Heading into the forthcoming midterms, I’m unhappy. True, as anEsquire article by Nate Silver published in 2009 reminds us, presidents’ respective parties tend to suffer defeats at the first off-season biennial realignment. And it doesn’t matter whether the president did a good job in those first two years. Nonetheless, no matter where I turn, I’m bombarded by hysterical calls to action on my cell phone, in my email, on bumper stickers, and in every spare bit of roadside desert. Many could make the cut of Trump’s Twitter barrages:
Stop Critical Race Theory
Mark Kelly wants Open Borders
Katie Hobbs is a Racist
End the Biden crimewave
My personal favorite appears attached to trucks and SUVs: “Freedoms Enforced.” Since “brevity is the soul of wit,” I’ll not dally on that one. But the list above I find particularly interesting. Critical race theory, along with the companion term “woke,” were not things I remember learning in school. Even my rightwing high school history teacher would concede that whites did better at the expense of blacks. I didn’t think of this as a theory or a proposition: it would be evident to anyone with a thinking brain. But even I was ignorant of the genuine cancel culture dominating mainstream telling of history. Yes, cancel culture is a term new to me, and those railing about it these days didn’t seem to have a problem with it when one could not discuss railroad strikes in mainstream history texts (discussed in what I think should be essential reading for anyone living in this country: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States). School boards and teachers whitewashed the history I learned before college, with stern dismissal of plights suffered by modern people of color and tepid confession for the greatest horrors visited upon any people: native extermination black enslavement. They had no taste for blood, but European bloodlust stained every page of every history one could ever read, if you knew where to look. The terms differ now: they say, “that’s just woke blah” rather than “that’s just nigger blah.” But having come from the evangelical South, I promise they mean the latter. The others above are hogwash: I live in a city a few hours from the Mexico border, and I see no signs of a drug cartel invasion. Rather, I see homeless people begging for lunch money on every street corner. Pronouncing gubernatorial aspirant Katie Hobbs a racist reminds me of the tactic key to all things Trump: accuse others of one’s own sins. Goodness knows he needs no imagination from which to pluck his myriad personal and moral shortcomings. USA Facts supply a few useful statistics: small upticks here and there, but a processive decline in all forms of crime. There is no Biden crime wave, and even if there were, the social transformation necessary to shift crime heavily up and down occurs more on the decade than the annual scale. But when have facts arrested a fancy tagline? Prevarication may be a fancy word, but it still means horse shit. While visiting family in Scottsdale, I saw several republican signs sitting among a very genuine, “Free Horse Manure” (many in the neighborhood own and stable horses on-site.) I think that one probably better reflects the world in which we live. In a very literal sense, we each have access to a lifetime supply of manure, so why not believe things unfit for the maggots? The GOP roster resembles that of a lunch group in an insane asylum; those running here in Arizona say they won’t concede a loss, and that they cannot lose. Masters may well be the most insane senate candidate I’ve ever seen, a perverse mixture of Sarah Palin and Elon Musk.
If you’re scared of armed militias sitting outside your ballot boxes, you’re in luck! SCOTUS says the U.S. Constitution, written when firearms were no more dangerous than Mister Spock’s derisive “stone knives and bearskins,” guarantees your right to conceal mass murder machines. As usual, I’d refer these self-appointed guardians of the Founding Fathers’ brains to Christopher Ingraham’s op-ed in the Washington Post: one could fire the best rifle three times per minute, compared to myriad rounds an ordinary pistol can rocket into a crowd. I discussed some of this in an earlier article, but no one reading this will find themselves shifted on the issue. It may speak more to a psychological fetish I’m probably unqualified to diagnose. Noam wrote that the language acquisition device separated us from the rest of the animals, and it probably was a mutation. My own fiction book The Eighth Angel tries to make sense of what I fear is an “inchoate evolution:” we haven’t achieved a refinement needed to assure our survival. Noam also points out that the current GOP is the most dangerous organization in human history, no small feat. It is, in fact, a perfect combination of means, motive, and opportunity racing us to a precipice, a final curtain call for homo sapiens. McConnell and Graham know catastrophic climate change is real; they know nuclear proliferation will destroy us; they know that they’ve emboldened and empowered Trump, paving the way for fascism to cover the earth in wildfire. True, Trump is a craven, filthy criminal, incapable of a coherence needed to embody Hitler’s flavor, but there’s no reason to believe the next version of him will be the genuine article. As I said in my previous post, my people were ripe for the plucking. There were great people in their midst, like a couple of teachers from high school, along with many teachers from the local junior college. I maintain contact with three of them, and I just finished a lengthy phone call with one of them.
Mister Yeatts reads fantasy, and I wondered whether he would enjoy A Song of Fire and Ice. Like me, Mister Yeatts always felt like a bit of an alien, and so fantasy and science fiction supplied a means of supplanting the now with the somewhere not now. I guess that’s why history has always mesmerized me. Stephen King suggested that we enjoy horror and monsters precisely because it lessens the burdens of our own monstrosity. Whatever the truth of it, the monsters in our midst come in the name of God, and we learn now the filth and malevolence of their souls. Palpatine was something of a study in this: in the prequel trilogy, he appears to be a measured but calculating politician, charming of affect and warm of concern. But we the audience eventually see him for what he is: a misshapen, deformed devil of unspeakable power. That wasn’t what usually happened in the real world: the eponymous hypocrite in Moliere’s Tartuffe almost never lies in his dialogue, and he easily wins the hearts and minds of those he would exploit. Evil masquerades as good, and, for the most part, one might never know the difference. But Trump transformed culture here in America, riding the wave of despair and despondency wrought by the neoliberal program enforced upon labor classes here and abroad. Perhaps my vision was inchoate, much as I wonder about the human soul. We learn about evil as children through the nefarious deeds of fictional monsters, but clear-eyed analysts like Gore Vidal, Noam, and Howard Zinn probably could look perceive only slight differences between the loquacious tirades William F. Buckley and the sneering hiss of the monster Palpatine. I rewatched some of the Hellraiser movies for Halloween, noticing for the first time that the Cenobites sit somewhere between the human-obsessed demons taught to me in Bible class and Lovecraft’s devastating “cthonics.” Perhaps the universe shares Cthulhu’s indifference, and I doubt McConnell really wants to destroy the world. Maybe he and his cohorts believe the world is already lost, and they must crush the throats of anyone interfering with their privileged life. Newt told Ripley in Aliens that her mommy told her there were no monsters, but she knew in that moment that there were terrible creatures driven mad with murderous instinct. Mister Yeatts recently turned 85, and we laughed that he might be happier at this age, knowing we might not have to witness our species’ impending demise. I shared the laugh, my own health casting a shadow over a full lifetime.
A recent interview with Noam found him distinguishing motives and intent from actions and consequences. Though the former can’t be equated with the latter, I do wonder how it is that a plurality if not majority can understand the good and the bad of fairy tales, but a madness has gripped us, rotating all the of players until one criminal, marred by utter business and moral failings, can simply say, “Putin isn’t bad,” and old white men (who’d normally throw their weight against more militarism in the service of other white people) suddenly agree with him. Fox celebrated the RNC’s decision in 2020 to present no platform at the convention, probably because they, like everyone else, can’t count on Trump to commit to anything in particular, save excessive gestures on behalf of gun-loving evangelicals, a group he ridiculed and bedazzled. Truly, the children of the world are wiser than the children of so-called light.
I’ve spent these years in this blog trying to reconcile the righteousness of the human animal with the malignant avarice dominating the power class. As I’ve decided in my fiction book, there may be no answer to this conundrum. Democracy supposes a literacy upon those governing themselves, much like market theory requires informed choice and consent. Neither here is respectable among the political class. Corporations don’t want to compete, so they bribe the political class. Those in power refuse to relinquish it, so they illegally block voters and enchant a population with soundbites into surrendering themselves. Perhaps I’ve learned my lesson. McConnell is no better than Palpatine, and the difference in appearance is superficial. Then again, listen to his cackle in a debate with his challenger last election.
Perhaps the more depressing turn of events of late is the conclusion by the scientific community that we ought steel ourselves for extinction: Cambridge University released a study in August arguing that the “four horsemen” of the climate apocalypse, “famine and malnutrition, extreme weather, conflict, and vector-borne diseases,” together with the fat-tailed temperature hikes expected by 2070, must compel us to dialogue seriously about the end of our species. I myself have no children, but I have nieces and cousins to whom I would like to have bequeathed a world better than the one I inherited. But this won’t happen without dramatic changes. And despite Don’t Look Up‘s Benedict Drask hilariously firing his gun at the comet headed for Earth, bullets cannot stop the catastrophic endgame. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists provide similar ill-omens, setting their historic clock one hundred seconds from midnight, with nuclear proliferation remaining a largely undiscussed nightmare. It’s crazy–Trump’s enablers, and pretty much anyone else in the federal government, all know these things. Nuclear weapons reached the public discourse because of speculation that Putin might deploy “tactical” nukes on Ukraine. Daniel Ellsberg suggests that the danger of nuclear weapons long precedes actual deployment; Putin and other actors may threaten their use, poising these actors to conduct aggression somewhat unchecked. Neither political party’s leadership would prefer to confront the nuclear threats, but rather act within this long shadow to extend it. Noam insists we should treat with Putin rather than permit the conflict to escalate, even if this means concessions. But policy planners long have bemoaned the exhaustion of diplomacy, even though they rarely try. Trump’s party would probably deny the existence of a conflict rather than contradict him publicly. Instead, they encourage armed vigilantes circling capitol buildings to fight the tyranny of stolen elections, another splendid example of accusing others of your own failings; Ari Berman warned in January that the gerrymandering, voter registration laws, and just plain criminality positioned the GOP to win bigtime in next week’s election. Several candidates have already trumpeted their wins, adding that a loss is theft.
[...o]ur notorious inability as a species to significantly affect the long-term, man-made crises of population growth or climate change, not to mention the wars and crises that devolve from their effects, would seem to argue in the other direction. And the reason we are so poor at long-range planning might well lie in how our brains work.
Does this mean we can’t escape Cambridge’s grisly endgame? It makes me wonder once more whether we make up an inchoate or half-baked species, capable of tremendous accomplishments, but incapable of managing them. The ingredients are there, but the recipe missed something. We can reason about it, we can share our findings with others, but motivating large segments within the population to confront these challenges seems impossible. Franklin Roosevelt found the strength, even from a wheelchair, to leverage the hopefulness depression-era Americans felt. We lack that hopefulness now, despite Joe Biden giving a better performance as president than I ever could have imagined. In fact, I believe he’s the greatest president of my lifetime (Carter forward), and I’m no fan of the executive branch. I agree with Noam that all post-war presidents would hang by the Nuremberg standards, though Biden might escape such a fate.
So what can we do? Humans would prefer salvation to extinction, but the sophistication of dialogue must change. Nuance within the balance sheet of rights and principles must receive better press. For instance, if one were to believe the fantasy that American democracy really is democracy, that one must decide whether the principle of self-governance extends to omnicide. Is it wrong to declare martial law if that’s the only way to stop catastrophic climate change? Should Americans’ right to safety extend to murder? Anarcho-syndicalism holds that those depriving others of rights, real or imagined, bear the heaviest burdens of proof. But effective unanimity of scientific agreement on the endgame described earlier? Is this not enough to coerce a dramatic response? Researchers outlined 35 symptoms of code-red climate change, sixteen of which have transpired. If I am to believe that humans cannot address long-term consequences such as the catastrophic endgame, does this not mean we are required morally to coerce participation in a capable climate strategy? But how does one go about this? It would be easier if both political parties could agree to live in the real world. The GOP decided early to simply deny the signs of the times. Within the evangelical sector, we believed that the world was supposed to end, prophesied in the book of Revelations. Yes, we were told that God intended to destroy the world by fire, just as he’d done by water during the time of Noah. So the more terrible the signs, the more we believed Jesus would return. But I’m afraid no one is coming to save anyone, save ourselves. I think the non-evangelical climate deniers probably decided that the world could not be saved. Why else would they pursue greed in the face of insurmountable evidence?
Kelly and I are worried. The Arizona state constitution bans gay marriage, a provision left on the books if the fascist SCOTUS decides to overturn Obergefell. Though Alito argued otherwise, I believe this is their intention. We’ve gone so far as to investigate moving abroad, though nuclear winter is no respecter of borders. Because of my precarious health struggle, and because of family, we’ll just have to go down with the ship, cacti and all. The cacti stood long before I was born, and they might be laughing at my concern, if they only had the means to do so.
There are some reasons to be optimistic: Lula da Silva, once a political prisoner in Brazil, defeated the archconservative fascist Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro attacked the rainforests, imprisoned his critics, and presided over a COVID debacle in Trump’s league. He should go to prison, but leaders seldom pay that sort of consequence. The young generation soon to enter adulthood also seem to be a cut above the rest of us antiques; an op-ed in the Washington Post explains that young workers demand diversity. I find this comforting, and I’m helping lead such an initiative in my day job. I’d rephrase Orwell to say that if there is to be salvation, it lies with our children, inchoate a species we might be.
Mister Rogers once said that in times of crisis, we must look to the helpers (his expression finds a critic in one Atlantic article, though I don’t think the author really made any point of merit.) He didn’t mean first-responders, but rather, those carrying out the Herculean effort to change our world for the better. I find myself calling these titanic figures “keystones:” without them, the structure collapses. This is work we all must accept. We are all keystones, we are all helpers, and we must all take up this work. If we are to stake a claim in this world, we must support each other. When I’m optimistic, I believe we can do it, if we work together. For me, this means identifying those who are making a difference, and supporting them. It would include the usual suspects for me, but I’d add my cousin Carlos “Chico” Robinson, a tireless Arizona educator and labor agitator. I hope to interview him in the coming months, along with my uncle Charles Slagle, the liberal evangelical minister. This would also include my history professor Pat Ledbetter. They give me hope, something I’ll share in the world of 2023.
Until then, vote, and seek out each other. As The Matrix‘s oracle famously said, “the only way forward is together.”
Dickens was onto something when he suggested that the best and worst of times might coincide. Awakening the morning of my husband’s birthday, I discover that the Roberts court overturned Roe v. Wade, with an ebullient Clarence Thomas pronouncing that Griswold, Obergefell, and other SCOTUS decisions handing a crumb of dignity to the gay community, and even to those wanting access to contraception, all were now at risk. Thomas’s genius rationale per a recent biopic: Americans should get off their iPhones to defend their own liberties. Wow. We’ll pause to consider that. OK, I’m guessing you’re as confused as I am, so let’s just recognize that happy days are here again for the man who would’ve been enslaved in the 1700 and 1800s, but he’d hand victory to his own oppressors. He must derive his moral authority the same way tyrants have in the past: sexual harassment of women, cruelty towards the most vulnerable, and in his case, flagrantly protecting his hysterical wife’s illegal interventions on behalf of Trump in the violent overthrow of the United States government. Even if one could agree to the fantasy that these lifetime justices swim in a sea of logic and sanity somehow a cut above the rest, how does one ignore Thomas’s ridiculous participation in Gini’s tomfoolery, together with his utter inability to recuse himself in a case featuring her cultish meddling in Trump’s “stop-the-steal” campaign to, well, “steal-then-stop?”
I pick on Thomas in particular, but he is in no way the beginning and end of the problem. Susan Collins and Joe Manchin “believed” rapist-Kavanaugh and the understated danger of Gorsuch when they said that Roe was settled? Well bless their hearts, as we say in Texas.
The world in which we find ourselves carries with it tremendous risk and upheaval, coupled with opportunity to, borrowing from Tom Steyer, save the world and have an awesome time doing it. But something key that I feel we’re missing remains to be the inner world of evangelicalism. It’s a world with which I’m familiar, though I didn’t used to think about it much. But Roe v. Wade facing a searingly opposed annihilation, along with the outrageous constitutional maximalism undergirding it, has left me thinking more about my past. It isn’t a place I visit often, but it might help others understand why so many Americans align themselves with the GOP, what Noam Chomsky calls the most “dangerous organization in human history”. It’s taken time to work my way back to the blog, given a recurrence of illness that leaves me limited in capacity. But this is a tale needing telling. Whether you want to read it or not, the existential threat I describe herein is very real; it’s easy to discount them as kooks, alloyed by some sort of madness. One might think inexplicable, but years’-worth of reflection leads me to something my high school American literature teacher Candy Zangoei used as a prompt for our daily journals: “we hate our victims the most.” It’s funny that I didn’t understand it at the time, but living amongst a people gripped by fear, afraid of blacks, gays, baby-murderers, I understand now. Nothing says esteem like believing others covet what you have. We had little in the way of worldly wealth, but how much more it becomes when you believe others covet your pennies.
Farmers’ Four Paths to Faith and Divorce
My four grandparents and their respective journeys would be a good place to start. All four began their lives in farming families. My mother’s parents differed a little less than thirteen years in age. My maternal grandfather, Dow Slagle, had been twice divorced, lost contact with two daughters, both his parents died early, and a car accident in 1936 claimed his left arm. He met my grandmother Connie in 1942 at a restaurant where she worked. Her mother had already been married and divorced three times, so his having been divorced wouldn’t be a dealbreaker, as it often was in those days. Her grandparents raised her for the most part, so she always held the elderly near her heart. Neither were obsessive on religion, though that changed when they bore their first child, brain-damaged and permanently retarded. With this and other stressors, they turned to the faith-healing circles like the entourage surrounding Oral Roberts. They weren’t looking for judgment, cruelty, or rejection; rather, they sought a cure for their son, increasingly a burden on and hazard for their second son and first daughter. As they enmeshed themselves within the church, the church punished them for his having been married earlier. In fact, they told my grandparents that their sinful marriage was the reason God chose to retard their son. They relegated my grandparents to the back pew, all-too-eager to take their tithes, but intending to make a holy stand. My uncle recently recounted my grandmother sobbing, prone on the floor, pleading with the invisible man to spare her and my grandfather from hell. Their spiritual leaders abused them, tormented them, as though my grandfather’s missing arm and their retarded son weren’t hell enough for them. My grandfather couldn’t even join the freemasons, their policy to exclude those incomplete in body. Jesus, I’m not sure why they stuck with the whole thing, but bearing abuse from evangelicals continues, a point to which I’ll return. In any case, their second son became an evangelist, traveling the world with his wife for a few decades. Their flavor of faith differed starkly from many of their peers, and the worldview they bear these days is incompatible with established evangelicalism.
My father’s parents were second and third generation Americans, whose Norwegian forebearers settled parts of what would become North Dakota under federal land grants. My grandfather suffered from crippling depression in his early life, a travail leading him to the charismatic renewal of the same ilk my mom’s folks found. It did, frankly, radicalize him, isolating him from the churches dotting the landscape, for their ministrations couldn’t accommodate his personal piety.
My parents bitterly divorced in 1987, leading our pastor at the Gainesville Assembly of God to revoke their memberships. This would be the first of two times the church shunned my mother, sister, and myself, the latter happening maybe eight years later; but it wasn’t the first time the church elders inflicted pain on them. One of my brothers developed type one diabetes when we were young, leading our pastor’s wife to tell my mother that she had somehow angered God. This theme of God’s war on children to punish the parents isn’t all that uncommon among the professedly pious.
I digress. Following my parents’ separation, my father’s folks dropped from our radar, though the geographic separation left us with infrequent visits. The story we heard was that they couldn’t bear to have a divorced son, and thus they wanted nothing to do with us. We learned only near the end of their lives that they had been told they wouldn’t be permitted to see us.
My mother and her second husband, for their part, persisted in seeking a church amenable to their professed faith, albeit with somewhat less judgment. I learned from the beginning to ask for the forgiveness only Jesus can bestow every Sunday when asked by the pastor to do so. We were told every Sunday where unforgiven sinners would be spending eternity, and that the worst self-deception for any of us was believing we already possessed this elusive salvation. I prayed every night for my own soul and the soul of others. It wasn’t until my uncle the minister introduced us in 1994 to universal salvation that the fear around this buckled. My maternal grandmother found it a comfort in her final years. Of course, my own identity would forever separate me from the world of my youth, and I’ve since surrendered any notion of faith, beyond a fancy that there’s more to the universe than we may think.
I rehash this dimension of my past to consider some of the things we learned within the world of the evangelicals, with a bent on the goings-on behind the promotional posturing. What did we believe about abortion? Feminism? Race? Gun violence? Atheism and prayer in schools? Environmentalism? Evolution and Creationism? Science? The military? Homosexuality? Liberalism? If you don’t know anyone from this world, and you’ve always wanted to know from a former insider why the Trumpers, moderately fascist, and the crucifix-as-cudgel crowd do what they do, read on.
What We Believed About Abortion and Feminism
Abortion wasn’t something we talked about at home, aside from the dominant opposition to it. Conception was the beginning of life, and my mother often talked about the miscarriage she had between the births of my two older brothers. She tended to be more progressive than my stepfather, if for no other reason, she struggled to continue her higher education, despite obstacles, both at home and in the antifeminine world we inhabited. We were barely middle class, even when my father was still paying child support. Another degree for her would have led to a better outcome, but she confronted misogyny, spousal abuse, and more. In any case, the most she could offer on the issue was that the women she’d known who’d had abortions regretted them. Almost every Republican presidential candidate after Roe promised at least tacitly what our pastors and faith leaders kept telling us: abortion is murder, no matter the context. But I need context to explain what really was said behind the scenes, namely feminism and race.
Feminism found little favor among the faithful that I knew, for the men convinced themselves that the Bible’s duty assignment among husband and wife was clear: the boys were in charge, with the girls there to support. It’s funny that some of the greatest natural predators in the world, the lions, operate with a similar system. The maned men fight off other men and mate with their many women, and the women hunt, bear the cubs, and raise them. Somewhere there’s an art-imitates-life comment. My first stepdad tried the part as best he could, remaining unemployed, siphoning away money that ought to have gone for our care. My mom worked almost nonstop during that period, facing sexual harassment both at work and at church, while he slovenly watched the boob tube in his tacky cut sweatpants, munching popcorn and inhaling groceries. If my Facebook research is correct, this man now squats on his daughter’s property, draping his largesse in mega-sized MAGA shirts. He complained that women were too uppity, and that abortion somehow would lead to more lesbian couples. Race was an even more terrible can of worms. My father proudly sported a confederate flag on his shirt, complete with the words, “it’s a white thing. You wouldn’t understand…” I daresay even he didn’t understand. He hated black people, much like my stepfather, both concerned that interbreeding would drain the purity from the white folks. Funny that I now know from a genetic profile that north African ancestry is in our lineage! My father was (and still is) a violent, reactionary alcoholic who dwells alone in the desert. He had little reluctance in assaulting women and children, though he’s a coward when confronted by anyone else. I read a ghastly series of comments following a rant by Jordan Peterson in which he bemoans that he can’t hit a woman who criticizes him. One comment following his post read, “I think women deserve rights. And lefts.” I was speechless, but I can see my father blurting something like that.
To be clear, I’ve seen neither of these men for over twenty years, and maybe they’ve changed. I doubt it, though. In any case, the cultural narrative insisted that women belong in skirts and in the kitchen. Walter Matthau’s obnoxious rendition of “It Takes a Woman” from the film Hello Dolly! comes to mind. It might be unfair to emphasize the noisy rambles of two dysfunctional neocons, but their personal views mirrored much of what we heard at church, and even, to some extent, school. But their views were echoed elsewhere in the family. To be clear, there are very few functional males in any part of my family. My father had four brothers and one sister, three of whom found some normalcy. Divorce and abandonment are a theme, leaving grandmothers and mothers doing the work. It makes me think that people often create the world they already believe exists. Men can carouse, flirt, rob, cheat, and assault. Women find themselves cleaning up the mess.
With Roe v. Wade destroyed, the stern and spirited self-congratulations can commence, for the unborn were the only category within the issue for which they could muster advocacy. Once the unborn become the born, these would-be advocates can abandon these children to the underfunded and bullet-ridden schools, minimal healthcare, prison, and murderous cops. The conservatives of my family would seek abortion when convenient (such as reversing one’s position once they determine the unborn child to be free of Down’s syndrome), deciding afterwards to shield them from the murderers. Now, women face a not-so-new enemy, one that punishes them for carelessness and promiscuity, while men skate free.
What We Believed About Blacks and the Indigenous
Race remains a key to this. In my hometown, there was the colored section, near the interstate and state highway intersection. Readers, pardon the word choice, but to lay the cancer bare, we called this nigger town. Moffit Park was the vestigial colored park, tiny and dilapidated, compared to the more robust Leonard Park and Frank Buck Zoo. Black people simultaneously amused and terrified, for we saw them parodied on television and film, and their poverty and purported criminality frightened us. As our family grew, so did the despicable racism grow. I could go on, but there really isn’t any point. The more dovish perspective was that blacks needed to leave this country, for America just wasn’t their cup of tea. Affirmative action was a touchstone for fanaticism, faculty in my public school journey wagging tongues and fingers with rants about how hard life is for the white man. I remember a racist cousin claiming that if a ‘kickass’ black guy wants a high-paying job, he should get it, the implication being that he needs to be ‘kickass’ in order to outperform the very deserved white privilege. Nothing enraged my family more than welfare, even though we received AFDC help soon after my parents’ divorce. I remember standing in line with my mom, among many white and brown people, including handicapped, all of us awaiting the government cheese wheel. One insanely miserly relative couldn’t let it go that she saw a black woman with well-manicured nails pull out her Lone Star card at Walmart; willing to cheat her in-laws into providing years-long free childcare for her, she obsessed on these things, complaining that “too many people in this world think someone owes them somethin’.” Indeed, there are. I remember finally pointing out to some that welfare fraud was so rare, one might as well complain about dirty pennies under the couch cushions. Corporate welfare and tax breaks for the wealthy far outstrip anything happening in the bottom sector of the economy, per excellent analysis by Dean Baker. For one of the biggest recipients of public monies in our family, a sheepish and bashful smile presaged the confession, “it’s just the principle of it.” Children are at stake, but one has a principled commitment to austerity, so long as it’s those “other people.”
My grandmother parroted certain racial slurs she’d learned from her grandfather, a man named Thomas Jefferson Davis Knight. I remember in college history learning that the pseudo-intellectuals trying to justify the confederate secession and slavery would claim that they were the true Jeffersonians, to the north’s Hamiltonians, I suppose. Who was Burr, I wonder? In any case, I didn’t even connect the two until later, looking at my late great-great-grandfather. Irony was that they were so poor, they hired the black doctor when Grandpa Knight fought and lost a battle with lymphoma in the late 1930s. My grandmother always remembered that, and would tell us what a wonderful man that physician was. I should try to find his descendants, if any are living. None of this stopped my first stepfather from dissing blacks with frequency. He may’ve been a total deadbeat, perennially unemployed, and a thief who extorted from my grandmother while he worked for her, but he felt he was better than them “niggers.” A stone could fall on any human being anywhere on Earth, and that person would be, by ninety-percent, better than he was. But I heard this for years, that blacks were lazy criminals; even later, evangelical friends confided that it wasn’t the skin color, but rather the culture they abhorred. Hell, even a manager I had at one of the big firms where I’ve worked said to me that it wasn’t skin color that bothered him, but rather things correlated with it. Guh? That person is another story for another day. But the new bogeyman of the religious right is “critical race theory,” the omission of which would result in an almost perfect cancel culture. But they don’t like cancel culture when it means James Woods and Roseanne can’t broadcast whatever batshit drug-induced fantasies they imagine free of consequence. Admittedly, I don’t like them, but they’re free to spray regurgitated manure as they see fit. But deleting an overwhelming consensus of historians everywhere, reducing the black man’s travail to a footnote, works out well for the young evangelical white man seeking atonement through denial. You see, the Bible didn’t account for the cruelty and wickedness that the organized Christian church was to visit upon slaves, natives, and countless others. This is why I only remember learning in Bible school about the suffering of the Hebrews, with the history of Christianity left out. My cousin’s copy of American History: A Christian’s Perspective said it best: Lee and Grant were both good Christian men, and those who preserved slavery, namely Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, were the “wiser, older” Christian men who preached temperance in their appetites for slavery, a civil war postponed. Nevermind Jefferson and Washington screwing their slaves. It’s so insane, I felt crazy when I studied American history in college.
Native Americans presented their own problem to the narrative. On the one hand, America was a divinely-engineered freedom factory, per the jingo jingle, yet my white ancestors murdered the people already living here. At home, we played cowboys and Indians, and among our friends and family, the talk of natives scared me to death, for who would want to be scalped, dissected, and eaten? Then again, that’s what my white ancestors did to them. I learned the word “crybully” today, a perfect description. We accuse our victims of doing what we do. I could picture a similar sentiment ensconced in a tacky gilded frame hanging above Trump’s office desk. There really is no sufficient discussion on the indigenous travail; the extirpation and extermination led to, probably conservatively, 56 million dead, and a “cancellation” of vast civilized culture. We learned as kids that the natives were not Christian, so those that died probably just resisted dedicating their souls and hearts to a white god capable of reversing their sinful tendencies. Of course, this was the public position, the dovish position, if you will. The reality is that we learned that the natives were inferior, likely incapable of thought rational enough to seek forgiveness through the cross. It was interesting, though, that we also heard about native blood in our ancestry, though my genes, according to state-of-the-art analysis, don’t touch any indigenous peoples in this hemisphere. It presents a difficulty, for why would any of my ancestors fabricate connection to peoples deemed inferior? Looking at my trace North African ancestry, my best guess, worth probably not a lot, is that neighbors could accept the native wife better than the African one, so they lied about her ancestry.
In any case, one of the most sinister of secrets among the evangelicals I knew is that they believed eternal torment awaited virtually all human beings. The free will crowd at least think people can find their way to heaven with a chance, but, as a former member of that gaggle, I can say that we didn’t really believe it. We thought, by contrast, that almost no one would ever find salvation, no matter the chances afforded by God. You can consider it similar to the LDS “mark of Cain” dogma, or, more appropriately, the predestination of Calvinism. We believed that dark skinned people mostly could not get to heaven, because eternity is segregated, even if liberals, guided by satan himself, tried to force us to mingle. It’s horrific, a cultural myopia that I don’t think is specific just to the evangelical crowd. It’s tough to imagine, so the answer is cancel culture on a scale hard to imagine. If you don’t like the history you’ve been taught, then fight to have it erased. We can vote on what happened in the past! I hate slavery, so I’ll just vote to have all history books whitewashed. Done and done. What slavery? What problem?
Another topic of frustrating fever would be gun control, given the holocaust of shootings happening year after year, depicted starkly by The Guardian in 2021. The two most recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas are just tips of an ocean-spanning iceberg. I can’t even finish this paragraph before another mass shooting surfaces in the news, this time a lunatic who killed at least two physicians, reported by MSN. A man didn’t like the outcome of his surgery, so he killed the surgeon. Why not? That’s the American way, to settle our differences like men, meaning one man with a gun, and several others, women and children included, without them? Though it may seem unfair to way life against life, it’s worth remembering that physicians train for years and years to become healers (I’m married to one, in full disclosure.) I may vomit, not just because gastroparesis plagues me. As I’ve written elsewhere, when I was in the second grade, my friend and classmate Jay Wilson and her older brother Kevin were murdered by their deranged mother, ostensibly revenge on their father for divorcing her. After coercing them to write their own suicide notes, she killed them, then herself with a pistol she obtained at a local pawn shop, placing her wedding ring in hock. It was devastating, and I remember our teacher Mrs. Proffer weeping hard. That was 1988, one of many thousands of murders by gun that have gripped a population already clutched hard with fear.
My mother’s parents owned at least one gun, a small pistol my great-grandmother left to her younger daughter, my grandmother. It was unregistered, and happened to be a very painful artifact in my family’s troubled history; I’ll not delve into the details, but suffice it to say the gun never did a bit of good, and plenty of evil. My father’s parents owned several guns, my grandfather becoming something of a collector. They were farmers in a time and place in which one could plausibly argue that guns would keep one’s family safe from wild animals and maybe the occasional violent trespasser. I would guess my grandfather really believed that Clinton, Obama, and pretty much any other democrat intended to take his entire way of life from him, not just his guns. So he card-carry-supported the NRA, and he boasted an autographed tin-painting of Charlton Heston. I never discussed gun violence with him, so I don’t know what he would’ve said about the shootings we see one after the other. But this was a man who would open his wallet to strangers if they had a disabled child among them; I can’t believe he’d place unrestricted access to guns above the safety of school children.
I wish I had a more satisfactory answer as to why evangelicals love guns. It ultimately has to come back to something one might love in a world where nefarious forces covet that thing one loves. Thus, the one doing the loving becomes important, a victim by definition. Just like Christ and the disciples and the Prophets and the Hebrews, the persecuted, tortured, sought by satan and his myriad groundtroops. Truly, this was what I heard growing up. If someone wants what you have, doesn’t that make you important? If satan wants to steal something, that means that something is what God wants me to have, right? I think it’s psychology, and my guess is that the science of public relations has helped political leadership figure out, at least since the late 1970s, how to stir my old crowd. Stuart Stevens’ It Was All A Lie, remains a pretty damned good expose on that part.
I’ll repeat here an argument I’ve made before about “constitutionality:” like the Bible, bumper-stickers, and flags, the U.S. Constitution often becomes the means to affirm oneself in whatever way one deems good. Chomsky often referred to the belief, at least in the 1990s, that universal healthcare guarantees were in the framer’s intent, for it was more or less self-evident. Of course, it wasn’t, but a majority of Americans, by a particular poll, believed it. The point is simple, almost a perverse divine command theory: it makes me feel good, so it is good. All of us are subject to this, whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean we can’t strive for something approaching objectivity, but even that pursuit usually happens because it feels good to pursue it. It helps explain the social media-fueled dystopia in which Sandy Hook moms receive death threats for purportedly fabricating the very existence of their slain children, to say nothing of the shooting itself. Alex Jones would be proud, if he managed to peek out of the rubber room that is his head. Returning to the argument, even if we discard the meeting minutes of the Constitutional Convention, and we discard Scalia’s judicial activism in reinterpreting the Second Amendment to cover individual ownership instead of “regulated militias” per the amendment’s wording, and we discard centuries of careful regulation around weapons, the point screaming for attention here is that an “arm” in 1787 was NOTHING ANYWHERE APPROACHING even the smallest pistol of today. A musket of yore couldn’t be fired more than once a minute, even if the gunman were at the top of his game. The range was poor, and misfires were common. They were dangerous, but a wacko with a .22 pistol can do way more damage than one with the older counterparts. The fact is, today’s guns are NOT “arms” referenced by the aging document. It’s equivocation, but I never hear it said anywhere within the debate. A gun is not a gun, by any other name. Why can’t I own a bazooka and conceal it while I roam the countryside? The Constitution PROMISES me such a right, for it’s just as much a “gun” as is a musket, right? It’s bullshit. Since the blood of thousands of victims doesn’t mean anything to those who deify the Second Amendment, maybe the Commandments’ stringent warning about idolatry might. It makes me sick. Hearing Ted Cruz blather on about the slippery slope of “they’ll start with guns, then take everything else,” he need not worry, unless the government outlaws being ugly with a pound of creepy. Would these politicians care more if they lost their children to a deranged gunman?
My best friend’s father was a policeman when we were growing up. Robin recently reminded me that one year during field day, his on-duty dad appeared in his uniform to watch us play. Kids asked Robin why his dad didn’t have his gun with him, and it was a fair question, considering almost all the boys and some of the girls were accustomed to toy guns and violent movies; Robin couldn’t recall what he told them, but he did remember what his dad said when he asked him later: a paraphrase would be that guns and schools have no place together. He was a policeman and a Reagan Republican, and the unfettered access to firearms for all was just bananas to him.
The truth is that I don’t remember being around too many gun-lovers when I was a kid; some family in my own generation loved guns in secret, so it wasn’t a topic discussed. When I was a child, we traveled in circles of people with too little money to own such an extravagant toy with so little utility. In fact, I’ve never experienced a single moment in my life in which I was or felt safer with a gun nearby. It made no difference to my drunken father that my grandmother had a gun; he broke into the house and roughed up my mother all the same. My grandmother would’ve argued that letting insane people have guns was insane. She kept her mother’s gun more out of sentimentality, before it was stolen from her. I can only say now that the gun-obsessed in my family either enjoy using them on animals or live in a perpetual terror that they’ll have to have them. Both fall under delusion. And I don’t think millions of school children dying would change their minds.
Atheism and Prayer in Schools
I remember very starkly the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair back in 1995. I had just started the tenth grade, and though I didn’t take history that year (it conflicted with precalculus and trigonometry), my stepfather and mother talked about it quite a bit, hot on the heels of the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City. I now consider the irony that we didn’t call McVeigh a terrorist; rather, he was a criminal. Terrorists were brown, whites could only be terrorists. I digress. In any case, O’Hair was an atheist who had sued on behalf of her young son to stay mandatory Bible readings in public schools, in Murray v. Curlett. The Supreme Court later ruled in 1963 that such readings are unconstitutional. It struck me as a kid a little funny that we heard about this woman at church with ominous prognostications of assured demonic victory, yet we always prayed at school assemblies, even at my high school graduation in 1998. I didn’t pay much attention to our sports events, but I’m sure they prayed there. We had a few Jehovah’s witnesses, and since they were barred from saying the pledge of allegiance, no one forced them to do it. It remains a comedy to me that banshee wails and tooth gnashes followed O’Hair’s SCOTUS suit, yet nobody showed up to tell my principals and teachers not to lead the student body in prayer. It’s true, they broke the law, but no one cared. The First Baptist Church’s youth minister made a habit of roaming the high school campus, aiming to support the students from his congregation. I don’t recall anyone complaining, yet I could imagine some parents would’ve found this distressing. My niece’s high school graduation in 2017 was held in a gigantic Baptist Church, and prayers ran aplenty. No one cared.
Atheists were frightening to me when I was a child. Think Rosemary’s Baby: one might believe the devil had connived them into believing we were a grand accident, but often we assumed atheism to be a veil for satanism. These zombified agents aimed to rob us of our faith; they were as alien as anything out of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We learned that before the rapture and tribulation, (eschatological events by which the faithful rise to heaven), we would face either branding with the mark of the beast or beheading. That is, we forfeit our eternal soul or suffer a grisly execution. Mind you, church leaders told us children that this was inescapable. Theories ran amok with respect to the mark’s nature; some said it was a tattoo, others claimed it was a microchip embedded in one’s flesh, capable of killing us remotely. Others still insisted that the VISA credit card was the mark itself, VI being Roman numerals for six, S for six in the Greek alphabet, and A six in the Babylonian counterpart. You read that right: owning a VISA card meant the devil-controlled government could spy on you through the hologram in the corner of the card. Nothing so well depicted this ingrained fear than the play Heaven’s Gate & Hell’s Flames, a dramatization of the eternal divide, separated into several vignettes about death. Some went to hell, others to heaven. Those attaining salvation received horned fanfare, white light, and a stern but loving Jesus Christ. Those falling among the goats were treated to disco strobe lights and a sneering, reptilian Satan, heavy metal roaring as his minions carried the hapless unsaved screaming. It was terrifying, all the more so because we believed it was real. The final vignette featured a mother and her young daughter dying together in a car accident; the girl tried to persuade her mother to accept Jesus before it was forever too late, but she remained unconvinced. Satan tore them apart, Jesus shielding the saved child while her mother fell to the minions. Christ cried with the daughter, and the show ended. Of course, we were asked, as was the course every Sunday, to rededicate our lives to this Savior. I never felt as though I was saved and asked every time it was offered. To me, atheists were terrifying, for in my small brain, I thought that they surely could see the truth for themselves, that hell was real, and Satan wanted their souls. It was insane. But I’m reminded once more that when one believes others covet what is his, it brings an empowerment, a quickening.
When I was in elementary school during the 1980s, I don’t remember ever being told that global warming was a hoax. In the fifth grade, the final chapter of our science textbook covered pollution, acid rain, and the cultural imperative my generation was to inherit with respect to Mother Earth. My teacher proudly described the chapter as a rite of passage for we fifth graders, soon to embark on the long journey that is middle school. Even then, we discussed the ozone layer, depleting with the outgassing of chloroflouracarbons, on routine. No one disputed that this was happening, nor do I remember NASA being accused of manipulating us to justify promotion of ungodly science. Then again, it wouldn’t take long for the fossil fuel lobby to mobilize evangelicals, but their public relations campaigns hadn’t hit paydirt yet, despite Exxon already distancing itself from its own research. The reapportionment of propaganda in the late 1970s took time to spread, but by the time I was in college, more and more folks in the Bible belt were drawing from the brain mushing drivel Rush Limbaugh broadcast. So it wouldn’t be so surprising to learn that a computer science teacher I had in junior college said that he hated environmentalists because they “didn’t want anyone else to be able to work.” He also decried women as “illogical,” all from a high-level reading of I Love Lucy. Even Christians dislike pollution and big pollutors, but the public relations firms have had decades to police thought among evangelicals, and more than ever does it show. For my own tribe, opponents to environmentalism without education quote generously from critical analyses funded by fossil fuel giants, decrying the topic as too ‘politicized’ to deserve serious consideration; but they do jump at voter fraud shadows, a perfect reversal of screaming at gnats while gulping camels hump over hoof. Those with more education or worldly experience brook their heads, self-describing as “not reactionary.” Discounting the overwhelming scientific consensus is, by definition, reactionary. But channeling Inhofe, God won’t allow us to destroy ourselves, right? Actually, the evangelicals don’t agree: we should hasten the end times so that the wicked can perish in eternal hell, and the wrongs are righted. This was what I heard–the sooner we can reach the apocalypse, the better. But certainly, they think the Bible is the authority, so we heard almost nothing about church history. The role the Vatican played in Hitler’s ascent, the promotion of and opposition to slavery, and so on.
Evangelicals who stump for Christ but live in terror aren’t that much of a contradiction. Most who endorse both do so because conspiracy theories, per Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World, appeal to people in a vacuum of scientific literacy. His interview on Charlie Rose, one of his final, is worth a listen. The terror comes with the belief that wickedness triumphs in claiming almost all people in the final war, the Gog and Magog lunacy I learned that even W. Bush believed.
Evolution and Creationism
Between Tucson and Phoenix, I’ve spied a handful of creationism billboards, all triumphantly pronouncing that we could not have evolved from an ancestor of the apes, namely because one book tells a different story, a story beginning with two humans from whom we all descend. But they ate a fruit, leading to widespread suffering and horror. Next, their creator drowned the whole of the earth when they displeased him. With the flimsiest of proof, we believed this. The Bible couldn’t be wrong, but the sum total of scientific expertise on geology, archaeology, anthropology, and genetics had to be in error. It may sound ridiculous, but we were frightened of this expertise, hearing that its plausibility was the devil’s temptation, and therefore its source, the scientists and their promoters, all derived their power from satan. I was afraid of eternal hell, and thus I could hear only the repeated mantra of a stepfather and the hilariously transparent faith leaders we sought.
Creationism became the buzzword for the determination that a deity created us as we are now, perhaps only six thousand years ago. Carbon dating had to be wrong, and we continue to be the center of the universe, once mingling with the dinosaurs. Perhaps we tamed and rode the triceratops, one of my personal favorites of the reptiles. Darwin and his Origin of Species had to be wrong. Of course, he didn’t suggest that life arose all by itself; rather, he explained that all life evolves over time. But he was an agent of satan, perhaps more than Karl Marx. Nevermind hip joints in whales and snakes, or a whole host of other oddities one might discover when analyzing the animal kingdom. Everything now is how everything was, species by species, when god created the heavens and the earth. Teachers and professors feared promoting evolution. My high school chemistry teacher laughed that “evolution is a faith.” Believing hokey and demeaning tales somehow made more sense than paying attention to a scientific theory among the most heavily tested and invulnerable to rejection. I’d wager that the debate surrounding it dwarfs the importance of the issue itself; enemies abound who’d remove science from education if it ever says anything that we don’t want to believe. Christian conservacana remains at the heart of the difficulty: not only is it demonic to believe the theory, satan deems a victory even our attempt to understand the evidence for it. It’s insane, and it bears repeating: believing what’s wrong will land you in hell, but even considering it demonstrates a lack of faith in one’s everlasting poise. I remember my high school calculus teacher bringing a hardback copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to his Sunday school class, only to find himself spurned by his fellow Christians.
Science presents a challenge; throughout my time with evangelical Christians, I discovered an emergent theme when we discussed the expertise of others: if one can find someone who claims wisdom transcending that of an educated sect, then that person becomes super cool. For instance, charlatans claiming medical knowledge with no degree screams that the whole of medicine is a conspiracy theory. Better yet, that person holds the answers the educated just can’t nab, no matter how many years they devote to learning. This opens the door for chiropractors, nutritionists, and massage therapists to assert their superiority. It may seem ridiculous to depend upon quacks in the face of genuine experiential knowledge, but the impersonal, cold medical establishment would not want to forfeit their reputation and salaries, or so the bullshit goes. It comes back to the ‘distant centralized government’ ruling us rather than democratizing highly prized skills. You want to be a doctor? No problem! Write a book about how your special medical knowledge hidden from the monolithic order can cure every sort of ailment.
Unfortunately, this extends to pretty much everything else. If schools won’t teach your kids all the Alex Jones style hysterics, then defund education. I could write for days about the fear of science, but it’s pretty simple: if I feel threatened because of others’ specialized capabilities, I must pretend to know something they don’t, then point out how they’ve failed.
This brings me back to another point here, namely that of the fraudulent American libertarian. We boasted of being apolitical, or moderate, or whatever the hell it was in those days. We bragged that we opposed cold, undemocratic governments who crushed us with regulation. We were saints, capable of standing apart. But the reality is more complex: we would have no road on which to stand, no car with which to schlep ourselves, no internet to spout worthless drivel, and little medical care of any value, if it weren’t for massive state spending. This remains one of the best kept secrets in America, for not even the so-called liberal journals discuss this with regularity. We didn’t hear anything about federal investments when I was a child. Instead, faith leaders bombarded us with the white straight business owner’s travail: he pays taxes only to have them stolen for the lazy poor. Science becomes a literal smash-and-grab; grab everything of value and derive its benefit, but fight to make its application impossible for others, smashing its foundations in education and funding dispersion from the government. Perhaps the most striking counterexample would be the military.
Worship of the military and all its efforts would be a core to evangelical Christianity as I knew it. God wanted us to destroy the brown people in the middle east, and his hand guided us when we scalped the continent here of its native presence. The constant attack of the big bad guvmint extended to the coveting of our freedoms by outsiders, especially the non-Christian ones. Pouring money into a machine of global violence didn’t really strike my faith leaders as strange, despite Christ’s consistent pacifist stance. We feared dispensing with it, so instead we’ve deified it. God wanted us to have the biggest tanks, airplanes, and weapons, so that’s why we have them. We’re under constant attack from everyone everywhere all the time, to quote the recent film title. So therefore, we should attack others first. Gog, Magog, and so on. I’d go on, but so much of what one should say, one has already said.
Clarence the Self-Loathing Thomas proclaimed in triumph that the SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage would be invalid, paving the road to “letting” states decide for themselves. Of course, he’d decide the opposite were it unrestricted gun access to everyone on every street corner in jeopardy–states can’t be trusted to apply his flavor of judicial activism. But we can utter “hypocrite” only so many times, before it leaves every hint of erudition nonsense. The evangelical Christians hate gays, and I know they do–I did, too. They’ll claim their love for the sinner, but it’s a lie. Exodus international provides a splendid example–humiliation and cruelty rather than compassion and healing. This of all the sociopathic pieces of the conservative platform leaves me the most wounded: I considered suicide when I was a teenager, because I couldn’t reconcile being gay with the world I inhabited. I was bullied endlessly in middle school and some in high school, and I’ve known of other gays from my high school years who’ve died in the twenty-four years since we graduated. I think about my archconservative family, and I can’t accept them or their viciously cruel, blind adherence to their platform.
We learned when I was a kid that gays were pedophiles, aiming to molest and convert all the rest of us. We knew of a few gays, and there was concern when we were around them. My first stepfather loved to parody “fags and niggers,” with a paltry comprehension of the genuine suffering of others. Gays were dangerous moral degenerates, to say nothing of deserving no protection. Cops beat a gay uncle of mine on more than one occasion. Kids bullied me, verbally and physically with teachers present, and it stood. I told an archconservative in my family that I’d fight for his right to marry. But it doesn’t matter. None of it. I remember an openly gay student a year or so ahead of me printing his essay on homosexuality in the computer science teacher’s room. He asked her what she thought, and she told him that she hated the sin but loved the sinner. And that god felt the same way. My brothers ridiculed gays. Then they wonder why I didn’t tell them.
The cost to trans and other vulnerable populations leaves me in tears. The last few years have been difficult, a chronic illness draining most of my wherewithal. My husband has cared for me, and I’ll be damned if someone tells me what we have is wrong. The only family members who cared for my elderly grandmother were gay. I spent time with my grandmother, caring for her rather than living independently, selfishly, and stupidly, like my heterosexual contemporaries. Now I’m tired.
Where We Go Next?
I started this post some weeks ago, deciding that the sneak peek into evangelical conservacana would be important for most outsiders understand. I’ve blogged in the past for several reasons, namely to promote and encourage methodical and well-documented analyses for technologists and other interested parties, to vent, to educate, and to leave behind a record of thought, however imperfect. Venting might be the chief category of this post, considering the personal and anecdotal nature of what I’ve written. But I didn’t start it that way. But I confess a weariness, a pain, an outrage with my own beautiful personal victory of marriage equality hanging by a thread. I started this article in the hopes of striking common ground with the people of my origin, but I don’t know whether it will be possible before the world ends. How does one reason with unreason? I don’t know that I could have learned what I’ve learned until the time was right. There must be a way forward together. But how? We inhabit worlds so divergent that we lose what little common history and culture we shared. I’m open to suggestions.
Numbers matter. I commenced this on December 7 of 2021, a day of intrigue for several reasons. As a child, I would have connected this day solely with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, described by Franklin Roosevelt to be “a date which will live in infamy.” More important to me is that December 7, 1928 was the day Noam Chomsky entered this world. And today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the debut of Democracy Now!, an independent media organization devoted to covering the news of the world largely omitted by the mainstream press. I’ve just returned from the Farewell Nichelle Nichols convention in Los Angeles, and though I’d consider the execution by Atomic an utter logistics disaster, I nonetheless met some awesome folks, including an ethnics studies professor, Marcelo Garzo Montalvo, his partner Zoila Lara-Cea, along with others, including Anne Burton, a physician and woman of color from Michigan. Our discussions throughout the weekend enlightened me greatly, furnishing common ground between indigenousness, color, and sexual orientation, a topic to which I’ll return later.
Five years ago, I started this blog with the aim, as stated earlier, to inform and hopefully prompt my fellow technologists to recognize and apply their collective power to better the world about us. Of course, the election of Trump coinciding with my inaugural post is by no means incidental–he has proven to be the most dangerous person in world history, to say nothing of the worst of American presidents. I’m hardly a fan of any of them, but his was an order of more terrible than all those preceding him.
But as I reflect on the past five years, I’m persuaded of the soundness of Stuart Stevens’ central argument: Trump was an aberration only in the brazenness of the cruelty, racism, and classism. One can trace the roots, at least in the modern GOP, to Barry Goldwater’s bid for the White House in 1964. Rather a shock to party insiders, Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, destroying black support for Republican politicians. Almost sixty years later, the Republicans maintain a narrow minority hold on the state sector, trumpeting exclusivism and hysteria with no articulated platform. Feral labels the party well.
Joe Biden managed to win the White House a year ago, claiming a few states typically thought to go to Republicans. It was a favorable achievement, and Biden chose to advance a saner climate policy than I ever expected. And yet the fifty republican senators represent 143 million people, while the fifty democratic counterparts represent 185 million, according to a piece in the Guardian released last March. That is, the republican half of the senate play surrogate for 44% of the population, while the other 56% contend with the democratic half. Pew Researchnumbers suggest that 44% of the population lean republican, while 49% lean democratic. Yet Mitch McConnell retains immense power, along with the skewed U.S. Supreme Court. I mentioned statistics on the past decades, namely forty years of presidential elections. In particular, Republicans assumed the White House in six out of the past ten quadrennial extravaganzas, though two of those elections lost them the popular vote, and the 2004 election remains rather suspicious, considering the brazen and vicious disenfranchisement of minority voting blocs in Ohio and other battleground states, a phenomenon documented exhaustively by investigative journalist Greg Palast. Palast doggedly researched racial disenfranchisement long before mainstream media decided to take interest in 2016 and 2020. I remember reading about the dilapidated polling equipment, last minute adjustments, early closures, and unreasonable wait times in poorer, generally more democratic districts. No major outlet, at least that I could find at the time, reported on this. Instead, they posed the heady question, “should Al Gore resign?” This was despite the fact that the Florida split of votes saw neither candidate with a statistically significant head. Yes, numbers matter. As a thought experiment, imagine that one hundred people participate in an election, and for greater simplicity, let us assume only two possible choices. Suppose one candidate receives 52 votes, the other 48. First, let’s consider the hypothesis that neither candidate enjoys a lead over the other among those who voted. Through the science that is statistics, we can show that the difference between votes tallied could be two or more some 68% of the time, meaning the votes leave us without a clear winner.
To complicate matters further, let’s say that eight percent of votes count the wrong direction one way, whereas only two percent count the other (the true differences are much more striking, but this example would demonstrate the quagmire nonetheless.) So the process is this–votes are tallied, then something random happens, shifting two percent one way and five the other. So in the expectation, if neither truly holds an advantage among voters, this random process, at expectation, leaves us with 56 to 44, even under the uniform hypothesis that each candidate should receive fifty percent of the votes. So it seems very clear that 52-to-48 tells us nothing about the true outcome.
This is, in fact, precisely how the system works. We know from decades of polling that people prefer, in general, progressive policy. We know that the Democratic party represents a broader coalition of voters than does the party of the space cadets. Even those from within the Republican party confess the narrowing of the tent. So numbers matter. Maybe not to everyone, but if we start from the axiom that democracy best functions among all forms of government, we cannot deem our biennial pantomimes to be true elections.
Matters are worse, to quote the pop culture bastion of wisdom, Yoda. The release of Facebook internal reports and memoranda by whistleblower Frances Haugen, reported by the New York Times, paints a frightening picture of the new national norm, something to which I can attest anecdotally from a recent visit to Texas, and to which I have long suspected. We live in a world of severely divergent narratives.
My personal experience with the narrative divergence has led to frightening discoveries. A cousin believes the world is, in fact, flat. An aunt, along with this cousin, believe that Hillary Clinton supports a child sex trafficking ring in Washington, and, newly brought to my attention, that she sacrifices and eats infants. These are not stupid people. I left my home state flabbergasted, questioning my perception of reality. I felt as though I’d never known these people. Thank goodness for the positive, spirited friends and family there.
I decided I must understand this divergence. And I think it’s pretty obvious, especially now that I’ve tested this metaphor on a few people, to applause. Consider we are living in the 1980s, and for most of us in America, we draw our news from papers, journals, periodicals, and, of course, television. Now, imagine that in 1984, a race of aliens descended, and through a series of machinations, purchased all media sources. And thenceforth, they would take the New York Times, for instance, and create two separate versions each day of the paper’s run. Half of subscribers would see one version, half would see the others. Now, the rub is that neither of two subscribers know that they’re receiving different versions. They only know that over time, people begin disagreeing on more and more commonsense and intuitive thinking. For one, it could be that Reagan was fitted with hearing aids, the other with glasses, but no mention of the other in either. These changes grow, and finally, after just a few years, people are prepared to kill one another under a delusion of understanding the world.
This is precisely where we are now. Only we replace the aliens’ collective mischief with the cancerous greed of multinationals, flush with cash while avoiding regulations. Facebook, now calling itself Meta to confuse its critics, places dwell time of its users ahead of the truth. So, if you click on links suggesting Hillary hankers for the blood of the aborted fetuses, the algorithms will feed you more and more slight variations on the topics of interest to you. This is true of all search algorithms running behind ads on the major search engines and social media. It takes little commonsense to understand this, but we now confront willful ignorance, flaunting of the elite media’s failure to deliver messages of real value to people. CNN may not fabricate as much as Fox, but it certainly neglected its duties leading into 2016.
The fearful among us find new terrors, the angry find more provocation, the hopeful more despair. The recent release Matrix Resurrections couldn’t have put it better: the Analyst, a character representing control, cheers weaponizing feelings in maintaining his ideal order over human beings. The same takes place within big technology, whether we in the sector want to believe it or not. Lana Wachowski and David Mitchell remain true to form, highlighting our frailties with blinding clarity and clever storytelling. My favorite movie remains Cloud Atlas, despite competition from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, Interstellar, The Shawshank Redemption, and Twelve Angry Men.
The new political spectrum, satirized recently by Robert Reich, raises a notion of “immodest moderation”, or appropriation of the unassuming label “moderate” to justify extreme positions. But Reich misses one of the more unpleasant realizations one can draw from the whole affair: “moderateness” has become the cult of the self. One of my acquaintances swears that Biden raped his daughter, that climate change is too politicized to lead to any reasonable conclusions, and that voter fraud is rampant. No evidence exists for these claims, but so long as one feels moderate, he need not question his perspective. After all, it means all things wise, and all things mad. It is the ultimate expression in our political economy of the obstinate misanthrope. It’s become more of a thing in recent years as we’ve watched the American political spectrum distort, as though one were examining it with a carnival funhouse mirror. I’ve heard Noam and others suggest for a long time. Returning to Reich, he has studied politics for fifty years, and his positions haven’t changed much. But the spectrum has shifted tremendously, letting the conspiracists and extremists lay their paws on normalizing labels. I think this follows from a very real human need to feel normal, to feel rational, to be correct. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t often feel the same way. To me, democracy, and commonsense economical thinking should go hand-in-glove with altruism, solidarity, egalitarianism, and anarcho-syndicalism. Are my views moderate? Are they normal? Are they rational? It can be a conceit, no matter how I might disguise it. My point is that one can find no value in thinking this way. It conveys virtually no information to proclaim my own correctness. Would I trumpet my own lies and vices? I just can’t think of a non-pathological person who professes to promote fabrications. Because of this bizarre shift in political perception, it leads to moderates opposing vaccination, something one couldn’t find in the history of such paradigm-busting medical advances. Their labels are lies, though they don’t necessarily know it. In fact, the most accomplished liars among us likely don’t know they’re doing it. To me, this self-deception sprays gasoline on an all-consuming fire, separating us, dividing us into our cult of self. Perhaps it’s just a pedantic observation, but so be it. Then again, statistician Nate Silver comments on the cult of moderation: independents and moderates believe everything. They may think of themselves as free-thinking, counting themselves among the very wise. But they’ll literally believe anything. Any conspiracy theory that affirms their claims to moderateness. Why am I not surprised?
Speaking of Noam, the man at ninety-three remains perhaps the world’s most important living mind; my uncle calls him the “secular Jesus,” a very high compliment. Few who live so long remain so productive, so dedicated to the causes he’s supported for most of a century. He could simply retire; goodness knows his many allies, myself included, would never fault him for taking the break he deserves. But instead, he continues. I’m loathed to paraphrase one of the most despicable men in the world to describe one of the most hallowed, but nevertheless, Noam persists. In recent work, he observes that anti-science evangelical fascism has never been so well-organized, despite antecedents persisting throughout American history. The RAND corporation remarks that fifty trillion dollars have been “transferred” from the bottom ninety percent of the population to the top in the past forty years. Numbers matter. Pew Researchin 2020 found that one in three Americans do not believe scientists ought play a role in policymaking. The Guardian reports that one in three republicans believe violence may be necessary to save America. Social collapse is what Noam calls this. The neoliberalism has destroyed household wealth for most of the country, and thus even the slightest cataclysm leads to bankruptcy. It seems insane that during the Great Depression, a time of great suffering and deprivation for Americans, those same Americans were hopeful, chasing social democracy. Noam observes that Europe fell to fascism while America ascended to a conscientious labor class democracy, yet the opposite seems to be happening now. Distrust among Americans remains severe; almost everywhere I go, those employees willing to remain in the service industry, drawing pitiful wages, feel the weight of caustic American customer egoism: if I pay you, I may abuse you. It’s heartbreaking, despite the tremendous wealth in our nation. These people suffer. And yet simple measures, outlined in the meager Build Back Better plan Biden submitted to Congress, may never see the light of day. One hundred percent of republican senators oppose paid maternity leave, astonishing, considering the sworn adherence to family values. Blow up Planned Parenthood, but starve the mommies and babies saved for the eternal hell most evangelicals see in their future. Two democratic senators, Joe Manchin, and Kyrsten Sinema, trumpet their immodest moderation, the cult of self, honoring the lobbies flooding them with cash, oppose Biden’s ever whittled Build Back Better; they so remind me of Susan Collins’ desperately self-aggrandizing speech on why she would support confirmation of an alleged rapist to the US Supreme Court. The narcissism of the moderate’s cult of self astounds, genuinely. Millions of Americans would benefit from these social programs. But do numbers matter if no one hears about them? If we do, in fact, commit omnicide, an alien species in the future may dig through our landfills to discover how many glass bottles we wasted. Robert Reich often speaks of the cost of doing nothing, reminding the so-called fiscal conservatives (an idiot moniker, considering the giveaway grab bag of limited liability, tax sheltering, IP, and all the other flows of cash into the pockets of shareholders) cannot even discuss the cost to the world if we fail to address the catastrophic climate change occurring around us. Jesus, everywhere I’ve lived in the past eleven years, four metropolitan areas, experienced the most intense weather in recorded history, just in the years I was there. Despite the hilariously convoluted word salad of professional moron Jordan Peterson, climate change is real. Peterson may very well be the most bizarre of right wing fetishes, for he professes everything, and nothing. His attitude is essentially, “how dare you claim to be able to study microbes, because telescopes don’t work for that.” Zeugmas abound, the mother’s resentment coupled with the rustle of enemies in the bushes behind you; Nathan Robinson offers a pretty good look at the immodest moderate philosopher. Peterson finds a home in disaffected white men, offering them solace in a world that despises them. They aren’t evil, after all. In fact, they’re victims too. Everything has been taken from the straight white man, for he didn’t earn the elite advantages on purpose. Admittedly, I once felt this way, though I can thank my lucky stars that being gay forced me to think differently. That and a marvelous handful of teachers: Clyde, Candy, Pat, you know who you are. Yet my high school counselor told me that white men were having a terrible time getting into colleges, and, oddly, I believed her at the time.
Five years of blogging make me wonder whether the form reaches anyone. It’s unfair to say it is ignored, for the stats suggest something else. But early last year, I suffered with COVID cognitive fog, and I discovered one thing I could do without my once powerful memory and power to focus helping me along: fiction. I decided to write a novel. I wrote short stories as a kid, and a few stories for a creative writing course in college, but that was it. For twenty years, in fact, I’ve written only nonfiction. I thought of the best of Star Trek, a vehicle for social commentary set in a fantastic future in which humans, by and large, act upon their better angels. I decided to place my novel in said universe, sequelizing the confusing yet raw Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. What began as an idea on describing the Trump cult phenomenon in a the fictional heavenly twin golden worlds of Novis Prime and Novis Lumid became a trilogy of novels, Star Trek: The Revenant of the Soul. Of course, publishing a Star Trek novel would prove nearly impossible in a first pass, so I’ve devoted the past four months to writing another novel, one I hope to submit for publication soon; it is a book that examines the contemporary world, superimposing upon it my own conspiracy theory. Hell, it’s as plausible as anything else. The point would be that fiction may be the best means of communicating ideas. I once thought that only a well-lived life could supply the makings of a good story. Four decades and change might well be that. We’ll have to see what happens.
At the very least, I aim to cover some interesting topics this year, with interviews of my cousin Carlos Robinson, an up and coming labor leader in public education, and with my uncle Charles Slagle, the liberal evangelist, and more. The aim here is in helping sides understand one another; there isn’t going to be a shootout at the OK Corral that resolves differences between the willfully ignorant and timid optimists. Violence almost always galvanizes opposition, and our society is fraying, racing to a precipice of trinitarian maladies: nuclear destruction, civil war, and ecological collapse. All three may happen, and even one will spell doom. Five years feels like a long time. I’m hopeful that 2022 might lead to some real change.
I’d like to offer a very special thanks to my dear friends S. Kelly Gupta, Noam Chomsky, George Polisner, and Dean Baker for offering feedback and promoting my article. Noam, George, and Dean are fantastic activists who tirelessly expose oppression.
Very powerful piece. And very well documented. Should have a powerful impact. I didn’t know about your background. Gives you a unique perspective to understand what is happening in the evangelical movement, now with quite considerable influence in the US and elsewhere.
Almost four years ago, I formed this blog, in a general sense, to meet the existential challenge of Trump’s seeming upstart electoral college victory; more specifically, I’ve aimed to better inform fellow technologists of the gravity and historical context of said threat. We now approach what I consider to be the most important election of my lifetime, likely more important than any election since Franklin Roosevelt’s triumph over Hoover in 1932, or even Abraham Lincoln’s victory over Douglas in 1860. With each passing year of the Trump carnival, the probabilities of descent survival for the species have dwindled: the most recent year confronts us with the most serious challenges of all. No president has ever been so woefully inadequate, lacking of moral fiber, and devoid of understanding in his own policy positions, save reversing the meager but respectable civil rights and social victories gained during Barack Obama’s tenure. Catastrophic climate change ravages the land, with fire in the west, wind and water in the east, and the slow cooker that is becoming the atmosphere offered perhaps the highest temperatures recorded on land since the beginnings of accurate measurement: 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Trump’s own department of transportation concedes that emission standards will, in fact, partially address climate change; and the report’s recommendation? REVERSE all emission restrictions. I daresay I’ve never heard of such omnicidal whimsy from an agency in the government; yes, omnicide is very real, and very possible (I first read the word in Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, a book to which I’ll return below.) Denial, yes, but never acknowledgment but insistence in destroying the world. There’s more, as Trump’s regulatory approach monumentally dismisses hard-fought victories by environmentalists and scientists, in some cases continuing the neoliberal program of laying pipeline in indigenous lands, destroying water sources, continuing a long tradition of imperialist violence. I digress.
A pandemic has massacred at least million people worldwide, with 215,000 Americans among them. Eight million Americans are infected, with the most colossally inept American response imaginable. The economy is in ruins thanks to this same ineptitude. And Trump himself pronounces victory in augmentatives one might expect to hear from a demented spoiled child. “Beautiful,” “wonderful,” “terrific,” like the sleaziest used car salesman you might meet. So who is to blame? The twenty percent of the electorate committed to supporting him unconditionally? The congressional republicans, who with little exception have enabled his every whim, despite declaring him to be a con man, fraud, cheat, liar, and so on? The DNC who ran a deeply unpopular candidate in 2016 after shafting the more popular Bernie Sanders, not once, but now TWICE, despite his actively campaigning for their pick once the contest ends? The Russian oligarchs blamed for electioneering? The debtors to whom Trump owes $400M? I’m reminded of an adage–
whom much is given, much will be required
I think the answer lies primarily within traditional power centers : concentrations of capital, a political class owned by the capital class, complicit media, and so on. Contextualizing more specifically, I believe the aforementioned neoliberal program, deregulation, and the ensuing dissolution of social and public institutions are responsible for a newfound suspicion of science, the academy, and the like. Not all of the suspicion is unfounded; the academy has left out much of the population, despite some substantive inclusive overtures on the part of university leadership. Anti-science is perhaps more organized than ever before, with a punditocracy and political elites disparaging higher education regularly. Fox News seems endlessly on the case of some liberal professor somewhere publicly dressing down students who support Trump, though one seldom hears the reverse situation. Said aversion to science has crescendoed, with Pew publishing numbers earlier this year suggesting that republicans still just don’t get catastrophic climate change; and neither party’s leadership seems to understand the omnicidal consequences of nuclear proliferation. Either danger is existential, much more so even than the coronavirus pandemic, though only climate cataclysm seems to receive any mainstream press. We’ll do one better here, with one more pass on the economy, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and badly needed affirmation of the better parts of our species. Let’s first “say it like it is,” as a late friend of my late grandmother once said, with a brief discussion of terminology.
Rather than thinking imbecilically “left” and “right,” consider a more nuanced appreciation for policy. In fact, all of these terms: moderates, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians are utterly devoid of meaning. What passes for conservative now is, in many respects, just outer space. Moderates are the conservatives of yesteryear, capable of considering the government and markets to be tools, with suitable roles in day-to-day life. Today’s so-called liberals, as Hillary may be described, is no more than a moderate in disguise. Bernie Sanders is no left-wing crackpot: his policy positions are quite compatible with the mainstream of America’s 1930s and 1940s. But the cartoonish Red Scares in 1917 and 1947 painted thinking people in America, namely socialists (recall, Karl Marx of the eponymous Marxism was a very learned and respected economist) as conspirators with Bolshevism. It’s well-understood that the U.S. government painted Bolshevism the color of socialism to denigrate the latter. Bolshevists accepted the category to legitimize their vicious totalitarianism.
How do we begin to address the nightmarish flow of guns into our schools, parks, and churches? NRA fanatics might be surprised to learn that the organization itself began as a gun safety and use program. Now, with decades of deafening paranoia swirling about an increasingly bankrupt, increasingly unhealthy population, gun rights activists in the so-called mainstream (again, watch for changes in language) argue that a Biden victory will rob them of their God-given right to own countless guns. The latter would be laughable, were it not for the school shooting statistics, fifty-seven times that of the other comparable countries combined–288 for the US versus two in Canada. I’m reminded of Emerson’s hobgoblin when I hear these gun nuts argue that we owe our freedoms to guns, a fantasy promoted even in grammar school when I was a kid. Zinn, recently singled out by Trump in his conspiratorial histrionic denigration of American history teachers, argued powerfully that our freedoms broaden along a trajectory of victory for American labor. If guns played a role, generally they were in the hands of the National Guard, the Pinkertons, and scabs attacking mostly peaceful protests. In any case, the Second Amendment, apparently more sacred than the Ten Commandments, reads that
[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Constitution of the United States of America, Amendment II
It ought be clear that the amendment doesn’t refer to anarchist gun possession, as the first clause says: “a well regulated Militia.” Then, in Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the Supreme Court held, for the first time ever, that this second amendment magically no longer applies to regulated militias, but rather individual possession. Justices closely huddled with the Federalist Society, a self-described advocacy group for those panicky lone ranger conservatives unhappy with the imagined liberal orthodoxy of the legal profession about them, abandoned their feigned textualism and originalism with a permanent reinterpretation. Textualism, it would seem, served the late Antonin Scalia well, except when it didn’t. As Noam Chomsky often says, if we really want to understand the intent of the Founding Fathers, we can simply read the meeting minutes of the Constitutional Convention, discussed in Klarman’s The Framer’s Coup. Very few Americans would find the motivations to be anything less than repellant, as the U.S. Constitution was an instrument to retain state power for the white, male, landed gentry. The rest of the population, the focus of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, confronted hostility in often horrific ways. Washington, for instance, ordered the slaughter of the Iroquois with the destruction of over forty villages, earning him the title “Town Destroyer,” a moniker he brandished proudly. In any case, no matter one’s interpretation of the second amendment and the more prominently leveraged tenth amendment, firearms of the 1780s could fire only once every fifteen seconds, and that’s if its wielder could reload very quickly. Contrast that with even modern handguns, and it seems impossible to believe the founders would have supported such unrestricted power.
Trump may believe that American history teachers ought tell only the good stories, and maybe only the good stories are true. I doubt seriously that Trump has ever had any decent historical dressings-down, not that it would matter.
Historical accuracy is essential to democracy–there have been desperately dark days in the history of America, as the continental expansion was a veritable bloodbath in the extirpation and extermination of the indigenous population, the vicious enslavement of Africans, and centuries of oppression of women, other people of color, and homosexuals, a group whose history seldom reaches mainstream press, but enjoys an excellent treatment in Eric Cervini’s The Deviant’s War. And yet the past six decades exhibit a civilizing of society unlike anything in history. Despite the occasional regression, we’ve made tremendous progress. The eye uncritical of history succumbs to the same tropes, or so the adage goes. Democracy makes sense mostly in the context of a well-informed citizenry, and denying the sins of our forefathers not only betrays the memory of their victims, but the dignity of any station we occupy.
Trump inherited a growing economy still thrumming from considerable state actions undertaken by the Obama administration. I’m no Obama apologist, as I feel his reforms in saving banks and industries rather than workers was a grisly failure, but without federal intervention, the economy would have crashed altogether. Over thirty years of the neoliberal program, capital flight, deregulation, ghastly military misadventures all led to a financial crisis in 2008, a mess left to the democrats to solve. Obama’s administration managed to reverse many of the negative trends, with the introduction of some regulations and an infusion of federal revenue to salvage the financial sector, though neither banker nor broker faced any criminal charges for morally (and ultimately financially) bankrupt damage done. The International Monetary Fund actually assigns profitability of these American banks a number solely based upon the “too big to fail” government insurance policy, ridiculed by serious economists such as Dean Baker.
Trump believes he, and he alone, rescued a tanked economy–he’s simply taking credit for the work of others, and it should be as plain as that. Trump’s psychosis, something to which we’ll return shortly, is perfectly compatible with such a delusion.
More important for my libertarian conservative readers, it bears repeating again and again–the conservative nanny state, so eloquently described by the same economist Dean Baker, is essential in maintaining a robust, technology-driven economy; corporations aren’t naturally occurring agents, but legal fictions, constructed to concentrate wealth further into fewer pockets. Deregulation is a dog-whistle for “socialism for me, capitalism for you.” One cannot point to any dynamic sector of the economy whose interplay with the fed is minimal.
Trump supremely serves as a grotesque exemplar, having suckled from the government’s myriad udders for most of his life, committing likely a litany of financial crimes along the way. Of course, he’s cashed in as president, golfing gazillions of times, expensed foreign dignitaries out of his own hotels, and leveraging his position to sweeten deals with foreign markets into which he heretofore has been unable to seep his wretched corruption. Again, he owes $400M. Could it be money owed to Putin? I very much dislike the Russian interference thread for reasons I’ll describe soon, but it does make one wonder.
As you probably read this, a Manhattan district attorney is preparing a case against Trump of perhaps tremendous significance–can a former president of the United States face jail time for crimes committed? Trump admitted at a recent rally that he may “have to leave the country” if he loses the election. Good riddance, I say. Better yet, run, then face extradition.
The business community, largely behind Trump but hedging for Biden, carries the so-called “national interest,” while the rest of us are “special interests.” The reputable Brookings Institute published income numbers suggesting that the top one percent owns 29% of all wealth in the U.S., more than the middle class combined. The top permille is problematic, draining resources and exploiting labor abroad; Thomas Piketty, renowned French economist, warns that we are fast approaching a economic tipping point, as the majority of wealth will be inherited. In The Disinherited Majority, sociologist Charles Derber editorializes the progressive implications to Piketty’s more facts-and-figures approach in Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.
The bottom line is that the widening economic chasm in this Second Gilded Age leads, not unexpectedly, to disaster. As one can see from the charts above, growing stock market numbers correlate with greater inequality, despite virtually universal claims of the opposite from mainstream press, punditocracy, and politicians. Worse yet, massive debt and no savings has poised the American workforce, the disabled and elderly, and the hopelessly impoverished, for catastrophe now that a recession is fully underway, for reasons to which we’ll return.
The middle class is an aberration in history’s global economy, owing its very life and soul to powerful government intervention in the economy, principally through New Deal legislation promoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt, with staggering public support. And even Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first republican president in twenty years following Roosevelt and Truman, whole-heartedly supported these reforms, going so far as to suggest that opponents of said achievements have no place in the political arena. And these reforms are significantly more liberal than virtually all official policy positions of today’s clintonian Democratic party. If it weren’t for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, we likely wouldn’t be discussing the visceral cause behind the crumbling economy, the lack of healthcare, overblown and outrageous college tuition, joblessness, and catastrophic climate change–greed. “Greed is good” was a mantra suggested by Michael Douglas’s character in Wall Street, so American we ought emblemize it on the flag. With Trump hugging it, anything is possible.
I’ve heard Christian conservatives argue that 401ks are all that matters, and that capitalism is somehow God’s economic philosophy, a claim which ought ring abominable to true believers. Jesus Christ, the key figure of the faith, was a communist, plain and simple. Unbridled hypocritical capitalism, by contrast, is a vicious dogma decried as such by textile workers of the 1890s, in the tradition of Adam Smith’s “vile maxim“:
[a]ll for our-selves, and nothing for other people.
A thread of Trump mania I find most disturbing, yet perhaps retrospectively not surprising is the broad cover and support Trump enjoys from the evangelical movement. The man lies daily in his tweets and interviews, his moral failings are endless, and his fascist rallies conjure the darkest dealings of Weimar Germany. Why am I surprised? Hitler emerged dictator in 1933, welcomed by Germans as a “positive Christian” liberator. Carl Sagan suggests in The Demon-Haunted World that the danger of religion is the fundamental lack of agency into self-inquiry of an existential sort. That is to say, one cannot conduct scientific experiments into religious dogma beyond the purview of historians.
Trump’s escapades include paying off porn stars, viciously attacking women, promoting and celebrating racism, taking steps to ban religion (namely Islam), banning transgendered service people from the military, and on and on. Are these truly the values of Christians? My aunt and uncle were traveling evangelists for over thirty years, with a decade of retirement work behind them. They’re still active, but they’re astonished at the support their contemporaries bestow on the most fallen person ever to hold the office of presidency. Many actually have suffered COVID, and yet their support, astonishingly enough, is unflagging. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors, according to The Atlantic. They pray for him, despite the evil that surrounds him. It isn’t a surprise to me that leading evangelical Jerry Falwell, Jr. has epically tumbled from gauzy grace, embroiled in hilarious sex scandals involving an extra man in his bedroom. In his newly-released book It Was All a Lie, former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens argues in his book that some of the most antigay staffers in republican think tanks are gay themselves, penning histrionic letters to supporters about the dangers homosexuals pose to children. There are too many cases to consider here, but my husband assures me that closeted gays firing their internalized homophobia outward are more dangerous than the run of the mill straight homophobe, as an illusional sexual orientation becomes a fixture of the former’s identity; it’s not to say the latter aren’t dangerous, but the former become more psychologically compromised in their reaction formation.
Returning to the Trumpian evangelicals at large, my uncle argues, convincingly I think, that the doctrine of endless punishment at the very least provides spiritual cover for the aforementioned vulgar promotion of self. Oscar Romero, a Jesuit priest, was murdered in El Salvador in 1980 for promoting within Vatican II and preaching from the pulpit the “preferential option for the poor.” The right-wing dictatorship and its backing by the Carter administration couldn’t tolerate a man so close to the heart of Jesus, an extension of Kissinger’s “contagion to be contained” in the 1973 ouster of Chile’s Allende, or rather democracy. Allende’s ouster and murder on September 11 of that same year is known in South America as the “first nine-eleven.”
I digress further, it seems. I grew up in the evangelical tradition, and save the folks in our circle, it was convenient to place outsiders in the category headed for hell. My uncle observes and promotes universal reconciliation, an increasingly popular doctrine which happened to be the framework for faith of the original church fathers, when the cross represented the poor and the wretched rather than the shield of vicious Roman imperialism, as Chomsky eloquently puts it. How is it possible these people can support Trump? Trump claims to be Christian, complete with hilariously stupid and offensive Bible photo-ops in the midst of having ordered violence upon Black Lives Matter activists protesting the brutal extrajudicial murder of black men and women by police across the nation. He actually says that he has never had to ask God for forgiveness for his sins, a core tenet of the Christian catechism–give me a fucking break! Are these people so inured and starry-eyed that they cannot detect a serpent in their midst? So why should extrajudicial killings bother Trump? He openly calls for violence against black prisoners, and tweets that the fanatics ought “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” no doubt a partial motivation for the recent plot by right wing lunatics to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, namely for the “crime” of restricting social gatherings and school openings to protect Michigans from COVID. In response, Trump simply tweeted what a terrible governor Whitmer is. Apparently, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia also was a possible target of the extremist group. Videos emerged of these folks practicing with their machine guns, posing in ways that would do Hitler proud. QAnon seems to figure prominently, a right wing organization utterly persuaded that pedophiles in the democratic party intend to enslave American whites and destroy Trump. Trump claimed in his recent townhall to know nothing about them, then within two sentences uttering a statement indicative of someone familiar with their work.
Christians are supposed to follow the teachings of tolerance and love, and Trump offers neither in any capacity. He is a crass, vicious, womanizing racist rending a canyon of human wreckage in the wake of his personal and business dealings, even before becoming president. In the role of chief administrator, he fans the flames of the most dangerous among the religionists, with Islam-based bans, anti-choice jurist appointments, bans on transgendered servicepersons in the military, and on and on; he ridicules these same fanatics behind closed doors, but they are steadfast, now whipped into a frenzy that Joe Biden will ban religion and rise to a position of dictator. Trump, by contrast, is the modern King David, flawed but nonetheless God’s preferred instrument. The lunacy of this comparison is laid bare when we apply Sagan’s earlier critique of religion: most of its manifestations preclude any serious contemplation of God’s will. It rains today, even if my crops drown, because God wills it. A drought is also God’s will, driving thousands to starvation. It also is his tool. Trump is good because they say he is. Why doesn’t this seem to apply to Biden? Or better yet, Obama, a man whose presidency exposed suffocating roots of racism, gnarled and twisted deeply into a nation’s soul.
Personal responsibility has long been the bugle call of the republican party, a fatuous jingle to the parody that is American libertarianism. The religious fanatics remain steadfast in their sneering cynicism at human nature, clutching Ayn Rand and claiming the world is lost; only in the purity of Christianity is one saved. And yet Trump’s modus operandi is to accuse the opposition of his own sins, repeatedly and repeatedly. And not just generally. He cites his EXACT transgressions, then casts them upon Biden. It’s astonishing to watch. Trump’s chums in the media, such as bloated Chris Chrystie and creepy Rick Santorum, lap it up, pronouncing Trump the grand victor with a strong case made. I found myself scratching my head thinking, “what case?” It is quite evident that the man cannot tell the truth, yet I hear rumblings that his policies are somehow superior to what the Radical with a capital “r” Biden intends for us. Trump joked that they’d support him even if he shot a person on Fifth Avenue; I’d add that Biden could rescue a bus of orphaned children from being hit by a car on the same avenue, and they’d still hate him. Religious icon Pat Robertson claims that God assured him of Trump’s 2020 victory, and war on Israel will follow shortly, along with an asteroid strike and the conclusion of history. I suppose we should ignore the earlier apocalyptic predictions by this modern-day Nostradamus. It’s astonishing this jack-o’-lantern retains any platform at all, and I suspect if there is a God up there, she dreads the day good old Pat comes knocking. Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so shocked. The most strident amongst the hyper-religious often fall from grace, and fall hard indeed. I’m no apologist for Christianity, and these are the merest sample of scandals about which I’ve heard. They’re likely grains of sand on a beach–claims of salvation and conversion ought be treated with the same scientific rigor we treat a new theory.
I suppose Jesus, fictional or not, said it best,
[t]he sons of the world are for their own generation wiser than the children of light.
Racism, Classism, Electioneering, Textualism, and Constitutional Maximalism
Racism in the United States is alive and well. Blacks constitute thirteen percent of the population, yet over half of the hundreds of extrajudicial police killings here are blacks. Forty percent of persons incarcerated in America are black. What explains these skewed numbers? We’ve discussed somewhat the period of Reconstruction subsequent to the Civil War (as though there’s anything civil about war), and how the North-South Compact of 1877 essentially restored the right of states to enslave blacks. I’d refer one to A People’s History, as before, to understand better the period. Jim Crow became the umbrella policy of states hellbent on disenfranchising and torturing the black community, complete with lynching, chain gangs, theft of property, and so on. CNN recently discussed the 1921 massacre of blacks in Tulsa, an event left out of Oklahoma history books. Much of my family originated from the Red River region, about the Texas and Oklahoma border. None of them, to my knowledge, had ever learned about the tragedy, a devastating example of said Jim Crow.
With the incredible work of black activists, particularly in the 1930s, and with the rather massive deficit for labor following the Second World War, blacks achieved the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, wealthy racist provocateurs have viciously counterattacked the hard-fought gains of blacks, as we’ll discuss more below. Michelle Alexander discusses this second wave of racist policy in The New Jim Crow.
[l]isten to Abraham Lincoln over here… You’re a dog whistle the size of a fog horn.
Trump has courted racists with his attacks on black athletes, his insistence of the guilt of the Central Park Five even after a rather clear debunking, he traipses with grotesqueries the like QAnon, Proud Boy, and InfoWars, contradicting his own intelligence agencies by declaring Antifa and so-called “left” wing groups more dangerous than the right wing organizations of which he then pretends to know nothing. He defends white supremacist murderers while assassinating left-wing provocateurs with no trial or arrest, going so far as to brag about the lack of necessity of attempting arrest. Even as I write this, I simply cannot believe my eyes and ears. Extremists plot to kidnap and extrajudicially execute governors, and Trump demands that his followers must “liberate Michigan,” bashing the governor despite the frankly inconceivable cover he provides for psychopaths.
Trump insisted that his accomplishments for the black and brown community dwarf that of any American president, with the possible exception of Lincoln himself; Vox rather strongly suggests the opposite. His business dealings in the 1970s and 1980s were bitterly racist. He tacitly and not-so-tacitly supports white supremacist groups, insists with virtually no proof that Mexicans and others at the southern border are rapists and murderers, insults Black Lives Matter protestors and victims of vicious police killings, outlaws Muslims through travel bans, rips babies from mothers at the southern border, disparages the Chinese because of the origin of COVID, demands suburban women support since he “saved your damn neighborhood” by reversing anti-racist housing orders from the Obama administration, and on and on.
When confronted, true to form, he blames others for the negative aspects of his policy. Further, his appointments to the federal judiciary are far right ideologues determined to eliminate legislation and policy intended the make the life of the voter easier. For instance, SCOTUS ruled just this week that states can bar curbside voting, a method of voting offered in Texas and Alabama to aid elderly and disabled who are concerned about COVID. The majority, led by the usual suspects, offered zero (!) explanation for their decision. Their intent couldn’t be more obvious, if one considers that more voter participation diminishes chances of a republican victory. Further, two of the justices are Trump appointments, and the chief justice John Roberts has long hoped to eliminate the Voting Rights Act, as we’ll discuss below.
Over five decades, the most wealthy magnates among us rallied around the infamous Powell memorandum, assembling rightwing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise, and the Cato Institute. These organizations, along with the aforementioned Federalist Society, have sought through judicial activism and constitutional maximalism to wrest democratic controls away from the remaining population of the country. Rightwing exclusivists faced a crushing defeat with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, convincingly argued by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot to be the most significant civil rights piece of legislation in all Americana, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together with the unusually liberal Warren Supreme Court, these elements of government weakened the influence of the ancestors of today’s antebellum hardball Mitch McConnell, and the suspiciously confirmed bachelor Lindsay Graham, his compatriot Jeff Sessions, and the hysteric from Louisiana, John Kennedy (not to be confused with the political dynasty).
Stevens argues further, convincingly I believe, that the Republican party faced a crisis of demographics in the 1960s; blacks who managed to overcome the vicious Jim Crow obstacles to the ballot entrusted themselves to the party of Lincoln, not the party of Davis. But the Great Depression broadened the coalition that was the Democratic party, entreating blacks for the very first time. Eleanor Roosevelt secured the black vote while her husband Franklin assured, disingenuously, southern white democrats that reforms on behalf of said blacks would be slight. It turns out that it simply would not have mattered, as the republicans offered no solutions to the economic and ecological crises of the 1930s. Stevens mentions that Barry Goldwater’s refusal to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964 cut black votes for republicans to an abysmal seven percent.
Southern democrats, sharply disillusioned by integration of the schools, increasingly successful protests by blacks long denied the franchise, the lack of a clear racist leader outside of Strom Thurmond’s unsuccessful bid for president in 1948, and other artifacts of an increasingly inclusive and open society, found a home in Goldwater’s party.
Nixon cemented this migration with his southern strategy, a program of so-called “law and order,” the far right correspondent to the alarming civil rights gains of the 1960s. Under COINTELPRO, Nixon’s espied and assassinated civil rights leaders, flimsily justified to secure us from vicious Soviet influence. Southern racists approved. By 2000, democrat Al Gore couldn’t carry his own state of Tennessee.
Stevens observes that Goldwater left the Republicans at a fork in the road, one clearly high, the other clearly low. The high road, when confronted by an increasingly diverse electorate, is to broaden the tent, so to speak. The low road is to neutralize the diversity with harmful policy. The Republicans obviously took the low road, and by now, they’re scraping the gutter. I’ve long been aware of voter intimidation and illegal purging of voter rolls, as Katherine Harris infamously purged tens of thousands of black voters from Florida rolls in 2000 for her boss JEB Bush–his brother, affectionately known as W., won the state by 541 votes after the Supreme Court, along ideological lines, illegally halted recounts on a pretext so flimsy they themselves admitted that the legal logic would never apply again. And the highly contentious reading happened in the presence of arch-textualists, or jurists sufficiently self-deluded as to be aware of the mental state of the author of the constitutional words. George W. Bush lost the popular vote, and had recounts proceeded, he would have lost the election. It seems strange to me now that the corporate media refused to inquire whether Katherine Harris had played fast and loose with election law, and that the court’s finding was accepted so swiftly. Within three years, we were embroiled in endless wars in the middle east following the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Though I find nothing plausible in the conspiracy theory that Bush perpetrated the attack, the charge of negligence ought stick. When we learned that Bush and his cronies had lied to us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (something I knew was a lie at the time, as every reputable intelligence agency, including our own, dutifully reported), media said, “tough shit–at least in three hundred days there will be an election.” By contrast, Gingrich and his raving mad Contract with America impeached Clinton for having an affair with an intern, despite his own ongoing affair with his intern while his wife received chemotherapy. He divorced her in the midst of her illness, marrying his mistress.
In any case, I began digging after my own frustration at the obvious tilted coverage in the media, with journalists posting misleading headlines to minimize Gore’s margin of victory. I even emailed several editorialists around the country, and the response I received was akin to, “Thanks for the interest, kid. Yes, more people intended to vote for Gore than Bush, but if they ruined their ballots, that’s tough shit; never mind we say in the headline, ‘Gore’s Victory in Category X Wasn’t So Hot’.” In doing more research, I eventually discovered the work of investigative reporter Greg Palast, and his most recent book, How Trump Stole the 2020 Election, is a must-read for anyone concerned with the ongoing election. I was aware of Diebold machine malfunctions, the higher percentage of ballot spoilage in machines in poor districts, the unreasonable polling hours, locations, vicious racist gerrymandering, and accessibility, along with the election ALWAYS occurring on a work day, but Palast unearths much, much more. From his perspective, no republican candidate has legitimately won the electoral college or popular vote since George HW Bush’s victory in 1988. And yet six of the nine supreme court justices joining the court over that same period were nominated by republicans; the number will be seven in ten if Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation takes place on McConnell’s timetable; think about that for a moment. Bush Sr.’s term from 1989 to 1993 constitutes 12.5% of the total time since his victory, but the republicans have managed the unthinkable : a 70% control on SCOTUS. The court stole the election in 2000, perfectly down ideological lines, so why not 2020? Trump admitted his plan to petition the court for an election victory, hence the need to replace centrist Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a greenhorn of despicable credentials. A common refrain here would be that I cannot imagine Obama or even Bush W. succeeding in such shenanigans. McConnell and Graham, resolute in their objection to Obama appointing to the high court his selection Merrick Garland so close to an election, that being February of 2016, suddenly offer no apology for fast-tracking Barrett less than five weeks before this election. Even more critical are the hundreds of lower court vacancies left in place by the republican-controlled Senate, intent on delivering those seats to candidates nominated by a republican president. At least the electioneering receives national press now, albeit very late in the game. John Roberts recently ruled with a tied vote that Pennsylvania ought have time to tally votes, yet his career is a crusade to destroy the Voting Rights Act with reckless abandon. Noam Chomsky, Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman, and Palast appeared here together to survey his Palast’s findings.
Congressionally, the game is constitutional maximalism, or the maximal use of constitutional authority according to the letter, but NOT the spirit of the law. McConnell, in his bellowing repugnant drawl, suggests that “divided guhvahmint” was the obstacle then, despite clearly arguing differently at the time. Graham loves the role of hypocrite, having denounced Trump, then declaring himself a Trump lapdog after the sham that was the 2016 election.
So what’s the solution? The court represents an institution of enormous power, with lifetime terms and near unconditional and unchecked determination of the future of American democracy. Sheldon Whitehouse spent his thirty minutes for questions to Barrett instead on presenting the dark money behind a cabal of affluent conservatives hell-bent on owning the court. He makes a compelling case, demonstrating that the coming six-to-three majority is the living dream of corporate America, with increasing hostility to women’s reproductive rights, marriage equality, union and labor interests, the environmental movement, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor; the court is a darling of corporate power, presuming and furthering the doctrine of corporate personhood. Barrett, at the tender age of 48, could serve on the court for four to five more decades, factoring in the near-certain advances in senescence reversal, a lifetime legacy. It’s bad enough that one of Trump’s three nominees, Brett Kavanaugh, was accused of rape by a former classmate, and the republicans skirted the issue, just as they did in the case of Clarence Thomas way back when. Seems fitting that Bush Sr., Thomas, Trump, and Kavanaugh are all men accused of sexual misdeeds. Are they guilty? No one has stopped long enough to credibly try to investigate, and the short answer is that these men of power must ascend, with haste directly proportionate to the crimes alleged.
So what are some solutions to an institution so powerful, unaccountable, and indefinitely kinking the flow of progress? We’ll come to that below. Suffice it to say, enumerating the challenges, existential and otherwise, is nontrivial. For instance, what does our planet look like in 2060, when a Justice Barrett reaches the age of 88? We have some alarming readings in the tea leaves. Maybe there won’t be a world to worry about…
Since the 1970s, man-made changes to ecosphere have been of increasing interest to scientists, though the precise mechanisms were becoming clear to researchers in the late nineteenth century. It should come as a great surprise that Exxon scientists studied climate warming in the 1970s, only to later bury and disavow the same research. To this day, they deny even the denial, pressing hilariously flimsy critiques of ExxonKnew, the preeminent source of many of the controversies. Al Gore argued decades ago that human-caused climate change could destroy the world, yet no administration in the forty years of very obvious warming trends have seriously heeded the call. Bush Jr. dropped his carbon regulatory promise out of the gate, with no pretext. Obama could have declared climate change a national threat, overriding Congress in allocating monies to build a green infrastructure. Hillary Clinton only took the issues seriously thanks to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Trump is the first person to occupy the White House to deny the science altogether. And yet his department of transportation issued a report admitting that climate change is real, and a byproduct of industrialization, but nonetheless repealed emission standards, conceding defeat literally. In a move so callous and murderous, I cannot imagine the man escaping the International Court of Justice–Trump withholds funds badly needed by California to combat the wildfires, despite California’s significant contribution to federal revenue. He claims, ridiculously, that the fires are the fault of the “forest management” rather than a lack of coherent policy on climate change. I’m reminded of his commentary on the passing of civil rights great John Lewis, as Trump stated multiple times, “he didn’t come to my inauguration.” His commentary here might as well read, “California didn’t vote for me, so I won’t help them.” Trump’s mental state is a topic to which we’ll return. Trump insists that blue states fail in all respects, despite the poorest and nearly reddest states, Mississippi and Kentucky, soaking the federal government tremendously. Stevens says forty percent of Mississippi’s state budget flows directly from Washington. In any case, denialism remains hot in Trump circles, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that man-made climate change poses an existential threat, evinced by myriad models such as this one from MIT‘s own Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.
[c]limate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. […] Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.
Worldwide Threat Assessment, 2019
Carl Sagan warned of a world in which the fantasy occult fascinate us more than the occult discoverable through science. The original pilot of the television science fiction series Star Trek featured a race of beings so preoccupied with dreams that they “gave up, forgetting how to repair the machines left behind by their ancestors.” In a world of technological wonder, it’s quite miraculous how few of us understand even the basics of the global economy, or where most scientific research dollars come from, or how rural electrification, dams, radio, automobiles, aircraft, the computer, the internet, all deeply transformative technologies, were state-supported ventures. I find myself referring back to history–how can we understand where we are now without knowing where we were?
There is a concerted effort by lobbyists, the corporate stooges holding the leashes of many senators and representatives, to direct misinformation on climate change to the population. The academy has let down the poor and the working class, often siding with the would-be liberal internationalists of the neoliberal program. In the parlance of George Monbiot, we’re missing a narrative to guide us out of the darkness. Ghosts and demons happily assume that vacuum, just as Sagan feared. So the population, goaded by modern day imbecilic Pinkertons such as Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and others, succumbs to the industrialist values of self-loathing and mutual suspicion, finding enemies foreign and domestic, distrusting science, logic, reason, and anything more than bare emotionalism. Powell argued in his memorandum that the ivory intelligentsia has designs on the business community’s private property, and that liberal intellectuals are fueling the radical socialism they place alongside Stalin (then Khrushchev)’s Soviet Russia, a totalitarian state. The hatred of scientists and educators follows a long thread from the southern whites opposed to school integration, increasingly accurate depictions of American history in stark rebuke of the many ideals held dear, such as Aryan purity, misogyny, and ownership of slaves and other property, and finally the critique science, across fields as diverse as sociology, economics, biology, climatology, and ethics, offers for unrestricted capitalism.
The science is clear, though I know educated folks who declare themselves not to be “reactionary” about it, despite the extinction rate currently hovering at one thousand times the usual background rate, wild fires engulfing the west, harsher hurricanes in the southeast, and disasters around the globe increasing. The highest temperature recorded on land, perhaps since 1931, is a 2020 phenomenon: 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley. The smoke and ash from fires have affected my own health, living close to a recent effects earlier, particularly in the northwest when northern California and southern Canada were ablaze. The sun was a blood orange, easily spied by the unprotected eye. Ashes rained on my car, evoking the horror of scenes from Schindler’s List. Instead of Jews and other Nazi victims burning, this time it’s mother nature in the oven, with an ecological holocaust well underway.
The so-called Holocene is officially the sixth extinction event. The science is beyond dispute, yet many still refuse to listen to reason. Time is running out, and it’s possible we’re already beyond the tipping point. Tom Steyer, former candidate hoping for a nomination to be president, became a “green” billionaire by making his company carbon neutral, then leaving private industry to take up the mantle of the climate change. He agreed with Bernie Sanders that a green new deal could provide high paying jobs, revamp our infrastructure, and improve quality of life for all Americans. I see zero evidence to the contrary, and much in their favor. Bernie’s influence has shifted Biden’s platform somewhat toward ecological reform, reform we badly need. The October 22 debate featured a powerful moment : Biden committed to phasing oil out, a policy choice essential to our survival as a species. Trump snapped, “Watch out Texas, Montana,” and on and on. He insisted that our environment had never been cleaner than now, thanks to him. It’s almost silly to bother repeating his more ridiculous claims here, but this speaks strongly to a powerful concern to which I’ll return.
Unfortunately, we face three more extremely dangerous existential threats as we crash into this critical election, the latter two of which finally confirms how dangerous a psychopath he really is.
Nuclear proliferation has long occupied the other side of the extinction coin, with details emerging in more recent years of just how much of a threat the weapons pose. Peace activists such as Dave Swanson argue that first-strike nuclear war, a power reserved by the U.S. and Israel, poses an existential threat, as does war in general. Recently, the King’s Bay Plowshares Seven, an advocacy group of Catholics of conscience, defaced trident nuclear missiles in Georgia, and they received not a word of national media attention. Would that all citizens be so brave as this gentle elderly group of activists.
August marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the second world war and securing America as the global superpower, with the Soviet Union a very distant second. In the years to follow, American scientists invented thermonuclear weapons, capable of destructive force many hundreds (and later thousands) of times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy. Development at Los Alamos pressed onward, despite a growing concern that the ensuing reaction of such a bomb would immolate the entirety of the biosphere. Hitler apparently was most displeased at the prospect of a nuclear program under his direction destroying the very world he sought to control; though he envisioned a world free of all the undesirables (to his own vicious tastes), a world uninhabitable left little quarter for Aryans.
Enter Daniel Ellsberg, the renowned dissident, and a former intelligence officer working for the RAND corporation, who released the Pentagon papers, thereby unearthing internal documents revealing true, and nefarious, motivations of the U.S. government’s interest in South Vietnam and the surrounding region–greed. His other, less well-known role was nuclear war planning and preparedness. To his great regret, the largesse of the documents he purloined applicable to the risk of nuclear misadventure were lost to a flood. In any case, he pieced together as much as he could from memory, together with the release of official documentary records, bringing together this and that to write The Doomsday Machine : Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.
I highly recommend the book, and though I can’t offer a full treatment of it here, suffice it to say that Ellsberg debunks many myths surrounding nuclear weapons, namely
the president and ONLY the president can initiate a nuclear attack—any number of levels down the chain actually can launch weapons without explicit orders from above
first-strike nuclear war is NOT the U.S. war plan—first-strike has always been a power reserved to the U.S. and Israel
nuclear weapons provide suitable deterrence—in reality, almost all military misadventure in the post-war period has involved either the U.S. or the Soviet Union, or both; the weapons seem to embolden rather than dissuade our demons
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war—Japan was beaten, ensconced by Allied forces with all supply lines cutoff; the Japanese offered to surrender if they could retain their emperor, an offer turned down by America, then honored after experimenting with the weapons
nuclear readiness is tight and secure, with launch codes protected carefully—in many of the stations visited by Ellsberg, codes were posted on the safe door, or the safe remained unlocked
denizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only civilians harmed by the bombs—the nuclear tests in the South Pacific destroyed island villages, poisoning the people who lived there (and later the Marines dispatched servicepersons to gather and bury the nuclear waste on Runit Island, withholding the extreme health risks and offering minimal to no protective gear
the major existential threat is the force of the bomb itself—it turns out that the more significant threat is the smoke and ash, kicked so far into the atmosphere that precipitation (which coalesces in the troposphere) cannot rain it down, blocking sunlight; enough of this smoke and ash will destroy plant life, unraveling the food chain and leading to mass death, on the order of two-thirds of all humans, likely a conservative estimate
we prevented war with the Soviet Union by discouraging their presence in Cuba—in reality, our harassment of three nuclear-armed Soviet submarines in the warm waters of the Caribbean caused two of the three commanders to believe nuclear war was already underway, as each and all already were quite addled by the high temperature since Soviet subs were intended for much colder water; the vote of one Soviet commander staying the itchy trigger fingers of his cohorts, saving all of us
war with the Soviets was possible in isolation—in fact, the war planners ALWAYS intended to destroy both the Soviet Union and China simultaneously, with losses they deemed acceptable in Western Europe if the winds were unfavorable
As you can see, this remains an incredibly important issue of our time. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists currently places us one hundred seconds to midnight according to their doomsday clock, the closest we’ve come so far. They plead with world leaders to heed their admonishment:
[h]umanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode–nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
Unfortunately, press for nuclear proliferation remains virtually silent. Neither political party commits to nuclear disarmament, and with New START expiring in February of next year, it’s possible neither Russia nor America will feel obliged to slow the stockpile of more and more weapons. As the Bulletin suggests, catastrophic climate change may very well precipitate nuclear war, and thus it is impossible to extricate the two.
Two more global threats confront us, one that didn’t occur to me until this year, the year of COVID.
The Obama administration formed a National Security Council directorate to coordinate with the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health in response to the outbreak of H1N1, a directorate Trump quickly slashed upon entering office. From the beginning of his campaign to the present, he has labored hard at dismantling each and every accomplishment of the Obama administration, from said directorate all the way to the Affordable Care Act, perhaps Obama’s most important legacy and the most progressive piece of legislation passed in a few decades. Trump, as we argued earlier, managed to obtain all but one key vote in the Republican-controlled Senate to dissolve the ACA, his nemesis and fellow republican John McCain refusing his power play. Trump promised to provide a healthcare solution for all Americans, but his tactic rather was to erase the ACA before even formulating a plan, something he still doesn’t have. The truth is, quite likely, that the plan is to have no plan. Poor people don’t deserve to live, so why bother? Trump’s vicious racist housing practices for the poor pocketed him money but wounded the poor he claims to serve.
Now, enter the coronavirus, the most disruptive predicament Americans have faced in a long time. Almost certainly a by-product of factory farming, the zoonotic virus originated in China, quickly covering the earth as travelers spread the respiratory disease. New Zealand seems a model of success in disease response, appropriately and quickly shutting down businesses and public services, save the most critical among them.
According to investigative reporter Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, Trump’s initial response was to concede the enormous danger behind closed doors but deny the danger publicly. From there, Trump downplayed the dangers, issuing lie after lie, each more outrageous than the last, all from a place of colossally reckless ignorance of the facts. Reading from The Atlantic, one finds Trump blaming Mexico, China, Obama, the democrats, the director Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH’s Allergy and Infectious Disease, and on and on, blaming Obama for leaving him a wrecked medical system, other countries for increasing U.S. fatalities, and issuing baseless claims about the presumed immunity of children and exaggerating how small the risk of death is. Trump seldom dons a mask at his rallies, and few folks in his packed rallies wear masks, and not unexpectedly, outbreaks then occur. Daily cases rise with each bungle and descend with each set of protective measures taken. With a magnanimous flow of misinformation from Trump, a quarter of Americans seem to believe the disease was manufactured to murder us. Some don’t believe the virus is even real.
All told, Trump has plopped his fat ass on his tiny little hands, presiding over the worst public health disaster in living memory. Two hundred and twenty thousand Americans have died. To put things in perspective, as of 2018, the population of my city of residence, Tucson in Arizona, is 545,975. It’s as though my city lost forty percent of its population. Trump is solely responsible for contradicting experts in the government about how to take precautions, he’s responsible for failing to respond, with the inane claim that suicides due to COVID would exceed COVID deaths if the economy remained closed, and he’s denied relief for the millions of Americans now out of work. It’s very difficult to write these words without becoming outraged.
I recently saw a debate clip of Mitch McConnell cackling at Amy McGrath as she lambasted his unwillingness to even bring to committee the stimulus relief packages offered by the House. He’s a ghoulish fiend, basking in the near certitude of reelection in a deeply red state. Trump complains endlessly that the Democrat-controlled House has accomplished nothing, yet they’ve passed over four hundred bills in the past six months, with McConnell joyously sitting on everything, determined to undermine the will of the people.
In the final debate on October 22, Trump reiterated his nothing plan : dismantle the Affordable Care Act with no offered replacement, then somehow believe a plan into being. He’s provided no hints as to what a plan looks like, and he seems to fundamentally not understand that those who lose coverage with the evisceration of Obamacare don’t have an bridge plan while waiting for his “beautiful health care plan” to beam in from the sky.
Again, Trump is a murderer, plain and simple. He understands the cost, and persists with a destructive policy that even infected him, his wife, and his young son. It’s easy from here to address my final concern if we stay the course.
Stuart Stevens maintains that we can distill the core of republican electorate to a coalescence of rabid sports fans, incapable of tolerating policy differences, and frankly incapable of ever thinking their team should lose. I’m no sports fan, but I’ve been around long enough to know that if a player switches teams, he instantly becomes the enemy to most of the fans of his team of origin; to a fan, category is trivially irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong, sports fans can have at it, and one can concede a useful means of entertainment. But it simply won’t do as a basis for policy and government. So it makes sense to me that Trump contradicts himself and projects his own wrong-doing onto others, principally upon Biden, all the while team Trump and media surrogates, Rick Santorum and Chris Chrystie, declare a victory for Trump in the last debate; it’s astonishing! He described no specific policy on topics raised, instead spending as much time as he could hurling mud at Biden on frankly absurd conspiracy theories. Apparently, fantasies about Biden “golfing more that” Trump carry much more significance than the principal issues of our time : healthcare, race, or climate change. His spectators cheer hysterically, many of whom refusing to wear masks in crowded places. They cheer him on, no matter how ridiculous his claims are. He also accuses Biden of hiding in basements, precisely the thing he’s been doing. It seems like a bad strategy to project one’s culpability onto the opponent, thus drawing attention to the very issue that colors him corrupt, but it isn’t hard to see in the context of a personality disorder. After all, the federal monies necessary to support him in his near weekly golfing, and hosting meetings and dignitaries in his hotels are staggering: he’s visited his properties over five hundred times during his term so far, according to Citizens for Ethics. His basement hiding led to the stunning Bible photo-op, featured earlier, one of the most ridiculous of his myriad missteps. Citizens for Ethics provide a decent list of his conflicts of interest, a number no fewer than 3,400. And he projects these corrosive conflicts onto Biden, laughably enough.
I need no therapy credentials to point to myriad lies (twenty thousand according to the Washington Post and The Guardian), his ugly mistreatment of women, his river of self-congratulations in his intellect, his perfect policies and decisions, and so on, dripping with asinine augmentatives. His obsession with outperforming Obama seems clinically significant, as he regularly issues polls asking whether he or Obama is superior, despite Obama neither being a candidate nor bearing much on this election at all. It began early, with his pressuring his toadies to edit aerial photographs of his inaugural crowd size compared to that of Obama. I suppose if he really wants to beat Obama at something, he’s more vulgar, more offensive, and more hateful.
Moving along to much more critical issues, most of which we’ve already discussed, Trump exhibits a gross disregard for others in his tweeted orders to white supremacists to kidnap and murder governors, as discussed earlier, his vicious border policies, his encouragement of further police violence, his assassination of a suspect Oregon accused of shooting a violent counterprotestor while defending a counterprotestor gunman at a Black Lives Matter protest, his doggedness in scrapping Obamacare with no regard to the massive impact on the poor and disabled, and most seriously of all, if there is a greatest sin of Donald Trump, his colossal mishandling of the coronavirus, a disease at the time of this writing having 8.5 million cases and 223,000 deaths. The man is drowning in the blood of his victims, and these particular victims are Americans.
A term of increasing prominence seems to be narcopath, or a mixture of narcissist and sociopath. Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists tend not to arm-chair diagnose, that is, surmise the psychosis of a person not in their professional care, but I’m happy to cosign arm-chair diagnoses and perhaps a mental fitness test for president going forward. According to Business Insider in 2019, 350 psychiatrists and psychologists signed a petition, arguing
[w]e are convinced that, as the time of possible impeachment approaches, Donald Trump has the real potential to become ever more dangerous, a threat to the safety of our nation,
[w]hat makes Donald Trump so dangerous is the brittleness of his sense of worth. Any slight or criticism is experienced as a humiliation and degradation. To cope with the resultant hollow and empty feeling, he reacts with what is referred to as narcissistic rage[,]
[h]e is unable to take responsibility for any error, mistake, or failing. His default in that situation is to blame others and to attack the perceived source of his humiliation. These attacks of narcissistic rage can be brutal and destructive.
Drs. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist
Suffice it to say, some mental health professionals recognize the gravity of Trump’s psychosis. Chomsky recently referred to Trump as a sociopathic megalomaniac, pointing out quite correctly that ignoring the climate crisis is suicidal. Psychology Today refers to narcissistic personality disorder as a decent explanation for Trump’s grandiosity and utter inability to understand facts or accept responsibility. Trump denies responsibility for permitting so many deaths under COVID, yet he quickly calumniates his opponents with precisely his own sins, such as insisting repeatedly that the Biden family has bilked his political connections for his own financial gain. Biden’s response was perfect: “release your tax returns.” Trump’s dirty financial dealings one day will more fully bask in the cleansing light of criminal prosecution, though even seeing darkly through the glass intimates the truth: Trump is the most corrupt president in American history, contending with the likes of Warren G. Harding, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. He’s as racist as Andrew Jackson, more crazed than Richard Nixon, and his mishandling of COVID stacks well against Ronald Reagan’s cruel reluctance to research AIDS and the myriad deaths associated therewith. In his fog of grandiosity, Trump actually seems to believe he’s better than everyone and everything. And he’s also a victim of everyone and everything. Narcissistic sociopath, psychopath, pick your poison. Not that it really matters at this point, but whence comes this painted animal?
As though this weren’t alarming enough, it’s worth comparing Trump’s debating chops in 2015 with those of 2020, and one will note a marked deterioration in his verbiage and cognition. I know neurologists who claim he must have some form of dementia, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. He’s obese, he’s 74 years old, and he suffers from an extreme personality disorder. The National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests neuroticism increases while conscientiousness decreases the risk of late life dementia. Does he have it? He’s claimed repeatedly that he can remember five things, then repeat them in order. Is this the bar for the president of the United States? Border collie dogs can remember order of a small number of things. Are they qualified to be president?
A psychotic man on the precipice of dementia, who has already cost us hundreds of thousands of American lives, has access to nuclear codes, and offers according to his self-inflated intuition, as he did in October 22’s debate again, that the virus will go away and we’ll all be wonderful again. Meanwhile, he and Mitch McConnell sit on democratic legislation aimed at helping states and cities. He says it’s all Nancy Pelosi’s fault, despite hundreds of bills receiving the dead-on-arrival stamp from Mitch. When confronted, Mitch just cackles. Why are these people in government? Stevens says it best, admonishing his fellow conservatives:
[w]hat the Republican Party must realize is that it needs America more than America needs the party. And the America it needs is the one that is 320 million Americans and growing, a country of immigrants and less white every day: the real America, not the gauzy Shangri-La of suburban bliss that never existed.
No matter the intention of the founders, no matter the wickedness inflicted by man upon others, no matter chaos and horror confronting us now, we have just one answer, and it’s much simpler than we might imagine : democracy. Democracy literally means “common people” and “power,” much like the name of my blog, Scire Populum et Potentiam. The founders never intended it, the framework of our economy and government largely oppose it through institutional stupidity in corporations and exaggerated power in the hands of the Senate, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. McConnell concedes impending electoral defeat of republican dominance, but brags that installing Amy Cohen Barrett, another right-wing hysteric, to the Supreme Court is a very long term victory. Currently, nine people, serving for life, can make decisions of enormous impact. And they don’t have to offer any justification, as they did in the case described above. The president now, unlike when the Constitution was ratified in 1789, can completely destroy the world, something Trump seems hellbent on doing. The Senate distorts the power of small states, with filibuster rules capable of locking up any meaningful progress the people may wish. Gerrymandering, voter purging, voter intimidation, and the like ensure that likely democratic voters can’t participate. No thinking person can believe any of the aforementioned make for good policy. Magna Carta originated a western tradition of commons, justice, and distributed power.
Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, for all their many flaws, inched us closer to democracy. Labor movements have pioneered the most free society in recorded history. And yet we still have so far to go.
The Russian interference in the 2016 election is largely known to members of both parties. More alarming to me was repeated tropes about Russia threatening our “democratic norms” and “democratic values,” and our “sacred traditions of democracy.” Utterly preposterous. Electing a man from a selection of two who is almost totally unaccountable to the electorate is NOT democracy. Very little of public will makes its way into top-level decision making. None of these norms are democratic. We must change these norms. If we did the following, our institutions would protect us even if Russia hacked Facebook until Putin and Zuckerberg are green in the face.
Vote for Biden and all Democrats. This couldn’t be more self-explanatory, as Trump and McConnell will otherwise further destroy our country and our world. Don’t accept that polling means you ought not vote. This was likely a factor in Trump’s theft of the office in 2016. Further, vote for democrats up and down the ballot; republicans might insist that local policy is apolitical, yet they provide a mechanism for republicans to organize more effectively. Sure, Biden and I disagree on several policies, and though Bernie’s ideals more closely approximate mine, we disagree on a few things (such as the dispensation of Edward Snowden.) It’s frankly unsophisticated to expect we’ll agree with everything a nominee or candidate offers on her/his political market. Paralyzing cynicism will not suffice to indemnify those of us in more privileged sectors. See the next point.
Assume accountability for our world. Taken from Snyder, we as Americans wield more power than most anyone else in the world. That factor of influence increases dramatically for the technologists amongst us. It’s not enough to surrender responsibility just because the person we didn’t choose happens to win the election. Chomsky correctly points to intellectuals bearing responsibility. I point also to technologists. We have only one earth, and soon we may have none.
Study and listen to science. Become aware of the facts. Find books, like the many I list here, which are largely peer-reviewed and sensible. Scientists study for years and years to become experts. They’re probably not wrong, but the scientific method is the best tool we have in discovery. Catastrophic climate change is real, and our timer has almost buzzed. Nuclear winter could and likely would follow as resources become increasingly scarce in dangerous places. Pakistan and India are both nuclear states, and they both cope with diminishing fresh water flowing from Kashmir.
Learn our history in all its many dimensions. My high school American history course concluded with the atomic bomb in 1945, despite my taking the course in 1995. Pat Ledbetter, now a candidate for the Texas senate, taught me so much more in college. She transformed my perspective. We’re accountable for our history. Blaming others for their problems when our ancestors, and thus we ourselves, have benefitted tremendously from their enslavement, both before and after the Civil War. Read A People’s History. Read Chomsky’s How the World Works. Learn about Israel/Palestine. Watch Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now. Read Palast’s articles and reports on voter disenfranchisement; no matter your position on the spectrum, you cannot support simultaneously democracy and the horrific and illegal purge and intimidation of voters documented in his works. Democracy Now offers a marvelous reading list.
Learn economics. Unlike theoretical economics, a field obsessed with implausibly simple game models, the real story is much simpler. Read Piketty, Baker, Derber, Chomsky, Monbiot, Robert Reich, and so on. Good data exists. Corporations and their public relations surrogates thrive in darkness. Anticommunist tropes abound, but America is much more socialistic than is understood. We’ve discussed this topic extensively in past posts. Understand when markets work and when they don’t. Read The Conservative Nanny State. Let’s illuminate the absurd; it may wail and gnash, but it’ll wither and die in the presence of knowledge.
Talk to black friends about racism. Understand the talk black parents have always given their kids to protect them from racially-motivated violence, particularly by police. Talking to them openly about their concerns will stun you. Take Harvard’s racism and bias test. You’ll be surprised and disappointed, likely. Research slavery, Jim Crow, the chain gangs, and the vital role enslaved blacks played in the oft-celebrated industrial revolution.
Celebrate pacifists rather than warriors. War is unnatural, according to peace activist and philosopher David Swanson. We celebrate murderers with statues and icons and holidays, but how many national holidays celebrate something unrelated to religion or war? Labor Day comes to mind. Read Dave’s works, and support him in his activism. What he has to say will blow your mind.
Pressure Biden to support the Green New Deal. Our future hangs in the balance. A Biden victory is insufficient to guarantee good policy. Obama could have declared climate change a national emergency, circumventing any hostile obstructionist congresspersons in addressing the problem. Biden can do the same.
Pressure Biden to support Medicare for All. A public option is an excellent step, but expanding Medicare to all Americans, permitting some to opt out if they like their private insurance, is easily accomplished with a slight tax, a tax tremendously lower than current premiums. I hear the refrain of anecdotal failures in Britain, New Zealand, and the like, but the failures in our own system are far worse, well-documented in Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko. We can have as good a system as we demand; nothing is free, including democracy.
Pressure Biden to commit to nuclear disarmament treaties. We’re facing, below the media surface, incredible danger from nuclear weapons; pressure, pressure, pressure.
Demand funding for education. Educators are suffering terribly, and this economic stress long precedes the pandemic. I believe educators are among the most important people in our society, as they shape the youth, safeguard science, and research the universe around us to expand our global consciousness and conscience. My heart and love go to out to E. Clyde Yeatts, Dr. Pat Ledbetter, Candy Zangoei, Joybell Schalk, Dr. Gerald McDaniel, Dr. David Jorgensen, Dr. Michaela Vancliff, Dr. Hristo Kojouharov, Dr. Venkateswaran, Dr. Santosh Pande, Dr. Lance Fortnow, Dr. Guy Lebanon, Dr. Ashok Goel, Dr. Danny Dyer, Dr. Tie Luo, Dr. Moysey Brio, Dr. Joe Watkins, Dr. Misha Chertkov, and Dr. Noam Chomsky.
Demand infrastructure reform by American industry. Our auto technicians, fracking and oil engineers, and anyone potentially displaced by sane climate policy can easily be retrained to design and build high speed rail, badly needed. They also can engineer clean energy solutions.
Call your representative and senators. They’re yours. Call them everyday. Get others to do the same. Make it part of your routine. Write emails, letters, and so on. You’ll be surprised how many friends you’ll find around you with similar inclinations.
Organize peacefully. A Biden victory won’t assure us of anything more than restoring sanity to the executive office. We must organize with petitions and protests to compel and coerce his administration and Congress to fight for us, including economic and social justice, and civility. Democracy, like most objectives, is largely a local phenomenon. You can organize to get a traffic light put up, or you can organize to end the Muslim ban. America, at least for now, offers freedom of speech, perhaps the most important freedom of all. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau depict civil disobedience quite well. Leverage the advantages afforded to us. Trump and his predecessors have often punished and sometimes violently attacked peaceful protests. It takes courage. The next two suggestions makes this a little easier.
Cultivate a robust private life. Appropriating this from Snyder, a healthy inner circle is a refuge, or at least it has been for me. I love my family here in Arizona, and I owe them my life.
Reach out and talk to each other. Our people are highly atomized, now so worse because of the pandemic. Americans are brave and believe in democracy, but we don’t know each other. For centuries, exchange programs have existed to acquaint students with new places in sister city reciprocity. Americans need to talk to each other. It’s not enough to blame others. Reaching out begins with me, today. I’ve almost never failed to engage another in talk; we’re social animals, badly in need of each other, now more than ever. The old admonishment to avoid religion and politics in discourse I believe is at least half wrong: politics determine our national and cultural norms, and we should have the courage to discuss them with each other. I suspect we’ll discover we have more in common than not. Virtually all of the aforementioned are topics we can discuss with anyone. I’ve spoken with hundreds of working class people through the years, and no matter the age difference, they listen in child-like wonderment when you demonstrate a deep knowledge of the history.
To this list, I’d like to propose loftier but still achievable deep and specific structural changes.
Automatically register all citizens to vote. One has to be either an imbecile or a fascist to disagree with this. Every citizen has a social security number issued through the federal government. One person, one vote seems rather obvious.
Migrate voting to the internet once and for all. We entrust security protocols online to safeguard our medical records, our banking, our mail records, our online purchases, and our genealogy in many cases. How would this be any less safe? This would eliminate most of the means by which thuggish republican officials have tried to disenfranchise Americans. The reasons so many are early voting in this cycle distill to fear of COVID and concerns about irregularities barring them from voting on election day proper. Currently, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Texas permit novoting by mail, an outrageous restriction. It’s time for an election overhaul.
Dissolve the Electoral College. This is a no-brainer. The electoral college’s only purpose was to ensure that a demigod couldn’t become president. They failed. More importantly, they’re undemocratic, rendering it possible for men to win elections without the popular vote. Then the media and the government celebrate this as the “will of the people.” Give me a fucking break.
Weaken SCOTUS and POTUS. Among the programs we should seek are significant reductions in the power of SCOTUS and POTUS. The president is an administrator, not a dictator. Yet he can act unilaterally in opposition of the will of the people whenever he likes, with only a few constraints. They have no business making decisions more powerful and significant than COTUS, the Congress. Said Congress has ceded power, in some cases gradual, others rather incredible, to POTUS in the post war period. For instance, they’ve not declared war officially since Pearl Harbor, though we’ve been embroiled in war in all the years following 1945; POTUS has deemed these skirmishes necessary, for one reason or another. Further, it’s expected now, across the ideological spectrum, that POTUS set the legislative agenda for his term, despite this clearly being the Constitutional responsibility of COTUS. Why? My own interpretation is dark: Congresspersons would prefer not bearing responsibility for controversy, as this is tantamount to forfeiture of one’s political livelihood.
Institute term limits. We’ve already suggested this for members of SCOTUS. If representatives remain in the House for a fixed upper limit of terms, it follows that long-term political survivability will no longer influence their judgment. Of course, the risk is that they no longer have to consider the will of the people, at least during their final term. This is easily rectified with a weighted voting system, or the recognition that one’s political party may not retain power otherwise. In any case, it seems clear that evergreening political terms has partially led to broken government. And that leads to the next point.
Cut dark money and PACs out by federally funding elections. Following a long tradition of empowering corporations by the preposterous bestowal of personhood, a gushing river of dark money strangles nearly every piece of government in America. Citizens United may be one of the latest court decisions permitting limitless, unaccountable money to sway campaigns and lobbies, but the full story begins much earlier: the court held, rather incredibly, in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. South Pacific Railroad Co. that corporations ought receive equal protection under the eponymous clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The SUN PAC decision in 1975 solidified means by which corporations can influence election, formalizing the legality of the political action committee. More recent cases protect corporations under the first amendment, such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., protecting their “right” to restrict healthcare options based upon the company’s religion. I’ve never seen a company in church, but then again, stranger things have happened. In any case, we could easily solve much of this quagmire through federal funding of elections.
Broaden the House. The House of Representatives is the most democratic part of the federal government. 436 people can’t represent 330 million. It’s just ludicrous. We need a representative for every thousand people, with a hierarchical house. You should get to know your representative personally.
Eliminate the Senate. The Senate serves no obvious purpose, other than to retard democracy. Popular bills aren’t while unpopular ones are passed. The Senate distorts the power of smaller states. They complain that they’ll receive no representation otherwise. I could say the same thing about myself. I’m only one person. Why doesn’t my vote count ten times as much as yours?
Add many more referenda to federal and state ballots. More people vote when referenda appear on the ballot. More to the objective of democracy, people can actually decide policy rather than vote for a surrogate who will or will not (and more often don’t) carry out the design of the voters. Wouldn’t it have been nice to prevent the Iraq War, or to ensure that Americans crushed by the financial crisis in 2008 receive a bailout rather than the avaricious banks? Americans would feel greater accountability if we could sway policy.
I’ll close with a quote from Sagan.
Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.
It has been some time since my last article on either Algo-Stats or its companion activist site Scire Populum et Potentiam. Since leaving Microsoft last August, I’ve relocated to Tucson, Arizona to reduce the proximity to family and to return to graduate school, hopefully for the last time this century. I’ve been extraordinarily busy with teaching and coursework, along with qualifying exams, so much so that I’ve neglected a few book reviews I’ve intended, as well as a more critical analysis of the Democratic primaries, debates, and caucuses. I would, however, highly recommend Democracy Now, David Swanson’s continued exceptional critical work, and the ongoing articles and tweets from Dean Baker on the Center for Economic Policy.
Democratic Races : Burying the Hatchet… Deeply in Bernie’s Back
I very much would like to comment more on the coalescing of Democratic candidates to defeat Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that Pete Buttigieg was performing decently leading up to Super Tuesday, only to resign the night before, joining Beto O’Rourke in an astonishing about-face, both candidates celebrated for following Bernie’s campaign strategy in accepting no PAC nor corporate donations. My best friend back from my hometown, like many Beto supporters, was heartbroken, scraping bumper stickers off of his and his wife’s vehicles. Buttigieg made a decision, the likes of which analysts such as Michael Moore quoted in Newsweek, decry as fear-mongering and unheard of in primary politics. As Bernie has repeated, he has won the ideological debate, yet two now unemployed young Democratic politics, Mayor Pete and Congressman Beto seem to have betrayed the grassroots movements propelling them into their positions. What did the DNC say to coerce Buttigieg, who claimed on NBC how he loved Bernie before “it was cool“, to about-face claim that Bernie wanted to “burn down the system.” Salon labels the logical fallacy we can associate with Buttigieg’s absurd claims, the straw man argument. The majority of Americans have a desire for a return to New Deal government (anti-socialists need take note that democratic socialism is nowhere near the cartoonish totalitarianism advertised in circa 1950s McCarthy brochures.) But Democrats voting in the primaries fear Biden is the better candidate–yes, a misleading sounding sentence. If you’re interested in misleading coverage, search for Bernie on Google, and all so-called “liberal” media, excepting a few genuinely progressive journals, all are dripping with “get the hell out of the way of the big man on campus”,
and so on and on and on. When the reverse was true, and Bernie seemed like he could form a coalition, the best we could get was constant attacks (and attacks) on Medicare for All by CNN, with very little attention to where we could find endless money, namely, runaway military spending and endless war, described in a piece by Common Dreams. The Physicians for a National Health Plan have long described all the relevant numbers one consider, and if we had such a plan in place now, we could expect a smaller death toll from COVID, a topic to which we’ll return. The paucity of pro-Bernie articles such as Columbia Journalism Review’s “Coverage of Bernie Suffers from a Lack of Imaginationrequire some internet digging. Speaking of Common Dreams, they appear to be the only journal I’ve found so far which asserts a simple argument that CNN and NYT, for all their fantasy liberalism, seem utterly incapable of speaking this central truth: Bernie performs much better with independents and progressive-independents. And as a strong and long-time supporter of Bernie’s, I receive a good deal of communication from the campaign arm, and as of a week ago, Bernie began asking for contributions NOT for his campaign, but for COVID relief. That’s class. Bernie’s fireside chats and speeches of late channel Franklin Delano Roosevelt, easily most important president in American history, with the obvious neck-in-neck Abraham Lincoln; we need Bernie’s socialism (or just New Deal policies) now more than ever. I could go on and on about Bernie’s monumental role in reshaping the Democratic platform (Biden suddenly seems to be embracing everything Bernie embraces, but with the wink and nod that he’ll fold unnecessarily to “scorch-the-earth” Republicans (even Paul Krugman agrees) once he steps back into the White House.) Don’t get me wrong–a Biden administration, or an administration of any suit-wearing primate one might choose perhaps, would be better than the nest of oozing, craven, ignorant, festering, collusive cronies. (And no, I’m actually holding back on my words here.)
Trump : He Knew He Was Right In Being Wrong, or Something Like That…
We can slacken blame on Herbert Hoover for policy ineptitude–he was a brilliant engineer, but a without a wonkish grasp of economics, say after the brands of John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, he was only minimally able to mitigate the crisis of the Great Depression, his . Trump, by contrast, loathes studies and knowledge. He believes he knows everything, and that his actions have created the stock market gains since he assumed office. And in the space of a few weeks, this one metric is I saw in a gone. Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes, wrote in The Atlantic that “the Trump presidency is officially over“, as COVID leaves him badly unprepared after a gutted several agencies specifically in place to manage disaster and needed relief. But never fear, I noticed a ticker on CNN last week or so that Jared Kushner, magical expert in all policy things, was “advising President Trump,” a president who wanted the world to know that coronavirus is the fault of the Chinese, not of the Americans. Phew–for a moment there I was worried what we ought place on our headstones. Trump, along with his enablers in Congress and the disgraceful far right organizations masquerading as media, has consistently downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, with references numbering too far to recite here. A decent rundown appears in Rolling Stone, leading to his recent claim that he always knew it was a “pandemic.” If the consequences weren’t so dire, I’d insist on laughter at Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz mocking the outbreak by wearing a military gas mask during the relevant House votes, only to contract the virus a few days later. These corrupt government officials ought be in jail. How about global warming is a Chinese hoax? Scientists are evil, per terminally ill hatemonger medal of freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh. I read a copy of his book The Way Things Ought to Be several years ago, and his siding with the infinitesimal minority of scientists in denial was a retread of his debate with Al Gore that atmospheric chlorine released in a volcanic eruption dwarfed all possible chlorine since the industrial revolution. Of course, the whole book read like talking points, mostly false. I doubt he surrenders that he dodged the Vietnam War draft with an in-grown hair on his wide rear-end. He never corrected that volcanic chlorine is water soluble, yet chlorine released through factory processes is not. Rain won’t help us, it would appear, as weather is now much more extreme thanks to catastrophic climate change, but at least he’ll get out early. I daresay when he passes, I’ll feel the urge to channel Gore Vidal, or maybe with more gentility, Noam Chomsky on the passing of William F. Buckley.
University of Arizona : The Home of Noam
Speaking of Noam, I’ve had the unique and special privilege of sitting in two of his courses at the University of Arizona, and, for reasons too inexplicably wonderful to imagine, I had my first sitdown discussion with him on a research aim near to his heart. I won’t offer any details now, as he and I don’t want the let the cat out of the bag yet, but it’s a dream I couldn’t have ever envisioned. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak, he is rightly quarantined, as the nonagenarian is robust, but nonetheless a nonagenarian. I’ll have more to offer in the days ahead, depending on how the work goes. One can note the large image of Bertrand Russell, a leading antiwar and progressive intellectual and activist in the United Kingdom, jailed for his iron opposition to the so-called “Great War,” later renamed, much like Star Wars IV: A New Hope, to World War I. Speaking of Star Wars, I recall Yoda admonishing Luke that “wars don’t make one great.” In any case, I’m seated next to the man in whose very large image I’ll have in my office, academic or otherwise, in the future. A half-century of life experience sits between us, and I’m honored beyond words.
I certainly have lost clarity around faith over the past several years, not, strictly speaking, because the evangelical tradition in which I was raised obviously would ostracize or mutilate me for my homosexuality, but rather because I simply could not reconcile a good-willed deity who would permit the ghastly, overwhelming third world suffering most of us in the western, or first, world will never know. The story of Job offers nothing but confusion, as God and Satan bet on Job’s faithfulness, the story resolving with Job beckoning and thus foretelling the coming of the Intercessor, or Christ. My aunt and uncle are (sort-of post)-evangelists who traveled about the world for many years. I accompanied them on many spiritual meetings, and I’ll confess I’ve seen many, many things leading me to conclude that there’s much more to the human mind than we can imagine. I’m in the process of helping them prepare a semi-exhaustive list of what you might think of as miracles, mind-reading, and the like, which I can promise you very well could be an extension of what little we understand about the warm goop between our ears. John Cleese, a steadfast agnostic such as myself, discussed a series of studies during his fascinating interview at Google which demonstrate that the brain has predictive power over certain randomized experiments as conducted by Dean Rabin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and other researchers at Cornell. Whatever the case is to extrasensory perception, my aunt and uncle are the honest kind of ministers–they have only the long list of friendships they’ve cultivated, but no golden toilets or other Robert Tilton-styled frivolity (though sometime I’ll tell an interesting story involving their past interactions with him.) I say all of this to point out that moving to Arizona to improve health conditions, return to school, volunteer music work with and be supportive of my aunt and uncle, be closer to my husband’s family in Scottsdale, and actually have this opportunity to work with Noam is incredible. And in light of COVID, this is exactly where we should be. But university work isn’t without its share of pitfalls, a topic to which we’ll return below.
Back Home for Tragedy
It’s rare I would delve into so much personal material in this venue, as I would rather keep to the title, the power and the people, but this is a time of personal challenge for us all, and the stories are common. I returned home to north Texas following the passing of my Uncle Allan, a successful businessman in Boston, Chicago, and Texas. I brought my Uncle Charles along to surprise his sister Dowleen, Allan’s now widow, as I figured she would need some emotional support. It was a grueling and terrible month of waiting and watching after Allan underwent emergency surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, an operation from which he didn’t recover. It gave me the opportunity to see my mother, her husband Tony Shotwell (a red town Democratic council member so beloved they named a center in his honor), sister, and my best friend Robin, his wife Molly, and my godchild Samantha. Below from right counter-clockwise: sweetest of sweet little red-headed Sam (grinning with new teeth!), Molly, me, Uncle Charles, my sister Lindsey, Tony, my mother Tisha, her sister my aunt Dowleen, and Robin.)
Further, I had the blessed opportunity to see some of my favorite schoolteachers, my calculus teacher from high school E. Clyde Yeatts, and my college US history professor Pat Ledbetter. Sadly, my other notable teachers from that region are retired and relocated (Candy, I’m thinking of you) or have passed on. See below for our reunion picture–I reminded my former professors that they are the good guys, and we need to stick together through this mess of political recklessness. Both Clyde and Pat are amazing folks, so generous with their time and stewardship, and Pat is still teaching at North Central Texas College, where she helped to utterly transform my world-view. Clyde has fully retired after an incredible career of teaching high school and college courses.
Teaching Again : The Migration Online, Shock and Reshock with Neither Awe Nor Aww
I had planned originally to do a more in-depth post on my return to the teaching clique after a five year mission to tech in the northwest, but other issues came up. It seems like a good time to bring it up now, as the COVID pandemic leaves university leaders scrambling to relocate academia into cyberspace. My teaching philosophy is actually relevant here, though I haven’t posted it before. Before considering the current mess, I should pause to comment on my initial impressions in returning to teaching last semester.
To give a little context, I’ve worked in mathematics instruction either as a tutor, a teaching assistant, a teacher, a supervisor, or mentor since 1994. I tutored my mother when she took elementary statistics from Clyde in the photograph above back in 1995. I’ve very much enjoyed most of my teaching and mentoring experience, and coworkers know I’m happy to explain, perhaps in excruciating detail, artifacts of some oddball mathematical model. And it’s something I do well. A student of mine from Georgia Tech told me I was the best teaching assistant he’d known in all his four years of undergraduate study. It was very, very touching to hear that.
Bear with me, as I should point out that most of what I’ll say here is pretty negative. But if you’ve already read my political commentary earlier, this might not even surprise you. And I probably wouldn’t have bothered to post about it had it not impacted me personally; I was, I suppose, expecting something of a song and a dance, as it was an opportunity for them to have a teacher return from the “real world” of industry to impart wisdom. Ha. What a narcissist I’m becoming. On the contrary, I’ve come away feeling quite dissatisfied with the monolithic bureaucratization in the twenty-first century.
But it is worth mentioning a couple upgrades since I last dabbled in instruction. On the side of light, the powers that be (or one single power, it would seem) here in the University of Arizona Department of Mathematics have (has) evolved the more basic classes into mostly participatory labs. Students discuss problems and try to reach solutions. It’s a cool idea with much promise, but it slows progress a bit. One might think an extra credit hour is needed. There also is an online tool the students must use something called ALEKS, though this part of the grading occurs outside of instructor or teaching assistant oversight. Now on to what isn’t working.
It is apparent now that one person largely controls all teaching assignments, and chairs of the sub-departments aren’t willing, at least not to me, to asking for exceptions. This is a conscious decision on the part of academic faculty to cede power to non-academic administration. I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced this, nor did I know it was a thing. I do recall when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington that professors were quite unhappy with departmental proceedings on uniformity across classes. And in those cases, it was faculty and some academic oversight. I find this new norm to be curious, as I was permitted, as a TA, to teach my own classes any way I saw fit, including managing graders and crafting homework, lesson plans, and exams. It’s the extreme opposite here–despite years of experience, one must do as one is told, and that includes other faculty who have much more on-hands teaching experience than myself–literally, when I asked to teach my own class, the explanation I was given was that, “you need to learn about our student population.” I still don’t know what that means. Perhaps I should have asked for clarification. Instead, I accepted the beginning role, expecting things to change after they observed my work with my students. What happened instead I won’t say explicitly here, but human resources is now involved. It’s hard not to think that expressing my opinions, generally in a nicer version than you’ll see them here, is the culprit behind any difficulties I have with administration.
Returning to my rant, coordinators are very insistent about grading policies, requiring 2000 (!) fall students to take tests at exactly the same time on exactly the same day, with a logistical nightmare to assign rooms, proctors, and an essential guarantee of a late evening exam time. And why? They’re certain the students will cheat. Smart phones and email and yada yada make it so easy to cheat on a twenty question multiple choice test.
Now I just listened to Carl Sagan mention in Cosmos that the human genome perhaps could express more individuated humans than can ever live in the history of our civilization. But we can’t randomly permute questions on a multiple choice test so that answers don’t line up, nor are they the same on corresponding questions? With twenty questions and four answer choices each, even if you had exactly the same questions, there are 5.8389648196e19 different tests one can generate by reordering all questions and each of their answers. How big is that number? The Milky Way Galaxy houses roughly 1e8 stars. And we can multiply this number to any size we want if we change the questions subtly. I’m left astonished. I really thought this made sense when I proposed it. But they’re simply too lazy (they admitted this to me themselves) to generate different tests, or, heaven forbid, take the extra step of trusting students not to cheat, or for that matter trust instructors to run and grade their own classes the way they see fit. These tests are unavailable to the instructor of record, as though even he/she is considered untrustworthy. Hmm, we’ll return to that word later. And the histrionics around student dishonesty is quite ingrained–the coordinators require a sitdown meeting preceding every midterm to repeat the same drivel about correct proctoring. It seems like more thinking goes into preventing cheating than into nurturing learning.
From a game theoretic perspective, there are easy answers that don’t require factory solutions : I read an interesting experiment in which students were permitted to take tests unsupervised, and of course it’s immediately obvious which students cheated. A similar strategy could work here. Or perhaps simply have several versions, maybe individualized to each student but with essentially the same concepts. Again, we can randomly generate these tests. If they cheat with outside help, does it really matter? The onus on extremely large classes to catch cheaters seems unfair, as it’s much easier to notice in smaller classes.
Further, they require the students stay in the room until half-way through the exam, and when I queried whether they understood that we probably couldn’t legally require they remain, I was told that these students are used to doing what they’re told, so threatening them was fine. Other policies are shockingly broken–we were advised during teaching training that if a student expresses suicidality, we ought more-or-less personally take them into custody ourselves to take them to student health services. I put my foot down in the orientation, explaining my opinion the very real danger in coercing kids, mostly 22-26 years-old with no psychiatric or counseling training, to assess the risk in attempting something so stupid. I insisted that you call the police, period. My husband is a psychiatrist, and that is his strong warning. On the altruistic front, you don’t permit this suicidal student the opportunity to harm oneself or others, and purely from the perspective of protecting the university, you let professionals immediately take over the situation. The half-hearted response was that students’ records could be tarnished if you require a police escort, so the risk is worth it. Sigh.
Moving on, technologically, they’re required to buy a TI-83 calculator, evidently because anything with symbolic manipulation is a bridge too far, while graphing and performing mild-to-moderate calculations are too hard but symbolic manipulation isn’t. I’ve reminded them that I have worked extensively in math and science since buying my TI-89 some years ago, and I never used it after school. Because of path dependency, they compel the students to use the same technology I used a quarter century ago in high school algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. Wow, am I really that old? In any case, this would have been akin to my having to use a slide rule while in those courses, as one could argue that button mashing somehow left more to the machine than to the man.
Perhaps it’s better to ask what the goal is in requiring all the students to learn college algebra, when they’ll forget the material in the months to follow? A class in logic would be far more useful for many if not most of the students required to take this class, as it is the last math signpost in the road. Fact is I couldn’t even get a straight answer from what the coordinators believe the students should be learning and retaining.
I suppose the reader can sense me baring my own frustrated narcissism, but I can report that the lecturers to which I’ve been assigned very much have appreciated my jumping in to help them teach. Yet the powers that be don’t bother to observe this interaction. And I’ve received praise from my students for teaching them concepts in a uniquely clarifying style. Can you imagine my frustration when someone young enough to have been in grade school when I managed these very classes myself telling me that I was not trustworthy to the department? Furthermore, to my knowledge, no one has taken complaints I’ve flagged seriously. My cynicism tells me that my offering advice on how to run the ship better was very poorly received. I get that–it’s human nature, as is my reviling against unfair criticism.
My sincere hope is that if anything positive comes out of COVID, it forces most business and classwork to more easily migrate online; this is the future. Rich corporate executives might think otherwise, but work-from-home is a very good idea, and admits less stress. We’re very much unprepared for this scenario, so it’s no time like the present to invest resources centrally into solving all of these problems across the board. And it seems that may be happening. I’m discovering that the powers that be are having to adopt suggestions I made during orientation, as students may or may not have access to printers or their TI machines. So we migrate to a paperless, online experience with exams proctored through the Zoom tool. (Incidentally, Zoom stock has ballooned at the time of this writing. Another missed opportunity to get rich, I suppose.) And I’m helping students edit PDFs using online opensource tools since the department has no obvious solution, and their expectation in the past was that students would print out worksheets, write in their answers, then scan them into PDFs. This, of course, was another component for which I had suggested we provide an end-to-end digital solution. Can you imagine, even before this crisis, how badly that had gone with every assignment? Badly.
So what’s the lowdown on all of this? Is it that I feel insulted and not heard? Or is it the overall risk to and effects on my students? And they are my students, are they not? Education is less and less what I recognize. A university course is a sacred trust, a bond between the teacher and the taught, the scholar and the students. You and your teacher work together to succeed. I think the answer is both and all. I feel insulted, and I don’t mind commenting publicly when the effects are deleterious to my students.
It is a deep shame, and many other educators, current and retired, have shared similar stories with me. Junior college and university level instruction, to say nothing of that of secondary and below, seems to be fraying, and though I’ve always cared about teaching a great deal, as my teaching_philosophy clearly indicates, hope is waning, as we have many, many other battles to win in the days ahead. So let’s now turn to the rest of the good news about returning to school.
Research Opportunities Everywhere
I’ve joined the department at a good time, certainly. In the department of statistics, we confront the immense growth and demand for statistics. My chair Joseph Watkins recently netted the university an immense grant for a data science foundation, an operation which will transcend the many research departments across the campus, including astronomy, biology, epidemiology, genomics, optical sciences, engineering, computer science, applied mathematics, and so on and on. It’s an incredible grant he, Helen Zhang, and many others had quite a hand in creating. I’m very honored to have the rare opportunity to offer a little bit of input here and there, and I plan to put my industry experience to good use. I’ve noted how data science, statistics, and machine learning finds application across logistics, operations research, technological performance, market and ads testing, and community operations. This is indeed exciting.
And another incredibly important piller here is the newly-appointed chair of applied mathematics, one Dr. Misha Chertkov, a faculty member from Los Alamos with an impressively varied research pedigree and an inslakable thirst for ground in the most fertile and forward reaches of applied mathematics, statistics, computer science, engineering, machine learning, and the like. I think it’s safe to say I may have discovered my advisor. Other interesting possibilities include astrophysics research, and of course, the project I mentioned earlier with Noam.
So I would argue, obviously, that returning to school was the correct decision for me. And I’m incredibly blessed to be here. So I’ll end on some more inspirational themes.
“Look for the Helpers”
As the late great Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers”, and you’ll know there is hope. There are many good people out there doing good work to help each other. This is a time through which we can demonstrate our resolve, both as Americans and as a species. We can join together with countless others to look for the new political narrative, perhaps one like that described by George Monbiot, to ease our passage through this critical junction in our history. COVID demonstrates how much alike we all really are, and, like the more ominous catastrophic climate change, how little discrimination and division makes any sense in today’s world. Looking for something gentle to watch last night, we returned to the original Cosmos series, and I was actually quite surprised at how moved I found myself in listening to Carl Sagan’s gentle words in the opening and closing pieces of the episode. In closing to said series, he offered the following inspiration, and I’d invite you to listen. I genuinely believe our species is worth saving, and maybe this is our opportunity to move forward. With that, please, please be safe. Here’s a beautiful sunset in Tucson right outside my door–enjoy.
Since the moment Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the all-too-slowly approaching quadrennial hoo-haw, I’ve observed, to my utter astonishment, how hell bent the establishment media and Washington beltway are in torching the democratic socialist. In fact, and you’ll please have to pardon my cynicism, the collective establishment frenzy betrays profound ageism and greed. In short, old people can’t be useful, and power-mongering among the supposed good guys (anti-Trump power brokers of the Democratic party) demands subservience to the finance and technology sectors of the economy.
Bernie is No Media Darling
Below is a sampling of elite and establishment opinion, remarkably across the narrow political spectrum permitted in everyday discourse :
the Hill remarks that Bernie, like virtually all his predecessors, is an old white guy, the point being we need no more from that lot (perhaps they really believe Clarence Thomas is a friend to the black man),
the Washington Post editorializes that Bernie, displayed with his facial bruises, will sink the Democratic party because one single poll says people are either uncomfortable with or uncertain about him,
National Review wows with a thesaurus rex philosophical argument, posed in gorgeous prose, that healthcare isn’t a right as Bernie insists, because dying without insurance is the only way for a man to prove he can provide for his family (the fact that this refined libertarian is trying to tell others what to do demonstrates he believes they need him, a contravention to his entire argument; I guess one can’t cure a fool, especially one who never left the coffee shop),
CNN excitedly delivers a scoop : Bernie once called for nationalization of industries! News flash to the wielders of McCarthy cartoon brochures from the 1950s : corporate charters, patents, copyrights, and trade agreements constitute nationalization of industries,
Fox News sophisticates, proposing greed and hoarding while fanning themselves with 1950s cartoon brochures on communism and socialism, declare Bernie a Palpatine Trojan Horse (their clever argument goes like this : totalitarianism doesn’t work, so therefore government planning in the economy won’t work, even though the very technology these idiots are using to disseminate their shill drivel derives from heavy-duty government intervention in the economy),
What I wrote above exposes my own frustration with the lone voice of near reason in Washington, the Democratic party. The Republican party long ago abandoned any pretense of being taken seriously, demonstrated by their slavish, totalitarian policy positions, along with their near unanimous defense of quite possibly the most immoral person to every occupy the White House. The opposition party, by contrast, complains heavily but does little to nothing. What I wrote above may make me sound very much like these charlatans, and perhaps I am. Yet I understand that it isn’t enough to disagree and complain–it’s important to sketch a winning strategy, and try implementing it. I believe that strategy can be Bernie.
Why Bernie in 2016?
During the early primary season ahead of the 2016 election, I learned more and more about Bernie, even attending, albeit reluctantly, my first (and so far only) political rally. In August 2015, ten thousand people squeezed into a large sports arena on the campus of the University of Washington. Though the rally itself underscored why I don’t care for them (uncomfortable seating, eternal waiting times, and a long parade of characters in the introduction component of the program), I nonetheless perceived a clear-eyed candidate, one articulating positions very near to my own; this normally wouldn’t be enough, as Obama had nice things to say but succumbed to frustrating policy dependencies on the big banks and other corporate sectors. Bernie, by contrast, refused to take PAC and corporate money, relying solely on small individual contributions. For the first time in my life, I donated the maximum amount of money to a candidate, noting that finally we might have an electoral prospect ready to upend Mark Hanna’s inviolable postulate that any serious candidate must rely on corporations to win. Bernie not only came within whiskers of nabbing the nomination, he did so without media support. In fact, had the DNC not sabotaged his campaign, we might have President Sanders today. The DNC won’t have so easy a go this time.
Why Bernie in 2020?
Suffice it to say, when Bernie tossed his hat into the ring some weeks ago, I was instantly elated. He’s now nationally known, he’s consistently polled, as of late 2018, to be the most trusted politician in America. He understands clearly, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized during the Great Depression, that popular pressure is the only means of asserting democratic control in the state sector. That is to say, no president, senator, or representative will give us, the population, anything without a fight. FDR was sympathetic to the working class, but he still had to press the labor movements to demand action. I really believe that this feature, above all, can lead to political victory. Nothing is a gift from on high. For instance, when I’m asked about the pitfalls of nationalized health insurance, arguing with flaws in Britain and Canada’s respective programs, I remind folks, as did FDR with respect to economic justice, that no positive policy outcome is free; we have to work at it, and that means demanding justice of all kinds, asserting real citizenship. That’s ours for the taking. America’s is a remarkably free society. Though there are costs to fighting injustice, we probably won’t be beheaded.
Labels versus Commonsense
As mentioned in the above exhaust(ive/ing) list of editorials (if you can dignify them with such an esteemed name), Bernie’s age, whiteness, and stridently conferred labels comes up frequently; even the so-called liberal media apparently believes old people ought be tossed on a desolate iceberg to die. He’s too white, too male, too straight, despite the fact that he, a septuagenarian, single-handedly dragged the policy centroid of the Democratic party closer to that terrifying, scorched-earth leftist extreme of, woe be to us, every other industrial nation on earth. Wonks for Hillary and Obama, following the black man and the white woman, decried Bernie as too far left in demanding infeasible policy objectives, despite Medicare for All polling well, fitting comfortably into infrastructure readiness, and benefiting from serious scholarship on how to implement it while protecting medical professionals; one need only skim the PNHP FAQ for details. Hence, my title for this opinion piece–Bernie is the reason that Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg mostly agree on nationalized health insurance and free higher education. Why, after greatly broadening the party platform, ought he step aside? The Weekseems to agree with me on this. The New York Times carried an opinion piece comparing Bernie to Reagan with respect to historical examples; though I would prefer not comparing Bernie to a president responsible for mass murder in Central America, I understand his aim in describing possible public perception.
And what of nationalization of industry? Is that a policy extreme? Though vilified by analysts above, it has been an economic reality literally for decades. Gigantic multinationals simply would cease to exist were it not for extensive government intervention in the economy. Is economic and healthcare justice far left, whatever that means? Noam Chomsky, referenced by Alternet, has repeatedly argued that Bernie’s policy positions are really mainstream, as Eisenhower himself suggested that any opposition to the New Deal would be so extreme as having no place in political discourse. The Atlantic argues similarly.
And often I read that Bernie having not been a Democrat for most of his career ought disqualify him from the nomination. I’m uncertain whether I’ve ever heard a claim so indescribably stupid when it comes to our political ecosystem, and therefore will only comment that even religions, mostly, admit outsiders who want to join. The point is that political labels are completely vacuous.
Objective : Electability and Commonsense
Bernie is well-liked, unconstrained by private power, and capable of incredible fundraising thanks to his now international recognition. He also has courted fans of Fox News, appearing in a town hall hosted by them and on many of their news programs. This spells electability. Does Bernie offer commonsense solutions to today’s problems? Well, commonsense knows no political philosophy. Catastrophic ecological disaster and nuclear omnicide (something I’ll discuss in my book review of Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine) are the greatest threats to the species since we emerged some three hundred thousand years ago. Trump places brown children in cages, declaring a national emergency at the border. Despite his own departments acknowledging the dangers of climate change, he catapults us closer to the cliff. This should be the national emergency, one Bernie understands. We can salvage our future by selecting a sane, compassionate person for the most powerful office of the world. How? Start talking. Citizenship is not a status–it’s a job.
In April of last year, I wrote a piece on the growing crisis in the misapplications of technology in my line of work: algorithms, machine learning, optimization, and data science. It seems appropriate to include the discussion here on my activist blog.
A special thank you to S. Kelly Gupta for invaluable suggestions, and to George Polisner and Noam Chomsky for taking the time to read an earlier draft and offer encouraging feedback.
A Casting Call for the Conscientious Data Practitioner
For some time now, I’ve planned on writing an article about the very serious risks posed by my trade of choice, data science. And with each passing day, new mishaps, events, and pratfalls delay publishing, as the story evolves even as I write this. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, sporting a smart suit and a booster seat ostensibly to improve morale. Though some interesting topics came up, the discussion was routine, with the requisite fear-mongering from Ted Cruz, the bumbling Orrin Hatch asking how money comes from free things (apparently he forgot to ask Trump about withholding pay from blue-collar contractors), and a few more serious people asking about Cambridge Analytica, such as Kamala Harris querying the lengthy delay in Facebook notifying users of Cambridge, and, surprisingly, John Kennedy panning Facebook’s user agreement as “CYA” nonsense.
The tired, public relations newspeak of the mythical well-meaning, self-regulating corporations accompanies happily the vague acknowledgements of responsibility around certain things we heard from Zuckerberg, along with references to proprietary and thus unknowable strategies almost in place. And though I doubt Congress in its current state can impose any reasonable regulations, nor would those in charge be capable of formulating anything short of a lobbyist’s Christmas list, my intention here is to argue for something more substantial : a dialog must begin among technologists, particularly data practitioners, about the proper role of the constructs we wield, as those constructs are powerful and dangerous. And it isn’t just because a Russian oligarch might want Donald Trump to be president, or because financial institutions happily risk economic collapse at the opportunity to make a few bucks; data has the power to confer near omnipotence to the state, generate rapid, vast capital for a narrow few at expense of the many, and provide a scientifically-sanctioned cudgel to pound the impoverished and the vulnerable. Malignant actors persist and abound, but complacency among the vast cadre of well-intentioned technologists reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s discussion of the “white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” So I must clarify that I’m writing not to the bad people who already understand quite well the stakes, but to my fellow conscientious practitioners, particularly those among us who fear consequences to career or suffer under the peculiar delusion that we have no power. Consequences are real, but we as technologists wield great power, and that power is more than additive when we work together. The United States is unusually free, perhaps in the whole of human history, in that we can freely express almost any idea with little or no legal ramification. Let’s use that freedom together.
A Lasting Legacy : Power and Responsibility
Fifty-one years ago last February, Noam Chomsky authored a prescient manifesto admonishing his fellow intellectuals to wield the might and freedom they enjoy to expose misdeeds and lies of the state. Much of his discussion dwells on the flagrant dishonesty of particular actors as their public pronouncements evolved throughout the heinous crime that is the Vietnam War, and in more recent discussions, such as those appearing in Boston Reviewin 2011, describe the significant divide between intellectuals stumping for statism versus the occasional Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg, and Bertrand Russell:
The question resonates through
the ages, in one or another
form, and today offers a
framework for determining the
“responsibility of intellectuals.”
The phrase is ambiguous: does it
refer to intellectuals’ moral
responsibility as decent human
beings in a position to use their
privilege and status to advance
the causes of freedom, justice,
mercy, peace, and other such
sentimental concerns? Or does it
refer to the role they are expected
to play, serving, not derogating,
leadership and established institutions?
We technologists, a flavor of intellectuals, have ascended within existing institutions rapidly, for fairly obvious reasons. More specifically, those of us in data science are enjoying a bonanza of opportunities, as institutions readily hire us in record numbers to sort out their data needs, uniformly across the public, private, good, bad, large, small dimensions. We’re inheriting remarkable power and authority, and we ought approach it with respect and conscience. Data, though profoundly beneficial and dangerous, is still just a tool whose moral value is something we as its priesthood, if you will, can and ought determine. Chomsky’s example succinctly captures how we should view it :
Technology is basically neutral.
It's kind of like a hammer.
The hammer doesn't care whether
you use it to build a house or
crush somebody's skull.
We can ascribe more nuance, with mixed results.
Data is Good? Evidence Abounds
I suspect I’m preaching to the choir if I remark on the impressive array of accomplishments made possible by data and corresponding analyses. I believe the successes are immense and plentiful, and little investigative rigor is necessary here in the world of high tech to note how our lives are bettered by information technology. Woven throughout the many successes, more subtly to the untrained eye than I or similar purists would prefer, is statistics, and the ensuing sexy taxonomy of machine learning, big data, analytics, and myriad other newfangled neologisms. The study of random phenomena has made much of this possible, and I’d invite eager readers to take a look at C.R. Rao’s survey of such studies in Statistics and Truth.
I’m in this trade because I love it, I love science, I love technology, I love what it can do for you and me, and I’m in a fantastic toyland which I never want to leave. So I must be very clear that I am no Luddite, nor would I advocate, except in narrow cases (see below), technological regression; the universal utility of much of what has emerged from human ingenuity has served to lengthen my life, afford me time to do the work I want, and make me comfortable. Though the utility is so far very unevenly shared, I do believe we’ve made tremendous progress, and the potential is limitless. So I’d entreat the reader potentially resistant to these ideas to brandish Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” then judge for oneself. My primary objective here is to begin a dialog. Now for some of the hard stuff.
Data is Bad? There is Evil, and There Are Malignant Actors
Evils of technology also are innumerable, as the very large, growing contingency of victims of drone attacks, guns, bombs, nuclear attacks and accidents, war in general, and so on, will attest. Surveying the risks of technology leaves the current scope long behind, but it’s worth paying attention to the malignant consequences of runaway technology. I’ll be reviewing Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine on my other blog soon; suffice it to say the book is good, the story is awful. The book is a sobering, meticulous analysis of the most dangerous technology ever created, and how reckless and stupid planners were in safeguarding said technology. Here, we’ll stick just to problems arising from bad data science, and the bad actors, be it ideologues, the avaricious, the careless, or the malevolent.
We ought consider momentarily the current state of affairs : Taylor Armerding of CSO compiled the greatest breaches of the current century, attempting to quantify the damage done in each case. Since the publication of his summary, the Cambridge Analytica / Facebook scandal has emerged, sketching a broad “psychographic” campaign to manipulate users into surrendering priceless data and fomenting discord. Quite dramatically, a 2016 memo leaked from within Facebook shows executive Andrew Bosworth quipping,
[m]aybe someone dies in a
terrorist attack coordinated
on our tools [...]
[a]nd still we connect people.
In other words, “don’t bother washing the blood off your money as you give it to us.” Slate offers an interesting indictment on the business model that has rendered the exigencies of data theft, content pollution, and societal discord concrete, imminent contingencies. And most recently, Forbes reports that an LGBT dating app called Grindr apparently permits backdoor acquisition of highly sensitive user data, endangering users and betraying their physical location. And the first reported fatality due to driverless technology deployed by Uber occurred in Arizona this month, generating a frenzy of concerns around the safety and appropriateness of committing these vehicles into the public transportation grid. The reaction I noted on the one social media platform I use, LinkedIn, was tepid, ranging from despairing emoticons to flagrant, arrogant pronouncements that this is the cost of the technology. I also observed a peculiar response to those unhappy about the lack of security around user data : blame the victims. The responses vary from the above declaration of cost of convenience to disdain for the lowly users in need of rescue from boredom, discussed by one employee of Gartner, a research firm :
let's be honest about
one thing: we all agree that
we give up a significant part
of our privacy when we decide
to create an account on Facebook[;]
[w]e exchange a part of our private
life for a free application that
prevents us from being bored most
time of the day.
I’d refer this person to Bosworth’s memorandum, though he, like CNN in 2010, likely hadn’t seen it before venturing such drivel. I interpreted their argument as a public relations vanguard aimed at corporate indemnification. Certainly, an alarming number of terms and conditions agreements aim to curtail class action lawsuits and, where legal, eliminate all redress through the court system. On its face, this sounds ludicrous, as the court system is precisely the public apparatus for resolving civil disputes. Arbitration somehow is a thing, with Heritage and concentrations of private power reliably defending it as freer than the public infrastructure over which citizens exercise some control, however meager. Sheer genius is necessary to read
[n]o one is forced into arbitration[;]
[t]o begin with, arbitration is not
“forced” on consumers[...] [a]n obvious
point is that “no one forces an
individual to sign a contract[,]”
and interpret it any other way than that the freedom to live without technology is a desirable, or even plausible arrangement; Captain Fantastic, anyone?
Maybe it’s a question of volume, as catechismic, shrill chanting that we have no privacy eventually compels educated people write the utter nonsense above. If one were to advance the argument further, it’s akin to blaming the victims of the engineering flaws in Ford’s Pinto; after all, the car rescues the lower strata of society from having to walk or taxi everywhere they want to go, and death by known engineering flaws is the cost of doing business. The arrogance evokes Project SCUM, the internal designation for a marketing campaign tobacco giant Camel aimed at gays and the homeless in San Francisco in the 1990s.
Governments cause even greater harm, exhibited in Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on the NSA’s pet project to spy on you and me, code-named PRISM. Comparably disconcerting, Science Alert reported this week that the development of drone technology leaving target acquisition in the control of artificial intelligence is almost complete, meaning drones can murder people using inscrutable and ultimately unaccountable data models. State-of-the-art robotic vision mistakes dogs for blueberry muffins in anywhere from one to ten percent of static images analyzed, depending on the neural network model, meaning a drone aiming at a muffin would destroy one to ten percent of the dogs mistaken, and this is training on static imagery! Imagine the difficulties in a dynamic field-of-view with exceedingly narrow time windows necessary to overcome errors. Human-controlled drones already represent enormous controversy, operating largely in secret without legislative or judicial review under the direction of the executive branch of the American government. Who must answer for a runaway fleet of drones? What if they’re hijacked?
More locally, Guardian recently unmasked the racist facial recognition models deployed by law enforcement agencies, bemoaning the existence of “unregulated algorithms.” I’d wager the capability to reverse-engineer a machine learning model to steal private data receives great attention among adversarial actors and private corporations. I can remember in my first job many years ago being in a discussion over an accidental leak of a few lines of FORTRAN to a subcontractor, to which I naively queried, “Why are we in business with someone we think would steal from us?” A manager calmly replied that anyone and everyone would steal, and in any way they can. Maybe it’s true, but I’d like to believe there’s more to countervailing passive resistance than meets the eye. In any case, data science and artificial technology are tools co-opted for sinister and dangerous purposes, and we ought try to remember that.
Data is Ugly? Errors and Injustice, Manned and Unmanned
Data needs no bad actor or vicious intent to be misleading. Rao refers to numerous unintentional examples of data misuse within the scientific record, peppered throughout the works of luminaries such as Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, Galilei Galileo, John Dalton, and Robert Millikan, as documented by geneticist J.B.S. Haldane and Broad and Wade’s Betrayers of the Truth. For instance, the precision Newton provided for the gravitational constant is well beyond his capacity to measure, and Mendel’s genetic models could explain the recorded data only with astronomical probability, suggesting either transcription errors or blatant cherrypicking. Rao notes
[w]hen a scientist was
convinced of his theory,
there was a temptation to
look for "facts" or distort
facts to fit the theory[; t]he
concept of agreement with theory
within acceptable margins of
error did not exist until the
statistical methodology of
testing of hypotheses was
That is, statistical illiteracy can only compound the problem of “fixing intelligence and facts around the policy,” to paraphrase the infamous Downing Street Memo.
Statistical literacy doesn’t guarantee good outcomes, even with honest representation. Data can reinforce wretched social outcomes by identifying the results of similar failed policies of the past. For instance, everyone knows African Americans are more likely to be harassed by police. Thus, they’re more likely to be arrested, indicted, charged, and convicted of crimes. Machine learning algorithms identify outcomes and race as significantly interdependent, and new policy dictates that police should carefully monitor these same people. Asking why we ought trust an inscrutable model is unmentionable, reminding me that earlier propagandists invoked the “will of God” as justification for slavery, and later, the “free market” requires that some people be so poor that they starve. Maybe elites always require some ethereal reason for the suffering we permit to pass in silence. Anecdotally on racism, a myopic cohort once pronounced triumphantly to me that racists aren’t basing their prejudice on skin color, but on other features correlated with skin color. The Ouroboros, or some idiotic variant, comes to mind.
Weapons of Math Destruction : Destructive Models
Cathy O’Neil in Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs) ponders such undesirable social outcomes of big data crippling the poor and the disadvantaged. Within the trade, dumb money describes the proceeds mined and fleeced from vulnerable populations. The money poor people have ranges from real estate to be reverse-mortgaged, poverty and veteran status to leverage for education grants and loans, desperation of the poor in the form of title loans, payday loans, and other highly destructive financial arrangements. Myriad examples of startups and firms abound, from for-profit online education firms like Vatterott and Corinthian Colleges targeting veterans and the poor to cash in on student loans, and their enabling advertising firms such as Neutron Interactive post fake job ads to cull poor people’s phone numbers to blast them with exaggerated ads. Thinktank Learning, and similar firms model student success, helping universities and colleges game the U.S. News and World Report ranking system, a perfect example of a WMD. Comstat and Hunchlab help resource-starved police departments profile citizens based on geography, mixing nuisance crimes with the more violent variant and strengthening racial stereotypes. Courts rely now on opaque models to assess risk of convicts, determining sentences accordingly, according to a piece in Wired last year. Ought we understand the reasons why two criminals convicted of the same crime receive different sentences? The book is very much worth a read. Her own journey is revealing, having been an analyst at D.E. Shaw around the time of the market crash.
Data has accumulated over the years that ETS’s prized Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a test required for candidacy in most American graduate programs,
operates in darkness, inscrutably like many such “psycho-social” metrics.
My own personal experience with the examination is kind of interesting and comical : I’m apparently incapable of writing. Being a south paw, my penmanship is atrocious, but I seem to remember having typed the essay… Kidding aside, acquiring feedback from them was impossible, and they led me to believe that the essay receives grades via an electronic proofreader. I guess no one remained who could interpret the algorithm’s outputs.
A more serious question O’Neil raises is that machine learning models suffer many of the same biases and preferences born by their architects; I think of ETS reinforcing malignant stereotypes, a kind of “graduate ethnic cleansing.” Algorithms running for Title Max target the poor, making them poorer still. More seriously, what are these models trying to optimize, and is it desirable behavior?
The Problem of Proxies
O’Neil offers that part of the problem with building opaque data models to inform real world decisions is that the real world objective we’d like to improve is poorly proxied: unsuitable substitutes seem to be hogging the constraints. For instance, how can an algorithm quantify whether a person is happy? Happiness is something we all seem to understand (or think we do), and we can generally spot it or its shaded counterpart with little effort. Millions of years have chiseled, then kneaded the gentle ridges of the prefrontal cortex to lasting import. Algorithms might read any number of interesting features, and unlike consciousness itself, I suspect happiness, or at least its biological underpinnings, is something an algorithm could predict, but any definition suffers limitations. My earliest intuitions in mathematics led me to believe that any state can be reproduced with sufficient insight into the operating principles. Though the academy has largely reinforced what I used to call the “dice theory” (and I was all-too-proud to have dreamed it up myself), Galileo lamented centuries ago, as have others more recently, including Hume, Bertrand, and Chomsky, that the mechanical philosophy simply isn’t tenable. More narrowly, we may be incapable as we are now to effectively proxy very important soft science social metrics. I believe misunderstanding this may be fueling the insatiable appetite of start-up funding for applications lengthening prison sentences, undercutting college applicants, burdening teachers with arbitrary, easily falsified standards, bankrupting the poor, and harassing and profiling the most vulnerable. Is society better off with young black men fearing to walk the street at night with the justified concern of being murdered?
A striking example of poor proxying is invoking the stock market as the barometer of the economy. And this is something I see in social media time and time again. Missing from the euphoria is that for nearly fifty years, the Gini index is positively correlated with the S&P 500, the former measuring economic inequality and the latter indexing the “health” of the stock market. That is, as the stock market becomes healthier, the distribution of the money supply drifts away from the uniform. Not coincidentally, this behavior seems to begin right around Nixon shock, or the deregulation of finance and the dismantling of Bretton-Woods. In his 2004 book The Conservative Nanny State, economist Dean Baker discusses “perverse incentives” in maximizing incorrect proxies in patent trolling, wasteful copycat drug development, and the like. The U.S. Constitution guarantees copyright protection to promote development of science, contravened by wasting sixty percent of research and development money on marketing and replicated research.
Even in a more seemingly innocuous setting, say social media, do we see deep problems in proxies. Shares and likes become the currency of interaction, and social desirability need not interfere for most. I’ve noticed in my own experiences in writing comments online that a frenetic vigilance overcomes me if I feel I’ve been misunderstood or have given the wrong sort of offense, as I’m (perhaps pathologically) hardwired to care about the feelings of others. By interacting online rather than in-person, a host of nonverbal cues and information are absent, forcing us to rely on very weak proxies. Psychology Todaytouched on this in 2014, and I suspect the growing body of evidence that flitting, vapid interactions online are damaging social intelligence demonstrates that the atomization of American culture is in no way served by social media.
Admittedly, the story seems dire, but belying the deafening silence is a groundswell of conscientious practitioners, fragmented and diffuse, but pervasive and circumspect.
The Courage to Speak
When I discuss any of the above with cohorts privately, a very large fraction agree on the dangers of misusing this technology; reflexive is incorrect habituated resignation, especially in America where illusory impotence reigns supreme. And so I see very little in the way of commentary on these issues from tradespersons themselves, though a handful from my network are reliable in discussing controversy. Perhaps the psychology is simpler : is it fear of blowback and risks to career of the kind Eugene Gu is experiencing with Vanderbilt? Certainly even popular athletes face blacklisting, Colin Kaepernick being an exemplar. Speaking out is risky, but silence strengthens what Chomsky calls “institutional stupidity“, of which some of the above quotes embody.
The point I’m trying to drive home is that the responsibility of we the technologists demands an end to controversy aversion; we simply MUST begin talking about what we do. Make no mistake, the ensuing void of silence emboldens demagoguery in malignant actors, such as the aforementioned projections on unmanned, computer-controlled drone warfare, further deterioration of the criminal justice system, exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, and wrecking the global economic system. Further, refusing to speak out assures a platform for desperately irresponsible, dangerous responses of blaming or ridiculing the victims, a sort of grinding salt in the wounds. Consider the extreme variant of the latter : Rick Santorum, Republican brain trust, has sagely admonished school shooting survivors to learn CPR rather than protest and organize to demand safety, and Laura Ingraham, shrill, imbecilic Fox host, has gleefully tweeted juvenile insults at one of the outspoken survivors. Why would we relegate damage done by runaway data science as the cost of doing business, if we can clearly perceive the elitism and cynicism in the above? Silence may seem safe, but is it really? Ignoring sharpening income inequality, skyrocketing incarceration rates, and stratification and segregation has a cost : Trumps of the world become leaders, the downtrodden looking to demagogues.
The Coming Storm Following the Dream
With each public relations disaster and each discovery of flagrant disregard for users and their precious private data, we hurtle toward what I believe are an inevitable series of lawsuits and criminal investigations leading to public policy we ought to help direct. C.R. Rao wrote some years ago regarding a lawsuit against the government failing to act to save fishermen from a predictable typhoon, plaintiffs’ chief issue being that the coast guard failed to repair a broken buoy :
[s]uch instances will be rare,
but none-the-less may discourage
statistical consultants from
venturing into new or more
challenging areas and restrict
the expansion of statistics.
The General Data Protections Regulation, or (GDPR), organized by the European Union, is perhaps one of the broadest frameworks ratified by any national or supranational body. This coming May, the framework will supersede the Data Protective Directive of 1995. The US government has regulated privacy and data with respect to education since 1974 with FERPA and medicine since 1996 with HIPAA. Yet court precedent hasn’t yet determined the interpretation of these acts with respect to machine learning models built on sensitive data. What will an American variant of GDPR look like? Practitioners ought have a say, and the more included in the discussion, the better the outcome. But this sort of direction requires coordination, and because of the unique and difficult work we do, we are fractured from one another and more susceptible to dogmatism around the misnamed American brand of libertarianism. The American dream is available to technologists (and almost no one else), whence a rigidity of certain non-collectivist values, enumerated in a study conducted by Thomas Corley for Business Insider : the rub is that wealthy people believe very strongly in self-determination, and assume they are responsible for their good fortune. I think of it as the “I like the game when I’m winning” phenomenon, and like most deep beliefs, some kernel of truth is there. We could spend considerable time just debating these difficulties, and my being married to a psychiatrist offers uncomfortable insight. In any case, discussions surrounding this are ubiquitous, and my opinions, though somewhat unconventional, are straightforward. Historically, collective stands are easier to make and less risky than those alone. In semi-skilled and clerical trades, we called these collections “unions.” Professional societies such as the AMA, the ASA, the IEEE, and so on, are the periwinkle-to-white collar approximations, with the important similarity that collectively asserting will just simply works better. And yet, we in data science have little in the way of such a framework. It’s worth understanding why.
Cosmic Demand Sans Trade Union
The skyrocketing demand for new data science and machine learning technology, together with a labor dogmatism peculiar to the United States have left us, so it would seem, without a specific trade union that is independent of corporations and responsible for governing trade ethics and articulating public policy initiatives. Older technology trades have something approximating a union in the professional societies such as IEEE and the American Statistical Association; like the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, these agencies offer codes of ethical practices and publications detailing the latest comings and goings in government regulation, technology, and the like. Certainly, the discussion occurs here and there, though Steve Lohr’s 2013 piece in the New York Times summarizing a panel discussion at Columbia hinted a common refrain in our trade:
[t]he privacy and surveillance
perils of Big Data came up only
in passing[...] during a
question-and-answer portion of
one panel, Ben Fried,
Google’s chief information
officer, expressed a misgiving[:]
“[m]y concern is that the
technology is way ahead of society[.]
That is, we all know we have a problem, but little is happening in the way of addressing it. A smattering of public symposia have emerged on certain moral considerations around artificial intelligence, though much of what is easily unearthed is some older articulations by Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, and older still those by Isaac Asimov. These often take the form of dystopian prognostications of robot intelligence, though I agree with Chomsky that we’re perhaps light years away from understanding even the basic elements of human cognition, and that replicating anything resembling that is not on the horizon. Admittedly, my starry-eyed interest in Kurzweil’s projected singularity is what pulled me into computer science, but Emerson warns us that intellectual inflexibility belongs to small minds. Fear-mongering of the future brings me to a spirit we ought exorcise early and often.
Unemployment and Automation : A New(ish) Bogeyman
No discussion of the impact of our technology would be complete without paying a little attention to the fevered musings and catastrophization of mass unemployment due to automation. We as a society of technologists ought have a simple answer to this, namely that the post-industrial revolution mindset of compulsory employment as monetized by imagined market forces is illogical, inefficient, and unnecessarily dangerous to who we are and what we do. Even less charitably, slavish genuflection to the free market mania is an obstacle, rather than a catalyst, to progress, as the complexities of civilization necessitate a more nuanced economic framework. Though we’d need another article or so for better justification for the foregoing, I’ll skip to the conclusion to say that we must restore and strengthen public investment in technology democratically and transparently, casting off militarization and secrecy. A good starting place is the realization that virtually all high tech began in the public sector, and that’s a model that serves both society and technologists. It also organically nurtures trade consortia of the variety described above. In any case, the principal existential threats we face have nothing to do with mass employment, though thwarting those threats, nuclear proliferation and catastrophic climate change, might require it.
Triage and Final Thoughts
Answering these current events demands responsible, courageous public discourse, appropriately supporting victims and formulating strategies to avert the totally preventable disasters above. We should organize a professional society free of corporate, and initially governmental, interference, comprised of statisticians, analysts, machine learning scientists, data scientists, artificial intelligence scientists, and so on, so that we can internally by conference
collectively educate ourselves about the ramifications of our work, such as reading work by trade specialists such as O’Neil,
jointly draft position papers on requests for technical opinions by government and supranational organizations, such as a recent request from NIH,
dialog openly about corporate malfeasance,
draft articles scientifically explaining how best to regulate our work to safeguard and empower the public (eloquently stated in Satya’s mission statement),
exchange ideas and broaden our trade perspective,
collectively sketch safe, sensible guidelines around implementations of pie-in-the-sky technology (such as self-driving cars), and
strategize how to redress public harm when it happens.
A few technologists, such as George Polisner, have very publicly taken stands against executive docility with respect to the Trump administration; his building of the social media platform civ.works is a great step in evangelizing elite activism, and, of course, privacy guarantees no data company will offer. Admittedly, we all need not necessarily surrender positions in industry in order to address controversy, but we can and must talk to each other. Talk to human beings affected by our work. Talk to our neighbors. Talk to our opponents. The ugly legal and political fallout awaiting us is really just a hapless vanguard of the much more dangerous elite cynicism and complacency. How do we ready ourselves for tomorrow’s challenges? It begins with a dialog, today.
Dean Baker, progressive, activist, economist, was kind enough to share some time for an interview. Readers following my blog from its earliest days will recall the extensive series of reviews of his book, The Conservative Nanny State, so scoring some time with Dean is indeed a coup. For those who bear cynicism toward establishment economics, Dean’s star shines brightly, having predicted and warned of the 2008 housing crash as early as 2002. Deeply committed to progressive causes, this powerhouse economist counters decisively the bipartisan consensus psychosis in Washington, dispensing easily with wrongheaded policy considerations such as Chicken Little on Social Security, or the commitment to endless, savage wars abroad. He also is the type of dog lover who adopts the infirm and elderly, a true class act. So without further delay, let us jump right into the discussion.
As with my previous interview, my cognitive difficulties of late slow my interaction, so bear with me; I’ve edited the discussion for ease of listening.
NP Slagle: Welcome to Scire Populum et Potentiam, to know the people and power. I’m very happy to have Dr. Dean Baker, economist at the Economic Policy Institute and co-founder and economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, where he serves as a senior economist. He’s authored over 10 books in economics. One of which was my gateway drug into his works, The Conservative Nanny State. I wrote an extensive six-part review on this book as I found it in my own ignorance of economics a revelation. This is among a very short list of books I would recommend to every American. Dean regularly contributes op-eds to news journals such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Truthout. He’s an analyst that I believe should appear in every economic debate in the televised news media. Therefore, he’s not included in every economic debate. If I believe it should happen, it probably doesn’t. In any case, welcome Dean. I very much appreciate having you.
Dean Baker: Thanks for having me on.
NPS: Yeah. Absolutely. Just to give a little bit of background as I mentioned in the intro, your book, The Conservative Nanny State was my introduction to your works. I heard Noam Chomsky mention the “nanny state” a few times in different talks but it wasn’t until he mentioned your name that it occurred to me that the term might be more than just something that he had created. I looked it up and I found this book. The simplicity of the book, so therefore the reachability, the accessibility of it is incredible. Certainly, it jived with my own speculation about economics to begin with. Certainly makes it a lot clearer and coming from an expert like you, it’s pretty powerful stuff.
NPS: So before we get into your origins, what do you think an economist is? What is it that you do versus what is it do most economist do? Where are the conflicts?
DB: Yeah. I think economics inevitably involves some fairly complex issues, studying data, analyze data, and knowing how to make sense of statistics. From my view though, as an economist and obviously there’s division of labor here: I do do some primary analysis myself, but first and foremost I see my responsibility as making this information available and as understandable to people as possible. It’s common for economists to throw up their hands and go, “Oh, this is complicated. People can’t understand it.” I think that is really being a cop out. Our responsibility is to talk about this in terms people can understand. At the end of the day, I believe in democracy. People can’t make intelligent choices unless they understand what’s at stake. The big economic issues have huge impact on people’s lives. If they don’t understand how those choices are being determined, how those policies are being determined, you don’t have a real democracy. I think first and foremost, my job is about looking at important economic issues and trying to present them in ways that are understandable to people. I mean I don’t mind saying that. I’m not going to deny I have a progressive bent. I think we have too much inequality. I think people should be able to count on the necessities of life, all that. But I think we will get there best by making the issues clear to people. I think most people basically agree with those things. Any case, the point is people have to understand first and foremost what’s at issue. It can be done. I just think a lot of economist, I sometimes joke about it. I think the economy is too simple for economists to understand.
NPS: Right, right. I like that.
DB: I make things simple, not complicated.
NPS: Certainly, the abridged education that I’ve had in economics has been built around laissez-faire market ideology, that the free market will be able to deliver the very best products and services for the best value, [while d]iscounting considerable obstacles to that kind of optimization. I think that what I’ve seen at least in the limited social media that I look at on this topic and this is looking at what fellow technologists are thinking about these things. They’re pretty well hung up on this notion that profits proxy for everything that’s good. To me that seems more a dogma than something that’s actually underwritten by the facts.
DB: Yeah. Well, profits … what I always like to say we should think of the market as a tool. It could be a very, very powerful tool. The point is we structure, we decided how the tool will be used. We’re don’t want people to make profits selling heroin. We banned that now. Obviously, you have a black market but we do ban. We’re better off if people made profits on legally selling heroin. It’s an arguable point. I think probably not but that’s an arguable point. In any case, for now, at least we don’t allow that. We don’t allow it legally. The whole point of certainly Conservative Nanny State really much of my writings, we structure markets to decide how profits are made.
DB: My most obvious example here, patent and copyright monopolies. The idea somehow these are intrinsic; that Microsoft just has a copyright on Windows and they can make a huge amount of money on that. Well, you could argue that’s a good or bad thing. That’s not just the market. That was a government policy. We decide Microsoft can get a copyright and make a lot of money on it. We’re going to arrest people if they start mass producing copies of computers that contain Windows and they’re not paying Bill Gates’ money. Again, we could argue where there’s good or bad thing but that was something we designed. That was how we structured the market. What I do in Conservative Nanny State and other work is make a point: here’s how we’re structuring the market. Again, you could argue, someone could defend the copyright system and say the current system’s the best we could do and that’s an arguable proposition but we have to understand, that’s not simply a market that was given to us. That was how we chose to structure it.
NPS: Exactly. That there’s a legal framework underwriting all of that and that it’s not that somebody sat in a room and spent a long time working on some wonky optimization problem and said, “I know what will work best. We’ll just have a copyright system.” I always thought it was bananas that I would see popular songs that we might sing like Christmas carols and you’ll find that they have copyrights from one hundred and twenty years ago. At least whatever’s listed in the fake book. The fake book’s pretty old.
DB: Yeah. It gets pretty crazy and both copyrights and patents have bizarre applications. Some of the extreme ones I remember hearing that there’s… I’m forgetting the names of them [possibly General Patent and Web Defense Systems?]. Now, there’s two main services that are involved in enforcing copyrights. If a radio station plays copyright music, they have to pay a fee. If say you have a restaurant or a bar, and you’re playing copyrighted music, you’re supposed to pay. I’m sure most of them don’t but in principle, you’re supposed to pay. Anyhow, one of them was going after the campfire girls because they were singing copyrighted songs. You get some pretty wacky examples.
NPS: Right. That you have to have a powerful nanny state to enforce those kinds of things.
DB: Yeah, yeah. This is very far from a free market.
DB: They’re all sitting around the campfire and they’re singing whatever songs. Now, we’re going to have the government come in there and say, “Oh, you have to pay whatever amount to so and so has the copyright on these.”
NPS: Right. I doubt seriously that my coworkers and bosses over at Microsoft would want me to say this but I’ll say it anyway. I don’t believe that the patenting and the copyright system has done justice to the software industry at all. I feel like Microsoft, Gates and Allen were able to exploit the open architecture, hardware architecture and so on in order to be able to build an operating system on top of that that they made proprietary. Because of the fact that it is proprietary and they’ve spent all of this time trying to ensure that those copyrights stay in place, we end up with products that frankly are subpar. I even told them that in my interview there. I told them that in my interview.
DB: They hired you anyhow.
NPS: Yeah. They called me back that day.
DB: They really wanted you.
NPS: Yeah, yeah. Either it speaks to their desperation or their desperation I guess, either or.
DB: Yeah. Or maybe they had admirable respect for freedom of thought. We’d like to be optimistic about that. I don’t know that’s the case but we could be optimistic that way. I’m not an expert on software. You clearly know much, much more about it but I’ve heard that from many others, that much of what when the original DOS, the pre-runner of Windows was taken from various forms of open software-
DB: On the government tab. Of course, it becomes proprietary and I don’t know anyone as a regular user of Windows computers, which I am that’s very happy with if you gave me the option of the computer 20 years ago and the computer I had today, you know, there’re some things clearly better but a lot of things are not. It’s not as though we could look back over the last two decades and go, “Wow! There’ve been all this great innovations, the software I have today in my computer is so much better than what I had two decades ago.” I for one would be able to say that.
NPS: And actually internally at Microsoft, this is pretty well the opinion that we get every year when we do the internal surveys. Of the pillar issues that they ask opinions on, the most troublesome for the company are the tools that we have to use internally. And though they are slightly better than what you see on the outside, just because, we’re constantly being guinea pigged, and they’re constantly trying to make sure that our systems are reliable, it’s not a good thing. The other tech companies I’ve worked at where they’re basing their systems more on open source software, much more reliability. I mean the difference is night and day. But it also raises another interesting point that I’ve brought up with some of my coworkers when they ask questions about these kinds of things. It’s one thing to patent, or copyright a complex algorithm that you can use to achieve some particular goal. And let’s say that an individual wants to benefit from that and see that others are not able to steal his work, that’s different from a company doing it. And it’s also different when we’re talking about the scale and the scope of these algorithms. I like to ask them, “How would you like to have to pay a fee every time you used the addition operator in your code?” I mean, it gets to a point where it’s just obscene. That’s like having a plumber install a toilet in your house and then you have to pay for every time you flush it.
DB: Yeah. With our intellectual property system in general, I think there’s been very little thought in the design as to, “Is this really optimal?” And you could argue for patents, you could argue for copyrights, but I think you’d be very hard pressed to look at the system we have today and say, “This is the best we could do.” And you have a lot of things that are almost like, paying for every time you flush the toilet. I mean, particularly when you get to research tools, this comes up more with patents I think than copyrights, but a lot of times you have research tools, but because their patented, they hugely raise the cost of research.
NPS: Right, absolutely. And to say nothing of medical equipment and then the pharmaceutical industry. So my father-in-law worked for Dial and for Pfizer and he let me in on a lot of the tricks that they use for evergreening, that I wrote about actually in the book review that I did for your book because I wanted to augment it with some of the information that he was giving me about how they are able to, by virtue of the way that they do the research, you end up with a mirror copy of drug molecules and usually there’s some utility to those. And it’s not necessarily the utility you’d planned, but you get to double dip and get two patents for the price of one. But I think the number that bothers me the most is the copycat drug share of the market, to me it’s obscene. So tell me a little bit about that.
DB: Yeah. Well, again we get into a strange debate, at least I find often it gets very strange when we talk about parents and prescription drugs because of course, it costs a lot of money to do research and developing new drugs and someone has to pay for that. But the question, what is the best way to do that? And again, we’ve settled on the patent system where basically what we’re doing is we’re telling companies, “Go ahead, do research and then we’ll give you a patent,” and then you basically get a monopoly on it for 20 years. You were saying with evergreening, they often find ways to extend that for number of years. Another way it’s not quite evergreening, it’s kind of a variation, is that often times companies will have several patents on a drug, and the main one may expire, and then what they do is they have a very dubious patent that they claim to prevent competitors from marketing their drug, marketing as a generic. And even though it may not stand up in court, you have an incredible asymmetry: you’re looking to come in there as the generic entry, well, you’re looking to be able to sell it at a competitive market price, that might be a 10th, even a 20th, maybe even less of what the price Pfizer charges. So there’s an incredible asymmetry if you envision a lawsuit, Pfizer stands much more to lose than the generic does to gain, which means that they are prepared to spend a lot of money in the lawsuit. It doesn’t make sense for the generic spend anything remotely comparable, because they don’t stand to gain that much. So often, Pfizer could have a patent, but they know it’s very weak, but they’ll just tell a generic that’s trying to enter, “Well, we’re going to contest this and if we lose, we’re going to appeal it. We’ll appeal to the Supreme Court. You’re going to be buried in legal fees. It’s just not worth your while.” And that’s often a way to keep generics out of the market because for them it just doesn’t make sense. Getting back to the basic picture, this is one of the things I often say to people when I’m giving a talk. I often begin, “Drugs are cheap.” And they immediately think I’m nuts. And the point that I make with that is that almost invariably they’re cheap to produce. So if you just talked about manufacturing the drug profitably, in most cases that would be $10, $15, maybe $30 to outside per prescription, and we know this because there are generic drugs here and in other countries; India as a world class generic industry, they produce very high quality drugs and in almost all cases they’re very, very cheap, whereas if they’re patent protected, they could sell for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and again, it’s because they have a monopoly on a drug people need for the health and need for their life. It’s an absurd situation where people are struggling in trying to get their insurer to pay [for] hepatitis C [drugs]. There’s been several drugs recently, but originally Sovaldi was the first breakthrough drug that could cure hepatitis C, which is a debilitating, sometimes deadly disease, for $80,000 per three month course of treatment, incredibly expensive. So insurers didn’t want to pay people who were on Medicaid, other government programs, government didn’t want to pay. And you had articles about this as a big moral dilemma. Should they pay it for everyone? A lot of people with hepatitis C have lived, they’re drug addicts, they’ve done things in their life that you might say weren’t very good, should we pay $84,000 for them to be treated? And I’ll just say, okay, that’s good question. I mean, I’d probably be inclined to pay it, but whatever, some people saying no. They go, “Well actually it doesn’t cost $84,000 to manufacture this drug. It costs $200 or $300.” Again, we know this because that’s what the generics in India could sell it for. And again, they make money. They’re not charities. Like $200 or $300, that’s really a no brainer. I mean, you’re only going to spent $300 to save someone’s life, to cure them of a debilitating disease? I mean, even if they got it because they were drug addicts or whatever, that’d be nuts. So we create this huge problem for ourselves with how are we going to pay for these expensive drugs, when they wouldn’t be expensive if we didn’t have the patent monopolies. As they say, it’s a very, very perverse way of financing drug research and again, we have to pay for it. So I don’t argue that, I talk about other ways to pay for it, mostly through direct pay for the funding research upfront. Pay for it upfront and have it be in the public domain. But the current system I just think is incredibly backward, and it’s a big deal economically, but even more so this is people’s health, people’s lives.
NPS: Right, yeah. Chomsky’s read on the history of technology has been something that’s similar, that in essence, the computers that we’re using right now to talk in the vast international and actually trans-national communications network, originally it was just going to be a coast to coast network for communication. All of it was developed in the public sector, and the public sector bore the risk and lots of things didn’t pan out that we don’t hear about, but nonetheless, it was not a free market that delivered computers to us or the internet or a lot of the R&D as you point out in your books, a lot of the R&D that goes into the development of these drugs.
DB: Yeah. And even as it stands, with the National Institutes of Health, they get $40 billion a year from the federal government. Again, most of that is more basic research, so it’s not common that they’re actually developing drugs, but there are cases, important cases, AZT, the first major AIDS drugs, that was actually developed by NIH money. It was developed as a cancer drug that turned out not to be an effective cancer drug. And then in the 80s, several, probably Burroughs Wellcome was the big one, they then tested it an AIDS drug where it turned out to be an effective treatment, but a very large chunk of the expense, certainly developing the drug originally and as I understand, even some of the research done by Burroughs Wellcome was financed by the federal government. So again, you look at drug after drug, someone did an analysis recently looking at drugs that were in the last, I forget how far back they went, like last decade. Every single one of them, had a major role for federal funding. That’s not to say the industry didn’t do something. In most cases they made substantial contributions, but the point was they were building on work done by the federal government.
NPS: Right. And probably like the big banks underwritten by the federal government at the same time. So you have this extremely skewed, loss function of no way to lose and every way to gain.
DB: Yeah. It often looks that way.
Bank Bailouts: There’s No Such Thing as a (Totally) Free Market?
NPS: So somebody that I had discussed this with had made the comment that copycat drugs were good because therefore there was market competition, as though prescription drug development occurs in a free market or laissez-faire framework. There seems to be this pervasive belief amongst intelligentsia that not only is this the usual course, but that it ought to be that way, challenging earlier points in our discussion. How do we dispel the myth?
DB: I mean, I like patents and copyrights just because they are such blatant interferences in the market; I love to point out, we can get drugs in India for, in some cases, less than 1% of what it costs here and if people want to be strict, libertarians go, “Fine, let me go to India. Let me import the drug from India.” And just to say Pfizer would go nuts if we just said, “Oh, we could just import all these generics from India. “They would put them out of business in no time. So, that’s a very clear mechanism, but there are so many other ways. I mean, one of the things that was striking to me when we had the bailout of the banks in 2008, well the market outcome of course is Citi Group and Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, they were all out of business. They got themselves in trouble because it made a lot of bad loans, and they couldn’t cover their debts. And well, in a market economy they’re out of business. People couldn’t race fast enough to engineer the bailout, to keep them going and somehow-
NPS: Basically, in both parties.
DB: And in both parties. So it was totally bipartisan. I was on the hill talking to skeptics, they were Democrats, and also skeptics are Republicans, well I meeting skeptics on the democratic side. And there were a lot of people of course who did have questions, many who did vote against it, more Republicans voted against it than Democrats. But in any case, there were those who voted against it, but basically they scared all these people saying the economy will disappear. They were saying this and, just to be clear, I don’t mean to say there wouldn’t have been greater disruption had you not had the bailouts. There would have been, but the economy would just disappear? What do you mean? The physical banks aren’t going anywhere. So all the banks that, we have our deposits, there’s still going to be there the next day. Their records aren’t going to go anywhere, and we actually do have a mechanism, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to keep operating, keep normal bank services going through a crisis, which isn’t to say everything would have been perfect. But there was just this idea. We have to rescue them. And of course here we are now ten years, a little more than ten years later, and those banks, Citi Group, Bank of America, they’re bigger than ever. But you can’t call that a free market.
NPS: No, not at all. And I think you’re right in Rigged that the IMF showed that these big banks are able to borrow at a much better rate than they would be under normal circumstances because of the government insurance policy.
DB: Yeah. So there was research that the IMF had done, this was a few years ago now, and it may not still hold up because risks have fallen. That was still kind of in the wake of the crisis. But what their research had found, I’ve done some too showing this, that their borrowing costs were less than smaller banks because the presumption was if Citi Group got itself in trouble, the government would come to its rescue. Just as of course it did do in 2008, 2009. So obviously if you think from the standpoint of someone, you’re looking to lend Citi Group $20 million or another bank $20 million, well you’re going to be thinking, “I really don’t have much risk with Citi Group. It’s obviously a big bank and not likely to go under, simply because big banks don’t typically go under, but even if it were to go under, I could still count on the government bailing it out and making the whole.” So that means you’d be willing to lend to a lower rate of interest and that’s certainly what the IMF found, though again this was a few years ago. It was a careful research. I don’t think people disputed that at the time.
Economic Prognostication : Dean and the Housing Bubble
DB: Yeah. This is a source of incredible frustration because it started like you see a disaster coming, and you’re trying to warn about it and no one’s really listening. To my view, it was not hard to see for anyone looking at the data, because it was just very, very clear with this unprecedented run up in house prices. And I had data going back to the early 1950s, government Robert Shiller, economist at Yale, subsequently won the Nobel Prize. He constructed data using public data sets, but he had to construct himself, going back to the 1890s, and we had never seen a run up in house prices, anything like this. House prices generally nationwide, at least pretty much track the overall rate of inflation. But suddenly in the late 1990s, they began to diverge from the overall rate of inflation and in the next decade quite sharply. So 2002, ’03, ’04, ’05, they’re rising at double digit levels. There’s no corresponding increase in rents. Rents are pretty much tracking the rate of inflation. Vacancy rates are actually high and rising. That doesn’t make sense. It’s not consistent with the type of labor market. So I’m looking at this and go, “How could that not be a bubble?” And the reason bubbles were on my mind, and not some of those bubble bubble bubble, we just had a stock market bubble, which collapsed in 2000 or 2001 and gave us the recession that year. And that was a big deal. So the idea that we might get bubbles in asset markets shouldn’t have been crazy to people in 2002, ’03, ’04. We had just seen a really big one collapse and gave us a recession, so I saw this in the housing market, and the reason why I thought the impact was likely to be really big was housing had grown to be a very large share of the economy. Housing ordinarily is around 4% GDP. It hit a peak of, I think it was 6.8% in GDP in 2005, so it was way above its historic average. And on top of that, people were consuming based on their housing wealth. So people bought a home for $200,000, and suddenly worth $400,000. A lot of people were borrowing against their homes, none of this was secret, by the way. I mean, I didn’t need special insight about this, I had to have some special insight or debt. Alan Greenspan actually wrote papers on this.
DB: They actually go back, and he had equity … I’m forgetting the term he used, something like equity withdrawal or spending from equity withdrawal. He had some term for it. I mean, I don’t know if he invented it, but he’d used this several papers, so it wasn’t any sort of secret that (a) housing construction was soaring to record levels, and (b) that people were spending based on their housing wealth. It was widely reported, and the point being that when the wealth disappeared, so did the spending. That’s exactly what happened. Of course, the bubble peaks in ’06, begins to drop at the fall of ’06, drops more rapidly in ’07, because basically the story you had in the housing market was people buying homes where they look at the house and go, “Is this worth $400,000?” They might’ve said no, but because the price is rising 10 or 15 to 20% every year, it doesn’t matter. So, you might say to yourself, “Well, I wouldn’t pay $400,000 for this house, but on the other hand, since it’s going to be worth $500,000, two years, yeah, why not?” But suddenly when that reverses, when the price is falling rather than rising, well then you look at it and go, “Oh yeah, it’s probably not worth $400,000, maybe I shouldn’t pay $400,000 for it.” And of course the banks wouldn’t make the loans anymore. So you’ve got house prices falling in ’07 and then very rapidly by the latter part of the year because it feeds on itself. And that was the story of the crash. House prices plummeted. And then of course residential construction plummeted. So as I said, it ordinarily had been around 4% of GDP, it fell back to less than 2% of GDP. So we went from being close to seven, 6.8% to less than 2%. That’s four and a half percentage points of GDP, that’d be 900 billion a year in today’s economy. So how are you going to replace that? Then you had the big fall in consumption, because again, you had all these people, their house went from $200,000 to $400,000, they take out a home equity loan, buy a car, take a vacation, maybe they’re sending their kids to school. So it’s not that was a stupid thing to do. They thought the house would still be worth $400,000, but then it ends up being worth $200,000. Well, suddenly they can’t do that anymore.
NPS: Oh yeah. So, in my husband’s family’s neighborhood in Scottsdale, we saw housing prices rise to just astronomical numbers. It was remarkable. Houses that were previously like $400,000 up to one point $1.2 million. And then all of that just completely vanished. And we used to live in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, and I can remember construction happening out the Wazoo, all over the place in the areas around the metropolitan area where there were, basically just open fields and some farmland. And I couldn’t believe that, that many people would be moving into those houses, especially with so many houses on the market. But yeah, we ended up buying high and selling low.
DB: So sorry to hear that.
NPS: Fortunately we didn’t lose a lot of money, and it was nothing to complain about compared to what other people had to endure through all of that, the humiliation and the bankruptcies, foreclosures, just dreadful stuff. And the fact that this is done, and it’s understood, it has to be understood at top levels of power. Would you say that, that’s the case or do they genuinely not understand how this stuff works?
DB: I think they genuinely did not understand. I mean, I knew some of these people. What happens is you get this groupthink story that people talk to each other. They only take the opinions into account of other people that they think are really important honchos. I mean obviously it helps I’m an economist as opposed to someone just off the street but still, I don’t have Nobel prize, they don’t have to listen to me. So they didn’t have to count what I’m saying. And I remember being on a panel once, and I was talking about the risk of a house price decline. And it was a fairly prominent economist, he was just totally dismissive. He just said, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like what you’re describing.” And my point was, “No, we’ve never seen a nationwide fall in house prices like this because we’ve never seen a nation run up in house prices like this.” That seemed fairly straightforward to me. He was just totally dismissive. Like I’m talking about something that’s just other worldly.
DB: For me that was very concrete.
Economic Schism : Pragmatic Piketty and Elitist Theorists
NPS: I liked the way that you described it earlier, that economics is much simpler than people think because I was going to say something similar at the beginning of this discussion about how on the one hand it seems like economics is much simpler than what people think. But on the other hand, theoretical economists start delving into NP hard optimization problems and Nash equilibria, and all of these interesting things that don’t pay that much attention to the pragmatic. And I guess that brings me to Piketty. I know that you’ve written about him and talked about his works quite a bit now, particularly Capital in the 21st Century, which I’ve started, but I can’t say that I’ve finished yet. There’s a lot in there. But I guess, what is your take on this that there’s a schism in the field of economics?
DB: Yeah. Well, I think that a lot of economics, I was joking about this, but this is actually very serious. I think it’s about making simple things complicated.
DB: I mean, of course my analysis of the housing bubble was pretty simple, and people asked me, as this was going on did I consider getting it published anywhere and I kind of shrugged because I go, “You know, it’s too simple. I don’t where it can get published.” I mean, it was basically a very simple story. And I actually had exactly that because there was a similar issue, back in ’05, President Bush wanted to privatized social security.
NPS: Oh yeah.
DB: His big argument was that, “Oh, we’re going to give people individual accounts and will make way more money in private accounts. And that was based on their assumption stock returns and what I was arguing was that you can’t have the high stock returns that they’re talking about given that they’re projecting slow economic growth and their price to earnings ratios in the stock market were already quite high. If you had low price to earnings ratios, you could do it, but we didn’t have low, we had high. So I was saying that you cannot get the returns that they’re predicting. So a friend of mine, Brad Delong called me up and said, “Do you want to do this as a Brookings paper?” And he goes, “I can get it published.” And I said, “Well, this is really a Brookings paper. I mean, because it’s simple. It’s basically algebra. What are dividends, what are capital gains, it’s adding two numbers.” And he said, “Oh yeah, no, it could be a Brookings paper, so I won’t have to do my work on this.” So I wrote it up, gave the basic algebra. So Brad goes out, “Thank you very much.” He did the bulk of the work, Krugman did some too, I don’t mean to downgrade his role, but Brad was the main actor here. But anyhow, he totally rewrites it and basically makes two points. One was an intertemporal consumption optimization model and then the other was the point I was making, which was again, basically simple algebra. Brad rewrote it, but basically presented the argument. What made it, the Brookings paper of course was the optimization model, though not too complex, but it was certainly more complex than simple algebra. When we actually presented the paper, no one said a word about the optimization model. No one could care less, all they cared about was the simple algebra, but without having something with some calculus in there that you could wave your hand and would go, “Oh, yeah, this is complicated. We wouldn’t have gotten there as a Brookings paper.” So it was just as clear as day that, “Okay, you have to make this complicated, get through the door, even though, that has nothing to do with the issue at hand.”
NPS: I wish I could say I was surprised by that, but I’ve spent enough time, been in and out of academia enough times that yes, that’s definitely true, that oftentimes you can present something that is even novel and advances the science. I had a classmate at Georgia Tech who submitted a paper to one of the theoretical computer science symposia and they thought the result was momentous, but the proof was too simple. So therefore they didn’t want to accept it.
DB: Oh God-
NPS: And they actually outright said that. They weren’t hiding it. They weren’t saying, “Uh, this really wasn’t good work.” They were just saying, “We like the result, but the proof is elementary, so therefore we can’t publish it.”
DB: It’s amazing. They wouldn’t be embarrassed that … Are we trying to advance the science or are we just trying to spin our wheels and …
NPS: Or make ourselves look so complicated that we can … I don’t know, to achieve some dominance in the field, maybe. The more David Attenborough programs that I see, the more I realize that we’re just animals. That’s a little bit cynical.
NPS: One thing that is in the news right now, and then I want to get back to your background because I want to make sure that we cover that as much as we can. I noticed that the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned in the news, the 70% tax rate on $10 million and above, and that Paul Krugman–actually I learned about her quote by reading one of Paul Krugman’s columns on this. And it looks like Piketty and I’ll never be able to say these names, [Stefanie] Stantcheva and [Emmanuel] Saez, I believe is the-
DB: Yeah, Saez, yeah.
NPS: Okay. That they say that it’s 83%, but through the last twenty years, since the Bush W. tax cuts were pushed through, I have told people repeatedly about the top marginal tax rates that we had at the end of World War II, when we had some of the greatest growth, if not the greatest amount of growth that we ever saw in American history, economic history. And so I wanted you to weigh in on that also, so how this 70% versus 83%, the numbers are sort of … they’re not immaterial, but the concept is important. How do we tax the wealthy in an optimal way?
DB: Yeah. Well, two issues. The more important one is this idea that if they effect the high tax rate that, “Oh we’d lose out, all these very highly talented people,”
NPS: Which is bullshit. They don’t, contribute that kind of work to the economy-
DB: Yeah, I guess I would divide those into groups. So when you get the people defending it, like Greg Mankiw was Bush’s, the head of his council of economic advisors, “Oh Taylor swift, don’t you like Taylor Swift’s music or whatever, and she wouldn’t perform if she’s going to be taxed at a really high rate.” (A) that’s not true. I mean the vast majority of people are not Taylor Swift, I mean, whether you like it or not, I am not a great Taylor Swift fan, but whatever. The vast majority of people who are in those income brackets are people on Wall Street who are shuffling money. Your corporate CEOs, the people who got a lot because they inherited their wealth-
NPS: The rentier culture.
DB: Yeah. So that’s who we’re generally talking about. But even the Taylor swifts, I mean, the example I like to use there’s Michael Jordan who maybe was the best basketball player ever. During the prime of his playing years, he took two years off to play baseball. Now suppose he had faced the 90% marginal tax rate. Would he have decided that he had so much money that he could spend two years playing baseball? Maybe he would have, I don’t know, but he may well not have, and certainly Jordan was a fantastic player and if you enjoy see Michael Jordan play, we actually might have gotten more of Michael Jordan with a higher tax rate than lower tax rate. But again, that’s not who we’re talking about for the most part. We’re talking about the corporate CEOs, the people shuffling paper, so I’m not worried about not giving them enough incentive to do what they do for the economy. In most cases they would probably do the same. And in the cases where he had the CEO said, “Well, if I have to pay a 70% or 80% tax rate, it’s not worth if it to me,” my view would be, “Well, fine, we’ll take the next person in line. It’s not as though,” I mean fair, there are some CEO who were extraordinary Steve Jobs, and though you can make complaints about what Apple’s done and everything, he was a visionary, so if Steve Jobs had said that, okay, we would have lost something, but the vast, vast majority of CEOs are not Steve Jobs. So if they said, “Hey, it’s not worth it for me,” it would not be a big loss to the economy. The part I do worry about, and you have to decide where this kicks in, is what they will do by way of evasion / avoidance because that is a loss to the economy. They both don’t get the revenue, but it also means it creates tax sheltering industry, and that’s what I worry about. So I would probably put a number, certainly below the 83%, probably some below the 70. Important point to remember here, we also have state and local taxes and in the case of say California, somebody who’s earning $10 million year is facing a 13% state income tax. So I’d probably be more comfortable with something close to the 50% because as you get to high tax rates, you’re giving people a lot of incentive to evade your tax, to avoid your tax and that’s just a loss to the economy. Again, I’m not worried that they’re going to say, “Oh, I don’t feel like working for that.” But it’s a loss lost the economy that they’re paying people to come up with various gimmicks so that, they don’t have to pay their taxes because that itself is a drain on the economy. I mean, if we have attached shelter industry where all these people are making their living by thinking of ways to gain the tax cut, well those people aren’t doing anything productive, so that’s what I worry about.
NPS: Well, it’s certainly be valuable to the economy to get rid of the tax lawyers.
DB: Exactly, exactly.
NPS: Most of them anyway.
DB: Well, no. I mean seriously, we want a system that involves as little as possible in terms of compliance and enforcement cost, so we have to ask not just about, “Oh, is that going to mean that this CEO or this Wall Street guy is going to work a little less if we have 70% tax rate?” That doesn’t concern me. It’s more, how many tax additional tax lawyers to the accounts are we going to have who instead of doing something productive in the world, they’re going to be coming up with games that. That’s what I worry about.
NPS: Right, right. I guess that I would be somewhat optimistic and hope that at least the good guy CEOs would be willing to reroute the money that they would be getting in salary back into the company for the profitability of the company. Good Lord, that’s something we haven’t even touched on, is simply the history of corporations and indefinite charters and all that.
Origins of Dean : Chicago, Protests, Economics, and A Run for Office
NPS: But I want to rewind a little bit before we get onto that. Well, so I want to go back to the beginning for you, where you are from and what is it that interested you in economics and what is it that interested you in progressivism/activism? I know that you participated in sit in protest against the contras in Nicaragua and you had a very interesting advisor who was, I guess by all accounts, a Marxist economist.
DB: Yeah. Well, I grew up in Chicago, under the Daley machine. I always had a sense, politics was corrupt and it needed to be cleaned up and this was back in the days of the Vietnam War. I had the sense the Vietnam war was at least a very serious mistake. It’s easy to see that a lot of things that our government was saying weren’t true. I remember I read a book [The Arrogance of Power] by [J. William] Fulbright, who was the head of the Foreign Service Committee and a big critic of the Vietnam War. And it gave the history, which I hadn’t heard. I was a casual reader, at this point I’m like twelve or eleven year old reader of the newspaper. But it was certainly an account I hadn’t heard and then realized, “Oh my God, this makes no sense our involvement in the war.” Anyhow, so I had a sense things were really not going as they should. And I actually came into economics just my last year in college because I felt economics was important, but I didn’t like the mainstream of the field. I had a professor in my last year there, David Weiman, and I got to talking with him, I was very interested in the economics he was doing and decided my senior year that I take economics with him. I decided to go to grad school in econ. You probably couldn’t do that today because I didn’t have big background, but I was lucky to do well on tests, so I was able to do well on my GREs and everything. I always had been good at math, so I was able to get in. In economics, I was always interested in like, “Okay, how can I learn this stuff to be a voice to criticize the mainstream of the profession.” That was what I was thinking about in grad school. You mentioned the sit ins at our congressman’s office. This was the 1980s, the US was actively involved, it was the Reagan years, so trying to undermine the Nicaraguan revolution, which I thought was just incredibly pernicious. I mean, people don’t know, the background I realize it’s ancient history now, it was forty years ago. There was a very corrupt dictatorship that had been installed by the United States. That’s not a euphemism. It had literally been installed by the United States back in the 1930s. We put in Anastasio Somoza’s father who passed it onto his kid. Anyhow he was very corrupt and needless to say they didn’t care at all about the needs of the people. There was no money going for healthcare and education; they were pocketing money left and right within a poor country in any case, but they weren’t sharing what they did have. And they were overthrown in a revolution in 1979 by the Sandinista’s armed revolution, they managed to overthrow them. And Carter was still president at that time. He didn’t want the Sandinistas to come to power. He was trying to keep them from coming to power. He wasn’t able to work out a deal. He was doing his best to try to work out something and basically kept them out of power while getting rid of Somoza. He wasn’t able to do that. They came to power, and they were very much committed towards providing healthcare, education, meeting basic needs of the people. Under Reagan, he very quickly got remnants of the National Guard, which is the army that does supports Somoza, and he began arming them, and they basically did a terror war–they would do attacks on villages. They’d come over the border from Honduras, there was also a group in Costa Rica. They’d come over the border, and they’d attack whatever they could, which often was hospitals or schools. As I said, terrorism is the right word. And that continued through the 1980s and our Congress person who had been a moderate Republican, they redistricted in 1980, for the 1982 election, made it a much more conservative district. He suddenly became a very conservative Republican following the district, and he supported Reagan on that. That was the basis I was in any number of protests. Actually I challenged him for the seat in 1986, it wasn’t my intention, but we couldn’t get anyone else to do it. We got the Democratic nomination and got 41%; it was not close, but it was way more than anyone expected. But anyhow, I felt that was the important thing to do. I mean, I don’t regret at all having tried to oppose the US actions there. I think we see it again today. The US, it’s involvement in Venezuela again; again I’m no fan [Nicolás] Maduro government. They are corrupt. They’ve done really horrible things in terms of what’s happened with their economy and its impact on the people. I mean these aren’t just numbers, people aren’t getting food, they’re not getting medicines, it’s a really bad story. But our concerned there, the concern of the US government is not that Venezuelan people are suffering, because that’s never been a concern of our government. It’s an anti-US government, and they want to see it overthrown.
NPS: Our presence in Latin America has been brutal and horrendous since the founding of the colonies.
DB: Yeah. And it doesn’t seem to change. I mean, you keep hoping, you know.
NPS: Every single president promises not to be an interventionist like the previous one.
NPS: Not that I want to talk about Trump necessarily because we hear enough about him, but we’ve been controlling their economies using trade agreements, which are anti-market forces. And I can’t believe that self-described free marketeers in the Republican Party believe promoting democracy or free market ideology.
DB: My guess is that’s ascribing a level of thought of planning that I think really is not true.
NPS: Institutional independence or free mindedness. Yeah, I agree with you.
DB: Yeah. So I think they’re going, “Okay, NAFTA, the transpacific partnership is coming up, how do I vote?” They’re getting the lobbyists calling them, they’re hearing the party leadership saying, and I think that’s 99% of the time, what determines how they vote. Well, what does this actually do? I think most of them have very little idea what it actually does.
DB: Yeah. Again, I think of my job as an economist is about making these things clear to people. My blog Beat the Press and what that’s about is criticizing reporting because, I think the biggest problem, of course, most people aren’t going to be reading government documents; a more informed person reads through the Washington Post, New York Times and major papers. Most people don’t, I’m saying, the more informed person and I focus on those papers, and they are not giving people information in a way that’s understandable. That’s a real big problem. I’ll just give you my pet one, [as] it just drives me nuts because there literally is no other side to it. When you see a budget number that’s expressed and in millions or billions or tens of billions, it’s giving no information.
NPS: Yes. I read that on one of your blog posts about the lack of context.
DB: Yeah. And no one, literally, no one disagrees on that. I mean, I’ve never found a reporter who tries to tell me that when they write down the transportation budget is $180 billion over the next six years, that any substantial segment of their readers, and I’m talking about New York Times readers, I don’t mean the New York Post and most of the people aren’t that educated. I mean, New York Times readers, all of them have college degrees, many have advanced degrees, law degrees, whatever. They don’t know what the budget is. So if you tell them $180 billion over six years, you could have added a zero, taken away a zero, it’s a lot of money and that’s all they know. Of course, what’s relevant is how large is that relative to the total budget? Is this big thing in terms of the total budget? A small thing? And most people have no idea. So haranguing them, it’s really not that hard to just put it in some context. The most obvious one to me is put it in percentage terms, but there are different ways you could do it. So if you said $180 million over six years, that’s $30 billion a year. It’s about seven tenths of 1% of the budget. So if you told people seven tenths of 1%, most people that gives them a reasonably good idea. It’s not a huge share of the budget. It’s not altogether trivial, but if you cut it by 20% it’s not like you have a lot of money in your pocket. If you raised it by 20%, that’s going to be a huge increase in the deficit or a big tax increase. Anyhow, if you put it as a percentage of the budget, it would hugely help in terms of informing people. Where I think this issue comes up most clearly is when you talk about a lot of social spending on the poor, that is almost very, very, very small in terms of the whole budget.
NPS: Yeah. It’s dirty pennies in the couch cushions. I mean, it’s nothing compared to the overall budget.
DB: It’s less than one half of 1% of the budget. The big argument, is this money well spent, is poorly spent? But it’s important, you go, “Okay, it’s a horrible program. I want it zeroed out.” Okay, we get your wish: you’re not going to have much more money in your pocket because we lowered your taxes. It’s half of 1%, less than one half of 1% of the federal budget. So it’s not all your money is going to these people you don’t like. You might not like the people. Maybe I don’t think they should get the money, but it’s really not going to affect your tax burden in any big way and people don’t understand that.
NPS: Yeah. I feel like institutionally, not just the government, the various agencies and branches of the government, but also the media don’t have much of an incentive to make things clear. An example is I’ve been staying down here in Tucson the last couple months, because of the short term that I’m on; I’ve been staying with my aunt and uncle and my uncle watches CNN almost incessantly, which means that all I ever hear about is Trump and screaming. And that literally is about it. There’s almost no content that is provided. I’ll switch on Democracy Now, and my aunt and uncle are amazed at how much stuff is out there that people aren’t hearing about. And having experts on that can spend fifteen minutes explaining something to you instead of 30 seconds screaming at other painted up people.
DB: It’s one of the things I will say I really don’t understand because I think, New York Times, which is clearly the country’s preeminent newspaper. I had this argument with reporters there for decades now. And I remember about five years ago, maybe a little longer, Margaret Sullivan who at that time was the public editor. She wrote a piece on this, my haranguing, I and others had, really pushed on this, the issue about putting budget numbers in context. She agreed completely. She said, “Yes, no one knows.” And she brought in David Leonhardt who at that time was their Washington editor, so important person there who controlled or had a lot of say I should say, I don’t know exactly who controls, but he has a lot of say about how things appear in print. And he goes, “Yeah, we might as well just write a really big number.” That was exactly the line I said, he’s welcome to take it, but whatever, we might as well just write a really big number because no one knows what these are. So here you have the public editor, the Washington editor both agreeing with me completely saying, “Look, it’s irresponsible to put these big numbers and there was no content because no one has any idea what they mean.” So I actually went out, I remember I celebrated, I go, “Holy Shit, if the New York Times does this. Well then probably Washington Post will follow, National Public Radio will follow, and if picked up, it’s a good standard.” I was going, “This is fantastic.” Nothing changed. You just go, “What is this?” I mean, I’m not asking them to do any big thing. It’s not like I’m asking them to go research some boring topic. The numbers are right there. I don’t believe their reporters are stupid. If you wrote down $20 billion, come on, you can put it on an Excel spreadsheet, a hand calculator. Probably most of them could do it in their head. This is really simple stuff.
NPS: Yeah, apparently the Brookings did a survey a few years ago. They probably done more surveys along this type since of the tea partiers and the surveys demonstrated a thorough ignorance on how much spending goes towards TANF and foreign aid. It’s interesting that they believe that more money should go to it than actually is going to it, and they also believe that more money is going to it than they think the numbers should be.
DB: Yeah, I’ve seen those stats. I don’t know if I saw that specific Brookings one. But you know, I often say if I thought as much money was going to these programs as those people thought, I’d be opposed to them too. I mean if I thought 30% of budget, people think that TANF is getting 30% of the budget they would be looking and going, “We’re spending 30% of the budget, $1.5 trillion a year, and we still have all these poor people? That doesn’t look like a really good program.” Again, and I understand some of it goes the other way. Some of them are racist, and they want to believe really bad things about these people. But you have people that aren’t racist, they actually think we want to help poor people. They just say, “Oh, we’re spending too much,” because they think we’re spending, ten or twenty times as much as we’re actually spending.
NPS: Right. And that was the case with a lot of them. They wanted there to be aid for single mothers with children, with minor children but they were opposed to welfare or food stamps. When they heard the terms that have been racially charged, then suddenly they’re opposed to it. So yeah, it makes for a very interesting lot of people in the United States. I guess there were a couple more questions I wanted to ask you-
DB: You go ahead.
NPS: Oh, thank you so much. This is awesome. I mean to actually be able to ask you questions. It’s fantastic.
So limited liability, recently I had a back and forth with somebody on LinkedIn and much to my surprise what I said actually won him over–I wasn’t expecting that to be the case, but he was signing on, piling onto this notion that corporations are these magical unicorns that have been given from on high that are able to come to these optimal strategies, which of course if you know anything about high dimensional, even convex optimization, but non-convex optimization is ridiculously hard, but they somehow get in their mind that these corporations are given from on high and are able to do this all on their own and that it’s just government regulation that’s impeding them.
NPS: So I raised the concept of limited liability and how that’s actually an anti-market, which I pulled this straight from your book, so this information came from you. So I’d like for you to discuss limited liability a little bit and how it does not follow any kind of free market ideology.
DB: Yeah. I’ve often had fun with libertarians, who want to say they won’t get the government of the economy. So I go, “You want to get rid of corporations.” And they look at me like, what are you talking about?
DB: You and I can form a partnership, but a corporation has legal status because of the government, and specifically legal liability, limited liability. And there’s other benefits as well, but first and foremost. And what that means of course is, you could have a corporation that they do bad things to people, and we sued them and guess what, they don’t have enough money, and we’re out of luck. And if you and I had ownership and we did that, well we’d lose everything we had. In the case of cooperation, I had $50,000 in stock or whatever or I could lose that, but I could still have millions of dollars, they can’t touch that. Okay, that’s arguably, that was a good thing for us to create corporations grant them limited liability. I think it was. Well, we have to understand that is a government action. That was a policy. We’re not, free marketeers if we believe that the government should be able to grant corporations limited liability. The point I make on this, and I think this is tremendously under appreciated. Go ahead.
NPS: Oh, I was just going to say that in reading your book and then reading some on the History of the Corporation, I can’t think of the author’s name. It’ll come back to me, but I think you site in your book, that these corporate charters issued were predicated on some temporary service. So they needed to raise capital to build a bridge or pave a road with the exception of shipping and railroads and interstate commerce kinds of things because that made sense to have more of a lasting requirement for raising capital. So how is it that we have these charters issued that last indefinitely now and what was the justification for it?
DB: Yeah, so if you go back to English common law, the corporation, as you said, it was designed for specific public service, building a canal or South China, South Sea Trading Company or the East India Trading Company. So there were very specific purposes that it was started to serve a public purpose to allow, the special status of a limited liability. In England that continued to be the case well into the 19th century. They didn’t have a general incorporation law until 1867 if I remember correctly. In the US, we had it earlier, it was actually in, I think it was 1817 when we adopted general incorporation. And the basic idea there was, we have a general interest in promoting the creation of wealth. So this was a way to create wealth so companies can incorporate and have limited liability. That was the rationale. And again, you could argue whether that was a good or bad thing, but it clearly was explicit policy at the time, everyone understood that this was a government policy to promote wealth. It wasn’t just something that was out there in the world. We were going to do this as a way to promote wealth. The other point I was going to make is that, we also set rules of corporate governance, and those are actually very extensive. Most of the rules are designed to protect basically protect minority rights. So, “I own shares in Microsoft, I own,” I’m going to say 1000 shares of Microsoft or something. Well we want to make it, or I should say we either want to or not, the rules make it so that you can’t have a situation where some group gets control of 50.1% of Microsoft and then tells me and everyone else that are in the minority, “I’m just taking all your shares.” That’s what most of the rules of corporate governance are around. But the point is that there’s nothing intrinsic to the corporation that sets those rules. We could set those rules in different ways. And one of the points that I’ve been trying to make in some of my work recently is that the rules are very much skewed now to give management an enormous say. So I’m actually, people think is weird. I actually argue for more shareholder rights because what I would say is where you have these CEOs that are getting $20, $30, $40 million salaries, they’re ripping off the shareholders. And it’s not necessarily that I have so much sympathy for the shareholders. I mean most of the shares are held by very rich people, but some of them aren’t rich middle class people 401ks, pensioners also have shares. So not all of them are rich. All the CEOs are rich that we know. In that sense, I’d rather see the money go to the shareholders. But what’s a more important point to me is that this affects pay structures throughout the economy. If the CEO’s getting $30 million, the CFO, the other top people, they’re probably getting $10 or $15 million and even the third echelon you get to people who are senior, but below these people in standing they’re probably getting one or $2 million, and just stands to reason that more money is going in those people less for everyone else. So I would actually like to see shareholders have more say because I want to see them be in a position to reign in CEO pay, because the CEOs are not doing them a favor when they basically charge the shareholders $30 million for their service. You can sure get plenty of people who’ll do the job just fine for two or $3 million and this gets to a point about progressive taxation. It’s very rare that you have a CEO like Steve Jobs, the real visionary. Those people are very few and far between. The vast majority, I’m sure they’re smart. I’m sure they’re hard working, but the next in line is just as hard working. So you aren’t going to lose anything if they go, “Oh, it’s not worth it to me for two or $3 million.”
NPS: Yeah. And even then is anyone worth having billions and billions of dollars, no matter how talented they are.
DB: Well, that I think is at least a debatable point, because, I mean, I never met Steve Jobs, and I don’t know, he might well have been very creative even for a tenth the money he got, maybe than a hundredth of the money, there’s certainly, were you have … Getting back to Greg Mankiw who was talking, I don’t know, Taylor Swift. I mean, many of the people we think of as great artists, great musicians, they’re committed to their work, they probably would do it for our tenth of pay. You go back in time, I won’t advocate this, but how much did Vincent van Gogh ever get for his paintings? I don’t think he sold one in his lifetime. I think he was poor.
NPS: He died poor, yeah.
DB: But he was maybe the best artist in all history. And you think of Charlie Parker, the fantastic jazz musician. He died in poverty. Again, I’m not advocating that these people should be poor, but the idea that they have to get enormous sums to be creative.
NPS: To be motivated and that greed, that money is the only thing that motivates them. That sounds more like something a rentier would say is that money is the only thing that motivates him. People will do creative work, especially if their basic needs are being met. So my husband is a psychiatrist and so he’s read a lot of these reports and is and is fascinated by these reports on what amount of money it would require to make people happy. And it turns out that it’s not a lot. It’s basic necessities, healthcare, shelter, being able to provide for your kids’ college, and those sorts of things that make people tremendously happy. And if you have those things you’re going to work on what’s interesting to you. I know it’s speculation, and I’m a humanist optimist in that sense. I believe that, that’s what people will do.
DB: Yeah. Well, I’m inclined to agree with that. Of course, the key thing is not just the money that they have, but they’re secure so they want to know that they have care insurance today but aren’t going lose it tomorrow, that’s a really important thing because obviously it’s a big fear that people have today. They might think, “Oh, I have a decent job, and I could afford my mortgage, my rent, pay for my healthcare insurance, but I can lose the job tomorrow.” That realistic fear.
NPS: Yeah. What I’ve been through in the last year and a half, pretty bad health crisis, and I have nothing but gratitude for the good healthcare that I have through Microsoft that most people this country don’t have healthcare that’s that good because we have sort of Cadillac insurance policy with Premera, but most people don’t have anything like that kind of security. And it’s astonishing to me that there hasn’t been more of an organized uprising in this regard. Hopefully there will be.
DB: Yeah. No, I’m hopeful that in the next election we’ll see some real movement towards establishing a genuine universal system. I mean, I thought the affordable care act was a big step forward, but obviously that’s not go nearly far enough, but I think it was a step in the right direction.
NPS: Yeah, definitely. So the formulation of the CEPR, what motivated you to co-found this organization and what do they do and what are you continuing to do with them these days?
DB: Well, you know, I had been at the Economic Policy Institute, and I appreciate the time I worked there and everything. But I felt that it was overly bureaucratic because they were very cautious in everything and a lot of layers of bureaucracy. I used to joke with someone, they’d say, how long does something take? I’d say, “Well, imagine it taking it as you could possibly envision, double that and add six months.” That was obviously being somewhat facetious, but what I felt was there’re a lot of issues that, we could have an impact on, but we often had to act quickly, and I didn’t think that the Economic Policy Institute gave me that room. So I formed Center for Economic and Policy Research with an old friend of mine from grad School, Mark Weisbrot and we felt that was basically what want to. There was a lot of policy issues that we could have an impact but we just have to move quickly. And one of the big ones at that time, we had a book come out literally as we were starting it, Social Security: The Phony Crisis and everything were taking issue with the view that was held really across the political spectrum in Washington, I should say. Social security faced a crisis because I had any number of Democrats, democratic pollsters, I remember once one of them just telling me, basically, “You have to acknowledge there’s a crisis or people just won’t take you seriously.” It was based on his polling, his focus groups. And we didn’t accept that, we felt (A) the data, it wasn’t true and (B) if you talk, people would listen.
NPS: It was absurd rallying point. I had college teachers that actually would say in class that social security was going to be bankrupt in a couple of decades and that none of us could rely on it. And it just seemed ridiculous to me that something like that could ever come to pass when we have more money in this country than we know what to do with.
DB: Yeah, I remember I spoke of course around the country many times on this, and I remember, at that time I knew the social security trustees projections pretty much inside out, and I’d just go, “Okay, let’s say they’re all exactly right. Here’s what it looks like. And it doesn’t go away, you face a short fall. But literally the idea there’d be no money, that’s literally … I mean, again, assuming you never did anything, and they’re exactly right in all their projection, but when I couldn’t convince, I’d say speaking to a college class, the line it’d always go, “Okay, so we have some point in the future, is it ten years as twenty,” I’d have them give me a year, at some point. “Okay. So we’re not paying social security benefits.” So then I’d go, “Okay, so in this year …” This was back in the 1990s. “So in this year, 2015, are we still going to have an army?” Looking at me like, “Of course. ‘Okay. Are we still going to have our court system?’ Yeah. ‘Are people in Congress still going to be …'”
NPS: Get paid, right.
DB: I go, “Okay. So we’re going to be paying for the army, paying for our courts, congress people. So we’re going to have 30 million people who are over 65, and we’re going to tell them that there’s no money for their benefits?” You just go, “Okay, that makes zero sense. That is not going to happen.” So anyhow, obviously we didn’t do it. You can’t do anything alone as a small think tank. But we helped I think change the tide on that, and by 2005. Yeah. When Bush tried to privatize, the Democrats are no longer saying there’s a crisis. And of course more recently many, if not most Democrats had been calling for increasing benefits, which I think would be a good thing.
NPS: It definitely would be. My aunt and uncle rely on it critically. Obviously it’s a necessary thing to have and I don’t like part of the narrative about social security, that it is money you paid into it so therefore you’re entitled to it later, because it was set up originally paying benefits to people who had not paid into it. And that has always been the way it’s worked, that the current working force is subsidizing the retirees, which makes sense. I mean, ideologically it’s progressive, and it’s comforting, but that’s not the way that it’s spun usually.
DB: Yeah. Well, I sure like the idea that people think they have a right to it, so in that sense, I think that part of it is good because it makes it much, much harder to-
NPS: Oh yeah, definitely a human, right.
NPS: Yeah. But healthcare also should be a human right, and it should be something that is available to everyone.
A Money Scare : How Can We Pay for Saving the Planet?
NPS: Just as a funny aside, I try not to get on LinkedIn or any other social media and get into debates very often because my husband yells at me about doing because, it’s such a time drain. I’m not even on Facebook anymore, and I wouldn’t be anyway after the revelations of how they’re using data. But there was this man on LinkedIn that was arguing that so many of us are complaining about how we’re running out of water, we’re running out of coral reefs, we’re running out of fish, temperature is changing and there’s scarcity of oil and all these things. And he said, “But what about the real problem that there’s scarcity of money?” And I just wrote back and said, “In a certain respect, money is a number in a spreadsheet.” I mean, it’s more complicated than that, but I thought that was astonishing that people have this mindset of a gold standard, that money intrinsically is of value when it really is just supposed to be a proxy for value. I don’t know if it was a funny interaction.
DB: A lot of people have strange views. I was once debating some libertarian guy, forget the exact topic, but it was something related to the Federal Reserve Board. And I remember this woman came up to me afterwards because we’re at a reception, and she said, “Do you …” I forget exactly how she put it, but basically, “Do you think gold has intrinsic value? ‘Well, if you wanted the jewelry or something, but no.'”
NPS: Yeah, that’s what I said to a coworker … actually, my tech lead at Microsoft, he made a comment about that, that if money were underwritten by gold, then I said, “Well, the problem is gold and precious jewels and precious stones, all this stuff, it doesn’t really have value if you think about it.”
DB: But, it’s amazing. It’s actually one of the most basic social conventions, but it is just a social convention.
NPS: Yeah, it’s other otherwise nonsense that we just take for granted. And I had never really thought about that seriously until this past year, because if somebody asks you about gold, you say, “Oh yeah, it’s valuable.” Should I buy some bricks of gold and bury them under my house? Yeah. Let’s see. Well, here’s an interesting question about an actual market system. At what scale do you think market economies can exist? Obviously it doesn’t seem to work, as an overarching theme, but are there macrocosms where it does work and work well?
DB: I mean, I think we’ve gotten a huge amount out of a market economy, so I won’t deride it. I mean it just that you have to set the rules, and it’s interesting, and I won’t claim expertise on the platform economy, but it’s totally noncontroversial among economists, where you have a natural monopoly say electric companies, just to be clear when I’m saying, electric companies, I mean people who actually laid the lines to your house. So I understand we could have competing generators but no one was going to lay duplicate electric lines to my house, that they have to be regulated because, here it is, it’s a central service, and there is no competitor, so it’s totally noncontroversial among economists. I mean, maybe you could find one libertarian somewhere who has some story why you don’t have to regulate it. It’s basically noncontroversial, and it seems that we have something similar with things like Facebook, things like Google that they have for practical purposes, monopolies people, and that’s a story just like, “Well, you then have to regulate them because then they could obviously exploit them endlessly and they seem to be doing that.” That seems to cry out for regulation, both in terms of what they could do with your information because I’m sure, Facebook in particular is probably doing all sorts of things with information about us that we wouldn’t want them doing, but–
NPS: Absolutely, yeah.
DB: –but also what they could charge because again, you can’t have it … No one’s going to lay the second electric wire, no one’s going to have the serious competitor to Google. So, those are clear cases where, we need to reign them in. I mean, other aspects … To me, it’s problematic, people talk about putting up … With greenhouse gas emissions that somehow we have to restrict the market, in my view again, it’s defining the market. I mean, we know greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming. So, the analogy I make, it’s not an interference in the market if I tell my neighbor that he can’t dump his sewage on my lawn, that’s what we’re saying with greenhouse gas emissions, that we have to restrict them because it’s not just something you’re doing pride, you’re throwing this into the atmosphere. If you have a way to … You’re going to burn oil, and you have a way to suck in all the carbon emissions so that … That’s fine, it wouldn’t bother me and there’s still issues with the extraction, but in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions. All right, fine. If you can deal with that, you can’t, I mean just to be clear. But I mean if someone came up with some brilliant way to do that. All right, well then I guess we don’t have to worry about burning oil. I don’t know, I mean it’s just, you have to think clearly about what you want the market for, what it’s doing in specific circumstances.
NPS: You said as the tool rather than overarching philosophy, but more just one of the many tools that you have. It’s interesting you mentioned the greenhouse gas regulation because it brings to mind the notion of the externality, which I heard when I was at Georgia Tech, Ken Arrow came to give a talk, and he mentioned externalities extensively and how much complexity that adds into any kind of market economy and that a lot of these things are things that we have to consider and regulate, just like what you said.
DB: Yeah, he was a very good economist. Very thoughtful.
NPS: Yeah. I happen to work in data science. I’m a statistician working at Bing Ads, although I’m not working on the actual ad space, so unfortunately you can say that I’m in that bemoaned financial sector, and I can’t believe that I found my way into it and decrying it the whole time. But I continued to derogate it. I think also there is this problem of data and regulation of data. Facebook can keep tabs on what you’re doing and then exploit that using machine learning to figure out exactly how to target you with ads. And I wonder to what extent … I was thinking aloud about this, and ended up writing a pretty long blog post about it on my other blog [Algo-Stats], some of the complexities that come up in this and that I feel like a tighter regulation is coming. But what is your take on, data and the way that it’s appropriated for profits? I get a sense, even though I know this would be hard to regulate, I feel like people whose data is used to generate money should either be told very clearly that’s going to happen or be in on a cut of the profits.
DB: Yeah, I think we have to do one or both. Again, these get into issues that I’ve just looked at very, very cursorily. But the idea that, Facebook and Google can get all this data on people, compile it. First and foremost, I think very few people appreciate how much data they could actually get on you and then be sharing it with what they’re doing with it. I mean it’s … I don’t know, what I should say. I definitely would know that I don’t want every search I’ve ever done on Google to the public.
NPS: Oh yeah. No, absolutely not.
DB: Presumably they won’t do that. They’d have no reason to do it, at least that I know. But, in principle, they have access to it, they could, I don’t think there’s any … So, I think there have to be clear restrictions on how this data can be used, say if they’re profiting from it, it seems reasonable in different directions. One, you restrict how much they can profit. You could say that, “Okay. You have to share that with the people you got it from.” I’ve not stayed closely, so I really can’t speak with expertise, but I will say, I don’t think the current system is working, meaning I don’t think the people who are basically giving them the money or happy with it.
NPS: Right. I’ll send you the article that I wrote.
DB: Okay. Yeah, I’ll be interested in reading it.
NPS: Noam Chomsky was kind enough to read an earlier draft of it and thought that it raised some interesting points. So, I think you might find it interesting because it touches on some arenas where data is being used in shocking ways. Ways that I didn’t know going into writing the article, I would not have believed that data was used in this particular capacity, for instance, it’s used to sentence criminals, and it’s used to do dispatch, police patrols in various cities so that the data can reinforce racist stereotypes because they, originally would be patrolling, say black neighborhoods and harassing black people. And if the data confirms that, that’s where they’ve been and that’s where they found, either vagrancy or under age drinking or whatever. I mean, the things that you have everywhere, across obviously all races, all features. But they don’t send the police into white communities as much, so the data tells you to go to the black communities and then they can say the data is the justification for it, and not own up to the actual racism, the systemic racism that promotes that.
NPS: You said that you said that you’re semi retired now to work on a sanctuary for a puppy dogs. So tell me about that a little bit and what’s next for you?
DB: Well, you know, basically I have to say it was kind of wearing on me being in DC; I got up at 4:30 AM every morning and after a while, it does take a toll on you. My wife and I both decided we wanted a change, so we’d been coming out here, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. We’ve been volunteering here since probably about ten years ago, I’m not sure when exactly our first year out here was. And we love doing that, and it’s a beautiful area here. We’re halfway between Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, so it’s a beautiful area. I just felt that I wanted change of pace, work somewhat less, play with the dogs, love dogs. We have our own but also the dogs there, help them out and basically be able to work on a more measured schedule. What’s nice here is I work on things that I think are important. I don’t have to worry about funders, what they think is important. So I could work on the things I want to do, so my goal is to put in twenty, I’d probably put in thirty, forty hours a week but in any case, much less than I had been doing and yeah, so I think I could still make a contribution, still get involved in the debates I’ve been doing and just avoid a lot of what I considered often a waste the time getting pulled into things in DC. We’ve been here a little over six months now, and we’re both very happy with it.
NPS: I would imagine. So I feel like DC would be a hard city to live in irrespective of the fact that you have all these corrupt people.
DB: Yeah, well there’re nice aspects to DC, they have a very nice park right in the middle of the city Rock Creek Park that we actually lived close to, like the whole time [inaudible 01:33:30] in two different neighborhoods, but both were very close to Rock Creek Park. So there are aspects of it that are very nice, but we could walk literally to anywhere in the city here. It’s the tiny town, it’s 4,500 people so-
NPS: Wow. Yeah, just a final word on this. Your book, The Conservative Nanny State to me is … I mean, there may be better books that you’ve written as far as the points that you make, or the data you presented. I’m not sure, but I found it to be a revelation. I think that it … like Piketty’s work. I think that it’s … it could be as important to the lay person in understanding contemporary economics as Chomsky is in the history of technology or Zinn is in the history of the United States. So thank you so much.
DB: Thanks, that’s really quite a compliment.
NPS: So thank you very much, and you enjoy the rest of your Friday.
Today is the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky! Though impossible to summarize such an incredible life with a few short articles, I hope that our conclusion of commemorations is icing on the cake for the Chomsky aficionado while a pique to the interest for newcomers. Today’s selection of videos glimpses his many discussions on geopolitics, activism, and history. And I conclude with a very special gift for Noam, so please read on.
Manufacturing Consent : C-SPAN
Noam appeared on C-SPAN some years ago to discuss Manufacturing Consent, a media critique, his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward Herman. Central to the book, the propaganda model identifies means through which corporate media must serve power in contravention to the stated purpose of a free press. The book itself is a good deal more technical than most of his later analytic books, so it might serve just to watch the documentary. Here, we present the book review.
Noam and Howard
Chomsky’s very close friend Howard Zinn was a titanic American historian who, to his professional peril, articulated the appropriately named A People’s History of the United States. Having met in the 1960s while working within the civil rights movements, Noam and Howard appeared in many interviews over the years, and here’s a great one from April of 2007 appearing on Democracy Now.
Chomsky chatted about Zinn not long after his passing. His reflections evoke heart-wrench, as Howard was a close personal friend. The world is lesser without him.
1995 : Contract with America, NAFTA, and Other Idiocies
Noam spoke on campus in 1995 to Doug Morris for an hour on contemporary American politics; NAFTA, Gingrich, and other topics of the day dominated the discussion.
Self-Destruction of the Species? Institutions versus People
Chomsky spoke in April of 2001 at MIT on the question of species self-destruction, arguing the crucial role of institutional stupidity. See the section below on Daniel Ellsberg for more.
What is Anarchism?
At a philosophy forum at the Czech Palacký University Olomouc, elder Chomsky discusses his take on anarcho-syndicalism and possible latter forms. One uppity whippersnapper argues that he’d prefer to be told what to do, with Noam’s response a rather clever one.
Chomsky on Dershowitz : “Just A Comic Figure”
Alan Dershowitz has recently indebted jingoists everywhere in his zany legal defenses of Donald Trump on Fox. Chomsky has debated Dershowitz several times through the years, describing him to me as “just a comic figure, desperate to defend his two clients, himself and the State of Israel, but smart enough to know that both are guilty as sin.” This was a reference to particular points of contention he and I were discussing regarding Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Dershowitz’ often ludicrous defense of it. “All this smoke that was blown…” is a great derogation Chomsky uses in the following debate in 2005 at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government.
Dan and Noam
Daniel Ellsberg was a government analyst working within the RAND corporation during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. He met Noam while working within the peace movement in the late 1960s. Here’s a picture of Noam, Dan, and Howard together in the 1970s.
In 1971, Noam defended his friend Daniel Ellsberg publicly after Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the hidden, vicious history of the Vietnam War. This release significantly contributed to the growing public discontent with the negligent, criminal actions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Be prepared to be annoyed as hell at the Buckley-esque cross-examiner, clearly more interested in hearing his own voice. I don’t even care enough to look up his name.
Noam and Daniel met at the University of Arizona this past spring to discuss Dan’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine, a book I hope to review here soon. These icons don’t pull punches in their scathing condemnation of nuclear proliferation. Don’t be depressed. This is a call to action!
9/11 and the “Rebel Without a Pause”
In 2005, filmmaker Will Pascoe produced Rebel Without a Pause, a documentary detailing the sharp uptick in Chomsky’s speaking requests after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York (not to be confused with the September 11, 1973 terror attack in Allende’s Chile.) Chomsky discussed his book on the former attack at the fifteenth anniversary of the Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR). Almost overnight, institutions, agencies, citizens spanning America and beyond expressed desperation in understanding what would motivate a group of criminals to murder thousands of civilians, killing themselves in the process. Listen for the most plausible explanation available, a summary and analysis of intelligence data and the historical, documentary record.
Bernie and Noam
Bernie Sanders is the most favorable political figure today, according to the far right news media Fox. Though Bernie’s 2016 campaign for president didn’t reach out to Noam for analysis, commentary, and so on (Noam told me this himself), they’ve crossed paths throughout the years; in 1985, Chomsky delivered a talk called “Deciphering Foreign Policy Jargon” at Burlington City Hall. Millennials will cheer when Bernie introduces Noam.
Noam and Gore
Noam and gay hero and activist Gore Vidal only occasionally appeared together; on the passing of Gore, Noam told me,
We were on similar paths,
but they didn’t cross
much. Moved in different
circles. We did have a
discussion once, arranged
by Jay Parini, a novelist
who’s a common friend.
Don’t know what happened to it.
A fine person, in my view.
And outstanding novelist, and
honest and often discerning
Well, it just so happens I found that video for him. Yesterday, we included Gore later recounting how no American media organization would release the video, not even in “San Francisco on a Sunday morning at four a.m.” In other words, not even the most “liberal” district featured mainstream media brave enough to challenge the recently deceased George H.W. Bush’s criminal aggression in Iraq.
Requiem for the American Dream
A very recent work of Noam’s called Requiem for the American Dream considers principles of wealth concentration in the post-industrial, neoliberal era. Documented in the same-named compilation of interviews with him, the instant classic was quite hard to find in theaters, even in the tolerant urban sprawl of Seattle. My husband and I could find only one venue, somewhat distant, and a cash-only operation. So much for the bastion of liberalism. One can find the full-length documentary here.
Randall Wallace and Chomsky Speaks
Randall Wallace, grandson of former vice president Henry Wallace, believes Chomsky to be perhaps the most important intellectual of the past century. To that end, he founded Chomsky Speaks, a project aimed at capturing as much of this incredible man on film as we can in Noam’s time with us. I’d invite you to take a look for yourself.
My Friendship with Noam
While studying computer science and the Georgia Institute of Technology, I came across Noam’s work repeatedly in courses on the theory of computation. In a purely academic pursuit, I searched the internet for discussions of his professional work; I then stumbled on his activist work, finding for the first time an author and thinker who spoke my language. Encyclopedic, diligent, and driven by integrity, his powerhouse talks became a significant time drain on me. I began ordering his books by the satchel, eager to consume every detail-packed tidbit he had to offer on geopolitics, critical analysis of foreign policy, and prescriptions for a better future. We began corresponding in 2012, remaining pen pals for these years since. I believe there isn’t a man I respect more, past or present. And it isn’t hero worship, as I, like Noam, stringently object to gladiators and saviors. Noam’s role as activist has been, and continues to be, an analyst, a curator of history, and a staunch defender of victims everywhere. Though he’d never admit it, it actually gratifies him to hear how his works have inspired generation after generation of activists. It isn’t immodesty. Each of us need validation that what we’re doing is meaningful, however minor or however impactful.
Here was my eager first meeting with the man himself.
So as Noam enters his tenth decade, let me close these three days of celebration with a song I composed and performed just for him; here are the lyrics. And the recording is below.
Today, we continue honoring the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky, turning to his extensive contributions to linguistics, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind.
In 1971, Noam debated renowned French philosopher Michel Foucault, persisting the innateness hypothesis, or that the language faculty and some accompanying structure, are innate in all non-pathological human beings. Foucault, by contrast, defended the lingual empty vessel belief, requiring that no knowledge of language, or any kind for that matter, exists at birth. Among Chomsky’s arguments, of interest to my computer science readership, is that children can’t possibly learn the complexity of language by the very scant information gained from parents. The debate transcript appears on Noam’s personal website, and here is the complete video. It’s impossible to do this debate justice in just a few words, so I’d entreat you to read or listen, and prepare to be dazzled.
Day at Night
Chomsky appeared in 1974 on the short-lived public television program Day at Night, hosted by the late James Day, offering an interesting look at Noam’s interest in linguistics, activist roots, and the cognitive capacities of the beast called man.
“Grammar, Mind and Body – A Personal View”
Noam visited the University of Maryland in January 2012 to deliver an address to the Arts and Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. This could be one of the most intriguing discussions I’ve found on his philosophy of mind; among the jewels revealed is Galileo’s lament that science had, and perhaps cannot, replicate even the most elementary of phenomena found in nature, and that his spiritual successor Newton demonstrated the impossibility in even proving the existence of the machine, to say nothing of exorcising its ghost.
Stony Brook Continuations : On the Philosophy of Mind
In what is chronologically the second of his Stony Brook discussions, Noam waxes the “philosophy of mind” with fellow linguist Peter Ludlow. Be prepared for a technical, and thus moderately inscrutable discussion. It nonetheless entertains.
Stony Brook : Evolution
In another Stony Brook discussion, Chomsky chats with Richard Larson about linguistics and evolution.
University of Washington’s Reflection
Upon Reflection was an interview program hosted by Al Page during his days at the University of Washington. Chomsky appeared in 1989 to discuss “The Concept of Language.” Among topics is the continuity by region, the variety of outcroppings, and the endangerment of rare forms, especially among near exterminated indigenous peoples.
Mind and Language in Boston, Narrowly Missing the Weather
Noam appeared at Boston College in the spring of 2011 to deliver yet another talk on mind and language, this time narrowly escaping the dramatic snowstorm in the winter of 2010 to 2011.
Jonnie Doebele and Linguistics for the Layperson
In 2011, German filmmaker Jonnie Doebele asks Chomsky to explain linguistics for the layperson. The ensuing discussion offers an amusing jumping-off point for the less technical curiosos.
Why Only Us
In 2017, Chomsky discussed joint work with collaborator Robert C. Berwick, professor of computer science and computational linguistics at MIT, on the origins of language; specifically, and I think correctly, they argue both from a computational and an archeological perspective that the language faculty appeared in humans as a mutation, and that its most apt characterization begins with the internal capacity to think about collections of objects, and ultimately the development of highly sophisticated internal models of the external world. More specifically, and counterintuitively, language didn’t develop as a means of communication.
Final Thoughts Today
Indeed, it is impossible to summarize the vast intellectual achievements of Noam Chomsky, despite the hours upon hours of the talks, interviews, and debates available online. We present only a paltry sample, and this excludes more than a tiny fraction of callouts to the myriad and many books, articles, and monographs featured in his and many other scientific disciplines moved by this great man.
Return tomorrow for one more day of honoring Noam, and for a special birthday present I prepared for his enjoyment.