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

22 January 2016

Misdirected “Populism,” and How to Fix It

[For a recent post on marketers and Websites, click here; for one on the Dems’ last debate, click here.]
    “We are mad, and we’ve been had.” — Sarah Palin
One of the oddest things about this election cycle is not that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are dominating our media and GOP polling. It’s how our media treat them.

Calling Trump and Cruz “populists” along with Bernie Sanders is spectacularly false equivalence. It’s like calling George Wallace, Joe McCarthy, Huey Long, or Adolf Hitler a “populist.”

Each of them, like Trump and Cruz, garnered a substantial popular following. Each of them was or is a demagogue. Wallace and Hitler were overt and virulent racists, too. But “populists”? Populists were people like FDR, Robert Kennedy and William Jennings Bryan, who fought for the the middle class and working people against economic royalists.

Hitler was more “successful” than Wallace, McCarthy or Long. By guile, lies, terror and brute force, he gained enough support to be elected chancellor and then subvert Germany. The result was history’s most horrible war, fifty million souls prematurely extinguished, and the destruction and forcible division of Germany for nearly half a century.

In contrast, American demagogues have achieved far less “success,” at least so far. McCarthy was disgraced and repudiated and died of cancer soon afterward. Long was assassinated, and Wallace was crippled by a would-be assassin.

But Wallace did have “success” of a sort. In 1968 he ran for president under the overtly racist “American Independent Party.” He siphoned off Democratic votes and gave us Richard Nixon as president. It would be spectacular poetic justice if Trump or Cruz, denied the nomination, ran independently and put Bernie in the White House.

Could something like Hitler and Nazism happen here? In an essay written nearly four years ago, I analyzed the causes of Germany’s Nazi psychosis and the chances of something similar happening to us Yanks. I put the risk at “probably no more than 20%.” Now, with the surges of Trump and Cruz, the odds are growing daily.

Trump lacks the mustache and the screech. But in his personality and what passes for his “policies,” he’s a dead ringer for Hitler. He demonizes Muslims and Hispanic immigrants just as Hitler demonized Jews. He wants to deport 11 million peaceful, productive immigrants, just as Hitler deported six million Jews from their homes to concentration camps. (The death camps and the “final solution” came much later, after Hitler had consolidated absolute power and was well into his catastrophic war.)

Like Hitler’s to pre-war Germans, Trump’s pitch to Americans is utter “trust me” nonsense. He says one thing one day and another thing the next. He never apologizes for blatant factual errors or inconsistencies. His mantra is: “I’m smart. I’m strong. I’m a billionaire. I’ll fix what ails our country. I’ll bash the Islamic terrorists, the Hispanics and whatever else ails us. Just put me in charge.” Except for not being a billionaire, wasn’t that Hitler’s modus operandi?

Cruz is more polished and subtle, but his “policies,” insofar as he has any, are much the same. Not only does he look a bit like Joe McCarthy, with his self-satisfied smirk. According to news reports, everyone who’s ever known him personally—from his college days to today’s Senate floor—hates him. His Senate colleagues refused to support him on the issue of his eligibility to be president. They all turned their backs on him, even the most conservative; and they know him best.

Together, Trump and Cruz may be the most unqualified and wildly dangerous men ever to get close to the presidency of the United States. Just as in pre-Nazi Germany, the have a chance for one reason only: the middle class, and not just the poor, are hurting and angry.

Sarah Palin may be unqualified, too. But she has a knack for memorable phrases. She’s absolutely right. We, the American people, are mad because we’ve been had.

But how we’ve been had has nothing to do with Hispanic immigrants (undocumented or not), Muslims, abortion, the government taking away our guns, or a half-black President in the White House. In fact, the President has done more than any of his predecessors to tell us honestly what’s really wrong and to fix it.

How we’ve been had fits into four general categories. The first and most important is economic. Recent studies reveal astounding figures. Not only is economic inequality in our nation far more severe than our people think is right. It’s orders of magnitude (powers of ten) worse than they think it is. The top 1% own 40% of all the wealth in the United States; the bottom 80% of our people—four fifths of us—own just 7%.

As Bernie says, this pathologically unequal economy came about because the law and our pols stacked the deck against the middle class and poor and in favor of the rich. It did so most recently by removing restrictions on big banking and then by bailing out the big bankers with taxpayer money when their stupidity and greed destroyed the global economy.

The people know all this instinctively, but they don’t see cause and effect. They don’t know that, although Bill Clinton signed the bill that gave the banks carte blanche to get bigger and to gamble bigger, it was the Republicans who pushed for it, over decades, at the instance of their rich backers. Bill Clinton just signed the bill into law to “triangulate” and seek a middle ground.

As for bailouts, it was Dubya’s Goldman-Sachs-alumnus Secretary Treasury, Hank Paulson, who started them on his own initiative, without Congress’ permission or even knowledge. Then he got a clueless and startled Congress to endorse and expand them—all in Dubya’s lame-duck period and long before Obama’s inauguration. By the time Obama took over, bailouts were well-established policy. Anyway, a deluded Congress held the much-needed Keynesian stimulus hostage to them.

The public needs to know these basic facts of history. Although there is blame to go around, it needs to know who were the principal architects of their being had economically.

The second way our middle class has been had is environmental. The public is just beginning to understand how profoundly global warming will affect our lives and our children’s future. It’s not just the freak storms, the more violent hurricanes, the more common and devastating tornados, the freak cold snaps, or the massive summer heat waves. It’s rising seas and northward-marching tropical diseases. Zika virus, which can deform babies and damage their brains by infecting pregnant women, is now marching into Texas and Florida, as is dengue fever.

At the same time, low oil prices are exacerbating the problem. Consumers are buying big SUVs and other gas-guzzlers again. Not only does their doing so accelerate global warming. One day it will punch them in their pocketbooks, yet again, when oil and gasoline prices inevitably resurge.

The party of Trump and Cruz is not responsible for global warming. Our entire species is. But the GOP has delayed and even stymied rational solutions by deluding and deceiving the most powerful nation on Earth, still the global leader, for far too long. Like all other GOP candidates, Cruz and Trump say nothing about global warming, leaving us in the dark as to what, if anything, they would do about it in the unlikely catastrophe of their election.

The third way we’ve been had is that they’re taking away our democracy, right before our eyes. We no longer have majority rule in our Senate and our House. We also have institutional gridlock due to individual Senators’ “holds” on legislation and presidential appointments. Gerrymandering and vote suppression are endemic in our states.

The GOP and the Old South are the principal culprits; they are in bed together.

Of course the Supreme Court’s catastrophic decision that corporations are “people” with civil rights like us humans is partly responsible. It gave the rich even more power to distract and delude us than they already have. It sent us halfway to ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses.” But the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” not only put our least-developed, most racist, most militaristic and most authoritarian culture in charge of Congress; it also put the justices on the Court whose votes decided Citizens United. So if you think our democracy has been had, it’s pretty clear who’s done the having.

The fourth and final way we’ve been had is the most violent. We’ve been shot and terrorized, repeated and routinely, by guns in the wrong hands.

What caused this has been the acme of successful right-wing demagoguery. Time after time, crazy people, fanatics or terrorists have shot up our gathering places: schools, colleges, theaters and community centers. Vast majorities of our people want to stop the mayhem by outlawing assault weapons and keeping guns out of demented or fanatic hands. But the gun makers and the NRA have convinced enough of our people and our pols to impose a minority veto on simple, common-sense precautions that police and a majority of our people support.

Whether right-leaning or left-leaning, whether “conservative” or progressive, the American people want all four of these things fixed. Vast majorities of Americans want to break up the big banks (or otherwise curtail their power), to move toward a clean-energy economy and create millions of clean, good jobs, to get money out of politics, and to stop the gun mayhem. Yet nothing happens because the demagogues on the right have convinced a substantial minority of us that abortion, Muslims, undocumented aliens, and minorities (including the President!) are the sources of our problems.

The fix is easy in concept but hard to pull off. Someone has to explain the facts of life to American voters. Someone has to introduce them to the notion of cause and effect. Someone has to patiently describe how deporting Hispanics, barring Muslims from entry, banning abortion, giving everyone yet more guns, and bashing the President and other minorities will have a lot of unintended consequences but will not fix any of these problems. Bernie has done a good job on economic inequality and money in politics, but he has yet to address the environmental and gun problems in any serious way.

Finally, the press has got to stop calling Trump and Cruz “populists.” They are not. They are demagogues. Trump is as close to a fascist as I’ve ever seen running for president in my lifetime of 70 years. Even Barry Goldwater—the arch-conservative who lost to Lyndon Johnson in the greatest landslide since FDR’s—was nothing like Trump. Goldwater was an honest man, and Trump would appall him.

Trump and Cruz are uniquely vulnerable because they are uniquely unqualified and horrible. The way to beat them is to call them what they are and begin the long, slow process of re-introducing a public brainwashed with distractions and vapid abstractions to the simple notion of cause and effect.

Republicans can’t do that because brainwashing is all they’ve got. They don’t even have a credible policy even to replace Obamacare, let alone to cure our economic pathology. So it’s up to the Dems, and especially to Bernie, to teach us history and return us to basic human survival reasoning—a clear vision of cause and effect.


17 January 2016

How Marketers Ruin Websites

[Politics does intrude, even into diversions. For my take on the Dems’ last presidential debate, click here. While we await the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, to see how badly the GOP is split, we can enjoy a diversion. This post is one of my occasional essays on the computer industry. For an early humorous one, which is still sadly apt, click here.]

The Internet and World Wide Web have been around for a generation now. President Clinton, on Al Gore’s advice, opened the Internet for general commercial use in 1996, just about twenty years ago.

With that longevity, you would hope that certain best practices would have become universal. Just look at the industry leaders: Amazon, Google, and, for on-line brokerages, TD Ameritrade. Everyone—or at least their customers—recognizes how easy to use their Websites are. You would think that others would follow their leadership. But not so much.

Take Apple, for instance. It has the best consumer-oriented operating systems in the business, for both computers and mobile devices. But its Website sucks, big time. If you want useful information about an Apple product or service, you won’t find it there, or at least you won’t find it easily. You’ll find much more useful information much more easily on Amazon’s product reviews, by searching Google for answers to specific questions or (in extremis) by perusing user forums, including Apple’s own.

Then take the annuity-investment company TIAA-CREF. For the professors and teachers (like me) who use it for retirement, it’s a godsend. It’s had almost a century of reliable, honest, professional investment performance. But its Website, like Apple’s, sucks big time. Trying to find anything on it is like pawing over the messy desk of a scatterbrain with Alzheimer’s. TIAA-CREF’s Website’s organization has elevated “non-intuitive” to interplanetary scale.

Morningstar is another example of a firm whose marketers are ruining its Website. Its Website has enormously useful tools and reports for detailed analysis of stock, bond, ETF and mutual fund investments. In fact, Morningstar invented the business of giving independent investment analysis, free from obvious conflicts of interest, to consumers outside the securities industry. But it also has introduced “push” video ads for independent advertisers. These start to run as soon as a Web page is loaded. Some cannot be stopped until the ad has run.

The user, who has paid a constantly escalating, automatically renewable annual subscription fee, has to kill the page or search for it among dozens of open browser tabs in order to halt the video stream, or has to mute the audio. When two or more Morningstar push-ad tabs are open, an audio cacophony results.

To add insult to injury, most of the independent ads are self-parodies of meaningless marketing hype. They make David Brooks’ description of Harriet Miers’ legal writing—“the relentless march of vapid abstractions”—seem an understatement.

These ads are the antithesis of everything substantive that Morningstar’s Website offers. It’s hard to believe that the small revenue supplement that Morningstar gets from “pushing” these ads literally in customer’s faces justifies so enraging them. Pushing such vapid and inane ads also undercuts Morningstar’s business model of independent and sophisticated investment analysis.

Apple, TIAA-CREF and Morningstar are in three entirely different businesses: electronics with software, finance and independent investment analysis. But their Websites all suffer from the same basic defect. They seem to have been designed primarily by marketers and salespeople (or, in TIAA-CREF’s case, brokers, who amount to the same thing).

The basic problem, it seems, is conceptual. Some companies seem to have put Websites under “marketing” or “advertising” in the company organization chart and left them there to rot.

Above all, a Website is an information-providing device. So is traditional advertising. But this facile comparison hides enormous differences. Unlike traditional advertising, Websites are infinitely expandable, with near-zero marginal cost. They are also interactive, permitting reverse flows of information and many-to-many communication.

The paradigms of traditional advertising are the thirty-second radio spot, the one-minute TV ad, and the quarter page, mostly graphic newspaper or magazine ad. They, too, provide information, but not nearly with the same purpose or depth as a Website. They just catch the eye or ear and provoke initial interest. No one is going to buy a car, computer, smart phone or retirement investment without further inquiry.

Websites respond to that further inquiry, and much more. They can turn that initial interest into a purchase. But in order to do so, especially for complex products and services, they have to provide more useful information and less hype.

With complex products and services, a still larger function of the Website is providing post-sale information. Customers aren’t going to appreciate the product or service unless they can use it fully and get the most out of it. If they don’t appreciate it fully, they won’t come back, and they won’t recommend the product or service to others.

Helping customers appreciate a product or service fully requires clear, focused explanations of how best to use it under various circumstances. Those explanations need constant improvement, refinement and expansion as the product or service and its users’ experience evolve.

Most of all, they require good organization. Without good organization, customers can’t find what they’re looking for; so the information might as well not be there.

Mixing initial-interest hype with detailed specifications and how-to explanations doesn’t make Websites better or produce more sales. It just makes readers angry.

That’s what happens to me almost every time I look at Apple’s Website. I shout to myself, “I already own this product, you dolt! I clicked on this link to get more specific, useful information, not more marketing hype!” Even the so-called technical specs on Apple’s website are deficient: they don’t provide enough numerical information, or they tout it proudly without any hint of its significance, or even a comparison with other Apple products.

Then there are the things that go wrong.

Things inevitably go wrong with complex products or services. They may be something wrong with the product or service, or the customer may be using it wrongly. But it doesn’t really matter which, does it? In either case, the firm will have a dissatisfied customer. In extreme cases, it will have a scathing on-line review or even a lawsuit.

So fixing things that go wrong ought to be a major focus of any good Website. No traditional advertisement ever did that. Therefore, we’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?

The first big firm to follow Judy into Oz was Amazon. I have written a whole essay about its path-breaking decision to let customers pan its products online. I won’t repeat that essay here, but two points are worth making. First, Amazon broke the two-millennium-old seller’s code of caveat emptor. Second and more important, it enlisted its own customers in fixing things that go wrong. The best online reviews not only tell future customers what’s wrong with a product; they also tell them how to fix it or work around it. Armed with that knowledge, a future customer is far less likely to feel buyer’s remorse.

A lot of Websites now have product reviews and user forums. But they are pale shadows of Amazon’s. Why? Because the flow of feedback on a good review or forum site is enormous. The problem for the customer and potential customer is searching and sorting through it.

Here Amazon shines. It allows the user to organize reviews by date or “grade.” It applies the wisdom of the crowd by having readers rate the reviews and letting users search them by user-graded helpfulness. It also has a search field that enables keyword searches.

In making reviews useful, it’s all about organization. Apple’s user forum falls short for two main reasons. First, the user who starts a thread by reporting a problem provides the title for the thread. So titles for similar threads are all over the map.

Two different users could report the same problem, months apart or on the same day, and their threads might have entirely different titles. Finding both of them requires a masterful search, blessed serendipity, or the kindness of a commenter who links each to the other. Second, the person who starts each thread is the one who reports whether a later answer solved the problem, usually without explanation. Sometimes, the usefulness of a “solution” is in the eye of the beholder, or in the specifics of a complex situation. Wouldn’t it be better, like Amazon, to have users vote and comment?

Organization is key in other ways, too. As we have seen, Websites have at least four purposes: (1) evoking initial interest; (2) “hooking” the potential customer with more solid information; (3) providing and storing post-sale information for users (including account information and profiles); and (4) fixing things that go wrong. Since the Website itself is as much a product or service as the one it reports, there is a fifth purpose also: (5) improving the Website. In a medium as interactive as the Internet, it’s astonishing how slowly most Websites have adopted simple measures to let their customers and readers help them improve.

How these five purposes are organized makes all the difference in Website usefulness. Ideally, each purpose should have a different main link and a different main page.

But the most important organizational points are to separate pre-sale from post-sale information, and to separate general post-sale information from specific data about a particular user’s experience, “My Account” and the user’s profile. Mixing data from either of these two pairs just makes post-sale readers mad.

By now many Websites have adopted the industry-standard “My Account” button. But what comes under it, and how it is organized, also makes a big difference. TIAA-CREF, for example, had a separate message center, distinct from account changes, which handled both specific account data, including uploaded documents, and general inquiries.

An old friend of mine once designed the first (or one of the first) commercial e-mail programs. When something went wrong, he would sit quietly in the corner, review the code line by line in his head, and find the problem. This same friend was also the youngest person I’ve ever known to get a Ph.D. in particle physics.

Not all Website designers are that smart or that capable. So it helps to take users into your confidence.

After a mere hour or two or use, it’s possible for a savvy user to distinguish Websites whose designers have advisory panels and good user feedback from the rest. Not only can you see the feedback invitations on the Websites; the good Websites are also much easier to use.

The many Website-feedback “surveys” now polluting the Web are virtually useless in comparison with a good user advisory panel whose advice is heeded. The most disgusted customers are not going to fill out the surveys, and no survey has one tenth of the information of a real complaint letter, or even this essay.

One last point of Internet lore is worth making. As social-media sites have discovered, the Web is (to borrow a phrase from law school) a seamless web. You get more from making your Website and products and services compatible with others’ than from trying to disprove John Donne’s “No man is an island.”

Even Apple, after the late Steve Jobs’ tantrum, discovered this truth with Adobe’s Flash technology. TIAA-CREF might do well to do the same with its numerous similar but inconsistent names for apparently almost identical investment funds. It might even make sure that each has a unique and clearly displayed symbol, so that users could look it up in Morningstar or Google Finance.

For the first time in human history, the Internet has made possible many-to-one (“reverse”) communication and many-to-many (“crowd”) communication in ways that are both quick and convenient. Some Websites, like Amazon’s and Google’s, have earmarks of design by programmers and other computer industry cognoscenti to take advantage of these features. Others, apparently designed by marketers to take the place of traditional advertising, are falling further and further behind.

Even the best Websites could benefit from well-chosen user advisory panels. The worst have a long, long way to go to realize the Internet’s potential. Moving the Website up from “marketing” or “advertising” closer to the CEO’s office might help many improve. For Websites today are not just advertising or adjuncts to the customer relationship; in many cases they are the customer relationship.

The Dems’ Last Debate

Wow! Again I say, “wow!”

Substantive, spirited, yet polite and civil. The Dems’ last debate last night shows what a democracy could be, if only ours could get out from under the spell of big money.

As usual, Bernie understood what’s wrong and missed no opportunity to drive the point home. Vast majorities of the American people favor single-payer universal health care, instant background checks and assault-weapons bans, and reining Wall Street in with vigor. Yet none of these things has happened, even under the best president since JFK, maybe since FDR.

Bernie understands why that’s true: the money men have captured Congress and the Republican party. They don’t care about guns. They don’t care about our suffering and disappearing middle class. They don’t care how many of our courageous and patriotic young men and women die in unnecessary foreign wars. They don’t care how many of us die in random gun violence or purely domestic terrorism, having nothing to do with Islam.

All they care about is lower taxes and regulation, so they can make yet more money. They’re willing to endorse any crazy policy and take any foolish risk as long as those things happen. That’s why we’ve got to stop them, with the sheer weight of numbers, while we still can.

That’s why I’m for Bernie and why the vast majority of youth are, too. They understand that their future is at stake; they may have to emigrate to get decent jobs, decent health care or (especially if they are African-American or Hispanic) basic justice.

But let me be clear. The Dems’ last debate was an embarrassment of riches. I could support, help fund, and enthusiastically vote for any of the three candidates on the stage. There were differences among them, to be sure. But their differences with all the Republican candidates—in policy, humanity, and simple common sense—utterly overwhelmed the differences among the Dems on that stage.

Once Will Rogers quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Now the tables are turned. The GOP, not the Dems, is split and disorganized. Its candidates are turning on each other with a vengeance.

The reason is simple: they have no spine or principles. They pander to the mob and the demagogues on Fox and talk radio. Like the Taliban, they read from scripture, in their case so-called “Conservative” scripture. But what’s “conservative” about selling our country to the big banks, making yet another unnecessary war, letting random gun violence rage unchecked, and selling our national parks to the highest bidder?

No Republican from the fifties or sixties would have called any of this nonsense “conservative.” It was Teddy Roosevelt—a Republican from the nineteenth century—who broke up big, powerful corporations and established our national parks. Only Rush Limbaugh, the Hegemon of Hate, supports such senseless policies.

The GOP candidates are quintessential short-term thinkers. They all want to be president but don’t quite know why, except that it would look good on their resume. They change positions in response to polls and each other’s repartee.

In contrast, the Dems’ change positions based on facts and new information. Bernie changed his positions on gun-maker immunity and how to finance his ambitious social programs. Hillary changed her positions on Iraq and Russia. Both justified their changes with reason and facts; when things change and history evolves, rational positions change. The only people who keep fixed positions when circumstances change are the Taliban and the Pope—not Francis, but the last one.

We had a millennium—our second—governed by scripture. We don’t need a new one in the millennium just started. In the thousand years to come, the so-called “conservatism” of present-day Republicans could extinguish our species, if not by war and nuclear proliferation, then by climate change or relying on fossil fuels until the very day they run out.

Unbeknownst to most, the biggest winner on the stage tonight was the man with no chance of winning: Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland. Not only was he cogent, articulate and gracious about being short-changed on time. He was also the only candidate to make climate change the centerpiece of his candidacy.

That was entirely appropriate. Uncharacteristically for most pols today, O’Malley thinks long term, both about policy and about his own career. Our species has just begun to feel the bad effects of climate change. We have not yet seen the exponential inflection point that all such positive-feedback phenomena have. But everyone who knows science or math knows it will come, just not precisely when.

When it comes, or draws closer, Martin O’Malley will be there. No one knew who he was until last summer. Now the vast majority of Democrats and many Americans know him and like him. When he runs in 2020 or 2024, he will have a surpassing advantage. He will be able to say “I told you so” as extreme weather continues its devastation, and as climate refugees from places like the Maldives and Bangladesh make today’s exodus from war-torn Syria look like child’s play.

I fervently hope I can live to see the day when I can vote for Martin O’Malley as president of the United States. He’s a good man, a polite and sympathetic pol, and a good predictor of where he’ll have to be when he can run for real. His record as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland is exemplary. Like an outfielder leading the fly ball to make the catch, he leads the pack of candidates in either party in knowing what will be the main issue of our species when he has a real chance to win.

But for now, it’s Bernie or Hillary. Either one would be thousands of times better than the best of the GOP field, which has only a small chance of getting the GOP nomination. I’m for Bernie because I think we need his “political revolution” to save our nation and restore our democracy and greatness. But if the Dems collectively think otherwise, I’ll support Hillary enthusiastically, even as a lesser light, against the rapidly encroaching dark.


12 January 2016

Can Bernie Win?

Can a self-described “Democratic Socialist” become president of the United States?

In normal times, the answer would be a resounding “no.” The Fox and GOP propaganda machines have devoted decades to conditioning a substantial fraction of Americans, like Pavlov’s dogs, to growl and bark whenever they hear the word “socialist.”

But these are not normal times. To see why, just look at the two leading contenders for the GOP nomination. One, Donald Trump, has never held political office. He’s distinguished himself by extreme, impolitic and inconsistent statements—the type of thing that usually gives pols the kiss of death. The other leading contender, Ted Cruz, not only feeds on extremism also; according to news reports, virtually everyone who has ever known him personally hates him.

We will know in a few weeks, when the results of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are in. But the “leadership” of these two candidates may already have tolled the death knell for the GOP’s 2016 presidential ambitions. Here’s why.

Both Trump and Cruz have attracted huge audiences, the like of which Republican primaries have rarely seen. You might think the crowds presage a GOP revival and reformation. But what draws them? Is it charisma? Is it brilliance? Is it experience and steadiness?

Not hardly. What draws the crowds is the type of simplistic, angry solutions to complex problems that you might hear in a bar after midnight and several drinks.

Trump’s off-the-cuff and often off-the-wall pronouncements capture the anger of voters who’ve seen no solutions to much of anything for six years and don’t know whom to blame. Cruz’ grunts are more polished and articulate, but they tap a similar fount of bile: the anger of people who believe that we could all go to Heaven if only we followed the Bible the way the Taliban does the Qur’an.

It doesn’t matter, really, whether either of these clowns wins the nomination. What matters is that both have already eclipsed the “mainstream” candidate, who needs an exclamation point after his name even to be noticed. All by themselves, these two anti-candidates have split the Republican Party as if with an axe, right where it matters, among rank-and-file voters.

Trump and Cruz have captured all the rank-and-file enthusiasm. If neither is the nominee, any chance for GOP-leaning enthusiasm in the general election will vanish. If either is the nominee, he will have no chance of winning the general election because he has already staked out positions far too extreme and illogical for the average general-election voter. If a single TV ad could sink Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, just think how vulnerable Trump and Cruz would be in the Internet age, after all their extreme ranting.

So the GOP is fatally split already. It doesn’t even matter whether Trump or Cruz runs as an independent if denied the nomination.

By failing for six years to offer real solutions to any problems that real middle-class people face, the GOP has let clownish demagogues capture the party’s high ground. If you doubt this, just read Time Magazine’s take on Trump voters, one of whom says she would stay home rather than vote for anyone else. (Time, Jan. 18, 2016, page 39).

It’ll all be over by February 9 or 10. South Carolina and the other bastions of racism and extremism are not going to endorse any “mainstream” candidate. Not if New Hampshire doesn’t. So we’ll all know by mid-February whether the GOP has become Humpty Dumpty.

If, as appears likely, it is indeed split, the presidency will be Democrats’ for the taking. Even Martin O’Malley could win. So could Bernie.

Then Democrats will have a real choice. We won’t have to vote for Hillary because she’s more “experienced” or “electable.” We can vote for Bernie with a clean conscience, knowing that he alone—among all the candidates in either party—has put his finger on what’s wrong. A small class of millionaires and billionaires, mostly from finance and gambling, have taken over this nation and mean to run it without even the thoughtfulness and circumspection they apply to their own businesses.

They mean to run it by platitudes—a relentless march of vapid abstractions—until they can rule it as oligarchs or grind it under their heels. If you doubt this, just read the story in yesterday’s Oligarchs’ Daily (aka the New York Times) about how credit-rating agencies are still selling good ratings, over seven years after their doing so helped cause the Crash of 2008.

Hillary is a flawed candidate, famous for “triangulating” and reading the polls. But she’s a woman. Her unprecedented candidacy can attract young people who’ve never voted and tap wells of enthusiasm no American election has ever seen.

With his laser-like focus on economic inequality and a deck thoroughly stacked against working people, Bernie might find a way to break through party lines and tap the anger of the Trump and Cruz followers, at least the more thoughtful among them. If not, and if Bush, Kasich or Rubio gets the GOP nomination, most of them will stay home.

The general election won’t be so interesting because the result will be practically fore-ordained. But the Democratic primaries and convention ought to give us the kind of substantive discussion of problems and policies that our democracy is supposed to produce, but that has eluded us for far too long. They will also tell us whether identity politics or policy will pick the next leader of the Free World.


03 January 2016

The Dumbing of America

[For comment on the coming Middle-East free-for-all, click here.]

Introduction: the sources of our strength
A practical education
Education and invention
Abstraction and practice
The demise of shop class
The value of universal schooling

Introduction: the sources of our strength

Why is the United States of America, with all its warts and insanities, the strongest and richest nation on Earth? Several answers are plausible.

Our forebears got a pristine land, with natural resources virtually undisturbed by Man. The natives from whom they took the land had only primitive technology, which did not change or harm the land much. So in farming, building cities, and developing industry, our forebears wrote on a clean slate.

Our Founders also wrote our social structure on a clean slate. Unburdened by the history and agonies of “Old Europe,” they designed our society from the ground up. At least in the modern era, as distinguished from the ancient world, they were the first phalanx of true “social engineers.”

Other nations just evolved, from ceaseless struggle and ethnic tumult. Ours was the first nation built by “intelligent design.” Until the EU’s advent, it was the only one.

In some ways the structure that our social engineers gave us was terribly flawed. They tried to meld two entirely different cultures into a single nation: an industrial, communitarian North and an agrarian, aristocratic South based on slavery. To do that, they gave us an unbalanced governmental structure whose wheels are starting to come off today. Under the influence of filibusters and the so-called “Hastert Rule,” we have devolved into minority rule—or at least minority vetoes, i.e., the antithesis of democracy. Over a century and a half after our greatest-ever war, which we are still fighting in our elections and in Congress, the jury is out on whether those two dramatically different cultures can co-exist.

Yet however much they botched the structure of our government, our Founders got the basics of a functioning society right. Almost as an afterthought, they gave us our Bill of Rights—a guide for human social evolution that matches the traits of our biological evolution. They gave us freedom of speech, thought, religion, association, and markets. They gave us basic principles of fairness in criminal law. Through juries, they brought popular wisdom into the courtroom.

In essence, our Founders gave us the spirit of “live and let live,” to which anyone from anywhere could subscribe.

The basic rules of our Bill or Rights can fit on a single page. But they gave us Yanks an enormous social-evolutionary advantage. Over more than two centuries, they have drawn to our shores all the best, brightest, and most enterprising people. They have brought to us all who could not stand misery and oppression where they were and sought to make their lives better by leaving. They have given us a population that, without knowing it, mostly subscribes to the Jewish philosophy of tikkun olam, “repair the world.”

When our many immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, they may have seemed like the poor, wretched, huddled masses of the poem. But they brought with them a burning desire to make things better. With a fire in their bellies, they wrote a beautiful history on the blank slate of our pristine valleys, forests, rivers and mountains. They built a great nation, the greatest in human history.

Our Bill of Rights has drawn the best of the world’s people to our shores. They include Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs’ Syrian grandparents, and the nameless ex-Syrian chef who made the best baba ghanoush I ever tasted. We could have still more worthy Syrians today, if only we would open our doors like Germany and Sweden.

But desire alone doesn’t beget success. One also needs ability.

Rarely, but sometimes, practical common sense rules our disputatious species. It did so for us Yanks during the critical period after our greatest war—our war against ourselves to end slavery. Our various post-Civil-War land-grant acts gave people, including many recent immigrants, more of a blank slate on which to write their individual histories. Most important of all, it gave them a free public education.

A blank slate and the knowledge to write on it: those were the secrets of our national success. No other nation in human history had ever had either, at least as much as we Yanks had. Certainly none had both.

In those days, in the middle of the nineteenth century, no one asked for citizenship papers at the classroom door. If you lived near a town and your parents didn’t need you (or you were too young) to work on the farm, you went to school. You may have had to walk miles through snow to get there and back, but you went. And you went for free.

No one then thought of education as a new human right, but it was. “Readin’, writing’ and ‘rithmetic” became the goal of all parents for their kids. That was the first time in human history that every child, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, was deemed worthy of training and enlightenment.

That period in American history marked a giant step forward in human social evolution. It was comparable in importance to the invention of universities during the Renaissance.

But we Yanks were then a practical people. To us it just seemed the practical thing to do. If you want people to write a new and beautiful history on a clean slate, you have to teach them how to hold the pen and use it to form letters. And since you never know in advance who might become the rare genius, you’d better teach everyone, just in case. That was the absurdly simple formula for our national success.

A practical education

Today the word “education” is far more complex and far more fraught than in the mid-nineteenth century. The word now includes pre-school, which science tells us enhances kids’ brain development. It includes primary school, which gives kids the most basic tools to become useful and productive citizens, just as it did in mid-nineteenth century. It includes so-called “higher” education, in colleges and universities. It includes the type of cutting-edge research and study that drives science and technology forward. And it includes professional schools in law, medicine and engineering, where students learn to put higher knowledge to work for the common good.

As we try to grasp all these different things under the heading of “education,” we miss the most basic point. Education is not a luxury. It’s not a “privilege.” It’s the practical means by which our species evolves socially. Apart from biological evolution—which the comfortable living we humans have made for ourselves has all but halted—it’s the sole means by which our species evolves at all. It’s the engine of human progress.

Not only that. Education is the only way our species maintains in the future the same level of advancement that we enjoy today.

Individuals die, but society subsists. FDR, Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington are gone. So are the four greatest thinkers in human history: Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin and Einstein. So are Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, and Andrew Carnegie, to say nothing of the other thousands who propelled us forward and made our lives richer. So is Jesus. None is coming back, at least not in the flesh, and not anytime soon.

So if we humans want to take up where they left off, we are going to have to teach our kids well. We are going to have to get them not just to go and do likewise, but to go further. Every generation. Every time. Every kid. Without fail, and without slacking.

Perhaps the best way to think about how practical education is is to think about why our forebears made it universal and free in the nineteenth century. Why did rural kids in the growing ninteenth-century Midwest and on our Western Frontier have to go to school? Wouldn’t they have done more good just by sowing and harvesting crops like their parents?

The answers were practical. They needed “readin’” so they could understand the Farmer’s Almanac and the Bible, so they could follow the politics and the advance of culture through newspapers and books, and so (if they were so inclined) they could educate themselves further and pass their learning and insights on to others. They needed “writin’” so they could order farm tools and equipment from Eastern and European manufacturers, so they could express themselves, and so they could communicate. They needed “‘rithmetic” so they calculate acreages, seed counts and crop yields, so they could measure and do carpentry to build their homes and barns, and so they could do their accounts and manage their budgets.

They better they could do those things, the more successful they would be. For a nation that wanted to give everyone a chance to be successful, a chance for Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness,” universal, free education was a no-brainer.

Education and invention

A thousand years from now, if our species survives, what will they remember us Yanks for?

Simple, majoritarian parliamentary systems will long since have won the social-evolutionary struggle with our noxious, inefficient and factional two-party, two-house system, let alone with its filibusters and “Hastert Rule.” If we Yanks still have a unique nation, we will no doubt have cast off these national hobbles ourselves.

Our roles in World War II and the Cold War will be mere sentences in the history books, like the War of the Roses today. Our role in our species’ near self-extinction in October 1962 will be a dismal footnote, much like the Great Plague, the Dark Ages, and the Mongol Conquest of most of Europe and Asia.

In the year 3016, they might still remember us for our Bill of Rights: a single page that sets good rules for our species’ social evolution, consistent with our biological evolution. They might remember us for being the first society “intelligently designed” by self-conscious social engineers, antedating the EU. But most of all, they will probably remember us Yanks as inventors.

By 3016, designing babies and fixing genetic defects will be routine. Most ordinary people will live well past 100. So people will have a lot of time to tell stories and to learn history.

Historians of technology will catalogue our Yankee firsts, and it will still be an impressive list. We were first to develop electric lights, phonographs, “scyscrapers,” airplanes, telephones, televisions, atomic reactors, atomic weapons, digital computers, and the Internet. Although only co-discoverers of DNA, we were first to splice it, knit it and edit it. Our scientific inventors have developed the first, crude gene-editing techniques, which will be the foundation of future medicine and agriculture.

So we Yanks will go down in human history as extraordinarily productive inventors. Maybe future historians will even remember that we invented universal, free public education.

Is that last invention related to the others? I think so.

Amidst today’s blizzard of abstractions, it’s hard to see what makes an inventor. Some inventions require both extraordinary brains and extraordinary education. These included atomic piles and bombs, the Internet (with its mathematical protocols), and much of modern molecular biology, including gene editing. But many of our greatest inventors were (and are) far from today’s highly-educated Ph.D.’s working in lofty and obscure research institutes. Edison and the Wright Brothers certainly were, as was Steve Jobs. So is Elon Musk today.

Perhaps the best examples were Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two bicycle mechanics from Ohio who invented aircraft capable of controlled flight. Not only did they invent useful airplanes; they invented the tools to make them. To perfect their designs, they invented small, crude versions of what today we call “wind tunnels.” They were two ordinary guys with a good, free basic education and an obsession for flight.

At the time the Wright Brothers were assembling bicycles, a global host of luminaries had been working assiduously on human flight worldwide. Similar luminaries had been working on it for centuries before Leonardo’s famous drawings of winged men.

But the duo that succeeded were ordinary Americans to whom universal, free public education had given a leg up. They could read others’ work, from anywhere, write away for parts for equipment, do the arithmetic required for mechanical design and budgets, and understand basic science and mechanics. Imagine where human flight would be today if the Wright Brothers had lacked their basic education and had rotted away on some remote farm.

The modern philosopher John Rawls once proposed an interesting criterion for ranking human societies. Suppose you were a disembodied soul waiting to be incorporated into human form, just before birth. Suppose you could not choose the family that would bear you, but you could choose the nation or culture into which you would be born. Wouldn’t you choose the most egalitarian one, to maximize your chances of happiness and success? Even if you were not born into a rich or powerful family, you would have a decent chance at education and advancement.

Education and invention are susceptible to similar analysis. It’s impossible to identify in advance who will be the next Carnegie, Edison, Wright Brothers, Jobs or Musk. Even if we could gather all the information, there are too many variables in genetics, socialization, health, upbringing and wealth even to take a fair stab at the problem. So isn’t the best recourse to give everyone a good basic education, regardless of wealth and status, and let them take it as far as they can? Isn’t our erstwhile Yankee invention of universal, free, public education the best way to preserve and develop unseen talent?

Abstraction and practice

One of the most vivid phrases in recent journalism sprang from the pen of conservative pundit David Brooks. Opposing Harriet Miers’ bid for our Supreme Court, he reviewed her voluminous legal writing as “the relentless march of vapid abstractions.” The phrase was apt, and Miers never made the Supreme Court.

Abstraction is the bane of human thinking. With brains the size of grapefruits, our species has to resort to abstraction in order to grasp anything real, let alone our limitless Universe. But abstractions can be tools of the Devil. In politics, they often are.

Today, that occupational hazard of pols is creeping into education, or at least the politics of education. And so we have Bobby Jindal, a pol who once was a Rhodes Scholar, accused of making it easier to teach the abstraction of “creationism” in high-school biology and science classes. The result, in many rural schools in Louisiana, is education in a so-called “theory” of biology without reference to a single peer-reviewed experiment. It’s all abstract gobbledygook, motivated by the Christian Bible and supported by abstract reasoning without anchor in experimental science. The ancient Greeks or pagans could have done at least as well.

Hard as it may be to believe, our forebears did not have abstractions in mind when they invented universal, free education. They did not want to teach kids what to think, but how to think. They wanted to give them the tools of thinking—reading, writing, and arithmetic—not the results. Although these worthy pols antedated the twentieth century’s ideological wars by half a century, they would have understood the difference between indoctrination and education.

The demise of shop class

Today, a good way to grasp the dumbing of America is to mull the demise of shop class.

In the late fifties and sixties, after my sixth grade, I attended well-financed public schools in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. Virtually all my classmates were college bound, as was I. Nearly all my courses were labeled “advanced placement,” with much the same couple-dozen students in every class. I ended up being a physicist/seismologist, lawyer and then law professor. But in junior high school, along with “advanced placement” math, English and science, I took wood shop, metal shop and mechanical drawing (blueprints).

Today I can’t remember whether these were required courses or my electives. My dad did keep a basement workshop with a drill press, table saw and wood lathe. I liked to work with my hands, as well as with abstractions.

But whether or not I elected these courses, they were available to all students. Experienced and seasoned professionals taught them well. Today, my toolbox still contains a steel center punch that I forged for myself in metal shop over half a century ago.

These courses taught me far more than rudimentary manual skills, many of which I had already acquired from my home workshop. They taught me something that few pols today have a firm grip on: consequences and responsibility, i.e., cause and effect. If I let the wood slip at the tool, it broke or gouged. If I fired or cooled the metal wrong, it got brittle. If I forgot to wear my gloves, I cut or burned my hands. The chain of causation was clear and simple; there was no one to blame but myself.

The immediacy of working with tangible things in my hands taught me responsibility and cause and effect in ways that abstract reasoning never can. Working with other students, not college bound, also opened the door to inter-class relations. It gave me an enduring respect for people who work with their hands and an insight into how tangible work can clarify thought and ennoble people who lack easy facility with language.

My lesson in diligence and responsibility deepened before my last year in college. While overhauling the engine in my used 1955 Chevy, I failed to replace the main bearings, mainly due to laziness. The result was a blown-up engine on my way to my senior year at university, and no car during it. If only all our pols could understand cause and effect—let alone responsibility—as clearly as I did then, we would have much less discord in Congress and much more cooperation.

The farmers, mechanics and merchants who enthusiastically embraced universal free education during our nineteenth century all could see cause and effect with the vision of people living close to the land. They understood that consequences are best learned by doing, by experiencing things you can see, smell and touch. They also understood that character grows from understanding, and understanding from experience, and that absract, verbal “experience” is a pale shadow of the real thing.

As the ancient Greeks observed, “the suffered is the learned.” We Yanks have lost that sense of concrete learning in a relentless march of vapid abstractions about “freedom,” “enterprise,” “smaller government,” and the like. We need to get it back.

The value of universal schooling

So as I look at Germany and its apprenticeship programs, I see a society that has better and better respected plumbers, machinists, electricians and carpenters. I see a society that values people who work with their hands and treats them better than ours does. I see a nation that better understands how mind and body interact with tangible work and how, although our minds swim in a sea of abstractions, we all must live in the real world.

I see a nation in which Energiewende is not a reckless gamble, but a rational response to two fundamental causes: global warming, which is accelerating dramatically, and the impending exhaustion of known oil reserves in two or fewer generations. I see a nation whose people and pols, far from adrift on a sea of abstractions, can still see cause and effect.

A century and a half ago, human life was incomparably different. There were no cars, trucks, airplanes, transcontinental railroads, electrical appliances, electronics, atomic reactors or bombs, artificial satellites, or antibiotics. There were no X-rays, let alone CAT scans or MRIs. Some doctors were still applying leeches to cure disease. Space travel and gene editing weren’t even science fiction.

Yet despite their primitive surroundings, our forbears of that era were wiser than we are today. They sought to give all their people more education than perhaps they needed for daily life. Maybe they hoped that education would inspire their people to greater achievement, as it did the Wright Brothers and so many others. Maybe they also understood that education can build character, as well as knowledge. At least they understood that education, along with land grants, were the most basic infrastructure of all.

Once we Yanks invented free, universal, public education. Now we are dismantling it. We are dividing our people into fixed social and economic classes, according to their education. We are dumbing education down, insisting that it contribute to some immediate job qualification.

We are giving it begrudgingly, at the cost of enormous near-lifelong college debt.

Worse yet, we fail to see that the vast progress our “Yankee ingenuity” has made possible now requires more universal education, not less. We fail to see that the specialization occasioned by exploding human knowledge requires more fields of study, not fewer. Not only must we educate specialists as such. We must also educate specialists to understand each other’s specialities, through increasing “interdisciplinary” learning.

At the same time, we must also educate better generalists, who can, with less knowledge of details, presume to sew the patchwork of our infinitely specialized fields of learning into a working quilt. Our politicians and leaders must be among them.

All this requires more hours, more years, more fields, and more cross-fertilization. We need to be planning the future rather than catching up with the past. We must train and enlighten every kid who can take education beyond high school.

Today’s excuse is lack of money. We’re in debt. But were our forbears rich? They were expanding a brand new country helter-skelter across a whole continent. They had just fought the most devastating war in our history, and the last one ever to take place primarily in our Homeland—our Civil War. Yet they didn’t shrink from planning wisely for the future and finding the money to fund their plans. Should we?


A cursory look at today’s world shows beyond dispute that we Yanks are falling behind. Scandinavia finds ways to send every kid to university who wants to go. It does so without crushing debt, and without dumbing down curricula to make universities look like trade schools.

At the same time, Germany and parts of Scandinavia send to trade school kids who want to go there and have the aptitude. So it keeps the so-called “manual arts” at the cutting edge, rather than as a poor cousin to the relentless march of vapid abstractions. No wonder these countries, small compared to ours, are slowly and steadily pulling ahead in the race toward new technologies and more sustainable societies. No wonder the Large Hadron Collider sits near Geneva, not in Texas.

The nation that universal, free public education made great is turning its back on the secret of its success. Our would-be presidents talk about making university debt-free, not cost-free. Our President talks about making junior college free. Only Bernie Sanders, a long-shot but worthy presidential candidate, has the right idea.

Universal free public education through high school made our nation supreme through the rest of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth centuries. If we want to remain supreme in the twenty-first, we are going to have to extend that idea to university, and probably beyond.

A few recent so-called “studies,” funded by so-called “conservative” think tanks, purport to show that higher education is not a good “investment.” They do this by taking the fully-loaded, unsubsidized cost of a university education and seeing whether the salaries of a select group of university graduates recover this cost, over a lifetime of work, as compared to the salaries of a select group of non-university peers.

These studies put their thumbs on the scales by cherry-picking the “comparable” non-university groups. Yet even if they didn’t they would be absolute nonsense, for four reasons.

First and foremost, by focusing only on the direct financial returns to the students themselves, these studies ignore the whole purpose of subsidizing education: the general benefits to society. On average, educating all students who want education makes us all better off, not just the individual students. But those benefits are not as easy to quantify as an individual’s lifetime earnings.

For example, consider Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, inventors of the first effective and first oral polio vaccines, respectively. Both enjoyed free or low-cost higher education. Because of their work, unknown millions of Yanks were spared death, paralysis or debilitating illness. How do you quantify that on a crude business-school spreadsheet? Would we all be better off if they had become bankers and earned greater lifetime incomes?

The second reason why these studies are absurd is that they fail to account for the effect of student loans and debt. Burdening young people with massive debt for their education has obvious and severe lifetime effects, both psychological and financial. It makes young people more stressed and worried, and so less likely to experiment with their lives or take risks. Comparable students without higher education, and therefore without huge debt loads, may be more relaxed and creative, may take more risk, and therefore may be more entrepreneurial. The failure of these “studies” to control for these obvious effects violates the most basic principle of scientific inquiry: maintaining a complete and realistic control group.

The third reason why these studies are worthless is timing. Before the 1970s most tuition at American public universities was minimal. For example, I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley—then the nation’s premiere public university—in 1966. At that time, there was no tuition, only an “incidental fee” of $100 per semester. My total “tuition” for four years of the best public higher education in America was $800. Similarly, this table from the Institute of Education Statistics shows the low level of tuition at public institutions even a decade later, after the so-called “Reagan revolution” made university students pay dearly.

Tuition did not rise dramatically until the mid-nineties and our new century. But students from those eras have not yet completed their careers; i.e., they have not yet reached their peak earning years. So comparisons between university grads and non-grads for those years are meaningless. They necessarily rely on projections based on unfounded and ideologically suspect assumptions.

But the final reason why these “studies” are nonsense is that real current events contradict them. Students of rich families are pouring into our nation’s elite private and public universities from all over the world, especially (but not exclusively) from China and India.

Why is that so? Rich families everywhere know the value of education, particularly higher education in America. Those who can afford it will pay whatever it costs, without a thought to the absurd B-school “studies.” If it costs $100,000 a year, they’ll pay it for their kids. If the costs go up to $200,000 per year, fewer families will be able to afford it, but those who can will still pay. Why? Because smart people know that education is priceless.

American universities accept foreign students eagerly. Some set tuition especially high for them, milking their parents as cash cows. Others limit foreign admissions so as not unduly to restrict the opportunities for native-born Americans. Some are increasing foreign admissions in the vain hope of subsidizing education for a decreasing number of native-born students.

The end result of this process is clear. As ever-higher professorial and administrative salaries, plus ever-higher building and maintenance expense, drive the cost of higher education higher, it will become a privilege of an international economic oligarchy. Without special subsidies, it will be out of bounds for the average American, let alone students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Any resemblance to the vision of our nineteenth-century pioneers, who invented universal, free public education, will be purely coincidental.

Meanwhile, the education “sector” that remains will focus more and more on satisfying the short-term-profit goals of business and at attracting offspring of a global economic oligarchy. Even now, government is increasingly handing off support for basic research to industry, which subsidizes shorter- and shorter-term goals.

The final step in the sequence is obvious. Many of the tens of thousands of foreign students educated annually in our great universities will return home to China, India and other countries from which they have come. There they will use the knowledge and skills acquired here to copy our great universities in their home countries.

But lacking our apotheosis of profit and our allergy to so-called “socialism,” they will find some way to copy our nineteenth-century invention, too. They will subsidize education for as many of their native kids as they can, at least the most promising, as we used to do.

Slowly but surely, they will create great systems of free higher education analogous to our universal free secondary eduction from the nineteenth century. I won’t live to see it. But, if we Yanks continue on our present path, it would not surprise me to see foreign universities leading the rankings of great global universities by the middle of our new century.

The Shiite and Sunni Siblings

It’s amazing, really, how human politics can come into focus if you just view supposed grown-ups as prepubescent children. In a recent essay, I analyzed our South’s reaction to a half-black, half-white president as a two-year-old’s temper tantrum. That analysis was a perfect fit.

The tantrum has been going on for six years now. But with the end of President Obama’s two terms approaching, it appears about to burn itself out. Even in Yankee fantasyland, where voters confuse policy with entertainment, two-year-olds with their fingers on The Button don’t inspire confidence or peace of mind.

Now we can see another good fit for children’s anaysis, this time in the Middle East. Just think of Shiite Iran and the Sunni Saudis as having a severe attack of sibling rivalry.

This time, we’re not dealing with two-year-olds. Instead, we’re dealing with prepubescent children above the age of reason (about eight), who are strong enough to do each other real damage.

Major powers are the parents. We drew their boundaries and gave them modern weapons which they had no means to develop themselves. Now we have the unenviable task of pulling them apart before they seriously hurt each other or break up all the furniture in the living room, including what’s left of Syria.

The immediate cause of the fracas is the Saudis’ recent execution of the Saudi-native Shiite imam Nimr al-Nimr, along with 43 Sunnis and three other Shiites. Iran responded with slow police response as Irani Shiite rioters destroyed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Then the Saudis retaliated by withdrawing diplomatic relations.

All this is not much new. Sunnis, led by the Saudis, and Shiites, led by Iran, have been bashing each other all over the Middle East for some time, in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. So far, the two leading siblings have managed to keep from going at each other directly using the ceremonial daggers and heavy paperweights on the living-room table. But unless things change, that’s only a matter of time.

Lest we English-speaking peoples wax too condescending, it’s helpful to recall the several centuries of Catholic-Protestant wars that devastated both Continental Europe and the British Isles. But we Yanks and Brits have one advantage, or at least we should have. Except for occasional explosions in Northern Ireland, we supposedly grew out of that sort of thing seven decades ago. And anyway weapons then were far less destructive than now.

There is no doubt who the distraught parents are. First the Brits, then the Europeans, and finally the Russians supplied the murderous siblings with weapons and technology otherwise far out of their reach. The more mature sibling, Iran, first got its weapons from Cold War America. After its people threw out the dictator we installed, it got them from the Soviet Union and now Russia.

Not being stupid, Iranians understood their parents’ fickleness and learned how to make advanced weapons themselves. Their parents recently prevailed upon them not to seek atomic weapons, which would destabilize the whole region. But missile development continues apace, as does old-fashioned saber-rattling.

The Saudis have been the younger, less mature sibling. Beloved by the Brits and us Yanks exclusively, they never ventured outside the nest. Docilely, they left weapons development to us, while they tried to placate their mostly absent parents with reliable streams of oil.

Yet the Saudis have always had a rich, secret and dangerous fantasy life. They dreamed they could maintain a medieval family kingdom forever, well into the Internet age and twenty-first century. And they dreamed they could do so by exporting violent revolution to others, in the form of Islamic extremism, throughout the Middle East and South Asia.

At first, these fantasies seemed harmless and easy to contain. Today, not so much. Like the dragons’ eggs of ancient mythology, they have spawned mindless soldiers of terror and doom: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and international terrorists—all virtually exclusively Sunni phenomena. The spawn of these Saudi dragons’ eggs threaten not just the sibling rival, but Europe and America as well. Already they have caused the world’s greatest refugee crisis since Stalin’s mass deportations and the aftermath of the most horrible war in human history.

So what are the parents’ doing? Occasionally, they make noises like adult parents conscious of their responsibility as such. But like most parents who don’t get along vey well, they pick their favorites and try to promote their advantage. For a decade they have been feeding the rival forces with weapons, financial support, and verbal backing.

Now the kids are threatening to destroy the living room, and maybe seriously wound each other. So what are good parents to do now?

One would think the answer would be obvious to any actual parent. Wind down the bitter rivalry. How? The first step is to take away the weapons, or at least the most dangerous ones.

The recent Nuclear Deal with Iran was a good start. But it was only a start. Getting the old—and possibly still active—souvenir World War II hand grenades out of the living room was a necessary precaution. But what about the ceremonial daggers and heavy paperweights?

Here we stumble upon one of the many unresolved contradictions of capitalism. Arms production and trade are “legitimate,” thriving industries worldwide. Not only do their successes feed the military power of the parents. They also promote national wealth and (indirectly, through taxes) the power of the State. So the parents have real incentives to give the rival siblings things that could end up killing them, destroying the living room, and perhaps gravely wounding the parents themselves.

The solution is conceptually simple but politically hard. Cut off the flow of arms and ammunition. Cut it cold turkey.

Sure, the more mature sibling Iran is ahead in making its own arms. But with their huge, never-boycotted oil sales, the Saudis have built up the most complete (and completely unnecessary) stash of conventional heavy weapons, including a big air force. The older and more mature sibling, Iran, has something resembling a democracy, with another election coming up soon. Maybe, just maybe, taking the ceremonial daggers and heavy paperweights out of the living room can avoid some of the mayhem.

Parents, of course, are not entirely responsible for their children’s bad behavior. They are neither omnipotent nor omniscient; nor can they be watching all the time. But they have a moral and practical obligation to exert their influence to ameliorate bad behavior, and a much stronger one to keep their kids from real mayhem.

The kids themselves are pouting, getting ready to see who will throw the first roundhouse punch. The parents are still weighing the profits of their war industries, their own traditional rivalries, and their own misguided loyalties to the favorites they have picked (or whom history has picked for them).

How they weigh those irrelevancies, and whether they assume their responsibilities as parents, will determine whether the twenty-first century looks much like the bloody twentieth. At the moment, the name “Nimr al-Nimr” is beginning to sound a lot like “Archduke Ferdinand.”

Another World War I now looks likely, this time in the Middle East, almost exactly a century after the co-called “Great War” that inaugurated the bloodiest century in human history. Can the major powers grow up and assume their responsibilities as parents, or will Yeats’ immortal line—“the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—again become the figurative epitaph over millions of early graves? The answer depends almost entirely on whether major powers can begin to see arms industries as different from soap or furniture factories and begin to act as adult parents.