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Posts Tagged ‘politics

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”*…

 

gerontacracy

 

Hate crime is rising, the Arctic is burning, and the Dow is bobbing like a cork on an angry sea. If the nation seems intolerant, reckless and more than a little cranky, perhaps that’s because the American republic is showing its age. Somewhere along the way, a once-new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (not men and women; that came later) became a wheezy gerontocracy. Our leaders, our electorate and our hallowed system of government itself are extremely old.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I harbor no prejudice toward the elderly. As a sexagenarian myself, not to mention as POLITICO’s labor policy editor, I’m fully mindful of the scourge of ageism. (I’ve had the misfortune on occasion to experience it firsthand.) But to affirm that America must work harder to include the elderly within its vibrant multicultural quilt is not to say it must be governed almost entirely by duffers. The cause of greater diversity would be advanced, not thwarted, if a few more younger people penetrated the ranks of American voters and American political leaders.

Let’s start with the leaders.

Remember the Soviet Politburo? In the waning years of the Cold War, a frequent criticism of the USSR was that its ruling body was preposterously old and out of touch. Every May Day these geezers would show up on a Moscow reviewing stand, looking stuffed, and fix their rheumy gaze on a procession of jackbooted Red Army troops, missiles and tanks. For Americans, the sight was always good for a horselaugh. In 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev, the last of that generation to hold power for any significant length of time, went to his reward, the median age of a Politburo member was 71. No wonder the Evil Empire was crumbling!

You see where this is going. The U.S. doesn’t have a Politburo, but if you calculate the median age of the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the three Democrats leading in the presidential polls for 2020, the median age is … uh … 77.

It doesn’t stop there. We heard a lot last November about the fresh new blood entering Congress, but when the current session began in January, the average ages of House and Senate members were 58 and 63, respectively. That’s slightly older than the previous Congress (58 and 62), which was already among the oldest in history. The average age in Congress declined through the 1970s but it’s mostly increased since the 1980s…

Timothy Noah (@TimothyNoah1) points out that our leaders, our electorate, and our hallowed system of government itself are aging. And it shows: “America, the Gerontocracy.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

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As we ponder progression, we might recall that it was on this date in 1796 that George Washington, having decided to decline a run for a third term as president, “delivered” (via a long letter published in the the American Daily Advertiser) his Farewell Address.  Characterizing it as advice from a “parting friend,” he celebrated the Constitutional logic of separation of powers and warned against permanent alliances with foreign powers, large public debts, a large military establishment, and “the devices of any small, artful, enterprising minority” to control or change the government– among many other topics.  His letter became the foundation of the Federalist Party’s political doctrine, and is considered one of the most important documents in American history. 

Starting in 1862, the Farewell Address was read, first in the House of Representatives, then from 1899 in the Senate as well on Washington’s birthday.  The House abandoned the practice in 1984, but the Senate continues the tradition.  A member of the Senate, alternating between political parties each year since 1896, reads the address aloud on the Senate floor, then upon finishing, makes an entry into a black, leather-bound journal maintained by the Secretary of the Senate .

250px-Washington's_Farewell_Address source

 

Written by LW

September 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“One of the things I did not understand, was that these systems can be used to manipulate public opinion in ways that are quite inconsistent with what we think of as democracy”*…

 

bk_134_howard_rheingold

Nineteen years ago, in his third annual call for answers to an Annual Question, John Brockman asked members of the Edge community what they believed to be “today’s [2000’s] most important unreported story.” The remarkable Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) answered in a way that has turned out to be painfully prophetic…

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice…

Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?…

The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?…

The Scylla and Charybdis of which Howard warned– centralization-by-capital/political power and atomization-into-cacophony (whether via the pollution of manipulation/”fake news” or simple tribalism)– is now all too apparent… even if it’s not at all clear how we sail safely between them.  It’s almost 20 years later– but not too late to heed Howard’s call, which you can read in full at “How Will The Internet Influence Democracy?

* Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google [as Howard’s 2000 insight dawns on him in 2017, source]

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As we try harder, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that financier and “Father of Trusts” Charles R. Flint incorporated The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company as a holding company into which he rolled up manufacturers of record-keeping and measuring systems: Bundy Manufacturing Company, International Time Recording Company, The Tabulating Machine Company, and the Computing Scale Company of America.

Four years later Flint hired Thomas J. Watson, Sr. to run the company; nine years after that, in 1924, Watson organized the formerly disparate units into a single operating company, which he named “International Business Machines,” or as we now know it, IBM.

150px-CTR_Company_Logo source

 

 

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else”*…

 

laffer-curve-napkin-470x426

 

President Trump [recently] announced that economist Arthur Laffer will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Laffer is most famous for his “Laffer curve,” a graph that suggested that lowering tax rates might increase tax revenue. This graph had major political consequences, but made him more notorious than celebrated in the field of economics…

Economists tend to roll their eyes when the Laffer curve is mentioned. A panel of elite academic economists across the political spectrum found in 2012 that none of its respondents agreed that the United States was on the wrong side of the curve. Even George Stigler, a leader of the Chicago School of Economics who disliked taxes at least as much as Laffer, described the Laffer curve as “more or less a tautology.”

Yet the idea has been influential for more than 40 years. The Laffer curve did not begin as a formal economic theory, but as a simple depiction of the relationship between tax rates and government revenue. Legendarily, perhaps apocryphally, it was scribbled onto a napkin after dinner. [A recreation of the legendary napkin, created by Laffer for Donald Rumsfeld, who was at the dinner (with Dick Cheney) where it was supposed first sketched.]

The concept is simple enough. As tax rates increase, people’s incentives to work and make investments decrease because they make less money from them. Above some rate, taxes become so onerous that total revenue goes down because people aren’t as economically active as they would be in a world with lower taxes. The big question is what that rate — the tipping point on the Laffer curve — actually is.

Laffer may have named the curve, but the idea was not original to him. As proponents in the late 1970s liked to point out, the general idea dates to the Arab social theorist Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the 14th century, “At the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.”

In less remote history, Andrew Mellon, Republican treasury secretary to three presidents, articulated a similar idea in 1924. And when Democrats advocated for the Revenue Act of 1964, which cut the top marginal rate from 91 to 70 percent, their bill made exactly the same arguments. Even Wilbur Mills, the fiscally conservative Democratic chair of the Ways and Means Committee, found himself claiming that the tax cut would “eventually lead to higher levels of economic activity and thereby increase, rather than decrease, revenue.”

Yet it was Laffer’s variant that caught the ear of Republicans in the late 1970s, just as they were shifting from a position as the party of balanced budgets to the party of tax cuts. Indeed, the Laffer curve was a way to say, “Why not both?” One influential ear Laffer caught was that of Wall Street Journal associate editor Jude Wanniski, who made the curve a centerpiece of his 1978 book, “The Way the World Works.”

wanniskicurve1978

Laffer and Wanniski had a champion in Congress as well, in former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp. In April 1977, Kemp introduced a bill to cut income tax rates by 30 percent across the board. He started talking about the Laffer curve in October and over the next year mentioned it several more times in Congress.

But it was only with the June 1978 passage of California’s Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes, that the Laffer curve argument exploded into the mainstream. In this new atmosphere of “tax revolt,” the Laffer curve came up 128 times in the Congressional Record in less than four months…

The man who gave (what Will Rogers first called) trickle-down economics its own “curve,” who gave supply-side economics its graphic icon: “Trump is giving Arthur Laffer the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Economists aren’t smiling.”

For more on the “tyranny of curves,” see “Phillips, Laffer and Gatsby: on economists obsessing about curves.” And for more on the out-sized political, economic, and social impact of Laffer’s ideas, see “Starving the Beast- Ronald Reagan and the Tax Cut Revolution.”

* “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”          -John Maynard Keynes

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As we grapple with graphs, we might spare a thought for a different kind of economist (and one whose impact was much more indisputably positive), Elizabeth Josephine Craig; she died on this date in 1980.  A home economist and journalist, she published dozens of books, mostly cookbooks and volumes of home management advice.  Craig started to cook when she was 6 and began collecting recipes at 12; she began publishing cookbooks after World War I and continued to publish until her death.  Her contribution to English culinary literature comprises a very large collection of traditional British recipes, but also included a considerable number of dishes from other countries, which she gathered during visits abroad (often with her war correspondent husband).

220px-Craig,_E_Cakes_and_Candies_cover source

 

Written by LW

June 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“O teach me how I should forget to think”*…

 

Alt Right, Neo Nazis hold torch rally at UVA

 

When members of the Unite the Right rally marched through Charlottesville on August 11, 2017 in polo shirts and carrying tiki torches, Twitter went wild with jokes. “When you have to use a Polynesian cultural product (tiki torches) to defend and assert white supremacy,” wrote one Twitter pundit. Another captioned a photo of the marchers: “Y’all, we can’t get dates on Friday night (again) so we’re fixin’ to pick up some tiki torches at Walmart & have a klan rally. Who’s in?”

But Sarah Bond, an associate professor of classics at the University of Iowa, didn’t find the jokes funny. “Something horrible is going to happen,” she remembered thinking.

For the past several years, Bond has written about “classical reception” — or how Greco-Roman culture is received and interpreted — for Forbes online, the art and culture website Hyperallergic, and Eidolon, an informal online journal devoted to the classics. Because classical thinkers, institutions, writings, and art have been portrayed as the epitome of “civilization” since the Renaissance, she’s also documented how hate groups have latched onto the perceived legitimacy of antiquity to make themselves seem more legitimate.

“Torches are very much tied to violence in antiquity,” she says. “They are meant to intimidate people. There are a number of examples from antiquity of the use of mob violence where fire and torches are specifically used prior to an assassination.” The Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and the Golden Dawn all marched with flames.

The day after the August rally and the Twitter jokes, violence erupted between the marchers and counter-protestors, and alt-right supporter Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Bond, a Virginia native who’d attended undergrad at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was upset but not surprised. “That was the tipping point where I was like, you know what? Fuck their use of antiquity.”

White supremacists, misogynists, and anti-Semites see the ancient Mediterranean as a touchstone. Would a better sense of history change their minds? “Hate Groups Love Ancient Greece and Rome. Scholars Are Pushing Back.”

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Julliet

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As we correct our corollaries, we might send cooperative birthday greetings to zoologist Warder Clyde Allee; he was born on this date in 1885.  One of the great pioneers of American ecology, Allee is best remembered for his research on animal behavior, protocooperation— for which he’s considered by many to be the “Father of Animal Ecology”– and for identifying what is now known as “the Allee effect“: a positive correlation between population density and the per capita population growth rate in very small populations, the product of cooperation– of the organisms acting as a group as opposed to individually.

Warder_Clyde_Allee source

 

“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”*…

 

Jan_Havicksz._Steen_-_Het_vrolijke_huisgezin_-_Google_Art_Project

Jan Steen, “The Merry Family,” 1668

 

The governing elites of ancient and medieval Europe were not greatly hospitable to humor. From the earliest times, laughter seems to have been a class affair, with a firm distinction enforced between civilized amusement and vulgar cackling. Aristotle insists on the difference between the humor of well-bred and low-bred types in the Nicomachean Ethics. He assigns an exalted place to wit, ranking it alongside friendship and truthfulness as one of the three social virtues, but the style of wit in question demands refinement and education, as does the deployment of irony. Plato’s Republic sets its face sternly against holding citizens up to ridicule and is content to abandon comedy largely to slaves and aliens. Mockery can be socially disruptive, and abuse dangerously divisive. The cultivation of laughter among the Guardian class is sternly discouraged, along with images of laughing gods or heroes. St. Paul forbids jesting, or what he terms eutrapelia, in his Epistle to the Ephesians. It is likely, however, that Paul has scurrilous buffoonery in mind, rather than the vein of urbane wit of which Aristotle would have approved…

The churlish suspicion of humor sprang from more than a fear of frivolity. More fundamentally, it reflected a terror of the prospect of a loss of control, not least on a collective scale. It is this that in Plato’s view can be the upshot of excessive laughter, a natural bodily function on a level with such equally distasteful discharges as vomiting and excreting. Cicero lays out elaborate rules for jesting and is wary of any spontaneous outburst of the stuff. The plebeian body is perpetually in danger of falling apart, in contrast to the disciplined, suavely groomed, efficiently regulated body of the hygienic patrician. There is also a dangerously democratic quality to laughter, since unlike playing the tuba or performing brain surgery, anybody can do it. One requires no specialized expertise, privileged bloodline, or scrupulously nurtured skill.

Comedy poses a threat to sovereign power not only because of its anarchic bent, but because it makes light of such momentous matters as suffering and death, hence diminishing the force of some of the judicial sanctions that governing classes tend to keep up their sleeve. It can foster a devil-may-care insouciance that loosens the grip of authority. Even Erasmus, author of the celebrated In Praise of Folly, also penned a treatise on the education of schoolchildren that warns of the perils of laughter. The work admonishes pupils to press their buttocks together when farting to avoid excessive noise, or to mask the unseemly sound with a well-timed cough…

Whose laughter? Which comedy?  The formidable Terry Eagleton unpacks “The Politics of Humor.”

* Peter Ustinov

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As we LOL, we might recall that it was on this date in 1717 that Voltaire (François Marie Arouet), the “Father of the Age of Reason.” was imprisoned for the first time in the Bastille for writing “subversive literature”– satire.  He would subsequently be imprisoned again, and forced in exile.

source

 

 

Written by LW

May 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them”*…

 

Populists

 

We live in the age of charismatic elected would-be despots. His — it is almost always a “he” — are the politics of fear and rage. It takes a certain sort of personality to be a master of such politics. In the right — that is, the wrong — circumstances, such leaders emerge naturally. That is not surprising after a violent revolution. What is far more so is that such leaders have been emerging in well-established democracies.

We now see elected “strongmen” — actual and would-be — everywhere. Leading examples are Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the US. These leaders differ in degrees of sophistication. The countries in which they operate also differ. Some are economically developed, while others are not. Some are longstanding democracies; others, again, are not.

Yet these men are all characters in a story powerfully told by the independent US watchdog Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2019, published in February, reported a 13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy. This decline occurred in all regions of the world, notably in the democracies that emerged after the cold war. Above all, it occurred in western democracies, with the US — the most influential upholder of democratic values — leading the way…

People want to believe a powerful and charismatic leader is on their side in an unjust world.  The estimable Martin Wolf unpacks the mechanism of “strong man” rule: “The age of the elected despot is here.”

For a different angle on the phenomenon the Wolf unpacks, one that speaks directly to Steven’s Pinker’s quote in the title of this post, see “Dialectics of Enlightenment.”

*”A very different threat to human progress is a political movement that seeks to undermine its Enlightenment foundations.

The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of a counter-Enlightenment movement called populism, more accurately, authoritarian populism. Populism calls for the direct sovereignty of a country’s “people” (usually an ethnic group, sometimes a class), embodied in a strong leader who directly channels their authentic virtue and experience.

Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them. By focusing on the tribe rather than the individual, it has no place for the protection of minority rights or the promotion of human welfare worldwide. By failing to acknowledge that hard-won knowledge is the key to societal improvement, it denigrates “elites” and “experts” and downplays the marketplace of ideas, including freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, and the fact-checking of self-serving claims. By valorizing a strong leader, populism overlooks the limitations in human nature, and disdains the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations or ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are seen not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities, or foreigners. As for progress, forget about it: populism looks backward to an age in which the nation was ethnically homogeneous, orthodox cultural and religious values prevailed, and economies were powered by farming and manufacturing, which produced tangible goods for local consumption and for export.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Consider also:

“Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”

– Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”, New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995)

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As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Joseph Goebbels died.  One of Adolf Hitler’s closest and most devoted associates, Goebbels was a student of the shaping of public opinion; he served as Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.  He was  a gifted public speaker, who was particularly adept at using the relatively new media of radio and film for propaganda purposes, emphasizing antisemitism, attacks on the Christian churches, and (after the start of World War II) the boosting of public morale.

Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. In accordance with his will, Goebbels succeeded him as Chancellor of Germany, serving one day in this post.  The following day, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide, after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1968-101-20A,_Joseph_Goebbels source

 

Written by LW

May 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought”*…

 

Polls

 

On April 25, 2019, former Vice President Joe Biden became the latest big-name politician to join the race for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination. Among Democrat voters, he leads the field over the next most popular candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, by 7 percentage points — with a sampling margin of error of 5.4 percentage points — according to a recent poll from Monmouth University.

But public and media perception has been burned by polls before — see the 2016 presidential election — and there’s still a long, long way to go before the Democratic field is settled. Donald Trump officially became the Republican Party nominee for president in July 2016, but a year prior there were still 16 other candidates angling for the nomination.

Precisely because there are still so many town halls and county fairs to come for the Democratic contenders, we’re rounding up some recent academic research that can inform coverage of political opinion polls in this early presidential contest. This research digs into bias in evaluating political polling, polling errors across time and space, the relationship between media coverage and polling, and more…

With over 18 months to go until the 2020 election, we’re already inundated with poll results, widely divergent, but each claiming canonical status.  Journalist’s Resource has ridden to the rescue with a handy collection of articles offering guidance on how to understand and use them– guidance that’s as useful to us civilians as it is to pros: “Covering political polls: A cautionary research roundup.”

* Warren Buffett

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As we stock up on grains of salt, we might recall that it was on this date in 1894 that the 500-strong Commonwealth of Christ (AKA Coxey’s Army) arrived in Washington, D.C., to protest against unemployment.  The march, organized by businessman Jacob Coxey, had begun with 100 men in Massillon, Ohio, and had gathered members as it moved toward the Capitol.  It was protesting conditions in the second year of (what turned out to be a four-year economic depression. the worst in United States history to that time.  In the event, the group never made it into the Capitol: Coxey was arrested for trespassing, and the military intervention the group provoked proved to be a rehearsal for the federal force that broke the Pullman Strike later that year.

Still, Coxey’s Army had an impact.  Among its well-wishers along the way was L. Frank Baum (still a famous window-dresser, not yet an author).  Scholarly political interpretations of his most famous novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, turn on Coxey’s Army:

In the novel, Dorothy, the Scarecrow (the American farmer), Tin Woodman (the industrial worker), and Cowardly Lion (William Jennings Bryan), march on the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, the Capital (or Washington, D.C.), demanding relief from the Wizard, who is interpreted to be the President. Dorothy’s shoes (made of silver in the book, not the familiar ruby that is depicted in the movie) are interpreted to symbolize using free silver instead of the gold standard (the road of yellow brick) because the shortage of gold precipitated the Panic of 1893… [source]

300px-Coxey_commonweal_army_brightwood_leaving source

 

 

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