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

20 November 2017

A Progressive Manifesto


For links to popular recent posts, click here.

[NOTE TO READERS: For about a decade, this blog has had a tradition of publishing a message of hope for Thanksgiving. (See, for example, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016.) This year, I’m suspending that tradition because I see little but platitudes to inspire hope.

Instead, I’m publishing the following essay, which has been in the works for some time. It’s three main themes—using language accurately, avoiding falsehood and “fake news,” and treating every human being with equal dignity and empathy—might some day bring us Americans back to a place like our original Thanksgiving. There two radically different cultures—including undocumented immigrants from England!—found empathy and good fellowship in helping each other survive and co-exist in a vast wilderness. We are going to have to work hard to recover the hope and promise of that day, but I hope the following essay might help:
]

1. Keeping capitalism
2. Perfecting capitalism
3. Making everyone better off
4. Some specifics Conclusion

What does it mean to be “progressive”? At the moment, many of us define ourselves by what we’re against—blue versus red, liberals versus conservative, left wing versus right wing. We think we know what these words mean, but do we really?

Confusion is rampant today among so-called “conservatives.” For the last seven years, they’ve defined themselves by opposition to Obama and “Obamacare”? But what are they for?

So-called “conservative” members of Congress couldn’t even repeal Obamacare because they couldn’t agree on how to repeal it, at least without depriving over twenty million people of useful health insurance. They still can’t agree on what, if anything, to replace it with. This leaves us all with the strong impression that they just want to tear down what the first “black” president has built, without regard to costs or consequences.

Progressives can do better than that. They’re for Obamacare, not because they think it’s anywhere near perfect, but because it got some fifteen million people, who never had it before, health insurance they can afford. That’s progress, and what makes progress is “progressive.”

But surely the word “progressive” means something more than supporting a single piece of relatively recent legislation. It ought to import a whole political philosophy. Less surely, but one hopes, that philosophy is internally consistent and has some enduring principles. This essay is an attempt to articulate those principles, beginning with the most important.

1. Keeping capitalism. Perhaps the most important way to define modern progressivism is to say what it’s not. Many of progressivism’s opponents try to tar it as “socialism” or even “Communism.”

But it’s not. It never has been and never will be. This name-calling is a lie.

Capitalism is our American economic system. It’s not only ours; it’s everyone’s. All the world’s developed nations, without exception, have variants of a capitalist system. Communism failed miserably in Russia and China after solid, good-faith experiments of 74 and 29 years, respectively. Both have converted to a system of market-based capitalism, with elements of state control and state capitalism.

Like Vietnam, China calls its single political party the “Communist” Party, but for historical reasons only. As one of the oldest surviving civilizations, China likes tradition. Yet its system is highly regulated state capitalism, and in some ways it’s beating us at our own game.

That’s why our national attitude toward China is a combination of admiration and fear. In a mere two generations China has used capitalism to pull over a billion people out of extreme poverty. In the process, it has built much of humanity’s current productive capacity, and it now makes a lot of what we buy. That’s why—among other sound reasons—a trade war, let alone a real war, with China would be catastrophic for our species and its postwar economic progress.

So let’s get this straight, once and for all. Capitalism is the best system for organizing human productive activity that our species has yet found. Until someone invents a better one, we Americans are going to use it like everybody else—except for North Korea, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Progressives understand this basic point, although sometimes their enemies’ propaganda confuses even them.

2. Perfecting capitalism. Accepting an economic system doesn’t mean accepting everything about it, far less all its consequences. Like each of us humans, capitalism is far from perfect. It’s the best system for organizing productive economic activity yet devised, but it has a lot of rough edges and unintended consequences.

If capitalism were perfect, we wouldn’t have had the Great Depression or the so-called Great Recession, from which we are still emerging. We wouldn’t have had regular recessions and financial panics almost every generation from our days as the Thirteen Colonies to this very day.

We wouldn’t have had slavery or child labor, and today we wouldn’t now have homeless people living in their cars and on our streets. We wouldn’t have an opioid crisis—ordinary middle-class people killing themselves with pain killers because their work (or lack thereof) and their lives have become unendurable. And we would have found a much better, quicker way to get effective aid to Puerto Rico after the most devastating storm ever to hit any part of the United States.

Here we stumble upon the first—and perhaps the most important—positive feature of progressivism: progressives don’t ignore or try to deny flaws and imperfections in themselves or our political system (or anything else). They try to fix them.

This simple point may be progressivism’s defining feature. Progress begins with seeing the need for it, which means spotting flaws in the existing system. You can’t make progress unless you can see, admit, and remedy those flaws.

Many so-called “conservatives” are different. They’re slow to see flaws and quick to deny them. They are fatalistic. When bad things happen, they may see them as just results of “human nature, or “the way things are.” Although they have little or no scientific evidence for their views, some conservatives see global warming as just some unspecified “natural” climate change, which we poor humans didn’t cause and can’t affect. The same lax approach often applies to racial discrimination and the increasing militarization and brutality of our nation’s police.

Why are “conservatives” so? By definition, they like things they way they are. They want to preserve the existing order and almost everything about it.

The key to understanding this facet of “conservatism” is the old saw, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Conservatives, or at least their intellectual and political leaders, have it pretty good. The benefits of capitalism have advantaged them, and its flaws and unintended consequences don’t affect them much. So they see the world as being “All right, Jack,” and those who want change as whiners and malcontents.

The Koch Brothers, for example, like fossil fuels because those fuels have made them so rich they can control our politics, deny climate change, and still support the science program “Nova” on PBS. Less-well-heeled people who support the Koch Brothers enjoy their gasoline-fueled muscle cars and don’t want to think about switching to electricity. The tycoons of Twitter and Facebook don’t want to think about how what made them rich and famous also helped Russia divide us and put Trump in our White House, or how their innovations have made “fake news” not just a new term, but a modern reality.

So “conservatism,” as practiced by many today, is not so much a coherent political philosophy as a species of ignorance, inattention and neglect. “Conservatives” might see the need for universal health insurance when they have to step over bodies covered with open sores on the way to their homes or offices, or when their maids, housekeepers, gardeners or contractors bring a pandemic right into their homes. They may see the need to slow global warming after a freak tornado, hurricane or flood wrecks their mansion or inundates their own neighborhood. But by then it will be too late.

Progressives should take pride in this difference. You can’t make things better unless you see the need to improve them. Doing so often requires identifying flaws and mistakes, and only later the means of improvement. All of human progress has come from people—often called “complainers” or “malcontents”—who do that. One person’s complainer or malcontent may be another’s inventor or innovator.

3. Making everyone better off. Although he didn’t live it, Thomas Jefferson penned our most basic national credo. Our two most horrible wars strengthened and refined it. It holds that “all . . . are created equal.” (Emphasis added).

Of course all are self-evidently not equal, far less do they end up that way. Through aptitude, education, family advantage, hard work, and sheer chance, even identical twins can end up in very different circumstances on their deathbeds.

What Jefferson meant and what we now understand was something more subtle. He meant that a society functions best when all have equal opportunity to develop their potential, whatever it may be.

The great modern philosopher John Rawls added a thought experiment to illustrate the point. Suppose you are a disembodied soul waiting to be born, without knowing into what fetus, family or society you might be inserted. If you had a choice, what society would you choose?

If you chose Saudi Arabia, you would have a very small chance of being born into the royal family. (Today, you would have an even smaller chance of being born into the parts of the royal family not detained!) You would have half a chance of being born a woman and so spending your life ruled by men in your family, and (until recently) not even being allowed to drive. If you were born into one of the millions of Filipino or Indian working-immigrant families in the Kingdom, living under conditions not entirely unlike slavery, your life would might be one of toil and suffering. So your odds of having a good life would not be very high.

In the United States, even today, your odds would be better. There’s still a huge middle class that lives in comfort and ease (relative to much of the world). You might get lucky and end up in the womb of a woman in the 1%, or even the 0.1%. But you might also get unlucky and start life in the womb of a poverty-stricken African-American in an urban ghetto, or of a woman on a poor and desolate Indian reservation.

A third choice might be Scandinavia, including Finland. There, you would be guaranteed a full college education, six months off to bear and begin raising your children (dads, too!), and free access to your nation’s best health care, no matter what family you were born into—presumably even a recent immigrant family. Your odds of having a fruitful and happy life would be high, close to 100%. But there is a tradeoff: your odds of being fabulously wealthy and much better off than the rest would probably be smaller than in the United States or in Saudia Arabia, because Scandinavia is famously egalitarian.

If you just think of your own individual circumstances, perhaps the choice would be a matter of taste, or of affinity or aversion to risk. There is something of a gambler in all of us, especially us males. But when you think of your social environment, the calculus changes.

Would you, if you could, be a planation owner in the Old South, surrounded by slaves? Would you be a rich industrialist in a nineteenth century town, surrounded by uneducated workers ill-paid and ill-treated? Or would you prefer to be a knowledge worker in today’s Silicon Valley, well but not exorbitantly paid, with innumerable highly-educated and well-paid friends and acquaintances with whom to socialize and from whom to choose your spouse? Would you choose a life of social isolation through economic superiority, or one both well off and rich in friendship, companionship and the arts?

The nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill had no doubt about the better choice. For him, the best society was the one that constantly strives toward the “greatest good for the greatest number.” When a rising tide really does raise all boats—not by “trickle down,” but independently—the disembodied soul is not only more likely to win the placement lottery. That soul and everyone else among the well-educated and well-off citizens will have plenty of interesting friends, an interesting spouse, and a rich and full life.

That is, of course, the type of society toward which Britain and the United States have striven ever since Mill, with all the frolics and diversions to which our fickle species is heir. It seems almost a tautology that all are better off when all have good opportunities. But every once in a while, we forget, lulled by the siren call of the very rich, who want to keep and even augment their astronomical wealth and advantage and invent all sorts of sophistic but plausible reasons why their doing so would be good for the rest of us. The current acme of such sophistry is the notion that the GOP tax cuts for the rich and corporations now under discussion would be good for the middle class.

What distinguishes progressives from so-called “conservatives” and others is that progressives don’t believe a word of it. A good society, progressives believe, is not the castle on the hill (or Trump Tower or Mar a Lago), surrounded by happy vassals (or happy slaves) singing as they labor for their bosses’ benefit. It’s a democratic yeomanry of equal citizens, well-educated, well-experienced and rich in the arts, advancing their society, in full and willing cooperation, using their own well-trained labor and mutual respect. It’s the Normal Rockwell painting of the town-hall meeting, with one farmer expounding his ideas of democracy and proper farming, and the others, having been educated at the local university or community college, listening and commenting with interest, understanding and respect. It’s not even close to a single man (or woman) fixing the fate of a town or plant because he (or she) owns it.

If you prefer this picture as a way of life, you are probably a progressive. If you prefer the castle on the hill, Trump Tower, Mar a Lago and the private plane, you are probably a so-called “conservative.”

If you’re an historian, whether of the United States or of the world, you probably know that human history has been an erratic but discernible progression from the latter to the former. The great mystery of the last two centuries is how “conservatives,” with brilliant propaganda, have managed to convince so many people who will never have the castle on the hill or the private plane that they can, if only they help the rich get richer and everyone else languish.

4. Some specifics. With this background and introduction, we can deduce how progressives would and should react to the social issues of our day. The lodestars are Jefferson’s still-unrealized quest for equality, the general happiness and social riches it provides, and the urge to spot and fix any flaw in our capitalist system that keeps it from providing the greatest good for the greatest number.

a. Making capitalists play by the rules and take their losses. One of the oddest things in recent history is how often progressives’ enemies have tarred them as “socialists” and how often that lie has deluded and confused voters. Neither Social Security nor Medicare is “socialism.” They are government-managed systems in which workers and employers themselves pay for workers’ dignity and health care in retirement.

The only real “socialism” I have seen in the United States in my 72 years has been the post-2008 bailouts that saved bankers from the risks they willingly took and their own stupidity. The bailout money came entirely from government (meaning US taxpayers); not a penny came from the bankers who caused the Crash of 2008. Not only did none of them go to jail; none of them lost their jobs and few lost any money, at least as a direct result of their culpable negligence or fraud. We, the people, paid them off for bringing the economy down with deceit, stupidity and gross negligence because we thought that otherwise the economy would collapse entirely, with even more dire consequences.

So the first economic tenet of progressivism is to make sure things like this never happen again. Gambling is a part of capitalism, if only because it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between gambling and useful investment. But the first rule of capitalism is that the gambling capitalist must man up and take his losses alone. (Virtually all the gamblers who caused the Crash of 2008 were men; women were the whistle blowers.)

To get from here to there, we must do one or more of three things. First, we must separate the gambling (speculation) from the routine part of banking that makes the economy run—things like savings and checking accounts, CD’s, lending and capital formation. We can do this with rules like Glass-Steagall, the Volcker Rule and similar boxing-in measures. Second, we must, carefully and over time, break up the biggest banks, both to reinstate healthy competition and to make sure none is “too big to fail.” Third, we must regulate the big banks carefully to limit the systemic risk they cause and, to the extent possible, curtail greedy and stupid behavior for the purpose of getting rich quick.

A true progressive wants to do all three, plus keep the banks from cheating and swindling helpless consumers. That’s why true progressives love Elizabeth Warren, want to see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that she started strengthened, not emasculated, and hate the idea of mandatory arbitration in workers’ contracts with financial institutions.

Another sordid example of “socialism for the rich” involves private, for-profit college “education.” By feeding off government loans to students, it has produced exorbitant executive salaries and profit margins that dazzle Wall Street. Yet despite vacuuming up a quarter to a third of government-funded student loans, it has produced little economic benefit for its students and lots of crushing student debt. To stop this perversion of capitalism, we need only enforce the rules that the Obama Administration put in place and that the Trump Administration is now delaying and seeking to subvert.

b. Beefing up the safety net. Keeping people from falling through the cracks of our capitalist system is not “socialism.” It’s common sense and common humanity.

We don’t want the homeless peeing and pooing on the doorsteps of our homes and businesses. We don’t want people with no access to medical care getting sick and infecting the rest of us. We don’t want people trying to raise a whole family on less than a living wage, thereby stunting their kids or making them delinquents. We don’t want poor people, lacking affordable housing, having to commute two hours each way to work and back, and so wasting our remaining fossil fuels and making our highways more crowded and dangerous. And all the money we give these unfortunates to make their lives minimally tolerable goes right back into our economy because, as a rule, poor and desperate people don’t save much.

There may be a few poor people who game the system and cheat. There are also people who defraud private insurance companies and steal fruit from supermarkets. That doesn’t mean that our system is bad or that we ought to outlaw private insurance or put all our fruits and vegetables in vaults. Most of the attacks on “welfare queens” and the like have been pure fiction, designed to create inter-class and inter-race jealousy and hatred for the purpose of winning elections.

Progressives understand this and want no part of it. If there are serious losses in our safety-net system, serious people will find and fix them, just as they have done many times with the doctors who got wealthy by defrauding the Medicare and Medicaid systems. Poor people rarely resort to that because they are desperate and grateful for the help.

But in all the political storms we should never forget one important thing: Social Security and Medicare are not socialism. They are government-managed programs for which workers and their employers pay, not government.

c. Creating good jobs by repairing and improving infrastructure. At two distinct points in time—before Trump took office and at his nine-month mark—I described the benefits to our middle class of the good jobs that a massive infrastructure-building program could bring. Unfortunately, in over nine months as president, Trump has failed even to begin planning for such a program. That failure is his greatest betrayal, so far, of the workers who voted for him.

Rebuilding and improving our national infrastructure is the simplest and least risky way of bringing good jobs to the masses of skilled workers made unemployed or underemployed by globalization and technological change. Unlike protectionism, tariffs, or Trump’s abortive “border adjustment tax,” infrastructure building won’t hurt our trading partners or violate any postwar trade agreement. It won’t even make our trading partners angry.

Our nonprofit, nonpartisan American Society of Civil Engineers says that defects in our infrastructure will rip $3.9 trillion from our economy over the next four years. That’s over twice as much as Republicans propose to rip from our economy by borrowing to fund big tax cuts for corporations and the rich. If we just dropped those cuts and applied the borrowing to our national infrastructure, we could provide good, well-paying, non-outsourceable jobs to millions of skilled workers, and we could avoid an even greater hit to our national economy. Most of the workers wouldn’t even have to relocate for their new jobs (unlike the oil-fracking roustabouts in North Dakota) because worn out and obsolete infrastructure is everywhere.

Progressives want desperately to begin this process, not just to give good jobs to people who’ve lost them, but also to make our country better. Government-funded infrastructure improvements would make workers’ lives better and help business grow and prosper. They would make traffic flow more smoothly both on land and in the air. They would make air and water cleaner and sewage less likely to get loose in a flood. They would make it easier for businesses to communicate and transport their raw materials and their wares. The whole project would be a massive win-win, with no hit to our trading partners at all.

So why wasn’t this the first thing Trump did in office? Beats me. Instead, he spent months trying to repeal Obamacare, with no viable replacement and so far no success. Now he’s trying to divert an infrastructure-sized amount of money to the rich and corporations in tax breaks.

It’s hard even to call giving new tax breaks to those who don’t need them “conservative.” But it’s easy to see how rebuilding and improving national infrastructure would make progress in our national commerce and create good jobs for our middle class. Perhaps Trump has put this issue on the back burner just because, if he didn’t, someone might accuse him of being “progressive.” And that—God forbid!—would contravene the strict tribalism that has characterized both political parties, especially the GOP, for nearly a generation.

d. Offering Medicare for All. Single-payer health insurance is not “socialism.” As with any insurance program, the insureds pay for it, with taxes, premiums, or both. They just pay much less than in a multiply balkanized private system because the single pool of insured risk is so much larger. To that extent, single payer isn’t socialism; it’s arithmetic.

The number, incidence and expense of things that can go wrong with the human body are infinitely higher and more expensive than risks covered by auto or property insurance. So you need a big pool of insureds to lower the premiums. Ideally, you want everyone in the country to be in the same pool; with 310 million insureds, you can have much lower premiums. That’s why virtually every other developed nation has a single-payer system.

Our insurance system is insane for having insurance pools balkanized by state, employer and multiple private insurers. Competition won’t lower premiums, because competition doesn’t work the same way for insurance as it does for other businesses. You can lower premiums by being more efficient in administration, but only so far. To lower them significantly, you need more insureds in the same pool, i.e., you need a bigger risk pool to soak up all the likely losses.

The other insanity of our thousand-payer system is accounting. Just accounting for the profit, let alone paying it, raises administrative costs by 60%. For example, three out of eight employees in my local medical laboratory work full time just verifying private insurance coverage and helping to administer multiple private insurance plans.

Progressives know two other things about single-payer or Medicare for All. First, it’s not “socialized medicine.” It’s efficient insurance. Nothing about it will own, control or runs doctors’ practices, hospitals or medical groups. It’s all about how premium payments get applied to the bills. That’s all.

The second thing that progressives know is that single-payer, even if financed by taxes, will not nationalize the entire health-insurance market. It will provide a single national insurer for basic, necessary coverage and maybe also for cheap, catastrophic coverage. But there will always be room for private insurers to offer more, just as they do in every developed nation that has a single-payer system. No one is going to outlaw capitalism in health insurance, any more than in any other field of our economy.

For example, as genetic medicine develops, based on each patient’s own personal genome, it’s likely to be quite expensive, especially at first. Private insurers will offer coverage to people who can afford it—even while genomic diagnostics and treatment are experimental—long before genomic medicine is a made a routine part of “basic” health-insurance coverage. There’s nothing wrong with this: eventually, when tried and tested, genomic medicine will make its way into the “basic” single-payer health insurance because progressives want all our citizens to be basically healthy.

Even for basic insurance, a single, national insurer will win only if and to the extent it can offer lower premiums by virtue of its much larger risk pool and lower administrative costs. No one—least of all any progressive—is going to outlaw private insurance.

e. Rationalizing our defense. Two things are odd about our national defense. First, we spend more on defense than the next seven nations combined. Second, much of that expense is unnecessary.

We and Russia have the dubious distinction of having enough nuclear weapons—each!—not only to annihilate each other completely, but to extinguish our species and perhaps all life on Earth. You think this might be overkill?

In the early the nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln announced our national invulnerability to invasion in a famous quotation set out below. We have only gotten more invulnerable. Since Lincoln’s announcement, the only force ever to invade our Mainland was Pancho Villa’s. He got run out quickly and eventually was killed. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were localized sneak attacks that killed a lot of people but, in the end, accomplished little except making us angry.

Provoked by 9/11, Dubya invaded and occupied two sovereign nations (Iraq and Afghanistan), in both of which we are still fighting (in Iraq unofficially), over fourteen and sixteen years (respectively) since we began. President Obama, in contrast, executed bin Laden using two helicopters filled with Navy Seals.

There’s are at least two lessons in this. First, you can get bogged down in “forever wars” when you fight far beyond your own borders for unclear reasons and with no exit strategy. That’s a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam, where we ended up losing over 58,000 Americans, and killing and estimated 3.5 million Southeast Asians, all while fighting on the wrong side, first for a colonial power (France) and then for a series of corrupt and rotten dictatorships. It’s also a lesson that General and later Secretary of State Colin Powell taught us explicitly in Gulf I, but which we still have failed to learn. Evidently, we are slow students.

Second, in the nuclear age, when nuclear weapons deter invasion and aggression by state actors, smaller and more accurate is better. We are never going to use our fifty megaton “Doomsday” H-bombs except to extinguish our species. What we need are much smaller, more accurate and stealthy weapons to take out the likes of Kim Jong-Un and his crew in their bunkers, “decapitate” North Korea, and forestall a big conventional war.

So when our military-industrial complex proposes a strategy of ever-bigger is better, and of fighting two World War II-size wars at once, progressives ask “why?” and “where will those two huge wars come from?”

Progressives also tend to favor diplomacy. There’s too much at stake in military conflict today—even with conventional weapons, let alone nuclear ones—to think that war can ever solve more problems than it creates. Just look at Syria today, Yemen, or Iraq.

With diplomacy alone, plus economic sanctions, President Obama prevented war with Iran and set back its nuclear-weapons program by a year to a year and a half, for at least ten years. After growling and cursing at that solution, President Trump has been able to do no better.

For reasons I have outlined in another essay, we Americans are risk-averse people. So we have had extreme overkill in our defense preparedness, and we tend to be trigger happy. Progressives know that much of this is unnecessary and has been unwise. They are eager to reduce our impulsive and unwise foreign involvement, especially in combat, and to put our own house in order.

f. Moving speech toward the truth. The toughest nut for progressives to crack is speech. Maybe that’s true for all Americans.

Our First Amendment makes speech practically inviolate. You can say or write anything you want—besides revealing state secrets, threatening the president or other public officials, or inciting immediate violence.

Even if what you say is false or fraudulent, you’re likely to get off unscathed. You might lose a civil suit if you lie about a business competitor, or if you lie recklessly about a pol or other public figure. You might even go to jail. But in practice few sue, and even fewer prosecute.

In our society, habitual liars usually pay no price at all. Exhibit A is our current president.

That’s so because we Americans have a theory, called the “free marketplace of ideas.” It holds that, in a cacophony of differing points of view, the truth eventually will out. The remedy for bad speech, the theory goes, is more speech, including good speech. Censorship of any kind is anathema to us.

Unfortunately, the Internet and social media have blown that theory all to Hell. Social media have put people in their own little bubbles, where they only read things they customarily receive, and they receive (or read) only messages that agree with their preconceptions.

The Internet has overseen the formation of little “cliques of consciousness,” analogous to cliques on a high-school playground. Progressives are in one corner, conservatives in another.

But that’s not at all where it ends. The cliques are as fine-grained as you can imagine. There are cliques that think all police are out of control, cliques that imagine conspiracies to murder fetuses, cliques that think Hillary organized them, and cliques that think Obama is a Muslim who tried to prime Iran to take over the Middle East. It’s hard to imagine any conspiracy theory so wild or bizarre that it doesn’t have at least a small Internet clique that believes it, and that reinforces its false belief with e-mails, Tweets and Facebook postings.

Social media have also accustomed people—especially our young—to treat messages that may come from complete strangers as if they came from trusted friends. The result is a field day for lies, which today include both amped-up political demagoguery and “fake news.”

Both come from such variant sources as pols, obscure operatives, various paid stooges and trolls (including Vladimir Putin’s), and Russian intelligence services. (So far we have no evidence that China is directing such garbage our way. China just has a strong defense, using a huge phalanx of censors to delete from its part of the Internet both real and fake news that China’s leaders deem too “political.”)

Progressives have a tough time recognizing this problem because they are used to treating speech—any speech—as a social good. Older progressives often don’t see the threat because they were raised in an age when we had three professional TV networks, each imbued with the ethos of impartial, truthful and professional journalism epitomized by Walter Cronkite.

In contrast, we now have a complex of media in which anyone can write anything, without attribution, and have it appear alongside messages from readers’ closest friends and beloved relatives. Worse yet, the disorganization of social media reinforces this confusion of sources. The “walls” of Facebook pages have completely random organization: a call to attend a white-supremacist or Communist rally can appear just before or after a close friend’s pictures of a marriage or a new baby.

Twitter is similar. Hashtags are useless when the relevant “grain” of thought is (now) 280 characters, and the Tweets come at you rapidly in random order, like bumper stickers on a highway. (Try summarizing this essay in 280 characters; you think you might lose a bit of substance?)

If our society survives, some day historians will view Facebook and Twitter much like cigarettes. They are so bright and easy to use that they are addictive; our current president is just the most notable addict. But because they are easy to use and so intrinsically disorganized, they encourage impulsive, thoughtless and disorganized communication and behavior. They affect the quality of human thought much as smoking cigarettes affects our individual health: their deleterious effect, like lung cancer, grows over time and may take decades to develop.

Our brains are masses of neurons about the size of grapefruits. Those grapefruit-sized masses are trying to comprehend an Earth astronomically larger, and a Universe unthinkably larger still.

The only way our tiny brains can hope to do those jobs is by abstracting and carefully organizing the little information they can manage to contain. And the only way they can do that is by spending time, in quiet contemplation, to organize the myriad impressions that our senses provide us each day.

In duplicating the random, jerky and impulsive character of our daily sensory lives, Twitter and Facebook are at war with the processes of contemplation and thinking. Those processes began with the invention of writing, our “coolest” media. They accelerated when writing shifted from recording business transactions to handling larger questions. Now, with the speeding bumper-sticker impressions of Facebook and Twitter, that social evolution is going into reverse.

If we apply our hard-won social-evolutionary ability to think abstractly to the Dark Side of the Internet, we can identify three enormous problems that we must solve soon. First, when everyone can write messages to anyone and have them appear like personalized notes, alongside messages from family and friends, how do we restore healthy skepticism in recipients? How do we even foster recognition and consciousness of sources? How can we alert recipients that some messages ultimately come from (or are avidly re-Tweeted by) their enemies, even foreign ones?

Second, how do we control the modern tendency of electronic media—in ones that purport to use writing, like Facebook and Twitter—to duplicate the random, jerky, haphazard character of our individual daily sensory impressions? Compare, for example, any modern movie to an award-winning movie from the 1940s or 1950s. You will note a vast difference in direction. In the old movie, the camera holds steady to film a scene complete with dialogue and actors’ reactions. In the new one, dialogue is incomplete or overlapping, and a hand-held camera jumps around in a state of perpetual motion among people, cars, and often sudden violence.

Doesn’t this vast change in how movies are filmed send a subliminal message: that our human lives are jerky, impulsive, disorganized and threatening? And don’t Facebook and Twitter reinforce that message in our supposedly “coolest” medium, writing?

The third problem is one that hasn’t hit us hard yet but is coming as inexorably as death and taxes. What do we do when these random, jerky “messages” contain video and audio made out of whole cloth, with the same techniques with which everyday movies create alien science-fiction worlds or worlds from legend or myth? How then do our impressionable youth separate fact from fantasy, fake news, and propaganda?

Our electronic techniques for simulating reality have far outstripped the average person’s ability to distinguish fiction and propaganda. And the gap will only get bigger as so-called “virtual reality” gear comes on line. Imagine, for example, a full-motion audiovisual antiabortion ad, showing a nearly-full-term fetus dragged out of the womb, uttering its first cry, and then being skewered by the forceps and dumped into a biological waste bin.

This never happens in real life. But what non-medically-trained anti-abortion zealot would know? The technology now exists to make such a lying video clip, and to make it a fully convincing simulation of reality for anyone who hasn’t been to medical school. Virtually every science-fiction, horror and fantasy film now produced uses technology capable of making such a clip seem real. How are we to interpret our First Amendment when such a clip appears on Twitter and on the Facebook page of every voter in a red state?

George Orwell was on the right track. In his dystopian novel 1984, he imagined a dictator called “Big Brother,” who controlled the masses by controlling, through television and radio, how they viewed the world. What Orwell never told us is how Big Brother got his start. Now we can easily fill that gap: Big Brother could have taken over a thriving democracy simply by using electronic communication—today’s Internet—to propagate convincing lies, complete with fake full-motion audiovisual clips.

So progressives are caught on the horns of a dilemma. They believe devoutly in freedom of expression. It’s the means by which they promulgate their complaints about flaws in the system and their suggestions for making it better. But because free expression is their bread and butter, they may miss the threat that free expression can pose to democracy when it morphs into fake news, propaganda, or an information war propelled by all the reality-simulating resources of modern technology.

g. Perfecting Jefferson’s imperfect credo. After such a depressing analysis of the risk of free speech subverting our democracy, I’ll end this essay on a more encouraging note. Progressives’ belief in Jefferson’s credo—“all . . . are created equal”—can help solve all our problems, perhaps even the problem of bent free speech.

The recognition that all of us are human and “endowed with certain inalienable Rights” is but a baby step away from a second key understanding. All of us want much the same things: freedom, health, a basic standard of living, the right to practice our various religions (or none at all), absorbing and useful work, and the ability to raise and educate our kids. The more we recognize and appreciate our essential sameness as humans, the less we will divide ourselves into warring clans, whether red and blue on election day, or North and South Korea in a threatened mini-Armageddon.

Thus the credo of equality holds within it a source of peace. If others are just like you, regardless of race, religion, national origin, language, culture, and sexual preference and identity, then you have no need to lie to them. You can convince them of your views with empathy, real facts, and human understanding. You can have confidence in your ability to do so because of the human similarities that you credit and share.

This was exactly how human history’s four great “leaders of color”—Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama—accomplished their respective political “miracles.” This was how our President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev avoided nuclear extinction of our species during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Each understood his adversary’s love for his country and his people, and each understood the yearning of the other’s people to live and develop in its own way.

As I’ve outlined in another essay, it took great judgment and wisdom—against a cacophony of conflicting advice—for Kennedy and Khrushchev to reach this mutual understanding and, from it, to make a practical deal to end the crisis. (Unbeknownst to the two leaders at the time, it also took the cool and wise judgement of a Soviet submarine flotilla commander named Vasili Aleksandrovich Arkhipov. While under water in an overheated sub, Arhkipov refused to authorize the use of Soviet nuclear torpedoes and so avoided a naval nuclear Armageddon.) But the basis of that understanding was the simple realization that, despite huge differences in location, geography, history, ethnic origin and ideology (capitalism versus Communism), all were equal and basically the same.

We seem a long way from this understanding today. Our American political parties are divided within themselves, as well as between themselves. Seemingly longstanding nations can dissolve into internal dissension in places once as stable as Britain, Spain, Scotland and Catalonia.

Yet there are tried and true ways of handling internal divisions, including federalism, as the United States and the European Union so ably demonstrate. As the dust of division starts to settle, progressives will look toward those ways, rather than to war or irreconcilable political conflict, in order to make progress.

5. Conclusion. So there you have it. Progressives do have a coherent and comprehensive political philosophy. It revolves around the notions that all human beings are similar and to be treated as equal, with equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that continual but gradual striving for improvement—progress—is the chief source of peace and the primary goal of political action.

The basic notion of equality and equal opportunity underlies progressives’ economic and social philosophy: that all are better off when society is more level, when leaders work toward Mill’s “greatest good for the greatest number.”

Thus progressives are dead set against the kind of extreme economic inequality that has crept up upon us Americans since the 1970s. They want a society with equality and equal opportunity built in. They reject the rigged system and the “trickle down” theories that force the poor and middle class to eat the crumbs from the tables of the 1%.

Progessives want a society whose rules create the broadest and happiest middle class—in which great wealth is possible for anyone smart and ambitious, but not the rule of inheritance for a whole class, and certainly not the rule for organizing society. They want the rich and powerful to pay their fair share of taxes to make that society possible, and so to pay back the society that made them rich and powerful in the first place.

Progressives want to bring such a society closer to realization by much the same techniques that FDR and his successors did during and after the Great Depression and World War II. They want universal health insurance, with a whole-nation risk pool. They want a strong safety net to protect the lives and dignity of the old and those (like coal miners and many factory workers) displaced by technology, environmental threats, or globalization. They want a massive program for repairing our infrastructure— funded with about the same amount of borrowing that Republicans would use to lower taxes on the rich—to bring back good, self-respecting, non-oursourceable jobs and so strengthen and expand our middle class. They want peaceful, non-militarized policing of cities, with equal respect for all minorities, including especially our long-abused African-Americans and Hispanic immigrants.

But progressives most definitely don’t want to replace capitalism and its just risks and rewards with systems that have been wholly discredited in lengthy fair trials in Russia and China. They want to make capitalism work better by soothing its discontents and by making even the most powerful bankers play by its rules and take their losses like real men.

In short, progressives, at their name suggests, want progress, in both equality and in perfecting our capitalist system which, although the best our species has discovered so far, is still a long way from perfect.

There is one dark cloud, however, in this bright picture. At the moment, progressives have no better solution for our greatest threat than anyone else. In an age in which Russian intelligence plants or re-Tweets fake news to divide us, and in which our own president casually lies on a regular basis, our people need some help in deciding what is real and what is fake. If they don’t get it, they could soon disintegrate into blind warring clans—the “ignorant armies [that] clash by night” of which Victorian poet Matthew Arnold once warned us.

Besides global warming, this is the toughest challenge our society faces today. All of us Americans are so used to an “anything goes” attitude toward speech, and a deep aversion to censorship, that we just don’t know what to do about rampant lies, let alone ones that modern technology can make seem so real.

The people who brought us the technical means for the dramatic change in our perception of truth—our Mark Zuckerbergs—are so enamored of the potential of their creations for good that they are blind to the Dark Side. Meanwhile, the very notions of truth and reality are dissolving in a barrage of conflicting assertions and conflicting views of reality, some entirely manufactured, with absolutely no useful indicia of reliability or even of origin.

A possible partial solution, consistent with American values, is to require every message, Tweet, or Facebook post intended for an audience of more than one to contain both the name of its author and the other person(s), if any, who financed or ordered its dissemination. That requirement would be a start, but it would be devilishly hard to enforce. (One of Putin’s trolls’ favorite tricks was to re-Tweet a nasty bit of native fake news, millions of times, and so to get two ignorant Internet armies to begin their battle.)

Another possible partial solution might be to designate someone as a “fact-checker” to evaluate the veracity of suspicious posts. But this would be a Herculean task, not only due to the astronomical volume of messages, but due also to the difficulty of chasing down whoever received them (and how), posting on their many Facebook walls, and hoping they might read the rebuttals.

In the old days, pre-Reagan, the FCC’s “fairness doctrine” required the very same broadcast station that had aired an attack on a political candidate to air a response. That rule made it likely, although still not certain, that the attack’s original audience would hear or see the response. But there’s no such simple solution in the field of social media, if only because the attack would have had so many recipients, in so many variant Facebook walls or Tweet streams, that the response, even if received, would most likely just get lost.

The more you think about the problem of fake news and the Internet, the less you see any simple solution. Perhaps the best thing progressives can do is to sound the alarm and recognize that this, like global warming, is a real and pressing problem that demands practical solutions, not heads in the sand. Meanwhile, our own self-interested pols, like our friend Vladimir, will continue to probe a hole in our society and its defense as big as the Moon.

Endnote 1: Before this post was published, The Economist reviewed the history of profit-making colleges using government loans to students for subpar educational “services.” Among its damning assessments of this largely parasitic “industry” were these nuggets:
“Only 23% of students at for-profits finish their degrees, but nearly all accumulate lots of debt. Tuition rates were often set to maximise federal loan dollars, the principal source of revenues. An investigation by Congress showed that for-profits were, at their height, hoovering up 25% of [Department of Education] student-aid funds and 37% of post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, although just 10% of college students attended them. The best study so far, examining the tax returns of 1.4m students, found that ‘for-profit education does not have a meaningful private return to the student’ and ‘the majority of schools appear to have negligible average earnings effects’.”
The kicker was the industry’s and conservatives’ collective response to two rules adopted by the Obama Administration to shape these parasitic firms up. The rules allowed students to stop paying on their education loans if they could prove that their for-profit schools had deceived them, i.e., had committed fraud in marketing or recruitment, or that their “education” had provided no economic benefit.

The Trump Administration, under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has a huge backlog of cases seeking to enforce these rules and is proposing to modify or drop them. Apparently the “conservatives” now in power would prefer that swindled students take the economic hit so that yet more government money could be available (in the form of student loans) to fund the schools that swindled them.

DeVos of course purports to be a “conservative” maven, reforming education for the better while making it serve private profit. But is this a tale of true capitalism—vigorous competition to improve something at real financial risk—or of rich parasites feeding off a rotten limb of government? Hint: In 2009, Bridgepoint Education’s CEO reportedly was paid $20 million, while ITT Tech earned a 37.1% profit. Even seven years later, according to Forbes, none of the top executives of Harvard, Princeton, or Yale made even a tenth that much.

Endnote 2: What marked the 2008-Crash bailouts as pure “socialism for the rich” is the fact that all the bailout money came from government, and none from any of the parties who were bailed out. It might have been different, for example, if the bailed-out banks had for decades been paying a small tax on speculative financial transactions, which had accumulated to a level that could finance the bailouts. That kind of tax would be analogous to the FICA payments that workers and employers pay for the purposes of accumulating a fund to finance workers’ social security in retirement. It would be a form of self-financed insurance, not socialism.

But that’s most definitely not what happened. After the Crash, many progressives proposed precisely such a small tax (1% or less) on speculative transactions, in order to build up a “rainy day fund” to insure the nation and its people against the next financial panic. So what did the bankers do? Through their lobbyists, they resisted that tax as if it were a pandemic. Evidently, they preferred socialism for the rich over a rational financial-panic insurance scheme for which they would help pay.

Endnote 3: “All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.” — Abraham Lincoln, in his Lyceum Address, January 27, 1838.

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