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

26 March 2015

The Explainers


[For a recent essay on what John Boehner, Bibi Netanyahu, Mitch McConnell and Vladimir Putin have in common, click here.]

In my graduate-school class in physics during the late 1960s, nearly everyone was a Jew or a Catholic. There were only a few foreigners among some thirty students. Nearly everyone was from the “mainstream” of white male Americans. And the overwhelming majority was Jewish or Catholic.

Now fast-forward to today. Our Supreme Court has only Catholics and Jews. Every single Justice is one or the other.

Is all this just a bizarre coincidence, a twitch of cosmic probability? I think not.

Physics tries to explain the most basic laws of nature. Our Supreme Court explains and applies the laws of the world’s only superpower. Could it be that Jews and Catholics have some special cultural affinity for law and rules? Read on.

Everyone knows that Jews “invented” monotheism—the worship of a single God. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” But it’s less well known that monotheism didn’t “take” right away.

Early in the millennium before Christ, ancient Israel was a motley collection of small, marginalized tribes subsisting in the no-man’s land between the great empires: Assyria, Babylonia, and Mesopotamia. When Israel’s priests preached monotheism, most people heard, yawned, and went back to worshiping their various idols. Found in profusion in archaeological digs, the little statues included a breasty fertility icon.

The real cultural change came after conquest of ancient Israel by a great empire, this time Babylonia. The invaders sacked the kingdom built by David and Solomon, destroyed the First Temple, and drove the Israelites into one of their many exiles, this one in Babylonia. There, far under the radar of the local authorities, they practiced and elaborated their faith.

What happened next was extraordinary. The priests of Israel convinced the people that their infidelity to the One God was the cause of their exile and suffering. They had broken Abraham’s Covenant with God by worshipping idols. And so their One God, who had been powerful enough to save them easily, had forsaken them.

Their own bad behavior had caused their downfall. As Israel slowly recollected itself back in its earlier location, a priest named Ezra drove this message home. This time, it took.

Cause and effect. Consequences. What concepts!

Imagine yourself living in the loose collection of tribes knows as “Israel” early in the millennium before Christ. Of course there is no radio, no TV, no telephone, and no Internet. There isn’t even a newspaper or a town crier. So you know nothing about the coming storm, army or horde of locusts until it actually runs over you and your crops.

Your life is the embodiment of that famous line from Carmina Burana: “similis sum folio, de quo ludunt venti” (“I’m like a leaf that the winds play with”). You know nothing. You see nothing. You predict nothing. You just suffer whatever comes along.

Your life, let alone your happiness, is entirely at the mercy of fate, from moment to moment, from day to day, and from year to year. You never know whether some mighty twitch of probability is going to fly over the low hills in the distance and kill you and your loved ones or set all your work at naught.

Now, suddenly, along come priests who tell you that this is not so. You can control things if you know and follow the rules. Believe in a single God, as Abraham’s Covenant requires. Then that God, who is all knowing and all powerful, will protect you.

Cause and effect. Consequences. If you know the rules, you can be in control. You might say that Reason—as distinguished from base cunning or what we Yanks call “street smarts”—began then and there.

Although it took almost a millennium, the Catholics did the Jews one better. Believe in Jesus, they said, and you can have eternal life. Even if your enemies kill you, you can live forever and dance with the angels, if only you believe.

What matters is not whether the Covenant and this promise were true. What matters is their effect on the people whose cultures internalized them. Jews and Catholics bring up their children to see themselves as special. Honor the Covenant of Abraham and believe in the One God, and He will protect you as one of The Chosen People. Believe in Jesus, and you will live forever.

Know the rules, and you will be in control. That’s the most basic message of both religions.

Sometimes reality and evidence contradicts the faith. So many Jewish diasporas: was the all-powerful One God asleep during each one? When Catholics die, their deaths look much like the deaths of the rest of us.

But what remains, always, is an underlying cultural certainty. If you know the rules, you can control.

No matter how strongly or weakly you believe in the Covenant or in eternal life, this notion can’t help but pique your curiosity. You ask, “What other rules, besides these Big Rules, are there, that may help me predict consequences and control cause and effect?”

And so before the promise of eternal life, but long after monotheism had taken hold in Israel, came Jesus of Nazareth. “Love thy enemy,” he told us. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If you smite your neighbor, he implied, your neighbor will smite you back. Here the Bible itself is Exhibit A: it retells a lot of smiting.

And if you extinguish your neighbor (commit genocide, in modern terms), as Rome did Carthage, maybe that custom will take hold. Maybe some great empire will do the same to you. Loving is likely to have more salubrious consequences.

Cause and effect. Consequences. Jesus implied, but did not make explicit, the natural consequences of the Code of Hammurabi. The next two millennia did make them plain, culminating in World War II, the Holocaust, and our species’ near self-extinction in October 1962.

Just a millennium and a half after Jesus, and two millennia after the Covenant took hold in Israel, came science. It perceives the natural world as having laws and rules just like the human world. Understand them, and you can control. If you understand them well enough, you can conquer disease, fly through the air like a bird, and build nuclear weapons to deter war.

The Covenant (for Jews) and the promise of eternal life (for Catholics) instilled in two cultures a thirst to know the rules. That, I think, is the reason why nearly all my graduate-school physics class, and literally all our Supreme Court Justices, are Jews or Catholics. They believe in law, rules, and consequences. They credit cause and effect.

Senator Jim Inhofe—the snowball-throwing climate-change denier—is different. From his lofty perch as a 1944 graduate in economics from the University of Tulsa, he doesn’t see any force but God that can affect climate.

No matter that there are nearly seven billion of us now, and that each of us uses more energy in a daily drive across town than an ancient Israelite generated in his entire life. Jim would be happy, and intellectually quite at home, waiting with a motley crew of ancient Israelites for the next wave of storms, locusts or invaders to come flying over the local hills. He would be comfortable in that ancient time, before Jesus, before science, before electricity and controlled flight.

It’s all quite odd, isn’t it? So many of us are like Jim Inhofe. We don’t believe in religion. We don’t believe in much of anything, except maybe a fuzzy ideology, getting ahead and getting rich.

We don’t believe that there are rules governing human behavior, especially war. If we break them, we will continue to have wars until we wear ourselves out, extinguish ourselves, or somehow grow up. We don’t believe that there are physical rules, too, including the rules that keep our climate stable, pretty much as it was during our species’ long evolution. We don’t believe that, if we break those rules, we might destabilize our climate and make our planet hard to live on. Or at least not enough of us believe in rules and consequences to a make a difference.

Meanwhile, the people most interested in learning the rules and abiding by them are those who are supposed to believe things that are difficult for most modern people to accept literally: the Covenant of God with The Chosen People, and the promise of eternal life. That’s a paradox.

But unless we continue to find, explain and respect rules, two things will happen. First, we will continue to fight among ourselves and waste our species’ energy and promise as we do. Our social evolution will never overcome the tribalistic flaw in our biological evolution, and we will not progress as a species. Second, the rules of our physical world, if ignored, may cut us down to size—perhaps literally, in population.

So let’s give a cheer for our rule finders and explainers, whether or not we belong to their tribe, and whether or not we (or they!) believe everything they are supposed to believe. For it’s they who ultimately bring order into our chaotic lives and give us a chance, some day, for our species to grow up. Adults, after all, differ from children primarily in their ability to understand cause and effect and to foresee the consequences of their actions.

Footnote 1: A recent special edition of the science show Nova made this point, while collecting historic, archaeological and scientific evidence on how and when the Bible was written. Only after the great Babylonian Empire had conquered Israel, had destroyed the First Temple, and had dispersed the early Israelites did the presence of idolatrous statues in the archaeological strata decline. After Israel had recollected itself in its earlier location under the tutelage of Ezra, the idolatrous statues disappeared.

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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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14 March 2015

The Infamous 47: “Traitors,” “Bad Cops,” or Communicators?


[For an update to my recent post on inflation/deflation discussing the so-called “wage-price spiral,” click here.]

NOTE TO READERS: I thought long and hard before publishing this post. Recently I excoriated Hillary for her first “what was she thinking” e-mail moment: her decision to use a private account as our Secretary of State. I didn’t even get to her second “what was she thinking” moment—her decision to delete over 30,000 e-mails on that account.

After excoriating the Dems’ nearly anointed favorite, I didn’t want to be seen, even erroneously, as giving the GOP’s Infamous 47 anything like a free pass. After all, I have little more respect for the Tea Party than for the KKK or the Nazi Brown shirts.

But this blog is all about consequences. Intentions are important, to be sure. Consequences are even more so. Slips between the cup and the lip are our species’ trademark.

If we all thought more about the consequences of our actions, rather than acting on intention alone, we would all be much, much better off. So it may be more useful to analyze the probable consequences of the Infamous 47’s letter to Iran than to obsess about their domestic political motives.

It also occurred to me that the Infamous 47’s letter to Iran was not totally new. Instead, it continues a nascent trend of transnational political dialogue. It’s good to identify that trend and evaluate it briefly, so we can put the letter in context.
]

In all the controversy surrounding the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two points often get lost.

First, Iranians are clever people. The war that we Yanks incited Saddam to make on them ended in 1988. It killed an estimated 1 million people, or about half a million on each side.

Iran lost some territory but won it back. So nothing much changed in Iran besides the untimely deaths of half a million Iranians and a deepening of their hatred for us Yanks.

But there’s a funny thing. Since that horrible war ended, Iran has suffered virtually no combat deaths on its own territory. Iran has fought only proxy wars, away from its own borders. It’s fighting two right now, against IS in Iraq and against Sunni jihadis in Syria.

Not only that. Iran has gotten both its allies, including Hezbollah, and its potential Sunni enemies, including Hamas, to test the conventional weapons Iran produces under real combat conditions (against Israel). And it has gotten Sunni (mostly Saudi) “charities” to pay a significant share of the cost of that testing. Pretty clever, huh?

The second under-appreciated point is that it’s almost impossible to know Iran’s leaders’ intentions vis-à-vis nuclear weapons. They may not know their intentions themselves, for there appears to be some disagreement at high levels inside Iran.

It’s unlikely that Iran wants the talks to fail, because it knows military action may follow, if not by us then by Israel. Iranians know from fairly recent experience what being bombed and invaded feels like.

But what’s the best outcome from Iran’s perspective? Does Iran want a weak deal that keeps nuclear weapons within reach, at the cost of slow and perhaps reversible relaxation of sanctions? Or does it want strong deal with intrusive inspections that reduces the chance of making nuclear weapons to near zero but, at the same time, also cuts sanctions to zero for the long term and so unlocks Iran’s full commercial potential?

Either possibility could be rational for Iran. It’s hard to tell.

Of course, Iran would most like a deal which does both. But you have to give the President and his team some credit. We Yanks invented nuclear weapons, some 70 years ago. We’ve had a lot of experience developing and maintaining them since. We also invented the Internet and electronic surveillance of international banking and commerce. Think our experts might know a little more than Iranians about what it takes to make a Bomb and how quickly we can bring Iran to its economic knees ? Our side holds some pretty strong cards.

Making a deal is only part of the purpose of talking. Another part is to get to know the people on the other side of the table. “Trust” is too strong a word here, especially in light of the horrible recent history we Yanks have had with Iran.

No “trust” will come out of these talks, not even Reagan’s “trust but verify.” “Understanding” and “safeguards” are more realistic words.

You get to know the other side’s intentions by finding out what terms it is willing to accept, and what terms it rejects quickly or out of hand. The Iranian side is doing the same thing with us, testing our intentions. No rational actor in the position of either nation’s leaders would do anything else.

That’s why the talks are taking so long. There’s too much at stake for both sides to reach a bargain quickly. And all this is going on in secret.

There are leaks of some terms, to be sure. But who knows whether the leaks are accurate, who made them, and with what motive? And, more to the point, who knows what proposals were made and rejected by the other side? Often you learn far more from a rejection than an acceptance. But since we the people don’t know much about either, both fans and critics of the talks are just bloviating in the dark.

Under these circumstances, what roles do Bibi’s speech and the Infamous 47’s open letter to Iran play?

There’s a negative side, to be sure. When Bibi and the Infamous 47 undercut the President’s authority, they might make Iranians doubt whether the US will later stick with any deal made by President Obama.

No one wants to cut a deal with a person who doesn’t have the authority to keep promises. No one even wants to negotiate with such a person. That’s the first thing you learn in negotiation school: find out whether the party across the table has the necessary authority, and walk away if he doesn’t.

From this perspective, Bibi’s and the Infamous 47’s acts look very, very bad. You can’t call Bibi a “traitor” because he’s a foreigner. You can levy that charge against the Infamous 47, as the New York Daily News did.

But when has name-calling advanced any serous issue? Nothing is ever entirely black or white, let alone something as complex and multi-faceted as our nuclear talks with Iran. There’s usually an upside, too.

And so there is here. A common negotiation technique involves a “good cop” and a “bad cop.” The “good cop” proposes tough but reasonable terms. Then he points to the “bad cop,” who demands much tougher terms.

The “bad cop’s” terms may be unreasonable or even crazy. The Mafia Don points to his “muscle”—a big, tough goon who is delicately examining his firearm or repeatedly slamming a baseball bat into his palm. The message is unmistakable: deal with me or suffer the consequences. If Iran doesn’t deal with the good cop, aka President Obama, it can have war from Bibi or much tougher sanctions imposed by the Infamous 47.

For this strategy to work, the other side has to believe that the “good cop” has the authority to make a deal. If Iran thinks that President Obama can’t make a deal stick, Iran just won’t bargain. So the vital question that no one (to my knowledge) has yet asked is: how did Iran’s Ayatollah and President Rouhani take the letter?

Did they conclude that no deal can stick? Did Bibi and the Infamous 47 overstep the role of bad cop? We won’t know for certain until the talks fail or succeed, although the Ayatollah expressed some distress at our apparent disarray.

There’s yet another angle to the letter that seems to have dawned on very few: a recent trend in global politics. In our modern era, leaders of one country increasingly talk publicly and directly to the people and the leaders of another.

Nothing about this is new. To name what may be the most famous precedent, think of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1946 “iron curtain” speech in Missouri. Because Churchill was Churchill, and because Britain was our closest ally, our then President Harry Truman attended the speech personally. If Stalin didn’t hear the speech over radio, he surely got a translation into Russian.

But if cross-border speech is good for close allies, why not rivals and even enemies? Vladimir Putin styles himself the “great communicator” of Russia, analogous to Reagan for us Yanks, and his claims have some basis in fact. Not long ago, he took the extraordinary step of writing an op-ed addressed to us Yanks and publishing it in the New York Times. The effort failed, but the attempt was notable.

We also have a much darker precedent on our side. Toward the end of Bill Clinton’s tenure as president, the late Senator (and professional bigot) Jesse Helms sent a letter to the Russians very much like the Infamous 47’s letter, claiming that Bill was a lame duck without effective power to bind the US to arms-control agreements then under negotiation.

On the other hand, a little longer ago, our President Reagan had advised the then Soviet Premier, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Mikhail Gorbachev, who was one of Russia’s most empathetic and intelligent leaders, seemed to listen, and he let the Berlin Wall come down without intervening militarily.

Not all across-the-divide communications will have such happy outcomes. But as we humans move from the absurd and possibly sui-genocidal notion of “total war” toward the more accurate understanding that we are all human, what’s wrong with rivals and even enemies talking with each other? Didn’t the arms-control agreements that ended the Cold War come out of such talks? And what’s wrong with minor leaders and public actors getting involved in the discussion?

Adolf Hitler didn’t talk much to the world outside of Nazi Germany. He just harangued his own Storm Troopers in a screechy, ranting tone whose thrust you could understand without knowing a word of German. As Sarah Palin might say, “how’d that work out for our species?”

The Infamous Letter was ill considered. Its basic thrust was an issue of our Yankee division of powers, on which our Constitution hardly gives the Ayatollah or Iranian President Rouhani a say.

So the letter may well have been stupid, and it may yet prove counterproductive. But if “stupid” were the criterion for suppressing speech, Fox would be gone, most of our TV and radio would be off the air, and the vast majority of the Internet cesspool would be dark.

For better of for worse, we Yanks have a thing called the First Amendment, which we treat as our Prime Directive. The Infamous 47 didn’t reveal any classified information, just their own opinions on Congress’ power over our international agreements and some personal “advice” to Iran. However stupid the letter may have been, it would be hard to imagine anything more deserving of the First Amendment’s protection.

Which brings me back to my first point, how smart the Iranians are. Does any Yank really think they’ll take the “advice” offered by a rump group of Yankee Iran-haters at face value? If Iran’s leaders don’t know the Infamous 47’s record on peace with Iran, their intelligence services can enlighten them. Does anyone really believe that the Ayatollah, in chiding our apparent Yankee disarray, doesn’t know what is going on here?

Anyway, what happens if these talks fail? Bibi has all but threatened war. He’s much more likely to start a war if we Yanks fight on Israel’s side, but he implied that he might go to war on his own. And if the talks fail—despite the reasonableness of terms proposed by our most cool, rational and empathetic president in at least two generations—we Yanks are likely to help Israel as much as we can, even if we don’t actually join its war ourselves.

Even if no war comes, the sanctions will remain and likely get stronger. So Iran’s leaders have a basic decision to make: do they want Iran to be “nuclear ready” or to have a strong and vibrant economy? It doesn’t look as if Iran can do both.

And there’s still another angle. The outcome of these talks will be a key issue in our next presidential election. If the talks fail, or if the deal they produce is generally perceived as giving Iran a good chance to stay “nuclear ready,” the Republicans may win the next presidential election.

Of course this issue won’t be decisive all by itself. But it will make a difference. If Hillary is the candidate, she will have to sound much tougher than President Obama even to get elected. And so will any other Democrat. The Republicans won’t have to sound tougher. They already are.

If the Republicans win the presidency in 2016, they will have a three-branch sweep of our Yankee government. They will have all the power they need to make war on Iran, to tighten sanctions until until Iran’s economy bleeds, or to do both at the same time.

So however you cut the salami, it’s in Iran’s interest to get the best deal it can now and to try to make it stick. A later deal, if even possible, is likely to be worse for Iran. (Whether any deal sticks will depend on Iran’s actions, as well as the words on paper. An international agreement is not a suicide pact, even if approved by Congress.)

Iran will deal or not deal based on its own assessment of its own interests, just as we will. The letter might marginally decrease Iran’s confidence in having a deal stick. Or it might increase Iran’s desire to get a deal while it still has a chance of getting a reasonable one. Without eavesdropping on high-level discussions inside Iran, there’s absolutely no way of knowing how Iran’s leaders feel about the letter until the talks conclude.

So let’s cut the Infamous 47 some slack. Their letter may have been awkward, inopportune, and even stupid. It may have been an insane attempt to litigate Congress’ gradual abandonment of its constitutional war-making power before an inimical foreign power.

But where war and peace are concerned, talking is usually better than fighting. Even if some perceive talking as a prelude to war, there’s always a chance that cooler heads will prevail.

Adolf Hitler ranted almost entirely to his own people. He’s no one to emulate. If nothing else, writing to foreigners may give our hubristic freshman members of Congress some knowledge of foreign relations, not to mention some empathy. They could use a little of both.

Footnote: Why do I mention Helms’ notorious lifelong bigotry in a post about Iran? Because the kind of bigotry that he represented is, on both sides, responsible for our Little Cold War with Iran.

As we primates evolved on the African savannah, our clans fought one another for territory, food, shelter and survival. That’s our biological evolution. Those struggles continue today.

But our biological evolution also gave us a unique advantage over all other species on this planet: an ability to communicate, empathize and cooperate. Without that ability, our much-vaunted brains, upright posture and opposable thumbs would mean nothing. Dolphins, whales and elephants all have bigger brains than ours, but they don’t have our ability to work together.

In order to capitalize on this unique advantage, our social evolution has had to overcome our biological evolution. Jesus of Nazareth recognized this point two millennia ago, when he coined his famous slogan, “love thy enemy.” Fortunately for our species, social evolution works much faster than biological evolution. But it requires leaders who are both wise and smart.

The task of reforming our species through social evolution is never easy. We Yanks claim to be “exceptional” in that regard. Maybe we are. They’re aren’t too many modern nations with a top leader who represents a tiny oppressed minority and who, unlike Assad, attained that status in free and fair elections, not by force.

But even for us Yanks, overcoming tribalism is a work in progress. And it’s hard work, as Ferguson attests and as the President so eloquently and accurately recognized in his speech on Selma.

Internationally, ending our senseless Little Cold War with Iran is a necessary step on our species’ rocky road to the stars. Yet there are those among us, like Jesse Helms, who cannot overcome their tribalism and hatred toward Iran, just as there are those in Iran who feel the same way about us.

From our side at least, the Iran talks are in good hands. Who better to understand and overcome tribalism than a member of an oppressed minority who managed to get elected president twice, freely and fairly, in a nation that can still produce a Feguson, fifty years after Selma? In order to achieve that feat, Barack Obama had to be both uniquely empathetic and uniquely a realist.

No Jesse Helms can ever match his accomplishment. Nor can any still-wet-behind-the-ears freshman member of Congress, let alone from the Tea Party. That’s why we should all chill out, exercise patience, and wait to see what, if anything, the talks produce.

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09 March 2015

Politics 2016: Jeb, GOP Reform, and Hillary’s Blunder


Jeb über alles
The dismal GOP field
GOP reform
Hillary’s private e-mail account: a fatal error of judgment?

It’s early days yet. But already the GOP race is resolving. It looks as if Jeb Bush will be the nominee and the man for the Democrats to beat in 2016.

The pundits won’t tell you this because they need horse races to sell “news.” Like soul-sucking zombies, our modern Yellow Hearsts feed on the toil, torment and disappointments of political lightweights. Eat your heart out, Walter Cronkite: you had to subsist on real news!

Last time hapless Mitt was among the few serious candidates, mostly due to the others’ ineffable lightness of being. Just so, Jeb stands head and shoulders above the GOP crowd now. If there are any other heavyweights, they’re not apparent or not running yet.

How so? Let me count the ways.

Jeb über alles

First and most important, Jeb’s a moderate Republican. He won’t say so, of course. Call yourself a “moderate” Republican today, and the modern KKK (aka the “Tea Party”) will burn figurative crosses on your lawn.

But watch what he does, not what he says. In one of his first political acts in this premature campaign season, he went to CPAC and made moderate noises about immigration. He drew boos from the “fence ’em out and deport ’em all now” zealots. But he stood his ground. Jeb even appeared to approve some indistinct form of “amnesty,” while not using that precise (for the GOP) cuss word.

Here Jeb has a secret weapon. It’s this video of the right’s Patron Saint Ronald, in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. There Reagan explicitly endorsed “amnesty” for long-resident illegal immigrants, using that very word and explaining why.

To my knowledge, no one on the right has used that video yet. But it’s a powerful not-so-secret weapon waiting to be deployed. (Ignore the titles. Some troll added them in an inane and vain attempt to “spin” what Reagan actually said.)

This early campaign ploy showed Jeb’s courage. Every national pol has to pander sometime. Jeb showed he won’t do it all the time but will draw the line. He flaunted a bit of backbone and some principles—both rare qualities among GOP wannabes today. It was his “Sister Souljah” moment.

As if that were not enough to distance him from the Tea Crazies, Jeb also stood by his support for the so-called “common core” national educational standards. Although those standards are not as important as immigration politically, Jeb’s stand on education showed his vision and (indirectly) his support for the single real and sensible accomplishment of his brother as president: an attempt to preserve our lead in basic education, through No Child Left Behind.

Second, by moving toward the center on both immigration and education, Jeb showed that he’s a realist and a shrewd strategist. No presidential candidate can win by moving toward his or her party’s fringe (right for GOP and left for Dems). Nor can any GOP candidate win by completely alienating minorities, especially Hispanics.

Great salesman that he is, Mitt Romney thought he could fool the voters. He feinted to the right in the primaries and feinted to the left in the general. As a result, neither right nor left trusted him, let alone the middle, and many GOP voters stayed home. He lost.

Jeb Bush is not about to make the same mistake. He has staked out a defensible center-right position at the very beginning of his campaign, despite the risk of persistent attacks from his extreme right flank.

Unlike Romney, Jeb will not be perceived as a panderer and weathervane, a “tell-‘em-all-what-they-want-to-hear” pol. Nor will he try to rebuild a national party on a coalition of wacky extremists, as never-elected-to-anything GOP consultants have done for the last two presidential election cycles.

Third, Jeb has experience, plus knowledgeable family and friends. He served two full terms as governor of Florida. That’s now our third most populous state, after California and Texas and ahead of New York. It’s also one of our most racially and linguistically diverse states. Jeb’s governing experience there gave him intimate knowledge of Hispanics’ needs and wants. So might Jeb’s own Mexican-born wife.

Jeb’s father and brothers were both presidents. He has unique access to past presidential wisdom and a wide network of surviving contacts and advisers. How many other candidates can pick up the phone and ask people of the caliber of Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, James Baker III and Henry Kissinger, “what do you think”?

There’s a downside to all this, of course. We Yanks don’t like dynasties. But that disadvantage will evaporate if Hillary is the Democratic nominee. Then it will be dynasty against dynasty, with the GOP dynasty better rooted in the “establishment.”

Jeb’s father was an honest man (except about taxes) and not a bad president. With the advice of Colin Powell, he presided over our most stunning, quickest and least costly major military victory since World War II: Gulf I. If Jeb can identify with the first Bush presidency, and not the disastrous second, the “dynasty” brush won’t tar him.

Finally, Jeb has the money, or he will. He was an early leader in contributions. Now his lead will only snowball.

Über-rich folk like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers are making a big show of controlling the process. But they are not the only rich folk with skin in the game.

Unlike Adelson and the Kochs, more reasonable and calculating fat cats are sitting on the sidelines for the time being. When they move, they will almost certainly move in the direction of moderation and the center, and away from the unelectable Tea-Party monsters that Dubya’s political consultants and operatives spawned.

As for Jeb himself, he just showed how resourceful and wily he can be. In setting a $1 million limit on contributions to his own campaign, he gave himself bragging rights to campaign finance reform. In that he’s unique among GOP candidates.

But everyone knows that the big-money action in politics will come from ostensibly unaligned “issue” PACs, whose sources of money are still anonymous, and which function without effective limits. The sky will be the limit there.

And because most really rich people tilt Republican, Jeb will have all the money he needs. Jeb is trying to have it both ways, and he well may get it both ways.

There’s one more reason Jeb is the one: my own reaction. After what the GOP has done in this new century, I can’t conceive of any circumstances under which I would vote Republican, let alone for president. A three-branch GOP sweep would only accelerate our decline into a banana republic.

But there are shades of dark grey. If by some menacing miracle any Republican other than Jeb won the presidency (besides Jon Huntsman, Jr., who doesn’t appear to be running), I would think, “am I too old to emigrate at 71?” If Jeb won, as far as I can tell now I would think, “Let’s wait and see . . .”

That’s the meaning of moderation and moving toward the center. That’s the benefit of experience in self, colleagues and family. And that’s why—even apart from moving early, making some clever moves already, and making no mistakes yet—Jeb is the one to beat.

The dismal GOP field

I haven’t paid much attention to the rest of the GOP field yet. Except for Jeb, the candidates seem a bunch of rank amateurs. For all you can tell from their speeches and their actions, they really think presidential politics is a new kind of popular dance.

Do the wander, GOP pols! Pander to the right, pander to the far right, and do a little wiggle. (Paul) Tap dance and jump around issues and gaffes. (all but Jeb in unison, and especially Christie) If a governor, hop right over the gaping wounds your mismanagement left in your state. (Christie, Jindal and Walker) Sing soulful songs about “America” and “freedom.” Belt out a ballad about how you came up from nothing and how lucky, grateful and proud you are. (Rubio)

If it were only that simple, almost any governor could be president.

Christie deserves special mention because the soul-sucking pundits appear to love him. You want a commander-in-chief whose minions shut down a vital bridge lane into NYC in a petty political vendetta? That little ploy had less plausible deniability than Saint Ronald’s Iran Contra. And Christie lacks the additional excuse of having fallen asleep in cabinet meetings, or (as far as we know) impending Alzheimer’s.

Some soul-suckers say Christie is making a comeback. Really?!?!?! Some comeback: settling a $8.9 billion pollution claim for $225 million! Isn’t that less than 3 cents on the dollar? Not too hard to “negotiate” that one!

If Christie is a heavyweight, it’s only in his considerable bulk. The last fat man to become president was William Howard Taft, over a century ago. Taft had enough legal knowledge and finesse to become (later) Chief Justice of our Supreme Court—the only man in our history to hold both offices.

If nothing else, Fat-man Christie’s case-settlement “skills” disqualify him from sharing that honor: no self-respecting lawyer would settle an important case for less than three cents on the dollar. As we wait for progress in the Iran talks, you may have noticed that negotiating is part of the presidential skill set.

Despite the soul-suckers’ relentless effort to manufacture “news” by keeping the lightweights in the field, they will all strike out sooner or later. Jeb will be left standing among other heavyweights, if any. At the moment he appears to be the sole GOP candidate with a plan and a rude set of policies in his head, not just a lot of ambition, a few extremist-pandering consultants, and a bunch of vapid GOP mantras. My bet is sooner.

Nonetheless, the campaign season will be interesting. Jeb will have to decide how to distance himself from his brother, the worst president in over a century. Hillary will have to look to her laurels and aim her campaign at an experienced, savvy pol, not an extremist, ingenue or both. And she’ll have a tough time worming her way out of her private-e-mail fiasco while Secretary of State.

Like our three last presidents, Jeb will have to show some leg on foreign and military policy. (Daddy Bush didn’t have to: he had run the CIA.) At least Jeb will have to show that he had better tutelage (with better tutors!) than the two-week crash course his brother got from Saudi Prince Bandar after his election. But all these things pale into insignificance compared to pretending you have a vision, or a clue about the history of this nation, the people who actually made it great, what ordinary voters want, and how real politics actually work. That vision, plus a bit of spine, is what puts Jeb well ahead of the rest of the GOP pack.

GOP reform

There’s yet another reason why the GOP primary season will be short. Most people with money are not stupid. They see how making the GOP primary debates and conventions showcases for nut cases hurt their party. Remember all those candidates raising their hands to reject a hypothetical ten-to-one ratio of spending cuts to new taxes? Remember them rejecting evolution, the foundation of modern biology?

Tea-Party nut cases may have applauded. After all, they’re mostly from the South. But most people with money respect both compromise and science. Many of them got their money by using both. They cringed.

So the sensible rich—and we Yanks have many—are not about to make the same mistake again. In 2016, the GOP’s reputation for party discipline will return with a vengeance, perhaps at the cost of a showy floor revolt or two at the convention. The recent crushing of the Tea Party’s threat to shut down DHS is just a precursor of more discipline to come.

From whence will this new discipline come? From money, the mothers’ milk of politics. The smart rich—especially bankers—have learned the hard way that plebes don’t like rich folk flaunting their luxury or their power. Having escaped plebes’ justice and vengeance by a hair, they henceforth will buy and corrupt our pols the old-fashioned way: discreetly and privately, as JP Morgan once did.

Majorities also matter. With a comfortable majority in the House, the GOP no longer need nurture its most extreme, recalcitrant and undisciplined members. Expect the mothers’ milk to dry up for them, with plenty of warning, before 2016. And recall that House members have to run again every two years. All the reformers have to do is make a few examples, and the rest of the GOP House crazies will suddenly see the light of centrism and compromise.

One way or another, GOP party discipline will return. As it does, rich donors with their feet on the ground will begin to see a return on their investment. Congress will begin to address at least those of our long-festering problems that affect their interests. Public displays of corruption—such as the Kochs’ kiss-our-ring circus and Adelson’s public grandstanding, will begin to wane. If these braying alpha males can’t ken that the public doesn’t like them and won’t willingly accept their “leadership,” real business leaders will find some way to enlighten them. The days of Donald-Trump-like public assholery are numbered.

Why is this campaign a season for seriousness? Lack of seriousness put Dubya in the White House. Then his gross misrule led to the GOP’s banishment from serious presidential possibilities.

Here in 2015, it’s hard to remember the halcyon days when Dubya first ran for president, before 9/11 and long before the Crash of 2008. Then we Yanks thought we had “won” the Cold War, although in fact both sides had lost horribly. (1, 2, 3, and 4) For a short time, before China’s rise became self-evident, we actually were the world’s only superpower. We thought we had seen the “end of history”—one of the most spectacularly laughable academic predictions of all time.

So we Yanks primed ourselves for a big frat party. We leaped to turn our once-serious House of Representatives into today’s Animal House. We indulged in an orgy of national chest-beating. Chants of “We’re number one!” and “USA! USA! USA!” replaced serious thought about both politics and policy. And cynical American apparatchiks (aka “political consultants”) ruthlessly exploited the resulting explosion of nationalism, negligence and nonsense.

What better joker to lead us into that wild party than Dubya, our Frat Boy in Chief? With his childish taunts (“Defeatocrats,” “Flip-flop”, “Cut and run!”), his premature “Mission Accomplished” banner, his own personal combat-dodging in the Texas Air National Guard, his endearing (to supporters only!) “Bushisms,” and his below-average analytical IQ, he was perfect for the job of wild-party boss.

Unfortunately, the good party times didn’t last long. The 9/11 attacks and our gross overreaction did happen, as Afghanistan and Iraq so sadly demonstrate today. So did the Crash of 2008—the first global financial panic unambiguously and almost completely caused by us Yanks.

The history that we thought had ended with the Cold War returned with a vengeance, with Putin now annexing parts of Ukraine and the Middle East falling apart. During all our partying, our Eleven Big Ones—the grave problems that have persisted now for over a generation on the average—continued to fester. Three of them—infrastructure decay, economic inequality and global warming—got much worse.

So today we have multiple messes to clean up, both at home and abroad. We need serious leaders for now-serious times. No lightweights like Dubya (or Christie, Jindal, Paul, Rubio or Walker) need apply.

Say what you want about the GOP. Say that only it could have produced a swaggering frat boy/party-boy president like Dubya. Say that only the GOP could have let cynical, for-hire consultants and operatives like Frank Luntz and college-dropout Karl Rove pull the wool over its eyes and destroy the party as a national force, deeply wounding our nation.

But the GOP has a saving grace: it’s still the party of business. Above all, business people are practical. They party, and they can be selfish. But they mostly know when to get serious. Now they see the practical effects of global warming, including record snowfalls, shutting down the cities they work in and the air routes they fly. So they are starting to come around toward doing something about it.

There are also murmurs in Washington that the GOP is getting serious about our mostly obsolete and rapidly decaying infrastructure. Could the GOP some day soon get serious about our other problems? about politics and policy in general?

Jeb Bush apparently thinks it will. He stuck his neck out making noises about immigration similar to those that Saint Ronald had made 31 years ago. He seems to be betting that, in a mere eighteen months—the time until the next election—the GOP can substantially reform itself and go on to win.

Jeb is firmly plugged into the ranks of rich donors and GOP-leaning business leaders. During the party times, all they cared about was their own businesses, lower taxes, and relaxed regulation. Now they are beginning to understand that much is wrong with our government that, if it continues, will hurt their businesses and their bottom lines in the medium and long terms.

In short, the business people who are the GOP’s primary constituency are waking up. They see that it’s time to stop partying, dry out, and get serious again. It’s time to do something about our Eleven Big Ones. It’s time to resume our global leadership in competence and action, not just past glory.

It’s also time for some discipline and self-restraint, including party discipline. It’s past time for one of our two great political parties to emerge from the darkness of single-issue demagoguery into the light of coherent policy. It’s time for the House to do something besides threaten to shut things down, investigate Benghazi, vote ineffectually and repeatedly to repeal Obamacare with no alternative, argue among its members, and grandstand. It’s time for the GOP to evolve from a zany collection of colorful but useless extremists, who can do nothing but win local elections, into a serious national party again.

Jeb Bush knows it’s time. That’s why he’s already the GOP man to beat. The rest of the sorry field can’t seem to see where we are. They think they’re involved in just another episode of “American Idol,” where native talent and a bit of triangulated pandering will compensate for the lack of a coherent vision of the world we live in and our Yankee place in it, not to mention grossly inadequate national leadership experience.

Hillary’s private e-mail account: a fatal error of judgment?

Hillary’s e-mail fiasco is far from GOP operatives’ usual “gotcha.” Unlike Madman Issa’s relentless but ludicrous attempts to blame her for the tragedy of Benghazi, a private e-mail account for our Secretary of State is a real issue. And unlike what happened in Benghazi, Hillary’s choice of e-mail account was indisputably under her control.

Already journalists have identified two serious consequences of having a private e-mail account. First, it takes history out of the public domain and tries to make it private property. Second, if it doesn’t actually violate public-records acts, it at least thwarts their good purposes: public access to information and government transparency.

There are other practical consequences not yet bruited by journalists. Where’s the dividing line between public and private? What if Mitt had won? He’s a very rich guy. What if he had dismissed the Secret Service, left Air Force One on the tarmac, and hired his own personal security and private air transport?

If legal (and it probably isn’t: there are laws about presidents’ security and travel), what would that say about the president’s attitudes toward what is public and what is private? What would it say about his views of the competence of the government he heads?

Politically, that move might have been fine for Mitt, who wants to downsize government and privatize everything. But what would it say about Hillary, who purports to be a woman of the people and a champion of strong government? Would her music fit her words? If not, doesn’t it say the same thing to maintain a private e-mail system, presumably with its own private security, while Secretary of State and fourth in the line of presidential succession?

Security is another angle, as yet unexplored. Computer-system security is a big, big issue today, much more so than during Hillary’s tenure at State. What does this fiasco say about Hillary’s circumspection, foresight and team playing, if she used personal on-line security for herself and not for the rest of her team? Whichever kind of security may have been better, splitting the boss’ from underlings’ security seems like a failure of political and practical judgment.

Blunders like this one make you wonder how often new ones will surface. But it gets worse. In the bitter primary campaign of 2008, one of the biggest raps against Hillary was her image as “Queen Hillary” or “The Anointed One.” Then-Senator Obama’s wily political consultants painted her as arrogant, aloof and out of touch. Her speeches’ gross overuse of the first-person singular didn’t help. Think having and using a private e-mail account for official communications while Secretary of State will help?

This fiasco could have long legs. It’s hard just to conceive of all the angles now, even in the abstract. All by itself, the e-mail fiasco might make Hillary vulnerable and wound, if not kill, her second attempt at a coronation. There’s no way she can credibly disclaim knowledge of her private account, when we ordinary people use our e-mail accounts daily and are sure she did hers.

So the Dems should start preparing serious lists of alternative candidates, in case other skeletons emerge from Hillary’s closet, or in case this one brings her down. It might.

At her age Hillary might be a one-term president anyway, whether on her own initiative or due to fading health. The presidency is not an easy job, as Obama’s many grey hairs attest. He looked young when he took office, and he was: nearly thirty years younger than Hillary would be if and when she runs and wins. In Hillary’s case, political and practical judgment apparently have not improved proportionately to her age and experience.

Another option is for Hillary herself to decide that this is the straw that broke the campaign camel’s back, and to decline to run. If she does, sooner would be better than later, for her, her party and her country.

Declining to run is hardly an easy decision. If Hillary drops out, the Dems will lose the powerful spell of the first major-party female candidate for president. And it will be hard for anyone, let alone without Hillary’s experience, to match the juggernaut of Jeb’s early and sound campaign judgment. But with Hillary, the emergence of another couple of blunders like this one could well presage a Republican three-branch sweep. Her record suggests that her running could foretell a high-stakes game of political roulette.

We Yanks need more female leaders, and we are long overdue for a female president. But we Dems don’t need a female candidate who loses, and the nation doesn’t need a female president who governs by blunder. What we need is a modern equivalent of Queen Elizabeth I.

Unfortunately, Hillary is no Queen Elizabeth I. So she, we and the voters have some hard decisions to make.

Footnote 1: Jon Huntsman is a good man. As a matter of substance and policy, he appears to be the best the GOP has to offer. But the GOP won’t even consider nominating him, in part because he wisely suggested breaking up the big banks, and the big banks have lots of mothers’ milk. Maybe GOP strategists plan to hold Huntsman in reserve until 2020 or 2024 when Elizabeth Warren, who has espoused the same goal, might run. It would be interesting, to say the least, to see a campaign in which both major-party candidates advocate a big-bank breakup. Maybe after the next crash, which the big banks will surely help bring on.

Footnote 2: Contrary to the ranting and snowball hurling of Dunce-Senator Jim Inhofe, record snowfalls confirm global warming rather than refute it.

A warmer planet means warmer oceans, which cover 71 percent of our planet’s surface. Our oceans’ average surface temperature is rising more rapidly than average temperatures on land. Higher ocean surface temperature puts more water vapor into the atmosphere, which produces more precipitation.

Snow, you may recall, is the form precipitation takes in winter. So heavier snows will continue and increase for the foreseeable future, until (if ever) rising average temperatures banish winter entirely.

Global warming doesn’t mean global desertification. On the average, it means more precipitation everywhere. But some places, perhaps including parts of California, may become deserts.

Global warming is also consistent with the temporary, anomalous “cold spots” that have produced record short-term cold spells in places as varied as London, Moscow, our Midwest and South and New York. Rapid changes in climate on a global scale produce instabilities in ocean currents and wind patterns, which allow polar cold to escape temporarily to unaccustomed parts of our planet. Along with vast sinkholes in Siberian permafrost, this phenomenon may signal the start of a global positive feedback loop, which could change our planet’s climate unexpectedly quickly and for the long term.

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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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