Archive for Politics

The 2016 Election

Although I haven’t written in this blog in years, like many people I’ve been thinking about the recent U.S. presidential election. What I find most interesting is the continuing evolution of effect of the Internet on life in the U.S.

The Internet is destroying the truth.

By this I don’t mean the recently much-discussed issue of fake news, and I don’t mean the way the Internet facilitates the spread of conspiracy theories. These aspects of our lives are not new. We have old phrases to describe them, such as “yellow journalism” and “the paranoid style.” The Internet permits falsehoods to spread faster and live forever, but it does the same for their rebuttals.

What the Internet is doing is something deeper.

The U.S. used to have a set of core truths, taught in schools and promulgated by the media. The U.S. was the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country of manifest destiny and huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the leader of the free world, the place where paths are beaten to the door of the inventor of the better mousetrap. Few people wholly believed these truths, but it was the shared idea that people reacted against.

When people argued that the U.S. was an example for the world, they did so in agreement with these core truths. When they argued that the U.S. was a racist country, or a country with a history of terrible interference in other countries, they did so in explicit opposition to these core truths. During the Cold War Communism was bad because it was not the American way.

People tried to change the country with reference to these core truths. They did not say “we have a different vision for the U.S..” They said “the U.S. is not living up to its ideals.” Both sides of the culture wars in the decades after World War II argued in terms of who was more American. They drew different conclusions about what it means to live in “the land of the free,” but they agreed on that basic idea.

These core truths were maintained by a set of intermediaries between the world at large and individual citizens. Journalists and politicians described the world to most people. There were a limited number of them and they formed a professional class which sought to maintain mutual respect. People who strayed too far from the shared ideas lost access to the platforms that gave them wide audiences.

The changing nature of journalism is well known. Walter Cronkite, the CBS news journalist, once won an opinion poll as “the most trusted man in America.” In a recent opinion poll by Reader’s Digest for the 100 most trusted people in America, the top four people were movie stars; the highest ranked journalist, at number 12, was Robin Roberts, the anchor of a morning show. The main network’s news broadcasts on radio and TV used to reach over 50% of households. They now reach less than 20% of an increasingly aging audience.

While there are several causes for the decline of journalism, the Internet is a large factor. The Internet has displaced the primary revenue source for print journalism, but, more than that, the Internet has profoundly changed society’s intermediaries. The new intermediaries are platforms like Facebook or Twitter which connect people directly to each other. These companies try to fade into the background as much as possible, and make no attempt to present a coherent worldview or to separate truth from falsehood.

I’m not trying to claim that the world before the Internet was a prelapsarian time of truth and fairness. It wasn’t. Especially for people who are not part of the (white, male, straight) majority, the country today is more truthful and more fair than before. What I am claiming is that we no longer have a shared idea of what the country is. We can no longer stand in support of or opposition to the country, because we don’t agree on what it is.

The U.S. is the only major country founded on an idea, rather than being simply a collection of people who happen to live in one place. We must not forget the truth that this way of founding a country led to the near genocide and forced migration of the Native Americans who did happen to live in this place. But what I want to focus on is that basing a country on an idea makes the country uniquely vulnerable: if people no longer believe the idea, then the country has no foundation.

Now let’s talk about the election.

Trump as a presidential candidate was unacceptable to the traditional maintainers of the core truths. Journalists and politicians were mostly united against him. He was rejected by left- and right-wing alike. His victory demonstrates that those people no longer matter. The truth they have been maintaining is no longer shared.

Trump himself is likely to be a terrible president. I say this not because of how he won, and not because he is a racist megalomaniac–many presidents have been that–but because he appears to be profoundly uninterested in the world outside himself. Trump aspires to be a tin-pot dictator, and he would probably be a good one: entertaining and, as dictators go, among the less evil. As the U.S. president many are rightly concerned about his authoritarian aspirations, but those very concerns, and his lack of broad-based support, make his wishes unlikely to be realized. We are forewarned and will resist.

Trump can’t take over the country, but he can destroy it. As a candidate he encouraged divisions: against immigrants, against Muslims, against people who voted for other candidates. All our presidents in living memory have sought to unite the country, to speak to all the people. Trump has shown no signs of that. He is likely to accelerate the process, already well under way, of destroying the shared vision of the country. He is likely to encourage the ongoing process of some people viewing others as being not merely in profound disagreement, but as being actually un-American.

When we no longer agree on what the U.S. means, how long can the U.S. survive? What would a failure of the U.S. look like?

Great civilizations like the Roman Republic or Tang China fell primarily due to internal strife. The U.S. does not employ foreign mercenaries, but it does have what is in essence a military caste of families who serve in the armed forces. Some 80% of the current military come from a family in which a parent or sibling is also in the military. Nearly half the current military comes from just five states. The last president with real military service was George H.W. Bush, who left office more than 20 years ago. The members of the current Congress have the lowest rate of military service ever. (I personally never served; my grandfather and father-in-law did, in a different time.)

This military caste is large and does not have uniform views, but they do tend to share a version of the truth about the country.

The U.S. military has a very strong tradition of civilian control, but the same was true in Rome and Tang China: Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, An Lushan defied the Mandate of Heaven. In the U.S., the military will reject civilian control if they have a strong leader and if enough of the military perceive the government as no longer representing the ideals and traditions of the U.S. Since those ideals and traditions are what I am claiming are falling into disagreement, we are now closer than ever to a military coup.

The most likely scenario would be a demagogic leader with ties to the military who wins a closely contested election with strong military support. Overreaching by the new president causes strong opposition from the professional intermediaries, leading to lawsuits and eventually to impeachment and conviction. The president rejects the conviction and refuses to vacate the office, arguing that the opposition is un-American and that the country can not change leadership while facing significant external threats from the enemy du jour. The military, whose members have lived through many years of severe disagreement about what the country really means, supports him. Chaos ensures, ending in a military dictatorship and the dissolution of the country.

Trump is not that leader, but he is giving us a template for our future collapse. He is increasing the problems that make it more likely.

This probably sounds hyperbolic, and I hope that it is. But don’t fool yourself too much. History has not ended. The future will not be like the past. At nearly 250 years the U.S. has already had a good run as countries go. If we want it to continue, a majority of citizens must actively work to prevent it from failing.

What can we do?

We must spread an understanding of how potentially perilous the situation is. Nothing motivates people like fear. Other than millenarians, people fear the dissolution of society. One of our early great leaders, Benjamin Franklin, put it perfectly: “we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Our political class is required by elections to respond to the popular view. We must press them to remember that we are all in this together. This is unfortunately a long shot with our modern variant of rotten boroughs, safely held by a single party. California has introduced what I believe are steps toward addressing this: a politically balanced redistricting commission, and top-two primaries that help save candidates in single-party districts from being “primaried”. People who still believe in democracy should support these changes for all states.

The extremely wealthy have enormous influence over our political system. It would be nice to reduce that influence, and I wholeheartedly support efforts to get money out of politics, but that is very difficult. More realistic is to remind the wealthy that their interests will be harmed if society collapses. They do not live in a completely separate world. The country still matters, and they should care about maintaining it.

We must reduce the isolation of the military caste. While mass conscription is not appropriate for today’s world, service is not. We should have a mandatory year of national service, in the military or in programs like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, for all healthy young people. This is not a new idea, and other countries have tried similar systems. It would be expensive but worth it.

Can these ideas be implemented in the face of opposition?

I think they can. These are incremental changes. While many politicians these days are engaged in a zero-sum game in which the only thing that matters is beating the other side, that is not true of most voters. It doesn’t take a major shift to get people to vote for sensible reforms.

Will these ideas solve the problem?

Of course not. The Internet will still be here, still disintermediating the world and giving each person their own individual truth. We can’t stop that or avoid it. All we can do is set up countervailing forces. The Internet is splitting us apart. We have to keep reminding ourselves and everyone that we have to live together even with those with whom we disagree. Our country is fragile. If we don’t care for it, we will lose it.


Pay Voting

New plan: let’s let people pay to vote. Everybody gets one vote free, just like today. You can also pay, say, $1000 for another vote, then $2000 for the next one, $3000 for the one after that, etc. Also, you can sell your vote, so a cheaper way to get more votes is to pay a bunch of people $500.

Advantage: it’s no longer necessary to give candidates money so that they can advertise for votes. Currently politicians spend at least half their time asking for money. This would let them spend all their time on their actual job.

Advantage: money paid for votes goes straight to the treasury, rather than to television stations.

Advantage: Many fewer horrible political ads.

Disadvantage: politicians do what rich people want them to do. But wait, that is already the case. So this isn’t a disadvantage at all.

The U.S. is already a plutocracy. Making it explicit is more efficient all around.

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A Third Way

I have long felt that there is a space in U.S. politics for a party which holds traditionally right-wing views on social issues but traditionally left-wing views on economic issues. Many voters in the U.S. vote against their economic interests in support of their social views. The limousine liberal is a cliché, a wealthy person who votes in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy. Conversely there are many poor people who vote for Republican candidates because they oppose abortion, accepting the fact that those same candidates will vote to cut services their supporters rely on every day, such as food stamps and WIC. So why not a candidate who stands against abortion, against teaching evolution in schools, against gay marriage, but in favor of governmental support for the poor? Some conservative Democrats do take that position, but they are a small minority within the party.

I read recently that France’s National Front has moved into exactly this space. Marine le Pen the traditionally right-wing, racist and anti-Semitic party to be more of an economically left-wing, socially anti-immigrant party. I disagree with her positions in many ways, but I wonder if any U.S. politicians will see an inspiration there.

I suppose the flip side would be socially left-wing and economically right-wing, but many Democrats are in that space already. It pretty much describes Bill Clinton, for example, and Barack Obama is not far off either. The Republican party has been steadily shifting rightward economically–Obama is well to the right of Nixon on economic issues, for example. I don’t know if the Republicans are leading the Democrats to the right, or if the Democrats moving right are pushing the Republicans into ever more extreme positions in order to differentiate themselves.


Debt and Taxes

During the Reagan administration, the U.S. reduced tax rates and increased defense spending. The national debt as a percentage of overall GDP increased from 32.5% to 53.1% (Reagan called this increase in debt the “greatest disappointment” of his presidency). During the first Bush administration, it continued to rise, reaching 66.1%. During the Clinton administration, the government raised taxes, the economy grew, and defense spending was reduced somewhat; the debt decreased to 56.4% of GDP. During the second Bush administration, again taxes were reduced and defense spending was increased; the debt increased to 83.4% of GDP.

Today fiscal conservatives are arguing that the high levels of debt require that government spending be reduced. At the same time, the plan put forward by Republican representative Paul Ryan, and strongly supported by the Republican House, calls for more tax cuts and higher defense spending. While it’s understood that his plan will not be adopted, it’s hard to see how it can be a serious proposal for debt reduction.

It’s clear that the U.S. has a high level of debt due largely to past steps of reducing taxes while increasing spending. One can argue details back and forth quite a bit, but it’s also clear that the debt has increased significantly under Republican administrations. Fiscal conservatives now argue that the high level of debt shows that the U.S. can not afford social programs like Social Security and Medicare. But while one can argue about increasing health care costs, history suggests that that simply isn’t true. What is true is that the U.S. can not steadily cut taxes without cutting spending.

It’s perfectly consistent to say that the U.S. should be a low-tax, low-service country. But arguments about debt which don’t mention the possibility of tax increases are not telling the whole truth about how the U.S. got into its current situation. What has happened, intentionally or not, is that tax cuts are being leveraged to reduce spending on social programs.

Incidentally, I think most people agree that governments should use tax money to invest in infrastructure. It’s generally most efficient to let the government build and maintain roads and bridges, as they require a large investment and the payback is indirect. I think one could make a good argument that health care is another form of infrastructural investment, an investment in people, which is most efficiently done by government.

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Proposition 23

Last summer’s bizarre California ballot initiative was proposition 16, a PG&E funded measure which was fortunately voted down. This season’s appears to be proposition 23. Proposition 23 is admittedly much less crazy than proposition 16: it calls for the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 to be suspended until California’s unemployment rate drops to 5.5% or below for four consecutive quarters. The Global Warming Solutions Act requires that greenhouse gas emission levels in the state be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.

What’s bizarre about proposition 23 is that the monetary supporters are primarily oil companies based out of state. Their argument is that the Global Warming Solutions Act will cost jobs. That argument makes little sense. Working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions creates jobs, as people must work to develop and implement new technologies. The argument is that this will lead to increased costs for businesses, and that they will pass the costs on to consumers. That is most likely correct, but what it means is that money is shifted around. It doesn’t mean that money or jobs is lost, although certainly some specific people will gain and some will lose.

So the question is how the money would shift. And the answer is that the money would shift away from technologies which generate greenhouse gases and toward technologies which do not. The former are found in places which generate fossil fuels, such as Texas. The latter are found in places which do green technology research and development, such as Silicon Valley. So the overall effect of the law is most likely to cause more of the money that California residents spend on energy to stay in California rather than to move to places like Texas. Or, for that matter, Saudi Arabia. It is clear why so many out of state oil companies are supporting proposition 23.

Now, I happen to think that there is a straightforward case to be made for why we don’t want to increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the counter-arguments to that do not make sense to me. But I am of course aware that it is, for reasons that continue to escape me, a controversial topic. What is, however, not controversial is that there is a limited amount of oil on this planet, and that the most pointless possible thing we can do with that limited oil is burn it. Moreover, the U.S. is a net oil importer, and the money we send overseas to purchase oil is being sent directly to countries which do not share our values and often work against our interests. I believe that any rational calculation would lead us to decrease our use of oil, which in turn means decreasing our generation of greenhouse gases.

So I see exactly one argument in favor of proposition 23: it supports the profits of oil companies. And I see many reasons against it. I sincerely hope the proposition is defeated.

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