Category Archives: Random Blogging

Uncharted Territory

If this political year feels unprecedented, it’s because it is. Even Nate Silver, oracle of the numbers, admits to its abnormality.

In a normal presidential election, both candidates raise essentially unlimited money and staff their campaigns with hundreds of experienced professionals. In a normal presidential election, both candidates are good representatives of their party’s traditional values and therefore unite almost all their party’s voters behind them. In a normal presidential election, both candidates have years of experience running for office and deftly pivot away from controversies to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses. In a normal presidential election, both candidates target a broad enough range of demographic groups to have a viable chance of reaching 51 percent of the vote. This may not be a normal presidential election because while most of those things are true for Clinton, it’s not clear that any of them apply to Trump.

Silver’s acknowledgement of the “not normal” elements of this particular election came in an essay in which he explored the possibility of a landslide for Clinton. We haven’t had any landslides for quite some time–since Reagan, to be specific–and one of the factors militating against one is the highly partisan divide of the American electorate.

These patterns [close elections versus those won by large margins] seem to have some relationship with partisanship, with highly partisan epochs tending to produce close elections by guaranteeing each party its fair share of support. Trump’s nomination, however, reflects profound disarray within the Republican Party. Furthermore, about 30 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters have an unfavorable view of Trump. How many of them will vote for Clinton is hard to say, but parties facing this much internal strife, such as Republicans in 1964 or Democrats in 1972 or 1980, have often suffered landslide losses.

An electoral college vote of 270 or more is all that is needed to elect Clinton. The value of a landslide–or anything close–is that it would sweep in down-ticket candidates. Conventional wisdom says a decisive Clinton win will give the Democrats the Senate, but it will take a massive sweep to wrest control of the extensively gerrymandered House.

A big win wouldn’t only give Hillary a legislative branch she could work with. It would also help Democrats chip away at the Republicans’ huge advantage in the nation’s statehouses. (We might even narrow the gap here in Indiana, where the GOP currently enjoys a super-majority.)

A girl can dream.

Given the intense hatred of Hillary Clinton that has been carefully nurtured by Republicans over the years, there is probably a ceiling to her support, even against the unthinkable disaster that is Donald Trump–a ceiling that will prevent her from winning a landslide. And while it does look unlikely that Trump can rebound from his self-inflicted wounds, the last thing we need in this bizarre election cycle is complacency.

If you’ve read this far, please check to be sure that your voter registration is current and correct–and stay healthy at least through November 9th……

About Those Captains of Industry…

I’ve been pretty hard on big corporations in several blog posts, and I stand by my criticisms of the behaviors I’ve identified.

That said, the Washington Post recently published an interview with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and it reminded me of the danger of political rhetoric–including my own– that oversimplifies and labels.

On the right, the villains are Muslims, immigrants–actually, pretty much anyone who isn’t a white Christian. On the left, it’s big corporations and rich people.

It’s not that simple.

There are certainly decisions that Apple and other corporate behemoths have made that I personally question, but in many ways, Apple has been a pretty exemplary corporate citizen. As the introduction to the interview notes, Cook has been credited with making the company more systematic, transparent, and team-oriented.

He has engaged on social issues more than most CEOs, writing op-eds on legislation that limits gay rights and making the extraordinary decision earlier this year to oppose the FBI’s request to unlock the San Bernardino killer’s phone.

Cook–like many other thoughtful businesspeople–understands that a focus on short-term profits can undermine the elements of corporate culture than are essential to long-term prosperity. (There’s that “self-interest properly understood” theme again…)

I also think that the traditional CEO believes his or her job is the profit and loss, is the revenue statement, the income and expense, the balance sheet. Those are important, but I don’t think they’re all that’s important. There’s an incredible responsibility to the employees of the company, to the communities and the countries that the company operates in, to people who assemble its products, to developers, to the whole ecosystem of the company. And so I have a maybe nontraditional view there. I get criticized for it some, I recognize. If you care about long-term shareholder return, all of these other things are really critical.

The lesson here isn’t about Apple, or Cook.

Those of us who deplore “us versus them” politics, who remind our fellow citizens that the American constitution requires evaluating our neighbors as individuals, rather than members of groups, need to practice what we preach.

Every corporation is not Koch Industries or Walmart. Every billionaire is not Donald Trump.

When Freedom Indiana was fighting efforts to marginalize the gay community, the most persuasive voices against bias were those of Eli Lilly, Emmis, Cummins and other large companies. When Costco demonstrates that better pay and employee benefits translate into higher profits, employers who would never listen to social “do gooders” take note. When billionaires like Nick Hanauer insist that the real job creators are consumers, and that only by paying workers more can we grow the economy, people listen who would never listen to me, or to other “pointy head” academics.

We need to work toward a culture that recognizes the differences between the responsible and the irresponsible; a culture that rewards good corporate citizenship, and shames the profiteers.

Prejudice is the tendency to paint with a too-broad brush; it is failure to draw appropriate distinctions.

Self-Interest Properly Defined

Here’s a question: if you lie on an employment application in order to get a job, and you do in fact get the job as a result,  was your dishonest behavior in your self-interest?

Most of us would probably say that the lie did advance your short-term interest, although there is a strong likelihood that long-term, simply as a practical matter, your dishonesty would come back to bite you. Thoughtful respondents might go further, pointing out that even when we “get away” with unethical behaviors, such actions tend to make us less aware of the effects of such behaviors on ourselves and others, and ultimately cause us to be worse people than we might otherwise be.

Being a deeply flawed human is arguably not in our self-interest.

Assuming you agree with this analysis of where self-interest properly lies, what can we say about corporations and other financially-interested parties that intentionally and knowingly create public doubt about climate change?

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists didn’t ask that question, but it did explore the “organizational and financial roots of polarization.” (That’s academic-ese for the process of intentionally sowing doubt about settled science.)

Ideological polarization around environmental issues—especially climate change—have increased in the last 20 years. This polarization has led to public uncertainty, and in some cases, policy stalemate. Much attention has been given to understanding individual attitudes, but much less to the larger organizational and financial roots of polarization. This gap is due to prior difficulties in gathering and analyzing quantitative data about these complex and furtive processes. This paper uses comprehensive text and network data to show how corporate funding influences the production and actual thematic content of polarization efforts. It highlights the important influence of private funding in public knowledge and politics, and provides researchers a methodological model for future studies that blend large-scale textual discourse with social networks.

The entire article can be accessed at the link. Basically, it confirms that “uncertainty” is the desired outcome of expenditures made on behalf of fossil fuel interests. (I know you are shocked–shocked–to find that gambling is going on here.)

Many people excuse the efforts of gas and oil and coal interests to slow the development of renewable energy and green practices on the grounds that these companies and lobbyists are acting in their “self-interest.” I have heard people say that, although it is unfortunate, it is understandable that these companies  would try to protect their bottom lines.

It may be understandable (it’s also “understandable” that people steal things they want, or shoot people they dislike), but it is profoundly immoral. And as far as “self-interest” is concerned, delaying widespread recognition of an existential threat to the planet cannot possibly be in the “self-interest” of any of the planet’s inhabitants.

Many years ago, De Toqueville admired Americans for displaying “enlightened self-interest,” or “self-interest rightly understood.” As he explained it,

The Americans…are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.

Just like that lie on the employment application, climate-change denial in service of a short-term bottom line will eventually destroy the reputations of the liars. But in this case, the likely damage to millions of their fellow humans–including their own progeny– makes loss of reputation a pretty inadequate price to pay.

Fear Itself…

Al Jazeera recently had a thought-provoking interview with a Polish political philosopher I’d never previously come across: Zygmunt Bauman. The subject-matter was the growing civic unrest that is by no means limited to the United States.

In Western Europe it has been a summer of great change and discontent.

The European Union is facing major upheaval as the United Kingdom gets ready to withdraw its membership, in the process possibly jeopardising the composition of the country itself.

In fact, under the surface, people across Europe seem to be on edge. As European nations deal with migration and various economic uncertainties, the political landscape is changing, and a feeling that old social structures are being replaced or challenged is widespread.

It’s the same for the United States, where the race for the White House is anything but ordinary. Political rhetoric this year is tougher and there’s a feeling the country is seriously divided on race and economic prosperity.

What has brought us to this situation? And what are the possible scenarios going forward?

Bauman thinks our problems are the consequence of what he has dubbed “liquid fear,” and what I would call “fear of random and unforeseeable dangers.”

“Liquid fear,” Bauman explains, “means fear flowing on our own court, not staying in one place but diffuse. And the trouble with liquid fear, unlike the concrete specific danger which you know and are familiar with, is that you don’t know where from it will strike.

“We are walking, that’s my favourite metaphor, as if on a minefield. We are aware that the field is full of explosives, but we can’t tell where there will be an explosion and when. There are no solid structures around us all on which we can rely, in which we can invest our hopes and expectations. Even the most powerful governments, very often, cannot deliver on their promise. They don’t have enough power to do so.”

Bauman says we live in a state of “continuous uncertainty, which makes us afraid.” This fear, this uncertainty, increases the desire for security, the appeal of politicians who say “If you give me power, I’ll take responsibility for your future. I can keep you safe.” He also notes that people’s memories of totalitarian governments and their dangers have faded, making “strongman” promises attractive.

Bauman’s minefield metaphor is so powerful because it accurately describes human reaction to unknown and unpredictable danger. We humans are pretty good at coping with the known: a hurricane, an automobile accident, a disease. These threats are comprehensible; there are experts who can predict their occurrence and deal with them if they appear. Terrorism, economic downturns, pandemics–dangers over which individuals have no control–generate more fear precisely because we feel helpless to either predict or avoid them.

So we look for reassurance, for someone who can convince us that he (and let’s be honest, it’s always been a he) can avert tragedy. We may have to suspend disbelief, close our eyes to the inconsistencies and facts that cast doubt on the assurances, but at least someone is telling us what we want to hear. It’s only later that we remember why listening to siren songs is never a good idea.

It’s because of our very human, very predictable reaction to our anxieties that FDR’s admonition was so important: what we should really fear is “fear itself.”

 

 

The War on Elites

Anti-elitism has become a conventional explanation for what is motivating the electorate in 2016 .

Let’s think about that.

An online dictionary defines “elite” as “something prestigious or the best of the best. An example of elite is an Olympic athlete. Another definition is “The group or part of a group selected or regarded as the finest, best, most distinguished, most powerful, etc.”

The use of Olympic athletes as an example is particularly ironic; right now, millions of Americans are glued to televised Olympic competitions, and I’d bet a considerable amount of money that none of them is rooting for our teams to demonstrate less “elitism.”

In fact, I think there are two pervasive–and very different– American attitudes that get lumped–improperly– into the “anti-elitist” category.

Americans are increasingly critical of the misuse of money and power to the detriment of democratic processes that might otherwise ameliorate or solve our social problems. This attitude powered Bernie Sanders’ campaign; it explains the large following that Elizabeth Warren has amassed. It is not anti-elite, however; it is anti-corporatist, anti-oligarchy. It offers a critique of the current power structure that is likely to grow and eventually trigger policy changes that will improve the life prospects for poor and middle-class Americans.

The second attitude that is routinely lumped into the anti-elitist narrative is anti-intellectualism–an attitude that has long been America’s Achilles heel. Suspicion of “pointy-headed” intellectuals has ebbed and flowed through our country’s history; that attitude is responsible for a widespread rejection of science, the arts, and the humanities, among other negative consequences.

An article in Psychology Today addressed Americans’shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science have been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”…

Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective: “The rise of idiot America today represents–for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”

When a society elevates anger over understanding, shows contempt for knowledge, dismisses the importance of competence, and prefers entertainment to substantive discussion, we wind up with political candidates like Donald Trump–and a government that no longer functions in the public interest.