Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for July 2016

How Neville Chamberlain Went Wrong

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I believe it is safe to say that most Americans who have ever heard of Neville Chamberlain associate him with appeasement of Hitler and selling out Czechoslovakia at Munich. Why did Chamberlain think that appeasement was a good idea?

Chamberlain had been a managing director of a ship berth manufacturer for 17 years. He had also been Lord Mayor of Birmingham, as had his father before him. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer twice, from 1923-24 and again from 1931-37, at which time he succeeded Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister.

Britain had not prospered after World War I, and the Depression had hit hard. Known in Britain as The Great Slump, it was a time of technological progress but economic distress. Official unemployment reached 25%, but some areas in the industrial North of England experienced 70% unemployment. Entire towns, such as Jarrow in Durham, were plunged into hardship as industries closed; the most famous of the hunger marches was the Jarrow Crusade. Chamberlain concluded that the country could not afford to keep up with Germany in military spending.

It was a decision that Chamberlain had reached mostly by himself. Ian Colvin researched the proceedings of the Chamberlain cabinet and found little policy discussion. Ministers who disagreed with Chamberlain, such as Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper, were ignored until they went away in frustration. He is known to have preferred to surround himself with people who would ratify his decisions, such as Samuel Hoare and John Simon.

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.
— Neville Chamberlain, radio address, 27 Sept 1938.

Chamberlain had believed that war would be disastrous both for Britain and the Empire, and he was right. What he was wrong about was how to prevent that war. Chamberlain believed that Hitler was a rational statesman with whom one could negotiate rationally. Hitler only respected strength, but Chamberlain did not want to hear that. Because of the way he managed his cabinet, there was no one to persuade him otherwise.

So Hitler had to show Chamberlain the error of his ways. On 15 Mar 1939, contrary to his claims to have no further territorial demands in Europe, Hitler invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia. This area was not ethnically German and there were no legitimate German ethnic claims to it. The action shattered the illusion that Hitler was only seeking redress of the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles.

Britain now belatedly recognized the seriousness of the menace and guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity. When Hitler violated that on 1 Sept, after two further days of “you better or I’m gonna,” Chamberlain reluctantly declared war. Privately, he admitted the futility of his policy:

Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed into ruins.

 

Written by srojak

July 24, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Bob Schieffer Gets It Wrong

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Today my wife and I were watching Face the Nation. We were doing a lot of hollering at the TV, but that is not unusual anymore. But this moment was in a class by itself.

There was a panel discussion with Peggy Noonan, Bob Schieffer and Ed O’Keefe [transcript]. They were all commenting on the state of the country, when Schieffer said:

People have come to the conclusion that politicians will say and do anything and they don’t see it making much difference. I mean the purpose of government is to improve the lives of our citizens, not to entertain us. And I think many people think that it’s not doing that.

No, that is not the purpose of government. The fact that Schieffer and others believe “the purpose of government is to improve the lives of our citizens” is what got us into the problem we have today. Since the New Deal government has been improving the lives of our citizens. How is that working for you?

The people I have known in sales always tell me:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

The purpose of government is to lay down the ground rules — the laws — that we live by and enforce them equally for all citizens. It is our responsibility to improve our own lives. You are the only person who can improve your own life, because you are the expert in your own life and what improvement would actually look like.

As long as we have people looking to government to improve their lives, we are going to be stuck in this mess.

As not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourself.

Written by srojak

July 17, 2016 at 7:50 pm

It’s a Free Country

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Tomi Lahren is a political commentator working for TheBlaze, a news/entertainment network founded by Glenn Beck. On 8 July, one day after the ambush that killed five Dallas police, Lahren set off an Internet storm with a tweet, which she later pulled down, that equated Black Lives Matter to the KKK.

The next Sunday, Lahren appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”, in a conversation that also included David Zurawik, media critic for The Baltimore Sun [transcript]. Lahren opened reasonably enough:

I think that the Black Lives Matter started out with fantastic intentions.

They were trying to correct an injustice, real or perceived. And they were seeking equality and to bring attention to the things that they felt in their communities. However, we saw, in the aftermath of Ferguson, that things took an ugly turn.

We saw looting, we saw rioting, we saw burning down of communities. Now we’re seeing — and though it is not all — and I’m very careful to say that — though it is not all of the protesters, we do see some that are holding signs saying “F. the police,” “Kill all pigs.” Social media, though they might not be the first and foremost people of the movement, they are posting with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter horrific and awful things and calls to violence towards the police. So, I do believe that this movement needs to get itself back in check, because it has taken an ugly turn.

The people in the Black Lives Matter protests would likely not agree with Lahren’s summary. It is not my purpose to promote either side in this posting. The point is that Lahren started out with a reasonable tone.

When the discussion came around to the tweet put out by former Congressman Joe Walsh threatening President Obama, Zurawick stood up for a traditional media approach, discussing the issue without offering Walsh a media platform:

My compromise would be, you talk about what Walsh said, but you don’t bring him on. You talk about it with people. You have folks like Jamia. You have a panel like this, and let us talk about it.

And by doing that, you’re somehow saying to the audience, this man is irresponsible in this kind of rhetoric. You need to know it’s out there, but we’re going to try to contextualize it and talk about it and offer a framework for thinking about it.

That might sound paternalistic. That might sound old media thinking. Maybe it is.

Lahren emphatically disagreed, and went right off the rails:

LAHREN: I entirely disagree.

If you disagree with what someone is posting on social media, or you disagree with their voice, you bring them on and you allow them to address it. You don’t talk about them. You allow them to defend themselves. You allow them to clarify. And you have that open and honest conversation, as I have asked to do on many of the platforms that have said I went too far.

You bring that person on. You let them speak for themselves.

ZURAWIK: You did. You did go too far, Tomi. You did.

LAHREN: That is your opinion.

ZURAWIK: No, it’s not — I wish it was your employer’s opinion.

That’s really reckless, that kind of tweet at the situation we’re in. As a journalist, what you did appalls me. That’s the end of it. I’m trying to be civil about this.

LAHREN: And I appreciate it.

A, I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator. I’m allowed to have my feelings and my opinions. And I stand behind the things that I say, because the thing that hurts people the most is when you’re honest. When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.

What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.

ZURAWIK: There’s no room for the kind of ignorance that your tweet put out there at this time in our history.

LAHREN: I agree with you that there’s divisive language out there that needs to be tamed. And I agree that some things that I may have said come from a place of anger and come from a place of being truly heartbroken at what happened in my city of Dallas.

But make no mistake. The First Amendment applies to everyone. And the best way to combat speech you don’t like is not to silence others. It’s more speech. It’s more conversation.

When I was about ten years old, my classmates and I used to say, “It’s a free country.” It was our justification for saying or doing anything we wanted to do. But we’re adults now, and we recognize that this is not an adult approach to life.

In less than five minutes, Lahren delivered an argument so wrong that it should be studied in schools. Lahren went wrong in these ways:

  • Evasion: Lahren said, “I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator.” What does that even mean? She has a media platform for her comments. What is the distinction between a journalist and a commentator? Is a commentator free to make any sort of comment, no matter how ill-informed, inflammatory or irresponsible, without risk of being called on it?
  • Bogus Justification: Lahren continued, “I’m allowed to have my feelings and opinions.” So is every bully, manipulator and professional victim. Some of them ought to be kept to yourself.
    • Feelings are personal and private. They can’t be wrong. They also can’t be justification for actions.
    • Opinions can be wrong. A person having the opinion that the earth is flat is scientifically wrong. A person having the opinion that it is morally acceptable to own slaves is, in contemporary Western culture, wrong.
  • A substantial misreading of the First Amendment. More on this later.
  • Expansive approach to honesty: “When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.” We have way too much of this kind of self-described “honest” behavior in our daily life already. It is possible to be honest without being obnoxious.
  • Hasty generalization: “What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.” Tomi, aren’t you doing exactly that by saying this?

Freedom of Speech

There have been many idiotic invocations of First Amendment rights lately, so this is a good time to review. Always start with the primary source:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The key word here is Congress, that being the body given the lawmaking power in Article I of the Constitution. We extended this restriction to the several states, requiring them to grant the same rights to citizens as are granted by the Federal government.

The First Amendment is a restriction on government. It does not give a person the right to say anything without:

  • risk of being challenged over what the speaker is saying;
  • risk of consequences for speech whose content is inflammatory;
  • risk of ruining the speaker’s own credibility.

Lahren put out a tweet that was irresponsible and ill-advised. She realized that — or was made to — which is why she later deleted it. I understand that, in contemporary society, nothing is a mistake as long as you don’t admit it, but her attempts to justify herself on First Amendment grounds are pathetic.

Standards Cramp My Style

Despite her assertions to the contrary, Lahren is a journalist. In writing this blog, so am I. We face challenges on factual reporting, information reliability and time to prepare. I certainly don’t have formal training in journalism, but I have sense enough to be responsible for what I say. This piece waited all week while I found source material, found an uninterrupted block of time to write and organized my thoughts. I can’t just burn these off in a few minutes before dinner. I have scrapped some ideas because, when I examined the source material, the story just did not stand up to scrutiny.

Practicing bodies of journalists have developed standards and codes of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics featuring four organizing principles:

  • Seek Truth and Report It;
  • Minimize Harm;
  • Act Independently;
  • Be Accountable and Transparent.

When I was growing up and there were three major networks and major city newspapers, access to communicate came with strings attached. One of these strings was adherence to a set of journalistic standards. In order to get an audience, a journalist had to conform to the standards of the house. Here, for example, are the standards for National Public Radio.

Now, with the Internet, many of us have access to be heard that we would never before had. With that access comes responsibility. If we carry on as if we had no ethical standards, we will squander the opportunity before us. We won’t encourage more conversation, as Lahren said she wants to do, but more shrill screaming by partisan polemicists. We will eventually be ignored because people won’t trust us to be accountable for what we say.

David Zurawick was speaking from knowledge. His position was more than his opinion; it was grounded in the hard lessons of two hundred years of journalism, compressed into standards that journalists agree to operate within. It behooves all of us who address the public to take these principles seriously.

Written by srojak

July 16, 2016 at 9:22 pm

The Nation State Strikes Back

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Thursday evening, June 23. I was watching the Brexit results on the BBC just before midnight when they announced that the Leave vote had gone mathematically over the top.

Apparently all the major parties favored Remain. There were discussions with representative of various viewpoints as to what had happened. Explanations ranged from anti-immigration sentiment in England to, “what the voters are really trying to say is [insert pet political program here].”

Meanwhile, the Leave partisans were saying that they would now have to reflect upon what the next steps were. Hadn’t they ought to have figured that out before now?

I am relieved to report that America does not have a monopoly on aimless politics and insipid public discourse.

Also worth noting: no reporting district in Scotland favored Leave. The closest result was in Moray, where Remain carried by a couple hundred votes. Many Scots would rather remain in the EU and leave Britain; we may soon find out just how many. The previous independence referendum was in 2014, when the proposal was defeated 55-.3% to 44.7%. Now that staying in Britain means leaving the EU, will the Scots reconsider?

Nicola Sturgeon, who is First Minister of Scotland and an advocate of separation, has many reasons to call for a second referendum. However, Sturgeon became first minister after her predecessor, Alex Salmond, resigned in the wake of the failure of the 2014 referendum. Failure again would hold similar risks for her.

And success would be no easy ride, either. What would the currency of Scotland be? They would certainly have to leave the pound and join the Eurozone — right in the teeth of various recurring crises from the Mediterranean countries. Would the Eurozone even accept Scotland with its £15 billion annual deficit?

Which brings us to the euro in general. There was great celebration when it was launched. Now, like many other expansive notions before it, the risks that were swept under the carpet have been laid bare. As long as member nations are still sovereign, putting them all on one currency is like having twelve college graduates sign up for a joint credit card account. Sure, the big vacation was fun, but now Ryan and Amber are not paying their share of the bills. What are you going to do about it?

Commentators have fallen all over themselves to blame the result on ignorance generally and xenophobia specifically. There is even a petition to hold a second referendum, although the back story behind it is cloudy.

The elites from most major parties, from the Tories to the Greens, mostly backed Remain. London was strongly Remain. How likely is it that we will find out what was really going on in the minds of the majority of English and Welsh voters that rejected it?

I don’t doubt that anti-immigration sentiment played a role. However, even that exists within a larger framework of national sovereignty. The writing is on the wall: either you will have tighter political union to go with economic union or you will have to opt out of both.

Political elites always think they can buy off the people with material comfort. Sometimes it works. In late nineteenth century Germany, Bismarck bought off the workers with state-run sickness, accident and old age insurance in exchange for allowing the Prussian nobility to keep a disproportionate influence in politics.

However, it doesn’t always work out that way. Certainly the Americans of 1770 enjoyed wealth and protection behind the shield of Great Britain, particularly the Royal Navy. The rational thing to do would have been to work out some sort of deal that allowed Parliament to appear to be the unopposable force in the kingdom while quietly blunting the most offensive edges of ministerial policies. Not necessarily honorable, but certainly more rational than opposing the richest nation and greatest military power on earth.

The scare tactics of the Remain campaign promised economic disaster — the financial center of London might even decamp for Paris! Now the nation has called their bluff.

Even when — not if — there are economic consequences for the Leave vote, the people chose them over political consequences that would have necessarily followed a decision to Remain.

 

 

Written by srojak

July 5, 2016 at 11:32 am

Declarations of Dependence

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In August 2011, speaking in Andover, MA, Elizabeth Warren made these comments:

I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.’ No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

As if building on this idea, President Barack Obama made these comments in a campaign speech in Roanoke, VA on July 13, 2012:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.
[Source]

Some defenders of this idea claimed at the time that Obama’s remarks were being taken out of context. For this reason, I have included all the paragraphs that factcheck.org included when making such a claim.

Peggy Noonan wrote a very effective parody of this less than a month later:

From a friend watching the Olympics: “How about that Michael Phelps? But let’s remember he didn’t win all those medals, someone else did. After all, he and I swam in public pools, built by state employees using tax dollars. He got training from the USOC, and ate food grown by the Department of Agriculture. He should play fair and share his medals with people like me, who can barely keep my head above water, let alone swim.” The note was merry and ironic. And as the games progress, we’ll be hearing a lot more of this kind of thing, because President Obama’s comment—”You didn’t build that”—is the political gift that keeps on giving.
— “The Life of the Party”, http://www.peggynoonan.com/661/

So — obvious truths or outrageous philosophical claims?

The Philosophy of Dependence

There is a philosophical pedigree for the ideas that Warren and Obama are promoting. Their statements call the question on fundamental ideas of:

  • Deserved reward: in a society in which the co-operation of others is necessary to get any meaningful results, what share of the results can any one person really deserve?
  • Moral responsibility: to what extent are you responsible for your actions? To what extent is the community?

The subject touches on moral agency, free will and self-reliance. This is not a new topic of discussion. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.
— Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter I

Informed by thinkers such as Nietzsche, communitarians have for a long time criticized the individualistic definition of the self. They have maintained that people are not, in the words of Charles Taylor, “self-sufficient outside of society,” and that the self is formed independent of social relations. From this, it would seem to follow that Taylor believes both that Nietzsche was correct in his criticism of individual moral responsibility, and that it is difficult for an individual to claim to deserve any distinct reward for contributing to a group effort, even if that contribution was to plan, organize and direct.

However, this is by no means a settled issue. Robert Nozick described humans as self-owners: in full control of their talents, abilities and labor and the fruits of their application of these. He also takes the position that human beings are ends in themselves. From this, it follows that a person is able to grant or withhold her participation in a group effort, is morally responsible for her decision and is entitled to rewards that she deserves for the contribution she provides.

As Andrew Cline explained, the positions of Warren and Obama are an inversion of all this. Instead of government deriving legitimacy from the consent of the governed, it is We the People who must ask the government what we deserve for our efforts:

In Obama’s formulation, government is not a tool for the people’s use, but the very foundation upon which all of American prosperity is built. Government is not dependent upon the people; the people are dependent upon the government.

The system “allowed you to thrive.” That is fundamentally non-Jeffersonian. You succeeded because a greater power — the state — bestowed its favor upon you. The setup, the whole reason for the argument, is Obama’s contention that your wealth is not your creation, but an allowance from the state:

“You didn’t build that” was the clincher that would justify the demand to “give something back.” Not “give,” but “give… back.” The distinction is critical. Your wealth, he clearly and unmistakably asserts, is not your creation, it was given — allowed — by the state. And now the state wants some of it back. Refuse and you are denying the state its rightful claim to the wealth it “helped” you to create.
— “What ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Really Means — and Why Romney Can’t Explain It”, The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/what-you-didnt-build-that-really-means-and-why-romney-cant-explain-it/260984/#).

A full treatment of the philosophy behind these remarks would be a book-length effort. If you are interested, I direct you to the following supplementary materials, which you can read without charge on the Internet:

  1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    1. Autonomy
    2. Desert
    3. Moral Luck
    4. Nozick, Robert
    5. Responsibility
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    1. Communitarianism
    2. Desert
    3. Feminist Perspectives on the Self
    4. Free Will
    5. Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will

I caution the reader that philosophy has trends, fads and fashions no less than any other subject of human study. These and the related materials are useful, but not the definitive last word.

How Stuff Gets Done

No one disputes that most of the interesting problems in the world require solutions designed and implemented by groups of people. Innovation, by definition, requires participation.

What are the appropriate rewards for various dissimilar contributions to group success? We can get some insights from everyday life at work.

A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.
— Milton Berle

Just putting a group of people together does not cause results to magically emerge. Many executives and managers have learned this the hard way. Someone has to stand up and risk being wrong, to take responsibility and overcome the indolence and inertia of others and guide the group forward.

Popular ideas link expectation of reward to hard work, but to hear people talk, everyone works hard. You can find a thousand people who are willing to work hard and still not one person who is willing to risk being wrong.

Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
— Usually attributed to President John F. Kennedy, but he got it from Tacitus, c. 98 AD.

After the results are in, if success is obtained, everyone standing downwind has a claim to deserve a share. However, if the effort fails, everyone who did not publicly take a position leading the effort will run and hide.

If the world worked any other way, we would not need salespeople. People looking for a solution would charge out into the marketplace, armed with perfect information, and select the best product without any guidance from anyone else. But in fact we do need salespeople to promote our product, establish mindshare and explain benefits. Salespeople also get prospects off dead center and lead them to make decisions to buy sooner rather than later.

Collectivism and Its Discontents

When these remarks were made, particularly those by the President, there was a lot of pushback. I am grateful that the country was paying attention. I hadn’t expected as much of a reaction over what is essentially a philosophical issue. I think that many people whose views align with those of Warren and Obama hadn’t expected it, either, and were scrambling for a response.

The “out of context” defense is disingenuous, and also lame. If the point of the remarks had been only that no man is an island, we already knew that. No one ever asserted that anyone ever did get rich “on his own,” without the participation of others or without the legal and physical infrastructure of society. The question is what to focus on: the person taking initiative or the group being led, the innovation or the ground that has already been paved by others. The point was, as Cline articulated, a radical reorientation of the relationship between governing and governed. That has always been the point of planners and collectivists. It was explained by Lester Thurow back in 1971.

Warren claims the existence of an “underlying social contract.” Yes, I believe there was a social contract in existence — in the forties and fifties. It unraveled because everyone decided to “improve” it in their own way, including the Federal government, after which there was no longer a societal consensus. The government does not have the prerogative to unilaterally redefine the rights and obligations of the polity. In its wisdom, our government helped abrogate the social contract. This is a major cause of the support for Donald Trump this year: people who feel that rewards in society are being directed to the undeserving. The correctness of this view is out of scope of this discussion; the relevant fact is that the view exists.

Although the viewpoint of Warren and Obama is not a perspective I share, I believe that the discussion that arises from these remarks is necessary. There are so many different concepts of who the deserving people are that we need to have a conversation about them, taking the subject on directly and coming to some sort of conclusion. We can’t just muddle through anymore; we need to face the conflict and work out what kind of society we want to have.