who am I to judge?”, he is asking the same of us. He’s implying that neither God nor Christ judges, and we shouldn’t either. Gays marrying doesn’t affect the marriages of the rest of us, unless we invite them into our marital beds. We can refrain from doing that without denying them civil rights and equality in affairs of the heart.

Suppose you meet an unfamiliar guy at a party. (It has to be a guy, because the national image we Yanks project is ineluctably masculine, despite the growing number of women among our leaders. That’s just one reason why we need more and higher female leaders.) Suppose he’s arrogant and opinionated. Suppose he appears to have the answer to every question before you ask it. Suppose he’s loud, insistent and repetitious. Suppose he doesn’t listen well.

Wouldn’t you do your best to shun him for the rest of the evening, if not the rest of your life?

There are reasons why we Yanks have devolved to this level. Only two things seem to matter in our culture today: money and celebrity. Almost everything we say or do—at least insofar as it reaches our global media—serves these two ends. How else could a guy like Sheldon Adelson, who got rich on casinos in Macau, for God’s sake, have such outsized influence in who our leaders are? How else could anyone even think of an überboor like Donald Trump as a national leader?

Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that mediocre ingenues like Ted Cruz succumb to the temptation of notorious boorishness? Without it, what would he have? Is it any wonder that mediocre minds and mean spirits like Boehner rise to prominence floating on a sea of banal, repetitive and nonsensical pablum?

And is it any wonder that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to like us Yanks much any more, despite all the money we have spread around the globe and the sacrifices we have made over the last century for free trade and liberty?

Netanyahu’s Speech before Congress: Why I Won’t Comment Now

Faithful readers of this blog may be wondering why it posts no comment on Netanyahu’s speech before Congress. The answer is simple: comment is and will be inappropriate until the Iran talks either succeed or fail. That may take some time.

I will say two things. First, I am no admirer of Netanyahu. Yet, notwithstanding its few lies and exaggerations, I thought his was a good speech. It served a useful purpose, which I will name when the time is right.

Second, that purpose was not to promote “debate” on the issue among people (including members of Congress) who have no power, expertise or access to secret intelligence on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Debate of that sort will be useful only when, if ever, Congress has to implement an agreement.

Some things are too complex and too important, and require too much expertise and still-secret information, to decide in public. Our Constitution does not relegate foreign and military policy to plebiscite.

A noisy, disputatious body like Congress, let alone our current House of Representatives, is simply incapable of effectively managing foreign and military policy, let alone at times of or near war. Congress has tacitly admitted as much by relinquishing, slowly but steadily, its constitutional power to declare war.

Ancient Rome also came to the same conclusion. Its Senate often appointed a single leader as dictator to rule by decree for the duration of a temporary military emergency. That’s the origin of our modern word “dictator” and its different, more permanent meaning.

Harry Truman, whom I believe history will mark as one of our greatest presidents, understood this point. When he made the decisions to drop the Bomb on Japan, and to remove General MacArthur and limit our objectives in the Korean War in order to avoid a general war with China, he acted alone but with lots of secret advice. Both decisions were historic and correct. A years-long catastrophic ground invasion of Japan, let alone a general war with China, would have changed our modern world inconceivably, and much for the worse.

Our Constitution leaves matters like that to our President. The question is not whether you trust Bibi more than Iran’s Ayatollah and President Rouhani. Most Americans do. The question is whether you trust our President and our form of government most of all. I do.

Correction: An earlier version of this post accused the New York Times of dropping readers’ online comments entirely. In fact it allows them, at least for its op-ed pieces. It also appears to moderate or cull them somehow, as its comments are of unusually high quality.

I regret the error and my failure to keep up to date. In the near future, I am planning a better-researched post on pricing strategies and reader comments in online journalism.

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