Sunday, May 19, 2013

Barack's Brolly And Other Scandals

Barack’s Brolly And Other Scandals

In case you were otherwise distracted this past week, another major scandal wracked the scandal wracked Obama Administration.

No, not Benghazi, nor the IRS.  Not even the AP wiretapping.  This one was so profound, so consequential, and so troubling that I urge people not to read the rest of this post before bedtime.  More particularly, pregnant women and nursing mothers may be advised to step back from the computer screen.

I refer, of course, to the spreading stain of OBI, the Obama Brolly Incident.

What is OBI?  Well, this shameful episode occurred during a joint press conference held in the Rose Garden with Mr. Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  During their remarks, some rain began to fall (no doubt, a heavenly reproach to the President) and Mr. Obama asked the Marines standing guard if they could hold a brolly over Mr. Erdogan’s head.

OBI did not go unnoticed.  Conservatives everywhere were scandalized at this breach of Marine protocol.  Marines don’t hold umbrellas outside.  At least, male Marines don’t.  Female marines are permitted a small discrete black umbrella, but the pair standing guard were clearly male. 

Fortunately for the honor of the service, Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller was right on it “Obama breaches Marine umbrella protocol.”  The New York Post ran a picture of OBI on the front cover.  Lou Dobbs was properly outraged, tweeting “Obama expects our troops to hold damn umbrellas rather than go inside: It’s disrespectful, inconsiderate, classless.”

Even worse for Mr. Obama, a Marines spokesman, approached after the tawdry affair concluded,  referred to Title 10 of the US Code; Marines shall “perform other duties as the President may direct.”  Clearly, this was not just another Obama overreach, but an abuse of power.  I would add my own aside that Mr. Erdogan is a Muslim, so, naturally, Mr. Obama would be especially concerned that he not get wet.  Very typical Obama, I think we would all agree.

I think I’ve given Barack’s Brolly as much attention as is medically prudent for the adult reader, so it’s time to pivot to more conventional political news.   Back to Benghazi, where new committees spring up faster than Charlemagne baptized the Saxons (by platoons) and the frenzy continues to build towards an apotheosis.  It’s big.  How big? Steve King, the distinguished Congressman from Iowa, described it as “ten times bigger than Watergate and Iran Contra combined.”  And Senator Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) went on right wing talk radio to opine “Of all the great cover-ups in history — the Pentagon papers, the Iran-Contra, Watergate and all the rest of them — this … is going to go down as the most serious, the most egregious cover-up in American history……People may be starting to use the I-word before too long,”

So, we are going to impeach this President because American lives were lost abroad?  Well, there’s a first time for everything, and since Mr. Obama seems to be a person with a lot of firsts, why not this?

In a nutshell, here is what we (the rational among us) think we know about Benghazi: a) the State Department didn't give Ambassador Stevens enough money for security, b) Mr. Obama didn't send in troops during attack, apparently because there was concern over the possible success of the operation and addition loss of life, c) the State Department and the CIA got into what we can gently describe as a pissing match over what statements to put out and, d) Susan Rice in specific and the Administration in general made a series of confused and muddied presentations afterwards.  In short, errors in judgment, bureaucratic infighting, and a little spin. 

If those are impeachable offenses, we better not waste our time on things like swearings-in.  Let’s just go straight to the Inaugural Ball so people can trot out their finery, and by February 1, the new Administration, Democratic or Republican, will have surely committed all three sins.

Of course, what we really need, on Benghazi (and on the IRS probes) are serious people conducting serious investigations to determine what errors were made and how to correct them the next time.  There is nothing wrong with naming names, including Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton, if the evidence leads in that direction (and we are willing to apply the same standards to all future Administrations.) 

But, we aren’t going to get that, because circuses and scandal mongering and show trials are just too much fun.  One moves seamlessly from four dead Americans to Barack’s Brolly; it’s all part of a great continuum. Once again, we are indebted to Sarah Palin, who posted on Facebook, “Mr. President, when it rains it pours, but most Americans hold their own umbrellas.”

This is the lady who was going to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  And a party that holds itself out as the serious one. 

Still, not all of last week’s news was bad.  The House voted for the 37th time to repeal Obamacare. And, the FT reported that Titan Arum, perhaps the world’s stinkiest plant, was in bloom at the Chelsea Flower Show.  This little gem, indigenous to Sumatra, just hangs out quietly for years.  It then suddenly begins to grow several inches per day to a height of up to nine feet, flowering for 72 hours and producing umbrella-sized petals (not making that up) that open to a diameter of three to four feet.  To pollinate itself, it has developed the delectable bouquet of rotting flesh (hence, the “corpse flower” nickname) to attract the carrion-eating beetles and flies that pollinate it. Then, having achieved its destiny, it apparently falls over and dies.

Now, that’s an impressive metaphor, don’t you think?


Comments or questions?  Contact the Moderator 

Monday, May 13, 2013

What Texas and South Carolina Should Teach Us

What Texas and South Carolina Should Teach Us

My father liked Country Western music.  Not the sleek and glamorous Nashville product, but the old fashioned hard-core stuff: fiddling, picking and twanging.

Now, to understand how incongruous that was, you would have to know the man.  It’s not as if he had deep Southern roots.  And, he was the kind of guy who would sing opera in the shower (not so well) and later grill you on what aria he had just sung, including the act and scene. So,  how does a child of Ellis Island immigrants come to like what was sometimes called in those days “hillbilly music”?  Basic training in WWII, where college-bound boys from New York and Boston were thrown together with sometimes-illiterate  men from the Ozarks.  My father liked Jazz, he like Boogie Woogie, he liked Swing. He liked Beethoven and Puccini.  And he liked music that used a jug for the bass line. 

Dad was an old fashioned New Deal Democrat.  His guys were FDR, Truman and Kennedy  (Clinton amused and exasperated him.) He thought like a New Deal Democrat, in fairly binary terms.  I have a vivid memory of him asking, during the debate over NAFTA, why it was a good idea.  True, Clinton supported it, but if all those Republicans liked it, something had to be wrong.  If he had lived to see the 2012 election he would have looked at the tax-cutting rich businessman and his eagerly hard-right theocratic younger sidekick, shook his head and said “what do you expect”?

It is fascinating to see just how much, and how little, has changed during the period that spanned  Dad’s adult life.  The world he returned to after his discharge in 1946 seems almost quaint.  The population of the United States was less than half what it is today, we still had only 48 states, and there were still large swaths of land that were basically open range, open prairie.  Just as importantly, news was local, written in local newspapers, heard over local radio stations.  In 1948 there about 100,000 TV sets in the entire United States, and about 2/3 of those were in the New York area.  In the early fifties, if you traveled more than 75 miles from a large urban center like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston or St. Louis, it was pointless to own a TV, because there was no signal.  Culture was local as well.  You came back to the old neighborhood, you worked locally, you found a job or opened a business, started a family, and put down roots not all that dissimilar to the ones your parents laid down.

But the post-war era brought huge changes.  Culturally, the growth of television tied people together; they watched many of the same shows and the same news programs. The development of the national highway system fostered a car culture that put people on the road and helped fuel the explosive growth of the suburbs. Air-conditioning opened up the South and Southwest to more than purely rural living. In the 60 years from the 1950 census to the 2010 census, of the states presently with populations of over 5,000,000, California’s population is up over 3 ½ times,  Texas has more than trebled, Colorado quadrupled, Florida’s has grown by a factor of seven, Arizona by eight.  Just three states, dead-red Texas, blue California, and swing-state Florida, have accounted for nearly 40% of the total national population growth.

The media explosion has had several effects.  On the one hand, it has helped to create a common language defined by popular programs.  But on the other, by (often superficially) touching on a range of social behaviors including sex and violence, or even positive portrayals of things like single parenting or gay relationships, it has reaffirmed to Conservatives, particularly in the South, that Hollywood (and liberals) are corrupted by sin.  Sin is at the gates of their communities, luring their children with the pleasures of permissiveness.  They feel a cultural assault on their virtue, just as they feel one at their borders, with hordes of Mexicans poised to change the very nature of the society they feel comfortable with.  Their fears are amplified by a conservative media who tells them every day that they are the victims of a secular humanist attack on the things they hold most essential to their way of life.

It’s easy for us who are more center and center left to scratch our heads at this, but we would be better off if we acknowledged it and learned to give it a wide berth.  Let’s not be so arrogant as to try to save people from what we think is their foolishness. It is obviously not foolish to them.

Two recent events demonstrated this quite acutely.  In South Carolina, disgraced former Governor Mark Sanford (who, 2009, left the state without his IPhone to commune with nature and his mistress) has just been elected to Congress, convincingly winning over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch. 

In Texas, just a few days after the horrific explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled much of a town and killed more than a dozen people,  Gov. Rick Perry pitched relocation to Illinois business officials by talking not just low taxes but limited regulations.  In Texas, they know how to do business, and in Perry’s opinion, more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the most destructive industrial accidents in recent times. Move to Texas, he said.  No new regulations. 

What about the old regulations?  The better question is “what old regulations?”  Texas has no state fire code, and in fact prohibits smaller counties from enacting their own.  Businesses don’t have to contribute to workman’s compensation pools and workplace safety rules are basically nonexistent.  Is that prudent?  Not really.  According a story in the New York Times this last week, Texas has the highest number of industrial fatalities, and (since property is more important than people, apparently) “(f)ires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012.”  But profits are really good, and you get to keep all of them, so businesses shop for Ten Gallon hats.

Does all this loss of life and property lead the people of Texas to demand more restrictions?  No more than the people of South Carolina’s First Congressional District demanded a Congressman who isn’t a cad.

So, are Texans daredevil idiots and South Carolina’s Republicans just hypocrites?  And, why should this matter to me in my Blue New York redoubt?

They aren’t, and it shouldn’t.  This is what Democracy (with a big “D”) is all about.  People should vote for the people they want to represent them, and the policies they support.  I may not agree with their choices, but I don’t have to live in Texas or South Carolina. 

But, is it possible to go back to a live and let live ethos? I have doubts, because what we have going on right now is akin to a domestic cultural war.

Part of the problem is that media creates the mechanism for instant nationalization of any issue. There is an insatiable desire for news of any type; everyone needs content.  And even the smallest events become big. A child is suspended for bringing a toy gun to school, and the entire blogosphere is lit up for a week.  An obscure candidate utters a few yah-yah lines to like-minded constituents and now it’s viral.

Secondly, elected officials now see their roles very differently.  It’s no longer “respect the institution and take care of your constituents.”  Instead, they all want to go to Washington to shake it up and tear it down, then to “share” the blessings of their local customs and mores with the rest of the nation.  The “Gentleman from Texas” is no longer one of one hundred gray-haired guys who sit on a few powerful committees and bring home the bacon.  Now he’s a Ted Cruz, a neutron bomb with a Messianic desire to purge ideas he finds impure and bring the entire country to heel.  

And, that’s a huge difference.  What we should be saying is, “Hey, I won’t tell you who to vote for and you won’t lecture me on my supposed lack of moral virtue.”  But what everyone is saying is “just wait until we are in charge…”

I don’t think my Dad would have liked that.  When he came back from the Philippines, he had a scraggly beard, an abiding dislike for troop ships (and sea-sickness) and some new and strange tastes in music.  That was about as “South” as he was going to get, but that was enough.  Respect other people, take what you like from them, but otherwise don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. 

He might have been on to something. I was poking around on Youtube and found Red Murrell and His Ozark Playboys 1947 recording of “Get That Chip Off Your Shoulder.” Give it a try.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Kierkegaard, Agassiz, and Rational Choice

Kierkegaard, Agassiz, and Rational Choice

This last weekend, I attended a celebration of Kierkegaard’s 200th Birthday.  Think of it as a rich pastry cooked in a foreign land: dense, flavorful, but a little unfamiliar to the tongue. Given the extraordinary level of accomplishment on the panel and in the audience, I suspect that I was invited so that they could demonstrate a little I.Q. diversity.

So, what does an entire day with the thoughts of a morose Dane get me? I’m not a philosopher--my orientation in entirely political.  I am interested in why people make the choices they do; what motivates them to act, or spend, or vote as they do?

Economists sometimes use the concept of Rational Choice; people are motivated by profits and filter economic choices by projecting what their potential gain or loss will be on a given transaction.  Sociologists also apply Rational Choice to help clarify why humans interact the way they do; instead of cash, it is prestige, influence, approval and time that are the currency being exchanged. Economically, socially, and politically, rational individuals (and rational groups) should act in a way that maximizes returns.  Win friends, win money, win elections.

But they don’t always engage in Rational Choice, a point vividly illustrated to me by three people at the conference

The first was Richard Robb, an economist, who asked a very simple, almost throwaway, question.  Why do people ignore portfolio theory and try to invest on their own when history shows that the vast majority of them will substantially underperform? More starkly, why ignore the data in front of you and take a chance on an uncertain future in which the odds are you will choose poorly and negatively impact your economic future?

The second was Kimerer Lamothe, a former professor of philosophy and theology at Harvard and Brown.  In remarks at the conference (and at lunch) she said that Christianity drove Kierkegaard’s philosophy, not merely as an ethical code, but more broadly as a mooring for all other choices.  I always saw a clear distinction between the secular world and the religious, but what happens if there isn’t?  How does a person, or group, decide rationally when religion (or any other unshakable point of reference) is the primary channel for decision-making?

The third came up in a conversation I had with a seatmate who identified himself as an entrepreneur.  He was disgusted with the political process. It wasn’t clear what side of the aisle he was on (and I didn’t ask) but he expressed dismay that something like background checks for gun purchases, almost universally supported by the public, couldn’t get through the Senate.  And he was deeply concerned that the State and Federal governments aren’t taking their public pension obligations seriously.  This would inevitably end up in eliminating basic services in order to pay for public pensions (stop picking up the garbage so you can send checks to retired sanitation workers.)  In short, the political system was failing to engage in Rational Choice.

But why?  We have been at this for more than 200 years, and with the notable exception of the Civil War, we haven’t had this type of extended deadlock before.  It appears that part of what is happening is that the world is growing exponentially more complex and more interconnected.  You would think that more knowledge would optimize political Rational Choice, but in fact, it seems to induce fear and passion more than cooperation.  Instead of thinking more broadly, people are retreating behind a set of preconceived notions and anxiety, amplified by those who profit from it.

That’s why Professor Robb’s question on portfolio management was such a terrific one, since the answer seems so obvious.  If you were given the choice to pick between two envelopes, one highly likely to have $100 in it, the other highly likely to have $200, you would almost certainly pick the $200 one.  But many people don’t.  Why they don’t could be ignorance, it could be (an often misplaced) sense of personal stock-picking talent.  Or, it could be something purely emotional: either a mistrust of Wall Street, or a willingness to accept the possibility of a lower return in return for the satisfaction of doing it on his or her own (a desire to play by one’s own rules, regardless of the cost.)

I think that last one relates to Professor Lamothe’s defined channel of thought, or What Would Kierkegaard Do.   People who engage in WWKD don’t necessarily have to be driven by a particular type of religious virtue.  One can be just as fervent about civic goals, or political ones.  What WWKD does is tilt the balance from an economic or social or even political rationale to a type of passion for discreet, and exclusive ideas or credos.  While faith and a strong moral code may lead to a more civil society, that type of an approach, grounded in absolute certitude, can be the enemy of nuance, and Democracy is all about nuance.  So, someone who cares, for example, about guns, or abortion, or immigration, might no longer be concerned about an optimal result in the rest of the political economy. He just needs to win on his point of theology. And he might see those on the opposite side of that one issue to be the enemy, even if he might agree with them on a host of other issues.

 To illustrate this, yesterday I read an on line argument between an NRA member and someone who advocated only for “Heller” type gun restrictions.  It quickly got nasty, until it ended with “the only civil liberty that Liberals care about is baby-killing.”  That’s a big leap and huge assumption, and to be blunt, a kiss-off. Those folk will never work on anything together.  As Kierkegaard himself said, “Once you label me, you negate me.”

In normal times, the political process would absorb these things, ignore the outliers, and engage in its own form of Rational Choice, an imperfect compromise that would have a positive, if not optimal result.  It would, in my seatmate’s words, enact both universal background checks and public employee pension reform because they both made sense.

But we aren’t in normal times.  We are just too dug in to our respective positions. We seem to have forgotten that political opinions are not the equivalent of the Revealed Word, and that disagreement is not the equivalent of heresy.  Too many of us have stopped thinking, and are no longer engaging in rational choice.

Louis Menand, in The Metaphysical Club, wrote about the brilliant and charismatic Swiss-born paleontologist, geologist, and natural historian Louis Agassiz.  Agassiz came to Boston in 1846 for the Lowell Lectures, and he stayed.  The series was a huge success, drawing as many 5000 people at a time, and spurred, in 1847, the establishment of Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, with Agassiz as head. Agassiz wasn’t just a mesmerizing speaker; he was the world’s foremost ichthyologist and is credited as one of the discoverers of the Ice Age.  But he had a weak spot, his monumental self-esteem, and when he coupled that with his embrace of “scientific racism” and polygenism (species, and races, were individually created by God and did not evolve) he left himself open to ridicule.  His ideas on racial inferiority were widely quoted, and used as a justification for slavery in the South.  He spent the last years of his professional life in an endless and fruitless quest to disprove Darwin, “finding” evidence that did not exist, systematically excluding facts and observations that didn’t meet his world-view, and largely abandoning the scientific method.  In Menand’s words “Agassiz simply could not recognize Darwinian thinking as science.”

Are we doomed to follow Agassiz, so dug in to either a religious or secular theology that we simply can’t get our heads out of the box and come up with good solutions? 

I still have hope.  As Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”