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

29 January 2017

Contradictions


[For a note on what the Exclusion-Order fiasco says about Trump’s competence, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
    “Lord Ronald . . . . flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” Stephen Leacock, Canadian humorist
The American people elected Donald Trump because they wanted a decisive leader. At least the most dissatisfied parts of the American people did. They were tired of temporizing, prevaricating leaders like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, who never seemed to speak plainly or to do anything.

They wanted the proverbial “man on horseback.” What they got, instead, was the man described by Stephen Leacock. Trump’s first full week in office shows the trend.

Take the Wall, for example. Please. The Donald is ready to build it, trowel in hand. But how is he going to pay for it? He’s going to charge a 20% tariff on goods imported from Mexico.

At first listen, that sounds fine. But if you’ve taken a course in economics, even in high school, you know the law of supply and demand. If you raise the price of goods imported from Mexico by 20%—which Trump’s tariff or “border tax” would do—the American people will buy fewer of them.

How much fewer depends on what the economists call “the elasticity of demand.” It could be 20% fewer. Or it could be a lot fewer. Take cars, for example. A lower-price advantage of about 10% let the Japanese get a big foothold in our American car market in the seventies and eighties. So a 20% increase in the prices of cars coming from Mexico would probably slow their flow big time, much more than 20%.

Now if the flow of products slows, what will happen to Mexican workers who make them? They’ll be laid off, more than 20%. What will the laid-off workers do? They’ll try harder to scale or breach the Wall, big time, in order to go where the jobs are. El Chapo’s mile-long drug tunnel will become a whole subway system under the American Southwest.

And if the law of supply and demand hurts your head, how about this? Mexicans can’t eat, drink, smoke, or sell the Wall. Paying for it will only make them poorer. And if Mexicans get poorer, will more or fewer of them try to come here? You decide.

So the two parts of Trump’s “Wall” project—building it and paying for it—are at odds with each other. The proposed method of paying for it increases the pressure to scale or breach the Wall. You can ride off in all directions in Canadian humor, but you can’t do it in real life.

Torture is another illustrative case. In a much publicized press conference, Trump said he would heed the views of his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who wants torture outlawed in America and for our armed forces everywhere. But then Trump proceeded to air his own view, namely, that torture works and could be useful.

Why did Trump undermine his own explicit delegation of authority to Mattis? Probably because he wanted our enemies, terrorists especially, to fear torture if caught.

But ask John McCain about that. He spent half a decade in the North Vietnamese war prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” There he was mistreated and tortured routinely, almost every day. So like most people with military experience (of which Trump has none) McCain knows the most basic rule of war: “if we do it to them, they will do it to us, or at least they’ll try.”

Maybe Trump intended to scare our enemies. But what he really did, according to all the military experts, is make it more likely that our enemies will do it to us, notwithstanding what our military manuals say. (And if you’re worried about Muslims in particular, just read the news reports from places like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey (after the coup). In those places, they torture prisoners just for fear and spite; they don’t even need the pretext of gathering intelligence.)

So again with torture, the two parts of Trump’s “plan” are at war with themselves.

Trump’s executive orders halting all immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations is a bit different. Those orders are not at war with themselves, and Trump appears to have the power as president to issue them.

But they are at war with our Statue of Liberty and its famous inscription (“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses . . .”). They are also at war with our history as a nation of immigrants (except for our much-abused slaves and Native Americans).

Finally, Trump’s orders are at war with our need to replenish and renew ourselves with good immigrants. The best and the brightest refugees from war-torn hell holes get out first. They’re the ones who can see the disaster coming and have the intelligence, initiative and resources to get out. By the time we decide to take Syria’s best and brightest, they will all be settled in Germany, Australia or Canada. Maybe even China will take some.

Don’t get me wrong. In some ways, Trump’s penchant for letting his minions speak out is a good thing. Contrary to the craving of his voters for simplicity, the president doesn’t get the easy ones. Issues that reach a president’s desk are inherently complex and hard to resolve.

So it helps democracy for us plebes to know that people in high places have differing views, just like us. It informs us to hear them state those views, as simply and cogently as they can. However scarce it may have been in our last election, detailed debate on the substance of policy is the essence of democracy.

In a real democracy, debate shouldn’t stop at the Cabinet’s walls, except when national security requires secrecy. It should spill over. Cabinet members should not be penalized or dismissed for contributing to the public’s debate unless their dissent rises to the level of insubordination.

Yet eventually someone has to decide. That’s the president’s job. His decision should include reasons, but it cannot be at war with itself. When the buck stops at the president’s desk, he must make a decision, and it must make sense. He must ride his horse in a single direction and be accountable for doing so.

Judged on that basis, Trump’s first week was an unmitigated disaster. If he keeps this up, not only will his administration produce a windfall for late-night comics. His so-called “honeymoon” will be even shorter than Obama’s, and for reasons of incompetence, not racism.

Footnote 1: Already there appears to be a trend among Trumpets to call what looks like a tariff a “tax.” Apparently one reason for this verbal legerdemain is Chief Justice Roberts’ decisive opinion upholding Obamacare’s penalties for not buying health insurance as a “tax.” Our Constitution gives Congress (but not the president by himself) pretty broad power to tax.

Whether this ploy will work with tariffs—which depend on treaties and international law more than on our Constitution—is another matter. In most areas of law, the deciders look at what the levy does and how it works, not just its label, before deciding what it is. And anyway, in international trade the most basic rule is much like that for torture: if we do it to them, they’ll do it to us. So in the long run, what you call a mandatory payment probably doesn’t matter much, other than helping it fit more comfortably into one simplistic ideology or another.

Footnote 2: I don’t mean to say that Trump will necessarily be a good “decider.” He might be like Dubya, who gave us two unnecessary wars, an economic collapse, and lots of unintentional jokes about our English language. With the Democrats confused and in disarray, and the whole world scratching its head, our checks and balances might not suffice to stave off some really bad decisions. But our huge federal bureaucracy might.

GOP Pundit David Brooks—no fan of Trump—has referred to the collective impact of thousands of recalcitrant civil servants as our bureaucracy’s “passive-aggressive” behavior. Even Ike once complained about it: he found it a lot harder to get things done as president than he did as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II. By dragging their heels, delaying and thwarting, our loyal and hardy bureaucrats just might save us Yanks from jumping on Leacock’s magical horse. Godspeed.

Competence: Details, Details, Details!

Trump won the election, and elections have consequences. So no one should be surprised at his Exclusion Order barring entry to people from seven Muslim-majority nations that he has blacklisted for ninety days. That’s precisely what he promised (after some dithering on details) during his campaign.

Within the broad limits of our Constitution and our laws, a president has the authority to impose his personal ideology and ideas on the nation. That’s what winning a presidential election means.

But incompetence is neither an ideology nor an idea. It’s, well, incompetence.

Americans have a right to expect that, whatever his ideology or ideas, our president will at least execute them competently. With his entry-barring Order of last week, President Trump and his team failed to do that.

Apparently his Order was based on three simple ideas. First, if we exclude everyone from the biggest terrorist-ridden war-torn hell holes on Earth, we’ll cut our risk of inadvertently admitting members of terrorist sleeper cells. Second, if we base the exclusion Order on nationality, not religion, we can’t be excused of bashing all Muslims. Third, if we don’t announce the Order publicly before it goes into effect, terrorists can’t “get a jump” on its enforcement.

You can argue about whether these ideas are right and important, and whether they will have unintended consequences. But they are not on their faces irrational or crazy.

The problem of execution was not with these basic ideas, but all the other things Trump and his team failed to think of. How do you tell when someone is “from” one of the blacklisted countries? It can’t be which flight they’re on, which is easily changed. And it can’t be whether they have a visa, because the whole idea of the Order is not to grant a visa. So exclusion must depend on passports.

But if so, what about people coming, directly or indirectly, from the seven blacklisted countries with a US passport, i.e., US citizens? What about dual citizens with, say, a US and a Syrian passport? What about US permanent residents, with green cards? If one of more of these categories of people can enter, can they also leave the US—for example, to visit their families in blacklisted countries—and come back?

And what about the Iraqi translator for our troops, who had risked his life continuously for ten years by helping us and had all his bags packed to immigrate with his family, including an eldest son with Downs’ Syndrome who, he hoped, would get better care in the US?

If this translator is a terrorist, so is Trump. Is there someone in our government empowered to make an exception for people like him? Oughtn’t there be? And shouldn’t someone in our government have contacted high-level officials of every blacklisted nation and informed them about the Order, at least immediately after it went into effect?

As far as I know from news reports, none of these questions was answered, and none of these actions was taken in time. So the Order didn’t produce order. It produced chaos.

This is incompetence. It could only have been prevented by someone on Trump’s team who is a detail person. That description doesn’t include Trump himself.

After working in three careers (science, law, and law teaching), I’ve learned that you’re either a detail person or you’re not. At 71, Trump is not going to become one, let alone under the pressure of the most difficult job in the world. So if he wants to have a competent presidency, he’s going to have to delegate execution to, and rely on, people on his team who are.

There are precious few on his team who fit that description. The only ones who come easily to mind, and who have had experience managing large organizations, are Generals Mattis and Kelly, Elaine Chao, and Rex Tillerson. (General Flynn was fired from a leadership position at the Defense Intelligence Agency, apparently because he was a bad manager; and Treasury-Secretary-designate Mnuchin has as much of a job-hopping resume as anyone in finance.)

That’s a thin crew of four members, but at least it exists. If Trump wants to act competently, as the citizens of a nation of 320 million people have a right to expect, he’s going to have to involve these key people—or others equally competent—in every important decision, including its public announcement.

That’s why I’ve recommended speedy confirmation of Rex Tillerson at State. As CEO of what (before Apple took over) was the most valuable corporation on Earth, he probably knows how to handle detail. And he probably would have figured out that a public announcement of the Order, directly from the White House, with details of its application, would have helped ICE, our numerous US Airports, and everyone traveling from the blacklisted countries to the US over the weekend. It might even have prevented some protests, not all of which were based on accurate understanding of the Order.

Imagine this sort of chaos prevailing not just for a weekend, but for four years. That is precisely what will happen if Trump does not learn to delegate to the competent members on his team. More than likely, he would be impeached and removed from office long before that.

Impeachment is entirely a political process. It’s not subject to Supreme Court review. What constitutes “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is entirely up to Congress to decide.

Even now, Trump’s wide range of business conflicts of interest could serve as ground for impeachment and removal under the Emoluments Clause, as long as more than half of the House and two-thirds of the Senate see them that way. And even now, many Republicans might prefer a predictable “establishment” Republican president (Mike Pence) to the loose cannon that is Donald Trump.

Americans can tolerate variations in ideology and ideas. We thrive on experimentation: we are not a nation of nay-sayers. But we find it hard to tolerate gross incompetence. We like to think of ourselves, or at least our leaders, as being able to master details and carry out a plan competently.

So Trump had better clean up his act, and soon. Otherwise we Yanks may discover whether incompetence or racism is more effective in bringing a president down. I’m betting on incompetence.

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25 January 2017

How The Economist is Killing its Children


[For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: In the past, I’ve recommended the British weekly The Economist as a supplement and an antidote to our generally declining print media, including our three “national” newspapers (NYT, Washington Post, and WSJ). For educated people who want important news with some preliminary analysis, in the English language, well written and nicely summarized, I can’t think of a better single source. I subscribe to it myself.

The Economist has four advantages over American newspapers, including our best. First, it’s a weekly. That means its writers and editors have time and the incentive to put things in perspective. Apart from its often “cutesy” covers and its occasionally irreverent and snarky headlines, its writers try to keep their heads. Its editorial selection of things to report is worlds apart from “if it bleeds, it leads.” It is virtually devoid of the breathlessness and sensationalism that infect almost all American media. And its coverage (of the entire world, both politics and business) is encyclopedic compared to that of our ever-skinnier American weeklies (Time and its competition).

The Economist’s second advantage derives from its name. The great economist John Maynard Keynes once dubbed economics a “dismal science.” But it’s grown and developed much since his day. Unlike politics, with its traditional, often arational ideologies—which true believers of all stripes treat like religions—economics is now a real science. It has observational, theoretical, and recently experimental branches. Digital computers and “big data” have accelerated its growth and potential as a science dramatically. Even Keynes might upgrade his evaluation today.

In purporting to offer news from an economist’s perspective, The Economist is the first (and so far the only) news medium in human history to report human affairs to a general audience from a scientific perspective. That means, among other things, trying to minimize unproven assumptions, maximize verifiable facts, and use rigorous mathematics and mathematical logic to connect facts with conclusions and theory.

The Economist does not always succeed in doing so. It’s failures are the main subject of this post. But so far it’s the only internationally respected medium for policymakers and the general public that even tries.

Its third advantage derives from its second. You will find more graphs, charts and even the occasional equation in The Economist than in any other general news medium. You will also find more writing by authors with a bit of training in math and economics. Not only does that mean you’ll get the occasional brilliant summary and analysis of leading-edge quantitative academic research. It also means you’ll get analysis filtered through folk more at home with numbers than the liberal-arts majors who write for most newspapers. The latter, it seems, wouldn’t recognize a correlation coefficient or differential equation if it hit them in the head.

In the twenty-first century, all of our joys and discontents—from air travel to iPhones and nuclear weapons— depend on scientists and engineers who can “do math.” So having “news” reported by people who sometimes can’t seem to do arithmetic is, to say the least, infelicitous. The Economist avoids this pitfall better than most print media.

Finally, unlike most American newspapers today, The Economist appears to have live copy editors. You will find its language, spelling, grammar, organization and style more correct and consistent (albeit naturally with a British flair) than those of our American rags. Even the best of our Yankee rags appears to have replaced copy editors permanently (and prematurely) with spell-checkers and other inadequate software. For us, it’s all about the bottom line, not quality.

But I’m not writing today to sing The Economist’s praises. I’ve already done that. Today I write to sound the tocsin against an egregious error in The Economist’s “scientific method.” In the context of our perilous times, and with The Economist’s well-deserved influence on policy makers worldwide, this error threatens immense harm to our species. In the long run, it could kill The Economist’s “children”—today’s advanced industrial democracies, including the EU.

The error is easy to state. It’s a common pitfall of scientists everywhere. The Economist’s editorial staff and many of its writers have fallen so in love with an all-encompassing, abstract theory that they increasingly ignore or downplay events and facts that contradict it. Instead of modifying the theory, expressing well-deserved skepticism, or looking more closely at the facts, they scold anyone who doubts the theory or appears to ignore it.

The theory, too, is easy to state, although it has many names. The Economist calls it the “liberal international order,” the “liberal economic order,” or “liberal democracy.” But it’s an old, old thing. We used to call it “laissez faire capitalism,” before it helped cause the Great Depression and the Great Recession. It holds simply that we will all be collectively better off if we impose the least possible restraint upon the formation, action and freedom of business.

Let me say right away that this theory is not entirely false. It has a great deal of truth in it. The abject failures of Communism in Russia and China support it. So do today’s collapse of Venezuela’s command economy and the decline of Russia’s state/crony capitalism.

As I have written at least twice (see 1 and 2), the rise of business corporations has freed economic productivity from the politics and intrigue of monarchy and (today) self-seeking democratic pols. Together with science and technology, it has brought our species out of an economic dark age. As The Economist itself has noted, the free transfer of technology, capital and industries from developed democracies to developing countries has, in a mere generation, lifted nearly a billion people out of extreme property.

The problem is not the theory’s truth (or falsity), but its generality. It’s not a scientifically testable hypothesis. It’s far too general and subject to interpretation to qualify. Are widely-respected laws protecting worker safety, the air we breathe, the water we drink and (maybe soon) the climate in which we evolved exceptions that prove the rule? Or are they somehow disproofs of the theory? No real scientist would ever propose an hypothesis so broad, one which cannot reasonably be tested by observation or experiment.

And then there are the inconvenient facts. In a mere generation, policies based on this “maximum freedom for business,” have soured the lives of the one-third of America that works with its hands. As a result, this cohort of America voted overwhelmingly for the least experienced president in American history. A similar thing happened in Britain. There, those who work with their hands and used to have good jobs turned the Brexit referendum into an unexpected rout for the theory. They now threaten to wreck the EU.

And that’s still not all. A recent Oxfam report estimates that 62 individuals, all by themselves, own as much wealth as half the human race, or about 3.5 billion people. That makes each of those individuals wealthier and more powerful, by far, than Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Henry VIII, or Louis XIV.

These are facts. Even among proponents of the theory, few would say these facts are heartwarming or represent human progress. Didn’t John Stuart Mill (and others) begin the Enlightenment by focusing on the “greatest good for the greatest number”?

Neither automation nor lack of education is to blame. There are many still many delicate things requiring human perception or judgment that must be done in manufacturing which no robot yet devised can do.

I’ve visited Tesla’s former “Nummi” factory in Fremont, California, one of the most advanced automobile factories in America. Without violating the nondisclosure agreement that Tesla made me sign, I can report that there are more people working there than robots. Although robots, in theory, can each perform the work of several people, there was no “skeleton crew” in this factory. On the contrary, the assembly lines were fully manned.

The same is true in China and Mexico. All the Chinese workers at Foxconn turning out iPads and iPhones by the millions are not robots. And insofar as concerns health care—one of fastest growing industries—it will be a long time, if ever, before a robot can insert a catheter harmlessly in a senior’s wizened vein, reliably call a Code Blue, or help an immobilized or sedated patient to defecate cleanly, let alone comfort a patient as a human being.

There are tens of millions of jobs that still need unskilled or semiskilled workers to do them. But, at least in manufacturing, they are now mostly in China, Mexico, Vietnam and (for clothing) Bangladesh. This massive transfer of respectable jobs is not a result of the intrinsic nature of the work or the characteristics or education of those who do it. It is the result of conscious and deliberate business decisions made by our plutocrats, in part to enrich themselves.

The generous transfer of these good jobs from advanced democracies to developing countries was what raised the near-billion out of abject poverty. But the biggest rewards of that generous move went to the advanced-democracy plutocrats who arranged it. Those who work with their hands just lost jobs, communities, marriages, sometimes their homes, or even (by drug overdose or suicide) their lives.

So automation and education are red herrings. They are long-term issues, to be sure. We Yanks may be falling behind the rest of the world in both.

But our plutocrats didn’t move 60,000 factories abroad in order to install robots in them, or because Chinese or Mexican peasants were more educated than our native unskilled or semi-skilled workers. They moved them because workers in developing countries would work for less pay and complain less than comparable developed-democracy workers about their working conditions and their environment.

So our plutocrats who managed this industrial exodus could sell things for less, both abroad and here at home. Consequently, they could undercut their competition, build huge foreign businesses selling foreign-made goods back into our US market, enrich themselves obscenely, and become the 0.1% of today. The outcome in Britain was much the same, although most of the resulting 0.1% there were bankers, not industrialists.

Engineering this mass exodus of jobs built Oxfam’s pyramid, in which 62 people match the wealth of 3.5 billion. It created what is likely the most economically lopsided global society in human history. And those who did this social engineering, including many not-especially-enlightened bankers, got rewarded by ending up right at the pyramid’s pinnacle.

How all this “proves” the effectiveness, let alone the beneficence, of the “liberal economic order’s” main rule (“don’t meddle with business!”) is hard to see. I leave to the reader the judge which was the more powerful motivation for this transformation: (1) bringing poor foreign peasants out of poverty, (2) making better products, or (3) enriching the plutocrats who made the decisions.

When your theory is in doubt, look more closely at facts. Make further observations and experiments. That’s what real scientists do. Even dismal economic scientists should do likewise. Slowly, haltingly, The Economist appears to be starting to do so, at least at its non-scolding, non-editorial level.

The clearest indication I have read is a short article cryptically entitled “Chairman president: Corporatism’s long history in America,” in The Economist’s issue of December 10-16, 2016. It reports the facts of American presidents’ various attempts to keep good jobs onshore and to build, save or mold American business.

As it turns out, almost every American president did something of the kind. Many attempted to nurture nascent industries. For example, the first transcontinental railroads got sweetheart deals on land and the “loan” of federal eminent domain to clear inconvenient private ownership. The fossil fuel industries got similar sweetheart land deals, plus subsidies in the form of “depletion allowances” that continue to this day.

The Economist even credits President Herbert Hoover with pressuring Henry Ford to grant his pathbreaking unilateral raise in autoworkers’ pay. That increase, as I have outlined, virtually created our modern Yankee consumer society. It raised workers’ pay high enough to let them afford the cars they made, as well as many other things. It started a race toward the top quite different from the today’s race to the bottom. Today, manufacturing by foreign peasants leads to cheap products at Wal Mart. But the low prices only partially compensate for laid-off American manufacturing workers’ loss of pay, and not at all for their loss of promising futures and self-respect.

The point of The Economist’s recital of presidential intervention in markets appears to be that it’s common but nearly always fails to work or causes unintended consequences. The tone is relentlessly negative, even where (as in Hoover’s and Ford’s case) the outcome was unambiguously positive. The story repeatedly uses the loaded term “meddling” to describe executive intervention in business or the marketplace.

This is not science. It’s not even the “dismal” science of economics. It’s political or economic ideology, more like religion than science. It’s the same sort of faith, unsupported by facts or clear observation, that led Alan Greenspan to declare that broken markets always fix themselves—a faith he later publicly recanted.

In its previous story in the same issue (“Dealing with Donald: Donald Trump’s trade bluster,” page 26-27), The Economist mentions Trump’s proposal to impose a “tax of 35% on firms that fired employees, built a factory in another country and then tried to sell their products back across the border.” (The Economist’s words.)

The story never analyzes how such a “tax” (really, a selective tariff) might work out. But in the very next paragraph, it discusses the weakness of checks and balances that might prevent Trump from imposing such a solution. It therefore leaves the reader with the impression that The Economist thinks such a prospective, threatening tax or tariff would be as destructive as a Smoot-Hawley-type tariff on current imports—which both the Economist and I think would be a disaster. This is not just religion; it’s incomplete and misleading analysis.

And so it goes. Unfortunately, The Economist’s abandonment of Science and Reason in its analysis of current discontents hurts us Yanks much more than it does fellow Brits.

There are three reasons for this. First, unlike us Yanks with our malapportioned Senate, our badly-gerrymandered House districts, our Senate filibusters and “holds,” and (last but far from least) our Electoral College, the Brits have a pure and well-functioning parliamentary democracy. They don’t have to digest the bitter fruit of a long-ago structural compromise with a long-vanished slave-holding Southern aristocracy (which occasionally seems to rise, zombie style, in the likes of Mitch McConnell and Jeff Sessions). The problem of devising smart and effective government intervention is far more acute here than in Britain because we Yanks have a structurally deficient democracy and an ideologically deadlocked legislature.

As if to prove this point, consider a second: our respective chief executives. After their revolt of neglected workers, the Brits have Theresa May as prime minister. She’s an experienced, sober, well-respected pol. She is also a female—a member of our species’ practical, less theoretical gender—just like the president we Yanks would have had but for our Electoral College. In contrast, we have Donald Trump—a man utterly devoid of public experience but who also seems, despite all his faults, devoid of strong ideology.

Finally, non-college-educated folk who work with their hands amount collectively to about one-third of our US population. That’s about the same as our Southerners, although there’s of course some overlap.

To an economist, these folks may seem just inefficient factors of labor. But to a politician, they are a large enough group of citizens to threaten societal destabilization and strife if left to rot. One cannot dismiss them as mere apostates to the “correct” economic religion, at least not if one hopes to maintain a coherent and well-functioning democracy. The current position of Teresa May, the gloating of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, and the presidency of Donald Trump all attest to this reality.

What we are witnessing is the destabilization of the world’s most powerful democracy (ours), the world’s oldest modern democracy (the Brits’) and possibly the world’s most ambitious example of federalism, the EU. We need solutions that work, not scolding for apostasy against an unproven and unprovable theory.

Trump has proposed one novel solution in his 35% prospective “tax” on imports from factories newly moved abroad. I think that plan might work to keep good jobs at home and is worth a try. May has proposed a quick and clean Brexit, without letting on whether her proposal is just an initial bargaining position or a desired end result. Either approach might work if well handled. The Economist and other policy analysts should take these proposals seriously, analyze them in depth, and make serious recommendations.

If they don’t think any of these proposals will work, they should say so and say why. Then they should propose alternatives. They should not let unproven and unprovable religious zeal (“don’t meddle with business!”) substitute for serious analysis and the scientific method.

This is not a time to sit back and grumble like an old codger about religious heresy or apostasy. It calls for clear thinking and creative solutions. The fact of millions of innocent workers being left behind is real. May, Farage, Johnson and Trump are real. The prospect of the end of the Enlightenment in the US and Europe is real.

All these things call for an open mind, as if by real scientists or engineers. They do not call for the type of reflexive ideology that one might expect from Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan or Archie Bunker. The Economist’s history of clear thinking and international prestige lead us to expect so much more. And we all—Yanks and Brits alike—desperately require more.

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20 January 2017

Trump’s Inauguration


[For some popular recent posts, click on the links below: Margaritas in one hand, our hearts in the other, we watched Trump’s inauguration on TV today. Our mood was a far cry from eight years ago, when we sat on a blanket near the Reflecting Pool at the far end of the National Mall. There we watched on a “Jumbotron” while Barack Obama took the oath of office for the first time.

Hope was a tangible thing that day. Strangers of all races hugged each other after Obama’s speech. Then, as we watched a helicopter take Dubya back into private life, we pondered his two unnecessary wars and the economic collapse he had left us as his legacy.

The nation that Trump inherits from Obama is in far better shape. At long last, the Crash of 2008 that our bankers caused is over. Unemployment, on average, is back to “normal.” Our American auto makers are thriving, with record sales. Interest rates are at records lows. The stock markets are at record highs. Our dollar, having pounded the Yuan and the Euro into submission, is king again. Even the two forever wars that Dubya started are winding down, with much more sacrifice by locals and much less by our hard-pressed all-volunteer troops.

So you would think that Hillary—Obama’s designated successor and co-policy-wonk—would be giving the speech today. But no. There was Donald Trump at the podium, uncharacteristically speaking in flowing, complete sentences, undoubtedly written by others.

That central anomaly—unprecedented, unpredicted and maybe unpredictable—was the 800 pound gorilla sitting unseen on the dais today. It was and is, by far, the thing that most cries out for thought and explanation.

How did the least experienced candidate, with the most repulsive public personality (though, apparently, a sweeter private one), end up knocking off sixteen Republican rivals and the first serious (and overqualified) female candidate for president? The best answer is that all those candidates—every one!—plus a large fraction of our global intelligentsia have been part of the most egregious group-think in human history.

The object of that group-think is something that the The Economist, which styles itself a “newspaper,” calls the “liberal economic order.” We used to call it “laissez faire capitalism,” before FDR gave that ideology a bad name for helping cause the Great Depression.

In essence, the “liberal economic order” is a global system that lets economic actors do what they will, with as few rules and restrictions as possible. It’s our own GOP’s basic philosophy, made respectable and almost divine by the Brits.

Among many other things, it means cutting tariffs and other trade barriers to the bone and making the whole world a single market. The fewer rules, barriers and restrictions we have to hinder the free run of businesses and entrepreneurs worldwide, it holds, the better off we’ll all be.

This simplistic theory has bent a bit in the past few decades. It now accommodates rules that try to keep factories from burning down or blowing up, workers from being poisoned or injured, vessels and aircraft from sinking or crashing, food from causing disease, water from being made undrinkable (as in Flint recently), and air from being made unbreathable. The group thinkers have made these begrudging concessions in order to lessen clear threats to life, health and limb. A man named Ronald Coase even got a Nobel Prize, in 1991, for laying the theoretical groundwork for some of these rules.

But these effects are all dramatic and visible consequences: physical destruction of property or clear threats to human health, safety and life. Group thinkers are still chewing on how best to retard global warming while giving business free reign. And no group thinker ever dreamed that the group-think would, over decades, have serious social and economic consequences in the world’s most stable democracies.

So Nigel Farage (the British Brexit guy) and Donald Trump had to show us. Donald got elected president when no one dreamed a man of his experience, temperament and personality could.

And then, in his inauguration speech, he told us how he had done it. He had acted and spoken for the “forgotten” workers. You know the ones: those who had lost their factories and consequently their good jobs, their towns, their kids and sometimes their homes and (through addiction and substance abuse) their health and their lives.

No, if you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t know them. You’re probably a college-educated person who will never have to make a living with your hands. You probably don’t know too many people who do, at least not intimately.

But if you want to know them, you have only to visit a union hall or any of the thousands of small towns in the upper Midwest where Trump won overwhelmingly. There the factory that made the town is closed and locked; the roads are broken and cracked because there is no tax money to repair them; the kids are all gone to college, to big cities or to fight our endless wars; and the mostly-over-fifty residents all live on scut work, the safety net, memories, broken dreams and (more than occasionally now) dangerous drugs. And they are the ones who still have homes.

Pundit Mark Shields’ reaction to Trump’s speech was both touching and revealing. Shields seemed at last to get it: so many people, so many broken lives. The “liberal international order” hasn’t done very well by them. They are its “collateral damage.”

Shields balked at Trump using the word “carnage” to describe the damage. But isn’t “carnage” apt, at least metaphorically? Isn’t it well within Donald Trump’s usual scope of exaggeration? Isn’t what’s happening in South Central Chicago “carnage,” even literally? Isn’t the epidemic of drug abuse among the so-called “middle-class” pretty close? And aren’t the dusty winds blowing over broken pavement and abandoned homes in so many one-company towns with no company left anymore reminiscent of a long-ago war zone?

The sins of the group thinkers are three. First, they have a propensity to fit facts to theory, rather than vice versa. That is the sin of Alan Greenspan, who failed to take measures to stop the Crash of 2008 for faith that broken markets fix themselves (a faith he later publicly recanted).

The second sin is worse and more fundamental: a lack of empathy. How could the stewards of American society, its pols, fail to see and feel the pain of all those millions left behind?

Business executives at least have a plausible excuse. In our increasingly stratified and unequal society, they simply don’t have much contact, any more, with people who work with their hands. They go to (and send their kids to) different schools. They take different entertainment. They eat and drink at different places. And they live in gated communities, different towns or different parts of cities.

But isn’t it pols’ job to cross these barriers and find out how the other half lives? The mere fact that so many missed what Trump-the-property-plutocrat managed to discover is an indictment of our entire political system.

The oddest thing in this regard was Trump himself. On our TV screen, we could see his face over a foot wide. In speaking of these “forgotten” Americans, his passion was palpable. Whatever else this guy may or may not have, he does have some genuine sympathy for forgotten Americans. Evidently they, feeling a rare ray of hope, responded in kind.

Even going back to Nixon, I can’t remember seeing any Republican showing such passion for the plight of the ordinary worker. Whenever McConnell, Ryan or Boehner spoke of “jobs,” all I heard was someone trying to sell me something: the idea that taxes and regulation kill jobs. But they don’t. Taxes support government and defense jobs or (if spent for things like infrastructure) private-sector jobs. Regulation makes jobs safer. And if you believe in that purpose (or any other legitimate purpose of regulation), isn’t what the regulators themselves do a “job”? It’s about time people began to recognize this GOP cant for the utter garbage that it is.

The third sin is simply hubris. The “liberal international order” has raised standards of living worldwide. In the last generation, it has lifted almost a billion people worldwide out of extreme poverty, mostly by transferring factories and good jobs from advanced nations to developing nations like China. But in the process, it has hollowed out industry in advanced countries, deprived millions of equal treatment and their [insert country] dream, created obscene economic inequality, and in the process fostered vast social instability.

Looking at a machine like this, an honest engineer (or economist) would say the system does some things well but in some respects needs fixing. Then he would roll up his sleeves and get to work fixing it. He wouldn’t, as our group thinkers so often do, say “the theory’s right, so damn the suffering, full speed ahead.” A system that destabilizes what makes it work (advanced democracies) is not a sustainable system.

And so we have our latest Andrew Jackson in the White House. He’s rude. He’s crude. He’s uncivil and undiplomatic. He’s unpredictable and a loose cannon. But somehow he managed to connect with millions of Americans (and Brits across the Pond) whose lives have been ripped apart by an abstract theory that, to put it mildly, doesn’t comprehend all the facts or all its consequences.

The next thing I think I learned from watching Trump speak is how far his tribalism really goes. He didn’t apologize for his misogyny, racism, and bashing of immigrants and Muslims during the campaign. But he didn’t repeat them, either. You might say he was utterly silent on the subject except to mention control of immigration generally and in passing.

It’s a sad fact of our society and political system that tribalism works. At least virtually all our pols but Barack Obama think it works. Virtually every Republican since Nixon (with his vile “Southern Strategy”) has used it. Avuncular Daddy Bush did so with his “Willie Horton” ad. Even Democrats did so: Hillary and Bill resorted to implied, second-hand racism during their knock-down, drag-out 2007 campaign against Obama.

The big question is: does Trump really mean this stuff? Or is it all just a way to gin up solid anger to bring folks who’ve despaired of electoral politics to the polls?

I can’t believe that anyone from Queens raised in New York City is a racist anything like Jeff Sessions. Trump’s failure to blow any dog whistle during his speech—except the general one of “law and order”—suggests that his resemblance to Adolf has been greatly exaggerated, including by me.

Another hint at Trump’s real views was what he reportedly said about the Clintons at lunch after his inauguration. He said he was “very honored” to have them present and that he has “a lot of respect for those two people.” This, you may recall, was the same guy who made the chant “Lock her up!” a staple of his late-campaign rallies.

All American pols seem to do this sort of thing. Trump just took it to extremes, which we can all hope are the high-water-mark of gratuitous nastiness in American politics. We can also hope that foreign democracies eschew this particular “made in America” product.

This brings me to the last and by far the most important point of this post. Once Trump was a Democrat. He switched to the GOP during Barack Obama’s first term, perhaps after seeing how successful Mitch, Rush and John were in demonizing Obama on racial and ideological ground.

But some of his expressed policies would sit well in the Democratic party. They include: (1) fairer trade deals, (2) more attention to people who work with their hands (the Dems’ traditional base), (3) keeping jobs onshore, (4) building infrastructure (and our economy) with deficit spending, (5) waiting to repeal Obamacare until there is a working replacement, beyond a fig leaf, and (6) trying to avoid starting a new war for at least a year or two.

Donald Trump is still figuring out what he wants to do when he grows up and becomes president. His latest on immigration was not deporting all eleven million undocumented immigrants, just the criminals. Although he hasn’t disclaimed his lie that global warming is a Chinese hoax, every one of his Cabinet nominees who was asked about it has. There are also some examples of Trump knowing what he doesn’t know, especially in military matters.

Trump will say or Tweet whatever comes into his mind at the moment. He’s an unusual president who thinks out loud and in public. We’re all going to have to get used to that. The best way to do so is to wait until he acts before judging him or reacting.

If that’s the right approach, then three things are clear. First, the “total opposition - fight him on everything” attitude of some progressives would be massively self-defeating, at least at present. The real enemies of the people, progressives and Democrats are Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, whose only interests in politics appear to be cutting taxes, spending and regulation, thereby making their donor-bosses richer and freer. If they have any constructive, non-ideology-driven plans to make ordinary people’s lives better, I haven’t heard of them.

Second, if McConnell and Ryan continue to oppose and thwart Trump on key issues, the Dems will have an historic opportunity. They could form winning coalitions by attracting like-minded legislators away from the GOP, perhaps even from the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. If enough common ground appears, they might even form a new dominant party and leave the “serve the rich” GOP in the dust.

Quixotic? Maybe. But grand forces are at work in American politics today as never since the Vietnam War. A noted pundit (Mark Shields) called Trump a president without a party, and most of those present, including right-leaning pundit David Brooks, appeared to agree.

This is not your father’s Washington. All the new, fired-up Congresspeople, not to mention the jaded old timers, are going to get pretty tired and disgusted doing nothing but posturing and bickering for yet another Congress. An unconventional newcomer like Trump has the power to shake things up and make things happen, if nowise else but blasting old, tired, and counterproductive habits. Any Democrat who doesn’t strategize to make those things come out the people’s way is not doing his or her job.

The third and final point is tactical. Key Dems (perhaps one for each key issue) should make secret overtures to key Republicans under the radar of Congressional leadership. As long as secrecy is maintained, no harm can come of this. Even if there are leaks, they can be denied.

During the knock-down, drag-out campaign, Trump showed himself to be flexible and willing to change course. If Dems adopt the treasonous “make him fail” policy that Mitch and other Republicans adopted toward Obama—microseconds after his first inauguration—they may be missing an opportunity that comes along only every other generation.

Donald Trump is a new animal in the White House. He won virtually on his own, with little or no “establishment” support, monetary or otherwise. He proved himself better at attracting votes (at least in battleground states) than anyone in either party. His rudeness, crudeness and tribalism probably hurt him as much as it helped him, but he won.

Under these circumstances, our traditional two-party system may be up for grabs. The Dems would be fools not to probe for possible advantage, issue by issue and member by member. Trump, who styles himself a deal maker above all, would not avoid discussions. On the contrary, the man who has won by breaking every rule and custom of American politics might well listen and deal. In so doing, he and the Dems might advance the people’s agenda, for a change, as Obama and Trump both promised.

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19 January 2017

Losing Our Republic: A Media Coup


[For a recent post on MLK Day 2017, click here. For a recent post on benchmarking Trump’s presidency, click here. For a recent, very popular post opposing Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as AG, click here. For a popular recent post about Russia and our policy toward it, click here.]

In banana-republic revolutions, the first thing insurgents do is take over the main television station. Last year, it happened in Turkey. The coup plotters took over the main TV station in Istanbul. Strongman Erdogan survived only by flying into another city from abroad and pulling strings from there.

This week something similar happened here in America. There were no bullets or immediate casualties. It was a bloodless media coup. Yet the “BBC of America,” our Public Broadcasting System (PBS), fell under control of right-wing insurgents as surely and suddenly as if taken in war. Unlike their counterparts in Turkey, the insurgents here won—both the media coup and the electoral insurgency that preceded it.

The coup involved a two-hour “special” bearing the name “Divided States of America.” It also bore the brand of “Frontline,” once the gold standard of investigative television reporting. But its thrust was to blame President Obama for the racism that rose like a tidal wave against him, and for the polarization that has gripped the nation since the day after his first inauguration.

Remember that day? Then Mitch McConnell, following Rush Limbaugh, declared the GOP’s primary objective making the new president fail.

The program didn’t stop with blaming Obama for creating racism, obstructionism and original sin. It also subtly blamed him for: (1) failing to achieve a bipartisan “consensus” on health insurance, (2) passing “Obamacare” with no Republican votes, (3) creating the Tea Party through his own intransigence (as if deliberate GOP “death panel” propaganda and massive lies about Obama himself had nothing to do with it), (4) thereby engineering his own party’s defeat in the House in 2010, and (5) generally foisting an unwanted and unworkable health “care” bill on a reluctant and helpless nation, and doing so virtually single-handedly. On the way to these multiple blamings, the broadcast presented the Tea Party as a natural and legitimate popular response to President Obama’s alleged overreaching.

Why is this program so important? After all, it’s only one show.

It’s important because it sets viewers’ basic attitudes toward Barack Obama and everything he did as president. It doesn’t matter whether the policy at issue is “Obamacare,” phasing out our most planet-warming and polluting fuel (coal), or letting law-abiding, undocumented kids who’ve never known any home but America stay here. If you think Obama is a racist, uncompromising, a tyrant, and a deeply flawed president, you’re not going to support that policy, or even keep an open mind.

That’s precisely the goal of demonizing Obama in this broadcast: to provide a basis in popular skepticism, anger and resentment, with strong racial overtones, to repeal everything he did. Apparently, the GOP is getting nervous as it slowly dawns on millions of people—including many who voted for Trump—that repealing “Obamacare” will deprive them of access to modern medicine and may even sicken or kill them.

Much, if not all, of this show used video clips and voice-overs from a similar piece of propaganda broadcast by “Frontline” in 2012. That broadcast came a month before the 2012 presidential election. I reviewed it in depth in a 2012 post entitled “Has PBS Turned to the Dark Side?”

The show’s bias is not always obvious. It’s a matter of selecting the clips, of picking the people and quotes for interviews and voice-overs, and creating a cumulative effect of video and audio all pointing in a single direction. It’s as subtle and smooth as poisoned silk.

This may be the single cleverest and most diabolical piece of propaganda that I have witnessed in America in my 71 years. As I watched it, both now and in 2012, I imagined all the great demagogues of human history—Hitler, Geobbels, Lenin, Stalin, Molotov, McCarthy, Huey Long, Karl Rove, Vladimir Putin, and (now) Donald Trump—all standing up and cheering.

Unlike its commercial competitors, PBS has a well-deserved reputation for providing honest and accurate journalism consistently. So why did it air such a corrosive piece of propaganda not once, but twice—once a month before a key presidential election, and once about two months after our most recent one?

The only answer that makes sense is the simplest: the executives and producers at PBS want to save their jobs and PBS’ budget, a significant part of which comes from our federal government. In 2012, they imagined or feared that Romney might win and wanted to bend over backwards to appease those pols and Fox-like media commentators who insist that PBS has a liberal bias. This time, after Trump has already won, they wanted to preserve their jobs and federal support for the PBS budget against what may become an all-out GOP and government assault against PBS.

Think about that. The GOP made a successful media coup just days before Trump takes over the federal executive. How much independence will PBS have after the takeover is complete, let alone after our right-wing Congress, which is even more extreme than Trump himself, begins to throw its weight around?

The most bone-chilling thing about this sudden media coup is not its implications for truth and journalism, which the Internet and “fake news” already have driven near to death. It’s what the coup says about the GOP’s plans for our democracy and the chances of it surviving beyond the next generation.

PBS’ devilish propaganda piece paints the extremism of the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus as a natural and rational response to President Obama’s alleged inept leadership and overreaching. It breathes not a word of all the GOP lies and propaganda that made ordinary voters hate him and his signature legislation. Among many other things, they called him a non-citizen, a Kenyan, terrorist, a socialist, a fascist, a Muslim and an extremist, and they lied that “Obamacare” was a government takeover of all of health care (not even just insurance) that would put “death panels” in charge of grandma’s survival.

With its incessant propaganda, the GOP created the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus as surely as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster. The GOP fueled its monster not with lightning, like Dr. Frankenstein, but with manic and irrational anger against progressives and beneficial government programs. It went so far as to cause one deluded senior to scream, “keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

But here’s the thing. Just like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the Tea Party got out of hand. It precipitated several shutdowns of our federal government. It nearly precipitated a national default, the economic equivalent of a nuclear holocaust. It ended John Boehner’s political career. It and its successor, the so-called “Freedom caucus,” wiped out all the “establishment” GOP presidential candidates and gave the GOP and all us Yanks Trump as president-elect.

Not since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party has there been such a loose cannon in American politics. But establishment Republicans quickly crushed Teddy’s Bull Moose. In contrast, today’s Republican establishment, slowly and spasmodically, has come to accept, work with, and incorporate the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus and Donald Trump. You have only to look at the smug and bemused smile on Mitch McConnell’s normally catatonic face to know that some establishment Republicans—if not most—view the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, and Donald Trump as their political saviors and secret weapons.

Why is that? Isn’t the answer obvious? However irrational and incompetent, even crazy, these loose cannons may be, they are stepping stones to power. Get the power first, then figure out what to do with it and how to tie down the loose cannons. That’s the GOP’s credo, as it has been for some time.

John Boehner, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, fiscal prudence, even sacred religious orthodoxy—all are “collateral damage” in the mad dash to power. Even neocon hawks and the military-industrial complex, which have been steady GOP constituents for a generation, can be thrown under the bus as the president-elect cozies up to Russia and Putin, while the American people tire of three endless wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.)

So does the GOP of Donald Trump and Paul Ryan stand for anything? You bet. It stands for cutting taxes, primarily on its rich donors, and cutting regulation that hampers their freedom of action. “Small government” is just a means to that end: the smaller the government, the smaller its expenses, the lower the taxes it must levy, and the fewer resources it has to regulate anything.

That’s the essence of the so-called “right wing”: a political philosophy of “bossism,” especially in our South. You do what the boss wants because he pays and employs you. It’s all just a modern version of feudalism, which reigns supreme in non-union factories, especially those in which terrified, undocumented immigrants cower from “La Migra.”

Thus the right wing is a simple tribal patriarchy. (Even female right-wingers are inveterate anti-feminists because bosses have traditionally been men, and bossism lends itself to tradition.) The bogus quest for “small government” is just a way of saying that no other social structure, let alone a democratic government, can get in the way of your serving the bosses who control your job or float your enterprise, which in the GOP’s case are its big donors.

Once you see these points, you can ken why the GOP House voted to repeal Obamacare over fifty times, and why Donald Trump (the quintessential boss) still wants to realize that goal. It’s not that GOP pols really think it’s better for us, the people, to suffer and die than to have decent insurance that gives us access to America’s advanced medicine. It’s not that they have anything against the working poor, who will inevitably do most of the suffering and dying.

It’s just that they know and fervently believe two things. First, every government program that makes people’s lives easier and happier, such as Social Security and Medicare, makes people more comfortable with government and less comfortable with kneeling like serfs before their bosses. Second, every such government program requires money, part of which ultimately will come out of their rich donors’ pockets. And as it collects and distributes more money, government becomes more popular and powerful, maybe (eventually) enough to compete with and dethrone the bosses and their lackeys.

Sounds cynical? Believe it or not, this is precisely what GOP theorists and strategists have said themselves for about a generation. This is precisely why they fought Obamacare tooth and nail and why, after 80 years opposing it, they want to abolish or privatize Social Security. You can read some of their key remarks and find links to sources here.

Anyway, just think about it. Does it make any rational sense to rail and propagandize relentlessly against a program that gives over 20 million people the benefits of modern medicine? It only makes sense if you believe, as the Republicans do, that allowing such a program to exist will eventually reduce or extinguish their power and the power of the bosses that support them.

Just watch. In the coming Trump Administration, the neocon-hawks, the arms industry and even the military-industrial complex may fall victim to the right wing’s prime directive: keeping power at all costs. If keeping power means throwing them under the bus, they will be looking up at the wheels and axles from below. After all, the GOP is as practical as it is (falsely) ideological.

Obamacare, too, is in for a rough ride. Unless public protest is overwhelming, no popular complaints or laments will forestall its repeal, whether with or without a fig leaf of “replacement” that leaves millions with no health insurance.

The GOP doesn’t care about the substance of fair and affordable insurance. It doesn’t want to “solve the problem.” It wants just the opposite. It wants dependent and desperate people who know that their only salvation from want and ill health is the corporate employers who provide whatever benefits they deign to provide.

The most the GOP will tolerate is the appearance of a solution. Justice in health insurance will become permanent only when and if the public becomes so righteously incensed as to turn the tables and achieve an electoral three-branch sweep for progressives like that which the GOP now has in its grasp.

What dims the long-term prospects for continued democracy in America, let alone progressivism, is the Fourth Estate’s likely fate. If PBS dies or becomes subverted, there will be plenty of media to carry the right-wing cudgel. Fox is the by far most powerful, and it depends not one whit upon government. Then there’s the private radio empire (practically all but NPR), which dominates many big cities and backs the likes of Rush.

If the light of the Enlightenment goes out at PBS, it’s lights out for progressive America. Then the Enlightenment’s last chance, as I’ve analyzed before, will shift to Germany, France and England, and perhaps to the smaller English-speaking democracies.

So the apparent media coup at PBS is no small thing. It’s something worth fighting against, as is the repeal of Obamacare. But don’t expect to win without the roughest, toughest political battle since our Civil War or the War in Vietnam. Truly the bell tolls in Frontline’s “Divided States of America,” and it tolls for you.

Footnote: According to its audited financial statement for 2015, the federal government gave $445 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Affiliate. CPB is a non-profit corporation that federal statutes designate as the federal funding vehicle for PBS and National Public Radio (NPR), among other less important media. According to a blog post by an executive of WGBH (a PBS affiliate in Boston), this subsidy amounts to about 17% of PBS’ total revenue. A precise accounting is difficult, if not impossible, however, because what viewers see as “PBS” comprises some 350 independent TV stations in the fifty states and U.S. Territories (as reported in Wikipedia).

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16 January 2017

MLK Day 2017


[For a recent post on benchmarking Trump’s presidency, click here. For a recent, very popular post opposing Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as AG, click here. For a popular recent post about Russia and our policy toward it, click here.]

Our national holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is special every year. But it’s particularly special this year.

In just four days, we will undergo an unprecedented national transformation. A man who has made political hay by bashing African-Americans and other minorities will replace our first mixed-race president. A man whose educational career ended with a few business-school courses as an undergraduate at Penn will replace a constitutional law professor who, as a law student, was President of the Harvard Law Review.

A man who has no political experience whatsoever will replace a man who became president after four years as a United States senator and eight years as an Illinois senator. A man who gained notoriety by shouting “You’re fired!” on television, and who gained wealth by stiffing employees, contractors, students and investors in multiple bankruptcies, will replace a man who made his money by writing books and cut his teeth in politics organizing communities to better themselves.

A rude, thoughtless, inconsistent and narcissistic braggart will replace a thoughtful, circumspect, steady, kind and considerate man of extraordinary empathy and political skill. A man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals will replace a man whose family life and family have been exemplary, despite the pressures of living in the fishbowl of the most-watched household on Earth.

In the face of such a transition, it’s possible—even easy—to despair. It’s possible to fear that everything that makes us “Ugly Americans” abroad will subsume Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.” It’s possible to believe that the end of our American “exceptionalism” is nigh, for whatever “exceptionalism” we Yanks ever had came more from right than from might. Or so we thought.

That’s why it’s especially important, this year, to remember who Dr. King was, what he did, and when he did it.

Dr. King worked his “miracles” during one of the darkest post-slavery periods of racial injustice in our history: the regime of Jim Crow. Yet he never despaired. He feared nothing and no one. Why? Because he had faith in the basic goodness and decency of all Americans.

And he found ways to bring them out. Sometimes he appealed directly to our better angels. He did that (to his eternal fame) in his “I have a dream” speech. Sometimes he showed us the consequences of our selfishness and indifference by suffering those consequences before our very eyes.

Dr. King did that in leading the nonviolent march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. There Rep. John Lewis courageously stood his ground and was beaten to within an inch of his life. (Donald Trump can Tweet nonsense about Rep. Lewis all he likes. But we, the people, know that Trump, if on that bridge, would have turned and run.)

Dr. King knew how to invoke and to provoke. He did both sublimely well. Yet he kept his eyes on the prize and never lost courage or faith.

Toward the end of his short life, Dr. King did something else remarkable: he told us straight out what we had become. We Yanks, he said, had become the Earth’s greatest purveyors of violence, especially in Vietnam.

That inconvenient truth outraged many Americans. It may have contributed to Dr. King’s martyrdom.

Yet today we understand our devastation of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, in support of a paranoid fantasy of “dominoes” falling to Communism, as the greatest foreign-policy blunder of our national history. Dr. King was right, and he told the truth, regardless of consequences.

So Dr. King had insight. He had great political skill. He had courage. But most of all, he had empathy and perseverance—the very same traits that let Nelson Mandela work his own political “miracle”: negotiating his people’s freedom from inside a prison cell.

In the end, Dr. King won. He didn’t destroy racism; it will take generations to do that. But he beat back the forces of darkness and made considerable progress. By cooperating with and cajoling pols like Kennedy and Johnson, he won the civil rights and voting rights statutes that eventually contributed to Barack Obama’s presidency.

Now that presidency, one of the better in our history, has seen an explosive backlash. But Obama and his legacy have truth and right on their side.

If we want to give all our people access to modern medicine—as a nation of our wealth and pretension ought—we are going to have to have something like “Obamacare’s” subsidies and mandates. Or we are going to have to move to a single-payer system, like every other advanced nation on our planet. There is no other practical way to proceed, except to condemn a large fraction of our people to suffering and premature death, and to let the poor bring the next pandemic right into our homes, nurseries, and bedrooms.

The same is true of global warming. It is real, and fossil fuels are slowly running out. We can ignore those truths in order to serve the powerful and make the rich richer in the short term. Or we can prepare for the inevitable energy transformation, dominate the new industries that we know our species must build, and give our skilled workers good, good-paying and useful jobs in the process.

In his own way, Dr. King was a showman not entirely unlike Donald Trump. But the shows Dr. King put on were “reality” shows in more than name. They showed us the reality of our lives and the consequences of our long-term neglect of truth and justice. Unlike Trump’s “reality shows” and “fake news”, Dr. King’s shows revealed what really matters.

Others will follow Dr. King. Perhaps they will not be martyred, as Mandela was not. While we honor Dr. King and hope for others to come, we should not forget what he stood for. Like Jesus himself, Dr. King sought human empathy, equality and justice. And like Jesus, he did so without violent revolution.

In a way, Dr. King outdid Jesus, who lived in a primitive time where life without perpetual violence was unthinkable. Dr. King pushed the causes of equal treatment and racial justice forward. He even got them written into law. And he did so at a time when his sometime antagonist—our own government—was engaged in the greatest act of collective violence globally at that time.

So it can be done. Dr. King did it. In this time of darkness and foreboding, we should never forget what he did and how he did it. And we should all strive, whatever our station, our race, and our politics, to do likewise. Forming a more perfect Union, as our Constitution commands, is hard but doable work.

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13 January 2017

Grading Trump’s Presidency: Benchmarks


[For a recent, very popular post opposing Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as AG, click here. For a popular recent post about Russia and our policy toward it, click here.]

Introduction
Energy/global warming
Health insurance
Good jobs onshore
Immigration
Economic stability
Geopolitical stability
Conclusion

Introduction

In seven days, Donald J. Trump will become our president. You’ve got to hand it to him: he’s a master showman. By delaying his press conference for six months, he made it a standing-room-only event and a spectacle much like his campaign rallies. By holding it at the same time as the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on his most controversial nominees, he made sure it didn’t get too much media scrutiny. By accusing CNN of making “fake news” and refusing to let its hapless reporter even ask a question, he created a frothy controversy and established a punitive and vindictive approach to the media that he may keep throughout his presidency.

Make no mistake about it. If you’re a reporter at an event Trump controls, he will be the boss. If you cross him, he will make your job harder. He will deny you a voice and will deny you access. And he will try to make a fool of you in public to boot.

So you’ll have to do reporting the old-fashioned way. You’ll have to work the phones constantly (and avoid e-mail) to find people who know something and are willing to talk. Then you’ll have to expend shoe leather visiting and interviewing them, mostly in secret. You’ll also have to spend lonely hours pawing through musty documents and secret databases to find out just what’s really going on.

Much of this work will be solitary and boring, but it will be essential. For when Trump’s nominees take over their various departments and agencies, the first casualty will be transparency. The flow of copious, complete and honest statistics that we Yanks have come to expect from our government will fall to a trickle, just like Trump’s nominees’ late and incomplete ethics disclosures. What’s left will sour with slant and “spin.” Our federal government will begin to resemble the old Soviet system of forged and fictional stats, and the GOP will use that very fact as a pretext for cutting more government.

So reporters are going to have to dig deep to find information they now get for free. They are going to have to find ways to verify its accuracy. And these (mostly) liberal-arts majors are going to have to learn to do arithmetic and maybe even some higher math.

Therefore the job of being a reporter is going to get a lot harder. But the rewards for doing it well are going to get a lot sweeter. There will be scoops galore, scandals to probe, facts and real statistics to unearth. And if you don’t think there will be Watergates by the dozen, you can’t yet see the slow-motion train wreck that is Trump’s approach to conflicts of interest and to governing in general.

Reporters willing to ditch the Trump-arranged lie fests and do their jobs the old-fashioned way will have Pulitzer Prizes for the picking. For Donald J. Trump, as president, threatens to become Warren G. Harding on steroids.

Not only is Trump a master showman. He’s also a master lier. Barack Obama was born in the American state of Hawaii, as his birth certificate says. Global warming is a reality (not a Chinese hoax), and an accelerating menace. And no, there were not “millions” of fraudulent votes cast for Hillary in our recent election. But Trump has gotten millions of gullible Americans to believe his three Big Lies to the contrary.

His doing so has two key effects. The obvious one is to strengthen the reality-free, partisan echo chamber of his and GOP supporters. Yet the most important effect is more subtle. By repeatedly propagating outrageous lies, Trump controls the national conversation and takes our collective eyes off the ball. We all report, talk and think about what he just said and whether it’s true. We forget all about whether the problems he promised to solve are getting solved, and whether people’s lives are improving.

If these trends continue, Trump will not just have been the least experienced president in our history. He will be the first president to escape serious, honest evaluation entirely.

If we are to have the ghost of a chance of giving Trump and his presidency that evaluation, we, the people, are going to have to work as hard as reporters to keep our eyes on the ball. We’re going to have to have clear and specific benchmarks for success. And we’re going to have to hold Trump and all his appointees accountable for meeting them. It’s in that spirit that I offer this essay, with benchmarks in rough order of importance.

Energy/global warming

The science of global warming and climate change is complex. It takes five years of hard study, on the average, plus above-average intelligence and drive, just to get a Ph.D. in any serious field of climate science. And a Ph.D. is only the entry ticket to real work. A few more years of postdoctoral research, at salaries that most business people would find laughable, are essential to build a reputation as a good scientist among peers.

There are tens of thousands of climate scientists who have done just this, in dozens of fields as abstruse as tropospheric mixing, paleoclimatology, geochemistry, oceanography, and marine biology. The biggest lie in the whole global-warming controversy is that the average voter can assimilate all their work better than the experts and come to rational conclusions by reading a few anecdotes about weather and some news articles about climate history.

The average voter can’t. Nor can the average pol. They might just as well try to build nuclear reactors in their backyards out of leaves and twigs, or to fly A-380s untutored. They have to rely on the experts; they have no other rational choice. And this conclusion most definitely includes Trump himself.

Climate science is hard. But benchmarking progress in energy and in fighting global warming is far, far easier than understanding the science. Only four numbers are key: the annual global output of carbon dioxide, the average annual global temperature, our globe’s remaining and recoverable fossil-fuel reserves, and the numbers of jobs in various fields of various energy industries.

That’s all. The whole field of energy and global warming revolves around four very real phenomena. First, burning fossil fuels puts carbon dioxide (directly) and other greenhouse gases (indirectly) into our atmosphere, heating our planet beyond our evolutionary comfort zone.

Second, fossil fuels are running out. It took Nature millions of years to make them—hence the adjective “fossil.” Nature ain’t makin’ any more, at least not in the short term. If we humans don’t have good ways to replace the energy from fossil fuels when they run out, our entire advanced civilization will slow or halt. It’s that simple.

Third, energy is the driver of our real economy and our modern, human standard of living. Nations that make the transition to sustainable energy quicker and better will simply have stronger economies. Their citizens will have better lives. Finally, since jobs in extracting, refining and using fossil fuels will disappear when they run out, nations that convert to sustainable energy sooner will have more good jobs to give their people, and those jobs will have better futures.

As was his wont, Ronald Reagan loved to oversimplify things. He asked voters, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Yet with just a bit more nuance, we can identify good benchmarks for energy and global warming.

Have global CO2 emissions gone down, or has their rate of increase at least slowed? Despite natural variability, are there signs that global average annual temperatures are decreasing, or that their rate of increase is slowing? Has the rate of replacing fossil fuels with sustainable energy increased? Have we Yanks created the most jobs in sustainable energy, or has China or Germany? If reporters can focus on these essential questions and stop wasting so much effort, time and energy chasing Trump’s lies and Tweets, we might actually know something useful about his effectiveness as president.

Health insurance

How did Barack Obama manage to get health insurance to twenty million people who’d never had it before? It wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t “socialism.” He used subsidies, and he used “mandates”: forcing healthy people who don’t think they need health insurance to buy it.

Way back in 2007, I wrote essays about how potent a political issue the mandates would be. (See 1, 2). I was right; the mandates nearly killed “Obamacare.” But the GOP didn’t just demagogue the mandates; it’s now demagoguing the subsidies, too. It wants to cut or eliminate them so that it can cut taxes on the rich.

But here’s the rub. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. People who can’t afford health insurance can’t have it unless someone else pays (or helps pay) for it, with subsidies or mandates. And health insurance won’t get much cheaper unless the size of the insurance pool increases dramatically, thereby lowering the per-person risk. That won’t happen without single payer—something the GOP has fought tooth and nail for nearly a century.

The simple fact is that everybody wants a cut. Doctors want more pay (and many deserve it, because they work hard). Private insurers want more profit to pay their executives and stockholders. Lots of people can’t afford health insurance even today, let alone if we hike doctor’s pay and insurers’ profits.

So something has to give. We can’t insure everybody without subsidies, mandates, and/or single payer—national insurance funded by mandatory taxes. And if we don’t insure everybody, emergency rooms will fill up with people seeking grossly inefficient routine care, and people will suffer and die needlessly. And if a pandemic ever comes, low-paid workers who can’t afford to see a doctor will bring it right into your office or home. Ebola for breakfast, anyone?

Those are the choices. There’s no easy fix. And even if there were, Trump’s putting a doctor (Tom Price) who’s only interested in doctors’ pay in charge wouldn’t find it.

So here are the numerical benchmarks for health insurance. Are more or fewer people insured? Are fewer or more people seeking care in emergency rooms? Is the cost of insurance going up or going down? Are insured people, on average, happier with their insurance plans or frustrated with them? And are there more or fewer places where the uninsured can get care, such as free or subsidized urgent-care clinics?

Good jobs onshore

Long before Donald Trump was on anyone’s presidential radar, I wrote and published a “(never-given) matriculation speech” for college students. In it, I outlined the subject of mathematical intuition. If you have it and someone rails about a million-dollar waste in a $16 trillion dollar economy, you will know he’s an idiot or blowing smoke.

That’s pretty much the case with Donald Trump’s jawboning 800 jobs here and 1,000 there in an economy with 145 million employees. Nobel-Prize-winning economist and pundit Paul Krugman recently made this point in his NYT column.

The sixty thousand factories that our Yankee plutocrats sent or built abroad during the last generation aren’t coming back. Nor would we want them to. Do we want to build our national future on lawn furniture, cheap textiles, hand tools and the other stuff that Wal Mart sells? Or do we want to have better jobs making the next generation of products and performing the next generation of services?

Imposing 35% tariffs on goods already being imported from China and Mexico (among other places) would cause economic disaster. It would immediately raise the prices of all those goods by 35%, when there’s nobody at home who makes them. Plus it would cause the same kind of trade wars that help start World War II.

But The Donald has also had a more subtle idea. Suppose we apply a 35% tariff, propsectively, to products made in China or Mexico in new factories set up with American capital or technology, when those products come into our big domestic market. Might such a tariff cause our plutocrats to think twice about sending more of our factories and jobs overseas?

That sort of limited, prospective tariff might work to change our own plutocrats’ short-term and selfish perspectives. But the best strategy of all would be to make sure that our innovators and entrepreneurs have every advantage in creating the next generation of products and services right here at home.

Sure, we can’t always predict what those products or services might be. They might be reusable spacecraft and private space travel. Or not. They might be nanodevices for health care and manufacturing. Or not.

But a few things we can be pretty certain will be in the mix. Fossil fuels are running out, most probably within the lifetimes of children born this year. We will have to have some means of replacing their energy and usefulness. We will have to have solar arrays, windmills, and more hydroelectric plants. If our species ever develops safe nuclear power plants—ones that can’t ever melt down and don’t produce spent fuel that remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years—we will have to have plenty of those, too. Ditto for electric cars and efficient high-speed trains.

The benchmarks for the jobs that design, install and maintain these things will be simple. Are most of them going to us Yanks, or are more going to China, Germany and Mexico? Do we Yanks produce and service our own devices for generating sustainable energy, or do we just install and service imports?

Then there’s gene editing, using the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. It makes possible personalized medicine and designer farm animals, if not designer people. When a doctor takes your blood to offer personalized medicine, is it sent abroad for genome analysis, or is the analysis done here? And are the machines and biological reagents used in that analysis made in China, Mexico, or here? These are the benchmarks that will determine whether good jobs stay in this country as our species advances, and whether our nation remains a leader in scientific, technological and industrial innovation.

While addressing jobs, we should not forget Trump’s promise to create good ones rebuilding and improving our national infrastructure. That may still be possible, but the window is starting to close. Interest rates for borrowing are rising. Darth McConnell and Paul Ryan appear disinclined to forego tax cuts for corporations and the rich, making government funding less likely. Already some GOP pols are talking about privatizing infrastructure, which would make the jobs depend on private investment.

Certainly infrastructure jobs ought to count in benchmarking Trump’s presidency. But if he wants to have them to count, and if he wants the government to play a part in their creation, he’d better get moving soon.

Immigration

Often immigration seems to be an unsolvable problem. There are two reasons why. First, we Yanks are divided between two strong views. One sees immigrants as weakening our nation, taking jobs from American citizens, and threatening us with crime and terrorism. The other sees immigrants as strengthening our nation by bringing us people with drive and tenacity. This second view values the kids who hike a thousand miles to escape Central American gangs, or the Syrians who ride across the Aegean in a dangerous and rickety boat and wait years in squalid refugee camps just to get here. In this view, these immigrants are highly motivated, and motivation is good for business.

There is no reconciling those two views, and each has more than a germ of truth. But the second reason why immigration seems unsolvable is much more important. Jeff Sessions thinks the flow of immigrants, at least from our south, would stop if we never offered “amnesty.” But there’s a much easier, more effective damper to the flow. If we fined every employer who ever hired an undocumented immigrant, and if the fine amounted to more than five years’ savings in wages, there would be no further jobs for undocumented immigrants.

The flow north would dry up in a month or two. The word wouldn’t even have to get to Mexico and Honduras; it would just have to get to all relevant employers here. Immigrants who came to find jobs and found none would go right back. They wouldn’t even have to be deported.

Why don’t we do this? For three reasons. First, it would deprive our plutocrats of an enormous source of cheap labor. Not only is that labor cheap; it’s also docile. People who live in constant fear of being deported don’t rock the boat. They don’t organize. They don’t complain. They don’t go on strike. They just do the work that our plutocrats don’t believe citizens would do—or would do for as low wages—quietly, efficiently and without complaining. If our business owners thought citizens would do the same work, for the same low wages, and without complaining—do you think they would risk the raids, adverse publicity, employee turnover, and general turmoil that comes from hiring “illegals”?

No wall ever built or imagined can keep out people who want to improve the miserable condition of themselves and their families. Of course our media should report on extending our existing 700 miles of southern wall, the extension’s cost, and its effectiveness, if any, in slowing the local flow of immigrants. But doing only that would miss the big picture.

The big picture is how much our government is doing, if anything, to weaken the job magnet that draws undocumented immigrants here despite the hardship of getting here and working here without papers. Is the pre-hiring system for checking workers’ papers more or less effective? How many people annually are turned down for hiring, locally and nationally, because they have no or forged documents? Is the composition of workers who are often undocumented (in construction, slaughterhouses, seasonal farming, etc.) changing, and, if so, how? Are wages for their jobs rising? Are prices for the resulting products and services? Are more American citizens taking these jobs, and are they protesting their working conditions or wages by going on strike? How much disruption does deporting non-criminal workers cause to families, communities, workplaces, specific industries, and schools?

These are the real questions to benchmark immigration policy. The length or height of the Wall is just a bit of showmanship. By itself, it means nothing. In this, as in every other, area, we shouldn’t let the Great Showman’s sleight of hand take our eyes off the ball.

Economic stability

The “good old days” of which Trump reminds his supporters actually lasted only two or three decades. In the aftermath of the most horrible war in history, the factories of Europe and Japan were devastated and inactive. For a few short years, we Yanks not only had the only Bomb. We had the world’s only working, productive economy. Freed from the pressures of war, and with a virtually untouched Homeland, our troops came home, turned our industrial swords into plowshares, and built the factories, goods, homes and prosperity of the immediate postwar era.

That short period was unique in human history. It’s not going to come again. If we try to reproduce it by war, the war might become nuclear and extinguish our species.

So we Yanks have to accept the idea that economic stability will not again derive from being the only combatant left standing. We are going to have to struggle with globalization, international competition, automation and disruptive innovation just like every other nation on our small planet. We are going to have to forge our own “stability” from good planning in the face of Schumpeter’s “perpetual gale of creative destruction.” In short, we are going to have to learn to bring stability out of chaos, again and again.

That is a tall order. So it requires tough benchmarks. We must focus on staying ahead in innovation and innovative production. We must focus on how much of our economy represents new goods and services derived from new technology and new science. We are going to have to recognize that a car like the Tesla (or Chevy’s upcoming Bolt) is worth ten or a hundred models of conventional gasoline cars, while every try by SpaceX to stick a spent-rocket landing on a tiny barge is worth five or six landings of our now-obsolete space shuttle.

In other words, we are going to have to develop new benchmarks for innovation and modernization. Of course those benchmarks must recognize the risk of failure inherent in all new ventures. But they must also internalize the understanding that the next generation of jobs will only come from of those risky new ventures that don’t fail.

Here the benchmarks may have to be more qualitative than quantitative, at least in part. Are we doing all we can to promote and encourage new ventures like Tesla, Musk’s “Gigafactory” for modern batteries, SpaceX and its two competitors, and, yes, stodgy old GM’s possibly market-beating Bolt? With antitrust enforcement and sound policy, are we giving these future-market leaders a fair shake? Are we keeping incumbents from ganging up on them, or using political power derived from economic might to strangle them in their cradles?

Are we making sure, in everything we do in our government and our economy, that the CRISPR-Cas9 technology that we Yanks invented results in factories and test labs on our shores, and not others’, and in good jobs that will create the next generation of innovation? Are we using our intellectual property, our tax laws, our economic incentives, and the strengths of our democracy to make sure that what we Yanks invent enriches us first?

And finally, is the gross economic inequality that is strangling our society and our politics better or worse? No society can run smoothly when the ratio between the pay of the top executives and that of the average worker is over 400 and getting larger by the year. And no economy can remain stable when one source of that inequality is over-financialization and the obscene pay that comes from “inventing” financial instruments that enrich their purveyors but put the entire economic system at risk. Effective financial reform and restraints on speculation (and swindling) are sine qua nons of economic stability.

Geopolitical stability

In no other field than geopolitics does Donald Trump’s advent more accurately encapsulate the Chinese definition of “crisis”: “danger” combined with “opportunity.” Nothing could be more dangerous, for Taiwan and for peace in the South China Sea, than flirting with abandoning the “One China” policy. Nothing could be more unfair than blaming China for decisions that our own government and our own plutocrats made in selling our own factories, our own jobs, and our own technology overseas. Yet nothing would create greater opportunity for human progress than the world’s first and second economy working together to ensure global economic stability and steady, sustainable growth.

Similar conclusions hold with respect to Russia. It’s a good goal to end the Cold War and not wage another. But how and at what price? Must we entirely sell out Eastern Ukraine and Syria, not to mention the EU? Can we exercise some healing influence, if not control, over Russia, if only to curtail the deaths and devastation and work together to maintain a stable, sustainable international order?

These, too, are tall orders. But the proper benchmarks are not hard to see. Has the killing in Syria and the exodus of refugees slowed or stopped? Has the civil war ended or wound down, with a political settlement in sight? Has Russia stopped meddling in Eastern Ukraine and withdrawn its troops from both Ukraine and its border areas? Has China stopped building militarized islands in the South China Sea and threatening the freedom of shipping and resource recovery in the region? Has China accepted, at least in principle, some sort of international rule of law, or some basic principles in this region, besides its old imperial whim? Has China been able to demonstrate some degree of political control over Kim, to avoid the necessity of us Yanks making plans for a possible nuclear first strike?

Trump’s general propensity to make deals, not war, is comforting. But he does have a dark, combative side. He has a macho personality and likes to win. In fact, he often defines himself as a “winner” and others as “losers,” as he sees those terms.

Unfortunately, Putin has similar traits. He likes to win at judo and skiing and appears to define his foreign policy in terms of clear gains and losses for Russia, sometimes without regard to long-term consequences. There is an irreducible risk that, if Trump and Putin come into direct conflict, personality could take over and motivate escalation on autopilot. It would be a shame if excess testosterone led to nuclear war.

For these reasons, we should be thankful that a more even-tempered and circumspect personality, Rex Tillerson, will have the most direct and frequent contact with Putin and Russia as Secretary of State. Maybe one negative benchmark for Trump ought to be the number of snarky comments and Tweets he produces about Putin, and the number of times, if any, he countermands Tillerson’s sensible, moderate or diplomatic acts or statements vis-á-vis Putin.

Most of all, we need to benchmark our global progress against the nightmare scenario that George Orwell predicted in his prophetic novel 1984. Orwell imagined a global society that achieved “stability” through perpetual enmity and low-level wars among three great empires—China, Russia and the United States. He imagined three empires each of which oppresses its own people in a totalitarian state, using the perpetual mutual enmity and war as pretexts. How close will we have come to Orwell’s dark vision, in which the threat of terrorism provides yet another, more current pretext for enmity, war and oppression?

Here our political scientists and diplomats might profitably spend some time devising new, specific benchmarks to measure our nearness to Orwell’s depressing vision. The choice between paradise and perpetual conflict—between Heaven and Hell—is ours to make, with our species’ native free will. We can have paradise on Earth if we cooperate species-wide. Or we can make a Hell out of our planet by letting global warming run away, and by persisting in the type of conflict between nations that Trump’s and Putin’s macho personalities put at risk. We need some nuanced, definite benchmarks for our people and our media to assess, day by day, in which direction we are going.

Conclusion

Donald J. Trump is a great showman. He’s also a successful liar and con artist. He has reached the highest level of American government by attracting everyone’s attention, including the media’s, most or all of the time. In many ways he has made us forget what we care about as we watch his spectacle.

But now the campaign is over. As Trump assumes the office of President of the United States, the time for persuasion will pass away, and the time for governing will begin.

We cannot let Trump set his own benchmarks for success, any more than we could let the bankers who caused the Crash of 2008 do so, or any more than we let VW set its own emission standards.

Our media should take upon themselves, in cooperation and competition with experts, the tasks of setting and maintaining proper benchmarks for the success of President Trump’s presidency. Then our media should apply those benchmarks relentlessly but fairly to what he does (not what he says!). If they do otherwise—if they allow the Great Showman to continue keeping our eyes off the ball—there is no limit to how quickly our nation can decline and how squalid and dangerous our global human condition can become.

Footnote 1: Dubya’s administration did something similar. At one time, the official website for the Four Corners coal-fired power plant—one of our nation’s biggest and most polluting—had announced that the plant burned 28,000 tons of coal per day. It didn’t try to hide the fact that the plant was one of the world’s most horrific burners of humanity’s dirtiest fuel. Yet some time during Dubya’s first term, that useful bit of information disappeared from the website, and the name of the mammoth power plant changed to “Four Corners Steam Electric Station,” making it sound like something cute and innocuous on a single street corner.

Republicans do love their “public relations.” In business, where many of them come from, it helps sell us rubes defective or deceptive products and services. In politics, it’s better known as “propaganda.” They rarely want us, the rubes, to know exactly what they are doing.

The whole premise of GOP authoritarianism is that the rich and powerful do and know best: they are more equal than others. This philosophy runs deep in ordinary Republicans, let alone Donald Trump, who hides his tax returns more carefully than we Yanks once did our secret ways to trigger an A-Bomb. For them, transparency is not a priority.

Footnote 2: A very recent Economist/You.gov poll shows exactly how successful these three lies were. Here is how many Americans believed them as of December 17-20, when the poll was taken:

Americans Who Believe Trump’s Three Big Lies
Lie (and Page of Report)RepublicansDemocratsAll Surveyed
“Birther” lie that Obama
was born in Kenya
is “definitely” or “probably” true (58)
52%20%36%
Climate is not changing or change
is not due to human activity (53)
58%21%38%
Millions of illegal votes
were “definitely” or “probably”
cast in recent election (61)
52%36%46%

Oddly enough, this poll was taken over three months after Trump himself had recanted his “Birther” lie publicly. It shows just how persistent and damaging to public consciousness big lies can be, and how much of an existential threat to democracy they are.

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