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

21 March 2015

John, Bibi, Mitch and Vlad: Dead-End Pols


[For a brief note on the President’s video addressed to Iran’s youth, click here.]

What do John Boehner, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Mitch McConnell and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin have in common? They are all engaged, in different ways, in illuminating brilliantly what may be a fatal flaw in modern democracy.

The word “modern” is important here. In ancient direct democracies like those in Greece and Rome, it was possible for educated citizens to know and to understand most of what they needed to know to govern themselves and improve their lives. By the early nineteenth century, in De Tocqueville’s day, doing so was already getting hard. That was one reason why he doubted the ultimate success of our Yankee democracy.

Today it’s all but impossible. If you doubt this fact, just ask the average Joe and Mary whether 6,000 centrifuges are too many for Iran to have and why. Or ask them whether and under what circumstances we should allow self-driving cars on our roads. Or whether and under what circumstances we should apply genetic engineering to humans.

Human life is infinitely more diverse, complex and intricate today than it was in ancient Greece and Rome, when democracy was born. Even now, the rate of advance in science and technology (including economics) is so rapid that no single mind can master all that is new, let alone all that came before. And the increase in knowledge is accelerating.

So in our species’ real work, where competent people get things done, we have to rely on specialization, division of labor, narrow expertise, and the “hive mind.”

Yet in politics—in modern democracy—the average voter or his or her representative is supposed to make all the important final decisions alone, or nearly so. How can he or she do that? The average voter must, and the average rep does, rely on vague, formless abstractions, including ideology, religion and tribalism.

And so we have a strange and foreboding phenomenon. Ideology is resurging everywhere. It’s making a comeback after the bloodiest century in history, in which so many died, and in which our species almost self-extinguished, just to see the backs of fascism and Communism.

After centuries of senseless and fruitless wars between Catholics and Protestants, we might have thought that religion would at last take a back seat in human governance. But now “fundamentalism” (read “simplistic extremism”) is capturing Christianity, as it has Islam in the Taliban, Al Qaeda and IS, while the millennial Sunni/Shiite divide is grinding up the Middle East.

Tribalism, it seems, has never left us. Racism is still strong in the only modern nation to have elected a supreme leader from a long-oppressed minority. Russians are busy butchering and dividing Eastern Ukraine for the simple reason that, as one mother put it, “we are Russian.” China is throwing its weight around in its neighborhood, rather than making sensible business deals, because it is, according to a rare bit of nonsense from Xi Jinping, “a big country.” And of course all the wars and threats of war with religious overtones are just as much tribal disputes.

What matters for democracy is the simplicity and power of these dangerous abstractions—ideology, religion and tribalism. They tempt leaders to sway voters regardless of, and often against, their real interests. John, Bibi, Mitch and Vlad are masters of this dark art.

The sad thing is that it’s now pretty clear what actions of government make people’s lives prosperous, productive and happy. There are only five key ingredients:
    1. Keep both government and business from controlling individuals more than needed for basic norms of civilization, and keep them from enslaving individuals (Bill of Rights, labor laws).

    2. Prevent government and business from poisoning or injuring people or the environment in which they live (EPA, OSHA).

    3. Provide a minimum standard of health, hope and living for everyone (health insurance, education, public housing, welfare, “safety net,” and policing of crime).

    4. Otherwise, let private economic activity and business rip to create, innovate and produce, subject only to laws protecting property and against fraud, unfair competition (including intellectual property laws), and bullying (antitrust or competition law).

    5. Avoid the dead loss and suffering of war unless you are attacked.
You would think that, after five thousand years (give or take) of recorded human civilization, these principles would now be pretty clear.

But John, Bibi, Mitch and Vlad don’t talk about them much now. Instead, we have government by vague abstraction. John and Mitch speak of “smaller government,” “lower taxes” and “freedom.” Smaller and lower than what, and why? Freedom from what? Freedom for the rich and powerful to grab and control what they will?

Bibi speaks of “security” while he grabs land where others have lived for millennia (and since Israel’s creation), just because he can. Is there no good land left inside Israel? And does grabbing others’ land and making them angrier promote “security”?

Like John and Mitch, Bibi ignores growing domestic economic inequality, because war, fear and tribalism are so much simpler paths to power. Bibi even renounces a two-state solution only to reclaim it after winning his election. Such patent mendacity is only the icing on his voter-delusional cake.

Vlad is a special case. Once he spoke shamefully of poverty in Russia, and hopefully of a free-trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals. Now he obsesses about Russian spheres of influence, restoring the old empire—whether Russian or Soviet he doesn’t say—and fighting off Western “incursion.”

What difference does it make whether steelworkers and miners in the Donbass are Russian or Ukrainian, as long as they produce steel and ore? Are they better off now that most of them have fled west or east, leaving their homes and the Donbass to rebels, thugs and helpless people too poor, infirm, or old to flee? Does the average Russian really want to restore the tsarstvo and return to surfdom? And does Russia, with its second-largest nuclear arsenal, and its conventional forces now modernized at great expense, really have much to fear from a peaceful, commercial, united Europe, whose greatest current problem is fending off a wave of immigrants from everywhere, who want in?

No, if you look at them from the perspective of reason and current events, virtually none of the current policies of John, Bibi, Mitch or Vlad makes sense. Their sole purpose is to get their promoters elected. The policies are emotionally intelligent and analytically bankrupt—another proof of Dratler’s law.

What makes it possible for these men to rule? Three things, I think. First, they are all adept at pulling voters’ chains within the context of their own cultures. They are emotionally intelligent. Second, the power of modern “communications,” aka propaganda, now makes it possible to pull those chains with constant and repetitive images and sound bites that bypass the thinking parts of people’s minds.

Finally, every one of these men has changed the rules of democracy to make governing by nonsense easier. Although he didn’t invent it, John has used the so-called “Hastert” rule to make his own Republican caucus, not a majority of members, the ruler of the House. Bibi just invented a new rule that absolutely lying, and on a vital issue, is OK if you win.

Although Mitch didn’t invent it, he viciously and repeatedly used the routine filibuster while in the minority. Now he must contend with it when the shoe is on the other foot. And Vlad, of course, has jiggered the Russian Constitution and played musical chairs with the offices of President and Prime Minister, so as to remain Russia’s supreme leader longer than the term limits of any ostensibly democratic country allow, including Russia’s and China’s.

When you look at what has happened to so-called “democracy” in beleaguered Israel and the parties to the no-one-won Cold War, it’s hard not to envy China.

China, too, has lots of propaganda. But it’s all directed at the “masses,” who don’t rule. What rules is the Party members, China’s modern Mandarins.

Although China treats most of its people like children, the new Mandarins are true adults. Some 80 million strong, they rise through a constant and decades-long competitive struggle from local to national leadership. As they rise, they learn the truth through direct experience with governing, from each other, and through the access to the uncensored information that power provides. They know each other and each other’s minds and characters through direct, long experience, not through sound bites vaguely perceived over lunch or in a bar.

When they reach the pinnacle of China’s seven-member ruling committee, they are among peers, each with a substantial internal constituency. They have intrinsic checks and balances, within and without that committee. And they have expertise. The last time I looked, when the committee had nine members, six were trained as scientists, engineers and/or industrialists, and a seventh was an economist who doubled as a lawyer.

In comparison, we Yanks have a law professor and community organizer. The Russians have a spook. And, if John and Mitch have any profession or expertise apart from politicking, it’s certainly not apparent from their actions.

When asked what he thought about the French Revolution, the Chinese Communist leader Chou En-Lai replied “it’s too early to tell.” So it may be with the ultimate fate of democracy.

Perhaps the dominance of propaganda based on simplistic abstractions—ideology, religion and tribalism—is just a passing phase. But it’s hard to see how. Our Supreme Court has not just permitted that dominance, but has reveled in it. Men with big money in this country, including Sheldon Adelson and the Kochs, are investing heavily in it. Whatever you may think of them, they and their ilk are not stupid; nor do they spend their money foolishly. They think they are making a sensible investment for their future, the rest of us and our futures be damned.

It’s much the same with Bibi and Vlad. Bibi’s investing in land grabs and repeated brutalizing of Gaza to pacify it, while letting economic inequality in Israel run free. Vlad’s investing in modernizing Russia’s nuclear and conventional forces for “defense” that Russia doesn’t need, and for possible mischief in Russia’s “near abroad.” Meanwhile, his economic policies are returning Russia to Soviet-style economic isolation, backwardness (except in war) and poverty.

Democracy is not dead yet. It’s alive and well in Britain, France and Germany, and perhaps in a few other places. But only time will tell whether the pull of money, the lure of raw power, and the power of modern propaganda will ultimately subvert them, too. Already, London is becoming butler to the oligarchs. Can the rest of Britain and Europe be far behind?

Footnote: The real Russian diminutives for “Vladimir” include “Volodya” and “Vova,” not “Vlad.” But I think giving Putin a standard childish nickname trivializes his dangerousness. At the same time, “Vlad” reminds us of the Transylvanian Vlad the Impaler, the real-life inspiration for Count Dracula, who no doubt felt his own bizarre depredations were justified and appropriate.

The President Advances Cross-Cultural Politics

Not all politicians are as useless and power-focused as the four named in the title of the post above. Nor is modern communication an unqualified detriment to good government and human progress. Our President illustrated why and how in his recent Nowruz (Spring Holiday) video message aimed at Iran’s people.

For the first time in human history, modern communication technology makes easy cross-cultural communication from one culture’s leaders to another’s people. As I pointed out in a recent post, the Infamous 47’s letter to Iran was of that nature. Its trouble was that it was hasty, ill-advised, and perhaps even stupid. Its probable consequences were not thought through and are still unknown, perhaps unknowable.

But as my earlier post pointed out, the Infamous Letter was hardly unprecedented. Attempts to communicate cross culturally are increasing, with various effects. So it was good to see a pol with the empathy, analytical intelligence and rhetorical skill of Barack Obama take a crack at the genre.

I won’t attempt to summarize the video, which is short enough for anyone interested to watch. Suffice it to say that it states the obvious well: it is in the best interests of all Iranians, especially youth, to get the Little Cold War behinds us, verifiably renounce nuclear weapons, and rejoin the global economy, free from sanctions. People my age, who went to our own great universities with good students from Iran in the 1960s, know how true that is.

Sometimes youth can see beyond the prejudices and hatreds of their elders and usher in a new era. The President, with all his empathy and skill, was right to make that point clear. We cannot let the past devour the future always and everywhere, as in Israel and Palestine.

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