David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “June, 2017”

Is capitalism incompatible with democracy?

For some people on the political left, capitalism is a dirty word.  They consider capitalism to be fundamentally incompatible with democracy, and so it has to go.  Ironically, there are those on the right who agree – the difference being that they would prefer to lose democracy in favor of capitalism.  Ideologues will be ideologues.


Recently, an article was published in Salon by cultural critic Henry Giroux entitled “Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation:  A long process of decline led to President Trump.”  In it, he argues that illiteracy in America is not just a matter of unintended failures, but the result of a “willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the political and economic forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives.”  He further argues that the “pedagogical machinery of capitalism uses language and other modes of representation to relegate citizenship to the singular pursuit of unbridled self-interests, to legitimate shopping as the ultimate expression of one’s identity….”  He criticizes colleges and universities as “McDonald-ized” saying “students are relegated to the status of customers and clients.”   He laments that digital culture and Hollywood films are tools of the financial elite, who use them to promote a culture of vulgarity, self-absorption, and commodification, and erode any sense of shared citizenship and civic culture.


To anyone familiar with the routine attacks on Hollywood by American conservatives, this must seem rather amusing.  Hollywood celebrities and films are constantly attacked for legitimizing supposedly perverted lifestyles, promoting the tolerance of everything except traditional religion, and being “politically correct” on every issue.  If the media has been so successful at destroying civic life in favor of corporate interests, why is California, at the heart of this supposed media juggernaut, one of the most politically liberal states in the country, even to the point of seriously considering universal health care?  If the media has been so successful at destroying any sense of shared citizenship, why is it that millennials are politically liberal on a wide range of issues, social and economic?  If colleges and universities are mere tools of capitalist money-grubbers, why is it that young, college-educated Americans gravitate so strongly toward Bernie Sanders?


Americans as a whole are better educated today than they have ever been.  In the Progressive Era of the late 19th century, large numbers of voters could not even read or write.  The founding fathers did not even trust white males without property with the vote.  How is it that ANY progressive change ever came about in America?  Votes for women, the 40-hour work week, compulsory education, social security, the FDIC?  How did all of this emerge from the unbridled capitalism of the 19th century?  We are asked to believe that capitalists can actually manufacture illiteracy from literacy.  Yet somehow, literacy arose from illiteracy at a time when capitalists had virtually all of the power.


My point is that the human society is complex, and things don’t always turn out the way a simplistic view would suggest.  Before World War II, eugenics was a popular idea.  The notion that some people are genetically superior, and that some groups of people are genetically superior, is a seductive one.  The “logical” conclusion is that selective breeding (and selective sterilization) will improve society.  But like a lot of half-baked, seemingly logical ideas, it turns out to be disastrous in practice.

Communism was another popular ideology at one time.  Many people were persuaded by its seeming reasonableness.  Just as the masses of people need democracy to avoid being exploited by dictators, workers need to control the means of production, rather than be exploited by capitalists.  But in practice, this kind of state control just ends up being another tool for dictators to do their own exploiting.  Without checks and balances, autocrats just find another way of being autocrats.


In a way, political ideology is a lot like medical pseudoscience, which takes an incredibly complex system, the human body, and tries to simplify it.  In the Middle Ages, it was popular to think that disease was due to an “imbalance of bodily humors.”  Such notions are still popular today.  If you’re sick, you need to “purify your body of toxins,” or “balance your aura,” or “center your vital energy.”  But in a complex system, like the human body or a human society, such simplistic remedies often fail.

So it goes with political ideology.  “Private enterprise is inherently superior to government-run enterprise.”  It’s simplistic.  It’s one extreme of a whole range of possibilities, between totally private and totally government-run.  Maybe what works best is some blend of private and public?  Maybe we should look at the DATA, honestly.


The data, compiled by non-partisan organizations and even some conservative think tanks (see here), tell us that countries ranking highly on human development and human freedom tend to be those that have mixed economies – capitalist, yes, but with strong labor unions and strong social safety nets.  They rank low on government corruption – government leaders use their positions for the benefit of everyone, not to enrich themselves or their business associates.

Science is self-correcting.  Scientists have to back up their theories with evidence.  But in politics, there’s a tremendous amount of reality-avoidance.  Almost all of it comes from ideology.  So progress is often glacial.  Ironically, almost no one objects to technological progress.  So technology marches forward, rapidly.  Technology, in fact, often stimulates social progress.


In an “ultimate” sense, capitalism may eventually fall by the wayside, as technology advances.  As Arthur Clarke points out in his classic Profiles of the Future, a pattern replicator would make any distinction between capitalism and communism meaningless.  It would generate enormous amounts of energy while making everything from seafood gumbo to designer jeans literally as cheap as dirt.  But in the shorter term, capitalism has proven itself as a driver of human well-being – not unbridled capitalism, of course.

Long before highly sophisticated technologies like replicators come along, our species will have to confront the question of whether technological progress will finally overwhelm social progress.  We tend to think that the recent past represents the epitome of technological advancement.  No at all.  The changes that are coming this century will be make everything up to this point look pitiful by comparison.  In the past, machines have been able to outmatch humans only PHYSICALLY.  What is coming is far more revolutionary.


Yet we insist on indulging in infantile macho posturing and tribalisms, pretending that military dominance is still viable, that “us and them” will still work.  We don’t even want to think about how that will turn out, because if we thought about it for more than 2 seconds, we would know that it can’t end well in a highly technological, interconnected world.  We would realize that social Darwinism can’t be sustained in a world with highly intelligent machines, powerful nanotechnology, and a degree of interconnectedness that we are only beginning to glimpse.  And if you think these things aren’t just around the corner, you’re seriously deluding yourself.


Perhaps the virtual reality technologies that are also coming will give those in insist on indulging their infantile fantasies an outlet to do so, rather than playing them out in our shared reality.  In any case, we will have to get a grip on ourselves, because the alternative is self-destruction.  It isn’t about whether we can join hands and sing Kumbaya.  It’s about a death sentence that focuses your mind, that forces you to confront the difference between necessities and indulgences.


The fact that we have seen no evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations has been taken as ominous by some, given that there are likely trillions of planets and moons in our galaxy.  The argument is made that technological civilization has arisen countless times, only to snuff itself out, over and over.  I don’t favor that notion myself.  But it is clear to me that we are treading a dangerous path, and that things will probably get worse before we get to the light at the end of the tunnel.

The F Word

When our current President was on the campaign trail, there was an inevitable argument among pundits about whether a specific word should be applied to him.  That word is fascist.  Some argued that it was very appropriate, because he is fundamentally an authoritarian nationalist, and that’s the essence of fascism.  Others argued that it was misleading and inappropriate, because fascists are all about the power of the state over individuals – collectivism versus the supposed individualism of populists like Trump.


The word fascism originated in Italy in the early 20th century.  Its roots lie in the Latin word fascis, which symbolizes a magistrate’s power.  It is often represented as an axe bundled within rods – the significance being that the power of the magistrate cannot be broken, because he is surrounded by his minions.  Strength through unity is the idea, but notice that this unity is focused on a single, authoritarian person, not an institution or set of laws.

This is a critical point.  It’s true that fascists like Mussolini and Hitler advocated a very powerful national government.  But ONLY CENTERED ON A SINGLE PERSON.  That is the core of fascism – a powerful state, yes, but centered on an even more powerful individual.  Fascism rejects the notion of a nation of laws, as Americans think of it.  A fascist nation is a nation of men, or more precisely, one man.  He is the law.


And I use the pronoun HE quite intentionally.  The macho caricature of masculinity is quite integral to fascism.  Both Mussolini and Hitler emphasized male virility and female subordination.  Men were to be warriors, women baby-makers.  Homosexuality was brutally suppressed.  The young, virile, male warrior, fathering lots of children and going into glorious battle, was the ideal.


On the one hand, grassroots American conservatives, male or female, and their enablers like Trump, tend to strongly gravitate to the macho caricature of masculinity.  They are fond of posting clips of old Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone movies on Facebook.  They blasted Obama for being “professorial” and constantly accuse liberals of being “smug” and “condescending.”  On the other hand, such attacks never seem to land on our founding fathers, who were quite intellectual, and who established a country in which only white males with property were given the vote.


Much of our politics boils down to vague feelings guided by caricatures and fuzzy images, not political positions or even ideas.  Tucker Carlson is one of the most prominent conservative opinionators on Fox News.  After the recent special election in Georgia, he said, “Democrats still have literally no idea why they keep losing elections.  If they did, they would have run a real candidate with a real job who understands the constituents he is attempting to represent.”  Ossoff is a documentary filmmaker.  Clearly, not a “real job.”  Carlson went on, “He is gravely concerned about climate and childhood obesity and the availability of organic kale. He thinks illegal aliens are noble. He went to the London School of Economics. He’s super fit and way smarter than you are.”  Clearly, we shouldn’t be concerned about childhood obesity or climate change.  And above all, we don’t need a smart person in charge.  Translation – he’s not a real man.  Like you, or your husband.  A real man doesn’t have a brain.  He has a “real job,” like coal miner or oil field worker.

The thing is, as a recent Vox article points out, Carlson at one time wasn’t all that different from Ossoff.  He was a preppy private school graduate who went into journalism. Through much of the 2000’s, Carlson cultivated the persona of an upper-crust Republican, in part through strategic deployment of a bow tie. That image became a handicap during the Tea Party uprising, so Carlson ditched the bow tie and tried to reposition himself as a representative of the people.


For 23 years, conservative Charlie Sykes hosted a radio show in Wisconsin.  Last year, he posted an editorial in the NY Times, saying, “I was under the impression that conservatives actually believed things about free trade, balanced budgets, character and respect for constitutional rights.”  But, he said, 2 decades of vilification had taken their toll.  “Listeners whom I knew to be decent, thoughtful individuals began forwarding stories with conspiracy theories about President Obama and Mrs. Clinton — that he was a secret Muslim, that she ran a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. When I tried to point out that such stories were demonstrably false, they generally refused to accept evidence that came from outside their bubble. The echo chamber had morphed into a full-blown alternate reality silo of conspiracy theories, fake news and propaganda.”

As he stood fast for conservative principles, Sykes found himself targeted.  “And then, there was social media. Unless you have experienced it, it’s difficult to describe the virulence of the Twitter storms that were unleashed on Trump skeptics. In my timelines, I found myself called a ‘cuckservative,’ a favorite gibe of white nationalists; and someone Photoshopped my face into a gas chamber.”


And Sykes was very clear about what led to all of this.  “One staple of every radio talk show was, of course, the bias of the mainstream media. This was, indeed, a target-rich environment. But as we learned this year, we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited.  That left a void that we conservatives failed to fill. For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers and other conspiracy theorists who indulged fantasies of Mr. Obama’s secret Muslim plot to subvert Christendom, or who peddled baseless tales of Mrs. Clinton’s murder victims. Rather than confront the purveyors of such disinformation, we changed the channel because, after all, they were our allies, whose quirks could be allowed or at least ignored.  We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.”


What Sykes and other thoughtful conservatives never understood is that huge swaths of American voters are not motivated by high-minded conservative principles.  They aren’t moved by well thought-out political positions.  They are merely tuned to vague images and impressions combined with reinforcement of what they already “know” is true.  A friend of mine once told me, “Ronald Reagan is a nice man.”  I responded, “I thought Jimmy Carter was a nice man.”  “No,” he corrected me.  “Jimmy Carter is a GOOD man.”  This simple, profound statement hits an important nail on the head.  Americans knew that Carter was a good man.  But he didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.  And more importantly, he wasn’t NICE enough.  Reagan came off as everyone’s nice old grandfather.  It wasn’t about thoughtful conservatism.  He merely told people what they wanted to hear, NICELY.

When Sykes and others were promoting “constitutional rights,” their listeners heard “preference for white Christians.”  When Sykes and others were promoting “balanced budgets,” their listeners heard “no more welfare queens.”  When Sykes and others were promoting “character,” their listeners heard “macho male ass kicking.”  Sykes is not a fascist who adores social Darwinism and macho caricatures of masculinity.  But many of his listeners CLEARLY WERE.  Like many thoughtful conservatives, he never understood the core of grassroots American conservatism.


If you have looked at more than a few of these blog posts, you have noted that I tend to present a lot of facts and figures, often from non-partisan sources.  I have no illusions about the persuasive value of this.  This blog is not just here to persuade.  It is here to educate.  If we want to persuade, really persuade, large numbers of people, we have to break through the fog of ideology and tribalism.  We have to get at people’s real motivations.  Democracy is an ASSUMPTION – that large numbers of voters are well-informed and well-educated.  Endless arguments between ideologues talking across purposes get us nowhere.  America is ripe for real change.

The Geography of Innovation

Occasionally, a conservative comes along who acknowledges that the Scandinavian countries are doing quite well economically, despite being “socialist.”  But the argument is often made that they succeed only because they depend on America for one very important thing – innovation.  America, supposedly, is the land of supreme innovation, precisely because it does not impose economic equality on its people.  Free-wheeling, privatized competition spurs innovation in America.  Then, other countries, particularly the “socialist” Scandinavian countries, parasitize America’s innovations.

In 2013, a group of economists published a paper entitled “Choosing Your Own Capitalism in a Globalized World.”  If the “cutthroat leader” – the United States — were to switch to “cuddly capitalism, this would reduce the growth rate of the entire world economy,” the authors argued, by slowing the pace of innovation.  And they specifically argued that a greater gap in income between successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs increases entrepreneurial effort and thus a country’s contribution to the world technology frontier.  In other words, inequality – inequality that’s BUILT INTO THE SYSTEM – yields innovation.

First of all, if this were true, then countries with lots of economic inequality would be hotbeds of innovation.  In a previous post, I showed that poorer countries tend to have GREATER inequality.  Honduras and Nigeria have high inequality.  A few wealthy people, lots of poor people.  Where’s the tremendous innovation this is supposed to generate?  Japan and South Korea have much lower inequality.  Hmmm…Samsung, Sony, Hyundai, Toyota – seems like a lot of innovation happening there.

There are a number of ratings of innovation by country.  The U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization produces one, called the Global Innovation Index.  The World Economic Forum generates another, called the Global Competitiveness Index.  Bloomberg has its own Bloomberg Innovation Index.  Rather than rely on any 1 of these, let’s look at all 3:

country Global Innovation rank Global Competitiveness rank Bloomberg Innovation rank
Switzerland 1 1 4
Sweden 2 10 2
Netherlands 3 8 15
America 4 3 9
United Kingdom 5 9 17
Denmark 6 13 8
Singapore 7 2 6
Finland 8 4 5
Germany 9 5 3
Ireland 10 25 16
South Korea 11 26 1
Luxembourg 12 19 34
Iceland 13 30 25
Japan 14 6 7
France 15 23 11
Hong Kong 16 7 35
Israel 17 27 10
Canada 18 15 20
Norway 19 11 14
Austria 20 21 12

As you can see, America does rank highly on innovation, in the top 10 on all 3 rankings.  It isn’t number 1 on any of them, though.  Taking the average ranking of these 3 surveys, we get this top 10:

Switzerland 2
Sweden 4.67
Netherlands 4.67
Singapore 4.67
America 5
Finland 5.33
Germany 5.33
Denmark 8.67
Japan 8.67
South Korea 12.33

America is 5th, behind 3 European countries.  1 of the Scandinavian countries, Sweden, ranks ahead of America, and another, Finland, is close behind.  3 of the 5 Scandinavian countries are in the top 10.

At the very least, it seems hard to make the argument that their particular variety of capitalism, with strong labor unions and universal health care, is holding the Scandinavian countries back when it comes to innovation.  But there is a more fundamental problem with the notion that being a “cutthroat leader” is necessary for innovation.  Let’s look within America itself.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has been described as “scrupulously non-partisan.”  It was founded by Jennifer Dunn, a Republican, and Calvin Dooley, a Democrat.  It has featured both Republican and Democrats as co-chairs.  And it too, generates an innovation rating, this time by state, called the New Economy Index.  This rating is based on many factors:  workforce education, immigration of knowledge workers, number of inventor patents, percentage of scientists and engineers, and so on.  So let’s look at their rankings:

state New Economy Index score rank
Massachusetts 92.4 1
Delaware 82.1 2
Washington 79.5 3
California 79.1 4
Maryland 79.1 5
Virginia 77.9 6
Colorado 76.8 7
Utah 76.4 8
Connecticut 76 9
New Jersey 75.6 10
New York 72.5 11
New Hampshire 71.9 12
Minnesota 69.7 13
Oregon 69.3 14
Vermont 67.2 15
Arizona 66.7 16
Texas 65.7 17
Georgia 64.8 18
Michigan 64.5 19
Illinois 64.3 20
Florida 61.4 21
Pennsylvania 60.6 22
Rhode Island 60.5 23
Idaho 60.5 24
North Carolina 60.2 25
Nevada 59 26
Maine 58.9 27
Alaska 58.7 28
Kansas 57.7 29
New Mexico 56.8 30
Wisconsin 55.8 31
Ohio 55.5 32
Missouri 54.9 33
North Dakota 54.1 34
Nebraska 53.7 35
Hawaii 53.5 36
Montana 53.1 37
Iowa 52.9 38
Tennessee 52.2 39
South Carolina 49.8 40
Wyoming 49.5 41
Indiana 49.4 42
South Dakota 48 43
Louisiana 46.1 44
Kentucky 45.7 45
Alabama 45.7 46
Oklahoma 45.5 47
Arkansas 41.7 48
West Virginia 37.9 49
Mississippi 37.4 50

It’s a familiar pattern.  Of the top 10 states, 5 are in the Northeast.  California ranks 4th.  Only 1 southern state, Virginia, is in the top 10.  Of the bottom 10 states, 6 are in the South.  The highest-ranked state, Massachusetts, has a score of 92.4, more than DOUBLE that of the lowest-ranked state, Mississippi (37.4).  If we map the states by innovation, we get this:


This is not exactly an encouraging map, if you’re trying to argue that “cutthroat capitalism” drives innovation.  The West Coast and the Northeast are despised by conservatives, dominated by blue states with strong safety nets and plenty of government regulation.  The South is a conservative paradise, dominated by red states with weak labor unions, low taxes, and lax regulation.  Somehow these just don’t seem to translate into innovation.


Even in Texas, which ranks fairly highly for a southern state (17th), if we look at where the “new economy” is sprouting, it isn’t where we should expect, based on conservative ideology.  High-tech hot spots in Texas are associated with San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Dallas.  All have Democratic mayors and strongly Democratic-leaning populations.

It should come as no surprise that the geography of innovation is similar to the geography of education.  In a previous post, I examined income inequality in America, and its relationship to education.  Let’s see how innovation falls out.


Massachusetts ranks number 1 in the percentage of people 25-64 with Bachelor’s degrees.  6 of the top 10 states are in the Northeast.  6 of the bottom 10 states are in the South.  People with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) degrees are particularly sparse in the South:


In Mississippi, less than 6% of the population has a STEM degree.  In Massachusetts, more than DOUBLE that percentage does.  The geography of educational attainment in America is quite similar to that of innovation.  Education, investment in research and development, that’s what drives innovation.  Not inequality.


Notice the hotspots of education in the country – northern California, Colorado, the Northeast.  These are the hotspots for innovation.  If we plot educational achievement by state versus innovation, as measured by the ITIF’s New Economy Index, we see a rather striking correlation:


The notion that a system of overt social Darwinism, specifically extreme rewards for those who innovate and crumbs for those who don’t, is necessary to drive innovation, is a half-baked fantasy used to justify the maximization of profits.  It’s based on the false assumption that a few talented people are responsible for most innovation, rather than large numbers of well-educated scientists and engineers, and that without the prospect of ungodly amounts of wealth, the innovators will give up and go home.

If this were true, then the enormous technological advancement seen in America in the mid 20th century, when unions were strong and the top income tax rate was about 90%, would never have happened.  For that matter, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, vacation time, and many other worker benefits would have shut down innovation in America, because all of these things eat into profits.  And profits are supposedly sacrosanct.  Any limitation on them, any at all, will kill innovation.


Time and again, we hear complaints from industry that there just aren’t enough educated people in some areas to fill the jobs.  Education is the real impetus for innovation.  NASA would never have gone to the moon without thousands of scientists and engineers.  Yes, there are visionaries.  But even robber barons like Andrew Carnegie understood the need for education and investment in the future.

Johnny Canal is in charge

Years ago, there was a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit entitled “Johnny Canal,” about a frontiersman who had a “brilliant” idea.  Every American town, even the smallest village, would be connected to every other American town, by not 1, but 2, canals – 1 outbound, and 1 inbound.  Every town would have literally hundreds, if not thousands, of canals leading in and out of it.  That way, you couldn’t get lost, because each canal was 1-way, going to a single destination.  Johnny Canal presents his canal scheme in the White House, to the President and his cabinet.  Needless to say, his idea is met with incredulous stares and obvious questions.  The President himself has a lot of questions.  “Where will we get the manpower to build this vast network of canals?”  “Will the canals be the property of the state or federal government?”  “I’m sure we’re all anxious to hear the details of your plan.”  As the President rattles off his concerns, Johnny Canal’s expression becomes more and more perplexed.  After a long pause, he finally responds, “Look, do you want the canals or not?”


This week, former U.S. congressman Ronald Klein authored an editorial in the Washington Post entitled “Why Trump will never get anything done.”  In it, he points out that policy making is hard and tedious work.  There is zero evidence that Trump has ever taken policy making seriously.  Because everything is a game for him and ABOUT him, he will say one thing and then exactly the opposite, almost in the same breath.  For example, he has embraced government-run health care, while at the same time endorsing a health care bill in the House of Representatives that would have virtually destroyed Obamacare.  During the campaign, in November of 2015, he said that wages were too high.  ONLY A MONTH LATER, he said wages were too low.  4 months after that, he said he opposed raising the minimum wage.  A month after that, he indicated that he was open to raising the minimum wage, because “you have to have something you can live on.”  Only 4 days after that, he indicated that there shouldn’t be any federal minimum wage at all!  3 days after that, he said that he wanted to raise the federal minimum wage.  Yet 10 days later he yet again went back to saying that there should be no federal minimum wage.  A few months later, he flipped YET AGAIN, saying he supported raising the federal minimum wage – in fact, saying “it has to go up.”


If I’ve made you dizzy from this incredible journey down flip-flop lane, keep in mind that it’s really just a Johnny Canal brain at work.  The media is accustomed to SERIOUS POLICY from a President.  Every time Trump makes a statement, they pull out analysists and experts to study it, as if it’s a serious policy proposal.  But there is no policy, just vague ideas about “greatness.”  Everything’s gonna be great!  We’re gonna have great growth, great wages, great walls, and great greatness.  And the details?  Well, he wants jobs for American workers, yet he hires foreign workers.  He wants America to use American steel, yet he uses Chinese steel to build his buildings.  He wants to raise the minimum wage, but it’s too high, but wages are too low, but wages are too high.


Just recently, Trump blessed us all with another brilliant idea – putting solar panels on his “great” border wall.  Telling the world it was his idea, he added, “Pretty good imagination, right?”  First of all, it’s not his idea.  It was in fact proposed by one of the companies bidding on the border wall this spring.  Second of all, much of the border area is sparsely inhabited, far from the big population centers that require lots of power.  It’s a half-baked idea that serious proponents of solar power wouldn’t even consider.  It’s like proposing a snow plow business in Miami.

This jumble comes about because he has no interest in what is called POLICY.  “I’m in favor of the greatest greatness possible” IS NOT A POLICY.  As Klein points out, instead of a policy, Trump has “a jumble of populist slogans and corporatist concessions totally at war with itself.”  That’s why the Trump “plan” includes raising taxes on corporations that outsource while slashing taxes on those very same corporations.  That’s why he says he’s going to “drain the swamp,” and then proceeds to fill his cabinet with lobbyists, Wall Street tycoons, and Washington insiders.  That’s why he endorses a Democratic plan to put limits on Wall Street while supporting a Republican plan to remove limits on Wall Street.  That’s why he calls for 1 trillion dollars in spending on infrastructure and then presents a budget that slashes spending on everything except the military.  That’s why he calls a House bill that destroys Obamacare “great,” and tell us “you’re gonna love it,” yet a few months later, calls a less extreme House bill that does the same thing “mean.”


Trump is much like a circus barker.  He’s fond of saying things like “You’re gonna love this,” and “You’re gonna get tired of winning.”  The problem is, Washington, for all of its faults, has a lot of people who are actually interested in governing.  During the campaign Trump scared a lot of thoughtful people, people who realized the consequences of what he was proposing.  He promised to get Congress to repeal Obamacare, enact tax reform, pass a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, impose tariffs on outsourcers, subsidize child care and fund a border wall with Mexico — all in the first 100 days of his presidency.  None of that has happened or is likely to happen, because governing, even governing poorly, is serious business, requiring hard work and a firm grasp of the issues.  He doesn’t have the ability.  All he does is ask Washington, “Look, do you want the greatness or not?”


Historians rate great presidents as great because they make meaningful change.  Sienna College has taken surveys of presidential historians periodically over the last 35 years.  Thomas Jefferson has never ranked below 5th.  Abraham Lincoln has never ranked below 3rd.  And Franklin Roosevelt has been number 1, every time.  These presidents are rated highly because they had, for all of their faults, integrity and a firm grasp of the issues of their time.  They were great at GOVERNING, not selling snake oil.  They were great because they genuinely cared about the country, and understood that making lasting, meaningful change requires the ability to navigate the complexities of policy consequences and the complexities of national politics.  That’s called governing.


In the old SNL skit, every time a member of the president’s cabinet challenges his proposal, Johnny Canal pulls out a knife and attacks.  It’s all he knows.  That’s how disputes are resolved on the frontier.  He’s a “fighter.”  Of course, he’s completely out of his element in the White House.  Governing is serious, complicated business.  The peanut gallery is one thing.  Trump occupied the peanut gallery for years – promoting nonsense about Obama’s citizenship, complaining about corruption in Washington, and mostly promoting himself.  But now his worst nightmare has come true.  He’s been kicked out of the peanut gallery into the most powerful position on earth.  He’s not up for it.  He’ll be remembered as the worst president in history, and an all around terrible human being.


It’s very clear that many of his supporters never really believed he would accomplish much.  They just loved to hear from someone who was “fighting for them.”  They know trickle down has failed.  They just haven’t heard much about anything better, from Republicans or Democrats.

The Problem with our “News” Media

In science, we have something called consensus.  Scientific revolutions do happen.  But there is also a lot of stability in science.  Take physics for example.  In previous posts, I have discussed the 3 big revolutions in physics that occurred in the 20th century – relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory.  They were indeed revolutionary.  But not in the way people usually think of revolutions.

When most people think of a revolution, they think of a sweeping away of everything that came before.  But even political revolutions aren’t really like this.  A new regime has to deal with a lot of the same basic concerns – transportation, utilities, education, economic development, and so on.  And in science, revolutions are often even less…well, revolutionary.


Take relativity for example.  Yes, it has overturned Newtonian physics.  Newton didn’t realize there was a cosmic speed limit.  He thought an object would keep accelerating if you kept pushing it, indefinitely.  If Newton had been right, we could, in principle, travel to Mars in a few minutes.  But we can’t.  We can’t outrun light.  And light takes a minimum of about 3 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars.

But as a very good approximation, for the speeds of everyday life, Newtonian physics is a VERY GOOD approximation.  For example, the earth circles the sun at a speed of about 67,000 miles per hour.  That’s faster than any human has ever traveled, relative to the earth.  But light speed is about 670 MILLION miles per hour.  At 67,000 miles per hour, less than a ten thousandth of the speed of light, relativistic effects are quite negligible.  With very modest acceleration, in space we could reach a speed of 67,000 miles per hour in a short time.


Considerations such as these are why Newtonian physics is still taught in school, even though it’s “wrong.”  It still works very well, for most applications.  In that sense, it isn’t “wrong.”  And in retrospect, it couldn’t be, because Newtonian mechanics, over and over, had been shown to work very well in lots of situations.  It made very good predictions, and still does.  We just have to be careful about where we apply it.

My point is that if a theory makes very good predictions, well, that’s all we really ask of a theory.  In my introductory post to this blog, I mentioned that if someone came along who could make very accurate, consistent predictions, even if he couldn’t explain WHY, science would face some very real and very stiff competition, and no scientist would question the value of it.  That’s all we ask.  Just make very good predictions.


When a theory makes good, consistent predictions, when it agrees with the evidence, we reach consensus in science.  It’s a good theory.  That doesn’t mean it is true with a capital T.  But until something comes along that makes better predictions, it’s good.  It’s what we call provisional truth.  Truth with a small t.  That’s all we ever have.  The reason science can do this is because there are rules that every scientist, in a sense, signs onto.  If you don’t play by the rules, you’ll never get consensus on whatever theory it is you’re advocating.  And the most important rule is this:  You have to have evidence to support your theory.  NOT OPINION.  EVIDENCE.  And any argument built from that evidence has to be based on reason.  The inspiration for a theory can come from anywhere – a dream, an inspiration, an intuition, anything.  But the VALIDATION of the theory has to be based on reasoned argument, constructed from evidence.

Suppose I say, “Pigs can fly, when they want to.”  The first thing a scientist will do is ask for evidence to support this.  Of course, when no flying pigs are to be found, I can always say, “Well, the ones you watched didn’t want to at the time.  You can’t PROVE that I’m wrong.”  But in science, I’m not gonna get very far with this.  I have no evidence to support my theory.  Science demands evidence.  Otherwise, we are faced with a virtually infinite number of theories about the world, and no way to falsify them.  Maybe pigs are actually aliens in disguise.  Maybe they’re all CIA agents.  Maybe they’re protrusions into our dimension of vast hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings.


Notice that the rules of science say nothing about popularity.  We don’t take a poll of scientists to see if they like the theory, and build consensus from that.  The consensus comes LATER, after the evidence has been examined and the reasoned arguments have been made.  And this is one big difference between science and politics.  Politics is all about persuasion.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter HOW you persuade.  The bottom line is popularity.  Democracy carries with it an assumption – that large numbers of people will make good decisions.  And this in turn carries with it a more fundamental assumption – that large numbers of people are well-informed and educated.

In a democracy, there is (in theory at least), something called the public square – a place where people gather to make their arguments about public life.  It’s vital.  Making good decisions requires deliberation.  Most Americans today get their information about the world from commercial television.  People often complain that this or that media outlet is biased in one way or another.  But really, this overlooks the more pervasive problem.


Imagine that you’re married, and you’re trying to do some financial planning with your spouse.  But you have a time limit, say half an hour.  And even within that half an hour, you are interrupted every 5 minutes with a series of commercials.  Fundamentally, commercial television is not about information or deliberation.  It’s about entertainment.  So called “news” is no different.  What entertains?  What entertains are conflict and drama.

Careful deliberation and reasoned arguments simply do not entertain.  If they did, scientific conferences would be all the rage on commercial television.  But careful deliberation and reasoned arguments are essential for good decision-making.  The entertainment imperative simply has no place in the public square.  The need for conflict rather than reason is incompatible with the needs of democracy.  Commercial television “news” is full of talking heads, endlessly arguing with each other, often yelling over each other, yielding very little of substance.


Last year, a group of historians published an open letter to the American people.  In it, they pointed out that, “Donald Trump’s candidacy is the latest chapter in a troubled narrative many decades in the making.  In another era, civil society institutions such as the academy, the free press and the judiciary were counted on to safeguard constitutional democracy.  That this is no longer the case cannot be blamed solely on Trump.  Donald Trump’s candidacy has profited from the fears of people living precariously and a political culture of spectacle and cynicism, both of which long predate his emergence as a candidate.”

But even with all of this, our public square might be salvageable, were it not for something very basic and hard to crack.  Public television (and public radio), for example, is considerably more deliberative than commercial television.  Surveys indicate that Americans who rely on public television are among the best informed about the world.  Very few Americans bother to watch public television, but even if most Americans did tune in, there is a pervasive and profound problem with public television, as with all of our public media.  That problem is false equivalence.


In 2008, historian Robert Weible wrote, “If we have learned nothing else in recent years, it is that history is very powerful and can be dangerous in the wrong hands, whether in local communities or the nation’s capital. It seems that in an idealized marketplace in which everyone is his or her own expert and all ideas are equal, self-proclaimed champions of democracy can legitimize their potentially unlimited authority, not by grounding their truth in objective, scientifically determined facts, but by concocting and selling self-serving histories that play on public fears, prejudices, and greed.”

False equivalence says that everything is just somebody’s opinion.  The irony of our media is that the problem isn’t bias.  In a way, it’s the opposite of bias – a need for “balance.”  We see this all the time in public broadcasting.  Opposing viewpoints are presented, and in the process, nothing gets resolved.  We never get to the MEAT of the arguments being made.


Suppose you and I are discussing crime.  You say we need to invest more in prisons.  I say we need to invest more in education.  But notice something.  We haven’t even come to an understanding yet about the basic facts concerning crime.  Has crime been increasing or decreasing?  What is the historical relationship between incarceration and crime rates?  Is there a correlation between education levels and crime rates?  There are basic facts that come into play here.  IF WE DON’T EVEN AGREE ON THE FACTS, THERE IS NO POINT TO THE REST OF THE DISCUSSION.  We will be talking across purposes.

But false equivalence says there are no facts.  Only opinions.  If you can persuade, by whatever means, that’s all that matters.  So nothing ever gets resolved.  We have endless discussions, often with people talking across purposes, never getting to the meat of the issues.  The meat is called evidence.  WHAT IS YOUR EVIDENCE FOR YOUR ARGUMENT?  That is the first question that should come up in any political discussion.


There is such a thing as real life, with real people who deal with real consequences.  If you doubt it, talk to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, or lives in a travel trailer (I have).  It’s easy to say, “Everything is just someone’s opinion,” when you have a secure income and live in a bubble with other politicos, pundits, and media personalities.  The anger that many Americans feel toward the “elite” has everything to do with the ongoing failure of the political class to deliver real-life results to ordinary people, while they argue endlessly with each other about issues that often have little practical consequence.

Don’t get me wrong.  We still have independent new media in America, journalists and editors who are fearless, who are willing to speak truth to power.  But that’s not enough.  Political opinions, first and foremost, have to be grounded in reality.  George Orwell said, “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  Everyone is not entitled to their own facts.  It doesn’t matter what your political stripe is.  Everyone should be able to agree on facts.


Let me quote historian Robert Weible again:  “Consider for a moment that most historians know that the Founding Fathers were more influenced by the Enlightenment than by the Bible, that the Holocaust really happened, and that Saddam Hussein never planned the attacks of September 11th. There are, of course, lots of people who understand things differently. Why? Possibly because they are influenced by those who interpret the past more loudly—if less rationally—than others, often on radio, television, and the internet, or in churches, bars, and political campaigns.”

Scientists, like historians, reach consensus.  Consensus occurs in science because scientists follow rules.  Evidence.  Reason.  Consensus was once the norm in our news media too, at least when it came to facts.  But the entertainment imperative and the more fundamental problem of false equivalence have led us to a very dangerous point.  Many in the media now recognize the problem, but few seem to realize how much effort, after years of neglect, will now be required to correct the problem.


Eventually, reality does intrude.  But the irony is that in our age of almost instantaneous communication and rapid technological change, social progress is often glacial in speed.  The reason is our media, which insulates us from that pesky thing called reality with spectacle and endless opinionating.

The Geography of the Gender Gap

The World Economic Forum is a nonprofit organization based in Switzerland.  It is funded by 1000 member companies, many of them large corporations.  The annual membership fee for an “industry partner,” for example, is hundreds of thousands of dollars.  It hardly a liberal organization.  In fact, over the years it has been criticized by liberals for promoting globalization and putting too little emphasis on the regulation of business.


The WEF issues an annual report on gender gaps around the world.  Its most recent report was in 2016.  It rates countries on gender disparities in income, labor force participation, participation in management and politics, education, and life expectancy.  Not surprisingly, they issue a composite index for each country, the Gender Gap Index.

In their 2016 report, Yemen ranks dead last in gender parity.  In fact, of the 10 worst-ranking countries, 8 are Islamic theocracies.  Saudi Arabia, for example, ranks 142nd on economic participation, 105th in education, 128th in health and survival, and 121st in political empowerment.  And 141st overall.


Iceland is at the top of the list.  Of the top 10 countries, 6 are in Europe, and of the top 5, 4 are Scandinavian countries.  And America?  It ranks 45th, below 22 European countries.  But interestingly, America does very well in terms of educating its female population.  In America, 38% more women than men are enrolled in college.  This is a higher “reverse gender gap” than we see in most European countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Finland.  24% more American women than men have Associate’s degrees, and 15% more women than men have Master’s degrees.  So why does America rank below most of Europe on its gender gap?

The WEF estimates the average earned income for men and women by country.  On the income gender gap, America ranks 50th among 142 countries, below 19 European countries.  The estimated average earned income for men in America is $66,338 per year.  For women?  $43,122.  In other words, men on average earn about 50% more.  Compare this to Norway – the average earned income for women is $57,857 per year.  For men?  $73,258 per year.  Men earn about 27% more.  Still a large gap, but it’s small enough to help give Norway a rank of THIRD on the Gender Gap Index.


Why do American women earn so much less than men?  One big reason is simple.  Many American women don’t have paying jobs, or work only part time.  The WEF estimates labor force participation by gender by country.  On this, America ranks 56th.  The labor force participation for men is 77%.  For women?  Only 66%.  Again, we can compare these figures to those in Norway.  In Norway, labor force participation for men is 80%, only 3% higher than in America.  But for women?  76 PERCENT – 10% higher than in America.

It stands to reason that large numbers of women not being employed, or only employed part time, is going to bring the average down.  But even when we take this into account, women are still paid less than men.  In fact, the U.S. Statistical Atlas gives median earnings by gender for every level of educational attainment.  AT EVERY EDUCATION LEVEL, men make considerably more than women:

High school diploma – men $32,900, women $22,200

Some college – men $41,500, women $28,300

Bachelor’s degree – men $61,300, women $41,800

Advanced degree – men $83,600, women $55,800

Notice that the average man with only a Bachelor’s degree makes more than the average woman with an advanced degree.  At every education level men make about 50% more than women.  The earnings ratio is remarkably consistent among these education levels.


It is also interesting to note that the gender gap within the United States varies considerably from state to state.  The Institute for Women’s Policy Research issues reports of its own on gender gap issues.  Like the WEF, it looks at such things as labor participation rates, earnings, education, and mortality.  In each case it gives each state a composite grade, much like one would see on a report card from school.

On employment and earnings (which includes labor force participation and earnings), no American state received a grade of A in their most recent report.  Of the top 10 ranking states, 2 received B+’s and the other 8 B’s.  7 of these 10 states, and both of the B+ states, are in the Northeast.  Of the bottom 10 states, 3 received D’s, 3 D-‘s, and 5 F’s.  Of these 10 states, 6 (including 4 of the F’s) are in the South.

Breaking this down, we can look specifically at labor force participation by state.  The percentage of women in the workforce varies from 68.3% (Alaska) to 52.6% (Alabama).  Of the bottom 10 states, 8 are in the South.  And we can look at the gender gap in earnings.  The smallest gap is in New York, where the median earnings for men are 14% more than for women.  The largest gap is in Louisiana, where the median earnings for men are 50 PERCENT more than for women.  Of the bottom 10 states, 4 are in the South.


The earnings disparity is particularly striking if we compare only men and women who have Bachelor’s degrees or higher.  North Dakota has the smallest gap here – the median earnings for a man with a Bachelor’s degree are 17% more than those for a woman with a Bachelor’s degree.  By contrast, in Texas, this difference is a whopping 54 PERCENT.  Of the bottom 10 states, 6 are in – yep, you guessed it, the South.  The median earnings for women in Maryland or New Jersey are $67,000 per year.  The median earnings for women in Mississippi are $43,000 per year, and in Oklahoma $42,000 per year.

My point is that the gender gap varies greatly from state to state and country to country.  And these differences correlate with a plethora of other measures of societal well-being, irrespective of gender:  government integrity, education levels, life expectancies, and on and on.  The pattern is remarkably similar to that of the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Index.  Of the top 10 countries on their Inequality-adjusted HDI, 9 are in Europe.  And America?  America ranks 19th, below 16 European countries.


What’s interesting is that gender parity plays no role at all in the calculation of the HDI.  Yet there is a clear correlation between the two.  In the graph above, the green dots are most of the European countries.  The yellow dots are the 5 Scandinavian countries.  The red dot is America.  This becomes even more clear if we exclude the countries where both men and women are doing poorly.  Mozambique has the 5th smallest gender income gap in the world.  That’s great.  But I doubt it’s much consolation for the women there, whose median earned income is only $1042 per year.  So let’s look at only those countries with an Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index above 0.6:


Again, the red dot is America, which ranks well below all 5 Scandinavian countries in both measures.  The Scandinavian countries have high percentages of women in the workforce, and much greater income parity between the genders.  What is interesting is that this tends to improve well-being for EVERYONE – male or female.


And within America?  Of the top 10 states on the American HDI, 7 are in the Northeast.  Of the bottom 10, 8 are in the South.  The correlation between gender parity and human development is striking, as you can see above.  States like Maryland and Massachusetts have relatively good gender parity – and also rank highly on human development in general.  States like West Virginia and Mississippi have big gender gaps – and also rank poorly on human development.  Both of these things are correlated with education levels generally.  Better education tends to reduce gender gaps, increase prosperity, and lengthen lives.


The blue dots are northeastern states.  The red dots are southern states.  Of course, we could argue about which is the cause and which is the effect here, but it really doesn’t matter.  Better education tends to produce better outcomes for everyone, better gender parity, and – better education.  But I’ll say it again.  Women are already exceeding men educationally, on average, in America.  That has not given them parity on income.  Women still face barriers, and those barriers have everything to do with American attitudes about masculinity and femininity.


Recently, model Paulina Porizkova authored an editorial in the NY Times entitled “America Made Me a Feminist.”  She spent a lot of her childhood in Sweden, and during that time, she had an image of feminists as insecure people.  In her words, “A woman who needed to state that she was equal to a man might as well be shouting that she was smart or brave. If you were, you wouldn’t need to say it.”  In Sweden, she felt as powerful as a man, if not more so.  She felt like she owned her own body.  Until she came to America at age 18, she felt she could do anything a man could do.  “But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it,” she says.  “In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable.”

Sexism in America is at least as important as racism in our politics.  Women in America constantly have to walk a fine line between being too timid and being pegged as “nasty.”  The caricature of masculinity pervades our approaches to economics and social development, and it has everything to do with the polarization in our politics.  I suspect that we won’t have to wait too much longer for this tension to be resolved.




The Worst System of Government

Nicholas Kristof is a journalist and columnist for the NY Times.  He has covered a lot of wars and a lot of dictators.  This week he authored an editorial entitled “James Comey and Our Own Tin-pot Despot, Donald Trump.”  In it, he points out that preoccupation with the legalities of what Trump has done misses the point.


There’s a consistent pattern to Trump’s behavior.  “I need loyalty,” he told Comey.  “I expect loyalty.”  Comey said nothing in response, didn’t move or speak, just looked at Trump in what he called the “awkward silence.”  Trump tries to undermine the legitimacy of judges that disagree with him.  He attacks journalists as “enemies of the people.”  He issues “waivers” for ethics violations and gives key positions to family members.  And he lies constantly.

Except it’s more than just lying.  It’s an attitude that says, “There is no such thing as THE truth.  There’s only my truth, or someone else’s.  And I’m in charge.  So it’s mine.”  This is classic despot behavior.  They have no respect for the rule of law.  It’s nothing but a nuisance to them.


Winston Churchill famously said, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried….”  Democracy is messy.  The rule of law, the checks and balances in our system make it hard to get anything done.  As the saying goes, a dictator can make the trains run on time.  Huge numbers of Americans have no problem with Trump’s disregard for the rule of law.

In fact, Trump actually quoted dictator Benito Mussolini AFTER HE BECAME PRESIDENT:  “….it’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”  In his prison diary, murderer Dylann Roof laments that Jews supposedly control Hollywood, keeping the money for big movies in Jewish hands.  “Therefore what have we missed out on that great white minds have or could have produced?” he asks.  This is an endless refrain of fascists and white nationalists.  They believe that greatness is the product of a few ambitious men.  That equality, justice, and tolerance are the delusions of weaklings and the brainwashed.


The man who actually wrote The Art of the Deal, Tony Schwartz, has been very clear about Donald John Trump.  In an article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, Schwartz said, “Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration.”  “Trump was equally clear with me that he didn’t value — nor even necessarily recognize — the qualities that tend to emerge as people grow more secure, such as empathy, generosity, reflectiveness, the capacity to delay gratification or, above all, a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong.”

Trump made clear long ago how he feels about the concept of equality.  In an interview with NY Times journalist Deborah Solomon in 2009, he said, “They say all men are created equal.  It doesn’t get any more famous than that, but is it really true?….It’s not true.  Some people are born very smart, some people are born not so smart.”  Again, it’s the endless refrain of the fascist.  “I’m better than other people.”

We have heard a lot of talk about “unity” lately.  Many journalists lament that the country is so divided, so polarized.  We need “unity.”  The problem is, there are 2 very different ideas of unity.


One says that America is a monoculture, and should always be a monoculture.  That culture is white, patriarchal, militaristic, and values individual selfishness.  It takes inequality as a given and does not value fairness.  It says that the primary purpose of government is to maintain order and maintain American military dominance, NOT to ensure justice for all.  It operates on the belief that what makes America great is the unleashing of the white Protestant work ethic, the clawing and striving of each person’s selfish pursuit of wealth, and the ambition of a few great men who come from that culture.  This unity values economic growth above all else, because without plenty of growth, there won’t be enough wealth to trickle down, and trickle-down is the only way to have a sustainable middle class in this model.

The other says that America is multicultural.  This approach says that what unifies America is not a culture, but a set of values – justice, equality, and tolerance.  It says that the primary purpose of government is to ensure justice for all.  It values fairness above all else.  It values tolerance.  It operates on the belief that what makes America great is not the striving of a few for power or wealth but the diversity of the many, with a shared longing for freedom and a decent standard of living.  This unity values the power of workers and the regulation of the ambitious, because THIS is the only way to have a sustainable middle class.


Martin Luther King said that he had a dream, that one day the nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all men are created equal.  We aren’t going to have unity until the conflict between these 2 visions of it is resolved.

Reality intrudes on ideology

In the face of what some journalists call the “post-truth” era, there actually are fact-checking organizations out there.  One in particular deserves notice:  the Pulitzer Prize-winning site politifact.com.  Politifact constantly examines the validity and accuracy of statements made by news-makers.  Statements are rated, not only on whether they have a factual basis, but whether they are creating misleading impressions.  Politifact uses a sliding scale to rate statements:

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Politifact has been doing this for a while now, so many politicians and pundits have accumulated accuracy scores over time.  Barack Obama, for example, has had 597 of his statements rated by Politifact.  48% of them were rated as either true or mostly true.  26% were rated either mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” – in fairness, only 2% were rated “pants on fire.”

How about Hillary Clinton?  She has had 293 of her statements rated by Politifact.  51% were rated as true or mostly true.  26% were rated as either mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” – again, only 2% rated as “pants on fire.”

And then there’s our current President, Donald John Trump.  He has had 410 of his statements rated by Politifact.  Only 17 PERCENT were rated true or mostly true.  A whopping 69 PERCENT, more than 2/3 of his statements, were rated mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” – with 16% rated as “pants on fire.”

Of course, many Americans expect politicians to lie.  They expect them to break their promises and make misleading statements.  But Trump is setting a new standard in dishonesty.  His disconnect from reality is a sight to behold.

Actually, there is one other politically influential person who can compete with Trump for a truly awful score on Politifact.  But he’s never held political office.  That would be Rush Limbaugh.  38 of his statements have been rated by Politifact.  Only 5% were rated as true or mostly true.  (Actually, he has yet to have a single one of his statements rated simply “true.”)  A whopping 81% were rated as mostly false, false, or “pants on fire.”  Even politicians can’t match that level of dishonesty.

How about other partisan pundits?  Well, on the conservative side we have Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.  On the liberal side we have Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, and Chris Matthews.  (Actually, I would have picked Keith Olberman, but only 2 of his statements have been rated by Politifact.)

Bill O’Reilly – 21 statements, 34% true or mostly true

Sean Hannity – 20 statements, 35% true or mostly true

Glenn Beck – 31 statements, 19% true or mostly true


Rachel Maddow – 27 statements, 37% true or mostly true

Jon Stewart – 7 statements, 43% true or mostly true

Chris Matthews – 7 statements, 28% true or mostly true

There is a lot variation.  But we can get some averages.  The 3 conservative pundits average 29% true or mostly true.  The 3 liberal ones, 36% true or mostly true.

Starting to see a pattern?

How about television networks?  Fox is usually characterized as leaning conservative.  ABC and CNN are certainly tagged as liberal by conservative politicians and pundits.  Here are their cumulative Politifact scores:

Fox – 168 statements, 22% true or mostly true


ABC – 96 statements, 43% true or mostly true

CNN – 79 statements, 53% true or mostly true

But I haven’t spent much time on actual political office holders.  How about Republicans versus Democrats?  On the Republican side, we have Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan, the most powerful Republicans in Washington, aside from the President, and Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer on the Democratic side.  We can add Bernie Sanders, although he’s not technically a Democrat.

Mike Pence – 41 statements, 22% true or mostly true

Mitch McConnell – 30 statements, 40% true or mostly true

Paul Ryan – 75 statements, 33% true or mostly true


Nancy Pelosi – 33 statements, 21% true or mostly true

Charles Schumer – 14 statements, 50% true or mostly true

Bernie Sanders – 113 statements, 50% true or mostly true

So again, there’s quite a bit of variation between individuals, with Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi getting poor scores.  Overall, the Republicans average 32% true or mostly true, the “Democrats” 40% true or mostly true.  None of these people come close to Trump’s level of dishonesty – Pence, for example, gets 47% of his statements rated as mostly false, false, or “pants on fire.”  That’s bad all right, when about half of what you’re saying is rated as basically untrue.  But it pales in comparison to Trump’s 69%.

What about the political parties themselves?  Well, the Republican National Committee gets its statements scored too.  34 of its statements have been scored.  Only 27% are rated true or mostly true.  By contrast, of the 35 statements from the Democratic National Committee that have been scored, 43% have been rated true or mostly true.

Let’s summarize, shall we?  On the conservative side we have these averages:

Pundits – 29% true or mostly true

Networks – 22% true or mostly true

Political party – 27% true or mostly true

Politicians – 32% true or mostly true

Meanwhile, on the liberal side:

Pundits – 36% true or mostly true

Networks – 48% true or mostly true

Political party – 43% true or mostly true

Politicians – 40% true or mostly true

In EVERY CASE, the conservatives average lower in honesty.  In the case of networks, the difference is dramatic – the ABC/CNN true/mostly true average is more than DOUBLE that of Fox.  As I said, people expect politicians to lie.  But notice that Fox’s percentage of true or mostly true statements is about the same as the WORST of the Democratic politicians above – Nancy Pelosi.  That a so-called “news” network is putting out as much dishonesty as a poorly-rated politician is a disgrace.  That’s not journalism.

In 2012, Farleigh Dickinson University published a survey of 1185 Americans, testing their knowledge of domestic and international matters, and obtaining information about their media habits.  On both domestic and international issues, listeners to National Public Radio scored the highest.  Americans who relied on television for their news did considerably worse.  But worst of all, on both domestic and international matters, were Fox viewers.  They did considerably worse than people who reported they didn’t follow the news at all!

As if Fox wasn’t bad enough, we now seem to have a competition for the most unreliable source of information, with outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars, along with very political chain emails and social network posts.  Such “information” is notoriously bad.  Politifact has rated 179 chain emails.  Only 6 PERCENT were rated true or mostly true.  An incredible 59 PERCENT were rated “pants of fire” – in other words, ridiculous.

What does the future hold?  Everyone is entitled to their opinion.  Everyone is not entitled to their own facts.  There has been a good deal of pushback from journalists recently, journalists of all stripes who have genuine integrity, against “alternative facts.”  But is it too little too late?  Our current situation has been a long time developing.  It will take some Herculean effort now to correct.

Click to access final.pdf

Zero-sum Pathology

We live in a barbaric age.  That may sound like a radical statement, but it isn’t.  Many people would like to forget that at this moment, weapons of mass destruction are ready for their go signals, weapons than can reduce our civilization to pre-industrial levels.  While a few people are fabulously wealthy, having access to a lifestyle that any king of 2 centuries ago could not have imagined, most people struggle to survive.  We lurch blindly along, somehow hoping beyond hope that the enormous social problems our species confronts will resolve themselves as our technology advances by leaps and bounds – that we can continue to indulge in infantile games while the power of our technology grows and grows.


The problem boils down to this – zero-sum thinking.  Suppose we have a farmer and a rancher.  They both want access to the same piece of land.  The land is the land – you can’t make more of it.  Naively, we might think that zero-sum thinking is appropriate.  What helps the farmer must hurt the rancher, and vice versa.  But even in this simple scenario, zero-sum thinking is flawed.  The farmer and the rancher could share the land.  In a given year, half would be farmed, half would be for grazing.  The next year, they could switch.  The grazed part would now be enriched with cow manure.  The farmer would produce more crop than if the cattle hadn’t been there.  The farmed part would have been freed from grazing pressure for a year, so the rancher would end up producing more cattle than if the cows had had access to the entire area and overgrazed it.  Both the farmer and the rancher benefit.  I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the farmer and the rancher could share the burden of property taxes and the cost of utilities.  Or for that matter, that they could both be the same person – someone who does both.

Imagine if the organs of your body operated on zero-sum rules.  Your circulatory system has room for only so much blood.  Therefore your organs have a limited supply of oxygen.  Imagine if your liver insisted on a greater and greater blood supply, starving other organs of oxygen.  In a way, this is what cancer is – tissue that no longer “obeys the rules,” and grows uncontrollably.  It grows and grows until the body is killed, which of course kills the cancer as well.  In a highly interconnected system, zero-sum rules are self-destructive.


Zero-sum thinking is at its most pernicious when it comes to security.  It says, “The way to enhance your security is to reduce the security of others.”  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  Increasing fear and tension leads to INsecurity for everyone.  If a neighbor posted an intimidating message on your door, like, “You’d better watch your step,” how do you think you’d react?  Increasing tension leads to bad consequences for everyone.  Zero-sum thinking insists that what is good for one country must be bad for others.  It demands that other countries limit not only their military might, but their economic influence.

Zero-sum thinking insists that everyone else is an adversary, because there is only so much pie to go around.  If someone else wants more pie, it means I will have less.  Alliances are viewed as temporary agreements, intended to defeat current adversaries.  “American interests” are ultimately in conflict with everyone else’s, friend or “foe,” by definition.


David Brooks, conservative columnist for the NY Times, recently authored an editorial entitled “Donald Trump Poisons the World.”  It was partly a response to another article, in the Wall Street Journal, authored by H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Advisor, and Gary Cohn, his chief economic advisor.  In this article, they state clearly that “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”  As Brooks points out, this is zero-sum thinking in a nutshell.  If the other guy, the other business, or the other country is doing well, you must not be.

It is fascism.  Social darwinism.  Everything is a battle for advantage.  There is no such thing as cooperation.  Morality is merely a cover for selfishness.  And as Brooks says, “We’ve seen this philosophy before, of course. Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty-minded realism to justify their own selfishness. The problem is that this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases.”  This is not a liberal talking.  He’s a conservative.  And as he points out, the purveyors of this sickness inevitably end up turning on each other.  Trump and his people are just as ruthless to each other as they are to their supposed adversaries (which include all of our allies).


The reality of life is, of course, different.  Trust is something we take for granted.  Imagine how different life would be if everyone conducted their lives under simple zero-sum rules.  Routinely stealing from each other, sabotaging each other, hurting each other.  We sometimes naively entertain the delusion that law enforcement keeps people from being completely selfish.  But the fact is, if everyone behaved selfishly, law enforcement would be completely overwhelmed.  Behaving morally is a choice, a choice that most of us make – and in a way, it IS a selfish choice.

Therein lies the paradox.  The most selfish thing you can do in a community is cooperate.  It leads to a better outcome for EVERYONE, including you.  But notice that this is actually very different from zero-sum thinking.  Zero-sum thinking assumes that there is a given amount of “stuff” to be had – so if other people get more, you get less.  But enlightened self-interest assumes that TOGETHER, by COOPERATING, we can actually create more “stuff.”  The amazing thing is that this simple lesson has yet to be learned by some very powerful people.


In his book The Authoritarians, Bob Altemeyer describes an experiment he did using 2 groups of students.  One group consisted of students who scored highly on his test of “right wing authoritarianism.”  He called them high RWA’s.  The second group consisted of students who scored low on this test – he called them low RWA’s.  He let both groups of students play a game, called the Global Change Game.  The high RWA’s played with other high RWA’s, and the low RWA’s played with other low RWA’s.  The players divided up the world and had to learn about each region’s resources.  Leaders were settled upon and these leaders had the power to control finances and build societies, complete with factories, hospitals, and armies.  The leaders could make deals with leaders from other regions.  And importantly, they discovered that they could discreetly line their own pockets.  At the end of the game a prize was to be given for the “world’s richest person.”  And off the game went (for 40 simulated years).

As the game proceeded, the high RWA’s soon headed for disaster.  A nuclear holocaust ensued, but this was not the end of the game.  They were given a chance to “back up” in the game and potentially avoid the holocaust.  But the RWA’s started building up their armies again and attacking each other.  By the end of the game, the world was divided into armed camps threatening each other with nuclear war.  Billions of “people” in the game died from either war or starvation.

nuclear holocaust

The low RWA’s, by contrast, almost immediately created an international organization to deal with problems.  Money was poured into economic development, and military forces declined.  No wars or even threats of wars occurred.  There were some regional problems, but with international cooperation, almost every “person” in this world was provided with food, a job, and health care.

The low RWA’s did not see the world in terms of us and them.  They viewed messes as something to clean up, using cooperation.  The high RWA’s were constantly looking for ways to get the better of each other.  The results are not too surprising, in a way.  Imagine how an individual family would function if each member constantly stabbed the others in the back.  The main difference between the low RWA’s and the high RWA’s was that the former viewed the rest of the world as “us.”  The latter viewed the rest of the world as “them.”


The Declaration of Independence speaks of inalienable rights.  Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Notice that it doesn’t say anything about the right to push other people out of the way in pursuit of soulless materialism.  Invariably, the desire for more and more and more is tied to one’s perception of what OTHERS have.  As an old Saturday Night Live skit amusingly puts it, “Other people have stuff.  When do I get my stuff?”  No matter how much stuff I have, it’s not enough – as long as someone else has more.

That’s zero-sum thinking in a nutshell.  Like a malignancy, it destroys everything around it, and ultimately itself.  Here’s another quote from Brooks:  “People are wired to cooperate. Far from being a flimsy thing, the desire for cooperation is the primary human evolutionary advantage we have over the other animals.  People have a moral sense. They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples. From their first moments, children are wired to feel each other’s pain. You don’t have to teach a child about what fairness is; they already know. There’s no society on earth where people are admired for running away in battle or for lying to their friends.”


Zero-sum pathology now has the power to destroy our entire civilization.  If we don’t get serious about dealing with it, our civilization will not survive to see the 22nd century.

What happened to America’s love affair with progress?

There is a curious contradiction about Americans that historians have paid far little attention to, in my opinion.  America was built by people who took enormous risks.  In many cases they left fairly comfortable, stable lives and set off across unknown, hostile territory.  Many of them lost their lives.  The ones who survived often built their communities rapidly, encouraging immigration and embracing rapid change.  Particularly in the late 19th century, as the industrial revolution arrived with a vengeance in America, new industry and new technology were usually welcomed.


My point is that it was a time of change, rapid change, and many Americans accepted, even demanded change.  What is so striking is that many small American cities, built in this way, soon became dominated by a culture that opposed change.  Any change.  What happened?

To answer this, we first have to realize that with all of the “change” during American expansion, there was also something that was quite constant, even central.  That something was white Protestant culture.  Most of the Americans who set off into the frontier were devout Protestants.  Many of them in fact had a missionary purpose in doing this.  The conquest of the American West was often promoted in religious terms.  And in any case, people’s faith was without a doubt one of the biggest sources of their confidence in taking such enormous risks.


America was overwhelmingly white and Protestant.  Whiteness was overtly favored, often in law, but overwhelmingly in practice.  Catholic, Jewish, Asian, and African-American communities were marginalized, often subjected to legal restrictions.  White Protestant culture was much more than religion, although religion of course was an important element.  It also included:

  • An adversarial attitude toward nature and preoccupation with purity
  • Male supremacy
  • Chastity (especially as regards women) and general sex negativity
  • Self reliance
  • A strong work ethic
  • Competitiveness
  • Xenophobia and general intolerance toward non-white non-Protestants

For all of the change that was being embraced, white American Protestants absolutely DID NOT embrace any changes to this culture.  As the frontier closed and America rapidly industrialized, what was left, for rural and small town America, was to defend this culture.  Many in the business community were happy to encourage them.


Much of what we now call conservative ideology was built from the ground up during this time.  American businessmen, particularly Protestant businessmen, began to propagandize the country, opposing labor unions, women’s rights, and government regulation, and often supporting racism and discrimination against non-Protestants.  Mainline Protestant denominations were often deemed too accommodating to change by such people, and they responded by creating new brands of religious fundamentalism.  In fact, it was during this time that the very phrase religious fundamentalism became widespread.

In the late 19th century, the vast forests of the American South were in the sights of the timber industry.  As the century came to a close, the oil boom began.  Both industries were important in the promotion of what became conservative ideology.


A prime example is a man who built his wealth from both industries, John Kirby of Texas.  Born in 1860, he formed in 1901 the gigantic Kirby Lumber Company and the Houston Oil Company, which controlled the oil rights of the former.  He became president of the National Manufacturer’s Association and an adviser to presidents.  He was also a racist who promoted anti-black, anti-semitic, and anti-Catholic views.  He joined with Vance Muse, lobbyist for big oil and southern racism, to promote white Protestant culture and oppose government restrictions on business.  Like many conservative American businessmen of the time, he considered labor unions to be part of an international communist Jewish conspiracy.  With Muse and others, he founded The Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution.

This organization, funded by corporations such as DuPont, Sun Oil, and General Motors, fought Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal tooth and nail.  At its first convention, delegates stood and attacked Roosevelt as a “nigger-loving communist.”  One referred to a federal anti-lynching law as a “total outrage.”  The political power of this organization was enormous.  With World War II and the Holocaust, this kind of overt racism was dealt a blow – yet the anti-labor sentiment lived on, and state after state passed anti-labor “right-to-work” laws over the coming decades.


The civil rights movement in the 1960’s finally dealt a death blow to overt racism.  But it also put white southerners in the hands of the Republican Party.  As it became politically unpopular to espouse racist and male supremacist views, white Protestant culture warriors shifted to coded language, meanwhile continuing to do their best to destroy the power of organized labor.  With Ronald Reagan they largely succeeded.

In this sense, the real purpose of men like John Kirby and Vance Muse was achieved.  Fundamentally, the propagandization of white working class America by powerful business interests was never about racial supremacy or religion or even culture.  That talk was merely a means to an end – keeping the masses distracted while you pick their pockets.  Tom Watson, a prominent figure in the People’s Party in the late 19th century, said it well:  “You are kept apart that you may separately be fleeced of your earnings.  You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.  You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”  Ironically, and perhaps tellingly, Watson himself later abandoned this and himself tried to use overt racism to appeal to working class whites and improve their situation in life.  Men trying to achieve opposite objectives – but using the same means, racist propaganda.


This legacy is still with us.  The defense of white Protestant culture is a rallying point for a very different agenda – keeping power out of the hands of working people.  That is American conservative ideology.  Its success, like the success of religious fundamentalism, has come about because of well-funded propaganda machines.  It did not originate in the 1980’s.  It did not even originate in the 1930’s.  It was built from the ground up by wealthy industrialists years before.

Recently, an article in the NY Times quoted Karen Politz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, as saying that even if universal health care reduced most people’s health costs, it would be politically difficult to achieve.  “It does involve big government, and it’s kind of baked into the American psyche that we resist that,” she said.


Translation:  Americans, white Americans particularly, have been so thoroughly propagandized for over a century that we have no hope of making meaningful change.  Many people seem to have forgotten how segregation was “baked in” to southern culture 70 years ago.  White supremacy was not hidden, it was defended as a WAY OF LIFE.  So yes, it took strong measures to overcome it.  But an idea has to stand on its merits, not on excuses like “We don’t have the political will to change.”  Funny how when it comes to abortion, mass surveillance, the military, and prisons, resistance to “big government” doesn’t seem to be “baked in” to the American psyche.  Excuses are not arguments.

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