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 July 2017

Nero of our Time

[For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
Have you ever wondered what it felt like to be a citizen of (ancient) Rome while Nero was emperor? Have you ever assured yourself “it can’t happen here!” in our bold, twenty-first century democracy?

Well, think again. It’s all here. In our supreme leader’s White House, loyalty flows only up, never down. His thinking process is so erratic and unpredictable that no one—not even his family or closest associates, and certainly not his aides in the West Wing—knows what he’ll Tweet or do next. No one knows whose head will next appear on the chopping block, nor why. The speech and actions of him who pretends to be the free world’s leader are as random and capricious as a summer storm, or a hurricane.

And yet . . . And yet . . . There are institutions. There are traditions. There are centers of power far beyond the White House. So the key question of our age is the same one the poet posed almost precisely a century ago, during humankind’s most senseless and damaging war: can the center hold?

There was John McCain. Half a century ago, he was a guest at the so-called “Hanoi Hilton”—a North Vietnamese prison camp for American POWs. He was beaten. He was tortured. Yet he refused to betray his country or his comrades in arms.

Because his family was prominent, his captors offered to free him before his fellows, but he refused. That single act of courage and empathy marked the start of his long political career.

McCain has had his ups and downs since then. He befriended Charles Keating, a prime mover in the Savings and Loan Crisis, the first big postwar financial panic. He ran a sordid and racist campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, but when he lost he accepted his defeat like a man and apologized. His name appears on our best attempt to curb money in politics by law, which our Supreme Court ideologues have gutted. He tried mightily to enact sensible energy policy long before fear and denial of global warming became religious obligations on either side.

So what happened today came as no surprise to me, although many in our capital and media were surprised. There was John McCain, bearing a scar from surgery that had discovered a possibly fatal melanoma, casting the deciding vote to shoot down a mean and mendacious attempt, seven years in the making, to deprive millions of people of practical access to health care.

The camera was behind McCain when he cast his famous “thumb down” vote. But you could almost see, from the cut of his head and the angle of his neck, the disgust and disappointment on his face as he shot it down. You could feel the rage in this honorable man at the base seven-year attempt to disguise political propaganda as policy. It’s not as if he hadn’t warned his colleagues: he had voted to permit debate, but he had warned in the clearest possible terms that the bill before the Senate was not doing the people’s work.

At the end of day, our much-vaunted Constitution is just a piece of paper. So is our Bill of Rights. Their actualization in the life of our nation depends on the men and women who serve in positions of public power and trust. It depends on people of principle, like John McCain, who will stand up for their values and our nation’s traditions, against party and pressure, when the chips are down.

We just escaped a severe health-care crisis by the skin of our teeth. But no one should rejoice that only three GOP Senators—two women and McCain—had enough backbone to buck their errant party and say “no” to an abomination of a bill, one wrought with no hearings, no committee deliberations, no time read it, no thought, no plan, and no goals but propagandizing, making the rich richer, and chalking up a “win” for our very own Nero.

These are, as they say, times that try men’s souls. Our ship of state is foundering. It has no direction but the whim of a puerile narcissist, the procedural bent of a catatonic, morality-free Senate Majority Leader who can’t seem to count votes, and the raw dogma of a House Speaker who seems to believe that this nation belongs to the most clueless rich because they fund his and his party’s campaigns.

We have been listing hard to the right for the nearly two generations, since a Grade B actor named Reagan took our helm. The brilliance, thoughtfulness and prudence of our Founders have vanished in a pall of partisanship, simplistic ideology, money worship, base celebrity, and selfishness.

How the hell could any legislator worthy of the name approve a bill on as complex a subject as health insurance with no hearings, no committee review, no time to read it, and only a few days to debate it? Are our representatives all as mad as Nero? Would an engineer build a car with no calculations or mechanical drawings? Wouldn’t the wheels fall off?

So competence matters. Principles matter. Character matters, now more than ever before.

Senator Lindsey Graham is another man who may have a backbone. Although he voted with the lemmings for the abomination bill, he has made clear the limits of his own tolerance. He will not abide our modern Nero firing his own hand-picked attorney general just for doing his job, especially when the president who fires him is quite properly under investigation.

We need more like him and McCain and like Senators Collins and Murkowski, the two GOP women who helped shoot down the abomination of a bill. We need them terribly. We need them if only because our Constitution gives us no way to remove our Nero lawfully just because he is a miserable excuse for an American and a human being and is doing a miserable job.

Unlike Britain and most parliamentary democracies, we can’t remove our Nero for simple incompetence, misfeasance, malfeasance, or capriciousness. We have to indict (“impeach”) him for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” and convict him in our Senate by a two-thirds vote.

It will take years to complete the detailed investigation and legal work required to do that, just as it did with Richard Nixon. My own estimate is that Trump will be out by the end of his third year in office. If I’m right, that means our national sufferance under the Nero of our time will continue five times longer than it has already.

That interval may seem an eternity in human affairs. In the meantime, the respect, power and wealth that our nation has enjoyed—and perhaps its survival—will depend on the courage of men and women like McCain, Graham, Collins and Murkowski to break from the crowd of partisan lemmings and do the right thing.

Institutions and traditions are fine. But just as our Constitution is only words on paper, so are they only abstractions.

At the end of the day, they are all just ideas. They are not self-enforcing; they need people of flesh and blood with insight and courage to make them real. As Jefferson is reputed to have said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Without men and women of principle and character to set us straight, our United States will follow their own Nero, just as Rome followed the original, down the slippery slope of decline to historical oblivion.

Endnote: The title of this essay is a deliberate pun on the title of an early-nineteenth century Russian novella by Mihkail Lermontov, Hero of our Time. Like much of Russian literature, that novella is nihilistic, fatalistic and depressing. And so may be Trump’s presidency—pointless and useless “leadership” for a cynical, selfish and inattentive Twitter age.

But just as we need not follow Russian nihilism, we need not let Russian meddling in our democracy seal our fate. We are now living a dark Russian novella authored in part by Vladimir Putin, whose hacking, fake news and other propaganda helped put our Nero into the White House. But how we react to him is up to us.

What we do will depend, more than anything else, on how many leaders of principle and character we still have among us, and how many are mindless lemmings unable to deviate from the partisan crowd. It will also depend on how we treat our so-called “minorities,” who are collectively becoming a majority, and keep our “melting pot” vibrant and bubbling.

Everyone from the Senate and House down to city councils will have to do his or her part if we are to emerge from this crisis of leadership and foreign meddling intact. Congress’ bill to impose sanctions on Russia that the President alone cannot remove is a good start; but it’s only the barest beginning.


20 July 2017

President Trump’s Six-Month Report Card

[Note to readers: Several reader comments have been neglected by oversight, not design, since early May. They are now up, with replies where appropriate. For a brief note on a recent outbreak of political courage among Dems, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:

1. Energy/global warming
2. Health insurance
3. Good jobs onshore
4. Immigration
5. Economic stability
6. Geopolitical stability
7. “Comportment” and conclusion
[To jump to summary, click here.]


It’s now exactly six months since Donald J. Trump took the oath of office as president. That’s one-eighth of his presidential term—enough time to distinguish his governance from his candidacy.

A week before he took the oath, I published a set of benchmarks for grading him. I did so to be fair. I didn’t want to move, or to be seen as moving, the goalposts after he got into office.

Like almost everyone else, I hadn’t thought he could ever be elected. Although I had acknowledged some of Hillary’s many flaws, I had thought that Trump’s execrable character and complete inexperience, by themselves, would preclude his election. Like almost everyone else, I was wrong.

Our nation’s investigatory apparatus is now slowly exploring the extent to which deliberate Russian interference made so many of us wrong. In the meantime, we have a nation to govern. That nation was in decline when Trump took office, as he himself implicitly acknowledged with his slogan “Make America Great Again.” (emphasis added)

So what, if anything, has Trump done to arrest or reverse that decline and make us great again? How has he done in the first one-eighth of his term? Let’s take a look. This essay begins with my benchmarks from January 13, in the same order, and concludes with some general remarks about tone, approach and personality.

1. Energy/global warming: Grade F.

Besides the ever-present risk of nuclear war, nothing threatens the happiness and survival of our human species as much as global warming. The facts that Trump doesn’t believe it, and that Fox and so many corporate propaganda organs have made many voters disbelieve it, don’t make it less threatening. In fact, science has given us substantial new evidence of heightened menace in the mere six months since Trump took the oath of office.

Over four years ago, I published an outline of positive feedback in global warming. Positive feedback is a well-understood phenomenon in science and engineering. It’s familiar to most non-scientists in the form of “amplifier screech”—the sudden, ear-splitting blast of sound that comes when you put an electronically amplified microphone too close to the speakers that amplify its sounds. Positive feedback is nonlinear, so it can make a system—any system!—go unstable in a surprisingly short time.

In global heating there are four known sources of positive feedback. First, as our planet warms, its ice melts, reducing our planet’s reflectivity. With reduced reflectivity, our planet absorbs the Sun’s radiation more rapidly and heats up more quickly. Second, as the ice melts our Earth loses a vast heat sink: the poorly named “latent heat of melting” familiar to every good student of high-school chemistry or physics.

The third and fourth sources of positive feedback have to do with methane—a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as dangerous as carbon dioxide. As the planet warms, melting permafrost in its once-frigid regions releases methane into the atmosphere. Similarly, the warming of oceans may cause methane hydrates in the deep sea to dissociate, releasing methane into our oceans and eventually into our atmosphere. Human sources of methane, particularly unintended releases from drilling for oil and gas, add to the overall burden of this dangerous greenhouse gas.

We have pretty good scientific models for the first two kinds of positive feedback, which derive from melting ice. Our models for the last two, involving methane, are utterly inadequate. All we know is that both types of feedback are operating now and increasing in magnitude. We simply don’t know how much permafrost there is, how deep it is, or how fast it’s melting, because we haven’t taken measurements. We know even less about methane hydrates because they exist at the bottom of the world’s oceans, which cover 70% of our planet. But most of our oceans, let alone their deepest bottoms, have never been explored.

What we do know is that releases of methane from permafrost—even explosive releases—are already occurring in more places, with more frequency, and with more power than scientists expected. This video, prepared by Yale University scientists, outlines the magnitude of the threat.

There are credible scientific estimates that the end of the last ice age 15,000 years ago took only decades, not centuries. The main reason for the speed of that climate change was positive feedback due to methane release. If these estimates have any validity, there is a high likelihood that positive feedback caused by our human-derived climate change will cause warming to exceed the so-called “safe” 2°C global increase that is policy-makers’ target within the lifetimes of children living today, let alone by the next century.

In other words, knowledge gained since Trump took office points to increasing likelihood that our own children—not some anonymous future generation—will suffer all the terrible consequences of global warming beyond the limit pols are now seeking to set. They will endure all of the following: rising seas, inundation of coastal cities and plains, more frequent and damaging storms and droughts, advancing tropical diseases like zika, West Nile, dengue and chikungunya, the massive extinction of non-human species, climate- and weather-caused crop failures, and unprecedented human migration as coastal areas disappear and weather drives our fellow humans to seek better habitats.

In the face of this growing menace, what has President Trump done? He has set off resolutely marching in the wrong direction. He has just announced his intention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate pact, thereby setting our nation apart from the nineteen other nations in the G-20 meeting in Hamburg.

Not only that. He has set our nation against the 153 nations that have already ratified the Paris accord. In so doing, he has abdicated the role of global leader in science and engineering that the United States played throughout most of the twentieth century.

But that’s still not all. In small ways as well as big ones, Trump has set the US on the path toward increasing its contribution to global warming. His administration has repealed a rule requiring oil and gas drillers to take care to avoid accidental release of methane into the atmosphere. It has taken the first steps toward repealing the Obama-era rule phasing out coal, the dirtiest fuel know to mankind. And his EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, has decimated the EPA’s ability even to keep track of current scientific knowledge by firing or laying off most of the EPA’s scientists working on climate change and removing related information from the EPA’s public Website.

Six months ago, there was reason for hope about the US’ position on climate change. Although Trump had called it a Chinese “hoax” during his campaign, he had also selected Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson had changed the world’s leading fossil-fuel company’s stance on global warming from agnostic apostasy to grudging recognition of the menace.

But Tillerson is not president. Trump is. And Tillerson’s portfolio is international affairs, not energy or the environment. Trump’s over-the-top EPA head Pruitt has made clear his intention to convert the US into a reactionary force to science, energy conversion, and the good jobs that come with it.

The irony is that private industry, which generally supports the GOP, is just as resolutely working on electric cars, solar arrays, windmills and other forms of clean energy for the economic opportunities and good jobs that they afford. The Republican Party’s elite “base,” worldwide industry, and the rest of the world are all marching in the opposite direction to our President. There is little hope now that Trump will change his mind, as he has done so often, for he has committed himself. Therefore a grade of “F” is entirely appropriate.

2. Health Insurance: Grade F.

The story of the Trump Administration’s purported “fix” to health insurance under “Obamacare” is a tale of failure.

The Senate’s latest bill, which would have deprived 22 million people of health insurance, has failed. Along with it, the House bill has failed. It would have deprived 23 million. Now the effort to repeal Obamacare without replacement, which Trump himself had warned against, has also failed. With a delayed start, that would have deprived upwards of 20 million of health insurance (the number Obamacare added), albeit with some unspecified hope for a fix in the great bye and bye.

The only hope left is a small chance that Mitch McConnell and the GOP will negotiate a fix with Dems, as our Founders no doubt would have intended. But Trump himself appears to have scotched that, advising his GOP colleagues to “let Obamacare explode,” rather than even try to fix it.

How can Trump and the GOP walk away so easily from a promise that has been central to their party’s campaigning for over seven years? They can because they never planned to do anything real for the American people.

The GOP under Mitch McConnell had absolutely no idea what they were doing in promising to “repeal” and “replace” Obamacare. Their primary and most obvious goal was to exploit political opposition to Obama (mostly generated by their own propaganda), and the increases in health-insurance premiums that some patients have experienced under Obamacare. The plain goal was not to make people’s lives better, but to consolidate the GOP’s own political power using obvious propaganda (“death panels”) and the nation’s resilient racism.

Even now, when the GOP owns both Congress and the presidency, it has no idea what to do with the political power it has attained. The entire health-insurance “project” was an act of delusion and campaigning, not an act of governing.

At best, any of the four plans (two Senate bills, the House bill, or repeal without replacement) would have made it impossible for upwards of 20 million US citizens who now can afford to see a doctor to do so. That’s a lot of angry voters, many of whom are in deep red states. Now wonder a key handful of GOP senators rebelled!

Health insurance can be complicated. But two basic principles are simple. First, if you want real “insurance,” you must get as many people as possible in the pool of insureds, the so-called “risk pool.”

That’s the purpose of Obamacare’s subsidies and mandates—to deepen the pool. The mandates are awkward and politically explosive, as I predicted in 2007 (see 1 and 2), but they do the job. Apparently Barack Obama—one of the smartest and politically savviest presidents in our history—concluded (after some time as president) that they were the only practical way to get the job done. Politics is the art of the possible.

The second simple thing about health insurance is the goal: to ensure more, not fewer, people. It’s irrational and “mean,” as President Trump himself said in a lucid moment, to leave tens of millions of people without practical access to medical care in the wealthiest nation on Earth. That’s essentially what the GOP wants to do.

And the purpose of this self-evident meanness? To give the rich big tax cuts they don’t need and many of them don’t want, and to capitalize on the GOP campaign ploy of crushing the poor, many of whom are people of color viewed by some partisans as “undeserving” of assistance. In this way, the GOP hoped to maintain its political edge among the non-college-educated white working class. Now those hopes are dashed: no bill signed into law, no glory.

How much of this is Trump’s fault? He’s not entirely responsible for what his presumed party does, because he didn’t lead it until July 2016. He was and still is an insurgent.

But he is responsible for what comes out of this unprecedentedly politicized legislative “process.” He could have shaped the process and put it on the right track simply by stating his intention to veto anything that the CBO didn’t score as increasing, not decreasing, the number of insureds. Isn’t that where we want to go?

But Trump is neither a detail person nor much concerned with justice, policy, or the welfare of the people who elected him. All he wants to do is mark up something he can call a “win”: some bill—any bill—that passes and that he can sign, regardless of what it says.

Now his endorsement of the GOP’s propaganda push has failed utterly. Nothing has come of it. And nothing is likely to come of it, because allowing the Democrats to participate in fixing Obamacare would show the nation how misguided and mean the GOP has been for nearly eight years. Mitch McConnell will let that happen, in my view, when Hell freezes over.

McConnell has spent his whole political career in a quest for power without the faintest idea what to do with it. In terms of the “general welfare,” he’s a zero or a negative. (I’m not aware of any significant piece of federal legislation that has his name in its title.)

On the issue of health insurance, Trump followed McConnell’s so-called “leadership,” rather than leading himself, so now Trump himself is a zero. Hence the grade of “F”.

3. Good jobs onshore: Grade I (incomplete).

In my original “benchmark” essay, I noted the greatest hope of Trump’s presidency. He might actually fulfill his promise to get good jobs for the people who elected him, especially unemployed or underemployed skilled workers in the battleground states. There was even a more-than-plausible mechanism for doing so, namely, investing in refurbishing and improving our crumbling national infrastructure.

Our American Association of Civil Engineers is not a political body. It’s a group of engineers dedicated to building better and more advanced civil infrastructure: roads, bridges, highways, clean-water systems, sewer systems, harbors, air traffic control, and the like. It estimates in its current (2017) report card that our D+ grade national infrastructure is chopping $3.9 trillion off of our GDP—the equivalent of the entire GDP of Germany [set timer at 0:49].

Investing the money to fix it is a proverbial “no brainer.” It has to be done, unless we want to see our infrastructure decay, our health and safety degrade, and the cost of doing business domestically rise. And investing the money would create millions of good, well-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced.

But there are two ways to get the money to invest. One is Keynesian “pump priming.” We could have the government borrow the money and invest it, knowing (from past experience, including World War II) that investing in public infrastructure, including education and even the military, generally grows the economy, allowing government later to pay off the debt. Or we could privatize our infrastructure by selling it off, bit by bit, to private investors who would put up the money and own the results. Then our mostly-free infrastructure would fall into private hands and operate mostly for profit.

Trump doesn’t really know which way to go. He’s an hotel, condo and branding guy. He doesn’t know squat about bridges, highways, sewers or the lot, let alone how they’ve traditionally been financed and maintained. But he has a lot of friends and advisers from old-fashioned “industries” who think anything government can do private business can do better.

Guess which way the GOP under McConnell and Ryan wants to go? If it exists, they want to privatize it, so the rich can own more and get richer. That’s what pleases the rich who fund Fox and other incessant GOP propaganda. And that incessant propaganda lets GOP pols get elected and floats their boats. So that’s what today’s GOP is all about: taking our country private and, coincidentally, making most of our non-rich serfs. “Back to feudalism!” is the current GOP mantra.

If Trump were a real leader, he might push public funding of infrastructure program through. Democrats, of course, would help. Some GOP members of Congress might, too. It would be an easy enough sell for all the non-college-educated white workers who voted for Trump and crave better jobs, as in the old days. It would realize Trump’s most important promise to his voters and his “base” and revive their rapidly declining support.

But will Trump do it? All he would have to do is court Democratic support, which would be forthcoming, and threaten to veto anything contrary coming out of Congress. He would become a hero to his base overnight. He would also convert his adopted Republican Party, overnight, from the party of plutocrats to the party of skilled workers and an instrument of industrial and commercial advancement. He could out-Reagan Reagan.

Unfortunately, Trump’s acts of “leadership” so far have been hasty and ill-advised or in precisely the wrong direction. His ban on immigration from certain Muslim nations was so hastily prepared it didn’t even consider permanent residents. It was blocked by the courts until thought through and modified. His decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, although opposed by Tillerson and others within his administration, was an act of “leadership” in precisely the wrong direction. And by putting all his legislative eggs in the baskets of complete health-insurance repeal, which now has failed, and tax reform, which offers maximal contention, he has abandoned the one thing that has a realistic chance to help those who voted for him.

So the chances for success in that thing are not good. As Trump depletes his rapidly falling political capital on things that will likely fail or hurt his own voters, his chances of doing something significant with infrastructure decline. The only hopeful thing is that Trump might learn and get wiser as time goes on.

So the appropriate, fair grade on infrastructure and on jobs is in “I” grade, for incomplete. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. Trump’s campaign suggestions of a tariff or “border tax” on goods made in offshored factories doesn’t seem to be going anyhwere. Certainly the likes of McConnell and Ryan, let alone the plutocrats who fund the GOP, have no interest in it.

4. Immigration: Grade C+.

While Trump’s incomplete work on infrastructure jobs offers his best chance for improving Americans’ lives and the economy, he gets his best current grade on immigration.

He hasn’t yet built his promised Wall, and he might never. There’s a lot of resistance, even among his own party, because the Wall wouldn’t work, and the money for it could be put to far better use. The experts all say that investing in a “virtual wall” of electronic surveillance and rapid detention would be more cost effective, efficient and workable.

Trump’s incompetent, unprofessional, and temporary ban on immigration from six (once seven!) small and economically marginal majority-Muslim nations has done little but provoke litigation leading to revisions to make the ban legal. He has, as yet, done little to deport the beneficiaries of Obama’s “Dream Act”—a policy designed to let children of undocumented immigrants who were not born here but know no other home or life stay here, at least for the time being. That outcome is a good one, both for the immigrants concerned and the rest of us. Why deport immigrants raised as Americans just when their American upbringing—and their mostly-free American education—is coming to fruition and they are reaching working age?

But Trump’s over-the-top bad-mouthing of undocumented immigrants has had two practical effects. First, it has caused illegal immigration to drop precipitously by tarnishing the US’ reputation as a good place to come without papers. The lurid stories of ICE raids on workplaces, people being held in weeks-long and sometimes months-long “temporary” detention, and occasional unexplained deaths of detainees have all served to slow the flow of immigrants from south of the border.

Second, Trump’s forceful denunciation of terrorists, showing his determination to keep them out or do them in, has also had a real-world effect. It’s hard to know whether all his ranting has kept the serious terrorists out or just made them more cautious and careful. But it may be that fewer marginal Muslims from marginal places, who might immigrate innocently and be recruited as terrorists later, are immigrating here, rather than into more hospitable places like Germany and Sweden.

The rate of deportation is not much larger under Trump than it was under President Obama. Nor has Trump done anything to increase the risk to employers of hiring undocumented immigrants. (That is logically the simplest, least draconian and most effective way to decrease illegal immigration, but it contravenes the GOP religion of doing nothing to impede business owners making money.) Yet Trump’s potty mouth and incessant immigrant bashing has had a visible effect. Fewer immigrants are coming here illegally, and fewer yet who don’t have a job offer before they come.

Of course this is all vintage Trump. With him, it’s all show, all of the time. He’s our very first “reality” president, with “reality” in quotes.

But in this case the show has had some practical consequences. Fewer people are trying to come here illegally, and fewer are planning to do so.

The “show” also has some disastrous negative consequences. They include: validation of racism and xenophobia at the highest level of our government, a consequent rapid increase in hate crimes (including murder), a higher rate of breaking up families, the deportation of children already educated in America at our expense, the long and possibly unconstitutional detentions of deportees, and occasional deaths on the way to proposed deportation.

So I don’t mean in any way to classify Trump’s anti-immigrant tirades as moral. They are not, profoundly not. But they have had the practical effect of decreasing illegal immigration without much expense, and therefore they should comfort Trump’s many supporters who want to see immigration laws enforced strictly, no matter the social or moral consequences.

That’s the reason for the C+ grade. Trump is partially delivering on his promise to slow illegal immigration.

Yet he has also failed on three points. First, he has done nothing to reduce the strength of the magnet that has drawn immigrants here for decades: the promise of steady, useful work that pays better than anything where the immigrants come from. For that, he would have to disadvantage employers who exploit undocumented immigrants, thereby contravening GOP dogma.

Second, Trump has produced no immigration legislation in Congress. Not even a bill. He has done everything by executive order or “jawboning,” just as President Obama had done, but in the opposite direction.

Thus Trump, like every president since Reagan, has done nothing to regularize the undocumented, bring them out of the shadows, and reduce this large class of serfs living and working among us. Apparently he, like President Obama, considers the country just too divided on immigration for any permanent solution. That view is by no means irrational, but Trump himself is responsible for some of the division.

Finally, in failing even to try to find a permanent, stable solution, Trump has left our domestic labor markets in a state of uncertainty. Will the stanched flow of undocumented workers, especially in the harvest season, raise the price and lower the availability of farm labor, thereby raising food prices? Will US citizens rise up to take up the slack, with their unions that raise wages further? (Here a recently-announced and surprising increase in the H2B visa quotas—visas for workers at the low end—marks some Trump genuflection toward practicality.) And what will Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers do when they have qualified foreign candidates for important jobs for which Americans aren’t as qualified or in which Americans are not willing to work under the same conditions? (Here the H1B visa program is vital.)

Any comprehensive immigration policy of course would address all these issues. But ad-hoc regulatory patches, guidelines and “show” won’t. Not only has Trump not solved all these issues outstanding now for 31 years, since Reagan’s attempt at a legislative solution. He may have set back their solution by further polarizing the nation.

Hence the C+. Trump gets a passing grade for two things. First, he partially delivered on his promise to slow illegal immigration, and he did so mostly with his mouth, which costs nothing. Second, with his recent changes in the H1B and H2B visa programs, he has begun to recognize an essential truth: not every job can be filled by American citizens, or filled well at the right price. Immigration makes American stronger and more efficient.

But neither Trump nor anyone else can reach for a higher grade without solving at least some of the serious and longstanding problems cost effectively. That would require real leadership at a level that Trump so far has failed to muster. And to be fair to Trump, such a feat might well be impossible, in part due to the extreme polarization that Trump and his presidential campaign have rocket-boosted.

5. Economic stability: Grade D.

Achieving economic stability is not an easy thing. It’s not easy even for China, which probably has the most effective and tightly run authoritarian government in the entire world. Far less is it easy for us, with our many ideological factions (which sometimes operate in complete remove from facts and reality), our dysfunctional governmental structure, and our famous checks and balances.

No nation’s economy is reliably stable today because our entire species is undergoing a great transition. We’re in the midst of a great transfer of wealth from rich people to poor people, mediated by a second industrial age in which ideas (in the form of information, software, and human organization) are as important as machines, raw materials, and factories.

No one is standing still—not the previously “poor” countries like China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and, yes, Iran—that are rapidly industrializing and moving from countryside to cities. Not the “middle” countries like most in Europe; they are caught between the industrial powerhouses like us, China and Germany and the rising poor consumers. And certainly not the industrialized “peak” countries, principally China, Germany, Japan and the United States, with Brazil, Britain and India in hot pursuit.

We Yanks have about 4% of the world’s population. Besides monopolizing natural resources by force and the threat of force, the only thing that has kept us on top for so long has been innovation. The US has been a global powerhouse of innovation for about a century, creating or rapidly adopting world-changing inventions like (in rough chronological order): electricity, sound recordings, radio, movies, nuclear power and weapons, television, space travel, and lately electric cars, electronic medicine, genomic medicine, and renewable energy.

As Trump himself admitted during his campaign, maintaining economic dominance by military might is a losing proposition. Keeping armed forces more expensively equipped than the next six nations’ combined is too expensive for too little return. So are the wars that we have waged—more than any other society since the Third Reich—to keep ourselves and our values on top.

Beating others up, or threatening to do so, is not a viable long-term strategy to stay ahead economically. Look at China. Its nuclear force is a pale shadow of ours, and of Russia’s. So are its navy and air force. Only in its number of active army troops does China excel. Yet which nation has rocketed ahead the most, over the last generation, in wealth, general prosperity, and general standard of living? China. To verify this point, you have only to ask makers of luxury goods where their greatest markets are, or are soon expected to be.

So to borrow a phrase from the sixties, innovation is where it’s at. Innovation is not just the way to keep your economy on top, but your military, too.

Without innovation, you fall behind in everything: goods, services, infrastructure and defense. With it, you can stay ahead even if your financial and governmental structure is not ideal. So economic stability in a rapidly changing and unstable world requires constant and continuous innovation. Yesterday’s innovation is never good enough.

Here Trump has failed miserably. He has denied global warming, one of the chief motivators for innovation in energy and cars. He has promised to reduce the subsidies for electric cars that have given them a good start. Even more important, he has panned the next generation of energy sources—renewable sources like solar arrays and windmills and the advanced storage devices they need. Instead, he proposes we spend more effort and money on energy sources from the nineteenth century that are becoming exhausted and obsolete: coal, natural gas, and oil.

Trump’s administration also has undermined the foundations of innovation. It has pledged to starve our government innovation funders—the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, among others. It has reduced government oversight of universities and schools and government funding of their research. And it has reduced the legal immigration of smart people and pledges to reduce it more. Where is innovation going to come from if we don’t have money for basic research, money for public education, control of for-profit education to make sure it’s not a scam, and robust programs to bring smart, creative people here from all over the world?

The only reason for not giving Trump an “F” is the incompleteness of his proposed infrastructure program. Investing big money in infrastructure—whether the money is public or private—will inevitably require and produce innovation. So if Trump’s infrastructure program ever materializes, it will advance innovation almost inevitably.

But since nothing has come of it so far, and since Trump has worked first on stopping immigration from marginal mostly-Muslim nations, on depriving millions of health insurance, and on cutting taxes on the rich, he gets a “D,” with some hope (perhaps forlorn) for the future. Going back to nineteenth-century energy industries is not innovation, and it’s not going to help us stay ahead or keep good jobs onshore.

6. Geopolitical stability: Grade C-.

Foreign policy is the hardest subject on which to grade President Trump. In the long run, a less aggressive, less militaristic US foreign policy—relying less on arms and more on diplomacy and so-called “soft” power—will be better for the US, its allies and the world. China seems to be far more interested, now and in history, in making money than in subduing of conquering the world; if we Yanks were more like that, the world would be a better and more stable place. Trump seems to lean in that direction, but his frequent indecision and vacillation on specifics sow doubt.

In the short run, Trump’s indecision and vacillation have sowed shock and turmoil. Early in his tenure, he failed to acknowledge the “one China” policy and the deliberately ambiguous status of Taiwan. Although temporary, that failure caused such a shock as almost to rupture our bilateral relationship with China—the world’s most important today.

Similarly, Trump’s feint toward recognizing climate change, no doubt under Secretary Tillerson’s influence, was obliterated by his pledging to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord. Both that outcome and the “bait-and-switch” approach poisoned international relations in the energy sphere. As a result, the United States, ostracized at the G-20, will be an international pariah on energy and climate issues for years to come.

The crowning glory was Trump’s failure to mention Article 5 of the NATO Treaty (the mutual-defense clause) at Brussels, followed by his rectifying that error in the G-20 summit in Hamburg. That policy whiplash, all by itself, strengthened Russia’s worst impulses, demeaned and split NATO, and, in doing so, made conflict in Russia’s “near abroad” more likely.

We humans all know where we must go. We must move toward a more peaceful, cooperative world, and we must get there as quickly as possible. If we don’t, our children or grandchildren will have lives shorter and more miserable than we can possibly imagine.

But how we get there matters as much as our destination. In a world of multiple enmities and vast distrust, consistency and stability are important. If you have a world-destroying nuclear arsenal, and if you spend more on armament and weapons than the next six nations combined, no one will trust your mere statement of the desire to change toward a more peaceful policy. Others will think, quite naturally, that you can switch back to belligerence as quickly as you feinted toward peace. They will only trust you as you demonstrate continuity and reliability over decades.

It took us over seven decades, since the most horrible war in human history, to reach this point. Today the major powers are in rough equilibrium and roughly at peace, although Russia is twitching visibly in its imperial dreams. But the major powers are also armed to the teeth, with both conventional and nuclear weapons. They are even dreaming of new weapons for use in outer space, in cyberspace and beneath our oceans as they enrich themselves by selling the weapons they already have to minor powers bearing irrational, millennial grudges.

Disarmament, if at all possible, will take decades. It will be a slow process of building trust, mutually verifying, agreeing on other things (like trade), and taking one step at a time. Regardless of any collusion with Russia (which is a totally separate issue), Trump should get credit for dreaming of a less tense and war-driven world, in which the Cold War between the US and Russia eventually not only ends, but is buried for good.

Yet Trump also gets major demerits for his indecision and vacillation and their adverse practical effects. They have emboldened adversaries, especially Russia, and frightened allies, especially in Europe. Thus they have badly destabilized the geopolitics of today. So far have they done so that Germany, having disavowed nuclear weapons since their development, is now considering becoming a nuclear power, if only to have a reliable deterrent against the Russian Bear.

It’s good to have long-term goals. More peace, less war, fewer arms and less arming are good ones. But they are long-term goals and therefore weigh less. Even complete disarmament is not a good long-term goal if we have a general or even regional nuclear war on the way to it. So when we weigh Trump’s good long-term goals against his awkward, erratic and destabilizing short- and medium-term policy, a C- seems the appropriate grade.

7. “Comportment” and conclusion.

It seems both unwise and unfair to prolong this essay by discussing additional issues that did not appear in my original pre-Trump benchmarks essay. But one small exception is worth making.

Many report cards, especially in grammar school, have a “miscellaneous” category often called “comportment.” It ranks the student’s level and progress on a number of miscellaneous personal traits, including readiness to learn, respect for teachers, getting along with other students, social skills, etc. You might sum up the “comportment” category with the term “people skills” or, more generally, character. When grading a president, this category must include such essential traits as diplomacy, patience, graciousness, tolerance, cooperation, empathy, sympathy, humility, caution, thoughtfulness, prudence, and persistence.

Unfortunately, a mere glance at this list and the President’s conduct in office suggests that he has very few of these characteristics or, if he has them, exhibits them rarely.

It would unduly prolong this essay to prove this point by citing the numerous instances in which his conduct in office contradicted one or more of these traits. Suffice it to say that many pundits, including me, thought Trump would never reach the White House due solely to his character, or lack thereof. And we thought so with full knowledge and consideration of the lesser, but still significant, character defects of Hillary Clinton.

Donald J. Trump would have big trouble getting a good grade on character as compared to the average person of his wealth and social class. Compared to US presidents, he fails miserably: an “F” grade is ineluctable.

So how does Trump’s six-month report card sum up? We could give each issue a different rank and weight them all accordingly. But that might seem unfair to his supporters or his detractors. So the best thing to do is give each grade equal weight, to average the five grades together (besides the “incomplete” on onshore jobs). The average is arithmetic, on a fourteen-point scale with each grade, its plus and its minus having a different number (three numbers per grade, except for F, from A+=14 to F=0); we leave the “F” for comportment as a separate mark.

If we do that, Trump’s report card for his first six months is a D+ overall, and an F for comportment, as follows:

President Trump’s Six-Month Report Card
Energy/Global WarmingFBold march in wrong direction
Health InsuranceFNoisy failure
Good jobs onshoreI (incomplete)Could change
Economic stabilityDCould change
Geopolitical stabilityC-Good goals, bad execution
Overall gradeDExcludes comportment
ComportmentFUnlikely to change

Would you be happy if your kid came home from school with this card?

Footnote 1 As every attentive high-school student knows, ice’s latent heat of melting is about 80 calories per gram (more precisely, 79.7). That means it takes about 80 calories of heat energy to melt a single gram of ice, keeping the resulting water at the same temperature as the ice melts, i.e, 0°C (32°F). Once the gram of ice melts, each additional calorie of heat energy will raise its temperature exactly 1°C; that’s in fact how a “calorie” was defined.

So after that little gram melts, the same energy that caused it to melt, namely, about 80 calories, if applied again, will raise the gram’s temperature to 80°C, or 176°F. That temperature, if ambient, would be far too high for humans and other mammals to survive.

Fortunately for our species’ future, the amount of water on our planet in the form of ice is tiny compared to the amount in liquid form. If that were not so, at the current rate of ice melting, our species’ extinction—by heat alone, not secondary consequences—would be virtually assured within a century. A century is far too short a time for biological evolution to help us adapt.


11 July 2017

The Free World’s Female Leader

[Note to readers: Several reader comments have been neglected by oversight, not design, since early May. They are now up, with replies where appropriate. For a brief note on a recent outbreak of political courage among Dems, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
Merkel’s qualifications
China’ role
Women, the Enlightenment and moral pragmatism
Conclusion: the end of the American Century


There’s not much positive in the news these days. When something good happens, it’s often just a shaky return to normalcy, like President Trump’s affirmation of NATO’s Article 5 at the G-20 summit, after he had ignored it at Brussels. His latest move, repudiating the 2015 Paris climate accord—now ratified by 153 nations—is not good for America, American workers, or our human species. Nor is his plan to decimate the EPA’s scientific experts and make real the wet dreams of Big Fossil.

Yet something new and good did happen at the G-20 meeting Saturday. The media noted it in passing but failed to note its historic significance. On the species-critical issue of climate change, the twenty assembled free nations were unanimous, except for one.

All nineteen other nations recognized the Paris climate accord as “irreversible” and agreed to work hard to meet its goals. All, that is, but ours. As a respected British journal noted in its headline, “Trump [was] left in [the] cold . . . .”

The person who led the free world on this vital issue is a woman. But she wasn’t Hillary Clinton. She was Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Merkel acknowledged the summit’s exclusion of Trump. In an attempt at compromise and reconciliation perhaps common to her gender, she noted his goal of using fossil fuels “more efficiently.”

Who can complain about burning natural gas before coal, nature’s dirtiest fuel? Who can complain about drilling for natural gas with less accidental release of methane, a greenhouse gas over twenty times as dangerous as carbon dioxide?

True, the coal-to-gas transition is almost entirely market driven. It will happen no matter what moronic steps the US Congress or its Executive takes. True, Trump’s minions recently defanged a rule requiring gas drillers to avoid methane leaks, but the goal of fewer leaks is a good one. The Chancellor said what she did as a diplomat, in a transparent attempt to keep the recalcitrant US at the table, albeit partaking of nothing.

Merkel’s leadership of the free world was not hard to predict. In fact, this blog predicted it over seven months ago. For Donald Trump has not so much lost America’s leadership position as abdicated it.

Forget about his policies, which aim to wind back the clock of globalization, belittle the importance of NATO (until the G-20 summit) in an era of rising Russian imperialism, and disrupt the global trading order. Forget about global warming, which may soon surpass nuclear proliferation as the most serious trouble our species has ever made for itself. (Most other species wait for the climate to change naturally and try to adapt through slow genetic mutation. Only we humans generate our own adverse climate change, to which we will have to adapt consciously and infinitely more quickly.)

Just look at Trump’s campaign slogans, which still he mouths, and which sometimes appear on his red baseball caps. “America First!” and “Make America Great Again!” they say.

Where in them is any concern for the rest of the world? Don’t you have to have some empathy and understanding of others in order to lead them? Wasn’t that how Nelson Mandela negotiated his people’s freedom and democracy for South Africa from inside a prison cell? Don’t you have to at least keep others’ interests in mind?

But let’s not get too carried away bewailing Trump’s and our own electorate’s shortcomings. Like it or not, Angela Merkel is now the free world’s leader. What does that mean for humanity?

Merkel’s qualifications

Three points, I think, are worth making. First, Chancellor Merkel is and will be a worthy leader, if only the rest of us can manage to follow her. Her moral acuity equals or exceeds that of any major-power leader today.

I’ve described her moral acuity in detail in the essay predicting her accession to global leadership. So I’ll only provide a link here—the more so because the essay’s title is not descriptive and so it might get lost.

China’s role

The second point is equally important. Germany is not alone. An even bigger power—China—is also bidding for world leadership. In what may be more than a mere historical curiosity, its ruling group—China’s Communist Party—has just about as many members (around 80 million) as Germany has people. The two nations’ popular bases for leadership (Germany being a democracy) are similar in size, although of course China’s economic and military clout far exceeds Germany’s.

Like China’s Mandarins of old, to which the Communists are clear successors, China’s modern leadership is pragmatic. Unlike Russia, which flirted with the abstract ideology of Communism for over seven decades, China abandoned it in three.

Once Deng Xiaoping said “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” Communism began to drain away from China in all but name. Today’s China is an authoritarian capitalist state built around a Mandarin-like Party hierarchy, whose supreme ruling body (of seven, once nine) has seen more members trained as scientists, engineers or industrialists than any Western cabinet in generations.

Germany, too, is pragmatic at its roots. Begun in Germany’s Wittenberg 500 years ago next Halloween, the Protestant Reformation sowed the seeds of democracy and science [search for “Luther”]. It did so by encouraging every individual to discover his or her own relationship with God and the Universe. So the Reformation supported individualized thought and conscience, and ultimately science and democracy.

Modern Germany’s sole flirtation with ideological theory was a disastrous affair with racial superiority and “Might makes Right,” both of which it has thoroughly repudiated and abandoned. In everything from its successful Energiewende, through its laws criminalizing hate speech and denying the Holocaust, to its rejecting nuclear weapons and foreign military operations, Angela Merkel’s Germany is a pragmatic nation imbued with a deep understanding of the consequences of its earlier moral errors. More than 70 years after their development, Germany is considering nuclear weapons only today, when the US promises of nuclear deterrence that have held the Russian Bear in check seem weak and uncertain.

If humanity can phase out tribalism, it can probably live with either Germany’s or China’s leadership, despite China’s historical self-image as the center of the Universe. Germany wants to reach 100% of renewable energy so it won’t have to pay rising prices for exhausting resources, so it won’t pollute others’ lands, and so it won’t join the orgy of human profligacy now making our planet less habitable. China wants to bring back the trade and vitality of the Old Silk Road and play a bigger role in the South China Sea. None of these goals is anything the rest of the world cannot abide, at least if China’s sea dreams are realized peacefully, with China’s traditional pragmatic moderation and restraint.

Women, the Enlightenment and moral pragmatism

The third point is perhaps the most poignant for Westerners. Angela Merkel is a woman. Her morally pragmatic style of leadership hearkens back to England’s Queen Elizabeth I and, insofar as we know, to Queen Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt. The reigns of these two women greatly advanced our human species at critical phases in its social evolution.

For those reasons among many, it would be nice if Angela Merkel could extend her exemplary global leadership for at least one more term as Chancellor. Then her leadership could continue the Western Enlightenment that has brought us humans so much prosperity and democracy over the last several centuries.

But our species will survive if she can’t. To be sure, the Chinese brand of pragmatism is mildly distasteful to many in the West. Moving thousands of people out of their ancestral homes to build a dam or a factory, and forcing them to take whatever compensation the Party or its pliable judges decree, doesn’t sound much like “rule of law” or “due process” to Westerners. Nor does it sound like “justice”—a mostly Western concept quite distinct from law.

But it gets the job done. And it does so at a time when many Westerners would prefer similarly abbreviated and predictable procedures for the Keystone Oil Pipeline, despite its many economic and environmental disadvantages. As our globe gets more crowded, procedures that place the needs of the many above the needs of the few will become inevitable. Individual rights cannot avoid struggling in a crowded and polluted world.

Moreover, we humans have survived several centuries of increasingly violent and murderous wars based often on theory, ideology, and religion—which in the end amount to the same thing: naked abstractions that often leave pragmatism behind and millions miserable. For centuries, we Westerners (or our ancestors) waged wholesale slaughters of believers in a different God, including Catholics by Protestants and vice versa. The Middle East is now suffering its own such Age of Agony, as its millennial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites breaks into open warfare, with Jews in Israel as frightened onlookers.

So it would be comforting if the Age of Western Enlightenment continued. The Enlightenment does allow Westerners and their descendants, including us Yanks, to claim authorship of the very best theory, if only pols would heed all nuances and put it properly in effect.

But maybe it’s time for our species to give up theory for a while and just try a bit of simple pragmatism. Maybe it’s time to forget about ideology, as the Chinese have done since Deng, and to just do what works, without killing too many people or causing too much needless suffering. Maybe such simple practicality, with an eye on basic morality, is all that we can humans can manage, as our planet fills up with too many people fighting pollution and a changing climate.

Our species’ rare female leaders have included some of our best. They seem to have an instinctual tendency to do what works, and to drive people together, not apart. On a family level, women inevitably pick up the pieces when men’s grand abstract theories and grandiose exploits explode.

So females may be just the ones to inaugurate the new Age of Pragmatism that our species may be entering. And if they do—if they make human advancement more rapid with less misery—who’s to complain if they speak German and Chinese?

Conclusion: the end of the American Century

The “American Century” may indeed have had its run. Trump’s vacillation, general incompetence and abysmal character may mark its end.

Few outside America will cry if the baton passes to Angela Merkel’s Germany. And with its “strategic patience” on Taiwan and the South China Sea, plus its historical preference for trade over conflict or conquest, China’s global leadership would be far preferable to Vladimir Putin’s Trump-like focus on Russia first, not to mention his zeal to return humanity to the Age of Metternich. Can you imagine even a regional imperial war with nuclear weapons?

Endnote: Contrary to the trade and social paranoia about China now rampant in the West, modern China has been far less violent than our own country. Since its foundation in 1949, it has fought directly in only two wars—in Korea and Vietnam, right on its own borders. The United States has fought in five major wars all over the world (Korea, Vietnam, Gulf I, Iraq and Afghanistan). And that’s not even mentioning minor wars in Grenada and Panama, or our CIA’s intervention in coups and revolutions that spawned and supported brutal dictatorships in Iran, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Nicaragua.

Although it may hurt our national pride to admit it, the US has been the world’s most violent country since the Fall of the Third Reich. China doesn’t even come close. So at very least the global leadership of Germany, which has learned its moral lessons well, or of China, which historically has preferred trade and diplomacy to war, portends a less violent world. (For some speculation on the general level of violence in international affairs had China, and not Europe, opened the West to exploration, click here).


01 July 2017

Our Political AIDS Infection

[Note to readers: Several reader comments have been neglected by oversight, not design, since early May. They are now up, with replies where appropriate. For a brief note on a recent outbreak of political courage among Dems, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:

Introduction: the most important thing that law schools teach
Free speech that kills
Free speech that disables
Conclusion (for now)

Introduction: the most important thing that law schools teach

Let’s face it: I’m a “quant”—a person who likes to see numbers to make sense of news and events. My first and most memorable training was as a scientist. When I got my Ph.D. in physics, in 1971, I distrusted anyone who couldn’t do numbers.

That distrust lasts to this day. It’s well justified. Twenty-two million people who can’t afford to see a doctor is a whole lot of misery. Why can’t enough voters understand that simple truth to put Mitch McConnell out to the green Kentucky pasture he so richly deserves? Maybe the 231,400 voters in Kentucky who reportedly will lose their health coverage if Mitch’s mean bill passes will.

The 22 million who (according to the CBO) will lose coverage nationwide is about 7 percent of our total population. It’s enough to break our “herd immunity” and expose us Yanks, collectively, to a lot of pathogens, including both new ones and old ones we thought we had conquered with vaccines. Under the wrong circumstances—such as an unforeseeable pandemic—it could be enough to literally wipe most of us Yanks out.

Why can’t GOP pols see that? Why don’t they seem to care? Why can’t they see that the misery they seek to impose on millions, just to attract easy campaign contributions from the clueless rich, could boomerang on them and destroy themselves and their loved ones, too?

But numbers aren’t everything. Not everything can be quantified, including some very important things. I learned that in my second big stint at higher education, at Harvard Law School.

Harvard Law taught me something absolutely crucial to us Yanks. It’s something that distinguishes our Anglo-American approach to law and politics from almost everyone else’s.

Sometimes odd circumstances bring really basic, important values into conflict with each other. Sometimes the conflict is real and unavoidable. Sometimes the two principles in conflict are both basic and vital.

When this happens, the traditional approach is to prefer one value over another. One tries to pick the dominant or “better” norm.

As I learned in law school, Anglo-American law and politics are not like that. When two values are both very important, our Yankee approach is not to seek the dominant one like two young boys claiming, “My Dad can beat up your Dad,” or “My God can beat your God.”

Instead, they view the two principles as in “tension” and try to “balance” them. They see how the principles might play out in particular circumstances and “reconcile” them only on a case-by-case basis. They allow one to dominate, then another, depending on facts and consequences, i.e., on detailed analysis. They bring specific facts and situations, aka “reality,” into their abstract and general discussions.

After having nearly forty years to think about it, I believe this way of resolving “tension” with “balance” among fundamental values is one of the most important contributions of Anglo-American thinking to human history. It’s certainly the most important single thing I learned in law school. By itself, the concept of “balancing” principles in “tension” was worth the price of admission which, at Harvard, was not cheap even in the seventies.

The trouble is, “tension” is sometimes hard to see, and “balance” is sometimes hard to achieve. So despite our salubrious Yankee intellectual history, conflicts of values often go unresolved.

Part of the problem is that “balance” contravenes our species’ biological history. Throughout our long evolution, both individuals and societies have had to make many snap decisions on which their survival depended. Often “shooting from the hip” became a necessity. But aiming is always better, even (maybe especially!) when the pressure is great.

This essay discusses two instances in which deeply-held American principles are in tension. Our temptation just to name the stronger one is great.

But our society and our greatness as a culture depend on us doing what made us great: balancing principles in tension against the background of changing facts. Oddly enough, despite our evolution in hair-trigger decision making, this balancing could increase the chances of us Yanks surviving as a nation and of our species surviving intact, despite our obvious shortcomings.

Today the question before us is whether, under today’s extraordinary circumstances, we Yanks (and the Brits who taught us) are giving appropriate credence to that contribution to human culture and survival. This essay analyzes two instances; a future essay will cover two more.

Free speech that kills

For us Yanks, no principle is holier than Free Speech. The very First Amendment of our Bill of Rights enshrines it.

Throughout our brief history, no one has seriously questioned either its supremacy or its value. Perhaps the closest thing to questioning was Oliver Wendell Holmes’ memorable dictum. He wrote that crying “‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater” is probably the limit on free speech.

With that great dictum, Holmes set a high bar for any restriction. First, the speech must be tantamount to action: it must compel or motivate action virtually without thought, or as an immediate consequences of the speech itself. Second, the speech’s immediate consequences must be clear and drastic: a stampede of the audience in which people might get hurt or even killed. Third the speech must be false: surely no one could condemn warning an audience—or a simple expostulation of honest fear—when flames are nipping at an unraised curtain.

Not everyone sets such a high bar. Germany has laws, which it enforces vigorously, against “hate speech” and denying the Holocaust.

Those laws have not noticeably impaired the survival or eminence of postwar Germany. On the contrary: present-day Germany’s genuine contrition about its Nazi past has catapulted it, again, into the first rank of human civilizations, where it had been when its loss in World War I and the Allies’ collective punishment for that loss brought it down from its high status at the turn of the twentieth century.

So history and circumstances can require the recognition of values comparable to that of free speech and their “balancing” against freedom of speech when they come into conflict. Are there any such values that we Yanks should think about now?

Life is always a paramount value, a sine qua non for all the others. You can’t be free, and you can’t speak, if you’re not alive.

Germany outlawed hate speech in part because it had come into open conflict with the lives of so many of its citizens—Jews and Gypsies, in particular, not to mention “subhuman” Poles, Russians and Ukrainians in Nazi-conquered territories. In the end, the near-universal outrage at the consequences of hate speech in Nazi Germany resulted in Germany’s loss of independence as a self-governing society for over half a century. That independence, too, is a pretty important value.

We Yanks have never been serious about suppressing hate speech because few of us have ever been serious enough about hate to contemplate mass murder. We are a nation of immigrants, a “melting pot,” accustomed to welcoming and assimilating people of all races, creeds and national origins.

Even our original sin of slavery never went so far as to contemplate annihilating “black” people, if only because they were then a large part of the “property” and economy of our South. The nearest we came was the terror and lynching during the post-Reconstruction era and Jim Crow, but that terrorism was more an instrument of political marginalization and domination than Hitler’s “Final Solution” for the Jews.

Yet this self-protective feature of our national character may be changing. Hate crimes against homosexuals seemed to have reached a minor crescendo before and during the recent acceptance of gay marriage. More menacing still, hate crimes against Muslims and people of color (even East Indians!) have reached new heights since Donald Trump became president.

There is still a vast gulf between Trump and Adolf Hitler, who made hate a conscious, deliberate and solemnly declared instrument of policy, and who later approved wholesale extermination of hated “races.” Yet not since Andrew Jackson and his hate for Native Americans have we Yanks had a president who so close to explicitly, and so often, has encouraged the violent expression of racial and ethnic hatred.

Nevertheless, Trump’s own coddling of native hate is as nothing compared to the reality and danger of a type of hate we Yanks deal with now every day: terrorism. We Yanks have within our midst people who seek to do us harm, or who can be encouraged or cajoled to do us harm. And we have a large group of native Yanks who are prepared to respond with spastic violence if such harm occurs on a more than minuscule scale.

On what does this potential explosion of mutual violence—action and reaction—depend? What might well trigger it? Our most holy of holies, free speech.

As is now known to our intelligence services and widely announced, jihadist terrorism has morphed into a new phase. Although it still seeks massive, spectacular attacks like 9/11, it is “settling for,” and constantly encouraging, “lone wolf” attacks that kill just a few Americans at at time, “at retail,” so to speak. It hopes to make up in “volume”—in the sheer number and unpredictability of small attacks—what it loses in the audacity and widespread terror of high-casualty attacks like 9/11 and 7/7/05 in London.

The mechanism for fomenting many small attacks is absurdly simple. The terrorists intend to use the most powerful and flexible medium of communication ever invented—our own Internet—to delude and recruit marginal youth and get them to “make their names” by killing their fellow citizens.

There is no lack of irony here. The terrorists seek to advance their perversion of a great religion, Islam, by taking advantage of the holiest of holies of our secular democracy, free speech. And they plan to do so primarily by exploiting the capabilities of privately run social media like Facebook, which are accustomed to almost complete liberty, even license.

After all, private media were not even on our Founders radar when they drafted our First Amendment; only government was. Our Founders feared only a revivified Crown, not a kind of uncontrolled private power that wouldn’t exist for another two centuries.

So terrorists working inside and outside our borders intend to turn what most of us Yanks think of as the crowning glory of our culture into its Achilles Heel. They dream not only of killing as many of us (at retail) as they can, but of fomenting a race war among different factions in our crowded cities.

If we persist in holding free speech absolute, they may well succeed.

But the terrorists haven’t reckoned with the most crucial facet of democracies and the most valuable thing that law schools teach: flexibility. Great principles must bend, not break, when placed under great stress.

As so it must be with free speech. We must recognize that allowing jihadists to use social media to recruit our citizens to kill us is as close to Holmes’ “crying ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater” as is ever likely to occur in practice. We must bend social media’s speech license—and even decrypt them when necessary—in order to preserve equally important principles: life and social peace.

There is no slippery slope here. It will be easy enough, after the fact and in the contemplative atmosphere of our courts, to distinguish between attempts to mint terrorists and legitimate political discourse. And none of the expedients that we adopt will be permanent in any way; they will only last as long as necessary to insure the decisive defeat of this form of retail terrorism. Likely they will not survive extinction of the so-called “Islamic State” (as a territorial entity) by more than a decade.

Rigidity and overconfidence are two of the most common authors of defeat. We cannot let our sworn enemies deprive us of life and peace by capitalizing on an extreme view of our most sacred secular principle. We must bend it, not break it, to meet the current emergency and then straighten it out again as quickly as possible. Even Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

Free speech that disables

What a culture most believes can be its greatest point of vulnerability. So it is with us Yanks and the Brits and free speech. For there is a menace much more subtle, and therefore far more dangerous, than the misuse of the social media that we Yanks invented to recruit our own youth to kill us in our homes and on our streets.

As I have analyzed elsewhere, that menace is the greatest threat to the very concept of democracy since ancient Greece and Rome first experimented with it. It is “fake news.”

To understand the extent of the menace, we must distinguish “fake news” from the type of political propaganda that has appeared for millennia. Even the ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids and the Colossus of Rhodes to impress more primitive societies with the impossible scale of their grandeur.

For centuries, propagandists have tried to convey the supremacy of their politics and culture through opinions and impressions. The tools they have used have been mostly abstractions: evaluations, testimonials and abstract reasoning like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or Karl Marx’ Das Capital.

But now, with the advent of the Internet, propaganda has reached a new height—or depth, if you prefer. It can now propagate false facts, i.e., the raw material out of which each of us develops our own impressions and opinions. If present trends continue, it can give each of us an utterly false and manufactured view of physical, historical and social reality, and it can mold that false “reality” to our own, personal, individual psychological makeup. It can tailor a delusion to each of us personally, in order to maximize the chance that each of us will “buy” it.

Never before in human history has this been possible on the same massive and yet personalized scale. On behalf of the German Nazi regime, Joseph Goebbels made his propaganda too highbrow. He hired the best and most talented German writers and actors (those who hadn’t yet fled Nazism) to appeal to the German people’s upwardly-mobile instincts, albeit in service of a “lowbrow” national philosophy of racial superiority and brutal conquest. Fox—our Yankee national “improvement”—went Goebbels one better. It appeals directly to the lowbrow in all of us, with shouting, bullying, common prejudice, facile widely-accepted false conclusions, and endless repetition.

But what’s coming to a screen or smart phone near you soon will make Goebbels’ and Fox’ propaganda both seem childishly primitive. It’s so-called “news,” apparently “real,” but entirely manufactured. It will have doctored or fully made-up audio and video. It will bring you ineluctably to the conclusions the propagandists want to promote, by your own, personal “perception” and reasoning. And it will do so in part by exploiting your own publicly available personal idiosyncrasies, as revealed in such things as your own public comments and Facebook “likes.”

Never before has manufacturing such fake news on the necessary scale been possible. What makes it possible today is three new things: (1) exponential advances in the storage capability and speed of computer devices, in accordance with Moore’s law (that the capacity integrated circuits doubles every two years); (2) the Internet’s “many to many” communication capability, which has been used only desultorily until recently, but which is the backbone of social media; and (3) the emergence of functioning artificial intelligence (AI), which, for the first time in human history, can put all this together in accordance with the design of an arbitrary, even diabolical, human intelligence.

Even the flexibility and “balance” touted by this essay may not save Western democracies. Why? Because it’s hard to counter a type of propaganda that plays right into your most sacred cultural value: freedom of speech.

When you believe, as if in a religious dogma, that “truth” will arise from the cacophony of competing voices, how can you possibly counter thousands of varying versions of “truth,” all entirely manufactured, and all prepared with all the skill, finesse and subtlety of which modern media are capable?

More fundamentally, how do you distinguish deliberately manufactured “truth” from the many variations in impressions and legitimate opinion that the First Amendment is sworn to protect? Our First Amendment absolutely prohibits an arbiter of truth, let alone a government one. So quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Latin: “who will guard the guardians”)? Can Mark Zuckerberg protect us? Will he?

Conclusion (for now)

The one thing that might save democracy is a bit of delay. It will take some time for anyone, even with the resources of Murdoch’s News Corporation, to perfect the sophisticated type of “fake news” juggernaut described above.

But in the meantime, there will be a lesser but still potent menace. For that you need look no further than Vladimir Putin.

Forget about any alleged “complicity” by President Trump and his campaign and/or transition team. Our investigatory apparatus will continue to chew on that and, at the appropriate time, spit out its conclusions.

But what Vladimir Putin and his minions did in our last election is already partly secret and may never be fully known. What we do know is that he, his trolls, and his fake news created a lot of confusion. They made our ordinary voters doubt what they think they know, doubt what their government tells them, and doubt even what their duly constituted intelligence services deigned to reveal.

How else can you explain that fact that our pols and our electorate seem to have utterly blown off the solemn conclusion of no less than all seventeen of our national intelligence services, with “high confidence,” that Putin and Russia tried mightily to influence our recent election and elect Donald Trump as our president?

Most probably, Putin and his FSB got the idea of meddling in our election too late to develop a consistent line to plug, and far too late to implement the best method to instill it in key parts of our electorate. What they mounted was self-evidently an ad hoc, experimental enterprise, limited to a few key, battleground states.

But an enemy doesn’t have to have a consistent, whole world view. All he has to do is sow doubt, confusion, and discord. Isn’t that precisely and self-evidently what Putin and his crew did? Isn’t that what he is still doing, as our own president fights within and without his own administration to belittle and curtail investigation of this foreign interference?

Preparing millions of individually tailored fake world views to move the needle of democracy precisely in a desired direction may be a tactic of the future. But sowing doubt, confusion and discord in what is ostensibly the world’s most powerful democracy is self-evidently a successful fait accompli.

This—not the Soviet Union’s or Russia’s nuclear arsenal—is the greatest threat we Yanks have ever faced. Just as HIV has caused a terrible global pandemic by attacking our bodies’ own immune systems, trolling and fake news as propaganda subvert our own Yankee culture by exploiting our prohibition on limiting or controlling anything resembling news. Just as HIV uses our bodies’ own immune systems against us, fake news uses our most sacred cultural principle against us.

It doesn’t matter now how long it takes for Putin (or anyone else, domestic or foreign) to turn this currently blunt instrument into a precise generator of any desired policy. Proof of concept already has been made. Putin has shown the world how to throw the most powerful nation in human history into doubt, confusion and discord. The ability to affect policy in detail, as if by some sort of mind control, will follow.

In the meantime, we have the most unqualified president in our national history—unqualified by both experience and character. We know, because our best spooks charged with knowing tell us, that Russia and Putin tried mightily to produce this result.

If we don’t soon find a vaccine or cure for this political version of AIDS, what is now the world’s leading society may suffer the most precipitous decline of any great empire in human history. Next to this threat, what happens to Trump and his Cabinet is minor stuff, hardly worthy of an historical footnote.

Errata: An earlier version of this post called free speech the “very first clause” in our First Amendment. It’s not. Clauses prohibiting the establishment of religion and restrictions on its free exercise come first. Also, the earlier version cited Goebbels’ first name as “Heinrich.” It’s not; it’s “Joseph.”

Errors like these help illustrate the thesis of this post. Human memory is fallible, including my own, although I’ve thought (and some might say “obsessed”) about these facts for at least half a century. With the name, my aging memory probably conflated Himmler’s first name, which was “Heinrich,” with Geobbels’.

Logically, these errors don’t detract much from my conclusions, except perhaps by reducing my general credibility. But imagine how an artificial intelligence, imbued with all the rules by which human psyches sum things up, might string together a bunch of “minor” errors like these, easily missed, to sway a reader’s or viewer’s opinion on something of substance. I regret these errors inasmuch as I know that real facts matter, and that how much they matter is not always apparent in advance.