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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Flexible Or Unprincipled?

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There are a lot of questions out there right now. I have them also. Answers are not readily forthcoming, but can we refine the questions?

Who Put the Syrian Kids on Donald Trump’s Milk Carton?

Was the missile strike on Syria on 7 April an impulsive and emotional response to video evidence of suffering children? Assembling the available evidence since the 2016 campaign, it sure looks that way. But even if this is true, what can we take away from it?

It is highly unlikely that a sudden whim from the President provoked top-down assessment of an option to use force that had not be previously considered. More probably, a course of action involving missile strikes on Syrian government assets was already on the table, and the images of children suffering the effects of sarin broke through to executive attention and resulted in this course of action being considered where it wasn’t before.

This would indicate that there will be other opportunities for a person with an agenda and the right kind of supporting materials to influence executive policy in both foreign and domestic situations.

Where Is the Boundary between Flexible and Unprincipled?

The entire Trump presidency puts this question to the nation, along with related questions, such as, “Can a policy you disagree with ever be principled?”

Certainly, Trump has given every indication of having a very limited set of operating principles. We have every reason to believe that, if someone were to take a shot at him today with a rifle, by this evening he would have a new-found interest in gun control. Everything that had been said during the campaign about Second Amendment rights would be, in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler, rendered inoperative.

However, this is nothing new. We have more antecedents than just the Nixon Administration to recall in order to gain perspective. There are obvious similarities between Trump and FDR; I mentioned these a year ago. FDR was fully capable of meeting with six people, all of whom had mutually incompatible agendas, and have each of the six walk away from the meeting fully believing that, “Roosevelt agrees with me completely.” Then FDR would follow a seventh course, or perhaps do nothing.

Nevertheless, FDR was popular with the country. You can see the newsreels of people in the street crying when he died in April, 1945. Whatever he really believed, FDR conveyed the belief that the troubles of the people in the nation really mattered to him. The principles he publicly stood for were to try anything to get out of the Depression; it just happened that anything always led to an expansion in the role of the federal government.

The principles we have seen from Trump are counterpunching, strength and bellicosity. It would be helpful if we saw more of these principles at work representing the nation, rather than in the service of Donald Trump the person. This still would not satisfy those people who don’t want America to be about counterpunching, strength and bellicosity, but it would be a step in the right direction.

I should also point out that we’ve tried other approaches. The Obama Administration had entirely consistent and predictable responses to atrocities in Syria: Do nothing. These did not lead to a satisfactory outcome.

In a position of leadership, refusal to divulge principles is not an option. People will not suspend judgment because you withhold information. They will attempt to fill in the blanks themselves, deducing your principles from the available information. It won’t do to complain about the inferences people draw from your behavior after having refused to put your own word out.

Can Congress Stop Airlines from Overbooking?

Why not? Isn’t that fraud? The airline is representing it has seats available that it doesn’t really have.

I understand that the airlines will, in turn, claim to be subject to traveler games with multiple reservations and cancellations. There is a risk involved, where the travelers don’t want to get bumped and the airlines don’t want to fly empty seats around.

When you run a business, you bear business risk. We don’t let dry cleaners evade their negligence by stamping Not responsible for losses due to negligence on the dry cleaning tickets. They can try it, but it won’t hold up in court. Similarly, it is bad public policy to let the airlines dump the risk of matching capacity to demand on the consumers.

Are We Overestimating the Ability of China to Help with North Korea?

This question was raised on the BBC’s Dateline London show this week. The idea behind the question is that the PRC may not be able to influence North Korea as much as others in the world believe possible.

At the same time, people are calling for a diplomatic solution to the problem posed by North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. Even the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has warned of a “head-on collision” between the US and North Korea. However, what a diplomatic solution would look like is unclear. North Korea expelled outside inspectors in 2003, formally withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What can anyone reasonably offer Kim Jong Un in exchange for permanently scrapping his nuclear program?

Reviewing North Korea’s nuclear history reveals there has been little to no success in halting the country’s progress in its nuclear program. However, another detail that has not been addressed is hidden in the history: North Korea is unreliable and cannot be trusted. Every single deal that has been reached in the past has been broken by North Korea. With this in mind, North Korea’s demands for  recognition as a nuclear power and its promises to not use nuclear weapons recklessly or its ending programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea halting joint military exercises must be met with suspicion. This raises the question, how do you negotiate or make a deal with an actor you cannot trust?
— Kevin Princic, “North Korea: Navigating the ‘Land of Lousy Options'”, 20 Jan 2016 [http://blogs.shu.edu/diplomacy/2016/01/north-korea-navigating-the-land-of-lousy-options/]

China is definitely worth engaging, as China is North Korea’s windpipe. Anything China can do is a contribution. Nevertheless, the options are all rather bad at this point.

Is Kemalism Finished in Turkey?

General Mustafa Kemal took control of a national assembly that opposed the concessions required by the Allies at the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. He defeated the Allied forces, forcing a revised settlement at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. In 1924, Kemal abolished the Caliphate and Turkey became a one-party republic. He proclaimed a program called the Six Arrows:

  1. Republicanism;
  2. Populism, here focusing on transfer of political power from aristocrats and tribal leaders to citizens;
  3. Nationalism,
  4. Secularism, separating national law from Islamic law and enforcing only the former;
  5. Statism;
  6. Modernization.

As an instance of both populism and modernization, Kemal required Turks to have last names. He changed his name from Mustafa Kemal to Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks). He invited westerners including John Dewey to advise the government on how to achieve modernization.

The referendum being held today asks the country whether the executive of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should be granted constitutional changes bringing all state bureaucracy under his control. The office of prime minister would be abolished and the president would have greater powers to issue decrees and dissolve parliament. He would also have greater powers over the judiciary.

As of this writing, with over 95% of the votes counted, the BBC reports that Yes votes are leading 51.4% to 48.6% for No.

Erdoğan has sought to reverse the secularism of Kemal while expanding on nationalism and statism. He has taken a hard line with separatist Kurds. In 2016, an attempted coup d’état of uncertain origin broke out in Turkey which was defeated. The Erdoğan government claims that the coup was masterminded by a former ally, Fethullah Gülen, now living in exile in Pennsylvania.

What becomes of Kemalism? There were some roots of authoritarianism in Kemalism; all evidence indicates that Erdoğan is returning to at least this level of authoritarianism. At the same time, he always has been more Islamist than Kemalism could tolerate. Early in his life, he was jailed and banned from political office for expressing Islamist political views. This ban was annulled by his allies in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 after winning a national election victory.

 

William Pitt the Elder

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William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), later 1st Earl of Chatham, was a chief minister of Great Britain (there was still ambivalence to the title of Prime Minister). He was bombastic, mercurial, confrontational and he may have been manic-depressive.

He changed Anglo-American politics forever. If you live in Pittsburgh, Pittston, Pittsboro or various Pittsfields or Chathams, your place of residence was named in recognition of William Pitt.

Paymaster of the Forces

Between 1746 and 1755, Pitt served as Paymaster of the Forces, effectively the treasurer of the British Army. At that time, the office was extremely lucrative for the holder, with two principle perquisites:

  • Ability to skim the interest in army funds, including the soldiers’ pay;
  • Ability to skim the profits of sale of military assets, such as the sale of old military supplies.

Although Henry Pelham, who has previously been paymaster of the forces, had refused these perquisites, he had been private about it. Pitt publicly renounced them. This example initiated a change in the way we conceive of the conduct of a political office holder. What had been looked upon as standard operating procedure, and remained so in many other countries, became viewed as corruption in the Anglo-American tradition.

Pitt initiated this change, and he did it not through introducing laws or launching a crusade, but by the simple force of his own example.

The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War began in 1756 and initially went very badly for Britain and her allies. The Braddock Expedition had been smashed in 1755. In the early years of the war France took Minorca, Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry. Hanover, allied to Britain through the King, was forced to withdraw from the war.

I know I can save this country and that I alone can.
— William Pitt, 1756

In 1757, Pitt entered into a coalition government with a man who had been his enemy: Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. They divided their responsibilities: Pitt managed the war against France in their colonies, while Newcastle managed the war in Europe. Pitt obtained the funding to support world war, while Newcastle handled the patronage needed to keep the coalition in power.

Our bells are worn threadbare with the ringing of victories.
— Horace Walpole, 1759

1759 is remembered as an Annus Mirabilis for the harvest of victories over the French. In North America, Britain captured Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec, and drove the French from the Ohio Country after taking Fort Duquesne the previous autumn. British forces captured Guadeloupe. In Europe, the Navy destroyed the French capacity to launch an invasion of Britain, establishing itself as the dominant naval power, and Britain with her allies won the Battle of Minden. In India, British forces relieved the Siege of Madras.

For the remainder of the war, Britain consolidated and expanded on these gains, collapsing French holdings in India and North America east of the Mississippi.

The American Colonies

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1763

Britain had become concerned about how to pay for the enormous army it had created during the Seven Years’ War. Sons of powerful landed families had purchased commissions as officers in new regiments. It would have been unthinkable to buy them out, but how were these regiments to be supported financially? A plan for an excise tax on cider, which would have landed principally on the country gentry, had gone down to dramatic defeat in 1763, taking George III’s favorite, the Earl of Bute, along with it.

George Grenville then became first minister, and sought to solve the problem by taxing the American colonies through the introduction of Sugar and Stamp Acts. More odious than their tax effects was their intent to bypass colonial legislatures in imposing taxation. Townshend and his allies maintained that the colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament.

The Stamp Act led to riots in America and attacks on British agents who collected the taxes. By January, 1766, there was sharp division in Parliament. Grenville had worn out his welcome with the King, who replaced him with Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who brought Edmund Burke along with him as personal private secretary. Rockingham wanted to repeal the Stamp Act, but a substantial number of MPs were unwilling to yield the conceptual right of Parliament to impose taxes. Virtual representation was also seen as essential; the same doctrine addressed the representation of cities such as Manchester, which had no representatives of their own in Commons.

Pitt was not buying the idea of virtual representation, and foresaw the future of reform:

This is what is called the rotten part of the Constitution. It can not continue a century. If it does not drop, it must be amputated. The idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man. It does not deserve a serious refutation.

The Commons of America represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this, their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it! At the same time, this kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative power, has always bound the colonies by her laws, by her regulations, and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures, in every thing, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.

After this, Grenville rose to voice his objections, and then Pitt returned in reply.

The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.

Pitt concluded:

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is my opinion. It is, that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately. That the reason for the repeal be assigned—viz., because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever; that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking money from their pockets without consent.

[Full text of speech and rebuttal: http://www.bartleby.com/268/3/23.html]

The distinction between binding their trade and taking money from their pockets without consent escaped many of the members in attendance.

If you understand the difference, it is more than I do, but I assure you it was very fine when I heard it.
— Lord George Germain, 1766

Whigs were always having to navigate the treacherous space where liberty and order met; it would ultimately undo them. But that was more than a century in the future.

Rockingham yoked a Declaratory Act, asserting the theoretical right of Parliament to tax the colonies, to repeal of the Stamp Act, recognizing the impracticality of doing so in this manner.

Chief Ministry

Being responsible, I will direct and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1761

His time as chief minister was short: 1766-1768. He selected a cabinet of very capable men, but there were no precedents by which he could require them to work together or to all pull in the same direction. Pitt himself was too obstinate and too much of a loner to do the backstairs politicking that would have been necessary to bring the group together as a team. His term as chief minister is generally considered a failure.

In 1767, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Revenue Act of 1767, first of a series of bills remembered to history as the Townshend Acts.

Pitt himself, now Earl of Chatham, had gone into seclusion in 1768. Only in 1770 did he return to his seat in the House of Lords. He was still an intermittent participant. Without his leadership, his allies — Rockingham, Burke, the Earl of Shelburne — were in disarray the government’s back-and-forth measures in America spun out of control.

Weakened by illness, Pitt played an increasingly marginal role in British politics, until he finally collapsed on the floor of Parliament in 1778.

Nevertheless, he had a profound effect on our political traditions.

Written by srojak

March 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Interviewing Kellyanne Conway

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This video (6:31 long) from Vox was brought to my attention. It raises a number of interesting questions. Laid over with questions about Vox itself and the media in general, we have even more questions. It is a very layered story, and worth some time to dig through the various layers.

Let’s start with the subject at hand, then open the lens to the bigger picture.

Being a Representative

Conway’s role on these shows is to represent the administration. Within a circumscribed, forest-for-the-trees perspective of the role (more on that later), I think she does an outstanding job. She is determined and relentless. When she has a strong hand, she plays it; when she has a weak hand, she bluffs like crazy.

She knows that many of her interviewers want to pin her down. They want to face her. They want to force her to fold, to make concessions. She has no intention of doing that. It’s a test of wills.

I have some experience in representing myself; I represented a software company in sales efforts. Conway is a walking illustration of the very ethos of a successful software sales representative: “They promised you beachfront? You don’t want beachfront. Swampland is the future!”

Being Donald Trump’s Representative

Overlaid on top of this is the fact that she is representing the administration headed by President Trump. I don’t think I am being unfair to Trump by saying that this is no ordinary presidential administration. He consistently promised something out of the ordinary on his campaign, and he is delivering in abundance.

Given the nature of Donald Trump, the person, there are going to be some striking challenges in being his representative. For openers, he pops off at the mouth — or the tweet — much more than the typical organizational leader. Then his representatives have to go forward and try to control the damage.

I believe that Trump did not further his own cause by calling Judge James Robart a “so-called judge”, but he did. I believe that a more nuanced approach to the limitations of the press would have been preferable to calling them “The enemy of the American people.” But Trump doesn’t do nuance. We’ve had years to figure this out. The man is, as of this writing, 70 years old; he’s set in his ways.

So you, the representative, get the task of appearing in front of the press, who are howling like a scalded dog after having been called the enemy of the American people. You can’t unsay his remarks. You can’t disown them. You can’t cut and run. How are you going to navigate this?

So, yeah, Conway “reinvents Trump’s positions into more defensible versions of themselves.” How else would she keep her head above water? Jeff Lord has been doing the same thing as a Trump flack on CNN for the entire 2016 campaign. When Trump made totally outrageous, foot-in-mouth statements that would appear indefensible, Lord simply replaced them with positions from an idealized, Trump-like candidate that existed in his own imagination. What would you do on camera in front of a national audience? Concede the point? That’s not what you’re there for.

Some Perspective on Representatives

None of this is new; it’s just a matter of degree. The British series Yes, Prime Minister contained an episode titled “Official Secrets“, which first aired in 1987. Here is a link to the video. If you’re pressed for time, skip forward to about the 23:00 mark.

Bernard, what made you think that, just because someone was asking you questions, you had to answer them?
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

Further on, Hacker instructs Bernard in how to handle difficult questions. He has eight ways to defect questions. The net of his advice is:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say and say it, no matter what they ask. Pay no attention to the question; make your own statement. If they ask the question again, you just say, “That’s not the question” or “I think the more important question is …” Then you make another statement of your own.
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

As a representative, you don’t have the option of having nothing to say. So you have to have something to say and force your will to prevail over the will of your questioners. Conway is very good at this.

So Why Invite Her?

The host of the Vox piece says at the end:

Just remember, she’s doing her job. It’s the news shows that keep booking her that are letting you down.
— Carlos Maza

Why do they bring her on? Part of it is the unwritten co-dependency story of how Trump got to be President in the first place. The news networks have 1,440 minutes a day to fill, 365 days a year. They’re crazy for content. They don’t know what else to do.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde

Trump has exploited this dependency mercilessly for his entire campaign. By saying and tweeting outrageous things, he dominated his opponents through airtime. While career politicians were cautious and scripted, Trump was spontaneous and outrageous. The received wisdom was that you couldn’t win an election doing that. Evidently, the received wisdom was wrong.

No, having flacks on a news show to evade questions is not helpful to us as citizens. It never was. The extremes of this administration just throw the issue into bright relief. Neither was having teams of opposing flacks to shout at one another and talk over one another during the 2016 campaign. Evidently, it is all the cable channels can think of fill time.

Journalists seem to think that the reporting of peoples’ opinions constitutes reporting facts. It may be a fact that the person you’re interviewing has that opinion, but it’s still an opinion. Postmodern journalism happened long before Donald Trump threw his cap in the ring.

Consider a real issue: last year, there was an announced change in Department of Labor policy that was later blocked by a federal court injunction. How much of this issue did you hear on cable news? How much did you read about it in your favorite print outlet?

Vox

The people at Vox are good at identifying behavior from Conway when it comes from people they don’t like, such as Conway. But do not lose sight of the fact that they have their own viewpoint to push — everybody does.

Some further reading:

What is Truth?

Most of us accept something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Simply put, if you accept this theory, than in order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond in some meaningful way to objective reality. This requires acceptance of a bundle of premises:

  1. There is an objective reality;
  2. We can know it;
  3. We can all obtained a shared common knowledge of it;
  4. We can take a statement and measure the correspondence with that shared common knowledge of reality, and therefore the truthfulness of that statement.

A full treatment of these implications is going to have to wait for another post, because this is a subject in itself.

It is clear to me, from his conduct, that Donald Trump does not subscribe to this theory. His truth is more pragmatic in nature: what is useful to me right now? This may seem shocking and even immoral, but it has an intellectual lineage going back to William James and Charles Sanders Pierce:

‘The true’, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily.
— William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI (1907)

So something can be true today, because it is expedient, and then untrue tomorrow, because it is no longer expedient.

I direct the interested reader to the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Pragmatism for further discussion.

It is not necessary for Donald Trump to have read William James for him to think in this way. The notion has been rattling around out there for over a hundred years.

The question of truth introduces a professional challenge to the journalist: what are you reporting? The truth or someone’s truth?

For the journalist who does accept the Correspondence Theory of Truth, it presents also a personal ethical challenge: what do you do about this? Do the standards of journalism require you to refrain from inserting your own beliefs, or do you have an ethical responsibility upon to advocate your viewpoint as to the nature of truth?

It is clear that many of the people trying to get “the truth” out of Conway and those like her are not formally aware of these issues. They sense something is not quite right, but I don’t think they could articulate what the problem is.

 

 

Written by srojak

February 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Not My President

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This week, Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis gave an interview where he stated he does not sees Donald Trump is a “legitimate president.” Lewis gave as his reasons the alleged Russian hacking during the campaign, saying this “helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.” Lewis went on to claim a “conspiracy on the part of the Russians and others” to tamper with the election, but did not identify who the others were.

To the surprise of no one, Trump responded with a series of two tweets criticizing Lewis. These tweets themselves became subjects of further reporting and kept the story hot. Over the past week I have read an entire spectrum of opinions over what Lewis said and how Trump responded. Here are my conclusions.

Political Legitimacy

John Lewis absolutely does have the moral right to reject the political legitimacy of Donald Trump. He has this right not because he is a congressman or a civil rights legend, but because he is a citizen. As long as we believe it to be true that the power of the government derives from the consent of the governed, the governed have the moral right to withhold that consent. The citizen can refuse to consent to specific actions or to the presence of specific office holders.

However, if rejection of political legitimacy is serious — if it is more than just a posture for effect — then it is an extreme position. Like going to war, a person who rejects the political legitimacy of an elected official must have strong reasons and, if he goes public with his rejection, he is obligated to articulate those reasons. If you are going to influence others to accept your position, there are going to be consequences for you and consequences for them.

Not liking the outcome of an election is not a valid reason to withhold legitimacy from the winner. It is a repudiation of the election process. Yes, the parade of claims that Barack Obama was not a citizen by birth was a lame attempt to do exactly this: to withhold legitimacy because people did not like the result of an election.

Yes, there is a lot to dislike about Donald Trump. If you want to say that he’s not your president, you have that right. But “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires” that you should have good reasons, reasons that are centered on actions.

If you want to refuse him legitimacy because he has never conveyed a set of principles other than his own self-enlargement that he really stands for, I can see your way to that. But I can’t go with simply not being willing to accept that your candidate lost. Back in the spring, my candidate lost and I got over it.

Instead of blaming the Russians, FBI Director James Comey and whoever else is handy, the Democrats would be best served by examining why their program and their candidate did not go over. Yes, I am sure it is painful trying to comprehend losing an election to this man. The truth hurts.

Is the System Rigged?

You could claim that Donald Trump invited this back in the general election campaign, when he claimed that the election would be rigged if he lost.

Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naïve!
— Donald Trump tweet during October 2016, reported by Business Insider.

So now let his intemperate words come back to bite him. Why shouldn’t his opponents also claim the system is rigged because they didn’t get the result that they want? I mean, other than the fact that he’s Donald Trump and they’re not?

Maybe this is what it is going to take to restore sanity; rash, ill-conceived actions have to have consequences.

The Great (Over)Communicator

Did Trump make a tactical error responding to Lewis and perpetuating the story? Did he make a tactical error attacking Khizr Khan for his speech at the Democratic Convention? Did he make a tactical error for his statements about Mexican immigrants in June 2015? The talking heads pontificate out how counterproductive his behavior is. I have yet to see actual negative consequences. Instead, he played the media like a calliope and obtained free publicity.

Donald Trump has successfully flouted decades of political wisdom.

Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
— Mark Twain

Politics is human beings; it’s addition rather than subtraction.
— Donald Rumsfeld

Using the orthodox wisdom, I thought Trump would flame out early in the primary season. I was wrong. I am not interested in continuing to repeat the same mistakes.

What is there to learn from this experience? The first thing to learn is the fact that nobody knows how long these tactics are going to work. Nobody knows whether this is a seasonal change or a fundamental change. The talking heads on television say that you can’t govern this way. But they also said you can’t win a campaign this way, and that assertion did not hold up.

Written by srojak

January 15, 2017 at 12:08 pm

Meritocracy and Its Discontents

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I have had a couple of signals that made me reflect on the influence of meritocracy, or what passes for it, upon current political events.

The first was an article this week, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class” by Joan C. Williams in the Harvard Business Review.

One little-known element of [the class culture] gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
— Williams

The interactions that working class people have with professionals are a source of friction:

For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day.
— Williams

And the professionals are often not very gracious about it.

The other was David Brooks on Meet the Press this morning. He identified several items that he felt he needed to do some rethinking on as a result of this election outcome, and one of them was meritocracy. I realize that David Brooks is a subject of discussion all by himself, and I do not intend to venture into that subject here.

Two points define a line, and I starting thinking about that line.

Seniority

When I was growing up, seniority was much more important than meritocracy. There were many instances in the working world that were ruled by seniority. People didn’t care how smart or capable someone supposedly was; he waited his turn like everyone else.

Starting in the mid-80s, as the employment relationship began to be radically redefined in practice, seniority was displaced as a criterion for evaluation, advancement and even retention of employees. In the eyes of many people, this was a betrayal.

Certainly, the people who had put in the time and were due, under the seniority system, to finally get their reward had the rug yanked out from under them. But there was a larger issue many of us missed. One of the promises of the seniority system was that, no matter who you were, you had a chance to rise if you followed the rules and put in your time. A system based on merit does not offer this.

I acknowledge that I was not a supporter of the seniority system and was happy to see the back of it. I expected that I would prosper under a merit-based system, where I would be blocked under a seniority system. But there was another issue I had not reckoned with.

Who Determines Merit?

Those of us who come up through engineering, technology or other skill-based vocations often have several romantic notions about our participation in these vocations:

  • The difference between being good and being God-awful is reality observable, not only to ourselves but to others;
  • The difference we emphasize in skills should be emphasized by others as well, particularly by those who pay the bills.

An example of this is the saying that “a great software developer can be 10 times as productive as a bad software developer.” However, there is no agreement on what makes a great software developer, although there are plenty of ideas on what is a bad software developer. Furthermore, how many employers who are not in the software business could even take advantage of that incremental productivity?

The point we tended to miss was that merit was going to be determined by other people, often having their own agendas. While, under seniority, the criteria were out in the open, merit systems are wide open to manipulation by those in charge of the criteria.

The College Degree

When I started working, you could get a good job in a Fortune 500 corporation having a degree in anything. Sociology, comparative religions, art history — it really didn’t matter. You had proven you could adapt yourself to the standards of an organization and meet its requirements, and there was every reason to expect you would be able to do so again. The company would carry you for the two years or so you needed to unlearn the norms of college, learn the norms of the workplace and become a productive employee. People recognized that a college graduate was not a finished adult and employment was the final step in a person’s education, although they didn’t talk about it much.

The people you had to pass through to get that degree could be arrogant as all hell. How many people had to sit through classes by tenured teachers who were indifferent to whether they were even comprehensible to the students? “You have to get past us to get your degree,” their attitudes said, “and you will take anything we dish out.”

But, starting around 1985, corporate downsizing began in earnest. By 1990, there was more job growth in women-owned companies than in the large publicly-traded companies. The companies that were doing the hiring were smaller and didn’t have the slack to carry new hires for two years while they learned how to carry their own weight. With leaner management structures than the Fortune 500 had, there was no one to learn from. It was a completely changed work environment.

Among other formative experiences gone missing, there was no one to take a snotty 22-year-old aside and point out that, “your success depends on the voluntary cooperation of the people you clearly look down on.” There was no explain the facts of corporate life to people, the way my elders had done for me. If you withhold information from the new hire, maybe she will be behind you on the performance curve in the next round of layoffs. Now the forward edge of that age cohort is in their early 40s, working its way through management.

People still talk about college like it’s middle-class finishing school, but often it is not. Moreover, the role of the first employer in completing the young adult’s education has gone unfilled. The result is employers reluctant to bring in recent college graduates. Employers also find college graduates to be lacking in engagement. Thirty-five years ago, there were not an abundance of focused and driven college graduates; there was a system that could accept, steer and direct them. That system is gone.

I am not discussing the fact that the cost of a college degree has increased at twice the rate of inflation over the period because that increase in costs does not seem to have slowed down college attendance. There are more people than ever with whom one has to compete. A college degree is no longer a differentiator. What to do?

Credential-ocracy

When I started working, there was something called a Certified Data Processor. That was not a device; it was a credential. Many people I worked with lived in blissful ignorance of its existence. Those of us who knew about it didn’t take it seriously. Some people did, and obtained the certification. I never saw a job ad that required it, or even one that said “certification preferred.”

Now, credentials have exploded. The bad economy of the past 15 years scared a lot of people, who invested in credentials. Hiring is now completely credential-happy. People are even trying to float credentials for economists.

Yet success in obtaining credentials has not got any closer to success in applying knowledge to solve problems than it was in the early days of the CDP. I have worked with many people who want to use their credentials to build themselves into overhead positions as armchair quarterbacks, telling the rest of us how we’re doing it wrong. Just because a person has a credential, it does not follow that the person can use the body of knowledge for which the credential claims mastery to solve a real-life problem.

Paul Krugman offers specious, politicized explanations of where worker productivity went. I lived through the change, and I can tell you: when you’re carrying a whole lot of credentialed overhead, it won’t be good for productivity.

This was not the way we thought meritocracy was going to play out. Like a lot of the changes since 1985 — eliminating layers of middle managers springs to mind — this has been a massive disappointment.

Even when you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
source unknown

What did we get from this supposed movement to meritocracy? The people who couldn’t keep up got pushed aside into the underemployment ditch. The rest of us got a treadmill of credentials and continuing education requirements, mostly at our own expense. We got a career tournament, a negative-sum game. We got a work environment where careers are mean, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.

 

Written by srojak

November 13, 2016 at 12:18 pm

Conserve Exactly What?

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I wanted to write something about what Conservatism is and where it is going before the Election Day, so that I was not perceived as being wise after the event. Evidently I was not alone in thinking this way, because I have seen three major thought pieces in the last month:

For context, the reader may also want to refer to these links:

All quotes are from the above.

Continetti

The Continetti article is a good place to start, both because it launched the discussion and because the author attempts a historical review of conservatism. He identifies four waves of conservatism:

  1. The Old Right initially organized against the original progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, and were always marginalized.
  2. The 1950-s era wave of William Buckley, James Burnham and Russell Kirk (among others), who were, in Continetti’s words, “elitist, pessimistic, grimly witty and academic” — and still politically marginal.
  3. The 1970’s New Right, full of political fire and brimstone, who took credit for bringing Ronald Reagan to power (more on that later).
  4. The religious right, whose fire and brimstone is not confined to politics.

Here is the first major problem that I have with Continetti’s analysis. Are the religious right really conservative? Well, it depends on how you define Conservatism, doesn’t it?

The relentless quest for votes.

The relentless quest for votes.

Back in the high summer of collectivism, between 1930 and 1963, Conservatism was not really a vote-winning political brand, so it was easier to keep the definition clear. I don’t believe that you ever would have seen a yard sign claiming a candidate was a Texas Conservative before 1963. Now, because of the perceived success of the New Right, conservatism is a label that can win votes, so we see dilution. As a result, we are not really sure what conservatism is anymore.

The Old Right did organize in opposition to Progressivism — not in reaction to it, as progressives would have you believe, but in principled opposition to its expansive tendencies. They did not accept the claim that human society could be perfected along rational lines. They rejected the expansiveness of Progressivism. If you’re not clear on what I mean by expansiveness, consider the slogan, “Yes, we can,” which is the ultimate expression of expansiveness. That opposition to expansiveness is the real unifying principle of Conservatism. Not, “No, we can’t,” but, “Should we?”

People on the religious right, who want to bring about the New Jerusalem, who want to achieve the Kingdom of God on Earth, are themselves expansive. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs, just to point out that there is nothing “conservative” about them. Conservatives can make common cause with them — or anyone else — but do not mistake the religious right for Conservatives.

So, having established that Continetti really doesn’t have a good working definition of Conservatism, it is hardly surprising that he is willing to grant conservative credentials to Donald Trump. If the religious right can be accommodated, can’t the populists?

Continetti concludes:

 The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism [sic], to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment. This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.

I am not sure if Continetti meant adversarianism as a portmanteau of adversarial + Arianism = heresy, especially given his use of other religious terms (e.g., chiliastic).

More to the point, isn’t accepting the progressive vision of corporatism and the welfare state as an objective fact what Republicans have more or less been doing, with infrequent lapses, since Richard Nixon? Is this not just another go-along-to-get-along tactic that has fueled frustration with the Republican establishment?

Gerson

Michael Gerson is an evangelical and a neo-conservative. He was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006. This makes him a somewhat suspect advisor for conservatives, but let’s see what he has to say.

The main point of Gerson’s article is that:

Bush represented a fundamentally different option (still embraced, in more modern form, by many Republican governors). His appeal included the aggressive promotion of economic growth, expressed in support for broad tax cuts. A commitment to compassionate and creative social policy, demonstrated by No Child Left Behind and his support for faith-based social services. A belief in ethnic and religious inclusion, shown by his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform and by his defense of American Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. An internationalist foreign policy, which included not only the war against terrorism but also the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. And a tolerant version of traditionalism, based on moral aspiration rather than judgment. (It is an approach I helped frame while working for candidate and then President Bush.)

Given how post-ideological Bush the man appears to have been, I can understand why Gerson might want to defend the merits of the Bush Administration. The ideas of the Administration might well have been more properly the ideas of key advisors, including Gerson.

A fundamental problem with neocons was their “internationalist foreign policy,” prominently featuring a misguided belief in nation-building. To summarize concisely, neocons originated as disillusioned leftists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who were alienated by the attitudes of the 1970s Left toward Israel, the Soviet Union and the exercise of power by the United States. All that would be understandable, but the neocons kept their expansive Wilsonian approach to foreign policy.

Nevertheless, Gerson has a point when he says:

But here is the reality: There is no reconstitution of conservative influence or the appeal of the Republican Party without incorporating some updated version of compassionate conservatism. And conservatives need to get over their aversion to the only approach that has brought them presidential victory since 1988.

But what we need to do is pick through the agenda Gerson outlines and understand what is worth having and why. David Frum illustrated the problem on the ground:

Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.

How do we get ethnic and religious inclusion while ensuring that the costs of these policies do not land on the people who are least able to bear them? How do we turn education reform into a meaningful program that prepares Americans for the realities of the 21st century, rather than an empty slogan that affects nothing in the real world?

Domenech

Ben Domenech wrote directly in response to Continetti, and also has some rejoinders for Gerson:

From Reagan through George W. Bush, conservatives largely agreed on the traditional three-legged stool of the fusionist GOP: national defense, limited government, family values. All of that blew up in the aftermath of the Bush years. Conservative intellectuals perceive what’s happening now as a crisis because the political universe has changed so dramatically thanks to Iraq, the Wall Street meltdown, and the lackluster growth that’s followed. But a good part of that crisis mentality could be due to the fact that they still haven’t come to grips with how much the Bush presidency damaged perceptions of conservatism, even among Republicans, and made the old frame of fusionism impossible.

But that fusion was always weak and strained. As explained earlier, there was common cause with the religious right on national defense, limited government and family values, but the religious right had an expansive approach to family values that was not compatible with conservatism or with Gerson’s “moral aspiration rather than judgment.” Meanwhile, there are also the libertarians, who do not buy into the conventional understanding of “family values” at all. Libertarians want more autonomy than the religious right is prepared to grant. Libertarians also want nothing to do with an internationalist foreign policy.

The Republican party from 2008 to 2015 was an uneasy coalition of libertarians, the religious right and Chamber-of-Commerce types. Then Donald Trump came along.

Ask yourself why so many of Trump’s voters, even the middle class ones, are willing to listen when he says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age.

All this is true, but doesn’t tell us how to go forward. And many conservatives have been more than willing to prostitute themselves, by being pro-business rather than pro-market, to green-light the efforts of corporate executives to “warp America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others” by fobbing risk off on others while keeping the reward for themselves. Libertarians have been especially susceptible on this issue.

So, while the institutional problems Domenech cites are very real, institutions are composed of people, who in turn are animated by ideas. Conservatism needs to do the soul-searching, to examine its ideas.

Buckley

Francis Buckley looked at thought leadership on both sides of the political spectrum and found a lot to dislike.

We had thought the Great Chain of Being washed away by the rise of science, by 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, by Jefferson and the Founders. But we were wrong. As long as there are elites, there will be people who think they deserve their place atop the greasy pole, that resistance is futile, that the underclass must learn where they naturally belong. And that’s what many of our left- and right-wing elites have come to believe.

Buckley’s criticism of the left is beyond the scope of this essay. His criticism of the right begins with a review of the criticisms made of the Trumpkins.

For George Will, they were “invertebrates.” For Charles Murray and Kevin Williamson, the story is one of white working-class vice, of drug use, divorce, and unwed births. If the underclass wasn’t working, that was its fault. After looking at one town, National Review’s Williamson wrote, “the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. … Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

I find that Williamson has a point when he says:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

If they are victims of anything, they are victims of a progressive education system that said it was OK to dissipate your disposable time on leisure and hitch yourself to the consumption-debt-repayment treadmill. People in the credentialed white-collar middle class who think they don’t have to confront the same problem have another think coming. At the same time, why should the white working class be exempt from the self-examination they would dish out to others: how long are you going to keep on being a victim? At what point do you stop being a victim of your upbringing, your culture and your education and assume moral responsibility for your own continued participation in it?

Charleroi, PA is 21 miles south of Pittsburgh. The town has experienced intense economic distress as a result of the decline in manufacturing in southwest Pennsylvania, The people there want to have their way of life protected in the face of these changes. OK, but if we are going to do that, would we do that for the people who live in the Core City neighborhood of Detroit? If not, where is the justice in that? Would that be racism? It is sure going to look racist to the people in Detroit. The Economist called it, “compassion for us; conservatism for them,” and rightly so.

I have my own take on this. I would have liked to continue to live in northern New Jersey, where I grew up, but I couldn’t afford it. So I had to make choices, and I did so — I moved. Staying is also a choice. You takes your choice, and you pays the price.

There is one more consideration, and it comes from David Wong:

If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” Let’s say you’re a smart kid making $8 an hour at Walgreen’s and aspire to greater things. Fine, get ready to move yourself and your new baby into a 700-square-foot apartment for $1,200 a month, and to then pay double what you’re paying now for utilities, groceries, and babysitters. 

So it is a complex and messy issue with two parallel dimensions:

  • The ethical dimension, at the individual level, where I am more inclined to side with Williamson;
  • The political dimension, at the community level, where I am more receptive to Buckley. At the community level, there are also public policy issues. Do you want whole communities being abandoned because of economic dislocation? Where do they go?

Even though the specific issue here is more complex and muddy than Buckley probably has in mind, and even though I don’t think it fair to pick on Williamson, his main point is still valid:

Williamson reminds one of the unfeeling strain in contemporary conservatism. It’s something we’ve seen in Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, Randians, and not a few libertarians. What Romney and Cruz communicated was a perfect fidelity to right-wing principles and an indifference to people.

As they sales proverb goes, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Politics is a people business. Ideas animate people, but the ideas come second to people.

In the interest of not making a long story even longer, I am going to skip forward to Buckley’s conclusion:

My atheist friends who themselves adhere to the highest codes of duty and honor might nevertheless want to consider how often they’ve observed antique republican virtue on display on college campuses or on television. What they’ve seen instead, for the most part, is the detritus of a culture that has lost its religious anchoring and with it any semblance of a moral culture.

They have dispensed with God and for their sophistication ask to be accepted by the intellectuals of the left as fellow members of a privileged elite in our Great Chain of Being. But in abandoning the religious tradition of the West, in their contempt for the invertebrates, the OxyContin sniffers, the takers, they reveal the icicle lodged in the conservative heart.

Before Conservatives can overcome any left-wing bias in the media or any other true-but-incidental issue in being heard, we have to overcome this. The vast majority of the electorate sees “the icicle lodged in the conservative heart,” and wants no part of it.

Is There Anything to Conserve?

What does the term Conservative even mean here in the US anymore? In Britain, at least, they are rigorous about their labels: Liberals were almost completely displaced by the Labor Party by 1924. Here, we are more sloppy with our words, and we pay a price for that.

After eighty-some years of Progressive government (it depends on what you count Herbert Hoover as), there is precious little left to conserve. Meanwhile, we have to come to terms with urbanization, specialization, autonomy and deep pluralism.

We need an ideology that really cares about people, not just one that does a bad job of trying to appear like it cares. We need to put all the productive people first, not just those who can be donors. Sheldon Adelson spent $150 million in 2012 and whiffed completely. His money did not help Romney defeat Obama, and he went 0-for-5 in congressional races. It’s still one person, one vote.

We need to be clear on the difference between pro-market and pro-business policies. We need to remind everyone constantly that a moral foundation of capitalism is that the people who bear the greatest risks have the greatest upsides. There will always be people who want to ditch the risk and keep the reward; it is bad public policy to let them do it.

That means that people who choose to earn a wage or a salary have chosen a lower-risk, lower-reward life. It is unethical to leave them exposed when trade policies change so that others can reap all the rewards in terms of profit and lower-cost consumer goods.

The majority of adults with whom I have spoken do not want those who genuinely cannot take care of themselves pushed to the wall. We need to lead the conversation on what “deserving” means. We are going to have to rebut the schoolmarms who want to take the side of whomever cries first.

We are going to have to face up to intellectual bullies who tell us, “Everyone knows John Rawls said …” We are going to have to push back more and take pushback better. We are going to have to control the language battlefield, or we will always be on ground of someone else’s choosing.

We need to stop the appalling waste of human lives that progressivism encourages. We have a drug problem in this country because we have the demand for drugs. We have a population insulated from risk living lives devoid of meaning, having no higher purpose than consumption and leisure, so they make problems for themselves. Did you ever see those videos on YouTube where they say that, by some year in the near future, India or China will have more honor students than we have students? We can’t afford our current levels of wasting people’s lives in such a world.

We can’t afford to tell people, “We’re not interested in what you can contribute because you have the wrong plumbing.” Or the wrong skin color. We can’t afford to have people who hate to go to work because they expect to be groped or humiliated or ridiculed for being who they are. Actually, we make people hate to go to work for a whole lot of reasons, but that is another essay for another day.

We need to humanize the costs of progressive policies. On Wednesday, the election will be over, but the problems will not. Progressives make more promises to more people, with continually less ability to make good on those promises. A regime based on redistribution will only lead to more intense and ugly fighting over a shrinking pie. A focus on production and the people who make it possible is the only way forward.

Written by srojak

November 6, 2016 at 8:02 pm

An Election Every Day

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No matter how unsatisfying you think the 2016 election cycle has been or will become — and I think I have been quite forthcoming on how unsatisfying I find it — you can take some comfort in this observation. The election that really matters happens every day.

You vote in this election with your scarce resources: your time, your money and your attention. You vote with what you choose to give to withhold. You vote with what you choose to expect or to tolerate.

Everyone participates in this election. You can’t opt out. Even deciding not to decide is a decision.

The results of this daily election creates the national culture and political climate in which politicians and administrators have to operate. They can push the envelope, but they can’t take it where it doesn’t provide the flexibility to go.

If this were not true, if political leaders could successfully bend a modern industrial nation containing hundreds of millions of people to their will, there would still be a Soviet Union.

Yes, the country can get better or worse. We can go up or down on the Freedom Index, where we are already behind Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia. We can return to the rule of law or we can have less of it. We have national problems with entitlements and education. We can have politicians and administrators break the economy.

I am not saying the annual elections don’t matter. I am saying the perpetual referendum of 325 million people conducting their daily business matters more.

I never ruled Russia. Ten thousand clerks ruled Russia.
— One of the Tsars Alexander on his deathbed.

We can strive for equal justice under the law or continue to have corruption. But, to give an example, a nation that accepts the precept that “rank has its privileges” has already bought into having corruption. Corrupt public officials will get farther in such a nation than in a nation that demands transparency and accountability.

Here is a historical example:

The conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing had gripped the mind of the German army, and through it that of the nation.
— Gen. Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1920)

At all historical evidence, Hindenburg was speaking accurately. Is it any wonder that Germany turned to the Nazis in 1933 when times got hard? The ground was already prepared for them. Hindenburg himself could and did object to the style of the Nazis, but could not effectively stand against their principles. Ideas have consequences.

Control the controllables. If each of us clean up our own corner of the country, the country would be cleaned up.

Written by srojak

October 30, 2016 at 1:17 pm