Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 October 2019

A Slow-Motion Coup d’Etat


For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

Many of us now suffer outrage fatigue from the Trump Administration’s relentless lying, corruption and lawbreaking. Our fatigue makes it hard for us to see. But what we are witnessing this week is the initial stages of a slow-motion coup d’etat.

No, it’s not the fictional one of which Trump complains constantly—the alleged attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election. It’s precisely the opposite. It’s a series of apparently coordinated attempts to overturn the rule of law in this country and, in particular, to thwart the impeachment process that our Constitution explicitly specifies.

At this moment, the primary mechanism of the coup is the joint refusal—coordinated by circumstance if not by conspiracy—to comply with lawful subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives and its duly authorized committees and agents. Refuseniks so far reportedly include the President, members of the White House staff, the Vice-President, several other present and former Executive officials and the President’s private and personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani, in particular, occupies no known official post of or on behalf of the United States. If he can stonewall a duly issued subpoena of Congress, then anyone can, and the rule of law vanishes. That is the legal and practical precipice on which we now stand.

The only (barely) plausible pretext for all this apparently coordinated stonewalling is the claim that the House must vote en masse to open an impeachment investigation before it has subpoena power. But this pretext is nonsense for three reasons.

First, the Congress has inherent subpoena power in aid of its explicit legislative and investigative authority. Each House must have that power independently because neither House has power over the other.

If neither House can investigate the President or the Executive Branch, then our vital separation of powers and its checks and balances become another kind of house. They become a house of cards that collapses, leaving us with a dictatorship misnamed a democracy, like the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” aka North Korea.

Second, nothing in the Constitution requires a whole-House vote to open an impeachment investigation or hearings. Although past impeachments may have involved such votes, the House is not a judicial body like the Supreme Court, which must operate by precedent. It’s a legislative body that can change its rules and procedures at any time, most especially under exigent circumstances as at present. (If the House and Senate were bound by precedent, there would still be filibusters for confirming Supreme-Court appointments, and men named Gorsuch and Kavanaugh would not sit on the Court.)

Our Constitution explicitly so states. According to Article I, Section 5, “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”

The words “[e]ach House” explicitly grant the power to make its own rules to each House of Congress separately. The House and Senate need not work together to develop their separate rules.

The logic of the impeachment process itself corroborates this point. In impeachment the House serves as a sort of “grand jury” and “indicts” a president, while the Senate acts as judges and jury and tries the case for his removal from office. If the president could determine the procedure for his own indictment, the fox would be in charge of the henhouse.

Common-sense reinforces these constitutional principles. How can the House properly impeach a president, by a process similar to indictment, if it can’t gather evidence? The stonewalling we are seeing is, at best, a ploy to delay or thwart the independent power of impeachment, which the Constitution vests solely and explicitly in our House of Representatives.

Can anyone argue with a straight face that the President and his cronies are withholding evidence that would help his case? If you believe that, you have to believe that Trump has gone to great lengths to conceal his college grades and test scores because they are impressively good, or that he has withheld his tax returns because they would reveal him to be an honest multi-billionaire who voluntarily pays all his taxes to the penny, deals with no disreputable foreign banks, and stonewalls, pays off or defrauds no one.

No, what we have here is not good lawyers interposing valid objections to overbroad or legally shaky subpoenas. What we have is political operatives, much like Soviet commissars, “advising” powerful executives to ignore the law and the Constitution and protect themselves from serious scrutiny. Some of these operatives may have attended law school, but their arguments would fail the test of first-semester constitutional law.

Buried in the mountains of false assertions made by the president’s defenders, there may be a few lonely claims of legitimate executive privilege. If they exist, those claims could be settled quickly by competent, reasonable lawyers negotiating in good faith.

But “executive privilege” does not allow a president accused of self-dealing, corruption and abuse of power to hide his wrongdoing under the pretext that national security requires concealing it. Anyway, what the president’s scofflaws are now claiming is not executive privilege, but the power to tell the House how to run its affairs—a power that our Constitution explicitly and specifically grants the House alone.

No doubt Trump and his backers and donors intend these specious arguments to throw up a smoke screen and make everything seem hopelessly “political.” But not everything is hopelessly political in fact.

Nothing is less political than a subpoena. It’s the instrument by which Anglo-American law requires every man and woman, no matter what their stations, to give witness to the truth in a court of law or other tribunal. That power is the essence of the rule of law and what connects our law with reality. It has been inherent in English and American courts, legislatures and official tribunals from Magna Carta on. Lose it or allow it to be subverted, and we lose eight hundred years of lawful government.

What Trump and his minions are doing is answering a lawful investigation with the age-old taunt of the bully: “Make me!” That’s the precipice on which we as a nation now stand, and that’s what creates a true constitutional crisis.

Our courts ought to make short work of these transparently specious arguments. But they may not. They may refuse to “make” the president and his scofflaw operatives obey the law. To preserve their own power and legitimacy, they may refuse to adjudicate a dispute between the “political” branches, legislative and executive. Or they may drag out any decision until the gravitational pull of the next election commences.

In any event, as an early commentator on our Republic once noted, our Supreme Court has no power to make anyone do anything. It has no army.

If the president and his cronies continue to stonewall, and if the courts refuse to intervene quickly and decisively to say what the law is, we Americans will be cast on the mercies of the ultimate deciders in any banana republic: the men with the most powerful weapons.

Sad and terrible as the truth may seem, that day is nearer than we think. It’s not at all too early for the generals and admirals to start thinking about which side they’ll stand on when and if that day comes.

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19 October 2019

Bureaucracy Can Be Good for You


For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

What makes a nation great? What makes its people happy?

If you’ve been raised and fed on decades of propaganda from Fox and the GOP, you can be excused if one good answer eludes you. A modern bureaucracy can make a nation great and its people happy.

The reasons are fundamental to our human condition and our social evolution. They are also fundamental to human history, especially the history of China. Let’s analyze.

Except for great geniuses like Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein, we humans are rather stupid. Everything we do well, we do collectively, together. All our knowledge, expertise and our growing ability to control the physical and natural world around us and improve our lives are parts of a grand joint work.

Think someone like Donald Trump could personally make you happy and improve your life? Think again. Would you have him program your computer? fly your airplane? run a nuclear power plant? teach your kids Mandarin? try to cure a loved one’s cancer? excise your infected appendix? even pull a tooth?

No single person, let alone Trump, can do all these things. But we can do them all collectively because we humans specialize and diversify. As small and limited as our biological brains are, each is sufficient—with the aid of a lifetime of study and specialization—to let us do all these things well, if only collectively. Together our small brains will continue to enable us to do more and more—at the cost of greater and more minute specialization—as we save our planet from climate catastrophe and spread our wings toward the stars.

Xi Jinping is infinitely smarter and wiser than Donald Trump. As least he’s smart enough not to have sullied the seventieth anniversary of his Chinese Communist Party with a second Tiananmen-Square-type bloodbath in Hong Kong. But he hasn’t been smart enough to find a better way to integrate the Uighurs into Han Chinese society than to round a million of them up in concentration camps.

Maybe a good bureaucracy, partly populated by highly educated and well-meaning Uighurs themselves, could have done a better job. But Xi didn’t take that road. He didn’t because he, like Donald Trump, thinks he can do everything, or at least control everything, just as Mao tried so disastrously to control all of his newly unified China with his simplistic little Red Book.

Xi’s Chinese ancestors knew better. Almost a millennium ago, Chinese civilization was unquestionably the most advanced and happiest on Earth. Then its emperors had a secret recipe for good government: their Mandarin bureaucracy.

The Mandarins were highly educated specialists in government. In order to reach their positions, they had to take rigorous tests of their learning and knowledge. They governed based on individual wisdom and expertise, under general principles set by the Emperor and his advisers. As they ruled, they applied their deep knowledge and expertise to differing local problems and conditions. They were the world’s first highly educated government bureaucrats trained to avoid corruption and make the people happy.

Today we as a species have so much more knowledge to learn and apply. We have nearly a millennium of additional historical experience and four hundred years (since Galileo) of observational and experimental science. We have cars, airplanes, computers, CAT scanners, electric power, the Internet and nuclear weapons. All these things require years of education and training to understand, build and use, let alone to organize and govern well.

So our human need for specialization and specialized expertise has exploded since Mandarin China’s golden age. So has the need for intelligent, well-educated, dedicated and non-corrupt bureaucrats to govern our diverse and complex society for the people’s benefit.

In the old days of China, a good bureaucracy was largely an issue of federalism: bringing the Emperor’s rule down to ordinary people under differing local customs and conditions, often even different languages. The Chinese had a saying to match: “Heaven is very high, and the Emperor is far away.”

In today’s far more complex world, travel and communication are infinitely quicker and more reliable. So the new emperor, Xi, is never too far away to rule directly.

But the day-to-day functioning of society is infinitely more complex than in China’s ancient Emperors’ times. So the main function of today’s bureaucracy, even in China, is not federalism. It’s bringing specialized and independent professional expertise to government, including economics, other sciences, and high technology.

In order to get things to work well in our complex scientific and technological society, you have to know stuff. Knowing stuff and applying that knowledge to the people and their government is the function of bureaucrats.

I know, I know. Bureaucrats in countries like Mexico and Malaysia have terrible reputations. Some societies don’t pay their bureaucrats enough, so the bureaucrats have to demand and take bribes in order to live. Their corruption undermines their esprit d’ corps and kills their professionalism. So their bureaucracy becomes a parasite on society, rather than an engine of expertise and applied, specialized knowledge.

Our bureaucracy in the United States is not like that. (At least it’s not like that yet, although Trump seems to be trying hard to make it so.) Nor are bureaucracies in many other OECD countries like that, including those in Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan.

The secrets of these good bureaucracies are decent pay (to avoid corruption), public respect for expertise and competence, and professional independence within their narrow fields of expertise. Together these secrets give any bureaucracy the power to do good and make people happy by applying real knowledge and know-how to problems of real life outside politics.

What motivates bureaucrats in these countries is not money. Instead, it’s the opportunity and the ability to do social good by applying years of study and education, plus practical experience, to improving fellow human beings’ lives.

If you don’t believe there are people for whom those goals are powerful lifelong motivators, then you’ve never met a good soldier, priest, nun, doctor, medical researcher, scientist, or entertainer. Sometimes monetary riches arise accidentally out of pursuing noble goals, but they are not the primary motivation for the people who pursue them.

Specialization and specialized expertise of course are also common in the private sector, our corporate world. They are, in fact, among the chief justifications for having corporations at all. But as we Americans now know all too well, the principal goal of corporate behavior is making money.

Just ask Mark Zuckerberg about moving fast and breaking things. The monster he created, Facebook, has done that extraordinarily well, allowing the Russians to break our democracy.

With corporations like Facebook battering the foundations of democracy, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a large corps of highly educated and specialized professionals dedicated to improving the status of society and its people and not focused on making money in the process. That, in a nutshell, is the role of a good bureaucracy in modern society.

The wonder of it all is how the nonsense of relentless GOP propaganda has kept the American people from understanding these basic facts. Incessant propaganda has even gotten them to forget their own personal experience and believe pernicious lies.

Yet tens of millions, including me, rely on the federal bureaucracy every month to send their Social Security payments by check or direct deposit, and, though Medicare, to pay their medical expenses when they get sick or injured. When capitalists neglect the environment and pollute our air, water, streams, lakes and even the ground we walk on, we rely on government bureaucrats to detect, monitor and ameliorate the pollution. Every day, hundreds of millions of commuters rely on bureaucrats who design, supervise and maintain the roads they drive on and the complex electrical, electronic and mechanical systems that control both ground and air traffic and keep it safe, including at railroad crossings and airports. Everyone who takes a pill or over-the-counter medicine relies on the FDA to keep it safe, pure and effective and complains (rightly so!) when the FDA fails in this mission, as it did in the recent Zantac scandal.

But the bureaucrats who do all this work get no respect. They have the expertise and knowledge to keep all our complex society running smoothly, and they do the work required for that purpose selflessly every day. What drives them is not profit or greed, but a quaint notion of expert public service. And yet we let our media and a major political party condemn them relentlessly, mercilessly, and mindlessly, day after day after day.

The culmination of this social and cultural abomination is the administration of Donald Trump. He has filled the top (political) leadership of our bureaucracy with expertise-free, incompetent ideologues for the purpose of corrupting, undermining and ultimately destroying it. His and his party’s goal is to let our corporate oligarchs, allegedly including him, do what they want, regardless of its effect on the public welfare. So he’s quite deliberately destroying our good bureaucracy from within, in part by appointing “leaders” whose entire career had been lobbying against the bureaucracy they now control.

Make no mistake about it. The bashing and destruction of our good bureaucracy from within may have reached its apex (so far!) with Trump and his crony bureaucracy. But it’s been a GOP work in progress for two generations. Ever since Ronald Reagan declared government “the problem, not the solution,” a principal goal of the GOP has been to diminish and destroy bureaucratic government so that the corporate oligarchy that funds the GOP can take over.

There is absolutely no subtlety in this GOP push for private-sector supremacy. From the beginning, it has been a power struggle, plain and simple. The wonder is how well the GOP and its propaganda organs have pulled the wool over the public’s eyes.

The oligarchs want more power and so want the bureaucrats to have less. It’s that simple. So they try to convince voters that government is incompetent, bumbling, and misdirected, whether toward “socialism” or otherwise. Yet neither the oligarchs nor their corporate vehicles are set up to clean up our air, water, lakes, streams and land, to keep our workplaces safe, or to monitor the safety and purity of the drugs and food they produce for profit. Wouldn’t that be like letting the fox guard the henhouse?

So if you like the bureaucrats who send you your Social Security and Medicare payments (and your sustenance when you are unemployed), if you like the folks who keep your air, water, land and workplaces safe, and the pills you swallow safe and effective, and who design your roads, highways, bridges, aqueducts and sewage systems so they work well and don’t collapse, and who keep the planes you fly in safe and in the air (unlike the 737 Max), you have no choice but to resist a corporate takeover of our bureaucracy.

Of all the candidates currently running for president, there is only one who understands the need to resist in her bones: Elizabeth Warren. She understands best in the fields of banking, finance and financial regulation, where she has worked for years as something of an independent expert herself. But she gets the idea in general, deep down in her middle-class roots.

That’s only one of many reasons why we need to elect Warren president. From the days of Mandarin China most of a millennium ago, a good, independent, expert, well-educated bureaucracy has been the best-kept secret of an advanced, stable and happy society.

For most of the last century, the United States has, without knowing it, built and maintained the world’s best, most expert and best-educated bureaucracy, dedicated entirely to public service—a worthy successor to China’s ancient Mandarins. (For a brief glimpse at some public faces of this good bureaucracy, click here).

Now the corporate oligarchs want to diminish or destroy that bureaucracy and replace government for public service with government for private profit, thereby reinforcing the oligarchy. We cannot let that happen. Ancient China’s Mandarins would know exactly why.

From Rome to Flint: Flush Toilets, Lead, and Human Hygiene.

There are two things about ancient Rome that anyone who doubts the value of bureaucracy should know. First, Rome had flush toilets, the better part of two millennia before the English supposedly invented them. Second, although now no one can know for sure, what probably destroyed the Roman Empire was lead in its drinking water, just as in Flint, Michigan, today.

You can see Rome’s flush toilets in the ruins of Ephesus, now in modern Turkey and a destination of many cruise ships. They didn’t have individual privacy stalls, and they didn’t offer toilet paper. They also didn’t exactly “flush:” their water flowed constantly to wash away the waste, even when no one was using them. Little channels of more gently flowing water also allowed people to clean their rears with water after defecating.

By modern standards, these ancient flush toilets were primitive, but they did the job. Human anuses have never been so clean and healthy until today, nearly two millennia later, when you can buy a Bidet that you can install yourself for about $50 at Lowe’s or Home Depot.

As for the lead in Rome’s water, it was selective. It poisoned only the elite, not the common people. The elite, including rich merchants and the emperors, had poisoned water brought right to their homes, through pipes made of lead. The common folk got their water from shared public fountains fed by concrete pipes and aqueducts.

Rome’s water was slightly acidic. So lead leached out of the pipes that ran to the elite’s homes and slowly poisoned them. Ordinary Romans, who drank water that ran through concrete aqueducts, remained in full health and strength of mind. They watched helplessly as their leaders and “betters” degenerated into madmen like Nero and Caligula from lead poisoning. Most probably, it was that poisoning, not the Huns or Visigoths, that ended Rome’s millennium-long run as the greatest pre-Renaissance Western civilization.

What’s the connection to bureaucracy, you ask? Bureaucracy is what gives human civilization its institutional memory and the expertise to avoid catastrophes like poisoning its elite with lead in drinking water. Bureaucracy is what keeps civilization healthy, with or without a profit motive.

Ancient Rome had no bureaucracy and no science. (Modern observational and experimental science began with Galileo, early in the 1600s.) So it had no way of spreading the benefits of flush toilets or sewers throughout its empire, and no way of knowing how important they are to public health. Humanity had to wait until 1854 for the English epidemiologist John Snow to discover the source of a terrible outbreak cholera in London and so to motivate the development of the first modern citywide sewer system to keep drinking water safe from human waste.

The terrible lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan, is a modern cautionary tale. It derived from the failure of bureaucracy, not its absence. Authorities now are trying to correct their errors. For reasons of race and a lack of environmental justice, the process is moving damnably slowly. But at least it’s starting to work. A century of relentless poisoning will not be Flint’s fate, as was ancient Rome’s.

There’s not much profit in flush toilets, sewers, or safe drinking water. They’ll never attract the cupidity of Wall Street and the so-called “masters of the Universe.” But human civilization could not exist without them, let alone on the massive scale of cities like Tokyo, Mexico City, Beijing, Chicago or New York today. It’s our slow, supposedly sleepy, human bureaucracy that keeps toilets and clean water running and safe and allows our great cities to exist.

So when you hear mindless Republican operatives whispering in your ear that bureaucracy is counterproductive and evil, think of them as the Devil. Just like the Dark Lord, they are pushing you to forsake the science, social organization and governmental diligence that allows our great civilizations to exist at all.

Think of the nay-sayers as putting their own private profit (or that of the oligarchs who buy them) above the public good and your family’s health and hygiene. That’s precisely what they are doing.

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16 October 2019

The Dems’ October Debate


For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

If you want to learn how the world sees your country, try watching a major political event from abroad. I did that today for the Dems’ October debate. It was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, and what I “saw” was not a pretty picture.

Both the manner and the technology of alleged transmission proved the utter domination of our media and our politics by big corporations. This was so despite numerous online protestations that, somehow, this time would be different, that no subscription requirement or other impediment would block my (or anyone else’s) access to a full, clean video feed.

As it turned out, I could access no workable live video feed from Namba, Osaka, Japan—not exactly a place out in the sticks. The live feed from the New York Times, to which I do have a digital subscription, simply didn’t work, despite my duly signing on and trying numerous times in different ways. As far as I could tell, all the other allegedly “free” video feeds were through corporate Facebook pages, to which I no longer have access.

I deactivated my Facebook account months ago. I did so in part because I consider Facebook not just bad software, but also an abuse of my trust and privacy, and mostly a useless distraction. I also see Facebook as having been, and as still being, the single most important factor in our nation’s precipitous decline, vastly outpacing Fox.

To watch the Dems’ October debate from an hotel in Osaka that offers no English-language cable channels, I apparently would have had to reactivate my Facebook account and give the primary instrument of our national subversion access to my private data. Is this really “free”? Is it “democracy”?

So the best I could do—with my Ph.D. in physics and fifty years’ experience in computers, electronics and the Internet—was read about the debate, in delayed “real” time, through live-streaming comments by the New York Times’ mostly female and mostly (very) young crew of live-streaming reporters.

On the good side, I must say that the reporters provided some useful references to the candidates’ past positions and statements outside the debates, as well as some plugs and links to relevant past NYT stories. But as everyone knows (let alone those trained in law), there is no substitute for hearing tones of voice, seeing facial expressions, and knowing exact words in context in really real time.

So stripped of all its technical encumbrances of apps and streams and chat bytes, what I “saw” was what the NYT’s reporters wanted me to “see,” not what actually happened. For this we replaced free broadcast TV with online video feeds?

Maybe it was this wrong-end-of-the-telescope “view.” Maybe it was the oppressive repetition that comes from having already had too many debates among too many candidates. Probably it was all of the above. But I am left with the overwhelming impression that these “televised” presidential debates are more about entertainment than any serious evaluation of candidates to be our next supreme leader.

This is hardly a new impression of mine. But today’s so-called debate, in which global warming received only passing mention and Trump’s evolving debacle in Syria only short shrift, vastly strengthened it.

For the record, this fatally flawed vehicle for comparison only strengthened my already firm conviction that Elizabeth Warren is by far the best debater, the most prepared and strategic thinker, the best communicator, and the best candidate overall, with Pete Buttigieg (who has similar incisiveness and strategic skill) running second. Warren’s uncanny ability to hit the nail on the head, with impressive concision every time, only reinforced my admiration for her.

Senator Klobuchar and others sought to ding Warren for her refusal to “admit” that her version of “Medicare for All” would require raising taxes. But Warren quite properly insisted that it’s only the total cost of health insurance that matters to consumers, including tax subsidies, premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Even the slowest of voters can understand that what they pay for “health care” is a sum of several different payments.

So why should any Democrat give strength to an inveterate GOP talking point: that only the tax rate matters, and not what you get for your taxes or what else you pay for the same thing? Do we really want Dems bashing other Dems using the same nonsense phrase (“no new taxes”) that deprived the best GOP president since Eisenhower (Daddy Bush) of a second term?

As for the rest, Bernie showed, with admirable stamina, that his heart attack has not noticeably set him back. Biden continued a campaign focusing on his personal accomplishments under Obama and before, which are all rapidly disappearing in our national rear-view mirror.

In the final analysis, there are only two issues in the coming presidential election. The first is breaking the corporate oligarchy’s hammerlock on our democracy and our government. The second is restoring professionalism, honor and expertise to our government, including our much-maligned bureaucracy. If we don’t do these two things, nothing else will get done, no matter how hard we try: not reducing the acceleration of global warming, not getting weapons of war off our streets, and not advancing the causes of racial and environmental justice.

There is only one candidate who understands this basic reality of our times, and who doesn’t pollute her message with scary irrelevancies like “socialism” and “political revolution.” That candidate is Elizabeth Warren, as she showed again today. The Dems and the nation owe Sanders a huge debt of gratitude for making these issues plain and mainstream, but he’s not the person to resolve them, let alone the one who can win the power to do so.

So insofar as Warren “won” this latest debate—and insofar as it enhanced her status as the leader—it served the Dems and the nation well. Insofar as it confirmed our corporate media’s utter domination of what we see, hear, and know about ourselves and our world, it only enhanced Warren’s status as by far the best, and perhaps the only possible, savior of our democracy.

Footnote: If, under the influence of constant Fox and GOP propaganda, you ever doubt the value of our federal bureaucracy, spend half an hour researching a disease or condition that threatens you or a loved one on the CDC’s website. There you will find the results of centuries of medical science, organized and presented simply, for anyone in the world to learn for free. Our federal bureaucracy has given us similar compendia of expert human knowledge in such fields as astronomy and space (NASA) and statistics about the other human beings with whom we Americans share this small planet (the CIA).

The professionalism, expertise, competence and efficiency of our federal bureaucracy comprise one of the least-often-told stories of American greatness. Unfortunately, that story is one that the Trump Administration is systematically destroying, both in reputation and reality, and that the next president must systematically rebuild.

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04 October 2019

Rage and Empathy


For brief descriptions of and links to recent posts, click here. For an inverse-chronological list with links to all posts after January 23, 2017, click here. For a subject-matter index to posts before that date, click here.

    ”Thank Heaven for little girls!”, Maurice Chevalier (singing, with strong French accent), in the movie Gigi (1958)
In some ways, human civilization is a paradox. Our species’ biological evolution is perpetually at war not just with our Reason, but with our civilization itself, which derives from our much shorter social evolution.

In past essays (see this post and this one), I’ve described two big battles in this perennial war. The first concerns sexual lust.

Feelings of lust are strong in us, particularly in males. Yet civilization demands that we control, suppress and manage lust in order to have a stable civilization at all.

When we were apes on the African savannah, males’ lust allowed a strong alpha male to take a “harem” of females against their will, or from other males. That taking allowed a stronger male’s genes to be passed on, increasing the species’ chances of surviving.

That evolutionary strategy worked well when nascent human “civilization” was confined to small clans of thirty or fewer individuals, each led by an alpha male tyrant. But in a twenty-first century civilization of nation-states with hundreds of millions of individuals, and a nascent global civilization now approaching seven billion, it’s a recipe for chaos.

And so we have laws against rape and sexual assault, and laws and customs regulating marriage and child-bearing. These are products of our social evolution. Our entire recorded history of less than 10,000 years is far too short for any similar change in our biological evolution, the more so as our civilization has slowed natural selection down. But as the “Me Too” movement attests, our laws and customs restraining lust are constantly evolving socially.

The second way in which our biological evolution wages war against our civilization involves leadership. Biologically, we evolved in small clans of thirty or fewer individuals led by an alpha male. The alpha male ruled by open violence, just as he still does among many apes and other animal species today. This evolutionary paradigm persisted through the age of monarchy, as kings—very seldom queens—ruled by force, or were “selected” through assassination or war.

In today’s age of mammoth nation-states, that evolutionary instinct, too, is a recipe for chaos. Hereditary monarchy once put entire nations at hazard, as the roulette wheel of human chromosomes, rather than Reason or any social choice, set the skill and character of the next leader. Later, modern weapons and other instruments of tyranny put monstrous leaders like Hitler and Stalin in charge of powerful nations, with disastrous effects for human civilization. Millions of individuals perished violently and in concentration camps.

One answer to these horrors was democracy, in which our species decides collectively who rules. Another answer is the modern bureaucratic state, in which stable institutions do most of the governing, under well-respected and stable laws and customs.

During the twentieth century, the United States had its feet planted firmly in both the democratic and technocratic-bureaucratic camps. But now it’s drifting away from both, back toward a disguised form of tyranny, with practically every selection of a recent new president (Obama excluded). We Americans, too, seem to have an atavistic yearning for our biological-evolutionary past and a strong alpha-male leader.

China is drifting in the same direction, although China has never had anything like Western democracy. Xi Jinping has made himself China’s latest emperor in all but name. He’s now in the process of replacing the Communist Party’s nascent technocratic bureaucracy (an echo of the Emperors’ old Mandarin bureaucracy) with one-man rule.

These species-wide retrogressions are possible only because social evolution proceeds infinitely faster than biological evolution. Like all evolution, social evolution proceeds in fits and starts, three steps forward and two steps back. Despite the veneer of civilization and the rule of law, our biologically evolved selves are always lurking in the background, ready to leap out and take over at times of social and political stress.

This essay concerns yet a third field of conflict between our biological and social evolution: the perennial struggle between rage and empathy. Rage is an evolutionary force that helps the individual survive. It triggers an adrenalin-fueled fighting spirit, both in conflicts with members of other species, and in conflicts within our own.

But today our human species has utterly dominated our small planet. So the inter-species advantages of rage are superfluous and becoming vestigial. We have no serious predators, and we no longer have to hunt for our dinners. Instead, factory-like slaughterhouses give us meat, and peaceful agriculture gives us bread, without the need for any individual human predation called “hunting.” Hunting is now a “sport,” not a necessity for survival.

So today rage affects us mostly in conflicts within our own species, i.e., in war and politics. But in the nuclear age, war can spell species self-extinction. Or it might reproduce the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in continental-scale horrors.

So rage, just like lust and the “divine rights” of kings, has outlived its biological evolutionary function. It must be replaced by social evolution, i.e., laws and customs that actually work in practice, in order for our species to survive and advance.

Enter empathy. It’s the polar opposite of rage. It evokes sympathy and understanding of other people, even those with opposing interests and points of view. It avoids, prevents and can resolve conflict. In extreme cases, such as Nelson Mandela’s “miracle,” it can liberate an entire people (defined by race) from oppression merely by negotiating from within a prison cell.

Empathy is the glue that holds civilization together. Rage is the fuel of war. It takes only a moment’s thought to decide which would better support our enormous global civilization as it grows to seven billion souls and expands toward the stars.

The trouble is, our biological evolution has given our separate genders different doses of empathy.

There is, of course, a lot of overlap. But women have the stronger dose for biological evolutionary reasons. From their moments of birth, human babies are helpless, irrational, bawling, peeing, pooing, vomiting bundles of trouble, which only their mothers can love. It takes a lot of empathy to carry them for nine months, give birth to them in pain, and then to raise such creatures. The biological role of mothers gives women a unique evolutionary trait—strong empathy—that differs from men’s far more starkly than any differences among racial, ethnic or national groups. With respect to empathy, women and men are practically distinct subspecies.

Unlike empathy, rage is a man’s tool. In the old days, not so long ago, when kings ruled by force and war, it played the same role as it did on the savannah—fueling war and domination of rival tribes and the expansion of territory and power.

As we humans tried to replace our raw biological-evolutionary emotions with civilization based on Reason, rage became less a tool of politics and more an unfortunate feature of male domination in family life. In the United States, one artistic expression of this push toward civilization is the famous painting of our Founders, dressed in the most elegant finery of their time, debating what became our Constitution.

But today our species appears to be reverting globally to its biological evolution in small clans. It seems to yearn for tyrants to make decisions simply and quickly, often fueled by rage against things like immigration and crime. When that happens, war and/or violent mass death can follow, as under the rule of Philippine president Duterte. Paradoxically, this trend seems most open and patent in the nation supposed to be the epitome of democracy and Reason, our own.

Two recent examples spring to mind. The first is the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as an Associate Justice of our Supreme Court. From a social-evolutionary perspective, that confirmation was one of the most extraordinary political events I have witnessed in my 74 years.

A female professor named Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of gross sexual assault as a drunken teenager. Everyone who viewed her testimony found it credible, and most acknowledged her personal courage and the emotional hardship she suffered in coming forward. There was voluminous evidence of Kavanaugh’s frequent drunkenness at that age, and of his meanness while drunk.

But with the sole alleged co-conspirator claiming not to remember, and with the whole incident by nature being private, there was no direct and specific corroboration of the particular alleged assault. There was only Ford’s credible word against Kavanaugh’s, plus voluminous anecdotal evidence of his drunkenness and poor character when young.

So what resolved the standoff? Was it careful investigation and sober consideration? No. It was rage.

Testifying on his own behalf for his confirmation, Kavanaugh flew into a rage, practically foaming at the mouth. You could almost see ghosts of all the kings and knights of history standing behind him, drawing their swords and threatening to slice up their opponents.

On the sole strength of that atavistic demonstration of male dominance, an all-male committee authorized a perfunctory “investigation.” Then a mostly male-and-GOP-dominated Senate confirmed Kavanaugh. It was a case of male rage securing a lifetime seat on the nation’s highest court, despite well-founded doubt about the nominee’s character and fitness.

Any resemblance between that Senate and the marvelous painting of our constitutional convention in serious, reasoned debate was purely coincidental. Pure male rage—a biological-evolutionary instrument of aggression and dominance—had won the day. It would be hard to imagine an outcome more at odds with the ethos of our Supreme Court—sober, deliberate and reasoned decisionmaking—or with the inscription on its building: “Equal justice under law.”

It was no coincidence that the midterm election that followed produced the largest “crop” of female members of Congress in history. Female voters rose up en masse to support their gender’s primary biological-evolutionary trait: empathy. They had empathy for all the women sexually assaulted without remedy throughout history, as well as all the calm and reasonable men blocked from power throughout history by blind rage.

Now we are witnessing a second, even more consequential, struggle between rage and empathy. Donald Trump stands accused of a host of evils, but most recently a single, simply told, patently impeachable offense.

His reaction would be worthy of any king from the age of monarchy, or of a modern tyrant like Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. It was and is mostly blind rage. Trump foments against his accusers with abandon, calling them spies and traitors, impliedly threatening to execute them, as if fierce opposition to a rogue president would have been betrayal in our age of democracy. Like King Louis XIV of France, the pre-revolutionary monarch, Trump practically shouts “L’etat c’est moi!” (“I am the state!”). He seems increasingly unhinged.

But make no mistake about it. While hardly a man of intelligence, let alone a “very stable genius,” Trump is a master of our most atavistic social emotions. He dwells in the deep sinks of our biological evolution. Like a gigantic sump pump of evil, he can draw muck from those sinks and spew it on our population without warning. Thus he can undermine our modern civilization, so painstakingly refined over more than seven decades of postwar peace among major powers.

So Trump’s persistence in office and even the survival of American democracy hang in the balance. Can Trump “pull a Kavanaugh”? Can he, with a simple atavistic resort to male dominance and rage, attract enough of the Senate’s mostly male members to his side to escape conviction and removal?

The answer, as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan sung, is blowing in the wind. It all depends on how the perennial conflict between rage and empathy plays out, here and now, in the twenty-first-century United States.

Will mostly-male rage exert its atavistic power? Or will key senators feel a mostly-female empathy for all the people, in and out of government, whom Trump has insulted, belittled, nicknamed, bullied, defrauded, lied to and scammed, including many from the Senate itself?

There are, of course, many more legitimate objects of empathy than verbally abused and diminished Republicans. There are all the children torn from their mothers and fathers at the border and now confined, without human succor, under prison-like conditions. There are the refugees seeking asylum from horrendous perils in their countries of origin and held in near-concentration-camp conditions unworthy of a great nation. There are the lawfully working immigrants from south of the border, and their children, who are ripped from the only homes they have known for years. There are their friends and family left behind without them, and their communities.

Then there are all the non-white, non-Christian or sexually unconventional American citizens, who live in fear of unreasoning hatred and assault fostered and incited by our president. There are our allies abroad, who must now fend off genuinely fearsome adversaries without the strong and constant aid of a great power that once had stable and reliable foreign policies.

As we await the decisive battle between the hardness of rage and the softness of empathy, we can only marvel at the memory of that wonderful song from Gigi. “Thank Heaven for little girls,” indeed!

Thank Heaven, not only because little girls grow up to give us males love and children. More vital still, their biological-evolutionary empathy helps create and sustain our human civilization. It could yet save American democracy.

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