Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Posts Tagged ‘accountability

Personal Loyalty in Government

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CBS News estimates that about one-fifth of the country is solidly behind President Trump. Of this subset of the population, they report that 55% “believe government and law enforcement officials should take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and president,” as opposed to pledging loyalty to the Constitution alone. Given an adult population of 209 million, by my reckoning, that would be 23 million adult Americans holding this belief. I find this deeply disturbing.

There are about 4,000 politically appointed positions in the administration. Those in the executive branch serve at the pleasure of the president.  Although he can dismiss them at any time, there can be political consequences for doing so. Managing a federal department is not the same as managing a family business. The removal of a highly respected senior staffer can demoralize those who had been working for her, unless there are reasons the survivors can respect and these reasons are communicated well.

A requirement of personal loyalty to an individual President would take the political appointees in the direction of a Führerprinzip, in that it would communicate that the will of the executive takes priority over the appointee’s concepts of right and wrong. Furthermore, the door swings both ways; an executive politically hostile to your interests as a citizen could also demand such loyalty from political appointees.

Attention, 23 million Americans: rethink this idea immediately. It would represent a significant further step to make politics “a civil war by other means,” and we are far along on that path already. The Constitution was designed to prevent a majority from running roughshod over a minority. It deserves the highest loyalty of those who serve in government.

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Written by srojak

May 23, 2017 at 5:10 am

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

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

Part of the Problem

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Glenn Beck says the current climate of the public square bothers him. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, he said:

Everybody feels like there’s a play going on, and we’re just watching it and looking at each other and shaking our heads in disbelief. And nobody’s listening to the hardworking American who doesn’t feel like they belong to anything anymore. In fact, it’s almost as if we’re being, we’re standing outside and we’re not being invited to this party at all.
— “Glenn Beck: I Warned about the Rise of Nazism in America, and Now with Trump It Is Happening” (link to transcript)

Which I find interesting, because Beck is not just any old pundit. He is the founder of TheBlaze, a media organization that serves as the home for, among others, Tomi Lahren. Yeah, the one who calls herself “a commentator, not a journalist.”

So if Glenn Beck wants to take an active role in increasing the signal-to-noise ratio, he has levers to push. He could start by setting up standards of ethical journalism and demanding that people who have access to his platform adhere to these standards. He could assert that the people who broadcast under his nameplate take responsibility for what they say. He could cut off the use of his airspace to make the situation worse.

If Beck is not willing to do so, then his complaints degenerate into the four most Machiavellian words in the English language: “I told you so.”

Written by srojak

October 3, 2016 at 12:35 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

Life after the Republican Party

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The Republican Party was founded in 1854 after the Whig party had begun to disintegrate (Abraham Lincoln, to name one prominent example, had gone to the House in 1847 as “and old line Whig, a disciple of Henry Clay.”). It was a radical party with strength in the North among opponents of slavery. Republicans also opposed the American Party, more commonly known as the Know-Nothing party, whose members refused to discuss slavery and were strongly nativist and anti-immigrant.

My, it has been a long and torturous road. Now the Republicans have descended into Know-Nothingism, following behind a man who does not let lack of comprehension get in his way. How did this happen?

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich, obtained from rackjite.com.

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich, obtained from rackjite.com.

I certainly understand the dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment. Have the Republicans stood up and demanded that Congress do its job, making laws that we can follow? No. Have they curbed the compulsion to buy votes? No, they just have different favored groups. Any demonstrated interest in making K-12 education do more to prepare our kids to be effective citizens and self-reliant economic agents? None I can see.

For a long time, we have thought we were stuck with this. There is actually a body of political science theory, most notably Duverger’s Law, that predicts that a political system such as ours will only have two major parties. Other theoretical work explains why the two parties will converge on one another’s positions in general elections, until the difference between them is simply window dressing.

Nevertheless, we do not need Republicans to be pale imitations of Democrats. If we wanted people who would get into office and spend like Democrats, we could vote for actual Democrats and get the real thing.

We used to be confident that the Republicans believed in personal responsibility. Last January, Sarah Palin blamed President Obama for her son’s PTSD and domestic violence arrest. I am not making light of PTSD or minimizing the reality of the damage experienced by people who have served in combat. But this comment was laughable.

Welcome to Opposite Year. Last year we had a field of 16 Republican presidential hopefuls. Now, we’re hopeless. The really big chunk has floated to the top. This is not just a fluke — more like a flounder.

Yes, there has been much to be dissatisfied about with the Republican Party in the past 28 years. But this is like using a flamethrower to get the termites out of your house. Yes, it works, in that you won’t have any more termites. You also won’t have any more house.

We have a presumptive Republican nominee who doesn’t answer questions directly, who changes his position multiple times in the same week, and who seems to really only listen to himself. He has been allowed to get away with this for months. People make excuses for him.

Back in 2013, the Republican Party initiated a period of self-examination. Was it time to stop alienating major demographic segments, such as Latinos and women? What happened to that? Self-examination has given way to self-destruction.

I am not saying that the Trump campaign is doomed — after everything that has happened this year, I can’t say that. But his campaign has called the question: are you going to go along with this? I am not.

You can make the argument that the Republican elected officials, such as Paul Ryan, have to accept the decisions of their primary voters. They got their offices and their clout through the ballot access that the Republican party has provided. However, you can also argue that this is the Profiles in Courage moment when extraordinary action is called for.

Why are we confined to these two terrible options? This is America. If both choices stink, we reject them and go bigger. That’s what we do.
— Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb), quoted in Politico.

There is no such debate for the rest of us; we owe the Republican Party nothing. It is time to stand up and be counted. Include me out.

 

Written by srojak

June 16, 2016 at 8:20 pm

That Which Cannot Continue

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From time to time, I mention the idea of a day of reckoning for the United States. What would prompt it? How do I know? When will it happen?

The Cause

The cause of the reckoning will be inability to pay for all the entitlements. We have been voting ourselves rich for almost 85 years now. As we have moved through time and got away with it, we have become bolder. Like most other civilizations that were prosperous in their day, we have convinced ourselves that we are too cool, too rich and too slick to be constrained by the same reality that applies to others.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
— Rudyard Kipling, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919)

I didn’t originate this idea myself. Not only do I have a degree in economics, but I have been reading the thoughts of others for decades. Howard Ruff was forecasting a day of reckoning before I graduated high school. He wrote books like How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years. But the Coming Bad Years never came. So what happened?

What happened was an active defense. Washington is full of people whose job, really, is to postpone the day of reckoning, whether or not they accept the idea that one is coming. People in Treasury looked at the same data that Howard Ruff was looking at. They also saw that we were jeopardizing the health of the economy by financing entitlements through inflation. So, during the Eighties, they switched to financing entitlements through debt.

Economists have forecast twelve of the past seven recessions.
— Old economics joke

However, continued experience in getting away with it just emboldens people. They start reaching farther and grasping for more. As the decades have passed, politicians have promised more goodies to more people.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
— Kipling, loc. cit.

How I Know

In the face of almost nine decades of experience, not to mention contrary assertions from Nobel laureate economists, how can I maintain that a day of reckoning is coming?

Moral Principles of Reality

I work in software engineering. The computer really doesn’t care how much pressure you are under or how badly you want the application to work. If you haven’t written the application properly, it has a defect. You can ignore the defect. You can claim it’s not a bug, but a feature. You can polish the turd: tell everyone who will listen why they should really want the behavior that they’re experiencing. At the end of the day, however, you have a defect, whether you recognize it or whistle past it.

Software does not respond to enthusiasm.
— William L. Livingston, Have Fun at Work (1988)

Economics, like other social sciences, has physics envy; practitioners seek quantitative support for their pronouncements, substituting precision for accuracy when necessary. Any serious normative discussion in economics — what should be, as opposed to what is — relies on assertions from below, from ethics.

A tree falling in the forest really does make a sound, whether or not anyone is there to hear it. Ideas and actions have consequences, whether or not anyone wants to acknowledge them. This is the moral aspect of reality. You can refuse to believe that you are walking off a cliff: on the way down, you can be proud of having given your life for your beliefs. Then — splat!

How Decline Works

I have seen a number of organizations decline and collapse over my lifetime. From my study of history, I have learned about many more. There is a pattern to decline.

How decline works.

How decline works.

The declining organization can marshal its resources to mask the extend of decline for some time. Most people want to believe that all is well, and seize upon favorable evidence provided by outward appearances, while ignoring or excusing the occasional crack in the wall. By the time intractable problems become really noticeable, the rot has become quite advanced.

At a national scale, the machinery to produce happy tunes is massive. It really has to be, since we have fiat money: if the leadership caused the people to lose confidence in the currency, it would in fact become worthless.

The Humanitarian Impulse

We have experienced a 250-year-long explosion in rampant humanitarianism. What’s wrong with that? Well, that depends on how humanitarianism is understood. By most people, it is understood poorly.

Irving Babbitt make a valiant attempt to distinguish between humanism and humanitarianism:

The humanist, then, as opposed to the humanitarian, is interest in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole; and although he allows largely for sympathy, he insists that it be disciplined and tempered by judgement.
— Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (1908), p. 8

Babbitt found that the sentimental humanitarian was ready to deny the inner conflict between good and evil in each individual, launching into the expansive pursuit of utopian ideals.

With the progress of the new morality every one has become familiar with the type of the perfect idealist who is ready to pass laws for the regulation of everybody and everything except himself, and who knows how to envelop in a mist of radiant words schemes the true driving power of which is the desire to confiscate property.
— Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), p. 156.

Possessed of the moral force of an observed problem, such as poverty, and the expansive desire to make everyone else make his priority theirs also, whether they want to or not, the sentimental humanitarian seeks to wield the police power of the state to compel others to do what he deems to be good.

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all, 
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul; 
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy, 
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.” 
— Kipling, loc. cit.

Thus we have people who are now saying that a citizen has the right to health care. It’s understandable that they should say this, and understandable that people should want this. Health care has the potential to be ruinously expensive, and no one wants to watch a loved one die. However, how is this to be provided? Health care is a wealth-producing activity. Whom do we enslave to produce the wealth to pay for health care as a right? Apparently, the answer is: Everyone, a little bit. We can afford it, right?

Actually, no. Health care is about the worst thing you can make a right of, because the demand for health care is effectively insatiable. If we can get everyone to live to eighty, why not press on to ninety? Where are we prepared to stop? It is undiscussable.

When Will It End?

Events of this year have made it more clear to me than before that this people, firmly in the grip of sentimental humanitarianism, will heed no warning. Thus it has ever been:

When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
— 1 Samuel 8:18

The people who run the country will continue to strive to keep the vote-buying engine running. It is their responsibility to do so, and they certainly do not want to have the collapse on their watch. They will continue to seek ways to postpone the consequences, preferably until they are dead and gone.

If I could identify the event that must trigger the day of reckoning, it would be the job of someone in Washington to make sure that triggering event does not occur. This active defense will continue until someone miscalculates or a series of unforeseen events box the government into a corner. There are really bright people in Washington, so the latter is more likely. In chess, it’s called zugzwang (move-compulsion); you must do something, but anything you do is profoundly disadvantageous. It’s how World War I started, among other disasters.

We are already getting a taste of how unpleasant this can be. We haven’t got to the difficult part yet. I wish I had a less unpleasant report to make, but I don’t see the country having the will to take the necessary measures until reality reveals the consequences so forcefully that only the truest of believers can ignore them.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. 
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, 
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins, 
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, 
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
— Kipling, loc. cit.

Written by srojak

May 8, 2016 at 1:17 pm