Sunday, September 25, 2016

Formalizing our Thinking about the Interplay Between Investment in Economic Growth Capacity and Investment in Security

Imagine, sang John Lennon in 1971: Imagine there's no countries, no religion too; no property, and only people living for today. For 98 percent of modern man's (i.e. Homo Sapiens) existence that was our lot. John Hobbes imagined it in 1651 and was not so sanguine.

Hobbes thought that such a state of nature was incompatible with civilization:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
For 196,000 years of our existence we did not have dominion over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Not at all. Our existence was at a subsistence level, and we teetered precariously on the edge of extinction. We were low man on the totem pole of life on earth. As recently as 50,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens set forth from Africa, we were down to a small band of 10,000.

The Paradox of Civilization

Ernesto Dal Bo, director of the Berkeley Center for Political Economy, housed in the Haas School of Business, at the University of California, has written an interesting paper about the paradox of civilization with Pablo Hernandez, professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi, and Sebastian Mazzuca at John's Hopkins University. Brad DeLong, has linked it HERE. In this paper they set up a model to help us think in a more formal way about the trade offs between economic productive capacity--and enjoying the fruits thereof--and national and international security.

Take the earliest known civilization, Sumeria, which emerged along the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia around 4,000 BCE. How did this civilization emerge? 

The lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates were blessed with rich alluvial soils, an abundance of diverse plant life, domesticable animals, and good weather. With irrigation and political organization the Sumerians were able to produce a surplus of food, and they began to devote energy and resources to civilization building. 

But here is the paradox: the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates were not naturally fortified against intruders. In a state of nature, where tribal societies hunt and gather and move around, any weakly defended region that manages to produce a surplus is likely to be overrun and the surplus dissipated among a wider population. Prosperity attracts predation, and predation discourages the investments that create prosperity.  

In order to overcome this paradox, a society must not only manage to create a surplus sufficient for civilization building, but it must also create security sufficient to protect this surplus and this civilization. Sumeria was the first to manage this. They built city states fortified with external walls. These city states were initially ruled by priests and later by military rulers. In addition to city fortifications, the Sumerians are credited with innovating the plough, irrigation, writing, division of time into 24 hour days and 60 minute hours among many other accomplishments. And they held it together for nearly 2,000 years. 

From the abstract of the paper: 
We study the trade-offs facing a proto-state on its path to civilization through a formal model informed by the anthropological and historical literatures on the origin of civilizations. We emphasize pre-institutional forces, such as physical aspects of the geographical environment, that shape productive and defense capabilities. The solution of the civilizational paradox relies on high defense capabilities, natural or man-made. We show that higher initial productivity and investments that yield prosperity exacerbate conflict when defense capability is fixed, but may allow for security and prosperity when defense capability is endogenous. Some economic shocks and military innovations deliver security and prosperity while others force societies back into a trap of conflict and stagnation. We illustrate the model by analyzing the rise of civilization in Sumeria and Egypt, the first two historical cases, and the civilizational collapse at the end of the Bronze Age.
Civilization is a balancing act between surplus production and surplus security. This balancing act  is not easy to pull off considering that among the thousands of primitive societies, over a period of nearly 1000 years, only Sumeria and Egypt managed the trick of forming civilizations. [First signs of urbanization in the Indus valley did not appear until 3,000 BCE; the first Chinese dynasty did not appear until 2100 BCE]

With inadequate security civilizations can teeter and fall. Dal Bo and his colleagues focus on the collapse of civilization in the eastern Mediterranean in 1,200 to 1,150 BCE known as the late bronze age collapse. 
For a period of almost 400 years, multiple states emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean that improved their productive capacity and were capable–mainly due to fortified walls and chariots–of defending their wealth against “barbarian” populations. This set of thriving states included the city-ports of the Levant, the kingdoms of Anatolia, the Egyptian empire, and the city-states of Mesopotamia and Cyprus. But suddenly a collapse epidemic swept across the Eastern Mediterranean around 1200BC. As Eric Cline puts it (2014: 241), “...the world as they had known it for more than three centuries collapsed and essentially vanished”. According to Drews (1993: 3), “Altogether the end of the Bronze Age was arguably the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the western Roman Empire.”

Historians speculate that climate change may have been a factor, or new war techniques that suddenly made the level of investment in defense of these civilizations inadequate, or a combination of these and other factors. 

Application of the Model

By developing quantifiable models the authors aim to assist us to think more formally (and better) about the interaction of investing in productive economic capacity and investing in security capacity.  The authors hope to develop insights that might be applied in a wide class of development trajectories in which potentially prosperous regions are surrounded by predatory threats. How do such regions avoid the traps of security-enhancing stagnation or self-defeating prosperity? Dal Bo and his colleagues have an eye, for example, on world investment in developing sub-Saharan states in Africa. If we assist such countries, how much of our efforts should go towards economic development capabilities, and how much should go towards investment in security and stability?

How to foster economic capacity and how to assure stable (and just) security, of course, are related and very large questions.  How is security to be provided, and who will provide it? And how do we keep such security organizations accountable and responsible? 

Over the past seventy years we have witnessed the relationship between economic capacity and investment in security in the creation of Israel and its subsequent growth. We are witnessing it in Ukraine now. How much investment is required in Ukraine's security capability, and how much should be invested in infrastructure and industries that will generate prosperity? Poland, and the Baltic states face the same questions. When it comes time to rebuild Syria the trade off between economic development capacity and security will be front and center. 

The United States is blessed by strong natural defenses--the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean--and much weaker and friendly neighbors on both sides. Yet we have invested in the world's most powerful army. Is it overkill? To the extent that we are securing the sea lanes world-wide in order to enable international trade, and we are providing the security blanket for Europe, Japan, and much of the world's economy, perhaps not. To the extent that we have been, and remain for now, the guarantor of Western Civilization, perhaps not? 

Having the analytical tools to formally examine the interplay between investment in economic growth capacities (education, infrastructure, basic research, social services ....) and investment in security (both domestically, and internationally) is surely of benefit. I'm glad good and smart people are engaged in such work. 
USS Theodore Roosevelt leads a formation
in the Persian Gulf (2005)/U.S. Navy photo
Read the paper HERE

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Friday, September 23, 2016

Ron Suskind on Trump: The Fact We Hate him is a Big Selling Point for His Supporters

"You can't turn to a foreign head of state and say, 'You're fired!'" quipped Hillary Clinton recently on the campaign trail. "That's not how the world works," she said.  But how does a world work where--according to Nate Silver--Donald Trump currently has a 40 percent chance of becoming the next President of the United States?

So wonders Christopher Lydon on Radio Open SourceLydon's recent guest, Ron Suskind, provides one of the more compelling, and  chilling explanations of the Trump phenomenon that I have heard.

Suskind harkens back to the Bush White House. The Bushites, he says, were in the business of making reality, inventing stuff on the ground.  They were faith based; or fantasy based. They created reality, they did not feel constrained by it.  Think "weapons of mass destruction," think "mission accomplished," think about the exploitation and exaggeration of the terror threat during the 2004 election cycle.  The Bush White house felt itself loosed from the barriers and bonds of reality. Their words didn't necessarily mean what they said: they were using code words, tapping into deep nativist urges, into people's senses of their identity and dislocation.  They showed the way. They showed that conjuring a fictional reality works in today's America.

Suskind means that the Bush White House, like the GOP more generally was playing to Middle America. Middle America, he says, is a different culture from what we have on the West Coast and in the Northeast corridor. In many ways these cultures are as different as the North and South before the Civil war.

Trump is carrying this realization forward. It results in a map like this, below. It represents 55 million Trump voters:

Before Trump, the GOP and people in Middle America were distracted by social wedge issues (e.g. abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, voting rights, immigration). Trump got this. He tuned into this "us vs. them" reality. "You people in Middle America," says Trump, "you're getting screwed." And that's reality.

"Those people on the coasts, they are on the updraft of of the global economy," says Trump. Not "you." "Don't worry about these shiny objects like abortion, gay rights, or affirmative action," says Trump, "but do worry about immigration."

"You are in a race to the bottom with people who are happy to get $3/day" says Trump to Middle America. "You are left behind. I'm going to be the guy who bloodies everybody on the coasts on your behalf:  the cognoscenti, the establishment (even though I lived among them and I have golden towers on both coasts)."

The folks in Middle America are not idiots, says Suskind. They're just like we are on the coasts. They vote based on their self-interest and Trump's playing to it.  But it's a curious kind of self-interest: it's the self interest of destructively lashing out, it's the self interest of getting back at "those people on the coasts."  Trump is foolish, he's lying, he doesn't know what's what, he doesn't know his history.... but all that doesn't matter. He's pissing off the people on the coast, and that's enough.

Like football, Trump occurs in the media, on television. What will he do next? We can't take our eyes off him. What will he say next...., it doesn't matter; the more outrageous, the better. It's reality TV values. Just make sure the eyes are always on you! Even if what you say is nonsensical, even if you lied, even if you flip flop a hundred times... they can't take their eyes off you. We are frozen in the high beam of Trump's occurrence. He understands this power.

In real life people make mistakes. We apologize; we move on; we try to do better. But in politics we have this fantasy: we expect our politicians to run the table and never say anything wrong. Politicians forced to cater to this fantasy get diminished over time. They get smaller and narrower, they get whittled down. We have been whittling Hillary Clinton down to size for 30 years.

But Trump has broken free from the straightjacket of reality. What he says is racist, pure bigotry, it's misogynistic.... and it vanishes. No apologies, no scandal. What happened to "rapists, murderers," what happened to the Khan's and the Gold star mother? .... vanished. We've moved on... What's next?

Hillary Clinton is up against a master of creating "reality" on cue, in the glare of Television. He's everywhere. "It's the feat of Sheherazade," says Suskind, "Trump is managing to tell a story over and over in different ways so as not to get his head chopped off."

And he's very hard to counter. For Hillary Clinton, who is not easily authentic and fresh on cue, on camera, it's particularly hard. "Clinton represents the establishment that has largely failed in the eyes of many Americans," says Suskind. There is a yearning for structural and fundamental change in the United States, and Hillary Clinton does not represent change. "Trump, to many people, represents change: it could be disastrous change, change that ruins America for years to come, but he is change and she's not."

Trump is here to overthrow the status quo at a time when many people feel the status quo is inadequate to America's needs; Clinton is here to defend the status quo. In Texarkana, Ohio, the hills of Kentucky, and many places in this country, economic issues have festered and worsened over decades, and we have not addressed it. And people in Middle America don't see a better life for their kids. They don't see a way forward. It's not working for them and so they are receptive to flipping the existing order.  "I want someone who will bloody all of you," says the Trump voter, "someone who will punch you all in the nose on my behalf." Trump is that man. They don't know what Trump wants to do, but he'll bloody the people on the coasts and punch them in the nose. And the more he drives us crazy, the louder that we protest about the dangers of Trump and how horrible he is, the louder they cheer. The more they love him.

Trump is their voice. He's created a narrative that the disenfranchised and left behind in Middle America feel comfortable with, says Suskind. He's their avatar, their ombudsman, their talisman. They like the way he walks and the way he points; and they don't read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, ever. They love it that he drives people on the glorious coastlines on the updraft of the global economy crazy. 

Suskind was telling an anecdote from Mark McKinnon, a Bush advisor, when Bush was president. But Suskind meant this anecdote to apply to Trump: "You people on the coasts think he's an idiot. Keep attacking him for the malaprops, the things he said, because, you know what they don't  like? They don't like you. So when you attack him it's good for us; our numbers go up. Keep it up."

It's the song Kellyanne Conway is singing.

"Trump gets that," says Suskind. "He understands that every time he gets attacked he seems more and more of them and not of us, and his numbers rise."

Will there be a reveal from Trump? Has he himself planned the closing act? "Sure," says Suskind. "Trump must think about this all the time."
Probably when you get into October, maybe late October, he's going to have a moment of crafted intimacy, which is going to be his reveal; where he's going to say, look, I've said things that I regret. It's a show, folks. Here's what I really believe. I'm really you're guy. Let me tell you why. And he'll go low in that register. And he's good; he's got a very strong cadence like an actor. He's practiced. And he'll do that and he'll seem to be evolving in a way that will kill off some doubts and engender some sense of possibility. People want change. That's what Hillary has to worry about. She needs to beat him to that punch if she's gonna win that popular vote.
He could win it. But I think not.

Bernard Avishai listens to this and says Hillary needs to take control of the story of this election. Easier said than done. These candidates will remain the record holders for highest disapproval ratings.  They have both smashed the previous record set by Barry Goldwater in 1964.

This campaign promises to stay negative. As to the remaining states in Middle America it seems unlikely that Clinton can significantly sway them her way. The good news for us on the hated coasts is that even with every state that is significantly in play in Trump's column, the Electoral College is likely to go to Clinton according to Nate Silver.

The current chances of Hillary Clinton winning any of the electoral votes from Middle America are de minimis, to use a highfalutin term from the coasts riding the updrafts of the global economy:
Idaho (1.0%)           Montana (17.0%)            North Dakota (6.8%)
Wyoming (1.5%)    South Dakota (12.0%)     Utah (3.0%)
Nebraska (5.0%)     Kansas (9.0%)                  Missouri (11.8%)   
Kentucky ( 2.0%)   Indiana (5.9%)                 Tennessee (1.5%)
Texas (8.6%)          Oklahoma (0.7%)              Louisiana (1.7%)
Wyoming (1.5%)    Mississipi (2.6%)              Arkansas (1.8%) 
Missouri (11.8%)    South Carolina (9.2%)      West Virginia (1.8%) 
Hillary Clinton is not going to make a play for these Middle America voters this election. The question is, will she be able to engage them once she's president? The golden lining for her may be that she'll work from a very low level of expectation.  Her unfavorability ratings, one would think, can only go down.

Do listen to Open Source Radio; do read Bernard Avishai.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Saturday, September 17, 2016

100 Years Since the Battle of the Somme: Are we Wiser?

The Somme river flows gently across 152 miles of northern France, discharging into the English Channel south of Calais. But during the summer and fall of 1916, months before the U.S. entry into the war, the Western Front of World War I ran across its headwaters, and the Somme valley was not peaceful.

For 141 days more than two million men were thrown at each other with machine guns, bayonets, rifles, artillery, horses, wagons, poisonous gases, and--for the first time in history--tanks. For 141 days these men fought the bloodiest battle of World War I.

A million men were sacrificed and at the end the Western Front had moved a few miles. It seems barbarous.

How many men were responsible for these monstrous decisions? How did such evil come about? From this vantage point the slaughter seems incomprehensible and unnecessary.  Who would say it was right, and if we'd have to do it over again, we would?

I think not.
Western Front 1916
The heavy artillery barrage that opened the battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916 was less effective than expected. The British generals ordered their soldiers to march across open fields in broad daylight with rifles and bayonets, and they marched right into German machine gun fire. Fity-seven thousand young men lost their lives or were gravely wounded that day.

Since the Battle of the Somme our armaments have become ever more deadly and sophisticated. More sophisticated and deadly armaments, however, have not increased the death rates of war.

British Mark-1 tank at
the Battle of the Somme
The tank, an armed behemoth to protect men against rifle and machine gun fire, was a natural development flowing from the experiences of the American Civil war, trench warfare, and the internal combustion engine. Who wouldn't want to have some protection when marching into enemy fire? Winston Churchill was an early proponent of tanks and ordered several to be built during his tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty. Thirty-two of these tanks were used at the Battle of the Somme, but they proved unreliable and of marginal utility in battle.

By World War II the German Blitzkrieg utilized tanks to great effect. The Germans recognized the potential of highly mobile tanks connected through radio communication, accompanied by infantry, and protected by a superior air force that could dominate the skies.

By 1942 the German Blitzkrieg reached Stalingrad, their forces were overextended, their supply lines  vulnerable, and they were short on fuel. The Russians had learned from the early German successes in the war and, by 1940, they had started to manufacture their T-34 tank model, which proved to have superior firepower, good reliability, and superior armor.

By the end of World War II the United states dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yes, the death toll of World War II, nearly 80 million, was horrendous. But these deaths did not result from the increased firepower of our weaponry. Thirty million died as a result of starvation and disease. Six million died in the Holocaust. But the Holocaust did not come from the air, or from tanks: it came up close and personal, by pistol, rifle, mass-shootings with machine guns in the woods, and mass extermination in camps.

Powerful artillery, and tanks, and bombs from planes caused relatively more property damage than they killed people. During the London Blitz 32,000 died; during the Dresden firebombing at the end of the war, historians now think, fewer than 25,000 died; at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the combined death toll was 225,000. These war casualties of advanced weaponry are horrendous figures by September 11, 2001 standards, but they are not the million dead at the Battle of the Somme.

Even as the potential for mayhem from our weaponry has increased exponentially, our danger may not have increased. We have gotten used to this new fire power. It was not always so. Think of the alarm we felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or during the height of the Beyond War movement. We used to teach school kids to "duck and cover" under their desks to get away from atomic bombs. But we have gotten used to living with atomic bombs. Today, we don't tremble at the thought of North Korea possessing them. Recently Netanyahu and his American supporters made a big deal about Iran possessing nuclear weapons. But I did not perceive Netanyahu as trembling at the thought; it was all tactical and about political advantage.

Today we have unmanned drones, cruise missiles that can be deployed with great accuracy, and supersonic fighter bombers with stealth technology that makes them invisible to radar. But the net result of this increased fire power and ever more sophisticated weaponry has been fewer war dead.

After six years of brutal war in Syria casualties are said to be 500,000. It is half the number the generals served up in 141 days on the Somme. We have nuclear arsenals sufficient to wipe out much of humanity, but so far it has made the generals and politicians more sober. Are we wiser than we were at the Battle of the Somme?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Football and the Flag: A Discussion Worth Having

Jeremy Lane of the Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick of the 49'ers
San Francisco 49'ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has started a protest movement. During a pre-season game with the Green Bay Packers he refused to stand for the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said in an interview after the game. He has since been joined in his protest by Jeremy Lane of the Seahawks, and others. There are rumors that the entire Seahawks team will join in the protest in their game against the Miami Dolphins tomorrow afternoon.

In the United States, at the start of every professional league sporting event, we play the national anthem. It's an American thing; other countries don't do this. The song was played at baseball games starting mid 19th century. It gained a big boost from World War I fervor, Babe Ruth, and the 1918 World Series. Congress declared the song our national anthem in 1931 and after Pearl Harbor major league baseball began to play the song before every game. It's now an entrenched custom that spans all professional leagues. Athletes stand at attention,  hand on heart. Patriotism inflates the significance of the event. Fans expect it; athletes' egos are lifted. Singers are challenged by the 1.5+ octave range peaking with "rockets red flare."

Even when it was performed by Whitney Houston, all dressed in white at the 1991 Super Bowl, this song is a marshall affair. The lyrics come from Francis Scott Key's war poem glorifying the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships during the war of 1812. We stole the melody from the British. Each year the Pentagon approves several hundred requests for fighter-jet fly-overs following performance of the song. As Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex noted for ESPN right after 9/11: "Our nation honors war. Our nation loves sports. Our nation glorifies winning. Our national anthem strikes all three chords at the same time."

Today we sing only the first verse of Key's original poem, but the poem has roots in our history of slavery and racism. In reference to former slaves who fought with the British attackers, Key's third stanza includes the following:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In 1813 the "land of the free and home of the brave" excluded slaves and native Americans. The song referred to white Europeans. Today we ignore this history and we stick to the first stanza of the poem. And black athletes reverently salute the flag and place their hands on their hearts while they listen to the anthem.

The flag has both divided and united us from the start. During the civil war it was prominently displayed by northern citizens as a sign of pride. The South had their confederate flag, a symbol of racism to this day. The American flag united us after 9/11. During the Vietnam war it divided us.

The flag has served as a tool of patriotism and protest alike. During the Vietnam war the flag was stomped on, burned, hung upside down from University dorms bedecked with peace symbols, and sewn onto jean pockets. In 1968, after a flag was publicly burned during an anti-war protest in Central Park in New York, Congress reacted by passing a broad statute prohibiting desecration of the flag. The statute made it a criminal offense to knowingly cast contempt on the U.S. flag by mutiliating, defacing, or defiling it in any way.  The following year, Sidney Street burned a U.S. flag to protest the attempted murder of civil rights worker James Meredith. Specifically, Street protested inadequate police protection  for civil rights workers: "Yes; that is my flag; I burned it. If they let that happen to Meredith, we don't need an American flag," he said.

Street's message is Colin Kaepernick's message. It is the message of Black Lives matter. If we are going to continue to shoot minorities and incarcerate them in disproportionate numbers, is it right for well paid football players (68% of whom are Black) to venerate the flag before every game? In a year when the Republican party has come out of the closet as a racist party of whites, and in a time when this racist white party has attempted to appropriate patriotism and the flag for itself for the past 30 years, should black football players meekly venerate this flag before every game? Kaepernick thinks not.

Sidney Street was convicted of a misdemeanor and given a suspended sentence. In 1969 the United States Supreme court overturned his conviction, finding that Street's verbal protest "I burned it; if they let that happen to Meredith we don't need an American flag" was protected speech under the First Amendment. (Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576) In 1989 the Supreme Court followed up and held that flag burning was protected symbolic speech. (Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397) Finally, in 1990, the Court held that all flag desecration for political purposes was symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment and could not be prohibited. (U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310).

A helpful summary and timeline of the flag desecration issues in the United States can be found HERE.

"The extreme right is extremely patriotic," said Michael Kimmel in a portrait in Salon (Nov. 2013):
"They love their country, their flag, and everything it stands for. These are the guys who get teary at the playing of the national anthem, who choke up when they hear the word America. They have bumper stickers on their pick ups that show the flag with the slogan “These colors don’t run.”
Kimmel' portrait was of the radical right fringe, but much of this resonates with Donald Trump's GOP.

At their convention this year the Democrats fought back and embraced their patriotism as much as any Republican convention of the past. Chants of "USA, USA, ..." were in part opportunistic, meant to drown out rowdy Bernie Sanders supporters. Nevertheless, Democratic politicians have appropriated patriotism. No longer are they cowed into wearing the flag on their lapel as a defensive measure: they have embraced their patriotism loudly and proudly.

It's been a decade since we've heard talk of a constitutional amendment to permit jingoistic legislation prohibiting flag desecration. But as we drove the lonely roads of Highway 6 through Nevada last week, beautiful and desolate landscape so memorably described by John McPhee, we encountered muscular pick-up trucks, driven by white men, streaming large American flags.

Ashton Pellum/WBTV South Carolina
This photo is from a school incident in South Carolina, but pick-up trucks in Nevada looked just like this.  I did not speak with these men, but I surmise they are not Hillary voters.

Is there a connection between these flags on pick-up trucks and the patriotic display at our professional sporting events? Does the racist right's embrace of our flag present a challenge to what we are doing when we salute the flag with our anthem at football games? Colin Keapernick and his supporters challenge us to consider these questions. It's a discussion worth having.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Liel Leibovitz at Tablet wants to Excommunicate Peter Beinart and most American Jews

Liel Leibovitz published an article in Tablet yesterday (Dear Social Justice Warriors: Your Religion is Progressivism, not Judaism). It's a nasty, sneering piece of work. He wants--had he only such powers--to excommunicate Jews working for social justice from the tribe.

Leibovitz is upset with Peter Beinart for suggesting that the organized Jewish community should take a stand against the burkini ban and against anti-Muslim bashing in general. Leibovitz derisively calls Beinart "the columnist," linking to his article in Haaretz. Leibovitz likewise sneers at Jewish social justice activists for Black Lives Matter and Jewish activists opposed to Israel's now 50 year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Religious liberty and social justice are not Jewish values, implies Leibovitz. Jews should attend to their theology, and theology has nothing to do with social justice: "Wrestling with the bond that ties us to the Creator is hard," says Leibovitz,  "preaching some gauzy nicety about embracing the Other is not." Our social democratic values correspond at best in a tangential way to those of Judaism, he claims. Craving social justice is a mood, not a belief system, says Leibovitz.


"That which is hateful to you, do not unto another, that is Torah; the rest is commentary, now go study!" That is the famous adage attributed to the first century rabbi Hillel. It has given rise to a long tradition of Tikkun Olam (healing the world through justice) in rabbinic Judaism. But that is not Judaism, no that is not Judaism at all, says Leibovitz:
It’s time we ended this farce. Those of us who find little use for Judaism except as a stage on which to perform the pageantry of progressivism should kindly take a bow and leave for other precincts that better suit their interests. They do the rest of us no favors by sticking around and insisting that we contort our beliefs to mean nothing more than whatever political agenda happens to be fashionable at the moment. .... But all of us who remain should ... refrain from arguing that this engagement (with Judaism) somehow gives us the authority to make claims on anything but the faith itself; and to have the intellectual and moral decency to realize that while political and theological questions sometimes converge, they are never, at their essence, the same questions. As Jews, there’s really nothing else we ought to do.
Oy.  If religious liberty and social justice are not values we can find in Judaism, then what's left, and why should we bother? Arbitrary dietary laws? Arcane prohibitions on conjugal relations? Rules about the slaughter of animals in a temple 2000 years gone?

Ethnicity is what's left, says Leibovitz; and that special feeling of being God's chosen people; and Jewish law. "Whether you consider the Jews followers of a faith, members of a nation, or both," says Leibovitz, "you can hardly ignore the historical and doctrinal truth that they became whatever they may now be one day long ago at the foothills of a mountain far away, when they accepted the strange burden of becoming God’s chosen children."

But no. Jews did not become what they are today one day long ago at the foot of Mt. Sinai. As Leon Wieseltier said in his essay Against Identity in the New Republic (1994), quoting Hawthorne: "Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors; and let each successive generation thank Him, not less fervently, for being one step removed from them in the march of ages." Time marches on. Our values change.

According to a comprehensive 2013 Pew study, 62 percent of American Jews believe being Jewish is more about culture and ancestry than religion. Nearly half of American Jews are intermarried. More than half don't believe in God. Yet they continue to engage with Judaism. They continue to engage with Judaism through synagogues, through education, through study programs, through museums, through music, through social service groups, through engagement with Israel (both pro and con), and yes, through working for social justice and equality: Tikkun Olam. Fifty-six percent of American Jews in the Pew study, when asked "What does it mean to be Jewish?" answered working for social justice and equality. Only 19 percent felt that observing Jewish law was important.

Leibovitz says Judaism is all about observing Jewish law, and not about social justice. He succumbs to the lure of identity and the lure of wholeness. But, as Wieseltier noted in his essay, Jews are not one thing, they are many things. There is room for Chabad and room for atheists. And American Jews are not just Jews. They are Americans. They hold constitutional values of liberty, equality, fairness, and justice. They bring those values to their Judaism. They are children not only of European Jewry, but they are also children of the Enlightenment and of Haskala. They are the product of our American universities and hold values and world views absorbed there. They are professionals and bring with them the values and ideals of their professions. They have connections to French, German, Austrian, Spanish, Polish as well as Israeli cultures. They, like all Americans, are many things.

The American achievement, said Wieseltier, is not a multicultural society: it is the multi-cultural individual. The multicultural individual is what tribalists like Leibovitz fear, Wieseltier suggested. They want to be one thing; but we are not one thing.

Leibovitz harkens back to the reactionaries of the counter-Enlightenment. Social justice and Enlightenment values are not universal, they don't fit comfortably in Judaism says Leibovitz.  J.G. Herder (1744-1803) shared that view. He too denied universal values. He regarded the nation as the basic unit of humanity. The identity of an individual is dependent on his culture, and Herder strongly affirmed the right of each people to determine its own path and worth. We must  understand each culture on its own terms and as an organic unity, he said. That's what Leibovitz is doing in his thinking about Judaism.

Herder claimed the nation (or Volk) is what provides the most basic and original horizon for understanding and interpreting the world, and that it is only insofar as we belong to a particular people that we can begin to make sense of our life. That's what Leibovitz says about the Jewish "nation." To be exiled or alienated from one's people can be spiritually disastrous, suggested Herder, for an individual is nothing without the community that has nurtured him or her and from which the individual takes all his bearings.

But what is the relevant community? What does "all bearings" mean?

Leibovitz is channelling Herder and the Spanish Inquisition when he tells Peter Beinart, Jews for Black Lives Matter, and Jews working for justice in Palestine that they should all get lost. He wants to keep Judaism pure for those concerned with Jewish law (theology). He has no room in his Judaism for atheists. He has no room for Peter Beinart. He wants to excommunicate most American Jews.

But like Herder, and his successors on the European radical right, Leibovitz is wrong, wrong, wrong. American Jews are many things. And there is room in Judaism for all of them. Even for Liel Leibovitz.

An appeal to Tikkun Olam and looking to Judaism for inspiration for social justice is somehow inauthentic, suggests Leibovitz. But authenticity, Wieseltier reminds us, is a paltry standard by which to appraise an idea, or a work of art, or a politics. Authenticity, he said, is a a measure of provenance, and provenance has nothing to do with substance. Jewish law or theology may be ours, and still be false. A piece of art may be ours and still be ugly. A politics may be ours and still be evil.

Authenticity is reactionary, said Wieseltier. It is the idolatry of origins. Tikkun Olam and the inspiration to work for social justice should be celebrated, not least because these values are made from what was given.  Such values are derived not only from the theology itself; they draw on broader traditions, including our Enlightenment values and our American values. Our values are richer for it, and not any less Jewish.

Read the Wieseltier article HERE.

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Friday, August 26, 2016

In the United States we are a Month Away from Early Voting

Roman coin minted 63 BCE, showing voter casting ballot
63 BCE was a momentous time in the history of Rome, says Mary Beard. Cicero, the orator, philosopher, politician, priest, and poet, defeated Catiline in an election for the Senate. Catiline organized a revolt, but Cicero managed to have the plotters arrested and summarily executed without trial. A mere 14 years later Ceaser crossed the Rubicon and put an end to the Republic.

In the United States we are a Republic still. But the potential for revolutionary change is in the air. We are just a month away from the first votes being cast. In Minnesota early voting starts 46 days before the November 8 general election; several states will start 45 days before; California will start 30 days before.

In this election it appears that more than fifty million voters will cast their vote for Donald Trump, a would be emperor. It is a jarring number. Even though Hillary Clinton is predicted to win (83% chance of winning as of this writing), the sound of 50 million votes for a would be emperor will reverberate.This sound hints at problems that must be addressed: not like Cicero did, but through good technocratic governance, and civic engagement.

Who will vote for Donald Trump? Will you? Or will you waste your vote on Jill Stein or Gary Johnson who have nothing to offer because they will win no electoral votes? Not now, not ever.

Donald Trump is popular with white voters, albeit less popular than Mitt Romney was. See, e.g.  NPR. He is particularly popular among whites without a college degree, and popular with right wing whites.  See e.g. the Jonathan Rothwell Gallup Study, based on 87,000 voter interviews over the last year.  Josh Marshall at TPM says Trump is exploiting uncertainty and fear: "the erosion of white privilege, supremacy and centrality in American life."

Trump won out over Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and the other also rans of the GOP primary by overtly pandering to white privilege, white supremacy, and white fears of lost centrality

Pessimism plays a role. "There is evidence," says the Gallup study, "that whites are unusually pessimistic about their well-being." This pessimism is particularly acute among lower income whites and older whites. Middle aged whites have experienced a rise in mortality rates over the past 15 years. It's a fact that makes the GOP scorched earth opposition to health care reform for the last 25 years especially obscene.

None of the support for Trump is rational. Supporters say he speaks his mind, says it like it is. They mean they agree with what he says; they like what he says. Yet there is no coherent program. Trump supporters say they could never vote for "crooked Hillary Clinton" because she lies. This is not a rational stance because on any objective measure Clinton is relatively honest in her pronouncements and Trump is off-the-scale flagrant in his disregard of the truth.  If Trump lies 76 percent of the time and Clinton lies 28 percent of the time and you say you like Trump because Hillary lies, there is something else going on.

A vague desire to blow up the system without any plan or understanding for what will replace it is not rational. It's like voting 60 times to repeal Obamacare.

Is it white nationalism?

Don't call Trump support "nationalism"(of any stripe) pleads Brad DeLong: U.S. nationalism means celebrating a nation of immigrants, freedom, and setting a moral example to the world--the essence of U.S. nationalism could not be further removed from the xenophobia Trump is exploiting.

What's shocking about Trump is that he has become the Republican standard bearer, and may garner in excess of 50 million votes despite extreme rhetoric, boorish and crass behavior, bullying, narcissism, crude sexism, ignorance of world affairs, and an utter lack of relevant experience. What's scary about Trump is his volatility, irrationality, utter contempt for the truth, apparent fondness for Putin, and the fact that he surrounds himself with scoundrels.  His first campaign manager Corey Lewandowsky, reported Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post, like Trump, "hit(s) hard, play(s) close to the lines — and occasionally step(s) over them, disregarding the foul calls." Lewandowsky was eventually forced out after assaulting a female reporter walking next to Trump attempting to ask him a question, and grabbing a protester by the collar at another rally. Trump's next campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was a friend and highly paid consultant (more than $12 million) to the corrupt pro-Putin Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich.  Trump's latest campaign CEO, Stephen Bannon, is the head of Breitbart News, a far right news site [see e.g. How Breitbart Unleashes Hate Mobs... ] whose "visceral hatred of the left and self-righteous desire to destroy it frequently appears to overwhelm whatever other moral or ideological beliefs he holds," says Conor Friedersdorf at the The Atlantic.

Bannon speaks in apocalyptic and revolutionary terms. Here he is speaking to a group of conservatives in 2013, as reported by Friedersdorf:
“This is going to be a very nasty, long, protracted fight.... There is a permanent political class in this city that dominates it, and by that dominates the country. And there is a dedicated group of libertarians and grassroots conservatives and Tea Party conservatives and limited government conservatives that are here to destroy that. And that is going to be ugly tough work. That’s just reality. People are not going to give up on aristocracy easily.”
Bannon hints at violence, "marching on people's houses." In the meantime, Trump is laying the groundwork for street violence by warning that the only way he could lose the election in Pennsylvania (a key swing state) is if the election is rigged. "I hope you people can sort of not just vote on the 8th, go around and look and watch other polling places, and make sure that it's 100 percent fine," Trump said. Pat Buchanan joins right in.

Elect Trump and the worst elements will rise to the top. He's off to an inauspicious start. And consider Michael Flynn.

Trump entered national politics by leading the "birtherism" movement, alleging President Barak Obama was not born in the United States, despite the fact that the State of Hawaii vouched they had his birth certificate [not to mention that his mother was undeniably a U.S. citizen]. "Birtherism" was a movement to delegitimize our first black President because he was "from Africa." Trump started his campaign for president by slandering immigrants from Mexico as "rapists." He has vowed to expel all illegal immigrants, setting up a police program to round up and expel more than 11 million people from our midst--many of whom have been among us for decades leading productive lives. Who will step forward to do it? Who will stand-by and do nothing? There is that wall he's promising to build.

Trump is a man comfortably joking about the assassination of Hillary Clinton, joking about encouraging Russia to hack the DNC, and musing that "Honestly, I wish I had that power; I'd love to have that power."  Wait seventy-six days and he may.

It's up to you and me.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Friday, August 19, 2016

Is Voter Ignorance a Reason to Shrink Government? Ilya Somin and "Voting with your Feet"

Vote and Fight, or Leave?
Democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In our republican form of government we delegate governance to elected representatives whose performance we periodically review. In order to do a proper job of reviewing the performance of elected politicians, therefore, we should have political knowledge. But we have a problem. Most voters are deficient in their political knowledge. Therefore it is difficult for us to meaningfully hold our elected representatives accountable for their performance. How do we manage this problem?

The Optimists

Consider the optimism of John F. Kennedy speaking in 1963:
"The educated citizen knows that .... knowledge is power, that only an educated and informed people will be a free people; that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all; and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, enlighten the people generally, tyranny and the oppression of mind and body will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day; and, therefore, the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist, at every level of government, the improvement of education for all Americans." 
                                                        --John F. Kennedy, May 18, 1963.

We live in a less optimistic time. President Kennedy in 1963 was aspirational and inspirational. He reflected a hopeful attitude that we can have an enlightened and engaged citizenry, that progress is possible, and that our democracy can work. Today, after 20 years of Fox News and its imitators, we have our doubts.

Yet Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi and their cognitive democracy project (the subject of my last post) are keeping the faith. They start off with the realization that the biggest problems democracies face are complex and technical; they acknowledge the vagaries of human nature--that we are subject to confirmation bias and prone to motivated reasoning; they acknowledge that many voters are sorely lacking in knowledge: yet Farrell and Shalizi remain hopeful that the best way to find solutions to society's difficult problems remains through maximizing the diversity of perspectives, through education, social media, and other communication tools, and that despite the flaws and limitations of individual voters, democracy remains our best hope for coming up with good solutions to our complex societal problems (achieving full employment with low inflation, providing security, safety, and stability, protecting the environment, educating the population, making sure everyone has healthcare, a dignified retirement, stimulating culture and scientific development, and resolving competing views on such things as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, etc.)

Nobody said it would be easy! Nobody promised us a rose garden. But I'm on board with optimism and hope. I think we have no choice.

The Pessimism (or is it just motivated reasoning) of Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University, and a libertarian since high school, looks at the challenges and throws up his hands. Voter ignorance is rational, he says, and therefore the citizens of democracy will never be able to provide effective government oversight. Because people do a poor job with government oversight, the solution is.... we should eliminate government!

O.K., not quite. Somin's proposal is to shrink government and to keep it small. He is as pessimistic about the democratic process as Kennedy was optimistic. On the other hand, being a libertarian, Somin has great confidence in individual action and the power of markets for solving complex social problems. Let them vote with their feet, he says.

Somin has outlined his arguments in a book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, which has just been reissued as an expanded second edition. For a succinct statement of his position, take a look at his article in Cato Unbound (October 2013). He has also advocated his position in many other articles in the popular press.

There is the suspicion, of course, that since Somin's small government conclusions are in line with his libertarian principles held since high school, what we have here is book length motivated reasoning. On the other hand, just because reasoning is motivated doesn't make it wrong. So let's take a closer look.

There is the point that when we look about at the deplorably inane level of our political discourse across the spectrum, when we behold Trump and the fact that 40 million people appear ready to cast their vote for him as president of the United States, when we take stock of the level of voter ignorance about basic political facts (see e.g. Ilya Somin), many of us wonder: how can an uninformed electorate subjected to demagogic misinformation possibly act as an effective check on our political leaders and their performance?

There is also the fact that we lack political knowledge despite attaining higher educational levels across society than in the past. We may even have higher IQ levels than our great-great-great grandparents. Yet we lack political knowledge, says Somin, because we don't spend the time required to become sufficiently knowledgeable. We spend more time considering the purchase of a new television than we do considering our vote for president, senator, member of Congress, or local government representatives. Moreover, we are more likely to be objective in our evaluations when we buy a new television than when we vote for presidential candidates. We take consumer decisions more seriously than voting decisions. This should not be a surprise, says Somin. It's rational to spend more time on purchasing a television than casting a vote for president because our TV purchase will affect our lives in a tangible direct way, whereas our individual vote will never (for all statistical purposes) make any difference.

In San Francisco this November we will vote on 25 local ballot measures. A conscientious review of these measures will take 50 hours of my time. Why should I spend this time when my individual vote will never be determinative of the outcome? It's irrational, says Somin, so we should not expect it. And so we don't. But rather than worry about this problem, Somin embraces it as a rallying cry for shrinking the size of government.

It's true that in our modern world government has become ever more complex. Government expenditures constitute a larger share of the world economy than 50 years ago. According to World Bank statistics, the average government share of GDP world-wide has increased from 13 percent in 1960 to nearly 18 percent in 2015.  In developed countries this number is considerably higher: the range for OECD countries is 33 percent (Switzerland) to 58 percent (Finland); the United States is 38 percent (2014 figures). Increased complexity and increased size of government, says Somin, makes the citizen's task of understanding, evaluating, and voting meaningfully ever more complicated.

Forget it, implies Somin: voters will never be able to properly evaluate government performance, or the performance of individual elected politicians in a world where government comprises 38 percent of GDP. The solution, he says, is to diversify and shrink government, leaving private actors to solve complex social problems through civic groups and by voting with their feet.

What is voting with your feet, and why should we favor it over elections?  Here's Somin in the Cato article:
There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. But we can significantly mitigate it by making more of our decisions by “voting with our feet” and fewer at the ballot box. Two types of foot voting have important informational advantages over ballot box voting. The first is when we vote with our feet in the private sector, by choosing which products to buy or which civil society organizations to join. The other is choosing what state or local government to live under in a federal system - a decision often influenced by the quality of those jurisdictions’ public policy.... 
[F]oot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. ... [F]oot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get....
The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is usually much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government, and much easier to do it against a state than against the federal government.
It is also usually easier to foot vote in the private sector than the public. A given region is likely to have far more private planned communities and other private sector organizations than local governments. Choosing among the former usually requires far less in the way of moving costs than choosing among the latter. 
Reducing the size of government could also alleviate the problem of ignorance by making it easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor its activities. A smaller, less complicated government is easier to keep track of.
Shareholders engage in foot-voting. If a stock ceases to perform, they sell and move on...., they don't get involved in evaluating leadership and making efforts to replace it with better leadership. Somin suggests we should approach politics the same way. In his Cato article Somin provides the example of southern Blacks moving north for a better life during the Jim Crow era.

But it is not at all clear how Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South for a better life in the North has any relationship to the size of government. Or that it has any relationship to voter ignorance. The problem faced by the woman protesting in the photo at the top of this post is not voter ignorance. She is painfully aware of the problem.

The proper size of government is itself a political question. As a libertarian Somin wants to shrink government. But the democratic consensus over the last half century has not been that government should be smaller. It's been a Republican talking point, but they don't mean it. Government has grown under all administrations since the 1950's.

In order to shrink government, we would need to make value choices. Should we reduce military expenditures? Prisons? Social security? Education? Infrastructure? Environmental regulation? Regulations monitoring a safe food supply? Police? National security? School lunches? Head start? The Space program? How much?

All of these are political questions.  Voting with your feet won't help us resolve any of these questions.

The argument Somin is making--that we should reduce the size of government in order to make it easier for a disengaged electorate to provide oversight--appeals to our democratic process. He is providing reasons why we should vote for elected officials who will bring this about. But that is not different than arguments that voters should vote for representatives who will protect the environment, or increase social security, maintain the TSA, or vote for the earned income tax credit. And in the process we'll have to evaluate which candidates would likely follow through with what we want.

Does Somin have in mind some magic size of government where voter ignorance ceases to be a problem? He's not telling. But it seems unlikely. Any country with a $16 trillion economy must have a sizable government to operate smoothly.  Whether our government spending is 20 percent of GDP  or 38 percent, it won't solve the problem of voter ignorance.

Somin is sympathetic to efforts to improve voter knowledge. A week ago in the Washington Post he favorably reviewed some advice to voters in Scientific American: don't just go with your gut,  don't get all your news from social media, watch the next debate with your eyes, closed, and abstain from voting when you really haven't had the chance to engage at all. These are positive voter virtues, he says, but in the long term "the most effective solution is to reduce the size and complexity of government." I don't think the size of government has anything to do with it.

In the long run I think we'll do better if we harken back to the optimism president Kennedy expressed in 1963. I think we'll do well if, on November 8, the Electoral College map approximates the results of the 1964 election as much as possible.  And I think we'll do well if we adhere to some of that idealism expressed by Kennedy in his speech (above). We'll do well if we remember that citizenship is not just an exercise in rational self-interest because we think our vote will make a difference; if we remember that citizenship is a value;  that taking an interest in political affairs matters; that if we model proper engagement it will influence our children, our friends, our peers.... and that our vote will not just be our vote but the vote of our children, friends, and peers, and their friends and peers, and that we are ultimately all connected in this great venture that is America. We'll do well if we remember that democracy does not consist of making individual market decisions.