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 November 2010

Grover Norquist’s World: Indentured Servitude for Youth

Our Future By the Numbers
Consequences for Youth

Thanksgiving is a time of obligatory optimism and self-congratulation. Now it’s over. So it’s time to look reality full in the face. The result is not pretty.

For the foreseeable future, we Americans will be living in Grover Norquist’s world. Remember him? He’s the one who urged starving the “beast” of government until it’s small enough to “drown in the bathtub.”

Well, he and his kind have won. Their victory and the drowning are not quite complete. The “beast” is still gasping for air. But their dirty little secret is that they’ve already won, and decisively.

Our Future by the Numbers

As usual, numbers tell the tale. It’s easy to lie about or “spin” mood and tone and direction. But notwithstanding Mark Twain’s bon mot about “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” numbers don’t lie, at least when you look at the right ones.

We begin with a simple fact. Rounded to the nearest tenth of a trillion, our national debt is now $13.8 trillion dollars. Our national revenue [page 3, top], or GDP, is $14.75 trillion dollars (as of third quarter 2010, annualized). That means our debt is about 94% of our national GDP. In our entire history, it was greater only in 1945 and 1946 [page 126], just at the end of World War II (96.4% and 97.9%, respectively).

To gauge the significance of that number, consider California. It is by far our most productive state. It’s 2009 GDP (the latest figure available) was [Table 1] $1.74 trillion, and its current total state debt is $26 billion. That’s a ratio of 1.5%—a figure any nation would be proud to have.

The difference of course is that California’s constitution, like those of most states, requires a balanced budget. California didn’t get there this year because its legislature couldn’t agree on budget cuts and/or tax increases. The reason was a supermajority requirement for adopting a budget: a two-thirds vote.

But in their recent election, Californians passed Proposition 25, which abolished the supermajority requirement and allowed California’s legislature to adopt a budget by a simple majority vote.

In that respect, California is far ahead of the nation as a whole. Our national Senate these days acts only by a supermajority vote of 60%, and a single senator can put a “hold” on any bill. In addition, the maldistribution of voting power in our Senate gives our least populated and most rural states a veto over national policy.

California would have the same problem only if the sparsely populated counties in its rural Central Vally outvoted its two great conurbations: the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor (which is now almost continuous suburbs). But they don’t. Power in California’s legislature is roughly proportional to population, while power in our national Senate is concentrated in the outback. It would not only take a constitutional amendment to change that; each affected state would have to consent. That, of course, will never happen.

So don’t listen to California’s detractors. Its debt burden is small by national standards, and its people were wise enough to give its legislature the power to reduce it. The so-called “People’s Republic of California” will be just fine, thank you, with a little belt-tightening and a little increase in taxes.

But at the national level, nothing of the kind is in the cards. One reason is the top federal tax rate. It has dropped like a stone during my lifetime.

In 1945, when I was born, the top tax rate was 94%, on all income over $200,000. (No, those are not typos. Those are the figures, taken directly and identically from the two linked sources.) After the “Reagan Revolution” was complete, the top tax rate has been stable at 35% since 2003. And there is no appetite, at least in our malapportioned Senate, to change it, although it might rise two or three percent if the Bush Tax Cuts expire.

Numbers also tell the tale of corporate power. California’s total debt of $26 billion may seem like a lot of money. But any two of the top eight Fortune-500 companies could have paid off that debt entirely, out of their joint profits, and still had money left over. Thus, in effect, any two of our top multinational corporations have more fiscal power than the government of California, which makes the rules for the world’s eighth largest economy. The 2007 pay of a mere twenty individuals—Wall Street’s top-twenty hedge-fund and private-equity-fund managers—could have retired nearly three-quarters of California’s debt.

The situation is similar at the national level. Just-released third-quarter 2009 figures put collective, annualized corporate profits at $1.659 trillion. If those figures continued, our corporations could extinguish our entire national debt—all $13.8 trillion of it—in a mere 8 years, four months.

Of course, that’s not going to happen either. But it does demonstrate graphically who and what have the power in our society. Our corporations collectively could pay down our entire national debt in less than nine years out of their profits alone, without losing a dime. Any two of the top eight could extinguish California’s debt in a single year.

So if money is power, the private sector has it. Government doesn’t. Maybe it’s not quite drowned in the bathtub yet. But it’s already clear that corporations are the heavyweights and government the skinny 110-pound weakling. And it’s also clear that, at least at the federal level, the disparity is only going to get worse.

Consequences for Youth

This growing disparity didn’t appear overnight. It’s the result of a forty-year assault on progressive taxation, which turned vicious after the so-called “Reagan Revolution.” The most visible consequence is a maldistribution of income [Table 6], as follows:

Category of Income Recipients (2006)Percentage of All Income They Receive
Top 1%21.3%
Top 20%61.4%
Bottom 80%38.6%

There is a similar Maldistribution of Private Wealth [Table 1] (2007)

Percentage of All Wealtholders (2007)Their Percentage of All Wealth
Top 1%42.7%
Top 20%93%
Bottom 80%7%

But for me, the most striking consequence of emasculating government hits our youth. Two-thirds of college students today are in debt upon graduation, and 17 percent owe more than $30,500. With distributions of income and wealth like those shown above, most of them are going to have to work for many years to pay off that debt.

In contrast, in 1966 I graduated from a leading state university with zero debt and money in the bank. (I worked, but only part time, and I had two small merit-based scholarships that helped pay living expenses. There was no tuition, only a fee of $100 per semester.) With the help of a federally-funded fellowship and student assistantship, I even got a Ph.D., again from a prestigious state school, with zero debt.

What all this really means is apparent from our own history. When we were still a British colony, passage to America was beyond the means of most ordinary people. Those who wanted to emigrate to the “New World” did so as indentured servants. Wealthy people or businesses advanced the fare for their passage. On arriving, they served for seven years to pay the debt. By that time they were bent with toil and trained in a trade. (Not coincidentally, the period of apprenticeship was also seven years.) They would then toil lifelong for wages in the trade they had learned as indentured servants. The lucky ones were able to start their own businesses.

Today’s massive student debt is just a milder form of indentured servitude. The “passage” is no longer a months-long sea voyage, but the education needed to succeed in and contribute to a complex, modern society. It will take most students about as long to pay off the debt for that modern “passage” as immigrants to the New World took to pay for their passage in colonial times.

The servitude may be better in one respect: there is no contract with a single master. So the relationship is less like temporary slavery. But the principle is the same. Debt pushes graduates hard to do not what they like, or even what they do best, but to do what their corporate masters bid. Maybe that’s why, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “the U.S., after leading the world in previous years, has fallen to 12th place for college completion rates among people ages 25 to 34.”

Above all, the threat of indentured servitude is the reason for the massive exodus of our best and brightest from the arts, sciences and engineering into law and investment banking. Debt dies easier when you can charge several hundred dollars an hour or get year-end bonuses of several hundred thousand dollars.

Financial circumstances force graduating students to make these choices. In the post-World War II “GI bill” days, returning troops and maturing youth got educated essentially for free. When they graduated, the world was their oyster. They could do what they wished. They could even work for the benefit of society. Now, like emigres from the Old World in colonial times, graduating students are indentured to those who call the shots.


This is not the end of the world. We survived our start-up period of indentured servitude as a nation. We even survived the enslavement of a fraction of our entire population. We will survive this, too.

The immediate postwar period, with its historically unprecedented freedom for youth, was unique in our history and possibly in human history. Not coincidentally, that period also marked the wealthiest, happiest, most innovative and most cohesive society in human history.

But that era is now gone. Indentured servitude is back. And our new masters seem to like it that way.

The Norquist “conservatives,” who once forced their sons to enter their fathers’ lines of work, are in control. They are the same people who neglected the nation’s infrastructure to line their own pockets, who think windmills are some Marxist plot against the oil companies (while the rest of the world installs them for free energy) and who think high-speed rail and electric cars are for socialist Europeans and wimps.

Unless we take on one too many wars in our ceaseless quest to command more than our fair share of the world’s limited resources, we’ll survive their rule. But when we again emerge into another bright era of economic freedom and innovation, we won’t be the world’s leader any more. We might still excel in law and banking, which is to say disputation and swindling. But the best of us will long since have emigrated or have been drowned in the bathtub, along with functional government.

Welcome to your brave new world, Grover. I hope you like it. I doubt your progeny will, if you have any. But then again, kids are always ungrateful, aren’t they?

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23 November 2010

Thanksgiving Message 2010

Two years ago, this time of year brought hope that buoyed us, even in the midst of pain. I wrote, “We have elected a great leader, the most promising of my six-decade lifetime—maybe since Lincoln. The Civil War is really over after 143 years.”

Today, like much that gave us hope then, those words seem premature. They ring hollow.

Somehow, the sin of pride has overwhelmed us. Everything we thought was strength has turned to weakness. The government our Founders bequeathed us seized up in gridlock. A major party devolved into a sick fraternity, full of hazing, taunts, dares and pranks. Our free speech, once so envied, became the rawest license, a volcano of lies, hate, misplaced pride and fear. It let evil rich men poison our national psyche.

Our original sin of slavery—the one we’ve thought we’d finally banished—came back to bite us again. Too many of us took a beleaguered President as an excuse for hazing and figurative lynching. Some turned on him when he failed to become the Messiah we childishly hoped he would be.

And what about ourselves? Remember the men and women who defeated the Great Depression and two vast military dictatorships? Now they were something. They rose from peaceful isolation, mostly on farms. They didn’t beat their chests and crow “we’re Number One!” They didn’t ask “why me?” or “why now?” They did the duty that history assigned them with strength, humility, dignity and grace. They patiently outlived the Cold War and gave us all we have today.

And what did we do with it? We became vain and selfish. We wanted all without pain, striving or taxes. We justified our greed with the hubris and self-righteousness of later Roman emperors. We became vain and spoiled. We stopped saving and planning for the future. We waxed angry and obese.

In such times, there is little for which to be thankful. We are still here. But the rest of the world—with the quiet strength and dignity that once was our birthright—is putting its head down and passing us by.

So much is twisted and rotten, not without but within. We quake and rail at a few hundred Islamic extremists. But the enemy that even now is bringing us down is us. No one can respect us if we don’t respect ourselves. It is as if some celestial satirist mocks all that once made us great.

So hope is all we have left.

We have a good President. In office less than two years, he’s saved us from a second Great Depression he didn’t start. The cost was far less than anyone expected or had a right to expect.

His works are legion. He gave us a big stimulus, health-insurance reform, financial reform, a renewed General Motors, an agreement for higher-mileage cars, and a government that once again works for the people, allowing the States to experiment with cutting climate change and enforcing workplace-safety and civil-rights laws. He’s kept millions off the streets by extending unemployment insurance and keeping police, teachers and fire-fighters on the job. And all this he has done in the face of the nastiest obstruction in our history—an opposition that proclaims his failure and defeat (and ours!) its sole and solitary goals.

But even the President cannot save us. We cannot rest our hopes on someone else. We must look for change within ourselves.

We could do worse than recall our first Thanksgiving. Our Pilgrims lived together in a small community. They were alone, in a vast wilderness colder and less forgiving than anything they had known.

They helped each other farm, work and survive. They fought the elements together. They cooperated with the Natives, who helped them through their first winter. They prayed, worked, built homes, lived, and died together, just as did our parents and grandparents during the Great Depression.

Our first Thanksgivers trusted and relied on each other, not just themselves. They had no rich or poor. Each knew he our she could not do it all alone. So they treated each other with respect, care and kindness. Their deep and true religion bade no less.

If we can recapture that spirit, there is nothing we can’t do. If we fail to recapture it, there is nothing we can do. A bunch of self-seekers does not a society make, no matter how many or how self-important they may be. So it’s up to us together, as it has been from the beginning. For that, at least, we can give thanks.

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16 November 2010

Levels of Paranoia and the “Scanner Revolt”

[Electric-car fanciers: Leaf or Volt? I’m now undecided. Here’s why.]

Fear does funny things to people. Since World War II, we can explain much of world history with a single word: paranoia. Why historians have yet to address this obvious theme with the necessary vigor and seriousness is one of the great mysteries of our human drama. Maybe it’s just too embarrassing for our species.

Soviet Paranoia
Our Own Cold-War Paranoia
Paranoia’s Irony
Our Paranoia Today
Conclusion: the “Scanner Revolt” and Its Meaning

Soviet Paranoia

Let’s start with Exhibit A: the old Soviet Union. It was a seventy-year exercise in collective paranoia. It started with the Revolution of October 1917, which was far too bloody to achieve its modest ends, namely, an end to Czarist tyranny and Russian serfdom. The victorious Bolsheviks expelled, slaughtered or imprisoned whole classes of merchants and industrialists. They enslaved the very serfs they had just freed. They feared the defeated ruling class so much that they slaughtered the entire ruling family—the Romanoffs—and buried their bones in secret, unmarked graves, apparently fearing they might return from a proper grave.

Stalin, who led the Soviet Union for most of its brief history, was the incarnation of paranoia. His entire monstrous career was an exercise in murdering or displacing rivals, real and imagined, before (in his fevered mind) they could get to him.

Evidence of Stalin’s paranoia is so voluminous that it would take a multi-volume set just to list it all. He internally deported huge and peaceful settlements of non-Russian ethnic groups, many to the Russian Far East, for fear they would challenge his rule. Long before Nazi Germany invaded, he starved and purged the Ukraine, for fear it might turn westward, thereby weakening it immeasurably against invasion. He annihilated Poland’s officer corps, preferring to leave his neighbor defenseless, rather than build a defensible border and buffer state. During the height of the World War II, he forced the great aircraft designer Tupolev and his engineers to do their work in prison, under constant scrutiny of political commissars who knew nothing of engineering or airplanes. He even suppressed the history of Genghis Khan in Mongolia, fearing that any hint of that ancient ruler’s success might spark rebellion.

Of course all these strategic and tactical errors made it much harder for Mother Russia and its subject peoples to win what they call the Great Patriotic War. But win they did, at the cost of the greatest suffering and sacrifice of any nation in that war, with the possible exception of China. As I’ve outlined in another post, they lost more dead in the defense of a single city—Leningrad, now renamed St. Petersburg—than we did in the entire war, including our “Pacific Front.” And when the war was over, the Soviets had lost one-seventh of their entire population, the equivalent of nearly 44 million Americans today.

Under these circumstances, it was not hard for the Soviets to maintain their collective paranoia after their pyrrhic victory over fascism. Stalin still ruled for almost another decade, and it took more than that time to dig out and rebuild. The Soviets saw and feared a dominant America, jarred from isolation in a mere four years and diffidently flexing its newly acquired muscles, including nuclear weapons. They also saw that dominant America rebuilding Germany and Japan with almost supernatural speed, in effect surrounding them. And they were sore afraid.

So what did they do? They put conquered Eastern Europe in an iron grip. They massed huge conventional armies on the border with the West. They stole our atomic secrets, in one of the cleverest and most effective feats of espionage in human history. And they built a huge nuclear arsenal of their own. They challenged us to build a doomsday capability that, in Sedef Gates’ modern words, could destroy the whole world many times over and “make the rubble bounce.”

But most of all, the Soviets played a big game of bluff. Fearing us, they made us fear them. Aping the Nazis who had nearly destroyed them, they made threats of world conquest under the guise of aggressive global Communism. They banged on the table at the UN. At the Cold War’s height, in the greatest metaphor of Soviet bluster, the former peasant General Secretary Nikita S. Krushchev took off his shoe, banged it on the podium, and declared “We will bury you!”

The whole posture of the Soviet Union during the Cold War was that of a small man who fears a larger one and acts hyper-aggressive to compensate for his perceived weakness and fear. You might say the same of Iran today.

Our Own Cold-War Paranoia

We did our bit for Cold War paranoia, too. We had our Red Scare—a pale reflection of Stalin’s lifelong paranoia. Our politicians, mostly on the right, suspected Communists in our legislature, our intelligentsia, and even our State Department. Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin (no relation to the later Gene!) became a vicious paranoid demagogue like Stalin. He gained far more power than any such monster had a right to acquire in a democracy. He purged many writers and artists, and not a few politicians, received a private tongue-lashing from President Eisenhower, and finally sank under the weight of his own fraud and evil. Eventually, he died of cancer, unsung and despised.

But our own paranoia did not die with Joe McCarthy. We embarked enthusiastically on the greatest arms race in human history, whose expense and dangers haunt us to this day. Fearing the Soviets and their largely empty threat of global Communism, we subverted foreign governments in Chile and Iran. We supported vicious dictators, including those we set up there. And, fearing a nonexistent “missile gap,” we entered and won the race to the Moon. That feat was only an outgrowth of our dash for supremacy in intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it was one of the very few good things to emerge from the Cold War.

Paranoia’s Irony

There was great irony in our paranoia. Alone among the powers of the Earth, we had never been injured by two centuries of imperial wars. Two great oceans had protected us. They did so even at the height of the world’s most disastrous war, in which feared invasions from Germany or Japan never happened. But that didn't stop our ugly Internment of loyal Japanese-Americans, which accomplished nothing but proving paranoia’s evils.

Russia and the Soviets had reasons enough for paranoia. In the two previous centuries, their territory had been attacked repeatedly from every direction except the frozen north. The Nazi invasion was just the most recent of many.

We, in contrast, had been the safest major power in history. Except for minor incursions by Pancho Villa, easily repelled, we had not been attacked on our own territory since our War of 1812. Even the greatest war we fought entirely outside our territory, except for Pearl Harbor and brief skirmishes in Alaska.

After that war, we emerged an unquestioned global leader, with our territory and industry intact, our former enemies and new allies rebuilding under our tutelage, and the strongest economy in human history. Our war industry had cranked out 8,000 warplanes per month in 1944, some of which had helped our then allies, the Soviets, turn the tide against fascism in the east.

But paranoia needs no reason. Fear feeds upon itself. And so the greatest nation in history—the strongest and most protected by geography and fortune—plunged itself eagerly into history’s greatest exercise in mutual paranoia, the Cold War.

There was irony on the Soviet-Russian side, too. A great Russian writer, whose name I forget, wrote a perfect metaphor for the cold war over half a century beforehand. A man walking from one village to another gets caught in a snowstorm. As the blizzard closes in, he sees a horse cart through the gloom and begs a ride. Rider and passenger move in isolation through their white, snowy world, which narrows as the blizzard heightens. Slowly, each comes to suspect that the other has designs on him. The rider imagines that his passenger has a gun and intends to take his cart and horse. The passenger imagines that the rider wants to rob him of his good coat and hat and the money he has hidden on him. They end up struggling together, lost in the snow, and wrestling each other down an embankment. Eventually they confess their mutual fears, reconcile, and arrive battered and chastened at their destination.

That nineteenth-century short story, which I read for the first time in the early nineties, was such a perfect metaphor for the Cold War that I wondered whether the author had been clairvoyant. I like to think that Gorbachev, Yeltsin and maybe even Putin had read it and learned from it. Yeltsin must have. For as he dissolved the Soviet Union, he declared a sincere desire to end the fear with which his nation and its otherwise innocent, suffering people had gripped the world for so long.

Our Paranoia Today

It would be nice if this tale of paranoia was a droll story of yesteryear. But it isn’t. Somehow, the richest, most fortunate, most favored society in human history remains paranoid today.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a great blow to a nation still looking forward to a “peace dividend” after the Cold War’s end. They were an intense shock because many of us still thought (erroneously, in the nuclear age) that our oceans would protect us. But no rational person looking at our response to those attacks could describe it as anything other than an overreaction.

I don’t mean to belittle 9/11. The death toll was nearly 2,996, more than the 2,350 that died at Pear Harbor. The attacks were sneak attacks, like Pearl Harbor, but the vast majority of victims was innocent civilians. The whole thing was a chilling, inhuman, and cowardly bit of treachery.

But we have to keep the attacks in perspective. They were not, like Pearl Harbor, our entrance into a devastating world war that ultimately killed 50 million people, including about half a million of our own. They did not come from a force representing the two most powerful and well-armed military dictatorships our species had ever known, namely, the “Axis” of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Even more than Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks reflected an inattention to a clear threat of attack, especially in light of bin Laden’s 1998 so-called “fatwa,” a virtual declaration of war against us. And though every life is precious, and attacks are more troubling than accidents, we ought not to forget that we lose more people to traffic fatalities, on the average, every five weeks.

Our response to the attacks can only be described as spastic and irrational. We “invaded” Afghanistan without the necessary planning or troops to kill or capture the culprits. Nine years later, we are still there. We later invaded a third country (Iraq) on false pretenses, and over seven years later we are still there. We built a huge, secret apparatus to spy on the world and our own people. We imprisoned our own citizens without due process of law. We sent aliens, including at least one Canadian, to be tortured by foreign powers, and we built secret “black sites” and “black prisons” where we could torture presumed enemies abroad. We built a huge prison in our occupied part of Cuba to serve as a “Constitution-free” zone, where we could hold prisoners from the “war on terrorism” without regard to the human rights for which we and our forebears had fought for eight centuries, since Magna Carta. Two presidents, from both “right” and the “left,” have refused or failed to close that prison and return to our normal rules of human rights.

And last but not least, we have converted the once-pleasant and easy experience of air travel into an exercise in oppression and control reminiscent of a police state. Citizens of our closest allies are horrified at what we have done, so much so that many now avoid international travel through our territory when they can.

Other nations that suffered similar attacks have not done likewise. Spain, Indonesia (at Bali), and our own closest ally, Britain, all suffered attacks like ours. None has started an unnecessary war or, as far as appears from abroad, surrendered its normal civil liberties in a vain quest for absolute security. Russia suffered the worst attacks of any foreign country: a siege of the Nord-Ost Theater in the heart of its capital and the murder of innocent children at a school in Beslan. But Russia has not started unnecessary wars or, as far as we can tell, altered its security procedures and nascent civil liberties in a way that impinges on ordinary citizens in everyday life.

Each of these nations has of course stepped up necessary security, counterintelligence, and international cooperation. Russia has even offered its air space to assist our misadventure in Afghanistan. But none has gone so far over the top in foreign adventures, domestic surveillance and extraordinary domestic police control as we. In short, no one else appears to have attained quite our level of paranoia.

We Americans are all to blame, including me. I wrote a 2004 post that, as I now see in retrospect, exaggerated the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack. As it turns out, Russian nukes are much better secured that I feared. Terrorists lack the necessary scientific, technological, and industrial infrastructure to develop nukes of their own. And even minor powers like North Korea and Iran, which have or may be developing nukes, are hardly likely to risk giving them to terrorists when a single one of our nuclear submarines—against which they have absolutely no defense—could obliterate all their cities in retaliation, and in less than fifteen minutes.

Our nuclear deterrent gives even rogue nations a strong incentive to keep nukes out of terrorists’ hands, lest they be among the first victims of a nuclear exchange. So does Israel’s. Even a rogue nation rightly fears nuclear retaliation if a terrorist weapon is traced to it, or even if it is only the most likely suspected source. The use of nukes as offensive weapons is just too risky to be a serious instrument of policy, except as a bluff. In failing to recognize these points, I may have unknowingly participated in our paranoia.

Conclusion: the “Scanner Revolt” and Its Meaning

But our own worst offenders have been those who stoked paranoia for profit, whether in politics or business. Demagogues hyped the risk of terrorism beyond all reality to win elections. Two presidencies have used it to increase their power and subvert our Constitution.

Our media have been the worst of the worst offenders. In headlong pursuit of profit, they made the video images of the Twin Towers collapsing a national icon of shame and rage. There is probably not a single citizen or resident of our nation who hasn’t seen those images at least a dozen times and doesn’t have them renewed in his or her fearful imagination at least every two or three months.

This is madness. People have won office, contracts, employment in their jurisdiction, power, and fame by building an industry of fear and hate. In the recent absence of any really innovative new industries, you might mistake our national motto for “Paranoia ‘R’ Us.”

Fortunately, our people are beginning to see the light. There is a backlash. Protest is in the air.

I and many others have wondered exactly where the elderly Tea Mobbers got their fear and hatred of their own government. After all, they get their Social Security checks from the very same government they excoriate. But they also travel to see their grandchildren. And given the vast distances in our country, they travel mostly by air.

So now I think I understand. It’s the TSA, stupid.

We are a free people. Our birthright is to drive down the open highway with the wind in our hair, to hop on a plane, wave from the top of the ramp and take off, unburdened, into a clear blue sky.

Every Baby Boomer knows this from personal experience. Those of us in the Tea Mobbers’ age bracket still remember when loved ones came to kiss you goodbye at the gate, when all you needed to get on your plane like a king or queen was a boarding pass and a smile. I remember once banging on a closed aircraft door to claim my seat, and once again stopping a commercial puddle-jumper on the tarmac to hop on.

The TSA has stolen all that. With it, the TSA has taken away the pride and liberty of the very people who invented aircraft. It has taken us all several steps closer to being cowed subjects of a totalitarian state. And since the elite are those who travel by air most often, it has messed with the segment of our population most resistant to cowing.

The TSA makes us wait for unknown and unknowable times, disrupting our schedules and converting us into nervous clock-watchers. It makes us stand in line like cattle. It orders us, sometimes brusquely, to take off our coats, shoes and belts, display our mobile devices, and let strangers rummage through our most intimate belongings. It violates our privacy and personal autonomy, thoroughly and humiliatingly, every time we travel by air. It makes us feel like subjects of a police state. Now it proposes to up the ante by giving us the choice between back-scattering X-ray scanners and pat-downs that include our genital areas.

Our feelings of revulsion and defiance are not entirely rational. They are partly subconscious. But they are just as real as the air terrorism that we know exists and the fear that forces us to knuckle under.

So underneath all our grim realism and fear, we are beginning to rebel. We suspect that many of the indignities we suffer are not really necessary for our safety but are cosmetic measures designed to convince us that something is being done, while more effective measures languish in secrecy because they cost more. We don’t trust our own government partly because we don’t trust the private airlines that we know really call the shots. And so we rail at government because it is a handy scapegoat. The TSA patch is the first and last thing we see as we submit, grumbling, to treatment that reminds us of all the fascist and communist regimes that we once fought so steadfastly.

The problem is not the people. TSA employees may not be the brightest bulbs on the marquee, but most of them do a difficult, tedious and terminally boring job with professionalism, civility, and sometimes even lightness and humor.

The problem is the process. The ritual searching of every airline passenger, with steadily increasing intrusiveness and indignity, is something that free citizens of a free society simply should not have to endure. Physically and psychologically, it is an instrument of tyranny, notwithstanding its protective purpose. Continued for a generation, it will make us forget how to be free. And if that happens, it will be Al Qaeda’s greatest victory.

So as I look at the upcoming Thanksgiving protest against the new back-scattering X-ray scanners, I have mixed feelings. My scientific and engineering training convinces me they are good machines. Their judicious use will make us safer. They can find hidden weapons and contraband quickly and indisputably. They don’t “see” flesh and won’t foster voyeurism, as some people fear. Only the most frequent travelers, such as flight crews, need worry about the low levels of X-ray radiation they produce. Used properly and unobtrusively, these machines might someday make air travel less oppressive.

But I’m also an American and a lover of liberty. As such, I look forward to a large public protest against these otherwise useful machines. I see it as a healthy and long-overdue backlash against the deep paranoia that our political and business leaders have created and manipulated (wittingly or not) to control us, like cattle in a pen. I hope the protest will mark the beginning of a free people’s renaissance.

I’m not traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday. But if I were, I would join the protest and do my best to bring the entire air travel system to a grinding halt, at least for a single day.

I wouldn’t do it out of pique or spite. I would do it to remind our leaders in both business and government that we are, or purport to be, a free people. We will not be treated like cattle forever.

I would do it to goad them into making airline security more effective and less intrusive by putting it in the background, as most other civilized societies have done, whatever the cost. I would do it to remind them of Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” And I would do it to remind the Senate that, if it really wants to improve our security, it should ratify the Start II extension treaty as soon as possible, as an antidote to the residual mutual paranoia from a long-vanished Cold War.

Footnote: I have searched the Internet and my Russian library, which is not digitized, for this short story several times, without success. I believe its author was Tolstoy, but it may have been Lermontov or even Chekhov. I would be grateful to any reader who could identify the story by a comment to this page. In our Age of Paranoia, when some misguided fools want to resurrect the Cold War, it cannot be read and reread often enough.

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14 November 2010

Naming (and Ending) our Endless Wars

Name a thing right, and you own it. Name it wrong and it owns you. You fail to ken its essence, and it slips right through your fingers and bites you in the hand.

Maybe that’s what’s happened in our last few wars. Commenters to the liberal New York Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal seldom agree on anything, especially with regard to war. But they do agree on one thing. They both use the term “endless” to describe our current wars.

The reason is not hard to understand. Our really important wars were much shorter. We helped beat history’s greatest military tyrannies in less than four years (although for others World War II lasted six). We stamped out the scourge of slavery and our only serious domestic rebellion in about the same time. Our War of Independence—which our rag-tag army fought against the most powerful military that the Western world then had ever known—lasted only six and a half years. Yet our adventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all exceed seven years now, and the last two are still in progress.

Our recent struggles have been with minor powers in the backwaters of the world. Yet still we haven’t been able to “close the deal.”

Were these “wars” the same as our great wars, we would have made short work of them, just as we did with Saddam’s tank battalions in Gulf I and at the outset of our current War in Iraq. In equipment, training and firepower, and probably in discipline, there is no match for our armed forces anywhere in the world, except perhaps in beleaguered Israel. So why did we lose Vietnam, and why have Iraq and Afghanistan taken us so long just to reach their present states of uncertainty?

Maybe naming conflicts right might help. To do that you have to start with the obvious: territory.

Our most important wars—our War of Independence and our own Civil War—were on our own territory. Until Vietnam, the first was our longest war. The second is still our bloodiest.

As we grew in power, our wars moved outward. In the twentieth century we fought two world wars primarily on the open seas and the territory of invaded victims of aggression. Only toward their ends did these wars enter the territory of the aggressors. They were classic wars of imperialism—remnants of the nineteenth century in the pre-nuclear age.

The aggressors in these wars were bound to fail in the long run, unless they had gotten something like the Bomb first. The rest of the world vastly outnumbered them. They had roughly disturbed the world’s peace and violated an innate human preference for stable borders. And unbeknownst to them, the world had already rejected their atavistic and racist philosophies in practice, not the least in multi-ethnic societies like China, India, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The twentieth century’s primary aggressors were fighting for a world already vanishing or lone gone.

After those big wars, an uneasy peace among major powers settled in. We call it the “Pax Americana.” But that, too, is a misnomer. It really was (and is) the Pax Nucleara.

Nuclear weapons made the price of aggression, invasion and outright imperialism too high. Since the Bomb’s advent 65 years ago, not a single nuclear power, with the possible exception of Israel, has suffered invasion in force, although a few have suffered border skirmishes. Maybe that’s why so many nations want the Bomb. As I have outlined in another post, it is the world’s first and only weapon that provides a near-perfect defense, through deterrence, but (as long as others have it) little incentive for aggression. It is the great equalizer and war stopper. It has halted imperial wars among major powers as if turning off a switch.

With this brief history, the tale of post-War wars comes into focus, at least for us. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in Gulf I nicely fit the model of imperial aggression. But except for that one, all our wars since 1945 we have fought on the territory of a single foreign country (with some spillover to Laos and Cambodia in the case of Vietnam). That’s why all these wars—Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq—bear the names of a single foreign country. They were wars in which we got involved in a foreign nation’s internal affairs for ideological and geopolitical reasons.

The English language has only a few honest words to describe fighting inside a foreign country. They are invasion (including repelling another foreign power’s invasion), occupation, annexation (acquisition), and civil war (helping one side or the other).

General Petraeus and other military leaders offer a fourth word: “insurgency.” But with all due respect to the most able of our modern generals, I don’t think that word fits any of our post-War wars.

The word “insurgency” implies a dispersed, guerilla rebellion against some stable, settled internal order. It presupposes an internal government (which can be foreign to the locality) of some longevity and persistence, with relatively uncontested power.

In other words, an “insurgency” presupposes some real government to “insurge” against. If, for example, our Tea Mobbers and their fellow travelers were to elect their “Second Amendment solution” and take to the hills with small arms for the purpose of bringing down the Obama government by force, that would be an insurgency. For, despite all its problems, our federal government is still undisputedly in charge and has been for some time.

What happened in our post-War wars was nothing of the kind. In Korea, the first Kim’s North invaded the South with “Red” China’s encouragement and material support. With our help, the South fought its way back to the Yalu River and the border with China. Then Chinese troops entered and forced the fighting back to the originally agreed North-South boundary and our fifty-five-year stalemate. It was a civil war, with foreign assistance on both sides and perhaps some aspects of two invasions. But the invasions, if such they were, were temporary. No one today could credibly claim that China controls the North, or that we control the South.

Vietnam was the worst mischaracterization. It was an anti-colonial civil war of national liberation, in which the Vietnamese first fought the French and then us.

The very division into “North” and “South” Vietnam, with various western puppet governments in the South, was a failed diplomatic attempt to mischaracterize the war as one between two independent sovereign states, or an “insurgency” in the South. In reality, the war was a civil war for control of Vietnam’s territory by the Vietnamese, as distinguished from foreigners and foreign puppets. Our paranoid leaders, fearful of China and Communism and mesmerized by McNamara’s ludicrous “domino” theory, failed to recognize that Vietnam had for centuries fought for its independence from China and was not about to exchange Western masters for Chinese ones. China, which had lost wars of independence to Vietnam more than once, was smart enough to know that. So it let Vietnam bleed us, as Vietnam had done China before us, without intervening directly.

Iraq was a bit different. The present war started with our invasion, which was hugely and quickly successful. That’s what Dubya recognized with his premature celebration on the aircraft carrier.

But we didn’t have nearly enough troops for a successful occupation, as Generals Shinseki and Zinni had warned. So what followed was a civil war between the majority Shiites, whom our invasion had favored by removing the Sunni tyrant Saddam, and the minority Sunnis, who were fighting both to repel the foreign invaders (us) and get their disproportionate power back, with or without Saddam.

The worst of the Iraq war was hardly an “insurgency,” despite common use of that term. There was nothing to “insurge” against. We hadn’t the necessary force for a real occupation, and anyway we had turned sovereignty and civil power over to the Iraqis quickly. The “government” to which we ceded power was nascent and weak, with no claim on the full population’s allegiance, let alone any longevity or persistence. Not surprisingly, civil war followed, as the Iraqis sought to determine in their traditional ways—tribal loyalties, bombs and bullets, mixed with a strong dose of religious sectarianism—who would govern them and how.

When the civil war came, we tried to serve as honest broker, head banger, and nation builder. Low-level civil war is still ongoing, although the recent formation of a coalition government promises a new and more hopeful phase.

You might call Al Qaeda’s abortive attempts to create mayhem in Iraq an “insurgency” against the nascent government. But there was no real government at the time, except in name. More important, Al Qaeda’s “movement” was really nothing more than agitation by foreigners for their own ulterior motives. Natives could easily identify the foreigners by their dress and accents. The foreigners enjoyed little or no allegiance from any longstanding indigenous group. They were outsiders who quickly became outcasts.

Unlike in Vietnam, we recognized the situation on the ground. So we did not allow our fear of Al Qaeda to prevent us from letting the tough and secular Iraqis dispose of it in their own way.

Afghanistan followed a similar but less certain pattern. When we “invaded” in 2001, shortly after 9/11, the Taliban were the undisputed government. The nation was stable and peaceful, if not entirely happy. We hadn’t the force for a real invasion. We sent fewer troops even than to Iraq to “invade” a more populous and far larger country with much more difficult terrain. Conscious of the region’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires,” we didn’t have the will for invasion or conquest.

So we tried an “invasion” on the cheap. We exploited tribal and ethnic divisions between the northern Tajiks and the majority Pashtun, bribing and equipping the former to fight for us. We used overwhelming air power to support our “friends.” We gave little thought to politics and governance until long after the fact.

Even though so badly planned, the “invasion” phase of the war went quickly. A twenty-first century combined military, relying primarily on manned and unmanned air power, faced a nineteenth-century mobile guerilla force relying primarily on small arms. Again, we declared “victory” prematurely. But this time we had named our enemy from the start: the “Taliban.” Its outgunned fighters melted back into their people and the mountains, and we set our puppet government up.

As in Iraq, what followed was a civil war, which is still ongoing. But there is one crucial difference. In Iraq we didn’t take sides. We tried to serve as an honest broker, getting every faction to settle down, cooperate and build a prosperous nation with a semblance of democracy. Although the outcome is still in doubt, and although Iran and its proxies inside Iraq could still serve as spoilers, there well may be enough war weariness and common sense among Iraqis to turn the tide and end the now low-level civil war. Stay tuned.

But Afghanistan is entirely different. There we have most definitely taken sides. We have declared the Taliban our enemies and unacceptable and are fighting them with every means at our disposal.

So we have put ourselves in the position of an invading power supporting one side in a civil war. And the side we have supported is weak, unpopular, and corrupt, bearing every resemblance to a foreign puppet. In this respect, our war in Afghanistan, in its present form, looks much like our losing war in Vietnam.

So it all comes down to naming. Calling what’s going on in Afghanistan an “insurgency” fits our vanity and endorses the convenient fiction of our diplomacy: that we have occupied the nation and can control it, or that the Karzai government is in control. We presume that the Karzai government that we set up (with too few troops and too little understanding of the people) is the legitimate, permanent, actual ruling power of the nation.

Of course anyone who has traveled outside of Kabul knows that isn’t so. Afghanistan has been mostly up for grabs since the mujahedeen, with the help of our money and our Stingers, forced the Soviets out in 1988-89. If any single force can claim to have ruled the country undisputedly in the interim, it’s the Taliban. What we have there now is one of the modern world’s longest, low-level civil wars.

Once we name that war correctly—a civil war in which we have taken sides—three basic questions arise immediately. First, have we picked the right side? Or have we, as in Vietnam, picked the side that history will say, in retrospect, was the obvious and inevitable loser?

Second, if the historical outcome is still uncertain, what can we do to whip “our” side into shape, not just militarily, but politically and socially, so that it deserves the “victory” we hope for it? This, I suppose, is where “nation building” comes in. The more efficient, effective, and public-spirited the Karzai government gets—and the less corrupt—the more the people will accept it, and the larger the number of real Afghans who will enlist, train and fight to preserve and advance their communities.

The recent decision to have Afghan recruits live in and protect their own local communities was a brilliant idea. But so is the notion of reconciling with reconcilable Taliban.

Third, if we indeed picked the wrong side, what can we do to correct our mistake, back out gracefully, and insure a relatively peaceful transition to rule by the best of the Taliban and the best of “our own” together?

What we really care about is a stable Afghanistan with a path to a peaceful and prosperous future, which will not become a haven for international terrorists or a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. How we get there is not a matter of “winning” or “losing.” It’s a matter of day-to-day progress in war and peace, in fighting and bargaining, in destroying and building, and in learning and practicing local politics, the details of which no one but experts in war and history will know or care about in as little as thirty years. (See Vietnam.)

If we keep those basic realities in mind, and if we keep our eyes on our own limited goals, we may be able to get out sooner than we expect and with our basic objectives intact, not to mention our honor and our consciences. But to do that, we have to stop demonizing the Taliban, in the minds of our military, in the speeches of our political leaders, and in our popular press.

By and large, the Taliban seem no more primitive, violent or evil than the rest of the local, tribal culture in many of the more remote parts of Afghanistan. Maybe they do cut extremities off people they see as criminals. And maybe their handling of sexual and marital affairs is far too primitive and medieval for our sophisticated tastes.

But three things are apparent. First, native Afghan Taliban have no more in common with Al Qaeda than Iraqis did or do. The only real bonds between the two groups are a common religion (generally speaking, not in detail), primitive tribalism, Islamic hospitality for guests, and hatred of foreign invaders, which would be us.

If we can see the two groups clearly as foreigners to each other, with very different ultimate political and social goals, we can split them apart. If we are clever, we can get Al Qaeda marginalized or rejected in Afghanistan as another, more insidious kind of foreign invader. But to do that, we have to get over our Islamophobia and fear of the word “Taliban.” At a minimum, we have to understand—down to our troops in the field—that Muslims come in as many flavors as Christians or Jews.

Second, we have to understand that Afghanistan will remain a Muslim nation, with primitive and (to us) crudely violent tribal customs, no matter what we do. We can’t reboot Afghan culture; nor should we try. The only cultural goal we should set is letting girls (and boys!) go to school—a goal that Greg Mortenson has had no trouble achieving by non-military means. In the long run, achieving that goal will do more to change Afghanistan for the better than any military success.

We should not try to change or outlaw Sharia practice in general, far less for theft by corruption. If I saw my daughters bartered off as bribes, and my sons’ labor and my own money stolen repeatedly by corrupt police and local strong-men, I wouldn’t at all mind seeing their arms cut off or their eyes gouged out. I might even help. Maybe primitive crimes deserve primitive punishment.

Finally, we should stop thinking about Afghanistan in terms of our “victory” or “defeat.” It’s undergoing a civil war. Only the Afghans get to decide who wins. We may have precipitated the war in a paranoid and incompetent military spasm after 9/11, but it’s their struggle and their future.

Even if we stay in force until 2014, as the President now proposes, the Afghans and many Taliban will still be there long after we leave. And we ultimately have no more national stake in Hamid Karzai and his family as such than we do in the Taliban as such. We have different, special and limited aims.

So we’d best start thinking about what’s best for Afghans, and for our two, simple long-term goals in the region, not for the Karzai government. The sooner we can set that nation on a path to stability consistent with those goals and get our troops home, the happier everyone will be. And if we really care about Afghans, we can continue to give civilian, humanitarian, civil engineering and diplomatic assistance as long as is necessary, but from the outside, without being perceived as invaders or occupiers.

For that, we need to beef up our State Department, downsize our military presence, and endow a few fellowships for our best and brightest to study the British Foreign Office during the height of Britain’s largely successful imperial power. It would be a shame if our so-far-unblemished record as rank amateurs extended even more deeply into our imperial decline.

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11 November 2010

Is Facebook Doing Us In?

As an ex-scientist and sometime engineer with a lifelong love of technology, I find my own attitude toward Facebook troubling. I have an account, but I hardly look at it anymore. And when I think deeply about its social, political and economic impact, I begin to feel like an evangelical contemplating the anti-Christ.

Why, you might ask, does this new “technology” raise such revulsion in a person who has used and programmed computers for nearly 50 years? Let me count the ways.

First, it’s a massive distraction. Before I made a browser filter to send its incessant messages directly to their own directory jail, I would get several messages a week, asking me to approve a new “friend.”

Now I’m from the old school. I take friendship seriously. So what should I do on receiving a message from someone I’ve never met, who purports to be a friend or relative of someone I know, or a friend or relative of a friend or relative of someone I know? What do I do when I think I might remember the name, but it also might resemble one of the thousands of people I’ve met, heard of, or read about in my 65 years? Can I reject someone (and possibly give offense) without serious thought and wracking my memory? Can I accept someone whom I don’t know and whose future messages might be distracting, boring and/or annoying?

Properly responding to a request to “be friends” takes some thought—far more than deleting spam, which takes mere seconds. So I settled on filtering the requests and sending them all to a dead file that I may look at someday, perhaps if terminally ill. For me Facebook is a thing that stole lots of my time, mostly uselessly, before I learned to ignore it. I keep in touch with my friends—and sometimes rediscover old ones—by individual e-mail.

Facebook’s second cardinal sin is that it trivializes everything. It’s not entirely Facebook’s fault. After all, it’s just a new medium. Maybe it’s not entirely responsible for how people use it. But it violates what I call the “law of the tribe.”

Some years ago, social scientists and psychologists discovered an interesting fact. We humans evolved in tribal groups of about thirty individuals. That’s the size of “village” for which we are hard-wired, and with which we are most comfortable. Skilled politicians and teens enamored of Facebook may be able to remember thousands of names and the faces that go with them. But they can hardly know all the histories, characters, attitudes, beliefs and habits behind those faces, as they would members of their family or tribe.

In getting us to believe that our 1,000 or 10,000 “friends” on Facebook have any real social or psychological meaning, Facebook leads us to live a lie. Of course we can have no real relationship with that many people. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. That’s true even for a retired person like me, let alone youth that should be busy with learning or adults who should be gainfully employed. All we can do with “friends” like that is count them, as Silas Marner did his pieces of gold.

And there’s the rub. Facebook “friendship” becomes a numbers game, a quantitative contest, just like our twisted economics. Quality and human feeling count for nothing. Quantity is all. The one who has the most toys and “friends” wins.

But of course “friends” on Facebook are not the same as real friends. Many a teen has learned that lesson painfully when “friends” have turned on him in an instant, based on a secret told or a clever lie. Real friends of course don’t do that.

For a grounded adult, these ciphers’ betrayal means nothing. No grounded adult would consider them friends or rely on them for anything real. But in a Facebook-influenced adolescent society, desertion of these ciphers can cause loss of self esteem, depair, even suicide. And so we try to solve our youth’s inability to understand friendship with civil actions or criminal charges against “cyberbullying.” How pathetic!

As in social life, so in economics and politics, my third point. Have you ever seen a Facebook posting run more than one or two paragraphs? I haven’t. What passes for economic or political “discourse” on Facebook is the electronic equivalent of bumper stickers, which Twitter has made an electronic art form. Anyone who thinks any good will come of this dumbing down of the national psyche, especially among youth, is seriously deluded.

The reductio ad absurdum is the “like” page. With the click of a mouse, you can express your “liking” for a person, a business, an ideological position, a candidate for public office, or a nation. So thorough, so nuanced, so deep.

This “liking” processes reduces us to pre-adolescent children trying to be “popular” at school. No one who delights in these moronic “elections” ever stops to think how easily the questions are slanted by clever wording, omission of opposing views, or bold lies. Most of those who record their “likes” have no instruction in propaganda and no idea of the power of modern public relations. They would be hard-pressed to write a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent paragraph. They therefore have no clue how much these “like” pages can advance the agendas of demagogues and dictators. Eat your heart out, George Orwell!

My fourth and perhaps most important reason for despising Facebook is conformity. In everything it does, Facebook empowers the crowd over the individual. Its raison d’être is belonging. “Do you want to belong?” it screams. “Join your ‘friends,’ or you’ll be lonely, left outside.” Big Brother never had so potent a tool of psychological pressure.

Yet all our great advances in human thought came from individuals who were mavericks, misfits and loners. From Archimedes and his “Eureka!” scream while running nude from his bath, through Martin Luther, Newton, Locke, Adam Smith, Darwin, Einstein, and Jefferson, to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., it has been people sitting alone in their rooms, just thinking by themselves, that brought us out of the caves.

Of course these great thinkers had friends and colleagues. Of course they exchanged ideas with their peers and read the works of their intellectual forebears. But their flashes of insight, which immeasurably advanced our species, were solipsistic affairs, the product of their lonely and focused concentration. And (except for Luther’s legendary notice tacked on the church door) the works in which they expressed these great thoughts were book-length, not bumper-stickers on a Web page.

No new ideas ever came from the crowd, for thinking is not a social phenomenon. Thinking “outside the box” is even less so, because the crowd’s pressure to toe the line of conformity is relentless. The more Facebook organizes more of our youth into crowds and mobs of varying sizes, the less likely we will be to see any new breakthrough in human thought. In the long run, this relentless pressure for conformity will give “unwired” societies a social evolutionary advantage over ours.

The final reason that Facebook ultimately turns my stomach is technological and industrial innovation. People blithely call Facebook and Twitter “technology.” But they are not. The programming that lets them depart from from the average Web page is unimaginably trivial, pedestrian and obvious, at least to anyone who knows how programming and computers work.

What is new about these sites is their twisted social and/or business ideas. They recognize that crowds and mobs can form spontaneously on line, that people can be tricked into considering this process “friendship,” that people (primarily adolescents just leaning social skills) might be interested in (even obsessed by) each other’s random and truncated thoughts, that political factions can use this sort of medium for propaganda, and that a select few can make obscene profits from all of the above, without anyone suspecting how quickly the process might poison real human culture. Facebook and Twitter are to healthy social and political life as unregulated derivatives are to a sound economy.

Many things going on in the world today constitute real technology and innovation. They include fabricated pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering, nano-manufacturing, robotics, electric cars, the batteries for electric cars, windmills, solar cells, solar thermal power plants, second-generation nuclear power reactors, and the smart grids and devices to tie all these things together.

These things are real technology and innovations, existing or in process. The nation or region that first perfects them will wax successful and rich. Nations that fall behind, as we are in the process of doing, will become stagnant and poor.

But Facebook and Twitter are none of these. They are pedestrian applications of well-known computer-programming techniques for entertainment and advertising. When they masquerade as leading-edge technological innovation, they subvert our sense of wonder at real discovery. They are distractions from real industrial innovation and investment in them, which are vital necessities if we are to regain our manufacturing base and restore our economic health. The investment they attract is largely a waste, however rich it may make the investors. They are the technological and industrial analogue of “American Idol” and reality shows on television, or a new form of advertising. Calling them “technology” just debases the word.

To the extent Facebook and Twitter are content-free, their blank pages could be used for good. Scientists might use them to collaborate, or disenfranchised voters to coalesce and form a new political party. But there are better forums for these purposes, more minutely adapted to their unique needs. In its advertising, incessant self-promotion and common usage, Facebook has an entirely different purpose: to feign the feeling of “friendship” and belonging in the most transient and superficial way possible.

If the anti-Christ did come to Earth, seeking to destroy the bonds of genuine human feeling and cooperation by parodying and diluting them in the most effective way—at the same time empowering the worst forms of mob psychology—he could hardly do a better job.

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06 November 2010

Occam’s Razor and the Midterms

The phrase “Occam’s Razor” is shorthand for a central truth: the simplest and most direct explanation of anything is usually the right one. So it is with the midterm elections.

The GOP and Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Lies would have you believe that the same public that enthusiastically endorsed the Democrats generally in 2006 and Barack Obama specifically in 2008 suddenly got conservative religion in 2010 and moved decisively to the right. Like the mythical liberal who converts instantly to rabid conservatism after being mugged, its story goes, our whole populace decisively switched sides in a mere two years, after taking the President for a fraud, a “Manchurian candidate,” who won the White House on false pretenses and morphed into a socialist monster.

A related explanation, equally cynical, is the property of disappointed progressives. This one holds that the Empire of Lies managed to convince the vast bulk of independent voters of its unlikely story and they, brainwashed zombies, voted accordingly. The Empire, this story goes, enjoyed a complete propaganda victory.

Either explanation is of course plausible. As one wag observed, it is impossible to go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

But a far more plausible explanation is the simplest one. The mass of “independent” voters in the center decided this election. They are not only uncommitted to any strong ideology. They are also uninterested and untutored in politics. They gave no more credence to the highly abstract inventions of the Empire of Lies than they did to the massive ad campaigns on which rich amateurs spent tens of millions of dollars (and in Meg Whitman’s case, well over $ 120 million) of their own money.

Not only didn’t these voters know why things got bad. They didn’t particularly care. They’re not theorists. They’re victims of theory. All they knew was the intense pain of suffering job loss or underemployment, foreclosure, and a stark downward turn in their personal economic fortunes. So they lashed out in 2010 in the same crude and simple way that they did in 2008 and 2006. They voted the bastards in power out, whoever those bastards happened to be.

A slightly more complex but equally plausible explanation is what I call the “spoiled child” model of the electorate. Over a decade of credit-fueled irrational exuberance, a certain segment of the public had become accustomed to an easy life, including new cars on credit and McMansions for mortgages too good to be true. In many cases, they also had learned to rely on jobs too easy to be real, such as redundant middle management or writing mortgages without having to extract any evidence of the borrower’s ability to repay.

Now, like spoiled children throwing a tantrum, they expected their indulgent parents to meet their every whim and correct thirty years of bad policy in twenty-one months. It didn’t help their mood that their “parents,” aka Congress, ignored their greatest need (for “jobs, jobs, jobs”) by “wasting” a lot of time and energy on health-insurance and financial reform. It also didn’t help that Congress accomplished these rather modest reforms with two-thousand-page monstrosities that many members admitted they didn’t even read, and that the children sensed instinctively (and probably rightly) were full of lobbyists’ tricks.

All these things, plus Congress’ incessant over-the-top partisanship and steadfast refusal to work together for obvious and reasonable goals, left these children feeling like neglected and traumatized victims of a messy divorce.

In my last post, I hinted at this Occam’s Razor explanation for the Democrats’ rout in the House, but in less detail. Seldom has the world of news so quickly provided evidence of my understanding. Exhibit A is the 153 readers’ comments to a Wall Street Journal story appearing Thursday, headlined “McConnell: No Mood for Compromise.”

For at least the last six months, the WSJ comments I have read provoked feelings of anxiety and despair. Almost any story about economics or politics, however remote from the presidency, produced a flood of comments castigating the President and his administration, as well as “liberals.” These comments used the most virulent and hateful language. Many of them were little more than name calling. So numerous, spiteful and rabid were they that I began to suspect many had been written by the Empire’s own propagandists, or by testosterone-fueled teenage sons of subscribers, full of adolescent certitude and sarcasm.

So when I turned to the comments in the story about Mitch McConnell’s post-victory intransigence, I expected more of the same. I expected reams of triumphalist chest-beating and figurative stomping on the prone corpses of “liberals.”

What I got was nothing of the kind. Among the 153 comments, only a few were triumphalist, and only a handful even mentioned the President. The vast majority said, in essence, pretty much the same thing: “We didn’t switch horses in mid-stream to have the new horse throw off our reins and run off in the opposite direction, again perpendicular to our real needs. We want jobs, jobs, jobs. We don’t want political posturing, intransigence, blind ideology or effort wasted in bashing the other political party, however misguided it may be. And we don’t want any more energy and time wasted on repealing health-insurance reform than we wanted on passing it in the first place.”

Comment after comment made these points, in varying degrees of coherence and articulation. The tone was suspicious, cynical and angry. One or two even called McConnell a “zombie” (which his habitual lifeless and deadpan delivery so accurately mimics). You could already see buyers’ remorse setting in among independents, a mere two days after the historic GOP victory in the House.

If you doubt the correctness of the Occam’s Razor or spoiled-child theory, I invite you to peruse the comments. Even without comparing them to the previous torrent of over-the-top animosity against the President, you can see a testament to the American people’s common sense and the political center’s lack of strong ideological leanings in any direction. Already―two days after the election― these comments showed timorous hope souring into cynicism and anger at anyone who so much as hints at a goal besides restoring gainful and dignified employment to our middle class.

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03 November 2010

Midterm Aftermath: Diagnosis and Prognosis

The midterm results were not as bad as they might have been, nor as good as they could have been. The Party of No took the House decisively, but not the Senate.

The good news is that politics remains a semi-learned profession. Education, training, aptitude and experience matter. The chief tea crazies―Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell―went down to decisive defeat. Even Joe Miller in Alaska appears to have lost to long-time Senator Lisa Murkowski’s write-in campaign.

The very few so-called “tea baggers” who won were serious, experienced pols like Marco Rubio in Florida. He had served eight years in the Florida House, including time as majority whip, majority leader, and speaker. And Rubio was far more a creature of the unique Cuban-American community in Florida than the tea party.

The rich lost big, too, in spite of all their money and hubris. Meg Whitman lost to old-time (and aging!) pol Jerry Brown for California governor. Carly Fiorina lost to long-time Senator Barbara Boxer. It didn’t seem to matter that Whitman had built a hugely successful business (eBay) and Fiorina had nearly run a Silicon Valley icon (Hewlett-Packard) into the ground. Voters were smart enough to figure out that running a business, even successfully, is not the same as running a state or a nation.

Given these two trends, it was natural for candidates that are both rich and crazy to lose. Linda McMahon, the kick-him-in-the-balls wrestling magnate, and Carl (“take him out”) Paladino fell into this category. Despite all our angst and zaniness, we Americans are not quite ready for either Catharine the Great or Caligula.

As for “Mama Grizzly,” she wisely stayed outside the ring, racking up impressive speaking fees with her nonsense. Alaska may no longer have its Klondike gold, but it still has its gold diggers. Even its remote and unpredictable people were smart enough to recognize that brains and experience matter.

The long, embarrassing amateur hour that began when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate is now over. Voters see that “American Idol” works best as entertainment, not government. We can all be thankful for that.

So two pathological movements in American politics seems to have died aborning. The first was a fake GOP splinter “movement” that ran out of control and off the rails into nonsense, farce, and absurdity. The second was a stampede by the arrogant rich to anoint us plebes with their self-proclaimed wisdom, which ended up just losing lots of their money. It will take some time for the pundits and slow learners come around, but these two “movements” appear destined for the dustbin of history that is their rightful home.

Most of the rest of the news is bad. The party that made its goal the President’s (and the nation’s) failure, from the moment of his inauguration, gained control of the House. Flush with victory, it has now declared insuring the President’s loss in 2012 its “top priority.” Of course anyone who’s followed the GOP’s actions over the last two years knew that without it being said.

Think about that. I’m 65 years old, and I’ve followed politics closely all of my life. I can’t think of any other time, any other party, or any other public officials (except for Nixon) that made their chief and primary goal defeating the opposition at any cost. Aren’t public officials supposed to want to do something to improve the state of the nation, if not the ordinary people who inhabit it?

In modern America, apparently not. Nothing demonstrates better than the politics of vendetta how much the GOP really believes, deep down, that the best days of America are behind us and only win-lose solutions are possible. Watch what they do, not what they say. Their paeans to American strength and resilience are just a smokescreen to cover what they’re really all about: grabbing the goodies for their rich paymasters as the remarkable country that their policies have wrecked decays.

So the immediate future is not hard to predict. The entertaining zaniness and distraction will wane. Things will get serious from here on out as the stakes rise. Both sides will devote themselves to serious battle over whether we will become a plutocracy and join South America in all but language.

Now controlled by Republicans, the House will dance to the tune of their corporate masters. It will propose things like repealing health-care reform, privatizing or downsizing Social Security and Medicare, and loosening restraints on environmental pollution, unsafe workplaces, unsafe food and drugs, and financial gambling and swindling. The Senate, still controlled by Democrats, will demur. The Senate will thus preserve the presidential veto for extraordinary occasions, thereby saving the President from looking like an obstructor.

Of course nothing whatsoever will get done. No serious person will expect anything real to get done, except in the realm of foreign policy, where the President has plenary authority, or as may be possible by executive order or litigation. The 2012 presidential campaign will begin immediately. As one wag noted on TV last night, it’s only fifteen months until the next set of Iowa caucuses.

In retrospect, it’s now easy to see what really happened yesterday. Whether on the left or right, people who keep informed and have an ideological perspective won’t change without a great cataclysm, like the one in 2008. I, for example, voted two weeks early. I could have voted six months ago and my choices wouldn’t have changed.

But people who made the decisions last night weren’t like me, or like you if you’re reading this blog. They don’t follow or understand politics or economics generally. They take a quick glance only when they dimly perceive an effect on their own finances and daily lives.

They haven’t a clue whether voodoo or Keynesian economics is right or wrong, and they don’t care. They vote based on which party is in power and whether things for them and theirs are good and getting better or bad and getting worse. Since things have been bad for two years, their patience is low: they want results in months, if not yesterday.

The biggest mistake that political pundits and analysts make is attributing too much intelligence and analysis to the average voter. A voter may declaim about “big government,” deficit spending, the loss of “liberty,” too much regulation, and so forth. But the “independent” voters who decide elections in our closely divided electorate are not the kind of people who base their actions on abstractions like those. What they say when asked is really an idle cover for a simple, personal calculus: do my and my family’s immediate prospects look better or worse right now?

If you’re going to have a nation ruled by uneducated people who don’t know and don’t care about ideas, that may be the best criterion you could hope for. It’s hard to fool people about what they see, hear and feel in their own lives. In the end, that simple calculus mattered more than all the clever ads on which we spent so many billions.

The impatience is not entirely a bad thing either. It worked against the Democrats and Obama this time. The voters wanted instant change from thirty years of bad policy. But the same impatience will work against the GOP when their control of the House, which originates all spending bills, produces nothing. And you can bet that nothing significant in domestic policy will happen until 2012.

The good news is that voters are hard to fool about their own circumstances, and they have some common sense. Their rejection of the rich and crazies (and rich crazies) showed that. Maybe in another fifteen months, when the natural healing of a wounded economy has gone much further, they’ll understand that politics based on “no” and bashing the other guy is unlikely to produce forward motion.

Americans may be slow learners, but we do learn. Winston Churchill said it best: “Americans will always do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the alternatives.” We’re still working through the alternatives.

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