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

28 August 2018

Does Henry Ford Yet Live? Trump’s Deal with Mexico

[For a brief homage to John McCain, followed by reasons to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For a brief note on vote suppression in Georgia as a reason to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For other good candidates and causes and how to contribute easily, click here. For links to the most recent posts together with the inverse chronological links to recent posts, click here.]

Henry Ford was a brilliant and visionary engineer, the Elon Musk of his day. He was also an elitist, an industrial tyrant and an anti-Semite. He brooked no interference with his absolute control of his creation, the Ford Motor Company.

Industrial history credits Ford with inventing the assembly line. He also introduced many smaller innovations that made the “horseless carriages” of his time look more like automobiles of today. But economic history largely ignores the fact that Ford was a social as well as a mechanical engineer. His greatest “invention”—and his greatest contribution to our species’ advancement by far—was our modern consumer society and large middle class.

Ford’s contribution to that result was simple. “On Jan. 5, 1914, [he] introduced a minimum wage scale of $5 per day, more than doubling the wages for most employees.” Inflated to 2018 dollars, that wage would be $126 per day today. That’s $15.76 per hour for an eight-hour day, just about double today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25.

One effect of Ford’s wage increase was allowing him to retain workers with ease. Another was allowing them to buy the cars they produced. The increase in salary alone, from $2.25 per day, would have amounted to $2.75 x 5 x = $13.75 per five-day week. So, after a mere 37 weeks, or 3/4 of a year, a worker could accumulate the average price of a Model T Ford from the pay raise alone. That compares to three to five years of payments that workers make today when they buy cars on time.

A revisionist historian writing in Forbes Magazine thinks Ford’s sole motive was employee retention. I debunk that view in an endnote. But in the end Ford’s personal motivation doesn’t matter. What matters is the effect of the unilateral, voluntary wage raise.

Whether Ford was an inadvertent or deliberate social engineer, his raise jump-started our modern consumer society. It didn’t do so immediately, of course. It took years for Ford’s initiative to propagate through society under the pressures of competition, labor unions, the instinct of imitation, and the regulations of a society that came to value a large middle class.

For a time (our nation’s best years so far) Ford’s impetus solved an age-old puzzle: how do you build business empires that cater only to the elite, our fabled 1%? Those “empires” won’t be very big because the elite are small in number.

Are firms that make yachts and private planes the industrial giants of today? Not by a long shot. The car companies are still among the largest because they make vehicles that people of all classes buy to get to work or school, travel, and live their daily lives. Apple is the world’s most valuable company, worth over a trillion dollars, because people of all social classes have iPhones in their pockets or purses.

So like Steve Jobs, Ford help prove a simple proposition. You can become fabulously wealthy by making things for the masses, as long as you and your fellow plutocrats pay the masses enough so they can afford the good life.

You don’t have to speculate in finance. You don’t have to lie, cheat or steal. All you have to do is make things that work and that better the average Joe’s and Mary’s lives. Then you can sell to millions or even billions and live a life of luxury beyond Genghis Khan’s wildest dreams. But there’s a caveat: Joe and Mary have to earn enough to buy those things at prices that secure your profits.

It’s a pretty simple formula, isn’t it? But somehow the plutocrats of our Second Gilded Age forgot the caveat. It all depends on consumers’ ability to pay, which depends on their wages as workers and their prosperity as citizens.

What’s amazing is how our supposed “deep thinkers”—economists and business schools—got it so wrong. They all focused on corporate profit alone, ignoring employees, customers and communities. Shift production to China and Mexico, they thought, and you can cut labor and land costs dramatically. The raw materials or parts will cost the same, with just a small increase for transportation. So your profits will explode, and they did.

But mirabile dictu, Americans can’t live on the wages that Chinese or Mexicans will accept. So our factories closed, and our factory towns dried up. Our middle class “downsized” its homes, its towns, its dreams and its standard of living. We ended up with an opioid epidemic, a lot of disgruntled people and Donald Trump as our president.

All this came about because we put Henry Ford’s Model T in reverse. We paid the workers less so the plutocrats could make more profit. (In China and Mexico, our “less” became “more” for workers, so there the Model T is plunging ahead. But’s that not America’s side of the story.)

So how do we fix it? As usual, we Americans begin with a lusty brawl. “Cut the taxes on the rich!” the plutocrats scream. “They’ll build more plants and wealth will trickle down!” But the plants they are building are not here at home. There’s a seemingly infinite supply of poor, hungry countries out there. As our managers take greater and greater advantage of their low-cost labor and land, not to mention their needy markets, our middle class sinks deeper and deeper into the mire.

“Socialize and regulate!” say the left. But how to do that? It’s one thing to “socialize” health insurance. It’s a non-industry of paper pushers that makes and invents absolutely nothing. And putting everyone into a single-payer risk pool satisfies the prime directive of insurance generally: make the risk pool as big as possible, and the premiums will go down. A single pool also minimizes the astronomical costs of accounting for every patient, doctor, dentist and hospital separately, not to mention profits. That’s why Medicare for All is not really “socialism;” it’s just economic common sense.

But health insurance is not a real “industry;” it has no factories. It produces nothing but reams of duplicative forms, only some of them digital. China, Cuba and Russia all tried socializing their real industry. All failed miserably to keep up with the standard of living, let alone the level of innovation, in capitalist countries. All are trying to dump their socialist/communist systems. All are now profiting in direct proportion to, and in the precise order of, their success in doing so. China is first, Russia second, and Cuba is still limping along. We won’t even mention Venezuela!

So the solution is neither to reward the plutocrats for being yet more selfish (if that were possible), nor to adopt a system that has failed dramatically everywhere it’s been tried. There’s got to be a third way, a middle ground. Somehow, some way, we’ve got to become like Henry Ford and boost our own American middle class. That’s the only historically proven way to build a strong and healthy economy. We’ve got to put the Model T back in forward drive again.

We got this way by letting things roll along, letting boys be boys and the plutocrats do what they want. So less regulation and more libertarianism are not the answers. The Koch Brothers may have lots of money, but they don’t have a clue.

One clue arises from FDR’s success. In his four terms as president, stretching from the Great Depression near to victory in World War II, he sought a middle ground. Communism then seemed to be sweeping the globe, after the horribly bloody Russian Revolution. On the other hand laissez faire capitalism had tortured American workers into forming unions, flirting with Communism and taking to the streets. FDR avoided both extremes. He invented what became known as “regulated capitalism.” It involved strong unions and nimble government regulators. And it produced the wealthiest, strongest, and happiest middle class in human history.

So how do we translate regulated capitalism to today’s global economy? How, in other words, can we make the regulation global? The United Nations can’t seem to regulate even violent conflict, and anyway it has only dabbled in economics. The WTO was a great achievement, but it’s like our judicial branch. It can only resolve issues on a case-by-case basis, and resolving a single case takes years. If we wait for the WTO to act, we could have real fascism in parts of Europe and the United States before any decision.

So we’ve got to act in the only way that sovereign, democratic nations can act, short of war. We’ve got to regulate by agreement. And we can’t (yet) rely on unions and collective bargaining because the workers involved are spread across the globe in different countries with vastly differing systems, conditions, and standards of living.

For all Trump’s personal emulation of Nero and Caligula, that’s what his “United States-Mexico Trade Agreement” is all about. The heart of the deal is pure Henry Ford: according to the NYT, it requires “40 to 45 percent of [each regulated] car [to be] made by workers earning at least $16 an hour[.]” Not coincidentally, that’s just a bit more than Henry Ford’s $5 a day, inflated up to 2018.

Otherwise, the agreement’s zero-tariff regime does not apply. Mexico can export cars assembled in Mexico into the US tariff-free only if the cars’ parts meet that criterion. But Mexico presumably can export cars to Africa, Asia, Europe and all of South America using parts made anywhere at any price.

A second key provision limits that freedom considerably. It requires that car companies make cars with at least 75 percent of their value made in North America, up from 62.5 percent in NAFTA. This provision works to the benefit of the United States (and of Canada if it eventually joins), because the predominant expertise in designing and making parts now lies in the US and Canada. Mexican factories mostly assemble complete cars and light trucks from parts made elsewhere, mostly in North America.

Trump’s gloating, as usual, is premature. The Senate must ratify this treaty. Our Congress must adopt, and the president must sign, detailed implementing legislation. And of course negotiations with Canada will slow the whole process down.

Yet even now, the preliminary deal offers some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the deal is mostly to Mexico’s disadvantage. That’s not surprising, for the United States has the capital, the brands and expertise, and the intellectual property (including “know-how” and trade secrets) behind both the assembled cars and most of the parts. The only bargaining leverage Mexico has is cheap labor and land, and the first is in direct competition with Trump’s political base.

The second bit of good news is that Canada, if it joins, will enjoy much the same advantages as the United States. The United States’ size and industrial heft will give it a relative advantage, but there should be enough benefits to share, given the relative size of the two countries (a fifteen-times-plus difference in population).

The bad news is mostly in the future. This part of the deal is restricted to cars, which are a huge deal but not the whole industrial economy. More important, the entire situation is dynamic and fluid, with a transition to more efficient and smaller cars, including electrics, as oil runs out. There is also nothing in the agreement to stanch the flow of factories and jobs outside of North America—nothing, that is, until the transfer of wealth and technology equalizes the standards of living of workers globally, which will take a long time. All this deal can do is reduce the flow of good jobs into Mexico, possibly exacerbating the pressure to immigrate here.

The deal so far also envisages a “sunset” or renegotiation in six years. But it might be better to set up a permanent body of economists and technocrats from all parties to keep tabs on a very fluid situation. Change in manufacturing is only going to accelerate as automation, the transition from oil to natural gas and then to electricity, and so-called “artificial intelligence” have their effects.

But the skeleton of this deal is a good start. It tries to meet head on the central problem of our age: how to keep Henry Ford’s consumer society and huge middle class viable and happy in an age of warp-speed industrial, technological and social change. If the powers that be keep their eyes on that problem, and on solving it by agreement, not by force or insult, our species, our growing global middle class, and our increasingly beleaguered democratic systems just might muddle through.

Endnote: In what passes for a business-school-level op-ed in Forbes magazine, one Tim Worstall tried to debunk our received history: that Henry Ford’s wage increase created our consumer society by allowing his workers to buy the cars they made. The sentence that best reflects the quality of Worstall’s reasoning is his fourth:
“It should be obvious that this story doesn’t work: Boeing would most certainly be in trouble if they had to pay their workers sufficient to afford a new jetliner.”
Yet not even plutocrats can afford to buy a commercial airliner personally; the most expensive corporate jets cost an order-of-magnitude less. The question is whether workers earn enough to afford to fly on Boeing’s airliners, making the robust air-travel market that we now enjoy possible.

Worstall’s thesis is that Ford increased his workers’ wages to reduce employee turnover in what turned out to be very demanding jobs. His facts and figures make that motivation plausible. But his accountant’s approach to industrial life neglects two vital facts. First, in that era before income tax, Ford’s profits were astronomical; increasing them by bits and pieces was hardly on his radar. Second, Ford was a visionary industrialist like Elon Musk today.

To understand Ford as a visionary, you need only examine one the most important decisions ever rendered in corporate law, which I’ve reviewed in another post. Ford’s company had accumulated enormous profits, which he hoarded for his own corporate purposes and refused to distribute as dividends. One Dodge, a shareholder, wanted to get his hands on that money to start his own car company. Dodge sued and won.

Here’s what the judge of the Supreme Court of Michigan wrote in upholding Dodge’s claim:
“[Henry Ford’s] testimony creates the impression . . . that he thinks the Ford Motor Company has made too much money, has had too large profits, and that, although large profits might be still earned, a sharing of them with the public, by reducing the price of the output of the company, ought to be undertaken. We have no doubt that certain sentiments, philanthropic and altruistic, creditable to Mr. Ford, had large influence in determining the policy to be pursued by the Ford Motor Company . . .”
This decision came down in 1919, just five years after Ford’s spontaneous wage increase. Ford was hardly a dreamy do-gooder. He wanted to stop paying special dividends to shareholders so he could invest the money in new plants, decrease costs, increase sales and lower prices. He wanted the proverbial “everyman” to enjoy the freedom to travel in his cars. The judge understood this vision but ruled that corporate law required distributing the profits to shareholders.

This fateful decision and its narrow view of corporate purpose helped motivate the First Gilded Age and the Great Depression that inevitably followed. One hopes we’ve all gotten smarter since then. At least the law has. Under the modern “business judgment rule,” corporate managers can spend their profits on things as far afield from dividends as fundamental research, going for market share, or lobbying for laws that entrench and reward plutocrats’ selfishness and short-sightedness.

Worstall’s accountant-style “analysis” of Ford’s vision is precisely a step in that latter direction. It’s a misreading of both the man and history and a principal reason why our nation is in decline today.

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20 August 2018

Stacey Abrams

[For the principal post on this page, click here. For a brief note on vote suppression in Georgia as a reason to support Stacey Abrams, click here. For other good candidates and causes and how to contribute easily, click here. For links to the most recent posts together with the inverse chronological links to recent posts, click here.]

John McCain: A Man of Honor

He was a fighter. Annapolis nearly kicked him out for fighting. He was hardly a scholar: he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class of 899 cadets. But John McCain had two things rare and precious among those who call themselves public servants: a keen sense of right and wrong and a fierce defense of the right.

Shot down on a bombing mission over North Vietnam, McCain spent years suffering torture as a prisoner of war. His captors offered to release him in a propaganda ploy, after discovering that his father was a highly-placed admiral. But McCain refused to be let go before his comrades in arms.

As a senator and public servant, McCain fought to keep us from the sorry state in which we find ourselves today. His name still marks our first and most important statute limiting money in politics. It was our Supreme Court, against McCain’s and others’ efforts, that foolishly opened the floodgates to money and corruption.

McCain worked hand in hand with John Kerry, President Clinton and others to repair a tiny part of the immense damage we had done to Southeast Asia in our most misguided war ever, in Vietnam. He secured repatriation of the remains of his fallen comrades. He helped normalize relations with Vietnam. And then he helped legalize and promote the massive trade that has pulled so many there out of poverty.

Once it became clear that oil is running out and that fossil fuels are heating our planet, McCain extended his hand across the aisle to arrange a bipartisan compromise on energy policy. That effort failed through no fault of his own. Now our own country, like Australia, is in the thrall of Big Fossil, destined to extract all the short-term profit it can as oil and gas run out, leaving us with a blasted planet and a legacy of useless, stranded assets.

McCain made a big mistake letting consultants and “operatives” take over his 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama. He picked an unqualified and inexperienced person as his running mate. Then he let the “operatives” drive his campaign into a sewer of negativity and racism. Yet after he lost, McCain was man enough to admit his error, apologize, and, unlike the vast majority of the GOP, wish the new president well.

Conflict was inevitable between this honorable man and our current White House without Honor. McCain was among the first of his party to recognize as treasonous President Trump’s self-focused inaction in the face of Russian “active measures” against us. His last major act of honor was his unexpected vote to save “Obamacare” from extinction—and with it reliable and affordable health insurance for tens of millions of Americans. He never played along with the casual, lying bigotry that has come to define today’s GOP.

John McCain’s long and purposeful life was rich with struggle, success, defeat and tragedy. But he always fought for what he saw as right, regardless of the consequences to himself and his career.

We will never “make American great again” without more like John McCain. May they rise from origins yet unknown. Or may today’s pols grow a spine and recall what honor means. Honor, after all, requires seeing and telling the truth—things that John McCain rarely failed to do.

In a recent essay, I promised to lay out my Geezers’ strategy for supporting a “blue wave” in November. On reflection, I think it mostly boils down to one candidate and one state: Stacey Abrams of Georgia.

Americans’ longest-standing challenge remains today what it has always been: the divide between South and North. That divide spans whole continents of difference.

The cultural chasm once spanned slavery and freedom. It spanned the monotony of farm labor versus the imagination of science and industry. It spanned the great slave boss’ mansion on the hill and the small wooden homes huddled together against the New England cold. Today it spans the remnants of a decaying democracy, the still-dangerous embers of a dying but defiant racism, and the resurgence of a uniquely American bossism that could produce a thousand-year Yankee-style oligarchy.

The greatest novelist could hardly have imagined cultures more wildly different than the two our Founders tried to knit together into a single nation. From the get-go, their knitting was defective. We’ve been more like Frankenstein’s monster than a seamless chimera. The stitching still shows, with blood oozing between the stitches.

Today the North and West have the industrial might, the imagination. Silicon Valley sits in California, about as far from the South at you can get. But the South still owns the political power, as it has from our very first mal-apportioned Senate. Even now, the wily Mitch McConnell is trying to stack the Supreme Court to keep it that way. Even now, a South that (outside of Texas and Florida) trails the nation in every economic measure consistently supports Wall Street’s domination over its own citizens because that’s where the money and power are.

Our Congress is twisted to favor the South. Today the so-called “Tea Party” makes a rabble out of the House of Representatives. But who or what is the “Tea Party”? As of 2013, when the so-called “movement” began, about two thirds of its members came from the Deep South and Border States:

2013 House Tea-Party Roster by Region

Old South1753%AL, FL, GA, LA, NC, SC, TX
Border States412.5%KY, MO, TN
Midwest618.8%IA, IN, KS, MI, MN, OH

Almost twenty percent of its members (one out of five) came from a single Southern state: Texas.

As for the Senate, our Founders designed it for minority rule from the very beginning. Today, Wyoming has two senators to represent its 573,720 people, while California also has two senators to represent its 39,776,830. Thus each citizen of Wyoming enjoys more than 69 times the voting power in the Senate of every Californian. And procedural rules in both the House and the Senate entrench minority rule even further.

In just twenty years, half the country’s population will reside in a mere eight states, with sixteen senators. The other states will have eighty-four senators and will govern the majority with an iron fist. Meanwhile, our Electoral College has given us five minority-elected presidents, two in our new century alone.

A future in which Southern bossism continues to govern the vast majority of Americans, including the huge progressive states of California, Illinois, New York and Washington, is untenable. The South today comprises but one-third of Americans. Even with the powerhouse of Texas, it generates only one-third of our national GDP. It ought to be perpetually in the minority, able to make or block law only if and when it can attract a larger political coalition. But don’t tell that to Mitch McConnell or the Tea Party; you might frighten them.

Something has to give. Testosterone-fueled pride makes Southern pols revel in political anachronisms like the Electoral College, which stole presidential elections from Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. They gloat about stealing Supreme-Court seats with sheer political obstinacy. But the longer this travesty of democracy continues, the more all Americans peer into the abyss.

We got a good glimpse of the abyss a year ago in Charlottesville. Our president reveled in the catastrophe because his angry minority is all he’s got, and he knows it. But the rest of us awkwardly gazed away toward a better future. That’s why this year’s proposed “re-enactment” of Charlottesville, in our nation’s capital, came out so differently. Counter-protestors vastly outnumbered the white supremacists, and a strong central government kept order.

As much as the violence-prone might yearn for it, a second Civil War is not the answer, let alone in the Nuclear Age. Nor is secession, although the reasons for it are mounting daily. The solution cannot be based on testosterone, on masculine guile, obstinacy and risk-taking.

Instead, our two cultures must meld. We Americans must adopt common values. Whether through migration, education or simple exhausted compromise, we must become a single nation, with a single culture, in which North or South makes no difference. If we stay divided, the best we can hope for is a national decline so precipitous as to duplicate ancient Rome’s four-century slide in as many decades. With the most divisive, erratic and incompetent president in our history—and with Russia’s persistent and skilled egging on—we have already started down that road.

Since Trump became president, political analysts have focused on our upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. There a mere 80,000 votes in a few key states made liars out of pundits and chaos out of order. But the action isn’t really there. It never has been. The action is in the South, and in the cultural chasm between the South and the rest, where it always has been.

California, now the world’s fifth largest economy, is already a majority-minority state. But key Southern states are close behind. If you add African-Americans and Hispanics together, they amount to about 40% of the total population in each of Georgia and Florida, and 30% in North Carolina. If just one-fifth of whites vote progressive (one third in North Carolina), and if minorities understand who’s on their side, common values can command an absolute majority of the population in all three states. When that happens, the Dems will have a permanent lock on the Electoral College, with a reliable 273 votes in every presidential election. Then the Midwest’s (and Pennsylvania’s!) indecision will become irrelevant.

Sound unlikely? Not so much. In 2008, Barack Obama won both Florida and North Carolina, but not Georgia. In 2012, he still won Florida but lost North Carolina and Georgia.

The elusive prize is Georgia. Why? Well, there’s still a lot of regional resentment there. That’s where General Sherman marched to the sea, in the only sustained military occupation by Americans of their own. Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, is where the KKK held many of its most fearsome rallies and set out on its rounds of white terrorism. Ghosts of the strong feelings that made our Civil War the single bloodiest in our entire history still inhabit Georgia’s stones.

But the time is ripe for change there, and Stacey Abrams is the one to bring it. She’s smart, experienced and capable. As a woman, she lacks the testosterone that still fills the halls of Congress with rancor and once made Southern ground slippery with blood.

Abrams is nice looking. But she lacks the kind of strong attraction that can inspire lust in men and envy in women. She has no accent, whether “black” or regional; she speaks American English. Most of all, she lacks the slightest trace of the bitterness and resentment that have poisoned the South for a century and a half. She’s a healing mother figure who loves all her “kids” equally; she hardly ever refers to her constituents except as “all Georgians.” She threatens no one.

Abrams is the kind of candidate who could be elected governor of Georgia without most voters caring that she is “black.” But when she wins, you can be sure that gerrymandering, vote suppression and the other political shenanigans that have characterized the South since slavery will come to a screeching halt. The state and its national influence will belong to all its people for the first time since our original Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths human.

If ever our nation needed such a healing figure, it is now. If ever there were a state that deserved one, it is Georgia. Atlanta’s thriving business and entrepreneurial culture has made it known as the “Silicon Valley” of the South. It’s as capitalist as a stock market; but Abrams can make it fair and just for those—black, brown and white—whom the stock markets have left behind. Isn’t that what President Trump has promised so often but has yet to begin accomplishing?

The day after Obama first won the presidency in 2008, I speculated whether his success could extend to a list of less stellar minority leaders. Abrams is high on that list—a worthy successor to Obama. She’s also high on Obama’s own endorsement list. Her winning the governorship of Georgia will send a message of a New South and a New America, which can lead a whole new world.

Both male and female voters know in their souls that empathy and concern for every human being is the only way out of the hate, conflict, and neglect that Trump’s and other world leaders’ male egotism has wrought. Female voters know instinctively that nuclear weapons and global warming have driven us far too close to species self-extinction to let testosterone continue to rule us.

Like African-Americans of both genders, Stacey Abrams has had her soul tempered by four centuries of oppression and hate. Yet she bears no scars. Whether minorities or not, all Georgians will reap the harvest of her wisdom born of hardship.

So dig deep, my fellow Geezers. Support her with your money and your time.

If we can propel Abrams to victory, a whole lot of things will change for the better. We will have forged a durable new coalition of white progressives and minorities that could last as long as FDR’s New Deal. We will have taken a decisive step toward a society in which female caring for the whole human family replaces male-ego-driven abstract ideology that never quite gets it right. We will have leaders who care about the people they represent, rather than proving a point. We will finally have laid our American Civil War to rest, without further violence.

Above all else, that’s what we need most as we push farther into the twenty-first century and its multiple life-and-death trials of our species. When you come down to it, it’s a pretty easy choice: support the one who has felt the sting of racism and has risen above it; support the gender that Nature has endowed with the responsibility for giving and nurturing life. The hour is late, but not too late; the choice is urgent but clear.

Endnote: If you’re skeptical that “vote suppression and the other political shenanigans that have characterized the South since slavery” are still going on in Georgia, read a recent catalogue of Georgia’s vote-supression efforts as reported by the New York Times. The attempts include: (1) a purge of registrations of voters who don’t vote for three consecutive years, (2) a delayed purge of registrations with information that doesn’t match, down to the letter, data in state drivers’-license databases and Social Security databases, (3) a “sweeping investigation” of so-called “voter fraud” in Brooks County, which produced a dozen indictments and no convictions, (4) a 2.5 year investigation of voter-registration drives by Asian-American groups, which found no violations, and (5) a recent investigation of the New Georgia Project, a voter-registration drive founded by Abrams herself, which discovered 53 fraudulent applications but provoked a lawsuit claiming that state and local officials had failed to process 40,000 registrations.

Who’s responsible for most, if not all, of these efforts to cut the vote? Georgia’s current Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, a Republican and fervent Trump supporter. The same guy is now Abrams’ opponent in the general election for governor of Georgia.

One thing that has changed over the years is that minority-vote suppressors have become much more cagey and sophisticated in hiding their partisan and racist motives. Kemp, for example, was recorded only once, in 2014, complaining of efforts to register “all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines.”

But you don’t need careless confessions to know what is going on. Watch what they do, not what they say! In a nation whose average turnout in non-presidential elections rarely beats one-third, officials who really care about democracy and giving everyone a say ought to be doing everything in their power to register more voters and get them to the polls. When they do precisely the opposite—seeking to cut the vote, especially in minority districts—you don’t have to be a genius in tracing cause and effect, or an historian, to know what’s going on. That’s especially so in the Deep South, where it’s been going on for one and a half centuries and counting.

If Abrams were to do nothing more than put a stop to this nonsense, she would merit a vote from everyone who values democracy. The facts that she wants to do so much more, plus be the only small-d democrat running for the job, qualify her to win. Just ignore skin color and think which of the candidates every true small-d democrat since ancient Greece would support.

Other Good Candidates and Causes

By emphasizing Stacey Abrams as a worthy candidate, I don’t mean to ignore any other worthy figure or cause.

Here are the other individuals to which I’m making recurring donations:

1. Andrew Gillum, to become governor of Florida. My reasons are much the same as those for supporting Stacey Abrams. Florida is also one of the three states (FL, GA & NC) which, on turning blue, could give Democrats a permanent lock on the electoral college. Having a Democratic governor could put the kibosh on right-wing gerrymandering, vote suppression, and other misdeeds. I put Abrams first only because: (1) I think Florida is closer to turning blue now than Georgia and (2) Abrams is a woman. We need more women in statehouses and Congress—a lot more!

2. Claire McCaskill, to keep her seat as senator from Missouri. Claire is more moderate than I am. But she’s a key Democratic senator for three reasons: (1) she’s experienced and savvy; (2) she represents a key “border” state, and the loss of her seat would be devastating to the Dems; and (3) she is in a good position to help stem the tide of skullduggery by which the hard right seeks to keep the South an anachronism and delay the natural effect of the demographic tides.

3. U.S. Representative Jacky Rosen, to become senator from Nevada. She could turn her purple swing state blue and thereby help reduce the hard right’s Senate majority, or even swing the majority to the Dems. She’s got a tough fight but has among the best chances to win of any non-incumbent Dem running.

4. Beto O’Rourke, running for U.S. senator from Texas, to unseat the vile, much-hated right-wing demagogue Ted Cruz. Beto is a true progressive and one of the youngest people ever to make a serious run for the United States Senate. He accepts no PAC money but relies only on small donations. He’s also running the right way: criss-crossing the huge state of Texas in his pickup truck, holding town-hall meetings in every one of Texas’ many counties. There he listens to the people, rather than telling them what to think based on some simplistic “little red book” of ideology. If our Founders could be resurrected today and could watch Beto run, they would see what he’s doing as how they’d hoped American democracy would look two centuries in their future.

5. Xochitl Torres-Small, running for Congress from my home state of New Mexico. She’s a progressive Dem with a good chance of winning, in part because she’s seized on two important issues both locally and nationally: education and stopping the right wing from de-nationalizing public lands and selling them off to the highest and most environmentally rapacious bidders.

There are also other worthy candidates. Some I don’t give to because I expect them to win anyway, without my help. (A cynical view, maybe, but practical.). Some I just don’t know. I’m a political junkie, not a tied-in political operative. So I also make recurring donations to the following expert organizations, which help pick the best progressive candidates to support and also help get out the vote:

Democracy for America, a new organization for progressive Democrats that is truly color blind; and

Daily Kos, the online progressive newsletter, which has a strong get-out-the-vote-program for the upcoming midterms.

Tip for donors: The website ActBlue makes it easy to donate to any Democratic candidate and many Democratic organizations. It also makes it easy to review your donations, and to make and modify recurring donations.

If you check the box to make a political donation recurring, you might be signed up for twelve months, i.e., a whole year. You may not want to do that, especially now, with just over three months left until the midterms.

Enter ActBlue’s own website. Not only does it keep track of your legal limitations on donating for each election cycle and let you review all your contributions made through its website or its referrals from candidates’ websites. (My own list on its site goes back to 2012.) It also lets you view recurring contributions and modify the recurring parameters as desired. In just a few minutes, I was able to review all my recurring contributions and set them to expire in November, after the midterm elections. (I don’t want to build up candidates’ war chests unnecessarily; other candidates may be needier or more worthy by 2020.)

[For how Twitter weakens our people’s impulse control, how primitive so-called “AI” now is, and their effect on Elon Musk, click here. For a prediction of America’s eventual awakening to Russia’s many small acts of war, click here. For reasons to vote for the blue wave of female candidates, click here. For how Geezers can fight the oligarchs and win, click here. For the threat to our way of life posed by dark cryptocurrency transfers and untraceable and undetectable assault weapons, click here. For reasons why an economic or political crash is coming or imminent, click here. For a brief note on a rare “conservative” who can think, click here. For things corporate CEOs can do to help keep the United States from suffering a decline and fall like ancient Rome’s, click here. For a comparison of quality in pols and reasons to recall our recent past, click here. For reasons why Trump’s trade war is headed toward a disastrous defeat, click here. For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. A list of links to popular recent posts follows:]

Links to Popular Recent Posts

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17 August 2018

Twitter and Impulse Control

[For an update on AI and brief comment on Elon Musk, click here.]

[I’m sorry to upstage my recent post about America’s eventual awakening to Russia’s small acts of war. But the following post may be even more important: we won’t ever awaken if constantly distracted by trivia. For links to the most recent posts together with the inverse chronological links to recent posts, click here.]

Most well-informed parents have heard of the experiments. You take a child who can understand speech, three to five years old. You put her or him in a small room, in a chair with a table. An adult enters with a marshmallow or similar treat and puts it on the table, saying, “I’m going out for a few minutes. If the treat is still there when I get back, I’ll give you another. Otherwise, one is all you’ll get.”

These experiments test the character of its toddler subjects. Specifically, they test their impulse control and their ability to delay gratification.

Some of the experiments followed the study subjects for decades, well into adulthood. And the results are impressive. The first-treat eaters do worse on every measure of success in life, from sports, through grades in school and lifetime income, to marriage, parenting, health, longevity, and simply staying out of jail. The children who wait for the second treat do better on all these measures of a good life.

When you think about it, none of this should be surprising. We all have base impulses. They include impatience, irritability, violence, domination and lust. But civilization itself demands that we control them. Otherwise, no small man could walk down the street with a beautiful woman without risking having her dragged away; no such woman could walk down the street at all without fear. Every dispute would end in a brawl or a murder.

Not only that. Even peaceful decisions, like those made every day in a family, a business, a boardroom or the Situation Room, demand impulse control. Our civilization has made our lives safe, long and rewarding at the cost of making them complex. No single person—even the proverbial “Renaissance” man or woman—knows all the answers needed to do right and live well, in medicine, math, science, engineering, history, politics, military matters, law or philosophy.

We all must consult and consider in making key decisions in our lives. Those who do that well do better in everything. Our very progress of civilization and civilized living—our social evolution—depends on impulse control.

And so we come to Elon Musk and his famous Tweet about taking Tesla private. His impulse was not hard to understand. He wanted to punish and deter the short-sellers and doubters, and he wanted to do it decisively. What better way than to disclose that the Saudis had expressed an interest in buying Tesla at a price well above its current market value? The market price would leap, causing short-sellers great loss; likely it would stay high until the going-private deal went through or fell through.

So simple; so seductive. All Musk had to do was send off his Tweet, and his revenge on the short-sellers would be complete. There would be little risk to his company or its stock price. He could work out the details later.

But civilization is complex because modern life is complex. Investing, too, requires rules. CEOs—even brilliant ones like Musk—don’t get to decide whether or when short-selling is right. Markets, regulators and ultimately Congress do. In fact, you might argue that short-selling is a form of free expression protected by our First Amendment. At least those who practice it put their money where their mouths are, a discipline seldom practiced by the average Tweeter.

What irony! Surely Musk, one of the planet’s smartest businessmen today, knew it would take more than that. Surely he knew that going-private deals take months or years to consummate and that a takeover of his strategic company by the Saudis would probably require national-security review. Surely the guy whose name has become a household word for long-term dreams like pollution-free cars, private space travel and trips to Mars is no sucker for instant gratification.

Yet there was Musk, doing the exact same thing that our discipline-free president does so often in the wee hours, when his ego, his temper, and his peeves get the better of him. Why? The answer, I think, is that technology and the Internet have produced a new, unnatural and dangerous impulse that civilization must now learn to control.

It all comes down to dopamine. That’s the neurotransmitter your brain releases when you have completed a task or had a triumph, especially if you feel you’ve done well or done good. Dopamine creates a sensation of pleasure and fulfillment, which makes you want more. It acts like a drug, but it’s a perfectly normal and natural body product.

Dopamine flows when you get a bonus, see a rise in your 401(K), help a friend, win an argument, resolve a problem, or solve a puzzle. It certainly flows if you are successful enough to receive an Academy Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, or a Nobel Prize. Pols get a rush of it when they win an election.

Until this new century, it was hard to get a rush of dopamine by writing a mere 280 characters. You couldn’t make more than a wisecrack with that little dollop of prose. Instead, you had to wait until you finished a whole letter, essay, article or thesis. (You might get a smaller rush of dopamine, after you had finished a paper, in writing the abstract, which carefully summarized all the details and reasoning in a long and thoughtful paper.). Yet today you can get a rush of dopamine for every paragraph you write, as long as you send it as a separate Tweet.

Still, there’s more. The dopamine addiction of our nation doesn’t stop with senders of Tweets. What about the readers? Their reactions explain a lot about the President’s use of Twitter.

Their very shortness makes Tweets perfect instruments for ambiguity and deniable lies. The President can write a Tweet so that two people with differing views both think he supports them. The result: two thoughtless readers get a rush of dopamine, thinking “The President agrees with me!”

Crudely and instinctively, Trump seems to understand this point. That’s why he described the racist violence in Charlottesville as involving “good people . . . on both sides.” Of course the anti-supremacists were too smart to be bought off so easily; most of them were appalled. But people who were bordering on racism, whose racism is unconscious, who harbored doubts about so-called “reverse racism,” or who might have sympathized with the demonstrators for reasons as far afield as preserving Southern culture and history, all got their rush of dopamine, thinking “the Commander-in-Chief shares my views!”

Yet there’s even more. Every re-Tweet, “like” and “follow” provides its own little rush of dopamine. Of course this estimate requires verification by scientific measurement, but I will hazard a guess. The average poster of a mildly successful Tweet probably feels as much of a collective dopamine rush as a professional journalist who finishes a serious, detailed and well-reasoned piece of news or analysis. So simple. So easy. So mindless. A Tweet requires no research, little thought, and even less focus on consequences, just active fingers or thumbs.

Two facts suggest how depressingly right this analysis is. First, Twitter was founded in March 2006. In the mere twelve-plus years of its existence, its use has exploded, precisely among people (including the president) who would no more think of doing serious writing for a living than of engaging in serious scientific research. Second, Tweets have become a major subject of public discussion, displacing reams of careful reporting that used to cover policy statements, major speeches, and actual proposal and passage of laws and regulations.

Just count how many news articles today have actual screen-grabs of Tweets in them! Often the Tweets themselves, not the underlying issues, are the subject of the story. This explosion in the use of Twitter and in its rapid displacement of real news suggest that a lot more is going on in the crania of users than a simple desire to share their views.

One final consequence of Tweeting I know from my personal experience. For twenty-four years, I served as professor of law. In the early years, and sometimes in the later, I had the job of teaching untutored students how to write the kind of tight, persuasive or analytical prose that lawyers use in briefs and office memos.

Often the job was excruciating. Often it took weeks, if not whole semesters, for a single student to master the skill of clear and accurate expression, in logical and persuasive order, let alone to handle objections and counter-arguments effectively and in persuasive order.

None of the memos, briefs or articles that any of my students wrote could possibly have been duplicated in a dozen Tweets, let alone a single one. Tweets have no counter-arguments, little or no reasoning, and even fewer attempts to take account of nuances or opposing views. They are like the “talking points” and “spin” that people like Sarah Huckabee Sanders spend their days spewing, as if they contained important new information or analysis. If they are not mere wisecracks, they are no more than fillers of space and time.

Although Twitter is not a charitable institution, its subversion of the human intellect may not be deliberate. But willy-nilly, it’s destroying our youth’s and our pols’ ability to reason and express themselves coherently, let alone to contain their darker impulses.

It’s addicting them, like experimental monkeys, to repetitive small doses of dopamine. If this trend continues, what’s left of our democracy may come to resemble a troupe of apes in their experimental cages, who continue to press their little metal levers compulsively long after the peanuts have run out.

Who needs opioids when we have Twitter? We can dose ourselves with our own natural dopamine any time we want. We can have painkillers on demand, like post-operative patients pressing their buttons in a surgical ward.

Because it’s natural, dopamine won’t kill us, at least not right away. It might piggyback on our fossil-fuel addiction and sterilize our planet with runaway global warming. It might lead us into nuclear Armageddon with all the bravado and insouciance with which the imperial powers brought us World War I—the most senseless carnage in human history. It might subvert the calm, measured human facility of Reason, developed over ten thousand years. It might make us all more like Donald Trump.

But who wants to kill the party? It feels so good! Even computer-averse Geezers can type a Tweet and enter a hashtag.

Who needs to think? Who needs the tedium of telling every side of a complex story? Just press the “Enter” key and feel the dopamine rush.

Welcome to the world of Twitter, Elon! Have fun picking up the pieces of your business, shattered by your momentary lapse. I hope the dopamine rush was worth the pain, but I doubt it will be.

Footnote: More recent studies cast doubt on whether a child’s impulse control at age three to five is stable into adulthood. Apparently, impulse control, like intelligence, is a product of both nature and nurture. But the more recent studies cast no doubt on the importance of impulse control to the individual, let alone to human civilization.

From the “I told you so!” Department: NYT Confirms How Primitive So-Called “AI” is Now

Less than five months ago, I published a post entitled “‘AI’ Hype,” explaining how far our attempts to mimic human (or animal!) intelligence fall short of the mark. I called the results so far “simulated intelligence” to distinguish them from anything resembling real but artificial intelligence. I wondered what local authorities were thinking in allowing so-called “autonomous” vehicles to drive on public roadways, where they have already killed several drivers and at least one innocent bystander.

On the first page of its business section today’s New York Times (Saturday, August 18, 2018, at B1) published a pithy comparison three so-called “AI” digital assistants, Amazon’s, Apple’s and Google’s. The brief article—about 3/4 of a newspaper page—is well worth a read. It illustrates simply how hard it is to interpret (not just recognize) even basic human-language requests.

The starkest example was this request: “add these things to my shopping list . . . guacamole, chips, tortillas.” Apple’s assistant “added ‘these things’ to the shopping list.” The other two failed to recognize that the request involved three different items.

Human-language recognition has but one dimension: time. What about the constantly moving images involved in autonomous driving, which include all four Einsteinean dimensions—three in space and one in time? (The pitch and loudness of sound are analogous to color and brightness in images.) How exponentially more complicated is recognizing and interpreting ever-changing images?

The so-called “neural networks” that programmers write in silicon-chip computers are as different from biological neurons as a silicon chip is from an equivalent volume of brain tissue. Among the many differences are the absolutely astronomical number of permutations and combinations of interactions that brain tissue supports. In a recent comment on this blog, I estimated that number as 10**7700, or a 1 with 7,700 zeroes after it. In comparison, there are 10**20 (or 1 with a mere twenty zeroes after it) protons in the known Universe.

An even more important difference between silicon algorithmic “intelligence” and animal brains relates to survival. Human and higher-animal brains have a structure called the “amygdala,” designed to prioritize stimuli and memories that relate to the organism’s survival. This structure plays a role in soldiers’ PTSD. It also insures persistent memories of events affecting survival, such as those of physical fights, diseases and terrible accidents, which can last from childhood until death.

My own amygdala has reinforced a memory of mine so strongly that it’s still clear after some 60 years. When I was ten or eleven, I chased an errant ball into the street in front of my house, not noticing an approaching car. I heard the screech of brakes and saw a big man jump out of the car and start screaming curses at me. Frightened, I ran into the trees near my house and hid.

What caused the unknown driver to curse? A thing called “empathy.” His close brush with killing a neighborhood kid had scared him as much as it had scared me. Although he’s probably dead now, he likely remembered that incident as long as he lived.

Machines have no fear of injury or death. They have no amygdalas to prioritize their input. They have no empathy.

The so-called “neural networks” of today may represent huge advances over the old, mechanical and electrical “analog” machine feedback. But they have nothing like the complex system of prioritizing stimuli that evolution has given our human and even animal brains. Until they have these things, or reasonable and well-tested analogues, I don’t want to see “autonomous” vehicles driving on my streets.

Coda: Despite the irony in my post above, I yield to no one in my admiration for Elon Musk. I wish that all of our industrialists and just a few of our pols (that’s all you could expect!) had his vision.

But one common failing of visionaries is a tendency to bite off more than they can chew. If Musk had just focused on making a superb but affordable electric car, and not so much on making it “autonomous” and almost entirely software driven, the public might not now have to wait an estimated two more years for Tesla to work off its backlog of Model 3 orders. The car might not have received mediocre reviews for its all-electronic dashboard, when software interfaces that are non-intuitive and confusing drive even technophiles like me crazy. I might not now be planning to buy a used Chevy Volt in the interim.

Musk is a visionary and a genius. But with Model 3’s production, autonomous driving, all-software dashboards and SpaceX on his mind—let alone bored-tunnel maglev subways and trips to Mars—he needs a bigger amygdala. He needs someone, whether a friend, lover or investing “angel,” to help him prioritize. It would be a grave loss to our nation and our species if he, Tesla, or any of his other visionary enterprises melted down.

[For what might happen when Americans awaken to Russian cyber-aggression, click here. For reasons to vote for the blue wave of female candidates, click here. For how Geezers can fight the oligarchs and win, click here. For the threat to our way of life posed by dark cryptocurrency transfers and untraceable and undetectable assault weapons, click here. For reasons why an economic or political crash is coming or imminent, click here. For a brief note on a rare “conservative” who can think, click here. For things corporate CEOs can do to help keep the United States from suffering a decline and fall like ancient Rome’s, click here. For a comparison of quality in pols and reasons to recall our recent past, click here. For reasons why Trump’s trade war is headed toward a disastrous defeat, click here. For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. A list of links to popular recent posts follows:]

Links to Popular Recent Posts

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