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Explaining The Trump Voter

As I’ve explained before, one thing I try very hard to do, even though it is sometime challenging, is to humanize people who disagree with me about issues that I find important, or about politics in general, to understand what their actual positions are, and to not just dismiss their arguments without consideration or dismiss them personally as stupid or evil. I think that’s something that everyone struggles with. Or, more accurately, something that most people don’t even try to do, but should be struggling with, as it’s just not something that comes naturally to us. Most people don’t even attempt to understand others who disagree with them, and are blissfully content seeing such people in one-dimensional, villainous tropes, which makes it very easy and emotionally satisfying to quickly dismiss them as people, and what they say and believe.

Over the last few years, for example, many have found it impossible to empathize with people who voted for Donald Trump, to intellectually understand how they could do so, and to see them as real, thoughtful, decent human beings. I heard NPR and its listeners “struggle to understand” how Trump could have been elected with their special “First 100 Days” broadcast of “Indivisible,” a show supposedly designed to foster a “national conversation about America in a time of change,” a masterfully evasive euphemism for venting NPR’s and their listeners’ existential dread and frustration regarding Trump’s victory. This call-in show was basically a screaming pillow for liberals, designed for those inside a certain political echo chamber to give each other virtual hugs and validate each other’s outrage and confusion. Well, mostly outrage feigned as confusion and interest in “bipartisan understanding.” I heard a daughter call in and say that she hadn’t talked to her mother since the election because she had voted for Trump, and while the host did the responsible thing and (very, very gingerly) suggested that severing one’s ties with a parent was not a healthy or helpful response to losing an election, the bulk of such calls focused on the callers and hosts trying to “work through together” how to reconcile that people they know and love had voted for Trump, and how to continue to love them, respect them, and maintain relationships with them despite the horrible, evil, unforgivable thing they had done.

I found the whole exercise to be immature and self-pitying in the extreme: I don’t know if anyone told these people, but, get ready for a shock: people lose presidential elections every four years. Everyone on the losing side is pissed off for awhile, stays politically annoyed during the entire term of the winning president they don’t like, and then tries to win the next one. The attitude that this particular election and the loss of their particular preferred candidate called for some extraordinary measures and national grief counseling seemed self-indulgent at best and in some way deeply dishonest at worst.

Perhaps I shouldn’t insert my own judgmental critique in the middle of an essay claiming to be about understanding. But what I’m trying to illustrate with this example is that I heard people on the left purportedly try to understand Trump voters every day on NPR, and countless times over in other media, when really what they were doing was trying to validate and understand their own feelings, not those of the people they were claiming to try to understand and reconcile with. Truly understanding why someone would vote for Donald Trump, actually intellectually grasping it and being able to articulate it, even if you drastically disagree, was something I saw little to none of. That’s why I wrote an essay about it a year later, to help those who are genuinely interested understand why someone would have voted for Donald Trump in 2016, even though I did not. There were some other great articles that explained it for those who sincerely wanted to learn, like this interview with J.D. Vance, the author of the excellent Hillbilly Elegy (which you simply must read, if you’re a reader and interested in politics). A brief, uncomfortable foray into reading a justification for supporting Donald Trump is a very important intellectual exercise for those reflexively repulsed by him, and especially those repulsed by your fellow Americans who voted for him.

I belabor you with this lengthy preamble simply to tell you that I have found another fantastic article that can help the skeptical and confused understand how Trump supporters think and what their real, authentic views actually are, as opposed to the caricature you’ll get from CNN, The New York Times, NPR, or The Washington Post. This article comes from a guest writer spot on the page of the estimable Glenn Greenwald, a prominent left-wing journalist who, in his personal politics, is probably as far left and progressive as is possible in America. I will say much more about him later, and expose you to a lot more content and arguments from him, but for now, let me just recommend that you browse his page to find all sorts of excellent, detailed content regarding today’s politics.

This particular essay comes from the author of a recently viral Twitter thread, who Glenn invited on his platform to write a full essay to fully flesh out his argument. This thread and now essay succinctly encapsulate how people who do support Donald Trump view politics, the media, and the bureaucratic security state. Specifically the “Alphabet Agencies” and their role in manipulating public opinion, as well as their apparent enthusiasm for jumping into the mud of partisan politics for whichever side they happen to pick at the moment. So while I share this essay with you to give you an honest, detailed analysis of how a large number of Americans view our political world, this essay may actually be more important in that it should give you a sobering wake-up call to the lengths enormously powerful federal agencies are willing to go to in order to spy on and destroy the lives of citizens who are inconvenient to or in the way of their political agenda.

I’ll post excerpts on my Twitter page because I know not everyone has the time or interest to read a ten page essay, especially one on as dense a topic as this. One thing I want to do for my friends and readers is cut to the chase and give them the bottom line or most important parts of a book, article, or argument, so they don’t have to dig through it themselves, and can just get right to the point and the heart of the issue.

So definitely read that essay if you can, bookmark it for reference material or to read later, and for now, note the highlights I’ve posted. The points this author raises are honestly mostly about how the media and security apparatus operate, so while the subject and point of view seem partisan because the essay is about Donald Trump and how these organizations have been weaponized to favor Democrats for now, those with any historical memory will know that not too long ago the FBI was tracking and recording every movement of Martin Luther King Jr., persecuting and blackmailing him and anyone else viewed as “subversive” or in the way of the agency’s political agenda. If you’re comfortable with the FBI and other agencies being used this way against your political enemies at this moment, then don’t be surprised and don’t feign outrage if a few administrations or a few elections from now they are turned against you.

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The Federalist #3

As I alluded to in a previous post, I have never read The Federalist Papers in full, nor have I studied the founding era on my own, beyond what was assigned to me in various classes throughout my academic career. I am attempting to remedy this by starting with Ron Chernow’s riveting biography of Alexander Hamilton, a book I can’t recommend highly enough. I was actually inspired to read it because I just finished another excellent biography, on Napoleon, which I also give my highest recommendation. I thought it would be good to stick with this turn of the 19th century era, since my head is already in it, and since that helped me overcome the mental hurdle that I sometimes have when a topic or a historical era seems interesting to think about, but I assume it will be dry and boring to read about. I don’t know if that happens to anyone else, but it certainly happens to me. I also just listened to a fascinating lecture by Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson that I strongly recommend, and it too made the topic seem less dry and more accessible. It’s actually a very interesting era of history, just from a storytelling perspective. And history is all about stories.

I’m at the start of a process of slowly reading all of The Federalist Papers, and I am making notes on them to help my understanding and for future review, and I thought I would share some of them with you. There is no substitute for reading Federalist #1 in terms of an introduction to how the framers viewed the Constitution and the American Experiment, and how we should view it today, so definitely read that one if you have not, or if you don’t remember. It is short, sweet, and rousing.

I would like to start by sharing my notes on Federalist #3: Concerning Dangers From Foreign Force and Influence, by John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States. These are just my notes from reading the original text, which I think is an important part of deep and proper understanding of any subject. I know not everyone has the time or inclination to sit with these, so I would like to share my summaries of these texts as food for thought and a bit of an easier or lighter read than the original text itself. I hope you enjoy!

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In addition to drafting New York’s state constitution and being a former president of the Continental Congress, John Jay was an experienced diplomat, which is why he was enlisted by Alexander Hamilton to write The Federalist essays on foreign policy. His overarching argument was that a truly United States, a single national polity, would more efficiently, safely, and rationally ensure the diplomacy and international security of the colonies than many independent states or a handful of state confederacies. He believed that a united America will give fewer “just causes for war” to foreign powers than a disunited America, and that one national government will better observe the laws of nations than thirteen separate states, or three or four confederacies. This is almost axiomatic, as one political entity will have fewer flashpoints for contention and dispute, or simple mistakes, than numerous, nominally affiliated entities.

Jay was also concerned with the quality of leadership in the realm of diplomacy, and indeed I am recently thinking that picking the right person is the top priority for the success of any project, endeavor, system, or government. The Napoleon biography makes it clear how his chief failures were mistakes in appointing the wrong people to important positions, usually his family members. I am coming to the opinion that leadership literally makes or breaks any object you undertake, whether it is diplomacy, a departmental project, or a constitution.

Jay argued that a national government will have a larger talent pool to choose from, thereby attracting better leadership, men of more talent, reputation, and other qualifications than you will have in a single state, and therefore tending towards better and wiser decision making. It will be “more wise, sytematical, and judicious than those of individual states, and consequently more satisfactory with respect to other nations,” making it more safe for us.

When it comes to foreign policy, consistency and stability are key. Jay believed that treaties and accords will be more consistent coming from one government than thirteen states or several confederacies, which would have conflicting, inconsistent, and non-accordant relations with other nations. Not only that, but the short-term or immediate prospects of sudden loss or advantage may also sway individual states or confederacies to unwise, unjust, or dangerous decisions that threaten the others. And even when the governing body of a state is wise and just, there may be local circumstances in a state, and/or an overwhelming number of imprudent or bad actors that may cause harm without the state being able to control them, whereas a national government would have the power and inclination to do so. So there will be fewer designed or accidental violations of treaties and the laws of nations under a unified government than under multiple autonomous governments, which “most favors the SAFETY of the people.”

Likewise, when it comes to violations from “from direct and unlawful violence” undertaken by certain parties in a state, a national government is better able to secure against such dangers. Because “such violences are more frequently caused by the passions and interests of a part than of the whole; of one or two states than of the Union.” Interestingly, he cites the context that it had been the states, not the national government, that had up until this time initiated unprovoked Indian wars. “Not a single Indian war has yet been occasioned by aggressions of the present federal government, feeble as it is; but there are several instances of Indian hostilities having been provoked by the improper conduct of individual States.”

He also mentions that there are Spanish and British territories that border some states, but not others, and that quarrels may more quickly and easily arise from those states, again from what you might call “local passions,” and that a national government will be more prudent and deliberative, less susceptible to these.

He further claims that a national government will have more power and be more inclined to settle disputes quickly and amicably. The pride of states, as of men, may be hot in defending their honor, quicker to rise and slower to cool and make peace. A national government will not be influenced by such local pride, again leaning more towards an inclination to peace and settlement.

When it comes to making peace, Jay again believes that a national government is in a far better position to do so than a loose coalition of states or confederacies. He claims that the terms and substantive offerings of peace are “often accepted as satisfactory from a strong united nation,” in a way that they would not be, and would instead be “rejected as unsatisfactory” if offered by a mere state or confederacy.

Finally, he uses the example of King Louis XIV of France being offended by some action on the part of the state of Genoa, and demanding that they send their chief magistrate and four senators, to “ask his pardon and receive his terms,” basically grovel before him. He clearly sees this as a sign of humiliation and submission, as “[t]hey were obliged to submit to it for the sake of peace.” Here he appeals to the national pride of Americans, having just fought the first successful war against a colonizer in history, to not put themselves in a situation as to be humiliated by mere dint of raw power again. His final sentence eloquently evinces and appeals to the national pride of Americans who wish to see their new country strong and unbowed: “Would he on an occasion either have demanded or received the like humiliation from Spain, or Britain, or any other POWERFUL nation?”

This short but powerful paper is a clinic on persuasion and rhetoric, political or otherwise. It is masterfully impressive that he can so succinctly and powerfully encapsulate nearly the entire argument for a united rather than a divided nation for the purposes of foreign policy.

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The Federalist Papers

Recently, I have had the pleasure of reading Ron Chernow’s thrilling biography of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow is an excellent storyteller, and combined with the source material of Alexander Hamilton’s life being so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable, it is an exhilarating read. Of the many fascinating aspects of this book, one that has stood out to me is the truly staggering work ethic and output of Hamilton and other founding fathers. Men like Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison lived lives of constant, daily study and relentless, merciless self-improvement.

One example of this ethic is a tidbit I would phrase as a historical “Did You Know?” piece of trivia: Did you know that Alexander Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers in his spare time, in between practicing law to support his family? I find this information truly staggering, when you consider the timeless historical feat that the Federalist Papers represent.

This is one of those short bits of information you actually have to step back and think about for a minute to appreciate. As impressive as The Federalist Papers are, as difficult as a philosophical and legal work of this magnitude must be to create, even as a full-time academic or theorist, imagine undertaking such a herculean feat of writing squeezed in between breaks at work, and when you’ve come home in the evening after practicing law all day. You may think you’re fried and need to watch some tv after a long day at the office. Hamilton wrote The Federalist Papers.

And not to besmirch truly great men and historical figures, but it is worth noting the contrast between the working man Hamilton and his writing partner, James Madison. Madison was yet another founding father of Newtonian intellect, who devoted his entire life to ceaseless study and enlightenment. But there is a stark contrast between his life and Hamilton’s, having been born and raised with every advantage and privilege of having his life made smooth and easy for him to be able to devote himself and all his energies to his solitary study. His father was the largest slaveholder in Orange County, Virginia, and owned up to ten thousand acres of land. To quote Chernow, “Until age fifty, [he] lived in economic dependence on his father and even in congress fell back on income from the family plantation.” This does not undermine respect for his work ethic whatsoever (in fact it may enhance it, how many us would work so hard born with such privileges?), but it does highlight how much more freedom men like he and Jefferson had to pursue their energies, interests, and talents, while others like Hamilton had to place their intellectual work in between the mundane toils of daily work.

Which brings me to this: as much as it embarrasses me to admit, I have never read The Federalist Papers in full. I have read the famous ones when assigned to me in school, which I hope most of us have. But as a proponent of full intellectual understanding of a topic and of reading source materials to form my own judgement, as well as a full-hearted believer in the American Experiment, this is a piece of research that I feel is a gap in my knowledge. A gap which I now intend to fill.

Theodore Roosevelt called The Federalist Papers “on the whole the greatest book” dealing with practical politics. They are certainly the foundational theoretical texts of our entire national and constitutional experiment. I am approaching my study of them somewhat in the manner of a bible study. They are just too dense, and of course in somewhat antiquated English, to simply read through like you would a normal history book, or even treatise. In fact, they weren’t even meant to be read that way, as they were written and published in newspapers at a rate of several per week over the course of about eight months. That is the rate they were initially intended to be digested, and I honestly believe that is probably still the best method by which to approach them. So my plan is to read a few of them every week, one at a time, to slowly and deliberately digest and contemplate them. This will be somewhat of a process, which I will approach methodically, and take it slow and easy over the year, contemplating lessons as you would a religious text, which to believers in the Constitution and American greatness, it is. I am also going to be taking notes, to reinforce my learning, and for my own future reference. I began this process last night, and I will be sharing my notes and takeaways from select sections of The Federalist Papers here. I will begin later today.

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Are Farmers Capitalists or Socialists?

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This is a question that’s been on my mind for a long time.

Typically, when you envision an American farmer or farming family, you tend to picture rugged individual, self-reliant, conservative types, who pride themselves on knowing how to survive with minimal interaction with the outside world. Partly, it’s our strong and primordial emotional reaction of respect and admiration for growing your own food, the aura of grit and independence that radiates from such an endeavor and lifestyle. Partly it’s the romantic mythology of our agrarian past, both from our actual history and from its longstanding portrayal in American culture.

But there is another side to American farming that is much less discussed, and far less romantic: government subsidies. In 2020 alone, the government paid out around $46 billion dollars in farm subsidies. Just over $35 billion of that was for “emergency aid” to help bolster farms struggling with the economic effects of Covid (without even vetting the allocations based on need, of course, like most government programs). But the rest, over $10 billion, was for “traditional farm subsidies that were already in place.”

A theme that you’ll notice from me, from the very beginning and which you’ll see more and more over time, is that I believe in principles, and in philosophical consistency. And I expect that from everyone, from you, from me, “my side,” “the other side,” without exception. I consider it a requirement for me to view an individual, a group of people, or an organization as rational actors who can be engaged logically on a topic, and who can be given the benefit of the doubt as being generally fair and reasonable. And I will hold the people and groups with whom I align to the same standard, I will expect them to be logical, principled, and consistent just like everyone else. Which is why I have to call out as unprincipled and myopically selfish any person or interest group who asks or lobbies for government handouts and corporate bailouts, no matter which party they’re in, no matter how they vote, and no matter how much people hate me for it.

A true capitalist, a true adherent of free markets, and in my opinion, a true believer in the American philosophy of self-sovereignty and self-reliance, would not believe in or advocate for subsidies or bailouts for businesses, of any kind. This is no less true for a farmer than for a banker or someone engaged in any other type of business.

I would say this to a farmer or any other businessperson who thinks that they’re entitled to corporate subsidies or government bailouts: if you think you are entitled to them, then why not the guy who runs the sandwich shop down the street, the restaurant that just closed, or the bank that needs a billion dollar bailout? If we make an allowance for you and your business, we have to make one for everyone. If you have a right to a government subsidy, then so does everyone else involved in every other type of business. And now you have justified unlimited government expansion and interference with the free market, and all of the unintended and nasty consequences, like the government picking winners and losers, like central planners directing the behavior of businesses through financial incentives, and like bureaucrats punishing businesses or industries they disapprove of by cutting off their funds. You justify and unleash the full force of Leviathan if you can justify it for yourself to subsidize your business.

So are farmers capitalists or socialists? For me, this question usually comes to mind when the topic of health, sodas, and high fructose corn syrup comes up. By now, everyone knows that the cause of our obesity epidemic is the processed carbs and sugars that are the unfortunate staples of the American diet for most people. I’m a free market person, and I by no means want the government telling us what to eat or drink or do with our lives, not by “educating” us, or by force. (Side note: do you trust government education and social engineering? If you do, I would ask why, and ask you to think about the government’s track record of societal programming and reconsider). I want no part of Bloombergian soda bans or calorie counts. Not only do they do no good and have no practical effect, they are an untoward imposition on people’s liberty. Freedom means, it has to mean, the freedom to do dumb things and make bad choices as well as to do smart things and make good choices. These sorts laws also impose yet another undue compliance burden on businesses, another unnecessary cost that diverts resources from investing in research, improvements, and employees.

But at the same time, I admit that if we could snap our fingers and make soda or high fructose corn syrup disappear, it would go a long way towards improving people’s weight and health (assuming no replacement was found, etc…this is a utopian hypothetical, so we can imagine a single factor changing without having any other factors change in response, which is useful for thought experiments, but does not happen in the real world). Right now, a main if not the main culprit that is destroying people’s health in America is high fructose corn syrup, sweetening everything from soda to bread to yogurt to granola bars. It’s used as a sweetener because it’s a cheaper substitute for sugar, and because for taste purposes we do need at least a little bit of sweetener in most of our processed foods. And while a little bit of it seems to be in almost everything, it is of course far more concentrated in snacks, candy, and soda, which Americans consume far too much of.

So when I’m discussing health and obesity with my friends, the first obvious policy step when working on this issue is: stop subsidizing high fructose corn syrup. And while we’re at it, why not stop subsidizing, well, everything? In fact, the inspiration to write this article came from a snippet a friend sent me this week:

I’m not saying it’s a magic bullet, or that it would solve all our problems. But it’s an easy and obvious first step to try. And why wouldn’t we?

The answer to that is: the farmer’s lobby.

When you look into the matter, you get varying estimates on how much the U.S. spends on farm subsidies every year, ranging from $10 billion in the article I linked to above, to $14 billion, to $20 billion. In a longer view, we see that in a 15 year span $170 billion was spent in aggregate on these subsidies, and in a 25 year span, $116 billion on corn subsidies alone. Now I’m not getting into the weeds on farm subsidies, and for the purposes of this analysis, there’s no need to. As someone else said so eloquently, “The inner workings of subsidy programs is a subject best left to PhD economists.” We don’t need to know the details of these subsidies to know that they distort the marketplace and the choices that individuals and businesses would make if left to decide their preferences and best interests themselves.

The point that I’m making is that the very existence of these subsidies is anti-free-market, anti-self-sovereignty, and if you want to be dramatic about it (and why not?), anti-American. It is also apparent that the cost of these subsidies is not insignificant, year over year, and cumulatively over time. As the saying goes, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” There is real money on the table here for farm subsidies, and the ethical and economic questions surrounding this practice affect our pocketbooks, distort the market, and incentivize public consumption and business production of patently unhealthy goods.

As an average taxpaying citizen, not involved in farming or distribution of agricultural goods, I am opposed to government subsidies of farms just as much as banks or any other business (and I hope you are too). As a free market, economics-minded conservative, I am opposed to these subsidies on principle as much as I am on pragmatism (i.e. I would still oppose them if the cost were trivial).

My question is: if you are a farmer, or involved in the distribution of agricultural goods, are you willing to reject the idea of corporatism and government subsidies for your industry, just as much as for any other, and if you’re not, are you honest and transparent enough to admit that you prefer socialism for thee, and capitalism for me?

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Remembering Rush

In 1996, I was a 21 year old junior enlisted MP deployed to Croatia and Bosnia to enforce the Dayton Accords under the NATO peace treaty. Some of the words I would use to describe myself at the time are the same I would use now: “Political.” “Opinionated.” “Argumentative.” “Extroverted.” One word I would not use to describe myself today that applied then is: “Liberal.”

For those who know me just a little, or who only know my writing, this may seem surprising if not downright shocking. But I have chronicled my transformation from a dedicated Democrat to recalcitrant Republican before. What’s even more strange about this story is how fundamentally different a person I was back then apart from mere politics: imagine me, the me you know and read now, minus 25 years of getting my ass kicked by life, minus the humility that age, mistakes and being wrong about any number of things has taught me. In other words: imagine the worst possible version of me, young, arrogant, full of myself, a supremely confident know-it-all. Or to put it another way: an average 21 year old.

Right about then, as I was deployed working long hours 7 days a week, with little to do when not actively patrolling a supply route, escorting a convoy, or guarding a blown up bridge, I needed reading material, desperately, and my Main Man From Minnesota, Al Franken, offered me just the sort of thing I was looking for: Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

At the time I knew as much about Rush Limbaugh as most of his critics know today: basically, that he’s like, a big fat idiot, who says dumb stuff, and is, you know, really offensive. And is hateful because, you know, he’s a conservative a-hole, & stuff. That about covered it.

Of course, I had never listened to him. Why would I? Like I said, I thought I already knew everything about him, so I didn’t have to stoop to listening to what he said to know he was wrong, that he was dumb, and that I hated him. Of course, this was in The Before Time when you literally could not listen to someone on the radio or watch someone on tv unless you caught them live in the act, so it’s not like I could have just gone to YouTube and looked up what he said that day, or any day, on any subject, or just browse his content to see what he was about. I just knew what I heard in the news outlets I listened to and read, snippets of outrageous or offensive things that happened to make the news when I happened to catch it. But I knew enough to have a pretty strong opinion of him. We didn’t use the word “trending” in The Before Time, but the concept and phenomenon were still the same, just with different media.

Now on this deployment, I had a good friend, one of the sergeants in my platoon, who was in some respects my political mirror image. If I was a snarky, atheist liberal, he was a sincere, christian conservative. While we were deployed together for nearly a year, we talked about politics a lot, and were kind of the political wonks or nerds of the platoon. And since it was an election year, we had a lot of good material to discuss, debating Clinton vs. Dole vs. Perot (I was ardently pro-Clinton, but I also as a rule like outsiders and anti-establishment types, so was open to listening to Perot and hearing arguments for him). Also, while my book from Al Franken was keeping me company during downtime and after patrols, he happened to have with him on our deployment a book by the subject of Franken’s mockery: Rush Limbaugh’s second book, See I Told You So.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, I honestly think it was his, because I’m pretty sure it would never occur to me to read something by a person I’d already completely made up my mind about, and I’m also equally certain I would have been horrified by the idea and laughed in someone’s face if they suggested it (in fact I think I might have). But in any case, me and my Republican friend did something rare in any age of politics, and certainly virtually unheard of now: in a truly gentlemanly exchange of ideas, we agreed to read each other’s Rush Limbaugh books, and dedicate the time to read an entire book by someone diametrically opposed to us politically, and of course, discuss it afterwards.

I can’t say that reading his book entirely changed my mind about Limbaugh, or suddenly made me conservative, or even changed my opinion about any particular political topic. But what it did do was something maybe more important: it humanized him to me, it made me see him as a fully-dimensional human being, instead of the partisan caricature I had been holding in my mind of who Rush was as a person. It turned him, in my mind, from a simple political punching bag, representing not just himself but the entire political right that I disagreed with, but a person with strengths, weaknesses, intelligence, and flaws, just like any of us.

It was an important step for my own personal development as a human being, in forcing myself to listen to someone I very easily could say I “hated” as a person and political figure before I had done this, someone I considered vile and loathsome, and not really worthy of thinking of or listening to as a human being. I think this is a very important step that everyone can take to understand people who may seem entirely alien to them based on their view of the world, which is usually based on politics these days, but it can easily apply to someone of a different class, from a different part of the country, or with different interests.

The thing that stood out most to me was Limbaugh’s brutally self-critical honesty about his journey to broadcasting fame. It’s been a long time, and I don’t have the book handy, but something he said really stood out to me and has stuck with me through the years. To paraphrase, it began something like this:

I’ve had many different jobs, and many different careers…and I failed at all of them. I had been fired from almost every job I ever had [he listed maybe five of them], and I started to gain a suspicion that I had no talents to speak of with which I could have a successful professional career or even gainful employment.

In what I thought was a very open and vulnerable passage, detailing at length his many professional failures (which couldn’t have been that far behind him when this book was written), and his personal sense of complete worthlessness, feeling that he had no talent and nothing to offer, he went on to conclude in the following way:

I began to work in overnight radio programs, the only gig I could get, and I would say a few words or make a few comments about current events in the middle of the night and in the morning at the end of my shift as people were driving to work. I eventually started taking calls and having discussions with callers, many of whom disagreed with me or were angry about what I had said, some of whom wanted to actually fight and argue with me. It was then that I discovered that I do have one talent: insulting people. For some reason, for better or worse, this is my gift and my talent.

Of course that is a vast simplification and paraphrase, but to me, that was a startlingly human and relatable moment, and I was impressed with the fact that he was willing to be that open and say that about himself, both admitting that about himself as a human being, and being frank about the true cause of his personal success. I thought then and think now that is an incredibly brave and impressive thing to do. If you don’t agree, ask yourself this: how willing would you be to publicize the most embarrassing thing about yourself, your deepest flaw as a human being? Is that something you think you would be willing to do, especially in a book that will be read by millions, talked about by millions more, in an environment where you have millions of enemies who hate you and who live to destroy you? This one part of the book made me respect him as a man, even if I still believed that all of his political ideas were insane.

I think a modern equivalent of this sort of exercise could be what I call “The Donald Trump Challenge,” in which I ask people who hate Donald Trump to say three nice things about him, or three things he’s done right as president. To me, this kind of question gets to the heart of people’s willingness to see a political opponent, or even a legitimate political enemy, as a human being. A corollary for myself would be my one-sentence opinion of Barack Obama: “He’s a really nice, cool guy who’s a good family man and who I would love to hang out with, who has terrible, naive, misguided political beliefs.” The form is a little bit different, but the point is I can say several nice things about Barack Obama as a person, and even a few as a politician, even though I vehemently oppose his overall worldview, politics, and agenda. It’s important to me to do this, for myself as a human being, to keep a sense of perspective that politics is not everything, and to force myself to see my political opponent as a person too. I find it personally important to be able to prove to myself, on an ongoing basis, that I can see my political opponents as people, and find what common ground there is with someone I disagree with like Barack Obama, and not just view him as a faceless, one-dimensional enemy. I want to know that I can still see a president whose politics I hate as a real person, and forcing myself to think about things I like about him is something I can do to help prove that to myself (besides, you know, voting for him against my own party in 2008).

Apart from reading this one book of his, I was never a lifelong “Dittohead” or Rush follower. I didn’t listen to him on a regular basis, or read his regular columns. But there is another aspect of his persona and his work that stood out to me: his near limitless capacity to inspire outrage among his critics and enemies. Perhaps this helped prepare me for Donald Trump, but I long ago dispensed with being shocked and outraged by what media personalities say. I had an important realization on this topic when I was attending college in New York in my mid-20s, when some campus controversy had sprung up about Ann Coulter. She had been invited to speak at my campus, and, predictably, there was a group of students who were “outraged!” and “offended!” that she was even allowed to speak, and somewhere around that time, someone had tried to pie her in the face at another school.

I don’t know how you miss this, I guess I had until then, but it’s really very, very obvious once you point it out: when a media personality, whether a political pundit like Rush Limbaugh or a shock jock like Don Imus or Howard Stern says something “outrageous” that “offends” people, and a million articles start circulating about the “terrible!” and “insensitive!” things they said: that’s the bloody point. That’s what they’re trying to do. It’s such transparent manipulation, it’s kind of embarrassing when you take just one step back and look at it. Creating shock and outrage is what they do, it’s part of the formula.

I’m not in their heads, but it seems pretty apparent that these situations and comments are entirely calculated, that these folks are saying things they know are “offensive” (to some people) in order to provoke outrage, create some heat, get people talking about them (“get clicks” these days), and to promote themselves. It’s just a big media game, where the “offensive” person makes some news, the “news” outlets and pundits get their ready-made talking points for the day, the “offender” gets mountains of free publicity, and the “shocked and outraged!” columnists and pundits get some easy, ready-made content where all they have to do is talk about how people are offended, maybe run a short clip of the “controversial” content, talk to a guest about why it’s offensive and just how offensive it is, and *BAM*: you have x number of pre-packaged minutes of cut & paste content, possibly hours spread throughout a 24 hour news cycle, or over the course of a few days or a week. I’m not in the media business, but it frankly just seems like a big, transparent game when you look at it that way.

Once I noticed this pattern (the comments, the outrage, the media talking about it, the “controversy of the minute” with my friends, the demand for cancellation or apology, etc.), I really just stopped caring about any of it. And whenever Rush or anyone else said something offensive, and I’d see articles about it or hear my liberal friends talking about “Did you hear what RUSH said this week??,” I just wanted to ask them “Don’t you feel silly, when he deliberately says something to offend you and get you talking about him, then you spend a week running around like a chicken with its head cut off doing exactly what he wants you to do??” It’s like people couldn’t help themselves but react exactly how he wanted them to react, and do exactly what he wanted them to do: talk about him. Once I realized what a calculated ploy it was, I could no longer take any of the outrageous comments Rush or any of the others made seriously. Would you take Howard Stern seriously when he says something gross or offensive, or would you know that he’s doing it on purpose to get a reaction out of people and generate some publicity? It’s interesting to me that people on the left who would mock the outrage of conservatives and could see the obviousness of the ploy when done by Howard Stern fell right into the trap for Rush Limbaugh, and vice-versa.

One final point: as I admitted above, I was never really a big consumer of Rush Limbaugh, so as I got older and learned to be more circumspect with my opinions, I refrained from having an opinion about him, as I do now on all topics about which I know little or nothing. But there was a point about ten years ago where my curiosity got the better of me, and I spent some time reading some articles written by Rush and Ann Coulter. You know what I found? They were really good writers, really smart people, and they made really tight, highly logical arguments. All things you would never know if all you know about them was some offensive comments you heard about in the news. When you take the time to actually read their arguments, they are far more intelligent and nuanced than a handful of prime-time soundbites. What I gathered from reading their articles was that their formula for writing was something like this:

*Headline
*Argument
*Supporting Facts
*[insert some hyperbole or offensive comment or terminology to trigger liberals]
*Summary
*Conclusion

It seemed like that was pretty much it: in every well-formed, intelligent political article about immigration, or health care, or taxes, there was a pre-made section designed to insult or offend liberals, like it was literally in the format of the outline or Word document. You may think it’s gross, or less than classy, I might not to do it in my own writing, but ask yourself this: did it work? I think the results speak for themselves, in their notoriety, their influence, and in their bank accounts. And in the very fact that we’re here talking about them, right now.

It’s not the most high-minded approach, but then again, I’ll bet neither is most of the news you consume. A writer hates to use cliches (a cliche in itself, I’m so meta), but I think this the perfect time to use the expression “It is what it is.” Human beings are just not always high-minded, or sophisticated, in our news and media consumption as much as in anything else. That’s our social and political reality, as much as our media reality. But if you take the time to really investigate the arguments of a person like Rush Limbaugh, you will find a lot more intelligence, nuance, sophistication, and humanity than you would expect as a mere headline-consumer of news. But really, who does that anymore? And who really did that to begin with? Rush Limbaugh gave conservatives what they wanted, cogent arguments for their positions, red meat in his rants against liberals, and a voice to a worldview many could not express for themselves. And he gave liberals what they wanted, a conservative boogeyman to rage against, and to caricature all conservatives with by his worst, most public, most offensive comments. So in a way, you could say that he did as much for liberals as he did for conservatives, that he was as important to them as he was to his fans.

Rush’s larger-than-life influence on politics and media is well-known, and has been well-chronicled by people far more familiar with his work and better qualified than I. But being a politically interested American in the last 30 years, I could not help but have been touched by his influence and his work, and I just wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences with his influence. I think the only thing I can comment or ask further at this point is: who will take his place in the domain of our politics, if anyone?

RIP to a great American.

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The New York Times And The Era Of Post-Journalism

Over the weekend, a friend shared a WSJ story about the increasingly open, some might say now fully-bared, political partisanship of the New York Times, from the culture of the newsroom itself to the way that culture is causing the paper’s increased political radicalism and open advocacy for the pet viewpoints and social projects of its staff.
 
That article was interesting and worth reading, but what I found far more interesting was a linked article containing an in-depth analysis of the recent (read: Trump Era) history of the paper’s approach to, well, everything. Everything from news, to opinion, to (by some tortured woke logic) racial politics.
 
As is obvious to everyone who reads or watches the news, the media writ large adopted a uniformly partisan approach to reporting on the Trump presidency, with a visceral hatred of the Trump personage as their driving spirit. In other words, it was wildly apparent that the open hatred for Trump displayed in every day media coverage went beyond simple policy disagreements (such as, for example, a liberal paper opposing the Bush tax cuts), beyond even blatant partisanship (such as an openly Democratic newspaper opposing any Republican policy or politician by default), and veered transparently into seething personal hatred for the man himself. 
 
Citing a prominent front-page story that the Times printed in August of 2016 and a book by media scholar Andrey Mir on the New Ethic of Journalism, the author describes how the Times knowingly and openly decided that it was time to

“throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of a half-century” and leap vigorously into advocacy. Trump could not safely be covered; he had to be opposed.

The old media had needed happy customers. The goal of post-journalism, according to Mir, is to “produce angry citizens.”

The news agenda became narrower and more repetitive as journalists focused on a handful of partisan controversies—an effect that Mir labeled “discourse concentration.” The New York Times, as a purveyor of information and a political institution, had cut itself loose from its own history.

 
This piece in City Journal is a really excellent article going over the history of the New York Times and its reporting since Trump, how they changed their approach to journalism generally, in the sense of prioritizing advocacy over reporting facts, in the sense of taking an openly and aggressively adversarial approach to a president rather than objective reporting, and how that has contaminated all of their reporting and every decision they make since then.
 
Not only that, it’s a near-perfect proxy for and explanation of how all other mainstream media have revamped their approach in the last four years, such as CNN, NPR, the networks, other papers, etc. The specifics for each media outlet may differ, but the reasoning, approach, and result has uniformly been the same. You cannot distinguish the new “journalistic standards” of the New York Times from any other major mainstream media outlet.
 
I highly recommend this article, so please read it if you can, in whole or in spurts, or bookmark it for later. I do think it’s actually “important,” as a general resource for recent history, and to send to friends to help them understand the media environment of the last four years that we still live with today.
 
It’s a tad long, but not really for a traditional newspaper article (though it’s not from a newspaper, I just say that for old people like me who used to read newspapers). I’d say it’s about a 15 minute read. Very good food for thought. 
 
Enjoy!
 
 
 
 

The Importance of Economics (And Economic Thinking)

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When I was a young socialist (yes, you read that right), I had a lot of opinions about what people and society should do with their money. But I didn’t know a single thing about actual economics. No, not one thing. I was completely ignorant even that I should know things about economics, I was deep into the realm of Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns.” I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and this meant that there was no way for me to learn on my own and teach myself to a better understanding. I was ignorant of my ignorance, which I now know is itself a well-understood and studied phenomenon: part of the condition of being ignorant is that you don’t know you’re ignorant. It’s kind like how part of being crazy is that you don’t know you’re crazy.

There’s even a fancy name for it:

Dunning-Kruger Club.jpg

 

This is a topic worthy of discussion in its own right, but I just want to mention it to paint a picture of where I myself have been regarding the topic of economics. This abstract basically describes my level of economic understanding in my 20s:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

In essence, we argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition, metamemory, metacomprehension, or self-monitoring skills. These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.

For example, consider the ability to write grammatical English. The skills that enable one to construct a grammatical sentence are the same skills necessary to recognize a grammatical sentence, and thus are the same skills necessary to determine if a grammatical mistake has been made. In short, the same knowledge that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter.

If you would like to know more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you can read the Wikipedia article here, view and download the full paper here, or read it online in html here.


So there I was, Dunning-Krugered as hell about economics. So what happened? What always happens with me: I started arguing with people. I took my DK’d self with my DK’d ideas, and brought them all cocky and manly like to other nerds and wonks, and got my ass severely kicked and handed to me over, and over, and over again, in debate after debate. I literally cannot count the number of debates I lost, and how many times I didn’t just lose a debate, but basically got woodshedded like a red-headed stepchild.

[This was in my mid-20s, after a five year stint in the army, while an undergraduate at Columbia University]

But two things have saved me in life from having this sort of thing destroy me and ruin my self-confidence: one, that I can take a loss, and two, that I can learn from one. I would walk home from an argument outside of class or outside a bar, swearing and muttering to myself all the way home (on the inside, I hope). Mostly for being so stupid and so wrong, and occasionally, for being so arrogant. And each time, mad as I was, I was even more grateful, for having been so violently and suddenly disabused of such erroneous ideas. As one of my idols Sam Harris has said: I don’t want to believe a wrong thing for one minute longer than I have to. So I welcome intellectual challenges and people who can teach me something, or better yet, correct any wrong ideas I currently have.

Of course, as time went on, I sought to educate myself. Once I realized this was an intellectual weakness of mine, I read an uncountable number of articles on economics, sought out people who knew more than me (now to ask questions, rather than debate), and read a few foundational econ books. I realized through the course of these conversations that while I considered myself a policy wonk and a politics nerd, I was lacking a fundamental pillar of understanding these issues: that of basic economics. I realized that I was functionally illiterate in one of the core areas necessary to understanding our world, and to having an educated opinion on political topics. It was one of the most humbling intellectual realizations of my life, and maybe the first real moment and topic where I found myself sitting in silence with an awareness of my own profound ignorance of something so obviously important, if you actually knew anything about the world.


The reason I’m writing this essay is that I have come to realize that my own ignorance, while shameful and appalling, is not unique. In fact, I think it is the norm. Now just like I recently stated that I’m no mathematical genius, I’m also no economics genius. I’m not an economist, even by hobby, let alone trade. I’m no expert on economics or economic theories, even a lay expert or hobbyist. But here’s what I’ve come to fear/realize: I simply know basic economics very well, and that means I know more than 95% of people I meet. And I don’t mean 95% of people in the mountains of Arkansas. I mean 95% of college educated people with otherwise sophisticated and nuanced understandings of the world. I mean that just as I made it through high school and college without a single day of economics education, so does pretty much everyone else. Literally everything I’ve learned about economics has been self-taught. And in that regard, I think “the system,” whatever that means, our education system, society writ large, whatever, has failed me, and continues to fail current and future generations of Americans. I mean that you literally cannot have a reasonably educated and sophisticated understanding of politics and society without an understanding of basic economics. This is a disservice to all of us as a general citizenry, when most of our educated, voting adults pretty much know nothing about economic fundamentals.

And it’s not just politics. It’s personal. Understanding basic economic concepts has drastically improved my thinking and decision making in exponential, innumerable ways. I literally cannot imagine my life, thinking about politics, analyzing situations, or making decisions without knowing about things like opportunity cost, marginal utility, economies of scale, or comparative advantage. I cannot imagine how I could effectively analyze or understand pretty much anything about the world without these conceptual tools. Economics is in a very real sense an exercise in pure logical thinking. It’s about as close as you can get without using Actual Math or formal logic. That’s because it requires logical formulations and connections to make sense. It requires definitions and axioms (for example supply and demand and their effect on each other). It requires clear formulations and connections that can be reduced to formal logic terms such as “If A, then B” or “If A, then not B” (ceteris paribus reasoning, for example). You have to logically connect concepts and conditions to understand how they work together. It’s not a matter of interpretation, there is a right and wrong answer, and the strength of your logic determines your ability to find the right one, or to be as accurate as possible based on the available data. This is the beauty, the elegance, and the power of economic thinking.


A couple of examples from one of my favorite authors:

1. That which is seen, and that which is unseen

A very common economic fallacy, as well as general human cognitive error, is to evaluate a choice or an action by a very obvious (usually positive) effect, but to ignore a less obvious (usually negative) effect, which may precisely offset or even be greater than the apparent effect/benefit. Here’s an example: a trade policy, tax policy, subsidy, or other government action that benefits one group of people, let’s say farmers. Giving a generous tax break or subsidy or trade protection to this one group, on its face, at first blush, seems like a great thing…look at all the farmers we’re helping. Look how much better off they are. Isn’t it wonderful? How can you be against it? Do you hate farmers…?

What most people don’t see, because they’re not used to economic thinking, is that the benefits are obvious because they’re focused on a (relatively) small, discreet, graspable group of people, but the costs are distributed to everyone else in society. We may enact a policy that will help farmers, but the cost of that policy is that the cost of their goods rises for everyone else, or that the rest of us pay for their subsidies in other ways, perhaps in higher taxes. This is a tradeoff, and perhaps it is one we want to make, but most people are not even aware that we are making it, and therefore the tradeoff is not debated or factored in when crafting this policy. And we certainly ought to discuss if we do in fact want to make any of the necessary tradeoffs for any particular policy.

Again, benefits are focused, but costs are disbursed. We have to realize this whenever we craft any sort of economic policy. Everything has to be paid for. Yes, everything. Literally, everything. And we rarely ask what the costs are for our particular pet projects, and are typically discouraged from doing so if we try to bring it up. This actually raises another point, that everything has a cost, and we can’t just do everything that we’d like or that seems like a good idea, because we can’t afford it. That’s its own issue, but related to this one. If more people thought about the tradeoffs and costs involved in any particular policy, I believe most people would be a lot more conservative in their pet projects designed to help this or that particular group.

This is a long essay discussing this topic, but you can understand the principle well enough just reading the introduction and Part I.

In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause — it is seen. The others unfold in succession — they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference — the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.

In fact, it is the same in the science of health, arts, and in that of morals. It often happens, that the sweeter the first fruit of a habit is, the more bitter are the consequences. Take, for example, debauchery, idleness, prodigality. When, therefore, a man absorbed in the effect which is seen has not yet learned to discern those which are not seen, he gives way to fatal habits, not only by inclination, but by calculation.

This explains the fatally grievous condition of mankind. Ignorance surrounds its cradle: then its actions are determined by their first consequences, the only ones which, in its first stage, it can see. It is only in the long run that it learns to take account of the others. It has to learn this lesson from two very different masters — experience and foresight. Experience teaches effectually, but brutally. It makes us acquainted with all the effects of an action, by causing us to feel them; and we cannot fail to finish by knowing that fire burns, if we have burned ourselves. For this rough teacher, I should like, if possible, to substitute a more gentle one. I mean Foresight. For this purpose I shall examine the consequences of certain economical phenomena, by placing in opposition to each other those which are seen, and those which are not seen.

2. Comparative advantage

One thing you will find in common with all professional and lay economists is a universal disapproval of trade barriers, tariffs, and protectionism. This is not because they don’t value the farmers, merchants, and tradesmen of their own country, or that they do not have proper patriotic feelings. It is because they understand basic and universal economic maxims. One such maxim is that every country, society, and culture has its own unique advantages for producing goods, and we all benefit when everyone uses them as freely and as maximally as possible. Conceptually, there is a bit of “what is seen and unseen” in this as well, but has the additional condition of specific advantages residing in each discreet group of people.

A very easy example of this is the environmental conditions for growing natural produce. It is probably possible to grow oranges, for example, in Minnesota. You could grow them for a few months in the summer, and conceivably build indoor facilities to grow them indoors year-round. But though such a thing is economically possible, it is not wise. We could do it if we tried, but it is obviously much more advantageous to everyone if oranges are grown in a climate naturally suited to their thriving, all year long, say in Florida.

As The Man Himself put it:

Labor and Nature collaborate in varying proportions, depending upon the country and the climate, in the production of a commodity. The part that Nature contributes is always free of charge; it is the part contributed by human labor that constitutes value and is paid for.

If an orange from Lisbon sells for half the price of an orange from Paris, it is because the natural heat of the sun, which is, of course, free of charge, does for the former what the latter owes to artificial heating, which necessarily has to be paid for in the market.

Thus, when an orange reaches us from Portugal, one can say that it is given to us half free of charge, or, in other words, at half price as compared with those from Paris.

Now, it is precisely on the basis of its being semigratuitous (pardon the word) that you maintain it should be barred. You ask: “How can French labor withstand the competition of foreign labor when the former has to do all the work, whereas the latter has to do only half, the sun taking care of the rest?” But if the fact that a product is half free of charge leads you to exclude it from competition, how can its being totally free of charge induce you to admit it into competition?

To take another example: When a product—coal, iron, wheat, or textiles—comes to us from abroad, and when we can acquire it for less labor than if we produced it ourselves, the difference is a gratuitous gift that is conferred upon us. The size of this gift is proportionate to the extent of this difference. It is a quarter, a half, or three-quarters of the value of the product if the foreigner asks of us only three-quarters, one-half, or one-quarter as high a price. It is as complete as it can be when the donor, like the sun in providing us with light, asks nothing from us. The question, and we pose it formally, is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!

Simply put, every society and region has its own economic advantages, whether it be advantages of nature, a particularly developed and sophisticated industry, a highly skilled workforce (generally or in specific areas), cheap labor, the list is endless. When we do not restrict trade between all of these splendidly diverse regions and people, we all benefit, by everything being cheaper and more readily available in greater quantities than would be if we institute tariffs or other trade barriers to protect our own “hard working, indigenous” whatevers. Protectionism is, economically speaking, always bad, because it raises the cost and limits the supply of everything it touches. Again, this is not advanced, mathematical economics, accessibly only to calculus geeks. This is basic, common sense knowledge that allows us to maximize everyone’s economic and material well-being, and saves us from costly errors harming not just society in general, but the very people we seek to protect with trade barriers.


As I said, I’m no economic genius. I couldn’t calculate a supply and demand curve to save my life. But I know what one looks like, and have seen plenty of them. I can’t punch up a formula to calculate producer surplus or consumer surplus, but I know what they are, conceptually, and this basic economic knowledge allows me to rationally analyze the world around me, political decisions, and economic decisions on both a personal level and a societal level. I don’t consider my economic understanding to be advanced, but it is still greater than almost everyone I encounter when I discuss economic subjects. I think my grasp of economics is the bare bones baseline required to understand our world, and I think it’s a crime that we seem not to care about it as a society, and that we completely neglect it in the education of our young people. To have a functional, rational society, everyone should have at least a basic understanding of democratic and republican principles, our constitutional history and framework, and the core economic principles that dictate the success, failure, and cost of our political policies.

If I could snap my fingers and change one thing about our society, it would be to require at least two years of basic economics in high school and one in college (non-math intensive for the math-challenged), as a pillar of being an educated citizen with an ability to fulfill your basic civic duty. Until we make basic economic literacy a pillar of our education system and civic culture, we are likely to continue the economic and political deterioration of the last few years, and eventually, the consequences are going to catch up to us, in dramatic and painful fashion.

 

“I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish”

Ben Franklin


I leave you with this: a great text, from The Great Man Himself. I have a few other recommendations for economics reading, more short essays with great economic realizations and truths that you can get through in one sitting, but I’ll save those for later.

Farewell, until next time.

Economic Sophisms PDF

 

 

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https://www.amazon.com/Economic-Sophisms-Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric-Bastiat/dp/3849687821

A St. Patty’s Day Story

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A coworker asked me this week what I’ll be doing for St. Patrick’s Day. I told him “Staying inside, locking my doors, and boarding my windows.” While I love and respect Irish culture, what this holiday has turned into is literally my least favorite day of the year to go outside and venture out and about. It is the ultimate “Bro Holiday,” and when it comes to being around wasted bros, young and old, yeah thanks, but no thanks.

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One year when I was living in New York City, I went out at night and was getting more and more pissed everywhere I went because I couldn’t figure out why there were so many douchebag bros everywhere I went. It actually took me a couple hours and a few bars to realize it was St. Patrick’s Day. About ten seconds after my “Ahhhhhh, FUCK!” moment, I bounced the hell out, ran to the subway, and zipped home as fast as I could.

That being said, while in my opinion there is not much to love about the holiday, there is MUCH to love about Irish people and Irish culture. The first time I ever met an Actually Irish Person was at a pub in a small town in Germany when I was 19. It was your standard fare Irish pub, small, wooden furnishings, a husband and wife acoustic duo playing on stage. I ended up chatting with a bearded Irish man in his 50s and his gorgeous blonde wife who was probably around 35.

Two things stand out to me from that conversation. One was when he put his arm around me and said “Son, if yeh ever want to learn how to drink and fight, come to Ireland and I’ll show yeh.” He was a pretty warm, friendly guy, and I’m pretty sure this was a serious offer. The second is a very strange and funny scenario that happened upon our parting. As I was leaving, his lusty, busty, gorgeous wife gave me a long, warm, dare I say sensual good night hug, which positively tingled my young virginal body with delight from head to toe. And I’m sure she knew it. After holding and squeezing my quivering, frail body for a few seconds, she smiled and let me go. When I then went over to her husband and shook his hand, he gave me a hearty handshake, smiled his big friendly smile, said something about how good it was to meet me, and then, still holding our handshake, lightly punched me in the jaw and said “And stop looking at me wife like that!!!” before laughing like a bear and pulling me in for a hug.

If that’s not Irish, I don’t know what is…

Many years later, when I was in my early 30s, I dated an Irish cop for awhile. Gráinne was the very definition of a bad ass bitch. How was she bad ass? Oh, let me count the ways. First, I should relate the story of how we met. I was drinking at my favorite neighborhood bar in New York, sitting alone and relaxing. I saw her and was just dumbstruck by her beauty. She was your classic Irish beauty, tall, slender, dark haired and fairest skinned. She also had a presence, an aura, a magnetism. She was with some friends, and it would have been the height of uncouthness to approach her this way. So, being sly, when I noticed one of her friends walking back into the bar after having a smoke outside, I gently touched her arm to get her attention, and said “I think your friend is gorgeous, can I ask if she’s single?” She told me that she was, indeed, recently single, divorced in fact. BUT, the group of people she was hanging out with were her husband’s friends, so unless I enjoyed receiving a good beatdown behind the bar, I should very much stay away from her tonight. So I just said “Well, tell her I think she’s amazing, and if she’d like to talk to me, let me know.” Not long after, her friend returned with a slip of paper and said “She likes you, she said to call her.” My heart went utterly aflutter.

So besides being gorgeous and having a magical aura, why was Gráinne so bad ass? Well first of all, she was married to a man for a long time, working and paying the bills while he went to medical school. I learned that she was divorcing him just as he was about to graduate. To me that speaks very highly of her honor, integrity, and self-respect. I don’t know if there are many women, or men for that matter, who would support a spouse through something as challenging as medical school, and when they feel it’s not working out for them, leave just before the payout, so to speak. This is really a high-caliber person sort of thing to do. I think that most people, even if they thought divorce was inevitable, would have lied to themselves and their loved ones for at least a few years in the expectation of more favorable terms should the divorce come to pass. I really can’t say enough about how much I respected her for this move. To this day this is one of the most honorable things I’ve seen a person do.

The other thing that made her so bad ass was her unicorn-like combination of beauty and toughness. She was all of 5’10”, yoga-slender, ephemeral…and also a New York City cop, working midnights in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. I must now relate another story that conveys both her beauty and her integrity. She was approached by a modeling agent at one point in her 20s, and picked up to model for Versace for a bit. She made about $25,000 that month. But she only lasted a month. She said the models were as shallow and vapid as you’d expect them to be, and being a smart chick, could not stand being around, in her words, “those dumb bitches” all day. So she quit. Again I ask, would you quit a high status, lucrative modeling job because you were annoyed by the people you were working with? Let me answer for you: NO. I sure as hell wouldn’t. I might tough it out for a few years and sock some cash away, but I’m pretty sure that’s a move I would not make.

On the other side of the coin of her beauty was her toughness. She would often text or call me at 3 or 4 in the morning telling me about how she just chased down and tackled some drug dealer in Washington Heights, or had to fight a guy who was resisting arrest. She absolutely loved that aspect of her job, and was thrilled every time it happened. She also used to send me texts from the gun range about how firing her pistol turned her on, how shooting a gun was so erotic, and could she please come over in an hour. I got an unusual number of texts from her about her guns, sometimes mentioning what a pain it was driving between states with her pistol underneath her seat, talking about her favorite gun and asking what was mine, or some other quirk about gun use and ownership. She was an ephemeral fairy who liked to fight drug dealers and was in love with her guns.

How this all relates to St. Patrick’s Day is one of the best comments she ever made when I took her to my favorite Irish pub, on 72nd street. It was an off night, say a Tuesday perhaps. We were chilling in a corner eating and drinking at a table, and in walked a gaggle of bros wearing green and being all “We’re so wild, and so IIIIIIRISH!!!!” She looked at them the way you’d look at a maggot in your cheese and said “I fookin’ HATE plastic patties….” I had never heard this term before. After I stopped crying from laughter, I had to ask her what a plastic patty is. A plastic patty is someone who’s not FROM Ireland, but is more Irish than any person who actually IS. This is fucking brilliant, and perfectly describes what it is that I personally hate about St. Patrick’s Day, and many Irish pubs in general. For me, to be on a date with the most quintessentially Irish woman I could imagine, and hear this coming out of her mouth, followed by a litany of profanities, was the most wonderful thing that could happen to me.

I’ve since met other fine folks from Ireland while out and about, but these experiences are the ones that made me really develop a love and fondness for Irish people and Irish culture. While I find the whole get-up about the holiday pretty shallow and fabricated, I do love that the Irish people have a rich culture, a sense of honor and tradition, and most of all, a sense of humor. If I ever find myself invited to celebrate with true Irish people on this day, then you can absolutely count me in. Until then, you can summarize my feelings on St. Patrick’s Day as this:

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone, have fun out there!

 

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American Bankruptcy

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As I mentioned in my last post, America is staring down the barrel of an impending financial crisis, and the question is not if, but when we’ll have to eat that bullet, or several of them. Put simply, we have an out of control spending problem with both entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) and national defense. Each of these expenditures are currently at monumental and unsustainable levels, which are going to have to be dealt with eventually. Making matters worse, both of the parties in power, as well as the majority of American citizens, are quite unwilling to look this problem squarely in the eye, let alone do something about it, so the most likely scenario is that rather than solving it before it causes a massive economic crises, everyone will just keep their eyes closed and heads down, hoping to get as much out of it as they personally can until the gravy train runs out.

Neither party is going to do anything about it because as I previously mentioned, Republicans are religiously attached to an infinitely increasing amount of defense spending, and Democrats seem to have the same feelings about entitlements. To Democrats, our problem isn’t that we spend so much on entitlements that we’re careening towards a humiliating national bankruptcy, but that we don’t spend nearly enough on them. To Republicans, there is literally no such concept as “too much defense spending.” It’s a thing that they don’t recognize as existing in the universe. And as bad as Republicans are on defense, Democrats explicitly want to add trillions more to our spending and debt problem by vastly expanding entitlement programs generally and specifically, for example by enacting jaw-dropping expenditures like Medicare For All.

And then of course, there is the fact that neither party wants to upset voters by even talking about taking away or reducing entitlements they’ve grown used to. Which, a conservative would argue, is exactly the problem with too much government and too much reliance on it. It’s also why government can never shrink, only grow: once someone gets used to having something, you can’t take it away from them, at least without incurring a massive political cost which likely amounts to career/party suicide. Liberals count on this whenever they pass new entitlements, such as the ACA for example.

So for the foreseeable future, American voters will continue to force their politicians to keep kicking the can down the road. But something that can’t go on forever, eventually will end. And the longer it goes on, the harder and uglier that end will be.

Earlier I mentioned eating bullets. There are several types of economic bullets we may be forced to eat, and they are all equally unpleasant:

— Massive tax increases (on everyone, not just the wealthy)

— Hyperinflation, as the economic geniuses in our government try to print money to get out of the crisis they’ve created

— Massive austerity, in general and in cuts to the very programs we are so attached to that are taking us down this road

We are definitely going to have to eat one of these, if not some combination of all three. I’ll say a bit about each one.

Tax Increases

One of the core tenets of liberal/left-wing politics is a fundamental belief that we can pay for every single program and entitlement we ever dream of if we only tax “the rich” enough. There are a lot of philosophical and economic problems with this point of view and the overall hostility towards “the rich” on the left, but the one relevant to this particular issue is this: there is simply not enough money in the hands of “the rich” to solve this problem, even if we confiscated every single dollar from every single one of them. The only possible outcome if we rely on tax revenue to balance our budget is a massive tax increase on everyone, from the richest person all the way down to the poorest individual we as a nation decide to tax. What this future looks like is a lot like present-day Europe, with tax rates at 50% and well above, up to 60 and 70% of income, for rich and middle class alike, large value-add taxes (sales taxes) on top of that, and even outright confiscatory taxes on overall wealth, such that a person could be taxed at more than 100% of their income in a given year if they’ve committed the economic sin of being “too rich” overall through the course of their lives. This is a system and an economic view that the left admires and sees as the most virtuous vision for our future, so that is definitely not a philosophical or economic problem as far as they are concerned. Any way that we can be more like “Enlightened Europe” we should, including spending 50-70% of our work hours to pay the government to spend as they, in their infinite wisdom and grace, see fit. This is definitely a debate we should have out in the open, both because I would like to see the left defend this view economically, rather than on the basis of emotional anecdotes about people who could benefit from an infinitely increasing social safety net, and because I don’t believe that they could persuade a majority of Americans to their position, if we discuss it in unemotional economic terms.

Now for an absolutely crystalizing illustration of why tax increases on the rich or in general cannot solve this problem, and proof that we have a spending problem rather than a revenue problem, Tony Robbins has put together one of the most impressive presentations on any subject I’ve ever seen to address our nation’s spending for one fiscal year. I’ll link from where the relevant part of the presentation starts, which runs about 15 minutes, but it’s worth watching the whole 20 minute presentation as well to help grasp the scope of our spending problem.

The bottom line on taxes is that

1. There is no possible tax increase that could even pay for our current annual spending, let alone resolve our long-term debt

2. Any attempt to do so will raise taxes to catastrophic, economy-killing levels

3. Such tax increases will be across the board, not just on “the rich”

Hyperinflation

Mr Mackey Meme | IT'S BAD MM'KAY | image tagged in memes,mr mackey | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

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How I DON’T like buying my bread

Benefit cuts/austerity

When unsustainable spending reaches its end, when a ponzi scheme runs out of rubes, when your last check finally bounces…then, at last, you will stop spending, because you are forced to. When we run out of money to spend on these benefits, we will be forced to as well. When that day comes, we will require truly massive reductions in benefits to these programs, and likely other fiscal austerity measures, in order to be able to fund them at all, at any level. To understand why this will be necessary, we need to understand how we got here.

Sometimes it helps to use relatively small, digestible numbers to help us understand trends and patterns that involve bigger numbers or a big problem. So here are a few numbers to help us understand what we’re dealing with in regards to entitlement spending over the next few decades:

— Every day, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 (about 4 million a year)

— When Social Security was first passed, there were about 42 workers for every beneficiary

— In 1950 there were 16 workers for every beneficiary

— We are now at less than 3 workers for every beneficiary (2.8 in 2016)

— In the next 15-20 years, we are approaching 2 workers for each beneficiary

I hope those numbers hit you hard and give you pause, as they did me. Let’s sit with this for a minute, with a couple of helpful graphs:

FTD-SSPopulationRatio-1.png

Workers-Supporting-SS.jpg

Now I’m no mathematicical genius, but to ME, that looks unsustainable. I know a lot of intellectuals like to talk a lot about nuance and complexity when it comes to public policy, and certainly understanding every aspect of an issue and crafting specific laws and regulations is a pretty complex and nuanced undertaking. But I prefer to focus on breaking things down to the core facts and fundamental principles, to examine the foundations so that we can actually understand these issues and the big picture reality and problems they represent. Understanding is the first step on the journey to solutions, and that requires breaking things down to their core.

Now I just said I’m not a mathematician, so I can only offer what come to mind as simple, common sense first steps to at least alleviating the stark arithmetical problem above. The first would be to raise the retirement age. When Social Security was first passed in 1935 with a retirement age of 65, the average life expectancy for men was 60 and for women was 64. In 1960 they were 67 and 73, respectively. Even as late as 1980, it was 70 and 77. Now we’re looking at 77 and 81 for average life expectancies.

But, good news for the elderly: it’s even better than that if you make it to retirement age!

life-expectancy.jpg

The point I’m trying to make, what nobody tells you, is that when social security was first enacted, it was never intended or imagined as a subsidy from the rest of society to live 20 more years without working. It was more like a social welfare benefit you could count on if you struggled to pay your bills in your old age (as defined then), if you could no longer work or had no family that could help take care of you. And even then, it wasn’t intended for you to collect for decades, but for a few short twilight years.

As one analyst noted:

Although “mid-sixties” is typically the age range defined as the beginning of retirement, history shows that until fairly recently, it was common for men to be employed after they reached 65. In 1880, 76 percent of men were employed at age 65, a proportion that declined to 43 percent in 1940, and 18 percent in 1990. Although the current recession has caused more workers to postpone retirement, a 2009 survey of retirees found that 84 percent had entered retirement at age 65 or earlier.

When Social Security was established in 1935, state pension systems were split equally between those that determined 65 as the retirement age and those that determined 70 as the retirement age. The Commission on Economic Security, which designed the system under FDR, was swayed to adopt age 65, partly because the federal Railroad Retirement System, which was established in 1934, used 65, and partly because analyses at the time showed that 65 was actuarially feasible at low levels of taxation [emphasis mine].

Let’s dwell on that last link and point again:

Taking all this into account, the CES planners made a rough judgment that age 65 was probably more reasonable than age 70. This judgment was then confirmed by the actuarial studies. The studies showed that using age 65 produced a manageable system that could easily be made self-sustaining with only modest levels of payroll taxation [emphasis mine].


See, the thing about Social Security, Medicare, or any other social safety net or benefit is that they’re noble, they’re compassionate…and they’re luxuries. These are great institutions and policies for civilized societies and advanced economies to enact…if they can afford them. But it seems like the “if we can afford it” point was lost to history somewhere. Now we decide what we want and cook the books and kick the can to finagle it, rather than figuring out what we can afford and crafting policy from there. Doesn’t that seem kind of backwards, if not outright irresponsible?

And this is how we arrive at our current untenable situation regarding Social Security. We’ve come to view everyone’s individual retirement at 65 as some sort of inherent, god-given right, and the taxpayer subsidy along with it. But rather than an individual retirement plan, doesn’t social security make a lot more sense as a safety net for those who just happen to need financial help in their old age, rather than the economic right of anyone over a certain age to have wealth transferred from younger working people, no matter how well off they may be in old age?

It’s right there in the name: “Social.” “Security.” Doesn’t that sound like a…I don’t know…safety net, rather than a taxpayer funded 20 year vacation? Doesn’t that sound like a plan for a compassionate society to help senior citizens in need, and specifically those in need, rather than the primary source of retirement income for the vast majority of Americans? Especially when you consider how much healthier and active each generation of retirees is than the last, doesn’t it seem reasonable we should expect them, and ourselves, to work longer than previous generations, well past 65?

This isn’t something that can, or should, be done overnight, or sprung on elderly people who have relied on this promise and expected to retire in their 60s for their entire working lives. But it is something that we can phase in, say perhaps raising it one year at a time in five year generational increments, let’s say starting a decade from now (or whenever we get off our asses). The retirement age is currently being incrementally increased to 67, but that is a statutory change enacted 35 years ago, based on obsolete actuarial tables, and before we blew out our debt like a prom dress at a Springsteen concert.

Imagine if we applied the actuarial tables of 1935, the year Social Security was enacted, to today’s retirees. Using the same math, you wouldn’t be eligible for Social Security until you were 82, a year past the average female life expectancy and five years past the average male life expectancy. Does that help clarify how drastically out of proportion our current system is to its original intent, and how different the worker-to-retiree ratio could be?

Now I agree with what you must be thinking, that we are a much more compassionate and civilized society than we were in 1935…and a hell of a lot richer, too. Fair points. But when you understand where we are versus where we came from, and compare the two versions of the same system side-by-side, it helps clarify what’s happening and where we’re headed, and can maybe help us think about what to do about it.

All of which is the $10,000 way of saying “raise the retirement age, Stupid.”


Final point on Social Security: it should be means tested. Again, look at the name. I know this is controversial, and people are emotionally attached to “their” social welfare benefits that they “earned” when they “paid into the system.” Like a lot of harsh truths, this is something that people don’t want to hear, but must be told, and must accept if they wish to avoid economic disaster: we cannot afford Social Security as a program that everyone is entitled to, but only as a safety net for those who need it. This will require some radical rewiring of Americans’ expectations and notions of what Social Security is, which is why reform is just as unlikely to emerge from grass roots public opinion as it is from congress taking the initiative, especially since the one precedes the other.

But like it or not, it is true. Our whole notion of Social Security has to be revamped to be understood as a safety net, or it will not survive, and our economy will, eventually, buckle under its weight.

Here’s a depressing graph to help get the point across:

America's Finances

A couple of anecdotes nicely illustrate my point. A distant relative of mine had a very successful career, and in retirement, received a pension of just over $100,000 annually, which was on top of substantial earnings that allowed him to save for retirement and accumulate assets throughout his life. Can you really justify taxpayers forking over social welfare benefits to him for 20 or 30 years, as some sort of “security” guaranteed by “society?” Wouldn’t it be better to save that money, leaving it in the pockets of today’s workers, who are still building their families, careers, and wealth? Or, if need be, redirected towards individuals truly in need? Whether you’re liberal or conservative, this should be a layup: lower taxes, or more resources going to the truly needy…or both!

On an even more ridiculous level, munch on this, if you will: I have friends at all levels of society, some fairly high. Some of them rub elbows with millionaires and billionaires, and have told me that when they turn 65 and are eligible for Medicare* and Social Security, these guys get super excited about it. I mean, really! They will literally go on about how they just signed up for Medicare, or just received their first Social Security check…like this is the accomplishment they’ve been working towards their whole lives, not their first million or their first billion. What do they do with this lunch money, you may ask (I sure did)? Buy a cheap car to toodle around in at their vacation property. Give it to their grandkids for an allowance, or for spending money in college. Who knows what else. This particular group is a small percentage of retirees, but this extreme example illustrates the principle: it is a ridiculous public policy to spend “social welfare” money on people who have done very well in life. But even these people would most likely fight tooth and nail to defend “their” social welfare that they “earned” when they “paid into it.” You see the problem here…?

What I hope I have conveyed in this section is how dreadfully unsustainable our current approach to retirement benefits is, from an economic standpoint, and a sense of how disastrous the train wreck is going to be if we don’t take some pretty serious steps to restructure our system to avoid it.

*All of my arguments about a means test for Social Security apply to Medicare, and it seems reasonable to assume the worker-to-beneficiary pyramid is the same as it should be the same people


Going back to the beginning, the three pillars that are the foundation of our impending financial meltdown are Social Security, Medicare, and military spending, the latter of which I’ve addressed here.

https://media.nationalpriorities.org/uploads/total_spending_pie%2C__2015_enacted.png

If we don’t get our spending under control, we are going to have make some very ugly choices, which will most likely include some sort of drastic benefits cuts and austerity measures, in this and other areas of the federal budget. And of course, any plan we devise will be hasty and imperfect, so more than likely a lot of truly needy and deserving elderly people and others will be deprived of needed resources, and our county will betray the promises it made to them in the nastiest bait & switch in modern economic history.

This is the future I want to avoid, but I see absolutely no sign from either our electorate or our elected officials of even admitting these structural problems, let alone doing something about them. I fear it is far more likely that we will have a crippling economic meltdown in our lifetime that will dwarf the housing crisis of 2008. If that should occur, your most pressing concern may not be what will happen to your savings account or your 401k, or whether you’ll be able to afford to send your kid to college. It may be whether you have enough beans and bullets.

And then we will be here:


After serving you all this delicious gloom and doom for your main course, let me offer you some more for dessert. No whine. I want to leave you with a few more things to think about and a few more resources to dig into in order to further your understanding of our economic future.

See, even the depressing facts I mentioned above do not describe the totality of the fiscally irresponsible policies our country is engaged in. Those are just the most costly federal ones. But state governments have their own self-created economic icebergs, and are veering towards them just as fast. Take a few minutes to read this 60 Minutes article from 2010, and you’ll see that our national economic situation is much, much worse than I described above. The article is four pages, here are the first few paragraphs:

By now, just about everyone in the country is aware of the federal deficit problem, but you should know that there is another financial crisis looming involving state and local governments.

It has gotten much less attention because each state has a slightly different story. But in the two years, since the “great recession” wrecked their economies and shriveled their income, the states have collectively spent nearly a half a trillion dollars more than they collected in taxes. There is also a trillion dollar hole in their public pension funds.

The states have been getting by on billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds, but the day of reckoning is at hand. The debt crisis is already making Wall Street nervous, and some believe that it could derail the recovery, cost a million public employees their jobs and require another big bailout package that no one in Washington wants to talk about.

“The most alarming thing about the state issue is the level of complacency,” Meredith Whitney, one of the most respected financial analysts on Wall Street and one of the most influential women in American business, told correspondent Steve Kroft.

Whitney made her reputation by warning that the big banks were in big trouble long before the 2008 collapse. Now, she’s warning about a financial meltdown in state and local governments.

“It has tentacles as wide as anything I’ve seen. I think next to housing this is the single most important issue in the United States, and certainly the largest threat to the U.S. economy,” she told Kroft.

Asked why people aren’t paying attention, Whitney said, “‘Cause they don’t pay attention until they have to.”

Whitney says it’s time to start.

If the written word doesn’t frighten you, then by all means, watch the actual segment for more bone-chilling economic facts that will keep you up at night, wondering how many AR-15s you can buy in the next few years.

Then there was this recent projection by the Congressional Budget Office covered in the Wall Street Journal: the interest alone on our national debt is soon going to surpass even our outsized defense budget.

In 2017, interest costs on federal debt of $263 billion accounted for 6.6% of all government spending and 1.4% of gross domestic product, well below averages of the previous 50 years. The Congressional Budget Office estimates interest spending will rise to $915 billion by 2028, or 13% of all outlays and 3.1% of gross domestic product.

Along that path, the government is expected to pass the following milestones: It will spend more on interest than it spends on Medicaid in 2020; more in 2023 than it spends on national defense; and more in 2025 than it spends on all nondefense discretionary programs combined, from funding for national parks to scientific research, to health care and education, to the court system and infrastructure, according to the CBO.

Debt as a share of gross domestic product is projected to climb over the next decade, from 78% at the end of this year—the highest it has been since the end of World War II—to 96.2% in 2028, according to CBO projections. As the overall size of our debt load grows, so too do the size of interest payments.

Ben Shapiro mentioned this impending financial crisis in a recent show, and discusses the terrifying worst case scenario at 22:30 – 26:17 below.

Last but not least, the discussion below is one of the best resources on this issue. It’s short, digestible, and discussed in layman’s terms. The Bloomberg article Professor Kotlikoff wrote is no longer available for free on their website (curse you, Capitalism!), but most of the text is included in the video description below.

Phrase of the Day, kids: unfunded liabilities

Image result for pee wee herman word

 

Note: if you want to watch the embedded videos from the start time I recommend, you have to click on the embedded version and watch it on this page. Clicking it into a new tab will take you to the video from the beginning, I just learned that. They are extremely enlightening, so I encourage you do check them out if you can. If you can’t now, you can bookmark them for later or return to this post and watch them later.

 

PS: If you like what you see here, you can also follow my Facebook page, where I post more ground-breaking articles from other people rather than just my own work, and my Twitter page, where I just tweet.

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Birthday Thoughts

My birthday was last week. I look…younger than I am. I had a lot of fun last weekend and early last week, and while I was out seeing my favorite band on my actual birthday, I was talking to a couple of women outside on a set break who are a bit younger than me. When they found out how old I am, they asked me what “wisdom” I had to impart at “my age.” I had to think about that for a minute, because *ahem* I like to think I have a lot of wisdom to share, and not necessarily related to wisdom “at my age.” So I closed my eyes a couple times, tried to feel where my intuition would lead me to an answer, and the answer I came up with was “Empathy.”

Which is kind of ironic, since one of my last posts was titled “Against Empathy,” and I have another one coming along the same lines. In fact, I have quite a lengthy and detailed argument against empathy that I think is logically sound and desperately needed in today’s society.

But there is a time and a place for empathy, and it’s important to know when that is.

My companions asked me what I meant, and what I said was an abbreviated version of this: As you get older and life does things to you, there are two sort of standard impulses that you tend to develop in response to all you experience. One is to harden. To toughen up. To strengthen your shell that faces the world, so that the bad things that have happened to you don’t happen again, so that you don’t get mistreated or lied to or hurt again. Everyone goes through this, and to some degree this is an important and necessary part of growing up and becoming an adult.

But like any other tendency or impulse, it can go too far and become an end unto itself, to become as tough as you can, to become ever harder until nothing hurts you, and nothing gets through. This is kind of the “tragic sense of life” as described in a book that I’m working on. It’s the sense that you can’t trust people, that people lie, that people don’t really care about you, that it’s better to be cold and not expect too much, perhaps to expect nothing, out of other people, out of relationships, out of life. Experiencing disappointment and developing a healthy, moderate, functional skepticism about other people and their motives is a vital and useful part of an adult perspective on the world. But taken too far it becomes toxic, to you and others, and can cause you to develop a lot of bad habits and reflexes such as never giving anyone a chance, or a second chance, or to pushing people away simply to be strong and to not get hurt.

This is what I observe and am experiencing as the “Grumpy Old Man Syndrome.” I find this happening and am very aware of it within myself. As I like to put it, every raindrop of human stupidity wears down the mountain of my patience. I started with a mountain of patience and a seemingly infinite capacity for forgiveness when I was young. Now I find myself often very quick to judge, to criticize, and to engage in conflict with others when 20 years ago I would have given chance after chance, as I said almost to infinity, for a person to change a hostile or aggressive attitude, and would have engaged with them seemingly endlessly in a conciliatory way in order to give them a chance to calm down and see reason or to understand that we don’t have to fight. Now, I’m quick to judge a person or a situation, and react almost immediately to counter aggression and respond in kind. I still give people second and third chances, but I do it a lot less than I used to, and certain levels of aggression get no chances from me at all, or a very brief second chance that I quickly close if they don’t seem willing to take it right away. I do think it is a largely rational response, and it has definitely served me well at times, but there have been other times when I could have probably resolved an argument with a person peacefully if I had been the first to forgive, if I had extended an olive branch, and I find lately that I’m just all out of olive branches.

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BUT…as I was saying to my new friends, I am trying very. hard. to counter this impulse with the other instinct that can grow within you as you age: the impulse to empathy towards others. This impulse develops as you age and you realize that a lot of your assumptions about how you’ve got it all figured out and how you’re going to conquer the world start to fade, chipped away by time, washed away by all the things you didn’t do, all the things that didn’t go your way, all the obstacles you didn’t surmount because life, as it turns out, is harder than you thought. When you’re young, it’s just sort of obvious how to live, how to succeed, and how to get what you want. It’s all so clear. If walking the path isn’t easy, at least knowing the path is, and you are going to climb the mountain and get exactly what you want out of life, because you’re strong, you’re smart, you’re together, and you’re not going to do the stupid and weak things that kept so many others who clearly never figured it out from getting what they wanted. Not you. You see the path, and you’re going to walk it. You see the mistakes and pitfalls, and you’re going to avoid them. When you’re young, it’s truly bewildering how so many people who are older than you didn’t see what you see, how they didn’t get what they want or live the life they want, the way you’re going to do.

And then life happens. Your career doesn’t work out the way you thought it was going to. Your relationships fail. You’re not as financially secure as you knew you were going to be by 30, or by 40. You make mistakes that seem easy to avoid when made by someone else. You haven’t traveled a fraction as much as you thought you would. You don’t have anywhere near the passion and excitement in your life that you were sure was your right. You never lived in New York, you never saw Paris. You’re not making six figures, or if you are, you find that you’re still living paycheck to paycheck and wondering where all your money went. You wake up too soon, sit in traffic, hold your breath until 5 o’clock, zoning out five days a week and living for the weekend, just waiting until Friday gets here so you can take a breath and relax a little. On weekends you have a few drinks, maybe see some friends, maybe do nothing, maybe camp out in front of your tv, drink in hand, and rest a bit for two days until you wake up on the next dreadful Monday to grind it out again. You’re just a regular schlub, looking in the mirror and realizing you’re not exceptional, you’re just a normal person living an average life, and you wonder how it happened. If you’re like most people, you also find that life simply just kicks your ass sometimes, that every once in a while you just get slapped around and knocked the fk out by some random event out of nowhere, and you don’t quite take on and conquer every challenge in life like you thought you would.

As years go by and you realize how fallible and human you are, little by little, year by year, you start to develop more empathy for others. You may begin to judge people less. Or you may find that at least that your judgments are tempered by a pause, a breath, a moment to wonder if there is something you’re missing, a reason that a person did or didn’t do something that seems to be the obvious right thing from the outside.

It was with all this in mind that I told my companions that the “wisdom of my age” was to try to be more empathetic towards others, especially towards those who are different than you, those who think and act differently, who are from a different background or class, even who are of a different political persuasion. Try not to assume that you know someone else’s life better than they do, that you would have made better decisions in their shoes, that you would have lived their life better, that you would do all the things right that they did wrong. Because I think you would want someone looking at your life from the outside to extend the same courtesy to you.

When you don’t understand why someone does something, perhaps you might wonder if there isn’t some aspect of their life you’re not aware of, something you’re not considering that affects the decision they made. Think of the mistakes you’ve made, of the opportunities you’ve missed, of the chances you didn’t make the most of. Maybe there’s something someone looking at you from the outside would miss. Or maybe you’re just human and made a mistake, or didn’t have the understanding to know how to do the best thing at the time. Time and the experience of fallibility, especially with mindful introspection and deliberate analysis of your decisions and your state of mind, can lead you to understand your own mistakes and frailties, and in turn make you more forgiving of those in others. I think this creates a deeper understanding of others, as well as a deeper connection to them. Empathy brings us closer, to friends and strangers alike, and I think that this is the most important lesson I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older.

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Now you’re going to see a lot from me as time goes on arguing against empathy and emotional reasoning, but there is a crucial distinction you must understand: my argument regarding empathy and emotions is about using the proper tools at the proper time, for their proper use. In brief, empathy is crucial not just for successful interactions with others and successfully navigating society, but for meaningful understanding of and connection with others, both those close to you and those you meet only briefly, or whom you are only loosely connected to. Empathy is indispensable on this interpersonal level. I will probably have to restate this many times in the future, but I am absolutely and unequivocally in favor of empathy practiced deeply and habitually in our personal interactions with others, and even to a large degree when analyzing the lives and actions of people far removed.

But it is a terrible tool for policy analysis and decision-making. I can’t say this clearly enough: an absolutely terrible, god-awful tool for crafting law and policy, for trying to decide how to analyze a social issue or solve a large-scale problem. The reasons for this are many and deep, and a subject for a later post. But keep this in mind as I write about empathy, which I am just recently discovering as a root-level issue underlying a lot of today’s political disagreements and, in my view, incorrect approaches to solving problems. I am a fierce advocate of using empathy where it belongs, and of keeping empathy and feelings out of domains where they don’t belong and have little if not negative utility.

My advice to these young ladies only increased in its poignancy with the tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain just days after my birthday, two people who seemed to have it all, yet for whom the troubles of life sadly proved too much to bear. Moments like these, as terrible as they are, are valuable opportunities to remind ourselves that you never know what someone else is going through, and to practice compassion habitually and by default when we interact with others. For if life can become unbearable for people who have succeeded at the highest levels in careers they are passionate about, how difficult can it get for an average person, or someone coping with existential material concerns, or someone who has suffered a lifetime of difficulty, abuse, and setbacks?

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in life, in many aspects and avenues, but I think the most important one is the simplest: “be kind.”

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Against Empathy

Today I attended a very interesting lecture on the topic of empathy. It may seem strange at first blush: what’s to discuss? What’s to even think about? Empathy is good right? Like being kind, generous, forgiving, and generally a good person who treats others well, empathy seems like something we can and should take for granted as a sort of core tenet of life and human interactions, something that we can just accept as a foundation for how we’re supposed to act in the world, without any sort of examination. In fact, to even examine it might not only seem strange, but a bit grotesque and off-putting when brought up as a topic of inquiry.

But in fact, this seemingly innocuous subject and impulse may actually be at the root of many, if not most, of our most intractable social and political problems, and I am only now starting to appreciate this fact.

The topic was first brought to my attention, as many topics are, by author and intellectual Sam Harris. In this episode of his podcast from 2015, Sam interviews Yale psychologist Paul Bloom about the research that led to his 2016 book Against Empathy. Bloom argues that rather than enhance our moral understanding and decision-making, empathy may actually interfere with it, distort it, and even steer it towards unforeseen if not immoral actions and consequences. I will say more about this podcast in a later essay, but for now, let us return to today’s fascinating lecture by Deborah Nelson.

Professor Nelson is a professor of English and chair of the English department at the University of Chicago, where she studies late 20th-century US culture and politics. The local University of Chicago Alumni Association in Minneapolis brought her in to speak about her latest bookTough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, which “focuses on six women whose work coheres in a style and philosophical viewpoint that challenges the preeminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain.” The lecture was advertised as such:

TWIN CITIES HARPER LECTURE: AN UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION

Empathy has been receiving a lot of attention recently, its importance urged not only in national politics but also in the workplace, schools, between friends, and among strangers.
But what if we are wrong? What if empathy isn’t what we need, but unsentimentality? This talk by Deborah Nelson describes the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality as practiced by some of the late 20th century’s most notable women artists and intellectuals: Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, and Simone Weil. Drawing upon her recent book, Tough Enough, Nelson will consider what it would mean to have an ethics without empathy even in the face of extreme suffering.

Needless to say, I would find this topic fascinating even if I had not previously discovered it in a podcast. It has a wonderful sense of counter-intuitiveness that seems ripe to make one examine previously unquestioned premises.

Professor Nelson began her lecture with a discussion of the recent popularity of empathy in our news, business, and politics. She showed us a few recent headlines, including an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled Empathy: The Most Valuable Thing They Teach at HBS. A quick search of the HBR turns up a plethora of articles on empathy. Next, she showed a headline from the New York Times addressing president Trump’s first attack on Syria in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians entitled On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First. [Searching for this, you find that, perhaps a topic worthy of its own discussion, that the New York Times has changed the title of that article, although you can still find the original title here, and a scathing critique of that article here, which I guess indicates some blowback from left wing political circles. Thank you, Internet.] Finally, she showed a headline discussing what is starting to be understood as “empathy fatigue,” a term and analysis I am unfamiliar with, but which makes intuitive sense when you take a few moments to think about the sorts of issues that have dominated our news in the last few years, including but not limited to the refugee crisis, police shootings and Black Lives Matter, and the MeToo movement. Upon reflection, it is apparent how empathy as an analytical tool has taken off as a means to understand our world, and, for better or worse, to reach policy decisions.

Professor Nelson then discussed the genesis of her book, which was to analyze 20th century historical and intellectual figures in the context of an ethic of unsentimentality and their own public controversies with the subject of empathy. She did not set out to write a book solely about women, but she found that it was almost impossible to find a male public intellectual who had been through such a controversy, yet another topic worthy of its own discussion. She weaves the various writings and analyses of these intellectuals with their own personal stories, perhaps ironically drawing our interest in these figures through our own empathy with them.

One extremely interesting foundation of this discussion is the origin of the concept of empathy as an analytical tool and part of our lexicon. Surprisingly, the origins of the word have nothing at all to do with feeling the perspective of another human being. Contrary to intuition, empathy has not always existed as a concept for how to interact charitably with other human beings. Historically, moral philosophers tended to use the words “sympathy” and “compassion” for how to approach treating others with kindness. The term empathy itself came into existence in the 19th century as a scientific term, intended to express literal mirroring of physical states in the natural sciences. As the 20th century emerged, it evolved into yet another meaning with which most of us are probably not familiar, as an aesthetic term used to analyze the quality of art. I’m not quite sure that I understand the exact nature of this use of the word, but from what I gather it was meant to express not a subject-object sensation where the observer feels the perspective of say another person represented artistically, but rather that the art expressed a reality of the object. My understanding is that the word was used as a measure of the quality and truthful representation of the art. In any case, the modern sense of the word “empathy” did not evolve until well after the second world war, taking hold sometime in the 1960s. This historical understanding alone is somewhat revelatory if not revolutionary for our modern understanding, as it demonstrates that empathy is not a fixed and eternal element of our moral understanding and landscape. In fact, not even a very long-existing one. I expect to chew on that alone for some hours in the coming weeks.

In the meat of her discussion, Professor Nelson examined the historical trajectory of our modern concept of empathy, partly by analyzing that modern concept, and partly through exploring some of the details of the lives and work of the women in her book. The overall theme was that these women, each in their own way, took what was probably an unconventional view about moral analysis, in the sense that this sort of work should be done with an ethic of unsentimentality, rather than empathy, for several reasons.

One reason is that empathy, rather than guiding us to proper moral actions and conclusions, can do just the opposite, because the reality of human hard wiring is that we are designed to be empathetic to people who look like us, who are near us, who we find more physically or personally attractive, etc., so that rather than decrease tribalism, it can, and perhaps most often does, increase it. An example would be that one might feel great empathy for the dead and wounded soldiers of one’s own army or country, but little to none for the injured and suffering of one’s enemy, and in fact one’s empathetic intuitions may lead in the opposite direction to antipathy or contempt.

Another reason is simply the fixed limits of our understanding and ability to process the information required to understand the world in an empathetic way. Professor Nelson spoke for some time about the attempt for the world to process the events of World War II, to even find language and concepts for it, let alone to actually understand what had happened. I was not aware, but even going into the 1960s, there was not a robust published body of analysis of the Holocaust, and in fact it was not until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that such work began on any scale. Hannah Arendt was not even able to find a publisher for her groundbreaking  work Eichmann In Jerusalem for some time because of a perceived lack of interest. Looking back, it seems almost appalling that the world could go more than a decade without seriously examining the Holocaust, but perhaps this expectation that we would have now of an immediate dissection of this issue reflects how hard it is for us to understand the enormity of this catastrophe for those living in that time. How do you process the scale of the deaths of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands dying in a single day or in one attack, let alone tens of millions dying in the totality of the war? Which brings us back to the limits of empathy, even in its best case, its best use, its best outcomes, and its best intentions. We simply do not have the mental machinery to process empathy on a scale of more than a handful of people, let alone for any truly important and tragic event. Or, as someone once said: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”

In light of the problems with and limits of empathy, it’s a compelling point that perhaps our moral philosophy should be guided by unsentimentality rather than empathy. Professor Nelson examined how her subjects strove to understand the world and morality through an understanding of facts that we can know with our senses and analyze abstractly, rather than with emotional connections to the people we wish to help or wish we could have helped. In doing so, these women received their share of criticism, which I suspect would very likely happen to anyone making such an argument today, whatever their gender or identity.

This was an excellent lecture, and I can’t wait to buy the book. One quote that I found interesting at the end of the lecture was from one of Professor Nelson’s subjects saying something along the lines that “Pain shows us the limits of ourselves.” In other words, pain tells us that we are not the world, that reality and other people exist beyond us, and that there are limits to not only our selves, but our impact on the world. I can’t imagine a more unsentimental note to end on, and I encourage you to find a copy of her book and see what it can teach you for your own understanding of morality.

 

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Why the *#%! would you vote for Donald Trump???

I mean, let’s be honest: isn’t this the question at least half of the country is asking? And isn’t that just how they want to ask it?

It’s always the first question I’m asked when someone finds out I’m a Republican (I didn’t). Even before they get the words out, I can see it in their eyes.  The bewildered look of “What the *____* is wrong with you people?” The desperate, pleading expression of “Please God, help me understand!” That look of “Jesus Christ, do I even want to know??” If you’re familiar with the comedian Lewis Black, it’s that sort of pre-apoplexy face of astonishment, confusion, and fear.

This post will answer the question of why someone who is not crazy, not a bigot, and has read a book at least once in their life would vote for Donald Trump.

The easiest way to start is by sharing the first time I heard someone give a cogent explanation for why they were voting for him. I was at a debate watching party, talking to a lawyer in his 60s. It was the first Clinton/Trump debate. We were at a large, airy bar, in a festive atmosphere courtesy of a local conservative think tank. At the time, I still couldn’t believe anyone was actually going to vote for this guy, even after winning the nomination, even after clearing fourteen lifelong politicians and two truly self-made achievers off the slate. The whole thing was still a joke to me. But here this lawyer was dead-serious going to vote for Trump, and after I stopped laughing, I asked him why. He quietly said “The president is for four years, the Supreme Court is forever.”

My reaction? “………….”

Ok. Well. Hmmmm…….s**t, that’s actually a real reason to vote for him. I had to concede that immediately. I really didn’t know what to say. I honestly hadn’t been able to imagine a single genuine reason to vote for Trump until then. And if there was one legitimate reason….there might be more.

This is the moment that made it real for me. “It” being a real thing in the real world where real people were actually going to vote for Donald Trump. I couldn’t argue with the guy or his logic. I had to admit that was as legitimate a reason to vote for any candidate as you’ll find in any election. As he said, if we get just one Supreme Court justice, that’s a huge win for conservatives. A generational win. If we get two, that’s like hitting the political lotto twice, almost certainly solidifying a conservative Supreme Court for at least one generation, literally for decades to come. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, if this is something within your reach with one election, that’s a game changer in the political landscape in your favor. It doesn’t matter who the candidate is.

And that’s the first thing you need to understand about people who voted for Donald Trump. It’s not necessarily about Donald Trump. It’s about run of the mill politics. It’s about your party passing your agenda and ensuring your vision is the one being propagated by the federal government. Do you want higher taxes or lower taxes? More regulations or fewer regulations? More Obamacare or less Obamacare? A liberal Supreme Court or a conservative Supreme Court? So that….that’s just business-as-usual. It’s got nothing to do with who the particular candidate is, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Mickey Mouse. Whoever advances your agenda is your “man.” If Mickey Mouse favors my kind of tax plan, I’m voting for Mickey Mouse, I don’t care what he says about ducks or about his squeaky voice or his tiny hands.

And on this one issue alone, what has Donald Trump done with our Supreme Court and our judicial system in general? Well, see for yourself:

Trump Is Rapidly Reshaping the Judiciary. Here’s How.

In the weeks before Donald J. Trump took office, lawyers joining his administration gathered at a law firm near the Capitol [and] filled a white board with a secret battle plan to fill the federal appeals courts with young and deeply conservative judges.

[…] Mr. Trump has already appointed eight appellate judges, the most this early in a presidency since Richard M. Nixon.

[…] Republicans are systematically filling appellate seats they held open during President Barack Obama’s final two years in office with a particularly conservative group of judges with life tenure. Democrats — who in late 2013 abolished the ability of 41 lawmakers to block such nominees with a filibuster, then quickly lost control of the Senate — have scant power to stop them.

[…] During the campaign, Mr. Trump shored up the support of skeptical right-wing voters by promising to select Supreme Court justices from a list Mr. McGahn put together with help from the Federalist Society and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Exit polls showed that court-focused voters helped deliver the president’s narrow victory. Now, he is rewarding them.

“We will set records in terms of the number of judges,” Mr. Trump said at the White House recently, adding that many more nominees were in the pipeline. Standing beside the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, he continued, “There has never been anything like what we’ve been able to do together with judges.”

So on this single issue, one that in itself can sway many rational voters, President Trump has delivered, and appears primed to deliver more, in spades. Now, I understand: this reshaping of the judiciary is utterly horrifying to someone who leans left on the political spectrum. But this is no different than how conservatives would view a similar judicial opportunism by a Hillary Clinton administration. Nor is it any different than the worst case/best case scenario (depending on your view) that you would see with any other Republican president. So in a deep and meaningful way, this election had nothing to do with Donald Trump, the same way every election is in some sense more about whatever random Democrat or Republican empty vessel that stands in for our own hopes, dreams, and agendas than the specific individuals who become those vessels.

Here’s another thing that will help Democrats understand why people voted for Donald Trump, but it requires a bit of harsh self-reflection about your own party: many people held their nose and voted for Hillary Clinton, choosing to vote for her not because she was their ideal candidate or first choice, but because she was the person in the position to advance their agenda. There are innumerable, well-documented reasons to lack enthusiasm for Clinton even if you’re a Democrat that I won’t go into here. But knowing this can help you understand Trump’s voters: if you can hold your nose and vote for Hillary Clinton, someone else can hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump. Yes, really. No I mean really. Your version of holding your nose and voting for your party’s candidate is just as horrifying and unimaginable as their version is to you. So I think this is a great place for some common ground and for voters in both parties who were stuck with historically bad candidates to have some empathy for each other. This is a point that can allow both sides a mutual understanding of how it feels to not only have to vote for a candidate you find at best unappealing, but a nomination process that exposes a horrifying dearth of leadership within both parties, and potentially within society at large.

And this brings me to my next point: what does Trump’s very nomination say about the Republican party and Republican voters? Doesn’t the nomination of this disgusting man-pig speak volumes about Republicans, who they are willing to vote for, and by extension who they themselves are and what they believe? I’m glad you asked!

This is a very important point that I think most Democrats are missing, that cannot be over-stated: Donald Trump’s nomination was not a ringing endorsement of Donald Trump, either as a human being or as a candidate. As I mentioned above, voting for Donald Trump in the general election was not necessarily an endorsement of him as a person, but simply a vote to advance one’s agenda, whoever the vessel may be. Likewise, a vote for Donald Trump in the Republican nomination was not a vote for Donald Trump The Man. It wasn’t a vote for Donald Trump as articulating or embodying our noblest conservative ideals. Nominating Donald Trump was, by and large, quite simply a gigantic “F U” from the Republican base to the Republican party establishment. Donald Trump was their weapon, a blunt instrument to be sure, but nonetheless the weapon they had at their disposal to express their dissatisfaction with being taken for granted by their party, for being lied to by their party, for their party turning their back on their values, and for the party establishment being, in general, a bunch of self-dealing, two-faced sellouts and elitists who had abandoned the principles of small government and stopped listening to the voices of their grass roots. Ironically, this is exactly what almost happened in the Democratic primary in 2016, and would have happened if the party hadn’t rigged the nomination for Hillary.

So here again, Democrats should be able to have a lot of sympathy for why Republicans voted for Donald Trump: he was a refutation of party politics-as-usual, and a means to punish the party establishment and tell them exactly where to go. Republican voters were Negan, the Republican party was Rick’s group from Alexandria, and Donald Trump was Lucille. Or, if you will, picture Donald Trump as a giant middle finger. For some reason I think that will be easy to imagine….

The last point I want to raise about why people voted for Donald Trump has, unavoidably, a bit of a ring of partisanship to it, but it can’t be helped entirely, and it is an absolutely crucial aspect to understanding what happened in this election, and what may continue to happen for at least a few cycles to come. Once again, I feel that explaining my personal experience will help you understand this phenomenon writ large. To put it simply, conservatives are very, very tired of identity politics, and of the modes of discourse common to today’s discussions of political issues when we engage our friends on the left. There is no way I could ever count the number of times I’ve been called a racist, for example, for disagreeing with today’s dominant liberal views about race in America, and for having completely mainstream, middle-of-the-road conservative views about say the intersection of economics, race, culture, and success in America. There are periods of time when I’m engaged in a lot of online political discussion that I am literally called a racist every day. The long-term effect of being met with the worst sort of personal slanders for the simple act of disagreeing and having a political view on the other side of the spectrum has built up an enormous well of resentment, which can easily turn into a powerful backlash if given the opportunity.

For example, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, there was a tsunami of stories about a sudden and drastic spike in hate crimes, most of which turned out to be false. One of my friends was posting about a slew of bomb threats to Jewish community centers, and was expressing his dire concern about how Trump had done this to America. I advised caution and to wait until the facts came out to see if any of these turned out to be hoaxes, like so many of the other stories that had received much attention and gone viral (the vast majority did turn out to be hoaxes). Almost as soon as I said it, one of his friends jumped in to call me an anti-Semite. When I responded that I was only saying we shouldn’t make a judgment until we know the facts, that we don’t even know if these are real, let alone how or if you could attribute them to something about “Donald Trump’s America” if they were, he simply said “I refuse to engage with a known anti-Semite.” I tried, politely, to get him to respond to my points on the facts, and he simply repeated he would not engage in a discussion with a bigot. I suspect he didn’t want to “normalize” me. Rather than defend my character and ask his other friend to tone it down, my friend, who happens to know something about my views regarding Jewish culture, not only let these accusations stand, but explained how it was reasonable to interpret my comments as expressing bigotry.

I have more stories like this than I can count. A salient fact here is that I am mixed race, half white and half black. While engaged in one political debate this year, I had a white man call me a house you-know-what for disagreeing with some of his political views. Let’s pause and chew on that for a minute. Political discourse is at such a degraded level, that a white person thinks he has the right to call a black person the worst slur in the English language for a disagreement of political views. What must be the state of mind of such a person? Soon thereafter, a black friend of his found a picture of me in a corporate environment, and proceeded to call me a good Uncle you-know-what, licking the boots of my white masters. The person whose wall this was taking place on not only didn’t try to moderate this discussion and ask them to pull back from their vitriol, he supported their attack on me. Several months later, on the wall of a different friend, a black friend of his found the exact same picture, and called me the exact same name, and then made some absolutely vile comments about white female ancestors of mine lusting after black men. And did my friend who actually knew me ask him to tone it down, or better yet, demand civility and an end to these disgusting insults? I’ll give you one guess.

So now, if you’re politically liberal, imagine you’re me for a minute. Imagine you’re a pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-immigrant, multicultural economic conservative, who is liberal on every social equality issue and goal, but has conservative views on how to achieve some of them. How do you respond to people who say such vile things? Ok, maybe you say “Just walk away and give up.” I can do that. How do you respond if some variation of this happens in the majority of political discussions you have? If you’re not a racist for having mainstream, milquetoast conservative views, you’re definitely a misogynist, or a homophobe, or a classist. And they are going to let you know it. What if this has been happening for the last ten years or more? What if it’s not just a majority of interactions with people who disagree about politics, but more like 75 or 90%? What if it’s not just you, but every moderate conservative you know?

If you want to understand what is going on in the mainstream conservative psyche, please, I beg you, take some moments, now and after you read this, to run a thought experiment and ponder how you might feel about politics or the other side of the spectrum if you have had this experience hundreds of times over the course of years. If you get nothing else from this essay, I hope you come away with a little more empathy for what it’s like to be a reasonable, normal person who is constantly accused of being the most vile sort of bigot almost every time you have a political discussion.

If you do, you’ll feel the inevitable result: a tightening coil of resentment ready to be released in a backlash, just waiting for the moment, and getting stronger by the day. I resist this feeling mightily, and try very hard to rein it in and keep my resentment in check, to remind myself that not everyone on the left is like this (though it feels like it sometimes), to stay aware that responding in kind will not make anything better, and will only contribute to the negative feedback loop that is dragging this country down not only in its discourse, but in its very soul. I make myself reach out to people I disagree with on an almost daily basis, to keep seeking out civil discourse and nurture it, wherever it may be found, to not isolate myself in a bubble, hell, just to see if I can defy expectations and today’s sad normalcy and just have a polite discussion about politics with someone who I disagree with.

But most people are not like this. Most people aren’t this introspective. Most people are not political nerds. Most people don’t engage in political debates or discussions every day. Most people simply don’t have the time to ponder these political problems from as many angles as possible, or read enough articles to make sense of it all. They have families to raise, jobs to worry about, houses to fix, parents to visit, lives to live. But you know what they do have in common with political wonks like me? They experience the insults and easy accusations of bigotry too. They have people in their lives who they care about call them names too. Their feelings are hurt too, when people who should know you’re a good person treat you with contempt for your political views, or silently watch others do it with tacit approval, secretly (or not) cheering them on. If you’re genuinely curious about what happened in this election, ask some closet Trump supporters why they stayed in the closet. Ask some Trump supporters who are out of the closet how many friends they’ve lost, and what kind of things people have said about them. Ask some of your friends who are simply boring moderate conservatives how they have been treated in political discussions over the last ten years. You may find some deep waters that you didn’t see running through our political landscape, and a lot of frustration that you didn’t know existed.

This is the last thing you need to understand about Donald Trump’s election: once again, it’s not about Trump. It’s about something else that’s going on in America. On this point, it’s about a backlash against more than a decade of pent-up frustrations of literally being silenced for your political views, lest you be publicly shamed as a bigot. It is that simple. That is the situation moderate conservatives find themselves facing in the current political climate. This is a thing that conservatives walk around with daily, a thing that we feel whenever we log onto Facebook, whenever we hear our liberal friends talking about politics around us and know we dare not join in, a thing that we see in the news every single day. We see bland, moderate conservative views labeled as the most extreme bigotry, and we are frustrated, confused, and angry. And lately….mostly angry.

I have to admit to feeling this way myself. I fight it as hard as I can, but when for example today I am called a “typical gun nut” for defending Second Amendment rights (I’ve never owned a gun and never will), I can’t help but step back and think “You know what? You deserve Donald Trump.” Now this reaction is nowhere near strong enough in me to get me to actually vote for him, but it clearly is for millions of other people. And every time it happens, I inch a little close to thinking “F**k it, next time, I’m gonna DO it.” Electoral backlash is a very real, and at least occasionally rational political phenomenon. I’m not here to say if it’s the right thing to do in this particular situation, but I am here to say that it is real, it is happening, and we will continue to ignore it at our peril. As one commentator noted, the left is lucky that Donald Trump is the worst thing they got in this electoral backlash. Based on the history of devolved, strife-ridden politics, it could have been much, much worse, and still has the potential to become worse in the future.

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If you made it this far, I have to congratulate you for your tenacity, and thank you for your patience. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how to fix it. But I do feel that I have some insight into what the problem is, into how we got here, and into the motivations for the completely normal, civilized, moderate conservatives who voted for Donald Trump. I do believe that if our friends on the left could more often engage us as normal, civilized, moderate human beings, that it would do much to lessen the appeal of a person like Donald Trump as a type of electoral revenge. Beyond and before that, I believe that conservatives as a group and the Republican party as an organization have some very difficult soul searching to do, to find a solid principled stance, to build an intellectual foundation for their policies and beliefs that rests on more than simply anger at reactionary identity politics.

It is a terrible and dangerous thing to define yourself in opposition to, rather than for, a person, group, or idea. When this paradigm is the dominant norm of an era, a society slips precariously towards the edge of a precipice, beneath which lies the potential to tear it apart while we succumb to our worst tribal instincts. We are not there yet, but I think there is little doubt that we are heading in that direction, and when we get there, we are all going to regret it. As impossible as it sounds, Donald Trump is not that precipice. He is only a warning that we are approaching it. And if the warning looks like Donald Trump, can we afford to find out what awaits us over the edge?

 

A St. Patty’s Day Story

A coworker asked me this week what I’ll be doing for St. Patrick’s Day. I told him “Staying inside, locking my doors, and boarding my windows.” While I love and respect Irish culture, what this holiday has turned into is literally my least favorite day of the year to go outside and venture out and about. It is the ultimate “Bro Holiday,” and when it comes to being around wasted bros, young and old, yeah thanks, but no thanks.

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One year when I was living in New York City, I went out at night and was getting more and more pissed everywhere I went because I couldn’t figure out why there were so many douchebag bros everywhere I went. It actually took me a couple hours and a few bars to realize it was St. Patrick’s Day. About ten seconds after my “Ahhhhhh, FUCK!” moment, I bounced the hell out, ran to the subway, and zipped home as fast as I could.

That being said, while in my opinion there is not much to love about the holiday, there is MUCH to love about Irish people and Irish culture. The first time I ever met an Actually Irish Person was at a pub in a small town in Germany when I was 19. It was your standard fare Irish pub, small, wooden furnishings, a husband and wife acoustic duo playing on stage. I ended up chatting with a bearded Irish man in his 50s and his gorgeous blonde wife who was probably around 35.

Two things stand out to me from that conversation. One was when he put his arm around me and said “Son, if yeh ever want to learn how to drink and fight, come to Ireland and I’ll show yeh.” He was a pretty warm, friendly guy, and I’m pretty sure this was a serious offer. The second is a very strange and funny scenario that happened upon our parting. As I was leaving, his lusty, busty, gorgeous wife gave me a long, warm, dare I say sensual good night hug, which positively tingled my young virginal body with delight from head to toe. And I’m sure she knew it. After holding and squeezing my quivering, frail body for a few seconds, she smiled and let me go. When I then went over to her husband and shook his hand, he gave me a hearty handshake, smiled his big friendly smile, said something about how good it was to meet me, and then, still holding our handshake, lightly punched me in the jaw and said “And stop looking at me wife like that!!!” before laughing like a bear and pulling me in for a hug.

If that’s not Irish, I don’t know what is…

Many years later, when I was in my early 30s, I dated an Irish cop for awhile. Gráinne was the very definition of a bad ass bitch. How was she bad ass? Oh, let me count the ways. First, I should relate the story of how we met. I was drinking at my favorite neighborhood bar in New York, sitting alone and relaxing. I saw her and was just dumbstruck by her beauty. She was your classic Irish beauty, tall, slender, dark haired and fairest skinned. She also had a presence, an aura, a magnetism. She was with some friends, and it would have been the height of uncouthness to approach her this way. So, being sly, when I noticed one of her friends walking back into the bar after having a smoke outside, I gently touched her arm to get her attention, and said “I think your friend is gorgeous, can I ask if she’s single?” She told me that she was, indeed, recently single, divorced in fact. BUT, the group of people she was hanging out with were her husband’s friends, so unless I enjoyed receiving a good beatdown behind the bar, I should very much stay away from her tonight. So I just said “Well, tell her I think she’s amazing, and if she’d like to talk to me, let me know.” Not long after, her friend returned with a slip of paper and said “She likes you, she said to call her.” My heart went utterly aflutter.

So besides being gorgeous and having a magical aura, why was Gráinne so bad ass? Well first of all, she was married to a man for a long time, working and paying the bills while he went to medical school. I learned that she was divorcing him just as he was about to graduate. To me that speaks very highly of her honor, integrity, and self-respect. I don’t know if there are many women, or men for that matter, who would support a spouse through something as challenging as medical school, and when they feel it’s not working out for them, leave just before the payout, so to speak. This is really a high-caliber person sort of thing to do. I think that most people, even if they thought divorce was inevitable, would have lied to themselves and their loved ones for at least a few years in the expectation of more favorable terms should the divorce come to pass. I really can’t say enough about how much I respected her for this move. To this day this is one of the most honorable things I’ve seen a person do.

The other thing that made her so bad ass was her unicorn-like combination of beauty and toughness. She was all of 5’10”, yoga-slender, ephemeral…and also a New York City cop, working midnights in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. I must now relate another story that conveys both her beauty and her integrity. She was approached by a modeling agent at one point in her 20s, and picked up to model for Versace for a bit. She made about $25,000 that month. But she only lasted a month. She said the models were as shallow and vapid as you’d expect them to be, and being a smart chick, could not stand being around, in her words, “those dumb bitches” all day. So she quit. Again I ask, would you quit a high status, lucrative modeling job because you were annoyed by the people you were working with? Let me answer for you: NO. I sure as hell wouldn’t. I might tough it out for a few years and sock some cash away, but I’m pretty sure that’s a move I would not make.

On the other side of the coin of her beauty was her toughness. She would often text or call me at 3 or 4 in the morning telling me about how she just chased down and tackled some drug dealer in Washington Heights, or had to fight a guy who was resisting arrest. She absolutely loved that aspect of her job, and was thrilled every time it happened. She also used to send me texts from the gun range about how firing her pistol turned her on, how shooting a gun was so erotic, and could she please come over in an hour. I got an unusual number of texts from her about her guns, sometimes mentioning what a pain it was driving between states with her pistol underneath her seat, talking about her favorite gun and asking what was mine, or some other quirk about gun use and ownership. She was an ephemeral fairy who liked to fight drug dealers and was in love with her guns.

How this all relates to St. Patrick’s Day is one of the best comments she ever made when I took her to my favorite Irish pub, on 72nd street. It was an off night, say a Tuesday perhaps. We were chilling in a corner eating and drinking at a table, and in walked a gaggle of bros wearing green and being all “We’re so wild, and so IIIIIIRISH!!!!” She looked at them the way you’d look at a maggot in your cheese and said “I fookin’ HATE plastic patties….” I had never heard this term before. After I stopped crying from laughter, I had to ask her what a plastic patty is. A plastic patty is someone who’s not FROM Ireland, but is more Irish than any person who actually IS. This is fucking brilliant, and perfectly describes what it is that I personally hate about St. Patrick’s Day, and many Irish pubs in general. For me, to be on a date with the most quintessentially Irish woman I could imagine, and hear this coming out of her mouth, followed by a litany of profanities, was the most wonderful thing that could happen to me.

I’ve since met other fine folks from Ireland while out and about, but these experiences are the ones that made me really develop a love and fondness for Irish people and Irish culture. While I find the whole get-up about the holiday pretty shallow and fabricated, I do love that the Irish people have a rich culture, a sense of honor and tradition, and most of all, a sense of humor. If I ever find myself invited to celebrate with true Irish people on this day, then you can absolutely count me in. Until then, you can summarize my feelings on St. Patrick’s Day as this:

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone, have fun out there!